Ancora Io (Novel)
These are fragments for a novel under construction.
We met Betty in an earlier story. Slowing down but not old, widowed but not bitter, Betty is the chief librarian of a small New England library.
Like most Chief Librarians, she has inherited some troublesome books. Not the ones that are just hard to read. The other ones: the books that consume other books and become more powerful. Powerful enough to change the world. Now some of Betty's friends have stumbled on a library that does the same.
Jess (Chronicles of Eliza)
You see a manuscript in front of you, and you reach to pick it up. You feel its unbalanced weight as you draw it close. The title, “Chronicles of Eliza”, is written in a black pen. Below, in a fainter hand, is written “by Jess”.
On the front of the bundle is a yellow post-it note, “Dear reader, this story should be read alone, at night, even though it is being written here from time to time, on paper.”
You untie the ribbon that bundle the pages together, careful not to scatter the loose pages within. But there is no order here. Your eyes settle on the unnumbered top page.
“I came to the portal on the Jenolan River. A trek along the Jenolan River below the caves and beyond the Blue Lake will take you to places unimaginable.
If you do step through this portal, a portal of ordinary natural power, you will never be able to go back to the world you knew. Not because of magic, nor the sharp smell of herbage all around nor the gin you drank last night.
If you must go back, you will go back to a world changed. It will be a world where the colors are faded and the shadows are darker.”
The Black Cat (1)
The black cat left Jess and made its way by leaps and bounds up the vines leading to the mantle of the highest window of the old library. It hissed and a great raven left in a complaint of feathers and claws. The cat pressed its eye to the cold glass. From here it could see the old librarian at her desk on the first floor and the dark rooms of the town museum on the second floor. The cat reached out and pushed the glass.
Betty sat at her desk waiting for assistant librarian Thelma to arrive. She took a deep breath and reviewed her concerns one last time. Thelma was young, smart and... Betty frowned. Betty ran through the prosopography of all library assistants past and present. She clenched a fist and slammed it into a waiting hand, "She isn't ready!"
The dust behind her stirred and twisted into the air. A chill filled the old library. Books shuffled on the shelves. Upstairs, in the old museum, the floor settled softly. Betty listened for calm to be restored. Betty looked at her desk, immaculately clean. She mumbled, "Or maybe it is just that I am not ready for this."
She heard the shuffle of feet outside the Library and the practiced turn of a key.
The door opened, and Thelma gave her a wave and a cheery hello before moving to knock the snow off boots and to shake out her umbrella. Thelma forestalled Betty’s remonstrance, chirping without a hint of defensiveness, "I will clean it up. The landing was too muddy." She hung her jacket and ear muffs on the old wrought iron rack and went to find a mop.
Betty said to herself, "I just came in there myself, it wasn't muddy then." Young people these days are far too casual with the truth. And then, again, the doubts started.
Thelma said, "Ok, I have two hours. Sarah is babysitting for me. Would you like a coffee?"
Betty was caught off guard, "When did Sarah come home?” They looked at each other across the library for a moment, and Betty broke first, “Yes, I need a coffee."
Thelma shrugged, "I didn't know she had gone anywhere. She is a sweet girl, I trust her. Besides, she brought a friend, you know, Roddi from the Reading Group." There was the sound of cutlery, the biscuit tin being opened, and Thelma continued, “Roddi is helping her research stuff on the internet.”
Betty bit down the warning sitting at the back of her throat.
Betty said, "Thelma, I need to tell you something."
Thelma put two coasters on the desk and pulled up a chair, "I know already."
Betty said, "What? What do you know?"
Thelma said, "It's about the Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit."
Betty shook her head but could not help herself, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And it is the Sherlock Holmes Exhibit. Remember that here we name exhibits after books not writers.” Like most librarians, Betty had a poor opinion of writers: at best a necessary evil; at worst intrusive and self-serving.
Betty fought to restore self-control, but curiosity got in the way, “What about the exhibit?"
Thelma took a sip of the coffee, "Well, I think we should tell the truth about Doyle. The whole truth."
Betty suddenly wondered if two hours was going to be long enough. She said, "What?"
Thelma said, "Well, you know he was a doctor in the Anglo-Boer War."
Betty mumbled non-committedly.
Thelma continued, "He was at Bloemfontein, at the height of that city's typhoid fever epidemic. A thousand soldiers died there. He saw it happen and knew how to prevent it. Instead, he caved in. He could have easily prevented so many deaths."
Betty started to put her hand up, but Thelma rushed, "In the first World War, more people died from typhoid than on the battlefield. If Doyle had stood his ground, typhoid deaths would have been eliminated. We have to..."
There was a crash from upstairs, and the lights flickered. Out of sight, deep in the recesses of the library, the surface of a book shimmered. The book was covered by a pattern of tiny scales; regular, fascinating and frightening.
The two librarians looked at each other and froze. Silence returned. Betty shook her head, “Maybe just the wind banging one of the old windows.” Thelma looked at her, wondering about the disruption from a couple of weeks earlier. Seeing her chance, Thelma continued, "So many..."
There was another crash from upstairs. This time it was followed by the sickening splitting sound of wood. Betty jumped to her feet as the light died. She shuffled in her bag and drew out a large metal torch, the weapon of choice of most senior librarians. She switched the light on directly into Thelma's eyes.
Betty hissed, "No. I do not want to talk to you about the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit. Will you just listen to me for a moment!"
Thelma squinted and turned her head from the torch light, and said conversationally, "So, can I include a small section in the exhibit about him being the greatest killer in world history?"
Betty remembered Mabel's warning, delivered with a wavering voice, "I pray you never need to concern yourself with these, the ones that twist and turn in the dark." Betty whispered loudly, "Thelma! There might be something upstairs. I need you to believe me regardless of what you might think."
Thelma said with the confidence of youth, "You said it yourself, it's just the wind."
Betty started, “No…” but the lights flickered a couple of times, and then resumed with a dull golden glow.
Betty snapped off the torch light and wondered about the wisdom of climbing the stairs. She resumed her seat and thought. When Betty had become the chief librarian, she had done things that Mabel would never have allowed. Betty repressed her reservations about telling the towns folk that their favorite author was a mass killer. Instead, she turned to Thelma, "You can include an extract from a reputable source but only if you promise to believe everything I am about to tell you."
Thelma smiled and risked a happy cry, "You are the best!"
