There is a street that cannot be accessed by those who wish to go there, with the general (though not guaranteed) exception of the employees of the shops on the road. The street is long and winding and made up of cobbled rocks. Irregular wonky shaped things with more angles than brims, the cobble is the specific shade of rusty safety pins, and the stones are ground at the edges to fit together into a smooth path. There is a clock in the center of the street. Its ticks are echoed through the surrounding white bricks that engulfs it. Shops line it on both sides and across.
A girl appears seemingly from nowhere and walks up the middle of the street. She peeks into the windows of each emporium, a polished emblem hanging above every bright painted door. Cake and dress shops shops are more numerous than any other. Silver scales mark an accountantâ€™s; this store is filled with desks, pens, and papers.
She continues on.
A little boutique, made of white clay and greyed trees with a grass sod roof marks the end of the way. A rusty brass wrench hangs above the door. It squeaks and it flaps in protest of the windâ€™s most gentle lullaby.
The windows are dirty, caked with centuries of dust and muck that they have been frosted over in a brown caramel seal. It is impossible to see in. Thick black curtains are drawn to keep light away from precious artifacts on display for those who venture inside. A rusty ladder leans up against the building, meeting the shop just above the left window.
Silver bells dangling from the faded red door clonk together in jangled bangs and clangs. The tarnished knob clicks and sticks, but, with a firm push, it gives in. The little girl, her black hair tied back in pigtails and large pink frames slipping down her nose, enters. She wears a yellow knapsack. The zipper does not close and the contents spy out from the top ready to run away if an opportunity unveils itself. Her coat is blue.
The door creeps open and the girl steps into the musty, damp air of mold infested books.
She swallows and tiptoes in past the welcome mat worn bare before the entrance way. The girl coughs. One of the windows scrapes opens of its own accord to let in the cool breeze and the door shuts behind her. She jumps. â€śHello?â€ť
There is no response but the the coo of birds and the flapping of pages. The books watch her from the shelves. Potted plants pant of thirst from their perches on book stacks. Deep brown perfect circles of rot outline each clay plate. Shelves filled with abandoned treasures divide the room into sections connected by labyrinths. A wood dummy sits in the corner reciting poetry to himself. Board games are piled in cities.
She goes for these first, uses monopoly pieces as building blocks for the worlds she creates on the candyland board. She plays in silence.
Music rises from the dead air. She looks up from her games. A gramophone sits on a desk in a corner, and a red page of laminated lined paper the size of a movie poster is taped to the wall beside it. The text is hand-written in black ink with no regard to the lines. It has a list of tasks. The corner rips as she tugs it free from the raw drywall to inspect it further. The date is written at the top. Her name is beside the date, and below it, lining up with 9AM, is written play pretend. The rest of the schedule is blank.
She folds up the sheet and tucks it into her backpack; she leaves the sack and schedule next to the desk and crawls up a three legged stool. The girl runs her finger along the desk. She inspects the finger. The dust is paperback thick. She sneezes and tumbles off the stool hitting a closet that wasnâ€™t there before. The closet doors open. A mop, bucket, broom, and dustpan fall free, collapsing on top of her.
She rolls over onto her hands and knees. The cleaning supplies clatter to the ground in a heap and she stares at them. She crawls to her feet, takes hold of the broom, and picks it off the ground. The closet door is still open. It is filled with feather dusters, sponges, soaps, and glass cleaner, a large sink, buckets of rags, and paper towels. There is also a full sized warhammer secured against the door. Below it is the schedule. She blinks. The girl tears off her yellow backpack, snatches out the contents by the fistful, throwing her colouring books, pencil crayons, and toys across the room. The schedule is gone. She peers at the page on the door; Clean Shop has been added beside 10AM.
A clock sprouts from the wall and chimes the hour. She turns to it. She turns back to the broom. With tiny, awkward hands, she grabs the broom and sweeps the floor in front of her. It takes several minutes for her to get the hang of it. But then the broom begins to write poetry across the wooden planks. They do ballet through the corridors between bookshelves, and perform plays in the courtyards that open up outside of the literature labyrinth. When the dust bunnies have all fled in fear, she mops, then dusts the shelves. Her dusting takes her up ladders through the roof, and down slides into the basement. New corners of spherical rooms are unlocked. Each nook and cranny is stuffed with new game materials.
