The Last Library

The steps were broken, descending into darkness. You led the way, lantern swinging, and I followed, scared. We weren’t meant to be here; this whole area off limits, but Grandpa told us, just before he died, that there was a cave full of wonders, of magic and stories, of cities under the seas and ships that sailed above the clouds. He said we would be transported to different worlds, worlds of adventure, away from the drudgery of daily life, the endless struggle to survive and the hopelessness in the eyes of our parents. He said that down here we could escape all that.

The steps were littered with debris, broken stone and earth that had slid down from above. I scuffed it aside with my boot and picked my way with care. Darkness closed around me, a cold damp chill in the musty air. My foot slipped and I reached out for the wall to steady myself, breath now short gasps.

You stopped and looked around, lantern held high, but I was okay and you smiled, the light from the lantern flickering, turning your teeth to gold.

Is it far now?” I asked. My heart was still thumping. Half of me wanted to retreat. If the elders knew we were here they would beat us. The past was something to be left behind. Only Grandpa’s voice, whispering as the fire died and our parents slept, telling us about the world that had once been. Telling us about the stories. Trying to keep alive what was now lost.

I walked in your shadow, the lantern ahead lighting the passage through the caves, a ceiling lined with roots and cobwebs. The stench of bats’ guano. The cave went on and on. Two kids in a pool of orange light, creeping through the detritus of a long dead world. Grandpa had told us what it was like─pictures that moved on a flat black wall, machines that flew in the sky, devices that would let him speak to his brother, even on the other side of the world.

One day he had shown me something. It had a handle and when he turned it there was a whirring sound, and when he stopped he handed it to me.

Press that button.” I did and I felt it click, and then the sound, a voice, singing. But not like the way people sing today, all sad and lamenting. This song was bouncy happy, and Grandpa’s eyes lit up as he listened. The song told a story, a simple tale of boy meets girl, but I was transported.

You stopped and I almost walked into your back. There were double doors ahead.

I think this is it,” you told me.

My heart beating faster, side by side we pushed. The doors resisted at first but then they gave. We stepped through and you held up the lantern, illuminating─a room, a vast room, and row upon row of─what was the word Grandpa had used?

Those must be books,” I said.

The lantern lit up your face, your wide broad smile. “Is this where we’ll find adventure?” you asked.

Yes, Grandpa said there’d be wonders and marvels and all kinds of knowledge. These ‘books’ will tell us about the past and about the future. About things we can barely imagine.”

Excitement shone in your eyes, reflecting my own. I remembered how I had listened to the song on the strange device, spinning the handle again and again to immerse myself in that voice, in that story. Every night when the toil of the day was done I would lie on my bed of bracken and straw and pull up my blanket under my chin, and spin, and spin, and listen.

Until the day it stopped. The handle came off in my hand, and try as I might I never managed to make it work again.

I looked around at the books, yearning for that song.

You reached up first, pulling one off the shelf with a flurry of dust. I leaned in close as you turned it over in your hand, holding the lantern high so that the light fell onto it, so that we could see it clearly.

How does it work?” you asked.

I took it from you. “Let me try.”

The book was a flat tablet, not cold like stone but warm like wood. There were markings on it and when I pulled at it, the book parted revealing a mass of thin layers inside. They were brittle like fallen leaves and crumbled if I pressed them too far, brown around the edges and covered in small black marks, masses and masses of them─a weird pattern of lines and circles.

I put it back. “I think that one’s broken. There should be a button to switch it on or a handle to wind it up.”

I tried another and another. The last one I let fall to my feet. I turned and saw the disappointment in your eyes.

The books were broken. Just as the world was broken.

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