Up on the Roof by K.M. Herkes

Second PlaceEvery Friday, the girl on the roof planted snowmen. I watched her in silence every time she crept out the fire door and did her little ritual, and every Friday it bugged me more. Patrons aren’t allowed on the roof. The hulking HVAC units, the crunchy gravel, the slanted, begrimed skylights, and above all the wide parapets that made such perfect roosts—all those things belong to me and my sister and brothers.

That’s the Agreement. The Librarians guard the contents of the building, both the mundane and the secret, and we guard the outside. Four times a year the Administrators do their dances and chants to refresh our wards, and twice a year the Pages scrub us and the skylights, spread a new layer of tar on the gravel and change air filters. We watch over them all, and they go away when they’re done.

The roof is ours. Patrons stayed in the Down-below. Except for this one.

Every Friday this winter, this little girl had been showing up with her puffy red coat zipped up to her tiny nose and a cup full of ice cubes clutched in both hands. She would spend an hour sticking ice cubes into every snowdrift and whispering to them, and then she would creep away. She never once looked at us, the watching guardians. It was insulting, that’s what it was.

The kid was so sure those ice cubes would grow into snowmen, too. She talked to each one about what she wanted until they dripped in her fingers, but of course it never worked. She even knew the right words, but the magic wasn’t in them. She said please, and you can do it, and I believe in you as if they would make a difference, but power has nothing to do with faith or courtesy. Like all the other Patrons, she was nothing but blind ignorance wrapped up in wet flesh.

The ignorance didn’t bother me. The way she kept ignoring us did. We’re huge, all of us. We’re designed to look terrifying, but she just didn’t care. It bugged me.

This Friday she crept out the fire door onto the icy gravel just like always, and after a look around, she headed straight for the snow piled in the lee of the north parapet. That put her right under my great big nose, just like previous week and the one before that, and she still didn’t even look up.

It would make any gargoyle feel insecure. I couldn’t even impress a kid whose whole head would fit in one nostril? What was wrong with me?

I should’ve kept my mouth shut. Be silent is one of the big Rules, right up there with never let them see you move. We have a lot of rules. No one can follow all of them all the time, and there’s only so much rudeness a person can take. Besides, the kid broke the rules first. Patrons didn’t belong on the roof. She must’ve sneaked past two locked doors to get to the roof stairs, too, and children weren’t allowed to wander unsupervised. That made three rules she’d broken right there. Who knew what else she’d done?

So I opened my big mouth, figuratively speaking. <What’cha doin,’ kid?>

She shrieked, which was satisfying, and she ran all the way to the fire door. I laughed so hard. Those stubby, little legs almost blurred, she was moving so fast.

Then she stopped and turned around, slowly, with her little brown hands all tight-fisted and her lumpy brown face scrunched up in an expression any gargoyle would be proud to display.

“Rawrr,” she said, and marched right back to me. “Rawwrr.”

Right. In My Face.

She waved her hands over her head and did it again. “RAWWRRR!”

I admit, I was taken aback. I have big ears, so the yelling was actively painful.

She was missing three teeth on her lower jaw, and the remaining teeth didn’t look useful. I’d never noticed how pointless Patron teeth were. Not that I use mine for biting, but they’re nice and sharp. The Pages see to that, filing off mineral buildup from rainwater and polishing them smooth.

Maybe she was defective. That would let me off the hook for talking to her. I decided to risk satisfying my curiosity. <Is that supposed to frighten me, or are you incapable of forming words?>

She lowered her arms and closed her mouth, only to open it again immediately. “Ha! I knew it. You did talk. Your mouth doesn’t move, but you speak. You’re alive.”

I’m not, actually. I’m a construct. That’s an important technicality when it comes to things like souls and immortality and blah-blah-blah secrets of the universe stuff. Precision is important. I turned my thoughts to condensing those ideas into idiot-Patron vocabulary without revealing any secrets.

Something wonderful distracted me.

There was a smell, a scent so penetrating and rich that it stopped all thoughts except one: want. This scent was delight distilled; it was sweet and pungent, so thick with creamy tones and smooth notes that my nose went into spasms trying to catch them all.

I did mention the nose, didn’t I? It’s big. There’s a reason. I’m a not simply a grotesque, not a mere stony ornament. I’m a gargoyle, and gargoyles are designed to channel things in through their bodies and out through their noses and mouths.

Traditional gargoyles channel water off roofs. That’s why they face outward. Library gargoyles? We channel magic. We’re designed to capture the universal forces drawn to stored knowledge. We catch it and safely direct it all down into the building where it can be tapped, stored, or eliminated as the Librarians choose.

The work is done by big wings, broad backs and bellies, yawning cavernous mouths, and huge noses—and our noses are sensitive, too. How else could we sense evil trying to thread its way into the guarded places? Forget sampling parts per million. I can detect the odor of one fallen demon among the infinite crowd of angels in an air molecule. We’re all about the sniffers.

I had never smelled anything like this in my life.

<What is that?> I demanded. <What is that smell?>

The kid jumped back, tripped and bounced her butt on the gravel. That defective mouth of hers gaped open again, and her eyes filled up with water. I braced myself to be deafened. The screams from Patron families dragging kids out the front door Down-below always hurt my ears, and this little creature was a lot closer.

She sat and made sniffly noises. No screams. I tried again.

<You smell delicious. What smells so delicious?>

“I don’t know. Are you going to eat me?”

The idiocy of Patrons never ceases to amaze me. The Library histories are full of their incredible feats of intellect, but most of them are as thick as bricks.

<Don’t be absurd. I’m made of stone. How could I eat anything? Please come back so I can smell you better. You smell wonderful, and I want more.>

The kid got up and came closer. The smell came with her. When she wrapped both her hands around my upper tusks where they curved over my lip, the heady, powerful scent grew so thick that I thought I might pass out from it.

<So sweet. So tangy. So perfect. Can you stay there forever?>

She climbed higher, onto my front paws, and tugged my ear. “I don’t think so. Uncle Hector would miss me. Mom and Dad, too. What does absurd mean? Is it worse than stupid? Uncle Hector’s assistant calls me stupid all the time.”

Most of that went in one ear and out the other. Despite the vast knowledge the Library gives me, my area of expertise is pretty limited. I’ve never left the same rooftop where I was brought to life seventeen years ago. I know Patrons have complicated hierarchies and relationships inside and outside the Library, of course, but assigning meaning to facts is difficult without a frame of reference.

The name Hector had meaning. <You know the Head Librarian?>

“Is he head of something? He has the tiniest office. Mom has to work late on Fridays in her new job, and I can’t walk home alone because it’s too dangerous, so I come here until Uncle Hector can take me home. He brings groceries and stays for supper.”

That explained how the kid got here. If she was under the Head Librarian’s protection, no door in the building would be locked to her, and his office was above the wards that made Patrons ignore the floors filled with curiosities and books in dead languages. His office would look like an archivist’s cubby. All the Librarians have mundane job titles as well as supernatural duties. Patrons don’t do well with magic past a certain age, not even family members.

This kid obviously hadn’t reached that age. She was climbing all over me now, poking at my decorations and brushing snow off my eyebrows, perfectly comfortable with a talking statue. It felt delightful. Spring equinox cleaning was a long way off, and grimy city air always gets into crevices. I decided to add to my Patron experience base while my neck fringe was being scratched. Relationships were hard things to work out. <Do you love your uncle?>

“Of course I do. Don’t you love your family? Aren’t those your family?”

A little hand waved in my peripheral vision. I decided that if I was going to ask questions, it was only fair to answer some.

<Those are my brothers and sisters, but gargoyles don’t do love and families. We have audacities.>

“That’s a funny word.” She hopped down to duck in front of me. “Do you have names? Do the others talk too? Why are you here?”

<I’m Grawlix. My sister Nittle is facing us, and my brothers Agitron and Briffit are on the left and right walls. They sleep more than me.>

They sleep almost all the time, honestly. Our cornerstone was only laid twenty years ago, and it takes a lot of time for a construct to build up enough residual magic to awaken without a Librarian’s help.

<We collect magic from moonbeams and starlight at night and pour it into the Library.>

We also guard against the demons who lurk in darkness and storms, and we assist the Librarians in repelling attacks against the minor works of Power stored here. I didn’t mention that. Kids don’t need to know everything. I’d been awake ever since this one started puttering around on the roof, but she didn’t need to know that I’d initially thought she was a threat.

“Gathering starlight sounds pretty,” she said. “I’m Krissy Pollux. Nice-to-meet-you-Grawlix.”

I couldn’t see her now with my nose in the way, but something bumped heavily against my tongue, and then I had the strangest sensation.

<Are you inside me? I thought you were afraid I’d eat you.>

Krissy’s voice echoed. “You said you wouldn’t. How odd you are! Hollow like a cave, and warm. May I eat my snack in here? It’s nicer than the corner of the top floor where I usually go to hide from Barton.”

The kid was sitting in my belly with her feet on my lips. It had to look undignified, but oh, heavens, who could care while that happy smell permeated my body?

<I like you there. Why do you hide from Hector’s assistant? Patrons aren’t usually allowed on the roof, you know, and children are supposed to stay with adults.>

“I’m not a child. I’m almost six. And Barton is a snotty snotball.”

Wet smacking noises punctuated her words, and the glorious scent intensified a million times. Its sweetness gained deeper, richer tones, some earthy, some astringent, and I belatedly realized something. The smell was the kid’s snack, not her.

<What are you eating? Where did you get it?>

“It’s a banana. Oh, I’m so sorry.” She squirmed a bit, which tickled. “Are you hungry? I should’ve split it in half.”

Banana. Associations fell into place. Chemistry. Botany. Horticulture. Shapes and sizes, nutritional profiles, growing conditions, shelf life and pricing—I tore my attention away from the data flow. Nothing in it hinted at the incredible wonder of the smell, not even descriptions of aromatic molecules like crystalline spindles. Nothing could substitute for the experience.

Krissy said, “I’ve eaten most of it, but you should have the rest. You said you wouldn’t eat me, so I –I’m sorry. Being hungry is awful.”

If gargoyles had hearts, mine would’ve melted, right then and there.

<Don’t be sorry. I don’t eat anything. Not little girls, not bananas. If I did eat food, I think I would only eat bananas forever. Where did you get it?>

“Uncle Hector. He gave it to me. I didn’t steal it.”

Of course the kid hadn’t stolen it. Hector was the Library Administrator. A thief couldn’t take dust from this building without his knowledge. Where she’d gotten it wasn’t important. I was more interested in why no one ever brought us one before now, and most of all, how soon I could get more.

Those weren’t questions Krissy could answer, but she could keep helping me understand Patrons better.

<Why don’t you stay in your Uncle’s office?>

“He’s always busy, and Barton is mean whenever he isn’t looking. He says I’m a stupid little ape, and every time he loses things, he says I stole them. I like the stacks better, and the pictures in the books. And it’s pretty out here on the roof, only I get cold and lonely.”

<Is that why you make snowmen? To keep you company?>

“No, I want to make them dance because Uncle Hector wouldn’t do it this winter for me. He says I’m too old now and should start forgetting about them soon. I don’t want to forget. I want to make my own and prove that Barton’s wrong and I’m not stupid.”

The last few words came out so loud they made my ears ache. A limp, yellowish-brown thing landed with a splat on the roof nearby. Sweet rapture trailed along behind it, which meant it was the remains of the banana. I forgave the littering, just that once.

Gritty boots pressed against my teeth. Krissy said, “You never told me what absurd means,” she said.

That was true. I’d forgotten already.

<Absurd means deserving of derision or mockery. See also ridiculous, silly or frivolous.>

“So it is like stupid.” She kicked my left lower tusk. “I guess I’m all those things. I’m stupid, and silly, and ridiculous.”

Kick, kick, kick, kick. Every syllable.

