The great mahogany doors of the library opened a crack, letting a gust of icy wind blow through stirring up little motes of dust, sending them dancing across the marble floor as a little girl dressed in rags and soaked to the skin slipped through. Her red hair stuck to her shoulders, darkened and lank from the rain outside. With a hard tug at the handles, she was able to get the door shut to keep out the unforgiving Scottish weather. December usually brought in the worst weather. The girl rubbed her hands together, trying to get the chill out of them with little success. At least being inside would keep the rain off her for a little while.
She could barely see in the dim lighting, but as her eyes adjusted, shapes of towering shelves made with warm-colored wood and laden with books stretching toward the ceiling started to reveal themselves one by one. Row after row of the shelves lined up on either side of the girl with offerings of high seas adventure, mystical faraway lands, instructions on how to sew anything, and on and on and on. So many books! It was a boundless collection of possibilities. Heavy silence laced through the musty air, muting any minute sounds of turning pages or controlled coughs by the library’s patrons. At long wooden tables interspersed between sets of stacks sat patrons of the library either poring over books under the small green table lamps or just trying to warm up and stay dry just as she was. The sounds of their shuffling brought a feeling of life and silent reverence to the sacred space without the oppressive undertones that she often found to be present in church. The girl closed her eyes and felt peace wash over her tiny frame. She stepped down the rows carefully, her socks squishing in her worn-out shoes, and let her feet guide her deeper and deeper into the marble and wood dressed halls eager to see what stories lived there.
Names like Kafka and Lawrence, authors she never heard of before, rose up on either side of her as she ran her fingers along the spines. Grand tomes bound in leather were mixed in with smaller paperbacks along the shelves. The back wall of the building was nothing but books and shelving reaching from marble floor to vaulted ceiling, only reachable by an enormous ladder attached by metal rollers to a bar running along the shelves. Electric lights, bases obscured from the sheer height and darkness of the vaulted ceiling, hung in rows around the room and sometimes on either side of a grand brass chandelier, all decked out in tapered candles but no longer used from evidence of the heavy cobwebs. Tarnish dulled the shine, marring the metal. Strip lighting and wall sconces powered by electricity also served as a means of deciphering the dark letting of the book spines and stack numbers. On either side of the ground floor entrance room was a balcony that serviced more rows of books. A sturdy spiral staircase wrought from dark metal rose up to the second level and blended into the railing. She stared open mouthed at the sight realizing that she could read here every day of her life and still not finish all of what the library had to offer. It wasn’t until she reached Twain, Mark that she felt the uncontrollable urge to sneeze. The sound popped the silence that padded the stacks. “Bless you,” a woman’s soft voice responded.
The girl peeked around the corner of the last stack in the row and saw a grand fireplace of scuffed dark hard wood gilded with faded gold inlay. The fire crackled bright and cheerful and smelled of wood embers. Her damp coat felt heavier and colder as she looked at the flames mingling with the logs and tinder. Near the fire sat two plush green wingback chairs and a small round wooden table between them, adorned with a white lace placemat and a porcelain flower patterned bowl with some sugar cubes. Seated in one of them was a woman holding a book at chest level. She wore her hair pulled back into a bun and a pair of dark horn-rimmed glasses. Her skirt was long in the Royal Stewart tartan and paired with a cream silk blouse with bell sleeves and a thistle clasp at the collar. Lowering the book, the woman looked at the girl and raised one eye brow, a smile starting to curl up at the corner of her mouth. The girl felt her skin start to prickle and heat under her collar while the woman stared. “It’s dusty,” the girl said with a shrug.
The woman nodded slowly, “That it is. Would you like to sit by the fire? It’s very cold outside, isn’t it?”
The girl looked back over her shoulder at the entrance doors knowing that the cold and wet lurked on the other side, not exactly enticing. Still lingering half way between the stacks she said to the woman, “I’ll get the chair wet.”
“It’ll dry, but you’ll catch cold,” the woman said.
A loud growl rumbled through her stomach. She hugged her satchel to her chest and looked away, heat flooding her cheeks.
If the woman heard it she did not draw attention, only rose from her seat and said, “I’ll get us some tea and biscuits. You make yourself at home and I’ll back, quick as you like.” She watched as the woman disappeared behind a small door that blended in with the bookshelves.
The little girl tugged off her coat and stuffed it behind her tattered satchel before tucking it as far underneath the smaller of the two wingback chairs as it would go. “Can’t help it,” she muttered. “Never anything at home anyway.” She scowled down at her scuffed shoes almost worn through the soles and started fidgeting with the buckle only hanging on by threads at this point. The nails in the heel were starting, show coming loose as they were, and the girl knew full well that she’d wear this pair to shreds before being given new ones. She curled her feet in a failed effort to make her shoes less noticeable. There was no one around to hear her, yet there was a hum in the air that she could feel more than hear, the same way that warmth had a smell to it when the fire was lit.
A comfort that surrounded her, making her forget a little about her tattered clothes and empty belly. Holding on to this feeling, she walked over to the book that the woman had left on the small round table in front of the fire. It was a black paperback with white ornate letters spelling out The Canterbury Tales: over 20 stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer. She could feel the fire at her side warming her frame, enveloping her as if it was a gentle hug. It slowly drove away the damp that had gotten into her tiny frame so deeply she thought she would never be warm again. The girl settled back in the chair and carefully took off her shoes, losing a buckle in the process, and peeled off her wet socks, again stuffing them beneath to join her coat and bag. She pocketed the loose buckle, hoping it wouldn’t find a hole to slip out on the walk home. Pulling her knees up to her chest, her mind started to wander with her gaze drifting through the library. She could see hints at what it used to be in things like the dusty chandeliers above her, the study tables with their ornamental carved legs, and the area rugs now threadbare and faded where people have walked for years. It must have been a wonder in its time.
