Image © Ambika Thompson 2017
|by Julie A. Hersh||November 6, 2017|
It was morning and there was a solid gloomy cloud coating the books and the sighing people at the long tables. The library was a big room. And not the kind that covers around you but the kind you’re always looking across nervously. The librarian behind the counter wanted to go home. She was damp from rain, dripping onto floors and books and curving wooden shelves. She thought: Libraries are like stacks of money in a wallet, wrinkled and soft and useful for something until they’re torn in two, when they spill their books over the side of the world into a hole and each half goes in its separate directions, fiction to the left or to the ground, nonfiction to the right or toward the sky, to rain back down later.
In the afternoon there was time for a lunch break, and she left her desk and went outside. She unlocked the gate to the right of the building and crept through. She hadn’t worn her mud shoes today but that was okay, these would wash; she would put them in the shower and later dry them out with newspaper, and the mud itself would go down the drain in the end, slowly. After the gate she took the mud steps down, down, down again, past where grass could grow and where you could no longer see the library, down a slope, which, by the way, was not real, but she kept going down it anyway. She was approaching something that gurgled and yelled, something like rocky water or creatures; there was moss, a damp smell, and rushing sounds, and scratching sounds, and tapping sounds.
She arrived at someone. They were tall and large, with very long pink thick vibrant hair that didn’t stand up but sloped around their head and went down and out and everywhere else, and fell off, too, so that she would find it on her sweater when she was back in the library. And they wore a large necklace so long it hit at the stomach, with a large, large, large emerald, and they had big eyes that looked like beads, and they usually wore nothing but tried to remember to put on a cloth or two before she arrived, because they knew she thought it was strange and inappropriate: this is a business relationship. They had a long nose and those bead eyes were wild, and they had strong legs, and a mouth that was very beautiful, or would have been very beautiful if it had belonged to someone else. She thought about it sometimes.
They stood up and shook her hand. They said: “Did you bring the books?”
She answered: “Yes, but you have to be careful with them. I checked them out under my own name. If you return them damp, or smelling like logs, I’ll have to replace them.”
“Trust me,” the troll said, because that was something that was said often in the books they read; and that was how they knew what it meant, and how they knew that they didn’t have to really follow through on it. “I’ll be careful.”
She began pulling the books out of the backpack: mostly romance, because the colors lit up the damp, and because that was the only way to guarantee fantasy. The troll took them carefully and put them on a high shelf, near a crack that let in the light and the dry, and patted them gently.
“Trust me,” they said again, just to see.
“Sure,” she said. She felt like they should be taking a flying leap somewhere together, but there was nowhere to go from here, only a cave ceiling and a murky river. She imagined them jumping into the river together, holding hands. Then she said, “Well, I’ll see you next week,” and went back to the library, where she had to put her socks and shoes under her desk because her toes were numb, and she hoped no one would ask her to stand up or walk anywhere.
She went back the next week, as promised. In between, in that week, she stayed above, where she lived. She went to the library and did her work and did not go out back. But when the week was up she did go. She had remembered to bring her raincoat, and her rubber boots, even though it wasn’t raining, and she walked outside and around and back to the path.
The troll had gotten the books damp.
“But you said you wouldn’t,” she said.
“I know. I’m sorry,” said the troll.
“What happened?” she asked.
The troll shrugged. “I forgot to put them back in the sunny spot.”
The librarian sighed. “All right.” She put the books in her bag and turned to go.
“Wait,” said the troll.
“Do you want to go somewhere with me?”
“What do you mean, what?”
“I mean, where?” although what still seemed like the right question.
“On an adventure,” the troll said. It wasn’t really an adventure for her, but it probably would be for the librarian.
“But I don’t have time. I have to go back to work,” she said.
“So another day.”
“Okay. Tomorrow,” said the librarian, feeling the slight panic that you feel when you make plans.
When she got back to the library she put the books in her office, on the windowsill, where sometimes there would be a patch of sunlight. She hoped they would dry out: they smelled like the mud under trees.
She spent the rest of the day at work thinking about the adventure, and about the troll. Whether it would be a long trek through the mud, whether the troll would carry her over a stormy stream, whether they’d build a campfire and sleep around it. The next morning she packed a lunch, then forgot it in the refrigerator, and went out to meet the troll. The path took longer from her house but she found it, made her way down the slippery mossy steps carefully.
The troll had come out of the cave to meet her. They looked the same as always, like this wasn’t an occasion at all. The librarian was briefly annoyed: something great should be about to happen.
“Hello,” the troll said. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of course,” said the librarian automatically.
