The Roving Bookstore
In July of my thirty-first year, I take to my bed. At night I fail to sleep and in the day I am too heartsick to do much more than stare blankly at the patterns of sunlight that cross my room. Food poisoning, I lie to the office. No, I don’t need anything, I tell friends. Call when you feel better, they say, fading. They don’t have the spelunking equipment to reach me where I am.
And some go to M instead, to see to his comfort, as though his had been the heart left in shreds.
For days I lay in bed, wrung out by absence and slowly desiccating. At some point I open the window to let in the heat of summer, with a bleary idea that I can sweat out the loss. I leave the window cracked and the blinds open.
And one day, I hear a rustle at my window.
There’s another house in my yard. My fenced-in backyard and a thin, buckling road are the only things between me and a few acres of wilderness, and a house has crawled out of the tall grasses, with a window mirroring mine, and a wolfish face framed by diaphanous curtains. The woman’s gaze flicks over me as she leans on the sill, dark eyes looking down her long, thin nose.
I roll my head to the side to see better. I’ve heard of this thing. The roving bookstore. What else could it be? A building that wasn’t there before? The books I can see beyond her wild black curls? But the roving bookstore roves only at night, they say; now, the sun is high. The roving bookstore comes out when all else is closed, in the moonlight, stepping between the stars.
Her eyes never shifting from me, the woman picks up a cup of tea and blows on it, steam invisible in the summer air.
M hated tea, saying that hot drinks disgusted him, but he never grudged me my own occasional cup. Even made me tea when I was sick.
I can feel the heaviness on my chest again at the memory.
The woman has a vine tattoo on her forearm, in the same place where M put a pair of bicycles eight months ago, like the ones we rode on weekends.
I close my eyes, and when I open them again the sun skims the trees, and the woman with the wolfish face is gone along with the roving bookstore.
No one ever spoke of the woman inside the bookstore.
* * *
At sunset, I wash, dress, and start to walk. I don’t know what to look for, when you’re looking for a bookstore that moves. It isn’t clear to me that it even stays in town from day to day. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people finding it. A few name landmarks—the geodesic dome in Mission; the Tower in the park; the construction lane on I-35. I can’t see a commonality.
I go home and sleep a few hours, dreamless, collapsing on the couch without bothering to kick off my shoes. I never used to sleep on the couch.
Perhaps I’ll get rid of everything and start new. Discard the two years built up here, three years before that of objects piling up, everything taking on the stain of me and him, of us.
The next night I drive. The Plaza at night is still lit up, shop windows and streetlights and stoplights blinking. I stare at one display for a while, like there’s a code in the poses of mannequins that will tell me what to do, where to go, how to laugh and sleep and breathe again.
Sleep, until sunset.
I take my car again, this time farther out on I-70, stopping at a Waffle House at 3 a.m. That woman, staring over steaming tea. The bookstore, but also – her eyes were like nothing I’d seen before and yet so much like Christina’s. Strange to think of Christina again. To think I believed that was love, so long before I met M.
At dawn, I keep driving. I could go home to sleep, but it’s easier to sleep in my car, or drain my bank account bit by bit with the odd motel room, keep a bag of food in my passenger seat, splash water on my face in the mall’s restroom.
* * *
2 a.m. I stop to stretch my legs, spy the stars through streetlights, and see a long-legged shadow across the street.
I abandon my car, sprinting. The roving bookstore never runs. Its legs are long enough that it doesn’t have to do more than saunter in order to outpace me as I sprint desperately down the grassy median. It leaps over power lines with the ease of a cat jumping onto the arm of a couch.
It stops, caught up in staring at a wide bridge tangled with a knot of ramps and crossroads. My entire body buzzes with the exertion, terribly and painfully alive, gasping for air in the bookstore’s shadow. The roving bookstore turns and looks at me, the windows at the front lit like curious eyes. I raise my hand, not yet able to speak.
The roving bookstore sits back on its haunches.
Doesn’t the wolf woman get tossed around when it moves like that?
The night is no cooler than day and my clothes stick to me, heavy with sweat, making it all the harder to recover. At last I straighten a little, look at the door of the bookstore, and intend to ask why, why it came to me, why I saw it during the day, but instead I pant, “You’re a beautiful creature, aren’t you?”
The door swings open wordlessly and a blast of cool air washes over me, before the door swings shut again.
