Upon setting up her Little Free Library, Meigan develops an unexpected friendship with a mysterious book borrower.
Meigan built her Little Free Library from a kit, because she wanted to make it into art. She sanded the wood and painted it with primer, then glued on the rocks she’d picked up from the Lake Superior shore over the summer and used acrylics to paint indigo swirls around them. When she mounted it on the post outside her St. Paul house, she decided to paint the post, too, and painted a fuchsia road, winding around the post to the box at the top, and outlined the road in smaller pebbles. There was a little bit of glitter in the fuchsia craft paint, and she decided that the book cabinet should have some of that, as well. Finally she screwed on the sign that said “Little Free Library” with the instructions: take a book, return a book.
Meigan had never seen a Little Free Library before she’d moved to St. Paul, but here, they were everywhere. Each Little Free Library was basically just a box of free books, sheltered from the weather. You could register them on a website. Sometimes people specialized in one type of books, or used the second shelf for a seed exchange. She was figuring she’d start by unloading the books she’d enjoyed but knew she’d never read again—she’d moved them up with her, but she didn’t have enough space and anyway, they were mostly just gathering dust. Passed along to someone else, they could be read and enjoyed and used.
She could see the Little Free Library from her living room window, and watched the first day as some of the neighborhood kids stopped to peer in. When she checked that afternoon, she noticed that Ender’s Game, Dragonsinger, and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine had all been taken. The next day, someone had left a copy of The Da Vinci Code, which made her grimace, but hey, there were people who adored that book, so why not. She put in her extra copy of Fellowship of the Ring along with two Terry Pratchett books.
When she got up on Tuesday morning, the Little Free Library was empty. They did warn you on the website that sometimes people just cleaned it out, and she’d taken the time to stamp her own books “Always a Gift, Never for Sale” to hopefully discourage anyone from thinking they could re-sell them to a used bookstore. She heaved a frustrated sigh, re-stocked it with more books from the box she’d set aside, and after thinking about it, hand-wrote a note that people would see when they opened the library:
To whomever took all the books,
In the future, please take just one or two at a time, or consider leaving a book for others to enjoy. For now, I hope you enjoy reading the books you took! Please share them with others when you are done reading!
When she got home from work on Tuesday afternoon, someone had taken the copy of Pawn of Prophecy and on the top shelf of the Little Free Library, where Pawn of Prophecy had been, they had left behind a sanded piece of wood that on closer inspection she realized was a hand-carved whistle made from a twig. She took that inside and set it on her mantelpiece, and then put out Queen of Sorcery.
The next day, Queen of Sorcery was gone and someone had left behind a little metal figurine of a snake. It was very heavy, and reminded her of the antique lead soldiers that had been made as children’s toys but her parents stored on a high shelf as decorative objects, since lead is a terrible material for a child’s toy. She took it inside and put it next to the whistle, then set out the next book from The Belgariad.
For the next two weeks, the mystery borrower left things behind each day, some of it very strange: a small dark green bird’s feather that looked like it had been shed by a blackbird except for the color; a tiny clay vessel with a cork held in place with rust-colored wax; a carved stone animal too abstract to identify; a circlet of thin carved stone that was too big to be a ring and too small to be a bracelet; a hand-hammered safety pin.
These gifts were unnecessary but delightful. Meigan took pictures of them and sent the pictures in e-mail to her friends back home, two of whom ordered Little Free Libraries of their own to give away their own spare books. They reported back that these boxes turned out to be a great way to meet their neighbors and everyone thought they were very cool, but they had not been the recipient of feathers or carvings.
Then one day, on a page of brittle yellow paper that looked like it had been cut from one of the blank pages of an older paperback:
To the Librarian,
Is there a sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring? I would very much like to read it. I will leave behind anything I have for the other books, if you will give them to me. Also, I am sorry about the day I took everything. I promise I will never do this again. What would you like in trade for the next book about Frodo, if there is one?
It was written in ink, slightly blotchy, like the writer had used a dip pen but didn’t know quite how to write with it.
St. Paul had no shortage of artists and eccentrics. Maybe this could lead to a friendship with someone close by. Grinning to herself, Meigan pulled out The Two Towers from her box of books and slipped in a note. To the person who requested the next book about Frodo: leave me some art you have created and we’ll call it a good trade. ~THE LIBRARIAN
There was no gift the next day, but the day after, a piece of paper (again, cut from the back of a paperback book, judging from the size) was left behind, rolled up and tied with a red thread. Meigan slipped off the thread and unrolled the paper. Done in the same slightly brownish ink as the letter, it was a line drawing of a cat.
This was really getting fun. Meigan wondered which of her neighbors this was. Another request should be coming soon: no one finishes The Two Towers and doesn’t want to read The Return of the King. In the meantime, she left out the next book from The Belgariad, a Valdemar novel, and a picture book about a small fire-breathing dragon’s trip to the dentist.
Sure enough, another note was left the next day: To the Librarian, Surely there is another book about Frodo? I have drawn you another picture but if you would prefer something else I can provide it. The person had drawn a picture of a leaf underneath the note. It looked like a maple leaf, with five lobes, but with additional hooks and spikes on the edges so it looked almost fractal.
To my correspondent, she wrote, please leave me a leaf like the one you drew.
