The exact dimensions of Mezcla’s intestines remained a mystery to the universe. Kirat had every intention of shedding light on the matter by disemboweling the book merchant when he next saw him. Apparently the arrival of the ghost had distracted him so much that he had not noticed that some of books in his order were ensorcelled—namely the moldy series on estuary management, which overnight had extended tendrils of slime out of the coat closet where he had sequestered them, reaching over fifteen feet of marble tiling and into the card catalog. The sight of the gently pulsing mold, spread in snot-like globules over thirty square feet of floor, stunned him for a moment. The wriggle of an errant tendril awakened his rage. He snatched an oil lamp from a bracket on the wall and dashed it over the slime-slick, then spoke a word he had come upon in a very late night of reading years ago, in a book that had since transfigured itself into a clear vase of levitating bones. The oil burst into flames. The slime mold shrieked, shriveled, and after a moment ceased to move. Following the ashy trail to the coat closet, he found the books on estuary management had also shrunk to black hunks of plant matter, gently steaming and smelling even fouler than before. The card catalog, unfortunately, was still covered in gelatinous muck.
He bashed through the inner door and rattled open the fourteen locks of the outer doors. The square outside the library was empty. The scramble of early morning market traffic echoed from far away down the hill.
Kirat slammed the inner door shut behind him and stomped off on a long circuit around the library’s outer wall. The enormous age of the library meant that were it not for some temples and satellite colleges of the University, it would be indisputably in the middle of a poor, cramped area. Narrow, tall, leaning houses of great age and poor plumbing rented by laborers occupied most of the neighboring streets. This also meant that at any hour of the day one could find a gaggle of financially minded children to run errands nearby.
A likely group was playing a game with bits of chalk and wooden balls in the old square with the well. Children of various genders and sizes faced off against each other, batting the balls toward chalk-drawn patterns. This square was rarely used by adults, as the well water tasted metallic and the only points of access were narrow stepped alleyways.
Kirat made his breathing heavy and drew his claws along the stones of the library wall as he approached. As the sole nonhuman in the district he featured heavily in neighborhood mythology as a casual consumer of naughty and insouciant children, and he preferred to give those terrified by such stories a chance to flee. He sent messages by runner frequently enough that the older, more cynical children knew that though he was fearsome, he paid in gold.
By the time he reached the well itself, all the game players had fled but three. A tall, dark-haired boy, wearing a vest and pants with ragged hems, draped his arm over the well cover, a smirk on his thin face. Next to him a girl with curly hair barely contained in a kerchief crossed her arms over her chest and scowled.
“You,” Kirat said to the girl. “Two-eighths gold if you run to Illesy Hobner’s shop and bring him back with all his supplies in an hour.”
“What should I tell him?”
“Tell him Kirat wants him. A spell exploded on the card catalog.”
She nodded and went for the north alley at a run.
“You,” he said to the boy, “go down to the market and find Mezcla Jarvareth. His real name is Katan, if he denies the other. He should be in the Red Horn or the Dry Sawbill. Tell him Kirat wants him and if he doesn’t want his skin strung up on a flagpole he’ll come.”
“That’s a bad part of town,” the boy said pointedly.
“Four-eighths gold if you get him here by noon. Two if by sundown,” Kirat said.
The boy shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered toward the alley that left the square toward the west.
Kirat felt the fabric of his trousers being gently tugged, then his waistcoat. His hand snaked down and caught the tiny fist attempting to fish out the ring of keys from his pocket.
“What,” he said, incredulous. “Are you trying to steal from me?”
His disbelief increased when he hauled the culprit out in front of him. This child was too little and too shabby to guess at a gender; its face was all enormous dark eyes and locks of unkempt hair, its clothes mostly rags.
“Here, you, leave off that,” he said severely. “I haven’t got anything in my pockets that would do you any good. Go home to your mother.”
This occasioned a sneer of laughter from the boy he had sent after Mezcla, who had stopped in the alley entrance to watch. “That trash hasn’t got any mother.”
Kirat aimed his deathliest glare, and the boy fled.
The impulse that had led the tiny thing to attempt robbery was apparently spent; it stared, awe and terror written all over its angular little face.
The librarian sighed, and released its wrist; it shot after the boy.
At nine thirty, two ghosts materialized in the front room. In addition to the one in the wastepaper basket, another popped into being on a blade of the ceiling fan. This ghost did not act so distressed as the first; after a cursory inspection of the room, it zoomed through the pillared entryway to the stacks.
The other ghost, still smelling of exhaustion, didn’t even move out of the basket, but instead sat there flickering weakly.
