At last, a job she could enjoy and do in peace without interruptions or distractions or disruptions. Fara had been assigned to the “back room.” It wasn’t exactly in the back of anything. When the museum was housed in the old building downtown, there actually was a back room where the less apparently interesting items acquired by their adventurer patron ended up for later cataloguing and study. On the new grounds, the main museum occupied a gorgeous brick façade building with high windows that faced into welcoming hallways that then led into darkened interiors that housed all the light-sensitive treasures. There were gems and jewelry and weapons and wardrobes and tablets and tomes and more, all of which was proudly displayed and painstakingly maintained.
Then there was all the stuff in the back room.
It had all been moved into its own humble two-story building. The top floor was being converted into a satellite library. The ground floor was offices and cubicles. And the basement floor was where all the back room items had ended up. The items were mostly documents. And not the fun documents either, not scandalous bundles of letters between poet lovers or first-hand accounts of court intrigue or lost plays by famous playwrights. It was mostly historical records of the mundane type: financial accounts, deeds, out-of-print (and likely outdated) science texts, and the like.
Fara didn’t care what the documents were. Most of her fellow young colleagues aimed to be curators, museum educators, or exhibit designers someday. But the job of museum registrar was more Fara’s style. Tracking museum pieces, keeping records, being organized. That was Fara’s cup of tea. Let others work at display designs and restorations. Let others dream of joining their glitzy patron on treasure-seeking trips around the world. Fara relished the opportunity of being away from everyone, being on the basement floor by herself, having the responsibility of handling and organizing the documents and artifacts.
She wasn’t allowed to take anything with her save the clothes on her back. She had to check out the keys to the storage room and turn out her pockets and be subjected to a pat-down each time she left. There was a camera inside the room. After all, the chamber housed potential treasure amidst old junk. But Fara didn’t mind. She was allowed to bring her music, so long as it was on a device that only played music and did nothing else. She was given a tiny flashlight in case of a power outage. And shown where the two phones on the floor were in case of emergency.
So, on a blustery winter’s morn, she started her project. She put on her music, classical one day, country another, Brit-pop, classic rock, whatever her mood was depending on what she was doing and what she had found. Sometimes, the music was silence if she found a book that she wanted to read a bit. So long as she kept to her deadlines, she could indulge in a bit of curiosity now and then. The basement room was mostly empty shelving and drawer space, all in preparation of the cataloguing job. But there were also a few large desks for studying. Fara started keeping a notebook, which she was allowed to bring into the basement. The first few weeks, Fara enjoyed herself thoroughly. She went home contented and happy. She slept well and woke up looking forward to work.
One day, she found a book. It was an oversized book. The cover and spine had no title or seal or other marking, but that was not unusual. It was about two inches thick with a hard leather cover that was aged but not worn. And it had a bronze clasp, though not a locking clasp. Fara had found many such books and catalogued them and shelved them. She had even found a set of diaries from a lesser known poet from the seventeenth century that ended up being a bit of to-do. Fara had earned herself some good grace with her boss that day.
Many of the other oversized books she’d found had been ledgers recording everything from the town census to the finances of a butchery that had been in business for almost two hundred years. This book looked no different and so she opened it to its title page and flipped past a few more pages. Most of the books she had found thus far had been in English or French. Their patron was born in Orleans and traveled often to France. But this book was in Latin.
There was no title. Fara had taken Latin in high school and college, but she was rusty. She returned after lunch with an English-Latin dictionary and a Latin grammar book and translated the first sentence. It read, “This book is shallow, but its pages are deep.”
That sounded poetic and promising. But then Fara noticed something. Dozens of pages in the beginning of the book were loose, but the pages on the bottom two-thirds of the book were stuck to each other, glued together, like those crafts that people did with old books to make them into hideaway boxes for keys and jewelry and the like. Fara frowned and hoped now that the ruined book wasn’t important or unique after all. She flipped past the loose pages to get to the hollow center, but then a strange thing happened, she kept flipping and flipping until she got to the end of the book, to the back cover. She closed the book and frowned. She put her fingers against the page edges and tried to lift the book open from the middle. She failed. The pages seemed glued together again. She raised her brows. Then frowned again. She didn’t want to damage the book, so she didn’t force it.
