December 25, 2019
As avid readers, we consider the presence of books in our lives to be a constant. Now, imagine waking up one morning to find the stack of books by your bedside has disappeared. You look around and realise all the books in your home library have also disappeared. Would you wonder where they had disappeared to? This story imagines a parallel universe that has books appearing out of nowhere. What happens when a human child shows up in this universe out of nowhere? Does she provide the inhabitants of this universe with the answers to their questions around the source of these books? Read this story to find out.
Long ago, when the Great Earthquake had not happened and the seven separate islands were still one, there was a small town called Cliffhill. To be more accurate, it was the only town on the planet. The first Queen of the town had named it so. She’d discovered this author called Thomas Hardy from the 19th century (at the time, we didn’t understand what the word ‘century’ meant, but the Queen seemed excited, so we didn’t complain) who had left one of his protagonists hanging off a cliff. She later learned that it was how the word ‘cliff hanger’ had come into being, and could not resist the temptation. It was nice to see her trying to break the fourth wall between the two worlds.
By the time the second Queen came into power, everything and everyone in Cliffhill was attempting to carry on the first Queen’s legacy – coffee shops held literary criticism weekends, the post office preferred quotes over stamps to deliver letters, even children dressed up as literary characters!
All of us knew something peculiar about the world of books, apart from where they came from. The children started calling them ‘everywhere books’ (since they were found everywhere in the town), and the term caught up with the elders too. We exchanged books, stories, and anecdotes about books. We held regular poetry nights. In fact, our second Queen would often visit us during poetry nights. We were a few hundred in number, but she knew all of us by name. She would participate and recite poetry along with the rest of us. It was only much later, under the reign of the third Queen, that we learned that what she had recited was original. In fact, the third Queen made it a point to protect her mother’s poetry.
It was during the reign of the fourth Queen when she noticed that the ‘everywhere books’ were increasing as the days went by. We now knew how the timelines in the books worked and had adopted their terminology and could make sense of days and time.
We looked around; she was right. When the first Queen sat on the throne, we would take the books that appeared overnight inside our houses, we’d read them to our children, and we’d protect the books. But now our houses were filled with them and we rarely brought in any new books. Instead, we had unconsciously started to pick up the books we found interesting, sit down wherever we found them and stay until we finished the book. Our townspeople were kind and gave us food and water to sustain ourselves while we read.
During a meeting with the fourth Queen, I remember someone saying, ‘We used to be the guardian angels of the books, we’re not anymore. We leave them to fend for themselves.’ It was the truth, and, for the first time, I felt a sensation in my chest that most humans refer to as ‘guilt’. So, when the fourth Queen suggested that we build homes for the books, we all agreed. We called those homes libraries. The libraries had shelves to hold books, tables and chairs for reading, and aisles for readers to browse through. We felt warm and safe in there. Our libraries were our happy and sacred spaces.
By the time of the seventh Queen, we were used to waking up in the morning and finding piles of books outdoors, waiting to be taken to our libraries. That was when there was a surprise.
One dark and snowy morning, we woke up to find a human, alive but unconscious, lying amongst the books. Our children, who read Enid Blyton, were excited at the prospect of a mystery to solve. ‘Look, Papa! Something interesting is happening in real life, outside of our books!’ exclaimed Timothée, my seven-year-old.
Despite having a Sherlock fan club, we had no idea where this human had come from, so we waited patiently for a long time. She was given her own home; we took turns to clean her home as she slept. Some of us wondered what she was dreaming about, others were curious about the way she had entered our world – was it because of something the first Queen did? While a small group seemed scared of her, most of the others seemed to love her. With all these questions churning in our minds, we waited – a year, ten years, a hundred years, and still she slept. Seasons changed and so did our queens, but the human child continued to sleep.
She slept right until yesterday.
Out of all the days she could’ve chosen to wake up, she picked yesterday.
You see, yesterday marked the first millennium anniversary of the day books had started to appear out of nowhere in our town. Over time, we’d received books in multiple languages as well, or so we assumed. As a result, our reading appetites never waned, and a variety of literary competitions were organised around the town.
Queen 451 addressed the people. Someone complimented her by stating that history would remember her as the Queen who had created a place that Ray Bradbury would have wanted to exist. She thanked them, and the festivities continued throughout the day. As the sun was about to set, we all heard an unfamiliar voice. We knew we hadn’t heard it before. I remember thinking, ‘The human child is awake.’
‘They took away our books!’ she screamed, tears streaming down her face. Matthews, the town librarian, held her; she was trembling. The town was quick to gather around, everyone had literally been waiting for this moment for years. Our Queen stepped forward.
‘What is your name, child?’ she asked, her voice and eyes filled with concern.
‘Names do not matter,’ the child said.
‘They do. Your name is your first and longest story,’ someone from the crowd spoke, probably Mrs. Brooks.
‘No one forces the human child. She will do as she pleases,’ said the Queen. ‘What do you mean – ‘They took away our books’?’
The child hesitated, ‘We, the humans, had evolved as a species entirely dependent on books, but then machines came into being. Most of us believed that books propagated the ideas of old. Authorities started blacklisting them. Our family had an enormous hidden collection, but we soon realised that it was thinning away. Something or someone was chipping away at our books.’
The Queen nodded, ‘What happened next? How did you end up here?’
‘We took turns guarding the books, but our collection kept reducing to the point where we only had three books left. I remember holding on to them tightly the night of my watch. And I think I got teleported here somehow.’
‘Wait, are you then telling us that there is a parallel universe where Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a reality?’ Matthews interjected.
The human child nodded, and a hush fell over the town. Every single person wanted to go home, including the Queen. Whether anyone was ready to say it out loud or not, we knew we had taken the appearing of the books as granted. For the first time, everyone was pondering over the same questions. Had we robbed an entire universe of its intellect? Had we taken our books and the knowledge they possessed for granted? And, would we also have to face a similar fate then? Where would we even find the answers?
Harshpreet is a student who likes to think that she has been writing "professionally" for the last two years - balancing research papers and stories, one at a time. She was sorted fifteen times into Hufflepuff by the official Sorting Hat. Sounds weird? Yeah, she gets that a lot. She adores Neil Gaiman’s work and wishes to be as brave as Coraline. Follow her on Instagram.
You can read her articles here.