It takes her years to discover them all. The seventh floor (that can only be assessed by an elevator on the fourth) has tubs and treasure coves of lego blocks. There is a fire pole on the second floor that she slides down with a woosh to go to Sub-Basement Four complete with stage and hangers of costumes and second hand clothing. Hung behind glass displays are the works of Jane Greenwood, Joan Bergin, Madeline Boyd. In the three drawer dressers lining the wall there are rolls of film, video tapes, DVDs. Posters hang on the wall signed in metallic ink Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple.
There is a zoo on the third floor from the top. The animals there never grow up but devour one another young and respawn daily. Above the zoo is an huge ball pit and obstacle climbing course. On the highest floor she has discovered a glass conservatory. (Though she realizes there may be numerous floors above that.)
For a while discovery is exponential, but then it fades and plateaus. She contents herself with visiting familiar haunts, cleaning the same places sheâ€™s always cleaned, and playing the same games sheâ€™s always played. The girl sprawls on the desk, her eyes glued to the door trying to figure out how to play catâ€™s cradle on her own. Her colouring books are filled. She pokes at the glass roof of the conservatory with her broom to test for hidden doors when the silver bell, down twenty flours, over six rooms, and one gymnasium clangs. She freezes. Taking a moment to remember the sound and its origin.
She races down the spiral double-helix stairway (engraved at the top with the names Friedrich Miescher, Rosalind Franklin, and in a single line together, Watson and Crick) jumping the steps to skip every adenine combination, hopping and choosing which genes to land on like a virus. Down. Down. Down she goes. Until finally – breathless – she sprints the final lap through the maze and getâ€™s to the door. An old man in a fuzzy wool brown suit stands before her. He has a pocket watch and a hat.
He eyes her up to her ponytails and down to her shoeless feet. â€śHello.â€ť He adjusts his foggy glasses, and the girl can see behind up that it is snowing outside. â€śI need something repaired.â€ť The man is fat in his plaid suit. His little glasses fit over his beady eyes and his scruffy facial hair flies in all directions.
â€śWell, I actually donâ€™t work here. But why donâ€™t you come to the desk and Iâ€™ll see what I can do for you?â€ť
She leads him through the bookshelf forest to the desk now polished and free from dust. â€śSo what seems to be the problem?â€ť
â€śI need to repair my tomorrow.â€ť
The girl peers at him â€śAre you sure? You donâ€™t even know if anything is going to be wrong with it.â€ť
The old man sighs. A stool hops from between to bookshelves and bounces over to catch him as he sits down on open air. â€śIâ€™ve let myself go, mâ€™dear. Iâ€™m fat, I lack any sort of style. My wife wants nothing to do with me. I lost the job I hate and canâ€™t find any sort of work.â€ť He collapses onto the desk sprawling his arms over it and tucking his face between his hands.
â€śWhat do you want to do?â€ť
He looks up. â€śHm?â€ť
â€śWell what do you want to do?â€ť
The man frowns. â€śI donâ€™t know. I never thought about it I suppose.â€ť
She nods but bites her lip.
He sighs. â€śYou donâ€™t have a way to fix it. I understand, nobody does.â€ť
The girl nods again.
The man slips from the stool and turns towards the entrance. â€śThanks anyways, but I think itâ€™s time to face the facts.â€ť He makes it through the maze unguided, the girl shadowing him her hands sweating and lip quivering. The old man pauses his hand on the doorknob his eyes to the ground. â€śYou know? You could really use a new carpet.â€ť
She bounds over to him and inspects the rug. â€śCould I?â€ť
He strokes his scruff and glances around. â€śAnd if you pulled back the blinds the books shelves would look more attractive.â€ť
â€śWould it?â€ť The girl grins. â€śWant to help me put all these clever ideas to use? Thereâ€™s lots of places that need work.â€ť
â€śWell, are you sure?â€ť
She gives him a single nod. â€śDefinitely, I could use the help exploring and keeping everything tidy.â€ť
She spins around, waits as the backroom she never needed spawns from bookshelves and empty wall. She disappears into the room. A row of hooks are screwed into the wall and she pulls two aprons from the closest ones. She puts one on. The other she hands to the old man. He ties it around his waist and slides off the stool, she comes around and grabs his arm. â€śLet me show you where the broom is kept.â€ť
The schedule is no longer taped to the wall. It is several pages long, pinched to a clipboard that is nailed to the closet door under the dwarven warhammer.
