~1600 words, approx. 11 min reading time
Each morning the daily flock of new words from all the countless realms streamed in–fluttering, dancing–paper and hide manuscripts nudged freely about by heartier stones and thick wooden tablets. They organized themselves: perching on railings and stools, stacking precariously on edges of tables, teetering on backs of chairs. They waited patiently for the Librarian–the only one capable of reading them, understanding them, sorting them to their proper places within the Library of All.
Each morning, their wait was rewarded, until the day the Librarian did not come. Could not be found, not within the maze of scroll chutes nor wading within the stone streams nor lingering too long among the paper bridges.
Until the day our Librarian disappeared.
Those of us left of the Librarian’s assistants herded the flock. Rolled the tiny pebbles and rounded stones down ramps, up ramps, until they begrudgingly hopped into churning, bubbling streams that flowed over and under halls and shelves. We coaxed splintered-edged, wooden tablets toward the craggy wooden hooks dangling from revolving boughs of aged oak and beech. Fanned flimsy papers until they settled in haphazard, unordered stacks within stained glass sleeves betwixt leather-bound books and metal engravings.
Our efforts kept the Library of All neat, but not orderly. My efforts alongside the others proved ambitious, but not well-informed.
Far above my head, where the arches of the Library of All pooled its shadows, the Informed Causeways would continue to open each morning. Regardless of backlog, regardless of how many stories and magnum opuses clung to the stone, the causeways never ceased to spill the day’s deluge.
We read what we could, bursting our minds with what words we knew, praising ourselves if we managed to order the pages of an unbound book, even if only in part, or set a stone rolling through its proper stream.
More often than not, though, we sighed wistfully at glyphs or squiggles that not a one of us could decipher. Was that stone a note on politics of its realm, or a riddle children told to entertain, or both? Should that other be rolling in the historical stream? Perhaps instead it should be settled in the flow of the children’s gurgling path, where the stepping plates lay close to help short legs.
We didn’t know.
One by one, the others gave up. The Librarian of All no longer cared, they said, why should we? They filtered away. Some grandly, goodbyes all around. Some mutely, despondent. One or two snuck away during particularly busy mornings, when the immensity of the flock could not be faced, not even one last time.
They left out the front door. Out the side doors. Out the back doors and the secret doors. They left to worlds we’d visited with the Librarian and to worlds we’d never seen before, all of them either trudging slowly with uncertainty or sprinting in a desperate bid to escape the backlog of words begging for attention.
Thirty became twenty, became thirteen, became nine, became four, became two—
But that last assistant did not go grandly nor despondently nor silently. He didn’t really go at all.
He grew angry: at the Librarian for abandoning us all; at the realms who could not cease their incessant writing, not even for a day; at the flock who could not organize themselves.
And angry at me, though I didn’t know why. He called me too-optimistic and naive. He claimed my focus a facade, which I thought was the same as a lie. I argued, hoping he’d stay so I’d not be lonely.
He did stay, in his own fashion; he dove headfirst into a scroll chute.
Once in a while, if I’d managed to calm and herd the flock that day, I’d hear him talking to himself within the gnarled tree trunks, where the scrolls poke free from knots. If I placed my ear against one of the larger knots, I could almost make out his words. He’d sound as if he was reading, but I couldn’t be sure. Couldn’t even be sure I was hearing him at all.
Two became one, leaving me alone to face the ever-growing words.
As the realms became more literate, the flocks descended ever thicker. The Librarian would have liked that, I thought. Maybe.
Maybe the Librarian would have hated the extra work, as I did. I began to get behind even in my meager attempts to settle each day’s words into some semblance of neatness. Yesterday’s flock intermixed with today’s. Last month’s with this week’s. I no longer saw words; they blended together in a rush of crinkling, tapping, slapping, rustling. I could not waste time deciphering language and thesis, not with the flock pressing into every crack and alcove and having to be shuffled into scroll chutes, plopped into streams or hung on hooks.
