When the light began to dim and the windows let long slices of sunlight peep in and stretch across the stubbly carpet, the silence changed. It went from the modest quiet during the day that hinted at the little things being done in the corners and the distances. There was the sweep of one paper against another and the murmur of a pen pressed too hard, sounds that crept through the air to slide under the general feeling of soundlessness. As the day grew longer the silence lost those little things. There was no shuffling of papers and no scribbling of pens. The dust settled on the shelves and the desks and the sunlight reached long golden fingers into the building, grasping one last time before it gave up and retreated behind the horizon.
That time was the librarian’s favorite time. The sun striped the shelves and warmed the darkening rooms, and the spines of the books seemed to huddle together as the light dripped from them again. She always sat and watched as the window shifted from the reflected gleam of a bright sky to the glow of the sunset. When she flicked the lamps on the glaring bulbs splashed loud white light onto the walls, and made her flinch. People tended to stop coming later in the day. They had been working or doing or living all day, and they could run an errand for a book until they got home, and then they didn’t leave again. Stories were for the daytime, and at night they made their own dreams.
When the last person gathered his notebooks and slid his books through the slot – with a thump that slapped at the stillness – she stood up, stretching the curve of her spine and the ache in her calves. The scrape of the chair legs over the carpet rasped and rang out in the empty library, and she walked with slow and careful steps so as not to disturb the sleeping books. The emptiness meant she could fill the room.
She walked through one aisle lined by shelves and down another. The books clustered until the ceiling, dizzying her with the words they held. There was a novel nudged out from the line of books all pushed flat against the edge and waiting with hushed expectation. It was cool in her hand, and she flipped it open to somewhere in the middle. The page was crowded with words, and as she bent her head to them they cleared. She read a chapter there. A young man was hurrying home, and he didn’t know what was waiting at the doorstep. When he found the letter, innocent and plain on the slats of the porch, he had to sit hard on the wood amidst the gathering prickle of sweat on his face and under his arms. She closed the book before she saw what the letter said, and moved on to the next row.
An encyclopedia there caught her eye, and she turned the whispery thin pages with timid fingers. She read about the city of Fez, and the pilgrims who visit there to wander amongst the tombs of saints and scholars. There was no picture, so she had to imagine the people who had traveled so far, standing breathless and disappointed in a small dusty building. The encyclopedia fit neatly back between the others, and she walked on.
In the next path between the towering shelves she chose a book of short stories and read about a little boy who forgot to make cookies with his mother. It tore her between his fierce joy at reaching the fourth branch of the tree and her small sigh, held tight in her lungs, as she put away the whisks and chocolate chips.
The librarian shuddered and moved to the next, where she read a scene with a girl walking home from school, her head lowered under the gaze of the boy across the street. It caught her between pleasure and fear.
On the next shelf a book showed her an old man sitting in his apartment surrounded by the trappings of his life, all yellowing and threadbare. He was looking at the photographs that weathered even in tarnishing frames, and the faces that stayed grinning and glad.
The librarian read a few pages of a nonfiction book that crouched between soldiers hidden and shaking, shots bursting the calm and hearts pounding.
Next a story of a woman curled in the warmth of a lover, trembling with sobs.
Book after book the librarian flipped pages and read until her eyes blurred with strain in the shadows. From one story to another she walked, pulling a moment off of a shelf and then replacing it to find the next. She stepped from one story to the next until the light slipped through the cracks again to remind her that it was nearly morning. Then she left them behind to go back to her desk, to shuffle papers and scribble with pens in the comfort of the silence, to busy herself until she could be alone again with the library.