Under the manâ€™s vigilant guidance, the girl learns to paint landscapes with a mop. They clean windows side by side, water the plants of the conservatory, feed the animals of the zoo. They discover a science center on the far left of the building, and an observation tower. The girl spends hours a night gazing into the heavens through a brass telescope. A gold model of the solar system engraved with Aristarchus stands on a dresser filled with books and scrolls. Droopy eyed she descends the Escher stairway, meteorites in her eyes, when a light in a cozy room with a fireplace and a couch catches her attention.
The bookstore, already more vast in dimensions than anything before it triples in height, and quadruples in width. Places she had never even fathomed begin to exist. As she sweeps out the lion cages she reads of volcanoes, and as the stars float by in the night sky she learns of oceans deep of creatures the likes she has never known. She finds a concert hall by the front entrance. Music notation, cassettes,Â CD’sÂ and records tower in stacks all with signatures. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington. Computers connected to hard drives of MP3′s.
The old man replaces the worn carpet. In the door, he installs a slot so people can return their books. The girl pins back the curtains and light fills the room with a soft warmth.
The bell on the door rings daily, sometimes hourly. Cowboys and wizards are frequent loiterers, taking time to hide between shelves so that she must come and find them. She offers advice from the bar on the third floor, and the man does repairs on the ground level. Broken hearted couples find love in a sad story. Every person enters with a problem and a tale, and they all leave with a book in hand.
The people come until the fresh carpet is ground flat, and when the old man bows out of duties to finish his own story, it grows more hectic still. HerÂ favoriteÂ books are left collecting dust in the loft bedroom that dangles over the city. HerÂ favoriteÂ games file out with the books as children begin to bring their problems in. When the shelves are bare, she begins to turn people away at the door in a grizzled voice.
Her ponytails are replaced by a no nonsense bun grey secured on the top of her head.
The shelves, once bright withÂ colorÂ sport only old wood with dust bunny gardens. HerÂ favoriteÂ haunts are too far to climb on creaky hinge knees and a straw back. The shop begins to shrink. She sits at the desk by day staring at the empty shelves instead of polishing and dusting. The to-do list grows longer and neglected. By night, the girl drags her body up to the room with the fireplace and reads from the violet covered book left for her on the couch by the old man. SheÂ hasn’tÂ seen him in quite some time. But eventually even that rough hand sewn novel goes missing from the shelves.
When the grass in the roof is just beginning to sprout, an aged woman ventures out the front door. The bells lag, taking a second to remember their jangle clangs as she goes out. The rusty ladder leans against the wall still, and she makes the voyage up to fix the rusted wrench barely hanging by one chain.
â€śWhat are you doing?â€ť A boy in rubber boots asks gaping at her. A herd of children stand behind him eyeing her.
She scowls at him. â€śNone of your business, go away!â€ť The old lady shoos him and his sheep with a hand but they stay, staring. â€śI said go away!â€ť She half falls, half hops from the ladder and lands more nimble than she imagined she could. She bounds after the boy, her ever loyal broomstick in hand. Lickity-split he takes off, the group scatters, and she gives chase. â€śYou come back here and youâ€™ll find this broom jammed up your backside!â€ť
Her hinged knees give way and she clatters to the ground and the old broom flies from her hand many inches out of her reach. It picks itself up and rejoins its friend, and together, she limps back into her home. The ladder she abandons leaned up against the white clay of the shop telling herself sheâ€™ll retrieve it another day.
As more years wear on, the woman stops leaving and cleaning the shop entirely. She closes the thick curtains, shutting out the light, keeping the drooping plants stuffy and puffing for breath. She prefers to sit behind the old desk in damp darkness and write.
Her garbage can is filled with torn up pages and dead pens, but she continues to write. The schedule materializes, it follows her everywhere until rejection has it wander back, whimpering, to the closet, shedding pages as it goes.The sound of rusted alloy grinding on metal fills the room. She looks up from the table squinting through the pink lenses towards the door. The slit flies open and a book falls through to thunk joyless onto the floor.
