PART FIVE -THE READING ROOM
] REMINISENCE ]
Fluttery feelings in Ben’s stomach had long gone and left him as he sat feeling warm, cosy and nostalgic by the open fire; relaxed in knowing that sooner or later he would be back with Anna.
The possibilities of what he could return as were endless, and faced him in the form of leather bound books, stacked in a staggered pile.
The first of these books rested against Ben’s thighs. Its title ‘The Fox’ was engraved across its cover in a gold that matched the edging of its pages. He turned through these pages, carefully reading through their type written print and observing their intricate line illustrations mottled with age spots.
As the core of his spirit grew warmer, memories of life before his birth as Ben entered his mind. These were recollections of the first time he had ever set foot in, 'the Earth Library.’
There were a lot of things that Ben couldn’t remember. He had a few vague memories of other past lives he had lived and these came to him in flashes and fragments, like pieces of dreams.
He knew that at some point he had been a sea creature and lived in a coral reef; and he was sure that he had been a bird at least once. But besides from his life as Ben and his vivid memories of Anna, nothing was as crisp and clear to him as his very first memory of being in the library, which came back to him as clearly and as polished as a movie on the big screen.
He smiled peacefully as he remembered being a new spirit, young and naive, with very little knowledge about where he was and the reasons why.
At the time he was unnamed, just like the two other spirits that had arrived with him. All three of them were plain, with no distinguishing features or expressions to define one from the next. Curls, dimples and the odd mole would come to Ben later on, but only once his spirit had experienced things that would put them there.
Although these spirits had human-like features that were as plain as imaginable; they were also blessed with features that were exclusive to the spirit world and wouldn’t fit well on Earth.
The first of these unusual features was their skin type. It wasn’t black, yellow or white like human skin, but striking pearlescent silver that looked like wet paint.
The second of these were their wings. These weren’t white and feathery like the pictures of angels that appear in picture books, nor were they transparent like a fairy. The closest earthly thing to compare them with would be a peacock’s wings. These silver skinned, plain featured beings arrived at the library with beautiful bright wings; shimmering with stunning arrays of pattern and colour.
This was the look that each spirit had before it had visited Earth. Once they had left the library and lived a life, human spirits would return in the form of the character that they had lived as on Earth. They remained in this form until they had chosen something new to be; which was why now Ben looked like the fourteen year old boy he was when he had died, minus any injuries that had occurred during the accident. Some animals would keep their form too, whilst others returned in their original spirit form, with new features that indicated their previous life.
As Ben sat in the reading room, he recalled standing in front of the library building for the very first time.
He was with the other two spirits and it was snowing fairly heavily. In fact, the snow was so cold that it felt as though it were burning as it landed upon the bare hands and feet of the spirits as well as their delicate tongues that protruded every now and again to lick their bone dry lips.
The moment they’d laid eyes on the library, they’d viewed it as a place of refuge. Although the building appeared slightly spooky and was coated in thick dust, the glowing warmth of both candle and firelight, shining through its windows, enticed them in from the painful outdoor cold.
The three of them entered cautiously and tiptoed up the stairs. Everything inside was new and interesting to them, and as they ascended the staircase, the smoky scent of wood was enough to reassure them that their decision to enter had been a wise one.
Mrs Vine looked exactly the same then as she did now and greeted the three of them with a warm and familiar smile.
She explained the library rules to the spirits, showed them a variety of books and explained to them about the solar system.
When night-time fell, she gave them each a telescope and showed them the different stars and planets in the sky and taught them to identify each one.
Mrs Vine was a very patient teacher and taught them how to make a fire and light up the reading rooms. After they had slept, she told them about planet Earth and how in the solar system it’s the only other planet with life.
She showed them photographs and sketches of land, sea and sky and spoke of the creatures that lived in each of these parts.
It was then that they went into the Earth library for the very first time.
At first Ben had expected Mrs Vine to teach them how to read the books so that they could study for themselves, but this didn’t happen.
Instead, she explained that from the books on display they could choose any character that they wished to be; be it plant, animal or human being. As this character, they would be able to live a life on Earth.
She informed them that these experiences would change them and give them their own knowledge and identity. Once they had returned after death, they’d no longer be identical to one another, and instead develop their own features based around the life they had led. As they continued to live more lives, their features and intelligence would develop until one day they would have learnt all that was possible, at which point they would die and wake up in a new library inside a new solar system.
Being illiterate to begin with and having no idea about living things, meant that the first choice was always a gamble for a new spirit. It had to be based merely upon looking at pictures and using their own judgements.
Ben remembered sitting on dusty floor cushions with the other two, discussing all that they’d been told and shown.
The three spirits each had very different aspirations. One of them liked the thought of being human. He wanted to be powerful and have control over the state of the earth. The other felt that people were far too complex for a first life and caused a lot of mess and destruction and wanted to be something peaceful like a lily or dove.
Ben liked the thought of being a sea creature. The pictures of coral reefs were full of astounding colours and such a large range of different species to meet.
The three of them gathered around a warm fire in one of the many reading rooms and looked through their chosen books.
The first of the spirits made up his mind very quickly. He chose the strongest male he could find a picture of. This was a black and white drawing of a man who resembled the Greek demi-god, Hercules.
When this spirit told Mrs Vine that he had made a decision, she sat down with the three of them in their reading room and showed them a globe. Ben could still remember his astonishment at how something as gigantic as Planet Earth could be condensed right down to the size of a beach ball.
As the three spirits studied the globe closely with Mrs Vine, they found out that the blue area was the sea and were shown pictures of how it looks to the people on Earth. Mrs Vine explained how it has waves and varying depths, but this was quite hard for the spirits to understand when they had yet to see it.
The shapes in green and sandy tones were countries. Italy looked like a boot. Some places were clustered into one huge mass whilst others were little, lonesome islands. There were large areas of snow both north and south of the globe, far colder than the snow outside the library.
The reason Mrs Vine felt that it was important to show them these places and have conversations about them, was because after choosing a character to be, the spirits would also get to decide which part of the world to live in.
When asked, the spirit, who had decided to become a powerfully built human male, chose to live in Spain where the weather is warm.
Ben and the other spirit, (neither of who had made a decision yet) accompanied this spirit to the middle of the corridor maze, where there lay a long and winding staircase. It twisted and turned forever, and as it faded into the distance, its steps became smaller and smaller until they were misted over by both cloud and dust.
The two of them watched in awe as the first spirit descended this flight of stairs, twisting and fading until he became a tiny dot and then finally disappeared.
Once he had left, Ben and the remaining spirit returned to their books. Ben struggled to concentrate on the contents of the books after seeing the first spirit’s exit. They were a blur of words and pictures. Ben could think of nothing other than going down that staircase himself, and to vanish away from the library and into a brand new world.
At first this idea of disappearing down a staircase had been a daunting one but as he sat in the reading room looking at ‘The Fox,’ excitement welled up inside him. Sooner or later he would be walking down that staircase, possibly running and at the bottom he would change form. This meant that he would never look like Ben again, which was certainly scary. However, he would be able to go and find Anna, whatever he became. This was an encouraging thought.