Betty caught a flash of light, near the ceiling.
Thelma followed her eyes, and took a swig of coffee, as a single page floated slowly onto Betty's Desk.
The page was old, hammered leather, frayed at the edges patterned with centuries of book worms. The script was old, amendments in the margins. The letters swam in front of them.
Thelma said comfortingly, "See, just the wind."
Betty reached for the page, and the words on the page swirled and became tangible.
Betty stared at the page in her hand.
Thelma put down her coffee and came to stand behind Betty, reading the single page over her shoulder. She repeated the words aloud:
Vox (to his love): For you, I will break all the rules. I will risk incurring the displeasure of the emperor. I forgive you all the faults of time and distance. For that is the duty imposed by love.
Echo (Emperor): Love imposes that duty.
They were silent for a moment. Thelma returned to her seat, a thoughtful look on her shoulders, "It seems familiar, but I can not say I know it. Is there anything on the other side?"
Betty shook her eyes out of inaction and turned the page over. She said, "Nothing."
Thelma said, "It came from upstairs, probably the Town Museum. It may have been up there for years. The wind found it." She glanced at her watch and smiled.
Betty nodded, "I wonder what other surprises might be waiting."
Thelma said, "We will deal with them, together. Old pages from forgotten books are no match for us." She laughed and then asked, "I am sorry, we have drifted a little. You were about to tell me something important."
Betty smoothed out the page and reaching into her second drawer, pulled out a paper sleeve and stored the page carefully and put it away out of sight.
Betty started, "Yes. Now, remember that you are going to believe everything I will tell you."
Thelma looked seriously, "Some bizarre things have been happening here."
Betty looked at her sharply; maybe she had underestimated Thelma, "What do you mean?"
Thelma leaned a little towards Betty, "Well, you know the Library Writers Club you asked me to manage a while back... I send you the minutes."
Betty frowned and then squashed a pang of guilt, "Thank you. I do not have time to look under every stone and appreciate you taking care of that one. But, perhaps I should have been more attentive, they are a difficult bunch of individuals."
Thelma said, "There are not too bad. We meet each second Monday at the Toni's Diner and, well, I listen to their stories and try to encourage them."
Betty said quickly, "Please, not too much encouragement. There are plenty of good books out there already. Look, I know that writers are a strange lot. But, what is particularly strange about this group."
Thelma said, "Well, I worry about them. They were all just muddling along. It was social. Well, a couple of meetings ago, a new man started coming along, Ged Richards. He is a local farmer and says he knows lots about books and writers and publishers."
"Tell me the strange bit, please."
"Well, he has been helping the others finish off their writings, even Jess. And, he is going to bring a well-known writer from the city next meeting."
"It sounds like you are doing a good job, rather than being strange."
"But Betty, my writers haven't got a clue."
Betty nodded, quietly approving of Thelma's intuition.
"And yet suddenly, they have manuscripts full of writing and plots and characters."
Betty picked up her ears and was about to probe a little deeper, but with a superhuman effort of will dragged the conversation back to the purpose at hand.
"Thelma, I think you are doing a good job. And we can talk a bit more about your writers tomorrow, but I need to talk to you now about something more important."
Thelma said, "I am sorry Betty, I have spent your evening talking about my problems. I appreciate your support of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle exhibit. It has all been a bit hectic the last while and..."
Betty held up her hand and smiled, "Thelma, that is what I need to talk to you about."
Silence filled the library. The books crowded to the edge of their shelves. The black cat leaned against the stairwell listening.
"Thelma, I am feeling very old."
Thelma drew in her breath. The dust behind Betty stirred and twisted into the air. A chill filled the old library. Books shuffled on the shelves. Upstairs, in the old museum, the floor settled softly.
"The last week was very hard for me. I need to talk to you about it. Then I think we should talk about my retirement."
Jess & Ray (1)
With a squeal of rusty hinges, the black cat left the library. It slithered and backed its way down the wall, shrugging off a snowflake as it disappeared into the night.
Moments later it pushed its way into Toni's Diner and bent to a bowl of warm cream in the kitchen. Suddenly, its ear pricked up. Alert, it turned to look at the row of tables.
At the end Jess rose with a frown to meet Ray, "I am glad you came. Can I get you a hot chocolate?" He nodded, and she called out to Toni.
The black cat turned back to the cream, unsure. The cream tasted sour.
Jess said to Ray, "I have a problem."
Toni arrived and said, "Be with you in a moment. Just feeding the squad car, they had a car off the bridge tonight and are a bit shook up."
Ray took out a scrap of paper and made a note, saying, "Sec. Need to jot that down."
Jess didn't wait, "I have been trying..."
Ray finished and said, "You told me. But I have my book to write. I still have 900 words to write tonight and..."
Jess said, "No, I have a huge problem."
Ray said, "We have talked about this. You have to kill Bernice."
It was a little too loud, and the conversation in the diner dropped perceptibly, so he added loudly, "Bernice, the character in the book you are writing," He stressed Bernice and writing. Both of them waited for the diner to fill with normal disinterested conversation.
Jess said, "I can't do it. I..."
Ray sighed loudly, and whispered loudly, "We have been through this. Look. Killing a character is hard. It took me weeks to get the nerve to kill my first one. But a bit of practice and, you know, it gets effortless. Before you know it, you will be killing off whole families, little children, cities, kittens!"
Jess looked around worriedly and nodded silently at the police officers sitting a couple of tables down, and whispered loudly with a gentle kick under the table, "Don't say 'kill.'"
Ray said, cautiously, "You have to do this Jess!"
Ray had had this conversation a couple of times, and his patience was wearing thin. He looked at the police officers, who had stopped eating. "Here. I will show you." Ray moved his hand in the air theatrically and hushed Jess. He brought out a piece of paper. "Watch."
The Black Cat silently jumped up on the seat back behind Jess and peered down at Ray.
Ray wrote, "Bob finished putting on his tie and picked up the flowers he had bought earlier." Ray explained to Jess, as an aside, "See, the flowers make him a character of value. When we kill him, the reader feels a loss." He nodded his head, silently asking her to agree.
Jess said, "No. No. You..."
Ray said, "It’s alright Jess. It will be all over shortly. It is just words." He continued to write a little faster with every word, "A block of ice fell onto a nearby wall. A dislodged brick shifted imperceptibly and lost grip of its neighbors.” He looked at her, and wrote one more sentence, “Fate hung in the balance."
