This is a story singed on the beams of an old library by the flames of scholars’ candles…
A boy sat cross-legged at the front of the crowd in the Old Chapel, the one with the cheeky lop-sided grin.
‘Can you tell us more about the Boy of Hope and Stars from last week?’
‘What for?’ the rich man’s servant interrupted. ‘He never came to anything.’ The Lord-by-the-Sea gave him one nod of approval.
Halfway down the stairs from the garret, The Pilgrim Woman paused and looked at the villagers. ‘What do you all want – shall I continue?’
Shuffling and arguments followed. The largest group moved behind the boy, then the sunset streaked room quietened.
The Pilgrim Woman lit the candles and began her tale of what happened after that night on the Downs. The grumblers shifted closer to the Lord-by-the-Sea, but listened anyway.
The boy woke with dew on his clothes, a mess of tousled hair and hope still in his heart. He brushed off the sparkling drops and made ready to leave. But which way should he go?
He climbed the tallest of the three mounds. On its summit, he turned all the way round looking at every landmark as if to ask are you where my fortune lies?
The city with its copper roofs and weathervanes caught his eye. A river ran past its old walls and led to the sea. Surely this was a place where could find out about the world? He picked up his sack and his stick and all but ran to the city below.
Now he was a strong and a willing lad – and soon he found work on the markets. He would fetch and carry heavy crates and panniers. He would dig up roots: carrots, parsnips and the Swedish turnip. His efforts broke up the clinging soil of the market gardens and he became a welcome incomer to the city.
The money earned bought him a place to live and food to eat. But it wasn’t enough. The people from other lands that came to trade fascinated him. Their bright and bold clothes. How they used the language he knew in rich and unfamiliar ways. How they looked at things aslant and made him to think.
Yet how could he visit the wide world? He was too poor to travel. And besides, how could he find the questions to ask, never mind understanding the answers?
It was no good listening to many of the folk on the market. All he heard was the barking of wares, tired old jokes passed around like jugs of beer, and sometimes the stench of hatred. He paid as much attention to these as cabbage leaves kicked under the market stalls.
On half-day closing afternoons, the boy had taken to exploring the city. He wandered through the little squares and twitterns – the narrow alleys that criss-crossed inside the city walls. One drizzly day, he found an old building with its door wedged open invitingly. ‘Come in, come in!’ he read on a friendly sign. The rain fell cold and unstinting – why not?
He crossed the empty hall and halted on the threshold of a large room. Floor to ceiling books inhabited its shelves. He had never seen so many – crammed like pigeons in their roosts. His whole village could only must a dozen all told. Yet here were wonders – atlases, guides, tales from every land.
Such riches left unguarded. He tiptoed round, at first pulling out books with one careful finger. So many wonderful illustrations. Were the Alps as pointed as all that? Did pangolins truly roll themselves into balls – and why? His collection went from one neat pile to stacks. Oh to have them all.
He considered his long coat. How many could slip inside and protect from the rain?
‘You don’t have to steal them, you know,’ a pleasant voice said. ‘You can borrow them, you see.’
The boy almost dropped the books. A woman came down a ladder in a shadowed corner.
‘It’s a library,’ she said. ‘You take up to seven out for a fortnight – and then bring them back. Then you can have some more.’
The boy gaped and blinked. He looked at the rich bindings and the vast choice, the books still clutched to his chest.
‘But what does it all cost? I am a poor errand boy and digger of roots.’
The librarian smiled.
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing but clean hands and a willing mind.’
And so it was that the Boy of Hope and Stars began to travel the world over – in his little attic room in the cheapest quarter of the city.
Photo credit: Candle by Jared Zammit CC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/