Mezcla did not appear that morning. Illesy Hobner, however, had come promptly before nine to clean the card catalog. Illesy had graduated from the University with high honors ten years before. Due to personal inclination and a seedy family history, he employed himself producing small, portable spells for cleaning, organizing, and preserving, rather than going into politics, as other magicians of his caliber were wont to do. He did very good business and occasionally took tea with Kirat. The ashy, sticky remains of the mold could not stand up to the army of spice-charms and silver instruments murmuring tinkling anthems of cleansing that Illesy unleashed against it. The aroma of nutmeg still lingered in the air.
Carefully Kirat loaded the forty-three new books onto his cart, lifted the hinged portion of the circular desk, and pushed the cart out. On second thought, he went back to the desk and lifted out the wastepaper basket. The ghost still rested inside, shivering. Kirat set it on the top shelf of the cart and wheeled it into the stacks. Presumably the ghost had appeared for a reason, and why in a library if not for a book?
The task of distributing a cart of books throughout the enormous building usually took all day and often went late into the night. An hour into shelving the ghost poked its head over the edge of the basket and started watching him. Its faintly glowing form grew a little more substantial; Kirat could see something like a face peering at the books on the shelves. He moved the cart down another shelf, the wheels squeaking and clattering. The ghost climbed out of the wastepaper basket and floated a few feet behind him, looking up at a shelf, then stopping by a rickety ladder.
He might be able to figure out what language it was muttering, but it would take some research. Linguistic intuition was not his strong point.
It wouldn’t hurt to try something rather more basic.
(Hello!) he thought forcefully.
The ghost wheeled backward, spinning about before coming to rest on the floorboards as though it had been punched.
(Pardon), he thought at a lower volume. (I’m never sure how people who aren’t . . . what I am . . . will respond to mind-to-mind contact. Do you need to find a book?)
Kirat wheeled the cart ahead to a hefty new ladder. Two volumes under his arm, he began to climb.
The ghost rose and approached. A garble of noises, images, and ideas floated up at Kirat.
(Take a deep breath—or, ah, the equivalent), Kirat thought. He wasn’t sure if ghosts were capable of inhalation. (What I mean is, calm down. Keep only one thing in the front of your mind, and speak up.)
It was perhaps a bit too much to expect that the ghost would be able to project coherent sentences right away. When it attempted another contact, the thought he could pick out was more of a mood: one of tentative questioning, and an image of himself, looking rather large and quite alarming.
(What? What are you trying to ask?)
The ghost pushed the image at him again, this time making his ears even larger and more pointed than they were, his nose wider and flatter, his fangs larger, and the thumbs on his feet more noticeable.
(Oh—I see. Different species. Dif-fer-ent species.) The attitude of questioning remained, so he showed it a picture of a tiger and a lion. On second thought, he replaced that with a house cat and a lion.
The ghost’s thoughts now took on a tone of apologetic chagrin. Kirat waved those away impatiently with a rapid-fire succession of images—a condensed history of horrified facial expressions from students, professors, and city officials.
(Do. You. Need. Help. Finding. A. Book?) he repeated.
The ghost hovered uncertainly. The picture he received was of a man in a crisp, monotone uniform, followed by one of a door clicking closed in a white room.
(Right. Well, that doesn’t tell me anything. We’ll try something more basic. Who are you? What do you want?)
That was the wrong question; a mass of ideas and half-formed images flurried out from the ghost like a blizzard, colored and distorted by varying degrees of panic, anger, and fear.
(Excuse me!) Kirat finished shuffling books on the high shelf and clambered down from his perch. The ghost had expanded to what he guessed were close to its living dimensions: a half-head shorter than Kirat and about a quarter as wide. If it was human, he thought it was probably a short, stocky woman. He couldn’t quite find its eyes, and it shrank back down when he tried, to a huddled mass that could pass for a large dictionary.
(Can you tell me what language you are—were—accustomed to speaking? I can at least help you find a book, if not the book.)
The ghost unfolded a bit, to the approximate size of a human sitting on the floor, but he caught no words or pictures that it sent toward him. Shrugging, Kirat turned back to his cart and continued down the row.
For the rest of the morning he saw glimmers of the ghost out of the corners of his eyes. It wasn’t following him, but it would wander away for ten or twenty minutes, then pop around the corner for a moment to look at him, as though assuring itself it wasn’t lost. Then just as quickly it would slip away again. Once he pulled up sharply at the sound of a book tumbling down from a shelf. Kirat was high up in the north wing of the library in a balcony that had been converted to an extra floor, only accessible by a tricky door two stories down behind a potted plant and a bust of an irritated philosopher, so he doubted the book-dropping culprit was a student. The ghost did not show itself.
