I got lost in the library the other day...

In its warren of passageways with stairs up and stairs down, between long rows of shelf after shelf filled with books I wander aimlessly through the dim twilight. Vaguely remembering that I have come here for some specific book. I scan random spines. Some of the books are covered in canvas, a few are bound in old, cracked leather and quite a number are paper backed. I stop in a corner and pick up a particularly ancient-looking volume. Its originally gold-embossed title has long ago lost its shine to the frequent handling of students and scholars: an encyclopaedia. I leaf through its crackling pages, curiously skimming for some familiar or interesting idea buried in the gothic script. Sneezing, I breathe seemingly ancient dust, which in all likelihood is no older than a few decades. After a while, tired by the unfamiliar writing, I return the book to its original place on the shelf and resume my wanderings. I climb one flight of steps and descend another, follow one corridor, turn into another, until...

I was lost in the library the other day...

...grey metal becomes solid rock. Spiral staircases do not lead to yet another floor, but up into small, pointy turrets overlooking the sunlit lands surrounding my fairy-tale dream castle. From my vantage point, I see dark green forests, golden fields of wheat and rye and a bright yellow sea of blooming rapeseed stretching into misty horizons. I catch a whiff of salt on the air. I turn. The sea. Too far away to be heard, yet close enough for the wind to carry its scent to me. I close my eyes and see waves crashing into dark cliffs, again and again. I feel them shaking the solid rock beneath my feet. Slowly, grain by grain, the sea is reclaiming her territory. Ocean spray covers my face with a thousand pearls of beauty. I laugh—
The cold of the metal pressing through my trousers returns me to the library. I open my eyes and continue my meanderings...

I lost myself in the library the other day...

...toward the library's most secret chamber filled with books leading to hidden worlds and magic knowledge. Each book is a promise of adventure, a secret in waiting, calling to be unravelled and marvelled at. A faint breeze ruffles the air. It carries the books' whisperings to me. Their voices are teasing or boastful. Many are dry, as dry as their dusty pages and a few - are humble. They ask me to pick them up, open them, read them, to lose myself within them.

It has been a long time - it must have been years - since I last heard their voices begging, no, daring me to stay. I wished then that I could. I wanted to remain forever and absorb every single book of the library. Then I wanted to move on and read myself through another and yet another library—
It never happened.

The breeze is becoming stronger; their whispers more insistent. What is the use of all this knowledge if it goes unshared? What is the use of a library if its books remain unread? they hiss and crackle and creak their questions at me. More and more books join the wind of voices, even the small and shy ones hiding on the bottom shelves, or the thin and dry ones sitting way up high, the ones that are barely ever looked at, not because they are boring but because they are so hard to reach. The wind is becoming stronger, until it reaches the force of a storm. Books with pages flapping fly about me. I can no longer stand and at last I am lifted into the air and whirled through the library, above corridors and shelves, underneath flickering neon-lights, surrounded by dust and books and leaves... A mad flight, until I am hurled against the trunk of the giant oak growing at the centre of the library.

I must have lost consciousness, for when I open my eyes, I am lying beneath a shelf of books with the first rays of the sun gently tickling me awake.

I found myself in the library the other day...

Thanks go to Cletus the Foetus, Oolong, tandex, wertperch, Zarkonnen and many more for their invaluable help during the writing of The Library.

For my formative years, the halls of Cascade School were my stomping ground of choice. My mother taught at Cascade, and after 3:00 PM, I was at school for as long as she was. Most often I was accompanied by Matthew, my best friend, whose mother taught high school home economics, and Marianna, the daughter of the middle school social studies teacher. On any given day the three of us could be found telling ghost stories in a darkened closet in the home ec room, playing broomstick hockey in dead end hallways, or taking advantage of the deserted playground. We were occasionally joined by the children of other teachers who stayed after school, but more often than not it was just the three of us. From 7:55 AM to 2:55 PM, Cascade School was the property of the principals, teachers, and students. From 3:00 PM on, it belonged to us.

One dismal winter day, Matthew and I were killing time in my mother’s room. Marianna wasn’t there, so we couldn’t reenact scenes from The Mighty Ducks or play games on one of the social studies computers. We had already visited every possible site of interest inside the school, watching the basketball team practice, hitting the vending machines in the teacher’s lounge for Cokes and honey buns, and careening down the halls in a rolling chair until a janitor told us to stop. With our mothers hopelessly entangled in a faculty meeting for the foreseeable future, there was nothing left to do but head down to the school library.

When it was too wet or cold to go outside and there was nothing physical to do, Matthew and I liked going into the empty library to flip through the latest Sports Illustrated or to look at an artist’s rendering of a UH-1A gunship blasting a Viet Cong position into the Stone Age. Other times we would sneak behind the librarian’s desk to see what new books had been purchased but not yet shelved, or lift up and peer beneath the heavy wooden desktop that protected the rows of cards from countless checked-out books. To us, this was the library.

