I came across a library behind a dilapidated two-story house one afternoon when I was walking to the pharmacy around the corner from my mother’s house. The library was red and square with gilded letters. I couldn’t remember it being there before, but it was possible that it was new or that I had missed it. My mother always thought that I was prone to moving through life looking inward instead of outward, and I had only returned to the area recently.
I always loved to read. I tended to buy new rather than used, but I knew that it was a bad habit. The dangers of accumulating had become evident when I began to clean out my mother’s house after she died.
The library’s red paint was the bright shine of lipstick, a luring color. It had been a while since I had time to read a novel. And since the funeral was over and all the arrangements were done with, I had a bit of time to look through some books, so I walked to its doors, leaves and small branches crunching beneath my sneakered feet.
When I stepped inside, I was met with the sight of one large room, lit by low sconce lighting. A woman sat at an information desk at the front and behind her were tables and chairs of various shapes and sizes. There was no interior organization — if one hoarded furniture, I imagined this is what their home would look like. Odder still, there were no books. The walls were lined with wooden paneling and not a single bookshelf stood against them. I looked for doorways or stairs that might lead to where the books were kept, but there were none.
Curious, I walked up to the woman at the desk as she stared intently through her glasses at nothing behind me.
“How can I help you?” she asked, still not looking at me. The blue in her eyes was flat like sky.
I chewed on the side of my tongue, my eyes flickering around the bare walls once more. “Are the books in another room?”
“Take a seat in the chair that calls to you. The books will be out soon.” She looked down at the desk, clearly dismissing me.
I thought about leaving. This woman wouldn’t help me, and it seemed like some odd, new age response. But as I glanced at the tables and chairs, a plush armchair with blue stripes caught my eye. It looked so comfortable and suddenly I felt dead on my feet. A few moments rest before finishing my errand and walking back to my mother’s house couldn’t hurt. I sat down and warmth suffused my limbs as the chair seemed to wrap around my body. My eyelids felt thick, and I drifted to sleep.
Later, I woke with a start. I blinked and saw that others had appeared in the library. Several men and women sat reading throughout the room. And on the table in front of me sat a square, brown book with gold-edged pages. I looked for the person who had delivered this volume, but the only woman working was still sitting at the information desk.
The book was warm when I picked it up to inspect it, as if someone had held it in their arms. There was no title, nothing on the back, and the spine was blank except for a few ridges. I opened it, and the book itself was blank. Page after page was empty. I pressed my face deeper, looking for marks and, in breathing deep, I smelled something familiar. There was something with a hint of clay, like the earth underneath a school field, and something with the sting of lemon that had once wafted from my mother’s skirts. I sucked deep, filling my lungs, warmth in my chest, but the scent faded. I turned the page, eager for more and inhaled again. This time drying pine needles and new plastic, a hint of warm molasses. Page after page I could smell my life — my school, my girlhood shame as I grew and changed, the wet wood chip smell of an old hamster, my brother at the turn of his addiction — the sour underneath the forest-clean scent.
At the end of the book, I tried to return to the beginning and start again but the scents were gone. The book was empty. I set it down, uncertain what to do. Nearby a woman with wide, expressive eyes laughed on a chaise lounge. A man across the room sat in a rocking chair and cried, his button-down shirt wrinkling around the roll of his shoulders. Feeling suddenly like an intruder, I stood up and walked out of the library, avoiding the eyes of the woman at the front of the room.
As soon as I reached the outdoors, I felt unstable, frightened. I looked at my cell phone and realized that hours had passed. My skin felt tight around my chest and the sidewalk felt tilted somehow.
I walked home, my errands forgotten, and I wondered if the library had been a hallucination. Books weren’t made of smells. Libraries were orderly. Perhaps the stress of my mother’s funeral had brought on an episode. For two weeks, I avoided that street and moved on with my life, trying to ignore the book of scent.
But then one afternoon, I was distracted by thoughts of my mother’s green eyes, of the hospital bills I still needed to deal with, of the way skin ages, and I ended up back beside the library on my walk to the train. The building was still a wet red. The windows were dark. I shouldn’t have wanted to return. The shivering in my stomach should have led me away. But instead, I went back inside the library.
This time the room was crowded. People sat throughout in different chairs, but the blue striped one was empty. I went to it without looking at the woman at the front desk. I realized I did not trust her — it was very likely that she had been the one who’d given me the strange volume.
I sat and kept my eyes wide open, watching for the mysterious person that might be bringing in books. After several minutes, the only movement was people flipping pages. The walls were still blank. But then the small table in front of me started glowing with heat — and a book appeared on its surface.
