Once available as a free download in the Nov./Dec. 2011 issue of The Link magazine, I offer it now right here.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.”
—William Ernest Henley
Joan stood in a library for the first time ever. She’d pushed open the wooden door with the oval window of bevelled glass, and stopped just inside. The wind was chill and as the door settled into place cold air swirled around her knees and ankles. She paid it no mind.
Till now, she’d lived too far away to walk to the library. Mum and Roy wouldn’t have heard (if she’d asked) of giving her a nickel for the bus. But she’d wondered and wished, she’d read, reread, and rereread everything that came her way. Mum herself had borrowed books from the Catholic college; Roy’d indulged here and there in things unrelated to hearth and home. But though she’d longed, she’d withheld; she’d never been inside, let alone allowed to peruse, a room whose only purpose was to harbour books.
Now here she was. A married woman of twenty with daughters of her own. She’d need a library card—she knew that. She’d need to learn how many books she could withdraw and for how long. What it would cost if she lost or damaged one.
Growing up, every Christmas her Mum had bought her and her three sisters a book. One book to share, to keep them company through long winter months, read anew every year. Kim. Little Women. Gulliver’s Travels. (That last never made sense. She was sorely disappointed that year.) Since marrying she hadn’t had much time to read, though, apart from the Medical Encyclopædia. She’d had children. Learned to keep house. To be a wife.
But now... The smell of the place was magical. Wood and old varnish, ink and aging paper, things Joan couldn’t quite identify that made her flare her nostrils and inhale deeply.
She turned. There stood a bank of books with an elegantly hand-lettered sign: “Archæology.” Beyond that: “Geology.” And further: “History.” She drew a breath, hands tightening in her mitts.
She would start at the first bookcase and read everything there. In order. Then she would read the whole library.
Before her was a librarian’s desk, unoccupied but for the notice: “Quiet Please.” Further, a man squinted into shelves, beading his eyes to read, searching, perhaps, for some scholarly work she could never comprehend. People turned pages at long wooden tables or drifted from shelf to shelf with piles of books in their arms.
She licked cracked lips in worry and embarrassment. She didn’t belong here. But having entered, she couldn’t leave.
No one looked up. No one cared that she had broken their sanctuary, bringing that swirl of chill air and the trace of fine snow upon her boots. The floor didn’t open to swallow her.
She slipped into the room and travelled quickly to the nearest stand of books.
The librarian filled out Joan’s library card in slow, graceful script, then just as deliberately wrote on the slip of paper glued inside the front cover the date each book must be returned. Joan watched everything she did, with a sense of surprise and awe that she was there, that the woman was letting her take these books away with her, that soon she would read them all.
She left, the books cradled in her arms like tiny children. She walked in a dream down cold streets, then climbed the muffled stairs of her house, stomping snow off her boots at the doorway and slipping off her thin cloth coat without putting them down. The coat she left hanging on the newel post, the boots standing on the grate. Pressing her feet into well-worn slippers she hurried to the kitchen. There her mum, baggy apron smeared with flour, clapped her hands and chased Joan’s eldest from the room.
“You’re home,” she said flatly. She glanced at the books. “Is that all you brought?” Craning over, she untied her apron. “Ancient Rome? Is that what you’re making for supper tonight?”
Joan said nothing, backing up so her mother could leave the room. The oldest girl came tottering back in. Joan gave her a weak smile and scooted her out again. “Go on,” she said. “I’ll get your supper now.” She put all the books but one on a high shelf where they’d be safe, and went into the pantry, carefully opening Ancient Rome.
Roy’s snores were gaining steam. He lay twisted like hemp across the bed in a long diagonal; Joan kept her knees up, her book resting against them as she read in the pale light from the street. Roy, Mum, girls forgotten, her brain swelled with the sights, sounds, smells and strange intentions of the Seven Hills of Rome. When Roy’s snores grew raucous, she eased out of bed and went down to the kitchen. There she pulled the string that lit the ceiling bulb. She heated a bit of water, book in hand, and made a weak tea, so as not to keep herself awake, then read anyway till dawn.
She didn’t, in fact, read every book in the library, and she didn’t read them all in order. But she did read. She debated in Athens, schemed in Alexandria, raised idols in Babylon, swarmed with Scythians, Goths, and Huns.
Meanwhile her children grew (she had two more), her dad got a bad heart. Mum began spending more time with the nuns. Roy lost his job and got another one, Colette had mumps, Kimberley came down with polio. That illness took Joan all the way from Londinium to the Zulu war. Her focus was suffering, but her intensity was fiercer than ever. When she raised her eyes, she saw an iron lung and a wreck of a girl straining for her life. When she lowered them, she breathed the bracing air of the steppes, rolled megaliths on mighty trunks of trees, danced with savage sorcerers in the bloody, firelit night.
When Kimberley returned to school and faced teasing and ridicule, Joan disappeared into a book. In her place came Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne stalked down the clattering, echoey halls of the school and, cloak swirling, demanded justice from the king, who saw the right of her cause and gave her an army to do God’s work.
When Roy reached for her one more time and her womb shrank back she fell into a book. In her place came the Amazon. The Amazon laid her sword in the middle of their bed and dared him to cross over.
There was no more childbirth in that house.
Then Mum fell down the stairs and lay heaped all tangled at their foot. Joan collapsed in fear and breathlessness, unable to respond. But Florence Nightingale was there, and she brushed past Joan as if she didn’t exist, and she did not.
Joan sat, an old woman, in the chair nearest the librarian’s desk—her usual seat—with a book open in front of her. She didn’t remember its name. It was the last book from the last shelf and there was no reason to return to the first shelves, for although the original books had grown worn and brittle and been replaced she had seen them all, seen every one as it came into that room and touched it, held it, decided whether it could speak to her and she to it and if it could, if they could, she had taken it home. Then they had feasted on each other like Abelard and Heloise, Diarmuid and Grainne, Tristan and Isolde, she and the honey-worded book.
This last work she smoothed flat in front of her. It was a book that didn’t mind smoothing flat; it rested open like a woman after giving birth, no resistance in her spine, in her fine, yielding pages. She didn’t read this book but only gazed at it. The last book in the library. Her last book.
She did not think of them then but—Mum was gone. Dad, too, long ago. Roy—where was Roy, again? The girls had grown. They had children, or not. She saw them sometimes.
Joan looked up at the doorway. The oval pane unchanged in the wooden frame. The name of the library still stencilled backward on the glass. The street beyond was sunlit, sketches of leaf green and asphalt grey glittering through the iridescent bevels of the window.
No chill wind, no fine powder of snow, no sense that she didn’t belong. She belonged everywhere now, and everywhen. She needn’t worry about people. Needn’t prove herself to herself. Needn’t ask permission anymore.
She stayed there a long time, looking, breathing the incense of memory and page. Then she glanced down at the book, open for the last time. Without reading, she gently lifted its covers and closed them, a lovely V growing narrower till it gaped no more.