Sometime in the afternoon he remembered lunch and wended his way down to the front desk. The watch he kept in the card catalog read half past three; he did not see the ghost again that day.
As he had expected, the boy did not succeed in producing Mezcla until just before the last fingers of daylight were receding behind the temple in the square. Kirat looked over his reading glasses (an affectation, as his eyesight was excellent) at the disgruntled boy and the smirking merchant who followed him. Silently he dispensed two-eighths gold to the boy, who glared over his shoulder before strolling out.
Kirat regarded Mezcla’s thin smile grimly. He represented everything about his own kind that had driven Kirat to take up solitary residence in the library—arrogance, opportunism, odoriferousness. It annoyed him that Mezcla used a stupid made-up name instead of his proper, ordinary name, Katan; it infuriated him that Mezcla claimed a dragon in his ancestry to account for his orange-dun skin and large yellow eyes. But most of all, he loathed that Mezcla, for all his flippant attempts to cheat the library, was still the most reliable rare book merchant in the city.
“So.” Mezcla made that ponderous syllable more ponderous yet by switching into the other language they shared, unspeakable and largely unintelligible to humans; it sounded like one was trying to roar, gargle, and cough all at once.
The ritual hubris had to be dispensed with first. They swore at each other for a while, insulting each other’s spatial reasoning, dental alignment, visual acuity, number of hairs in each nostril, and so forth. Mezcla made round accusations that Kirat had never seen a mountain and had in fact been born at sea in a tub. Kirat responded that if Mezcla had ever been on a mountain it was only because he had been chased there by a flock of angry satyrs. Also, he ate his own shit.
Mezcla drew out a package of rolling papers and a pouch of unknown herbs and rolled himself a cigarette. He lit this and smirked behind it. Well, he said, Kirat drank his own piss, so what was the difference?
Kirat felt somewhat relaxed by this exchange of companionable loathing. The topic of the enchanted books on estuary management was nearly at hand, and he opened his mouth to compare the snot-slick he had found yesterday morning with Mezcla’s brains and other bits of his anatomy, when the merchant looked over his shoulder and frowned.
Had he closed up for the night? Mezcla wanted to know.
Yes, why, Kirat snapped.
Mezcla gestured over Kirat’s shoulder with the cigarette.
Kirat reached over the desk and stuck his fingers through two of Mezcla’s nose rings in case this was a trick, then turned and looked behind him. There was no one and nothing in the doorway of the library. He prepared to give the rings a mighty yank when a faint scrabble of hard feet on stone caught his ear. He bent (obliging Mezcla to bend too) and looked under the hinged portion of the desk. The scrubby child who had attempted to pick his pocket was crouched there, an expression of terrified determination on its small face. He let go of Mezcla’s nose.
The merchant moved quickly, reaching under the desk to hook the child out and set it on the desktop.
“What were you doing under there?” Kirat asked sternly.
The child only gaped.
“Here, now,” Mezcla said, adopting an easy manner that had suckered a great number of collectors of ancient books into parting with their treasures for less-than-market prices, “did you want to have a look at the library? It’s a fine place, isn’t it?”
The child suddenly decided that confession and absolution was the route to escape. “Ben said an eighth silver if I took a piece-a-paper from the little drawers and brought it to him,” it gasped.
“Don’t make deals with Ben again,” Kirat said. “If you got a card out of that catalog without my knowing it you’d deserve at least two gold.”
The child did not seem to know whether this statement implied future violence or not, so it blinked and looked pitiful.
Mezcla stubbed out his cigarette on his forearm and put it in his pocket. Kirat should know how to deal with a kid, shouldn’t he? Didn’t he have practice in this sort of thing? he asked casually, again dropping into growls and gutturals.
That was too much, and Mezcla knew it the moment he said it.
Get out, Kirat said. Get out (get out) get out (get out) GET OUT (GET OUT).
When the reverberations up and down the columns and the shuddering that shook the card catalog ceased and Mezcla was only a shadow at the far end of the square, it occurred to Kirat that he ought to have used at least a bit of his fury to demand the rebuttals to Planeth be delivered posthaste.
The child had shrunk almost as small as the ghost, trying desperately to get its short legs down onto the floor without being noticed.
“You. Did the boy this morning tell the truth, that you have no mother?” Kirat demanded.
“I don’t know,” the child said.
“What do you mean?”
It gulped. “I lives by the Temple of the River God and the Temple of the Trees. I don’t know about a mama.”
“You live in a house?”
“No, I lives by Vergil the rag picker.”
