THE LIBRARIAN'S TALE
Up to now, I have allowed young Alice to narrate events in our town of Skunk Corners, and for the most part she has done an admirable job. On deep reflection, however, I have determined to set straight the record on a few points.
Young Alice has an unfortunate tendency to depict me as both mysterious and, there is no other word for it, stuffy. I confess to the former, as both certain vows I took and long years of habit render me reticent about my personal life and history, and disinclined to explain myself. The charge of stuffiness, however, I most heartily deny. I am an educated man, of course, and inevitably I do speak as such. There is nothing wrong with that, and indeed I believe any attempt to speak and act otherwise would render me absurd. But to be formal is not to be stiff or stuffy.
That point settled, I wish to recount my experience of my arrival in Skunk Corners, as young Alice has very clearly expressed her own and the town’s reaction to my arrival.
Skunk Corners did take me very much by surprise. Rather, on my arrival I saw much what I expected: a collection of ignorant people bent on demonstrating their ignorance. I responded as I had been taught, withholding judgment only from Alice, of whom I had been told something. I consider this forbearance to have been fortunate and highly rewarded.
For I did know something of the town before arriving. And I knew that the school teacher was a young woman who dressed and acted as a boy. I ought to have assumed her to be coarse and uneducated, and our first meeting certainly did little to change that idea.
And yet. She went out of her way to warn me of the welcome planned for me, and for that I would give her a chance, despite her coarse appearance and dreadful abuse of the language.
Young Alice herself has recorded the outcome of that decision, and you can conclude that in the end I found something different than the crude collection of cruder individuals I had anticipated. What Alice has not shared, simply because she does not know it, and I have been disinclined to tell her, is the manner of my passing my first night and morning in Skunk Corners.
I was all eyes and ears when I stepped off the train in this town that was to be my home for the next months. I have never told Alice, nor anyone else in Skunk Corners, but this was my first time out West. All my other assignments had been in the larger cities back East, as indeed are most Ninja Librarian assignments. It is in those cities, with their gangs on both sides of the law, that there is often the greatest need for a librarian who is both educated and skilled in the ways of the Ninja.
It had been some thirty years earlier that the heads of the Society had gotten the idea to build libraries in the new towns springing up out West. It was only now that they were realizing that some of those libraries needed to be staffed by the Society.
So there I was, after what seemed a lifetime riding trains of ever-shrinking dimensions, walking down the street of my first Western town.
It wasn’t much to look at. Depot, church, Mercantile, teashop, bank, tavern, school, library, and a City Hall with a fine façade hiding a shoddy pine shack.
I noticed everything that day. No one was expecting me, but a number of idle men hung about the depot, so I introduced myself.
“Good day, gentlemen. I have come to serve as your librarian. You may call me Tom.” They didn’t, of course, call me any such thing. Two nodded, which I took as a greeting, and one spat on the platform, which I did not. A fourth called me something else entirely which I will not repeat here or anywhere.
Somehow, by the time I had crossed the platform and stepped into the dust of what they called Main Street, word had spread through the settlement, and every porch and doorway bore a watcher, not one of whom deigned to offer a greeting. At the end of the street, the library and school glared at each other across the dusty thoroughfare, just as the school children gazed at me in open hostility.
Of their teacher I saw nothing at that juncture, nor did I much wish to.
When finally I entered the library and closed the door behind me, I sagged with relief. In other places I had been librarian, a small violent element prevented a peaceful majority from using the library as they wished. In this gods-forsaken town, it seemed every resident wished me gone.
The thought did not fill me with either joy or hope that I would make a difference, though I would fulfill my vows and make every effort.
The contemplation of the interior of my rooms did little to comfort me. If the Society had thought to include a stove in their design for the living quarters, there was no indication of such now. Only an open hearth greeted me as the means to heat both myself and my meals. A stale smell of untouched books and dead air pervaded every corner.
I am quite aware that many of my new neighbors had lived and possibly even thrived in such conditions all their lives, less the books, of course. But, as a city man, I had a problem.
I had always boarded until now. I knew nothing of cookery, and while I felt confident that I could boil water and prepare the kind of simple repast to which I was meant to limit myself, I had no idea how to go about doing so on an open fire.
Thus, when I met Young Alice in the back entry of the library that night, it was not only that I had heard her enter and meant to discover the meaning of the intrusion. I was also escaping the clouds of smoke I had generated, first by kindling the fire without opening the damper, and then by burning my toast beyond all recognition. The warning which Alice delivered meant less to me at that time than my fear that I must starve in this forsaken outpost beyond the fringes of civilization.
However, by dint of much effort, I managed to produce boiling water and make a cup of tea. I made no further attempt to toast my bread, but rendered it edible by dipping it in the tea, and so contrived to still the demands of my interior until morning, when I was forced to do it all again.
Thus, you see, I was in no mood to put up with ill treatment the next day when the townsfolk gathered to send me back where I came from, upright or in a box. Had I been better fed, I might have been less quick to respond aggressively.
That, I suspect, would have been a pity. Some towns do require a firm hand.
This narrative was signed simply, "Tom."
This narrative was signed simply, "Tom."