If you fear your imagination, don’t visit the library after dark.
They say it is haunted. Children chase each other around the schoolyard with the phrase, and teenagers dare their friends to sneak in after hours, trying to mask the fear in their own eyes at the prospect.
However, I knew none of this as I stumbled toward the massive stone building that night.
Jobless, homeless, and racked with fever, I had very little to lose. A failed interview had left me far from my makeshift bed when night fell, and the darkness closed in around me as stars emerged overhead.
Painfully aware of my condition, I sought out some form of shelter from the cold, but the city is unforgiving to those whom it rejects.
My weakened legs gave way beneath me, and my knees hit the concrete sidewalk as I doubled over, coughing uncontrollably, lungs heaving with each belabored breath.
A warmth washed over me; it was an unfamiliar feeling, but I recognized it nonetheless. Peering through the loose strands of my unkempt hair, my blurry eyes focused on the building before me.
The library. But something was different.
An unusual glow emanated from the stained-glass windows.
Astonished and appreciative of what I assumed was the librarians’ carelessness, I forced myself to my feet and staggered up the stone steps. Despite the flickering hope in my chest, I expected to find the door locked, as it should be.
I crumpled on the landing and reached a thin arm toward the handle. To my surprise, the door opened.
With a sudden paroxysm of energy, I lurched to my feet and pushed through the doorway.
As the colossal oak door closed softly behind me, I gazed in awe at the vast, circular room I found myself in. Endless shelves filled with books shot up toward the ceiling, inhibited only by the stone images of gargoyles, gazing down upon their leatherbound charges with a cold stare no living thing could replicate. Artwork covered the domed ceiling, depicting angels and mankind alike in the muted tones of the Renaissance era. The pictures were faded, and the stonework crumbled slightly, the only physical testaments to the age of such a building.
Red velvet drapes bordered the stained-glass windows embedded in the great walls of that room. Smaller bookcases, tables, and chairs peppered the black-and-white tiled floor that seemed both out of place and in perfect harmony with its surroundings simultaneously.
However, I noticed all of this in retrospect. What arrested my attention immediately was the source of the light that had drawn me.
No lamp was lit; the lights were off. But every book on every shelf shone with an otherworldly radiance. Each book’s color was different, melding and uniting into a multicolored, rainbow-like display that danced and swarmed over the room like a blanket of light.
Entranced, I wandered into the glow, allowing it to enfold me in its warm and welcoming embrace. As if of its own free will, my hand reached forward and softly caressed the leatherbound volumes. They seemed to burn, but remained cool to my touch. A ripple of laughter escaped my lips, a sound I hadn’t heard in quite some time.
Which shall I open?
The thought echoed across my mind before I had time to think it, but I quickly replaced it with another.
Which shall I open first?
A smile flashed across my face as I darted from shelf to shelf, hardly sure of where to start. Each binding was more enticing than the last; each cover and synopsis arrested my attention in such a way that I reeled with the anticipation of reading it.
Then a thought struck me.
I must find her.
If any story is going to be first tonight, it must be her.
Hastily, I examined each and every sign that stood as sentry for each section of the library. I raced toward the chart at the doorway and scanned the outline until my eyes rested on the words I’d been looking for.
The children’s section.
Tearing down a side hall with an energy I’d never known, the swirling colors of each book whipping round me and following in my wake, the memories flooded back.
A childhood I’d nearly forgotten in my misfortunes.
A collection of stories given to me as a gift.
A particular tale that rested in my chest, near my heart, for my entire life.
Barreling through a doorway bearing the placard Children’s Section, I strode to the A’s and began my search. It wasn’t long before the familiar volume I’d never held was in my hand, glowing a deep, crimson red.
Hans Christian Andersen.
And there she was, on page 57.
The Little Match Girl.
I flipped over quickly and smoothed down the pages of the old volume. But, to my dismay, the crimson red started to fade.
