This story is by Sam Roche and won an honorable mention in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Sam Roche is a bookworm and an English student. Between lectures, he scribbles poetry, writes short stories, and works on a fantasy novel.
Old stone had no voice. It could mutter when you ran your hand over it, reluctant to yield to the touch. It might whisper, on those days when gales sent waves of sand rolling across the beach. It may manage a sliver of sound but it could not speak, nor gift an answer. The library was as old as the university’s main building, if not older. The stone walls had long since faded to a mottled grey. It had witnessed princes and kings on rare visits, who made a show of pretending to read. It had seen priests and bishops ghosting from one holy tome to another with prayers on their lips. Countless souls had found expression here, be it in borrowed words or in their own, understanding, inducing, seeking.
The man sitting in an aged armchair was quiet as a breathing creature could be. He was accustomed to silence; it showed on him. Calm hung about him as would an ancient cloak or aura. There was a coldness to him, though his few friends would deny it. They would say Rune was gentle, with an infectious grin; once he opened up. Sir Eriksson was from a place far north where the snow piled upon the riches it held. In Sweden where he had grown up, winter encased the land in ice and darkness. This was why Rune was so silent, some of his colleagues said, as if to excuse him; he had lived through these awful winters for so long, and the cold would freeze his words before they had a chance to get out.
He loved words, old words traced by a quill. They made his mind soar, one single feather gave him wings. He had learnt to read them before coming to Scotland, his pen leaping from Swedish to Old English, underlining similarities and drawing parallels. Modern Swedish was simple, but it retained many of the old words brought to Great Britain by ancestors long gone. Like letters etched in stone, they left a thin shadow to hover far above the present, faded but not out of reach. His fingers could brush against the centuries past.
Rune’s fingers ceased their slow, rhythmic tapping. His thoughts had carried him away from the poem he was reading. Rubbing his eyes, he was surprised to find them aching. As he tried to resume reading, the lines blurred and twisted and overlapped. What was the time?
The librarian’s voice came from her desk, hidden behind shelves. Its sound was weighed down by tiredness, hollow as if disembodied. The Swedish man played with the thought for a second — a ghostly librarian gliding through the shelves, watching readers.
“We’re closing in half an hour.”
He snapped out of his reverie, his head jolting up, his eyes following reluctantly, but he had to know, he had to look. Outside the window was a solid black wall.
Night. He had sat here and read until nightfall and beyond, and he hadn’t realised. He sat very still, a statue with a tome carved out of his hands; a statue with a pounding heart. His breath rasped in his throat. He tried to anchor his mind in the room, in between the two shelves, but it escaped and swirled. Here, the sandy ground and gales, the waves’ incessant murmur almost made him forget what he had left behind. He saw his younger self, pleading. His mother let him stay at home, and he never felt more relieved. He wouldn’t follow with the class on their visit. He wouldn’t go down into the mine, deep underground and knowing it ran deeper yet. The tunnel would give in under the weight sitting on top of it. The ground would cave in, reclaimed by the wounded earth, it would fold inward and swallow them all — houses, miners, children. The earth was an old dragon with iron in its dark, dark belly, and now men took the iron, making it hungry again. Rune would not go into the dark, so he ran from it.
The cold, the mine, the weeks without sunlight he left in Sweden. What he could not leave behind was the darkness. Wherever he was, the sun would set. Did it have to catch him unaware and trap him so? It was enough to be bound to its endless cycle of light dying and being reborn.
He could still accept his fate, and make the trap comfortable for him to stay the night. He was in the library more often than he was at home, so he knew the rituals. When he left, the librarian would go to check the place where he had read before returning to her desk. If he was swift he could pretend to leave; toss a “goodnight”, open and close the door, then sneak into the toilet. By the time the librarian returned, he would be hidden. She would not go to check the men’s toilet before closing the library, she was such a shy mouse.
Should he? Definitely not. Could he go home with these dark walls squeezing him from all sides, forcing the breath out of him? Could he brave the segment with the broken street lights, with things crouching left and right, unseen and biding their time? Would he make it out alive? Rune closed the book slowly, carefully set it on the table. His hands could have held it no longer. His mind kept returning to the mine, and how every rumble of the earth made him weak with fear. He never had entered the tunnels, and never could have. Stepping outside in the night, diving into the earth’s belly — he could not do it.
If he stayed? There was a good chance he would not be found. If he was found? It would be … bad didn’t begin to describe it. Everyone would know, or worse still they would make up an explanation; he was drunk, or he was ill and fell asleep in the toilet.
Or the truth: Rune Eriksson was afraid of the dark.
There was Caitlin, who kept looking in on the English lecturers. She loved a story, and she would love his.
“Who would’ve known? The silent Swede’s afraid of the dark.” She would say it with a sneer, which made her lips appear a stain of raspberry in a face too pale. She would tell everyone, and sneer at his reaction.
The older teachers. His mentor, what would he say? “I didn’t think this of you, Rune.”
The American speaker, who seemed to bounce with every full stop. “Oh my God! You’re kidding, right?”
His students. His students would know.
Rune’s serious posture broke as he sank into the armchair. He locked his fingers and pressed his hands against his forehead, yet they still shook. The air spun around him, making him all too aware of the paper walls, and on the other side, the darkness. A moan rose in his throat; he fought it, dreading the librarian would hear and come to check on him.
He had to do this alone. His gut writhed. Sweat chilled him in a way winter never could. Cursed be every deity men have invented — the unspoken words were bitter on his tongue. The ugly words of his childhood bubbled to the surface, so for a dizzying second he was on the verge of letting out a string of Swedish oaths. He held everything back. Held his head. Tried to catch his thoughts.
Fighting the night, this ancient starved beast? Staying to risk humiliation? What if they deemed him unfit to teach and sent him back to Sweden? He couldn’t go back there, not now, not ever. The mine … no, he could not. What then? Going out alone with his little torch and staggering homeward? A boy with a paper cutter, facing an elder dragon.
“Sir?” came the librarian’s call. Rune mentally cursed her to the twenty-fourth generation. “I have to close now.”
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
His voice came steadier than he had hoped. It would arouse no suspicion. Good. Now to be swift.
He picked up his coat, considered smiling at the librarian, decided against it. The blackness outside the glass doors made him dizzy. It would be a long night in hiding but he’d be safe, would he not? He would be the one to get hungry, not the one to be eaten. As planned, he said goodnight, opened the door, closed it. He took out his torch, clicked it on and stared into the eyeless mass of the beast.
Why had he become a teacher? “To light a path for my students, and help them find their way,” he answered aloud. Hiding from his fear was breaking a promise. This, he couldn’t do. He stepped into the dark. The old stone may not have a voice but he found he had one; he recited, chanted and quoted in the dead of night. Anything to keep the old beast away.