It must be spring — the signs are unmistakable, even for those who never look out the windows or walk out the doors. Hamish, our resident hedgehog, has started wandering ’bout the Estate offices, singing his spring song: which sounds a lot like a deaf penny whistle with a head cold. But it’s a sure sign of the changing season.
What’s amazing this year is where the rascal hibernated away the winter. Most years, you’ll find him snoozing in his Moses basket, near the fireplace in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room. MacKenzie, our Librarian, doesn’t mind, as the wee hedgehog doesn’t chew on anything so long as Iain provides a small bowl of warm milk mixed with raw egg and whatever berries are to be had — and a few fat worms from time to time! And he loves havin’ his wee head scratched. But this year he was nowhere to be seen and MacKenzie wouldn’t say where he was. Attempts to shadow MacKenzie to see where Hamish was (we’re reduced to indoor tracking in the winter) were as successful as catching a Djinn in one’s hands. And it was indeed a Djinn who gave away the tiggy’s location — the Arabian Nights room, which he said is indeed one of the most unique aspects of The Library. It’s a room that most of the staff have never even seen!
It’s a smallish room with a low ceiling of painted plaster, shaped into billows and swoops like a tent. Carpets of varying ages and conditions cover the floor, overlapping each other and rising into drifts in the corners. Where the walls are not covered with shelves, still more carpets hang, absorbing sound and hushing every noise to the whisper of a turning page. The carpets on the floor are beautiful, but the ones on the walls are perfect: you’d have to stare for hours to find the Divine Flaw the devout weavers left in, and by that time your brain would have dissolved into the geometry of the patterns. Even the resident Djinn grudgingly admits he couldn’t have designed a finer place, and wishes he’d done this one.
There are no chairs, but lots of cushions on the floor, and the rugs pile up here and there at just the right height for a reclining elbow. There’s a camel saddle up against the wall in one corner of the room (Hamish spent his winter under it), and several low, inlaid tables. It looks like it might be a harem chamber for an especially intellectual sheik. Being as it’s actually a Library, though, what it’s full of is neither hubble-bubbles (MacKenzie would have a fit) nor houris: it’s manuscripts. Slotted, stacked, piled, and draped everywhere; looks like some of the rugs on the walls may even be woven pages in their own rights.
The manuscripts are in every imaginable form, you see. Some, of course, are classic scrolls —and from the look of it, there are some there that have been considered lost for well over a millennium. Others, actual bound books, are in leathers so old you’d have to suspect the beasts that provided them have since gone extinct; and some of those bindings make you hope they were, indeed beasts — MacKenzie and the Djinn both just smiled when I asked. But I’ll tell you: I’ve never seen a cow with either scales or a tattoo.
And what are these books? The Arabian Nights! All of them, every one, in version after version. There’s a first edition of Galland’s version, which dates from the early years of the eighteenth century; there’s the original seventeen volume set that was privately printed by the Burton Club for Subscribers Only. That one is in a locked cabinet. The lock makes rude gestures and giggles.
What isn’t a form of the stories is ancillary material. Maps of its weird and wonderful country (no two agree). Books of critique and analysis; there is even one that MacKenzie insists is Scheherazade’s own rough copy, dictated to her baby sister Dunyezade! Of course there are all the volumes of all the translations, including the first of the children’s version with Maxfield Parrish’s incomparable illustrations. Donna Bird is reading that one right now.
And yes, there are lots of brass lamps in there, and braziers too — MacKenzie won’t allow an open flame in any other room of the Library, but he claims these are lit by Djinni. And being as Djinni are heatless, smokeless flames, the lamps are no danger. Well, not a fire danger. Just don’t try to polish any of them!
It smells… interesting in there. It’s a complex perfume, not just books: a mixture of old wool, old leather, dust, dried dung and maybe sandalwood. And maybe hedgehog. The smell of coffee pervades the air, as well, thicker than the never-ending night, richer than an Emir — or, as Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord preferred it, ‘Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.’
Just in case the original Arabian Nights don’t keep you awake, you see.