The stacks were giant, musty-smelling monoliths; I could feel the thing living inside them: characters, places, ideas, stories. Between the hardback or paperback covers, enclosed, were living entities…and they were getting restless.
It was night, the large windows of the library admitting no light from the clouded sky, and for a while the bustling haven of curiosity was still. Now, normally I don't deign to spend time in such places, but this is where I ended up. There's no helping it. I wondered what I was doing there on that night, rubbing and winding against the chair legs to pass time. Hell, if I was going to be spending time here, I might as well mark it as mine.
There was a small rustle, and then a thump, well more of a thwack really. It jarred its way up my spine, causing me to jump in the air and anxiously claw at the fabric of the chair. Turning around, I saw that a rather thick hardback book had fallen to the floor, and lay open at page two hundred and eighty-six. It smelled of a girl's lavender perfume and of Cheeto crumbs hidden in the crack where the pages were bound together. What was astonishing was not the medley of odors, but of the sense of unrest coming from it, as if something were pacing just below the surface, like a big cat pacing behind the bars of its cage.
I turned and trotted away. Whatever the thing was, it boded no good, and there would almost certainly be negative connotations should I spend much longer in the vicinity. I passed the time with my nose pressed to the faux wood-grain on the circulation desk, liking the way it rasped under my claws.
The place would open again in a while, it being the pre-dawn hours, but I would be gone before then. Besides, even if I were to linger and be spotted by the staff, who would believe it when their eyes told them they were seeing a green cat?
The morning was cloudy, like the night had been, and the streets were slick with the leftover misty rain. It had thundered in the darkness, and there had been lighting too, but it had ran away when the sun rose. Yet before the sun was up, and while it was still thunder and lightning in the sky, Ealasaid Reetta Dagney Vaughn was in her Volkswagen Beetle.
Driving the Bubble-mobile to school was a list of trade-offs she resigned herself to: the handling was great, and the interior and exterior were in perfect shape, but the left turn signal refused to blink, the brakes had a tendency sputter, the wheels a tendency to hydroplane, and sometimes when she put her key in the ignition it sounded like it was going to explode. She flipped the radio between soft rock and classic rock, turning it down so that she wouldn't be distracted and hit someone.
Pulling into the community college parking lot, she found a space near the back, swinging the car wide and almost hitting the mustang parked next to her. She still needed more practice.
Flipping open her notebook, she scanned her schedule. She parked her car by the main buildings, then walked across the street, pausing as a red corvette blasted by, throwing up puddles with its tires. She turned her face up and let herself be kissed by the rain. The clouds stretched out dull grey arms, like they were reaching down to embrace her. Ealasaid, who went by her last middle name of Dagney, sighed and hurried onward.
After her first class, she walked back to the main building, purposely jumping from puddle to puddle, the water glimmering in the newly exposed sunlight. The innocence of those small pools on the sidewalk was almost virginal. The morning shadows were still long, there was still dew in the grass, and everything had a cool sheen.
People parted around her, walked past her, like a river of humanity. Most were dressed in dull colors, shades of grey, black, brown, and dark green all melding together, resembling a forest at night. Her pink roses-and skulls backpack floated brightly through the crowd. The library was calm, the curious bustling about sedately, and those who already had homework clacking away on the computer banks.
She sat down in one of the chairs along the window, surprised at the amount of bounce in the cushion. The atmosphere of the library was active, buzzing. It felt like home. She picked up a copy of Writer's Digest and wandered about the stacks, stopping before a notice board dominated by a picture of a stern-looking old woman with an odd twinkle to her eye. Below it was written "Henrietta Williamson, 1938-2009, loved to read: Moonlight and Vines, by Charles de Lint." The book cover was displayed adjacent to her picture. "In loving memory, rest in peace," and then the sign ended.
Frowning, she headed back to her chair, rolling and rolling Writer's Digest in her hands before flipping it open to discover if she too could get an agent! Feeling slightly off, she flipped through the thin pages, wondering what odd vibration had distilled such unease in her chest.
It was night again-but then, it was always night when I was awake. I seldom got to see the sun rise; it's just that sort of arrangement. I was in the library again, and it was really starting to look like this place was going to become my new haunt. Even though it was shut tight, there was an odd sort of wind blowing through the place, smelling like a mixture of compost and stuffy librarian shoes. I blamed the latter on the smelly crocks one of the staff members had forgotten under their desk, but there was no way to account for the former.
At the place where the book had thrown itself on the floor the previous night, the scent was strong, blowing into my nostrils and awakening a few faint, feral stirrings. God it smelled good. But that wasn't what caught my attention.
What did catch my attention was a pair of baby-blue eyes, no, multiple pairs of baby blue eyes watching me from in between the stacks. They blinked observantly, nothing more than azure rings in the shadows, until they stepped forward, and I realized why the eyes unnerved me: the whites of the eyes were black, and the pupil was an impossible, staring shade of white, the colors inverted
I also realized I had better run, because the eyes were attached to a pack of rangy gray wolves.
The leader took a step forward, watching me, but it was impossible for me to know the intention behind those unreadable eyes. His tongue lolled, and for a moment I thought everything would sort itself out neatly and I might slip away. Until his hindquarters went playfully up in the air, and the others began to prance excitedly-in wolf, that could only mean one thing: a game. And the game was me.
