SHORT STORY: The Book, the Boxer and the Cat (Part 1)

It hadn’t been so long ago, I was merely a young scribe piling away towers of papers quickly forgotten amidst a sea of winding stacks. An endless forest of processed words bound within leather nearly identical to its neighbor. The difference of course lay in the information contained between the covers. This particular collection paid little heed to the substantive nature of each writing and focused solely on amassing the largest assortment of the written word in the world. A task set upon by a man known only as the Librarian.

I fell under his ward in the year of our Lord 1852 as a byproduct of an internship from the nearby university. The school itself had fallen under financial hardship and provided the aforementioned internship as a means to further the intellectual goals of its students. The separation of intellectual studies and literary endearment was entirely exclusive from my initial prospects as an engineer. Had it not been for the Librarian’s cerebral ferocity, I doubt very much I would have taken such a striking interest in literature.

You see, the work as a scribe is in a manner of words, boring. My predecessors spent their waking hours copying and editing in the handwritten method each book, scroll, news article, poem or even a hastily drawn note that came through the large wooden doors that marked the entrance to the library. When I was a scribe in its current form, I did more work to maintain the presses than any actual hands on work with the writings we received. If we were lucky, an old tome would arrive that had to be handwritten and break up the monotony of using the printing press.

Thus went my days as a scribe and then eventually I became a cataloger of the works that were completed. Gone were the tiresome undertakings of repairing and replacing the printing presses. In their stead, came the foremost obligation to place each and every title in the proper location for future reference should the need ever arrive. This I did until this very day, ten years from my arrival and a single year into the war that dragged my fair nation into chaos. Part of me wishes to take up arms, but the Librarian insists great tasks lie before me and when the war is over, it will be these things that will change society, not the rifle or cannon.

My journey of discovery began on April 29, 1862 when I was called to the Librarian’s private study. I had been invited into his chambers once, maybe twice in the entirety of my employment. Others might believe that to be a blessing, but my admiration of his work only caused me to bemoan the fact I had not been in his private presence so much more than a handful of moments.

“You wish to see me, sir?” I asked as I inched my way into the Librarian’s private study.

The room was exactly how I had remembered from those many years ago when I first was granted permission to take up his tutelage. The floor to ceiling bookshelves packed to the brim with his private collection, a large chaise lounge beneath a candelabra that illuminated the space with no less than fifty candles. Across from this was an immense, black painted writer’s desk with an eagle ornately carved into the front and sitting behind it was a wing-backed velvet chair that was rumored to be from Musa the First himself.

“Come in! Come in dear boy!” The Librarian exclaimed from the very same chair. “I have a great undertaking for you. Please take a seat. We don’t have another moment to waste.”

Taking a seat I took in the grandiose surroundings of the Librarian’s office. Trying to stake a memory of what I had beheld should I not return.

“You have quite the collection here, sir.” I offered a compliment even though it was more a statement of fact than commendation.

“Yes, yes much of the collections are of my writings.” He said brushing aside my observations.

“Now, I have asked you here for a wonderful purpose. The elder scribes tell me that you are heads and shoulders above your peers and that you, and only you, are the person for this particular task.”

“I suppose sir. I can’t say I’ve heard language contesting or refuting that notion.”

The Librarian grinned and leaned back opening a usually long desk drawer. I tried to gain a look at its contents, but the desk was far too large and my view quite impeded.

“Here is a letter I have received from a contact I maintain in South America. In the territories that remain under French rule.”

As he began to unfold the letter, he stopped abruptly and looked up from the tattered paper.

“I suppose I should ask you if you are an adventurous man before I continue. Are you an adventurous man?”

For me the word meant so many things. How does one answer a question that can be interpreted in so many ways? For the average man, I suspect the answer came easily. Trips through the mountains, hunting or trying new things could be adventurous, but for those of us mired in the worlds created by others it was much murkier. I cannot truly provide an accurate depiction of whether or not I enjoy the sense of adventure. My adventures stem from such individuals as Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, James Cooper or even the recent successes of Mr. Twain whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting once during his discussions with the Librarian a few years ago.

“If I am to be honest, which I consider myself to be an honest man, the term adventurous, if applied in the sense of travel and worldliness, I must give you a simple no. However, I am learned in the ways of the world and enjoy the spiritedly feeling I get when reading about adventures.”

