She found the book in the deep reaches of a forgotten shelf in the library that was tall and lined sky-high with tomes. It was dark-red-bound in leather, with gold letters flaking from its cover. From the ones that remained she could pick out, she saw:
L X CO V
She pulled it down. The weight of it caught her small frame off guard and they almost plummeted to the floor like a condemned sailor and his cannonball. She caught it though, in the nick, and stooped, buckling at the knees, and tipped it gingerly onto the floor.
It fell open; coughed up yellowed sheets. On her knees she paused. Her guardian forbade her to read books. But she was in the library and here it sprawled before her. Fitting a hand beneath the wedge of pages, she hauled it back to its first page and read from the beginning.
It began with a word, and the word was good enough. Intrigued, she read on.
That night, at dinner, at the high table, pushing her peas about the plate with her fork, she said softly – ‘Aardvark’.
‘What’s that?’ barked her guardian. ‘What did you say?’
He was a lofty man and wore his anger draped about him like a cape.
‘Nothing,’ she muttered.
The next day she snuck back into the library and read the second half of the book. It was a good ending. She worried that in the second third it began to drag a little, but the last 10 chapters really picked up and she found she had raced through to the end in no time. She read the last one just to check she’d got the meaning of it, then hoisted it back into its slot with the sense of a job well done.
That night at dinner (shuffling sweetcorn into the stick figure of a drowning man) she uttered a new word:
‘Hmm.’ He fixed her with a sour eye and placed two peas upon his prongs, sliding them into his mouth.
She finished her sweetcorn effigy and polished it off with a smile.
CRASH! Down came his veiny fist upon the table.
‘What did you just say to me young lady?’
He blinked. Puckered his lips in a grimace. ‘That was not,’ he growled lowly, ‘what I heard.’
‘Denizen,’ she said merrily, ‘deliberate. Doppelgänger.’
‘Cease this immediately!’
He let out a howl of rage and threw back his chair. ‘BE SILENT.’
She rattled on, swinging her legs. ‘Egregious. Efficacious. Egg.’
Stomp stomp stomp. He was descending on her with his storm cloud temper.
‘Ferocious, fickle, fallacious, fall…’
He had her by the scruff of the neck. He lifted her wholesale from the seat and hauled her across the room. The tips of her toes brushed the floor.
‘Gargantuan – grisly – hellbent – hilarious – irascible – iridescent -’
Thump thump thump. He was hoisting her up the stair. She hopped and stumbled from one step to the next.
‘jabber – kinetic – leviathan’
He had her on the landing. They were sweeping down the long dark corridor lined with doors. She was scuttling to keep up.
‘mermaid – miraculous – maleficent – nullify’
They came to the last, which was hers.
‘In,’ he barked, hurling open the door – but he had already thrown her half inside.
‘I haven’t told you all the chapters,’ she protested.
He was a black silhouette in the doorway. His voice was angry and haggard. ‘No. No more words. I will lock the library and you will not read the words again.’
The door was shut and the light sealed out.
But they’re already in my head, now, she thought triumphantly to herself – and then she thought what a marvellous word triumphantly was; and then she considered how satisfying was marvellous; then how fitting satisfying; then how compact was fitting; and on and on, into a tight pleasant coil in her head.
She lit the little lamp on her dressing table and went around tidying up her things and getting into her pajamas. She took a pencil out of the drawer and marked the edge of the dressing table with twenty six lines of less than half a centimetre, one for each chapter. Then, satisfied she would not forget, she switched off the light and climbed into bed. Burrowed under the covers, she reiterated with with silent glee the favourite of her words in each of the chapter.
‘Victory,’ she murmured, before dropping off to sleep. She would finish the story in the morning.