By Marie Lebert, 21 December 2016.
“Moon” is a collection of six timeless short stories, which are related, in one way or another, to the book. Here is the fourth short story, translated from French by Jane Golding.
On the second floor of a very dilapidated little library by the seaside was an attic room that hadn’t seen a pot of paint or even a broom for several decades.
As for the panes of glass in the only window, the less said, the better, with their layer of grease and film left by sea spray. It was impossible to make out the view of the landscape or even tell whether it was a view of rooftops, waves or the façade of another house.
The attic room was full of documents in various states of dustiness, something that is unfortunately quite common in libraries.
Some were riddled with tunnels inhabited by various creepy-crawlies; others had all kinds of strange mould growing on them. The wooden shelves, which had been attacked by woodworm, were in the same state. As they were full to overflowing, it was not clear whether the shelves were holding up the documents or the documents were holding up the shelves.
Nicolas thought to himself that a good kick would reduce the whole lot to a heap of dust. “Everything is made from dust, and to dust it will return,” he had read somewhere, but wasn’t absolutely sure if the quotation was correct.
He decided straightaway that he didn’t want to be the idiot who had to tidy it all up. He needed work, but all the same, there were limits. He couldn’t set fire to it, either; the council had the right to conserve whatever it wanted to. He remembered that all municipal documents were inalienable, even if they had been eaten by worms, were covered in mould or half the pages were missing.
Then Nicolas thought to himself that it was one thing to tidy up, and another to have a look. After all, why not have a look?
He leaned over the rectangular table near the window with its filthy panes of glass. He thought he could make out a human shape stretched out beneath it. As he couldn’t see at all clearly, he went to switch the light on.
He found an old switch near the door, which must have dated from before the Second World War, or even the First. He pressed the metal switch and a light bulb, hanging on the end of a cord, began to glow faintly. The bulb was full of fly specks and matched the rest of the room perfectly; a new bulb would have looked rather strange in this place. The wire linking the switch to the bulb was as twisted as a Christmas garland, in a gaudy yellow colour in perfect harmony with the documents in the archives.
It was amazing that it hadn’t all been burned, thought Nicolas, who often harboured secret dreams of pyromania when he saw piles of mouldy paper. But you can always find idiots to file old documents in libraries, then here we go again for a century, or several. Incredible, but that’s the way it was.
The light given out by the fly-specked bulb wasn’t enough. Nicolas had to take his red lighter from one of the pockets in his jeans. Seeing the lighter cheered him up; a real colour in this sea of dullness, which shone like a ray of sunshine piercing through clouds in a grey sky.
He lit the lighter and pointed it towards the shape stretched out under the table. He blew on the shape to remove the dust, then blew again, and again, even harder. Now he could make out some artistically arranged bones. He blew as hard as he could. The dust fell away and the shape of a skeleton appeared.
Nicolas was delighted. It was definitely the first time he had discovered a skeleton lying limply in a shroud of dust on the worn out parquet of the second floor of a library. As far as he could make out, the skeleton was in the position of a man or woman sleeping. Perhaps it was a dissident from the cemetery next door, or a bibliophile who liked to surround himself with books; that does happen, even after death.
Then Nicolas turned the key of the cupboard opposite the rectangular table. The key dated from the same period as the light fitting, and the squeaking hinges were in perfect harmony with the rest of the room.
With the help of the faint light shining from the electric light bulb full of fly specks coupled with the flame of his red lighter, he could make out a whole collection of jars in various sizes, lined up in approximately decreasing order of size. Only approximately; it was clearly not a library professional who had classified them, but whoever it was had made a commendable attempt to go from the largest to the smallest.
The jars were full, and sealed with corks. However, this wasn’t the ideal place to store fruit in syrup or even jam, thought Nicolas, intrigued. He decided to sacrifice the relative cleanliness of his large handkerchief with small checks, which he used not only to blow his nose but also to clean his boots when he had a romantic rendez-vous. Methodically, he began to wipe the layer of filth from the large jars, trying to see what they contained.
Although he had seen many things in his life, Nicolas was rather surprised. Before his very eyes was a collection of snakes; very beautiful snakes, at least, the part submerged in water; the part at the top, above the water, did not seem in such good condition.
He looked at all the jars in turn. There were superb reptiles with gleaming scales. He wanted to call them by their names, but Nicolas’ knowledge of this subject was sketchy. He only knew how to recognise grass snakes, vipers and boas and so on, but grass snakes and vipers were too commonplace for such a collection, and it would have taken several jars for the boa alone.
Nicolas gazed at the contents of the cupboard for a long time, and then closed the two cupboard doors with their squeaky hinges. The snakes had been sleeping in their cork-sealed jars for many years; they might as well sleep for a few more.
Clearly, this little room on the second floor had revealed more surprises than anywhere else.
On the ground floor, he had, of course, seen the metal shelves full of bizarrely classified old books, with labels with a little blue border like old-fashioned school exercise books.
He had also seen a collection of empty bottles in what served as a broom cupboard and which was perhaps the beginning of a secret passage. He didn’t know that libraries could be used as bottle depots; that was new to him.
On the first floor, he had seen other old books, old archives with the archivist’s pencil and eraser left in exactly the same place as he had left them, although the archivist had been dead for years.
In the loft, at the top of a straight wooden staircase, was the most amazing shambles he had ever seen in his life. There were collections of official journals, magazines, books, whaling harpoons, coins, wax seals, and whatnot, all artistically mixed up like the aftermath of a cyclone in Florida.
But the crowning glory was the little room with its skeleton and its collection of snakes.
Nicolas went back down the two flights of the old wooden staircase with its uneven steps. He put his handkerchief back in his pocket; he would wash it next time he went for a walk by the seaside. He went out of the library and locked the heavy glazed door. Later, he would have to think about taking the key back to the town hall.
When he arrived at the square, he shook himself. He slapped himself hard to get the dust and creepy crawlies out of his clothes. He shook his felt hat and ran his fingers through his hair to remove a spider that was busily spinning its web there. Then he shook the left hem of his trousers to dislodge a mouse that was hanging onto his sock and enjoying a peaceful siesta.
Then he went into the café opposite to have a beer. He was dying of thirst and his lungs were clogged up with the dust from that insalubrious place.
At the bar, he asked everyone if they knew anything about the snakes in the library. After praying for a while, as a matter of form, a neighbour recounted that she clearly remembered having seen the old librarian, not the last one, but the one before last, who was even older, come out of the library one day with the jars, group them around the outside tap in the square, take the snakes out of the jars, wash them in running water under the tap, wash the jars as well, put the snakes back in the jars and pour a mixture of formol and water into all the jars.
At the time, the neighbour, who was following the operation very attentively, had expressed her astonishment. Why not just add some formol, instead of diluting it with water? The old librarian had talked of money problems. He had only obtained a small sum from the town hall; the neighbour couldn’t remember how much, all this didn’t happen yesterday. So he had to dilute the formol with water, and even then, with that mixture, he still couldn’t fill the bottles right up to the top. That’s how it was; at the time, it had been impossible to do any better.
Clearly, wherever they may be, and whether in the past or in the present, libraries nearly always have money problems, Nicolas thought to himself.
He left the café and walked towards the outside tap that the neighbour had mentioned. He turned it on with the same action as the librarian with the snakes thirty years earlier. He rinsed his large handkerchief with the little checks, and then washed his hands and face. He would return later that night to wash the rest of his body.
Then, breathing in the sea air with deep breaths, he went down the steps to the town hall to return the key of the library and turn down the job offer.