26 comments

Mar 18, 2021

Contemporary Fiction

The city rushes outward, upward, in all directions, blurred by the rain and gloom of another midday storm. The streets teem with blinded cars, headlight beams shining in the raindrops and reflecting off the wet pavement. 


You are lost, caught by surprise in the storm and turned around in the unfamiliar city. Your hair is soaked and disheveled, your clothes cling tightly to your skin in the warm summer rain.


A streetlight and a modest storefront sign catch your eye. This building is nothing like the aloof glass-and-metal structures which surround it. It is welcoming: stone-clad with wide windows, the inside piled high with books.


A thin bell sings your arrival as you open the door and shake the weather from your skin. 


“Make yourself at home, dear,” someone calls from the back, hidden within the labyrinth of books. 


The interior of the shop is worn, the books on the highest shelves are dusty, and the scent of yellowing paper fills the air. A woman appears from around the corner of a bookshelf, her long white hair tied in a loose braid. She glances at you from behind silver eyeglasses.


“Quite a storm to be caught in with no umbrella,” she says with a smile. “I was just making some tea, care for some?”


You nod and thank her. 


“What brings you to the city?” she asks,  weaving her way around the stacks of books on the floor to the back of the store.


“I’m just visiting,” you reply, and follow her through the maze.


She nods thoughtfully, watching the electric kettle come to a boil. “Chamomile or Earl Grey?”


Tea poured and sweetened to your liking, the two of you sit on stools at the checkout counter, mugs in hand.


“How long have you worked here?” you ask.


She smiles. “Longer than you’ve been alive.”


“How old is the store? I’m a bit of a history buff.”


“Older than me by far,” she says. She looks at you again, this time over the rim of her glasses, as if weighing your soul. “What’s the difference between history and myth, do you think?”


You open your mouth to answer, something erudite about fiction and fact, but the words catch in the place somewhere in the place between your heart and your throat. 


“I’m not sure,” you say simply, and it’s the truth. Something about this store, this storm, casts doubts. 


She laughs, her voice lilting with amusement. “The person who tells it, of course.”


You smile. “If you were to tell me about the store, would it be history or myth?”


“Ha!” she exclaims. “Now that’s a good question.”


There’s a story on the tip of her tongue, mingled with the scent of Earl Grey tea and honey. You can sense that this tale is more valuable to her than any of the books around you.


You settle in to listen, your fingers wrapped around a warm mug of tea.


****


The man who built the store was a natural-born storyteller. His parents said he was telling stories before he could walk, wielding words like playthings. Everywhere he went, people asked him for stories. Some he told aloud, some he scribbled on used envelopes or torn sheets of paper. The best ones he kept to himself, hopeful that one day he would have a shop from which to sell them.


As a young man, he saved and scraped by, working in mills and cleaning up around building sites. Back then, the city was growing but had no aspirations towards the sky. The buildings were short, sturdy, and simple, made to weather the summer storms.


After years of toiling, the man bought a plot near the edge of the city and set about building his store. The day before they laid the foundation, he wed a spirited woman with hair like ink. She was an epic poem and he a ballad. 


Three days after the store opened for the first time, they welcomed a daughter into their little home above the shop. 


Two days later, the man’s wife died in the night. His stories died with her. He closed his store and did not open it again for nearly a year. When he did reopen, he sold books written by others and never told a story again.


Years passed, and as his daughter grew it became clear that she was no ordinary child. On the cuffs of gruff men’s sleeves, she scribbled poems that brought them to tears. She crafted stories out of raindrops and fairy tales from a candle’s flame.


Soon, people came to the store not for books, but for the little girl’s words. Ask anyone and they would tell you that her poems could cure sickness, her stories could mend broken things, and a single word from her lips could add a year to a man’s life.


Meanwhile, her father watched and wasted away, a man of sorrow held together by thin strings of pride for his daughter, who looked more like her mother every day. Before she reached her seventeenth birthday, his broken and storyless heart gave out. 


He left the shop to her, along with faded copies of the stories he wrote before her mother died. She clung to those pages, read them until she could recite them from memory, and no longer wondered why her father had given up storytelling.


