Christmas Prose Competition 2009
The Librarian's Tale by Dmitri Gheorgheni
I suppose all of us see as far as we can in the light available to us. I often used to flatter myself that I saw a bit farther than most.
The town of Jacinthe is charming – a Moravian village in the early 18th Century, a coal-mining town in the 19th, it has recently been gentrified, and boasts internet cafés, arts festivals, and out-of-the-way antique shops in beautifully restored vintage buildings. It is possible to live here almost – I stress the almost – as if in a real city like the one where I spent my life until last year. My apartment is pleasantly appointed (once I straightened out a few things with the landlord) and within walking distance of my new workplace. The cultural atmosphere is almost up to standard, and I have made new acquaintances. It is, I imagine, the best possible outcome after the shock of betrayal in Philadelphia.
That the city government there would have been so pusillanimous as to bow to fiscal pressure and force closures on the library system is, I admit, something I should have been prepared for, but was not. Decades of lowering standards led to this. If they had the foresight to eliminate some of the useless amenities they now offer – net access for street people, bestsellers, videos and CDs instead of serious literature – they could easily afford to retain trained professionals rather than hiding behind an economic crisis in order to replace us with the undereducated whose main qualification consists of the ability to swipe barcodes...
O tempora, o mores. Be that as it may, I lost my satisfying employment of 20 years and was forced out into a cruel marketplace for which I was ill-suited. When the promising lead with a publisher dried up – I suspect my taste was a bit too elevated for their line of product – I was faced with the prospect of either immuring myself behind the checkout counter at ConcordBooks (shudder, where the customer is king), or abandoning the intellectually stimulating environment of the city, leaving behind my museum memberships, season tickets to theatre and opera, the monthly gallery crawl, to venture out into what my friends at La Bonhomie always called 'the philistine countryside'. I had nightmares in which I was forced to drive a bookmobile past fields of grazing cattle, but at last I found a suitable place here in Jacinthe, a haven of civilisation in the Poconos where there is even a community theatre, albeit one too prone to staging musicals.
The library itself is a jewel of a place, a fin-de-siècle mansion donated by a former 'robber baron', who left enough money for the place to be suitably appointed to match its original style. Although smallish, it is elegant. From the mahogany circulation desk I can watch patrons through the stained-glass doors (real Tiffany!) as they cross the marble entryway into what I modestly think of as a sanctum of culture amidst the bustle of the shabby postmodern.
I instantly fell in love with the view from the circulation desk, which is why I made sure to volunteer for duty there during the afternoons, when the non-librarian flunkies took their lunches. I could work on emails and ILL (inter-library loans, for the non-initiated) while glancing up to enjoy the light as it filtered through the tinted window beside the entryway – cobalt blue, gold, lovely rose...all this and the smell of polished wood and old books. Heaven on earth, only slightly marred by minor differences over policy between myself and Mrs Roszak, the senior librarian, a sharp-beaked party of old-fashioned disposition who meets the cliche standards of bun-at-the-nape-of-the-neck, sensible shoes, and – gods help us – reading glasses on a chain.
Mrs Roszak observed my abstraction with the windows, and smiled like a gap-toothed sybil. 'You've discovered our secret,' she nodded satisfaction, her spectacles bobbing. 'You see that spot over there by the door? Where the light makes a pattern on the parquet?' I had indeed, and agreed that it was...most agreeable. Her gimlety eyes twinkled.
'You'll find the light changes as winter comes on,' she chirped, and then squeaked away in her Airsoles, off to torment the reference people with unneeded advice. I shrugged amiably and returned to my overdue notices.
But I watched that spot of light – that wheel of colour from the rosette at the top of the window that formed an oval pattern on the dark wood of the floor – faithfully, every afternoon. At first it was quite late in the day – I could sit quietly and stare at it for twenty minutes or so, just before the raucous little hellions came bursting in from Wiscasset High. As autumn wore on, the spot appeared earlier, and the colours paler, somehow, thinner, but none the less intriguing, and I began to take my lunch break later, but at the desk, so that I could sit over my tea and croissant (I am a light eater) and study the fascinating variety of the pattern on the floor. I learned that if I unfocussed my eyes just slightly, as one is instructed to do with those three-dimensional drawings, the oval took on new shapes. I could almost fancy that the image against the wood grain was an anamorphic painting by some unknown artist – I thought him my own, private discovery.
You must not think that I paid undue attention to this, or neglected my work. The pattern on the floor was merely a pleasant diversion in the midst of an otherwise interesting professional day. I chatted with coworkers and patrons, filled out forms, helped here, guided there, and shushed the children behind the stairwell. I attended tedious meetings of the Friends of the Library, pretending to like their home-made delicacies and second-hand wit. In short, I lived my library life. The light from the window was only...an extra, something for lagniappe, as they say.
