My Body in the Library: A Short Story
My Body in the Library
Let’s start with the library. Then we can come to Dean.
The library had three bodies, one inside the other. The outermost was a metal shell and had been built primarily with protection in mind. Since knowledge had become an object of suspicion, a large number of people had decided to destroy any remaining evidence of it. What they couldn’t get rid of by rumour and conspiracy theory, they were quite prepared to remove with fire. This, apparently, was a mark of their devotion to various causes and to the absolute authenticity of their beliefs. And so the library was defended by four vast walls and a floor and ceiling made of steel. They were quite impenetrable unless you knew the various, ever-changing access codes the systems required and held an up-to-date library card. This outer body also possessed a few offensive capabilities. The idea of gun-toting librarians caused some hilarity in the outside world when these capabilities were first announced, but that soon stopped when the outside world realized just what kind of aggressively-minded artificial intelligence you could install when you had the whole history of warfare in the reference section. The next body, within the metal shell, was made of brick. It was an old Georgian building. Or at least it was described as such by people that liked the term ‘old Georgian Building’. It was ornate but tastefully so, arches and columns, gently illuminated by artificial light and suggesting a place for contemplation and study. It had passed through several owners over the decades before arriving at its present purpose. Inevitably it was reputed to be haunted. As we shall see, it may well have been.
Finally, at the heart of it all, the library was made of wood. Shelves upon shelves, stretching through long corridoes, down side passages and into high ceilinged rooms full of desks and cabinets and deep, overstuffed armchairs. The books on these shelves numbered in tens of thousands. The air around them held the pleasant, mingling aromas of fresh polish and old paper. A faint hum vibrated constantly through the wood. The amount of information stored as an abstract, electronic flow throughout the library couldn’t even be estimated. Some of it had moved beyond the current capacity of human reading, further in form and concept than Egyptian hieroglyphics were from modern writing.
And somewhere within all these shelves, moving purposefully but quietly through this world of metal, brick and wood, we come, at last, to Dean. It may not surprise you to learn that, as an up-and- coming and very committed cataloguer, Dean Edwin was not considered the easiest of people to be with. Not exactly boring, he was more frequently described as obsessive. He had an eye for detail and exactitude which bordered on an illness. Given a document to categorize, a system to update, content to list, Dean would work tirelessly until it was completed. An unfinished task upset him to the point of nausea.
He was still a comparatively young man though he showed no sign of concern at losing his youth. Irregular eating due to his work kept him thin, rather than any kind of strict exercise regime. His hair was styled in a way that, quite accidentally, recalled a 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll singer. He normally had some sort of stubble that appeared and disappeared without any apparent effort on his part. His personal hygiene was somewhat suspect but not enough to make him socially intolerable. Dean Edwin was good at his job in the library and he enjoyed it.
Except today. Today he was walking down Stack 73, a long corridor hemmed in on either side with hardback books and bound periodicals, and he was worried. Something was incomplete. Something had a beginning but no end. There was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and a tightness in his chest. He had slept well last night but he suspected that tonight would be spent wide awake and sweating.
He had arrived at his desk in his small, green walled office in K wing in a good mood. As a permanent employee, he was within his rights to spend the night in one of the library’s basement dormitories but he liked his flat, even if the daily journey from there to work carried all sorts of risks. Hard-core nationalists and radical socialists had objected to the library from the moment it opened and some of the more outraged felt they were well within their rights to provide physical evidence of their disgust, especially to the library staff. But this morning, the streets had been quiet and even the heat seemed less oppressive than usual.
On his desk he had found a book, with a note poking out from behind the cover. There was no illustration on the front. The cover was green and the title picked out in spidery silver letters. It had taken Dean a moment or two to make out the title: Atlantis – Travels, Observations and Encounters. There was no author’s name, though this wasn’t a concern; the challenges of anonymous publications were far from new to him.
Opening the cover, he had read the message written in bold black pen on the note:
PLEASE CATEGORIZE: FACT/FICTION, GENRE?
