(Another short story inspired by the writers group)
Books are powerful things. They contain ideas and thoughts that once written can’t be taken back. Those ideas and thoughts can make a man a King or tear down a kingdom. Then what do we do with all that power, all those books?, we put them together in a library, so they can whisper and plot together. As I walk the lines and shelves I trace a finger across the spines of elegant leather bound tomes and thin dog eared pamphlets that sit together in egalitarian, conspiratorial silence as I pass. Turning the corner into the next stack I imagine I can hear them again, debating their philosophies.
I am a custodian of all this knowledge, a librarian in the Great Library. There is more knowledge here than a billion people could absorb in a million lifetimes. Sometimes I feel sad for the books. Most of them will never be picked off the shelf, have their pages caressed and turned, their words appreciated. I ask myself why do we keep them? Is it just in case one day we will find a use for one of them. Or is it because someone has taken the time and effort to write them, their form of immortality, their words and thoughts preserved. But at least they are all together, free to float their thoughts and discuss amongst themselves. We even arrange them in subject matter so they will have something in common to talk about, whether it be wild adventures in strange worlds, or some esoteric imaginings on the nature of all things. They say a picture can paint a thousand words, but no picture can possibly depict the power that lies within all these pages.
Perhaps if I stay in one part of the library long enough I will absorb some of that knowledge. A selection of those whisperings will take root in my subconscious brain. I know some of the other custodians think I’m a little crazy, harmless perhaps, but still a little crazy. They don’t understand my love of words and paper. They laugh at the way I take a deep breath every morning as I enter the endless runs of shelving, inhaling the faint musty odour of books written long ago. The scent of learning. For them it’s just a job, a safe if boring way to earn a living in what is a turbulent world. Whereas, for me it has become a passion. They make fun of me, but I don’t care. It’s the books I care about. However, no world, even that of the library, is perfect.
The ugly voice of an ugly person intrudes on my contemplations. ‘So Julia, our very own little book worm. We must stop meeting like this.’
Ahead of me is Cyrus one of the newest custodians. Some rich young man, I surmise, placed here to keep him out of trouble. He seems to have taken it upon himself to fill the role of my chief tormentor. It appears every institution has to have its bully.
‘Is reading your only pleasure. Or do they fill your pretty little head with ideas that you act out in secret?’ Behind him appear two of his acolytes, laughing in appreciation at his so-called wit. He turns to them grinning, as if awaiting applause.
I find if I don’t rise to it, if I keep silent, they will eventually become bored and leave me alone.
Cyrus frowns at my lack of reaction. ‘That’s right, Julia, save yourself for your books.’ The grin returns. ‘But, never mind we’ll finish this conversation another time.’
‘Yes, save yourself for your books,’ one of the attendants echoes with a sneer. The other looks at him as if wishing he’d said it.
Cyrus blows me a kiss from his too thick, pouty lips and walks away, accompanied by dutiful sniggering. I take a deep breath and stroke the spines of several leather bound volumes calming them. In return they leak reassurance.
Over the next few days my tormentors seek me out again. What is a world of endless pleasure for me, seems to be a world of endless tedium for them from which I’m the main distraction, the sport they’ve found to keep themselves amused. But my continued silence only seems to annoy them, as if somehow I’m not playing the game.
‘Why don’t you just leave me alone,’ I say after the fourth day of repetitive, irritating attention. Maybe, I was bolder because this time Cyrus was alone, without an audience. However, perhaps it was a mistake as Cyrus smiles, with a glint in those watery eyes. It seems I have given him a small victory.
‘Oh, she speaks, she speaks. We are not worthy.’ He mock bows from his thickening waist both arms stretched out before him. I notice a developing bald patch on his crown that he has tried to comb over. Fat and bald when he’s older, I think. I almost feel sorry for him, almost. As he straightens he’s laughing. ‘So our pretty little book worm, tell me your secrets. What do all these books do for you that is so fascinating, that mere mortals cannot?’
I decide not to repeat my error. I don’t reply and turn to leave. But now, behind me his two cronies have appeared, blocking my retreat.
‘Oh no,’ Cyrus says. ‘You can’t leave now. Not when we’re just getting to know each other.’
He takes a step towards me and I put out my right hand to ward him off. He hesitates for a second then reaches out and grabs it. My left hand rests on the spines of three books. They are warm to the touch, giving solid reassurance. I smile. As I turn back, to my horror, Cyrus leans forward to kiss my hand. As he looks up he grins. ‘Ah, it seems our little book worm is not such an ice queen after all. Or perhaps she’s melting under my charms.’ He looks over my shoulder saying, ‘What do you think?’ and receives the required snigger of approval.
I try to pull my hand away, but this only brings him in closer. I can feel his stale breath on my cheek. ‘Don’t,’ I say.’
‘Oh come now, don’t play hard to get.’
As he moves to kiss me I put my right hand on his chest. ‘Don’t,’ I say again, louder. The leather under the fingers of my left hand stiffens as if sensing my distress. I can feel the temperature of the binding rising. My word ‘Don’t’ is repeated over and over, dying away amongst the shelves.
Cyrus hesitates for a second, but then the amused smile is replaced by a sneer. His fingers tighten around my hand. I can feel his muscles tense. As he makes to pull me to him the book under my left hand seems to spasm, pushing into me and, as if in reaction, my right hand jerks, sending Cyrus sprawling on the floor. He rolls over and leaps back to his feet, his face red, the sneer twisted into a snarl. But as a howl of frustration forms on his lips the sound is drowned out by, ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t.’ His hand, which is reaching in my direction, is slapped away by a large brown tome flying from the shelf to my left. He jerks it back with a cry of alarm. More books fly across the space between us, blocking his approach. His expression of outrage changes to one of horror, but as he turns to run his escape is cut off by a wall of fast moving leather and paper. He glances back at me, the bravado now replaced by fear and the last I see of him is the wide eyed pleading look on his face before more books obscure my view. So many that they seem to surround me. But unlike Cyrus I feel safe within their musty embrace.
Eventually the view clears. There is no sign of Cyrus. I hear the sound of running feet. Cyrus’s friends arrive with Mr Thomas, one of the senior librarians.
Mr Thomas looks at both the boys as if now uncertain. ‘These two tell me that you were attacking Cyrus. That books were flying everywhere?’ The last sentence was said as a question.
I smile as I stroke soft leather. ‘No, as you can see, there is nothing amiss.’
Only I know, of course, that the books are not in the positions they were a few minutes ago. I sigh, realising that it will take me some time to reorder them.
‘Do you know where Cyrus is?’
‘No,’ I reply, which was the truth then and still is now. Although, when I’m amongst those same shelves and I touch the smooth leather bindings of the books I can hear a faint voice, as if very far away. ‘Where am I? Please help me.’ Perhaps one day I will, but not just yet.