~ A Work of Fiction ~
by Christina Holbrook
Summer began, and Anna followed the campus walkway that led past the lake and through immense flowering rhododendron bushes, entering by 8:45 a.m. into the silent and dimly lit sanctuary of the university’s Rare Book Library. Here, as a student summer employee, she dusted books or collected them in stacks to be treated in the Vacudyne machine for the prevention of mold.
June passed, and the weeks of July crept by. Anna became restless. As each day of diligent cleaning and cataloguing blended into the next, loneliness and boredom weighed down on her. To her dismay, the row-upon-row, shelf-upon-shelf of mute, lifeless volumes hemmed her in and oppressed her. During the drawn-out afternoons, imagining other students with summer clerkships in busy offices, or positions on boisterous teams engaged in field research deepened her despondency.
“I’m putting my trust in you, Anna, to hold down the fort for a few days,” the head librarian informed her on a Thursday afternoon in early August. “I’ll be out next week at the annual Rare Book Librarian’s conference.”
Anna sighed. “I don’t imagine the books will misbehave in your absence.”
“I dare say,” remarked the prim librarian.
The following Tuesday, alone in the hushed library and fending off an urge to doze, Anna began to catalogue a newly donated collection of correspondence. Her eyes widened with interest as she realized that the fragile notes were missives exchanged by two 19th century English poets. Every letter, folding in upon itself to become its own envelope, so very small! And with careful fingers she opened one, and then the next. Each contained just a bare line or two.
They were love letters.
‘How surprised I was to learn of your visit, and saddened to have been away and missed you!’
‘Indeed! I had hoped to tell you in person what now I must pen in dry words — how much I admire your latest poem – and – you.’
‘Won’t you call again?’
Anna began to read the letters aloud, in the solemn quiet of the Rare Book Library: “Tell me when! And I will be at your door.”
“I beg thee, return!” Anna whispered, “Whether it be day or night!”
The desire exposed so incautiously swept Anna into the afternoon and evening. She held each precious artifact in her hands, amazed. Any one of the letters was small enough in size to fit into a pocket or handbag. So tiny! And yet every plaintiff question, every breathless reply, kindled before her eyes into a bonfire of passion. Her heart raced and her palms grew moist. Her imagination spun in a dizzy whirl of vicarious longing.
She no longer cared to be an intern in a busy office, Anna realized. Nor one of a team of field researchers. What she wanted had to do with these letters. How did one come to experience such extravagant feelings? What was it like, to be the object of such devotion? Seated in the cool silence of antiquated books and letters, Anna woke up. She wanted more than anything else in the world to know, to possess, and to be possessed.
Many years later, a student scrolled through the digitized collection of love letters. ‘Beloved Thief!’ she read, ‘Thou hast stolen my heart, abducted my soul! If I forsake all for thee—family, fortune, my good name—wilt thou come for me?’
The student scratched her head, and asked, “But … what did he write to her, in reply?” There was no other letter.
Now a professor of English at the university, Anna expressed surprise. Among the voluminous correspondence, Anna queried her student, one letter had been discovered missing? “A tantalizing literary mystery!” she pronounced, of the poet’s absent response.
‘Wilt thou come for me?’ The long-dead letter writer and her lover would certainly have known the answer. And Anna knew too.
That evening, as a path through rhododendrons to a quiet sanctuary of rare books and correspondence rose vividly in her mind, Anna crossed her study to a bookcase and pulled down a college collection of poetry. There, a single letter lay inserted among the pages, a faded sheet folded in upon itself to form an envelope. Small enough to fit into a pocket or handbag.
* * *
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge, Colorado. Many years ago, she spent a summer working in the Special Collections Library at Wellesley College, the repository of one of the two largest collections of letters between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When not writing, Christina is probably out hiking with her dog Luke and trying to avoid surprise moose encounters. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Lake Review, Bombfire, City.River.Tree and others. She posts on Instagram @christinaholbrookwrites.