“No, no!” I cried, clutching the book tightly in my hands, as if I could preserve the light somehow. “I don’t understand!”
Suddenly, I froze. A light breeze, almost cold, swept through the room behind me and rippled through my shirt and hair. Nearly trembling, but unsure of what I feared, I turned around, clasping the ancient, dull-red volume to my chest. My eyes grew wide.
A girl, no more than twelve years of age, barefoot and bedraggled, gazed up at me as one might look upon an old friend. Her long, blonde hair, tipped with frost, fell over crimson eyes as she nodded in greeting.
“It’s you,” I blurted through uncooperating lips.
She cocked her head, still peering at me in that enigmatic fashion. “I remember you.”
“You were my only friend as a child,” I continued without thinking.
“And I believe that you were mine,” the child whispered, as if a past memory had forced itself to the front of her mind. She cast her gaze to the ground in embarrassment. “In a collection of tales such as this,” she nodded to her home, still wrapped in my arms, “few ever revisit a story such as mine.”
My grip on the book loosened, and I laid it on the table next to me. “It was always my favorite. I don’t know if I’m really sure why.”
The Little Match Girl met my eyes, and an exuberant grin lit up her features. “Come.” She extended a pale hand to me. “I have much to show you.”
Throwing caution to the wind, I took her hand.
With a vitality that belied her appearance, she pulled me back down the hall, waving her free arm among the colorful mists that still drifted through the air. She laughed in a carefree manner, inconsistent with the tale she hailed from, and such a noise could have melted away the weight of the world, should my shoulders have borne it in that moment.
As we entered the grand hall, she released my hand and skipped to a bookshelf on the opposite side of the room. I followed her carefully, unsure of what she was going to do.
She tugged a book bearing a goldish hue from its place and heaved the massive volume onto a table. Giving me a sidelong glance, the Little Match Girl grinned playfully. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”
She flipped the book open, and the light seeped out of it and formed the figure of a man, strongly built and more than twice the size of the Little Match Girl. His black hair trailed over his shoulder in a carefully crafted braid, and, on his head, he bore a blue turban with gold braiding. A vest of the same color hung over his bare, muscular chest, and his rather large trousers ended at a pair of slippers that curled up at the toe.
He opened his eyes to reveal the golden-yellow that had escaped the pages, and he blinked several times before he spoke.
“The Match Girl?” his voice boomed ecstatically.
She bounced up and down and clapped her hands. “Have you ever met a prince before?” she squealed as she grasped my hand in hers.
“Uh…” I shook my head in wonder.
The Little Match Girl pulled me forward and seized the hand of her impressive friend. “I have much to show you.”
Through some conjuring, the prince drew a large feast from his book. The Little Match Girl danced from bookcase to bookcase, pulling books from the shelves and releasing her friends into the library. The room was soon filled with tigers and lambs, fairies and explorers, historical figures and literary giants.
I had never seen so much food, and I ate until I could hardly move. The Little Match Girl bounced among her friends and dragged me with her, introducing me to famous men of the past and bowing deeply to kings and queens, motioning for me to do the same.
We danced with the court of a majestic kingdom and swapped stories with thieves and pirates. We twirled and sang with fairies and birds and raced on the backs of lions down the hall. We watched sea creatures float through the air as a storm raged around them, raised by the wizard as a display of his power. The heroes held a contest to demonstrate their strength, and everyone voted on their favorites. And the artist caught it all on canvas, his magic paintbrush hard at work all throughout the evening.
As the night grew gray, the Little Match Girl pulled me onto the back of an eagle, and we soared upwards toward the ceiling. Even the grimace of the gargoyles seemed to soften into a smile as her girlish laughter rippled through the colors. We clambered to their perch and settled in next to them, and my tiny companion’s scarlet eyes twinkled mischievously. “Watch.”
As the eagles carried more of our friends to our height, down on the floor a man with a long, gray beard emerged from a recently opened book; I could see, even from the summit I rested on, the dark blue shimmer in his eyes.
