Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
There was nothing about the old library on the corner of South and Second Street to stamp it as anything out of the ordinary, save for its size. The library was so enormous that it was possible (and not infrequent) for visitors to become lost in itfor hours at a time. With so many shelves to roam through however, the patrons seldom minded an occasional misdirection.
Unmolested, readers borrowed books, returned them, stole them, and guiltily replaced them with a regularity of a well-constructed clock. Every bookcase in this nameless library was an amiable companion to this cycle. Every bookcase but one. Most readers overlooked it because it was the smallest bookcase in The Library, housing only five shelves just wide enough for five books apiece.
The first five books were fairly well-worn, clearly having been devoured by some multitude of avid readers. The five on the second shelf were significantly less worn. The third shelf had gathered a respectable layer of dust, as though the books on it had been read but rarely. The last two shelves had never been touched at all.
It was here that the Librarian presided, never speaking a word or blinking an eye unless a reader came to ask for a book from this case.
Fame of these guarded books spread as fame always does; in whispers behind closed doors, mutters buried in coffee mugs at chic cafés, drawled through the fog of post coital cigarettes. The tales in the books were marvelous! Singular! Masterworks that could be found nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
nowhere else in the world. The last ten books remained untouched.
Those brave enough to go after them came in droves, offering up jewels, checks, tax exemptions, even Swiss bank account numbers in vain; no bribes would change the Librarian’s counteroffer. When bribery failed, they came with legal threats, city ordinance slips, guns, gas cans and matches. The Librarian’s answer remained unchanged: “One year per book.”
In sheer desperation most acquiesced in the end. Quite a number of them offered up five, and a brave handful volunteered for ten. Only three individuals ever opted up for fifteen, reaching with trembling hands for the first of the three shelves they had earned.
In mingled fear and triumph they would read while the Librarian sat like a monstrous frog, digesting silently.
One day a woman came into the library, wasted no time scouting the larger shelves or safer classics, and strode instead straight to the little bookcase. The Librarian eyed her with dim interest; she carried neither a gun nor a checkbook.
Business was business, however, so it simply grunted: “One year per book.”
The woman scanned the shelves, moving her lips as she silently counted twenty-five books.
“One year per book?” she repeated doubtfully.
The Librarian blinked. It was unused to being asked to repeat itself.
“From which direction?” The woman pressed. At the look of vague puzzlement she got in response, she clarified, “Are you taking the years that I have already lived, or the years I have yet to live?”
The Librarian had not truly considered the point before, but after a moment of deep thought (and oh how the poor thing had to strain its limited vocabulary!) it managed to proudly sound out, “Un-lived years.”
The woman frowned and chewed her lip as she scanned the shelves again. “Can I offer up one rather than the other?”
The Librarian’s head was beginning to ache a little, but dutifully it pulled up The Old Rules from its memory and answered at last with a vaguely surprised: “Yes.”
The woman did not hesitate. “I will offer up twenty-five of the years I have already lived in payment after I have read the last word of the last book.”
The Librarian once more dragged out the Rules from the dusty archives of its memory, and finding post-payments to be permissible, heaved its massive body out of the way of the shelf. Lips faintly trembling, the woman pulled down the first book.
For twenty-five days the woman sat nearly as motionless as the Librarian itself, moving only to turn the pages of the precious books or to fetch the next in the series. Tome after tome she devoured eagerly, finding that the vibrant contents nourished her body as well as her mind. Knowledge grew like fire behind her eyes.
The Librarian settled comfortably into its cushion of flesh. Along the slow singular thoughts that made up its brain, it began to wonder if lived years tasted differently than the unlived. Perhaps they would be more flavorful and satisfying.
At last, on the twenty-fifth day, the woman closed the last book with an abrupt snap and stood up to face the Librarian. Even the Librarian could not bring itself to look directly at her, so brilliantly did the light burn inside her. Into endless unrepeated colors and patterns it fractured like a kaleidoscope. Thus burning the woman approached the Librarian.
The Librarian was almost eager as it grasped the woman’s shoulders. Slowly it lowered its great toothless maw to bear on hers and began to draw the years out. First one year, and then another and another until her college years, boyfriends, hiking trips and birthdays blurred together into one great rush of scent and taste and color into The Librarian’s gulping mouth.
