The Librarian and the Barbarian

Submitted into Contest #60 in response to: Write a post-apocalyptic romance.... view prompt

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Romance Drama

The first time he visited the library he brought a fresh candlestick and, though I was glad for the prospect of some light to warm my evening, I didn’t like him. He had this way of riffling through the books—a careless curiosity—that set me on edge. 


I met him on the cool slate tile of the foyer when I heard the double glass doors groan and part. “You must be Bolt?” I tipped my head in greeting, a gesture he curtly returned before walking on past me. 


“Well, let’s see what you’ve got in here…” His heavy, booted foot rang across the tile and I quickened to keep pace. 


“My name is Jane,” I said. “I’m the librarian here. What are you interested in today?”


“Books,” he said as he paused at the second set of doors.


I stomped my foot twice in front of the eye, now old and cloudy, to announce our presence, and the doors shuddered open. 


“Nice magic,” Bolt said, and for a second he smiled before walking onto the worn carpet and past the warped desk.


“Well, this is a very old building,” I explained. “Somewhere over 200 years. Some of the books are just as old.”


He was already exploring the books, picking one up, flipping through pages, putting it down in a different location. He hooked another by the spine with his index finger and pulled it from the stack. This time he brought the book up to his nose and, though I loved the smell of books, this was a gesture I couldn’t let pass.


“This is not one of your trash piles. Show some respect!”


He looked at me for several seconds as though his dark brown eyes were evaluating me, questioning how far he could push me.


I stood my ground and held his gaze, hands on my hips. Out there he may have servants jumping at his words, but here in the library I was in charge.


He put the book down slowly and I watched his hands, wide and calloused. I went to the desk and returned with two pairs of leather gloves, soft from age and use—a size large and size small.


As I observed him don the gloves, I wondered where to start. Most of the time when people visited the library it was with a practical question: how do I treat a rash or is such-and-such a plant edible? And I’d lead them through the stacks and read them their answers. 


But this man, the Trash Tycoon’s son, was here to absorb culture. His family had made a fortune combing the refuse that formed the Western Mountain Range, bringing back useful things, or things that could be made useful or bartered for something useful. The senior Trash Tycoon— a round-bellied man with thin white hair combed over his head— liked the idea of filling his time with books and, for the price of a paperback mystery novel loaned to his home (a rare and dangerous indulgence), would keep the library and me supplied with necessities. 


And I supposed he wanted the same for his son, who now stood before me in a private meeting, tall and black-haired, wearing the appropriate gloves.


“Can you read?” I asked him. It was always the place to start. Answers in this community ranged from not at all to some, because after all, some of the old neighborhoods still had signs naming the crumbling streets that wove through them.


“Decently,” he answered, adjusting the hood of his light gray tunic. 


Bolt waited, sitting on one of the heavy blond wood chairs with one foot resting on a second, while I searched the stacks for books I hoped would interest him. With the right materials, I could secure another generation of patronage. 


Poetry was a nonstarter. Drama the same. Noted: no love, no orphans. History piqued some interest, I thought, but the future (probably not our future; we may already have outlived that time, but some hypothetical future that could have been ours) is where I saw a light in his eyes. So we spent our afternoon in time machines.  


I was reading aloud when a quick motion lifted my eyes from the page. I heard the familiar shuffle of small, hard legs. 


“Don’t move,” I said to Bolt, my voice maintaining the same tone as it had in reading. I saw his heavy eyebrows raise in a silent question, but he obeyed. I focused on the sound while keeping my eyes on the book. “They can see you coming.” 


When the tapping came close enough I slapped my gloved hand on the table, achieving the desired crunch. 


“That’s revolting,” Bolt said with a smile as I carefully removed my glove. “Is that what they teach you in the library?”


“Actually, yes,” I said. “I learned about all of the different threats to books. Like cockroaches. They’ll eat anything— paper, binding, glue. I try to keep them under control.”


“Now which of us is the barbarian?” He had a slight grin but his eyes were hard. “I see how you look at me.”


