It was a day of rest.
My wife and I had never vacationed in Mexico during the Christmas or New Year’s holidays, a time of colorful lights, of scrumptious food and steamy flavors permeating the air, of lively parties filled with stories and laughter; all of it exciting and wonderful––but tiring.
So, on a down day, I accompanied my brother-in-law to an office he used at The American Society of Jalisco located in the colonial section of Guadalajara, a way point for transplanted Americans and English-speaking tourist. He had some catch-up work to do concerning his Tequila business and a short movie he had produced and directed. While he went upstairs to work, I scouted a comfortable place in the lobby to rest my bones and brain.
A large, stone fireplace busied itself warming a deep-seated, over-stuffed, well-used leather chair relaxing in front of it. They seemed to be having a private conversation, but I invited myself to join in anyway.
I stood before the chair and studied it. It measured me back as well. “Well––you climbing in––or what?!” I imagined it to say in a laidback, smoky voice.
I turned and let my rear pockets slide into the chair. My body sank deep into the scarred leather; it swallowed me whole. I grabbed the chair’s stuffed rolled arms to keep from sinking any further until I found a comfortable and lazed position. I sniffed my situation and found the scent of old cigars, fireplace tendrils, and oiled leather.
I looked to the fireplace to hear what it had to offer or say about anything. Though the hearth’s iron curtains were drawn closed, a troupe of tiny dancers performed their finest leaps and pirouettes for me while I lounged, buried deep in the chair. Yellow spears of flame swayed and bowed like out-of-step ballerinas, and then jumped with surprise after a sharp pop from something aflame within the façade of burning logs. A shawl of warmed smoke reached for my shoulders in want to cloak me in comfort. The only thing missing was a good book.
I remembered that my brother-in-law had invited me to use the library that lay hidden behind a wall adjacent to the stone fireplace. And so I decided to take him up on his kind offer.
It took several grunts and forward heaves but I managed to boost my butt out of the deep chair and ascend from the depths of the bottom cushion. I meandered over to where the concealed library should be and stood before a white, metal door––the sliding kind. I found the handle and pulled left with both hands. I had to pull hard.
The door screeched open along old, complaining rails, as if rolling back a large stone that sealed an ancient crypt. I felt I had walked into a mausoleum; a catacomb filled with wall-to-wall books, illuminated by a stray beam of mote filled, ochre sunlight that filtered through a top window tanned with age. A bouquet of weathered paper and decayed binding saturated the thick, mildewed air.
I strolled leisurely past row after row of well-read books, companions brought far from home to be good traveling company; world travelers donated and left behind. Most stood tall and rigid like soldiers, ready for the taking. Others leaned against its neighbor, old friends, one propping up the other for inspection.
My eyes feasted on the wall of published words from top to bottom while my fingertips glided along spines with titles and names I recognized from bookstores and libraries back home. Many, however, were new to me. In the tomb’s dense silence I imagined ghostly whispers from the books’ souls: Read me––No, read me!––pick me, pick me!––I have a good story to tell––It was the best of times––It is a truth universally acknowledged––Call me Ishmael; so many books, so many stories.
My mind tried to keep up with my eyes while I walked along a collage of multi-colored spines and fonts that made up the wall of tomes. A book grabbed at my hand and held tight, it wouldn’t let go. My eyes drifted to the old, partially torn binding: The Shadow of The Wind. I don’t know if it was the Spanish surname, which the author and my wife shared, or the old binding holding it all together that captured me, but I had to have it.
When my fingers slid the book from the shelf, I thought I heard a soft whimper as its neighbor gently collapsed into the now empty space.
I needed to see that first sentence, that first narrative, that invitation, to justify the want of it––the book’s fate depended on it. I cradled the delicate spine in my left palm and peeled back the cover with care. I treated it like a recovered relic covered in ancient dust and cob webs, afraid that in any minute it may turn to powder in my hand and slip through my fingers. I searched for and found Chapter One with two probing fingers. A skipped beat bounced around in my chest when I read those first words.
In that first line the protagonist in the story recalls the day he first entered the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”
The first sentence became the first chapter as the writer recounted how every book in the “Cemetery” had been somebody’s best friend and companion at one time, patiently waiting to be re-discovered.
In those first pages the protagonist took me along as he roamed through the gallery of worn and aged spines, taking in the smell of earth and old paper, pulling his hand along titles and names, until––like me––finds the one he will release from bondage.
Spell bound I stepped into the pages like Alice passing through the looking glass, only the looking glass was more an arcade of reflecting mirrors. Storylines telescoped and reflected upon one another, books within books within books, like Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. It was me looking at me looking at me; simply magical.
When I was able to pull myself from the pages, I scanned the library. I looked over my shoulders. I looked up at the windows above. I looked to the open door. Is this a trick? Is there some form of magic in play here? There is no way other than magic that I could think of to account for what had just taken place. How could I have possibly mirrored the protagonist in a parallel literary world?––a surreal literary world?––a magical literary world?
I took the book back to the fireplace and reclaimed my spot in the deep leather. I slipped back into the pages. The back cushion of the chaired leered over my shoulders and read along with me. The tiny flames continued on in their dance routine like nothing had been amiss and pushed shimmering waves of heat my way with their flickering little hands to keep me warm.
The story in the novel takes place in Spain so I had no trouble sauntering through the pages; we had lived there for a time. The cobbled calles, the tasty tapas, the acrid cigarette smoke, the narrow streets, white-washed walls supporting red-tiled roofs, and the civil guards with their glossy, triangular hats, all of it so familiar. The book, the chair, and I sat in the middle of it all––the streets, the rain, the library. Characters walked past us like phantoms as they spoke and acted out their scenes. The narrator kept me informed as if standing next to me and the chair, pointing out key parts to the story.
The book rarely left my hands for the rest of the vacation. I read passages over and over just to savor the words again and again. We became companions, good friends. Where ever I went, the book went along, too.
At the end of our vacation, the book followed me home. I know I shouldn’t have, but it beckoned me to take it and so I did. It resides at my nightstand now, befriended by other close friends, good companions taken to favorite places like Bodega Bay, the wine country, and elsewhere. Each gets a turn to be re-visited now and then, quiet conversations mantled in magic before the lights go off.
I don’t know from where the book’s journey began––it looks well-traveled. It probably has seen more of the world than I have. A stamped-plea on the insider cover of the book utters: “Property of AMERICAN SOCIETY please return to our library.”
Someday I will revisit the hidden library in Mexico and return the book to its proper place, have a homecoming of sorts, maybe even some Tequila shots; but for now, it is just an arm’s reach away, a companion waiting to see more of the world, waiting to cast a little more magic.