Saturday, April 10, 2010

All at Once

Part of the Six Birds storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall.



They found the birds before the sun rose in the morning. Harker had his key in the library door when he noticed the first one. Then a second. A third. Six in all.

Little gray birds, lying on the low wall. Not neatly, like a butcher would lay them out. Haphazard. Fallen all at once.

“Like a sacrifice,” Harker said.

“Or an offering,” said the Gollimog.

“Same thing.” Harker unlocked the door and held it open. The Gollimog hopped in, squeezing his moist green bulk through the doorframe.

Harker started reshelving while the Gollimog read the news on the Internet. They had to keep up-to-date in case anyone had questions at the Reference desk. The Gollimog grunted and muttered to himself while he read, but Harker ignored him. Harker didn’t read anything new if he could possibly avoid it. That was why he and the Gollimog worked so well together.

“It’s begun,” the Gollimog announced around mid-morning. Harker barely paused his cart of books. He was getting a lot done with the library so quiet. The Gollimog continued, raising his croaking voice to chase Harker into the 700s, “We should prepare. It’s not going to stop this time.”

“The supplies are in the basement, where they always are,” said Harker.

“I can’t work the doorknobs.”

Harker sighed and set his cart against the wall.

The first refugee arrived twenty minutes later. Harker was wheeling a second cart of bottled water up next to the checkout. The Gollimog was in the basement, wrestling blankets and mattresses with his webbed forefeet and many a dire curse. Their visitor was Mr. Pemblesthwaite, clutching a satchel filled with a random assortment of clothing, a can of pitted olives, and three overdue books.

“I didn’t know where else to go,” said Mr. Pemblesthwaite.

Harker ushered him inside, casting a wary eye at the growing chaos out in the streets. With a strangled cough, a small hawk spiraled out of the sky to land, twitching, on the street. In the distance, sirens howled. Harker smelled smoke and frowned. Fires were dangerous, even with the Gollimog around.

There was no flood of supplicants; barely a trickle. It was a unique sort of soul that, in times of crisis, found itself drawn to the library. Some of them brought supplies. Some of them were injured. All of them brought their overdue books and some choice selections from their own libraries. Outside, the rising storm wailed and thrashed. Inside, Harker carefully sealed the windows and doors while the Gollimog gave rumbling, rambling sermons to his confused and frightened audience. They took comfort from his words. Later, they all had tea. Someone screamed when the lights went out. The Gollimog permitted no flames of any kind inside the library, and flashlights were immediately put on strict rationing to make the batteries last.

Without power or windows, the library was a dark and hushed place, isolated from the outside world. The Gollimog chafed at the lack of a computer and his daily wallow in various newsfeeds, but his own intuition provided a clear enough guide to current events, and he knew it. Harker permitted the indulgence of two hours’ reading aloud by flashlight each evening before bed. The books were selected by lottery, but Harker retained veto privileges.

The water ran out after three weeks. They endured on dregs and squeezings for seven more days, but at last there was no other option. Harker distributed masks and gloves from another of his carefully prepared packages. With some ceremony, he prepared to unseal the front door. The nails creaked as they came out, and there was a thump-thump-rustle as the wood and plastic sheeting stripped away.

Mrs. Offentreacle gasped when the door swung wide and the watery afternoon sun seeped in. The bodies outside lay in rows. Not neatly, like in a funeral parlor. Haphazard. Fallen all at once, in a strange pattern radiating outward from the library.

"Like an offering," said Harker.

"A sacrifice," said the Gollimog.

It took a long time to put things back in the right order, but Harker and the Gollimog were punctilious and thorough in their organizational talents, among their other skills. The Gollimog was most pleased when they finally got the power station running again, even if many of the news sites weren't updating anymore. Function, form, and content were all separate things, he would say, and we must make do with what we can.

Seven months after the first new website updates - the Gollimog's own, cataloguing the new additions to the library's collection and modestly revealing some of the other services they now provided - Harker coughed to gain the Gollimog's attention and pointed out the window. The Gollimog heaved himself up from his screen, peered out, and grunted approvingly. They snapped a photograph and included it in their update: a thin and ragged flock of little gray songbirds.


Loren Eaton said...

Love that final paragraph. It adds an optimistic note to the ending, kind of like the trout in the stream in The Road. As for the Golliwog, I do not think I'd want to run into him while fishing, at least if I didn't have the latest edition of The Wall Street Journal on me.

Post Script: I'm tempted to spam the "Cool!" button in order to get you to read this one.

Scattercat said...

It's not like I'd be able to tell the difference. My mad l33t computer skillz pretty much end with basic html and knowing to never click on obvious viruses.

Lady Glamis said...

Very nice! I like the Golliwog and have a nice image in my head of what he looks like. Libraries are the safest place, I must agree. :)

AidanF said...

I like the way the piece builds. I wish I had fewer l33t computer skillz and more knowledge... never heard of golliwogs before here and then wikipedia :) [okay, not much fewer l33t computer skillz or I might have trouble at my day job]

Jennifer said...

Since you labeled the post "What the hell is a Golliwog anyway?", I assume you're not British. It's an old advertising mascot and where the British English equivalent of the N-word comes from.

Scattercat said...

Oh. Well, that's no fun. I just changed the letters in Pollywog.

There. I fixed it.

B. Nagel said...

I like!

Not sure why, but I pictured the Gollimog as Slimer except without flight skillz and addicted to RSS feeds.

Scattercat said...

Slimer works as a mental image, I suppose. Can't walk through walls, though...

Aerin said...

"Later, they all had tea." - Utter perfection.

Donna Hole said...

I was hoping to see an entry from you on this. Fascinating take on the birds.

I thought Gollimog was one of your creations. Now I'm educated :)

Well done Nate.


Scattercat said...

Thanks, guys!

I thought "golliwog" was a made-up word, too. I just didn't want to call him "the Pollywog" because that was just too far on the harmless side. Stupid racists ruining my awesome made-up words.

Looking back, I edited a bunch in the middle, and now I'm worried it gets a little staccato where they're all in the library. Should I put back in the longer metaphor about the seas of humanity and etc.? I removed it on the general principle of killing my darlings and avoiding purple prose, but it did give a bit of roll to that otherwise cho/p/py paragraph...

Loren Eaton said...

Audio! And it's really good, too! I particularly enjoyed the Gollimog's voice. Huzzahs to you, sir.