I closed the book, noting our page number, 143. “The lights won’t last much longer,” I said, standing up. “I think that’s enough for today. See you next week?” 


Perhaps an hour later the squares of light in the beamed ceiling flickered and disappeared. In the quiet between the shelves, I considered the day. Maybe a success? As I thought of Bolt, some old lines drifted to me on the heavy air. Arms like steel and eyes that smolder, words like bitter ash on your tongue…


It was time for some new material. I carefully pulled my favorite book from the shelves— a worn copy of Jane Eyre. Like I imagined the original Jane would do, I retrieved my flint and steel, and lit the new candlestick, placing it securely on one of the tables. I watched the words on the page dance in the flame’s shadow and shuddered at the destructive power. Fire had burned so many other libraries in the Combustion and the chaos after—many bigger and grander than mine. It burned forests and cities. This was only a small flame, and I tended it carefully. One gust of wind through the cracks where the mortar was crumbling between the staggered red bricks, one wrong move from my elbow, and that flame could consume my world. I became Jane Eyre with a basin and ewer and doused the flame.


⇝⇝⇝


On his fourth visit, he brought magic. It had the shape of a gun like the armed guards carried—a barrel and grip, but its edges were fuller and fatter. It had a trigger button and several switches on its side. It was not heavy and metallic like a gun, but light and purple. 


“What is this?” I asked.


“A bit of magic for you,” Bolt said, with a jaunty lilt in his voice.


“Magic isn’t real,” I said. I knew from books that there are explanations for things. I didn’t know them all, but I knew they existed and could be found.


“It’s real out on the mountain. There’s so much magic out there,” he said. “But true, it needs its roots grounded in reality.” Bolt took the long tail that hung from the grip of this magic/gun and inserted it into a small beige-clad hole in the floor. 


With a touch of the trigger, the thing began to roar and hot wind hit my cheeks and whipped my hair. I had never felt so much warmth without fire. 


“What is this?” 


“Like I said— magic. I thought you could use a secret weapon in your battle against the roaches.” His face was as warm as the magic air. “Maybe just stun them sometimes. Those gloves are hard to come by.”


I read to him about fire breathing dragons and explorers descending into a volcano and watched the light flicker in his eyes. 


⇝⇝⇝


On his eleventh visit, he brought beauty. From his tunic pocket, he pulled a metal chain with a sparkling jewel—a green square dotted with a labyrinth of sparkling silver dots. The skin at the back of my neck quivered as he brushed my hair to the side and clasped the chain. I imagined myself at one of those ancient balls hosted by Gatsby or Bingley or Oblonsky.


“Is this a diamond?” I asked.


“No,” he said. “Just a bit of old magic. Magic that died with the old world, I think. I pulled it from the mountain.”


“This? Really?” I couldn’t imagine someone throwing away something so beautiful.


Bolt frowned. “You know, the magic doesn’t just live in your books. It’s out there still. I’m sorting through it every week.” His feet carried him on a winding journey around the tables and his voice rose with fervency. “You are the guardian of the past culture,” he admitted. “You’re the guardian of the ideas and images that float through my vision. You know, our sessions have changed what I see when I close my eyes at night? And especially when I wake in the light! I used to get right out of bed, but now I catch myself lingering before I open my eyes. But I am a guardian, too. You’ve never seen the mountain, have you?”


“No.” I shook my head.


“You see yourself as preserving the flint that will reignite the world when we’re ready. But fire takes flint and steel. I have lots of steel.”


I didn’t doubt him. “I’m sorry I laughed. Tell me—what’s on the mountain?”


I don’t think we read anything that day.



⇝⇝⇝



On his sixteenth visit, he brought me to the Western Mountain Range. 


Bolt led me past the soot-streaked front wall of the library to his moped— an elaborate vehicle with pipes curving around its frame and a sidecar with platforms made from weathered street signs. I could still read pieces of Stop and No Parking


We wove past the newer wood and cement block buildings of the city center, past open fields of wheat and soy, toward the mountains towering off to the west. As we got closer, I could smell acrid smoke and bitter, burned things. When we stepped off the moped, the ground popped and cracked under our feet. I could feel things shifting as I walked. We held hands for balance as our steps turned through chunks of concrete and twisted steel, with thousands of small things strewn at their bases. Smoke rolled like a fog through the place and I wondered what little fires still burned under the mountain’s surface. 


