Dead City

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A window is open on the second floor. Most of the doors on these buildings are locked, so the only way in is through the windows, and I don’t like breaking glass. It’s too loud, attracts too much attention. Even in a dead city, attention is not what I want.

I clamber up the fire escape toward the second floor. The bars are rusty, and I’m careful not to cut my hands. Once upon a time, we could go to a doctor if we hurt ourselves. Now there are no doctors, no hospitals, no nurses. If I’m hurt, I’ll stay hurt. Or deal with it myself.

And I don’t have the kind of experience, or courage, to stitch up my own hands.

Inside the apartment, I sift through the remains of what used to be someone’s life. Plates and cutlery are scattered on a table, crusted with food so old there’s nothing left even for the mold anymore. Dust clings to the stove, the sink, the chairs. A child’s doll lies in the corner.

The food in the fridge is long ago spoiled, but I find some stale crackers in the pantry, a bag of trail mix. A box of pasta. And water. Bottled water. It might as well be gold. I tuck as many bottles as I can fit into my backpack and hide the rest until I can come back. They’ll fetch a high price on the black market. Imagine: water that isn’t contaminated, that we don’t have to filter.

Liquid gold.

Seashells

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The best time to go for seashells is right after the tide has gone out. The waves have swept all sorts of new treasures onto the sand. I go out with my basket and gather them together, bit by bit. Sea-glass, broken shells, sometimes whole ones, little sea creatures. I always let those go. My brother likes to catch them and keep them in the tide pools beside our house, but I don’t dare. I sell my treasures to the witch that lives at the base of the cliffs a mile down the beach, and she doesn’t like it when I bring her anything living.

If it’s alive, it should stay where it is. That’s what she tells me, every time I bring her my basket. And I haven’t forgotten.

I always look for just the right shells for her. She likes the purple ones best, I think. And the green. She doesn’t mind at all if they’re chipped or broken, in fact, I think she likes those better. There’s magic in seashells, love, she always tells me. More magic than I can conjure up.

I always laugh when she says that. I know she doesn’t do real magic. She told me so herself. Just a few tricks to keep the men in the village away from her, so she can live in peace with her seashells. I think they are the only things she really loves. She hangs them all around her house, on long strings in front of her door, on short ones above her bed. They clutter the floor under her bed, the top of her dresser, her table. Even in her kitchen drawers. I’ve only sold her about half of them. The rest she found herself. She’s always out looking for new ones.

Just like I am.

Sunflowers

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The sunflowers are growing already. I can see them growing all along the edge of our fields, putting out leaves, growing taller. In a month they’ll be as high as my waist, maybe higher, and their heavy, nodding heads with start to open.

I love the sunflowers. We plant them every year, in every field, right along the edges where they’ll protect our crops from the pests that try to steal them. We can chase away the blackbirds and gophers ourselves, but the others are harder to get rid of. The willow elves. And the water sprites. They like to steal into the fields and steal the seeds, uproot the seedlings and dig in the ground until our crops are nothing but lumpy ground and useless, trampled leaves.

But the sunflowers keep them away. Always. I don’t know why. My mother says it’s because the yellow flowers frighten them. They only steal at night, you see, and the sunflowers are as bright in the moonlight as they are during the day. It frightens the pests, and they think it is still broad daylight.

They must be very stupid. I’ve stolen out to the fields at night to see them, and it is just as dark there as anywhere else. The sunflowers don’t change that. But I suppose to a willow elf, which is a very small little creature, they must look a bit like the sun. Perhaps they don’t have very good eyes.

Crypt

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The candles are lit this time. Sometimes when he locks me down here, because I’ve spoken out of turn or sassed my nurse in his presence, the candles are as dark as the stones, and the shadows creeping out of the graves fill the whole room. I’m afraid to be here then.

But the candles are lit tonight, although if he knew I took such comfort in them, he would have them blown out. He sends me down to the crypts to punish me, to teach me a lesson, he says. His stupid, headstrong little daughter with the crippled body and the mind that’s stronger than his. At least when he’s been drinking.

I wait until the key rattles in the locks, then get up and wander around the tombs. The air smells of dust and candlewax, burnt roses and incense. Someone must have been here mourning earlier, probably for the son my father has already had to bury. My mother, maybe. She lives down here, lost with dead, except when my father forces her up into the world of the living. She has too many children buried beneath the flagstones to be happy anywhere else.

The tombs are taller than I am. Great slabs of stone, some with the carvings of dead men with swords on their breasts lying on them. One of them has a stone dog at his feet. My great grandfather. My aunt told me he had the dog buried with him. I think that’s horrible. Did he think the dog loved him so much that they couldn’t be parted? I’m sure he didn’t love the dog very much, if he wanted it to die when he did.