She was expecting something cut out, maybe from paper, but it was a real leaf that got left in the place of Return of the King, green and fresh from the tree. It looked almost like a maple leaf, but…not. For extra weirdness, it was February; there weren’t any green, blooming trees in her neighborhood: it was gray and frigid and everything was blanketed with snow. But maybe…maybe they’d put a leaf in the freezer, or something. Or maybe the leaf had dropped off some sort of potted tree they kept in their house. Or maybe they’d picked it illicitly while visiting the St. Paul conservatory, which was filled with tropical trees…
She took a picture of the leaf and sent it to her friend back home with the botany hobby, to see if she could identify it. Her friend sent her back a slightly baffled message. It did look sort of like a maple, but not a variety of maple she was familiar with. She suggested that Meigan try the extension service at the U.
Instead, Meigan stashed it on top of her refrigerator and tried not to think about it. A fun correspondence with an artist playing a game was really all she wanted to imagine herself doing. But a day later, when she went outside to restock it…she left behind a copy of Defending Your Castle, which she’d bought because it looked hilarious but only ever skimmed through since she had no real intention of digging a moat around her house or installing ballistae.
That book was gone the next day.
And a day later, a tiny, glinting gold coin was left behind, with another letter.
To the librarian,
I do not know what I did to deserve the favor of the Gods, but I am grateful, so grateful, for your kindness to me. I believed our cause to be lost; I believed that I would never have the opportunity to avenge what was done to my family; now, suddenly, I have been gifted with a way forward. Blessings on you.
If you can bring me more such books, I will leave you every scrap of gold I can find.
The gold coin was a tiny disk, the size of a dime but thinner. There was an image of a bird with spread wings stamped into one side; the other showed either a candelabra or a rib cage, Meigan wasn’t sure. Meigan’s kitchen scale thought the coin weighed four grams, which—if it was actually gold—was over $100 worth of gold. Of course, most gold-colored metal items weren’t actually gold, but…it was noticeably heavy for its tiny size, and when she tried a magnet, it was most definitely not magnetic. In theory she could have bitten it, but she didn’t want to mess up the pictures stamped in.
For the first time, she felt a pang of uncertainty.
What is really going on here? Who am I giving books to?
An artist, she told herself firmly. A storyteller. A neighbor. This is probably bronze or brass or some other yellow metal, and they hammer it themselves as a hobby just like they carve whistles and all the rest.
She tucked in a coloring book about Roman aqueducts and left a note: Who are you? She also left behind a note pad, since the thought of someone cutting blank pages out of books to write on made her feel odd. A few minutes later she went back out and added a pen.
I am a servant to the rightful Queen and heir, displaced by her uncle; at his orders, she took vows to join an order of lay sisters, where she’s lived ever since. But all my prayers were answered the day I found your Library, and I will forever be YOUR servant, Librarian of the Books of the Tree.
We have begun constructing a ballista, in secret. Please send me more books.
Meigan bought a copy of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization to put in the box. Then a book on military history; then Weapons by the Diagram Group; then an Army tactical manual. Each book was rewarded with coins, all of them stamped with candelabra—or skeleton—and bird, all of them gold (or gold colored, at least).
She was finding it increasingly hard to concentrate on anything other than her library—on new books to leave, on who, exactly, might be coming, on whether she really still believed that this was an artist and neighbor playing an interesting game with her. Twice, she tried to watch the box from her living room overnight, but both times she fell asleep.
Finally one day she found a note:
We are ready. Many thanks for all your help. Pray for our victory.
And the notes stopped. Someone did take her copy of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs but did not leave a coin or a letter.
After a few days of nothing, she gathered up the coins and took them to a jeweler, who told her that yes, they were real gold, and he could give her $1,245 for the lot if she wanted to sell them.
No one spends over a thousand dollars on a joke.
She didn’t want to sell them. If she’d been about to lose her house she’d definitely have done it, but the thought of parting with this tangible evidence of…of whatever had happened…no. She told the jeweler she’d think about it and took them home again.
Back at her house, she went looking for the leaf she’d left on top of her refrigerator, but it had dried up and crumbled away. She looked through the gifts again, the ones that had been left before the coins started. She could take them to someone, maybe, see what they thought, if they wouldn’t think she was crazy. If they didn’t think this stuff was stolen. It occurred to her that it might in fact be stolen, that maybe someone was playing a game with her and that person blithely gave away $1,200 worth of gold because it didn’t actually belong to them. But she looked through pictures of ancient coins and found nothing that looked like what she had. The hand-forged safety pin was a fibula, though, and she found some pictures that were similar. Some were from ancient Greece and ancient Rome; some were from modern artists selling their wares on Etsy.
One warm night (spring had arrived, finally) she set up a chair in her yard, and tried again to sit watch. She dozed, despite herself, and startled awake at some odd hour of the very late night, and looked: the box was gone. Missing. She stared at its spot, and then saw it. It was back—or it had never actually gone—she was left frustratingly uncertain.
It felt like she’d read a book, only to find the last page missing.
Then one Monday morning, she opened the Little Free Library and found another note, along with a box that looked like it had been hand-carved from a block of wood.
All is lost, the note said. Our superior weaponry could not match their advantage of numbers. Our last hope is to send my lady’s child forth into your keeping before they are upon us. As you keep books, so may you keep her child.
Child? Meigan thought with alarm. She opened the box.
Nestled inside the wood was a straw lining—and an egg.
It was large—not enormous like an ostrich egg but it filled the palm of her hand. It was silvery green in color, with markings that looked almost like scales.
What do you do with eggs?
Well, you keep them warm…
She took it inside.
Note: Little Free Libraries are real. I know several people who have them, though alas, none of theirs are portals to another world.
“Little Free Library” copyright © 2020 by Naomi Kritzer
Art copyright © 2020 by Chris Buzelli