A cheery bell announces my entrance to the candy shop. Gaia looks up from counting money behind the counter and smiles at me. Today she’s wearing the softest looking sweater with dark blue jeans. Her light brown hair is escaping from a braid, showing off a couple peek-a-boo streaks of color.
There is a gentleman already browsing inside, so I look at the caramel apple display for a bit.
“Can I help you find anything?” Gaia asks after a few minutes. Now that she’s come around the counter, I can see she’s wearing yellow bee socks with her converse.
I nod and ask about her licorice. She shows me her selection and we start discussing the flavors. The shiny red pieces are my favorite, but there’s also purple and yellow and blue and black. Gaia laughs when I wrinkle my nose at the black licorice and insists they’re the best kind. She would know, she argues. After all, she made them herself.
She shows me her new batch of lemon drops, the peppermints, the gum balls. Her eyes are sparkling as she shows off her chocolate selection. I nod and admire her work and ask her about her day, but we do not talk about buying anything.
She knows I’m not here for the candy.
The gentleman finally comes to the register and buys a bag of taffies and a box of chocolates. I watch him from out of the corner of my eye while examining a barrel of rock candy.
We both wait until the door has shut behind him before turning to each other again. Gaia is grinning from ear to ear.
I follow her into the back room, and she pushes a wheeled shelf away from the wall. She presses her fingers against a knot in the wooden panels, and something behind them clicks. Four panels swing open as a hidden door.
“Have fun.” Gaia whispers, and she shuts the door behind me with barely a click.
The path before me is lined with bookcases.
The first time I saw it, I cried from the beauty. Books and books and books, as far as I dared to venture. I never thought it was possible.
It certainly wasn’t legal.
There are five owners of the Forbidden Ink. Gaia usually runs the candy shop in the front, always keeping an eye out for someone in desperate need of the books they keep so carefully hidden.
I walk in deeper, smiling at the first couple of shelves I pass. They were the first I looked through, and I still remember how each title sprang out at me and demanded to be taken. I take a turn to the right and then to the left, running my fingers lightly over the bindings.
Someday. I tell myself. Someday I will read them all.
I take another turn and find Carena, re-shelving books while humming an old piece she once played for me on the piano. She’s wearing a blue polka-dot dress and Mary Jane heels, and when she sees me her eyes light up. “Good afternoon! I just put on the kettle, would you like some tea?”
There is something about her voice that reminds me of misty autumn nights, quiet Sunday afternoons, and cozy winter evenings. Words fall from her mouth like snowflakes on a still winter day.
Clear and soft and beautiful.
We walk through a row of shelves to a small sitting room. There are armchairs facing each other and a coffee table that holds mugs and coasters and teabags. Along the wall is a stove with a steaming kettle. We sit and have tea and Carena tells me about the mystery books she just finished. I pull out my notebook to jot down the titles.
I have seconds on tea and she asks me about my week and it is a while before I return to the labyrinth of books, feeling warmed inside and out.
The air smells like books and vanilla and jasmine tea. I pause among the poetry and look for something to take home with me. Something simple and complex and short and deep, all bundled within paper and ink.
I’ve found a pocket-sized volume that calls out to me when my eyes catch on a maple leaf butterfly. Each wing is brilliantly blended from red to orange, looking for all the world like it belongs on a tree. It’s crawling along a shelf, lost and bewildered.
The butterflies don’t normally come out to the poetry section. I nudge it gently onto my small volume of poetry and carry it away.
Soon the bookcases have delicate vines trailing up their sides and tiny crocus flowers peeking out from between floorboards. Potted saplings start appearing in openings where shafts of light filter in. Butterflies start fluttering out of shelves with wings of glass, of leaves, of feathers and smoke. I lower the maple leaf butterfly to a group of potted lavender and let it crawl off.
I turn and grin. Asena is exactly how I’d picture a forest nymph. Short, soft hair that curls at the ends like the tendrils of a climbing vine, a green shirt with a belt at the waist, and a layered gypsy skirt of earthen tones. She’s wearing a flower crown, which also carries a few resting butterflies.
