There was a click, the handle moved and the door swung open. Light poured into the hallway. At the door was a small woman, no taller than me, wearing a uniform that looked like an old fashioned movie usher's outfit. Her suit was red with gold trim and she had on a red fez with a gold tassel.
Inside, the walls were lined with books, from floor to ceiling. There were several comfy looking sofas, ideal for curling up with a book. The trail of leaves led right through the room and onto the sofa where one big red leaf sat on a cushion in front of a steaming pot of tea with a cup. The woman at the door was tapping her foot impatiently next to the door. Next to her was a tall stool. A book hung from a chord from the ceiling next it.
“Please don’t stand there gawping.” She said. “You’re letting all that atmosphere in.”
I stepped in and she swiftly closed the door behind me, locking it with a big brass key that she hung around her neck. Then she climbed up her stool, a bit like a ladder, because it was very tall and she was very short.
Once she’d reached the top, she sat down, pulled the book on its chord toward her and started reading.
“What is this place?” I asked the woman.
“Don’t you know?” she asked, clearly annoyed that I’d interrupted her reading.
“No,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
“We don’t get people who don’t know where they’re going though here.” she said skeptically. “It’s usually librarians that have business here. But you are awfully young to be a librarian.”
“I’m not,” I said.
“Come now, you are clearly a child.” She said dismissively.
“No, I mean, I’m not a librarian.”
“Oh. That makes more sense.” She said. “Especially since usually the new librarians have been better informed about how to behave here.”
“What did I do wrong?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing, a librarian would just go about their business and wouldn’t keep asking me questions when I’m trying to read my book!”
“I’m very sorry,” I said and walked over to the spot on the couch marked with the leaf. The couch was soft. When I sat on it, I sank a few inches lower than I would have expected. It was like sitting on a waterbed couch, it was so pleasantly squishy.
I looked at the woman by the door. She was deeply involved with her book. I didn’t want to interrupt her but the tea in the pot smelled like flowers so I risked her displeasure and said, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt again but I wonder if I could have some of this tea.”
She looked up, clearly not pleased to find me still there and shrugged before returning to her book.
“Good enough for me,” I thought and poured some into the single china cup in front of me. It tasted like honeysuckle and jasmine but also blueberries and grass.
“Are you almost done with your chapter?” I asked.
She shook her head.
I tried again. “What are you reading?”
“A book.” She said and turned the page.
“What kind of book?”
“It’s a mystery.” She said.
“Oh, my mom loves mysteries. Is it a detective sort of mystery?”
“I said it’s a mystery.”
“Oh.” I said.
I tried to be patient by looking at the books on the shelves. I didn’t recognize any titles. They were definitely not my library's books but I found I was comforted by their presence tremendously. Up in my library, all the books were gone but here, there wasn’t an empty space among the shelves. At least there were still books left in the world, if not my library.
“I’m really sorry to bother you again.” I said. “But if you could just tell me where I am, I won’t bother you anymore.”
She sighed. “This is Gate 1 of Akita.”
“You really don’t know?” she asked. “Wait. You really don’t know?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” she sighed, her tone changing slightly “Akita is the Global Library. It is the font of all the libraries in the world. Inside Akita there are hundreds and hundreds of smaller libraries. This is where we keep books and libraries safe from harm.”
“Wow,” I said. “All the books in my library disappeared. Do you know where I might find them?”
She raised her face with a look of great horror. “Your library has lost its books?” She said.
“Yes,” I said, “I think that’s why I’m here. To find them.”
“Oh my. Oh dear.” She said and placing the chord in her book, she shut it and let it hang again like a doorbell pull.
She got down from the chair very quickly and came straight over to me. She took my hand and gave it a squeeze before looking right in my eyes to say, “Don’t worry. It will be alright. I’m very sorry for the loss of your library. Truly.”
She was talking to me the way everyone spoke to my Aunt Heloise when her husband died. Then she said, “We must find it.”
She went to the telephone, an old fashioned one – the kind with a separate piece for your ear that hung on a little hook. She picked up the receiver, pushed down on the metal cradle a few times and then picked up the whole contraption. She spoke into the mouthpiece – “Jackson 530. Jackson 530. Hello. This is Gate 1. Could you put me through to the Chair please? Why? Because we have a missing library, that’s why. How much more important could it be?“
She waited a moment and her voice changed a little bit, getting a little softer. “Thank you for taking my call. I have an entrant here." She looked scared for a moment, as she listened, then said, "Oh, yes. You did. Yes. You’re right. No, that IS why I’m calling.”
