By Damien McKeating
SOPHIA pushed open the heavy doors to the Library and stepped into the vast entrance hall. The smell of polished wood and old paper made her smile. She stared up at the mirrored, vaulted ceiling and caught sight of her reflection staring back at her from so far away. She seemed little and insignificant.
A woman was waiting for her at the front desk. She was tall, with dark hair streaked with a badger stripe. She wore a black, pencil dress and black rimmed glasses. She was every inch as elegant as the Library itself. Sophia curled her toes in her flat, plain shoes and tried not to hunch in the old, off-white shirt she had attempted to iron.
‘Sophia,’ the woman smiled. ‘I’m Sister Elaine. Welcome to the Library of Amita.’
‘Thank you,’ Sophia tried to think of something else to say but she couldn’t think of the right words – she was in the Library and she was forgetting words! This was terrible.
‘I’ll give you a quick tour and then we’ll sort out the paperwork and get you started. Follow me.’
Elaine walked with speed and grace. Sophia struggled to keep up. She stumbled. She fumbled doors. Her shoes squeaked on every floor. By the time they had reached the stacks Sophia could feel an embarrassed flush travelling up her neck to her cheeks.
But the Library… Sophia was in love… The building was a labyrinth. The stacks were long and deep. They stretched into darkness broken by pockets of lamp light. She caught impressions of readers in the library. They were faint and fleeting; images caught in the corner of her eye.
‘Here we are,’ Elaine said. She led Sophia into a small reading room. There was a desk, a pen, some forms and another door with frosted glass and the sign ‘Archives’ on it. ‘If you can fill out the forms for me we’ll get your pass organised and get you started. You must be very excited.’
‘Oh… Yes. Yes, I am,’ Sophia stumbled her way into her chair.
‘Make a start and I’ll get together our little starter kit for you; your name badge, a map, safe places to stop, procedures for rogue books,’ she waved her hands, suggesting a multitude of other instructions that might be included.
‘Safe places?’ Sophia started to ask but Elaine was gone.
She turned her attention to the form. She picked up the pen, put it down, wiped her sweaty palm on her skirt, and picked up the pen again. The form was all about her and was easy enough but unorthodox.
‘Favourite word?’ Sophia read aloud. That wasn’t too difficult: pip.
Favourite sentence. Something you wished there was a word for. Author whose books you read the most. A genre you wished existed. The word you find hardest to spell.
The questions went on.
‘Hello?’ she said.
It was coming from the door to the archives.
‘Sister Elaine,’ she called. She peered at the frosted glass of the door… there was no one there… but there had been a noise.
This was it, she thought, this was her chance to prove herself. To take the initiative!
Sophia opened the archive door. On the other side… was no one.
She looked down and saw a hardback book lying in the doorway. It lay open, the pages facing down, the spine bent and broken.
Who would throw a book at a door?
She knelt down to pick it up.
The book fluttered.
Sophia jumped away from it.
Like an injured bird the book flapped its pages and turned on the spot.
‘Sophia, this is a library,’ Elaine said as she entered the room. ‘Your application was impeccable; I would have thought you of all people would know not to raise your voice. Oh, dear,’ she saw the broken book and hurried over to it. She picked it up, eased it shut and stroked the cover. ‘Poor thing,’ she cooed.
‘The book moved,’ Sophia said.
‘Books move us all of the time; it’s really quite simple that they would move themselves.’
‘But… They move us in a metaphorical sense. Emotionally,’ Sophia clung to her argument.
‘And don’t emotions affect the physical body?’ Elaine reasoned as she placed the book on the desk. ‘Kalimtafuss,’ she read on Sophia’s form. ‘Your made up word; very good. What does it mean?’
‘I hadn’t decided yet,’ Sophia said. She looked at the broken book and its pages rippled with contentment.
‘Now,’ Elaine looked up at the open door. ‘Why has our friend here made the journey through the archives? And who hurt her in the first place?’
Sophia bit at her lip. Before she had felt overwhelmed by the beauty and scale of the library. Now… What came after overwhelmed? Perhaps that should be what her new word meant?
‘Come along,’ Elaine said, ‘time for some on the job training. We have to get to the bottom of this. We can’t have the books being damaged.’
She stepped into the archives and Sophia followed.
If the stacks had been confusing the archives were unfathomable. Rooms, corridors, staircases and doors all twisted in a fractal maze. Sophia expected to arrive in one room only to find she was completely wrong. Sister Elaine navigated it with ease.
‘Here,’ she tapped on a set of double doors, ‘we’ll start here.’ She swung them open to reveal a long hall. There were rows of desks and reading lamps but no chairs to sit at them. On each desk was a vast book as tall as Sophia was. They were old, grey monoliths of books. The air was bland and tasteless; no dust and no smells.
‘Where are we?’ Sophia whispered.
‘The graveyard; where the dead words are collected.’
‘The words that nobody uses any more. Aha,’ she walked over to the only desk with an open book. ‘Here; see,’ she pointed at the page.
Sophia looked. The pages were filled with a tiny scrawl; words and words rammed in together with no meaning. It was nonsense. She didn’t recognise a single word and… there were gaps. Once she spotted the first one she saw the others.
