Vocation

by Jessica Snell


It didn't bother me that the library I lived in was sentient.

It was that it kept assigning me book reports.

I knew I was lucky to live here. Our House covered one of the smallest continents, and so it only had a thousand rooms, and only three of those rooms were libraries.

I would rather live in a library than, say, a bathroom (there were over a hundred of those in our House). Though even a bathroom would be a better place to live than the Yard outside.

That’s where I’d grown up and of course I didn’t miss it at all.

***

The first book the library assigned to me was Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses.

I thought that was a bit on the nose.

But I read the whole thing and started writing my report.

I wrote about the sculleries and drawing rooms and water closets that they’d had back on Earth. I wrote about how they captured wild yeast for their beers and their breads, and how they maintained habitats for the fish and the fowl they ate. I wrote about how they hauled in water and sluiced out chamber pots and eventually piped in real plumbing.

(I thought about how I missed going to the bathroom—or, rather, squatting over a hole, since that’s all we had in the Yard. But, as everyone knows, people are made for Houses and not Houses for people, and so once I’d been assigned to my Room, all of my functions that did not fit that Room’s purpose had been taken away.)

I wrote about dovecots and brewhouses and stables and wondered at how many elements of historic houses were not actually a part of any of our Houses. Back on Earth, the big estates—the households—had included not just scores of people, and one huge, sprawling stone residence, but also all the land and outbuildings and agriculture that supported the estate.

Our Houses weren’t fragmented like that. Our Houses were whole.

It was a much more sensible arrangement, and so I noted in my report.

But the library didn’t seem overjoyed at my conclusion. It simply said, “Thank you,” and assigned me next month’s book.

***

The second book had a character who said that his home was not a place, it was a person. Except he didn’t mean a House, he meant… a person. Like a human. The character even corrected himself and said his home was not just a person, but “people.” By which he meant his family: his wife and his son and his father.

Humans.

I swallowed and closed the book when I got to that part. I closed my eyes too, but I could still see the faces.

That book was near the beginning of a series. When I finished my report, I went and found the rest.

I was not sure I liked what I learned.

***

I read more. I read and I read and I read, and when the library told me it was a pity that I could only read English, because there was so much more, from so many different cultures, I told it that was all very well, and I didn’t care, and this was quite enough thank you, and that I had enough to read, and maybe even too much to read—

And then I stopped talking. Because reading was my vocation, and if I couldn’t read, then I was in the wrong Room, and this was my only Room, it was the only one I would ever get, and if I could not fit myself to this Room, I could not fit myself to the House, and then all I was fit for was the outside, for the Yard, for the scrabbling and the rocks and the scratching and the cold and the—

***

Gaudy Night was the third book I was assigned.

It did not have houses in it.

It had a university.

***

I decided I had to read the rest of that series too. And I kept reading: more and more. More than the library assigned to me. (It wouldn’t answer when I asked if it was deliberately assigning books around a particular theme, but did confirm that it had read them all itself.)

I was so far away from the doorway through which I’d come in. I wasn’t even on the library’s first floor anymore. I was up the curving wooden staircase that led to the second story of bookcases. The second floor was like the deck on a ship, opening up into the air above the first floor as if it were cresting over the top of a wave.

I had seen waves, from the Yard.

The Yard was made up of the odd bits of our continent’s border—the scrapes and scraps of land that flopped out from under the edges of the House, like an uneven circle of dough protruding out from under the clean, crisp edge of a biscuit cutter.

There wasn’t much to eat there. There wasn’t much to do. We scrambled around on the rocks of the shore like tiny, helpless crabs, snapping at each other and scrounging for food to fill our mouths with, for holes to live in.

It wasn’t like Earth had been. Earth had miles and miles and miles of land. Earth had lakes and rivers.

Of course, it was all poisoned now. We’d been doing it to ourselves—polluting our water and air, causing the inevitable rise of the atmosphere’s temperature. We knew it was coming, the gradual disaster that we’d decided not to avoid.

But we were wrong. The actual disaster came swiftly, like a hammer blow. The aliens’ migratory stop on our planet left us reeling, and the waste products they left behind crippled our ecosystem quickly and permanently.

We began to die.

***

But disasters aren’t always bad. They’re just changes, really, when you look at them head-on.

Our next disaster was that we were rescued.

Some other aliens had pity on us. They brought us here.

And they tried to make us shelter like what we’d had before. But they were so different from us that we couldn’t quite use the Houses they’d built, even though we tried.

So they took pity on us again, and they arranged for us to change so we’d fit the shelters they’d made. There weren’t quite enough Houses for all of us, so some of us still lived outside, at least for the beginning of our lives. And when we finally got to enter the Houses, the way we were changed was… not quite what we were used to, I suppose.

But they did their best.

***

I’m sorry. I put that badly.

Their best, of course, is much better than our best ever was. Of course, I didn’t say that before because of course it’s obvious. It’s obvious. Of course.

We never used to have houses so grand that we had to fit ourselves to them, rather than the other way around.

But great gifts require great sacrifices. How else can you make yourself worthy to receive the gift?

They’d given us so much.

***

Once, after I wrote the library a report on The Collected Works of John Donne, the library asked me what I thought people did who were assigned to the bedrooms in our Houses and I told it, They sleep, because there was only ever one person assigned to a room, that was the law, there was never ever more than one person in a room, and it asked me if I thought that sleeping was really all bedrooms were ever for and I thought of the bedrooms that I’d read about that had been for sleep and for sex and even for reading and listening and laughing (as if they were libraries and theaters and bedrooms all rolled up into one) and I told it to stop, to stop, to please, please stop.

