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The Burning of Stories
The flames curled around the papery, inky tales of time, turning them to dead ash. The smoky smell of thousands of burned pages and tonnes of melted leather wafted through the air in a hazy vapour that shot up to hide the stars. A girl stood before the fire, which lit up the deep night whilst casting dark shadows, like long knives, and sent them flickering across her face. Many such fires have been started – the particulars of which this one was, do not matter. And many such girls have stood before them in a likewise fashion: too young not to have sparkly eyes and furrowed brows, but old enough for their fists to be clenched, and feet unmoving long after they are left alone with the dark, once-starry night, a burning forest their only warmth.
It is the habit of many stories, nowadays, to begin at their conclusions. The tactic has its merits, so please forgive the conformity. But this, though perhaps the most amazing part of many stories, is not where they begin. This story begins before time, but that is too far away for communication of it in a telling such as this to be beneficial. There was a volume in the fire, that held stories spanning centuries back, to times many today consider mere legends. It remembered the before and the building and the after. It remembered when the forest saw sunlight and rain and sang with the wind and its songbirds – when it was not burning. Let this story begin there.
When it was tall and strong, ancient, and spry, water humming through its roots and wind buzzing through its rustling leaves. In another life, when it was first alive. And within that, what it held even once that ended, stories. The secrets, whispered by the gossiping air; the histories, learned from the rhymes and poems of the people. So many wonders of existence people swear are just myths, were stories once held beloved by this oak.
This forest was a seclusive and majestically quiet place, and mystical for it, but it was never lonely. Travellers were forever crossing through it, for it lay on a border, or young, silly princesses were sneaking out by night to hold vigil for their young, silly lovers. Three young fellows in particular always seemed to be climbing its trees – the great oak, especially – or fishing in its rivers and foraging in its foliage. They were just men – the last glitter of youth leaving them even as they remained reckless and boyish. They fenced among themselves, setting the loser some foolish penalty. They shirked duties together, favouring practicing archery among the rich game the forest had to offer. They made fun of each other for crying and laughed at each other’s successes – all the while holding on together, like stones do. Conveying needed messages between themselves, wordlessly, like the trees did.
And if the tree made any distinction between them, ever noticed that one was a prince, of one kingdom, and others, knights, and others still, peasants’ sons, of the other kingdom, then it never bothered recording the detail. Perhaps because their different statures were hardly noticeable among all the nonsense tomfoolery they got on with, and with such camaraderie, or perhaps because it would have been a distinction without a difference. Those were golden days. But, be it by cruelty or wisdom, nothing golden stays.
The boys grew into men, but in an environment that left them jaded and cynical long before it was their time to be so. The well-worn path that ran between the forest, from one kingdom to another, became abandoned. The tree became lonely in its longing for its human companions; the forest lost its glister. The war lasted years, it was one of those wars that books would try in vain to romanticize – harsh and murky. There would be legends that it rained blood and the sun shone black for all the tragedy of it. In reality, there was very little rain, and the air turned dark, and smoggy, with death and disease. The sun seemed to be no more. The forests’ friends were disbanded. Many died. Even when the war was lost, by both sides, or, in other words, ended, and the forest’s roads gradually became frequented again and children chased swallows around its clearings, the tree remained bereft of the boys who had once sat in it and threw acorns from its branches.
But, after many years, a man, of middling age, with a new lustre in his eyes, a strong figure and dark hair around his face, wandered back there; he was not alone. His friends, his prince, had passed away. He had seen rivers of blood and valleys of misery – but his faith in beauty had stayed. A beautiful maiden walked beside him now, with golden hair and smiling face and eyes. He led her to the base of the tree he had tormented as a youth. They remembered each other fondly. Because even in the depths of misery, the anchor of faith in truth and beauty had dragged him up again, and home when the time came. Even after all the evil and misery was said and done, the knight kneeled and placed a shining ring on his maiden’s finger. The tree watched them with compassion; the scene was familiar and beloved to it.