Jess watched helplessly, eating her own words.
Ray wrote, "Just then, Bob slammed the door, and walked to his appointed fate."
Suddenly there was a crash outside the diner. The cat jumped onto the table, dislodging Jess's manuscript and for a moment chaos reigned. Toni stomped out of his kitchen with a soup ladle, opened the door and peered out into the night. Toni shook his head, "Careful when you leave tonight folks; another brick has fallen off that dratted wall." He called out to the police officers, "Can I put in a complaint about that?"
One of the officers called back, "Come on Toni. You know the drill. Call City Hall."
Jess called to him, "When you have a moment, can we have a couple of hot Chocolates please Toni?"
Toni turned and shot her a smile then shook his head.
Jess and Ray finished getting the papers back into order, and Ray turned back to his exercise.
Ray held his hand above the page and froze. Written on the page, under his writing, in a narrow painful text, were six new words he had not written, "The brick fell after he passed"
Ray looked at Jess and then looked back at the writing, vaguely annoyed at the lack of a full stop. He looked at Jess again, and his eyes narrowed. Jess said, with a rush, "I have been trying to tell you."
Ray asked, pointedly, "Did you write that?" He pointed to words, which had been inexplicably joined by a couple more and some punctuation. It now read, "The brick fell after he passed, and just after he sat down" Still, there was no full stop. Ray suddenly felt cold.
Jess shook her head, "Listen to me." Ray shook his head and put his hands out. She pulled out pages from the top of her manuscript and put it on top of his note. "Look!"
She pointed to her writing and, just as he was about to remonstrate pointedly about the incomplete sentence now in his example death scene, he noticed the same narrow painful text on her page. A hasty thesis formed in his mind and he blustered, "What are you doing!"
Jess simply said, "I don't write like that. Something else has been writing in my story."
Jess whispered, "I sat down to write tonight. After my talk with you. I told myself that tonight was the night I was going to..." Her voice trailed off. "You know..." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "Kill Bernice."
Jess whispered, "I sat down to write tonight. After my talk with you. I told myself that tonight was the night I was going to..." Her voice became more urgent and louder, "You know..." Her voice cut through the air, "Kill Bernice."
A hush settled on the Diner.
Ray's eye caught the eye of one of the police officers a couple of tables away, who had a ham and tomato burrito in his mouth but still finding time to look at them with a little too much interest.
Ray's heartbeat got louder, and he started to pick up the pace, "Ok, ok. Let's not put the other people here off their food. Let me read what you wrote."
He started a couple of lines, "This time Bernice had gone too far. She had slept with his girlfriend Meg. She had abducted his cat. And she had burnt their office to the ground. He had no options left She was going to pay for all the bad things she had done. He gunned his car once more and waited for Bernice to leave the club."
Ray stopped at that point and looked up at Jess. They had been reading each other's novel for a while now, and Ray had thought he had a handle on Jess's plot and the character development in her story. They had spent a little time on Meg: the clothes she wore, the cigarettes she preferred, her weakness for Dutch licorice. But nothing hitherto had been mentioned about Bernice sleeping with Meg. Ray felt a bit blindsided by this development and by the inexplicable lack of another full stop.
He started to speak, but this time Jess got in first, loudly banging both fists on the table, "I have been trying to kill her all day! I blew up their office. I fixed her car so it would spin off the bridge! And now..."
The policeman standing next to her with her gun drawn repeated, "Now?"
Jess & Ray (2)
"Gonna level with you, buddy; I have no idea how to respond to you."
The police officer put the thought of coffee cooling on her desk out of mind and wondered whether it was time to resort to more direct questioning.
Instead, she said, crossly, "Stop whimpering! I heard every word at the diner. Your goose is cooked."
Ray was in a miserable state, slumped over the interview desk, choking on every second word, "It's just words!", he managed.
The police officer shook her head, "No. No, Ray. Can I call you Ray? It's not just words when it is about..." She took a quick breath and said meaningfully, "... killing someone." She waited for her words to sink in, and asked conversationally, "Do you see my point, Ray?"
Ray begged piteously for his notebook back, but the police officer said, "No, Ray. Your ‘note’ book is now evidence." She gave a little shudder about the evil she had read in it in just a couple of seconds scan. It was enough to suggest that the man who sat across her was a mass murderer of biblical proportion. Ray howled a truly miserable sound, as the police officer sat back, and wondered how many promotions this find would bring her.
Just then, there was a sharp rap at the door. Ray stopped wailing and looked up fearfully towards the door.
She couldn't help thinking that he ticked all her boxes as a multiple murderer: white, male, middle-aged, slightly overweight, educated, a checkered shirt with an ill-fitting jacket, no smokes, lots of credit cards in his wallets, and he cried the moment he was put in an arm bind. The only thing he had fought to keep was his notebook. She thought wryly, "for a good reason".
She pushed her chair out and walked carefully, backward, to the door, "Don't try nothing."
He swallowed a sob and helpfully corrected her, "Anything."
She broke. Two wild steps and she was over to him and clipped his ear as hard as should without leaving a bruise.
He screamed in pain.
Her hand stung too, but it was good pain.
She again heard the insistent knock on the door and spat silently "Filth" in his direction as she made for the door.
She imagined extracting confession after confession from him. She nodded to herself, "It was always the quiet ones, the ones you don't suspect."
Betty was locking up for the night when she heard a knock on her door and opened it to the town police chief.
She looked at him with surprise and then a clench of fear.
He met her eyes and said quickly, "We have to talk."
Inside, she made a pot of tea, and they sat facing each other.
He outlined his concern without the need for any pleasantries, "My officers arrested a couple of members of your library's writer group tonight, on charges of attempted murder."
Betty stifled a gasp. She shook her head, suddenly worried for all around her and the town.
He continued, "The thing is, there are no bodies. No victims. But everyone is shook up, and I need you and me to calm 'em all down."
The police chief was, of course, simplifying things a little. One of the police officers had a deep, unexplained scratch down one leg. Toby McFarlane was dead in the front seat of the old Buick they pulled out of the river. City Hall had arrived just in time to see the rest of the wall collapse. And no one was happy about where things stood.
Betty looked at him and said, "Writers?"
His faced creased, and he nodded.
