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The Smell of Knowledge


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It was a beautiful spring evening, the sort of evening where everything was still bright and comfortably warm at Seven PM. Most people were taking advantage of the weather by eating outdoors, or maybe having romantic interludes. Dana Logan, by contrast, had very different plans.

“Hello, Miss Logan,” Ms. Block, the head librarian, said with a smile as Dana carefully closed the door behind her, “Still researching that paper?”

Dana nodded. “I figured now was the best time, since everyone’s outside. There’s less chance of me being disturbed that way.”

Ms. Block chuckled and handed over the key to the RBR. “Well, I appreciate your patronage. How long do you think you’ll be?”

“I don’t know. I’m so close to getting everything I need. I may be burning the midnight oil.”

“Just try not to overdo it,” Ms. Block said kindly, “I’ll be locking up at ten. If you really do stay until midnight or later, just remember to lock up the RBR and leave the key in my desk.”

“I always do,” Dana said with a grateful smile, “Have a good evening, Ms. Block.”

Adjusting her bag on her shoulder, Dana made her way upstairs to a faded but still beautiful door, the words “Rare Books Room” glinting off the gold plaque on the door. Unlocking it easily, Dana slipped inside and turned on the light, taking a moment, as always, to admire her surroundings. She’d always worked best in places that were quiet, cozy, and projected an air of seriousness. And this particular room, full of first editions and books few people even knew existed, practically exuded reverence from every pore. It was perfect; having the books Dana needed for her research was just the icing on the cake.

Sighing in satisfaction, Dana placed her bag on the table and pulled out her notebooks. Then she picked up the list of books she’d need and went around the room, squinting at the titles and pulling out the ones she needed. Ancient history texts, collections of letters, poetry by obscure writers…buried in this varied mass were the facts Dana was looking for. She had almost enough to make a compelling argument, and if she gathered enough tonight, she’d be able to start writing up her paper.

Pulling out the last book, a copy of Dio Cassius’ Roman History, Dana returned to the table, arranged the books as chronologically as she could, then picked up the first book and began to read, unaware of the disturbance she’d caused in the bookshelf…

Ila had been sleeping contentedly in her favorite spot when a series of vibrations rudely jolted her awake and knocked her blanket off her body. Before she could fully process what had happened, a beam of light struck her in the face, nearly blinding her and forcing her to stagger backwards into the shadows to compose herself. Cursing angrily, she tugged at her clothes and smoothed her wings until her eyes adjusted to the light. Then she carefully made her way forward and peered through the newly formed gap, wanting to know who had disturbed her.

What she saw was a human female with auburn hair and glasses, bent over a book, a pen hovering over a notebook. As Ila watched, the woman gave a quiet “Yes!”, then turned to scribble furiously in her notebook. Ila rolled her eyes and pulled her head out of sight. As a Knowledge Fairy, she appreciated those who also desired to learn and better themselves, but humans were always so…boisterous about it. Very few people came to this room, but those who did were always the same, excitedly talking to themselves and eagerly copying down the information. Where was the quiet contentment that came from absorbing something new? Ila wondered, not for the first time, if the Nature Fairies had similar complaints about those who visited their domains.

Ordinarily, Ila would have left the human be and found another place to sleep, or perhaps done some reading of her own in the corner farthest from the intruder. But up till now, she’d merely been disturbed by the noises of the humans, not by someone actively disturbing where she slept. In fact…Ila crept forward and grabbed her blanket to take a closer look at it. Sure enough, the grey ball of dust that had served her well for six months now had a visible hole in it, either from the rush of air or from being caught on a corner of the book the human took. It wasn’t large enough to ruin the blanket completely, but it made Ila even more unwilling to let this infraction stand. The only question was, how would she go about it?

She peered back out at the human, contemplating her options. Flying out to give the human what for was obviously out of the question. Her friend Wigburg swore by creeping around, playing with the lights and knocking books off the shelves to make the place seem haunted, but that could lead to unwanted attention (Wigburg always had been a risk-taker). No, the best thing Ila could think of was to make things difficult for the human, perhaps in such a way that it would discourage her from coming back. But how…ah.

As Ila had been contemplating all this, the human had picked up another book, then made a face and looked down at her hand. Grabbing a white cloth from the box near her elbow, she wiped at her hand before sniffing loudly. “You’re a particularly dusty one, aren’t you?” she said, running the cloth over the spine of the book before crumpling it up and pushing it to the far end of the table, “Hopefully that’ll take care of the worst of it.”

Of the many things Ila didn’t understand about humans, their response to dust was probably one of the most baffling. While Ila and the other fairies regarded it as a useful item, something to use as blankets and carpets, humans seemed to regard it as a nusiance. At the annual gatherings, Ila had heard stories of humans who came in with the sole purpose of getting rid of the dust, thus leaving the faries to tread very carefully until the dust gathered again. She was fortunate not to have to deal with that too regularly, but she had personal experience with the other major complaint; the sneezing. While she would estimate that only a hundred humans visited her sanctuary every year, every single one of those humans would inevitably wind up sneezing, which was always far more annoying than their moving around or speaking. Some of them did their best to be quiet, but most of them sneezed with such force that Ila would swear the sound would echo and the shelves would rattle. And then, like clockwork, they would say something that suggested the dust was to blame.

Try as she might, Ila never understood the reasoning behind that. From her studies and talking to others, it seemed like sneezing was caused by either strong smells, something that tickled the inside of the nose, or something called germs. She’d determined that dust wasn’t a germ, and though she had once deliberately run her most recent blanket under her nose out of curiosity, all it had done was pleasantly brush against her face. As for the scent, Ila refused to believe it was too strong or unpleasant for humans to handle. It either had no scent at all or, when found on or in books, was a wonderful mix of wood, paper, and leather. Sometimes Ila would take a minute after opening a book to just stand there and inhale the scent, energizing her for the learning she was about to do. In fact, she’d heard some humans say they enjoyed the scent of an old library. So how could the dust, the cause of that scent, possibly make them sneeze?

No matter. It was simply a fact of life, and now, it was a fact that Ila could use to her advantage. By now, the human was reading the book she’d cleaned, occasionally sniffing and rubbing at her nose. Ila watched her, contemplating the possibilities, and then, in a flash of brilliance, made up her mind.

Dana flipped through the books eagerly, jotting down notes, underlining or making stars by the facts that she thought would be most relevant. Things were going even better than she’d expected. If she kept this up, she might have everything she needed before the library officially closed. Then she’d be able to go home and get in a few hours of proper writing before going to bed.

Setting Juvenal’s Satires aside, she grabbed the next book, the Punica, and flipped to the introduction, hoping whoever had written it would provide her with something else to go on. As she did so, her nose prickled again, and she quickly grabbed for a tissue, rubbing at her nose until the itch went away. While she wasn’t allergic to dust (something she was grateful for, given her line of work), directly inhaling it irritated her nose, and after about an hour, it would get to her enough that she’d make her way to the bathroom to sneeze it all out and get some fresh air. She tried not to sneeze in the RBR itself if she could help it; even if she covered her nose and mouth with a tissue, she didn’t want to risk damaging the books. Some people might call her paranoid, but she’d heard the horror story of the undergrad who had sneezed on a copy of The Canterbury Tales and rendered half a sentence illegible, and wasn’t about to make the same mistake, urban legend or not.

Setting aside the tissue, Dana started reading, rapidly forgetting about the outside world again as she spotted something that would help her prove her point nicely, assuming she could corroborate the evidence. She glanced down at her notebook to make sure she was writing on a fresh line, but otherwise remained engrossed. She was in the zone now, and only a really loud noise or natural disaster would deter her.

At least, that’s what she’d thought. Midway through the introduction, she felt her eyes growing heavy, even though she’d seen something of particular interest. Dana pinched her arm, hoping that would jolt her awake, but it only made her arm ache. Resigning herself, she pushed her research materials away from her and rested her head on the table. If her body was telling her to rest, she’d rest. Hopefully closing her eyes for a few minutes would be satisfactory…

Ila nodded as the human finally succumbed to the sleeping spell she’d cast. She had to admit, this one was tenacious; most humans either reacted to the spell immediately, or fell asleep in here of their own accord. The fact that this woman had fought against it suggested that she really was here to learn. If she hadn’t disturbed Ila’s sleep and ruined her blanket, Ila might have just lifted the spell and left the human to her own devices. As it was, Ila was determined to see this through.

Emerging from her hiding place in the shelves, Ila flew over to the human, taking a good look at her face, the nose in particular. She had no idea how big the human’s nose was in comparison to other humans, but it seemed to be proportionally the size of Ila’s, which Ila would describe as “average”. It did, however, have larger nostrils than Ila’s did, which would be perfect for Ila’s purposes. Nodding, Ila flew away from the table and over to the far right corner of the room, where most of the books were barely touched. This was the best place for Ila to gather dust to make a new blanket, although she had slightly different intentions this time around. Running her hands down one of the books and scooping up all the dust she could from the fore edge, she pushed it into a ball for carrying purposes and then flew back to the human, landing directly on the human’s nose. Once she assured herself that the sleeping spell was holding, she set to work.

Step one was to pull strips of dust from her ball and press them all around the edge of the human’s nose, patting them down to remain in place and making sure some of it stuck to the inside, where it would presumably tickle and produce a sneeze. She kept at this until the human’s nostrils were visibly ringed with grey and starting to twitch a little from all the irritation. Satisfied, Ila climbed back onto the top of the nose and moved on to step two. Kneeling down on the nose, Ila started to poke it, wiggling her fingertips back and forth to encourage further tickling. When the nose shuddered underneath her and she saw the human’s eyes screw up a little before relaxing once more, she knew it was time to move on to the final phase.

Sliding off the human’s nose, she placed her palm dead center on the tip of the nose and cast another spell. She normally used this spell to levitate books and pages, but in this case, her target was the hairs she’d spotted inside the human’s nose. The spell would make the hairs lift up and wave around, no doubt irritating the human further. As she finished the spell, silver dust emerged from her palm and started to trickle into both sides of the human’s nose, while Ila beat her wings lightly to encourage the dust to fill every inch of the nose. And if it sent more dust inside as well, so much the better.

Ila hadn’t been sure when exactly to stop, but when the human gasped, nearly knocking her over with the force, she figured it would be wise to retreat. Removing her hand, she kicked off from the table and returned to her favorite place. Then she lifted her sleeping spell and sat down to watch the show.

The first thing Dana registered, even before she’d fully floated back to consciousness, was that her nose was unbearably itchy. It felt like someone was rubbing a fur blanket inside both sides of her nose, a sensation that would have been pleasant in other circumstances but was growing more and more uncomfortable with each passing second. As her body took an involuntary breath, she woke up enough to remember where she was, and her eyes snapped open immediately as she grabbed for her tissue. Mercifully, her breath hitched again, which gave her enough time to press the tissue to her face and hopefully muffle the sound of the sneeze.


Or maybe not. Despite her best efforts, the itch in her nose had a mind of its own, and clearly wanted to be removed as quickly as possible. Grateful that there was no one else in the room with her and that the closed door would hopefully muffle the sound to the rest of the library, Dana braced herself, because she could feel another sneeze coming.

HEH-CHSHHH!” The itch abated slightly, which Dana took advantage of to rub at her nose with the tissue, hoping to ease the itch that way. As she removed the tissue from her nose, she was astounded by how much grey was on it. Just how much dust was on this table? She’d have to let Mrs. Block know that some cleaning was in order if future visitors didn’t want to have the same problem she had.

As she was pondering this and reaching for a fresh tissue, she sniffed to keep her nose from running. Immediately, the itch roared back to life, and Dana had to throw her elbow across her face in order to catch the sneeze—or rather, the sneezes—in time.

Hitchh! Chff! Chff! Kpshh!

Each sneeze did seem to help a little, but the tickle was still there, and it didn’t look like it would be going away until all the dust was out of her system. Groaning (and sneezing), Dana got to her feet and stumbled towards the door, deciding to finish this fit in the bathroom. The air was fresher there, and she could use the paper towels instead of her limited supply of tissues. Besides, given how much her nose was tickling, there was no telling what sort of collateral damage she could do in here.

Ila watched the human stagger out the door, laughing uproariously. It looked like her efforts hadn’t been in vain. Yes, the human’s things were still there, but she was obviously more focused on the itch in her nose at present. Once it subsided, she’d no doubt decide to call an end to her studies, for fear of it happening again. And if she didn’t, then Ila would just repeat the process until the human finally learned her lesson.

Ten minutes later, the human returned, her nose bright pink and her eyes obviously wet, something that was visible despite the glasses. She hesitated in the doorway, took a tentative breath, then immediately pinched her nose. “Knnkt!

Ila covered her mouth to muffle her laughter; the human may have been distracted, but that didn’t mean Ila wanted to call attention to herself. Fortunately, the human didn’t seem to have noticed, instead shaking her head. “Looks like I’ll be having an earlier night than anticipated,” she said quietly, “Though I guess that means I can start incorporating this new stuff into my paper.”

She approached the table and began gathering up her material, tucking some of them into her bag and then picking up the various books and returning them to their proper places. Ila was amused to see that the human held the books as far away from her face as possible, kept the bookcases at a literal arm’s length, and appeared to be holding her breath each time she reached out to put a book away. The lesson really had sunk in.

Finally, the human moved over to where Ila was hiding to put away the last book, and Ila slunk out of sight, watching as the shelf was returned to dimness once more. Peering over the tops of the books, she watched as the human disappeared from sight, then passed by the bookshelf one last time. Once she heard the door open and close, she pumped her fist in triumph. That should give her some peace and quiet until evening. Granted, she was too wound up from everything that had happened to go back to sleep, but it was the principle of the thing.

“Leaving already, Miss Logan?” Mrs. Block said with some surprise as Dana handed over the RBR key, “You were only there for an hour!”

“I ran into a snag,” Dana said, figuring Mrs. Block didn’t need to know the details, “But I think I got a fair amount of work done, so it was still pretty productive.”

“Very good. Will I be seeing you tomorrow?”

“Probably,” Dana said with a chuckle, “There’s one book in particular that’s still worth going through.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow evening, then.”

“Right. Oh, and by the way, you might want to ask the janitor to give the tables and chairs in the RBR a good wipe down. They’re getting really dusty.”

“He does tend to be a bit lax in there,” Mrs. Block sighed, “I may have emphasized the care to not overdo it with the cleaning products a little too much. But I’ll let him know, and if he doesn’t take care of the problem tonight, I’ll do it myself tomorrow afternoon. Either way, you shouldn’t have a problem when you come back in the evening.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Block. I’ll see you then!”

With that, Dana left the library, taking a breath of truly fresh air. As much as she loved the smell of libraries and old books, she had to admit that smelling the open air afterwards was invigorating in a different but no less pleasant way. Starting the walk back to her apartment, Dana brushed at her clothes and bag, hoping to get rid of any lingering dust. She also hoped that whoever wound up cleaning the RBR wouldn’t run into the same difficulties she had; sneezing fits like that weren’t fun for anybody.

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Thanks! I currently don't have any plans in mind for a sequel, but perhaps inspiration will strike at some point. Probably when I least expect it, too.

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This was a really cute story! I really like how much detail went into it, I think you managed to hit a pretty perfect balance. Relatedly I love how there's basically an entire scene dedicated to nose-tickling. I really wish more stories were able to do that like you managed it here, where it's detailed enough to be stimulating but also not so much that it becomes monotonous or uninteresting. That's something I've always wanted to do in my own writing, but I don't feel like I've quite pulled it off.

Thanks for sharing!

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1 hour ago, Blah!? said:

I really wish more stories were able to do that like you managed it here, where it's detailed enough to be stimulating but also not so much that it becomes monotonous or uninteresting.

I really appreciate that praise, because it's always good to know if you (general you) have succeeded in walking a fine line. I'm glad it worked in this case, and I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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