The morning sun shone through the Eastern windows of Mary’s boat. Its warmth stirred the dust of books, causing flickers of light and shadow in the glowing beams. It was early and cold, just as Mary liked it. She sighed and poured herself a cup of tea.
Outside along the Canalway, the early stirrings grew. Most of the activity came from nearby boats. Merchants and laborers were setting up their wares for the day. A baby’s wail, the shout of a woman at children. These were family boats, much more common along the western canal this month. By June, they would be clustered in the larger ports East and South of here.
As she sipped her morning tea, she scribbled a bit in her journal, taking stock of her progress. She needed more poetry. Mary had lent about two poetry books for every one returned. Mostly older mothers. Mary tried to remember if any might be turned. Small chance, but one must be on the lookout.
Her thoughts wandered to the time years ago when she was turned. Found herself, was the way she saw it. Librarian is a calling, not a job. In retrospect, it was the right choice. Life was often challenging, but it was her own, free of the yoke of a man.
In her wandering thoughts, she almost didn’t notice the footsteps at her entry. Light footsteps, likely those of a child. She heard them reach the entryway and pause.
“Welcome!” Mary called. “Let me know if I can help you with anything.” She couldn’t see the child, but she could see the shadows of their motion.
Mary’s desk was toward the back of the room, near her living area, so she couldn’t see who entered or left without standing. That was by design. Books and reading, even the ability to read, was not without stigma for many. Literacy was taught, even in the boatman schools, but its use was not always encouraged, particularly among wives. So easy books were shelved near the entry. Fairy tales, simple romances, a few classics. One could grab a book and leave, with no one to see the shame of it.
Books cannot be stolen, only borrowed. It would surprise folk how many were returned. Books are only stolen when they are burned.
The child remained at the entry. Mary could hear them pulling books off the shelf, putting them back. Mary wanted to rise and welcome the child, but prudence held her to her seat. Beginnings are delicate times, she thought, and instead finished her tea.
After several minutes, she saw the child walk into the corridor, holding a book. It was a boy, perhaps 11 or 12. Mary looked at him and smiled.
“Did you find something interesting?” she said. He looked at Mary, eyes wide.
“What can I trade for this?” he asked.
“No trading,” Mary said, “You can borrow it.”
“Borrow? You mean I can have it?”
“If you bring it back.” The boy looked crestfallen.
“My family will most likely move on tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll put it back.”
The boy’s accent was odd for a boater. More agrarian, like the Southlands. Mary wondered at his roots.
“So, you’re a boater?” Mary asked.
“My Gran and Granda are,” he said, “I live with them now. I was born in Penny.” Penny was the region south of the canal. Mostly the area that was once the Pennsylvania and New York boundary. That explained the accent.
“Can you read?” Mary asked.
“‘Course I can read,” he said. Mary smiled at the reply. The offense at her question, the pride of his answer.
“Did your grants teach you?”
“My Ma,” he said, “Before she died.”
Now that was odd. Most Pennies don’t hold to reading. Maybe his late mother was a boater who married a pennyman. Who could say?
“I’ll tell you what,” Mary said. “You can borrow that book as long as you like, as long as you borrow another one as well.”
“What other one?” he asked. He was leary again.
“This one,” Mary said, and she took a book from her desk. It was a worn copy of The Hobbit. She walked to him, handed the book. “Read them both before you come back.”
“Okay,” he said, “Thank you kindly.”
“Promise?” Mary asked. The boy’s eyes widened again. He took a deep breath.
“I promise,” he said. The adorable formality of it. Mary thought.
“Now, on your way,” Mary said. The boy didn’t need to be told twice. Mary returned to her desk. This is a good day. She thought. A good day indeed.