The Chlorophyll Library – Michigan Quarterly Review

The Chlorophyll Library

Published in Issue 62.4: Fall 2023

Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Sarah Anderson on why she recommended “The Chlorophyll Library” by Callum Angus for the Fall 2023 issue. You can purchase the issue here.

When each of us is flooded with content every hour of every day, one of the greatest challenges of writing today is to truly surprise a reader. Callum Angus accomplishes this from the very beginning of the story: “Inside the Chlorophyll Library there were no plants; there were also no euphemisms.” 

This is the first of many lines throughout “The Chlorophyll Library” that start in one place and take a hard left turn into the unexpected. The story is filled with the type of sentences that give me the shivers of delight I read for, that transcend the meaning of the line itself into something ethereal, strange, magical, like in one of my favorites: “It is difficult to be a lichen and not sound didactic.” 

The central metaphor of the piece—that the text of a book changes every time it’s read, so that a text is a living thing—works on so many levels. It captures the way a story changes in our memory, the way we ourselves change and find new perspectives each time we return to a beloved text, and the way words and stories mean different things to every reader. Angus’s story asks: Who does a text ever really belong to? Who gets to assign it meaning? 

Perhaps the greatest delight of “The Chlorophyll Library” is its meta quality. Just like the books in the eponymous library, this story has the ability to change each time you encounter it. Read it once. Notice how funny and strange and surreal it is. Read it twice. Find it sharp and wise and unbearably true. Read it three times, or four, or more, and you’ll still come away with a new insight, discover something that even the lichen missed. 

Now then, let us move from our rooftop garden vantage point to a scene. We understand that humans are more likely to become involved in a story via this pattern, and we do want you to feel involved—we don’t want to hold you at a distance for this one. Although, we find scenes tiring. So much depends on what the other doesn’t know, on dancing around a bit of information without divulging its contents. We much prefer our style of dialogue, if it can be called that. So we’ll try and tell you this story somewhere in between. Forgive us if it’s not perfect. There is much in the human method of storytelling we still do not understand. For example, these funny little bullets in the middle of a page that move you, yes you, from abstract considerations of Roman thinkers and plotting to a picture of a woman alone at night.

* * *

Late one night Helen was transcribing her notes from the day’s experiments when she heard a voice. Given the nature of her investigations and the long hours she’d recently spent on her work, Helen was naturally skeptical of voices, but she had no other obligations that evening, so she set down her pen and followed it. It wasn’t so much a voice as high-pitched chirruping laughter at irregular intervals. It seemed to be coming from above, from high up on the library’s many floors. She took the lift as far as it could go, the eighty-fifth floor, a conference room with vaulted ceilings mostly used for book club meetings and secret society business (given that everyone at a book club meeting would have read a different book despite starting out the same, these were raucous affairs). Helen went up a final flight of stairs that ended with a metal door to the roof garden, where she’d never set foot before, and nor had many others given the heavy padlock. Helen made a note to ask her supervisor where the key to the roof garden was kept, when she noticed a tiny green frog no bigger than her littlest fingernail perched on top of the lock. She knelt down for a better look. Under her scrutiny the frog danced a happy circle before disappearing inside the keyhole. There was a mechanical clicking, and the padlock fell. 

A wall of sound greeted her so loud that she pressed her hands to her ears. It must have been thousands of frogs in the throes of mating, screaming in an orgy of coupling, but they were invisible, hidden away inside the folds of leaves and the spaces between plants. The full moon increased their amorousness. Silver outlined the wooden deck and the channel through the middle where a stream flowed. Helen recalled in the Chlorophyll Library’s blueprints a complex wastewater recycling system that fed gray water up to the roof, where it was then filtered through a series of manmade wetlands before returning to the pipes. (We, of course, know this system was never completed, and the water on top of the library was merely rainwater collected over the centuries, but as we said, we’re restricting ourselves to Helen’s point of view in this construction of a scene, and this was her mistaken assumption). The surrounding trees were quite tall, alders and maples towering over her, and she imagined that in the hot dusty summers on the edge of the steppe, their shade would be a welcome reprieve. 

Due to the frog chorus, Helen didn’t hear the shuffling gait until it was almost on top of her. She turned in time to see an old woman disappear behind an earthen bank of shrubbery, her shawl damp and dragging behind her. Helen followed cautiously. The woman moved slowly and seemed to know her way around by touch alone, for when the moonlight fell on her face, Helen saw that her eyes were swollen shut, and had likely been that way for a long time. Helen wondered if she was some long-forgotten employee who’d been stuck out here on the roof trying to survive, but her costume was so strange and so unlike any version of the librarians’ ceremonial garb that she quickly ruled this out. 

The old woman climbed a shallow set of steps, at the top of which stood a large cylinder made up of four sections. It somewhat resembled a Tibetan prayer wheel, except it was mounted horizontally, and instead of Sanskrit written across the surface of each drum there was thick carpets of leathery lichen. The old woman reached up and set all four of the cylinder’s sections spinning. 

“Who are you?” Helen asked. The woman did not turn around. “What are you doing here? What is the wheel for?”

Callum Angus is the author of the story collection A Natural History of Transition, which was a 2021 finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Oregon Book Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches trans writing workshops and is at work on a novel.

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