The woman looked at me now while saying, “I’m not sure. Small. Looks like a child. Oh. Okay. We’ll see you soon.”
She hung up and then looked around. “The Chair is on her way here,” she said.
“The Chair?” I asked.
“Yes, she’s the Chair of the Board. Very important. Also, her name is The Chair. I don’t think it was always her name but now it is. So. Sit down."
She picked up a light green feather duster that hung by one of the shelves. She scurried around the shelves, dusting the books. She seemed nervous. So I got a little nervous, too.
Then one of the shelves moved back and behind it, bright sparkling light appeared. It streamed in. It was almost blinding and out of the brightness, there emerged a woman in a very fashionable pink dress suit. She looked like a fancy business woman. If they had runway shows for business people, this woman would have been in one. Her heels made a loud clicking on the library floor.
She came in and stared at me over her diamond studded cat-eye glasses. I suddenly felt very small. Then she looked at the woman with the fez.
“Edna," she said, "this is the entrant?”
Edna nodded. The tassel of her fez fell forward.
The Chair looked at me again. Then she started laughing. Edna and I looked at each other. What was so funny?
The Chair caught her breath.
“She really is just a child. I thought for sure someone had been sent for – but this is rich. A child. Just a sweet little harmless child.’
“Well,” she said to Edna, “Get her whatever she wants and send her on her way.”
Edna tried to speak.
“But she’s – “
“Pat the Bunny. Goodnight Moon. Whatever. I don’t care.” “But – “
“I have a meeting to get to. You’ll excuse me.”
And The Chair turned around and clicked on her heels back into the bright passageway. The bookcase closed behind her.
Edna let out a sigh then said, “I’m sorry. I was so sure she would help you.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I’m just so sorry to hear about what happened to your library. Do you have any clues?” She asked.
“Just these red leaves,” I said, showing her the one on the couch, “ And a book that told me to follow them but the trail stopped here. I wrote some things down in my notebook before I left my library but I think the book and the red leaves are the biggest ones.”
“Ah,” said Edna, “First, it is very strange as I do not know how or when that leaf arrived. Second, we must work out where it goes from here.”
“But it stops here.” “Indeed,” she said, “but this library is a gate. . .it opens in many directions. We just need to find the right one.”
Then she leaned in. “These books here on the shelf -” she began.
“They’re not really books but secret doorways? Like the one we just saw?”
She looked at me quizzically. “No. They’re really books. Why have a book without a book? That’s just ridiculous. But, when removed, some of the books open passageways.”
“But which one?” I asked, looking up at the shelves and getting the slightest bit dizzy imagining searching them all.
“I’m not sure,” she said as she looked at me. “But don’t despair.” She said, as she awkwardly patted my head. “I’ll help you find the right book.”
“I am a librarian. If there’s one thing I know how to do it’s how to find the right book for someone.”
I dusted myself off and said, “Okay. Where should we start looking?”
“Well,” she said pensively, “you were following a path of red leaves. Let us look up leaves, paths and perhaps, red. You look there on that bottom shelf in the red category and I will look here at the books related to paths.”
“How will I know which one it is?”
“Why, take it out and look at it! It will be obvious, I should think.”
I sat down on the floor by the shelf she’d pointed to and I pulled out the first book on the shelf. It was bound in bright red and its spine was lettered in gold, in a language I didn’t understand.
It was heavy and I had to use some muscle to pull it out. When I opened it, sparkling red sand spilled out of it and onto my lap and the floor.
The librarian glanced down at me and said, “Not it.”
“I guess not.” I said, “I’m sorry about the mess.”
“Not to worry,” she replied, “We’re on a mission.”
Edna was standing on a ladder searching on a high shelf. Around her, on the floor and scattered along the shelves were book pages, and lots of tiny holly leaves. Then she exclaimed, “Oh!”
“What is it?”
“I’m on the wrong shelf.” She said, “We need fall foliage, I think, not just leaves.”
She climbed down the ladder and then pushed it further down the wall. She climbed it to the very top, went straight to the middle of the shelf and pulled out a book that appeared to be covered in different colored leaves. The shelf slid back, along with the librarian and she opened the book, nodded and then she peered around the edge to see what had appeared. She took the book with her as she climbed down and peered at it from the floor. She waved me over, “What do you think?”
There was a trail of red leaves that began right at the entrance. Looking further into the passage, I could see that it continued on through a sunny green meadow.
“I think we’ve found it.”
The librarian grinned and gave the book in her arms a little thump of triumph.
“A classic” she said. “Quite a book.”