In the stacks, my soul is tossed like a tumbleweed.
For every book here that I have read, there are many thousands more—and each one is a ghost, knocking at my skull and demanding entrance. But since I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t answer their calls, and instead just walk slowly up and down the narrow aisles, arms outstretched, fingers gently whispering against the old cloth and leather bindings. I’m always amazed how some feel so warm to the touch, and others chill the fingers and send shivers to my shoulders.
College has been a pain in the ass, and there are days I wish it was over and I was home in Abilene, back on the farm, and feeling cowhide that still contained the cow. But on late nights, when the rest of the campus is buzzing with their frat parties or looking for love, I’m always drawn back to these dark, narrow library stacks.
My favorite time of year is just after mid-terms, when pretty much every student has found excuses for better places to be, with people whose lives are not measured in the decades since the birth of the printing press. On those days I find myself more often sharing the late-night stacks with old gentlemen, as dry as the leaves of these books, and with as much dust in their hair as these books have on their spines.
Most share a similar look, cut from the same old tweed and straw—retired professors, mostly, who haven’t published since the Nixon administration, but still think their next breakthrough insight is hidden somewhere inside this endless maze.
Mostly, they don’t speak. But they always smile, and they always step aside when they see me enter an aisle.
This past year, as my college career has waned, I’ve found joy in studying the straw men over the tops of these gilt edges, imagining I hear their bones creaking and crackling like old glue, volumes opened for the first time in decades.
It was on one of these late-night stack wanderings that I first saw him.
Older than some. Not as old as most; at least not from what I could see between his floppy hat and upturned collar. I could see the beard that overflowed his coat, which buttoned up to just below his knotted yellow tie. It was a beard of more salt than pepper, and it framed a shadowed face with heavy lids, capped by glasses that distorted his drooping eyes behind impossibly thick lenses.
I don’t quite know why I noticed him, in particular. Perhaps it was because the library seemed especially deserted that night, so there was little else to catch my eye. Or perhaps it was the way he navigated his way through the silence.
Books can take your breath away, to be sure, but they rarely still the rise and fall in your chest for very long. And as I watched the old man in the heavy coat, standing like a redwood among the French poetry, I could swear he wasn’t breathing at all.
One aisle over, I peered at the back of his motionless neck through the shelves, and the only sound I could hear was his thin, bony hand, turning the pages.
Each page was a whisper; a timid mouse poking its nose out of the baseboard and then disappearing again. The moments between those pages were sometimes short and sometimes long, but the stillness between them stirred a loneliness in me that settled like a cloak around my shoulders.
I can’t say I watched him for long. I can’t say I followed him through the library like a balloon on a string. But I can’t say that I didn’t either, because I remember so little of it. Later I only recalled standing at the cold winter window, looking out into the snowy night, and watching my old volume as he emerged from the front of the midnight library. He crossed the street in the yellow glow of the streetlamps and melted into the moonlit campus common. I watched him for as long as I could make out his shadowy form, gliding along as if his long coat met the ground with wheels rather than feet.
I watched him fade and merge with the darkness.
I watched the darkness long after he had faded.
I didn’t expect to recognize the volume of French poetry he had been reading. And yet, when I went looking for it on the shelf, I walked right to it—as if it was marked with invisible ink and radium. When I tried to pull it off the shelf, at first it refused to budge. When I opened it, pages cracked and came loose, and dust angels danced in the fluorescent light.
When I put it away, it rested askew, no matter how many times I tried to make it right.
In the days since I saw the Shade (as I’ve come to call him), I have wondered if perhaps he was the product of my late-night imagination, or a bit of undigested dinner, as Dickens might say. I’ve told no one about him, although I don’t know who I would even consider telling. After all, my best friends all wear Dewey Decimal numbers on their spines, and they are much better at speaking than listening.
But there was something about the way he floated through these aisles that left me thrilled and confused, the way you can sometimes feel if you stand up too quickly and fear you will faint. When I think of him, it feels like that moment when you are still conscious enough to plan how you will fall safely, and yet still feel everything slipping away like leaves on the surface of rushing water.
