The Night Library at Christmas
by Jane Jago
It was Christmas Eve and the darkness of the library was alive with twinkling lights as children, and small creatures carrying glow worm lanterns, climbed the stacks to the floor and joined an ever-growing procession to where a noble Norway Spruce speared the darkness with its scented branches. As the crowd around its feet grew thicker, the Christmas tree seemed to grow ever taller and more majestic, then, one by one, the candles on its branches took light.
A dumpy little human female stepped into the light and immediately a clamour went up around her.
“Miss. Miss. Read us the story. Read us about the baby in the stable. Please miss.”
The librarian smiled and went to the place where Holy Books of many callings were shelved. A heavy, hand tooled volume leapt into her arms and for a second she staggered under its weight. She smoothed its tooled leather, reflecting on how the stories within its covers had conquered the world with more effectiveness than all the guns, and all the bombs, and all the wars.
Back beneath the tree an overstuffed armchair had materialised. It smiled and beckoned her into its wide lap. As she sat and opened the huge Book, there came a loud bang and a furious face appeared.
“No,” the creature cried in a voice like thunder. “No. You shall not read this lie.”
“And is it any more of a lie than that which your children purvey on Walpurgisnacht? Or at any sabbat in any sacred grove?”
It lifted its insubstantial muzzle and howled defiance and misery. “I will drag that book from your hands and rend it to pieces with my bare claws. I will make it burn as it sits on your frail human legs. I will…”
The creatures around the Christmas tree began to be afraid and the librarian held up a hand to stop the enraged grumbling of the shadow demon.
“You will,” she said firmly, “do nothing. You can do nothing. You are a creature of smoke and mirrors not even as substantial as the book children gathered at my knee. Now begone with you before you make me angry.”
The demon attempted a sneer, but it was of very little consequence when faced with the strong will and common sense that defined the straight backed little human who faced him without a shred of fear. Even as he made an effort to draw in his will she pointed a finger.
“Did I not just tell you to go away?”
It seemed as if the sending would defy her and she frowned, muttering a brief incantation under her breath. There was a strong smell of sulphur then the face collapsed into itself leaving only a momentary pool of blackness before even that disappeared.
The Night Librarian stood up. She put the Book on the soft chair and smiled at the little ones.
“I just need to make sure there are no interruptions to your story. I shall not be a moment. You all can sing the candle song while you wait.”
A chorus of small, and it has to be said mostly tuneless, voices followed her as she crossed the shadowed stacks. When she reached the section devoted to dark magicks she clapped her hands sharply.
“Who was responsible for that little outburst?”
There was no answer, only a feeling of oppression in the air. The librarian sighed and took a small knobbly stick from her pocket. She held it in both hands whilst turning a careful three-sixty degree circle. Widdershins.
“Now then. I asked a question.”
Two figures materialised behind the locked gates of the shelves where the grimoires squatted.
“Oh. I might have known it was you two. You may come out to explain your actions.”
Beelzebub and Dambala Ouedo shouldered their way out from behind the grating and came to tower over the small human.
“It isn’t fair,” Beelzebub said, and his voice sounded surprisingly like a toddler whining. “This place is for all faiths. You should not read them that thing.”
“You never,” his companion by contrast was both smooth and insinuating, “tell the children our stories. We are here to demand our moment in the candlelight.”
The librarian sighed. “Did we not burn candles to you on All Hallows Night? Were there not stories enough for you then?”
“But you did not read them.”
“You did not come from your warm bed in the dead of night, on a day when even you are not needed here, just to read our stories.”
“No. I did not.”
“And what if we demand that you do?” Beelzebub drew himself up to his full seven feet and reached out a burning and cicatrised claw to grab the librarian’s upper arm.
There was a smell of burning flesh, but it was the demon who flinched.
The librarian raised a weary brow. “You may not demand anything of me. I am my own mistress. I do this because I so choose. This night is to give hope to the children and the small things. It is the one night they may safely leave their story books and be happy.”
Damballa Ouedo actually shuffled his feet. “Sorry ma’am. Never thought about it like that. Can we come and listen then?”
“If you can take forms less likely to cause distress.”
The light shattered before it coalesced into two toddlers who stood hand in hand with identical hopeful looks on their faces.
“Very well. You may come.”
They followed her sturdy little figure to the edge of the gathering where they were easily absorbed into the waiting crowd.
The librarian took her seat and opened the Book. Her audience grew silently attentive as she began to read.
“And it came to pass…”
As the story unfolded those spoken of left the pages of the Book and enacted their parts as they stood on an invisible stage high in the cold air. Each was greeted with an outpouring of love from those who listened, even the sweet-faced donkey, and the herders of sheep, and the eastern gentlemen bringing unsuitable gifts brought gasps of delight from the children, and the small creatures, who heard the story at this time every year and loved it more each time they heard it.
All too soon, it seemed, the story ended and the librarian closed the book – leaving only a star shining brightly high in the dome of the library ceiling.
A dragonish voice spoke from somewhere in the crowd. “Even though I know it ends badly, I like that story.”
There was a wave of laughter, and the audience settled back with an aura of expectation that almost broke the librarian’s heart.
And now, she thought sadly, we wait and eventually the little ones will go to bed disappointed. I wish he would come. Just once. Just for the little ones.
The silence was stretching a little thin when, from somewhere and nowhere, there came the sound of silver bells. The librarian clasped her small square hands, hardly daring to believe, as the bells came closer and hearty laughter filled the air.
They came with a rush and the smell of snow: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Rudolph. They came with the sound of bells and his laughter warming the hearts of the tinies around the librarian’s warmly slippered feet.
He turned his ruddy cheeked, snowy bearded face towards her and smiled.
“Have your charges been good children?”
She nodded, hardly trusting her voice, but it seemed he understood because he thrust a hand into his sack and broadcast shiny wrapped presents with seemingly no regard for what went where. But he must have known as each creature and each child got a gift suitable to themselves. Nothing was ostentatious but nobody was missed. Even the dragons got chocolate wrapped in gold paper.
The librarian watched them play for a while before getting up from her chair and returning a slightly disapproving Book to its place on the shelves. She turned her back on the happy children and made her way up the worn stone stairs to her tower room where she fell into bed smiling.
As she slept, a gnarled hand smoothed the sandy hair from her broad brow before placing a hand knitted sock bulging with treats at the foot of her prim little bed.