Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Corner of Your Eye

One Friday, Evelyn came in to work the closing shift at the occult shop. She went over to the check-out counter, off to the left side from the entrance, and smiled in hello to Morganna, who was hunched over the counter, her chin upon her folded hands. Morganna's name was really Mariellen. She had straight black dyed hair, and wore black lipstick and matching corset, skirt, and knee-high leather boots. Evelyn's hair was curly strawberry-blond, as it had always been, and fell halfway down her back. She wore a knee-length skirt covered in several folds of glittered cellophane, hiking boots, and her bomber jacket. She had a carrying case strapped across her chest. Morganna matched the d├ęcor of the shop much better than Evelyn did.
“Don't look now,” said Morganna in reply, as Evelyn set the carrying case down upon the counter, “But there is a thin, pale young gentleman in the store.”
“A thin, pale young gentleman?” replied Evelyn, with the proper note of irony.
“Yes, a thin, pale young gentleman.”
“I didn't know they still made gentlemen. Much less young ones.”
“I know. I thought the model was obsolete too. Yet, one stands in this very shop, right this moment, looking at the antique book case.”
“The antique book case?” Evelyn had an airy way of speaking which could make even the most sarcastic of expressions sound wide-eyed with wonder, but this was not a sarcastic statement. The antique books were set in the far back corner, encased in locked glass. They were more for show than for sale. Nobody ever bought any.
But now there was a man at the bookcase. He was tall, as Morganna said, maybe six foot, or an inch or two more. Evelyn couldn't affirm his thinness, as all she could really see over the other bookcase, (the one with all the normal magic books) was the back of his head, but she was confused why Morganna would refer to him as “young.” Every hair on his head was at least as silvery as mercury, and some of it had crossed over into an almost shining white.
Morganna slapped her on the wrist. “Shh! Don't stare! Can't be being rude now, can we?”
“You said he was young.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, he's one of those Steve Martin types.”
“Ohhh, yeaaah. Yeah, I think that Isaac Newton was like that too.”
“What's Newton got to do with anything? Hey, I got to go now, all right? Watch the aristocrat. Don't scare him off. Maybe he will actually buy something from there.”
“Always has to be a first time.” Evelyn slid past Morganna to take her place behind the counter. “Going out tonight?”
“Say hi to Derek for me.”
“You've never met Derek.”
“Doesn't mean I can't be polite.” Evelyn smiled her smile.
“Toodles, freak,” said Morganna good-naturedly. She had put her coat on and was walking towards the door. Evelyn wiggled her fingers in reply. One thing that Evelyn had found about Goths is that, after a certain age, their personality had absolutely no relation to the character of their dress.
For several minutes after the doorbell dinged Morganna's departure, nothing much happened. Evelyn took her books and notebooks out of her case, set them in a neat pile, selected a particular of each, arrayed the notebook off to one side, leaving only one side facing up, and placed the book before her. She began to read, taking notes casually about details she found particularly interesting.
After a reading only a few paragraphs, Evelyn suddenly felt a gentle, calming presence in the room—a kind of warmth without heat. She looked up.
She noticed, without any surprise, that a faerie had just entered the store, passing through the outer door. It was about a foot and a half tall, at least if it ever stood, and was a bright, orangish pink. It had thin arms and legs and a plump potbelly. Smoky tendrils trailed out of the back of its head as a poor imitation of hair. Its mouth stretched all the way across its head, and its eyes were the size of teacups. It drifted fleetingly through the air, unburdened by any physical law, and when it noticed her noticing it, it made a beeline for her.
Evelyn knew this faerie, as she knew many of the faeries that frequented the occult shop's section of town, and as most faeries did not bother with names, or if they did were too reticent to tell anybody, she had taken to calling this one Minnie. There was no particular reason for this name. Maybe she had been watching cartoons the night before their first meeting, or was thinking of a nickname based on “minute”. As it was, she had long ago exhausted simpler, more descriptive names for such faeries, like Smiler, or Happy, or even more off-the-wall things like Whiz-Bang. Human names always felt wrong, so she was now reduced to naming new friends, as they came along, from cartoon characters and nonsense words: whatever popped into her head.