Betty ventured, "A misunderstanding?"
Bob started, "Your writers..."
Betty shook her head and sighed, "Writers are so much trouble."
Bob started, "My officers hear your writers talking about killing a woman called Bernice." He asked hopefully, "Do you know a Bernice in town?"
Betty thought long and hard, but not about Bernice.
She said, "Your officers heard a couple of writers talking about books they are writing in Toni's Diner?" It was a guess, but it fitted the facts.
Bob shuffled his feet, "I need you to come to talk to them, and calm them down. I will bail them to you, and we will let things quieten down over the next couple of days. Then we will drop everything unless we find something was happening here."
She said directly, "What happened here, Bob? Spit it out!"
He said directly, "Now you know I aint one for telling stories about things I didn't see." He stopped momentarily worried about his tense, conscious he was in the company of someone who probably knew what the right word should have been. She gestured for him to continue, "But the last couple of weeks have been tough on everyone, and all my people are on edge."
She nodded, "Me too. Some strange things have happened. Maybe just kids. Or animals." She paused for a moment, "Give me some examples."
He said, "Maybe kids. Stupid things. All the teaspoons have been pinched from the diners — every one of them. A couple of power poles have been brought down around town. Something has been pulling the tires off wheels."
Betty sat very still, "I don't think any of those things are silly."
He asked, "Will you help me calm things down? I think my people over-reacted."
Betty said, "Those writers had no business causing a fuss and diverting the law from its proper purposes. Drop the charges now, and no lawyers need to get involved. And I will have a word to those who need to know to stop this happening again."
He shook his head. “Hard bargain, but let's try it.”
Jess & Ray (3)
She left the police station in a daze. The police officer was full of small talk, but she was still on edge, images of the interview room light, cold cups of coffee seared into her eyes and soft words from the town librarian. She stumbled out of the police car, hoping no one in her street would be curious enough to look down on her strange arrival home.
The police driver said things to her then, but the words didn’t register: just snowflakes that melt into the skin.
Inside, she locked the door and rested against it. She ignored the mobile ringing in her bag, throwing it onto the bed and making her way unsteadily to her small kitchen and tossed down a glass of water.
The mobile was still ringing. She looked at the bathroom, but ended up on the bed, taking the bundle of her manuscript, the police docket, and Ray’s notebook. She sighed, and the phone tumbled onto the bed.
She picked it up and flicked answer.
She heard his voice, clear, “Are you ok?”
She said, “That wasn’t fun.”
Ray sounded as upset as her, “They hit me. Hard.”
She noticed his breathing, sharp and uneven, “Your notebook. It is with my gear.” She rustled through the papers, “Everything seems to be here.”
She heard him let out a deep sigh, “Thank you.”
And then, an afterthought, “Did they hurt you?”
She thought of the lost hours, between the holding cell and the interview room. She heard him, more anxious, “Are you there.”
“They didn’t touch me. But every part of me feels damaged.” Then, feeling a bit insensitive, “Why did they hit you?”
As Ray spoke, her eyes rested on the top page of her manuscript.
She let out a short cry of pain, and he stopped talking, “What!”
She started to shake. “My story, the story, there is more writing. I…”
He said. “Jess! Shut your eyes. Move away from it!”
She whimpered. In the darkness, she felt a tendril of smoke dancing nearby, searching for her.
She fell off the bed, and half ran into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
The Black Cat (1)
The Black Cat snuck in through the back door of the cafe.
Annapurna and Maxwell (1)
Maxwell bent down and scratched the cat's head, then lifted his watch and looked back out of the cafe's window.
He saw her walking along the uneven pavement, tall and proud, shoulder set and head a little back. He started to smile, his mind filled with a spill of words, the wind catching the smoke wafting from her mouth and her scarf ruffling the edge of the mind. A gust of snow silhouetted her as she paused to let a council plow push past, and then she picked her way carefully across the icy road.
By the time she had sat down, the story in his mind had advanced to drinks at a bar and the exchange of glances.
"Snap out of it, if you don't mind. Maxwell."
Maxwell gave her a dreamy look, "I think I got 500 words then." On a piece of paper in front of him, he was doodling.
"Don't you dare write about me!" She called an order to the waiter. The waiter moved a little reluctantly from the TV, playing a documentary on Sputnik, "This is the beginning of a new era of Mankind. The era of Man's cosmic existence. "You will now hear the voice of the Russian Moon, Sputnik!...." The Russian voice faded into the hiss of the coffee maker.
She glanced at his paper, nothing but half butterflies. Maxwell said, "I am glad you could make it."
She nodded and drew out her notes. In the background, the documentary continued, "All over the world, people are tuning in to the 'Bleep Bleep' of the satellite..."
Maxwell started, conversationally, "I was too young for Sputnik. I remember Apollo, though. Good times."
Annapurna sighed, "My mother and I watched the repeats on News of India at the theatre. I so wanted to be a cosmonaut." She thought for a moment and smiled, "I still do, and a cricket player."
The waiter brought two steaming mugs of coffee, and a small bowl of cream for the cat, adding with a slight shrug, "Sorry, no teaspoons, all I can offer you is a fork."
Annapurna' s eyebrows lifted, "This is most irregular." She smiled, "Tell me, Andy, what disaster has befallen the kitchen of the great Chef Fred Murphy to occasion such a loss?"
Andy shrugged again, "Someone pinched them all." He reached for the TV, reducing the sound a little.
Maxwell took a long sip of coffee and then said with meaning, "Thank you. And thank you for the words."
She nodded at his doodles, and asked, "Your writing, it is proceeding well?"
Maxwell laughed, "You know, I always liked drawing little shapes, but now the words are all over me. Hell yes, the words are just dripping off my pen. I can't stop. Everything I see become part of the story. And the..."
She cocked her head and with a click at the back of her throat brought him to a stop, "I am pleased you are writing, but remember our agreement, please. I am not a fan of romantic novels. The details are too... steamy."
Maxwell came to a complete stop and added another couple of lines to the novel in his head. He said, "I am sure you will love this one."
She said, "No, Maxwell, I would not. But, I am pleased to be here to lend you a little encouragement and inspiration. And, maybe, one day you will write a piece that does not involve touching and kissing and..."
Maxwell thought and quickly added, "...fast cars. And exotic resorts in faraway places."