The troll nodded and started walking, and the librarian walked next to her. They weren’t walking under the earth, exactly, not quite where the troll’s cave was, but it was not quite on top of the earth, either. Not the road to the post office, which was usually what happened behind the library, and not the trees that you could see from far away when you were at the library, or anywhere in the town: those trees just never appeared. So they were somewhere else.
They walked quietly. Neither of them was sure what to say to the other: what questions are you supposed to ask in this situation?
“How is your work at the library?” the troll asked, extremely politely.
“It’s fine,” she said. She wanted to say, The only interesting part of my week is going to see you, but she didn’t. “It’s … yes, it’s fine.”
The troll nodded, like that was all the conversation that was necessary.
“And how about you?” the librarian asked.
“Oh, yes, it’s fine,” the troll said, so that the librarian still did not know what the troll did, if anything. “Thank you for asking.”
So they kept walking. The landscape was muddy and soggy, the same as it was around the troll’s cave, and it smelled like something in between a dark, moldy forest and the sea. It was damp and brown, with little bits of shiny rock poking up through the dirt instead of early flowers. But early flowers, too. They were hard to see, the purple blended into the brown, like dirt-covered faces.
It got a little darker the longer they walked, but mostly it was the same, a surprising amount of same. There was very little sky. The librarian felt like she was somehow swimming while she walked, inside this sea desert.
“Will we be going for a long time?” she asked the troll, bravely, she thought.
“Oh, no. It’s only a little farther. Are you tired?”
“No. Where are we?”
They stopped short so the troll could draw a very quick map in the mud. It sealed up even as she drew it. “This is my cave, here, and there is the pathway to the library. And we’ve just come through this area, here, and the town is just a little farther.”
“Yes, the town.”
“Well, just like your town, only my town.”
“You mean, with other …”
“Yes, of course.”
“But you don’t live with them.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Someone has to take care of it out over here.”
She wanted to ask what was to be taken care of, but she didn’t know where this was going, them, or the road, or any of it, so she didn’t, in case the troll didn’t want her to know. This was no way to find out anything, she tried to tell herself, but, she answered, her own way, the way she wanted to do it, would just take longer. So she just nodded.
“Do you go to the town often?”
“No, not often. It’s not very big.” They were approaching it now: the road was becoming more clear, and the rocks more consolidated, and the whole everything less soggy. There were buildings, like the troll’s cave, but no one around.
“Where is everyone?” she asked.
The troll just nodded toward the left as they turned to follow the main road, after which the rock buildings were more closely next to one another and yellow flowers grew in the narrow spaces between them.
“This might not be the kind of adventure you were expecting,” the troll said suddenly. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Any kind of adventure is fine with me,” the librarian said awkwardly. This was true, though; she wanted to sound grateful. “Unless you were going to cook me and eat me, or something.”
The troll laughed, though she seemed nervous suddenly. “No, I’m not going to do that.”
They had stopped in front of the stone buildings. Or really, it was just another cave, though it had a closed door, and circular window cutouts, with red-and-white checked curtains floating out.
“Maybe we should go back,” the troll said. “We could always have an adventure somewhere else.” But the librarian, surprising both of them, knocked loudly on the stone door.
“We’ll get through,” she said as they heard someone coming to the door.
The troll who answered the door looked just like her troll, only older. With the same rough hair and large hands, but more of those colored necklaces.
“You’re finally here!” she said, pulling them inside. “I’m almost done with lunch. You can come help. Well, you can’t”—she looked at the librarian—“you’re much too short. But come in, come in. How was the walk?”
“It was fine,” said the librarian’s troll quietly.
“I’m sure it didn’t take long at all. It’s not so far away.”
“It was an hour, or two,” the troll said. The librarian looked at her watch. She didn’t see how they could have been walking so long.
“Well, yes, when you have such a small person with you. Hello, dear, we must get acquainted. A person! So small!”
The troll’s mother was examining the librarian head to foot while the troll tried to give the librarian very subtle but very apologetic glances.
“But into the kitchen, everything is burning, come on,” the troll’s mother hurried on, beckoning them on through the cave. It was cool in the first room but got warmer the farther in, or down, they went. Her visions of magical walking trees were dissipating, but it was warm outside the kitchen, and there was a smell of a kind of food she had never smelled before.
