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Somewhere between the covers of hard-bound books, lost among the individual pages and all those trodden over stories, are the remnants of a forest that has been mulched and shredded and processed until nothing of the past remains. Though, if all those books stacked five, six shelves high, were comprised of a once-upon-a-time tree, then the library, in essence, could still be thought of as a forest unto itself. Every weekday morning the librarian walked up the steps to this library, unlocked the front door, and entered the once upon a forest.
On those mornings, the lights flickered on, and stayed on all day, while he sat at his desk next to the window watching the sun rise. He sipped his one cup of black coffee, sighing as it warmed the back of his throat. Something about that taste and the early morning, that bitterness with hints of smooth, underlying flavors of vanilla and caramel that even just the smell alone caused his synapses to start firing and his saliva to run.
After the sun rose, he shifted his gaze, coffee still in hand, toward the stacks upon stacks of books. Fiction, non-fiction, magazines, and newspapers, each with a specific purpose and a particular audience. But that was the case with everything these days, so many varieties. What amazed him was the books themselves—not so much the words printed, but the actual pages. The shelves of books, while no longer resembling anything of a viable ecosystem, called him to walk amongst them every day. It was a beautiful hike. The branches of any given subject reaching out and asking him to pause. He especially loved the smell, the old-growth smell of dust and time and the lost secret stories of those who’d climbed the branches to look out over landscapes so foreign they awakened nostalgia for locations not yet seen. Sometimes, with age, a leaf would fall from one of the branches and he’d have to take it in the back, into the woodshop, and fix with adhesives and plastics.
While most people in town needed something real, to feel the warm breeze on their face as they touched the scaly plates of a Jeffrey pine, he was happy in the imagination of his own private forest. Folks wouldn’t have known he didn’t care for the fresh air and clouds overhead or the smell of pine needles roasting in the hot sun. He felt comfortable, safe even, within the confines of surrounding walls and ceilings overhead. The reading of daring adventures of mountain men of the past, or hikers of the now, sustained any desire he might suddenly have to venture into the great outdoors. His forest, the library, was enough.
In fact, most people didn’t know the librarian. They knew of him, but they didn’t know him. Not really. They didn’t know he enjoyed reading romance novels after finishing books that required thought or patience of the soul. He read them to remind himself that life wasn’t always so serious; there were things filled with such frivolity he couldn’t help but laugh out loud. They didn’t know, despite his calm demeanor and soft-spoken presence, his nature veered toward the cynical in such a way he saw the rain long before any clouds ever appeared in the sky. Why not? He’d shed enough tears to know that for every tear a bit of innocence disappeared; another darkened room in the soul that became sealed up, boarded up, and nailed shut. Pain, real pain that lingers just underneath the folds of wrinkled skin, doesn’t go away; rather, it hardens through the course of time until it’s just layers and layers of impenetrable callousness. Eventually, like the wandering Ronin, a person’s empathy becomes nothing more than a suit of cold armor letting nothing in.
Some people call it desensitization.
It’s as good a term as any.
When he did cry, though, he found himself weeping over mundane things most people didn’t think much about. A montage of adults receiving their Cochlear implant, their shock and joy so beautiful he wondered if anything in the world might be as wondrous; the girl who wanted to sit on Santa’s lap, but she couldn’t hear, so the Santa spoke in sign; ASPCA commercials and filmed moments of dogs getting adopted—the sad, forlorn look in eyes of those who had nothing to show for their life but a cage juxtaposed with the moment love is found and freedom gained. He cried because of the innocence that still existed in the world, though rare, could still be seen in those images and it broke his heart to think of it vanishing. Such small little grains of sand along a beach of vast disillusionment should be preserved and cherished.