My tails flapped behind me like flags caught in an over-exuberant breeze, and the industrial-grade green carpet burned the pink pads of my paws. I was small, agile, but they were large and fast. They gained without hesitation, feet ker-thumping as they loped with easy abandon. I ran among the stacks, weaving, trying to use my smallness as an advantage, my only advantage. I sprang up onto a shelf, then clawed my way higher, shoving myself against the cool wood, flattening myself against the yellowing tops of the reference books.
I closed my eyes and willed myself very, very still. I didn't exist. I wasn't there. They couldn't smell what wasn't there. Pay no attention to the quivering hunter-green mound. And, surprise of surprises, they didn't.
I opened my eyes to find myself in a tree that had most decidedly not been there before. I scrunched my face, squinting, and a sort of double-vision overtook me: the sedate, quiet library of a community college overlaid by a forest of various trees, in great long rows, leaves rustling like the turning of pages. Where the hell was I?
I sunk my claws into the bark-that was real-and eased my way down to the ground, feeling the squishy mixture of dirt and leaf-litter beneath my paws-that was also real-and set down one of the many rows of trees. The smell was strong, permeating everything, and the scent of librarian feet had mysteriously evaporated. Around me it was light as day, but it wasn't day. No, far from it: the moon was full and round-cheeked, the stars pulsating with brightness. It was a night-forest.
I spent the next few hours wandering the wood, seeing nary a sign of any animal, even the wolves. There was only the moon, the stars, and the wind rustling the leaves. I got the feeling that this was a very lonely place.
She furiously scribbled notes in Anthropology, realizing she better learn shorthand soon, or she was doomed to fall behind. Woe to the overzealous student. The teacher was on a zealous roll, excited as a jumping bean as he described the impossible number of cultures and languages in the Pacific. Did they know that twenty percent of the world languages were spoken in the Pacific alone? She scribbled it down. Did they know that Vanuatu was colonized thirty thousand years ago? She scribbled that down too.
The instructor sat in front of his computer, emoting on the PowerPoint that was displayed on the screen in the front of the class. He raised his hands, as if in supplication, tattooed arms covered in a long-sleeved blue dress-shirt, so as to disguise the ink scrawling on his flesh, souvenirs and passports of his life among the Maori.
Finally, he declared the importance of study, and directed them to the link on his website that would take them to this week's assigned readings. Assignments from her anthropology teacher were always like scavenger hunts.
She copied down the html and stood as he dismissed the class, walking the long walk from the instructional wing to the resource building, which housed the library. It was a gleaming white building scrubbed spotless by the staff, with curving banks of glass windows. An open place full of light.
Yet when she strolled in, a heavy miasma seemed to have set over the place; a mantle of claustrophobia. Settling herself into her customary chair by the window and drawing out her laptop, Dagney searched the library website for a copy of Alice in Wonderland. The screen claimed they had six copies, all of them on the shelf. Smiling to herself, she gathered her things and struggled up the stairs to the second level, feeling like a crazy old bag lady as she carried her backpack, her laptop case slung over her shoulder, and her purse in the crook of her elbow.
There were more books on the upper level, the stacks taller, the ceiling higher. The woman behind the desk lazily eyed her for a moment before turning back to her magazine. This library was on the Library of Congress organizational system, causing her mind confusion as she passed stacks labeled HZ, JF, and GT, finally coming to PR, where the note she had scribbled on a bookmark directed her to.
She scanned the numbers, finally finding it on the ground shelf, face falling in dismay as she ran her fingers along the spines. Two of the editions were large and unwieldy, one was a videotape of the movie, and three were annotated copies heavily bookmarked and dog-eared for academic studies. Not exactly the tidy paperback she had been hoping to use for some light reading.
Unbending, a thick red book with purple bindings caught her attention, left open on the table, yawning its white paper mouth to page two hundred and eighty-six. Closing it, she examined the spine, which proclaimed its name to be Gracefully Red in embossed gold lettering. It seemed to hum a little, like it was anxious. Dagney reached her hand forward again to flip open the first page, but as she did so she caught site of her cell phone, which she had set on the table. 11:50-ten minutes to get across campus to her next class.
She abandoned the book on the table and ran.
I bounded up the staircase to reach the second story of the library, keeping my ears pricked, my head starting to hurt from the strain of listening so hard. Listening so hard for the faint thump of heavy paws on carpeting, thick panting breath, or laughing growls. Listening for wolves.
I'll admit it: I was spooked. Hence the change of scenery. Upstairs was different than the main floor of the library, the bookshelves taller, the ceiling higher, a more labyrinthine feel to the place. Downstairs was mainly the reference collection, thick musty books crawling with facts; up here, plots ran wild and characters were practically knocking on the covers of their books, asking to be let out, to be read. The vague sense of unrest that I had gleaned from the downstairs intensified a thousand fold, solidifying into a pressure that tickled the tips of my fur.
I left the landing and strolled jauntily among the shelves-there was no forest up here that I could accidentally slip into. The spines were brightly colored, with interesting names like tangy flavors on my tongue. At a reading table I paused, hopping up onto the tabletop, examining the flow of the wood grain carefully, the brown traceries of tree rings. Jumping onto one of the padded chairs pushed in, I kneaded the fabric under my paws, pleased at the well-worn texture. It was then that I noticed the book squatting menacingly on the chair across from me. Recognizing it, I leapt over and flipped it open with my nose, and it fell to page two hundred and eighty-six.