The troll’s mother was standing at an enormous stove. The librarian could not see what was inside the pot she was stirring, but it was something large, and the smell was red and brown and thick. Her necklaces clanked together as she stirred. She chattered while she stirred: “Oh, you know, we don’t leave the town much, it’s hard to walk all the way through the forest, with all that… well, the smell, you know. And so damp and humid. But that’s just how it is down here. And luckily my Clara is willing to come here for lunch every week, well, most weeks. She’s never brought someone before, though. You must be very curious about all this. We’re just above you, you know, or below, I can never remember—which is it, Clara? below?—yes, below. You get someone falling through every once in a while, but we just feed them and send them on back up. They seem to like my onion pie best, I don’t know why, don’t you have onion pies up there? You do? Yes, hmm, then I don’t know what it is. I’ll have to make it for you sometime, and you can tell me what you think. We were so proud when Clara got her job, guarding the exit, you know, and she does such a good job, she has that whole garden, with the flower traps, but also the vegetables— oh, you didn’t know about the flower traps? Well, don’t worry, I’m sure she would never trap you. It’s just if we have trouble, but we haven’t had any trouble in, how long? oh, years and years, since I was young. But it’s still good to have the traps. And you can pick them, too, when they’re not in use, and make the most beautiful bouquets. And they’re edible, too. Or, most of them are, you have to be careful. But of course all of the vegetables are edible, and she’s always bringing them around to the neighbors. You must have her make her pumpkin soup for you, it’s so wonderful, even though she doesn’t quite have a kitchen. I don’t know how she manages. Rubbing stones together, like they used to do. So uncivilized, but so romantic. She seems to like it, at least. And she will get extra necklaces for it someday, but I’m sure that’s not why she does it. They are nice, though, aren’t they?”
She held out her chains of necklaces for the librarian to see. They were rugged, shiny. She agreed that they were nice.
The troll’s mother declared the lunch ready, suddenly, and carried the enormous pot into the room next door, just a little lower and darker. It smelled like toast and wood-burning, and it was hard to see everything; the necklaces gave off pink light, and there were candles in the stone walls. The librarian thought that it was like a book.
The adventure food was good and large and mountainous, and loud, like bread and tomato sauce, but sturdier. The troll’s mother talked quite a lot, and at one point put her hand around the librarian’s upper arm to show that it would fit, and the librarian did not enjoy that. Mostly it was fine, if not what you were expecting, which is mostly what an adventure is. The librarian and the troll answered, and looked at each other, and smiled, sometimes. They had never much smiled at each other before.
They helped the troll’s mother clean up after lunch. The librarian carried heavy plates to the kitchen and iron forks, and she said suddenly, “I didn’t know we were coming to see you, or I would have brought you something.” And the troll’s mother responded, “Well! A surprise for everyone! That’s just Clara. I didn’t need anything. But if you do come again, I might ask you to bring me some strawberries, if you have them at the moment. For some reason I just can never get them. And we need them.”
They headed out soon after and the troll’s mother said, “Well, this has been lovely. You’ll both have to come again soon.” She hugged the troll, they said something to each other out of the librarian’s earshot. The librarian also got a hug, an enormous one like a full heavy afghan draped over your head and covering your entire body; she almost couldn’t breathe, but who needs to breathe, and then they were out of the cave and back on the main road.
“So,” the librarian said.
“Yes,” the troll agreed. “I suppose I should have warned you.”
“That’s okay,” said the librarian. “I thought we would be camping, and saying what we thought the stars looked like. But this was good too.”
“Next time,” the troll said.
So they wandered back slowly through the woods, for a few more hours than it had taken the first time, stopping to pick flowers, and strange rocks, and wade in the brooks. The librarian got her feet wet with strange, silky, oily water that made a trail behind her in smooth diamondy circles when she kept on walking, and she wanted to keep one, name it, put it on the windowsill as a pet. The troll walked thoughtfully, putting her feet in all the best pieces of earth as she went. She walked with the librarian even past her cave, to the very border, hurrying her past the flower traps and the vegetable gardens. The librarian wanted to stop and smell each flower, perhaps test them by putting a finger in, to see where she would go and what would happen, but she didn’t, with the troll watching.
“Thank you for lunch,” she said finally, before going back up the steps toward home.
“Anytime,” said the troll very graciously. The librarian returned home with a small set of flowers picked by both of them.
Julie A. Hersh is a writer who recently returned to the US from Siberia. A native New Yorker, she has lived in four countries in the past three years; before that, she worked in publishing. She has also been published in Cold Noon and can be found on Twitter at @jahersh.
Ambika Thompson is a writer, musician, a parent and the fiction/managing editor of Leopardskin & Limes. She’s contributed her own short stories to NPR Berlin, Fanzine, Missing Slate, Plenitude, Litro and Okey-Pankey. She plays cello and drums and sings with the poetry editor, Jane, in the riot grrl band Razor Cunts, and is currently doing an MFA in creative writing at Guelph.