The road that reached up the hill was thin, comprised of a few stray bits of gravel and a great deal of red dirt. Rainwater had carved worry lines in rivulets on either side. A single oak tree shaded the house at the end of the drive during summer days, the full shrubbery at its base was immaculately trimmed, and the gutters were straight and clean. It was a good house: not so large as to attract attention, not too small go completely unnoticed and painted a shade of green that fit in with every season.
None of this was strange.
There were never any deliveries to the house; no one had ever seen the man who lived there coming or going, on his porch or in the yard. There was no mailbox at the bottom of the hill and no wires ran from the highway to connect it to the rest of the world. There was no car parked in front, no trashcan ever appeared on Wednesdays to be emptied into blue Defenbaugh trucks. This was eccentric, even odd, but not strange.
Lights could be seen behind the heavy, always-drawn curtains at night. Occasionally the shadow of a man passed by one of the three windows facing the main road. A lost motorist once came to the front door of the house to find that there was no bell, no knocker, not even a knob on the door. It was a simple flat panel that shone in the sunlight as though it were new. The motorist knocked anyway and shouted his predicament through the door when a knock answered from the other side. A slip of paper appeared at his feet that gave him directions to his destination. The motorist took the paper and drove away.
Once back on the highway, the paper faded away and the motorist didn’t recall where he’d been but knew how to get where he was going.
Stranger still, inside the house, the man who had directed the motorist returned to his books. Towers of them lined each wall, crowded every walkway from floor to ceiling in every room on all available flat spaces. Leather, vellum, cloth; some with boards others not, all arranged carefully by size and stacked spine out. He knew them all despite the lack of titles and he touched some of them as he passed, feeling a little quiver here and there or remembering some little phrase.
He walked through the overcrowded house to the bedroom. The man inside the house of books lay on his bed and closed his eyes. He felt a wind hot on his cheek and rolled over to stare at a stack of books, some red, others green, many black. He moved his eyes from top to bottom counting the books in the stack until he fell asleep.
The interior of your hut is so dark that when you step outside you have to shade your eyes. The sky is clear and a happy kind of azure. Your village is small, nestled comfortably in the foothills near the river. You are the Hunter, your people’s champion and second only to the wise man in status. You stretch your muscles in the clear light of the day and make your way toward the river.
The cold water you splash over your face shocks you more awake and you put your head completely under the flowing water. Your long black hair mats across your face, shoulders and neck. You drink the clear water, strip off your loincloth and dive into the river swimming for the deepest point in the middle.
You stay under until your lungs near to burst and you count four large rainbow-colored fish swim past. Smiling, you are refreshed and your morning has begun.
There is a man-shaped shadow on the bank of the river, between you and your sword in your hut. Your dark eyes narrow, squinting against the sun’s brightness and you walk closer to the shore until you are only knee deep.
Calm and not intimidated by your size nor apparent strength, the foreigner is dressed in black and carries a sword of a design you’ve never seen before, not in all your years of fighting for the Romans. He stoops and picks up your loincloth, tosses it to you.
The stranger turns and walks from you.
He goes to your hut, looks inside the door and then stands away, waiting for you to catch up.
You can see that the girls from last night are still asleep inside the hut. You suddenly look around and notice that no one in the village is up and around. The stranger is smiling again when you look back at him. He is as large as you are, his blue eyes sunk deep in their sockets, and the cords of his neck ripple as he places himself between you and your hut.
“Your weapons are not necessary,” he says. “I am offering you a chance to live a long life of interest and service. You are a worthy Hunter and I am tired. I have watched you for these last ten years, since you left Hannibal’s service.”
“You speak no language I know,” you say. “How do I understand you?”
The foreigner smiled again, a habit that irritates you.
“I have never encountered such as you.”
“Nor are you likely to, ever again,” the man in black says. His dagger moves so quickly to your throat that you never have a chance. He’s grabbed your hair and exposed your neck.
“A long and interesting life or a quick pointless death,” he says in your ear. His hot breath stinks. “Choose.” The dagger breaks the skin at your throat and you can feel it move toward your ear, slowly.
Darkness outside, and heat still in the house. Rising from the bed, shaking his head the man put a hand to his throat to check for blood. Nothing. The man inside the house of books made his way to the bathroom and closed the door behind him with a quiet click.
When he came out, he ground the coffee beans he kept in a jar on the counter, poured water into the maker and pressed the start button. While that was brewing, he went to a cupboard and pulled out a box of cereal then to another cupboard to get a bowl. The rumbling started then.
He had never heard a rumbling like this before in the house of books. This was unlike the rumble of the train, and even less like the low booming of the jets that sometimes passed overhead. This rumbling was akin to an earthquake. Making his way through the maze of books, he heard some toppling over. Wending his way through the maze of tomes, he made for the living room.
Stacks of books were shaking, teetering on the verge of collapse. He rushed forward to pick fallen books up and try to replace them, but it was futile. All the man in the house of books could do was brace as many as he could with back and body. He was pelted, as the rumbling grew, by books falling on him. Sharp corners dug into arms and shoulders, even cut him, and he grimly held fast.
An explosion in the center of the room spilled outward in a rush of air that created a vacuum instantly filled by more air creating a thunderclap six feet from him. The pressure change made his eyes water, his ears ring. Everything he knew was crashing in around him.
There was a flash of light; a wind hurricaned around the living room. He thought he could hear a howl that wasn’t just the wind and might not have been human. It seemed far away, from outside the house but close. Coming closer.
Books tumbled down in sheets, an avalanche of boards and papers. He could see some of them tearing as they fell, spines breaking, covers bending. The man in the house of books could feel them snap and tear. He didn’t make a sound.
The wind shot books across the room like cannon balls cratering the plaster and lath walls, sending plumes of white dust and debris into the swirling air stinging his eyes and skin. He gave up trying to brace the stack and crouched down, covering his head. Falling books, their leaves flapping like mad crows, fell like hard sleet. A second thunderclap boomed over his head.
Then it was over.
Another stack in the hall avalanched downward in the sudden silence. He climbed to his feet and brushed himself off. The damage was considerable and would require time to clean and re-sort. He would have to sleep less, and that would be good given his dreams of late. Resolved, he began to pick up volumes and restore some semblance of order.
The voice came from deep in the hallway, surprised and angry. “Where the fuck am I?”
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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