She dropped her pen on her notebook and slumped into her chair. She heard the sound of pens scribbling over books and people smashing the keyboard on their laptops on the table in the aisle behind her.
She yawned and she stretched herself after a long session of research for her thesis. She worried that she’d break the silence of the library with the crackling of her spine. She also hated yawning under a mask which always, without exception screwed up its alignment. She set her mask right. So much for not touching the mask and face!
She got up from her desk to take a break and walk around the library. The librarian, a 90-year-old woman who barely ever spoke sat at her desk reading a book. “There’s always a book to read in this library”, she’d tell the girl each time she approached her with a kind smile. She was one of the few people who were lucky enough to hear her voice, after all the librarian had seen her grow from a four-foot-tall girl to the mature young woman she’s now become. She approached the librarian and calmly asked her, “ma’am, point me to a book for today!”
The librarian looked up from her book and smiled, froze in thought for a moment thinking which way she should send the curious explorer today. It was sort of a tradition, the girl always asked the librarian when she took a break from her research. She’d go in the direction the librarian pointed out, pick a book, write notes and hand them over to the nonagenarian. The girl had always done it, ever since the girl’s mother introduced her to the library 15 years back.
The librarian pointed the girl to the back of the library which the girl thought was always random. “Thanks!” she exclaimed and turned around. The librarian coughed to get her attention. The young girl turned around, a strand of hair flying like it had a mind of its own. The librarian held out a key with a smile. She whispered “You will love it” so slow that the girl wondered if the old lady could even hear herself. The librarian then got back to her book as if nothing happened, turned a page sloppily which somehow got stuck into her ring with engravings on a green stone before the girl could respond.
She always wondered how the librarian always pointed her in the direction where she would find a book which never disappointed her. Sometimes she felt the librarian could speak to books, but the librarian always denied that.
Solitude needs a break at times with a little bit of exploring in silence. ‘Why is it that research can never be enough’ she wondered? ‘And how come all research seems complete when a deadline blocks you from indulging into another rabbit hole of just one more book?’
With random thoughts running in her mind she made her way through the rows of books stacked from the floor to the roof, each book inviting her towards them, whispering through their aroma, fighting with each other to gain her attention, begging to be picked up, waiting to share their wisdom to yet another human.
A library may be a calm abode to all those who enjoy the company of books and are oblivious to the cacophony of the fish market like screams of books. A library was not a kind place for books, with new stars being brought in every week and the older books were pushed away into the rear shelves where barely an explorer strayed. Their stories, their wisdom lay unspoken for there were barely any who wished to pick them up and glance at the texts hidden behind their covers. Their stories and wisdom were at times ruthlessly whitewashed by the new books rendering them irrelevant, sometimes calling them out openly.
Some of the young books treated the old with respect for being ahead of their times which brought the oldies joy. But, it was also true that the times have caught up with them and they no longer meant anything to the world. Over time, they calmed down, their screams not yielding any results. Their wisdom lay moot like an overlooked treasure chest hidden in plain sight. People looked at them, yet they never saw them. Except to a few. Except to a few explorers, the likes of those who wrote these old books in search of new lands and new wisdom, these humans explored the world and history in the back of the library, just like the young lady who walked into the back of the library after unlocking the door.
She didn’t feel lost. There was a spark in her eyes which these injured books with partially torn pages, fractured spines and faded covers recognised. Her presence was enough to revitalise these ancient books. One by one they began to call for her attention. Devoid of attention, the racks began screaming in hopes that they could feel a human touch where they may lay open their covers within two palms and eyes that look at them kindly.
The girl ran her hand across the spines of books wondering what it was that called her to a few books, little did she know, it was the loudest of silent screams of the books that caught her attention. She stopped a few times, pulled a book out; the book screamed in joy, sprayed her in the scent of victory. She smiled as she took in the smell of these books, her eyes lit up each time she did! She’d sometimes dip her nose into the book and take a long deep breath. That seemed to satisfy her. The books cried out in disgust for the disrespect this new generation of fickle-minded humans showed them; treating them like a bouquet – Nice to smell until the human moves on to the next thing.
She walked around peering at a certain book that screamed the loudest, catching her attention. It was hardcover with a black cardboard covering and the pages barely clung to it. Oblivious to the influence of the screams of the book she walked towards it. There was something about the book the girl couldn’t understand that fascinated her. Little did she know the book had reeled her in, like a fisherman with his catch. She picked the book up with extreme care. She opened the book to peruse the contents and the book revelled in joy. Vindication, screamed the book in silence ensuring it didn’t disturb any other being at the library. She flicked through the pages and without her realising was immersed into the contents of this book who had had its own light of the day eighty years ago, but was quickly forgotten.
She sat down on the dusty floor pouring over one of the youngest of the old books which was a compilation of all the events that happened eighty years ago. The beginning of the second world war, the inexplicable deaths of a thousand men, stories of unknown lights emanating from the ground below, the royal theft of jewellery of the queen. Now that was intriguing, for apparently all her jewellery was stolen in broad daylight while the queen was addressing the crowds informing the latest updates of the war. No one knew of the theft until after the queen stepped off the podium.