Instead, she turned to the beginning again. With the help of her texts, she began to translate the book and transcribe the translation into her own notebook.
Early on it seemed that what she had found was a spell-book. A relatively modern book, as it was printed and bound in a press. But written in emulation of ancient Roman spell-books, she guessed. She would have to consult someone more learned in ancient Roman culture to confirm it. She found many references to binding and trapping and keeping safe. She was fascinated enough to read the book through in order even if she hadn’t been compelled to do so by the strange phenomenon of the pages sealing together if she tried to hop in at the middle. A ribbon bookmark helped her keep her place. She began to come upon references to items and creatures that had been trapped over the ages in that very book. Some of the references were brief summaries, others were detailed stories.
There were no dates associated with the narratives and almost no place names and no explanations of how the book came to be in the possession of those who had used it. Some of the stories seemed historical and some of them seemed fantastical. When Fara checked her translations with others, she found that she was not mistaken on more than a few minor details. The story of the book’s origin she hadn’t yet found. But she’d found tales of the book and its magical properties being used to hide all kinds of treasures and all kinds of dangers.
There were many a key once hidden in the book. One key was to unlock an elaborate chastity belt that was ceremonially fastened around the middle of a king’s only daughter. She had vowed not to eat or drink for three days, giving a number of suitors the chance to open the book which contained the key. The story said that she had given the book’s secret to her chosen love. His cruel rival for the young princess’s love and virtue is said to have overheard. On the second day, this rival managed to open the book, but when he reached inside, he was bitten by something. He pulled out his hand and found clasped to his fingers a giant bright red ant. He did not suffer pain or death, but a terrible itch under his skin that endured for the rest of his life. Seeing his fate, all other suitors fell away, save the princess’s chosen love. He was nervous but he trusted his love and he trusted the princess. He opened the book in the same way his rival had. But when he reached inside, he pulled out a golden key. The king saw that his challenge had been thwarted by the princess and he laughed.
That was a happy tale about a key. But there was a tragic one too. A man was shackled and chained and accused of crimes that all knew he had not committed. But all were powerless to help the man for he had been jailed by the heartless baron who ruled their region. The man’s wife was shown the key to her husband’s shackles and the key was hidden in the book. The woman was told that if she could open the book and find the key, she could rescue her husband. The brutal baron then had the man thrown into a shallow lake and forbade anyone from saving him on pain of death. The desperate wife wept as she fumbled to open the book. She begged the book to open. She kissed its bindings and its pages. And when she could not open it, she sang for her husband the dirge of the dead, entreating the judges of the afterlife to find him worthy of transcending pain and suffering and longing and passing into the land of eternal peace.
The book sprung open then.
A gasp went through the assembled crowd. And before the baron could act, the woman reached into the book and pulled out the key. She dove into the lake and freed her husband. He was not breathing when she dragged him ashore unaided by anyone, for so much did they fear the baron. She beat her fists against her husband’s chest and he coughed and breathed and lived.
And despite their fear, the crowd cheered. But the baron subdued them and he pointed to the man and woman and named them demons. And he sentenced them both to death.
The baron cast the book away. It was the only tale where the book’s fate was mentioned.
But there were so many tales of different people who once seemed to have owned the book. In one story, a magician was said to imbue a piece of his heart with all his skill and hide that piece in the book, so that thieves could not steal his magic on behalf of a powerful warlock. But the mage tricked the thieves, for he had imbued that piece of his heart with destruction. And when they managed to open the book, they unleashed all that destruction and were no more. In another story, a god banished to live in the mortal realm for a thousand years hid his enchanted bearskin in the book. The skin was the only item he was permitted to keep and it allowed him to transform into a bear and run through the woods and climb and hunt and feel as powerful as he once was.
In Fara’s favorite story, three identical royal sisters reached into the book on their sixteenth birthday and each pulled out a different item hidden there by their grandmother. And though their grandmother passed when they were still in their mother’s womb, the gifts they received were perfectly matched to their characters and their destinies. The eldest, who would rule by virtue of entering the world mere heartbeats before her sisters, pulled out a circlet of gems. The middle child, who would be a renowned traveler, pulled out a walking stick cut from the rarest tree in the land. And the youngest, who was said to sing like a bird and run like a gazelle, pulled out a living creature, a tiny sleeping whelp, who would grow up to be the greatest of hounds and her best of friends.
