The Packhorse Librarian

Jewelynn Gonzalez

The weight of a hundred pounds kept Abby’s eyelids tightly shut. Pain gripped her neck, wrists, and ankles at each movement; she raised her arms to her face, pulling at the raw flesh on her ankles. As if on reflex she threw her arms down, relieving the pain at her feet, only to cause the flesh on her neck to tear. Feeling the warm drip of blood start to trickle, she tediously bunched her body, sitting hunched over. Her body’s protests and fits of aching muscles, impaling themselves with millions of tiny needles, was enough to temporarily keep her from moving. Whoosh, whoosh, head spinning, she curled her body further and further, fighting, struggling. Abby finally managed to bring her hands to her face, and coarsely woven fabric met her fingers. She curled her body further; she lifted the tied fabric over her head.

Abby’s eyes opened but soon shut. She could see the bright yellows and oranges of the setting sun even with her eyes closed as if the colors were burned into the underside of her eyelids. Slowly and ever so cautiously, Abby’s brown eyes fluttered open a second time, taking in the lush greens and browns of the forest around her. Straining her neck in every direction Abby closed her eyes, listening, waiting for any sound indicating someone’s presence. Abby heard the birds chirping their sweet songs of serenity, squirrels and chipmunks chasing and chittering, stomping and shuffling through the fallen leaves littering the forest floor. Taking a deep breath, the smell of moss and earth flooded her senses. On the breeze,  she heard the faint sound of flowing water. Looking around she could make out a moss blanketed hill scattered with rocks through the trees.

Flopping to her side Abby found a stick to chew on, to avoid biting her tongue, as she squirmed and wiggled through the dirt and leaves tediously inching her way forward. Tears started streaming down her face as she rubbed her burned ankles to bleeding; the collar of her blouse started to soak with a mixture of blood and sweat; her neck burned as if the rope around it had caught fire.

A twig snapped from behind, freezing her in her tracks. A rhythmic pounding echoed through her ears, her chest tightened, and her eyebrows rose, widening her eyes. The taste of wood entered her mouth as her jaw clenched, sinking her teeth further into the stick. Originating from behind her, a shuffling of leaves and another stick snapping echoed through the trees. With every inch of her body aching and her left thigh spasming, sparks of pain shot through the sole of her foot; Abby turned around to face the disturbance. She flinched at the noise made from the debris around her, until she was looking into the innocent brown eyes of a deer. In a flurry of terror and excitement, the deer ran, willing its muscles to move far and fast. Within moments the deer was out of sight and relief overwhelmed Abby, giving her the courage to keep moving.

Gritting through the struggle and pain, Abby finally made it to the hill, no longer feeling the sparks of pain in her foot. Fumbling over rocks with her fingers, Abby struggled to try to find a sharp edge of a rock until finally finding one. Edging closer to her chosen rock, Abby got to work; thrashing her body this way and that pulling on the rope as the spun fibers began to strain and weaken against the weather-sharpened edge. The rock broke through and a piercing pain shocked Abby’s shoulder as the rope broke apart, slamming her body into the rock’s cool surface. Instinctively reaching up to massage her shoulder. Abby pulled on the rope still attached to her feet and bashed her knees on the rock. Blood trickled down Abby’s leg tickling the purpling skin as it dripped.

The relief in her neck and back was enough to give Abby the strength and energy to readjust, tugging on her ankles with every move. Dirt forced its way deep into the open flesh; pain flooded her senses as she thrashed and writhed about cutting at the bond between her feet and hands until at last the familiar sound of rope breaking, the fibers ripping as the rope is rubbed against the rock. Abby’s muscles relaxed in relief as her back stretched to its full length. Now having acquired a technique, Abby cut the rest of the rope, freeing her body from all restraints. Looking up at the canopy of greens and oranges Abby lay there, giving her aching muscles rest while she tried to figure out how she got into this mess.


“Abby, you must be careful; there are many bandits out there who will take what they want when they want. This delivery is of the utmost importance.” A short European woman clothed in a brown woolen dress covered by a deep burgundy apron had stood before her. Seeing Abby’s worried face, she added, “Don’t worry, Shakespeare knows the way.”

She raised a hand to caress the soft buckskin colored horse, whose coat shone in the early morning light. The woman stepped forward and encased Abby in an embrace before Abby jumped into the saddle and Shakespeare took off running.

With nothing to do except hang on while Shakespeare led the way, bounding across the open prairies of the Kentucky countryside, Abby was alone with nothing to occupy herself with but her mind. Mind spinning, body jostling this way and that as Shakespeare bound toward the Appalachian Mountains, Abby rode on, thinking about the duties put upon her by the President of the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt thought that providing books to the people during the Great Depression would educate them enough to work and raise America like a mighty phoenix from the ashes. Abby was one of many packhorse librarians, spreading education throughout Kentucky. A heavy feeling crept up to sit upon Abby’s shoulders until she was distracted by the fast-approaching forest, freeing her from her doubts.

Upon entering the forest Abby could feel her defenses breaking at the sight of rich green and the scent of the sweet earth. Shakespeare slowed his pace to a walk and Abby pulled out a book, feeling the pages flip and fumble between her slender, work-worn hands. Taken away by the story unfurling between her fingers, Abby failed to notice the person who followed her until it was too late.


Mustering enough strength, Abby planted her feet on the ground. A deep exhale, she placed her hands on the cool rock face before mentally counting to three, then heaved herself into a standing position. Eagerly looking around, searching for something to help her, Abby’s eyes landed on a fallen tree branch, dried and twig-less. Grabbing the stick, she used it as an oversized cane and hobbled over to where she was stranded. To her surprise the saddlebags were there, filled with the books. Seeing the saddlebags on the ground she realized she had completely forgotten about Shakespeare, a feeling of both dread and relief sunk to the pit of her stomach as she realized it was just a roadside robbery and she had gotten in the way. 

Acknowledging the setting sun, Abby went to retrieve her survival gear, struggling and limping only to find them stolen. Using the knowledge she’d acquired from reading books, Abby got to work, and relied on the oak branch to get around. Once finished gathering everything she would need, Abby then made a lean-to; it was well after dark when the fire finally sparked to life. It didn’t take long before the dancing flames and sizzling sparks lulled Abby to a deep and peaceful slumber.

She awoke the next morning to the chirping and singing of birds, their songs a relaxing alarm. Abby moved and found her muscles no longer in excruciating pain, rather a dull ache. Abby rose and buried the ashes with dirt. Fearful of the wilderness and its secrets, Abby emptied her pack and filled it with mushrooms, berries, and any other edible findings before she walked to the hill that helped set her free. Abby crested the top of the hill and looked down to find a creek scattered with round rocks; the brown, black-streaked, sandy bottom could be seen through the clear water.


Abby sat on a soft-cushioned chair in an elegantly decorated room of the White House.

“My love, is there anything you would like to say to our new packhorse librarian before she endures her first round of drop-offs?” the deep and confident voice of Mr. President Franklin Roosevelt echoed through her head, giving her momentary comfort in her now primitive state, before Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice floated gracefully to her ears.

“A woman is like a tea bag–you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water. Good luck, my dear.”

With a smile Mrs. Roosevelt rose from across the room to give Abby a farewell hug.


As she walked back to the bags, Abby ditched her thoughts of tucking tail and heading home; she started to shove books into her backpack and managed to fit them and her harvests with the opening unlatched. Abby wobbled at the initial weight, swaying as she moved, Abby followed the horse prints; after all, the library horses were very dedicated and would rather die than not fulfill their task. Abby was at least going to get closer to her drop-offs.