In the Archial, what some call the Little Light Library, it is always night. The distant ceiling is a night’s sky held by pillars, and connecting those pillars are shelves of books coated in leather and dust. The only light comes from lanterns. Inside steel cages, white fires flicker eternally, generated by a lost art. The lanterns are stars if anything. The lower one travels, the bluer those stars. Deep enough and there are no lights at all.
On a seasonless days, two librarians stood quietly—their faces blue. They were looking toward an unlit hall, to eyes like moons. A huffing pant. The click of nails on stone.
One of the librarians spoke. “Can you bind it?”
The other dropped her head.
Before them, a bear emerged from darkness. A shadow forming into snorting, living monster.
Hours ago, Katarzyna ran water over the floor and muttered about an education under the Masters wasted on soap. Already her fingers had wrinkled to worms, and her robes stained with the slime of soup, yet the Great Hall wasn’t much cleaner than an hour ago. Wetter, perhaps.
Before her initiation into the Archives, that small partition of the Library reclaimed by man, Zyn would never have left her dressing room without elbow-length gloves or a dress the color of seasonal fruit. Now she wore gray. Gray robes, boots, expression.
Now the only respite from a maid’s duties were the back-breaking, book-carrying chores in circulation. Unless she was promoted.
A page was stuck with robes, stuck with rinsing, but the peers could wear a variety of styles if they stuck to smoky dull, and they had more interesting duties, like scholarship, or shelving. And best of all, they might work as a scribe and sidekick to a Scholar-Adventurer, which meant traveling into the wilds of the Library.
Zyn would have started complaining about circulation too if a voice hadn’t sung sweetly, “Would you like to see a bear?”
She looked at distressed boots, up a robe laced by straps, to a face cloistered between long braids. Zofia Firlej. Hair gray as the walls, and some whispered older. The Prioress.
“Mistress,” said Zyn, turning the color of bone.
If these were the chores expected of novices, what were reserved for whiny noblemen’s daughters? And did they involve bears?
“A bear is disturbing the apiary.” The Prioress kept smiling. Maybe that was her Knack? To always be positive? “I think it’s attracted to something in the ink. We need to be rid of it.”
“My Knack’s useless for hunting. I might seal its jaws. Otherwise, useless.”
Katarzyna’s Knack was for binds. She was good with tomes and thresholds but hadn’t tried her luck with living creatures.
“I think our Knacks will work wonderfully together. But perhaps you would rather scrub?”
Zyn threw her sponge into the bucket, splashing water on the Prioress’s boots and turning Zyn a lighter bleach than bone. The Prioress chuckled, and Zyn began to wonder at the limits of her tolerance.
She didn’t know much about the Prioress, having only seen her during supper. The woman’s Knack was a mystery, but Zyn was sure it was something half-way decent. Besides, she’d much rather chase bears than scour chairs.
Like all rooms in the Archives, the apiary had a stone ceiling, the only light coming from lanterns. Black-stemmed flowers grew from wall vines. But the dominating feature in the room were tooth-white boxes, each blurred by the ink drops of bees.
The two peered through a door, their heads lined like a totem pole.
The bear had lifted the lid of one of the boxes and eviscerated a comb black as fur. Now it was dipping its paws into the dye and licking the residue. It was difficult to tell the bees from the beads being flung about, and every now and then the bear gave a flick like it was shaking off water, splattering ink and insects across the floor.
Then the bear reared up, looked at the librarians, and was gone through a door torn from its hinges. Entry and exit.
“We should take care of this while the prints are fresh,” said the Prioress.
Across the flagstones were paw-shaped smudges organized as orderly as if they’d been stamped for an exhibit. This would be easy hunting, not easy killing. Zyn wasn’t sure of her superior’s plan or if there was a plan at all. The Prioress smiled like a honey cake. What if—Zyn let her imagination loose—what if the Prioress was simple?
Zyn’s fears dimmed to the Prioress’s confidence among the shelves. Here and there the Prioress paused, and observed bear sign, and confirmed small hypotheses with murmured hmms. It was as if she wasn’t hunting a monster at all, but reading an old, familiar book.
The Prioress stopped by a pillar. “The creature rubbed here,” she said, gesturing to black paint swiped across the flutes, gleaming like blood.
Then they heard a wuff from the shelves ahead—down a corridor of tumbled books. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they began to decipher the moving void of bear, the glow of its eyes.
The Prioress spoke. “Can you bind it?”
Zyn tried. Focused on bindings its pads to the floor. The bear paused, raised a paw as if pulling it from a sticky residue. Kept coming.
Now it appeared in the light, its head forming from shadow. Growling. Where it’d tread gentle to reach its lair, claws now scratched runes in the rock.
She focused again. The bear huffed loudly.
More like the bear came apart into fur as if it’d always been fur—snout, thighs, soul. The hairs flew up and fell into a book cracked open and held aloft by the Prioress. Parchment flapped as if white-papered flame—flapped until each page was adorned by hairs pressed and snapped into text.
She turned the bear into a book, Zyn thought. But should she be appalled? Was this different from turning cows into covers, from splitting the organs of trees into paper?
“Here.” The Prioress tossed the book to Zyn, who caught it and held the thing at arm’s length. “Go ahead. Read the first page.”
Zyn opened to the title page. A Black Bear on White Paper. No author, no editor. The next page read: Black birth, soft redness. A falling, a tearing, the bleating of babyhood. The soft bulge of nose snorting in my ear. Loud, disorienting. My mother pulls me into her teats and…
Zyn, confused, did something she’d never done before. She skipped to the last page—to a gray-furred skeleton, mouth emitting snowy foam. To a bear stiff from spears and arthritis.
The bear climbed into a pile of books, lay down its head, thought of the stars, and slept.
She flipped back until she found an encounter with two bee keepers. That was how the bear’s mind had understood them. The keepers came and watched and left.
This was her companion’s Knack. To turn life to literature, people to prose. The Prioress had taken this bear—all its essence, origins, story, prologue and epilogue, chapters—and put it to paper.
“The book says the bear lived a full life,” Zyn said.
“I have a say in the narrative,” the Prioress replied. “It’s a better fate than to be killed here at the end of a bolt. Now, your Knack.”
Zyn concentrated—and the book glowed like a firestruck coal before fading back to dead material. She didn’t need to be told to put the book on a shelf.
“The bear won’t notice,” the Prioress told her as they followed the prints back. “It will live its life in its own dimension as it lived in this dimension. Only now, it will be immortal for as long as the pages last—with the Library’s preservation and your bind’s privacy, it’s likely the creature will outlive us both.”
That night Katarzyna reviewed her own life—a life of nobility, of hard study, of acceptance to the Archives, of an encounter with a bear in the ink pots. And she worried she too had been converted to some other dimension. Would she know?
What if her life had been transcribed to black text on white paper?
Banner Image: Pixabay.com