A glassy rattling sound announced the woman before she spoke, “Wonderful!” The girl’s thoughts were interrupted when the woman placed a silver tray with a porcelain tea set on the table between the chairs. Biscuits overflowed on a small plate matching the tea set. “I am the librarian, Ms. Fiona, and this is Charles Dickens.” She handed a thick green book to the girl with embossed font spelling out David Copperfield.
“I’m Maggie.” The hardcover book had a rough outer binding that reminded her of threadbare linen cloth. She ran her fingers over the typeface embedded in the cover, “What’s inside?”
Ms. Fiona smiled, “A boy who has a very hard life, goes through many adventures and misadventures, but finally finds a happy ending. It was first published in 1850 and now we can share it together for a while.”
Maggie listened, her little eyes getting bigger at the thought of sharing the story, when she suddenly realized what Ms. Fiona was offering, “Wait, right now?”
“Of course!” Ms. Fiona said as she poured the tea. “No time like the present to begin learning your classics. How far are you in reading?”
“I read all the time,” Maggie replied. “Ads on the bus, books my sisters bring home, the papers Ma leaves…” Her stomach clenched as she looked around for a clock. “What’s the time, please?”
“Half past three and we close at eight,” Ms. Fiona said with a glance at the clock on her desk. “What time does your Ma need you to be home?”
“Um, six or so,” she didn’t meet Ms. Fiona’s eyes when she responded. Instead she traced little patterns with her finger in the arm of the chair.
Ms. Fiona didn’t comment but instead referred to their book. “This may be a little advanced to start, but it’s a wonderful story.” She handed Maggie a cup of tea and a small plate with three biscuits on it. Three! It seemed like a feast to her. Maggie made sure to keep the book away from the refreshments as she tucked into them, her stomach growling in appreciation. Earl grey and buttery crumbly flavors intermingled in her mouth as the librarian started reading to her.
“What happens if we don’t reach the end?”
“You’re very welcome to come back for as many chapters as you like.”
Maggie smirked, “With biscuits?”
“Maybe even chocolate biscuits,” she winked. “Now,” she and Maggie opened the book together, the well-loved spines easily bending to the task. Ms. Fiona began, “Chapter 1: I Am Born.”
It was late. The gas lamps glowed silently, lining the streets like midnight soldiers and casting a greenish light across the streets and shabby garden gates. Little rivers of dirty water glistened as they wound their way down the slanted cobblestones, vanishing into the street drains. She picked her way carefully down the road, trying to avoid the worst of the cobblestones that jutted upward out of alignment, but the thick fog made it slow going. Two, three, fourth gate on the right and she was home. No lights were on.
Maggie opened the latch quietly and slipped into the darkened living room. The coals in the fire had been out for some time leaving the room cold and damp. She hugged her copy of David Copperfield close to her chest and made her way upstairs. After the two chapters she was able to read with the librarian, Maggie was completely in love with the story and had asked to bring a copy home so she could continue reading on her own. There was no reason to check the kitchen for dinner. There was never any food anyway. She filled her pockets with as many biscuits as she could from her afternoon with Ms. Fiona before she left for home, while the tea and the fire kept her warm all the way back to Drumchapel. Her father had skived off, and for weeks now no other adults were around, so Maggie and her sisters were used to putting themselves and their baby brother to bed. Down the stairs behind her, the grandfather clock chimed nine times. It would be another two hours before her mother was back from her night school courses, which meant she had time to read before climbing into bed and not get smacked for it.
Just as there was nothing in the kitchen there was no money for candles or lights of any kind, but the moon was bright and full and the fog outside was beginning to clear. She grabbed a moth-eaten blanket and headed to the bedroom window to a spot on the floor bathed in moonlight. The spine of the book opened soundlessly as Maggie continued. “Chapter 5: I Am Sent Away From Home.”
Page after page turned under the moonlight while the girl sat nestled in the thin blanket, cold from the wooden floorboards under her legs seeping into her bones, making her young joints stiff. Would it be so bad to be sent away?, she wondered. Who would look after Ma? Where would I be sent? It might better, might be worse. The boy in the book didn’t seem much better off than she. Maggie still had her sisters and a baby brother, but it was difficult. With Ma away all day for work and then all night for school there wasn’t anyone around to take care of any of them and no money to buy new clothes or groceries, never mind a baby sitter.
Maggie pushed away the uncomfortable thoughts and turned back to the pages decorated in ornate letters and dark inky words. She followed David on his way through life. She saw his brother being born, David shipped off to boarding school, his mother dying. It sent a chill down her spine just thinking of facing something as terrible as losing her mother. She didn’t feel the same about her father, even though she was his favorite. There was just something about the man that she had hated even from a young age that she couldn’t quite place. If she was affected at all from his absence it was because of how sad it made her mother. She read and read until weary footsteps sounded on the staircase outside her door. Quickly, Maggie stuffed the book under the bed and got in on top, pulling the covers to her chin and curling up.
Tomorrow. She would go to the library again tomorrow. Sleep finally found her and the promise of a warm fire and full belly with Ms. Fiona brought pleasant dreams.