Annapurna and Maxwell (2)
He remembered their first adventure in the Town Library when she lent him cover as they explored the rows of paperback love stories. She had carefully picked a time when the old librarian was at lunch so they could explore without disapproving glances, and let him use her library card to take out a couple of likely books, for him to get a feel for the genre. He was determined to write a bestseller.
Annapurna smiled and took her coffee and skimmed a hole in the froth with the fork and added five sugars, "I am sure Toni's Diner would never run out of teaspoons."
He watched, with a tingle, the fall of so much sweetener and added, "I told you, Toni's Diner is shut tonight. I don't know why." His hand picked up his pencil and started a new shape.
She said, "I don't mind. I like this place. Fred and Andy have been good friends since I moved here."
Maxwell felt her composure: unwavering and impenetrable. He stayed a hundred questions about her past.
The cat slurped the last of the cream and looked up at her.
He asked, "How is your writing going?"
Annapurna sighed, "I started to write about a young, broke woman detective. But I was watching a little TV, and I find that every second show is about that same person. Maxwell, I have decided to do something different. I want you to tell me whether it is novel or commonplace. If it is commonplace, I will have to look for another theme. Will you help? I feel that I am behind all the rest of you, and would desperately wish to have a couple of pages of writing before the next meeting."
Maxwell laughed, "Do not be in such a hurry. None of us had written anything of any length until a couple of weeks ago. And then it was like the tap got switched on somewhere and we are all full of words and..."
Annapurna waited, watching his eyes drift over a couple sitting, holding hands, "Maxwell?"
He shook his head, "It is like I am seeing the world for the first time. Seeing the love, the angst, the hate, the passion. I can't stop the words."
She let a small laugh fall over him, and his face softened, "Ok, lay it on me. Give me your theme."
Annapurna started, seriously. "I think I will call my book, 'Again, Me.' I can feel the beginning."
Her eyes took on a faraway look:
"We have smiled many times, you and I,
About how spring and fall go hand in hand for us.
The joy of Persephone's return for one
Is moderated by the despair of her departure for the other.
And the joy that such mind games evoke
Wake so many other memories, sad and happy still."
Maxwell smiled and looked at her sipping, "A love story!"
She laughed and shook her head, "No. I think it is a strange history of our world. A bit like Sputnik's 'Beep Beep' ".
"I thought I would weave a story about the end of the world as we know it. A clash of the old world and the new."
He speculated with a smile, "A Science Fiction Double Feature!"
She pursed her lips, "A late night picture show? No. Nothing so grand. I was wondering about how libraries are being left in the dust of the new technology. I would write about how a library falls victim to technology. I would write about our town library. Well, not about it, so you knew it. But with all the people, including the old librarian and her staff."
Maxwell said, "It sounds a little dry. I can't imagine that a library is all that exciting."
She said, "I think that the challenges they face are pretty overwhelming. Imagine how much work they put into keeping those institutions alive, how much social capital is invested in those shelves, how important they have been for the towns themselves. And how they are becoming irrelevant to today. How the internet is going to destroy it all like some beast in an old fable."
He said, "Sounds like a sad tale. How can you spark it up? Maybe a love affair between the old librarian and the local internet provider can..."
She said, "No love stories. I do not know how to tell this. I want to do something grand."
He said, "Do something unexpected."
The cat rubbed against her legs, and she looked down. The cat caught her eye then jumped up on the table and onto the back of Maxwell's chair.
She asked, "What are you drawing."
He laughed and said, "You know I doodle. It is nothing but..."
She reached out and turned the page around.
There on the page shimmered a dragon, drawn draped around a book.
Betty sits in her easy chair, a half glass of red on the small table next to her, an old lamp casting a bright light but leaving dim shadows just out of reach. She does not need to read the note in the album open on her lap. Her husband’s last note to her, she knows every word:
“We have smiled many times, you and I, about how spring and fall go hand in hand for you and me. The joy of Persephone's return for one is moderated by the despair of her leaving for the other. And the joy that such mind games are invoked so many other memories, sad and happy still.”
The glass of wine and album exchange places, but the words still hang in her mind. She feels a rush of blood in her face and small goosebumps up an arm, and then waits for the ache of loss to come and pass. She tries to dismiss the memories of farewells at the railway station, of the flags flying at half mast as the cemetery and the hundred touches of his mind all around her.
Instead, she tries to concentrate on the evening behind her. The meeting with Thelma had not gone smoothly. Betty shook her head: that girl has too many distractions. When Betty had finally got to the point of the meeting, Thelma had met Betty’s talk of retirement with nervous laughter and paper thin assurances that Betty had years of working life still before her. Betty shook her head again, “What do the young know?” The house settled in quiet agreement.
She had needed an opportunity to talk it through with someone, to chew it from different angles, to hear that they understood and were ready to take up the mantle. Didn’t happen. All Betty got was a pat on the back, a glance at the watch and a fast goodnight.
Betty frowned. Then there was that business with the police chief and a strange trip to the lockup to extract a couple of writers. Betty recognized both Ray and Jess. She also recognized the police officers. Everyone was in a state of upset. They had been coming to the library since they were little kids. She had glared at situation and then quietly worked to restore calm. After the writers were released she shared a couple of gentle words with the police officers and the chief, suggesting that the world would make more sense after a good night sleep.
But sleep was not coming to her. Quietly, her mind was combing through the debris pulling together all those small threads that elude one at the time. There were a surprising number of threads but, as yet, no hint of a plot. The absence of a plot offended Betty. She sniffed.
She sipped the wine, wondering why the internet was so attractive to the young, greedy, immediate and full of life. Her mind was suddenly touched a new fear that, if permitted, the internet would consume all the libraries and their librarians in an instance. The young and greedy might make such a bargain, if in return they were given the gift of access to all that once existed.
She shook those cobwebs out of her head. It is an illusion. Such a promise however well-meant cannot be delivered with certainty.
A note on the language of Librarians. Librarians guard a lot of specialist words from the ravages of popular culture in what is called the Libris Onomasticon. It contains neat words like prosopography, epistolary, metaliterary, gravitas, sanctitas, and constantia libertas that are just as deadly as nuclear warheads and are best kept hidden from the rest of the world.
