Right at the back of the library was a dusty shelf full of strange books that most people ignored. Sometimes a scatterbrained academic or a hipster with no sense of direction would take a wrong turn on the way to 19th century history or vegan fusion cuisine. Then they would catch sight of the strange dust jackets, and perhaps stop to read the titles and the blurbs. They invariably moved on, shaking their heads and laughing to themselves. Why on earth would anyone read that? The librarians only kept the books because it was wrong to destroy books, even when they went against the Truth.
Kids sometimes dared each other to read snippets, which only made the books stranger. The librarians swore they could hear whispering from the shelf for weeks.
“Someone’s been poking at those stories again,” one of the librarians would say. “The characters are all riled up.”
The other librarians would sigh. “Those bloody kids.”
Rosie was very different from the usual bloody kids and the librarians did not quite know what to make of it when she turned up at the front desk, clutching ‘The Land of the Unicorn’. They peered at her over their glasses, in the fashion of librarians everywhere. She did not look like she spent her school breaks smoking illicit cigarettes behind the bicycle shed with friends who urged her to do semi-illegal things. This girl was twelve at most. She had pigtails.
“Honey, are you sure you’ve got the right book?” one of the librarians asked.
“If you want to read about unicorns, we’ve got a very nice book in the comparative mythology section,” the librarian said. “Wouldn’t you much rather read that?”
Rosie shook her head, pigtails flying. She held up ‘The Land of the Unicorn’, her knuckles white. “I want this one.”
“But this book isn’t true.” The librarian looked helplessly at her colleagues.
“It isn’t,” said one. “It’s very strange.”
“It’s what they call ‘fiction’, you see,” said another. “It’s not really suitable for children.”
“But I like the story,” said Rosie.
“But then you should go to the storyteller! They’re doing ‘The Land of the Unicorn’ at the Central Theatre next Saturday. Wouldn’t that be much nicer?”
“No.” Rosie’s lip was beginning to tremble. “I don’t like that storyteller. He’s got a stupid voice. All croaky. I want to read the story myself.”
The librarians conferred briefly through a series of looks and raised eyebrows. Yes, this was unusual. Yes, this book was highly unsuitable for a little girl. But no, they could not actually refuse her. That would be censorship.
The first librarian tugged the book out of Rosie’s hands and scanned the barcode that was taped onto the back.
“It’s only been read by four people in thirty-seven years,” she said as she handed it back. “So it might still be recognisable. Good luck, honey. And remember, it’s not real, even though it’s written down.”
“I know,” said Rosie. She wasn’t stupid. Just curious.
She took the book home with her and read it at night so her parents wouldn’t find out. Torch in hand, covers pulled over her head. Breathing in the smell of dust that rose from the pages and the scent of vanilla that always hung around her room. She was reading fiction.
Rosie was a good reader. She had no trouble understanding long words or following meandering sentences. But it felt strange and wrong and exciting to read about the adventures of Prince Arcturus and Queen Lapidea, instead of listening to a storyteller. At first the story progressed exactly as she expected. The Queen had heard about the magic of unicorns and wanted to investigate.
“Unicorns live only in the northern wilds, beyond the mountains and the forest and the sea,” said Prince Arcturus.
“Then I shall cross the sea and wander through the forest and climb the mountains,” said Queen Lapidea.
Storytellers said wood instead of forest, but otherwise Rosie noticed nothing out of the ordinary. It was fun, even. She could make her way through the story at her own pace, without the silly voices that the storytellers would adopt. In her mind, the Queen had a deep, melodious voice, and the Prince laughed often.
The Prince and the Queen travelled together. Storms and sea monsters threatened their ship, but they were clever and brave and managed to escape. Next was the forest. This had always been Rosie’s favourite part of the story. She loved the descriptions of the darkness that crept around the roots and slithered between the mossy trunks. When the storytellers got to this part, she would always close her eyes and imagine she could hear the rustling leaves and smell the damp scent of earth and dead wood and tangled undergrowth.
But the Queen and Prince were not having it.
“This looks very dark and ominous,” said the Queen, putting her hands on her hips and staring down the narrow path that disappeared into the trees.