‘There are words missing?’
‘Yes,’ Elaine said and she stared around the graveyard. ‘Someone has been stealing the dead.’
‘They needed some new clothes.’
Sophia shivered. ‘I don’t like it here.’
‘Nobody does. But it’s better than the other place.’
‘What other place?’
‘These are the words that lived but were forgotten. We have another room for the stillborn words, the words that never quite were. We won’t go there.’
Sophia flushed with relief. She followed Sister Elaine out of the graveyard and deeper into the archives.
‘This is good training,’ Elaine said. ‘There are dangers to our work. Sister Margaret, who was head librarian when I started, was struck down with glossolalia. The library is dangerous. Either you have a way with words or they’ll have their way with you.’
They walked down a twisting staircase and into a dark room. Sophia could see the beginnings of stacks but had no idea how far they stretched. There were no lights here. The shelves were filled with old, crumbling books and she could see no labelling on the shelves.
A movement caught her eye. A small lizard perched on one of the shelves. No sooner had she seen it than it scuttled off into the darkness. Then she saw another one. Then two more.
‘Thesauruses,’ she said automatically.
‘Oh, very good,’ Elaine smiled. ‘Almost no one realises what they are first time.’
They went into the stacks and Sophia could hear the thesauruses running about on their padded feet. Elaine stopped and gave a pained sigh. Sophia peered around her.
There were bodies on the floor. They were dead thesauruses, maybe four of them, it was hard to tell because…
‘Something ate them,’ Sophia said.
‘Yes,’ Sister Elaine replied, her voice turned hard. She walked away, stiff with anger.
‘What is it?’ Sophia asked.
‘It was a morpheme,’ Elaine explained. ‘In here,’ she led them to a small lift just big enough for them both.
Sophia knew what a morpheme was, or thought she did; it was the smallest part of language, the most basic sound or word structure.
‘What is it now?’ she asked.
‘Rogue. A rogue morpheme trying to transform itself. It’s dressed itself in dead words and gorged on synonyms. We can’t let it leave the library.’
‘What will it do?’
‘It will cause trouble,’ Elaine said, as if there were no greater crime. ‘It will infect writers with procrastination and make them agonise over words, make them destroy their own stories. It will eat up the words and if it gets big enough it may remove an entire word from the world.’
The lift lurched to a stop. Elaine steadied herself and adjusted her glasses. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Where are we?’
‘One of the private collections. It will have a hunger now for something more refined.’
She pushed open the door and led them into a vault. Sophia had no other word for it. The cabinets that lined the huge room were solid and secure. These were not books to be read but books to be cherished and saved.
They stood in the middle of the room, their steps muffled on the thick carpet. Sophia noticed a stale smell, the first smell she’d noticed since entering the archives. It was an old, past its best kind of smell. She wrinkled her nose and then she saw it…
The morpheme shuffled out from behind a cabinet. It looked like a person who had been made of wax and left in the sun. The face was formless except for gaping holes for eyes and a mouth. The arms and fingers were stretched so far Sophia was sure they would snap. Its skin was grey and damp, like paper mulched together.
‘You,’ Elaine turned on it, ‘are in trouble.’
The creature moaned in a voice like book spines cracking.
‘What do we do?’ Sophia asked.
‘Do you know what a grimoire is?’
‘Like a magical book?’
‘Exactly. Grimoire comes from the word grammar. It is a set of rules, defined and laid out for all to understand. To contain language we have to define it.’ She thought for a moment. ‘What was the word you made up on your entrance form?’
‘Exactly. That will do splendidly. Give it a try,’ she stepped away and left Sophia facing the creature.
‘What do I do?’
‘What do we do with language?’
Sophia forced herself to stand up straighter. The creature weaved and moaned in front of her. Its long fingers reached out towards her, seeming to grow longer and longer. She tried to think of the words she needed but her tongue felt too dry, her throat too tight… Everything she wanted to say was trapped inside of her.
The long, grotesque fingers stretched towards her face.
Sophia swallowed. ‘I name you Kalimtafuss,’ she said and the creature stopped. It staggered and wobbled. ‘Kalimtafuss,’ she repeated, her voice finding some authority. She imagined she was reading a dictionary. ‘Kalimtafuss, noun; a morpheme that has disguised itself in dead words. Easily recognised by its grey skin and long appendages,’ she was pleased with that word. ‘Harmless.’
There was a sound like the whoosh of air when a door is slammed and the Kalimtafuss was gone. A cloud of dust and a handful of book pages fluttered in the air where it had been.
‘Excellent,’ Elaine said.
Sophia smiled. She was shaking with excitement. She felt the flush returning to her cheeks but this time there was no embarrassment. ‘I did it!’ she jumped on the spot.
‘Sophia,’ Elaine placed a finger to her lips. ‘This is the Library. Decorum, please.’
‘Sorry,’ Sophia grinned. ‘What’s next?’
‘Do you know why we charge a fine for late books?’
There was an obvious answer, Sophia could see that, but she also knew that wasn’t the right answer. ‘No,’ she said.
‘Then it’s time you found out.’
©Damien McKeating 2016