There it was in front of me— the ruin of the world. It made me sad. Those familiar lines drifted toward me in the smoke.


I turned toward Bolt. “After the Combustion, my great-grandma traveled and collected accounts from survivors. Stories, poems—hundreds of pages. They’re part of the collection at the library now. There’s one that has always haunted me.


The sky erupts, and for a moment

the world is lost in light.

I look for you

amid the dust and smoke and orange.

Your arms are like twisted steel

and your eyes smolder. 


I can just picture him, twisted and broken, when I look around here. Where’s the magic you talked about?”


He squeezed my hand and said, “Follow me.”


He led me on a path that snaked up the mountain in sharp switchbacks until we reached a small plateau that had been packed down and cleared of its debris. Mismatched posts and columns outlined its perimeter. I touched the cool stone and ran my hand up the groove of a Doric column I’d only seen in illustrations.


“Show some respect.” I looked back to see Bolt smiling. He pulled me deeper into this space, where twisted metal soared into distorted shapes of flowers and birds.


“It’s beautiful,” I said. “What is this?”


“My library.” He waved at it in a broad, sweeping gesture and the ground rumbled as two flat disks began to whir around our feet, performing an intricate dance with each other. He scooped one arm up, making a hook that stretched from the brown earth to the light yellow sky. Out of nowhere, music drifted in, as if carried by a breeze— faint, dark strings, almost like a shadow with mournful brass hovering on top of it. Another flick of his wrist and a metal wheel began to turn until its spokes were a blur and it cast circles of silver over the ground. 


I must have worn my astonishment on my face, or maybe it was the way my weight shifted to my toes, or my hand tightening around his arm. “See,” he said. “Magic. A magic that doesn’t even need words. Just witnesses.”


I stood there without words amid the whirring and spinning and singing things that Bolt’s trained eye had gathered until he made a decisive sideways slice with his arm and the evening returned to its stillness.


“The Combustion destroyed a lot, but that’s not what I see when I look around here. I see a mountain of raw material to create whatever world I want.” He paused and I felt the warmth of his hands as he scooped up both of mine. “Think of it, Jane! Your grandma’s stories she gathered...I’m glad our stories didn’t stop after the Combustion. There are still things worth telling.” His hands encircled my wrists and slid up to my shoulders.


“Like this,” I almost whispered. I looked up into his eyes and they were not smoldering. The flame in them burned openly.


“Especially this,” he said as he bent his head toward mine and his arms, like steel, twisted around me. 


My body became kindling and, lit by that flame, bloomed into a backfire that met his, all light and heat.


I returned to the library that night and started writing— inside of book covers, on the blank pages that separated chapters, my story mingling with those of the old characters I knew: past and present alive, aglow.


⇝⇝⇝


On his 22nd and last visit, he brought a notebook. I ran my fingers across the rumpled brown cover and thumbed through the brittle golden pages inside and did not ask how deep he had to dig, or what precious thing he had to barter. 


“There are still things worth telling,” he reminded me. “Look for them.”


No, reader. I did not marry him. That was never practical. We had each devoted our lives to different things. Shortly after this he married the heiress of the Eastern Mountain Range.


I consoled myself with words: I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in—with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. It strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you forever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.


I read these words and felt their exquisite ache 400 years after it was conceived. This was the beauty of words. This communion of souls across space and time is what I’ve dedicated my life to protecting. And sharing.


By night, I light my candle (there are always candles now) and I write, so that four hundred years in the future, people will see what our world was like and feel these exquisite things. Someday in that future, people will have the luxury again to make decisions based on love. Until then, love is a little flame that I will keep kindled in the best way I know how.


