(Author’s note: This is part 6 of an ongoing series. For episodes 1 to 5, click here: http://thegoblinguy.com/category/serial-fiction/)
Across the square from the church, through the tangled tendrils of choking fog, and past a slime encrusted fountain that burbled to life on only the rarest of occasions, there stood a library. A pair a heavy timbered doors stood at the top a dozen marble steps flanked by two enormous stone statues, not of the traditional lions but of coiled sinuous dragons each with one eye opened. The building was lined with two story windows, which should have let in plenty of natural light, were the city not continually shrouded in its constant fog. High overhead amongst the slate tiles of the roof, bookish gargoyles of cherubs, owls, imps, and serpents stood silent guard over the ages of collected knowledge that rested within.
The tiles of the lobby floor were cracked and worn beneath the long forgotten tread of hurried feet. For now the library was empty, still, and silent. Wooden benches lined the walls and a sculpture of a giant brass tree stretched up past the balcony and to the very top of the ceiling. Beyond the tree there were acres of books stacked in row after row of neat and orderly shelves. The rows were broken at regular intervals by heavy library tables and hard wooden chairs. A curved desk labeled “Information” stood guard between the lobby and the stacks, and atop this desk sat a most curious thing indeed.
It was a brain. Or at least it resembled a brain, though it was about twice as large as a human head and seemed to be made entirely from yellowed paper mache. All of the intricate swirls, twists, and folds were rendered quite realistically and covered entirely with overlapping bits of words and numbers. The brain was contained inside a large glass jar, which itself was dusty and smudged with age, and the jar sat atop an ornate wooden box fitted with knobs, buttons, and a speaker. A small brass plaque beside the center most button instructed, “Press for Service.”
Dr. Fade made his way across the lobby towards the information desk. The sharp clack of his footsteps echoed across the ancient tiles and shattered the serenity of the book filled tomb. There were no other visitors this morning, nor had there been any regular patrons for many, many years.
The doctor frowned at the speaker with evident irritation and leaned over to push the button with a single finger. The speaker buzzed and crackled to life.
“Good afternoon.” An emotionless female voice intoned. “I am Cici and I shall be happy to assist you today. Please state your query.” The voice did not sound happy, in fact it sounded distant and bored, as if it knew the words to say but equated no true meaning to them.
“Where is the librarian?” Dr. Fade asked.
“Books about librarians,” the speaker replied. “American Library Association Handbook. JFK 72-168. Basement archives. Assistance to access required. Men of Library Science. L-11 2609. Second floor. Syllabus of Information on Facilities for Training in Librarianship—”
“No,” the doctor interrupted sharply. “Where is the man we call the Librarian?”
“The Greatest Living Man by William Jackson Armstrong. Subject: Thomas Alva Edison. APV-760. 2nd floor. Biographies. The Men Who Made the World by William Margrie. CPV-302…” The speaker rattled on, but Dr. Fade was no longer listening. He stepped around the desk with a scowl and set off into the stacks of books alone.
“Blasted contraption,” he muttered to nobody in particular. It was not a sign of insanity, as it has been noted that all brilliant people talk to themselves from time to time. It was but a simple expression of his rising frustration.
The brain that powered the speaker however, seized the moment to offer up another suggestion. “The Doctor and the Contraption, contained within Afternoons in Utopia by Stephen Leacock. 32025006. First floor.”
After three hours of searching, which consisted solely of walking down each and every aisle in the library, the doctor finally discovered the object of his investigation sitting amongst a pile of books on the second floor. The Librarian was an antiquated old man with frizzy white hair, half-lensed spectacles perched on a long pointed nose, rhumy tired eyes, and a tweed jacket with patches at the elbows. He did not look up as Dr. Fade approached, for he was intensely preoccupied with slowly tearing selected pages from his collection of books.
The doctor watched the old man in silence for a few moments, as the librarian scanned a page, passed it by, then scanned another and tore the second one out then set it aside.
“Why don’t you take each one?” the doctor asked. “Wouldn’t that be faster.”
“It would,” the old man wheezed in a knowing whisper. “I did, at first. But it did not work. You want the mind of the author. The imagination. Not the finished book. Not every page holds the soul. We have to be picky.”
“We don’t have time to be picky,” the doctor insisted impatiently.
“We don’t have time to be sloppy,” the Librarian countered. “But what we do have is time to be exact. Years and years and years of time. Why are you here, Ignatius? Why are you bothering me today?” He tore out another page, carefully set it with the others, and then slowly rose to face his visitor.
“I wish to speak to the authors,” the doctor answered.
“Why? You know they are all insane. Poe, Wordsworth, Socrates… You won’t get any good answers out of them. The mind is not meant to work without a body. An author’s mind even more so. They are trapped in a hell of their own imagination. Please, just leave them be.” There was a hint of sympathy in the librarian’s voice, but also a sense of resignation and failure.
“If they are so worthless,” the doctor asked coldly. “Then why don’t you burn them? I will talk to them, old man, until such time as they are no longer capable of speech.”
The Librarian scowled at his visitor and then reached into his pocket to retrieve a tarnished old skeleton key. He handed it to Dr. Fade with a shrug. “I cannot burn them. I would just as soon kill my own child. Leave the key at the desk when you go.” Trusting that the doctor would find his own way, the Librarian sat back down amongst the books and resumed his methodical destruction.
“She is broken, you know. The card catalogue.” Dr. Fade could not resist taking another jab at the old man and his creations.
“Or maybe you just don’t know how to ask the right questions,” the Librarian looked up and smiled a smug and knowing grin. “Always been your problem, hasn’t it, Iggy?”
It was the doctor’s turn to scowl now, which he did. Nothing more was said as he turned on his heel and walked briskly away.
Once the doctor’s footsteps had faded down the stairs, the lock had been opened with a protesting creak, and the basement door had been slammed closed behind him, the Librarian raised his head once more and whispered into the shadowed stacks behind him.
“It is safe now. You can come out, Willm.”
“Madam, he’s gone to serve the duke of Florence,” the shy voice of a boy whispered back. “We met him thitherward; for thence we came.”
“No, just to the basement,” the Librarian chuckled. “But he will be there for some time.”
“Or four and twenty times the pilot’s glass. Hath told the thievish minutes how they pass.” The teenaged boy stepped out of the shadows and crept his way cautiously towards the balcony railing. He peered over the top and scanned the library below to make sure that the unpleasant man was indeed gone for now.
“Probably not that long, no. But long enough for you to go and fetch your mother,” the old man answered. “She has been there all night and half the morning. Go and tell her it is time for supper.”
“The Pyrenean and the river Po, It draws toward supper in conclusion so!” The boy nodded and set off down the stairs at his father’s request.
“And mind the damp!” the librarian called out after the departing boy. “If it is raining, be sure to take an umbrella!” The boy, as is often the case regarding such requests, did not bother to answer.
It was not raining when Willm reached the square, which was a good thing as the boy was made, from head to toe, out of paper. Like the brain in the jar, his body was comprised of pages upon pages, pasted in an overlapping manner one atop the other. Words, both printed and handwritten, scrawled across the surface of his skin; but unlike the willful brain at the information desk, Willm’s texts were pure poetry. His hair was the strings and ribbons of bookmarks and bindings, his eyes were as black as liquid pools of ink, and his clothes were blue and green binding cloth with the occasional gold foil embellishment. He was so expertly shaped, with joints in his fingers and carefree lines of laughter around his mouth, that one could easily mistake him for a real boy, in the right sort of light. Albeit a heavily tattooed boy at that.
But he was not a real boy, he was a creation of the Librarian, just like the brain in the jar. He was torn, page by page, from books and held together with wax and paste. He was the Librarian’s one true success, and so far, Dr. Fade did not know that he even existed.
Willm strolled slowly across the fog shrouded square and paused at the fountain to look inside for signs of frogs. There were none that he could find and he dared not dip his hands into the scummy slime crusted water, so after a while he grew bored and turned his attention to the sounds of laughter that emerged from the graveyard beside the church. Always a curious boy, Willm crept his way silently over to investigate.
Beyond the iron railing, in a circle amidst the headstones, there were five other youths. Four boys and a redheaded girl. It was not the girl that Willm fancied, that was the one he watched from the library windows and hid from whenever she wandered inside to peruse the books. This girl was one of the crazy ones that lived in the church and worked with his mother.
“Alright,” the redhead girl said to the assembled circle. “It is pretty easy, Tommy. Just hold the bird tight and think of everything you are afraid of. The dark, the fog, the doctor, the skitters, you know… Everything.”
The other boys around her all nodded in agreement. All but one. There was a new boy Willm had never seen before. He was holding a blackbird in his hands as he stepped slowly into the center of the circle. Willm would be hard pressed to tell which one of them seemed more frightened, the bird or the boy named Tommy.
