under the archives
Your first week here, a bespectacled boy told you they lived in the stacks. It was on par with tales of tunnels and stepping on seals. He faded into the crowd by the second week, anyway, only to be glimpsed in cafeteria booths and strange lines of sight across quadrangles.
A different bespectacled boy told you the same week that the stacks went on forever, that if you descended far enough, you reached rows of shelves that went on past campus, farther than a person could walk before needing to rest. And then, in the darkness… he trailed off, before trying to come in for the kill. These boys liked to do this: to hint at a hoard of collegiate mythos the way that other boys flaunted caches of alcohol, only to reveal how similarly watered down and quickly exhausted they were when the time came to impress.
You know now he was wrong, but it’s not the most useless thing a boy’s ever told you. Years later, going deeper became an option niggling at the back of your mind once you’d exhausted the Perrault, the Grimm, coming up against the official version with a bitten tongue. Fairy tales don’t spring from thin air. The references all pointed somewhere below, rooted.
After months spent on the second floor of the library, reading and note-taking and reluctantly assembling the first draft of sanitized folklore for your thesis advisor, you began to feel the boundaries of the walls and connect the webs of broken references. You opened doors when no one was looking and quickly discovered which ones were broom closets. When you felt bold, you slid a credit card along the seams of locked ones. When one swung open to darkness, you cleared your plans for the nearest Sunday night.
Your idea of supplies was beef jerky, a pocket knife, and your trusty Aarne-Thompson classification guide. Your phone screen served as a flashlight as you stumbled down steps. Abruptly, you were faced with the vast expanse of stark black shelves, too-straight aisles of woods glinting in the arctic dim, lights illuminating snow-motes of dust. An abnormal stillness that required a pause, and still does whenever you come down here.
It wasn’t difficult to navigate, or maybe you’ve just spent an abnormal amount of time in archives. You found early 16th-century German works quickly, not a bad place to start, but you were already shivering. Dark blue and royal red spines, gold filigree worn away, bindings cracked and crumbling. The smell of book, right and real, somehow not just glue and tree-pulp and cloth and ink but the essence of words, perfuming the dark with the slow bloom of their decay.
You picked what seemed to be the most accessible work after flipping through a few, and stood to go, mentally cataloguing your route, and saw the flash of gray. Easy enough to convince yourself it’s a trick of the light, until a slower gray pelt lopes through the next aisle, visible over the tops of books on the lowest shelf. You don’t look at the source of the growl when it reaches the nearest intersection to you, just fling the book you’re holding at the ground and wrestle the beef jerky out as a last resort.
It took you a few days to convince yourself back down again. You packed a winter coat, only to find sauna-like temperatures and the far stacks disappearing into warm mist. The beef jerky remained. You don’t know how you thought they’d get the package open, anyhow—but their teeth must be quite sharp. The book was gone, which sucked. It was an excellent primary source.
It will take weeks for them to grow used to you, for you to learn to smell for the boundaries of their territory and negotiate with them to get where you need to go. You’ll have many encounters like the first night, though they mostly stay out of your sight. The most difficult part is discerning what they like that you don’t need, as these original editions are hard to come by. French, German, Italian stories—they’ll eat it up, and you’ve found it handy in a pinch. You gather nonfiction when you can. They seem to be fond of military history and biographies of generals (absolutely no naval material, as that earns a distinct piss trail alongside it). Harvest records will continue to be a hit despite their bulk. They’re voracious, though, and soon you’ll find you can move away from battles and bales. You’ll give them poetry.
It won’t be long until convenience becomes the mother of uneasy rest and you curl up against shelves most nights you come down. Not much longer and you’ll find gray hairs on your clothing, fitful dreams of warm bodies against yours.
But it will be months before you see another human being down there, long after the winter has turned, long after you’ve exhausted the collection of languages you know. You’ve been teaching yourself Old Saxon, Frisian, digging to find the roots beyond the roots. There are no more doors to unlock; the library is finite in terms of space, but not in terms of content. Sometimes you find books piled on the ground where you’ve previously made camp, light teeth marks wrapped around the spine, and it’s exactly what you needed.
It’s in the process of picking one of these up that you see him passing in the dark. As he looks down, startled, at you crouched over your books, you’ll know exactly what he sees. And when he drops his own and flees, you’ll leave it where it lies and continue your hunt.