On the page was an overused excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. To the left, on page two hundred eighty-five, were three stanzas centered on the page:
Small red tears, and briar roses
Curling cruelly, curtly crowning
The brow of the misused Lord
Forgotten, a cloak of black feathers lay
Shining sheen, and silent seemingly say
'Hear us all and our quiet word.'
A Neverland starship descends from the sky
Floating, fat facetious feeling, forevermore far
Away from the descending Roman horde.
…who exactly wrote this? I wasn't really sure what to make of the poem. On the one hand, there were some good bones in there. But on the other, it made no freaking sense. I rather liked the phrase "Neverland starship" though-sounds like a good band name.
I looked at the top of the page, where the author's name was printed: H.E. Williamson. Hm, never heard of them. Flipping back through the other pages, quite a feat when you have paws, I scanned the paragraphs and prose. A little nonsensical, but good; though she was no Pulitzer Prize-winner, I mused to myself, deftly sniffing the paper.
A low, grating noise sounded behind me, and I turned to find myself looking into the leering face of a wolf. Two more flanked it, and their growls swirled together, vibrating through me like terror.
One wolf lunged. I leapt to the top of the table. Another snapped at my tail, sending red pain flashing across my eyes as they skinned the tip. I sprang to the floor and sprinted for all I was worth, not daring to look behind me. My other senses told me all I needed to know: their blunt claws scratching at the carpet as they ran, the noise a scritch in my ears; their rank smell of compost, wolf, and musk in my nostrils; their anger tangibly metallic in my mouth.
She had the book, one said.
She touched it, said another.
What did she do? What is she planning? voiced the third.
Their words came in short, panting bursts. My own breath was a tide surging violently in and out of my lungs, my ribcage the aching shore beneath a pounding ocean. I had reached the end of one row now; I turned down another aisle, pushing my feet under me in a mad frenzy.
They were getting closer. I darted a look, and regretted it as their white pupils colored in with orange waves of anger. I turned down one aisle, then another, and finally I heard them hesitate at a corner, unsure of where I had turned. Yes! Victory! I sprinted even faster, trying to run lightly and not alert their great ears.
I turned down one more aisle, and the sounds of their running steps faded, and I slowed to a jog, muscles still tense. Ah, the ancient tradition of canine chasing feline, although I'm not quite certain how well riddle-wolf chases green two-tailed housecat fits into that paradigm.
Yes, the ruckus of their passing was definitely fading, going off in a different direction. In fact, the way it grew quiet made me think of a long distance being traversed, not the modest community college library…oh crap. Looking up, I sighed. It had happened again. This was not the library I had entered, and, turning a few corners and walking a bit of a ways, discovered it to be a maze. The walls were thick with books new and shiny, but as I went on, they devolved into thick, leather-bound works, thin news-print volumes bound in string, and so on.
Even farther, they became hand bound, and then they became scrolls, and then stone tablets neatly stacked atop one another. Even farther in, the bookcases were covered in primal paintings, that most ancient method of storytelling humans brushed thousands of years ago onto cave walls. The images swirled around me, and the air grew thick with what, over time, humans grew able to put into words: story. It buzzed and tickled and lived. I reevaluated my initial assessment:
Perhaps this would not be so boring a place to spend my time.
Her Introduction to Library Sciences class had only fifteen students, of varying ages. A few were middle-aged women looking for a career change. A few were freshmen like her. The median bulk were students a few semesters into their stay at the college, gearing up and getting serious about their degrees. Dagney, on the other hand, just liked books.
The three-hour class had degenerated into a pell-mell cross-classroom discussion about their favorite books, as the teacher had finished her spiel about the syllabus and what they would be learning.
"I really loved Alice in Wonderland," said a girl with poofy hair and thick glasses-which aptly described half the girls in the class, Dagney included.
Which reminded her, "Has anyone heard of a book called Gracefully Red?" Dagney raised her voice to be heard.
The teacher at the front of the room looked at her student oddly before saying. "Yes, actually. The head librarian here wrote a book called Gracefully Red. It was about to be published before she died, and the whole book-deal fell through."
"Ah," Ealasaid Reetta Dagney Vaughn said vaguely.
"It's rather sad, really," her teacher went on. "We were all so excited for her-it had been her dream to get it published for fifteen years. Tragic, how she just died like that. Her agent got cold feet when it happened, worried about the public image. Went and got a lawyer, found a loophole in the contract, and pulled on out."
"You know, that sounds a lot like what happened in this one court drama I read a while back…" and the conversation moved on.
Gerbils spinning away at the wheels in her head, she doodled in her notebook until her teacher let them all escape. She walked back up to the second floor, searching for the table where the book had lay. She found the table, but not the book. It wasn't on any of the shelves either. It had seemingly disappeared.
That is one hell of a maze, let me tell you. You have not seen the likes of that monstrosity. I got very near the center, but in the end I got lost-well, that's the nature of mazes, I guess. I hoped to have a go at it the next night, but who know? I had mysteriously appeared in a forest, now a maze, next might be the moon, or Tahiti.