Although they weren’t there often, we were somewhat intimidated by the thought of encountering Ryan and Will, the sons of the librarian. Matthew and I were among that tiny percentile of kids that exists at every school; the ones all the teachers know by name, the ones that the principals often entrust with school-related errands, the ones judged worthy enough to roam the halls after school unsupervised. Will and Ryan were also known by every teacher, but they were much better acquainted with the principal. They were a common sight in the halls at school…during school hours, having been stuck there by some poor teacher in a moment of desperation. As Matthew and I neared the library entrance, we saw Will and Ryan idly sitting behind the main desk. Pushed on by sheer boredom, or perhaps sheer stupidity, Matthew and I entered the library.

What followed our entrance into the library was anything but pleasant. I don’t recall too many details, but within a few moments, diplomatic relations between those who were interested in peaceful coexistence in the library (us) and those who would defend the library’s territorial integrity at all costs (them) quickly deteriorated into armed conflict. Will let a pocketful of rubber bands do the talking for his side, for "clearly he was a man of action" (121). A pair of "lusty Rockette kicks" (121) from Ryan made contact with my shin. Matthew and I retreated under a hail of rubber bullets and insults, high-tailing it for parts unknown.

My mind was blazing a trail through the corridors of the school quicker than my feet were, trying to think of what disused storage closets or lockable bathroom stalls were in that part of the building. Already I had run in and out of half a dozen rooms and even tried to evade my pursuer by braving the elements and making a loop around the outside of the building. Matthew had managed to veer off into another hallway, taking Will with him. I could hear Ryan’s footsteps echoing through the halls behind me, never quite gaining, but never getting any further away either. I couldn’t run like this much longer. The long knives of a bad cramp were working their way under the right side of my ribcage, and my lungs still felt icy and acidic from my jaunt outdoors. Where could I hide? Suddenly, my brain and feet stopped at the same place. The library. Without a second thought, I dashed inside. Behind the main desk? No, too obvious. Under a table? No dice. My attention turned to the bookshelves that were in the middle of the room. The supports on either side might provide just enough cover to escape Ryan’s gaze. I flopped down behind the one farthest from the door just as the harsh footsteps turned into a soft gait on the library carpet.

I heard Ryan walk in front of the librarian’s desk, then pause for a moment, as if scanning the room for any trespassers. "Blood was beating in my ears, my hands were shaking, my heart turning over like a dirtbike in the wrong gear" (122). Doing my best to subdue my heavy breathing, I took stock of my surroundings. In all my years at Cascade, I had never seen the library from such a humble perspective. I noticed the dusty rows of older books on the lower shelves, books I couldn’t recall having been there before. How long had it been since any of them had been checked out? A year? Five years? Never? I saw a tiny tear in the corner of the Neil Armstrong poster on the fire escape door. How did that happen? Perhaps the poster had been ripped while being moved from some other wall. A little wad of paper lay in the corner, next to the Kindergarten book section. How had it gotten there? Thinking about this for a moment, I realized there were a million ways for a piece of paper to make its way to a library floor. I also noticed the musty, papery aroma of the place, a smell that faded away with prolonged exposure. Why was I smelling it so strongly now? The old, faded books, the torn poster, the smell, the silence...this was the library.

After a few minutes, I decided to take my chances and peek outside. The halls were as deserted as they should be at 4:30 in the afternoon. I left the library and headed toward the high school wing of the building in search of Matthew. I ran into him halfway to his mother’s room, his skin bearing the telltale red blotches that only a rubber band can incur. For the first time, I lifted up my jeans to look at the bruise on my shin that Ryan had so quickly inflicted. Matthew and I walked together in silence for a short time until the intercom broke the calm: "Kyle Prince and Matthew Haddock, please report to your mothers’ rooms." The faculty meeting was over and our absence had been noticed. Most kids dreaded hearing their name called over the intercom, but to Matthew and me it was the equivalent of a dinner bell, a fast way for our moms to reel us back to our respective rooms. We knew it was time to leave. Making with the usual goodbyes, we went our separate ways, eager to go home.

We didn’t go back to the library for a long, long time.

Work Cited

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. “Greasy Lake.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, ad Drama. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 3rd compact ed. New York: Longman, 2003. 119-126.

This is a paper that I wrote about a year ago about an actual incident in my life that was nearly parallel to T. Coraghessen Boyle's short story "Greasy Lake". The quotes from the original story were required by the instructor. Apologies to Mr. Boyle.

I run my fingers over the book bindings, the smell of books and old pages filling the air. There is nothing more comforting than the smell of the printed word and the quiet of the library. The rustle of the occasional turning page or click of a keyboard pervades the air, and everything in the world is right again.

My skirt sways as I meander down the labyrinthine aisles of books, finding hundreds of books I want to read. And this is where I realize that I come to the library to feel full, but even that leaves me empty.

These books are supposed to fill me, take me places. That's what I've always been told: a book is just a shortcut to far-away places. But I will never read everything I want, because I want to read everything. And that makes everything marginally paler, leaves me a little more pale.

All that's left is to wonder, "What now?"

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