The Night Library


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4 min
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E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist - She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Find her at www.elizabetheveking.com and  [+]

Image of Short Circuit #04

© Short Édition - All Rights Reserved

I heard it before I saw it, a jingling of bells like the soundtrack to a corny Christmas movie. Then out of the mist rolled a small carriage, round and bright as a converted pumpkin. Florescent paintings of outlandish birds, fantastical butterflies and exotic flowers vined up its curving sides. Each leaf and every feather were edged in iridescence and shifted between violet and gold with the slightest of movements. The coach was pulled by a small, sturdy donkey, as black as a starless, moonless night. He shook his head and whinnied, though, in greeting or warning, I couldn’t tell. But he looked harmless, so I patted him on the nose and walked up the bright blue steps that had mysteriously dropped from entryway to ground. The door swung open as soon as I touched it. The interior was well-lit, redolent with ink and the musty coffee-chocolaty scent of unopened books. Behind the small beige desk at the entryway sat an old woman. I knew at once she was a librarian. Her grey hair was pulled back tightly from her smiling face. A pair of tortoiseshell pince-nez perched delicately on her angular nose like two small, round birds. Her washed-out blue, hand-knit cardigan sweater was open, revealing a neat button-down white shirt, pewter-green tweed skirt, and sensible black rubber-soled shoes with dark, thick wool stockings. Around her neck hung a golden key.
“Welcome to the Library of Unwritten Books,” she said. “I am Agnus Inkhorn, librarian.”
The library overwhelmed me. Rows and rows of unknown pages dwindling off into infinity like an undiscovered country.
“How many unwritten books are there?” I asked.
“More every day,” she said. “Millions are dreamed each night and forgotten every morning.”
“Are these all dream novels?”
“Oh no, only a few people dream whole novels in their sleep, most dream short stories at best, and still more dream nonsense. But a few,” the old woman sighed. “A few are pure genius.”
“Do you get to read them?” I asked.
“Oh no. No one does.”
“Then how do you know they’re genius?”
“How do you know you’re in love?” She smiled.
“Are lost books here too? Like the Library of Alexandria?”
“No, that’s a different division.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “There’s the Library of Burned Books. The Library of Destroyed Novels. Did you know that Steinbeck’s first work was eaten by his dogs?”
“Oh no,” I gasped.
“Oh yes, and a good thing too. It was pure drivel. It gave the Great Dane diarrhea, the Dalmatian indigestion and almost killed, Sydney, the pug. He’d always had a delicate digestive system, a keen ear for dialog, and just couldn’t stomach glutinous prose. Let’s see then…” she continued counting, “there are Novels Imagined in Comas, The Half-finished, but Fully Plotted and Abandoned Novels, The Books Lost in Computer Crashes, The Library of First Drafts, The Library of Second Drafts, The Unfinished but Not Yet Completely Discarded Novels... But here, we only carry the completely unwritten, but fully planned ones.”
It was my turn to sigh. I had more than a few of those.
She nodded. “Yes, there are two shelves devoted exclusively to you.”
My heart swelled with pride. “May I see them?” I asked.
“Look, but don’t touch,” she pointed. Pale and soft and squeezed together like uncooked loaves on a baker’s oven, my unwritten books stood, waiting for a pen.

“What happens if I write one?”
“They move back into your drawer, err–” she checked a notepad, “your computer hard drive.”
“What are your favorites?” I asked, wondering if mine might be among them.
“I’m quite fond of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Boffing Earnest, not written while he was in prison, Ambrose Bierce’s Occurrences in Mexican and Beyond, Hemingway’s Farewell to Murder, tales on the evils of hunting, and Rudyard Kipling’s anti-imperialist saga Just-Justice Stories.
“May I read them?”
“No, no one can, even we can’t read unwritten works.”
“Then how do you know what they contain?”
She just smiled another wise, all-knowing and completely infuriating grin.
“Are there music libraries of unwritten compositions too?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I believe there’s a whole branch dedicated to the unwritten second songs of one-hit wonders.”
“How can I become a librarian?” I asked. She said not a word, but the corners of her mouth turned upward in that omniscient, maddeningly, complacent grin. I wondered if Buddha’s disciples had ever wanted to punch him. I was reluctant to leave, but it was very late, or perhaps very early.
“How can I find you again?” I asked.
“Our hours and location are clearly posted, and unwritten. But don’t worry, you will find us when the weight of unrecorded words becomes too heavy to bear.”
And so I departed, home to sleep and dream of stories. The visit inspired me, not to write, but to imagine. I began to plot out novels in my head, with intricate themes, numerous characters, complex scenarios and intense inner dialogue. It was difficult to keep straight without notes. I imagined I could jot down sketches and make annotations as long as I didn’t actually create the book, but I was determined to be a purist.

I began constructing elaborate memory houses, each room held a different character. I created mnemonics for the plot lines, and rhymes so I could remember characters’ ages and relationships. I worked and reworked them, envisioning new versions materializing daily. How impressed the librarian would be by my diligence. I was in the middle of my unwritten masterwork, a family saga spanning twenty generations. It was inspired by One Hundred Years of Solitude and all the characters, even the men, were named Elizabeth. I had just stepped off the curb at Market and Divisadero, lost in the travails of the lovely Elizabeth, when a cable car jumped off its rails and barreled down on me like a runaway plot.

***

When I came to, I was seated behind a tiny beige desk inside a brightly painted cart pulled by a sturdy, dappled gray donkey, its pale almost bluish spots, glittered slightly like moonlight shining through trees. It wore a brilliant pink bridle decorated with crepe flowers and rhinestones. How did I know this? I knew it in the way one knows one is in love.
The door sprang open. A young man entered. He was tall and had a beard as full as a basket weaver’s bird nest. His thick black glasses, held together with masking tape, concealed surprisingly vibrant green eyes.
“Welcome to the Library of Unfinished Manuscripts,” I said. “I am June Penworthy, librarian.” The young man nodded, then hurried eagerly to the shelves. After a short while he turned back to me, his elation tinged with a hint of disappointment.
“I have not finished at least ten manuscripts,” he said. “But there are only three on the shelves.”
“Ah,” I asked. “Have you well and truly given up on them? For it is only when a novel is completely and totally discarded that it appears here. Shelf space is not infinite you know.” Though even as I said that, I knew it was not true.
“Have any of them been reviewed?” he asked, pulling nervously on his beard.
“Oh yes,” I said. “But only the unwritten parts.”
“Can I read them?” He rubbed long slender fingers together and his eyes glittered hungrily.
“Perhaps,” I replied. “But they are in the Library of Unfinished Reviews. It’s housed in a wagon pulled by a jackal.
He shuddered, even though the library was warm, and walked silently off into the night. But I knew he would be back, inspired by this visit to discard and begin again an impressive collection of unfinished works.
Perhaps, one day, if he committed to never completing anything, he too could become a librarian.

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