Mathilda bounded into the bookseller’s office. She leapt upon the desk, and papers scattered into the man’s lap and onto the floor. Her tail flicked and, uncharacteristically, affectionately nuzzled the bookseller’s hand. He was writing, and his pen scrawled a squiggle on a manuscript of verse he was copying from notes.
“Mathilda! What has gotten in…”
At that moment, Setanta galloped in. The giant hound could not stop on the bare wooden floor and crashed into the bookseller’s chair, nearly sending him off it. He had to clasp onto the edge of the desk to keep the chair under him. Books and papers and the lamp were pushed into the corkboard above the desk. The ring popped off its pin, fell to the desk, rolled to the edge and fell to the floor.
It rolled and rolled across the room until it struck a bookcase. It stopped, spun on its axis and rattled to a stop on the floor. The bookseller noticed it had ended up beneath a thick volume bound in polished calf.
Setanta recovered his flailing legs and stood. He put his paws on the man’s shoulders and happily slobbered on his face.
The dog gave a confused look. As if he’d never been chastised before.
Just then a bell rang—the little silver bell that hung above the door jingled merrily.
The two animals dashed out to the front door.
“Mathilda! And you must be Setanta. I have heard so much about you! The bookshop looks marvelous. You two have kept the place shipshape!”
“Annirosa?” the bookseller whispered.
He pushed himself to his feet and headed out of the office. When he got to the counter, Annirosa stood opposite him.
“Are you hiring?”
Three books fell to the floor in the literature section, “Thump, slap, crunch!”
“Where have you…”
“Where have I not been?!”
“You were flying away for a short time the last time I…”
“And so I did. But things I thought were easily solved turned out to be complex. Wizards are meddlesome creatures and not easily put back in their golden cages. And then… time flies too.”
“Things have been so odd. The plague and all.”
“Ah, I am glad Mathilda and Setanta were here to keep you company. Tim finished the addition! I saw it from the outside. I am sure you have filled every crook and nanny. Let us go and see if I agree with your use of all the extra space.”
The bookseller headed out from behind the counter.
“Well, the cat and dog both had plenty of input as well. What with all the books flying in—well, not actually flying.”
“Althea sends her warm affectionate greetings. She is caring for the Snallygaster clutch. 23 eggs. 23 baby Snallygasters. The first in centuries! No longer is this bookshop’s creature the sole survivor!”
“I… I don’t know what to…”
“Say nothing. Let us go and look at books! Why do you think I flew back?!”
The four of them headed down the history aisle toward the back.
“Oh my! English history is fifty percent bigger! And Ireland and Scotland have doubled! You now have a section on Wales?!”
“Mathilda found a collection that was on offer nearby…”
“Not every bookshop in this part of the world has a section on… And you have mixed in Welsh language books with books in English! I have never heard of such a thing!”
“Mathilda felt that combining them would create… she called it synergy—in an email.”
“Althea… how is…”
“She is so busy. Barbara could not stay. Something about keeping the Barrier up. Those that were expelled trying to break through from the other side. Our side. Althea said something about battles to be waged. Did you know baby Snallygasters need to have their nails trimmed every other day?”
“How does she…”
“As beautiful as ever. More so, if anything. But she is tired. She misses Mathilda. 23 Snallygasters and their mom are not as warm as one cat.”
“Does she ever…”
“She talks about the bookstore all the time. Barbara sends her books. I believe she orders them from here. Under a pseudonym.”
“So Althea has an…”
“No. She is in no place known to the post office. Known to anyone who does not need to know. Which is the perfect place to raise creatures that will become enormous. But Barbara has a special courier service.”
“She would, of course. I should very much like to…”
“Althea has visited here a number of times. At odd hours or when you are away on a buying trip. Mathilda or Setanta have assisted her. She said seeing you would make her sad. She might feel you needed her help more than the monsters. And she knows you are in good hands.”
The bookseller stopped in his tracks. His shoulders slumped, and his breath caught in his throat.
“And here is the poetry section! It looks so good!”
A book fell from high above and landed splayed open at his feet.
“The Oxford Book of Verse.” He bent to pick it up. “Andrew Marvell.”