It was a trick, it must’ve been. I glanced under the table but there was nothing there. I swung my head wildly around and everyone was enthralled within their own volumes. With shaking hands, I picked up the book.
The second book was a diary. The signatures matched my mother’s name — the scrawl a child’s failing cursive. It was impossible, but I knew, I could feel it in my bones, that this was my mother’s childhood diary.
I read my mother’s cry. I read the sting of belt metal tear her skin. I read her shame when her communion dress ripped. I read her anger, her feelings of injustice as a child as her parents carved her as a doll while other children played freely in the street. I read the word savage and swallowed the bitter taste. I read her innocent hate. I read her desire for power, to teach others to fear her. I read love. I read racism. I read hope. I read mistakes. I read her humanness and wanted to throw it up out of me, and I tried to run from the chair, but it held me. The blue stripes sunk around me, enveloped me in warmth until I learned to breathe again.
This time on my way out, I confronted the librarian at the desk, my eyes burning from the anger of what I had learned.
“How are you doing this?” I demanded.
She looked above my head. “I don’t do anything.”
I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her. “You’re the only one working here.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she still wouldn’t look at me. “I am not.”
“Who else works here?”
The question appeared to confuse her. She looked at me as if I was dense. “Well, the books, of course.”
I laughed even though I didn’t find her amusing at all. She disturbed me. I found the room unsettling. The longer I stood there, the more the air seemed to have a different flavor than outside. The dark sconce lighting made me restless.
I ran outside, intending to never come back, but of course I returned.
The next book was filled with steam. It scalded my hand. I thought of my mother’s ashes and the swirl of heat over the cups of coffee and condensed milk she made me when I was a child. I looked for blood on my hand from the chip she’d made in anger.
The book after was a pop-up book. But nothing popped up and each image was an empty window.
The next claimed to be a textbook by its title. It called itself molecular biology, but the more I read the more difficult it became to read. And soon the words were just gibberish. I sobbed in my attempt to read it, so furious to not understand, so pitiful to be bested by words.
After, I thought I must’ve had a stroke and decided to make a doctor’s appointment. But on the day I was scheduled to go, I went back to the library instead.
“Stop making me come here,” I said to the librarian as I walked to my blue striped chair.
“What control have I?” she said crossly and looked at her blank desk.
The book that day was made of dust. I had no reason to believe it, or even to think it, but I swear it was from my own skin.
I lost sleep. I lost time. My freelance job I clung to, but I knew that if I didn’t get my life together soon, I would lose that too. I told myself that it was temporary. That I should just cook as normal, see friends like usual, go on errands as if I was living my regular life. But errands seemed pointless, friends had been lost as my mother was dying, and I could never cook well. The library was daily. I hated it. I needed it.
The library gave me a children’s book and painted me as a plot device. I was the clue that would lead the children home, and I was found wanting. They never found their cabin again.
Then there was a book with thousands of hands. I thought they were pictures, but as I flipped through they began to move. Fingers wrapped themselves around my palm. Some released me quickly, others clung. I think some may have been praying. I think some wanted to stay, but the book wouldn’t have it.
I watched a flipbook of my feet. I watched one of my father’s eyes. One of my mother’s hair. One of everything I’ve ever owned. I thought I would die after that one.
I read hundreds of books as days passed. Time was measured by them. The taste of my food was somehow measured by them too. I wondered if this was to be the pattern of my life.
One book turned into my childhood fish, Rick, and it fell to the floor, gasping and flopping. I watched it die in front of me, knowing that the library would never let me bring it to water. I cried for a week wondering what else the book would make me see.
There was a book of the sun, and I was temporarily blinded.
The good book came too, but the last page laughed at me.
I was brought a book with painted edges, and my hands became the color of moss and everything I touched was made green with life for a long while — even the books that came after.
Then one day there was a book of a map. It showed no terrain. Instead it counted steps and turns, and I knew that I must follow the directions. It walked me past my apartment, to the train. It listed the time to stay on the red line. It took me to a beach and bid me to unlace my shoes. It took me past the shallows of the lake and told me which stroke to use until I was in the middle of the water, small ripples and waves flowing between my fingers and toes.
There were no instructions for the way back. And I knew then, as my hair became a sheet in the water and the coolness pressed in on the heat of my raw, angry body, that I would never find the library again. That I would forever be lost and confused in this lake, or I would forever be a small, pitiful human in a blue striped chair, even as my body moved forward in work, walked and slept in my mother’s house, and performed the love and hate in life.