The Librarian seemed to mull over my answers for a moment nodding his head back and forth before reaching his conclusions about my sense of adventure.

“I may enjoy the written word, but it is more enjoyable to experience the world. I have traveled here, there, near and far.” He sighed. “But at my age and the state of the world as it is, I am not fit to travel.”

He pulled out the letter once more:

Here in the French territories lies an ancient native ruin known only as the God City. Long abandoned, long forgotten and fallen into deep disrepair, the ruins were used by the French to cache war materials, arts and of course, the purpose of this letter, books. There is a book there that a French military doctor named Dr. Bernard Laurent left behind when the military was called to repel an attack by the Portuguese in 1809. I have learned that Dr. Laurent’s book would prove invaluable to the advancement in medicine especially during the turmoil the United States is currently facing. I also believe it would be a valuable addition to your library. For the right price. –John Paul

He folded the letter and put it back into his desk.

“You might be wondering why I just don’t ask my contact to retrieve the book. Well, it is a costly venture and while he is a good contact I do not trust the man as far as he can be tossed.”

I sat silently realizing that whether or not I was adventurous had no impact on the Librarian’s decision.

“This is understandably where you come into the picture. It is more cost efficient for me to pay off the necessary people to allow you safe passage through the South and furthermore to French Guiana. Now, I will ask you sincerely. If you are not up to the commission I will certainly request another cataloger to be given the opportunity. So please be sincere with your impressions.”

I delved into my own mind for a spell as I contemplated whether or not that this would be the wisest move for someone like me. I adored the idea of removing my desk laden shackles for the open air of a journey, but was I cut out for adventure? I was young, well read, but not versed in matters that often coincided with the heroes of Dumas, Verne or Twain. Nevertheless, I would never see an opportunity such as this ever again if I declined.

“Consider me hired.” I agreed. “I would be more than happy to retrieve this book and honored to do so for a man such as yourself.”

“Excellent! I will have the scribes prepare you things. In the meantime, there are additional details I have found through tireless research.”

He pulled out a picture, a lithograph, from the shelf behind him. On it was a great tree, devoid of leaves, but with numerous branches. A title, unsurprisingly in French, was scribbled across the bottom of the page.

The Le Livre de la Vie or The Book of Life.

“The title is enigmatic and an intellectual provocation. Is this the cover of the book?”

The Librarian nodded.

“A book cannot and should not be judged by its cover; however, it should be recognizable by its cover. The image you see here is an artist’s crude interpretation of the research I conducted. From my understanding, the book will be bound in indigo dyed leather, a copper lock that probably has patina and the picture of the tree on the cover.”

The description of the book left me wondering why on earth it would ever be left behind. It sounded like a marvelously decorated text and if the contents of the book did indeed contain recipes or treatments for man’s maladies, then that would be all the more reason to bring it along.

“The tree is the most unique aspect of the book. The tree is rumored to be made of silver and gold filament. Provided looters have been unable to locate and thusly abscond with the book, you should have no manner of troubles distinguishing it from the rest.” The Librarian said. “I have secured passage through the war torn South via railway that hopefully has not yet been destroyed. I cannot promise once you are aboard either you will avoid harassment, but let’s just pray, shall we?”

And with that I bid my adieus and retrieved a rucksack that the other scribes had packaged for me.

I boarded a train headed to the southern borders of Virginia on the 3rd of May, 1862. In my accompaniment were a group of Union soldiers, fresh from camp and headed to join the ranks of men fighting for Mr. Lincoln and the North. In a few short moments they took notice of my presence and the lack of a blue jacket worn by Union soldiers.

“Seems we have a civilian headed down to watch the bloodshed?” One of the men said. A younger fellow. He had short cut brown hair, a palate of freckles beneath his eyes and a long, but well maintained beard.

“No.” I hesitated. “I’m afraid the days of Bull Run and the fancy of war are long beyond us. Wouldn’t you agree?”

The man frowned.

“I suppose you could say that, but I’m getting paid in advance. As we all are. Mr. Lincoln needs good folks like us to come down and show the Rebs a thing or two.”

The man laughed slapping the shoulder of his friends.

“Now, what’s a man like you doing on a military train without a rifle on your pack?”

It was more of a demand and a veiled threat than a friendly question regarding my purpose. I could respect the fact he was upset that a man, of fighting age, had not enlisted and instead chosen to use government transport to make his way to the South. Had he been more insight it is likely he would have taken me for a spy or collaborator.