Maggie’s hands still stung from where the teacher slapped her with the belt for fighting on school grounds. It wasn’t much of a fight. She was the smallest kid in the class, which of course attracted bullies. One of the bigger boys, Johnny-Big-Bolloks she called him, had grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and started punching her. The brute lived across the street from her and enjoyed punching up the smaller kids in the neighborhood. Today was Maggie’s turn. She managed to wriggle out of his grasp and started beating the daylights out of him before the teacher came by and belted them both. Every day it was something like that. It was either getting the belt for being late or punched up by the local kids, if they could catch her. At home she’d get a slap for starting or continuing what was deemed an argument or something as simple as a hairbrush snagging in her wild curly hair was met with a crack across the skull. With the library doors firmly shut behind her, Maggie knew the most painful thing in the building would be a paper cut.
It had been two days since she had finished David Copperfield and as usual Ms. Fiona was waiting for her in their spot by the fire in the wing-backed chairs with a tray of biscuits and hot tea. She breathed in deep, taking in the smell of the books, the light sooty scent of the logs in the fire and the soft mustiness of the space.
“Good heavens, child! What happened to you?” Ms. Fiona sat straight up in her chair when she saw Maggie walk in with her hair in tangles and bruises on her face.
She was puzzled at first and then remembered what a state she must have looked with her hair wild and her nose smudged with dried blood. Maggie shrugged, “Got the belt for fightin’.” It was as if she was commenting on the weather. In the silence that followed, Maggie held her breath wondering if there was another belt hidden away in that slab of a desk.
The librarian walked behind Maggie and started fixing her hair; wrangling the errant strands and detangling the little corkscrew curls until it was free-flowing down her shoulders. “Wipe your nose with this,” Ms. Fiona said, handing her a napkin. “There, that’s better.” She motioned for Maggie to take her seat by the fire. The state of her dishevelment would not be discussed further. It was just the way of things. On the chair was the next book they would read together, Anne of Green Gables. “After such a heavy read like Copperfield, I thought you might like to read about someone more your age.”
Maggie blinked at the book cover several times before picking it up. “She looks like me!” Still staring at the cover, she did not see Ms. Fiona’s smile spread from ear to ear. The book was a deep forest green with a picture of a young girl, her bright red hair in braided pigtails and freckles across her face. “Where is she from? What happens to her? Can we read it now, please?” A girl that looked just like her that had her own book, in a library and everything!
Ms. Fiona chuckled, “I thought you’d be happy about that. Ready?”
“Chapter 1: Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised.”
Spring was drawing closer. Maggie could tell, not by the change in weather which was still bitter cold, but more by the way the light lingered long after she left school for the library. In her satchel were Moby Dick, The Canterbury Tales, and a beat up copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Reading with Ms. Fiona helped her advance in her skills by leaps and bounds and by this time she was devouring two to three books a week. More if she could make the time. Maggie felt the warmth from the familiar mahogany doors as she pushed them open and headed inside the library. “Ms. Fiona, I finished them.” She handed the books to Ms. Fiona.
Ms. Fiona pulled out the Tess copy and considered its beat up state. “This has seen better days,” she said as she flipped through the tattered pages. “I have some new copies coming in but it never feels right to ‘retire’ a book.” She put emphasis on the word.
Maggie asked, “Why did you say ‘retire’ that way? What happens to books when they’re old?”
“If they can be repaired then they are,” Ms. Fiona said. “The bindings break, sometimes pages fall out and go missing, other times there is ink or dirt or something smudging the pages. People can be very cruel to books. They toss them about as if the abuse doesn’t affect them and as soon as they’re too ragged to be of any use or start creating an eye sore, they’re tossed in the bin, quick as you like.”
Maggie said. “No one tries to fix them? Ever?” She felt an angry spark in her chest. “Why not? How hard can that be?”
A smile pulled at Ms. Fiona’s lips. “Actually, that’s part of my job. I protect the books here and mend them as best as can be so that they live on much longer and can be shared with others. It takes time and care, but it can be done.”
“Can anyone take care of the books?”
She shook her head, “No. The skills are taught and learned, but it takes someone special to really care about them and take the proper time to mend them. Books are very special. They speak for those long gone and give voice to the timid. They are the stories that we pass on to the next generation. We’re reminded who we are, where we came from, and sometimes they show us where we’re headed.”
Ms. Fiona motioned for Maggie to follow her into the office. They walked together down a row of dusty history books and came to a nondescript wooden door at the end. It swung open slowly and silently though neither of them touched the handle. Instead of office files and a desk, the room looked more like a workshop. The half of the left wall was covered with short spools of threads, strings, and ribbons in every color and size from fine and thin to wide and bold. The other half was lined with long spools of leather in browns, greens, deep reds, all in tones from lush to faded. Whatever a book needed to get dressed was on those spools and it would be the most fashionable book indeed. Underneath the spools was a long work surface bolted to the wall and running the length of the room. It rested on top of two cabinets, one with short thick drawers and labeled ‘Scissors’, ‘Shears’, ‘Razor Tips’, and so on in blocky letters, and another cabinet with thin drawers that ran from short to long with a few different sizes in between labeled with names Maggie didn’t recognize, but one of the drawers was open enough to let her see the blank cream-colored paper peeking out.
At the back wall were a multitude of tools; chisels, hammers, scissors, some long flat pieces of wood that Maggie did not recognize, and another expanse of work table with a few recent projects piled up. At the corner nearest the shelves containing the paper was a sinister looking blade bolted to the work table top and a ruler screwed into the flat edge of the table, facing the person working near it.