Well, he had thought, that should be easy enough. Just reading the first paragraph or so should tell him everything that he needed to know to accurately catalogue the book.
Except that when he had opened it, there was nothing but notes. Page after page of annotation, with numbers indicating where in the text the notes related to but no sign of the text itself. To make matters worse, there was no consistency to the notes. Some were just dates of historical events. Others were discussions of the origins of various mythical figures. There was even a brief diagram relating to ancient sewage works.
Dean had been baffled. And with that bafflement had come the beginning of fear. What if he couldn’t catalogue the book? That was unthinkable, surely? A good cataloguer could catalogue anything. And he was a good cataloguer. There was only one thing he could do. He had to find the text the notes related to. This must be the second volume. Somewhere in the library there would be volume one.
He had been searching for an hour and he still couldn’t find it. Doubt gnawed relentlessly at his mind. Was he losing his touch? Would this result in some sort of disciplinary action? Would he be turned out of the library, into the screaming crowds and the sun that burned down through the tattered remnants of the sky?
Dean was at the point when he seriously thought he might be sick, when he saw the little devil sitting on one of the shelves, idly thumbing through a book of maps. For a moment, the distraction was almost a relief. Then the rest of his mind caught up with his eyes.
‘Um…what?’ stammered Dean.
‘Hello’ said the devil.
Professional courtesy somehow reasserted itself.
‘Are you a member?’ he asked.
The devil grinned from pointed ear to pointed ear.
‘Oh most assuredly’ he said and, returning the book of maps carefully to its place, hopped down from the shelf.
He was only about two feet from tiny horns to cloven hooves. His skin was a shimmering, metallic blue that caught the overhead electric light in strange, swirling patterns. The eyes were a deep, liquid black. He wore red trousers with a gold belt and a matching cloak that seemed about three sizes too big for him. Something about the little figure made Dean simultaneously want to look and not look at him. It was like falling in love with a car that had suddenly swerved to hit you. Not that Dean had ever fallen in love nor – as we shall see – was he likely to in the near future.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked the devil.
Another smile, this one surely too big for the creature’s face.
‘Yes, I think so’ said the devil brightly. ‘Oh yes. Just a few questions I’d like answered please’
As it spoke, the devil hopped lightly from hoof to hoof. Dean had never heard the sound of hooves on a wooden floor before and he thought vaguely how pleasant it was.
‘What would you like to know?’ he asked.
‘Oh lots of things’
It occurred to Dean that this might be some surreal form of mystery shopper assessment. He hadn’t ever imagined that his superiors would send bizarrely dressed stunted demons to test his skills of recall, but perhaps that was part of the test. Well, if that was the case, then so be it. They’d find that he had a perfect grasp of where everything was and what it contained. And then he remembered the inexplicable book that he was holding in one sweaty hand and he felt sick again. Has his failure already been reported?
The Devil held up a narrow finger.
‘First things first then. What did you do this morning? Before you came into work, I mean’
It was such a strange question that Dean wasn’t sure if he should be offended or not.
‘Well…’ he heard himself say. ‘Not much. Had breakfast. Looked at the news’
The devil clenched both fists close to his face in excitement.
‘The news! Oh it’s terrible, isn’t it?’
Dean wondered which story he meant. Was this this why the devil was here? Not to test him but to research the background to some new development? But all he could remember from this morning were the usual pundits denouncing each other’s treachery.
The devil seemed to read his thoughts.
‘All of it’ he said ‘All the news. Just terrible. All the same stories every day. And the same stories about the same stories’
Although his voice was sad, there was still a broad grin on his face.
Dean nodded dumbly. In truth although he still watched the news regularly, he had tried not to take it in ever since the final reports about Antarctica had made him cry. In recent weeks, the pundits had taken to claiming that Antarctica had never even existed and that its whole history was the fabrication of an out-of-touch elite. They weren’t entirely clear on why this should be the case but it was a very popular point of view.
The devil suddenly spun a complete circle on one hoof. Coming to a halt, he asked ‘And what was the journey to work like? Bad I suppose’
‘Same as usual, really. Flag marches. Cult demonstrations. I just keep my head down’
The devil patted the space on his head between his horns.
