Another one of those stories based upon a “what if?”. Anyone who has met me or read anything I’ve written knows of my strong and enduring passion for books and literature and the English language. Set in a library where the words come alive after closing, taking on physical manifestation, this is really a story about how books are in my head more than anything. A much lighter and more whimsical contribution than my previous, quite dark sci-fi contribution “The Freedom Jaunters”!
Listen. Do you hear that?
The doors are closed; the lights are out; the librarian has gone home. Silence fell hours ago. The room is quiet, for there is no one here to make a noise. Except…
Fffft. Shufff. PpphppphPPPH.
There, again! You can hear it, too. There’s something else in here, something that moves with the dry-rustle susurrus of shifting paper…
Tap. Tap. CLANK.
What’s that? A new sound: tiny footsteps, the rattling of metal plates as the rustling swells, a creaking crescendo of covers and pages and endpapers fluttering as the creatures born of print and pen and pulp emerge.
The library comes alive at night. When I first arrived, snuggled in the makeshift home I’d burrowed in a battered cover, I knew nothing of the after-hours oddity, the typographical transmogrification of concept to reality that took place. On the silent shelves I’d come from, the ink-dreamt ideas, inspired and insipid alike, remained stubbornly inanimate, transfixed by type and paralyzed in paragraphs. The musty stillness of my library home had been broken only by the faint, dignified chewing of my siblings and I as we enjoyed our late-night repasts.
Not so here. Upon my very first night in this alien place, when the lights had dimmed and I judged it safe to emerge from my leather-bound lair, my timid perusal of the neighboring volumes had been interrupted. Even as I poked out my nose in a first, tentative foray, I became aware of a general whisper-soft scraping of page on page, as if some ghostly breath of wind had set the assorted loose page-ends of ill-bound books aflutter. I froze, skittish as a thief discovered; but when the gentle rustling continued unabated for some minutes, I resumed my exploration, dismissing the unsettling sound as the mischief of a persistent draft or the stray current of an air-conditioner.
The haunting fluttering aside, I was delighted to discover that the trite and innocent children’s fable I’d been imported in had been sandwiched between two books of far superior quality, wholly lacking its saccharine tang: happily, I found myself nestled between Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. As I dithered over the categorizational quandary of which book to sample first, the riffling, of which I had been only peripherally aware, began to increase in volume, to intensify as more and more books added their voice to the chorus.
My vague, uncritical rationalization of the shuffling cacophony held firm. I blithely ignored the swelling sound, focusing instead on the enticing pages of Green Eggs and Ham, Seuss having won out over Sendak on a whim. Even my studied unconcern, however, could not survive the slight tremors that seized my snack moments later, and I withdrew hurriedly to my worn home beside it as the Seuss classic’s succulent pages began to quiver violently of their own accord. Confused, afraid and cheated of my meal, I could only watch as the vibrations that wracked its frame intensified, reverberating in time to the now deafening rush of paper all around. I slid my lower body back into the mercifully still pages of my own volume, looking on with horrified eyes as the children’s classic gave one last mighty, shuddering spasm and disgorged a small, impossibly three-dimensional object from its knife-thin innards.
I stared at the object, fear supplanted by fascination. There, in the shadow of the shelf, was a tiny, cardboard box. It was odd that I should describe it thus, for the box was obviously constructed from precisely folded paper, yet, somehow, the box suggested to the eye an aspect of cardboard, some vital manifestation of cardboard essence. I watched it for a brief while, unsure what to make of it, when suddenly the box twitched, and a small, paper snout poked out, followed shortly by the body of an origami fox. The brown paper animal snuffled at the air before turning neatly around and jumping lithely on to the upended box, cocking its head inquisitively back at the pages which had spawned it. To my amazement, the fox’s curiosity was rewarded by a miniature avalanche of folded paper figures that tumbled out of the book in a tangled mess.
At first, the slew of matter that poured forth seemed purely random – a quaint brick cottage, a shaggy goat, a wooden signpost labelled simply “here” – but the eccentric collection of debris made sudden sense when I considered their source. Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox? The immortal words of Seuss had come alive, quickened by an arcane puissance that lent them life and form. Struck by a sudden thought, I swiveled my body around, just in time to see ominous, furry shadows that could only be the titular beasts from Where the Wild Things Are lumber off into the gradated darkness beneath the shelves.
This inexplicable transmutation of ink to papery flesh wasn’t limited to my shelf alone, for all around me, amidst the ferocious rippling background of disturbed pages, I could see other book-born creatures crawling through the semi-darkness. A bewildering variety of fantastical beings were in evidence, including trolls, waistcoated mice and cats, a big, red dog that I recognized as Clifford, and an assortment of animate kitchen cutlery. The booklings (as I’d dubbed them) were clambering all over the shelves and each other, climbing, pushing and biting as they did so. The deafening whirlwind of rustling pages began to die down as the mass exodus wore on, and individual moos, grunts and the exaggerated arrrs of PG pirates began to distinguish themselves from the general hubbub.
I wriggled out of my cramped, uncomfortable hidey-hole and gazed out across the aisle in wonder, perching myself securely upon a thick ridge of spine. All the booklings, be they human, animal or other, shared that same curious insinuation of texture or composition that I’d noticed in the box, despite the fact that they were wholly composed of folded paper. I was just trying to make sense of this bizarre spectacle when I heard a delighted laugh from behind me. I spun around.
“You must be new here.”
The speaker was a small, smirking she-worm who had snuck up behind me while I’d been looking on, stupefied by the clangorous horde of booklings. She straddled the jut of my book’s front cover carelessly, her tail segments dangling languorously over the edge.
“O-oh… hello!” I stuttered in surprise. “I must say, I’m very glad to meet you. I was beginning to think I’d gone mad, you see,” I added hurriedly when she cocked an eyebrow at my profuse welcome. My enthusiasm at meeting this friendly-looking worm, however, was quite unfeigned; at the very least, she probably didn’t dissolve in the rain, which was more than I could say for the raucous host of booklings.
“Don’t have this lot where you come from, do you?” she smiled, obviously relishing the moment.
“No! No! I mean, do these, er, booklings come out every night, then?”
“Booklings, eh? Oh, that’s good. I’ll have to remember that one for Rocco. Booklings…” she rolled the word around in her mouth, considering. “But to answer your question, yes, the paper-creatures or booklings, as you call them, come out every night, about half an hour after the librarian shuts off the lights.”
“Well! It’s very odd,” I said lamely, then shook my head. “I’m Gordon, by the way.” My newfound companion inclined her head in a mock-formal gesture of respect.
“Zana,” she replied. “So what brings you to this neck of the reprocessed woods?”
“Book transfer, I suppose. Which means I’ll probably have to move house pretty soon or wind up stuck with some snotty-nosed brat for Inchtail knows how long. Shame, too,” I sighed mournfully, peering fondly at the well-nibbled pages of my leather-bound home, “I was just starting to get used to the old reader.” Zana exhaled in sharp sympathy, squinching up one eye.
“Ouch,” she said. “One time my book got checked out by a bloody teenager. Pizza grease all over the pages, acidic highlighter on every other line, then ditched under a pile of disgusting clothes so long past the return date I thought I’d never make it back. Still, that’s what you get for living in a textbook, I suppose, but… hey! Gordon! What’s wrong, worm?” she said, noticing I wasn’t paying attention anymore, but frantically looking around, my head waving like a snake charmer’s pet. I snapped to at the sound of her voice, eyes wild.
“Sorry! Did you hear that?” I exclaimed. “There was some awful sound, like bones being ground into powder, or the gnashing of giant teeth!” I recoiled as a huge paper giant easily four times my size stomped by on the shelf below, bellowing FEE FI FO FUM in a booming voice that sent tremors through the whole row. “See? There’s a bloodthirsty giant down there! We’ve got to hide, or, or -” I stopped, because Zana had burst out laughing. Feeling somewhat left out and not a little annoyed, I demanded, a bit peevishly, “What? What’s so funny?”
“S-s-sorry,” she spluttered, between fits of helpless laughter. “Just, the l-look on your face…!” I grew red and flustered as she howled anew, wondering what she was laughing at while also worrying that the giant might make his way up here and decide to have me for a snack. Eventually, Zana’s paroxysms of laughter subsided enough for her to speak, teary-eyed and breathless.
“I’m so sorry, Gordon,” she gasped, the corners of her mouth twitching as she struggled to control her expression. “It’s just – look, have you ever had a balled-up wad of paper chucked at you?”
“Of course, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” I responded, more bluntly than I’d intended.
“Well, even if that big paper lug does manage to heave himself up here and take a swing at you, it’ll probably hurt about as much as one of those little crumpled balls. The booklings are paper, Gordon. Although,” she added, thoughtfully, “those knights over in the Sword&Sorcery section can deliver a pretty nasty paper cut with those origami swords of theirs.”
“And the grinding bones?” I demanded, cheeks burning.
“Just some errant description leaking out. None of these creatures even have bones,” she said, dismissively.
“Right,” I mumbled, feeling like an idiot in the face of Zana’s casual indifference. Her face softened as she took pity on my miserable embarrassment and slid up beside me, gently wrapping her midsection around mine in a comforting hug.
“Hey, Gordon, that was cruel of me. I’m sorry,” she said, trying to meet my downcast gaze.
“It’s fine,” I muttered, avoiding her eyes.
“No, not really,” she replied, giving me a reassuring squeeze. “I was new here, too, once. I guess I’ve just forgotten how overwhelming it can be. All this,” she said, waving her head to indicate the booklings scattered across the shelves and floor of the aisle. While she was speaking, I glanced down at the collection of detritus which had tumbled out of Green Eggs and Ham. The fox was playing with the mouse, chasing it around the quaint brick cottage as it dodged under and around discarded signs reading “here” and “there” that lay forgotten on the ground. Of the goat, there was no sign.
“Ah, really, Zana, it’s fine,” I said, this time with feeling. Her heartfelt apology had seemed genuine enough, and had gone a long way towards quelling my embarrassment. I looked up at her and smiled, as if to convince her that I was alright. She grinned back, giving me one more tight squeeze before uncoiling. Poised side-by-side on the edge of book’s thick spine, we gazed imperiously out over the sea of assembled booklings like kings inspecting their realm. It was a good vantage point. The shelf we were perched upon was the top bar one in the unit, and there was a dizzying drop of three or four shelves beneath us to the aisle far below. However, heights were nothing new to me – back in the old library, my siblings and I would regularly scale the largest shelves in the library and hold midnight picnics, sharing scraps and corners from interesting pages we’d sampled.
“I wonder what my siblings are up to,” I said, with a note of melancholy. It wasn’t so much that I was sad; the life of a bookworm was fundamentally unstable, with your home liable to be carted away to some distant branch at any moment without notice, and you still inside. Over my three years, I’d seen dozens of my siblings shipped away and a trickle of new arrivals take their place. In many ways, my deportment was both natural and expected, but that didn’t mean I had been ready for it. Stranded in an alien library, awash in a sea of inexplicable life, I was struck by a sudden pang of homesickness. Zana guessed what was on my mind.
“First move, huh?” she asked, softly.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I grew up there, and all my family… I knew it’d happen eventually, but I never thought it’d happen so soon.” She thumped me fondly with her tail.
“Rough luck, Gordon. I barely even remember my first home, it’s been so long,” she said, screwing up her face in memory. “I wasn’t even an inchling when my first transfer happened. Since then, I must have changed libraries – gosh, at least ten or eleven times.”
“Ten times!” I exclaimed. “But you can’t be older than four or four and a half! Not that it matters how old you are,” I stammered, mortified. Zana snorted, amused at my chagrin.
“I’m three and a half next month, thank you for asking,” she replied with a sidelong glance. “But really, it’s not that surprising – I was a reference worm, you see.” A reference worm! That would explain her frequent relocation: reference books, due to their cost and specialized nature, had a tendency to be circulated between libraries at a much higher rate than other books, excepting perhaps the season’s latest flash-in-the-pan best-seller. Correspondingly, reference worms tended to be adventurers that thrilled in exploring new libraries or crusty old denarians who were too set in their ways to relocate to a new book.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, in recognition, and then, a moment later, a much more discouraged “Oh!” as I realized that, being a reference worm, my new (and only) friend in this strange place was likely to vanish suddenly at some unspecified point in the near future, spirited away to a far-off library where I would never see her again.
Zana seemed to sense my disappointment and butted me playfully in the midsection.
“I said I was a reference worm, but I’m not anymore. That’s behind me now. I got sick of the constant travel about six months ago and moved to Goodnight Moon, on the next unit along. Children’s books are way more stable, and besides, I like it here. This library is interesting. You’ll love it here, Gordon, I promise!” With that, she extended her tail towards me with a genteel flourish, an expectant look on her face. Her voice took on a lyrical lilt as she recited what sounded like a memorized poem.
“Come with me, and I’ll show you
Where the wild things roam when the lights are out
Where the cow jumps over the moon
Where there’s witches and beanstalks and magical things
That go bump in the night, and deliver a fright
To children alone in their room.
Come with me, and I’ll show you
Where the monarchs of ink rule on papery thrones
Where the walls of a castle are king
Where there’s goblins and griffons and armies untold
Banners raised higher as warlocks cast fire
And dragons of myth guard their gold.
Come with me, and I’ll show you
Where the androids are dreaming of electrified sheep
Where hovercraft soar through the air
Where there’s lasers and starships and men quite unseen
Enforcing compliance of life born, from SCIENCE!
And time travel’s everyday fare.
Oh, come with me, and I’ll show you
All the wonders that books can contain
Released from their pages
As the lights fade away;
In this library, words come alive.”