“What is that?” she asked.
Ms. Fiona said, “That is a guillotine. It cuts clean, even lines in paper and the marks on the ruler help get the sizing right.” She tapped the table edge.
Maggie swallowed hard, “Like in The Scarlet Pimpernel?”
“Not as gruesome, but one does need to be careful of where fingers are placed.”
On the right side of the room were more shelves that stopped at waist height. They both had ink blotches in a multitude of color but one of them was more stained than the other and had labels like ‘Sepia’, ‘Crimson’ and ‘Viridian.’ The less stained shelf had thinner, longer drawers with words like ‘Times New Roman’ and ‘San Serif’ attached to them.
In the center of the room was a large table peppered with ink stains and a printing press in the center. Near the front edge of the press were lined narrow strips of small metal stamps with letters of the alphabet wrought into them, several stamps for each letter, but carved backwards so that when pressed it would show the right way. Underneath in an open space forming a cubby style shelf were small, delicate looking jars that read ‘gold leaf’, ‘copper leaf’, and ‘silver leaf’. Ms. Fiona smiled, “This is where worn books come to recover. When the inks start to fade or the bindings tear, I bring them to the workshop for a tune up. The leathers are for the covers, the inks and printing press revive the words or recreate lost papers, and the threads and tools help me refresh the bindings.”
The little girl walked around the room, running her fingers across the equipment and the cabinets, careful of the guillotine. “It’s like a book hospital.” Her eyes were wide as she took in her surroundings. “A book could live forever here.”
“Not forever,” Ms. Fiona said. “Even I can’t bring a book back if it’s been to the fire, but new copies can be ordered. I suppose it’s a fault of mine. I never did like throwing things away without giving it a go of mending.”
Maggie was so engrossed by the tools in workshop that she said, offhandedly, “You’re a guardian to something that can’t ask for help. The fault is not wanting to be that at all.” There was a long silence. She turned around, worried that she might have offended Ms. Fiona, but the smile on the librarian’s face reassured her. Maggie huffed out a quick sigh of relief.
“Let me teach you.” Ms. Fiona cleared a space at the table under the tool rack at the back of the room. She showed Maggie where the worst of the damage was. “Along the bindings you’ll see most of the wear. That’s what it means when you hear someone say ‘break the spine’.” She took a tool that looked like a flat-head screwdriver and gently pried the cover loose. “We’ll have to reinforce the spine so the pages won’t fall out. Always make sure to check the threading at the back of the pages to see if the stitching is worn. Lucky for us the stitching is still sound.” She ran her index finger down the threading for emphasis. “Pass me the binding cloth, please.”
Maggie tilted her head. There was nothing that looked like cloth near their workstation, but Ms. Fiona smirked and nodded her head to the end of the table behind the girl. A small folded cloth was just at the edge of the table. “This?”
Ms. Fiona nodded.
“But…it,” Maggie handed it to her, “but it wasn’t…I mean…wasn’t it?”
Ms. Fiona didn’t respond. Instead, she continued the lesson. All through the instruction, it seemed that whatever tool or material she needed just happened to be at her hand or elbow or behind Maggie. It wasn’t there before and somehow, when no longer needed, the item was back where it belonged. Maggie felt that same sensation, as when she first came to the Library. The doors were too heavy for someone of her size to push them open so easily, but they parted as if they were a light as cotton fabric. She never felt alone when wandering through the stacks.
Ms. Fiona finished her lesson by demonstrating the book clamps at the edge of the tool table. “Had we needed to repair the full cover, this would keep it flat until the glue dried and push out any bubbles that would blemish the inside.” She smiled. “What do you think? It’s a bit more than just reshelving books, isn’t it?”
“I never knew,” Maggie said. “You keep them all safe.”
“As many as I can. It’s a very important job.”
Maggie looked over at a stack of worn tomes still waiting to be mended. “I want to try. I want to keep the books safe, too.”
“Are you sure? It can be tricky. You’re just starting out so you will make some mistakes, but we can guide your hands. It takes much patience, practice, and passion. You must love and respect the books.”
A wide grin filled Ms. Fiona’s face, “A librarian is never alone when in her element.” She crossed the room and picked up a copy of Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The cover was torn, the binding snapped into a V shape and several pages, including part of the table of contents, were missing from the start of the book. “Let’s begin.”
Maggie and Ms. Fiona spent most of the afternoon mending the sad stack of books that filled the mending box. Maggie had learned the Dewey Decimal system under Ms. Fiona’s tutelage the week before and volunteered to return the books to their proper shelves. When she left the book repair room, Maggie turned to go left down the hall, but instead there was a bookcase blocking her path. She shrugged thinking she just got turned around and made a right into the stacks. In no time at all her feet had taken her straight away to Fiction – Ta through Te. The shelf above her was the home of her copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, freshly mended and waiting to join her sister copies, but Maggie was very tiny for her age and the ledge was at least a foot out of her reach. Usually there were step stools throughout the building and indeed, she had passed at least two on her way over. As Maggie turned around to retrace her steps, she saw one of the wooden step stools at the end of the row.
She said softly in the empty space, “Hello?” No one answered. Maggie picked up the stool, looking around the right and left sides of the row. No one was in that section of the library. The stool added just the right height for her to slip the book back in its place. Instead of feeling afraid, Maggie felt very much at home – as if she was exactly where she needed to be at exactly the time she needed to be there. She whispered, “I’d like to go back to the fireplace now…please?” A long silence followed. She blushed a little, unsure of what to expect, and she started walking among the stacks.
