14 THE LIBRARY
When he had got a little ways past the maze, Christian found a spot along the cobblestone path where climbing roses sent tendrils weaving up a white trellis ahead. He supposed he had missed it the night before because of his hurry to reach the herb garden; past the trellis, the path dead-ended in a pleasant sitting area rather than leading any farther.
Christian paused to inhale the scent of the climbing roses bending their heads to him as if in greeting. His skin prickled. He felt the magic of the park was even greater beyond the trellis. He tightened his grip on his book and went through it.
Before him the pathway split and went around either side of a pool. In the center of the pool was a stone pedestal with water spraying up from it, and swimming around it was a mermaid with dusky purple hair and wide eyes the color of lilac blossoms. Her scales flashed silvery-mauve in the light of the gas lamps as she glided through the water. Christian watched her for a while, entranced, until she saw him and darted behind the stone pedestal for cover. He reddened and sped past the pool, not noticing that she peeked out from behind the pedestal to peer at him as he went by.
Beyond the pool, the path widened to a courtyard, and sitting in the place of honor at its center was a park bench. Behind it was another empty pedestal, a long one of white marble. Christian spared it a glance and then sat on the bench to read his book and wait for Minerva.
He was so engrossed in Bilbo’s woes at the unexpected party that he did not see her come up the path to gaze at him as he read, nor did he hear her footfalls on the cobblestones. But at last, in his periphery, he became aware someone was there, standing before him. His heartbeat quickened as he looked up and saw her.
“Oh, hello,” he said, shutting the book.
She smiled. “Is it the same one?”
“Yes,” he said.
The earthenware pitcher was balanced on her shoulder, but she set it on the ground beside the bench. “Would you read it to me?”
“Of course,” he said.
They sat together on the bench; Minerva adjusted the skirts of her tunic about her legs. Christian opened the book and began to read aloud from the beginning. For a while his voice trembled as he read, for he was painfully conscious of her eyes on him as he did so, of her thigh almost touching his. But as he went on, he lost himself in the book. He did not forget she was beside him, not quite—but his voice took up strength and passion from his love of the story, and by and by he forgot to be nervous.
He had only made it as far as the arrival of the last of the Dwarves, however, when his voice began to falter. He had never spoken for so long at once before—not since he was a child, anyway, and read aloud to his parents for practice. He coughed and continued, but his throat hurt and in another moment he had to stop. He set the book aside, disappointed, but Minerva said, “I’m glad of the Dwarves. Bilbo is too comfortable. They’ll stir him up, I’m sure.”
Christian stared at her.
“Well, yes,” he said hoarsely. “I still can’t believe you’ve never read it.”
Minerva was silent for a moment. Then she asked, “May I show you something?”
The accountant blinked and polished his glasses on his shirt, but at last he said, “Of course.”
She laid a hand on his wrist and led him to the trellis, where the roses curled up to wrap around the white wooden lattice. Minerva studied them, tracing her lips with a finger. Then she reached out and touched one of the rosebuds.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the vines and leaves and thorns and petals peeled back to reveal a slender book. Christian peered into the shadowy darkness of its nest to see the title. It was The Little Prince. He laughed a little to himself, remembering how he’d thought of it when he’d first met her because of the way she clung to questions.
She touched another rosebud, and there was the same peeling back, and another book was revealed, a battered copy of Walk Two Moons. Then followed three more books: a copy of Pride and Prejudice that looked like it had been printed in the early 20th century; a volume of poetry by William Wordsworth, which was faded and yellowed (though not as old as the Austen novel); and a copy of Prodigal Summer that looked brand-new. That was it.
Minerva laid the books on the cobblestones and watched Christian as he examined them. She seemed to be awaiting his judgment.
He fingered the volumes, a slight smile touching his face as he felt the crumbling pages of one, the glossy cover of another. He had read them all at different points and remembered perfectly the first time for each. The Little Prince, a birthday present he’d read in the darkness of his bedroom when he was a small child, enjoying the tale and the taste of the words; now he read the original translation to keep up on his French. Walk Two Moons in primary school with his class; he’d been frustrated with the teacher assigning only ten pages at a time and finished the book during his lunch period the day it was introduced. Wordsworth’s poetry at university, where he’d loved “Ode” so much he bought an entire collection of the poet’s works.
The smile was still faintly visible on his face when he turned back to Minerva and saw her watching him with a crease between her eyebrows.
“Well?” she asked, but he didn’t know what she meant.
“This is my library,” she said.
Her library? Christian looked back at the five tomes laid out before him. He could not imagine having only five books to read. She seemed to guess his mind, for she said, “I cannot leave the park. I know only the books my visitors leave behind when they go. In more than one hundred and fifty years, these five are the only books that have been forgotten in the gardens.”
How she could know which books had been left in the park for the last hundred and fifty years, Christian did not know. She was so young, younger than him to judge by her clear skin and dark hair. Perhaps she, like Conrad, was kept young by the magic of the park. But he passed over the thought in a moment, fixated on the horror of her only having read five books—only knowing of five books. Six, now, he thought, glancing at his copy of The Hobbit, which was still clutched in his hand.
Minerva placed each book back in its hiding spot and watched the roses wind around it. Then she and Christian walked in silence back to the bench and sat together. After a while she said, “There are a great many more books in the world than this, I suppose.”
“Yes,” he said, “millions.”
“Millions?” She laughed. “I can’t imagine so many books as that. I can hardly imagine more than the six I’ve seen.”
Christian thought of the Book House, over the wall and across the street. “My entire house is made of books.”
“Really?” Minerva asked, and he nodded.
“Maybe you could come see it, someday.”
She gave a smile as brief as a summer storm.
“I would like that,” she said, “but I cannot leave the park.”
He had forgotten. He cast about for words and said, “Then I’ll bring you books. A new book every night, if you want. Here.”
He pushed The Hobbit into her hands. She turned its pages, listening to the rustle of the paper and breathing in its scent.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I want you to have it,” Christian said.
She gave a bright grin that seemed too wide for her face. Then she said, “But you will finish reading it to me, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Christian said.