Scott Hawkins is an author and computer programmer, and recently published his first novel, "The Library at Mount Char" (Crown, 2015). He lives in Atlanta with his wife and a large pack of foster dogs. Hawkins and Crown Publishers contributed this excerpt to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Reprinted from "The Library at Mount Char" Copyright © 2015 by Scott Hawkins. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Chapter 1: Sunrise
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.
She was smiling.
Cars were scarce but not unheard-of on this road. Over the course of her night's walk she had seen five of them. The one braking to a halt now, a battered Ford F-250, was the third that had stopped to take a closer look. The driver pulled to the opposite shoulder, gravel crunching, and idled there. When the window came down she smelled chewing tobacco, old grease, and hay. A white-haired man sat behind the wheel. Next to him, a German shepherd eyed her suspiciously from the passenger seat.
Ahhh, crap. She didn't want to hurt them.
"Jesus," he said. "Was there an accident?" His voice was warm with concern — the real kind, not the predator's fake that the last man had tried. She heard this and knew the old man was seeing her as a father might see his daughter. She relaxed a little.
"Nope," she said, eyeing the dog. "Nothing like that. Just a mess at the barn. One of the horses." There was no barn, no horse. But she knew from the smell of the man that he would be sympathetic to animals, and that he would understand their business could be bloody. "Rough delivery, for me and for her." She smiled ruefully and held her hands to frame her torso, the green silk now black and stiff with Detective Miner's blood. "I ruined my dress."
"Try a little club sody," the man said dryly. The dog growled a little. "Hush up, Buddy."
She wasn't clear on what "club sody" was, but she could tell from his tone that this was a joke. Not the laugh-out-loud sort, the commiserating sort. She snorted. "I'll do that."
"The horse OK?" Real concern again.
"Yeah, she's fine. The colt, too. Long night, though. Just taking a walk to clear my head."
She shrugged. "They grow 'em tough around here." This part was true.
"You want a lift?"
"Nah. Thanks, though. My Father's place is over that way, not far." That was true too.
"Which, over by the post office?"
"It's in Garrison Oaks."
The old man's eyes went distant for a moment, trying to remember how he knew that name. He thought about it for a while, then gave up. Carolyn might have told him that he could drive by Garrison Oaks four times a day every day for a thousand years and still not remember it, but she didn't.
"Ohhh . . ." the old guy said vaguely. "Right." He glanced at her legs in a way that wasn't particularly fatherly. "Sure you don't want a lift? Buddy don't mind, do ya?" He patted the fat dog in the seat next to him. Buddy only watched, his brown eyes feral and suspicious.
"I'm good. Still clearing my head. Thanks, though." She stretched her face into something like a smile.
The old man put his truck into gear and drove on, bathing her in a warm cloud of diesel fumes.
She stood watching until his taillights disappeared around a curve. That's enough socializing for one night, I think. She scrambled up the bluff and slipped into the woods. The moon was still up, still full. Americans called this time of year "October" or, sometimes, "Autumn," but the librarians reckoned time by the heavens. Tonight was the seventh moon, which is the moon of black lament. Under its light the shadows of bare branches flashed across her scars.
A mile or so later she came to the hollow tree where she had stashed her robe. She shook the bark out of it and picked it clean as best she could. She saved a scrap of the bloody dress for David and tossed the rest, then wrapped herself in the robe, pulling the hood over her head. She had been fond of the dress — silk felt good — but the rough cotton of the robe comforted her. It was familiar, and all she really cared to know of clothing.
She set out deeper into the forest. The stones under the leaves and pine straw felt right against the soles of her feet, scratching an itch she hadn't known she felt. Just around the next ridge, she thought. Garrison Oaks. She wanted to burn the whole place to ashes but, at the same time, it would be kind of nice to see it again.
Carolyn and the rest were not born librarians. Once upon a time — it seemed long ago — they had been very American indeed. She remembered that, a little — there was something called The Bionic Woman and another something called Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. But one summer day when Carolyn was about eight, Father's enemies moved against him. Father survived, as did Carolyn and a handful of other children. Their parents did not.
She remembered the way Father's voice came to her through black smoke that smelled like melting asphalt, how the deep crater where their houses had been glowed dull orange behind him as he spoke.
"You are Pelapi now," Father said. "It is an old word. It means something like 'librarian' and something like 'pupil.' I will take you into my house. I will raise you in the old ways, as I myself was raised. I will teach you the things I have learned."
He did not ask what they wanted.
Carolyn, not ungrateful, did her best at first. Her mom and dad were gone, gone. She understood that. Father was all that she had now, and at first it seemed that he didn't ask so much. Father's home was different, though. Instead of candy and television there were shadows and ancient books, handwritten on thick parchment. They came to understand that Father had lived for a very long time. More, over the course of this long life, he had mastered the crafting of wonders. He could call down lightning, or stop time. Stones spoke to him by name. The theory and practice of these crafts were organized into twelve catalogs — one for each child, as it happened. All he asked was that they be diligent about their studies.