I was in the center of the library, sitting atop the circulation desk, squinting my eyes. To anyone else I guess I would have been just a pair of brown eyes in the dark, but no one was there anyway. I was trying to focus my eyes on something I couldn't see. And sure enough, right when I screw my eyes up in the most painful way possible, the images make doubles of themselves in my vision; except that one double isn't the same as the other. On the left, there was the library, and the stacks, plain as pancakes. On the right, and overlapping with the library, was the lonely forest in its rows.
I closed my left eye, and the library half of the vision blinked out of existence, leaving me in the wind. I set off at a trot, enjoying myself despite the fact that I was terrified. Oh well-the wolves' anger at me seemed directly linked towards that book, so if I avoided that, then everything should be neat as nickels.
Aaaaah-roooooohn! they called, and the wind made their call seem eerie and wavery with the distance. The breeze carried the sounds oddly down the long rows of trees At least that meant they were far away.
I meandered among the trunks, stretching into a horizon beyond my sight, straight and geometric as an orchard. Sadly, though, there were no apples here. However, I did hear the flapping of wings, and I looked up, excited for a game of chasing bird-prey. But I saw nothing, only darkness, the branches of the trees waving in the winds and creating a latticework of overlapping shadows.
Distinctly I heard a cough, a harsh, brazen cough meant to simultaneously gain attention and mock. I recognized it. Crow. Sitting on a branch two trees down and stretching its wings restlessly, it seemed to wait for me to ascertain its location before hopping gleefully to a lower branch. "Hello!" it cawed.
Hey, if a two-tailed green cat can meander a library at night, who says a crow can't hold an intelligent conversation? "Hello," I responded.
"Hello!" it cawed again, and I wondered if it was like Poe's raven: only able to say one word.
"Yes." I called up to it.
"What?" So it did have more than a one-word vernacular.
"Good day," I began again.
"Night, actually," it said, hopping closer.
"Ah, right: good night." I could play its little games for a while longer, before I lost patience and gnawed on its leg for entertainment.
"What brings you to my wondrous wood?" it asked, cocking its head, beak shining dully.
"I was wondering that myself," I admitted.
"It's the story," the crow said, nodding wisely to herself-something in the tone made me think it was female.
"What story?" Could his corvid possibly supply me with answers? It was worth a shot.
"The story," the crow said, spreading her tail feathers and shaking them out. "It's all a story. Right here is the scene where the random wise figure appears to impart knowledge to the protagonist in order to move the plot along."
My irritation was irked, but my ears were still quirked. "Ah, really now? And what would the plot of this particular story be?"
The crow scratched her beak with her foot. My, what a fidgety bird. "Not-really-a cat appears in a library; wolves appear-foreshadowing; mysterious book is brought into the scene-central mystery and object of conflict is established; wolves chase you-antagonist is established."
I unsheathed my claws. "How do you know this?"
Slyly, I asked, "What happens next?"
"The rest has yet to be played out. I won't ruin the surprise. There is a very interesting ending"
I tensed my muscles, held perfectly still, and made eye contact with the crow: her eyes were completely white. Then, I sprang! But got only a crow feather in my mouth for reward. I called after it, "What's your name, you wretched creature?"
"I am Hew," she cawed back, saying Hew in a grating cough.
And then I was alone yet again.
The windows had been cleaned thoroughly just that morning, and although a few fingerprints smudged themselves on the glass, the light still shone through as if there were nothing there at all. It was early afternoon, and her classes were done for the day. She sat at one of the reading tables, laptop cord snaking its way down from the table and twining around her leg before coming to an end with its face stuffed in an outlet, greedily guzzling miniature lighting shocks like a sad woman guzzles chocolate ice cream
Dagney clicked away on the internet, neatly navigating until she stumbled across an unfinished blog, last entry from February 26th 2009, managed by the former head librarian Henrietta Erica Williamson, excited for her forthcoming book. It was littered with thank-yous to editors and sources and her publisher, as well as including links to her other works.
Shaking her head, she exited the library and made her way to the parking lot, easily spotting the rotund dome of the Bubble-mobile. Traffic was light on the highway, though some middle-aged man driving a purple minivan swerved in front of her and almost caused her to crash into the median.
The sky was full of huge cumulous that billowed like sheer white curtains filled with a breeze; like crisp white sails filled with wind. They scuttled about in an autumn-afternoon wind, taking no notice of the stone rivers humanity sailed on with their crawling metal insects. The world and all of its inhabitants were below them, both literally and figuratively.
Dagney pulled off onto her exit on Hatterfield Rd, turning right and passing the Mexican restaurant and megalithic shopping center like she usually did. She took that route mainly because it was Hatterfield Rd, and she rather enjoyed the whimsical Alice in Wonderland references that took place in her mind.
She turned from Hatterfield onto Nutworth, unable to come up with a snappy reference in her mind for the street, and rather disappointed at the fact, because that was the street she happened to live off of. She slid the car into the driveway, threw it into park, and fumblingly fidgeted with her keys, pulling out the one to the front door. Entering the robins-egg blue split-level, she pulled herself up the stairs and into the kitchen: it was necessary for her to eat food before plunged headlong into her nap.
She shook generic store-brand sugar-frosted flake cereal into a bowl and poured skim milk on top of it, managing to spill some on the counter like she always did. She wiped up the mess with a towel, grabbed a spoon, and sat in a chair in one fluid series of motions, pretending she was a ninja because nobody was home.
I had an unprecedented daylight jaunt, happily fading just out of sight of the students wandering the library and quietly studying. For a while I just sat and observed humanity, the people text-messaging, gossiping quietly behind their hands, and a rare few who were actually reading. They all blended together to form a kind of moving tapestry: like a jaunty rug made of colorful, live insects, constantly moving and changing on an individual basis so that soon, the entire picture itself was different, too.
I lay in the sunlight and let myself bask, knowing that this was a rare treat and that I had best enjoy it while the sun was still out.
Later that night I let myself shift over into the forest, wondering where that pesky crow was. More importantly, or at least more immanently, I should have been wondering where the wolves were. Oh well; running for my life wasn't very interesting. The crow, on the other hand, was.
Yet no matter how I squinted, or how high I perked my ears, I couldn't make out the subtle shadow against shadow, couldn't hear the faint rustle of a wing. Clawing my way up a tree, sinking my claws into to stiff, rutted bark, making for the branches.
I climbed until I was among the leaves, and then rose even higher, winding and jumping my way among branches until I finally reached the topmost layer, where the branches were too thin to hold even my slight weight. Poking my head out of the leaves, I looked up at the stars, taken aback momentarily by the sheer volume of them. Every square inch of sky was saturated with faint pinpricks, pulsing like they were breathing. The moon was nestled neatly into them like a great egg in its mother's nest. Beautiful, really.
I negotiated my way back to the ground, landing with a soft thwump on the composting leaves. And started walking. Wasn't really sure where I was going. Oh well.
I followed imagined night-paths between the trees, forging my own path among the ramrod-straight, endless rows. And for all of those that have ever said that cats cannot pretend, I will imagine you in a purple top hat buried up to your neck in cereal.
As I walked, instead of blurring together in one indiscernible green mash, the trees actually grew more defined in my mind, distinct angles of branches, widths of trunks, and patterns of leaves all glaring down at me. In the corners of my eyes, I saw faces in the whirls of bark. They were tall, proud things, these trees, and if it felt like they were talking behind my back.
Then it happened: at first it seemed like a trick of the light, a skewing of perception; but it was definite. Between the trunks, I saw night sky, meaning the forest was at its end. I came to a stop between two trunks that leaned dangerously in the wind, looking sickly; in fact, many of the trees I had come to pass had the vague orange sheen of unhealthiness about them. I was stopped at a cliff face, sheer granite walls falling beneath my feet, a bitter salty wind blowing at my whiskers, and cartoon-ish black-and-white waves spreading away to embrace the sky. The stars were even brighter. Below, small scraggly trees eked out survival, their roots clinging desperately to niches in the cliff-face.
I liked this place. I would be really quite sad when Dagney moved on.
Sighing, I turned to go, only to then notice something on the ground a few feet to my right. My back hunched, nape bristling, tails thrashing wildly. Who had managed to sneak up on me?
But the form did not move, merely squatted demurely in the moss clinging to the bare rock. I stepped forward slowly, then abandoned caution in favor of confusion as I recognized Gracefully Red. How did that damn book get here? I flipped it open to the dedication: For my son Charles, named for one de Lint I never did get to meet.
I nosed the cover closed with every intention of leaving it there, until I heard the vicious howl: Where is the book?
The cat has the book!
Kill the cat!
I really should have been listening for the wolves.
They were close-I could see their grey forms darting down the long tree-aisles towards me, going faster than I could ever run. There were four of them, inverted eyes glowing with some intense emotion; legs pumping and pounding.
I remembered what the crow had said, the book being the 'central item of conflict' or whatnot. My mind strained in two different directions, my front paw lifted, poised to run. Impulsively, I snatched the book, holding it between my two tails, and ran for the cliff face. Luckily I wasn't far. I ran along the rim, paw catching on a narrow ledge that seemed like it could take me down to safety. I deliberated, hoping this was the right choice.
I heard blunt claws scrabbling on stone. I didn't have time for words like seemed or hoping. I jumped. I ran. My claws skittered, desperation giving me all the traction I needed to cling to the cliff face. I dared to look up, and through the sheen of tears the whipping wind brought to my eyes, I saw them leering down at me, much too close.
I looked down and saw a ledge, much too far, with a scraggly little tree spreading its leaves. Between too close and too far, I chose far.
I jumped on faith, spreading my legs and gripping the book tightly between my slightly-prehensile tails, watching the water spearing up the cliff face as it crashed, drenching me, feeling the stabbing wind drag cold knives down my wet skin. Then, like a miracle, I extended my paws and snagged a branch, struggling among the sparse leaves and nestling myself into the main crook of the trunk, forcing myself not to look at the cartoon-waves below.
I curled up, making sure the book was tucked neatly beside me. For the first time in my life I wished Dagney would wake up.
She rolled over in her sleep, starting awake as she felt an odd mass on her comforter. Springing open her eyes, she felt around for her bedside lamp and clicked it on. There, sitting on her bedspread, was a soggy book leaving wet marks on the blankets.
Startled, she picked it up and let it thump down onto her bedside table before recognizing it as that book from the library. Gracefully something. She examined the spine. Ah, yes, Gracefully Red. She kicked her comforter off her bed and carried the moist book to the bathroom, where she put it on a towel to dry. Looking at her clock, she groaned as it said 5:15 am. It wouldn't be worth it to try and sleep for a half hour before her father came and woke her up anyway.
Dagney wandered back into the bathroom and opened the cover, flipping past the title pages and dedication and table of contents, finally coming to page 1. On it was the title poem, itself named Gracefully Red. The language was jarring and passionate, not really having any flow at all and feeling out of sync with her mind as she tried to comprehend it. If the author, the dead head librarian, had done it on accident, she was just a bad writer. If she had done it on purpose, she was a genius.
She guessed it was the latter, considering this book had been about to be published. Her mind was brought back to the basic mystery that had occurred: how had this book gotten on her bed in the first place? Such things had happened before, things like leaves appearing on her bed, twigs tangled in her hair, even feathers a few times. But never something so large, nor as concrete as a book.
She flipped through the pages, realizing it was an eclectic anthology of sorts, half-heartedly sorted into three main categories: The first, Trees, the second, Fur-things, and the third and last, Poe. The book was wet and mushy, but vibrated with feeling deep down in its pages.
Her father called down the hall, "Ealasaid Reetta Dagney Vaghan! Wake. Up!" It was like he thought she wouldn't' respond to anything less than a bellow. She grabbed the book and hurried out.
I was in a bad mood. A really bad mood. God damn wolves. God damn crow. Which is who I was looking for, actually. Hew. I wandered among the trunks for half the night, my footsteps crunching through dead leaves and squishing through soft soil.
Out of frustration, I called, "Where are you you damned bird?"
And then she was, perched and preening on a branch above my head. "Hello!" she cawed.
"How's your damned story now?" I yelled, wincing and shifting my weight between paws still raw and bleeding from last night's escapade down the cliff.
"Incomplete! Unacceptable! Well, okay actually." Her white eyes glimmered like dew on crisp, new paper.
"I got the book. I evaded the wolves. The end."
Hew hopped one branch lower. "Far from over, actually. Corrections any novice writer would make: you do not have the book. Dagney has the book. And for there to be final plot resolution, you must face the antagonist, not merely avoid them. Sad, really. You will never be an author, my friend."
My claws speared into the dirt. "How do you know about Dagney?"
The bird coughed a laugh and hopped back and forth on her branch. "I know everything that goes on in my library!"
My eyes narrowed, slivers of cunning hazel rage. "Your library?" I asked poisonously.
"Mine! Mine! Mine! My library! My book! My name: Henrietta Erica Willliamson; Hew! Hew! Hew!" The bird, or rather, the kind-of dead librarian, was growing more and more excited, strutting back and forth like a happy (normal) crow that had discovered a shiny trinket that it now held triumphantly in its beak.
"And the wolves?"
"Mine! Mine! Mine!"
I sprang up into the tree, angrily chasing the bird, who merely flitted from branch to branch, out of reach and taunting me for it. Panting and frustrated, I asked, "If all of this is yours, then why did you ever need me?"
Henrietta halted her grating laugh, her gloating strut. Cocking her head, the bird opened its beak to say, "I never needed you. I need Dagney. Ealasaid Reetta Dagney Vaughan-pretty name, isn't it?"
I felt as if I were back on the cliff, being splashed by cold, poorly-drawn waves. "Don't you dare bring her into this."
The crow bent her head low. "I had no choice," she hissed.
"The whole purpose of this arrangement we made was to separate her from dangers like this," I implored.
Hew turned her head so that one white eye glared at me. "Did you not see the trees by the cliffs?"
Why was she changing the subject? "Yes," I admitted warily.
"They are dying. This place is dying."
"Why?" I asked. "And it's not my problem," I added as an afterthought.
The crow puffed out her chest, getting ready for a monologue. "When I was alive, this place flourished. This library was the jewel of my mind. The trees were the stories I read and experienced, growing and changing as living stories do. The sea was the lives of those around me, and endless ocean of lives and tales. You may not believe it, but the sun used to shine here," Henrietta cocked her head back to look at the sparse bits of sky through the leaves.
"But then I died. The sun set. The trees stopped growing, because I stopped experiencing life. I could not make contact with the lives around me, so the sea became that two-dimensional thing. Out of my desperation, the wolves were born. Well-intended things that sought to help in the only way they know: fighting and hunting outsiders. My control over this place has slipped, but I do not want it to die.
"In order for it to survive, it must live on in the mind of someone whose heart still beats. Dagney has the book now."
White fury crept into my eyes, and I was blind. I sprang for the crow, feeling my heart pump strongly in victory as the claws on my left paw seared open a gash in her leg. But then the black bird cawed mightily, and everything was gone. I was in the book-labyrinth, lost. I heard footsteps behind me, and knew it was the wolves. I ran.
I had to get to Dagney.
She sat in the library after her second class, flipping through the pages of Gracefully Red with eagerness. She rather enjoyed the section Trees, full of poems and tales likening stories to things with trunks, branches, and leaves.
