The waiting hall was brightly lit from wide circle-top windows placed evenly on the ebony walls. The line for deliveries of books stretched down the entire room. Ella counted nearly a hundred people.
“I am sorry for your loss,” the old woman said, taking a stack of parchment from a young man with bloodshot eyes and ink-stained hands. “The scribes will have it ready by the full moon.”
From a marble bench, Ella watched the frail old woman add his writing to the collection of others behind her. Each stack of papers varied in height but shared smudges of carefully selected words and crinkled pages. The system seemed chaotic, and she worried if stories were ever crossed. They’re careful, she reassured herself. It would be cruel otherwise. She continued to chew on the inside of her cheek as she waited to be invited inside the Library.
The next man in line pleaded to the old woman to accept another book from him. But the woman held up her bony hand and reminded him that he had already delivered three.
“Please…it’s for my wife. She was taken during a raid,” the man sobbed. “Please. The others…they were for my girls.”
Ella bit her lip as she thought back to the night her village was raided. Forces from the opposing kingdom struck her village in the night. She had been one of few to survive. They had taken what they wanted, and they left her on the dirt road—perhaps thinking she had died. In many ways, she did.
Ella stood up from the waiting bench and crept up to the counter. “Excuse me, I want to offer up my shelf space for this man.”
The old woman’s raven eyes studied her. “You may. But you will only have—”
“He can have all of it.”
The old woman’s already shriveled face broke out a dozen more wrinkles as she scrutinized the girl. “Very well,” she finally said. “Hand me your ticket.”
Ella handed over her black stub. Sunlight from the windows shone down on the golden outline of a crescent moon: a seal to remind her of the only delivery she had—and ever will—make. As the woman’s pale hand waved over the stub, it shimmered briefly before revealing two new crescents. The old woman returned Ella’s ticket and briefly made note of this exchange in her logbook.
The man’s mouth twitched as he searched for what to say. Ella gave him a half-smile, and as she began to walk away, he grabbed her hand. She flinched from his touch and pulled back.
“Sorry, I…I didn’t mean to startle you. I just…I wanted to say thank you.”
Ella could see the man was talking to her, but her mind was elsewhere—the putrid smell of burning oil paint, smoke blinding her, so much screaming…
“It’s alright,” Ella mumbled, pushing back the swarm of memories.
The creak from the large library doors echoed through the hall.
“Ella Lembrook,” the bookkeeper announced. He was a short man, barely four feet tall, and had a long, peppered beard that fell to his belly.
Ella took a deep breath and approached the man, handing him her ticket.
He took out a gold monocle and examined the stub, focusing on the first crescent as if reading something only visible to him.
“Follow me,” he prompted, placing the monocle and her stub in his coat pocket.
Stepping through the doors, Ella was greeted with ebony bookcases as high as the ceiling and a ceiling that reached as high as the sky. Each shelf was tightly packed with books bound in crimson, gold, and white buckram. The library was longer than the waiting hall, and she didn’t have enough time to count the rows since the bookkeeper’s stubby legs walked at an unnaturally brisk pace.
The gaps between the bookcases revealed glimpses of people speaking with their lost loved ones. One woman with auburn hair and a weathered face clutched onto the small hands of a little girl with the same sun-drenched locks. A few bookcases down was a girl with tearful brown eyes and ruddy cheeks leaning her head on the shoulder of a young man with a faint smile and closed eyes.
Ella could not tell which person was real or merely a phantom character from the books. Perhaps, in some way they both are.
There were very few crimson books but numerous gold ones. “What are the colors for?” Ella asked.
“The colors indicate the essence of the person. Red reminds us, bookkeepers, that the person could be hostile due to the nature of the writing. Occasionally, someone will include how the person died. Seldom is it a peaceful death. Many are from the war and those that live close to the battles died from the raids,” the bookkeeper said, taking a sharp left and leading them down another aisle. “A book bound in gold indicates an understanding, amicable person. The writing has a balance of good and bad remembrances. In some cases, the story mentions that the person died, but the details are omitted.”
They made another left. This place is endless, Ella thought.
“White means the person does not realize they are dead,” the bookkeeper continued. “They might not even know who or what they truly are. They might feel lost, disoriented. Often these books are of young children, even infants. Parents will exclude bad memories or create new ones. All of which might limit the development of a whole person. They could just be fragments of a person or an entirely new person is formed.”
“You call them people, not characters,” Ella mentioned. “Does that mean you think they’re real?”
“A curious question. I think they are as real as we believe anything to be. One could argue they are more real than you and I.”
“You truly believe that?”
“Do you not? Our bodies die, decay. But our stories, well, they live on.”
Ella took comfort in his belief.
“Lembrook…Ah, here,” the bookkeeper said. He flicked his hand and a white book floated downward. Engraved in black letters on the book’s spine was E. Lembrook.
“How curious,” he remarked, handing her the lofty book.
Ella held it timidly. “How…does it work?”
“Open it to a page that brings out the most emotion. Read it aloud, quietly. Once you are finished, close the book and bring it to me or another bookkeeper near the entrance. You will be handed back your ticket. You are allowed one appointment per month. Relish this visit.” Before he turned away, he added, “Remember, they cannot form new memories. Whatever you say here and now will be forgotten the moment you close the book.”