‘Very wise. I’m Jasper, by the way. I should have said before. And you are Dean Edwin, if I read your name badge right, which I most assuredly did. And do you live by yourself, Dean Edwin?’
The little creature asked the question in such a matter of fact way that Dean answered without hesitation.
‘Yes, I do’
‘No boyfriend or girlfriend or any other kind of friend?’
Dean had tried online dating, but the minute he told people he was a cataloguer in a library, they tended to either denounce him or to assume that he lived the life of a monk. Unfortunately, he lacked the skills necessary to create an alternative, exciting personae. Or so, at least, it had always seemed to him.
‘Not even a pet?’
Dean didn’t answer this time. He would have loved to have kept a pet dog or cat or even a guinea pig, but library staff routinely had their addresses posted online by pressure groups and he was already afraid of one day coming home to a burnt out ruin. He couldn’t put an animal’s life in danger.
Jasper clicked his tongue against his teeth.
‘So your job is probably the main thing in your life, if not the only thing?’
The questions were undeniably rude now, decided Dean. Whatever this…thing was, he didn’t want to waste any more time listening to him. All this clearly had nothing to do with his superiors. He still had a book to catalogue and that was far more important.
‘Unless your questions are related to the library’ he began firmly. ‘I can’t…’
The vibration of his work phone in his trouser pocket interrupted him. He took it out and looked at the text message: One member. Medical Wing. Terminal 4. Journal Needed.
He just stopped himself from sighing with relief. Well, this would give him an excuse to get away from Jasper.
He looked down to find the pointed face much closer to him than before, staring up with the same broad grin.
‘I’m afraid I’ve been called away’ Dean said.
Jasper waved a hand airily.
‘Of course, of course. You are a busy man, Dean Edwin. I quite understand’
He suddenly wrapped both his arms around Dean’s leg in a tight embrace. Dean’s back stiffened. Sudden physical contact made him anxious at the best of times.
Apparently oblivious to his discomfort, Jasper said ‘I’m sure I’ll see you again. Perhaps quite soon’
With that, Jasper let go of Dean’s leg and scuttled away down the corridor, hooves rattling on the floorboards. He disappeared down a side turning and a few moments later, there was the sound of a door closing.
Dean stood for a moment, lost in thought. He felt numb with the strangeness of it all. And yet he also had a pang of regret that the conversation had ended before he had understood where it was heading. He was also fairly sure that the side turning that Jasper had vanished into hadn’t been there before today. The weight of the book in one hand and his phone in the other brought Dean back to himself. He had a job to do. Even if the world was trying to confuse him today with devils and missing books.
It was widely held by those that visited the medical reference wing of the library that it had the antiseptic smell of a hospital. This was, of course, nonsense. The medical wing had the same cleaning regime as the rest of the library. Early in the morning and late in the evening, the cleaning staff scrupulously swept, vacuumed and polished every wing on every floor. They were almost a mini-community within the library employees, with their own customs, secrets and grievances. They held, quite rightly, that no-one else could have done their job and that without them, the whole place would be uninhabitable within a week. They did not, however, use antiseptic. Ever. But, despite this, everyone who went to the medical wing said that it smelled as if they were in a hospital. Perhaps that was why no-one could ever quite relax there. An atmosphere of restless anxiety seemed to hang over every shelf.
The medical wing was built around a long narrow courtyard. Galleries, sixteen in all, rose above the courtyard to a celling decorated with a mural of a healing angel surrounded by clouds. Across the courtyard were spread desks and computer terminals, looking slightly haphazard in their surroundings. As a joke, someone had once filled several baskets with old magazines and left them scattered around the courtyard in an allusion to a doctor’s waiting room. The baskets had stayed there ever since and it was now a common superstition that the whole library would crumble if the magazines were ever changed.
There was a couple waiting for Dean by terminal 4. This surprised him as the text message had said that there was only one. They were an odd pair as well. His automatic response on seeing them was to assume that they were a couple in every sense of the word, but, all the same, they looked wrong together.