Minnie was the kind of faerie that Evelyn had taken to calling a Moody. She had found no real precedent for them in mythology or folklore, although sometimes their characteristics were hinted at in the descriptions of other more standard faeries, and they seemed to be described in a variety of ways by different occult authors, although none of these descriptions matched her own experience of such beings. These faeries flew around living things and in some way drew out or emphasized certain emotions lying within them. If you have ever gone from happy to sad or from considerate to carefree without really any reason one way or another, perhaps it was because a passing Moody took an interest on you. If you have ever noticed how small crowds out in the street can begin to take on a singular mood, perhaps becoming self-serious, or suddenly talkative and outgoing, it is likely that a wandering Moody had decided to follow along. Some Moodies would alternate the emotions they pulled out of people, while others would stick to the same one at all times. Some pulled very general emotions, like happiness or sadness; some pulled very specific emotions, like a mild, non-belligerent annoyance, or a bittersweet sense of longing for some long-past memory. Minnie always pulled for a kind of light-hearted giddiness. (Giddy had been taken as a name while Evelyn was still in high school.)
Winnie the Moody flew about Evelyn's head three times, then came to a rest hovering, like a cloud, at her upper left. Hello, thought the Moody at her. There was no real sound to the greeting, nor words, really. But the sentiment was so clearly felt that Evelyn could not help but translate it into words in her own head, the way one might translate a foreign language, except in this case, she was not translating from one language to another, but into language itself. (After having done this for so many years, the college courses she had taken in Latin and Hebrew and Greek had come quite easy. In fact, the book at which she was now reading was a second-hand textbook in Sanskrit. She had an original text copy of the Upanishads at home, waiting to be read, when the time came.)
Hello, thought Evelyn in return, and shoved it out as pure sentiment. She smiled wide and unhinged, as the first wave went over her, like she had taken shot of whiskey a few moments ago. She let out a high-pitched giggle.
The man, who for at least the last quarter-hour had been staring intently through the glass of the antique book section, turned briefly to look in her direction. A clean, pale face, thin and angular, though not severe in any way—and indeed young, somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties, though hard to tell which—looked at her, slightly confused, or maybe just interested.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Evelyn, briefly flashing back to her childhood. And her milky-white skin burst out in a rosy blush.
The thin, pale gentleman smiled with a gentle understanding, and turned around.
Careless... taunted the faerie.
Oh, don't be so bright, returned Evelyn. You mess me up.
Oh, I am so truly sorry. Truly.
Insolent. Most of them were insolent, but in a cute way. Yes, well, let that be a lesson to you.
Oh, yes, I have learned. Minnie coasted backwards, like a swimmer doing a scissor kick, but without moving. What is he doing here?
He is a customer, said Evelyn. They look at things.
He is odd, said the Moody.
Odd? How so?
Minne did a loop. I do not know. That is what is odd.
Why don't you go over and try to cheer him up?
I do not want to. Usually, the sentiments Evelyn translated in her head had a bit of tone to them, some sense of meaning beyond just the words, but also a sense of how the words might be said. But there was none that she could find in this sentiment. It was a flat feeling of negative desire, nothing more or less. An oddly blank sentiment, especially for a Moody. Evelyn turned to look at Minnie, to see if there was some expression to add to the phrase.
“Excuse me.”
Evelyn jerked back around. The pale thin gentleman was walking around the rows of bookshelves and comings towards her. Only staring off into space, she thought.
She understood, now, why Morganna had seen fit to describe the customer as a gentleman. Everything about the man looked expensive.
First off, he was carrying a cane, though he seemed to walk without a limp. It was old, yet polished, and made of some kind of wood that was stained almost black. His suit was as black as raven's feathers, just about as shiny, the cut of it quite arresting. Elegant and sleek, yet lacking in the formal, business-like attitude common for modern suits. It was more like a suit from the late nineteenth century, something you might see someone wearing in a portrait painting: a more expensive version of what they wore every day. The suit jacket, for example, was actually a jacket, not some outer formal layer. It was meant to keep him warm, and it was evident why the man had no need to wear an additional coat on top of it.