We stand there watching each other in the still-muggy night. After all the chasing I’ve done, I should demand to be let inside. But on seeing the roving bookstore, all I can do is admire it, like you would a well-behaved dog or a stately horse.
The roving bookstore relaxes further onto the asphalt, giant paws tucked underneath the stonework house of the store. The fur on its legs is a soft grayish black.
“I wonder if you have a name,” I say, putting my hand on the low wall that borders a small porch. I suppose it would be part of a sidewalk, were it attached to anything. The stone is cool and rough against my palm.
The door swings open. The roving bookstore shifts position so that I can clamber aboard.
Inside are shelves and shelves of books, as promised by the stories. A few upholstered chairs shoved into different areas of the store, more books piled on them. I can faintly sense the bookstore padding down the street again, but inside the world stays unjostled.
It’s cool inside, as though air conditioned, but there’s no hum, no breeze. I touch the spines of the books as I pass, find a chair and sink into it. After that last sprint, I want to rest, just a moment in the sweet air, before searching a little more.
* * *
When I wake, neck stiff from sleeping in a chair, I hear a pot clattering on a stove, something chopped with a steady thump of knife on cutting board. Through a doorway I find a sunlit kitchen, where the wolfish woman cubes an eggplant. She wears a thin-strapped top under a dirty apron, her shoulders colored a ruddy tan. Her hands are quick as she tosses the eggplant pieces in olive oil, throws them on a pan. Ignores me. Puts the pan in the oven. Washes her hands. A drip coffeemaker beeps, and she pours coffee into two mugs, then pulls a bottle of whiskey out from a high cabinet.
Finally looks at me. “My name is Pine,” she says.
“No one ever talks about you,” I say.
“Why should they?”
“I’m not the one they remember.” She pours whiskey into both mugs and pushes one to me. She is not young, not old, ageless and elemental as lightning.
“Why did you come to me? Do you come find all of them?”
“Most come hunting because of the stories.”
“Why me? And in daylight?” When she raises her eyebrow at my question, I add, “The stories say you appear at night.”
“And where am I supposed to go during the day? No. The stories hinge on what others want us to be, and ignore the details that are less mystical. Do the stories talk about roasting eggplant? Washing dishes? Hanging my laundry?”
“Sometimes I don’t wait to be found.”
And then she sets me by the window with my coffee. It’s easy to slip back into staring at nothing, thinking of the long trips I’ll no longer take with M driving, until Pine says that a late lunch is ready.
“Could you,” she says as we finish eating, “Could you do me a favor? I’ve neglected the history section, and I’m afraid Tka’s books are all out of order.”
“What do you mean?”
“The books that Tka creates, they might crop up in any shelf, and I have to prune them. Every other section is in good shape, but you see all those piles? History books from other sections. And in history, who knows what’s bloomed. Could you? Do you think you could sit with the books and comb them into order?”
“Tka is the roving bookstore?”
“And she grows the books?”
“Where did you imagine they came from?”
I pause. “I’d be happy to help.”
* * *
Pruning out the non-history titles takes me past sunset; I sleep on a chair that reclines into a serviceable bed, and the next day is filled with reshelving piles of books into the right sections. Pine pulls me away from my work for food, for a break to gaze at a stretch of the Missouri River as Tka paces along, to come talk with her over a drink. But mostly she leaves me to my silence.
The morning after the history books are sorted out, Pine points to the kitchen sink, which drips and drips.
“Do you think you could?”
Not being a plumber, I hesitate, but she says Tka has a book to help. It’s just that Pine has never had the knack, she says, not the fine motor skills.
It takes several hours, but Tka’s how-to book is clear, even helping to fix my mistakes.
“I knew I was right about you,” Pine says, turning the faucet on and off. She pats my arm, a gentle squeeze, before she steps away.
Through the afternoon I read a book from my childhood that, on re-reading, is not quite what I recall. Tka’s copy has illustrations, and a character I’d forgotten. By dinner I sit under a quiet melancholy for the things in my life that have gone, that if they returned would feel unfamiliar. For childhood poorly recalled. For friends long since transformed. For love that wasn’t true.
I scattered the weight by chasing Tka and Pine, but now it’s found me and sunk back into its nest in my ribs, and Pine has to come over and bodily heave me from the chair when dinner’s ready.
I wash the dishes; the least I can do since she’s cooked every meal. As I dry the last glass, she leans against the counter, watching me stretch to the top shelf to put it away.
