This is what I saw: Most of the shelves were empty. Budget cuts. Public's lack of interest. I had more books packed in cartons and left in storage in New Jersey than the Orlon Public Library had in its entirety. There were no computers available to the patrons, only one ancient word processor at the desk, and an old-fashioned card catalog was still in use. As for the reference department, there didn't seem to be one. After several weeks at work, there'd been only three calls of any kind: two concerning the proper use of fertilizer, and a third from a second-grader wanting to know what medical school Dr. Seuss had gone to. Maybe I should have lied to my young caller, but it wasn't in my nature to do so. When I told her that her favorite author wasn't a doctor, that in fact his last name wasn't even Seuss, she hung up on me. I suppose no one had told her before that she mustn't trust words, not even the ones in books.
Because we were a college town, the students at Orlon had their own high-tech facility, so our little building was all but invisible to them. And as our budget didn't allow the purchase of any new editions, even the local folks stayed away. The only weekly activity was the nursery-school reading club, but that group was nearly disbanded after I read "The Goose Girl," a tale in which a truth-teller, a beloved, loyal horse named Falada, continues to speak long after his severed head is mounted on the wall. Frances took back the position of reader, even though she was nearly blind and had to hold a book right up to her face to make out the story. Frances was polite about my removal, and I understood. Death was my talent, not lively toddlers. I gratefully relinquished the nursery group, happy enough to avoid the rush of noisy little creatures on Thursday afternoons.
During my hours at the library I found myself longing for questions about death. New Jersey had begun to seem like a dream rather than a nightmare. I stared at the phone, missing Jack Lyons and his calls; our longest, most intimate conversations had been about diseases that were spread by mosquitoes, especially West Nile virus. As for my brother, he and Nina were busy with their work at the university; after they'd helped me set up the housewhich my brother had failed to mention was not air-conditioned, there was only a ceiling fanI rarely saw Ned and his wife. I hadn't expected more, and why should I have? They had their own lives, after all.
In the evenings, I listened to the radio and busied myself with killing flies, using a flyswatter I'd bought at Acres' Hardware Store. A bit of death at home. Something I understood. Something I was good at. I'd killed hundreds of flies in no time. I kept piles of bodies on the windowsill. That's what I was doing when it happened. I was holding the flyswatter when I saw something that appeared to be a tennis ball right in front of me. The window was open, the ceiling fan was on, the sky was heavy with heat. I thought perhaps some neighborhood kids had thrown the ball through my window. I didn't care for children of any age or size. I knew how they thought and what they were capable of. I was about to shout out for the culprits to get off my lawn. But then I saw that the ball was oddly bright, so shimmery I had to squint. When my gaze shifted I noticed that the flyswatter I was holding was edged in fire and that the fire was dripping down onto the floor, like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
From The Ice Queen, pages 3-31 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2005 by Alice Hoffman. Reproduced with the permission of Little, Brown & Co.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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