I changed my mind. I did mind that the library was sentient.

I minded that it had read all its own books.

I minded very much indeed.

***

The months moved on. I read and I read.

And because the library asked me to, I kept writing it reports.

I read and I wrote and I read.

“Jeeves kept house for Wooster,” I wrote. “But not a proper House.”

The library assigned me another book.

“Irene and her consort made merriment and feasts for all their guests in their great palace,” I wrote. “But it must have been awful. So crowded.”

The library assigned me another book.

“Clan Korval was a Tree and some ships and their cats. How could they even call themselves a House?”

The library assigned me another book.

Another, and another, and another.

***

I could not take it. I could not read one more. Not of the kind that it was giving me. Not of the kind that had families and households and churches and bread and wine and kindled fires and the shade of trees and the cool of the evening in a garden and a hand holding yours as you walked.

I don’t think you understand, I told the library. You’re not being fair to me.

Those things in those books—they don’t exist. There never was a Shire and a Barrayar and a Hundred Acre Wood, but even if there actually was once an Ivory Coast and a Persian Gulf and an India, there isn’t anymore! I can’t go to the cool green quadrangles of Oxford or the high glass towers of Hong Kong or the rain-sweet slopes of Costa Rica. They aren’t there. They haven’t been for years.

There is the outside and there is the Yard and there is the House.

Even if I went to another continent, there would be, on that continent, the outside and the Yard and the House.


There is nothing else anymore and you are making me want these things that I cannot have.

***

I started staying on the stairs, the only part of the library that was more than a few feet away from the bookshelves. The stairs were made of oak, or at least they looked like they were. Who knew what unearthly materials the Houses were actually made of?

But they looked like oak. The knots and whorls of the wood were large and the posts of the stairs were thick and plain, which made them easy to lean against as I sat and stared, unseeing, at the ceiling.

How long could I sit and stare without reading?

I sat.

I sat, and I tried to ignore the small, quiet, persistent voice in my head.

I asked myself, How long can I sit here, inactive, before the House decides to give my place to someone more worthy?

And the small, quiet, persistent voice in my head answered, Let it.

***

One of my next book reports was on One Corpse Too Many. It was a murder mystery, but by this time I wasn’t puzzled that the library had given it to me: murder mysteries often had the very best descriptions of homes and houses. By their very interest in restoring justice and order, the mysteries’ protagonists almost always had something to say about what the nature of goodness was… even if the protagonist’s idea of social good was most eloquently stated in their true and pure enjoyment of the perfect cup of tea.

Not a house this time, and not a university.

A monastery. An ordered life. A garden and all the healing goodness that came from it. A place to worship and be human together, in the sight of a God that was somehow less alien than the aliens who had rescued us, because he had been human himself.

(He hadn’t changed us? He’d changed himself instead? That was… oh help me and hang me for a heretic, that was comforting.)

This book had songs and friends and tasks worth doing.

And the hero was an herbalist-monk who had once been a warrior, had been lover and fighter all at once, but who had given it up for the call of something he loved even more and would fight for even harder.

The people in his town needed healing, and he would heal them.

His God had preserved him, and so he would worship his God.

I sighed, and I shut the book, and I didn’t just stare unseeing at the ceiling this time.

Instead, I looked all around me, looked hard, looked on purpose. I looked at all of the shelves, every one packed full of books, full of stories and histories from a world left behind. Stories full of a humanity that built not just Houses, but households. Not just one room per person, but rooms shared. Not just an inside divided like a honeycomb, but an outside full of gardens.

A humanity that cultivated not just the fruit of the ground, but a humanity that had the inherited knowledge to turn that fruit into wine, that wheat into bread.

A humanity that could break bread together.

Those shelves of stories stretched back, rank on rank, further than I could see.

I could read for years, and not come to the end of them.

My enemy’s arsenal was infinite.

And I knew I could not stand against it.

***

I left, still lacking the things that had been taken from me—the things that had been taken in order to fit me to my room in the House. I did not need to eat or eliminate. I did not need the shelter of blankets or the rest offered by a bed. I would have a long, long life, out there in the cold and the scrabbling and the waste.

(Could we grow gardens in that waste? Build houses? Remember how to pray? We didn’t know. With the security of the Houses in front of us, we’d never tried.)

(But the library had showed me: security was not enough.)

I left.

I left, still lacking the things that had been taken from me.

I left, too, with everything that had been given to me. I left with the task that had been laid on me. I would have the time now—the time to tell everyone else: we were humans, and maybe even made in the image of a God who wanted us to stay that way, and we were not meant to be alone.

I knew now what we had lost. I knew now what we must rebuild.

(Buildings, but not just buildings. Homes.)

And yet.

And yet.

I left, leaving my dearest enemy behind.

(Oh my library. Oh my friend.)

And I went outside, weeping.



Jessica Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in Compelling Science Fiction, Tor.com, Christ and Pop Culture, Focus on the Family and more. She is also a freelance editor who loves helping other writers polish their books till they shine! In her free time, she gardens, knits, and spends time with her husband and their four children. You can follow her on Twitter at @theJessicaSnell, where she tweets about books, faith, and family. Her website is jessicasnell.com.

“‘Vocation’ is (pretty clearly) a love letter to the books that have shaped me. (The protagonist’s critiques are not mine; the library’s taste in literature is.) I’m a sucker for libraries and always have been—even before I spent six years working in one. I’m also a sucker for any story that has a strong picture of what home means. After the first two lines of this story popped into my head, the rest of it followed quickly. I hope you enjoyed it!”


“Vocation” by Jessica Snell. Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Snell.


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