Fara read that story twice, smiling each time. She had two sisters of her own, one older and one younger, though they were not identical.
The last item to have been kept in the book, according to the book itself, was a set of extravagant jade and gold jewelry belonging to a noblewoman who seemed to have been quite the character. She was married once, widowed when her husband went to war, never had children, but instead of marrying again, took possession of her husband’s wealth and businesses and ran them herself disguised as him. Only the closest members of her family and household knew her secret. The set of jewelry was a gift, not from the nobleman to his wife, but from the noblewoman to herself using the profit that she had earned from maintaining his businesses.
Fara let her imagination wander and she wondered if that set of jewelry was still within the spell-book. If it was, she would have made quite a discovery, even more impressive than the diaries of a little known poet from a few centuries past. And despite her contentment at staying in the quiet basement and continuing her cataloguing and sorting, a part of her fantasized about basking in the glory of such a discovery. She smiled and shook her head at herself as she tagged and logged. She was on schedule with the cataloguing. And she was almost done reading the shallow book, as she had come to call it.
On the last page, she found the “key” to the book. Not a physical key, but a magical key. A spell. And the spell’s instruction was simple.
“A teardrop, a touch, and the song of lost love.”
None of the stories had told how the book could be unlocked. But Fara remembered the tale of the woman who saved her chained and shackled husband from drowning in a lake. She had wept and kissed the book and sang the dirge of death for her lost love.
Fara closed the book. And a surge of apprehension lurched through her chest. She laughed out loud. She was actually considering trying it. Trying to unlock the book. In all the tales she’d read, it was not a book but a container, a container holding treasures or dangers.
As foolish as she felt, she considered it. She was by herself in the basement. She had learned how to avoid the security cameras after a guard’s joke made her realize the cameras had caught her jigging along to her dance music one day. She’d been trying to keep herself energized through the sorting of a whole pallet of legal documents. She wore gloves when she handled every document. Even if the shallow book was not as valuable as an illuminated manuscript or the first edition of a classic novel, it was still a museum artifact. If she was going to subject the book to the oils from her hands and the tears from her eyes, she would have to hide it.
She tried for a few days. Tears. A touch. She even kissed the bindings as the woman in the story had done. And she recited a poem that she’d written for someone she loved who had abandoned her long ago. She even tried singing it to some random tune. But the book never opened. Not the way it did in the stories. So she left it alone for a few days.
Then it so happened that she was listening to a random shuffle of music while sorting through some maps, and a song began playing that she had not heard in a long, long while. She stopped and listened and tears welled up in her eyes. It was a song she and her sisters sang all the time when they were kids. Happy years, filled with the reckless and generous love of childhood. Her heart came lose as if it had been anchored awhile and she realized that the poem she had been reciting to unlock the shallow book was of a lost infatuation, not lost love.
Fara rushed to the drawer where she kept the book, which she still had not tagged or catalogued. She was doing the unthinkable, blubbering over a precious historical artifact. But she brushed away her tears and then swept them along the edges of the shallow book’s pages. And she sang the song from her childhood. The song that made her weep and laugh at the same time.
And the book sprung open.
Fara stopped singing and she set the book down and blinked away her tears. The cover had flipped open to reveal not a hollow space in the book, but a dark fog where the hollow space should have been. The fog undulated slightly and some of it spilled over the sides of the book, like dry ice dyed a dark gray.
Fara was not about to stick her hand in the mist. There might be treasure within. But then again, there might be danger. She didn’t want to leave the book open while she went in search of tongs or some other tool. She had never read about anything popping out of the book. If the stories were an indication, whatever was contained within, even if it was a poisonous adder or a cute puppy, could not leave or fall out of the book, but had to be willfully removed.
After a few moments of thought and some tight pacing that kept the open book within view, Fara decided she had to close it. She knew how to open it now and she hoped that the song of her long-lost childhood would work again.
