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Greater than Gold – A short story

by D.M. Pruden ©2018 all rights reserved

Xin scampered over the burned out vehicle and crouched from sight. The eastern, dull grey sky heralded sunrise in a few hours.

The teenaged boy looked up to the setting moon in the West and smiled. Clear skies for the first time in a month. He needed to hurry before the daylight made access impossible.

A furtive glance at the shadows of the ancient buildings above him revealed no watchers. Long ago they stopped concealing themselves. There was apparently no sport in killing people when they didn’t know they were tracked. Far more fun to take up a known position and make the hunt a challenge.

Tonight, it seemed, they did not patrol this sector. The predicted heavy rains overnight didn’t arrive, but the hunters had evidently committed to a different part of the old city in anticipation of them. It was a lucky break for him.

Cautiously, Xin made a final check of the glassless windows before sprinting the last hundred metres to his goal.

The library was his favourite scavenging place. Previous generations had pilfered its riches long before, leaving behind the empty husk standing before him.

His grandfather raised Xin on the tales of the world he grew up in. It didn’t seem possible that the life described by the old man could ever have existed. All the knowledge of humanity was supposedly at the tips of anyone’s fingers in those times, according to Grandfather.

Then, it ended.

He said the hubris of the world’s leaders killed the planet. At the time, Xin did not know the meaning of the word. Instead of telling him, the old man went to an old travel trunk, more ancient than he, and exhumed the most marvellous thing the young boy had ever seen.

“It is called a dictionary,” he said, placing it in the boy’s hands.

“Is it full of stories?” asked Xin, as he cautiously turned the fragile pages. “Will you read one to me?”

Grandfather chuckled, and shook his head. “This contains a more impressive thing than a story. This will give you access to far greater wealth.”

Xin’s young jaw fell open, and his eyes grew wide at the fantastic claim. “Show me!”

The old man pulled the six-year-old onto his knee and placed the book in the child’s lap. His withered old finger traced out the then strange markings. “These are the words we use, and these ones tell their meaning.”

Spellbound, the child drank in everything the old man told him. For the next three years they repeated the ritual every evening until Xin not only learned to decipher the writing, but memorized every word in the ancient dictionary.

Following those years, he nurtured the power his old grandfather bestowed upon him. In teaching the young boy to read, the old man passed on his greatest strength, and his terrible burden.

“When the war came,” he once explained, “we lost more than we realized at the time. Anything electronic became useless. The digital repository of human knowledge could no longer be accessed. What remained of civilization collapsed because the books had been supplanted by electric impulses contained in computer bits and bytes. The means to mankind’s greatest achievement also served as the root of its downfall. There was no way to recover everything lost as little of the original writing had been preserved. Of course, at the time, not too many people cared. Survival proved to be a greater concern.”

Eventually, people realized the problem, and books became more valuable than gold. Libraries were plundered and people fought over scraps of any printed material, for even the smallest fragment brought a good price at the market.

Xin looked up at the crumbling edifice with it’s broken, Greek inspired pillars. Grandfather taught him the parts, both present and missing. The plinth, the columns; even the hard to recognize remnants of the Corinthian capitals that now lay smashed, and blocking the entrance to the structure.

He climbed over the obstruction and crawled through the hole chiselled by others, long before he was born. Entering the dusty tomb, he waited in the darkness, excitedly anticipating what would soon come.

Gradually, dawn illuminated the interior through the ruins of the eastern windows. In its pillaged and decaying condition Xin thought the great library was the most beautiful place in the world. His imagination repaired the damage and repopulated the room with shelves full of books and patrons reading at long polished tables.

Finished with his ritual, he clambered over the collapsed staircase and made his way across the debris-strewn marble floor. Long ago cleaned out of its valuable treasure, many believed the library contained nothing of value. Xin, however, knew better.

Between Grandfather’s detailed descriptions and his own explorations, he learned every square metre of the old building.

His heart beat wildly as he approached the stairwell. After checking that he was alone, he pulled out his torch and wound the crank to charge the battery. It was a simple little device, but one he never would possess if not for his explorations in this place.

Because of his regular excursions to this temple, Xin knew how to build many things. He made a comfortable life for himself and his siblings from the trade of his marvellous inventions. Everything he constructed came from the information on overlooked pieces of paper he scrounged.
But the lure of scraps no longer drew him here. From Grandfather’s stories, he understood that greater, undiscovered treasures lay within the secret depths of the library — a treasure he said could rebuild the world. Xin couldn’t wait to explore his newest discovery. He only wished Grandfather still lived so he could share what awaited him.

For the better part of a year, he had laboured to clear an opening through the rubble at the base of the stairwell. He thought it led to a place once described by the old man. Shortly, he hoped to find out if he was right.
Reaching the bottom, he positioned his light and removed a well used hammer and chisel from his rucksack.

Assuming his position in front of a hole in the wall, he took a moment to request his grandfather’s blessing before he hammered away at the block of marble.

Two hours later, a heavy blow pushed through the blockage. Xin quickly put his nose to the opening and inhaled, to be rewarded by a happy childhood memory, the distinct odour of old books. He doubted many others were familiar with what Grandfather said was the smell of chocolate and coffee. Though not familiar with either, many hours were spent savouring the scent of the volumes the old man kept hidden in his trunk.

With refreshed vigour, he resumed working to widen the hole. His mind exploded with anticipation of the treasures that lay a few metres away.
Sweat dripped down his face as he tore away the last broken bits of rock with bleeding fingers. His shaking hand shone the light into the darkness, and Xin cried out at what it revealed.

Row after row of toppled bookshelves leaned against each other like fallen dominoes. Strewn books — actual books — lay open on the floor, their pages awaiting hungry eyes to feast at their offered banquet for the first time in generations.

As if fighting to be born, he wriggled and forced his way through the narrow gap. Inside, he stood and shone his light about the small room. Tattered posters their once, brightly coloured words now a faded smudge, greeted him beneath smiling faces.

Unsure of where to begin, he searched the abundance before him. Then his gaze fell upon an open book at his feet. He reached down and reverently picked it up, fearful that it would disintegrate at his touch. He gently blew away the dust that obscured the page containing a childlike drawing.

His finger traced the print below the illustration, and he mouthed their meaning in silence as he read them.

“See spot run. Run spot run!”

Xin smiled, thankful for his newfound wealth.

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