#36 She Dreams the Souls of Books (for Jo West).

I wrote story for a dear friend, and beloved bookseller, Jo West. I’d like to thank Jo and her team for all their hard work in making the Blackwell’s University bookshop such a wonderful place for the University and wider community alike, and for doing so much to support local writers and creatives. The shop will be very much missed. Best of luck in future endeavours to Jo and the team. Eilís x

Photo by @eilisphillips : Christmas at Blackwell’s Portsmouth 2017. 

Blackwell's Christmas

The lights go out and there is a profound silence.

Display tables with neatly stacked books lurk as bulky shadows in the corners of her vision. Stray fingers of moonlight trespass across the carpet and she stays a minute, just to watch. This is only her second week. This place feels new, and different. She has been used to the quiet seeping in when the bright lights are switched off at the end of a long day. The tranquillity usually ignored because she must gather her things, make sure that she has not forgotten anything, and remember to set the alarm. She’d be out into the night before realising that a dull quiet had settled on the shelves, upon the books. That bookshop was huge. It had an entire wall of gadgets specifically designed for people who go into bookshops to buy gifts for family members once or twice a year in a rush, usually the family members who are otherwise impossible to buy for. That shop had a Children’s section that was like a creche, with rainbow painted shelves, and its own collection of battered stuffed toys. It had a roster of staff like a football team, complete with reserves who no one ever saw, expect at the Christmas party.

This bookshop is different. It’s old. It has a gentle, lingering smell, it breathes. She hasn’t gathered her things or made her way to the door yet. She doesn’t know why she has stopped, but there is something in the quiet that is nagging at her. She almost expects to see a whole shelf come tumbling down the minute her back is turned. But that’s silly, she says. Still, it’s almost as if the room is waiting. She listens. It’s as if there is a low-lying hum just below hearing, an electric current charging the air. She tuts, and gathers her bag, blaming the season, and that book of old ghost stories she leafed through over lunch. She checks she hasn’t forgotten anything, and heads across the moonlit carpet towards the backdoor. She feels it. The breeze over her shoulder, like a sigh.

Out in the cold winter night, she closes the door behind her, and listens, waiting for the alarm to beep into silence. This done she can go home with another day’s work behind her. Walking away down the street, the rhythmic click of her boot heels on the pavement is the only sound audible. More than once she turns her head to look back but the shop windows are swathed in darkness.

That night she dreams the souls of books. Flitting in and out of their pages, these are their stories, whispering to one another. Their shapes are various, but smokey, illuminated and shot through with moonlight. The gossamer winged souls of literary classics mingle with bohemian shades in the section on Modern Philosophy. Tortured, wraithlike wisps emanate from the shelf marked ‘Horror’ watched sadly from afar by the War Poetry. The Humanities textbook’s pages are riffled through by the souls of Mathematics tomes, who wear the faces of little old men, and frown deeply. But this is just a dream, she tries to tell herself, tossing and turning, half awake, half dreaming. Did I set the alarm? She wakes herself up quickly, panicked, then remembers, and falls back upon the pillow.

As she drifts back into sleep, she returns to the bookshop, where it has become somehow colder, and darker. Globe-shaped lights emerge from corners like will o the wisps. The souls of books have become goblin-limbed and creeping. They dance in a ring around the display showcasing ‘Local Interest’ and in sing-song mocking voices, they single out the books that are to be bought the next day, because they know, you see.

The door rattles. Someone wants in. She sees the figure at the glass and rushes to open it. But she is dreaming, and can only watch, as the door creaks open by itself. The shop has a new occupant. An old man, his face half hidden by a flat cap, a scarf pulled up towards his chin, shuffles in. His clothes are of thick cloth, in mustards, and browns. They remind her of items she has seen in charity shops, clothes her grandfather would have worn. The goblins scatter at the customer’s heavy footfalls, and as they run, they place a finger to their tiny lips and whisper SHHHHHhhhhhh! to the darkness.

The old man examines the shelves. He needs no light, knowing them just as well in the dark. He has been coming here for over 80 years, and as he shuffles slowly through the shop he inspects the books carefully before returning them to their stands. She has the feeling that he is studying them, one by one, intensely, as if committing them to memory. He picks up one book, and holds it, smiling deeply. He knows this one already, quite well. She watches him, and wonders what his story is, but by now dawn is breaking over the brow of the hill. Shops all along the main street are lit by a glow like the embers of a waking fire. The old man sighs. He turns, and nods to no one, and vanishes in the shadows of the dawn.

The next morning, she arrives to find leaves of frost have crept up across the panes of the windows of the old bookshop. The door handle feels like an icicle under her hand and she has to blow upon her fingers to bring the warmth back. Inside, she sees the pristine rows of books as she left them the night before, sleeping in their covers, awaiting their owners. Though she checks, feeling foolish, they are no wraiths haunting the shelves, no tiny, sooty, footprints around the ‘Local Interest’ display. Only one object is out of place. A book has fallen to the floor by the counter. The sunlight catches its cover, glinting. It is a history of the town. She bends to pick it up, and flicks gently through the pages. A photograph catches her eye, making her rest her thumb upon the spine to hold the book in place, at the picture of the old man. As she holds the book in her hand, looking down into the face of the shop’s founder, a shiver makes its way across her spine, and yet now she smiles, deeply.

