Welcome to the Advent Calendar Story Train, where you can read through 24 stories under the theme The Gift. Thank you for reading today’s story. The next one will be available to read on December 7th, titled “The Gift“. The link will be active tomorrow when the post goes live.
If you missed yesterday’s you can go and read it here.
This year I am excited to participate in a fun group activity for the holidays–a flash fiction advent train! I hope you’ll check out all the submissions and will join me in looking forward to “opening” one story each day. Here is my story:
Pilar walked the aisles of the ancient library. Her footsteps echoed in the empty chamber as she ran her fingers over the shelves where once stood countless tomes and scrolls. Everywhere she looked was dull and gray, just as it was outside. She was told that in the before times there were periods of light and dark with subtle changes in between the two as the day wore on. Those who were observant could tell the time by the gradations. Now all was flat, and people wandered in a careless stupor stopping to rest when their bodies tired and waking when they grew weary of the inertia.
But Pilar also knew there was a way to bring the color back—to wake them all from the miasma—and it was in this building.
“May I help you?” a voice, cracked and rough from disuse startled Pilar out of her thoughts. She spun around quickly and saw a small gray-haired woman bent double with a plain walking stick in her right hand. The woman smiled with a toothless grin, but her eyes looked past Pilar, sightless.
“I don’t know,” began Pilar. “I’m looking for …” her voice trailed off. Pilar wasn’t sure if she couldn’t finish the sentence because it felt insensitive to ask a blind old woman to help her look for anything or if voicing the idea that she alone knew how to fix what had damaged their land sounded foolish. The woman’s smile deepened.
“You seek the secret?” You’re not the first,” she said and turned away. She beckoned Pilar with her cane and walked with purpose to a small table with a chair on either side. On the table was a notebook and a pen. The woman sat down, but before Pilar could do likewise the woman said, “Stand in the middle of the room and close your eyes.”
Pilar would have objected, but instead did as she was told.
“In order to know the secret, you must know what we were before the words left us,” said the woman. “Once, this building, with its vaulted ceilings and rows of aisles contained the vast knowledge of the ages. Books handed down from the centuries of experience and imagination. The paper came from plants and animals from land and sea. The ink was derived from hundreds of sources in a multitude of colors. And the covers touched so many hands they came to contain the full sweep of humanity.”
As the woman spun her tale, Pilar saw the library as it was, felt the weight of its knowledge, smelled the books, scrolls, and life that had inhabited it. Centuries passed like moments and all of it was in vivid color. Pilar’s eyes filled with tears at the images that flitted behind her closed lids.
“Then little by little, people stopped coming. Knowledge was abandoned and slowly, the words left us.” The images behind Pilar’s eyes changed and became the world she knew now—colorless—and she cried anew.
“Open your eyes,” said the woman and she gestured Pilar closer. “The secret is this pen and this notebook.”
“What? How?” Pilar asked, incredulously. She’d been expecting a champion or a magic spell, something more than pen and paper. She was glad the woman couldn’t see because she knew her face would give away her doubts.
“I know what you’re thinking. You think it’s not enough and I’m just a foolish old woman. But you’d be surprised. Words are a gift that give color to the world. Write down what you’ve seen today and everyday then put it on a shelf. It’ll save us,” said the old woman, smiling. She picked up the pen and notebook and held them out to Pilar, who took them as a reflex. She’d known this quest had been a long shot, but she couldn’t help the crush of disappointment that surged through her. She wanted to leave as quickly as possible, and she did so without another word.
It was with a heavy heart that Pilar crossed the threshold back into the outside world. She didn’t know why she still clutched the pen and notebook so tightly, but also couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. What had she expected? A miracle, she supposed. She walked down the marble steps as an older man was walking up. In his hand was a pen and a notebook, well-worn and straining with pages. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed him, at a distance.
The man entered the library and greeted the old woman as a friend would before handing her his notebook. From behind one of the aisles, Pilar watched as she pointedly walked back and forth between many aisles and then finally stopped in front of one that looked like all the others to Pilar. The old woman bent over with assistance from her cane and the man and placed the notebook on the shelf. In a matter of moments tendrils of color flowed out of the book. The muted colors of the library became sharper, brighter and Pilar couldn’t help but gasp at the change.
Unerringly, the old woman trained her sights on Pilar and smiled.
“Now you know, so don’t waste time,” she implored.
Years later when Pilar returned with her own notebook brimming with thoughts and ideas, she remembered what the guardian of the ancient library told her.
“Words are a gift that give color to the world.”