She leaned over his shoulder and read softly, “Come live with me and be…”
“I check on her cottage often. Someone is keeping it up. But I never see anyone working there.”
“Why, it does its own upkeep, silly! And now I am here! I will move in there for a bit. Spring is coming, and I would love to work the gardens and get the porch loaded with potted plants and hanging gardens.”
“You did not give my job away, did you?”
“You’ve been away for…”
“A blink of an eye! OH! The literature section! It is so BIG!”
“It is the bestselling section in the store. So it deserves more space.”
“You have done an excellent job. The shop seems more in balance than before.” She glanced at the vintage digital watch on her wrist. The numbers weren’t “numbers.” They appeared more like hieroglyphs. “Oh! You will be closing soon. I should get the cottage opened and unpack. There will be so much to do!”
“Will you be in tomorrow?” he asked hopefully.
“Of course! Promptly at 10:07.”
“We open at 10…”
“I will just have to miss that. Well, I must…”
“Fly,” he said, completing her sentence.
She pirouetted on one foot and fairly flew out the front door. The little silver bell above the entrance trilled joyfully.
The bookseller turned and returned to the office as if in a daze. He crossed the room and retrieved the ring from the floor. He sat down heavily into his chair and stared at the ring in his hand.
And so another woman returned to the bookshop.
The bookseller knew he would not ask again how long she would stay.
She likely did not know herself. Something would call her away, eventually.
‘I hope Althea never comes back for Mathilda,’ he thought, rolling the gold ring between his thumb and finger. ‘And Setanta, he won’t be outlawed from Ireland forever.’
He took a sip of Midwinter’s Night Dram. The liquid was multidimensional. Earth, wind and fire.
‘Don’t think about what you will lose. Nor about what you have lost. Hold what you can and let go when the time comes…’ he thought.
“I’m ready to let go now. Let the ring take me away for good. Then I won’t need to see this all dismantled. I won’t need to see the horizon accelerating before my eyes at thirty-two feet per second per second until… it ends,” he whispered.
He stared at the ring.
“Would you take me to the Sirens’ Island off Amalfi? I should like to hear their song—even at the risk of madness. Madness, is it worse than consciousness?”
Mathilda landed softly on the desk before him. She gently pressed her face into his hand.
“Trying to knock the ring away?” He squeezed it tighter and with his other hand gently grasped the loose fur and flesh on back of her neck. She purred deeply.
Setanta flopped heavily on the floor at his feet. He gave a little whine and looked balefully up at him.
“I miss her,” he said to the hound.
He held the ring up at eye level and rolled it back and forth. Round and round. Outside its perimeter, the world was bright and distinct. He could read the notes and memos and ephemera pinned to the corkboard above his desk. But looking through the ring, the view was indistinct, as if that round space was in motion.
He noticed a clear plastic bag on his desk. He picked it up and half rose. He pinned it to the corkboard amongst the other ephemera and memos.
“I wonder what that wad of Revolutionary War fractional currency is worth? You found that in an old dictionary, didn’t you, Mathilda?”
She purred so deeply she could have had a lion’s lungs.
“Well, I’ll get around to it sometime, I suppose. At least it is safe bagged and hung above the desk. That’s the problem with ephemera. It is so damned difficult to keep track of. It disappears and reappears. It is here and then it is gone and then it reappears. Ephemera—like fairies’ wings…”
He chuckled and took another sip.
“I think I just coined that, Setanta.”
The dog rumbled deeply and then sneezed, and a big blot of snot splattered upon the floor.
“Let’s go out and sit on the porch. It is 70 degrees. Just two days ago, it was raging snow and 17 degrees. Now it is spring. Almost. I bet there are a few daffodils blooming.”
So, he led them out. He pushed the front door open, and the silver bell above gave a melancholy trill.
They stepped out onto the old wooden deck. The roof above was dark. The afternoon was fading. The sun setting through the forest behind the shop cast a cold pale yellow light.
“What do think, Mathilda? We should stop and smell the spring blooms. We should read some books instead of just thousands of titles and copyright pages.”