Carolyn's first clue as to what this actually meant came a few weeks later. She was studying at one of the lamplit kiosks scattered here and there around the jade floor of the Library. Margaret, then aged about nine, sprinted out from the towering, shadowy shelves of the gray catalog. She was shrieking. Blind with terror, she tripped over an end table and skidded to a stop almost at Carolyn's feet. Carolyn motioned her under her desk to hide.
Margaret trembled in the shadows for ten minutes or so. Carolyn hissed questions at her, but she wouldn't speak, perhaps could not. But Margaret's tears were streaked with blood, and when Father pulled her back into the stacks she wet herself. That was answer enough. Carolyn sometimes thought of how the hot ammonia of Margaret's urine blended with the dusty smell of old books, how her screams echoed down the stacks. It was in that moment that she first began to understand.
Carolyn's own catalog was more dull than terrifying. Father assigned her to the study of languages, and for almost a year she waded through her primers faithfully. But the routine bored her. In the first summer of her training, when she was nine years old, she went to Father and stamped her foot. "No more!" she said. "I have read enough books. I know enough words. I want to be outside."
The other children cringed back from the look on Father's face. As promised, he was raising them as he himself had been raised. Most of them — Carolyn included — already had a few scars.
But even though his face clouded, this time he did not hit her. Instead, after a moment, he said, "Oh? Very well."
Father unlocked the front door of the Library and led her out into the sunshine and blue sky for the first time in months. Carolyn was delighted, all the more so when Father walked out of the neighborhood and down to the woods. On the way she saw David, whose catalog was murder and war, swinging a knife around in the field at the end of the road. Michael, who was training to be Father's ambassador to beasts, balanced on a branch in a tree nearby, conferring with a family of squirrels. Carolyn waved at them both. Father stopped at the shore of the small lake behind the neighborhood. Carolyn, fairly quivering with delight, splashed barefoot in the shallows and snatched at tadpoles.
From the shore Father called out the doe Isha, who had recently given birth. Isha and her fawn, called Asha, came as commanded, of course. They began their audience by swearing loyalty to Father with great sincerity and at some length. Carolyn ignored that part. By now she was thoroughly bored with people groveling to Father. Anyway, deer talk was hard.
When the formalities were out of the way Father commanded Isha to instruct Carolyn alongside her own fawn. He was careful to use small words so that Carolyn would understand.
Isha was reluctant at first. Red deer have a dozen words for grace, and none of them applied to Carolyn's human feet, so large and clumsy when seen next to the delicate hooves of Asha and the other fawns. But Isha was loyal to Nobununga, who was Emperor of these forests, and thus loyal in turn to Father. Also she wasn't stupid. She voiced no objection.
All that summer Carolyn studied with the red deer of the valley. It was the last gentle time of her life, and perhaps the happiest as well. Under Isha's instruction she ran with increasing skill through the footpaths of the lower forest, bounded over the fallen moss oak, knelt to nibble sweet clover and sip morning dew. Carolyn's own mom had been dead about a year at that point. Her only friend was banished. Father was many things, none of them gentle. So when, on the first frosty night of the year, Isha called Carolyn over to lie with her and her child for warmth, something broke open inside her. She did not weep or otherwise show weakness— that was not in her nature — but she took Isha into her heart wholly and completely.
Not long after, winter announced itself with a terrible thunderstorm. Carolyn was not afraid of such things, but with each flash of lightning Isha and Asha trembled. The three of them were a family now. They took shelter together beneath a stand of beech, where Carolyn and Isha held Asha between them, cuddling to keep her warm. They lay together all that night. Carolyn felt their slight bodies tremble, felt them jerk with each crack of thunder. She tried to comfort them with caresses, but they flinched at her touch. As the night wore on she searched her memory of Father's lessons for words that might comfort them — "don't worry" would be enough, or "it will be over soon" or "there will be clover in the morning."
But Carolyn had been a poor student. Try as she might, she could find no words.
Shortly before dawn Carolyn felt Isha jerk and drum her hooves against the earth, kicking away the fallen leaves to expose the black loam below. A moment later the rain flowing over Carolyn's body ran warm, and the taste of it was salty in her mouth.
The lightning cracked then, and Carolyn saw David. He was above her, standing on a branch some thirty feet away, grinning. From his left hand dangled the weighted end of a fine silver chain. Not wanting to, Carolyn used the last light of the moon to trace the length of that chain. When lightning flashed again, Carolyn stared into the lifeless eye of Isha, spitted with her fawn at the end of David's spear. Carolyn stretched her hand out to touch the bronze handle protruding from the deer's torso. The metal was warm. It trembled slightly under her fingertips, magnifying the faint, fading vibrations of Isha's gentle heart.
"Father said to watch and listen," David said. "If you had found the words, I was supposed to let them live." He jerked the chain back to himself then, unpinning them. "Father says it's time to come home," he said, coiling the chain with deft, practiced motions. "It's time for your real studies to begin." He disappeared back into the storm.
Carolyn rose and stood alone in the dark, both in that moment and ever after.
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