“I don’t like it either,” said the Prince.
So they went into a nearby inn and asked the barman for advice. The barman told them there was absolutely no reason to enter the forest unless they craved danger and excitement in the form of a dragon that attacked unwary travellers.
“It’ll be good for your story, I suppose,” said the barman, wiping a glass with a dirty rag.
“I don’t care,” said the Queen. “I find it more important to stay alive than to provide whoever is reading this with a cheap thrill.”
“Agreed,” said the Prince. “Is there a way around this forest?”
“Sure.” The barman set down the glass, walked outside with them and pointed them in the right direction.
Rosie closed the book with a snap.
The wind sighed around the house. The branches of the old elm tree outside her window scraped across the glass. Soft whispers came from the book in her hand. It was late. She hid the book under her bed and went to sleep.
The next day, she was kept busy with classes and homework. Her schoolbooks were solid and dependable. The words stayed where they had been printed, and she could read about fractions and the Roman Empire as many times as she wanted and still find exactly what her teacher told her to expect. The text remained unchanged because it was true. She yawned through class.
At night, she took out ‘The Land of the Unicorn’ and her torch and huddled under the blankets.
“Finally, the reader is back,” the Prince said, when Rosie began to read. He and the Queen had been dozing on a tartan picnic rug in a sunny field. Now they hurriedly got to their feet and collected their things.
“Let’s go around the forest, then,” said the Queen.
It was a quiet and uneventful trip. While they walked, the Prince cracked jokes and the Queen told anecdotes about foreign heads of state. There were no dragons, no gnarly old oaks with mysterious runes carved into their trunks, and no uncomfortable nights spent sleeping on piles of rotting bracken. The road wound through a prosperous valley, dotted with towns and villages. They stopped for meals at delightful little taverns and spent the nights at comfortable inns. And when they finally arrived at the mountains, they sensibly decided to wait until summer before attempting the high passes. So they stayed for months in a little spa town, soaking in the hot springs, and enjoying good food and wine.
“This is a lot more fun than struggling through the snow,” the Queen said.
The Prince nodded. “Although I am a bit worried that our reader will get bored.”
“Let them. I don’t care. I’m not suffering frostbite and fighting whatever monster lives up there, just for the sake of entertainment.”
Wolves, thought Rosie. And trolls that could walk through solid rock and smell humans from miles away.
It took her four more nights to finish the book. When spring turned to summer, the Prince and the Queen finally went back to their adventure. The journey across the mountains to the northern wilds was leisurely and informative, thanks to the guide they had hired. They found a comfortable log cabin on the edge of the wilds and settled in to wait. Three weeks later, a unicorn wandered into their garden. It left a trail of magic in its wake. After a brief look, the Queen declared the trip hadn’t been worth it.
“It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be,” she said. “And really, what’s so impressive about its magic? The weather can make rainbows too!”
So they turned around and took the safest route home. They never bothered to go on trips again. The Prince took up pottery and the Queen spent most of her time in meetings. The book didn’t even say whether they lived happily ever after.
Rosie turned back to the first page. It wasn’t so late yet. Perhaps if she concentrated, she could push the story in the direction she wanted.
Queen Lapidea and Prince Arcturus were discussing unicorns and magic.
“I would like to see one,” said the Queen. “I have heard - oh, how strange, I suddenly have a strong feeling of déjà vu.”
“So do I,” said the Prince. “I guess we’re being re-read.”
The Queen turned her face up to the ceiling, to where she imagined the reader to be and yelled, “Knock it off!”
“Yeah!” said the Prince. “You can’t just turn back to the beginning and expect us to do it all over again! We need some time to adjust!”
Rosie read on resolutely.
“Screw you,” muttered the Prince. He and the Queen sat down on a nearby sofa and crossed their arms. And no matter how many pages Rosie turned, they didn’t move. The words shifted around until there was just one sentence repeated over and over again. They sat and did nothing. They sat and did nothing. They sat and did nothing.
Rosie turned her face up to the ceiling, to where she imagined the reader to be.
“Could you start over again?” she asked you. “I’d like another chance to read this story, please. Perhaps if you concentrated more…?”