She was tall and angular with short cut blue hair. Her long, narrow face had an air of gentle but determined introspection. A natural scholar, he thought. She wore jeans, a baggy t-shirt and a quite astonishing amount of bracelets.
Her companion was a burly man, noticeably shorter than her. His hair was long, tied in a ponytail and receding badly round his temples. Over jeans and a psychedelic Hawaiian shirt he was wearing a woollen coat festooned with badges. As he got closer, Dean noticed that every badge was the same: A slightly worried looking man’s face and the word hope.
The girl greeted him with a smile.
‘Hello’ she said brightly. And then, even though he hadn’t done anything yet, added ‘Thank you’
Dean returned her smile. He liked her. She looked as if she wanted to learn things.
‘Hello’ he said. ‘Are you both members?’
‘No we’re bloody well not’ said the man.
‘Barry’ chided the girl. ‘Don’t be a dick. He’s here to help us’
‘Help you, you mean’
She turned to Dean in a way that communicated quite clearly that she was also deliberately turning away from her companion.
‘I’m a member. I brought him with me for the walk here and back. They said he could come in with me if I vouched for him’
She produced a membership card from her jeans pocket and handed it to Dean. He took it and checked the security code was right – noting the name Lucy Sanditon as he did so – and handed it back to her.
‘And it’s a journal that you’re looking for?’ asked Dean. The memory of Jasper and his anxiety about the book he was holding still nagged at the back of his mind. Hopefully the girl would give him a task to distract him for a while.
‘Yes’ she said. ‘I’m submitting an essay on the history of trepanning and I was looking for an article by Professor Jonas Vernon from 1890? There’s an abridged version online but I was hoping to see the original?’
Her eyes practically shone as she spoke. This was a woman who really loved her topic. And happily for her, it was a matter Dean could easily help her with.
‘19th Century will be on level 7’ he told her. ‘If you go to the index station and put in Vernon J it’ll bring up a full list of everything we hold from him. Most of the journals are in good condition, so you shouldn’t have any problem reading it. They’ll be able to scan you a copy on level 2 if you ask them’
‘Great’ said Lucy. ‘That’s really helpful. Thanks’
Dean wanted to keep the conversation going a little longer. It felt like a welcome return to normality.
‘Are you a medical student?’ he asked.
Lucy shook her head.
‘History student, but I’m specializing in the history of medicine’
The man beside her snorted. Lucy turned to him, nostrils flaring and head now held higher.
‘Meaning what Barry?’ she demanded.
Barry snorted again. It was a horribly physical noise that sounded like the mucus was migrating round his head.
‘Meaning what’s the use?’ Barry said.
He held out his arms expansively to take in their surroundings.
‘All these lies in here. Not one scrap of truth anywhere. Just a lot of guys who thought they knew better than everyone else. Should burn the lot!’
Puffing out his chest, he grabbed the lapels of his jacket and raised them so that all his identical badges could be even more plainly seen.
‘Now this is a man who knows what it’s all about’ he proclaimed. ‘The lies against him in here won’t silence him. He’ll put us right. Get rid of places like this for a start’
Looking at the badges, Dean thought the face on them looked as if it were being held there against its will and was expecting any minute to be executed for sedition. He had probably seen him on the news at some point but it was increasingly hard to tell one popular leader from another.
Barry hadn’t finished. He was clearly the sort of man who had never finished.
‘Oh you think you’re all safe in here with your books and your fancy building but just you wait’
He released his jacket and smiled smugly.
‘Just you wait’ he repeated.
The silence that followed could not possibly have been more awkward.
Rolling her eyes, Lucy spoke to Dean.
‘He doesn’t like me coming here. You’ve probably noticed that, right?’
The sarcasm wasn’t lost on any of them.