Kirat sighed and took off his glasses. “Where are you going to eat dinner tonight?”
“I don’t eats dinner at night. I go to the old bread shop in the morning and get bread there.”
“Do you mean you steal it?”
The child folded its hands and studied them. “I don’t know.”
“Do you have money other than the eighth silver Ben was going to give you?”
Kirat indulged in a great storm of self-pity as he ordered his desk, got out his keys, and straightened his waistcoat. After further contemplation, he removed a book bag of heavy canvas, the bottom stiffened with wooden slats, from underneath the desk and laid it on the counter next to the child. “Stand in here.”
It looked at him suspiciously. “You gonna eat me?”
“No. I wish to convey you to my intended destination while maintaining a modicum of certainty that you aren’t going to run off.”
The child looked at the door, looked at the bag, looked at him, and shrugged. It was really a very small child; the book bag, which Kirat carried over his arm, came up to its armpits when it was standing. He guessed it was about five, though malnourished enough to appear two years younger. He flinched at that thought.
The acolyte who opened the gate at the nearest temple, the one that backed on the library square, informed him tartly that children, particularly small, dirty ones, were not part of their holy dispensation. Kirat considered disemboweling the scrawny young man, but when the acolyte got a good look at his face following this pronouncement he slammed the gate.
The temple up the hill from that didn’t look after children either. He changed tacks and tried a few temples farther down into the slums, but there he was informed that if he had wanted to get a bed for the night he should have been there in the early afternoon when they were assigned. In growing frustration he explained that the bed wasn’t for him, it was for this minuscule human occupying the bag hanging from his elbow (and, to all appearances, enjoying the ride about in the brisk evening air), and couldn’t they spare three square feet of mattress to accommodate it? This met with blank stares and more slammed gates. At the last temple, this one nearly down to the docks, he tried a different request: he didn’t need a bed, but could they spare a piece of bread or cup of porridge for this (he gestured emphatically) small person? No, they had already served their evening meal and cleaned up.
At some point during this progression the child sat down inside the bag, curled up against the side, and went to sleep.
Kirat walked slowly back up the hill to the library. The bag drooped lower, the bottom nearly brushing the pavement. It wasn’t fair to say he’d had a premonition of what would happen this morning by the well; he hadn’t let his mind even get so far as a premonition, because to even admit the possibility made his heart clench.
He had shut the inner doors for what he had hoped would be a brief errand; now he opened them and clicked shut the fourteen locks of the outer doors behind him.
The trudge across the library to his room felt especially long. The child woke up when he set it on the hinged bed to stare groggily around the room. Kirat surveyed his provisions. The baton of bread sitting on the shelf by the fire was stale. The salt pork seemed very hard when he compared it to the child’s small teeth. He didn’t have any potatoes or onions or milk or other human foods.
The librarian stood looking at the shelf that yesterday had been very satisfactory and thought about what was not on it.
“You got honey in that jar?” the child said, calculation in its large dark eyes.
“You eats honey, with those big tooths?”
“Eat, second-person singular, teeth, plural. I put it in my tea.”
The child considered in awe the idea of such a large and gnarled creature drinking tea.
This gave him an idea; he broke off a piece of the rocklike bread and slathered it on all sides with the honey spoon. He offered the chunk, looking rather slimy and unappetizing, to the child on a chipped saucer. It was a poor excuse for a meal, but the child crunched into it, ripping off smaller pieces and inadvertently smearing honey all over its face.
A bit of memory slipped around the barrier Kirat had planted in front of that corner of his mind. He filled a pot with water and a bit of mustard and set it on the coals to boil, then added some of the pork. A teacup served as a bowl for some of this unprepossessing stew, which the child drank too fast. Sputtering, it smacked its lips and gasped to cool its burned mouth.
Kirat, unsure of what else to do, sat down in his writing chair, pulled Upon Whether Oaks Trees Mourn Their Acorns toward him, and opened it.
He read a page in silence before the child’s voice came again. “What’s that book you got there?”
Kirat told it the title.
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s a metaphor,” Kirat said shortly.
“A metaphor is a way of speaking so one thing stands for another thing. So, for instance, when the boy called you trash this morning, that is a metaphor. He was comparing you to something you are not.” Kirat flipped a page.
The child was silent. Perhaps it was thinking about the possible uses of metaphor. When he looked up he saw that it had climbed down from the hinged bed and was rolling out his mats in an interested way.
“Don’t do that,” Kirat said, annoyed. “You’ll get them dirty.”
“These got pretty pictures on them,” the child said. “Did you buy them?”
“These have pretty pictures on them. No.”
