A Tale From the Library
October 31, 2011
November is National Novel Writing Month. Tens of thousands of writers will spend this month frantically pounding the keyboard attempting the impossible – complete a 50,000 word novel before the month ends. In honor of all those intrepid souls, I blogged a little fiction, only 1300 words or so. I hope you enjoy "A Tale From the Library".
It’d been a long day at the Kearney Branch. Ms. Nancy had found blueprints for a ten foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. HAL (Homeschoolers @ the Library) kids had shown up in record numbers to build it out of dry pasta. Awesome!
But an hour before closing, there was only one lonely patron at the computers, and our greeter had worn a figure-eight in the carpet. I sighed and looked at the poor, tattered book on the shelf in front of me. It looked as tired as I did.
"How'd you escape getting weeded?" I asked the little purple book. Brittle, yellow tape clung to the spine where the author’s name should have been. A delicate cobweb fluttered at one corner. I cocked my head to read the faded title.
"Peloponnesian Wars: a Complete History," I read.
I sighed again. All of us hated to discard any book, but this one obviously hadn’t been on the bestseller list in decades.
"Sorry little fella, I’m going to have to check you out on the "discard" card. Time to go to the big library in the sky."
I reached for the book and pulled, but it wouldn’t budge. "That’s odd." I tugged harder. A sound like a hammer hitting a metal railing – Clang! Ching! - came from behind the shelf. Then rapid ticking.
The shelf moved. It swung back like a door.
I stared as a dark rectangle grew in the wall. The carved rock walls of a long passageway paved in white marble dully reflected the fluorescent lights of the library.
A soft vibration tickling my fingers drew my attention away from the strange passage. I looked back to see the little purple book rising, lifting my hand with it. I jerked my fingers away with a yelp. The book stayed in the air, hovering. I turned around searching for another witness, knowing I’d never find one. This was the reference section.
The book circled around in front of me, darted forward, and poked me in the nose. I stumbled backward. A dull echo sounded as the heel of my sensible shoe hit marble.
"That wasn’t very nice," I scolded quietly.
A cold, dry breeze lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. The book began to glow, violet and dazzling, then it shot past me down the tunnel.
"Wait," I whispered as loudly as I dared. "You can’t leave. You haven’t been checked out!" I started after it.
Heart pounding, I followed the little book’s cheeky glow. I looked back once, just in time to see the rectangle of light in the doorway thin to a sliver then – clang, ching, tick, ticktickticktick – Pft! The door closed.
I put on a burst of speed. "You belong to the Kearney Branch!" I told the fleeing volume in my harshest whisper. "You don’t want me to check you out on the “missing” card do you?"
The little history book disappeared around a corner. "Oh!" I stumbled to a stop as darkness closed around me.
Above the sound of my panicked breathing, I heard voices, high and tinkling. I stretched out my hands till my fingertips touched cool stone, and as quietly as I could, crept forward. Black turned to gray then to light as I peeked around the curving wall.
The tunnel opened into a huge cavern. Massive, shadowy shapes hung from the ceiling far above. The smooth marble floor stretched into a brightly lit work room. Long, wooden library tables sat in rows and at them people, whom I took for children at first, worked surrounded by bubbling beakers, brushes, glue pots, sewing threads, tape, ink pots, cotton balls, and piles of books. The room smelled of rubber cement, beeswax, and new paper. Some of the people were singing. Their voices echoed around the cavern like a chorus of chipmunks.
"Book elves," I whispered in my softest library voice. "Not just a legend after all!" I suppressed a squee of delight.
The little purple book floated down to the table nearest my hiding place, and landed in a cardboard box labeled "Dock Disposal." An elf took it out and examined it through a magnifying glass the size of his head. He gave its worn cover a consoling pat and set to cleaning it with a cotton ball that looked as big as a softball in his tiny hand.
All the elves wore billowy white shirts, suspenders and knickers in crayon box colors. An elf with a satin bow in her Shirley Temple curls picked up a picture book that I was certain I’d discarded that morning. It had been returned with sticky, green goo solidly gluing the pages together.
She lifted the book, half as tall as she was, and turned it this way and that over a steaming beaker set above a tiny Bunsen burner. The pages loosened and separated. Next, she dipped a brush into powder that glistened like pearl dust, and carefully gave each page a stroke. I breathed in a gasp as the green stain faded away.
At the very end of each table, more elves took freshly cleaned and repaired books, wrapped them round with ribbon, and tied a tag on each one. Luckily, my eyesight was keen as a falcon's. One tag read, "Ozanam Home for Boys," the next, "Welling’s Senior Village."
"Awwww, you’re rescuing our discarded books. That’s so sweet!" I said. I completely forgot to use my library voice.
The squeaky singing stopped. Every little head turned my way.
"Hello," I said, taking a step away from the stone wall. "I’m sorry if I frightened you. I followed the history book down here. It’s not checked out..." My voice trailed off. I didn’t like the way their rosy pink lips had lifted to show pointy little teeth.
"Intruder," the elf with my purple book snarled. Miniature pitchforks appeared from under their benches. Some of the elves lit fireplace matches and thrust them into the air like torches.
"Get her!" One shrilled. They leapt to their tiny feet.
"Wait, I..." I stumbled backwards up the passage. In an instant, fifty little hands pinned me to the cold stone wall. The slender tine of a pitchfork pricked my neck.
"Leave this place and never return," the first elf hissed, his rosy cheeks flushed crimson. "Tell no one what you’ve seen."
"But why? Everyone would be so pleased that you’ve saved --"
"Tell no one!"
A little hand snaked into my back pocket. Something appeared in front of my nose. I crossed my eyes to bring it into focus. It was my library card. A pair of scissors with gleaming blades touched its edge. I gasped.
"Swear your silence or I’ll slice --"
"No please!" I shrieked. "I have my number memorized!"
The elf smiled coldly. "Do you swear?"
"Yes, yes. I won’t tell anyone. I swear."
The elves backed away. With a shaking hand, I took my card and pressed it to my chest.
"Go," the elf with the satin bow said, thrusting her matchstick torch at me.
Its light danced around the tunnel walls as I backed away. When I turned and ran, their piping taunts chased me up the passage. I shoved the secret door open, slipped through and fell to my knees, still clutching my card, never more grateful to see the reference section in all my life. The door shut behind me with a soft whoosh.
I didn’t look back when I stood, straightened my sweater and walked determinedly to the front desk. Chin held high, I knew what I had to do. The Peloponnesian Wars, a Complete History would definitely get checked out on the "missing" card.