And indeed, he was tall, and thin, and pale, with silvery hair come much to early. And with those angular yet somewhat softened features, there was something of the elf to him, though more an elf from Tolkien, then one of the things that she was actually familiar with. Something feminine almost as well. He was very beautiful.
“What is your policy in regards to the locked books?” he asked.
“Locked books?” she echoed, momentarily confused. Minnie suddenly darted off to the left, into the center of the store, and with several aerial loops along the way. Evelyn couldn't help but follow the fast movement with her eyes.
The man noticed. “Excuse me, is something wrong?” He looked about, expectantly. “Is there a fly in the room? A bee? I'd hate to be stung.”
“Uh.” Evelyn closed and eyes and forced herself to focus. “Sorry. The books. What about our policy was it you wanted to know?”
“Well, I was wondering to what extent I was able to look at them. Is it possible to take them out and peruse them? May I see more than one at a time? Could I sit down and read one for a bit, or do I have to be supervised very closely? That sort of thing.”
He had gone with the flow of conversation, but she could tell from his eyes that he was still wondering what she had been looking at. Just keep plowing ahead, and eventually he will forget about it.
“Well, uh, the truth is, we don't really have too much of a policy on the locked books.” She smiled. “The truth is, they're mostly just for show. Nobody buys any.”
“Oh,” replied the man, looking crestfallen. “Then they're not for sale?”
“Oh no! They're for sale. It's just that nobody buys them! I mean, they can, but...” and here she leaned forward conspiratorially, “the truth is, we have them mostly so we come off like a real magic shop, like, 'Oh! We have real magic books! We must be a real magic store! Fake magic stores don't have real magic books!' Nobody wants to buy their energy crystals and Gaia figurines at a fake magic store, right?”
“Obviously not,” replied the man with a smirk. “Where's the fun in that?”
“Right, right!” She laughed, not without a little relief. “But yeah, the books are for sale. I mean, if they weren't for sale, what would be the point, right? ...I think there's a binder around here, somewhere, with all the big ticket items listed. Let me check.”
Behind the counter was a small bookshelf stuffed with a variety of old binders and half-filled journals. She began flipping through them, hoping one would catch her eye.
“Hmm, well, while you're doing that,” said the man, “would it be possible for me to take some of the books out of the case? I really would like to examine them closer.”
“Oh, right!” she reached down behind the counter, where a ring of keys hung upon a small, discreet nail. “Follow me!”
They walked over to the case. “So, which books were you interested in looking at?”
The man looked thoughtful, and tapped his chin lightly with a long finger. “I suppose I will start with this one first,” and he pointed to a old, leather-bound volume, thick, about six inches tall, and with the lettering on the binding faded almost to the point of invisibility.
He removed it from its placed with a fanciful tap upon the top of the spine, knocking it out into a waiting palm. The book fell open as it came to settle there, and with his free, tapping hand, he began to skim through it, back and forth, as if the entire contents of the tome could be absorbed by random sampling.
After fifteen or so seconds of this, he seemed to give up and tipped the pages over to arrive at the book's front.
“What an odd little volume,” he said after a moment.
“I'm sorry?”
“It appears to be The Book of Umberto de Fiorenze, an Italian magician of the late fifteenth century. Obscure fellow, not well known. You won't find him with Google. But a prolific note-taker. This edition seemed to have been published in the early 1800s by some anonymous publisher in England. Probably didn't want to admit to publishing such volumes. Probably riddled with errors too.” He snapped the book shut, then placed it sideways upon a low shelf. “Still, better than not having a copy at all.” He bent down and continued looking.
This continued for a good quarter hour, the pale young man taking out a book, paging through it, listing off some obscure details about their relevance, rarity, veracity. Some he put back on the shelf, some he added to his pile. Once he was through, there was a precarious stack of books on the floor about a foot and a half high.
“These I will get, then.”
Evelyn nodded, then shifted the glass and locked the case shut. She picked up the stack of books, which was quite heavy, and carried them over to the counter.
“Just let me look of the prices of these first. Oh, shoot. I forgot to find the binder!”
“That's quite all right. Take your time.” The pale thin gentleman stood calmly at the counter, drumming his fingers lightly along the the glass.
Finally she found the binder with the big ticket items and began looking up all the books in his pile.