“It’s unseasonably nice tonight,” she says. “Would you help me open the windows to let a breeze in?”
With old wood, most of the windows really do want two people to get them open. In the kitchen are windows over the counter and a large one that requires a block of wood to prop open; we move to the back hall, then to the top of the stairs where a window is stuck so badly we give up on it. In her private sitting room we heave each window open, and then she says, “Almost done,” and leads me on.
Her bedroom has three windows, and her bath the one. Kneeling on her bed for leverage, I can feel the cross-currents as I open the last windows. It had been cool in the bookstore, but Pine brushed away that sweet unreal air in favor of the summer night, and the breeze that comes through is dry, smelling of grass and distant barbecue smoke.
Back in her sitting room she offers me a tumbler of whiskey, a single smooth cube of ice in it. Not the only drink she had, but all she’s bothered to offer me, as though she knew without asking. I like wine equally but it would remind me of vacations with M. For a moment recognizing its absence does the same; I stare into the glass, feeling the room grow smaller and grayer.
“Have you been able to look for a book, between favors?” The pressure of her hand on my arm scatters me from myself.
“I don’t want a book,” I say. I hadn’t thought of wanting one.
“But everyone comes for a book.”
If others came hunting for Tka in the hopes of finding a book to change their lives, what had I come for? I hadn’t thought beyond the curiosity of seeing the window mirroring mine, the wanting to chase it and find out why it was there.
“I did look for you first,” she says, the fabric of her top shimmering in the breeze. “Could be that you’re looking for something else too.”
Framed in doorways, the mussed sheets of her bed are visible across the hall, the divot where my knee had been. The wind catches her curtains and makes them dance. Pine’s hand twists by her neck, fingers tucking stray curls away with the rest of her hair, loosely tied up. Her fingers are deft as they work, and then, finished, they come to rest on the back of the sofa, close to my shoulder.
“I don’t feel like I’m looking for anything. I don’t— I don’t feel like much of anything. Doing these favors for you, I’m glad to, it keeps me from—”
Pine kisses me, her hand on my thigh for balance. The cold burn of whiskey lingering on her lips. Her weight on my leg pins me in place, the touch of her lips sends a shock through me, and without another thought my hand goes to her waist. When she feels my hand, she kisses me harder, curls her fingers around the back of my neck, brushing the short hairs at my nape.
Later I will think about how she set this seduction; later I will wonder how long she planned it; later I will consider how inappropriate my guilt is, since M left me more than a month before; for now I taste her and feel her and let my body react without my mind having any part of it.
* * *
This is what I remember later: The breeze at night, sheets kicked to the floor. The warm pressure of her in my arms, so different from the absence of M. Her above me arching, her below me looking up. The whisper of her voice in my ear over the subtle life of night. Crickets through the open windows. Sweat drying on my skin.
* * *
From that night, time flows in ways I can’t measure. It rushes, and the moon shines down. Slows, and morning comes. The smell of toast and coffee, the speed of sunlight, and the afternoon is bleached bright with summer sun. A loose stone on the porch, Pine coaxing some jam into mortar, me smoothing the edges. Then the sun is gone and the night sits heavy with a storm. And it pours and pours and time freezes; freezes in pages of books and the sheets of her bed, the steam in the kitchen and growling thunder.
I wander downstairs on a morning unmoored from calendars.
Pine is upstairs, or in the back room, or some other place where she can’t hear me. I run my hand along the smooth shelf of poetry.
“Tka, you’re such a good home to Pine.”
I imagine that when your home is alive, it feels less empty when you’re alone. Me standing alone in the shelves doesn’t feel as desolate as in my apartment. It’s even difficult to imagine M here with me.
My finger catches on a thin book, the unearthly green of a tornado-seeded sky.
I read it without moving.
I take it with me to bed, tucked under my pillow. Read it again in the still night. It tastes like open skies. It leaves me unmoored on a vast sea, unsure where land might be, alone in endless quiet that soothes me to restful sleep.
In the morning, I set it down for a moment, turn, and the book is gone. But the sea and the skies remain.
I find the clothes I came in, stowed deep in Pine’s drawers, and dress in them again, rather than the unfamiliar clothes I’d started to wear. My wallet is in the pocket still. The four-year-old note from M, wearing at the creases, is tucked in front of my library card. The paper is soft with age. I don’t unfold it, for fear that it would fall apart.