She grasps for her broom. The handle lies out of reach, but it sits inanimate; the broom no longer hops to her in need. She stumbles and droops over it. They shuffle together across the floor and write only maladroit sentences and dissonant melodies. Her back uncoils like a stiff spring and she begs the book to leap into her fingers. The magic evades her. She grinds her teeth and unwinds her bones, bending the rest of the way. The heavy grey book slips into her grip. The woman lurches forward, staggers back against the bookshelf, and throws the thick paper brick against the rickety wood. It balances for a moment then falls over.
The woman frowns at the book, her fingers claw around the broomâ€™s handle and she moves back towards the desk. She hobbles towards the maze.
Her eye twitches. She turns around to stare at the offending book. She scowls, shuffles towards the door, outstripped by passing moths, and strains forward to grab the book. It thunks on the shelf, and she moves away.
Screech. Thump. Screech. Thump. Screech. Thump. Thump. Thump.
She twists around. Six books are piled in a heap at the door. Across the floor she goes, her broom clunk clunk clunking with each step that she takes, she reaches down, scoops up all of the books, throws them onto the shelf, and turns away. She navigates the labyrinth, then sits down at the desk, and puts pen to paper. Her eyes stay at the door though, and sheÂ doesn’tÂ scrawl a single word.
Screech. Thump. Thump. Thump. Screech. Thump.
The old woman races across the room with the fury of a tortoise whose tail was nipped by a fox. She flings the door open. A huge line up of domino people stretching from the doorway and around the world twice stands before her. Each carries a book, or two, or four, or five. The first boy in line, a short child of maybe eleven or twelve, carries only one. He takes the old womanâ€™s arm and guides her back into the shop. He sits her down and deposits his offering onto the desk in front of her. The deep purple cover and gold twinkly print blinks and winks up at her. Her mouth falls open as she picks up the story written by the old man.
The people file in. The old woman watches them circle around the store, stairways opening from shelves and walls where sheâ€™d forgotten them. The bookstore is filled with laughter and discussion. People run around, dodge between bookshelves. Others drop their books off and depart without lingering. As the book store fills up, she sinks from the stool to wander up the new stairwell where the bar waits filled with drinks and wisdom.
She works on her book from the bar stool. Trading advice for sentences. When the bookstore begins to empty out, the shelves crowded with an audience of books, she moves back to the desk downstairs, and the bar is swallowed up once more.
The bell jangles one final time as she writes the ending words; she folds the hand-sewn, turquoise cover over and lets the book close for the first time. She picks up her, and the old manâ€™s book, and she pushes herself away from the desk. The stool scrapes against the wide planked wood as she stands, leaning against her broomstick. She takes a step, and the stool backs away into the old back-room. The door of the room dissolves into the wall. Woman and broom clunk against the floor. Her grinding bones itch as they scale the stairs for the first time in a decade.
Dust has coated the shelves again, but they are covered once more inÂ coloredÂ covers. She pokes and prods the nooks in between the books for a place to shove her novel in. But none appear. The woman navigates the temple in nostalgic coma. At the far side of a room, past the rich scarlet carpet and the hung tapestries, is a couch and a fireplace. She frowns at the yellow blanket in heap on the floor and tries to remember how it got there. Beyond the sofa, is a window and a bookshelf with some final places spotlighted in the bright sunshine. She shoves the two novels into the furthest, most modest gap. And, as the books leaves her fingers, the window wiggles opens; the old woman walks out onto the sky, the broom bracing her against the wind and cloud. She follows the current of air into the blue, waving at birds sheâ€™d studied in books centuries ago.
All but one of the pages from the schedule fly out after her, and with them as her guide, she disappears from sight.
There is a street that cannot be accessed by those who are trying to get there. It has cobbled stone, and on the sidewalk is a boy in a yellow wool cap and black coat. He has matching yellowÂ mistÂ and his face is freckle plagued. A train ticket is stuck to his coat. He meanders up the road to the shop at the end. Its curtains are closed shut, the windows dirty, and an old rusty ladder sits against the white clay. He tries the handle. The bell jingle hangs, the door falls open, and he walks in.