He sat on the rocker. One of a pair that had held their position just outside the front door for decades.
He held up his right hand. The ring rolled between his thumb and finger. In his other hand, the tumbler with a finger on amber liquid rolled against the sides.
“If I lost this ring… while I was away… I could never return. I wonder. If the ring tires of me, will it lose itself and find someone else?”
He pressed his feet to the porch floor and pushed. The chair began moving.
“It is like being at sea,” he said to Setanta sitting erect his knee. “I am all at sea.”
The other rocker, just a couple of hand lengths away, began to move in tandem.
‘We would hold hands and rock together at day’s end,’ he thought, unsurprised the empty rocking chair next to him was in motion.
Mathilda leapt into his lap and tried again to pry his thumb and finger apart. He gently pushed her face away and squeezed the loose fur and flesh on her back.
“Don’t worry. No adventures today, Mathilda. Well, Annirosa opening Althea’s cottage is a good thing.”
He took a sip.
“Maybe there’s an adventure yesterday. Or 500 years ago.”
Mathilda tried to rise, but he pressed his hand gently on her back.
Then, on the porch railing 29 feet away and huge owl alighted silently. Their eyes met. His brown and tired. The owl’s as golden as the whiskey, as golden as the ring.
“Hullo. You’re out early today.”
The owl twisted its head impossibly. 180 degrees clockwise. 180 counterclockwise. It raised its wings and rose up a few inches and floated across the porch and landed on an old steamer trunk partially hidden behind the book carts which lived outdoors all year long.
He stopped rocking. As did the other empty rocker next to him.
“Well! Where did that come from? Annirosa was going to straighten the carts before she left. I should call her… no… she has no phone. None of them do. I wonder how they keep in touch?”
He chuckled. He knew.
He stood and crossed the porch. Setanta and Mathilda padded alongside him. But they were a couple of paces away—as if there was someone else between them and the bookseller.
He bent over the old trunk. It was plastered with labels. Casablanca. Rangoon. Warsaw. Cairo. Athens. Constantinople. Singapore…
“You’ve been around, haven’t you?” he addressed it.
The trunk just rested there, an aura glowed all about it.
He slipped the ring into his trouser pocket without a thought.
Leaves moved out on the edge of the lot. Brown sere… They flitted though there was no wind. Like little creatures, they scrabbled and danced across the parking lot and forest floor.
“You don’t have a label less than a century old, do you?” he asked.
It just rested there and continued to glow softly.
“A donation, I suppose. Uncle Harry died, and this was in his attic. To sell the house, it had to be gotten rid of. Likely filled with E P Roe and Hall Caine and…”
Mathilda leapt onto the top of the trunk and gave him a defiant look. All 13 pounds of her stood, as if in warning him to leave this be.
“Should we wait until tomorrow? What if some pilferer came tonight and saw this as fair game?”
He bent and grasped one of the leather handles on its side and tried to lift.
“Whoa! It must weigh a ton.”
Setanta snuffled, and a long string of drool hung from his mouth.
“Maybe if I emptied some of it, I could drag it inside.”
He crouched before it.
“Padlocked. This is an ancient padlock. Looks like it came from Newgate Prison.”
He rattled it.
“Well, so much for that idea.”
Setanta moved forward and swung a paw at it. The lock’s hasp swung open.
“Neat trick! Is that why you were outlawed from Ireland? Breaking and entering?”
The dog flopped down and stared up at him balefully. Setanta specialized in baleful.
“All in a good cause, Setanta.” He bent and scratched the dog behind its ears.
Mathilda still sat atop the trunk and looked as if she had no intention of moving.
“Trouble inside, you think? Well, we can’t just leave it here forever, can we?”
He dropped to one knee and undid the two metal latches. Each made a soft thunk and a few rattles.
“Well, shall we?”
Mathilda leapt off onto the porch. She seemed very unhappy.
Setanta leaned forward, his nose only inches from the trunk’s lid.
Mathilda stood back, pressing herself against the bookseller’s thigh.
As the bookseller slowly lifted the lid, light came pouring out from inside it. He standing and looking down into it when it was fully opened.