Jane and Nick
The Black Cat sauntered across the bridge across the town common, and was briefly considering a rat around the boat shed when Jane came walking by. She was deep in thought: hands deep in pockets, hair and face wrapped in a scarf topped by a hand knitted beanie. A drift of snowflakes fell over the pond, and the Black Cat turned to follow a different destiny.
Jane stepped over the fallen wall before opening the Café door to a rush of warmth. The Black Cat scuttled in and waited for her to walk to her usual seat. She waved at the waiter and took out her pad and licked a pencil.
She started to write:
"Once upon a time
There was a little vampire girl who wished more than anything in the world, more than kittens and puppies, that a knight in shiny armor would come and... Well, to be honest, at that point, it gets a bit unclear what she wanted. And it changed from day to day depending on what she had eaten the night before.
Sadly, knights in shiny armor are not as familiar as they used to be. These days you need to be involved in currency swaps to get that sort of gig. They tend to congregate in financial hubs, well away from the countryside, or at least, the bit of park where the little vampire girl hunted. All in all, out her way, knights were a bit thin on the ground. If we could persuade one of those bright young researchers to come and look around, which might not be such a good career move, they would probably find many more frogs than knights.
On the day the little Vampire Girl met her knight, it was a wet, dark New England day. The sort of day her cookbook called an Indian Summer. A brief warm flush under the imminent threat of an icy blast catching the vermin afoot in the bright green, sickly woods. A day full of croaking frogs. A bit beside the point, but it might explain what happened next.
Perhaps unexpectedly but entirely within the realm of probabilities, the little vampire girl met a frog rather than a knight.
She raised him by one leg, hesitating briefly, wondering which bit she should eat first. In confusion, he reached out and gave her a quick kiss.
Against the odds, and before anything else could happen (which might be a reason for subsequent regret), she turned into a frog as well.
A couple of days later, they were still together and working on the whole frog thing. But just as it looked like everything might work out, the park started to freeze."
Nick quietly pulled up a seat opposite, silently ordering the usual with a wave and a smile and giving the cat a quick head scratch. He waited until Jane stopped scribbling, and she looked up at him, "Oh. Hi Nick. It happened again!"
Jane held up her notes. Writing filled the pages with small drawings, "I don't know where it comes from."
He pushed her a smoking hot chocolate, "You keep surprising me, you know. What did she kill today?"
She shuffled through her notes as he tipped a jug of milk into the cat's bowl and put it on the table next to him. The Black Cat growled.
Jane looked up with a note of relief, "Nothing. She turned into a frog. I might be safe for a bit."
He turned and coughed into his arm, "Any more dreams?"
"Just the normal. Nothing I can't handle." She looked at him, "Did you start to smoke again?"
He shook his head, "Have you eaten?"
"I am starved."
The Black Cat pricked up its ears and sat back in its seat, washing its face.
"I thought so. Toni is cooking us pancakes." He held out his hand to her, and she gave him her manuscript to check.
Then she fished a big pad out of her bag. She licked the tip of her pencil, "Your turn."
The light dimmed slightly.
He started to speak, and she raced to copy his words down.
"The trigger to memory is like a key, shaped out of insubstantial stuff - the touch of a breeze, a native tree in bloom, the bark of a dog, a crow sitting on a far wire, the echo of E Flat minor or a green frog jumping on concrete. Once you turn the key, it all comes flooding back.
I do not know where the memories are kept. They are not in my head, for I have searched every room and dug out every canal and broken down every door in my head till there in Nothing but sunlight. They are not written in books nor recorded on tape or taped to the back of some elder's head. They require space beyond the capacity of the vaults of physical or organic systems. It is a mystery.
In one of the old chronicles, I read that you can go back in time to a particular moment, but you first must build an anchor and throw it into the river of time so that you can pull yourself back. I cannot remember doing that. I cannot remember saying I must remember this.
We dabble in the great mysteries yet do not understand: this the most minor and most insubstantial of things.
When I was young, I thought time the only enemy I could not defeat. Now I am older, I know that isn't so, for, in an instance, it is possible to span all those distances and be back in the warmth of those you love.
I ran out of coffee this week and lived a pitiful couple of days without the smell of brewed coffee. I became short, argued with the cockatoos, and did not greet the crows who tend my gardens with my customary smile. Today I smiled at your story, and I ground coffee, sat, letting it transport me back to the poetry of Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi and Andalusia.
I shut my eyes, and I am still there, on that long veranda I slept on those long hot summer nights. I smelled the pepper trees and listened to the soft troop of sheep to the dam across in the paddocks. Watching the last sliver of sunlight slowly drain from the sky, remembering how we used to fly to the moon, rowing a saucer with spoons.
My very stern Grandmother left Pa in bed each day before dawn and started the fire burner to heat the station's water and cook the morning bread and scones. A sprawling, dusty remote farm on the edge of the desert, with a splendid avenue of trees, she kept alive with precious water for roads that never came. She guarded her big pantry from the kitchen: a pantry full of sacks of flour and smelling of rising dough against all comers and curious children. So many treats came from the pantry we children built a picture of a cavern full of so much sweet treasure, she would surely never notice some missing.
Deep in the house's bowels, we found another way into the pantry, through the maid's room, now barricaded against the ages and an unspoken scandal, and filled with old school books from just after the Great War and curios Pa brought back from Cairo and Palestine. Behind the wardroom, we found a long-forgotten door and a winding corridor and sat wondering whether to risk all on taking that final, irrevocable step of raiding the pantry.
We never did, for by the time we found the nerve, it was time for tea. And as Grandmother stirred the sugar for us all, she told us of how we could fly to the moon.
Perhaps it takes loss to know what we once held but, if ever another loved us, part of them still rest within our hearts, together with their stories."
Toni waited till Jane put down her pencil and Nick shook the cobwebs out of his head. He walked over with a tray of pancakes with strawberries, the fruit of the forest, and cream. "Sorry guys, no spoons… Don't ask."
Jane said, "Come on, Toni. You can tell us."
He shook his head, "A lot of drama here tonight. Eat up; I will come to tell you about it later. Maybe you can write it into one of your books."
After the trouble with the police, Betty shrugged off her duties as Chief Librarian and fixed herself half a glass of red. As mist engulfed her little town, she lay down to dream.
Her dreams normally started and ended at the train station, decades ago as she fare-welled her husband to the war. Tonight was different. Out of dreams strode Father Luis holding a sheaf of pages. Betty found an icy chill go up her backbone.
