In the previous Round and Round, a mysterious chest was found on the bookshop’s front porch. Opening it, the staff of the weird bookshop discovered it was full of books—golden books. Books with glowing gilt decorations and some bound in gold.
An equally mysterious woman arrived mysteriously and claimed they were hers. She was going to take them but was convinced to leave them a bit longer.
She then disappeared—mysteriously—to attend to some problems that had arisen.
“I wonder when she will be back for these?” Annirosa pondered.
“I wonder when she’ll be back…” the bookseller said with a sigh.
“Can we begin looking through these? She gave us permission.”
“Ok. But I think that was more to be polite than actually wanting us to.”
They set the chest on the floor in front of the sales counter.
The enormous dog stepped to the front of the trunk and gave the ancient heavy lock a gentle swat with his paw. The lock came undone.
“Interesting way to pick a lock, Setanta,” the bookseller commented. “Is that what got you outlawed from Ireland?”
The dog prostrated himself on the floor and looked up balefully—more balefully than usual.
Annirosa slipped the lock off the hasp and lifted the lid. Golden light poured out of the trunk and illuminated her face, as if facing sunrise.
“Oooohh!” she said involuntarily. “Which one do we look at first?”
The bookseller got a couple of packing blankets and spread them on the sales counter to protect the books they were going to set there.
One after another, treasures came out of the deep chest.
The books below the top layer were wrapped in lush black velvet.
Some were heavily gilded cloth, including this 20th century gem.
Some were bound in gold using various methods, like thus:
Some were large. Some were small, like this little girdle book, which was used for adornment as much as devotional material.
The exhibition went well into the night. Setanta had quickly curled up on his pillow and fallen asleep.
Mathilda rested on the counter’s edge and watched dispassionately as each treasure came up. It was as if she had seen all of this before.
When the last book came out, Annirosa stood back and appraised the lot.
“I never thought I would see such wonders all in one place. Especially here!”
“Are you deprecating our provincial rustic bookshop?” The bookseller chuckled.
“No! I… I…”
“Me neither, Annirosa. Let’s put these back now.”
When the big chest was safely ensconced in the storeroom, Annirosa bade good evening.
“What is this all about, Mathilda?” the bookseller asked, looking down at her. “That woman seemed to know you—all of you. Is this a conspiracy?”
He received no reply. The cat began licking her left front paw. The dog looked upward as if the old fluorescent light fixture above him was fascinating.
“So, it’s like that, is it? I’m going to do some paperwork.”
He turned and strode to his office, pulling the door closed behind him.
Setanta and Mathilda exchanged eye contact, silently communicating, “He never does that.”
Setanta flopped himself on the floor at the office door. He pressed his nose against the crack at the bottom and aimed his eyes up at the doorknob—balefully.
Mathilda leapt onto the sales counter and proceeded to lick the back of her right hind leg, keeping her eyes on the door the whole time.
Inside his office, the bookseller withdrew the ring from his pants pocket where it had been much of the day. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and stared at it appraisingly.
‘I don’t believe that goblin nonsense for a minute. She came here for a reason. “The chest has been here seven years.” Bah! “Your eyes are open but you do not see.” Really? I’ve done pretty well…’ he thought.
He rolled the ring between his thumb and forefinger. Round and round.
He sat down heavily in his desk chair. He looked at the large corkboard on the wall above his desk where so many memories were pinned.
“Priscilla…” The memory of her untimely loss still drew his breath away and left an aching void in his chest.
‘Althea. What happened there?’ he thought, confused about the bookstore helper who had invaded his space and turned the place upside down, much to its benefit. ‘I thought. I thought we… And now she’s gone. Run off on a rescue mission with a snallygaster. But still—run off. And now I don’t think she will ever return. At least to stay.’
He looked through the ring. Everything in that view was distorted—out of focus.
He set the ring down in the center of a large creamy white book on his desk.
“The A Midsummer’s Night Dream that came in yesterday.” He ran his hand across it gently. The surface was smooth and cool. “Vellum. I need to collate the plates. Maybe tomorrow. Odd. It was dropped off with a lot of junk books. It fairly glowed when I lifted it from the bottom of the box.”
He sighed, crossed his arms and put his head down on the desk.
‘Nothing,’ he thought emptily. “Damn!” was his sad lonely expression.
“[Do not weep,]” some voice spoke compassionately inside his mind. “[Yours tears will spot the binding!]” the voice added cheerily.
His sad broodiness broke. He nearly chuckled.
‘Eedjit,’ he thought.
“[Eedjit,]” echoed inside him.
One hand had ended up resting on the ring. He closed his fingers round it and picked it up. He turned his head and looked at it resting in his palm. He brought his other hand to it and slowly pushed his forefinger into it.
The flash of light that came under the door made Setanta sneeze. Snot sprayed on the wood. Mathilda yowled worriedly. Setanta rose and turned the knob with his mouth. Mathilda hopped off the counter and slipped into the office ahead of him.
The room was empty.
Mathilda leapt up onto the desk and peered at the corkboard where the ring always hung. Her tail flicked like a whip. Setanta prostrated himself and whined balefully. Then Matilda hopped to the floor and strode purposefully out the door, her tail erect. Setanta rose and followed, his steps heavy. Across the threshold, he turned and pulled the door closed with his mouth.
‘What place is this? And when? Is it a fairy world?’ the bookseller thought to himself. ‘It looks like something Rackham would create.’
“Hey! HO! There is a bookseller in the land!”
He looked down, and a little man was looking up at him with his hands on his hips. The man was no taller than his knees.
“Well, hullo,” the bookseller said flatly and confused.
“Hell—o yourself! How did you get here?” the little man asked suspiciously. “Since we expelled the goblins, the rules are strict. NO outlanders permitted!”
The bookseller slipped his hand into his pocket to conceal the ring.
“I, uh, I dunno. I was in the bookshop office, and now I’m here. Where am I?”
“Avalon, of course. Why would anyone go somewhere and not know where they are?”
“I didn’t plan… I mean, I’m as surprised as…”
The bookseller looked around the scene. In the forest edge nearby, he saw flickering lights floating in the foliage.
“Fairies,” he whispered.
“Yes, yes. And you, YOU have stirred them up! There will be NO rest this night!”
Soft pink and blue and yellow and green figures, no taller than his middle finger, flitted in the trees. More and more appeared.
‘I’ve seen this before. The firefly tree on the mountain!’ he thought.
“Well, you will have to come along. Arganta will decide what is to be done with you.”
The bookseller stood transfixed. Thousands of lights flitted in the trees with more and more appearing.
The stress of the sudden arrival lessened, and he began to hear the soft fluttering of a myriad of fairy wings.
“Well, bookseller, are you coming? You will stir them all UP if we do not move along. Evensong is soon, and I do not wish to miss it. Nor the tipple afterward!”
The little man led him on into the forest. The bookseller noticed he wore bright yellow suede boots which curled up at his toes. He noticed the fellow took three steps and then skipped two!
‘I wonder why he does that?’ he thought.
“Helps the digestion,” the man said over his shoulder. “You should try it. And it might speed you up, slow coach!”
Once under the forest canopy, the bookseller felt he was in a constellation of multicolored stars on all sides and above. He felt lighter than air and, indeed, began to skip behind the little fellow. Three steps. Two skips.
Then up ahead, he saw a golden glow, which grew greater and greater as they approached. Soon it was pouring into the trees and all about them.
The forest ended abruptly, and he tripped, heels over head. He hadn’t been watching his feet, and a toe had caught on a fallen limb.
“Clumsy! Star gazer! Here, I will give you a hand. You cannot prostrate yourself here! It is an offense!”
When he was upright again, the bookseller saw he was about 17 yards from a dais that seemed to be made of soft golden air. Atop it was a throne not unlike the Coronation Seat but layered in solid gold. At the foot of the throne, a pair of legs rose. His gaze rose, and the legs continued longer and longer. They were clad in green tights. Woven into the fabric were hundreds of tendrils—vines climbing up and up and up. Then the bent knees and then the torso. Above her legs, she was clad in shimmering gold, which mirrored the gold of the grove and the throne and aura all about.
A soft subtle scent of jasmine seemed to flow from the dais and enchanted the bookseller’s senses even more.
His eyes rose to her face.
‘Her!’ he thought.
She laughed, and all the forest rang with bells. The same bells he had heard standing before Ginevra de Benci and under the torrents of Niagara Falls rushing past him. The same bells he had heard when the soft skin of the young living beech on the mountain first warmed to his touch. The same laughing bells he was sure he would hear when he crossed over.
“It is!” she smiled broadly. “Just be grateful it wasn’t a Doré Poe upon your desk when you slipped the ring over your finger! You would be in far different straits!”
He self-consciously slipped his ringed hand into a pocket.
“Now, why have you come here?”
“I didn’t come here consciously. I was in despair and decided to risk putting the ring on. It hasn’t always turned out well—wearing the ring.”
“Despair! Look where your work and dreams have brought you! Avalon! And think what dreams may come! Happy the man whose work and dreams are interchangeable. You are wealthy beyond the jewels of kings and the power of pharaohs.”
“But I am…”
“Alone?! Not once. I have always been by thy side—or within reach—when in thy most need.”
“Rarely. And never close. I mean, not close like a friend.”
“You have not needed me for eons.”
“Why am I here? Did you summon me?”
“Or did you summon me?” she laughed, and the bells of Notre Dame rang round him, the bells the night before the devil set it afire. “I do not know. There is magic out tonight. I am just a muse and cannot know or change fate.”
“And you are Queen of Avalon, Arganta.”
“Indeed! I am many things, and most of them all at once at the same time, if not the same space.”
“Am I here for a reason?” he asked again, confused.
“Well, you deserved a happy trip for once. A good mission and hard work. And putting up with creatures and mysterious women who are not women and all the books in the world. Let us say, this is just a bit of a vacation for you. And when it is done, it will stay with you as a dream. Now! What would you like to see in Avalon? Our dragon? The river of silver singing fish? The 360-degree rainbow? We could tread the runways of the moon. It is rising… just now!”
Indeed, a silver orb was rising slowly but noticeably over the gap in the forest canopy.
“How about the orchard forest? They bear the golden apples of the sun and silver apples of the moon each day! Hmmmm… we could take you to the hilltop where you can see the sunrise in the west and the sunset of the east—both at the same moment!”
“I… I’d like to see your library,” he said hesitantly.
“How did you know?!” she asked with serious concern.
“I… believe I have seen it—bits of it. In dreams.”
She laughed and clapped her hands. Bells rang like those he had heard on the cliffs of Moher or at the edge of Dun Aengus when looking over at the seagulls whirling far below.
“Well! Peeking! I am abashèd! That is our deepest secret.”
“I can’t control what I see in dreamland,” he said defensively.
“See! You can see when you let your mind be free. There is more to you than I know. I suppose that is why I am here and you are here.”
“I wish I could see, know more. I would dearly wish to do more.”
“Well! My library! All you see in your life are books, and you come to Avalon and wish to see more?”
“I do. They are your books.”
“Do not think you may have any or even one. Not a leaf will I part with. But come along, we shall open the gates for you.”
She rose. And rose. And rose. He followed the rising until his neck ached. And then she began stepping down invisible steps on the dais, her height lessening as she came. When she reached the forest floor and crossed to him, she was only a bit taller than he! Her hair, golden and black, parted in the center, fell over her shoulders in front and behind. She held out her left arm and nodded at him to touch it. The sleeve reached to her wrist, and a bit of golden fabric was attached to a ring on her center finger. A simple gold ring but for a tiny red jewel set in it which glowed warmly, its own light burning inside. The flowing golden cloth of her sleeve hung down to her waist. He reached and gently laid his right hand upon her forearm.
