The Day the Books Left’, Simon Kewin

Illustrations © 2015 Michael Csontos

 [ Books leave, © 2015, Michael Csontos ] Managra strode the empty library, her footsteps echoing on the wooden floor. A hard, hollow sound. It was different when the books were here: sounds were softer and the air hummed as if with a million insects. Now the galleries were deserted places. Lifeless.

But the books would be back soon. Back from their winter in distant lands. They were late, that was all. They were always late these days. People said the weather was changing, affecting the migration patterns. Maybe that was it. When she’d been young, an acolyte, the place hummed with activity from spring to autumn. Now the people didn’t come and the books didn’t come and it was impossible to know what was the cause and what was the effect.

She crossed to one of the tall windows, looking out for the hundredth time that day, hoping to see a flock of skipping, lurching dots approaching. For a moment she thought they were there, flocking from the south. Her heart fluttered. But, no; it was just some birds. Managra cranked the slats open a little wider. The iron mechanism creaked as the glass hinged outwards, glinting in the sun, breathing hot air into the library,

She thought about the previous fall, the day the books left. Always the grimmest time of the year. They’d been restless for days, occasionally leaping from the shelves and fluttering around the halls before returning to their slots. Then, at some unspoken signal Managra could never see or hear, they thronged into the air as one and clattered off, flapping their covers hard to gain height and keep up with the flock. Slim, flighty pamphlets were always the first to go, spiralling upwards to dart through the windows into the open air. Novels followed and then, some way behind, lumbering reference books. The last to leave were the vast atlases, their covers almost too large to fit through the biggest windows, flapping with such sedate slowness it was a marvel they even flew at all.

Within an hour they were all gone. Managra had watched them flying into the southern sky with a cold weight in her gut. Perhaps they wouldn’t return. Perhaps this was the year.

For a month or two she’d filled her time dusting and cleaning. Polishing the shelves and repainting the category markers. But some time around the turn of the year she’d begun to run out of distractions. Started to leave a window or two open in case some straggler, blown off course on a winter wind, needed shelter. None had come. She took to wandering the galleries, longing for that first rustle of pages, that first flash of white in the air. The returning of life. Every morning she cranked all the great windows open and every evening she cranked them shut again. The shelves remained empty.

Some said the books were shot from the sky as they flocked over lands further to the south. A sport. The thought of that made Managra seethe with anger. Blasted into tatters, the books would be useless. Mere paper snowing from the sky. Was that it? Or had some storm blown them out to sea, some deluge pulping them to mush? She always wanted to go with them when they left, look after them, protect them. But of course she could never keep up.

She’d asked the old librarian when she first arrived. “Why let them go? Why not close the windows and keep them here?”

The old man, grey-haired and bent over as if from all the books he’d borne, shook his head and looked wistful. “Can’t do that. You’ll understand one day, girl.”

And Managra did, now, understand. Now she was the librarian. The books had to be free. Words kept locked up and unread were not words. They were lines on paper. Ideas had to move and flow. Fertilise. They were living things and life was change.

Thinking these thoughts, she walked slowly back to her desk in the centre of the main hall. Here was the one book that remained in the library. The Index. Not really a book at all, of course. Or, put another way, it was all books. It recorded the titles of each other volume, along with notes on their location, condition and behaviour. Managra noted the date of last year’s arrival. She’d been alarmed then. Now it was ten days later still. She shut the Index with a dusty clump.

She sat down and sighed. The sunlight through the windows cast a patchwork of golden squares on the wooden floor. A million motes of dust swarmed in the beams. But there was no other movement. She had to accept it. The books weren’t coming. And a library without books wasn’t a library. It was a large empty building with lots of shelves. Just as a librarian without books wasn’t a librarian. She was an old woman with no point to her life.

After another hour of staring into the distance she rose and began a final circuit of the halls. In each gallery she wound the iron handles that levered the windows shut. Then she descended the stone stairs down to the library’s entrance.

Managra hauled the wooden doors wide. Intense, summer sun flooded in, blinding her. Another reason she liked to stay in the shadowy halls. But there was no point, now. Squinting against the solid light she stepped outside. Turned and placed the brass key back in the lock to seal up the library for ever. When this simple act was done she stood for a moment, looking out over the world, wondering what to do now.

The distant tinkle of broken glass interrupted her thoughts. She stood for a moment, confused, replaying the sound in her mind, trying to work out where it came from. One of the upper galleries.

Unlocking the door again, she shuffled back up three flights of stone stairs and into the South Wing. There in the centre of the floor lay a smattering of smashed glass from one of the windows.

She stepped forwards, breathing heavily. There wasn’t only glass. Sitting in its nest of shards was a book. A slim volume, but the life’s work of an ancient poet. One of her favourites. It lay motionless as if dead. Managra kneeled down and began to stroke it with her old fingers.

The book jerked, responding to her touch. It fluttered its pages. Stopped. Jerked again, then lifted off with a sudden buzz. Managra laughed to see it, swirling around her head. One book had returned. A million had flown off but one, one, had returned.

Tears filled her eyes as she followed the book’s skipping flight, seeking its place on the shelves. The exact spot it had flown from six months earlier. With a final ruffle of its leaves it perched there to rest. She would leave it be for now. But tomorrow, she would take it down and read it. The library was still a library and she was still a librarian. It would do.

 [ Books return, © 2015, Michael Csontos ] The vast smashing sound from behind took her by surprise. On a rush of papery air, a million books came crashing through the windows, filling the air with their sudden rustle and clatter.

Watching them all as they danced around, Managra sank to her knees and cried and laughed, both at once.

© 2015 Simon Kewin

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