She complained, “You should be asleep in the monastery rather than bothering my sleep.”
Father Luis stared at her woodenly, “There will be hell to pay for this in confession. You shouldn’t be here.”
Betty said, in a matter of fact sort of way, “Let’s try to sleep. This is just a dream. It has been a trying day.”
They looked at each other, but neither made a move to leave. The mist swirled around them, and in the distance they heard the rumble of a distant storm.
Father Luis coughed, and looked at the papers he held, “I think I am here to deliver a message to you. Perhaps if I read it to you we can sleep.”
Betty said, “No. I am awake because I couldn’t talk to Thelma about my retirement.”
Father Luis had private views about retirement, but chose simply to nod and said, “You are too young to retire. Besides, you cannot do it right now. There is trouble brewing.”
Betty sighed, “The load is too heavy.”
Father Luis shot back, “Share the load.”
Betty shook her head.
Father Luis said, “That is not all” and suddenly he was in her head rummaging through her baggage.
She heard herself arguing with him, “I don’t want to learn the net.”
“We can help. It is not hard. It can make some task easier.”
“It will destroy the things I fought to preserve.”
“That is not be the case. You love stories. The medium is important, but it changes. In your own lifetime it has changed a dozen times.”
“It leads to sloth and moral decay.”
“Lots of things do. Fight back.”
“It can be subverted by power and wealth.”
“That must be resisted.”
“It will change our lives, people will believe impossible things.”
“Our lives always change. It lacks moderation.”
With a supreme effort she threw him out of her head and they were back standing in that place that was not the railway station, both looking confused. Betty thought she should feel angry about the intrusion but instead found herself wondering whether she had had two half glasses of wine instead of one. Surprisingly, she felt a little more relaxed, and risked a small smile, “Perhaps I am ready for sleep now after all. You can go now.”
Father Luis started to turn but then stopped, “I still have this message to you, or, perhaps us.”
Betty shook her head, “I don’t need any dream messages. If it is important, call me in the morning.”
With a wake, she feel into a deep dreamless sleep.
The world reappeared in the fog of next morning when Betty was awoken by the sound of her phone ringing.
She looked at the bedroom clock and reached for the handset.
Full of cobwebs, she ventured, “Hello.”
Father Luis replied, “Please pardon the interruption.”
She asked the phone, “Why are you calling me at this hour?”
Father Luis said, “You asked me to call you. With the message.”
Betty started to wake up quickly. “What message?”
Father Luis read from a page:
“Come, step up to this portal.
In cool airs soft as night, full hinting of delight, I am here not to outshine you.
How could it be? A broken nose, an old sword scar, a sun pocked face.
No, here is simply a setting for your smile, as you weigh those great adventures that await.”
Annapurna and Maxwell (3)
Annapurna looked at Maxwell's drawing: a small dragon draped around a book.
She pursed her lips and then relaxed, "As we have been talking, you have been drawing the Library's..." she hesitated, "I am not sure what you call it. No, wait, Maxwell, do you call this a gargoyle? You know, the little statue that sits atop the Town Library."
Maxwell looked surprised, "I can't draw for dimes. Did I do that?"
Annapurna cocked her head and said, "We were talking about my story. I want to write a story about the Town Library, but while I was telling you about it, you drew the Library's... gargoyle."
Maxwell shook his head, "The Library? There are no gargoyles there. This picture is a book wrapped in a dragon, not a gargoyle. Gargoyles are pudgy and made of stone. Did I draw this?"
"Yes, Maxwell, you did. And it is lovely. The scales on your drawing look like they are shimmering. Can I use this to inspire my writing?"
Maxwell looked a bit confused, "Of course. But I don't think there is a dragon on the Library. I grew up here, and we don't have those sorts of things in town, except for Halloween, or the kites old Hang ties to the Chinese Cafe come Chinese New Year."
"Perhaps it is something new that our librarian has added to the Library - I saw it there tonight on the way here, and I think I have seen it before. When you walk me back to my apartment, I am sure we will see it there. But first, it is your turn to take the stage. Please outline the plot of your writing."
Maxwell said, "Well,..."
Annapurna quietly but sternly added, "Without any of the froth or bubbles."
Maxwell sighed, "There is hardly any foam and bubbles. But, put simply, it is the story of two people who meet in happy times and fall deeply in love. But then, through a stroke of cruel fate, they are separated, and try as they might, they cannot get back together. The whole thing is very frustrating. As I come up with a fail-proof plan for them to meet, fate steps in and sends one off to the wrong bus stop."
Annapurna shook her head, "I am a bit surprised, Maxwell. When last we spoke, it seemed that your characters were going to be stuck in their mountain hideaway forever."
Maxwell's eyes flashed, and he banged the table with his hand in frustration, waking the cat. "Yes! That was the whole idea. But one day, they had to go get provisions and..." A tear started to form in his eyes, and Annapurna noticed that Maxwell had attracted the attention of the young couple nearby. She gave them a reassuring nod and said, "There, there. You are the writer, and you can make it happen. But, in the meantime, their attempt to reconnect is itself perhaps one of life's great adventures. I can see the passion in your eyes, and you tell me that the words are coming easily to you. I am sure your readers will experience all you are feeling."
"But..." he said and then choked a little. The cat stretches out on the seat next to him, wondering how to love the cream experience suggested Maxwell had left behind.
Annapurna smiled, "Why not write the ending first and gradually work your way back to where your story is now?"
Maxwell hesitated, and took out his notebook, turned a couple of blank pages over, and said, "Like here?"
Annapurna smiled and put out a reassuring hand, "Right there."
Maxwell fished out his pencil and wrote "The End."
As he finished writing the two words, all the lights went out, and the Diner was pitch black.
There was a low mumble of voices until one of the cooks found a torch and came out into the Diner, "I am sorry folks, there was a storm over Newtown way - a linesman warned us that the circuits might get overloaded."
There was a murmur from some of the other diners, and Annapurna spoke calmly, "It is all fine, Fred. Please put our bill on my tab; we had finished here."
Fred came closer, "Let me help you, folks, out. Might be an idea to get back under cover before..."
As his torchlight traced their outlines, it fell briefly on the table, illuminating a cat with a mouth full of cream and the drawing of a very lifelike dragon with shimmering scales. The cat saw the dragon and hissed and clawed its way out of the Diner, leaving a trail of destruction behind it.