“I’m a researcher of sorts, hoping to assist in the war effort. Again, I can’t say thank you enough for doing what you are doing.”

The patronizing tone slipped past him and with a courteous nod he and I went about our separate business. Suffice to say, at the first stop I took my leave from the cabin and found a quieter, personable room near the rear of the train. It was at this time I chose to take a look at the rucksack that had been so carefully packed:

Two canteens of water

Three tins of beef

Three tins of vegetables

Two sets of clothes

And of course, a blank leather bound book and pen.

I smirked knowing that my fellow scribes thought it wise of me to journal my travels. I took up the pen, only glad to do so. For the next two days as the rail car traveled further south stopping to unload the soldiers and pick up more civilians. I wrote of the view I had from my cabin. The South was remarkably beautiful. Lush farmlands, pine forests and swamp lands flew past as the train continued to its final destination. However, my travels were soon interrupted when the rail itself became commandeered.

“Do not worry, if ya’ll are civilian ya’ll are in no danger.” A gruff voice called out from the front of the car. “We’re just here to do an inspection of the cargo.”

I watched anxiously as a Confederate lieutenant made his way down the cabin car. In each room he stopped and asked each patron to empty their luggage. All manner of items were confiscated including items I doubted would truly assist in the war effort. As he approached my cabin I took a moment to hide my journal and one of the canteens beneath the cushioned seat.

“Care to open your bags sir?” The lieutenant demanded. “Any food stuffs? Clothing?”

I nodded and proceeded to hand over the requested goods without question. Part of me wanted to lash out in anger that the possessions so thoughtfully provided were now in the hands of a rebel, but those were replaceable goods. The thoughts on the pages of the journal were not and when he addressed the noticeable bump in the cushion my heart sank.

“That. What’s that?” He asked his voice carrying a heavy Southern drawl.

I pretended not to notice the bump in the cushion and remained quiet shrugging my shoulders in response.

“That strange bump.” He pointed again at the protrusion beside the near empty rucksack. “Whadda ya’ll got there?”

I realized that lying would only hasten the severity of my position so I did what most people might not wish to do in my particular situation.

I was honest.

“It is my journal of my travels. Nothing more of that I can swear to Christ Almighty.”

His head tilted in a frenzied moment of contemplation until a man, probably of lesser rank, interrupted our conversation. He pulled the lieutenant aside for privacy and try as I might, I could not gain access to their conversation despite my earnest efforts at eavesdropping. Within a few minutes the dialogue between the two soldiers shifted back to me. The lesser ranking officer saluted and proceeded into the next cabin.

“Seems ya’ll is expected. Yankees aren’t entirely welcome in this here parts, but truth be told ya’ll been given passage to New Orleans. I can’t return the rations, but just know the men of the Army of Northern Virginia thank ya’ll for your contribution.”

With a nod he left my cabin. I laughed to myself at the absurd situation. I had effectively been robbed of my possessions, save for my journal, and still treated to the Southern charms many in the North praised before the war broke out.

To my relief the train ride went without further hindrance as it rolled into the station in New Orleans. I had only read about the former French city in my studies and to be here was a lesson in why traveling the world trumped simply reading about it. The architecture was an eclectic mix of old world European and American contemporary design. The people, despite the wartime measures put into place around them, seemed surprisingly upbeat and tranquil as they went about their day.

Had it not been for the slave market I passed, the city might have presented itself as a new home for me. Perhaps the war would change all of that, but as it was I needed to find a steamer ship known as Mary Queen of Scots. Prior to my departure, the Librarian insisted he made the necessary arrangement with the only steamer that was willing to run to the Union blockade in the Gulf.

“You there!” A voice called out from among the crowd. “Are the man the Librarian sent?”

I looked frantically through the horde of pedestrians for the source of voice until I was startled by the grip of a hand on my shoulder. I turned to face the stranger and was met with the site of the man’s particularly hairy chest.

“Follow me.” He muttered and without another word turned heel and walked towards the docks which were situated no more than two hundred yards from the rail station. I could see the bellowing smoke stacks from the steamer and as we approached the unknown man stopped and held out his palms as if to request payment. Had it not been for his large physical presence I doubt I’d have paid him for the trouble of walking me a few hundred yards, but as he loomed over me I felt compelled to accommodate his request. After thoroughly jobbing me of coin, he tipped his cap and disappeared into the crowd. The formalities out the way, I proceeded onto the deck of the Mary Queen of Scots.