But these feelings have not stopped me from imagining all sorts of stories for him.
I imagine he was born in this very library a century ago, when someone accidentally pushed a copy of Dante off a shelf as they passed. When the book hit the floor, rather that a startling crack, it landed with a whisper and a bloom. I imagine the Shade unfolding silently into being in the swirling dust. I imagine him silent and confused, as startled by his sudden birth as the books that looked upon him in their mute astonishment.
Or I imagine him birthed more slowly, as a patchwork quilt of every discontented college student and tired professor who has ever wandered here. Made up of a sigh here, a laugh there, his is a life of fatigue and panic and joy, all brought together here in this laboratory of the mind. The library seems to ask that he return something to these volumes that have given so much and asked for so little in return.
In this fancy, the Shade isn’t reading the books he scans so silently; he’s recharging them. Giving them life. Keeping them alive for those decades when not a single warm hand turns their pages.
He came back a week later.
I had not expected him to, but that didn’t prevent me from spending more and more late nights in French Poetry, or the Classics, or Elizabethan Fiction. I found him with what may have been a copy of Herodotus in his bony fingers. The same dark coat turned up at the collar. The same floppy hat shading his face. The same stillness. The same whispering turn of the page.
This time I made bold enough to turn the corner into his aisle, trying desperately to look casual, as if we had both been drawn to obscure Greek and Roman history. Glancing along each shelf, pretending to read the spines, I worked my way closer to him, listening intently for the gentle stirring of the dusty air as he turned each page.
Standing next to him, I was startled to smell rain. Only a foot away from his hunched shoulders, I was transported to evenings at home in Abilene, alone on the porch, as the rain fell and made everything fresh and new and gray. The whisper of his fingers on the pages was like those gentle drops from the roof into the gardens below. He was only inches away now, and I remembered how I would listen to that gentle sound, safe and dry at the porch railing, while the rain dripped just inches from my nose. I remembered how I would slowly reach a out a hand from the safety of the porch and let those drops cascade across my open palm. I remembered tasting that rain, looking apprehensively over my shoulder for my mother, who would surely scold me and tell me that water off the roof was not clean. Every impulse I had was to dash from the porch into the downpour, to let it coat me and cover me and cleanse me and let me begin life anew.
I reached out and it wasn’t the rain that I felt, but the rough wool of his heavy coat. The journey from Abilene back to the Stacks was brief, but it was not violent or startling. And finding myself standing behind the Shade with my hand on his shoulder was less frightening than it should have been.
But the pages had stopped turning. The stillness was overwhelming. And despite the solidity under my palm, I knew I was now alone with Homer and Herodotus and Aeschylus.
The snow was falling as I walked slowly away from the library, for what I knew would be the last time. There were so many more libraries in the world; so many more stacks with dusty books that were craving my touch. This library would be closed for a time, I knew, after they discovered the body of the young man in the classics. I was sad for my family in Abilene, but I knew that my sadness would fade. By the time I found my new library, there would only be the books. There would no longer be any grief, and there would no longer be any loneliness.
Longing was for the young, and I was no longer young. It was time to put away the childish things, as they taught in Sunday School. Or perhaps that was just something I read.
There would be time, someday, for childish things once again. But not until I felt that new hand on my shoulder.
How many decades? How many thousands upon thousands of cracking spines and whispering pages? How many deep, dark, lonely stacks in how many libraries?
New York? Butte Montana? Harvard Square? Oxford?
I’d find my first by morning.
Wess Mongo Jolley is a Canadian novelist, editor, podcaster, and poet. His work has appeared in journals such as Off the Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, Danse Macabre, and others. His sprawling supernatural horror trilogy, The Last Handful of Clover, is currently being released serially on Patreon, Wattpad, QSaltLake, and as an audiobook podcast. Find him at http://wessmongojolley.com