When Maggie turned the next corner, she was standing two stacks away from the area that the fireplace took up, crackling away merrily and filling the space with warmth. The two wing-backed chairs facing the fireplace had small thin shawls draped over the arms and between them on the little table was the familiar porcelain tea set with tiny pink roses and round shortbread cookies. Maggie breathed in deep and let the breath out slowly, feeling the built up tension of the day ebb out of her chest. Breathing felt heavy and a little painful, but good and cleansing, as if she had been holding her breath for a very long time. She pulled the shawl off the smaller chair and settled herself into it, wrapping the fabric around her shoulders. It was big enough for her to use as a makeshift blanket. The tea was warm and comforting and the biscuits sweet and crumbly, as always. The library was always warm. It was warm and safe and full of stories waiting for her to discover. “Thank you,” she whispered to the library. “I don’t know if you can hear me, or see me, but thank you.” Fresh burning wood mingled with the scent of old paper and ink, wrapping around her as tangibly as the shawl over her shoulders, making her eyes feel heavy in the warmth. A whisper of air floated through the space, wordless and light, carrying feeling of weightlessness with it. The cobwebs high above in the chandeliers didn’t stir, but the tiny flecks of ash around the sides of the fireplace danced.
Even Cinderella had a curfew. The grandfather clock down by Ms. Fiona’s desk chimed seven times in a row. Maggie sat up with a start, “No, no, no!” She threw the shawl off her shoulders and snatched up her school satchel, panic filling her chest. None of the patrons were left in the building. Even Ms. Fiona was not at her desk as Maggie made a dash for the front door. “Ma is going to kill me!” She reached for the handles of the great door of the library. “Please be unlocked.” The door swung open easily under her grip as she stepped out into the darkened street. Maggie was halfway down the path to the main road when she realized that there was no way to lock the doors behind her to protect the books inside. Again, she raced up to the building. “Um….” She stammered, not sure what to do. “Can you,” she felt ridiculous and was glad the darkness covered her blushing cheeks, “can you lock yourself?” After a moment, she tried the door again and found it locked up tight. “Thank you! I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise.” She turned back down the path and ran home as fast as her little legs could carry her.
Even at a full-tilt run, Maggie knew there was no way to beat her mother to their front door. Cobblestones tripped her up, nearly sending her tiny knees colliding to the ground, but she was too quick and her feet found purchase in the dim green lamplight. She was almost home. Just one more block. Finally, Maggie was pelting down the street where she lived. As she drew closer to home she could barely make our a figure shuffling slowly towards the gate to her front garden, head down and bent back obscuring the person’s features. Maggie slowed to a walk and arrived at the gate only a moment before the other person. “Ma?” she asked softly.
The woman lifted her head and took a moment to focus on Maggie, “Aye?” Ma said. Her voice sounded leaden and a little confused. “Why are you out so late? You should be indoors at this time.” She sagged deeper into her stance and leaned on the gate with the palm of her hand. “It’s too late for you to be out here, Maggie.”
Maggie swallowed hard, “I was at the library. It got late.” She waited for her mother to respond but when no answer came Maggie put a hand on Ma’s arm. “Let’s go inside.”
Ma nodded, letting Maggie lead her inside the house. It was cold and dark. The others were already in bed. There was no food and no fire. Maggie got her mother settled in one of the chairs near the fireplace. “Tea?” Maggie asked. Ma nodded, staring off into the distance.
Before she was two steps away, Ma said, “You know he’s gone.”
“It’s just us now. For good this time.”
Maggie balled her hands into fists. She felt heat rising in her collar as she ground down her teeth, “Good.” Ma sighed heavily but she didn’t respond. Maggie looked over her shoulder. Ma was leaning on her right elbow and staring into the dead and darkened fireplace. She saw heavy lines on her face that hadn’t shown since before Da ran off without a word or a look back. All five of them, left behind like a stray dog in the street to fend for themselves. “You’re never here either.”
Ma rubbed at her face with her hand, bouncing her glasses, “Nursing pays better than the butcher. I need to learn. It’s the only time I can.”
“There’s a lot. And I need the extra work to keep you kids. This house is too much. We can’t stay past the winter and keep fed and warm at the same time. Your granny can take Noel, but you girls will stay with me in Drumchaple.”
Maggie felt the pit of her stomach drop. “That’s miles from here.”
“You’ll make new friends at school-”
She ran to Ma’s side, “But we can’t! The library is too far from there.”
“Maggie, please,” Ma held up a hand, “it’s already done. There’s nothing left. Nothing. You’re just a child, you don’t understand.”
Hansel and Gretel had nowhere to go and no one to help them so they relied on each other. The March Sisters, through all their trials, supported each other through the pains of growing up poor during the civil war. Ma was trying to keep them all together by getting an education, working, surviving against the whispers of ‘grass widow’ that the nasty shrewish women would say when they thought no one could hear. Maggie thought of the books, she thought of her mother. Her voice was clear as a diamond when she told her mother, “He isn’t worthy of you anyway.”
Still leaning away from Maggie, Ma squeezed the girl’s shoulder with her left hand and covered her eyes with her right and said with a tight voice, “Go on to bed. I’ll be up.”
Maggie headed up the stairs. The only sound she heard from the top of the landing was the soft rumble of her stomach and her mother crying softly.
