The smell of old paper fills the air with such heaviness that it is almost hard to breath. As if your lungs become unable to filter out oxygen from the dust-particles.
Several hundred fingers linger over backs, flip through pages, feel the different reliefs and fabrics. The immense silence of people entering different worlds envelops you as soon as you walk in the store.
I look out the window, the sun is shining, its rays shimmering through the dust in the air. My mind is drifting back and forth, I’m not really paying attention to anything in particular. Until something hard hits the back of my head, almost knocking me off my feet.
“Enough loitering! Get back to work!” The barking can come from one man only: the First Lieutenant is not a patient or, for that matter, mannered man. I feel the back of my head, a bump is already starting to form thanks to the bucket thrown at me. I’m unsure whether or not the man just dislikes me, or that he just likes being rude to all newcomers. Whatever his reasons, he made it very clear earlier that the dining room must be spotless before the captain and his guests arrive back on board. While I fill the bucket with water, and grab a mop, I contemplate on how unfair it is. I wasn’t allowed permission to go on land, as the only member of the crew. It is unfair as the Cape of Good Hope was the only thing I was looking forward to on this damned journey.
Mopping the dining room is a boring and a useless job. We can do it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. The captain always makes a mess after he drinks too much, and his guests are not used to traveling by ship. They are prone to spill their drinks, their food, and I’ve seen one get seasick and throw up during the meal. The floorboards are sticky from the wine and beer, glistening gravy stains mark the wood until the end of time. Gravy… It’s not like any of us have eaten any fresh meat for weeks. On the rare occasions that one of the chickens or one of the pigs is slaughtered on board, the meat always goes to this room. Never to the crew.
I wish I was on land as well, exploring this strange and exotic city that I’ve heard so much about from the rest of the sailors. But the captain wouldn’t allow it, he claimed I was too young to be left alone in a city like the Cape. Grumbling, I stare through the window once more, my nose practically pressing against the glass as I try to catch at least one glimpse of the table-like mountain that serves as a beacon of hope.
But I can’t see anything. Nothing but stars and grand open space around me. There is no moon, nothing to light the surrounding area. I’m wandering, searching, I can’t see a bloody thing. The only sensation I’m aware of is the cold air, and the wet grass against my shins. My shoes are soggy, the bottom of my jeans almost completely soaked and covered with mud. The scent of wet dirt clings in the air and fills my nose. It is the smell of the forest at night, it would be a soothing smell if it weren’t so dark, and if I wasn’t pretty sure I’m completely lost. Of which I am pretty sure. I take one more step when suddenly I hear voices. Voices, and music in the distance. I turn my head, squint my eyes. It seems far, which might be the disorientation talking, but a shimmer of light is peeking through the trees. I can’t help myself, I start running, relieved to have found them. “Dude! That was the longest piss ever!” Jack pounds me on the back when I reach my friends again. He’s grinning like an idiot and I can smell the liquor on his breath. “What were you doing in those bushes?” Amy looks at me with a look that tells me she’s about to embarrass me, something she loves to do in situations like these. “Nothing! I just got completely lost. This tree gave me the wrong directions,” I reply as quickly as possible. It’s a weak joke, but a drunk crowd is easy to entertain and to please. I grin to Amy, to Jack, to Charlie, to all of them. “So, what did you losers do with my beer?” They laugh again, turn up the blasting stereo and add more wood to the fire. My beer has been long gone apparently, but nothing to worry about they tell me. “There is plenty more where that came from!” With a grin, I catch the can that gets tossed to me.