“Hello.” I say. “One of your maple leaves got lost among the poetry.”
She walks over to the lavender and stoops to examine the returned butterfly. “Oh dear, they’ve been doing that recently. I think it’s the rose tea Carena just got. Can’t blame them for loving the smell.”
I can’t help but think that if Asena ever grabbed my hand and said ‘come with me on an adventure’, I would follow her without hesitation. She looks like she would know exactly where to go to find dragons or castles or sea creatures.
Talking with her was like sinking into an old legend, surrounded by magic.
And knowing I’d always make it back home.
She shows me her newest plants and tells me about the stray bluebird that she’d adopted. I show her the pocket volume I’ve picked and she tells me which poems are her favorites.
I ask her to tell me about another world before I go, and she eagerly begins to talk about a land of starlight and moonbeams, of fairies and magical glens, of beasts of nightmares and creatures of light.
When she finishes, it is as if she had grabbed my hand and run off, taking me there and back again and leaving me with memories of adventure.
I wander through the bookcases, leaving the plants and butterflies behind. The book-bindings here are made of leather the titles are written in golds and silvers.
I’m amongst the fantasy books now, and I am scanning the titles for a book I spotted the last time I was here.
“Can I help you find something?”
I look up in time to see Celeste poke her head around a corner. Her hair is layered and long, with little braids scattered throughout and tiny white flowers woven in. She’s wearing a teal blue blouse with a leather jacket and dark jeans.
Her eyes are full of things yearning to be made.
I try to tell her the title I’m looking for, but instead I end up telling her what I remember about the story and how it made me feel and why it meant so much to me. She’s nodding like I’m making sense when really I feel like my words are spilling out in a mess, like the way puzzle pieces tumble out of a newly opened box.
Celeste leads me to a bookshelf and we search the books together. I fall into silence as I look, and suddenly she is the one with words tumbling out. She’s telling me about constellations and music and the way our brains process memories. I pull out the book I’m looking for as she tells me about the way people talk and what their words usually mean.
We chat for a while, and I forget what it is that we say but I remember what we mean.
Celeste reminds me of a lighthouse glowing in the night, of a fairy glen under a bright summer sun, of a scribe’s office with papers scattered everywhere.
When I finally pull away, my thoughts have settled into new places of belonging.
I hold the two books close to me as I take the roundabout way back. I am not eager to leave this place, and I linger among the shelves of scripts and screenplays. Behind one of the shelves I hear typing, and I peek around the corner to spot Kairi in front of a computer.
She’s wearing an asymmetrical blue dress with a fitted white jacket. The desk is clean and white, holding her computer and a vase of blush roses. Her fingers are dancing over the keys, keeping beat to a jumpy tune I cannot hear. I watch her for a minute before she blows a stand of pink hair out of her face and spots me. “Find some good books?”
I hold up the two I’m carrying and she nods with a grin. But of course she knows I found some good ones. That’s the only kind they carry. She waves me over and pulls out her sketchbook, opening it to show me her newest concepts. There are characters, inventions, and designs filling the pages, everything I could never imagine on my own.
I think she’s from the future.
Kairi makes me think of lightning and crystals and stars. When I listen to her talk I feel like she’s telling me the secrets of the universe. I tell her about my week and she tells me about new ideas and dreams for tomorrow.
When I leave her to her typing, I feel like I could try anything.
I feel like trying would be worth it.
I knock on the hidden door and wait for Gaia. She wraps my books carefully and I buy them along with a caramel apple. The bell rings once more as I leave the candy shop and walk home in a crowd of people. People who haven’t just come from a forbidden bookstore. People who didn’t just travel and wonder and have a cup of tea with friends.
I think of Gaia, waiting for someone in desperate need of books to walk into her store.
Waiting for someone starved of stories.
Waiting for everyone in this crowded city.