The Professor’s Library
by Amie M. Johnson
There was never any knowing, beforehand, whether or not the library door would be chained. Each time the young man arrived for a lesson he took the risk of being turned away. Sometimes the door to the library would be open, waiting for him in welcome, but some days the chains kept him from entering his teacher's old, welcoming study. Although he hated to see them, sometimes when the cold, ugly chains barred him from the library he felt a guilty wisp of relief stirred into his disappointment. Lessons with his teacher came with a terrible cost. It wasn't the professor's fault. He wasn't the one chaining the door. He wasn't the one making the rules. It had once been a truly glorious library with snug corners, secret passages, breathtaking tapestries and so many books, it never occurred to him to attempt counting them. But that was before his master had been taken captive by The Shadow. Once It had taken over nothing had been the same.
This morning, though, The Shadow must have been feeling generous. Of course It may have just been toying with the two of them, but whatever Its inscrutable reason, today The Shadow granted the boy entry to The Professor's rooms. The young man felt no fear of his master's captor for himself. It seemed content to torture him only by proxy. The boy's mentor was the one It really wanted to destroy. Any pain suffered by the boy as a result of seeing his teacher being punished was an added bonus for the The Shadow. No Healer had been able to banish this unwelcome visitor from the teacher's library. Other scholars had been called, but each had sadly shaken his wise gray head and told them the same: The Shadow could not be defeated. Once It chooses someone, they will be slowly claimed. It will take Its “payment” in pieces while they watch themselves fade.
But today the boy greeted the older man warmly, pleased on this day to see his face clearly. Some days It caused even their images to be blurred to one another, but today the professor smiled and called him by name- his real name. The boy was pleased but not fooled. It did not mean they were alone in these glad but solemn rooms. It was here with them, always nearby waiting to take Its next payment. The Shadow was greedy.
“Matthew, my son, what an honor!” The teacher indicated a chair near his, by the fire. “Sit! Sit! Would you like some tea?”
Matthew smiled. “Not today. Thank you.”
The Teacher nodded amiably while he gazed at his pupil in loving pride. Matthew always tried to look his best for his mentor, a man who always looked so regal and learned in his robes despite his failing sight and weakening body. He tried to smooth the thatch of hair that always stuck up in the back and sat his satchel on the stone floor next to his chair.
As usual, The Professor held a book in his aged hands. The student gazed at it with longing. How he wished he could simply accept it from his mentor, lift it into his own young, capable hands- the wise old man would have given it gladly- but that was impossible. Instead his teacher would read aloud. Matthew would be both student and scribe as he transferred the old man's wise writings into his own books.
It was painstaking, cautious work. Matthew wanted to capture every detail. How he wanted every drop of wisdom the great man had to offer. But though the work could not be rushed, time was an enemy here. At any moment The Captor might reach in with his cold, ghostly hands and take the book from the professor. It would cross over the old man like a cloud and hypnotize him with its poison. Sometimes when It took one of the teacher's precious books It fed it to the flames. It spoke in a language that only the old man could understand, confusing and isolating him from Matthew and any of his other students who might come to learn from him.
Matthew remembered his last visit. The teacher had been reading to him from a long genealogy when an unfriendly chill had passed between them, causing the lamplight flames to sputter. Matthew could sense, more than see, his professor's tormentor reach for the old scholar.
A cry of warning had died in his throat. They were both defenseless against the intrusion and loss. Matthew had gazed sadly at his unfinished notes and put the book away. He and his mentor had spent the rest of the lesson in companionable but melancholy silence.
This morning, however, seemed brighter. Matthew recognized the book the professor held in his hands. He had read it many times. A love story and one of the old man's favorites. Matthew enjoyed the story too, but had already scribed it from the teacher's telling so he simply settled back and listened while his eyes wandered the rooms that were once so grand. Behind the teacher's chair the shelves were nearly empty. Whenever the old man placed his books on those nearby shelves, The Captor would snatch them almost immediately and throw them into the flames. Further along the wall were the books that looked mostly untouched by The Shadow. Beautifully bound and meticulously categorized, these tomes looked nearly new, but Matthew knew better. They were some of the most ancient, much-read volumes in the library.
He closed his eyes and lost himself in the sound of the professor's voice as he read.
“He could tell by the way her front paws left the ground with each bark that she had found something interesting. She quivered in anticipation for him to see her discovery and shower her with praise. He smiled to himself. He guessed it was only a raccoon or maybe a possum. He hoped it wasn't a porcupine or a skunk.
'I'm coming, Polly, just be patient.' he told her. She ignored him and continued to wag and dance and smile her doggy smile.
He got to the top of the hill in the shade of an apple tree; close enough to see what it was that caused his best friend so much excitement. When his eyes fell on the still form, his mind went blank. He couldn't have told what day it was, or even his own name, if someone had been there and asked him. Was he dreaming? He had to be dreaming. No girl he had ever seen had ever been that beautiful. Was she an angel? That must be it. He must have died and forgotten about it and now he was looking at an angel. An angel who snored just a little.
He shook his head as if to clear it and tried to think, but before he could make up his mind what to do, Polly “The Golden Collie” chose for him. She invited herself onto the stranger's blanket in the grass, sat down next to her and licked her pretty, sleeping face.
The girl sat up with a start and gazed in surprise at the boy and the dog.
'Who- what- Who are you?' She looked embarrassed. 'I was waiting here for my friend, Mary, but she never came and I fell asleep.'
'Don't worry,' he smiled. 'Here let me help you.'
The boy held out his hand to help her up. When she put her hand in his...he knew...”
As the teacher's voice trailed off, the silence settled over Matthew along with a dread like a cloak made of stone. He opened his eyes and felt his stomach turn to ice. “No. No please. Not that one,” he whispered as he watched The Shadow stoically toss the book, the master's love story, into the fire. He looked into his teacher's face, all smudged with confusion and sadness. Matthew felt his heart break again.
Matthew leaned forward and covered the old man's hand with his own. “Grandpa?”
“Martin?” His throat closed, but Matthew nodded. He didn't correct him. That's Dad's name, Grandpa.
A knock on the door took his attention and he turned his head to see the smiling face of one of the nurses. One of his favorites. Leena.
“How we doin' today?” she asked warmly.
Matthew blinked the wetness from his eyes. “So-so.”
She nodded and moved forward to see to her patient, her rubber soled shoes silent on the worn carpet of the tiny room. “Your visits really help him, I can tell.”
“They help me, too.” he told her. “I just hate to lose him in pieces like this. They say that when an old man dies a library burns down. But I feel like my grandpa is burning down one book at a time.”