 

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25# The Egg Lord

Image Tuomas_Lehtinen. Freedigitalphotos.net

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Olthar waited at the lip of the cavern and contemplated its interior. Opalescent shafts of pearly light bounced off the lake’s surface, illuminating all the many nooks and dark corners of the cave but it was surprisingly empty, except of course for the Egg.

It was perched right in the middle of all that water, on its ceremonial pedestal. It looked exactly as it had been described to him as a child, just as it appeared in all wall paintings and parchments, even on the skin of the Egg Guardian who carried the roughly inked glory of the egg on his back; now a wrinkled tableau which upon his death would be re-applied to his successor in the same position and fashion as was tradition. The Egg Guardian was dead now of course, and so his novice would shortly have to take his place, unless there was no longer a need for a new Guardian, that is, if he, Olthar, chose to be the new Egg Lord, and right now there was not a lot to stop him.

He wiped sweat off his forehead, his glance never falling away from the latticed crystal orb at the cavern’s heart, and Olthar mused how pathetic his people had become because no one had mustered the courage in a thousand years to pursue the Egg Dream. They believed that the legend was sacred, and that the Egg was sacred for the hard lessons it had taught them, but that times had moved on, and that it was better to be ruled by the Egg, than to rule by it. It was better, the law said, that adventurous individuals stay away from such quests rather than risk bringing misery to everyone: a return to the immorality which had plagued their society for eons before the last Egg Lord died and the Guardians were formed.

Olthar was not a conformist, and in truth, he had often wondered if the Egg legend was just a load of nonsense which adults told to children in order to teach them not to go wandering off, or not to disobey orders. Now here he was, and nothing all that terrible had happened, not to him, at least. Sacrifices had been made, the Egg Guardian was dead, but he had been very old. Olthar consoled himself with this thought as he began finally to wade into the cool blue waters of the lake.

As he waded, he recalled all the stories he had been told about the egg:

That it was light as a feather to lift (but only to the evil, the pure of heart would never be able to lift it’s burden).

That it was blindingly bright, (and only those with dark purposes in front of them could bear to look upon it).

That to possess the Egg would instantly confer upon the bearer the title of Egg Lord (and bring with it the promise of immortality, unless stabbed through the heart with a golden arrow at sunrise on the first day of the new year).

That to be the Egg Lord was to posses superhuman strength and senses, (skills which had allowed previous Lords to maintain their empires).

Fiinally, that the Egg came with a price which no one knew and which was different for everyone. It was widely believed, however, that this price was insanity, as most Egg Lords spoken about in legends had allegedly met their ends by their own hands. Even when devoted followers had hidden all the golden arrows, in all the stories, always one would remain to be the instrument of the Egg Lord’s death at the dawn.

Olthar wasn’t particularly interested in these stories however. He didn’t believe in mystical promises of strength and power. The Egg was a merely to him, a valuable commodity, and now that foreign traders had been coming to the islands and trade relationships had been established, the time had come to place faith in more earthly assets than the magic of one crystal egg. As he ascended the platform upon which the Egg was placed, Olthar was caught for a second by its extraordinary beauty, the way it absorbed and refracted the light so smoothly as if alive and pulsing. He wondered what gave the Egg its marvelous phosphorescence, and how much it might be worth to the foreign men of his science who desired to know the answer to such questions.

His fingers reached out for the Egg; he heard it singing to him, a ringing resonance which made the tiny hairs arms of his arms stand on end. He remembered errant snippets, the last words of the Egg Guardian as he had tried to persuade Olthar to turn back:

…there are new safeguards, we knew the old stories wouldn’t be enough to keep people away anymore, times have changed, – listen, if you try to take the Egg now…

But Olthar had gotten impatient, the old man had not been allowed to finish his sentence, and the people of the Egg had become swiftly and brutally reaquainted with the act of murder.

Now these thoughts ebbed and flowed within Olthar as he picked up the singing Egg and held it aloft. He felt its beauty surging through him, all its light and wisdom and strength, and he laughed out loud joyfully, only turning at the sound of stone grinding behind him. He was forced to watch helplessly as a giant wall of rock descended on the only entrance and exit to the cavern, cutting him off from the outside world.

Then there was silence.

The light from the Egg continued to reflect its rainbows across the gentle lapping waters of the lake, a rich scene which Olthar, devoid of golden arrows, would be at liberty to enjoy forever.

Dead Men Telling Tales: Maritime Gibbet Lore in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture

Image: National Maritime Museum (BBC News London Website)

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While not a piece of original fiction as is usually my remit here, I wanted to plug a short  factual piece I wrote recently about how the link often made between pirates and the punishment of gibbeting (hanging in irons or hanging in chains) such as you might see in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean is traceable to at least the nineteenth century. This fascination with maritime gibbets is certainly visible in various literary works during the century, and in newspaper articles appearing around the latter half of the Victorian period. In this post I examine this phenomenon; delving into the history of gibbeting and into the folklore which sprung up around the practice.

The post is featured on the Port Towns and Urban Cultures website, a research group attached to the University of Portsmouth. Please check out all the other great maritime themed scholarship while you’re there!

My article can be found here: http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/dead-men-telling-tales/

Thanks for reading.

Eilís