The metal is cold to the touch. It’s busted, broken a bit, and covered in rust. A layer of dust has settled on it, and it seems to have been untouched for ages. Which comes to no suprise, it was hidden so well I could have easily missed it had I not tripped over that other box and fallen flat on my face. I examine the chest a bit closer. The smell of old metal is almost as strong as that nasty smell of mouldy cardboard boxes, a scent that will probably linger in my hair for another week. This thing better contains something, otherwise this whole search was for nothing. I grab the lock, which looks newer than the rest of the chest, and pull. Pull again, shimmy it a little, and pull it once more, but the thing does not butch. Annoyed, I look around me. There must be tool somewhere that will allow me to open the blasted thing! With a screwdriver jammed between the handles, I try the old lever-trick grandpa taught me years ago. Pulling, pushing, the small chest making creaking noises while it complains. A loud ‘pang’ fills the air, sends the chest flying while the lock remains in my hand, still in one piece. I had not imagined the lock to survive, but the bolt to snap clean off…
I jump up, run towards the little thing and slowly open it. What I findinside is something I could not imagine, even if I try to. At first, it looks like nothing. Just plain black nothing. Disappointed I look at it again. It’s heavy, but the metal seems to be very thin. While I shift the chest from one side to the other to examine the edges, a sudden movement draws my attention. I lean in closer, practically stick my nose in the small container. A shimmer catches my eye, and then another one. The black space is not the bottom of the chest, but exactly what it carries. It’s a box of black ‘nothingness’. As it moves different shades of black cross over each other, it pulsates as if it’s alive. My eyes grow wide, my jaw drops. I have heard of black matter, heard of its endless value, of the danger it holds but I could never imagine holding a box filled with the stuff, let alone find it in my grandfather’s attic! Quickly, I shut the box, stuff it under my arm and climb down.
With a loud ‘bang’ I drop the chest on the desk, right in front of my grandfather’s nose. “What is this?” A sigh fills the room, as he looks up from the maps he was studying, and eyes the chest for a second. His face does not truly change, yet it becomes different. There is a flicker of tiredness, a sudden feel of resignation. “Where did you find that?” His voice demands an immediate answer, as it always does, yet is somehow different from his usual bark. He sounds centuries older, exhausted by some unexplainable reason. “In the attic. Why do we have a box filled with dark…” The sudden flare in his eyes startles me. With a vigour that does not correspond with his age, he jumps up from the table, practically slaps me in the face. “Shut it you fool! Or do you want the whole world to know?” I frown, confused about this sudden shift in attitude. My grandfather has always been a demanding, tough-love kind of man, but he has never acted like this. What has gotten him so worked up, and what is he talking about? He slouches back into his chair, his eyes dark and brooding. “What you have there, is one of the last chests of Kichu nã. It is extremely dangerous. It’s existence could have us wiped from this earth.” A laugh escapes my throat. The old man has gone senile, that must be it! “Don’t you mean extremely valuable, old man? Do you have any idea how much black matter is worth these days?” The harvest of the stuff is so dangerous that several years ago, the government had decided to outlaw it. And by doing so, they forced people to buy the extremely pricey synthetic version. A chest like the one on the table would definitely solve all our financial issues! And the fact that the old man can’t see that must mean he has truly lost his mind, at last. His frown deepens while I try to contain my amusement. “That is not normal black matter idiot,” he barks at me. “That chest could doom us all if it would fall in the wrong hands. You never should have opened it.” Why does he make it sound like it is my fault? I wasn’t the one who hid it in the attic, I would have hidden it a lot better if I might add. “You wanted me to clean the attic, to see if there was anything of value to sell up there,” I say defensively. His sigh is loaded with unmentioned pain, I can see it in his eyes as he strokes his fluffy grey hair back. There is much that he refuses to talk about, starting with the illness of my father, and the whereabouts of my good-for-nothing-mother. “I forgot that I had hidden that monstrosity there. Go put it back, make sure to hide it well.” His eyes, his voice, his whole body tells enough. Although I don’t know much about the man, I know exactly how to read his body-language and his moods. He has become nervous, scared even. It is not something I’ve seen many times. Last time was when dad’s illness took its toll on his mind and he went ballistic, smashing everything in our living room to pieces. It was when dad was taken to the hospital, never to return home, and the old man moved in to take care of me. With a small, badly silenced grunt I pick up the chest again. “Fine, but don’t complain to me when they take the car away,” I yell to him from the hallway, making my way back to the attic. We should fix those stairs, they creak as if to warn me that they can break any second.
The smell of dust hits me again when I make it up the stairs. Dust, old pages, the roaring fireplace in the middle of the store. Coming back from the depths of a book is hard when you’re surrounded by shelf after shelf, bookcase after bookcase, and floor after floor with old books and maps. Leaky’s bookshop forms a small paradise, a heaven for the fervent reader. A store filled with endless presents, for Christmas, and for all other times.
More and different short stories, can be found through here.