I closed the shop early. No point to staying open in this storm. If anyone were foolhardy enough to venture out, I’d not want to sell books that would likely only get ruined on the walk back home. But there were no people, nobody dashing from one shop to the next, nobody walking the dog or dragging a marketing cart or pushing a baby carriage. Not even a stray dog, nosing the flooded gutters. Nothing moving at all. Only sheets of water pouring from the sky.
Rain without wind is oddly static, as though grey lines are painted on the air, the only motion to arrest the eye being the visual white noise of droplets continually impacting puddles in a misty scrim of tiny eruptions. Loud eruptions. The rain drummed on the awnings above the shop windows, drowning out all other sound. Standing inside, I could see the key turning in the lock and feel the pins click into place, however I could hear no sound but the outside rain hissing on the pavements and pummeling the canvas.
I stood looking out the front window. The storm darkness made twilight of the afternoon, but the solar streetlights hadn’t received enough charge to be fully lit. They emitted a pale luminescence that did not reach the ground, like firefly-filled jars perched atop iron posts, glowing eerily through the gloom. My shop was one of the few that opened on Sundays, but there were even fewer pools of light around the Common than usual. I was not the only one to shutter early. In fact, several had already hung out actual shutters to protect costly plate glass from errant branches on the wind. At the moment, the town center was in between storm cells. The rain sheeted down; but the violent wind, hail and lightning of earlier had calmed for a spell. Calmed, but not gone. Clouds this dark likely bore enough pent-up energy to send out wind and lightning for hours to come. I decided I should lower my own shutters.
I turned the cranks that ratcheted chainlink gratings down in front of the display windows that projected out on either side of the door. My shutters let the light out but didn’t let damaging debris in. I don’t know why this old building came so equipped, but I appreciated the ability to watch the storm without much fear. In evenings, especially in the long nights of winter, I often sat curled up in the front windows with a cup of tea, reading by candlelight and staring out over the dark Common. Today, the darkness was not so complete as to need candles indoors. In any case, it was still afternoon and the electric power was running. The light from my windows cast an apron of warm golden light on the walkway out front. It was comforting to be in the bookshop looking out at the storm. Welcoming.
Which is undoubtedly why the stranger chose my door.
Well, that, and the fact that this is a bookstore. Which is to say it’s a magnet for weirdness.
I had just turned away to go make that cup of tea and grab my current book — a thoroughly diverting comedy of mannered errors from the century before last — when there was a pounding on the front door. I reflexively turned back toward the clamor and came face to face with a tall man. He was almost pressed against the door, near enough for his breath to fog the glass, though there was ample space in the entry alcove to stand out of the rain without being so close. So there we were, separated by less than a hand’s breadth on either side of the door. It was disconcerting to be so physically close to someone I didn’t recognize — particularly as I had just been looking out at a deserted town center. I do not know how he managed to appear at my door in the span of a few heartbeats that my back was turned.
It was even more disconcerting to notice that he was not notably wet. True, he wore a broad-brimmed hat. But in this rain his long, silvered-black hair should not have been quite so feather-dry.
And I was quite sure I’d never in my life seen the person underneath that hat. I have always lived in this town. Truly, I’ve spent most of my life right here in this bookstore. My mother ran this shop before me and her mother before her, so it’s no exaggeration to say that I grew up watching the town through the shop windows. This is not a very small place, not like some villages around here where one has to be very careful about marriage partners; and my town welcomes many new immigrants each season, as in any inhabitable location these days. Even so, I know most of the town’s people at least by face. Yet, I’d never seen this person before. He was very tall, which is not common around here. I’m not short; I usually look down on the balding pates of men. But this man was at least a head taller than me. I’m fairly certain I would have noticed someone of his stature, if for no other reason than relief at not being the largest body for a change.
He was also painfully thin. His angular face had the gaunt look of someone not quite recovered from the plague. His eyes were large and deep-set, underscored with purple crescents, and they were tinted a black so complete that there was no obvious division between iris and pupil. But apart from the half-moons under his eyes, his skin was as pale as moonlight, so translucent that veins traced blue rivers over his nose and down his temples and jawline. But his cheeks were painted in a fevered flush. As these tell-tale signs of potential contagion registered, I stepped back instinctually, even with the door between us.
He began speaking but I couldn’t hear his voice both through the door and over the rain racket. I shook my head to convey incomprehension and, hopefully, my reluctance to open the door. He huffed out a glass-clouding breath of frustration and began to dig about in his raincoat — which I now noticed was a strange style, like an ancient adventurer’s coat, long, flared at the knees, slightly caped across the shoulder, and completely riddled with pockets.
The rest of his clothes were similarly antique and whimsically romantic. He wore loose trousers tucked into top-folded, knee-high boots that looked to be made of a soft, supple leather. A white linen shirt draped down to his thighs. This was open at the collar, revealing a twisted, almost runic pendant wrought from some heavy, black metal and set with a single cabochon of opalescent moonstone. Over the shirt, he wore a long vest of complicated vining jacquard in the last tint of blue in the evening sky before darkness falls. He seemed to be aiming for a caricature of the characters in my mother’s favorite, breathlessly titillating, novels.
His rummaging hands finally found what he’d sought. He placed a palm-sized square of paper up against the door glass. Being a creature who responds to printed material, I automatically perched my reading glasses on my nose, stepped closer to the door, and scanned the sheet. It appeared to be a vaccination passport. One “Amaris López” was declared inoculated against all relevant disease and cleared for travel within any Turtle Island state. I looked up from the card and saw his eyebrows raised in disarming expectancy.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for an expressive brow-line. I fished my keys out of my apron pocket.
I unlocked the door and pulled it open, stepping aside to keep some distance between us, vaccination card notwithstanding. He swept in, already shedding his hat and coat as he entered and pointedly looking about for a place to hang them. We don’t have a coatrack, and even though he was much less soaked than he should have been in this rain, his outer garments were still too wet to lie on top of the book tables. So I took them from his hand, carried them behind the counter, and draped them over my stool.
I turned to find him looming over me. Apparently, he moved with uncanny quiet. I hadn’t even heard the floorboards creak. I stumbled backwards, putting the stool between us. A frisson of fear fluttered my heartbeat, and I hoped that unlocking the door hadn’t been a colossally stupid mistake. Then I gathered myself together. After all, I was a bookseller. We’ve seen it all. Usually before elevenses.
“Flora Gauthier” I said, bowing my head over my hands in the common greeting.
He copied my posture but then bowed deeper than was common as he replied, “Amaris López. Most pleased to meet you.” His voice was unexpectedly deep and had a peculiarly fluid timbre, like the warble of a wood thrush.
“Pleased to meet you as well,” I responded. “Now, how can I help you?”
He looked confused, so I continued “Was there a particular book you wanted? Or would you like to browse?” I couldn’t help adding “I had intended to close up early because of the storm,” glancing wistfully at the front door.
“I’ll only be a moment,” he declared before gliding silently into the stacks with the familiarity of a regular.
After a few minutes, I decided I still wanted that cup of tea. It seemed polite to offer him something as well, and I am nothing if not of abiding good form.
“I’m going to make a cuppa. Would you care for any tea?” I called into the shelves.
He did not respond immediately. I had started heading toward the stairs to our mezzanine office when he stepped out from shelves much closer to the register counter than I’d expected.
“Thank you. I take mine black,” he belatedly answered.
“Not that kind of tea,” I clarified. “It’s just regular chamomile here.” I’d never even had camellia tea, never mind the fermented black variety. Strange. He certainly didn’t look wealthy enough for black tea to be habitual. I admit to blinking somewhat stupidly for a few breaths, trying to reconcile his frayed appearance and his presence in my shop on a stormy May afternoon with a person who drank his tea black.
For a moment he seemed to be doing his own version of internal calibration. But then his face cleared and he declared chamomile to be perfectly delightful.
I kept my face carefully neutral as I nodded and headed up the stairs. Why today? But then, why ever? This was a bookstore. Strange happened.
When I came back down with two hot mugs, he was sitting in the reading nook, long legs folded elegantly, a book open in one hand, and a large stack of books neatly piled on the table next to his elbow. He was, however, not reading, but watching me descend the staircase.
I hitched on my best shop-keeper smile. “I see you found your books,” I said brightly, as I approached. Then I noticed what he was not reading and I faltered. He was holding my vintage comedy of errors in his long-fingered hand.