Those were the kinds of things he kept hidden from the public, so that when he unlocked the front door and began to allow people in, they received a pleasant smile and softly spoken words. He wasn’t sure what it was; people, for some reason, seemed to stand a little taller, shine a little brighter when he greeted them. The way he figured it, everybody wants to be treated nicely by the librarian. Maybe it was centuries of fearing librarians through worn out stories of forced silence, passed down from one generation to the next. And suddenly there’s that wink and a grin and nod of the head. In his ability to calm and welcome, the librarian felt he was a steward of the land, a keeper of the sacred—and nothing could be more sacred than the timeless forest. And his forest remained a place of stillness and reverence as patrons slid out one book or two, poured over the words, glanced at pictures, brought them to the counter in hopes of bringing the books with them on their short journey home through the little town of Rush Creek. In conversation, either with him or each other, their soft and androgynous voices barely escaped beyond the body of the other person.
The first customers of the day were the usuals, the ones who enjoyed coming in to read something hot off the presses for a quick dose of today. Then came in the book returns. Some folks asked for help with research they were conducting while others looked for a specific title by a specific author, which would then have to be put on hold until a patron from the sister branch returned the only copy that was out.
Then came in the twelve-year-old. With his dad.
The librarian knew this kid, everybody knew this kid. Can’t be an anomaly in Rush Creek without having people know who you are. Most people noticed his fluorescent white skin, where purple-blue veins snaked up his arms and neck, before taking in his face; the librarian was no different. Only when the boy caught his attention, did the librarian noticed the kid’s puffiness. Not fat. Puffy. Sick, medication-induced puffiness that caused his cheeks to swell, pushing in his lips and nose and causing the skin around his eyes to darken the shadows already there. He shuffled in, wearing open-heal slippers with baggy sweat pants and a loose, oversized t-shirt. Around his neck were enormous earphones with pillow-like edges so, the librarian assumed, they did not chafe or let in outside sounds; the cord flopped with each shuffle because it wasn’t connected with any kind of technology. The lights of the library, as soft as they were, reflected off the top of his head.
The dad smiled at the librarian and he ushered the boy through the forest and then to the small desk in the back corner reserved for study. The boy sat, placing the headphones around his ears. When he turned around, he made eye contact with the librarian and smiled.
A stack of books eventually began to pile, Christmas books judging from the covers of some of them. How quickly the librarian’s mind flashed to the image of rounds of wood stacked neatly after being split into manageable pieces of firewood. This man and his son made slow but steady work of their woodpile as they continued their quest for new material. Having brought the individual books over, the dad would read in such soft sentences he sounded like he was absolving the sins of each patron in his own special way. The librarian wondered how the child could have heard what was being said, with the headphones on, but somehow it worked for them. Sometimes his son would nod his head and would take the book and look through it on his own while his dad went on the search for more. They were men working in trees in their own right. Scouring the forest for more lumber to saw through. Then split. Then return to his boy who would stack the previous load. They must have been at least twelve books high before approaching the librarian.
“Do you have any more books about Christmas?” the dad asked. “I think I just about tapped what you have on the floor.”
“Yes. Anything really. Decorating, fiction, projects. It doesn’t really matter.”
“I don’t believe I have anything else besides what’s out there. Have you looked in the children’s section?”
“We have. There were quite a few, but, again, I think I tapped the source.”
“Let me look through the decorations in back. See what I have.” The librarian stood, making his way to the back room where he kept the Christmas gear while the dad went back to his son.
The librarian’s hands rifled past the decorated miniature trees, little houses with snowy roofs, oversized snowflakes, and inedible gingerbread men covered in the greasy fingerprints of kids who were asked to not touch but did so anyway. He pulled out the various Santa Clause figures representing different ideas from around the world: Ded Moroz, Yulemanden, Sinterklass, Papa Noel, Jultomten, Los Reyes Magos. He’d kept some books there, mostly the books that didn’t get checked out unless placed on display and he only put them on display in December. He grabbed all that he had, having a pretty good idea why those two would read about Christmas in August, and walked the trail through the forest to the little cabin in the back where the boy and his father waited.