She returned with a pair of rubber-tipped tongs and a plastic box large enough to contain, she hoped, whatever might come out of the book. The book was deeper than it looked, if a girl could pull a walking staff out of it as in the story of the three royal sisters, but it couldn’t be any wider. It was like a small window into a large room.
Fara hoped she wouldn’t have to reach far to find whatever was hidden in the book now. She hoped she found triumph not tragedy, treasure not danger, wonder not horror. She took a breath, exhaled, remembered the story about the magician and the exploding heart, stopped and paced some more, admonished herself for being ridiculous, reminded herself that she was not ridiculous because the book was indeed magic as evidenced by the dark fog, wondered if the dark fog was some elaborately conceived prank by her colleagues, then decided to be reckless, and plunged the tongs into the dark fog.
She grunted at the sensation of resistance from the dark fog. It didn’t feel like fog at all, but more like a pool of honey. She stirred her tongs in the pool and pushed them deeper in until her fingers almost touched the surface of the fog and then she felt something, something solid. She blindly groped for the thing with the tongs and it slipped twice, but the tongs grasped on the third try, something big and round. She pulled the tongs out. The dark fog dripped from the tongs and the object they held like gray mucous.
The object was a perfect sphere, an orb. Instead of putting it in the plastic container, Fara put the orb on some clear plastic tarp on the table. Beneath the fog residue, she saw that the orb was white and pearlescent. She realized that it might be an actual pearl, though if it was, it was twice as big as the biggest natural pearl that she had ever heard of. If she were to grasp the orb with both hands, her fingers would barely touch.
She examined the tongs. They appeared to be undamaged. She grasped a towel with the tongs and began wiping the orb gently. It wasn’t jade and gold. But it had to be precious if it had been locked away in the book. Precious, or dangerous.
The orb suddenly slipped to the side and Fara admonished herself to be more careful. But as she moved the tongs toward the orb, it shifted again. And she realized that she hadn’t nudged it the first time. It was moving on its own. She frowned and wondered if it was a magic pearl. She wondered if it were going to explode, and that’s when the crack formed along the smooth surface.
Fara watched another crack form as the orb rocked slightly back and forth. And she realized that the orb was not a pearl or a bomb after all. It was an egg.
She called herself all manner of rude names for pulling out an egg instead of a harmless key or a precious necklace. Now some manner of abomination was about to be birthed into the world. For what else could it be?
Fara pulled the shallow book closer and considered tossing the egg inside and locking it. She was certain that would work. And then she could tag the book as being worthless and maybe write a warning inside in case some other sap found it in the future. She even considered destroying the book if it was possible, burning it, after she trapped the egg back inside. But then she thought about the story with the girl pulling out a little puppy and she wondered again if this was a precious thing or a dangerous thing. She watched the pearlescent egg crack, watched chips of shell fall away, knowing she was being reckless, and strangely, for once, not caring.
She had the book and she had the plastic bin. She put the bin on the tabletop. She lifted the plastic tarp with the hatching egg on it and placed it in the bin. She secured the lid on the bin and observed. The plastic bin was a common thing. The egg was something supernatural or magical. It might not be contained by plastic. Fara readied the book, the one thing she knew could contain whatever hatched, be it serpent or spider or flesh-eating plant or enchanted object. She readied herself to capture whatever might slink or slither out. She readied herself to see horrors. She was unprepared for what actually hatched.
The egg split in two with a spark of friction and the creature stepped out breathing, blinking, and slightly wet. The creature was small and resembled a person save for the brilliant blue hair that reached all the way to its feet. It seemed to be dressed all in purple-blue flower petals, or maybe that was just its natural coloring, like the hair. The creature stepped forth and passed through the wall of the plastic bin to stand in the open air on the tabletop. As Fara watched, membranous wings begin to peel away from the creature’s back, she knew she had to decide and act. The book was in her hands. The book was open. She took a breath and that’s when the creature spoke. It spoke in Latin, which Fara was now able to understand after all the translating she’d been doing.
In a voice resounding with good cheer and far more depth and authority than its whimsical, fairy-like appearance belied, the newly hatched blue-haired creature asked an unexpected question.
“How many ages have passed, friend, since the reign of Victoria?”
Eyes wide and unblinking, Fara decided.
I hope I don’t regret this, she thought as she closed the shallow book.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel