a history of books

By H TOMLIN | Published: April 4, 2010

She is lying on the foot of Mother's bed. It is cold, Mother has opened all the windows, shocking the girl's system into awake. This is summer, she knows the routine. windows wide in the morning, then lock them up dark and tight against the sun. She is an astronaut, nearing too close to the star, its solar flares will burn everyone to bits! Keep the blast panels shut, a matter of life and death.

She shivers on the end of the bed, wrapped in her blanket that feels too thin, little holes let the air in, sting her skin. Her spine shivers with every movement of air.

Her mind still in clouds.

Lying on her side, she focuses on the shelf. A half-sleeping mind grazes each binding. This was her way. A slow walk through the park, taking in the trees and flowers and sky, were her eyes on each title, each word, the author's name. Speaking softly inside her mind each letter. Half awake, half asleep.

If it were another time, a wakeful, playful time, there were books she would open, take from the shelf, for the pictures. But times like this were meant only for glancing from a distance, testing her eyes, letting dreams mix with what her eyes read. She was the woman who never leaves her house but longs for the world through the television box. A lounge-chair tourist.

Every six sundays Mother would take the girl to the house of the old man. Inside it was too warm. He didn't know how to lock out the sun. He lived alone.

They would enter through the back door. The girl would sway to the fumes of gasoline, cardboard, and tin in the steaming hot garage they walked through to enter through the kitchen door. She always felt embarrassed were they really welcome here. But, there the old man would stand, behind the kitchen counter, cutting carrots and frying shrimp, smiling at her.

Mother would stand near and watch as the girl would talk to him.

He let the girl explore the house. He had more books than she had seen outside of a library. No one had a house like his. The front door, Mother said was for clients only, framed with Burgundy wine and chocolate leather bindings. If he lifted one off the shelf the gold edges would shine. The girl was not allowed to touch these, Mother would shoo her away if she got too close.

The old man had a wall of diplomas and photos, pictures of him shaking hands and smiling at the camera. In what should have been a living room was his office. Military marching bands or Mozart always humming in the background of the deep wood and metals. A table larger than the one in the kitchen was covered in paper, leather, and heavy steel tools to staple, punch, and weigh down the documents. Important things, an important man. Every wall was a line of bookshelves chanting to visitors the kind of ground they were standing on: holy ground.

The girl did not understand her place in this house, could not hear the true language of the books for herself. Others understood, but she was simply too young.

One day Mother took her out the backdoor just as a client entered through the front, the girl caught a glimpse of the way the client entered. Shoulders hunched, eyes low, the client understood. Knew this was a temple.

When the old man died, the girl helped to pile the framed certificates into a dusty box that smelt of his garage. She shook out the dead spiders and chewed cardboard fragments before the plaques were put in.

Those boxes are in Mother's garage, on the concrete. They will blister and yellow in the heat and one day disintegrate, turn to dust, along with the old man's body.

The books always stood for something bigger than the girl could understand. the old man would say, "how are you doing in school?" Mother would answer for the girl and say she was doing well, getting B's. "You are taking science and math! You must take science and math, it is the only way to get ahead in life, make something of yourself." Mother would turn away, breathe, close her eyes for a moment, then turn back.

Mother is an artist. She creates worlds with colors. The girl likes to watch as Mother adds water to the ink, rubs it with the tool she had carefully selected, touches the white in just the perfect way to bring it to life. The girl can see; Mother creates life.

As the girl grew older she would wrap books around her, to keep her warm. When she was lonely she would go to the library. Walk through the isles. Look at the titles, read the author's names. No need to pick one up, it was the community of paper that made her feel comfort. Sitting in a chair at a large simple table, surrounded by books, that was enough. The smell, the silence.

Her first year away from Mother she was lonely every day. The books made her feel safe. She spent time in the library every day as though taking medicine or eating a meal. And through the gap between the books below and shelf above she met his eyes...

so, she followed him.

He would walk ahead of her through the isles, pulling a book off the shelf, handing it to her, telling her of the author, of the content, telling her about the meaning of the work. She tried to keep up, but he walked fast. He spoke as though she were his student, he was removed and knowledgeable.

But sometimes they would sit. When she should have been reading, and he would stare at her. Study her like a book. She didn't even give him words, did not speak, and yet he read her.

He was the boy.

Sometimes he touched her with the tips of his fingers, the same way he moved the pages. He would hold a book mostly closed in one hand, delicately moving the paper, lightly touching the edge with his other. the finger moved it so gently she wondered whether the book would win. Whether the page would fail to turn. He could read an entire book without bending a page. Devour the content and vanish, not leaving a trace he had been there.

She followed him up the stairs, always following, and he touched her hand on the rail, looking at her face. Stopping her breath.

The way he focused on her, she felt like a story that he could not put down. But, other times, he did put it down, as though it belonged in the reference section, could never be his, could never leave the building with him, sit on his desk or bed at home, be close enough to...

Sometimes she felt lonely even when he sat beside her.

Then he was gone.

She returned to the library whenever she was lonely. She was not as lonely as she had been. She no longer missed Mother. Now she missed the boy.

Instead of finding comfort in the walls of books surrounding her, she walked the isles hoping to see his eyes through the gap. Listening to the echo in her mind, the memories, of him telling her about each book. Her body replaying the paths they strolled together, missing him.

How he had looked at her.

It was only a matter of time. Then the boy would remember that book he just could not put down, the story that entrapped him once. He would return to read again.

And always she was taken up into it. Could not resist. It had been too long and she missed being a book, being a comfort to another. Being read so avidly, eagerly, as if she had something inside of her that he could want. That he hungered for.

They went to a bookstore that was a maze. Books to the ceiling. Shelves that made archways they would duck beneath to find more. He held her hand and tugged her through the shelves, finding nothing, like two lovers running into the center of a field, grass and wildflowers and blue sky. Too wrapped up in their love to care about anything but air. Breathing. Feeling their hearts race at the touch of the other's hand.

She would sit and read in coffee shops, waiting for him to find her inside the city. He always would. She would see him and tuck the book away, no longer interested in anything but his face, his skin, his voice.

Their last morning together she played her game with the shelf of books across from her, reading the titles, imagining what was inside. It was the shelf of a poor bachelor, cinder bricks and boards. Only two rows of books, which surprised her. She always thought the boy would keep as many books as the old man had, or at least a good start on his collection. But she didn't ask him why. So content to be near him, to be in his apartment, to know at any moment he would come in the door. For now she was overjoyed to lay on the sofa, half asleep, testing her eyes on the books. Breathing in the smell of him on the pillow beneath her hair.

"Once I read those, I'll box them up and give them away." He said from the doorway, leaning casually. The tone in his voice made her uncomfortable as though he intended to say something more, something she never wanted to hear. Someone had just slammed on the breaks, whiplash. Her breath rushed out, as though she had fallen on her back from the monkey bars. Water began to fill her eyes.

His attitude toward the books did not make sense to her mind in that moment. To willingly let them go, simply give them away as if they meant nothing. No, she could not understand him. She had been collecting books. Wanting a house like the old man's. Walls of bookshelves to keep her company. She never wanted to be alone.

That was the last time she saw the boy.

Any Comments?


» Queensland Apology to Children in Mental Hospitals

The booking club

Published: September 26, 2011

Could it be an honest mistake? Could he possibly have mistaken me, in this club packed with Koreans, for somebody else? Or were his intentions genuinely more sinister than I dared to imagine?


Published: June 15, 2010

A story about water.