“Did you make them?” The child held one up, faded red and shredding a little bit, with a bird made of flames climbing across the surface in applique. “I likes this one.”
Kirat drew the tip of a claw across a line of text to find where he had left off.
“What’s the medafoar of the tree?”
“The tree in your book. What is it?”
“It is a multifaceted figure,” he said sourly.
The child tried to open one of the drawers in the map cabinet, found it locked, and tried another.
“What’s in here?”
“Maps of what?”
So the night continued, half line by half line, question by question, until the child fell asleep wrapped in the tattered phoenix mat, cheek pressed against the map cabinet.
Kirat read five more pages, resolutely ignoring the sound of tiny snores, until he could bear it no more and lifted the child onto the hinged bed and draped it with another mat.
“Five,” Kirat hissed to himself. “Now there are five of the things!”
Nine thirty had come and gone with no ghosts. Maybe they had gotten lost in the stacks somewhere and were unable to find their way back. At a quarter till ten, he had started to hope they were gone for good. At seven past the hour his hopes were dashed, as five ghosts pinged into existence one by one, suspended in the air around the entryway. They murmured and sighed and fluttered into the stacks. His wastepaper basket remained empty.
Kirat dipped his head to look under the desk and found the exhausted ghost was sitting on his stack of book bags.
(Good morning), he thought.
The ghost hesitated, then mimicked the greeting back at him.
The librarian looked over the desk. The child had followed him to the front desk cheerfully enough that morning after a breakfast of more stale bread and honey. He had fished a broom and a dust rag out of the coat closet and given them to it with instructions to sweep and clean. These terms were apparently unfamiliar; it was dancing a sort of waltz with the broom, periodically flapping the dust rag in the air enthusiastically. Kirat shrugged and went back to compiling a list of books on the virtues of the Hammer-Leafed Rooster Bush.
When the exhausted ghost eventually rose and wandered toward the shelves, he finished his list with a flourish, picked up a little notebook and a stub of a pencil, and followed it.
“Where you going?” the child asked, falling in behind him.
“Do you see that little bit of light up ahead?”
The child narrowed its eyes, turning its head to one side and then the other. “Maybe. I dunno. What is it?”
“It’s a . . . ahem. I believe it is a ghost.”
The child’s eyes got big in its face, and it retreated a step. “A ghost?” It backed up a few more steps. “Is it gonna eat me?”
“I doubt that is its intention,” Kirat said dryly.
The child looked back over its shoulder toward the relative safety of the desk, then at him.
“If it tries to eat you, I will set it on fire,” he clarified.
Concern did not entirely leave its small face, but it took up following him again.
The ghost fluttered a ways ahead, stopping in an alcove between a reading room and a small interior courtyard that lit the nearby shelves with a band of clerestories. Curiously enough, the ghost-light did not merge with the beam of sunlight it entered but rather became more sharply delineated as a person with round limbs and a sad face.
Kirat went down the next row of shelves. These were the new open sort he had constructed a few years ago. He looked across into the next row and saw the ghost running its fingers across the spines of the books in the alcove. He glanced at the sign at the top of the case; they were in the ethnology section, specifically folktales.
The ghost had some insubstantial mass on this plane. By strenuous pulling, then flying up to the top of the shelf and flinging itself down upon its target, it managed to dislodge a four-page pamphlet (concerning the probably apocryphal tale of the goat-headed fish-man caught in the waterwheel of Lauertas), which fluttered slowly to the floor. The ghost looked at the next book on the shelf, a hefty illustrated volume as big as two stacked loaves of bread, and slumped, resting its head on the stacks.
“Childing,” Kirat said. The addressed was amusing itself by counting the books on the lowest shelf. Apparently it only knew the first sixteen numerals, because whenever it reached this number it started over again. It looked up. “Childing, come here. Look there. Do you see the book on the second shelf there, the red one with roses on the spine?”
The child scratched its chin. “What are those?”
“Flowers. Big flowers.”
“I sees it.”
“I see it. Go around this shelf, take that book off the shelf, and open it up on the floor.”
The child trotted around the shelf and toward the ghost, which withdrew suspiciously. The beam of bright sunlight illuminated the dirt on the back of the child’s neck and a few scurrying flecks behind its ears that were probably lice. Kirat sighed. He did not have hair himself, so he was not terribly concerned about catching them, but he supposed he ought to wash his mats.
The book was quite large, so it had to be eased it out bit by bit. After it passed its midpoint, it dropped heavily, and the child staggered under the sudden weight. It set the volume down and tipped it open.
“Look, I did—cor, it’s got pictures!” Its attention was suddenly enraptured by the presence of a colored plate depicting a golden-scaled dragon writhing about a large rock.
“Yes, it has pictures. Come away. I’ll find you . . . a different book with pictures.”
As he herded the child away, he glanced over his shoulder. The ghost had floated down to the book and was slowly turning over leaves, pausing for a long time on each illustration.
The search for an acceptable book with pictures was trickier than he had first thought. The child found botanical illustrations boring, and zoological ones only held its interest so long as something or someone was being eaten. Most of the books of tales he had collected were aimed at a somewhat older audience than his young shadow, and thus depicted decapitations, dismemberments, and other sundry distressing fates with glee and in detail.
Out of sorts, he returned to the alcove. The ghost had managed to pull down two more pamphlets and was flicking through them; it had left the rose-spined book open to a leaf with a complicated engraving of a towering storm cloud. The child apparently couldn’t see the ghost now that it had moved into a shadow, and excitedly slid around Kirat to sink into a crouch over the book. It fingered the curved black lines of the tempest on the page.
“Here,” Kirat said sharply. “Just one minute.” He felt in his trouser pocket and thankfully found a handkerchief. “You’ve got grubby hands. Wipe them off before you touch that book.”
The child somewhat doubtfully complied. The librarian looked over its head at the ghost and saw that it was watching them.
(Did you find what you needed?) he inquired.
The ghost wasn’t sure.
(Do you know—do you have any idea of why you’re here?)
He heard several thoughts turn over in flashes through its mind. Finally it showed him a picture of the white, plain room again. The view suddenly swung downward; he was seeing the room from the point of someone sitting in a chair. Spread across its lap was an enormous, open book, printed on unnaturally crisp white paper. Another moment of staring brought a bewildering fact to his attention. The pages were entirely filled with complicated patterns intertwined with the runes of his own language, runes that he did not think any human had ever studied.
(Do you know what these are?) he asked, but the ghost thought it was a book of mandalas or meditation exercises.
The ghost’s memory skewed out of focus; the brushstrokes of the runes twisted and changed. Kirat supposed that if you couldn’t read them there was no reason to remember them correctly.
Reading; remembering. He blinked with sudden understanding. (So, you’re not really a ghost? You’re alive somewhere?)
The ghost supposed that it was. At least, it didn’t think it was dead. It had gone to its appointment this morning, as instructed (here a picture of another person in a plain suit producing a piece of white paper from a square box and handing it over a desk), and if the last two days were anything to go by, in a while it would wake up in that chair in the plain white room, with the book almost falling off its lap and a crick in its neck. When it knocked on the door it would be opened by the same severely uniformed man who had closed it, and there would be early afternoon light slanting in the windows in the front lobby. It would walk home slowly and try to occupy its time until dinner, when its spouse would return from a job elsewhere and cook.
Kirat rocked back on his feet and absorbed this new information. A series of events began to coalesce in his mind.
“What’s this?” the child demanded.
He rubbed his temple tiredly. “What is what?”
“This picture here.”
The book now lay open to a plate of the Tree of Life intertwined with various mythical creatures and plants. Its finger hovered over a leaf drawn with overlapping concentric circles.
“That’s an oak leaf.”
“Like your medafoar book.”
“Yes, like my metaphor book.”
The ghost had finished its pamphlet and was watching them again. It asked him, in the clearest thought it had formed yet, Whose child is that?
(I don’t know), Kirat said. (It showed up at the library yesterday and I haven’t been able to get rid of it.)
Unexpectedly he felt a terrible wave of judgment roll off the ghost’s mind. The images that flickered toward him were sharply accusatory—the child’s bedraggled clothes, its bruised feet, its dirty hair, the dirt on the back of its neck, a scabbed-over wound on its left arm, the way it kept wiping the snot dripping from its nose, its lack of name, it it it it—
(I was being flippant), Kirat thought, at a volume high enough to drown out this slideshow of guilt. (I am a librarian not a priest not a parent and I do not take in small children and anyway this one arrived yesterday so how am I to fix everything in a night, pray tell me?)
The ghost rose from the floor uncertainly and floated in the middle of the aisle. The next thought was painfully comprehensible, though not aimed at Kirat.
(I’m sorry), he responded. The ghost turned away and disappeared around the end of the row.
It took about an hour to search each floor of the library and throw out the students who had already taken up residence.
“Get out. The library’s closing early today,” he said to some fellows in tattered robes taking notes from a codex.
“But it’s only been open for three hours,” one of them said angrily.
“The library is closing early today,” he repeated in a tone that made everyone at the table shove pens and copybooks into their satchels as quickly as possible.
