A few years ago I invited myself to a friend’s home for the weekend after catching a glimpse of his library in a photo. We were stationed in North Carolina and spending the weekend in Maryland was a nice change of pace.
My friend never talked about it, but I knew he came from money – old money. The home was beautiful, the gardens were… okay look, I’m going to skip the boring stuff like meeting the family, having breakfast and the teenaged sister flirting with me. I came for the library and it was magnificent. It had two sets of doors leading from the inside of the house and two sets of doors leading outside to the expansive side yard. Opposite the doors leading outside was a hearth large enough for me to stand up in, extend my arms and not touch any of its sides. Maybe it wasn’t a hearth at all but a secret passage. Man I wanted it to be a secret passage to a bunker.
The atmosphere was colored a reddish mahogany – the hardwood floors matched the furniture, the furniture the bookcases. Oh, those bookcases were floor to ceiling, and the ceiling was easily 14′ high. There were thousands of books and the majority were leather-bound but they didn’t match. They weren’t purchased to fill the shelves, they were collected by someone with a love of books over many years. Gorgeous.
The room has four pairs of leather chairs and each pair shares a table and a floor lamp. Sitting in one of those chairs is an old white man with a patina of being well-read and of money. He doesn’t look too upset to see me, or too happy for that matter – and I’m stuck babysitting him. I jest. The library is his favorite…
“Don’t just stand there, you’re creeping me out. You come to my home with no invitation, eat all of my bacon and now it looks like you’re casing the joint.”
This is Grand Poobah. That’s what he asked me to call him. I’m not entirely sure he was kidding about that. He’s apparently taken a liking to me and has been teasing me since I arrived. I’m wondering if I can get him to adopt me.
“Hey, Grand Poobah. I’m marveling at this beautiful library. What’s the story? I imagine something as grand as this has to have a backstory.”
“What story? I love books and the thousands of journeys you can take and lives that you can lead. So I bought books. Good books with good stories. I had very generous friends that recommended stories and gave me books as gifts. I instilled a love of reading and adventure in all my kids and they in turn took to filling the coffers so to speak. You may have noticed that this is a big house with many rooms for entertainment, but this is my favorite.”
I walk around the room running my fingers along the spines of the books and I must admit that there are more than a few titles that I do not recognize. One book catches my eye no more than any other ‘cept for the name – Katherine.
“She was America’s sweetheart. The most famous or infamous star of the silent screen. She was up there with Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino… do you have any idea what I’m saying? Ah! Nevermind. Try and keep up. Everyone knew her name. Before there was a Cher or a Madonna, there was Katherine. She allegedly killed one of her lovers – that’s not a spoiler since it happens early in the story and then it just gets worse from there. A story of adultery, betrayal and redemption. The author, Anya, was Katherine’s assistant/understudy and remains under suspicion as to being the actual killer. I could tell you’ve never read it.”
“No, I can’t even say that I’ve heard of it.”
“Okay, grab the one to the left… no the other left. That’s it.”
“That’s her. I have never strayed from my obligations or vows as a husband, but I do love the ladies. Fictional ladies that is, and my do I love Anna Karenina. Hers is a tragic story. Anna Karenina was a Russian ballet star that defected to the U.K. and when she realized that MI6 was trying to use her as a spy, she changed her mind and wanted to go back. Easier said than done. Story of loss – of family, self, purpose and country. For someone that loves a library you don’t read much. Pick something that you’ve at least heard about and FYI I’m all out of Green Eggs and Ham. Sheesh.”
“Grand Poobah you slay me with your wit and charm and, oh here we go. Watership Down. This one I have at least heard about.”
“That’s an adventurous story of the sinking, again not a spoiler, of a ship, well more like a tugboat that carried potable water to the western coast of Africa. The unforgiving terrain, political climate and the lack of skilled labor made digging wells a long-term solution for dealing with the water crisis. In the interim, ships carrying drinking water would make stops along the coast… what? Something not ringing true?”
The smile when he said that made me realize that he was pulling my leg. I should have known. I hadn’t read Watership Down, but I knew enough that it was about a society of rabbits. Not water-carrying ships. Let’s see how far he can take this.
“No. I’m just wondering why there’s a picture inside the book of a rabbit.”
“Symbolism. Plain and simple. Rabbits have long been associated with luck and abundance – more importantly the Egyptians have always believed that the rabbit has a strong connection with the changing seasons and earth. Whenever they required stability, the Egyptians would make sure that rabbits were nearby. Sea captains adopted this thinking that having an earth elemental animal aboard would assure them of calm seas and a safe voyage. Unfortunately, rabbits weren’t good at warding off pirate ships determined to keep you from making port.”
My eyes were glazed over because I didn’t know what to say.
“This is my favorite room. A room with so many adventures I’d need a thousand lifetimes to experience them all. More than I could ever ask for or deserve. Everywhere I look there is the potential to rule a kingdom, solve a murder, ride a dragon or fall in love. There are over 7000 books in this room. Over 7000 journeys and lives that will forever be encased beyond my reach. I’m not crazy son, I just never learned how to read. Family, friends and business partners were so good at picking up the slack and making excuses for me that I didn’t feel rushed to learn. Oh, I always meant to. My eldest made a commitment to teach me, his insistence mind you – and I agreed. Then he died. I was in denial for the longest time… waiting for him to walk through those doors and commence my lessons. Hell, sometimes I still catch myself. I know he’s gone. I know he can’t teach me now. Anyway, I realized this and I decided to teach myself and I started with the titles. Then something happened – I started making up my own stories. I didn’t have the zest to learn without my son, so I made them up.
Here check this one out… Fahrenheit 451 solar flare that scorches the earth. A group of preppers – real preppers not the crazies they show on TV – survive underground, can you believe it? There’s a whole network of them, but it’s really only a matter of time.”
“Science fiction – Atlas, the god holding up Earth literally shrugs and the earth falls off its axis.”
“You have a story for all of these books?”
“Oh no, I don’t bother with those paperbacks. They’re not real books.”
This is how I spent my time with the old man in the library. After a few more synopses we sat down and Grand Poobah told me a tale of two cities and their unhealthy obsession with the World Cup.
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