He reached into a well-worn bag at his side and pulled out what looked to me like a fistful of light. With a puzzled expression, I turned to the Little Match Girl. “Watch,” she repeated, motioning toward him, “He is the Keeper of the Stars.”
I threw my gaze back just in time to watch him hurl his prize into the sky. The light, in reality millions of tiny stars, scattered through the colorful air and rained down on those below. Some were caught by the breeze, and I never dreamed the library’s vibrant sky could somehow have become more beautiful. Laughing in a thin, gleeful tone, the Keeper of the Stars threw fistful after fistful of stars into the wind, which swept them around the room as a thousand shooting stars soaring across the sky. Somehow, the colors glowed even brighter and glittered as they reflected each other’s light.
Tears sprung into my eyes. I never imagined I’d live long enough to see something so beautiful.
However, it was not to last. A soldier, a powerful, battle-scarred man, raised his voice and caught everyone’s attention. “’Tis dawn! ‘Tis dawn, everyone!”
The Little Match Girl’s eyes dulled to a sullen burgundy. With a melancholy gesture, she reached for my hand and pulled me onto the back of our friend, the eagle.
As he circled to the ground, I watched as the Keeper of the Stars let out a long, high-pitched whistle, and the stars soared back to their guardian, filing back into his bottomless satchel.
When we landed, the prince took the Little Match Girl’s hand in his and, kissing it softly, retreated into his story. I watched in stunned sadness as each of my new friends gave their farewells and leapt back into their homes. The colors of their eyes filled the air once more, but I was too confused to appreciate it.
“What’s happening?” I turned to the Little Match Girl, who stood beside me, her arms clasped behind her back and her gaze turned downward.
“It’s dawn,” she replied. “We must return to our books, to be ready for the library’s patrons in the morning.”
Of course. It only made sense. A library cannot function without its books.
So why was I still saddened by it?
A flicker of fire passed through the Little Match Girl’s eyes. “Come with me,” she hissed in my ear. She grabbed my hand and pulled me back down the hall to the children’s room.
As I entered the chamber once more, I paused to imagine what wonderful things must lie in these stories, the ones we didn’t have the chance to open that night. I turned to express as much to my companion, but I stopped as she opened her book and held out her hand once more.
“Come.” Her voice trembled with emotion.
I finally understood. “But, my dear,” I faltered, “I don’t belong in your world.”
“But I don’t belong in yours,” she blurted out, long-restrained tears streaming down her cheeks. “And there is nothing in your world for you; you’ve told me as much tonight.”
I stepped forward and cupped her thin face in my hands. “And I’ve read your story; there is nothing in your world for you either.” I dropped my hands and gestured to our surroundings. “But, here…”
My voice trailed off as it shook against my will. I turned back to my desperate companion, standing alone with a sorrowful countenance that I could bear no longer.
“But, here,” I repeated, “there is something for us here.”
I took her hands in mine as the rising sun peeked through the window behind me, warming my back and threatening to expose my little friend.
“Can I meet you here again tomorrow night?”
A joyous smile spread across her pale features.
And then she was gone.
They say that the library is haunted.
And they are right.
For the rumors began that morning, when they found my body, sprawled out on the steps of the great stone library, still clutching the handle of the locked oak door.
So, when they tell you that the library is haunted, I would tell you to believe them.
For I am the one who haunts it.
So, if you fear your imagination, don’t visit the library after dark, for you are very unlikely to see anything but darkness.
But, should you want to visit me, come peek through the windows. Put your eye to the keyhole in the great oak door, and, if you trust your imagination, you just might see something spectacular.
You just might see me, when dusk falls, pulling down the familiar red volume to greet who was at one time my only friend.
You just might be in time to watch the colors swirl, the fairies dance, and the Keeper of the Stars light up the sky.
You just might catch me at dawn, reshelving their homes for the coming day.
For I am the Librarian, and the books are my friends.