At noon he herded the last student out and slammed the doors. The child had shadowed him as he strode furiously about the building, hiding behind a shelf rather than face any of the aristocratic students. Several times upon turning he caught it pulling terrible faces at the back of a student’s head.
Now it stood by the desk, looking at him. “We gonna look at books now?”
“No,” Kirat said, and felt the tremendous finality of the syllable sink into his shoulders. “Now we are going to do something else.”
There was another door out of the library. Whoever had constructed it on the far north wall of the building had hidden it well in a recess below a stair fronted by a bookcase. Kirat had occupied his position a full century before he found the thin set of hinges along the edge of that section of shelving.
The child eyed the swinging shelves with great interest. “You gonna put me in that bag again?”
“We’re not going very far.”
The doorway opened in the crevasse between two old buildings that led out into a narrow street. Kirat closed and locked the little door behind him. The narrow street led down to another old square with chipped and cracked paving stones, a shallow fountain trickling water at its center. The laundry whose side wall bordered the library square opened out onto this plaza, a striped red awning over its entrance. Four women were gathered on one side of the fountain, scrubbing bits of cloth over washboards as they talked and laughed.
Kirat’s gait slowed as he and the child approached. His gaze moved over each washerwoman’s face in turn. He thought he recognized the one on the north edge of the fountain, a lean-faced woman with shining brown eyes set above high cheekbones.
Hesitantly he said, “Good day. Ialla Emeld?”
The lean-faced woman looked up from her washing to survey him curiously. “Yes?”
“I believe you have assisted me before,” he said stiffly.
She laughed. “Ialla is my name, but I don’t know you.”
Kirat opened his mouth and then closed it, completely at a loss.
A voice, hoarse with age, came from underneath the awning. “Who’s there? Do you have a bag of laundry?”
“This fellow is asking for Ialla Emeld, Grandmother,” said the woman at the fountain. “He says I’ve helped him before, but I haven’t ever seen him.”
The dry old voice laughed. “Perhaps he’s asking for the wrong Ialla.”
Kirat turned to see a very aged woman, curled white hair pulled into a tight chignon at the base of her neck, drooping eyelids almost obscuring her lively brown eyes, rise from her chair and limp toward him. His eyes picked out the familiar cheekbones and sardonic smile, and his heart sank.
“I didn’t realize it had been so long,” he said.
“We never do,” she said, planting her walking stick in front of her and folding her hands on top.
“I need help,” he said. Once the words were out, he breathed a huge sigh. “This—this child—”
“I imagine it will be easier this time around,” old Ialla said. Her eyes were sharp but not unkind.
“I’m not sure I remember how,” he said.
“You will,” she said. She nodded at the raggedy child, who had submerged both arms in the fountain and was swirling them under the soap suds. “What’s this one’s name?”
“I don’t know,” Kirat said.
“Right,” the old woman said, abruptly brusque. “Ucia!” To his surprise, the scowling girl who had run his errand to Illesy Hobner the day before appeared from inside. “Catch that little creature and give it a bath. Try to find out its name while you’re at it.” She gave Kirat a thin smile. “You might as well come in and have tea.”
The librarian sipped tea numbly in a kitchen chair while splashing, angry shouts, and squalls from the indignant child echoed from the next room. He was too old to not be resigned to the grief of remembered loss, but it had broadsided him all the same.
Ucia, old Ialla’s great-granddaughter, came back to report curtly after half an hour: the child’s name was Sal, to all appearances it was female, she had washed it and dressed it in clean clothes, and if the librarian didn’t take it away immediately she was probably going to kill it. Sal appeared behind her looking massively sullen in a too-big cotton smock. Its—no, her—washed hair had contracted into a tight mass of black curls.
At least, Kirat thought, setting down his tea cup, they don’t look alike.
At ten o’clock Sal, after attempting to re-cover her clothing in a layer of dirt garnered from dusty bookshelves, exhausted herself after running around the cloister trying to catch pigeons for an hour. Eyes barely open, she submitted to having her face wiped off with a cloth and being lifted up onto the hinged bed, where she promptly fell asleep on top of the phoenix mat, which Kirat had boiled for an hour before laying it outside to dry.
For Kirat’s part, as he had slowly gone about buying loaves of bread, jars of milk, and baskets of fruit, walking through parts of the city he had not seen in—if he let himself admit it—over sixty years, his mind steadily let loose things he had hidden away. By the time Sal had collapsed into snores, exhaustion sat on every one of his limbs and an old ache had made itself known in his heart.