Ella brushed her fingers across the shimmering white cover. She took a seat against the bookcase. There seemed to be a hundred books on a single shelf. She opened hers to the first page. It wasn’t her handwriting, but it was her words. The scribes had turned her messy scrawls into a cohesive cursive work. She traced her fingers over the beautiful penmanship and wondered how their magic worked. Did the scribes’ hands permanently ache from rewriting everyone’s deliveries? Maybe their magic prevented that. The scribes’ method was as much a mystery to her as it was to everyone else.
Ella flipped through pages until she finally stopped on the one that she had rewritten too many times. The night her village was raided.
“It was a terribly hot evening, but that was the only flaw of that night. You saw from the moonlight your paintings scattered around your cottage. You were so proud of each one,” Ella said, taking a deep breath to ease the knot in her throat. “You thought you’d never finish, but you did. All the coin and hours you spent would be rewarded. Tomorrow you were going to present them to the gallery. You fell asleep to the sound of Misty’s purring and Theo’s arm around you.”
“I loved that night,” a mousy voice said.
Startled, Ella turned to see a stranger with all the same features as herself. The same matted blonde hair, deep brown eyes, and a round face. Only, this girl was lighter in her speech, and she smiled fully and genuinely.
This is mad, Ella thought, eyeing the girl in front of her.
The girl turned to her, grasping the situation, her expression confused.
Ella searched for what to say. She had prepared for this, but all of it escaped her. “I…I can’t believe I’m meeting you.”
“I don’t understand,” the girl replied, giving a nervous laugh. Ella’s laugh. “You’re me…”
“I am. And I’m not,” Ella began. She swallowed the knot in her throat and peered at the book. “You’re who I wanted to be.”
A few tears dampened the page.
The girl put her hand on Ella’s shoulder. Ella laughed slightly. This is absurd. All of it.
“Why are you crying?” the girl asked.
Ella didn’t know how to answer that. Not simply, at least.
“It doesn’t matter,” Ella said, wiping away her tears. She hesitated. “Tell me about…our life. It’ll make me feel better.”
“Our life?” the girl thought for a moment. “Hmm…We grew up in Bellwick. It was a small village. Too small. Our mom and dad are farmers, but Mom’s parents were poets. So, Mom used to read to us. She taught us how to read and write and we hated it. Um…oh! On our eighth birthday, Dad bought us a paint set. That was the best day,” the girl said, grinning. “Our best friend Theo lived in the house next to us. His cat, Patches, had babies and he gave us Misty. A lot of our paintings were of Misty,” the girl laughed.
Ella smiled at that truth.
“We’re married to Theo,” the girl continued. “Everyone thought we were too young. But they were wrong. Now we live in Silentvale and our paintings are displayed in the gallery! We couldn’t believe it…”
Ella stared at the girl as if she were a mirror. Only this mirror reflected the life she had only ever seen in her mind. The knot in her throat grew tighter.
“What did you mean when you said I’m ‘who you wanted to be’?” the girl asked.
“You won’t like what I tell you,” Ella admitted. But you won’t remember anyway. “The life you have…it’s not real. Not entirely. It’s the life I always imagined for myself. The life I always wanted.”
“Then,” the girl hesitated. “I’m not real?”
Ella thought back to what the bookkeeper had said. “You are. In a way. This story—your story—is the one that’ll be remembered.”
“It’s not your story too?”
Ella shook her head.
“In my story, Mom never read to me and Dad didn’t buy me a paint set. I bought myself a paint set with what I saved. I had to hide it at Theo’s house. Misty was real, and the paintings, but I never married Theo.” Ella took a deep breath. “He died after he was drafted in the war…so did Dad. Mom got sick and died too. I would’ve been entirely alone if it wasn’t for Misty.” She clutched onto the book. “I never lived in Silentvale. But there was a contest for the gallery, and I entered. The night before I was supposed to leave…there was a raid. All of Bellwick was burned down. Misty…she died too…” Ella could barely get her words out. “I lost everything…”
Tears fell from the girl. She was experiencing only an echo of the pain Ella felt.
“You won’t remember what I told you,” Ella reassured. “You’ll forget once I leave. But your life will be more real than mine. You will be remembered as Ella Lembrook.”
The girl was trying to piece it all together. “What about you?”
“Now, I can leave. Leave this life behind…as if it never existed.”
“Leave? And go where?”
“Wherever you go after life.”
“What!? No. You can’t do that to yourself!” the girl protested.
“I can. I didn’t get to choose the life I started with, but I can choose when I want it to end—”
“That’s not right—”
“People die every day, and they don’t always get to choose how or when. People are forgotten every day. I’ve already decided, and you know how stubborn we are. In this one way, I’m lucky. I get to rewrite my story.”
The girl sat with Ella in silence.
“Tell me your favorite memory,” Ella finally said.
The girl glanced at Ella regrettably. She took a deep breath. “My favorite memory…is my first kiss with Theo. By the lavender fields. He thought it would be sweet, but I’m allergic to lavender and I kept sneezing.” The girl laughed. “He held my hand the entire night. That was the night he promised to marry me.”
Ella smiled, thinking back on that moment.
“Was that real?” the girl asked.
Ella took one final look at herself. “It was,” she said, and closed the book.