At night, she read his words aloud to taste her grief. Each time she did, she could swear a figure appeared in the shadows beyond the candlelight, to listen and remember. Around her, the city grew grander and taller, and nearly forgot about the store and the girl, who was by then a woman. 


She did not mind that fewer and fewer people came to ask for stories, and more and more people came by happenstance to buy books. But the city had not completely forgotten her, not yet. 


One stormy day, a man walked into the bookstore to ask for a tale. He was kind and had a smile full of sonnets. 


His story was only one word: love. 


A few months later, they married just outside the bookstore, he in an ink-black suit and she in a gown made of poems written in lace. They published her father’s writings and some of their own, as well. They raised children, two boys and three girls, who stood firm as the city was reborn around them. 


And when the two of them died, old and full of memory, they passed the store on to their youngest son, who loved the books like siblings and taught his child to do the same.


He passed the store on to his daughter, who could only hope to wield words half as well as her forebears. 


****


“There you have it,” the old woman says, finishing off the last dregs of her tea. “The story of this bookshop.”


You smile into your mug. The rain has stopped and the first beams of sunlight peek in through the windows, foregoing the rest of the city in search of a tale.


“So it was your family that built this store?” you ask.


“That depends,” she replies.


“On what?”


Her eyes twinkle with poems. “On whether you believe the story is a history or a myth.”

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26 comments

Thom Brodkin
01:11 Mar 20, 2021

First I have to ask if this is the story you were unsure of. If so, please let me tell you your fears are unfounded. This was one of your very best. I love the point of view. Is that second person? I’m not a technical writer so I’m not sure but the choice is perfect. I also finally figured out something. Music. You are studying to be a music teacher and your story’s are songs. They are lyrical and melodic and soft to my soul. I am so glad to know you and to hear your songs. They are truly magnificent.

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Claire Lewis
01:58 Mar 20, 2021

Thom, your comments are always exactly what I need to hear! To answer your questions, no this isn’t the one I was unsure about, and yes it’s second person. This one was the result of a two-hour feverish writing session instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour. And I’m thrilled that my stories read as songs to you, I can’t imagine higher praise!

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Kyler Mattoon
15:48 Apr 08, 2021

My god, the poetry that drips from your fingers!!! Gorgeously done, just as all your others are.

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Leilani Lane
22:47 Apr 07, 2021

Yessssss, I love a second-person story! We need more of those on here. "There’s a story on the tip of her tongue, mingled with the scent of Earl Grey tea and honey." What a line, damn! Love it. I don't have any critiques, I thought this was creative, descriptive, and beautiful, like all your work. :) This was a really cool prompt that I unfortunately did not have a chance to write for, so I'm so happy that you did!!

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Claire Lewis
00:25 Apr 08, 2021

Ha, thanks! That was my favorite line in here too... now I want a cup of tea 😂

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Sam Ackman
16:57 Apr 06, 2021

Very immersive descriptions at the start and quite a fun ending! This is a wonderful story!

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Julie Ward
16:12 Mar 20, 2021

I'm so glad I stopped by to read on a dreary, rainy morning in my own corner of the world. Your story just glows with beautiful descriptions, it drew me right in. Of course, I will always wander into the welcoming little wide-windowed store filled with books. I could picture it all and I love the way you wove the story of the storyteller family. I agree with Thom. As I read I kept thinking "music." Your writing feels like it has a soundtrack woven into the words. What a lovely way to start the day.

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Claire Lewis
16:26 Mar 20, 2021

Hi Julie, I’m honored to have played a small and happy part in your rainy morning. Your comment brightened mine :)

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Julie Ward
16:27 Mar 20, 2021

And that makes me double happy! I love your writing - and I can't wait to read more.

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Jane Andrews
19:48 Mar 19, 2021

I’m so glad I clicked on your name after you left a comment on one of my stories because this one of yours is beautiful. I love the lyrical use of language here - and the way ink and poetry and stories become metaphors for other things. I’ll make sure to keep checking your entries from now on.