There was a brief flash, and his eyes blinked.
Suddenly, they were standing before massive gates, or more accurately, doors. Wooden planks, as wide and thick as a man, extended up seven times his height. Iron studs, as big as his head, dotted the wooden wall. Decorative as well as protective iron was bound to the door as well. Four hinges held the door up, two on either side, were nearly as tall as he. The hasp was as broad as a rowboat was long. An enormous lock secured it.
“Is this a fortress?”
“Just the library door!” she trilled like a tiny spring pouring to the surface from a mountain’s depth and cascading down a rocky stream where the stones the water struck rang like chimes.
“Oh, the goblins would like to get in here and learn things they could never dream. Of course, goblins do not dream. They would be far more dangerous if they did. They must never be permitted to learn. Knowledge is a weapon they must never get.”
She touched the base of the lock, and it disappeared! The gates slowly opened. Bookcases lined the way ahead as far as his eyes could see.
“You have discovered our secret, bookseller. Spells and arms cannot protect this land alone. The knowledge and soul of all the times—past and future—are shelved in here. I must warn you. When you cross the threshold—if you dare—you will know the unknowable. You will know what is it like to walk upon the sun, to swim the seas and touch the great jewels in the oceans’ deepest depths, worlds you have never dreamt of… well! Perhaps you have! This is one!” She paused and appraised him.
He shrank into himself self-consciously.
“Dream chaser, there is more to you than I have supposed… NO! I have known along! But you hide it so well. It is you who have doubted. Past and future, you can see it all here. Shall we cross?”
He hesitated and actually took half a step back.
“Hey HO! Bookseller! Watch her train!”
It was the little man holding up her golden train of shimmering fabric seventeen times as long as she was tall. The hair island just above his forehead was moving back and forth like a mouse as he creased and uncreased his brow in consternation.
“I… don’t know if I should. If I dare. I can see plenty from here.”
“Let us cross into the library,” the woman whispered, her arm extended and the bookseller’s hand still resting atop it.
With that, she stepped over the threshold, a bar of solid gold as wide at the man’s forearm. And he came along, not sensing his legs were moving at all.
From there they walked, or rather glided, for there seemed to be no friction to their movement.
“No one knows. Stories are being added every instant.
Soon they were far enough down the aisle to where looking forward, he could see no end. Turning, looking backward, he could see no beginning.
“Did you ever dream this, bookseller?”
“I have often dreamed of all the books in the world.”
“I… I hadn’t thought of that.”
They walked and walked. The books, the bindings, the heights and thicknesses changed constantly.
“You haven’t shown me one book. How is this library organized?”
“It is arranged by mind.”
“My no! I have not that power. It is arranged by the mind of the reader—the user. Your books are just ahead on the left.”
“I’ve never written a book. Not that I haven’t tried. There are reams in boxes and boxes at home. Unpublished. I never tried.”
“But they are not edited. There are things I wish to amend or explain.”
“Better get ‘cracking’, as you say.”
“And these volumes are your early life. When you and Priscilla first started the bookshop.”
“I don’t want to see.”
She leaned down a bit and cocked her head to one side to be face to face.
“You would refuse this gift?”
“I know the past, and there are many things I would not see again. And… I fear the future. I would rather not see that. I can wait til it comes upon me.”
She laughed and smiled. He saw blue-white icebergs sailing in the polar sea and cooling lava flowing popping and hissing and glowing black-red as far as the eye could see.
“Ah, you would not see her again—at the last when her soul flew out and past you, shimmering like the aurora. And you would not like to go out where, when the time comes, you crossover. There are millions of books here. You need not open those two, you know.”
“I want to go back to the bookstore. There is endless work for me there. Let me go back.” He panicked. This magic land held more than he wanted to know. “I just want to go home.”
She reached to him and raised his hand to eye level. The ring glowed warmly upon his forefinger.
“I understand. It was no test. You know how to find me now. Come back soon. We have work to do. Book work. Believe it or not, you are the only one with the skills to help. There are goblins involved. Come back soon, I entreat you. I will hide the volumes that worry you. You need not see them.”
He raised his other hand and reached for the ring and slid it off.
He was in his office, landing on his chair with a soft “thump.” The dawn was pouring in the window. There was a knocking on the door. And a heavy scratching at its base.
“We hear you in there. It is Annirosa! Mathilda emailed you have not been in there all night. We are worried. Can you let us in? The door is locked!”
“I’M ALL RIGHT. LEAVE ME ALONE! I’LL BE OUT IN TIME TO OPEN THE STORE!” he snapped grumpily, as if being woken unwelcome from a sweet dream.
He looked at the ring in his left hand—held between his thumb and forefinger. He leaned forward and hung it on the pin on the corkboard above his desk. He picked up the vellum tome upon his desk. A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The signed limited edition. He flipped through its semi-limp covers. The Rackham images seemed much more familiar than the many times he had seen them before.
“I wonder how Arthur knew the landscape? Had he been there too?” he pondered.
The knocking started again.
He was tired. He rose from his desk chair and crossed to the door. He opened it. Annirosa, Mathilda and Setanta were all looking up at him.
“Where have you been?!” Annirosa asked, a bit of desperation in her voice.
Mathilda’s purr was nearly loud enough to be a growl.
Setanta gave a pitiful tiny whine which was much too small for his stature.
“I’ve been in Rackhamland, if you must know,” he said, holding the vellum out as if in explanation. “I’m tired. I don’t feel well. I’m going home. I changed my mind. You will have to open today.”
He turned back and pulled the ring off the corkboard and put it in his pocket. Something made him think he should have it in his possession.
He walked out from behind the counter and crossed the door. He pushed it open, and the little silver bell above it rang a soft dirge march. He trudged across the front porch and down into the parking lot. The book van was only two slots away. He pulled the front door open. It creaked and groaned and struggled against his pull. He pulled his aging frame into the driver’s seat and reached for the key, which was always left in the ignition.
Mathilda had leapt as high and she could and was finishing her climb up his calf and into his lap. Annirosa pulled open the passenger door.
“Pop in, Setanta!”
Indeed, the massive hound leapt toward the passenger seat, overshot, landed in the gap between the seats and planted his drooling snout into the bookseller’s lap.
“We are coming with you. Mathilda tells us that Althea said you have not had your house dusted in…”
“Years,” he replied. “No one has been there since… and then the plague and then… who would want to?”
“Who indeed. You brood and brood and brood. We will clean downstairs. Put tissue in your ears and go to dreamland in your bedroom. You will not notice us elves putting your world in order.”
“I really don’t want, wasn’t expecting company.”
“A clean house will make you feel better. Go to your room. We will not drink your gin. Mark the bottles if you wish. All 43 of them!”
“How’d you know?”
“Plain as the gin blossom on your nose!”
“I don’t!” he replied, his hand rising to cover his face.
“No, I am teasing. You look pretty good for your…”
The van’s engine roared to life, as did the faulty exhaust system.
He drove the four of them to his big battered clapboard home. He pushed Setanta over Annirosa and out the passenger door. He’d brought home a Borges book. The Universal Library. It had been placed on the floor between the seats—where Setanta had landed. It was a bit damp with drool but not unsaleable.
Mathilda seemed concerned about the leap down from his thigh. She dug in her claws in fright.
“Ow-wow! Mathilda, you’re drawing blood!”
She dug in deeper and then leapt with the soft sound of rending cloth.
And so, they followed him up his 11 concrete steps. There he opened the door, and the three dashed in.
“I’m going upstairs. Do what you what. Just not too much noise, please. I’m taking a nap. And don’t rearrange my books. I have a system, believe it or not.”