I missed the evening’s silence.
I slept in uncomfortable beds made of other people’s words. With no one to read them, care for them, understand them, they populated.
I ached for the time when I could reach my hands to the boughs and pull down a tablet I knew to be there. Dreamt of the days the Librarian would open the Library to a new people—or an old one—who would scamper through the halls like children, dipping their fingers into streams of pebbled fairy tales, running their hands through chiming legislation, looking through scrolls of information on every subject known to all. I missed their excitement to learn, and the Librarian’s desire to share.
Some mornings, I would wake smothered beneath words clamoring for someone I was not, forced to dig myself free.
I wandered overburdened bridges and climbed hide-strewn ladders. Pretended I could read epic sagas from a time and place I’d never been. Realized I wanted to have been. Realized I no longer cared that my abandonment would leave the Library empty, bereft; that our number, once thirty, would become none.
So the next morning, I found the path—forced a path, more like—to the dizzying heights of the Library where the vaulted arches opened to the Informed Causeways. When the day’s flock came streaming in to join the disarray I no longer sought to control, I almost fell. Papers flapped in my face, stones smacked against my head. I clung to the curved column beside the gaping entrance to the Causeways, my toes barely touching the topmost branch of an ancient oak scroll-keeper of philosophy. Down below, the collected manuscripts bulged and undulated like distant waves. I held on and watched the new flock confusedly flit about until they crammed themselves into holes and crevices not yet filled to capacity.
Then I let go.
The scent of the Library faded behind me as I tumbled through the Causeways, my bearings lost, my body as untamed in its flailing as every manuscript that had ever come fluttering into the Library of All.
Scorched bits, water-stained words, ripped and shattered and slashed and muddied castoffs lurked in the shadows of those endless informational passages. They came out of hiding as I passed through that soaring channel between the worlds, their approach cautious, tentative, as if scared I’d smack them away. These poor fragments must have been left behind by the bulk of the flock. Too weak, too blurred, too fragile to be added to the Library of All.
They smelled of muck and char. They reminded me … of me. Not good enough for the Library; not intelligent enough to give up trying.
In my confusion, I tumbled from the Causeways through a gap, finding myself abruptly shoved into an unfamiliar realm, one of countless worlds connected to the Library. About me were streets of dirt I could not feel beneath my feet, lilies I could not touchrising from the banks of a river that could not dampen me.
I listened to those who made this place their home, but I did not speak its language. Wandered, deaf to this people’s words, dumb to their minds, the Informed Causeway blinking above their riverside city, and my own body a thing outside of existence. As if I’d lost my sense of solidity by passing through the Causeways, rather than the doors the other assistants had taken.
So I floated, through slanted rooftops and down limestone walls, searching the city, observing its people, wondering if any of them had visited the Library of All, wondering if any of them could. I might have continued like that forever, harboring a loss of purpose, had I not passed through an open doorway into a sunlit room and come upon a woman writing.
She used thin wire, wrapped it into shapes, and tapped those shapes into a dried pallet that gave off the same scent as the encroaching lilies on the river. I became breathless, eager to see the final product once she hung her shapely wires in their bag. The pallet shivered, its soul rising like a ghost from her work.
I’d never seen a birth. The way the new words flopped and floated about made me laugh for the first time in years. So this was why they needed the Librarian to organize them, why they couldn’t do so themselves. They were fresh and new, like babes, confused and riding on instinct as they winged their way toward the Causeways, unable to even decipher themselves, to know what secrets they contained.
All the worlds became my professors, their aged knowledge mine to take. The Informed Causeway mine as much as it was the flock’s. I hoped I might one day see the other assistants who’d left the Library, but no. They’d taken different highways, leaving only me to this one.
I discovered many just-birthed thoughts before they joined a conglomerate flock. One on one, their rustling, their scratching, their flapping, tapping, snapping, took shape, no longer a cacophony of language, ideas, and history I could not decipher. Individually, they held meaning.