Sunlight streaming through the window woke Maggie slowly. Her eyes still stung from crying last night after hearing that they would be leaving the neighborhood soon, leaving her library. Ma was gone again. Off to her weekend job. Her sisters were around somewhere, probably in the back gardens or still sleeping. Maggie decided to spend as much time as she could at the library, try to make every moment count and finish as many books with Ms. Fiona as possible. Moving day was practically around the corner. She felt a sharp pain in her chest every time she thought about it, so Maggie tucked a copy of Gulliver’s Travels in the crook of her arm and stepped outside into the morning to wipe away the dark thoughts.
She hadn’t even closed the garden gate when she heard someone making snide remarks about her. “Where are you going, four eyes?” Maggie turned her head slowly with her eyes narrowed, and saw that stupid kid that lived across the street sneering at her; the same kid that took any opportunity he had to punch up her baby brother. Noel was only three and this kid was at least nine, and outweighed her by about two stone. Johnny Big Bollocks, as she called him, was sneering at her with a lopsided grin, greasy hair and thick glasses of his own, one arm draped over the fence and stains on his shirt.
“Be careful,” Maggie said, “you might cut yourself with that sharp tongue.” She turned her back and started walking up the street.
Suddenly, he tore the book from her arms and held it high over his head. Maggie jumped and swipe at it, but each time he held it higher. “Give that back! Give it back or I’ll kick your arse!”
He shoved her to the ground and laughed. “Make me.” He opened the book and thumbed through to the middle. Maggie scrambled to her feet and lunged at him a second time. A kick to the stomach sent her sprawling to the ground. She shook her head to clear it. “This is rubbish,” he said. “There aren’t pictures.” He snorted back hard and spat onto the page.
“Stop!” Maggie screamed. Her knees were skinned on the stones as she clamored to her feet. She put the force of her whole body behind her as she pushed him. He barely moved. Pain exploded on the side of her face when the spine of the book connected with it. She was blinded for a matter of seconds, but in that time she heard the blood curdling sound of paper ripping. He was shredding her book.
Maggie opened her eyes, seeing a tint of red color over everything. She snatched the glasses right off his face and threw them across the road, far out of reach, knowing that he was blind without them. “Hey!” he yelled. He blinked stupidly in the sun and felt around for the fence.
First she snatched the book from his hands and tossed it as gently as she could over the fence into her yard. Then she rounded back on the boy, punching him first in the stomach and then sending a right hook into his jaw. He cried out in pain, “My glasses! Stop hitting me! I need my glasses!” Maggie ignored him. She tightened her fist again and jutted out her middle knuckle. As he came about to swing a punch at her head, Maggie ducked and slammed her readied fist into the bridge of his nose. It opened up like a red flower, blood gushing from his face. He howled and turned back toward his house, screaming like a wounded pig.
Wasting no time, Maggie picked up the ripped out pages, hopped over the fence once to claim the book and again to get back on the road to the library. She ran like the wind before any of the adults found out what she did. It turned her stomach knowing that sticky, disgusting mess was smudging the story inside. The pages shredded ragged from their proper place almost burned hot in her hand, as if it were on fire with physical pain. Stitches started knotting in her legs and her side, but she couldn’t get to the library fast enough. Maggie could hear the slap of her flimsy shoes on the pavement as she pounded down the sidewalks, dodging people left and right, until finally the building came into view around the bend and down the next road.
Maggie pushed the doors open, not waiting to catch her breath. The smell of old paper and book glue greeted her on the heels of hushed voices and cool air from the stone floor. A quick glance told her Ms. Fiona wasn’t at her desk, so Maggie kept running all the way to the book repair room. She had only been there a handful of times and wasn’t sure of the way. She whispered, “Help! My book is hurting. I need you to guide me.”
As if magic words were spoken, the way to the book room seemed to appear under her feet. Turns made themselves available. Ways that were dead ends before suddenly became short cuts. In mere seconds, the door to the repair room was in front of her, unlocked and ajar.
Maggie put the book down gently on the long work table at the back of the room. She opened the book, turning the pages slowly until she reached the crease where the bully had spit in it. The pages stuck together with half dried spittle and whatever else the oaf had been able to hock up. The ink hadn’t been damaged but it was no less disgusting. “I need to scrape this off,” she muttered. She turned her head to the right and saw a soft damp cloth and a short, thin, flat piece of wood. Maggie scraped as much as she could with the wood before using the cloth to blot away the rest. Even though the cloth was only damp the page still had to dry somewhat, and since that would take time, Maggie turned her attention to the printing press. Laid out on the side table as if they were waiting for her were a set of scissors, a flat razor, two rulers – one of which had lines and numbers – and a small stack of blank pages. Using the torn pages from the book, she was able to pick out the proper tint of paper from the stack. She measured the original page a few times before using the straight-edge and razor to cut away the extra paper. After sizing the pages, Maggie opened up a long slender drawer below the press marked ‘Serif – Times New Roman’. Inside were dozens and dozens of letter blocks and word plates representing the full alphabet and several different characters of punctuation, numbers, and symbols. She compared these to the ones on the pages and found that they didn’t look the same. The letters in the drawer had small bits that stuck out and tapered into the full mark but the ones on the page had no bits that stuck out. The i’s and l’s were straight sticks like little inky soldiers and the capital ‘t’s had blocky looking tops instead of the more elegant taper of the letters in the drawer. She pushed the ‘Times New Roman’ drawer shut and went to the next one down labeled ‘San Serif – Arial’. This was closer, but still looked wrong. It didn’t have the same bits tapering off the letters, but it was thicker than the original text and not quite a match. A page of only those would be ok, but when matched next to the original there was a noticeable difference. She closed that drawer and went another one down labeled “San Serif – Helvetica’ and found that they were a perfect match.