The candle flames dance, jerking in the cool draft that is always trapped here, and I wander on. I really don’t mind being locked down here. Not when the candles are lit.

Inkheart

“What’s your favorite book?”

I always laugh at that question, don’t you? You can’t have a favorite book. Every book is different and wonderful in its own way. Most of us could choose twenty ‘favorite’ books very easily, usually without thinking too hard about it.

Well, I have a confession.

I do have a favorite book.

And I shamelessly tell every single person that asks just what they are missing if they haven’t read it. (Yes, I’ve been forcing myself to wait until I had a few others reviewed on this blog before I pulled this one up. It was hard. But I lasted a few weeks, didn’t I?)

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Inkheart.

How can I explain this book to you? It’s the book I pick up when I’ve overwhelmed and need an escape. It’s the book I read aloud when I need to remember how beautiful words can be. It’s the book I reach for when I need characters that understand me, that think the same way I do.

It’s the book I want to escape into, if I could choose just one to slip into.

I think, of all the books I’ve read, it holds this place in my heart because it is (very obviously) written by someone who loves words and stories as much as I do myself. Cornelia Funke, a German author who doesn’t get nearly enough attention, has captured in its pages exactly what it means to love books, to love stories, and to live in them.

Meggie Folchart is the center of this story, although the characters revolving around her are just as vivid and important to it as she is. A twelve year old girl with a father who has an extraordinary gift—the ability to bring the words on the page to life by reading them aloud. A beautiful—almost enchanting idea, until the reality of what that could mean really becomes clear. Suppose instead of bringing Winnie the Pooh or the Three Blind Mice out of your favorite story, you accidentally open the door for a villain to slip through instead. Who wants to find Professor Moriarty or Long John Silver with his wooden leg and ugly crutch in your bedroom, with no way to get rid of them or send them back where they belong?

And Mo, Meggie’s bookbinding father, finds himself opening the door to a whole slew of unpleasant characters, who quickly steal everything that he loves—including his daughter—away from him.

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Inkheart is an intensely fascinating story, but the love and passion the author put into writing it is what keeps me coming back for more. Her prose hints at mastery, something I wouldn’t accuse many authors of, since we are all apprentices in a craft that no one masters. This book is a treasure for anyone who values good writing, thrilling storylines, and characters who will stay with you long after you finish the last page and shut the book.

If you haven’t read it, you’re missing out on what should—and might be one day—considered a classic.

“The words offered up no riches, none of the treasure chests, pearls, and swords set with precious stones that Mo’s voice conjured up, shining and sparkling, until Capricorn’s men felt as if they could pluck them from the air. Something else slipped out of the pages, though, something breathing, a creature made of flesh and blood.”

Snow

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The storm is on the horizon when I wake up. Low, tumbled clouds loom over the forest, gray as soot in the wind. I go for water at the stream, same as every other morning, but it’s choked with ice, and the branches hanging over the water are furry with hoarfrost.

Winter is coming.

I’ve known it for a long time, watching the leaves stripped from the trees, the birds flying south, the grass drying up, turning red and orange and yellow. Blossoms dried to seed pods, opened and shed their treasures for the next year. The deer I watch over stay close to my cabin now. They know I’ll feed them during the ice storms, the snowy months. The king’s huntsmen are tasked to care for his game in the winter, to hunt down poachers, feed his animals during the starving months so that he can shoot them when the weather is warm. I hate the practice, but I love my forest, my herds. The deer come because they trust me, the squirrels and raccoons because I feed them.

I know winter, nearly as well as I know my forest, and I’m not afraid of it.

The deer hear me splitting wood. They come to the edge of the clearing, watching my little cabin, watching me. Their noses twitch, catching the scent of woodsmoke from my fire, and they know. I’ll be feeding them soon. After this storm, probably. The king sends his own corn for them. They don’t have to know why.

Story Keeper

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A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling. Dust ghosts around it, gold in the weak light it casts. The children are whimpering, although they all know better than to cry out loud. Not here. Not when we’re in so much danger.

My son is sitting in my lap. He’s barely four, but he knows to keep very quiet when we come to the Keeper’s house. He holds his breath, sometimes, then lets it out and whispers, “Is that quiet enough, mum?”

I have to smile.

The concrete floor is cold, and the chill seeps into my bones, my legs. I can’t feel my feet anymore. We have to sit cross-legged, otherwise there isn’t enough room for us. I think there is thirty people here tonight, although don’t dare look close enough to count. I don’t want to see their faces. If I don’t see their faces, I can’t give them away if the soldiers come for me.

We all do the same. It’s the only curtesy we can give each other in this bare little house.

The Keeper comes out, sits down on his stool in the front of the room. He’s a young man, much younger than even the father of my child, who doesn’t know I’m here. Keepers don’t grow old. They last a few years, a few stories, then the soldiers hang them over the gates, along with all those caught listening to them. It’s a horrible risk, coming here, especially with my child.