“Hello?” I called out onto the seemingly empty deck. “May I speak with the captain? I am to head to French Guiana aboard this very vessel.”

I ventured further into the ship and just when I thought that perhaps this was not the Mary Queen of Scots, and a voice called up from the cargo hold.

“Hold up!” The voice yelled up from the lower deck. “I’ll be up in a moment. Ya’ll needa take a seat. I’ll be right there. Just gotta get a few things done so we can get moving.”

After a few moments and much to my surprise a woman emerged from the cargo hold and not just a woman, but a woman of color. Considering my locale, I found this to be greatly peculiar.

“Welcome to the Mary Queen of Scots. I am Captain Abigail Jones, but you can call me captain, Abagail or Abby if’n you’d like.”

She took a moment to wipe her hands on a rag and take the sweat from her brow.

“You are the Librarian’s scribe?”

I nodded. “Yes, well cataloger, never mind…captain. I am.”

An awkward silence settled in as I stumbled over my words. Apparently the stale air between was obvious, as Captain Jones took a moment to point out the elephant in the room.

“Yes, I am a Negro woman who captains this ship. I’d tell you my daddy’s tale, but it is only misery. I came in possession of her in exchange for keeping my mouth shut and finding dear mercy for Papa Jones. We can talk more as we sail. The voyage ain’t a short one. If’n I like ya’ll I’ll tell you the whole tale.”

A skeleton crew of a perhaps a dozen or so sailors guided the ship from the city of New Orleans and into the clear waters of the gulf. I could see the Union blockade in the distance and I was certain that we’d be discovered. However, Captain Jones gave the order to raise the stars and stripes and another naval flag that I was unfamiliar with to pass us off as friend. I held my breath in biting anxiety as we passed between the two war ships and further into the open sea. I exhaled in relief and took measure in the fact that I was now on my way to finding the book.

“How long do we expect the voyage to take?” I asked Captain Jones who was passing control of the helm to another sailor.

She shrugged. “Normally a couple of weeks, but that depends on the weather. The islands can get a little rough, but we’re not headed out during any hurricane. Made sure of that before we lifted anchor.”

Suddenly, I found myself taking poignant notice of the captain’s female form. Her smooth coffee brown skin, hazel eyes and an appealing curvy form immediately drawing me in. In my duties of a cataloger the company of woman rarely occurred. There were woman who assisted the Librarian, but none were as striking as Captain Abigail Jones and I doubted very much any were as confident as she.

I knew I had to learn more about her.

“Tell me how you came about possessing the Mary Queen of Scots.” I asked hoping to strike up further conversation with her. I found myself in a boyish humor as I made every effort to be her company.

“Well, my daddy was on a plantation. From what I’ve been told he was a rabble-rouser of sorts. Always giving lip to the overseer, but never to the lady of the house. Well, one day he crossed the line with an Overseer named James Taddy.”

“What do you mean, crossed the line?” I asked intrigued to hear more and gain insight into her life.

“Daddy had received a lash or two at his hand. Eventually, he took to removing Overseer Taddy from his horse and beating him.” She held up her hands to cut me off from asking the obvious. “He ain’t killed him, but boy he came close.”

“So where do you come in? And the ship?”

“Well, the owner of the plantation, a Mr. Terry Gibbs always took fancy to me. I noticed and decided that would be my ticket out. I told him that if he let daddy walk then I would bed with him. He agreed.”

I pressed for more of the story. The more she spoke, the more I found myself became completely enthralled with her presence.

“One night, he takes me into New Orleans. Little did he know daddy had made a few friends in the city that sympathized with that Abolitionist movement. Mr. Gibbs, was cornered and offered my daddy a steamer in exchange for his life. Naturally, I went aboard when daddy took the wheel.”

“Such a remarkable story!” I exclaimed anxious to get back to my journal to document her tale, with each word I desired to enquire deeper into her past.

“Daddy began to ferry runaways from here to South America until he passed just a few years back. I inherited it and have been making the runs all the same. That feller you met in the square? He’s an old friend of my daddy’s. Sorry if was too rough for ya’ll.”

Part Two Tomorrow!

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