Fur-things unnerved her, full of visions of white teeth and gray fur and inverted eyes, the ironic use of the color baby-blue to usher in the bloodthirsty end of innocence. She was about to enter Poe. She looked at her watch and decided to skip English class that day, instead settling deeper into her chair and plowing on ahead to listen to H.E. Williamson discuss the poet and his raven.
People swarmed around her, then dissipated, the volume of the library rising and falling in great, slow breaths. She turned the page. A girl laughed. She turned the page. Someone's phone rang. She turned the page. A guy with his baseball cap on backwards was clicking away at the track pad on his laptop. She turned the page. A group of people converged, talked for a while, then bid each other farewell. She turned the page.
And came to page two hundred and eighty-six: small red tears, and briar roses…A wind rustled the leaves on the trees. She turned the page. And then there was nothing written there. The book had ended, and she flipped through the vast expanse of blank paper. A wolf howled. She shut the book.
And looked up to find the library gone.
She was sitting on a decomposing log, mushrooms sprouting around her in a circle like a fairy-ring. The book fell from her lap as she jumped up, arm flailing as she searched in vain for her backpack, which had disappeared. She sat back down heavily, near hyperventilating, everything feeling fuzzy like a far-off dream.
So if it was a dream, she wasn't really very surprised when a crow flap over and settle itself on a tree not far ahead of her, leer down and say "Wasn't expecting you so soon."
"Sorry bout that," she muttered, for some reason remembered of the fleeting mention of Poe on the last page of Gracefully Red.
"How are you then?" the corvid inquired, the picture of the beaming hostess.
"Well enough." For some reason she said, "Just finished reading a book."
"And which one would that be?" the crow asked smugly.
"Doubt you've ever heard of it. It's called Gracefully Red."
"Oh, I've heard of it, I've heard of it. Regular work of genius, no?"
Dagney shrugged. "If it wasn't just an accident."
The crow puffed up its feathers. "It was most certainly not an accident!"
"How do you know that?" she asked lazily, leaning her chin on her hand.
"I wrote the damn thing!"
"You're H.E. Williamson?"
"The one and only," the crow bowed.
Ah, well. She had seen stranger things in her dreams.
"Interesting place you have here," Dagney said, changing the subject.
"Yes, yes," the crow flapped her wing dismissively. "It's all in the book. The last poem precisely." The crow grew excited, head bobbing up and down in the same rhythm of a pigeon's. "Do you understand the references?"
"Not really, no," she said.
With the air of one explaining their masterwork to a commoner so that they might achieve their 'A-ha!' moment, the crow enunciated every syllable. "I am the misused Lord! This form is my cloak of black feathers! This forest is my Neverland starship! Do you get it?" Her head was bobbing faster now. "Clever, right? Clever! Clever! Clever!" She said it three times in rapid succession.
Dagney nodded her head slowly. "I guess so."
The crow looked taken aback. "'Guess so'? What? No! no! no! You must understand!"
She shrugged, and heard the howling again. "What is that?" she asked of the noise.
The crow cocked her head, then spread her wings in alarm. "No! no! no!" she said again, beak clacking in dismay. "Go away you mangy fur-things!" the crow yelled.
Leaves stirred a few trees down the row, and a small dark-green, two-tailed form appeared. "Dagney! Run!" it hissed in a whisper.
"To where?" she asked, not really truly believed in immanent danger in a dream.
"Just get your ass over here!" the cat yelled, abandoning its whisper.
Frowning at the feline's use of coarse language, the girl rose from the fairy-ring of mushrooms and dusted off her pants. Walking over to the cat, she felt as if she knew it from somewhere. "Have we met?"
"More often than you would care to know," it said, and began to trot away. It looked over its shoulder to where Dagney was standing still, and yelled "Well? Are you waiting for the grass to grow? No time!"
So she followed the cat over six rows of trees to an enormous old oak-like one, where it sat perched on the lowest branch. "Well?" it called down.
"Get up here! Unless you would rather have your entrails ripped out of you while you're still breathing, that is."
Hauling herself up onto the first branch, she muttered, "Don't see why you have to be so macabre."
"Consider it an acquired habit," the cat meowed cynically.
She climbed higher in the tree, until the ground was an uncomfortable distance below them. "Well?" the girl asked, looking at the cat. "What's all this about then?"
"You never did have much discretion, did you?"
"About what?" Dagney asked, indignant.
"The book. Never did understand why you had to pick the thing up in the first place."
"Who cares? It's all just a dream, anyway."
The cat raised its ears at that one, smiled a little bit. "I was wondering why you were taking all of this so well. You are under the impression it's all a dream."
"Obviously it's a dream. I fell asleep in my chair at the library and now I'm imagining all sorts of fanciful things out of that book."
The cat shook its head. "I'm afraid all of this is very real, my friend."
"Of course its real for you," she said practically. "You're a dream and this is a dream. This is your reality."
"One correction to that statement," the cat said. "I'm not a dream. I'm your dream."
"I really don't want to have to go into all of this complicated history between us. I really don't want to jar your memory. What happens will happen. All I'm going to say is that a long time ago, you weren't happy, so we arranged this and split apart the parts of your mind you didn't want. That became me and you got to go on and live your happy, normal life. And when you're not using your mind, i.e, when you're asleep, I get to use it. And get up to all sorts of happy shenanigans, might I add," the cat chuckled.