The torn page was her guide. Maggie started adding the word plates, letter blocks, and spaces into the tray of the press, checking several times on some of the harder-to-spell words to make sure she didn’t make a mistake. It was slow going but she was able to finish the full page after a while. “Ink,” she said softly in the half light, “where is the ink?” Maggie turned about a couple of times until she spied a smooth, black roller with a wooden handle next to a tin smeared with black ink and peppered with fingerprints. It was resting silently on another set of drawers. When she opened the tin she found very little ink, merely a scraping, and it was thick as tar. The drawers bore small brass plates etched with the name of a different color of ink, cadmium red, Prussian blue, bismuth yellow, lamp black or simply ‘tools’. First things first, Maggie opened the tool drawer as far as it would stretch without spilling on the floor and found an arsenal of tools, some with a few colorful fingerprints still staining the wood. There were so many to choose from and Ms. Fiona never got this far in her lessons for Maggie to know what each of them did. “I need ink, but this is too thick,” Maggie thought aloud. She picked up the handle of the roller and flicked the roll with her free hand. It was sticky and made her hand grey. “Ink goes on the roller,” she said spinning it again. “How does it get there?” She looked back in the drawer and saw a deep tray that sloped up to a shallow end and polished to a mirror shine, save for one or two inky fingerprints near the bottom. She pulled this out and set it near the ink press along with the roller. From the other drawers she gathered up a fresh tin of lamp black ink and a short metal spatula. It took a few tries to get the ink to cooperate. Every time Maggie tried to scoop a blob of it into the tray, it would either drip in long black tendrils over the desk or refuse to separate from the bulk still resting in the container. The sticky black goop smeared on her hands as she tried to guide it to the tray and despite her best efforts, it still got on her sleeves and hands.
After scraping off as much ink as she could, Maggie reached for the roller and loaded up the spindle in fairly even strokes. Thankfully, when she turned from the desk back to the press the ink didn’t drip off the roller. She glided the roller over the font blocks several times, returning to the ink tray to load up, and rolling again over the print. Looking down at her blackened fingers, Maggie wondered how she would grab the page without smudging it. Her pinky and ring finger on both hands were still relatively clean. She bent them awkwardly and tried to wrangle the page onto the press. It fell to the floor a few times before she could manage it. When it was hovering above the prepared press bed, Maggie dropped it clumsily, leaving it askew on the text blocks. She ended up digging her nails under the blank page and smudging it with ink and dirt from the floor before crumpling it up and tossing it in the small waste bin near the press.
“I have to start over,” she said aloud, “but I need to clean my hands or I’ll ruin the new pages.”
A shimmer of white caught her eye. She turn toward it and discovered a clean stack of rough linen cloths. “Thank you!” Maggie grabbed one and rubbed hard at her fingers, getting off most of the grime and drying the rest to her skin. Again she went to the guillotine, but this time she cut almost ten sheets to the right size, just in case she made another mistake.
Maggie rolled the ink once more over the letters, but now that her hands weren’t so messy she could place the blank page properly on the press. She put all of her weight into rolling down the large iron wheel to lower the press, lifting herself off the ground a few times, and finally got it flat all the way. A few moments went by and she repeated the motion on the opposite side of the wheel to raise the press top. She slowly peeled back the page from the printing block and gasped. “No, no, no! It’s all backwards!” Maggie crumpled and tossed the failed page into the bin and started again.
Maggie carefully reordered the letters so that the entire press block was reversed. She checked the order a few times to make sure the spelling was correct before loading up the ink roller and applying it to the letters. Another blank page was carefully put on top of the press bed. Back at the iron wheel, Maggie again used her full weight to move it, feeling the strain of her muscles against the resistance of the tight gears. She lifted up the press bed once more and peeled back the page to see if it would pass.
The text was askew but less so than before. “It’s still not straight.” She repeated the process three more times before she was satisfied with her work, accumulating a small mound of the linen rags all blotchy with ink stains. She grabbed a ruler from the work table and compared the lines of the original to the copy. No ink was smudged. The page was crisp and the lettering strong. It was not backwards and it was aligned the right way. Maggie’s smiled faltered. On closer inspection, several of the words were misspelled with inverted letters. The backwards text layout proved to be trickier than she thought.
“No, not again,” Maggie felt her face flush. Her arms ached with the effort of rotating the press wheel and her frock was stained from hem to cuff from the unruly ink. Just then, she heard the door to the workshop open.
“Maggie? Are you alright?” Ms. Fiona looked down at her and then around the room. “You’ve been busy, child. How did it turn out?”
The page in Maggie’s hand started to shake. She watched the letters blur as tears clouded her eyes as she tried to explain. “That stupid git from next door took my book and tore it. He spat in it! So I knocked him on his arse!” Ignoring Ms. Fiona’s raised eye brows, Maggie barreled on, “Then I ran here as fast as I could and I found your workshop. But I couldn’t find the tools right away and I looked too, I really did! I did everything you showed me when I did find the right things, but the ink was so stringy and the pages weren’t cut right. I misspelled the words, I even had them backwards!” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, “And now everything has ink on it and my frock is ruined and I didn’t even fix the page right. I dint even know if I have them all because that bloody bastard ripped them out!” The desk next to her shook with the force of her fist. “It’s all ruined!” The page crumpled in her grasp, punctuating her sobs with the hard crunching sound of parchment.