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Claire Lewis
20:56 Mar 19, 2021

Thank you Jane, I’m grateful for your feedback and look forward to more :)

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R. K.
13:27 Mar 19, 2021

This level of expertise should be illegal. I adore this, Claire. There are so many lines I loved, that I couldn't paste them all here. All I'll say is, there's something about quiet spots in tired cities that no one ever visits, something about the smell of paper and the thrill of spinning a tale that is timeless. You captured that evocatively here, from the second person down to the bedtime story style (which you've been doing lately and I've been living for).

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Claire Lewis
15:56 Mar 19, 2021

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I've been writing just to get more of your comments recently... It's so motivating to have Reedsy friends like you with complementary aesthetics and tastes in stories :) I'm going to blame Emily Morgenstern on my current obsession with the bedtime story style. I'm not even mad.

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R. K.
17:26 Mar 19, 2021

I'm glad to have met a writer like you in my lifetime! And Claire! These prompts! They are almost perfect for the bedtime story style we both love. I'm going to to write one, but if I don't find time (I'm literally facing a brushfire of paperwork) I'm counting on you to convey the Morgenstern essence to the poor, unfortunate souls on here who have yet to be touched by the beauty of words.

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Claire Lewis
18:16 Mar 19, 2021

I’m so excited for these prompts!! Looking forward to yours if you’re able. I’m also trudging through a rather daunting project so hopefully I’ll have time to figure something out as a break from the tedium. It doesn’t help that I want to write a story for each of the prompts this week...

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Heather Mcquaid
07:43 Mar 19, 2021

Hi Claire, A lovely poetic story full of lace and ink and rain. Really nice. I like the way you weaved myth into present day, and you're brave to use second person! But you did it so well. Just a few things I loved, among many: "Back then, the city was growing but had no aspirations towards the sky." "At night, she read his words aloud to taste her grief. " " He was kind and had a smile full of sonnets. " One typo, I think: should be "catches", as sign is singular?: A light and a modest storefront sign catch your eye Wondering whether t...

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Claire Lewis
12:35 Mar 19, 2021

Thanks Heather, your comments are infinitely helpful! I love your title suggestions, I’ll keep mulling it over :) Not sure about the catch/catches thing, I think it’s the light and the sign so it would be plural but idk, I’ll have to look it up! And I’ll make that edit at the end right now, it’s definitely stronger that way.

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Heather Mcquaid
13:21 Mar 19, 2021

Ah, I'd read as the "a light and modest storefront sign" ..as in sign that's modest and not heavy, rather than a light...and a storefront sign. Maybe you could describe the light a bit more to help the readers know that there two things there. e.g. the lamplight/streetlight and a modest..." or even easier, just ignore because I'm the one who read it wrong. 😂

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Claire Lewis
16:38 Mar 19, 2021

Ah I hadn’t even thought about that interpretation, thanks for pointing it out!! I forgot that light can be an adjective hahaha

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Rachel Loughran
00:41 Mar 19, 2021

Love a second person narrative! This was another beautiful, lyrical piece. I knew I was going to like it as soon as I read the line about words catching in the place between heart and throat.

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Claire Lewis
01:11 Mar 19, 2021

Thank you Rachel, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

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Christina Marie
13:48 Mar 18, 2021

Another beautiful and lyrical story! I especially loved "she in a gown made of poems written in lace". All your stories are wonderful, but I think I'm especially rooting for this one this week.

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Claire Lewis
01:11 Mar 19, 2021

Thanks, Christina! Your comments are always so encouraging <3

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Rachel Smith
09:21 Mar 18, 2021

Oh wow, this is amazing. I love the use of second person. A mystical tale, I felt transported. I loved your phrasing, particularly - "She was an epic poem and he a ballad." - "She crafted stories out of raindrops and fairy tales from a candle’s flame." In my opinion this deserves a win or at least a shortlist. Well done.

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Claire Lewis
12:24 Mar 18, 2021

Thank you Rachel! I’m looking forward to reading yours!

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Claire Lewis
04:53 Mar 18, 2021

Title suggestions welcome, as well as any critiques!

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