Now, like any half-decent bookseller, I know every book in my shop. I buy all the inventory and I shelve it all carefully. I knew there was only one copy of the novel I was reading. Quite likely, there was only one copy in my entire town. But certainly there was no other copy in my store. And I knew the one in my shop had last been lying on my office desk upstairs. My heart fluttered again.
As if acknowledging my discomfort, he smiled enigmatically and then said “I do enjoy the freedom of narrative created by this Lucien’s utter lack of sense. Don’t you?”
This was so extraordinary, so unusually engaging, it startled me right out of my fears.
While considering how to respond to his odd declaration, I placed the mugs on the table and sat down in the chair opposite him. Finally, I replied, “I’m not sure that was Balzac’s intent, but yes, I suppose, idiocy can be rather liberating for an author.”
“Liberating and perhaps a bit lazy?”
I thought about that, warming to the first real book talk I’d had in… well, since my mother died. To all appearances, he seemed genuinely interested in hearing my answer. Quite a seductive spell to lay on a bookworm. I smothered the small voice that was still insistently questioning how he came to be holding that particular book. Among other oddities…
“Yes, lazy is a good description. But as you said, this utter lack of sense does move the story in unexpected directions. And I’m not sure how else an author would get from here to there with a more normal character.”
“For that matter, what is a normal character?” came his rejoinder. “Doesn’t normalcy preclude that singularity necessary to being a novel character?”
“Maybe so,” I mused. Absolutely delighted to have found someone to inspire musing at long last!
Our tea turned cold, forgotten, as we talked. The storm outside intensified again, the winds shrieking through the cracks and thunder rattling the window glass. The darkness deepened into true nightfall, and we moved upstairs to my home above the shop to be more comfortable. The electricity cycled down for the evening, and I lit the oil lamps and laid in a small fire in the wood stove. And all the while we talked like old friends reunited after long absence.
As I surrendered to the enchantment, I was vaguely aware of the strangeness. I am not an open person. I’m a bookseller. I give my heart to the printed page and generally reserve speech for marketing and instruction.
But a dam had been breached. So engrossed was I in our far-ranging conversation, that I found myself freely telling this Amaris, this complete stranger, my most intimate thoughts. We dissected books and constructed ideal narratives from the salvage. We shared anxieties about the weather, about the future of print, about the future of humanity. As it grew late, we talked of grief, of hope, of secret longings. Things I had never given voice to came easily in that flood of ideas rushing in confluence. And yet, we could also sit together in comfortable silence, giving full consideration to our words and thoughts.
Until… apropos of nothing he announced “The moon is coming out of eclipse.”
I tried unsuccessfully to relate this to the last thing we’d been talking about, the unpredictability of yogurt cultures. Perhaps a difficult metaphor?
He made a small, strangled noise, and I looked up to see his face a mask of raw anguish. Yet still he was smiling sadly through the pain.
“Oh, my heavens! What’s wrong?” I cried, jumping up from my pillow on the floor.
His jaw clenched down on his words, seemingly trying to hold them back. “The moon is coming out of eclipse,” he repeated, slowly and precisely.
When, in utter confusion, I did not respond, he continued. “I am given but a brief time here, and it is ending. I want to thank you, Flora, for so generously giving me these wonderful few hours.”
I did not understand and I said so. But as I watched, he seemed to be fading. And suddenly I remembered his story. Amaris. Son of the Moon. The Wolf that bays to the Blood Moon.
Panic flooded my veins. Here, for a short time, I’d found a soul-mate and he was a… what? A myth? A spectral being? A fiction.
I startled awake. Stiff from being curled up in the bookshop window well for hours, my back and legs screamed in protest as I tried to stand. The storm had blown itself out, but the lunar eclipse was over also. The full white face shown bright through ragged cloud remnants.
Another missed eclipse. This time dreaming some ridiculous nonsense about the man in the moon.
I dragged my tired old body toward the stairs that led to my apartment. But as I passed the reading nook, I noticed a pile of books on the table with Balzac resting on top. Where I had definitely not left that book.
Then my eyes darted to the stool behind the counter. Upon which were draped a strangely dry antique coat and a broad brimmed hat…
It is a bookstore after all… a vortex of weird… where fiction lives.
My new writing project is already spawning side stories. This one is inspired by the Flower Moon eclipse… and, obviously, a fair amount of bookstore nostalgia.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022