She felt Ms. Fiona’s hand on hers, freeing the page and warming her. When she looked up, Maggie saw Ms. Fiona smiling. A little hiccup punctuated her tears, “You’re not cross?”
“No, child,” Ms. Fiona said. “Not in the least. You did exactly as I taught you and for your first time you did well, considering the upset you were under.” She ran her fingers across the page to smooth out the biggest creases and pointed to the text. “You matched the font exactly, the sentences are straight as an arrow, and it’s perfectly centered on the paper. Even the ink is smooth without a bubble in sight. Yes, there are two words misspelled, but you figured out to mirror the text blocks to make the print show the right way round. This is a wonderful first try without instruction! You should be proud of your work, not in tears. I’m very proud of you.”
“It’s still not fixed,” Maggie said. “All that work and it’s still not fixed. I have to fix it.” The empty house, the cold rooms, the dead hearth fire, the sound of tears from the downstairs rooms all crashed forward in her mind. She felt a soft hand on her shoulder.
“Come with me,” Ms. Fiona said. I have something to show you.
They walked one after the other through the towering stacks of books rising up on either side, making turns that Maggie did not remember on her mad dash to the book room, and eventually ended up back at Ms. Fiona’s desk. She watched the librarian fuss with one of the drawers under the desk blotter. A small wooden box was drawn from it. “I’ve seen many people come and go through these halls for many years. For some it’s a place of knowledge and respite from the cold and to others it’s a second home.” She stepped toward Maggie, cradling the box in one hand and placing the other on the rosewood lid. “It’s very rare that you see someone, for lack of a better word, fall in love with the place.”
Maggie’s expression hardened. “We have to leave soon.”
“You’ll be back.”
She shook her head, “No, we’re leaving. Clear across town. I can’t come back.”
“Yes, you can.”
Ms. Fiona drew her attention to the box. “You may leaving this building, but you’re taking the library, its essence, its heart, with you inside your spirit. The only way you will ever really leave the library is if you choose to. I’ve seen how you lose yourself in the stories we read and I saw how you tried to repair the physical book. People who just visit the building don’t do these things.”
“I don’t know how to be any other way,” Maggie said. “But I don’t know what to do now. I don’t want to leave. How is carrying it in my heart enough?”
Ms. Fiona smirked, “Well, you have a choice.” She lifted the lid. Inside was a dark red velvet cushion putting into stark relief a bright silver key and a glittering golden pen. “These are the tools of everyone who carries a library with them. Not many carry both, but they always have one or the other either physically with them at all times or in spirit as they make their way through the world. You’ll find yourself in places far beyond the borders of these little neighborhoods and villages. You may even be lucky enough to cross oceans and see more of the world than many will have the chance. Your journey is just beginning, child.”
She held the box low enough for Maggie to run her fingers across the tools, as Ms. Fiona called them. Their metals were cool to the touch, but felt like energy was flowing through them, faintly but still there. “What do they do?” she asked.
“The key is for a guardian. Someone who takes care of the stories, the building and the people who come here. It is for the caretaker of the halls and body of the library. It is for the mender who heals and repairs the books and materials. It is for the person who keeps the heath warm for all who need some kindness.”
“And the other?”
“You’ve heard how the pen is mightier than the sword?”
Maggie nodded and smiled.
“It’s true. With a few strokes leaders are born, tyrants overthrown, and ideas spread thought the world, ancient and modern. Without stories, truth or fiction, civilization as we know it would not exist. This simple tool amplifies voices. It reaches through time. It creates and destroys. A young girl in a darkened attic hiding from her fate is still heard today because she used her pen. Our Yankee friends across the sea created a country with a quill and yellowed paper. And then there was that bit of upset nailed to the church doors so long ago. The pen is for the writer, someone who will fill libraries, big or small, with their own stories.”
Maggie stared down at the tools. She picked up her head when Ms. Fiona said, “It seems like a big responsibility, I know. But you aren’t expected to do all these things at once. For now, just live. Live and remember.”
“Which should I choose? I don’t think I can do both.”
“What does your heart tell you?”
The pen glittered in the low light, and so did the key. Maggie became acutely aware of the sound, or lack of sound by the hearth. The muffled shuffling of papers and cleaning of throats was absent, and had been for some time. She didn’t even remember passing a single soul in the building when she entered. Maggie closed her eyes and listened. The fire crackled merrily, giving off a smell of wood and earth and heat. The stone floor covered with carpet could still be felt as its cold struggled to seep in. She reached into the box.
In the palm of her hand the sight of the silver key met Maggie’s gaze. It felt heavier than it looked, cool and smooth. She looked back into the box at the golden pen, alone without its partner.
“What’s wrong?” Ms. Fiona asked.
“I don’t know,” Maggie said. “I just hope I made the right choice.” She fell quiet, trying to make sense of the new emotions revealing themselves slowly to her. “What about the pen?”
Ms. Fiona smiled and said confidently, “Don’t worry about that.” She closed the lid and winked at Maggie. “Your daughter will be back for the pen.”
The clock on the grand desk chimed on the hour, interrupting Maggie’s thoughts. She didn’t quite know how to respond to the librarian, but that was never an issue before. She turned to leave off for home, hoping that Ms. Fiona could finish fixing the book she so desperately wanted to mend on her own. “Will it be OK?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Yes,” Ms. Fiona replied, “Everything will be OK. Not perfect, but OK.”
Maggie headed out into the sunny afternoon holding the key close to her and dreamed about her daughter filling the shelves behind her with new stories for her to read, and protect.