“Gazpacho?” Pine says, when I go find her in the back room. Then she looks at me, sees my shirt, my shoes.
“I wanted to say goodbye.”
“You haven’t found your book.” She smiles, but it’s the wolfish one, gleaming with warning.
“I told you I didn’t come for a book.”
“Everyone comes for a book.”
Her hand twitches; the carpet waves like wind-blown prairie, pile growing tall until it covers my feet. Each thread reaches out like extensions of Pine’s fingers, caressing my calves and anchoring me in place.
* * *
The carpet lets me go only for the sheets to take me in; or the snake of the apron hanging from the wall that hands me off to Pine herself. Not sure what to make of my bonds yet, I go along. I consider. What would I be returning to? Spoiled food and a dusty, empty apartment.
Pine is absent from the bed when I wake later, sheets tangled around my ankles. A small book about Martians is on the nightstand, and a plate of still-warm toast. Blinking myself awake, I stare at the toast and wish it was an orange. A sliced orange. A sliced blood orange. Bright red, vicious red inside, bursting with juice. Drops flecked across the plate from the slices made with a sharp knife. Knobbly skin and one slice still rocking on the plate from being set down.
With a sigh, I close my eyes. I’m in no hurry. When I get out of bed, the carpet will curl around my ankles and lead me to the shower, then to Pine and coffee and pruning new books from Tka and whatever else we might get up to, lacking in much to do other than each other.
When I open my eyes, there is an orange on the plate, sliced and bloody red.
* * *
“Have you found your book?” Pine asks every day, keeping up the charade. As though I will find a book, and simply be let go.
“Not today,” I say, and she waves me off to browse the shelves.
I find books on quantum physics, the history of modern Japan, a family in a swamp, a children’s story about a slave, a collection of pieces on other planets, a love story.
“Are you very hungry, or should we have bruschetta for lunch?” A sheet of paper in Pine’s hand fluffs into bread.
“A little hungry.”
Day after day I find the history of an Egyptian queen, a grammar handbook, the story of a woman—no, a man—no, a lover. Tales of places made of tales that go on forever, Genghis Khan’s daughters, a love story.
“Do you want to fix that leak we found last night?”
“Let me know when.”
I browse shelves that hold a story about a poor girl who could control the world with her mind, instructions on how to grieve, the history of hermits, a book of poetry about the earth, a love story.
“I’m going to sun myself on the roof. Give a shout if you need anything.”
There is a book called Night; a book called Rooms; a book called Deception; a book called Tka.
Pine’s feet scrabble on the roof.
I hold the book called Tka. The cover is orange, the pages edged in blood-red.
* * *
Among the many things my furtive read teaches me, there is this: There are powers to be found in the world by capable people. Assumed innumerable, legendarily so. At least, no one has numbered them so far. Pine holds seventeen powers in her knowledge. Grackle (Pine’s teacher, says the book) held forty-one by the same age. The book describes a few—the first, most common, is to recognize things as they are. Second is to convince them to be other than they are.
Tka is written in stilted, unpracticed language, the language of someone who’s been silent for fifteen years, but has birthed words daily.
I read with one ear alert for Pine’s footsteps.
Tka herself is resting in a stretch of fallow field, legs tucked neatly under the foundation. The carpet still wraps around my ankles, threads convinced, for now, that they are chains.
* * *
The last time I see Pine, six days after first reading Tka, I trace my fingers over the tattoo on her arm, the tattoo that had reminded me of M. Instead of weight pressing on my chest, I feel something solid, like a new bone formed under my skin.
Pre-dawn, I set to work when Pine is still dreaming in her bed, the sheets twisted by sleep.
In the days before, I practiced on a tea towel, a fork, a pebble on the porch. I’d waited for Pine to grow distracted, and studied the things around me. The sheets around Pine are pure cotton, plain white fabric, and they’re certain that they are bedsheets. But I tell them they are ropes, deep inside, and they spiral around Pine’s limbs without waking her. I like Pine, and remind them to be gentle with her.
After that, it’s simple to remind the carpet it is only a carpet, and unbind my ankles.
When I walk away from Tka, I keep the book. It is her greatest gift, and not like any other book she’s grown. I carry it in a bag that used to be Pine’s favorite dress, the one she wore the morning after I let her seduce me to her bed.
The final chapter of Tka contains a list of signs to find others like Tka, then describes an infant sister, a toddling single room without a partner.
I’ve been wanting to move.