Annapurna said. "Oh my!" as Maxwell fought to bring his scattered papers back into some semblance of order.
A little later, Annapurna paused outside the town library. Walking had been a little more complicated, but they managed to make headway in the moonlight. She pointed and said, "Look, Maxwell, up there."
Maxwell's face drained of all color.
The moonlight picked out the vines leading to the mantle of the highest window of the old Library. The window was open to the sky. Sitting atop the window was a small dragon, its scales shimmering in the moonlight. Maxwell grabbed her hand as the dragon took a bite out of the book it was holding.
Betty shook her head and took a long breath.
Father Luis asked, tentatively, “Are you still on the line?”
Betty shook her head but said, “Yes. Very curious, don’t you think?”
“That I have a dream about you and me discussing my retirement, and then, outside of the dream, you continue the encounter without drawing breath.”
Father Luis, who every day dealt with far more bizarre and frightening coincidences in his library of religious and spiritual books, chose to be non-committal and slightly enigmatic, “Maybe.”
Suddenly, Betty felt herself holding her phone a little too tightly, and, just for a moment, she felt short of breath. She told herself, ‘Get a grip.’ Then she thought quickly, “The only explanation I can think of is that we were either never asleep. Or that I am still asleep.”
Through the phone, she suddenly heard the sound of the monastery bells calling the monks to station, and she thought as they finished tolling, she heard Father Luis mutter something darkly under his breath. She said, “Beg pardon?” just as the soft sound of the bells reached her bedroom window the conventional way.
Father Luis laughed, “That has never happened before. Now the bells have called me twice. I am sorry, I have to go. Perhaps we should meet later today. Coffee at mid-afternoon at that little café that sells spells and potions?”
“Wait, where did you get the message you gave me?”
“It was the top page of a manuscript left in a basket, outside my dormitory. I apologize. I must go.”
Betty replaced the receiver on its stand and gave herself a quick pinch. She said, crossly to herself, “I must still be asleep. It must have been those two glasses of red wine. I will see Thelma this morning and tell her that my mind is made up. I am too old for this.”
She rose and prepared for the day ahead, keeping a weather eye out for any telltale signs that she might still be wide asleep.
She took a deep breath and opened the front door, fully prepared for a blast of cold dark air.
Instead, in a basket left just outside her door, she saw a manuscript in front of her, and she reached to pick it up. She felt its unbalanced weight as she drew it close. The title, “Chronicles of Eliza,” was written in a black pen. Below, in a fainter hand, is written: “by Jess.”
Betty frowned. It was most irregular for an author to put a manuscript outside the Town Librarian’s door. She would need to talk sternly to Thelma about the activities of Thelma’s writer group.
Betty’s eye caught a yellow post-it note on the front of the bundle. Involuntarily, she read it, “Dear reader, this story should be read alone, at night, even though it is being written here from time to time, on paper.”
Betty thought to herself, ‘Fat Chance.’ She marched back inside and shut the door behind her. On her kitchen table, she frowned again as she saw an unopened bottle of red wine and an empty glass waiting her. She tried to ignore the possibility that she had had no wine the previous night as she untied the ribbon that bundled the pages of the manuscript together, careful not to scatter the loose pages within. But there was no order there.
Betty’s eyes settled on the unnumbered top page.
“I came to the portal on the Jenolan River. A trek along the Jenolan River below the caves and beyond the Blue Lake will take you to places unimaginable.
If you do step through this portal, a portal of ordinary natural power, you will never be able to go back to the world you knew. Not because of magic, nor the sharp smell of herbage all around, nor the gin you drank last night.
If you must go back, you will go back to a world changed. It will be a world where the colors are faded, and the shadows are darker.”
Within a small New England town three libraries are engaged in a life and death struggle.
Betty: Chief Librarian on the front line of the advance of the new technologies. Loves books but has a dim view of writers. Within Betty's Library, there is a writer's group, being managed by Thelma, Betty's senior librarian. Free of effective curation the modern writer can be a powerful force for change, good and evil.
Thelma: 2IC at the library, has a child at home, and is researching a library exhibit about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. In charge of the Library's Writers Group (but, then, perhaps that is going a little too far).
Father Luis: Librarian at the town's Monastery. Strongly adheres to wisdom of the Church leaders who banned the Dewy System from his library. Betty had once whispered to Thelma that Father Luis had sought special dispensation from his silent order to meet with her and the local Book Club, to keep the Order up to date with Current Events.
The Future Library
Sara: Baby sitter turned dragon-carer. Sarah had just dyed her hair black but really wants to go red. Still in college and, recently, busted up with her boyfriend. Thelma has dismissed rumors that Sarah only comes to the library to access the free Wi-Fi.
Rodi: Friend of Sara. Rodi is trying to get a job at the town library and works here from time to time as a volunteer. Shy and retiring, Rodi does not identify immediately as male or female. Rodi has been reading "The Power of Positive Thinking" for a while now and had updated the Library’s online tracking register, which they had set up, to indicate that they had got to page 45.
The Little Dragon: Vulnerable to her appetite, consuming more than she can understand, susceptible to all those things that can destroy electronic knowledge in a moment. But she is also vulnerable because, unlike Betty's Library, there is no one to organize and curate the volumes she consumes. The little dragon is the darling of youth, here represented by Sarah and Roddi. Enthusiastic and kind, englamoured by the beauty of the beast, but all too well aware of its vulnerabilities.
Library's Writers Group
Ged Richards: a local farmer who knows a bit too much about books and writers and publishers. He has unexpectedly inspired the Library's Writers Group to fill pages with plots and characters.
Jess: Preparing a complicated story about Bernice.
Ray: A slight man who has been laid off from the town's co-operative shoe factory, he is writing a spy story featuring mass murderers.
Maxwell: Wants to write a best seller love story.
Annapurna: Writing about a woman detective but wants to write about the threat of the internet.
Jane: Working on a vampire novel and dabbling in conspiracies. Nick is trying to save her.
Nick: Relatively new in town, same age as Emma and dressed in cute casual clothing. He had just moved into an old place down near the lake. Suffering from amnesia he also has trouble holding a pencil and cannot write. Jane is helping him.
Emma: Had some problems last book and is currently living with her sister in a commune upstate.
Toni and Fred: Run competing DinersBlack Cat: a black cat.