But then it was all seriousness again. "You don't have to believe me. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't believe me. I rather like existing. It suits me. But the most important thing right now is that you survive."
Sure enough, as soon as the words left the cat's mouth, the wolves loped into view, tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths but anger in their eyes. There were only two of them this time.
The green cat climbed higher into the branches, looking down at the wolves as they circled the base of the tree, scrabbling among the roots and growling. It grinned to itself. It sat and waited, began to lick its paw. The wolves sat down too, staring up at the two of them in the tree with anger in their every stiff movement.
But the words of the crow kept creeping back into the cat's mind: …for there to be final plot resolution, you must face the antagonist, not merely avoid them. Its tails began to lash, and it unsheathed its claws, digging them into the bark. Dagney watched all of this, unknowing what was going on in the mind of this eerily familiar figure that she was certain she had never seen before.
Everything was frozen for a moment in between two breaths of wind.
When the breeze exhaled, everything exploded.
The cat, without signal, launched itself from the branch and landed square on one of the wolves' faces, and began to savagely rake and claw at its horrible, inverted eyes. The baby blue bled red. Tears of blood leaked down its muzzle as it shook its head violently, trying to dislodge its attacker. The other wolf danced around its companion, jumping in a circle, uncertain of how to help.
Then, with a violent wrench of its neck, the cat was flung sideways, skidding in the compost until it banged against a tree trunk. It scrambled to its feet and darted forward again, this time for the second wolf, as the first was busy rubbings its face against its leg in pain.
Winding among the rangy gray legs of the wolf, the cat darted for the base of the tail, eyes locking on the sensitive parts hidden there. Knowing it was a low blow, the cat leapt and sank its fangs savagely into the vulnerability swinging there. The wolf cried out, bucked its hind legs, and the cat went flying again, one testicle hanging out of its mouth, which it spat out in a splutter of disgust. The wolf ran off into the rows of trees to go lick its wounds-not that that would be a very good idea, the cat thought sarcastically.
The first wolf had recovered enough to glare at her through rivulets of blood matting its face. It bared its fangs in a grimace of challenge, and charged, head low. The cat sprang sideways, unable to wretch its eyes from the slavering jaws inches away from its flank. The cat could feel the wolf's hot breath in its ears, and cringed when the jaws snapped closed-
One and three-fourths inches away from its face.
Yowling, and without conscious thought, the cat sprang forward again, snagging its claws into the wolf's lolling tongue and tearing fiercely. The think muscle split neatly, and soon blood was flowing out of the mouth thicker than the saliva that coursed freely. Truly, this thing before the cat was a hell-hound.
The cat sprang once more, this time landing on the beast's back, sinking its claws into flesh in order to hang on. It would do the feline no good to perch there, due to the thick guard-hairs along the spine and the folds of protective extra skin along the neck that shielded its spine from harm. So the cat wrapped its slightly-prehensile tails around the wolf's neck and clung for all it was worth.
The wolf gasped, angrily shaking its head, yelping, tears and blood flowing from its eyes. It couldn't dislodge the cat. The cat hung tighter, compressing, anger flattening its ears against its skull as it realized that true 'plot resolution,' as the crow put it, was so close.
Thirty seconds went by. A minute. Dagney counted them, high up in the tree, breath coming shallowly to her lungs as she watched this odd green cat risk its life for hers. A minute and a half. A minute and forty-five seconds. The wolf fell to its front knees, and the back legs soon followed, folding up in defeat. Its eyes rolled upwards, completely white with small blue veins. It collapsed onto its side on the compost, ribcage not moving.
Quick as the flick of a hummingbird's wing, the cat sprang off the corpse of its prey, not quite believing what it had accomplished. "Dagney?" it called up to her.
She squeezed her eyes shut. "This is a nightmare," she called down.
The cat's eyes opened wide in concern. "What?"
"This isn't a dream. It's a nightmare," she repeated.
The cat laughed. For some reason Dagney couldn't understand, it said, "Glad to hear you say that." A caw sounded hysterically in the middle distance, yelling "No! no! no! I don't want this place to die! Remember this place, girl! Ealasaid Reetta Dagney Vaghan! I don't want to die!" it sobbed.
And then she woke up.
Everything, the forest, the wolves, the cat, the crow, were gone. Her backpack was there, and a few people looked up from what they were reading as Dagney started awake violently, and watched her for a moment as she breathed heavily. They turned their attention away once she had calmed.
She gathered up her things and fled the library.
Can I really say "The End"? Is it really my place to declare the end of a tale? I can't really say definitively that everything is over, but I'm sure as hell tired of telling the story. I guess that's going to have to be good enough.
As you can see, I still exist. I don't roam the library so much anymore. Instead I like to hang around the cafeteria, sometimes even the Arts Building. There are a lot of interesting ghosts hanging around in there. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I do go to the library, you know, just to check up on old Hew, but I never spend very long in the forest. It's wilting quite badly now, fading almost as fast as the dream Dagney thought she had of it.
If things ever get too bad, I'll just pop in on her as a dream and remind her every once in a while. Place should perk up real nice after that.
But as for Dagney's duel-personality, don't worry about that. It's only a problem if both personalities attempt to manifest themselves at the same time. As you can clearly see, I'm happy just where I am. Wherever that just so happens to be.