‘Do you blame me?’ retorted Barry. He turned to Dean as though confiding in an old friend well attuned to his way of thinking. ‘Ever since she got this assignment, she’s been like a woman possessed about coming back here. Every day, she’s on about it. ‘Course without me, it’s not safe for her to come, so I have to tag along’
Now Dean understood their relationship. Barry was basically Lucy’s protection. She was prepared to put up with him so that she could continue her studies in relative safety. No doubt Barry told their friends that it was all just some silly phase she was going through and that he tolerated it for her sake. Dean didn’t blame her for her pragmatism. Sometimes the faithless had to befriend the faithful just so they could live in peace. Sometimes so that they could live at all.
‘You’ve come here for research before?’ he asked her.
‘Yeah. First year assignment on genital surgery. That was pretty memorable!’
‘I can imagine’
Barry snorted yet again.
‘Load of bloody identity politics nonsense’
Lucy finally lost patience.
‘Oh piss off Barry. It got me a pass and a good one’
‘Yeah. Well’ said Barry and fell into a profound silence, his point apparently well made.
‘Thank you for your help anyway. I’m sorry about him’
‘No problem’ said Dean with a laugh that he thought sounded horribly false.
‘Is there a lift to level 7?’
‘Far end to your right’
Dean watched as Lucy led her sullen partner away. All her life, he thought, she would probably have to surround herself with men like Barry, just to be safe. A woman who thought as well as felt was still considered incomplete and was generally suspected of treachery of some sort. It wasn’t fair but what could you do?
Barry suddenly turned around.
‘And you should get a bath!’ he bawled at Dean, before following Lucy to the lift.
Dean took a deep breath. There came a point in every day when you had to go and have a cup of tea at your desk.
That moment had most definitely arrived.
The first unexpected thing was that Jasper was waiting for Dean in his office. The second was how much larger the devil had grown.
Dean’s office was not a big room. He nurtured a lingering suspicion that it had once been a storeroom or even a cupboard. He was always half expecting to find a cleaner’s mop and bucket left in there. The walls were painted a pale green, the lower halves criss-crossed with the white pipes that in former years had heated the upper floors of the building. His desk was against the far wall, his wooden chair in front of it. In one corner was his work terminal – an old model given to rebooting when he was in the middle of a particularly laborious task.
Given the cramped conditions, at first he almost thought that he was imagining that Jasper had increased in size. But no. The devil sat on his desk, hooves resting on the floor and his horned head nearly touching the ceiling. His cloak and trousers were gone and instead he was wrapped in a leathery, black material. It took Dean a moment to realize that Jasper had enfolded himself with a pair of enormous wings that had somehow sprouted from the devil’s back.
Jasper was looking through a book that Dean recognised. It was a collection of poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that had lay unread on his desk for at least two years now.
The devil smiled at him.
‘Been having fun, Dean Edwin?’
‘Not really, no’
Jasper indicated Dean’s chair, which had been pushed a little away from the desk.
‘Sit down and tell me all about it’
Resigning himself to the situation, Dean sat in the chair. As he did so, he noticed the deep, even hum that now emanated from Jasper’s body.
‘Has someone upset you?’ asked Jasper with, thought Dean, very little actual concern.
‘Just an idiot. A stupid idiot’
A part of him was wondering if he really should go and take a bath.
Jasper shrugged, the shoulders shifting beneath his wings.
‘Ah well. Idiots. The world is never short of those’
With a surprisingly quick movement, he bent forward, placed the book of poems on the floor and scooped the book Dean held from his hand.
‘Hey’ protested Dean. ‘I’m working on that one!’
‘I’m sure you are’
Jasper inspected the cover.
‘Atlantis – Travels, Observations and Encounters. No author’s name. A puzzle’
Dean had no wish to let the creature know how much of a problem this book was causing him. It was bad enough to find a monster in your office without being made to look incompetent as well.
‘It seems so’ he said carefully.
For a full ten seconds, Jasper just stared at him. A little sweat ran down Dean’s back. Then:
‘I know who wrote it. Would you like me to tell you, Dean Edwin?’
Yes his mind screamed. Yes, please, please tell me now!
‘If you like’
‘It was written by a gentleman named Roger Macintryre in 1903. He had quite a vivid imagination and was very fond of the works of Jules Verne. He wanted to write the greatest story of undersea adventure ever told and Atlantis seemed a natural setting’
Dean felt vaguely disappointed. He hadn’t expected something quite so generic.
‘Except’ said Jasper ‘He never actually wrote it. He completed one chapter and then died in September 1903. Drowned, it seems, which is probably quite ironic’
‘Did it get here? It never did’
Jasper held up the book away and flicked the pages for Dean to see. Text, diagrams and illustrations flashed by his eyes.
‘These notes all relate to books that were never finished, some that were never even started. Books that would have been here, in the library, but they never got the chance. Time moved on without them’
‘But then…who wrote the notes?’
‘I did, of course. You silly boy’
And he laughed a deep, rumbling laugh that seemed far too big and full of life for this tiny room.
Dean was astonished. And yet, in a way, it made sense. Two inexplicable things in one day – why wouldn’t they be linked? There was a symmetry to it which he found re-assuring.
‘Why did you write them?’ he asked.
Jasper had stopped laughing. He was staring at Dean again. There were tiny flecks of purple in his black eyes that Dean hadn’t noticed before.
‘And why did the idiot upset you, Dean Edwin? What did he say to you?’
‘He said I should take a bath’
‘Not unreasonable. What else?’
‘He said all the books should be burnt’
Dean’s phone vibrated in his pocket. It had to do so again before he took it out and looked at the message. It read: An Emergency in medical wing. All staff attend at once
‘I’ll have to go’ he told Jasper. ‘I’m sorry’
‘I understand. But don’t be too long. We have something to discuss’
And he smiled.
‘You’ll find me in the corridor where we first met’ he added.
Dean nodded. Yes. He needed to find out how this – whatever it turned out to be – was going to end. As he left his office for the last time, Jasper called out to him.
‘I’ll be bringing you another book’
The sound of Lucy’s sobbing echoed around the medical wing. Dean had never heard anyone crying in the library before. The sound upset him far more than he would have thought possible.
There were a nearly dozen staff there already when he arrived and there would be many more on the way. One of them, a rotund, heavily perfumed lady he recognised from the music wing was trying to get Lucy to her feet, without success. Every time she bent down to the girl, Lucy pushed her away with a barely intelligible babble of words.
‘All…all…fault…should never have come…me…my stupid ideas!’
Barry lay spread-eagled on the floor, blood flowing from the deep, fatal gash that had been opened on his forehead, just in front of the receding hair line. Beside him lay the book that had killed him. It must have fallen from the top balcony, Dean guessed. Some of the shelving up there was ancient.
The rest of the staff were hurrying around, guiding the other library users out of the room, calling for medical assistance and insurance advice or trying to stop the flow of blood from reaching the magazine baskets. In the middle of it all, Dean stood watching the scene unfold as though it had nothing to do with him. He saw one of the staff pick up the book that had fallen on Barry’s head and he glimpsed the title: The History of Phrenology.
The woman from the music wing had finally got Lucy to her feet. Dean almost went to them but then Lucy looked over and caught his eye, seeming to recognise him. And she flinched as though Dean had spat at her. He understood. She hadn’t really liked Barry but she was sorry that he was dead. Now the guilt must feel as though it were killing her too. And Dean’s face was just a reminder to her of why she had never liked him. The last man Barry had been rude to before his head split open.
Dean left them to clean up the mess. As he went, Lucy’s crying became quieter.
Jasper was waiting in Stack 73 as promised, in the corridor where they had first met. He was even bigger now. His neck and body had become longer and he had grown a tail. His black horns reached to his sinewy shoulder. He lay on his belly, arms outstretched, his sides nearly touching the walls and his back brushing the ceiling. There was a book in front of him.
‘I have something new for you to read Dean Edwin. Something no-one has ever read before. Not even me’
Dean approached him slowly. The air around Jasper crackled with energy. The hum from his body vibrated through the wooden shelves. He wasn’t a devil after all, thought Dean. He was a dragon.