Until December, that is.
I swear I first noticed the change in the pattern about the beginning of that month. I know I was thinking about the church choir and preparations for the Advent season (I am a mainstay tenor there). As I sat over my Earl Grey, eyes lightly unfocussed – as had become my habit – a sort of warm lassitude came over me as I studied the now-familiar constellation of shades. It seemed to me that the red and blue were almost overlapping at one point, making purple...no, perhaps I should call it mauve...when it occurred to me to wonder whether the pattern, rather than being anamorphic, might be considered more the basis for a hologram...
And there it was: Not out of the corner of my eye, oh no, but full-blown from the beginning, a vision so sudden and startling that I almost dropped my teacup – which would have been a shame, as it was Spode, from the corner antique dealer's. In my agitation, I lost sight of the image for a minute, but with presence of mind I repeated the conditions under which I had first seen it – eyes slightly unfocussed, sitting exactly so, and was rewarded with a repetition of the experience.
There was a young woman standing beside the door.
She was palely beautiful – golden hair in a cascade to her shoulders, wide, hypnotic azure eyes, her figure at once slight and voluptuous, if you get my meaning. She was dressed in the style of the 19th Century – I almost said 'the last', but we are in the 21st now, aren't we? As I said, the vision was clad in a flowing evening gown, definitely, most definitely mauve, with a hint of a bustle, and perfect ruching of the fabric, a rich brocade. A fringe of jet beads reached from the (modest) decolleté over enticingly bare shoulders. Delicate fingers held what I could not quite see in the folds of the dress – something dark, perhaps a fan, also of jet. Before I could examine her further, a cloud passed between our library and the winter sun, and she was gone – although in the last instant I thought I saw the figure raise its lovely head, and (although this was perhaps too much imagination on my part) that she smiled at me, just briefly.
I was stunned. For a moment, I forgot where I was – until Mrs Roszak came by to break the spell with some fatuous comment about bulletin boards and the need to update them. I shook myself – mentally, naturally – and went about my business, saving reflection for later, saving....savouring the reflection, for later...
The next morning I spent anxiously going about my work, wondering, not quite daring to hope – all right, very much daring to hope, and why shouldn't I? – that the vision would return.
And return it did, all through December. Every day the image grew sharper, or I noticed more detail – the pattern of the fabric, Amy's shoe (yes, I called her Amy, she so reminded me of that spirited young girl in Little Women, only all grown up) peeking coyly out from under her dress, the dimple of her cheek, the bend of her wrist as she held in her hand...I could never quite see what.
She intrigued me, this Tiffany phantom, and I began to think that perhaps she was a spirit of the original building from which the library had grown – after all, there was some resemblance between my blonde angel and one of the family portraits we keep in the Reserve Room, a lost daughter, a jilted lover who haunted the place of her happiness in this unusual way...?
You will expect that, being a librarian and surrounded by research opportunities, I tried to find the answer – that I looked up the history of the place, searched for a mystery, a body in the cellar...
Not a bit of it. I was quite content with my mystery woman as she was, thank you very much. I had no inclination to spoil my enjoyment of the phenomenon with some sordid discovery of fact. I simply looked forward to lunch, and the light, and a chance to bask in the beauty of the light.
I had the occasional feeling that Mrs Roszak might have known something. She 'happened' by most days about the time the light appeared, and seemed to glance at it with something like satisfaction. But she never mentioned it to me beyond that one time. Not until much later, that is.
I believe it was the second week when I first saw the glint on the object in Amy's hand. At first I thought it a freak of the sunlight, or a reflection from the snow outside, which can make things brighter. But the next day it was there, stronger, and I strained to see what it was – a watch, perhaps? A jewel? A golden comb? That would suit her. Every day Amy's beauty grew more lucent, and by now I was certain that the enigmatic smile on her face was just for me. I rarely locked eyes with her, but when I did, a thrill went through me, as if somehow we shared some special communication.
I will admit that during these weeks, as I strolled home past the shops of Stroudsburg Avenue, or sat in my favourite café, I began to invent a story for Amy. I have said that investigating a possible ghost legend was not my intention – I would never have called those Philadelphia parapsychologists out here with their pseudo-scientific equipment. I am a romantic man by nature, and I much preferred my own musings. In my private fantasy, Amy had reached across time, from the elegant age in which she lived like a jewel in a rich setting, to find her soulmate – who was, of course, myself, I blush to say. These reveries were enjoyable, to say the least, and caused me to whistle cheerfully among the holiday shoppers. I even wrote her a poem, which I shall not quote here.
