It begins with her voice – a little island of sound arising from this vast sea of silence in which I am drowning.
“Pardon?” she says.
I clear my throat, flounder a few strokes in her direction, and rephrase my request. “I said I would like to see the notebooks of Richard Henry Banal, please.” I smile and hold out a slip of paper with Banal’s name printed on it. “Can you help me?”
She takes my note.
I watch her eyes – forget-me-not blue. Her damp lips move ever so slightly as she reads. A tendril of black hair falls along her cheek and she absentmindedly tucks it back behind her ear with a middle finger. The gesture, inexplicably, takes my breath, causes my heart to pick up its pace. I feel I have asked for something forbidden.
She hands back my paper and then, without looking at me directly, says, “I am new at the library. I am unsure where are these notebooks.”
The trace of an accent. That charming lapse of syntax. French, I think.
“Oh, well, I can show you! I know right where they are.” I sound a little too courageous. It surprises me. I wonder if the tops of my ears are turning red in that way they did when I was a boy. “If you just want to come with me, to make it official.”
She considers this, nods indifferently, and pushes away from her desk.
And so, like some wannabe hero, I guide her through the labyrinth of bookshelves – these hallowed chambers where are locked away the secrets of the dead and mostly forgotten. Our heels clack on the polished parquet. Astral motes of dust drift on the rare winter sunlight slanting down through the high windows. This place – this realm – has alternately struck me, over the last months of my project, as both a sanctuary and a morgue.
“Here we are.” I pull out the cold metal drawer in which are kept Banal’s seven spiral-bound notebooks. Ghosts. Cadavers. They wait to be exhumed, to be brought back to life. I am Dr. Frankenstein; I am God. These thoughts always sort of freak me out.
I extract the third notebook in the series, demonstrating a reverent gentleness and care, and then hold it flat on my palms. “Now I show you my card and sign for it.”
“Oui,” she says. She knows that part. I have exceeded my helpfulness.
I fumble with my library card and sign my name on her clipboard, declaring it out loud, as if to introduce myself, as if in invitation for her to do the same. “Will Kirby.” I think that since she’s a librarian she might possibly have heard of me. She says nothing.
“I should be about three hours.”
She doesn’t care.
She leaves me alone with my fat, yellowed archive.
I sit at one of the humongous tables, open my computer, open Banal’s dog-eared notebook, and struggle to open my mind. I have a profound sense of some long-dormant part of me being stirred awake. It’s distracting. I need to get at task. I need to accomplish great things.
“Okay, Kirby,” I whisper. “Concentrate.”
The faint suggestion of her lemon-scented soap lingers on the air.
The girl is quite possibly half my age.
Although I cannot see her over the many rows of shelves, I sense her there. I am completely baffled as to why this gives me a thrill.