The Librarian’s stomach roared in triumph. The lived years were as full flavored as a well-aged wine. Greedily, it sucked them down.
The woman flinched under the onslaught as great ragged chunks of her life disappeared in bite-shaped rips, leaving only the books behind. The Librarian continued to draw, satisfied for the first time in its long life as the twenty-first of the twenty-five years was digested.
The flood of color became brighter, more flavorful. Eagerly, the Librarian latched on tighter to the limp woman, gorging itself until it swelled up like a great snake. Then all the color ceased midway through the last year. Color and sound was replaced by dimness, muted measured beats swallowed into a great pinky-wet blackness. At last the flood stopped, and the woman vanished beneath The Librarian’s meaty hands.
All the years she had lived stripped away, the girl kicked happily back in her mother’s belly. Her head swum with such wonderful stories, companions in the waiting darkness. When she was birthed a few short months later the doctor remarked that he had never seen a newborn with such brilliant eyes. She nursed greedily and grew quickly.
Her primary school teachers reported that she showed signs of creative genius. The praise of her teachers was disturbingly intermingled with disciplinary notes for the frequent theft of other student’s lunches. Hunger grumbled like a half-wakened bear in her belly when she lay in bed at night. Her mother remarked that she had never seen such a good child at the dinner table – she never wasted a single bite.
She began to write down the books in between lessons during her freshman year of high school. She was touted as an internationally celebrated author before she was thirty, beloved for her twenty-five book series. And if any eccentric elderlies recognized the first few books in the series, they never let on.
In the old library at the corner of South and Second Street, the Librarian began to feel the first stirrings of alarm. In the months since the wide publication of the new books, the few brave souls who came for the guarded books only read a few pages before returning the books in disgust.
Apparently the word must have spread. Within a matter of weeks, the years that had flowed to the Librarian slowed to a trickle. Then they stopped completely.
As the Librarian sat alone in its little corner, unease gave way to fear. A great emptiness yawned within its belly. When the hunger had grown to true desperation, the Librarian heaved itself to its feet with a wordless grunt and dragged its massive form to the bookshelf. One by one, it seized the books and stuffed them into its drooling maw.
When the bookcase was empty, the Librarian sat down again, staring stupidly at the blank shelves. The defiled books sat like sodden ashes in its belly. It whimpered once, clutching its belly. Starvation swept like a desert wind through its body. It shuddered once and then never moved again.
The newly famed writer was suffering in her own right. She hired on three full-time chefs; hunger never stopped twisting in her belly even as her flesh began to mound up like risen bread dough. A great black crevasse widened by the day in her belly.
Even as her stomach emptied, her mind swelled with desperate understanding of the possibilities of the world. Strange thoughts that she barely understood bled through the levels of her consciousness until they clawed at her sanity. Hunger and truth and wisdom and fear battled like crazed beasts inside of her until the fabric of her mind stretched to the breaking point.
One day, as her pregnant mind swelled like an overripe grapefruit, one last idea of self-preservation surfaced; her very last. She retreated into her private study, sat down at the typewriter her parents had given her to celebrate her first book, and began to hammer away. On and on she went, emptying all the terrible beauty in her head into their pages until there was nothing but idiot white peace at last.
Twenty five manuscripts lay innocently on the table. She contacted a professional book-binder with mechanical pleasantry. She used childlike, single syllables to explain her request. He came and bound the new books in simple leather covers, numbered one through twenty five. Only once out of sheer curiosity did he crack one of the books open.
Between the power of the words he found there and the weight of the writer’s hungry gaze on him, he firmly shut the book again. When he finished binding the last book, he dutifully carted them and the writer to the massive library on the corner of South and Second Street.
Together they trundled the precious books to the smallest shelves in the library. The writer easily kicked aside the withered husk of the old Librarian, which crumbled into dust at the first blow. She settled herself down beside the shelf.
She would never be hungry again, she knew now. When the visitors realized that there were new books to be read, she knew just what to do, and she was happy. With the first new readers, she proudly offered them a new trade:
“Two years per book.”