But I can’t help it. The story he tells, the things he says, they’re too important to miss. I don’t dare ignore them. They mean everything. To me, and to my child.

Witch

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She already knows it’s me when I knock on her door, even before she answers. Only I come here. No one else dares.

No one else is so stupid.

“This is the last time, I promise,” I tell her, already pleading, hoping she’ll let me in. She hasn’t, once or twice. Last time she threatened to bar her door.

But she only looks at me sadly, with her big, owlish eyes and her moony spectacles. “If I believed that, I wouldn’t be so worried about you,” she says at last. But she lets me in, and that’s all that matters. Her owl is perched on the back of her chair, and a mouse squeaks in her pocket, but I have gotten used to the oddities in her home. She’s a witch, the village people say, and they may not be far wrong. She’s odd enough to be a witch.

But I don’t care, because this witch’s cottage is the only place north of the sea that I can find books. The libraries in town have manuscripts of course, more than even she has, but they won’t let a woman pass their doors. They’d burn me first. So I come here.

Scrolls are scattered across her table, parchment and books stacked on the floor, on her chairs, on the desk in the corner. Her lamps are already glowing, as if she knew I was coming today, and she nods sadly at me when I give her a beseeching look. “Go ahead. But remember what you’re risking for those words, small one. It may come back to haunt you.”

But every word in this room is worth the risk I’m taking. I stopped caring about the punishments for reading a long time ago. The words are worth them.

The Book Thief

Time to be a little candid. We’re all readers here, right? We all love books, we all have stayed up much too late one night or another, because we only had a hundred pages left and we couldn’t just give up.

And I would hazard a guess that we all have that one book. The book that left us stunned and shell-shocked and completely destroyed. The book we cried over and loved and read again, and again, and again. The book we have no trouble going up to a stranger for and saying, “This book broke my heart and soul, please, go read it! It will change the way you think.”

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The Book Thief was that book for me.

To be perfectly honest, I did not want to read this book. I saw it many times at thrift stores, in book reviews, in Barnes and Noble, just about everywhere. And I shunned it. Who wants to read a book narrated by Death?

Right?

Wrong.

This book was incredible. The writing was unique and brilliantly thought out, the storyline was engaging and so interesting, and the characters were so vivid that it took my breath away. They were people. Real people. People you would meet in the supermarket, or on the bus, or in a crowded shopping mall. They were real, they were honest, and they broke my poor heart.

The story—narrated by Death, of course—follows Liesal Meminger. Or, the Book Thief. She is a foster child in Nazi Germany, the daughter of a Communist who was taken away by Der Führer. Little Liesal was left behind, and given to another family to raise. A more suitable family.

The Hubbermans.

Death encounters the Book Thief three times. And each time, he is distracted in his work by her. By her strength, her grief, her love. Her story captivated him, and it will captivate you just as strongly, I can promise you that. Her quest for books, her friendship with the boy next door, the secret hiding in her basement that she doesn’t dare share with anyone, for fear of being taken away like her mother, they all combine to create a story that is not like any other I have ever read.

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I still pick up The Book Thief every so often, just to read a few pages, to remind myself how much I loved this book. How real it was. How earth shattering. WWII was one of the most horrendous chapters in world history, and yet, The Book Thief reminds me that—although it isn’t a true story—there were people who were lights among the darkness. People who cared, people who loved. I think it’s always important to remember that, in any story.

Even ours.

***A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR***

I am haunted by humans.

Library

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They close the doors at nine, after the last reader has gone home. The librarian checks the locks and turns out the light, and leaves her desk lamp on. For the stories. They like to be able to see at night, when they come out to play.

She told me that. She tells all of us children the same stories about the books on her shelves, but none of the others believed her.

I do, though. I do, or I wouldn’t be hiding behind the shelves at the back of the library, tucked behind the dictionaries where she can’t see me. I hear her heels click on the floor as she checks the windows, the doors one last time, then the light flicks off and she’s gone.

And I’m still here. Locked inside with all the stories for the rest of the night.

At first it’s very quiet, so quiet that I can hear my own heartbeat, hear my own breath. Nothing happens, and I begin to fear that the others were right, that she was lying to us.

Then the first dragon slips from between the books, gliding across the room to settle on a reading desk. My breath jumps, my heartbeat rising. His scales are gold and green, his eyes fire and soot. A knight appears among the shelves, his armor battle-stained and dented. He takes off his helmet, leans his sword against the wall, and runs his fingers along the books. As if to wake the others still sleeping.

They come out one by one. Headless men, ghosts and ghouls, even a unicorn. A faerie settles on the desk next to me, blinking at me with sleepy eyes as if she thinks I don’t really belong here.

She’s wrong, of course. This is the only place I really do belong.