<Ow. If you keep doing that, I will call someone to take you away.>

Silence. Snuffling. “Go ahead. I don’t like it here any more. I hate being too stupid to do magic.”

<Who told you magic was about brains? That’s absurd too. Magic is about spirit. You can’t do magic because you’re a Patron, that’s all. It’s how life works.>

Krissy kicked my other tusk, gently. “I don’t want to be a Patron if it means forgetting magic. I don’t want that. I want to make dancing snowmen, and learn to read books, and grow up and work in the library so I can come at night to watch you collect starlight.”

Her breath hitched, and her voice got very small, at the end.

I’m a gargoyle, not a monster. I may be made of stone, but let me tell you, there’s no force on heaven or earth as powerful as the cry of a heartbroken child. It could move mountains. It moved me, that’s for sure. She’d shared banana with me. How could I send her away in tears?

Short answer: I couldn’t.

She might only be a Patron, but when I thought about it, there were no Rules against Patrons doing magic. If one could do magic, one became a Page and then a Librarian. Patrons couldn’t, and that was that. One did not become the other. That didn’t mean it was impossible. Only one thing in the universe was Unchanging, and it surely wasn’t a mortal’s state of being.

No matter what happened next, my siblings and I were going to get a good few decades of debate over the existence of this epistemological loophole.

Meanwhile, I had an unhappy kid to console.

<Stop sniveling. Please remove yourself and stand where I can see you.>

Hiccupping and scuffling led to crunching across gravel. Krissy picked up the banana carcass along the way and put it in her pocket, and my heart got all mushy inside, seeing that. A Patron who picked up after herself. Miracles did happen. She wiped at her eyes and frowned up at me. “I didn’t mean to upset you, Grawlix. I’ll come to visit until I forget, I promise. And I’ll bring you your own banana, next time.”

<I might be able to help. Even if I can’t, you can visit any time, with or without bananas.> Although she wouldn’t. Patrons stopped playing, when they reached a certain age, or so the research on file indicated. <Today, if you’re willing to listen hard and do exactly what I tell you, we might be able to make snowmen dance together.>

That would make a nice beginning, I thought, and Krissy showed all her defective little teeth at me in a big grin. “Really, truly?”

<Really, truly. Is that a yes? You’ll do exactly what I tell you?>

“If it means I get magic, yes! You can give that to me? Will it hurt?”

<I don’t know. I need to make a call first.>

Gargoyles channel power. We don’t control it, and we don’t direct it. Librarians do, and Administrators of course. What I wanted to do, though—this was out of their league too. None of us on the lower planes handle States of Being. This kind of philosophical paradigm shift would take the work of a Higher Power.

So, I called on the Powers. It’s another thing gargoyles can do.

All the records indicated that there would be a wait to get an issue like this into the queue for resolution. I was prepared for a delay involving explanations, consultations, passing to other Powers for discussion, and then lots and lots of specific instructions about prayers, drawings, and rituals. Sometimes there was singing. I expected to receive a lecture and a liturgy and maybe a hymnal.

I was wrong. Someone Up There must’ve already had an eye or six hundred on little Krissy, because no sooner did I pass along my request than an answer came back. A shaft of white light lanced down from the sky and struck the kid like a bolt of lightning.

If I’d known she was going to scream, I never would’ve made my offer to her, because the kid had a set of lungs on her fit to call down Judgment Day. At least she only had time to scream once. One long shriek, and it was done.

She sat down on the gravel and sat there blinking. The sky felt dark without the light of Heaven coming down. My ears rang with the sound of more than Krissy’s screams. The music of the sphere went silent again, and I strained to catch the last echoes.

Krissy jumped up and squeaked and started dancing around like a tiny little dervish. “I’m full of ants!” she yelled. “Ants, and rainbows, and baby camels, and a narwhal, and so many other nice things are filling me up, and oh—” She stopped dead and said in the tiniest voice ever, “Oh, but some of this doesn’t feel good at all.”

<Having magic won’t only be about playing with the pretty parts of the universe, or the nice ones. It’s about the dark and the painful and the dying, too.> I felt sorry for her, in that moment, I did. But not too sorry. <Do you want to make dancing snowmen now?>

“Yes!” She walked over to her line of ice cubes and poked at them. “I have all these bubbles inside now, but I still don’t understand what I did wrong. I said all the words Uncle Hector did.”

<You did everything wrong, and nothing. You couldn’t tap into the energy of Creation until now. Say the same words you were whispering earlier. You’ll see the difference.>

She picked up an ice cube and told it that she would love it to become a snowman please, and she laughed like a ringing bell when snow spun up in a cloud that condensed into a lumpy, bumpy white mannequin around the symbol of her heart’s desire.

I might’ve added a little power boost. A tiny, tiny bit. Just to be sure it worked, her first time. The snowman bumbled over to her and hugged her finger, and she said, “Go and play, now, and I’ll make you some friends.”

By the time Hector arrived, barely a minute later, Krissy had a whole parade marching around the roof, up and over my paws and down again, and the commotion in the aether was beginning to wake my siblings.

The Administrator watched from the fire door. He wore a Patron suit, not his official robes, and he had on one of those expressions that might make more sense to me when I have more experience. His mouth was open, which could be surprise or fear or anger, and his eyebrows were moving up and down too, which made the rest hard to interpret. He has extremely bushy white eyebrows.

I had no doubt he’d heard the noise of Krissy’s baptism in power, but he didn’t approach her. After a long interval of silence broken only by Krissy’s laughter and ridiculous instruction for the snowmen, he looked right at me and frowned.

There was no fooling a Librarian.

<Hello, Administrator.>

Now he definitely looked surprised. He came over and peered closely into my right eye. Snowmen danced a jig over his feet, and Krissy said, “Hi, Uncle Hector. I’m sorry I yelled, I know I’m s’posed to be quiet in the library, but look! I made my own this time!”

“I see that, honey,” Hector said. “And I’m not mad about the scream, as long as you’re safe. Those are excellent snowmen. Why don’t you let them have a snowball fight?”

She squealed, painfully high-pitched, and started lining up sides for an epic battle. Once she was distracted, the Administrator put a hand on my nose and leaned in. “Hello, Grawlix,” he said. “No one expected this for another few decades. I would’ve kept a closer eye on Krissy if I’d known. I apologize for the disturbance.”

<I’m not disturbed.> I had to presume that the unexpected this referred to my alertness. <This is a powerful Library, and you manage its collections with great skill. It’s no surprise that we’re coming into sentience on the early side.>

“Not surprising? I might dispute that, but it’s never wise to argue with a gargoyle.” Hector regarded his niece for several moments before sighing. “Those damned snowmen. I knew it was a mistake, but she has such a happy laugh. Do stop powering them, Grawlix. I’m sure you mean it for a kindness, but she has to adjust and grow up. It’s hard on us, letting our Patron relatives go, but it’s for the best.”

<About that…you’re going to have to put her in Page training now.>

“What?”

Once I explained, he looked at Krissy again, and then at me, then at her. “Well, now. This should be interesting.”

That was a singularly uninformative statement.

<Could you clarify, please?>

He laughed, and it was Krissy’s laugh, only softer and deeper. “I could try, but I won’t. You’ll understand eventually.”

I wanted to understand now.

<Is this one of those experience gaps?>

“In part. You’ve done something amazing today—so amazing I can’t begin to predict all the repercussions. Frankly, I don’t care about any of them. Thank you, Grawlix. You’ve given me a precious gift, and I don’t know how to express my gratitude.”

That was the opening I needed.

<Do you know about bananas?>


K. M. Herkes has been creating imaginary worlds since childhood, and a few interesting things have happened since then. Professional development included classroom teaching, animal training, aquaculture, horticulture, retail operations, and customer service. Personal development is ongoing. Cats and daydreaming are involved.
She works in a library, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds, and when the weather is fine, she can often be found puttering in her garden. When the weather is awful, she wanders around Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the Internet instead. For research purposes, of course.

 

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