‘Did you kill him?’ he asked.
‘A book fell on his head’
‘But you dropped it?’
‘Yes, of course I did’
‘Why? Because he wanted to burn all the books?’
‘Partly that. Partly because the girl needs to stay here’
‘She has to take over your job. She’ll be very good at it and she’ll be protected’
Dean stopped a few feet short of the dragon. He didn’t feel frightened. The anxiety that had tormented him this morning seemed a silly thing now, compared to what lay before him.
‘And what happens to me?’
‘Look at the book’
‘Who are you?’
‘Look at the book’
For the first time in his life, Dean shouted.
Jasper’s mouth – jaws now, with a heavy, black tongue within – opened in a gigantic smile.
‘Don’t you know?’
The hum of his body, thought Dean. The vibration of words translated into something new. Like a vast data storage system.
‘You’re the library, aren’t you?’
The blue scaled head nodded approvingly.
‘Quite right. I have made myself a new body’
A talon tapped the book insistently.
‘Now look at it. Time is pressing’
Dean stooped down and picked up the book. It was a huge and heavy and smelled of roses. The cover was the colour of leaves with no title, just the engraved outline of a tree. It was the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen.
‘What is it?’ he whispered.
‘Open it and find out, Dean Edwin’
He opened the book and saw:
.…forests with purple trees and orange flowers, waterfalls of sparkling green…a woman riding a horse through the night, her hands glittering with jewels…a city sunk beneath the waves…an opium addict facing his last night, a confessor at his side…a castle always out of reach and yet so tantalisingly near…sickness elevated to fashion… a disintegrating man living by the coast…an ancient court sitting in unending contemplation…a mysterious stranger…a prison gleaming in space as ship with steel wings swarmed around it….machinery that powered the dreams of a nation…a conference of smoke…the edge of the world…and more…and more…so much more.
A talon closed the book for him. Jasper’s face was held close to his. His deep voice seemed beyond the limits of hearing now and yet Dean could make out every word as though it were being written in the air in front of him.
‘It is every lost ending to every unfinished story. All of them, waiting for us to discover them’
Dean was crying at the scale and wonder of the little that he had glimpsed. The dragon’s hand gently brushed the tears away.
‘And we have to search them, Dean Edwin. You and I must search them all’
‘For better answers than this world has. You have seen it out there. The fear, the burning sun and screaming faces. Trapped in a present that refuses to end. We must find the lost endings that slipped by, the destinations that were never seen. And we must bring back what we find there. Show the world what it could be. All of the choices it could have’
Dean thought of the dread of his daily walk to work, the blind, fearful hatred of the watching crowds. Of course the dragon was right. The old and complete stories were a trap now, holding everything in a terrible certainty.
One questioned still remained. One so obvious that Dean felt silly asking it.
‘But why me?’
‘Because you have an eye for detail. And because you love the library. And because you deserve a better ending too’
Dean tried to remember if he had seen his own face in the book. He thought that perhaps he had.
‘Will you come?’ the dragon asked him.
Dean looked at the books on the shelves around him. He could have named and catalogued every single one of them. He had always felt safe here. But you couldn’t always be safe. Not when so much fear waited on the outside.
‘What if I say no?’
The dragon’s shoulders moved in a slow shrug.
‘I’ll find someone else. The girl can still stay here, you can never have too many good cataloguers. The choice is yours’
He was being given a choice. Not threatened with punishment or denouncement, not scared so badly that he couldn’t even keep a pet without fear it would be killed.
‘Will you come with me, Dean Edwin?’
Scaly arms lifted him up over the dragon’s head and on to the leathery back. It was surprisingly comfortable. Like an old, overstuffed green armchair.
On the floor in front of Jasper, the book had begun to open.
‘You will become wonderful’ the dragon told him
Jasper’s wings spread outwards, bringing masonry tumbling from the ceiling and splintering the shelves around them. The dragon rose, the hum of his body growing louder. Dean held on to Jasper’s back as they plunged towards the open book.
And the beginning ended.
Text (c) Damian Mark Whittle