It was four days before Christmas when the change came – the solstice, as it happened. I was gazing at Amy, admiring the intensity of the shadows in the folds of her gown, when a cloud passed over and the image faded for an instant. When the sky cleared, I almost gasped – Amy had moved. She had turned slightly, still with that enigmatic smile on her flawless face. Her right arm was now stretched out toward me, and I could finally see what I had strained to look at for so long, there in her tapered fingers, her snow-white hand...glinting in the pale light of the winter afternoon, glinting sharply, the old-fashioned straight razor, its edge blunted with a gout of mauve...no, scarlet...bloodstain...Amy's smile grew wider, vulpine...I stared at my vision in horror, shock, disbelief...
'Aha! You've seen it! I knew you would, Mr Barnaby. I just knew you would.'
Mrs Roszak's piping voice almost made me leap out of my skin. I stared from the vision to her in confusion, my mouth (I fear) agape. I stammered out a denial, all the while looking frantically out of the corner of my eye as Amy appeared to be moving closer (was that possible?), the evil weapon in her outstretched hand.
Mrs Roszak clapped her dry hands in what seemed indecent glee. 'I told the others not to spoil the surprise,' she said as she pointed fondly in the direction of my maniacal beauty. 'We've all seen it, of course.' She folded her hands complacently. 'It's always just perfect today. And now, ' her little eyes twinkled, 'You will surely want to hear the story?' I nodded, mouth dry, but I do not think I could have stopped her. I do not think anything could have stopped Mrs Roszak from telling that story. It was hers, and it would be told.
'It all started when old Miss Gardiner died, ' she said sadly. 'We loved that woman dearly. She was a sweet-natured soul, a dying breed, a cultivated old lady who was fond of literature and good music. Her family had left her well off – she contributed a great deal to the library, you understand – but she was rather lonely in her last years. She would visit us every day, sometimes to borrow books, but mostly to sit and chat. Her favourite chair was by that window.' And she pointed, rather boldly, I thought, for one who claimed to see the vision, right past where Amy – my Amy – was even now threatening to disembowel me while smiling her seductive (though now utterly sinister) smile. Mrs Roszak pointed to the chair by the window, and seemed to be smiling fondly at the demented hologram.
'Of course, we do not usually allow animals on the premises,' she continued as if this made sense – What is she talking about? Animals? But you will see that we had to make an exception for Miss Gardiner. So Toby came with her, every single day, and every single day he sat, as good as gold...right there.' And the madwoman pointed with insane insouciance right through the image – the image that at this very moment was holding out the evidence of its foul and bloody intent – to a point much lower.
'Toby was the sweetest little dog you've ever seen. And so quiet, which is rare in a Pomeranian.' Mrs Roszak smiled radiantly, twiddling her eyeglass chain until I thought I would scream. 'Which is why we all remembered the day – shortly before Christmas, it was – when he stood up on his hind legs and barked.' She beamed at me. 'Of course it is all becoming clear to you now.'
What?, I though. What is this lunatic woman saying? I could scarcely keep my mind on the conversation, as obsessed as I was with watching Amy, afraid to turn away, hoping the vision faded before she...what? Attacked me? What was I thinking? Mrs Roszak twittered on happily.
'Miss Gardiner died that Christmas, unfortunately, and Toby passed away, as well, out of sadness – dogs do that, you know? But every year since then, we've all seen it in the light of that window.' She turned and gazed at the spot on the floor, where Amy's well-shod feet were even now beginning, as I dreaded, to move, oh, so slowly, toward me...
Mrs Roszak stooped down, her hands seeming to caress something invisible to me. She laughed softly. 'Such a nice little dog, ' she murmured. 'And every year, just at the solstice, just like today, he stands up and barks his little bark. We couldn't spoil the surprise for you, Mr Barnaby, you seem like such a kindred spirit here at the library, we wanted you to experience it for yourself...' She turned her head, and I saw her look turn to concern, and then one of alarm, as all against my will, I slid to the floor – and, mercifully, the afternoon light winked out.
I was ignominiously revived with Mrs Roszak's smelling salts, and forced to endure orange pekoe and sympathy from ladies certain that my fainting fit had proven me the most sensitive man on earth – imagine that, so moved by the vision of a little dog...I steadfastly refused to comment on the story.
And I steadfastly refuse to work at the circulation desk again this winter. Oh, in the mornings, of course – I will gladly cover for coffee breaks, and take my turn at the checking out.
But noon will find me elsewhere – in the safety of the Repair Room, rebinding damaged spines by the light of a harsh fluorescent. There are no shadows there.
I suppose all of us see as far as we can in the light available to us. These days, I am a little more careful about where I look.