In the years that followed the world experienced a number of revolutions – in all senses of the word. The forest was scattered. The great oak ended up on all continents and travelled all seas (it had fond memories of the big blue waves that ships would ride on, though many of its pages ended up lost beneath them; still, it maintained that the sea shimmered with stars, as a second sky). It also saw the building of great metropolises; it saw the world when, truly, all roads led to Rome. But every road had its own stories engraved upon it, and the sound of wheels on each one was slightly different, the sights each brought varying ever so slightly. It, having become a compendium of stories – those from its times in the forest, and others – over decades, ended up in the hands of thousands of people. Countless little girls read its stories and scribbled in the corners of its pages; mothers read the book to their daughters and wrote stories of their own on the flyleaf, explorers complemented its descriptions of the great forests, and on and on.
The human condition was described better in this volume than in most of the books that would be written in subsequent years combined.
In time the world somewhat settled down, (if only into constant change). Arose, great bustling cities – which continued, and continue, to be the centre of moving, progressive civilisation – and quieter, smaller hamlets, and villages – the remnants of a past, beautiful and strong, be it broken and wrong, and gone. There was one volume remaining now, and it found itself in another forest – dozens had been scattered in the limbo time past, as though by the wind, into pages bound in leather or board; and, eventually, many of these pieces came back together to form patchwork forests, or libraries. The last part of the great oak, that once stood so tall and majestic in a forest as great as it was expansive, now sat on a shelf in one of these libraries, in one of these cities.
It sat there for many years, was read by many people, and marked by many more. But, as time progressed, culture abandoned such books of the forests – with their papyraceous leaves, and heavy, old, aura – so it gathered dust in a corner. Nevertheless, the stories, that practically flew in the air of the library, were a constant consolation to it – it saw many a child fall in love with fairy tales, many more terrible students grow to be great academics, and equally as many young men decide they would much rather be outside than oppressed under the droll light of a library. All these things gave it different types and varying degrees of happiness – in addition to the fact that occasionally, it was pulled down and dusted off by a curious youth or experienced scholar, and perused; it was in a place that had not yet been severed to its cause of preserving knowledge, of preserving stories. It had faith that it, too, would be preserved.
One evening, a librarian, a woman, climbed down to the abandoned shelves where this volume was kept. She dusted them and pulled many down and looked through them. When she got to the last one, relatively thicker than the rest (for all the ways time had marked it), she flicked through it. It is widely considered, by libraries as well as their users, that the role of a librarian is the preservation of the chronicled wisdom of their times. There are many that should be considered heroes for how faithfully they exert themselves to do this, however there will always be exceptions. This woman, with her greying hair and lined face, sneered as she neared the end of the volume and saw the ink of all the people who had appended their own stories there; the diversity of writing, even of script and language, infuriated her where it would have excited wonder in so many others.
She tore these pages out and threw them into the nearby fire, then shoved the volume behind the shelf, where it could hear the ongoing tales of the library no more and would only have spiders their cobwebs for company for the rest of its days. The tragedy went unappreciated and was felt only by the book in confused anguish, or the juvenile yearning one feels for a lost love. Perhaps it ought to have taken it as a premonition, the demolition of such a precious part of its memory.
A few decades later, when the red-hot flames of erasure were turning it to meaningless, white ash, as it watched the girl before it, it recognised deep sentiments of its own etched into her facial expression. And there was something else too; many girls had there been, like her, but she? She was brave, brave like very few. She stepped forwards and retrieved a scorched, blackened, but not yet burned, book from the flaming pile. Dropped it, picked it up again; and ran away before she was discovered. Although it had not been the rescued one, the book thought of the thing that made each of its stories special – the characters; the people – and hoped that there were preservers of truth and its stories, yet in the world.
This it thought, as it was irreversibly consumed by the flames.