The current of the Informed Causeway coursed slower–
With the passages crammed thick by a flock too huge to flow, I found myself crawling rather than flying, shoving over a deluge, the flock ripping, cracking, bending beneath my knees. Like when I’d slept in piles of words back home. Yet this time, I heard their cries, felt their sentences split when I moved too roughly, saw their fear arise, fear of becoming obsolete before they might be filed by the Librarian.
I ached for them, reading their desire to be read before I saw the thoughts they harbored.
I found my way home, back through overwhelmed passages to the end of the Causeways that were no longer a mystery. Shoved my body through the bottlenecked manuscripts of stone and wood and hide until I fell inward onto sluggish streams and clogged boughs. And there, I struggled to stand within an oak so thickened, it leaked pages like tears each time my shifting weight shuddered the branches.
I’d abandoned the Library, and disarray had bred malcontent. The tablets no longer gently chimed, the knots were invisible behind bent and crumbled scrolls, stained-glass had shattered and sliced through papers they could not contain.
Military-strategy engravings fought with hide-wrapped mythologies. Children’s crass jokes punched holes through linen nautical charts. Unbound pages of referendum smothered a woven tapestry depicting one world’s botanicals in miniature.
They saw me reading them and paused.
A whisper shivered through a sea of needy, needy writings. A sudden patience descended upon them, tablets straightening, hide unfurling, stones rolling such that their words turned right-side up.
All ready to be seen, and understood, and sorted to their proper place.
Each morning, the daily flock streams in, fluttering, dancing, nudging one another in excitement that they have finally arrived. They organize themselves the best they can: eager, quickly-scrawled words perching on railings or stools while long-to-completion opuses and charts stack themselves on table edges and teeter on chair-backs. They calm, but for whispered wonder, and wait patiently for the Librarian.
And when I come, they listen.
Marie Croke is an award-winning fantasy and science-fiction writer living in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and her stories have been published or are forthcoming in over a dozen magazines, including Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, Deep Magic, Cast of Wonders, and Diabolical Plots. You can find her book and short story recommendations at mariecroke.com or chat about writing woes or being book drunk with her @marie_croke on Twitter.
Author of “A Flock of Words and Wonder”
What inspired you to write this story?
I think I’ve had the image of winged books in my head forever from numerous media. It’s hard not to connect with that image because it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of escape that comes from reading a good book or immersing yourself in your own story. Crafting a flock out of winged writings only took a slight nudge, a beginning sentence, and the desperate need to be read.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
On brand with this Wonder issue, I’d really love if readers take that wondrous feeling with them. Not only that, I’d love if readers receive a heaping sense of motivation, that they can learn what they need to learn in order to achieve the goals they have, in order to become the person they want to be, or craft the career that calls to them. I hope that readers remember that every word they read or write is important, that every story they give wings to is settling right now in someone’s mental library.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this poem has been through?
This story started life as a flash. All the pieces were there, with the narrator’s journey culminating, but without as much explanation as to their motivations and the change they go through. That first iteration focused on the world-building aspect of the library itself. After getting a few rejections, I did another massive edit on it, adding layers to the middle of the story and character arc, which increased the word count by hundreds. Once getting accepted by Apparition Lit, the story then went through more rounds of edits where we focused on adding clarifying sentences and cementing some of the more ethereal explanations into concrete ideas that readers could latch onto and visualize. Each pass has helped craft the story I wanted to tell into a form that is both accessible and relatable.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Readers and writing everywhere connect with the idea of the library—that place worshipping story and words of all shapes and sizes. I don’t believe that we can have too many stories on this theme, for libraries will always and forever represent some of our greatest loves. So, in honor of that, I want to recommend a list, rather than an individual story, all related to the idea of the library: “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu, “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow, “Give the Family My Love” by A. T. Greenblatt, The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Immerse yourself in even more libraries of wonder!