One of the other boys, the one they called Garret, lit a lumpy sulfur candle and began to walk slowly in a circle around Tommy. It wasn’t one of his mother’s better candles, Willm noted, as it put off a lot of smoke, and that smoke clung tight to the boy and his bird. Three times around Garret walked with the candle, then he stepped back into his place in the ring with the others.
“Ok,” the eldest boy, Ace, declared. “Now let the bird go and it will take all your fears and troubles with it.”
Tommy tossed the bird into the air, while at the same time Garrett blew out the candle. The blackbird took off and flew as fast as it could, away from its crazy captors and their foul smelling candles. The youths turned and went back inside the church, joking and laughing and slapping Tommy on the back. But Willm stayed where we was and watched the bird’s progress. He knew what would happen next. He knew that you could not fill an animal up with the fear of a person, even that of a child, and expect it to get very far.
Sure enough, the blackbird was only halfway across the square before it fell to the cobblestones and died. Willm hurried over to where it had landed, crouched down beside it and scooped the poor deceased creature up in his hands. An inky tear fell from his eye and left a smudge of sadness down his paper pale cheek.
“The ousel cock so black of hue, With orange-tawny bill, The throstle with his note so true, The wren with little quill…” Willm whispered a soft lullaby of parting to the bird and bowed his head in silence for a moment or two afterwards.
Then looking around to make sure nobody was watching, Willm rose up and crept away from the graveyard with the dead bird in his hands. Instead of heading into the church as he had been instructed, he slipped down a small lane lined on both sides with rows of old victorian houses. They were all faded and crumbling, leaning together shoulder to shoulder with not even a space to walk between.
He slunk down the street to the last house on the left, one with an apple tree out front and a green painted door. He paused by the front steps and fished around in the stunted shrubbery to pull out a hammer and a nail he had secreted there before, then quickly climbed up onto the porch and cast a quick glance around once more.
Laying the bird against the door and lining up the nail between his fore finger and thumb, he murmured softly to himself with giddy anticipation at his impending deed. “Under the greenwood tree, Who loves to lie with me, And turn his merry note, Unto the sweet bird’s throat, Come hither, come hither, come hither.”
With three sharp raps, he nailed the dead bird to the door. At least that was the plan, and how it had always happened in the past. This time however, the door swung open on the second tap, and there stood the girl of Willm’s dreams. The girl with the wild red hair, the copper green skin, and the long tail with a tuft at one end. She was wearing a bathrobe and her wet head was wrapped with a towel.
“What in the hell are you doing?” she asked in confusion and alarm, but Willm had no time to answer.
Caught completely by surprise at the opening door, and already in mid swing for the third and final blow, he let the hammer fall hard into where the target should have been. The girl’s forehead was there instead. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumbled to the floor like a raggedy wooden puppet whose wires had just been clipped.
Agast with horror at what had just transpired, Willm tossed his hammer back into the bushes and started to turn away. “You are a villain,” he cried out at himself. “I jest not!”
He stopped at the first step and looked back at the prone girl on the porch, shaking his head and chewing nervously on his bottom lip. The guilty accusations of his conscience continued unabated. “I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice!”
With a heavy sigh Will turned back and knelt down by the girl he had just struck in the head. “You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you. Let me hear from you.” he scolded himself again and snarled at his own ill fortuned mistake. Then he hoisted her up by the armpits and dragged Ragnaline back inside her house.
His original task would have to wait. His father could go hungry and his mother could find her own way home. He now had more important matters to attend to. He had to figure out how to bring his true love back to life.
Deep in the darkness of the library basement, Dr. Ignatius Fade sat surrounded by the voices of madmen. He had locked the door securely behind him and one by one had flipped the switches at every speaker beneath every paper brain in its jar. He crossed his legs, closed his eyes, slowed down his breathing, and let the screaming voices wash over him like soothing waves of madness.
“…But she seemed to be everywhere. For when I yielded to the temptation…”
“…The entertainment was to be a great affair, that all the lodgers had been invited, among them some who had not known the dead man…”
“…While the boy was still asleep, they built the funeral pile…”
“…And for a sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five lambs of the first year…”
“…With this they turned out of their way and lay down among the corpses…”
Eventually, the voices started to make sense. If he listened to them long enough, they would tell him what he had to do next, and he would do it. Whatever they asked, he would do it. He had been contained here for far too many years and the means of escape was finally within his grasp. Whatever they asked, he would do it. Even if it meant he had to murder her again.
“…Even here, worth wins her due, and there are tears to flow, and human hearts to feel for human woe…”
Copyright 2015 by Robert A. Turk – All Rights Reserved