She took out a tiny scribbling pad from her back pocket and a pen from her pocket. Why the hell do women’s trousers have such tiny useless pockets?. She began taking notes. She was in her element. She felt refreshed and relaxed with every word she wrote.
How was it possible that not even a single person saw that? How can something be stolen while you look at the thing? How can people not observe the necklace, ring, bracelets and earrings go poof?
She loved such mysteries, she always loved such stories. Sometimes she attributed these to fables, urban myths, sometimes these were true. That’s why they are called History. The robbery was a part of her school curriculum. Every child knew of the incident which was attributed as an unnatural calamity, the exact reason she didn’t remember. But she did remember feeling something was missing in the story.
But this book was different. It spoke in detail how it was done, how one person, perhaps a man, managed to go about to do the unimaginable. The book had pictures of all the suspects the police could think of. All of the men, some handsome, some so vile that she felt creeped out as their eyes followed hers as she read the book. The jewellery was never put on sale, no one caught the thief, no one had an idea about the whereabouts of the young thief. The only information people ever got was from the untraceable letters the police received every week shedding details of the robber as the thief mocked the incapable police. She read every letter that was printed and loved every moment she spent with the book. This was by far one of the most enriching experiences for her!
She turned a page and a stray library note fell onto her lap. She read the names of all the people who read the book. The book was last issued to someone named A Verma in 1964. She flipped the card. The book was donated by a certain Mrs Rao in 1950. There was a handwritten message, the ink so faded that she had to use the flash of her phone to read it.
This book apparently was banned to keep the public in the dark and save the face of the police and the monarch from humiliation from the unknown thief. All copies were burnt, a few remained, few hidden by people like Mrs Varma who donated the book in secret to the library. History really is something! History can never really be erased, it finds a way to the future. This was the first time she could take a look at the illustration of each and every item that was stolen. And somehow she felt a chill in her spine, a feeling of chilling uncomfortable familiarity swept around her.
Her phone vibrated, ordering her to get back to her thesis and out of the trance she fell into. She got up, smelled the book one last time to the book’s disgust, placed it carefully where it was meant to be and walked out of the section ignoring the silent screams of the books hoping to be picked up before they were subject to darkness for an unknown amount of time and the proud sigh of one yearbook which was opened for the first time by a human in decades.
She walked back to the librarian to hand over the key to the back of the library. The librarian looked at her closely and took back the key. The girl tore the page from her notebook and handed it over to the librarian who read it keenly. The librarian looked back at the girl and calmly said, “When you spend your entire life in a library, you understand which book would scream the loudest.”
The girl was taken aback. She didn’t understand what the librarian said, but it sure did have a nice ring to it. “Thank you!”, she said and turned around to go to her spot and continue her research, rather type in the report on her laptop. Ugh!
Her phone vibrated in her pocket indicating her time was up for the day at the library. She stretched, packed up her things neatly into her bag and made her way past the librarian while checking her whatsapp messages.
The librarian called her from her desk. She held a shoebox in her hands.
“I didn’t know libraries sold shoes, ma’am”, the girl chuckled.
“This is for you.” The woman said calmly, “I’ve been waiting to give you this when the time was right!”
Wow, something definitely was up with the librarian. The girl was swept with a wave of concern for the old lady. “Is everything alright?”, she asked out of concern.
“Yes, sweetheart!” the lady said, her eyes sparkling. She was clearly excited. She looked a few decades younger in the moment.
The girl opened the box.
In it was each and every note she had written and given to the librarian. The old lady had saved every note. She read through them, most of them were scribbles and doodles she had made as a child. This filled her with joy.
“Happy Birthday Child”, the lady said, “This young woman with an old lady smell hasn’t forgotten her favourite borrower’s birthday!”
The girl screeched out of bliss. She didn’t care. The librarian excused her as she hugged her by leaning from the other side of her desk. This was the best birthday present anyone could ever give her! She relived her childhood with every scribble, well thought out cringy notes, love letters to books and authors. She smiled as her eyes grew moist. She clutched her notes close to her chest and tried to breathe. She was so excited she forgot to breathe.
“You still haven’t seen the actual present”, the lady said motioning her to check the box thoroughly. She ruffled through the hundreds of tiny pieces of paper and then she felt something metallic under a few papers. She pushed the notes away and there it was, her actual present.
She looked at the librarian her eyes wide open. She had not expected to see what she saw. All the warmth in the room was sucked out. She stood frozen. The seconds needle ticked and tocked, and she didn’t care. She didn’t know if she could or couldn’t care. All noises faded out and to her only three things existed in the moment. The library seemed to be engulfed in darkness. A strong chilling beam of light illuminated the girl, the calm librarian who beamed with pride and joy and a cardboard shoe box with the most valuable thing in the country’s history. She slowly looked up and her eyes met those of the librarian’s.
Remembering to take a breath, she let in the damp, humid, air that smelt like books into her lungs. In front of her, in the cardboard box rested the the “shame” of the monarch; the unsold, hidden ring that was lost in history.
The librarian whispered naughtily, “None of them even considered a girl could pull it off!”
More Power to you!