The noise that caught his attention at the threshold to the map room was so faint that it might not have been audible to his physical ears at all. When he opened the door and found the ghost standing there, he knew it had not been. Its form had grown more distinct yet; he could clearly see its ears under cropped straight hair, its nose, its mouth, the bags and tear stains under its eyes. He stood aside, and it walked past him, nearly corporeal. It paused by the fireplace; he gestured at it to sit in the writing chair while he pulled a mat over for himself.
Both were still in the tremendous silence for a minute. Sal snorted and rolled over.
The ghost looked at him. I might have to—leave—suddenly, it said.
The ghost bowed its head. Sometimes it is so much to be alone, it whispered. Underneath this he saw the apartment where the ghost lived in its waking life as it had appeared earlier this evening, quiet and dark. Its spouse had worked late, and the ghost’s breathing echoed in the emptiness. He saw, too, a neat line of little capsules ordered on the table, which had been given to the ghost to help it sleep and which it had been hoarding, one by one, in a corner at the back of a cabinet, in case the quiet and the dark became overwhelming.
(So now), Kirat thought wryly, aware of the indelicacy of the question, (now you really are dead?)
Not quite, the ghost said. An image of the spouse, of uniformed men, of being strapped to a stretcher and carried. Not yet. Maybe soon. But when I closed my eyes and expected to be alone, I was here instead.
(Perhaps that is not so bad), he said, then tried again. (If you are waiting, maybe it is better to do it with someone else.)
The ghost said it had been waiting for a long time. The story it carried was so tightly compacted into every particle of its being that when it unfolded it came all in a violent rush. Kirat reminded himself that he was too old to not be resigned to grief and too old to be surprised at the terrible things humans did to each other, and did not flinch. The ghost had been something of a political dissident when it was young, in a country far away. When it could not be argued down, older and crueler methods were used to make it shut up. When it was so broken it was ready to die, the regime that had brutalized it had ironically found itself overrun by a new empire, a new army, a new set of ideas. The ghost was too small and too damaged to threaten this new government, so it and its spouse were sent to a doctor to be recovered to life and usefulness. It was given the book of runes as part of a daily study of tranquility; it found itself in the library. And now it was a shadow that spoke with the librarian by the quiet fire.
Kirat listened and did not know what to say. He did not know how to explain what keeps one going on after the world has ended again. How does one know the way ahead when one has traveled so far and so long that the path behind has been lost? Who does a traveler become when the home left behind has disappeared?
How did he not fear the future when the mountains where he was born had been forgotten, and the ships that he sailed over the sea had been sunk and rotted to nothing in harbors where sailors no longer docked? How could he find it in himself to start again with another child when the child before had grown and gone to someplace he didn’t know, and probably died there too?
They sat and were silent together until pale light came through the clerestories and the ghost faded away.
A week later Mezcla strolled up to the front desk, the morning sunlight through the open doors making him more orange than usual.
Kirat had taken old cards out of the catalog and written letters on them in red ink, and Sal was deeply involved in arranging them on the floor inside the desk in various pleasing patterns. In another day or two he planned to begin instruction in the dark art of spelling.
With Mezcla was another, shorter merchant of their species, his skin dark with age. He did not deal in books, but he stopped into the library every ten years or so to drink mildly poisonous alcohol and trade stories with Kirat.
The librarian was too distracted by the large sunburst of consonants that Sal had constructed to trade satisfactory insults. An amused look danced over the short merchant’s face.
I’m not sure I can do this again, Kirat growled.
If you’ll remember, the merchant said delicately, we offered to take the first child. And you refused.
The merchant ran an appreciative hand over the inlay on the desk. This is new since the last time I was here, he said approvingly. You will remember a certain of our countrymen, and here he named a name that Kirat knew, of a sorcerer and a scholar older than either of them. He was chartered to undertake a certain work, by an emperor far away—a casting spell.
What business has he working for humans? Kirat snapped.
Perhaps he wouldn’t, if the work itself weren’t worth doing, said the merchant. It is a casting spell written in runes to throw a broken spirit far from the body that holds it.
Kirat let his head drop into his hands. Your timing is abysmal, he said, and as if to emphasize his point twenty-four ghosts appeared like floating dandelion seeds around the desk, swooped around the front room, and flew toward the books. Why here? Why me?
They are looking for answers, the merchant said. And a library is as good a place to start as any.
Sal chose this moment to ask for more cards, preferably with man-eating beasts on them.
The merchants’ laughter echoed up into the dome.
Sharon J. Gochenour is a writer, student, and researcher. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived and worked in Boston, Tokyo, Madrid, and Kyoto and now resides in Switzerland.