I am something of a collector. All scholars are, to a greater or lesser degree; they excuse their primary collections as research specimens, tools of the trade, things necessary, but still they collect, and collect obsessively, and outside their areas of publication, for there is nothing outside a true philosopher's area of interest. In the city, all scholars are given houses for this very reason - they themselves need only enough room to lay their body, but the trails of things that come behind them like comet-trails, and each knicknack precious and irreplacable, these things muct be housed. They are small houses, to be sure, but they are necessary.
Some have spoken against this practice, but the University has always been able to put the weight of its necessity behind it. Even as the City becomes more crowded, every scholar can put a finger to the house they call their own. It may be but four rooms stacked two-by-two, wedged between two other houses just as small, but it is theirs and theirs alone.
I suspect that soon enough there will be no shortage of housing, but the matter is of academic intrest at best to me.
My house is tiny, four rooms stacked two-by-two, wedged between two houses just like it. Each of those, too, was the house of a scholar. One room was the water-room, and I dared not leave books there, except for cookbooks treated to take steam without damage. Accordingly, soon the bath was ringed about with candles and exotic plants, in little pottery bowls I picked up from each little villiage I had ever walked through. Over the oven were rocks and crystals, small carvings, jars of spices and dried herbs said to have strange properties. The sink I kept clean, by carefully moving everything out of it every three days. One room was the library, and the shelves were soon so full that books were abandoned across the tables. It will give the University librarians days of interest to catalouge the mess properly; they all go to the University of course. One room was the living-room, and the books spilled over there as well, but fought for space with the mementos of a hundred sailors, and the gifts of my colleages and enemies.
My bedroom was the cleanest place. A sailor once told me it was ridiculous. He treaded with something like care, but I do not think he understood, and eventually he broke a dish and tried to laugh it off. The breaking I could have forgiven but the laughter I could not, and he left half-dressed and cursing me.
There have been so many who passed through my bed, I moved it to the front room, so they would not need to walk through the library. It seemed more private than the bed by far. I have had hundreds of lovers, but I have never collaborated on a book. They are far dearer to me than children would be; and my children, to be sure, would have been the University's children, for I have neither the time nor inclination to hold them close. Would have had. My child will be a child of the University just as I was. A different town, but the principles are the same.
It feels like another knicknack to add to my collection. See, I have had a child, and here is the child to prove it. But already I am beyond caring. I have spend the day dusting and polishing. I am a fool. I am pregnant and so near to term it is a wonder I have not gone into labor on the water-room floor, I am dying of the White Sleep, the whole city is dying and I am not in the infirmary where a sick woman or an almost-mother should be or in the infirmary where anyone who knows medicine or nursing or so much as how to wash bandages should be, I am at home, dusting. I must keep my house clean. Who knows when the next occupant will come?
Most of the city is already dead. More than half, if my projections are right. The grave-current is collecting bodies like a scholar's shelves collect knicknacks.
I can hear steps coming up the street, and the noises of door-bells echoing. Most of these houses are empty now but this one is not. I know who is coming, if she is not dead. Her name is Tarur and she runs the House of Blue Curtains, and we are on friendly terms however much she will joke about my taking custom away from her, which I scarcely do, for I am an indifferent amatuer who cares only for myself, and she and her girls are professionals with better hearts than ever I could have. I am done with the front-room. The house is clean. I have not scrubbed the water-room floor though, and I should. I cannot decide.
When Tarur rings I open the door, and she is surprised to see me. "Hothe," she says. I wonder for a moment what she means before I recall that it is my name. This is a symptom, I know.
It's curious how the world slows down when you are dying and you have not scrubbed the floor. My mind has started to fray around the edges.
"I can't come with you," I tell her. "I havn't finished. I have to scrub the floor."
She looks at me for a while. I cannot tell how long, precisely. Tarur is a good woman. She is fond of children. The House of Blue Curtains has as many folk too young to work there as it does courtesans, to be sure, and they are taken care of as well as the customers, for Tarur believes in doing the right thing. Babies get left on her doorstep in baskets. I would not hesitate to give her mine, except that I do not think any child of mine would feel right in such a warm and cheerful place, and besides it is better the friendship not be sullied by such intimacy. She puts her hand on my shoulder and then pulls me into her arms. "I'll help you," she tells me. "There's nobody else."
I have to lean on the wall to lead her into the water-room. She'll be doing most of the work, I have no doubt, for she's still healthy and hale and has no child to burden her, at least not here. But somehow I fill a bucket with water and soap and find a mop and give them to her. And she washes the floor for me while I go behind with a towel, and when I cannot go further and fall to the gleaming floor gasping, she picks up the towel and finishes for me, and puts the bucket away.
By the time she's done I can sit up again, and she helps me stand, my arm over her shoulder. "I'll get you to the House," she tells me. "We've still got a bed or two." I do not doubt that there is a bed for a woman in labor, even if someone else must be turned out of it. I'm shaking and I know full well why. Nothing for it, now.
Tarur is a friend indeed.
My house is clean in every part. The shelves have been dusted, the blankets washed, the books put back in order by their topic. My clothes are folded and waiting for their next occupant, assuming that there is such - but plauges do not live long without a victim, and in a few months, times will be hard and good clothes will not be turned away. My secret things are burnt that they might not be laid bare. My floors are scrubbed to gleaming. I do not regret, now, leaving it behind in such a state.
I do not collect people as Tarur does in my mind. I prefer things I can hold, the pegs to strings of memory that unwind at will and will now be cut, but no matter, for the things that can be held are still beautiful. She keeps them inside her head. Every man and woman who has shared her bed is filed away like a pressed specimen, with their peculiar way of speaking and thoughtful look of abandon and well-traveled things kept close to the skin. Perhaps she has collected me as well. One scholar, slightly mad, with black hair that never stayed in a braid and black eyes that never quite met hers.
Died of the White Sleep, leaving one child and a house full of memories. There are worse endings, although I can no longer remember what.