The librarian was thanked and he saw, on the table, a letter to Santa. The few words he was able to glance at listed some of the books the boy had read and highly detailed pictures from others.
“Can he hear me?” the librarian asked pointing to his own ears.
“Oh, yeah. He says they help keep him focused. They keep the thoughts inside his head.”
The librarian knelt down, “What’ve you got there?”
The boy looked up at his dad, who replied, “He’s writing a letter to Santa, asking him if he can deliver to our house during the summer.” The man paused, measured his words, and their volume, with delicacy. “He wants to have one last Christmas with us.”
“I understand. If you need anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask.” he said in front of a child who seemed to truly believe, or believed he would not be there in December. The librarian could feel it, the innocence, as if he could pull it close and make sure it didn’t disappear into the void of discontent. He marveled at the child’s strength of knowing what the future held.
No child should have to sit and wait with death before taking its hand.
The boy and his dad continued to talk, to write, to look through the books that had been specially delivered. The librarian sat sentry at his desk, stealing glances when he could. After a time, he noticed the dad meticulously returning each of the books he’d pulled from the shelves while the boy held the special deliveries close to his chest.
“I can take care of that for you. It’s not a big deal,” the librarian said as he approached the dad. “Go home. Enjoy your afternoon, have an ice cream.” The dad nodded and touched his son’s shoulder. The boy removed his headphones and put the books down on the desk. They walked out in much the same manner as they’d come in.
And just before the door closed behind them the boy came shuffling back in. By himself.
He tapped the librarian, “Can you mail this for me?”
“I think your dad would be happy to do that.”
“I don’t think he’d mail it. I think he’d want to hold onto it.”
The librarian got down to eye level. “I sure can.”
The boy hesitated for a moment, but handed over the letter. He didn’t turn around, just stood there as if looking for the strength to even speak. Up close he looked weak. He stared at the librarian, through to the soul.
“I like it here.”
“Do you? Why’s that?”
“It reminds me of a forest. You know, those tall shelves like the trees in the forest.”
“You think so?”
“I guess. Maybe it’s just peaceful. My dad tells me stories about how he loves walking in the forest because it’s peaceful. But I don’t like it out there... I like it in here.”
“I feel the same way.”
In their mutual understanding, they held each other’s gaze. For a moment. A blip in the fog of the moment. And then the boy broke the bond between them, “I know someone is able to deliver presents, how else do they get under the tree? But the original Santa isn’t real, at least not anymore. He’s a saint, which means he was a real person... Then he’s probably in Heaven, right?”
“So it’s possible he knows I’ve written the letter?”
“Yeah, I’d say it’s quite possible.”
“Then… do you think Santa gives presents to kids in Heaven?”
The librarian, still at eye level, whispered, “I do.”
Then the boy smiled. A smile so small it would’ve been hardly noticed by anybody watching from a distance. But in that small crook in the corner of his mouth, mountains moved, weights lifted, and he floated on angel wings out the door and back to his dad.
He was the last customer. A vault of secrets himself, and he donned the cloak of purity for the sake of those who looked in on him and wanted so badly to see a sick child. Even then, he had that innocence tucked away with hope, that, maybe in death there was something worth running toward on the other side. The librarian flipped the sign and began rearranging the forest, placing split rounds back into circulation as if it were that easy to reimagine the existence of a living tree. Even though they would not see the light of day for another four months, he held them delicately. Because he knew their purpose, and how strong that purpose would be for the next person to look through them.
Surrounded by stories in an old growth forest, the librarian decided to postpone his own leaving for home. He needed to be alone, safe to cry with his emotions floating off into the annals of so many other well-kept secrets. Something about seeing his own reflection in the eyes of a dying child that he needed to ponder. There had to be meaning in that.
There had to be.
The librarian locked the door to his forest so the rest of the town was kept out, and went into the grove to lie beneath the trees.