September 25, 2020 06:33

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14 comments

Cameron Diiorio
03:20 Oct 01, 2020

Hi, thanks for your comments on my piece. I liked this story, I think you have a strong attention to detail. I also liked the chemistry between the main character and Bolt, especially the recurring bit with the cockroaches. I liked the tone of it -- I definitely got a storybook fairytale vibe, and I thought the magic was creative and a nice touch. One thing that I noticed is that there was magic in the beginning, but then Bolt brings magic and Jane says it isn't real. Was she being sarcastic? Also, the breaking the 4th wall was a b...

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Lani Lane
22:45 Sep 29, 2020

Wow! This was so creative. I'm really glad we connected, because I have a feeling I'll be reading all your stories in the future. You have a real talent for natural dialogue. I see the cockroach cameo! Except this one met a saddening end lol. Only think I noticed was an extra space after the dash in a couple places: "They’ll eat anything— paper, binding, glue." “Like I said— magic." "There it was in front of me— the ruin of the world." Out of nowhere, music drifted in, as if carried by a breeze— faint, dark strings" Also, perhap...

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A.Dot Ram
23:12 Sep 29, 2020

Thank you for all of your comments. Yes, your cockroach was way luckier! I'll need to double check the formatting on my dashes. I'm working in Google docs, which doesn't automatically translate two en dashes (--) into an em dash (—). I have to find and replace in the end. It's annoying.

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Lani Lane
23:26 Sep 29, 2020

I feel that, it's so annoying!! The formatting on Reedsy is a bit weird sometimes. I usually work in Google Docs but I just switched over to Word to copy from.

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Jill Davies
01:06 Sep 30, 2020

What about swapping to scrivener? You could keep all your Reedsy submissions compiled And the Reedsy program has a decent browser based editor

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Jill Davies
05:21 Sep 27, 2020

Reader, I didn’t marry him (🥺 but so appropriate) I got the hair dryer or heat gun, I got the door sensor but I didn’t get the music... Also... East and west mountains— were they burning trash heaps? Another job well done!

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A.Dot Ram
05:52 Sep 27, 2020

They are not mountain ranges in the traditional, geological sense, but caused by a different upheaval-- the apocalypse. I imagine it doesn't happen for another 100 years-ish, so in that time they've adopted more gesture-controlled interfaces that run on minimal solar power. Google has assured me of the feasibility, but that's up to a more technically inclined mind to invent someday. My current answer is... magic! It's real on the mountain.

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Jill Davies
09:54 Sep 27, 2020

Ha! That’s what we thought it maybe was... something not invented yet! Good description!!

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A.Dot Ram
19:30 Sep 27, 2020

Also, your first comment makes more sense when I read it on my computer as opposed to my phone because all of the emojis now download correctly. Yes, the ending was sad but appropriate. Like The Hunger Games. We wish for happy endings, but sometimes the world isn't set up for them. Plus some classic hero's journey elements... and there you have it.

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Rayhan Hidayat
19:51 Sep 25, 2020

Wow. Beautiful. I thought this was a high fantasy and there really was gonna be magic, but this is fine, this is even better. The epitome of opposites attract. Awesome stuff as always!

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A.Dot Ram
20:33 Sep 26, 2020

Thanks. I like to keep readers on their toes. Yeah, everything is pretty rooted in reality (as my Google search history this week would reveal). Sometimes I wish I was better at doing like you and saying screw the real world-- I make the rules! Goals...

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Rayhan Hidayat
08:56 Sep 27, 2020

That’s only because I’ve ingested an unhealthy amount of epic fantasy novels 😅 Conversely, I don’t think I could ever portray the nuances in human interaction/emotion the way you can. My stories are rarely as grounded as yours, it’s seriously a skill 👍🏽

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A.Dot Ram
23:54 Sep 26, 2020

Also, I kinda made myself cry when I wrote this one, too. Not literally, but I did use this emoji when I described the ending to someone: 😭

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Rayhan Hidayat
08:59 Sep 27, 2020

You replied to your own comment so I didn’t get notified by this! I’ll admit, my tears are literal 😂 Especially when I get attached to characters. Though I always take it as a good sign that i’ll get an emotional response from readers

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