“Uh, mister...”
Evelyn looked up from the ledger. “Really, Frost?”
The pale thin gentleman smiled slightly. “Yes, really. Frost. Jonathan Frost, in fact.”
“Jonathan Frost? Oh, that's so cool! Wow! You must love your name!”
“It is quite evocative, I must admit. And may I ask, what it is you are called by, my dear?”
“Oh, ah. Evelyn. That's not my last name though. It's my first. My last is Sharp. So, uh, Evelyn Sharp!”
“Sharp?” he said, raising his brow. “I don't find you so at all.”
“Oh! Ha ha!”
“Forgive me. You must get that kind of comment all the time.”
“No, no! I mean, people make jokes about my last name all the time, but not that way. It's usually like, 'oh please don't cut me,' or something lame like that.”
“Only playing off of the adjective to go straight to the topic of knives, not referencing the emotional disposition.”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I think that's what I mean. I...”
Since she had begun her conversation with the pale thin gentleman, she had not been keeping track of Minnie. In fact, thoughts for Minnie and her whereabouts had completely flown out of her mind. In the back of her mind somewhere, she must have decided that Minnie had gotten bored with the store, deciding its atmosphere wasn't appropriately conducive to light-heartedness or giddiness, and had shot off to find some new people to animate. So Evelyn was taken completely by surprise when Minnie shot out of nowhere and circled three times about Jonathan Frost's head. All Evelyn could do for the moment was stare.
Minnie stopped dead in the air, over Jonathan Frosts left shoulder, grabbed the sides of her non-mouth with both hands and stuck out her non-tongue, making a disgusted masque, her normally pinkish hue turning a sudden bright green. Then she shot out through the front window at Looney Tune speed, leaving a little puff of nonexistent vapor behind her.
Evelyn, stunned by this completely uncharacteristic display from the faery, could not help but follow the course of its flight with her eyes.
“I'm sorry?”
“Is it something I said?” Jonathan Frost wore an expression of such confusion he almost seemed to be in pain.
“Uh, uh...” She had to do something to recover from this. Think Evelyn, think.
“Well, it's just, uh, these books? They seem to be really expensive? I mean, this first one on top? The Catalaunian Grimoire? It's listed in here as being 456 dollars. Just scanning down the list, the rest of the books aren't that far different. I mean, some or them are even more. Are you sure you want to spend this kind of money?”
The pale thin gentleman Jonathan Frost stared at her calmly, coolly. “I can quite assure you I can pay whatever the price of these books may be. Money is, quite fortunately, not something I need to consider.”
“Oh,” squeaked Evelyn. “Oh.” She nodded, more to herself than to him. “Well, uh, I'll just add all these up then.”
“Do take your time.”
For the next several minutes, Evelyn added up the price of the magic books, punching each one into the cash register. She did not look up, but just as she could see faeries she could feel the pale thin gentleman's eyes staring at her, dark with suspicion. When she added up the final price of the books, it was more money than she made in a year. Evelyn was pretty sure the owner, Miss Faith, had deliberately priced the books out of what other people would be willing to pay for them, so no one would, and she wouldn't have to look for more of them to fill up the case.
But still, they were for sale.
Jonathan Frost paid for his books using a Debit Card from Bank of America. His purchase was approved almost immediately.
“Well, there's your books, and, there's your receipt,” said Alison. She had packed the books all up into two large plastic shopping bags, with the store logo printed on the front in black against an absinthe-green background. She placed the receipt all folded up into one of the bags, turned their handles towards the pale thin gentleman and smiled as warmly as possible.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes flickering back and forth between her and the bags.
“So, it that all then?” she said, with utmost chipperness.
“Yes,” said Jonathan Frost, his eyes scanning slowly across the store. “I don't think that today I will be requiring any trinkets.”
“Oh. Okay.”
He only stared at her in response. A long, unfathomable stare, betraying hidden depths at work churning and colliding end over end, but on the surface as calm, as inviting as could be. Underneath that stare, Evelyn could only stare back in response, weakly, like an animal at mercy.
“May I ask you a question?” he asked softly. It was almost a whisper.
“Just now, before you started talking about book prices, it was as if you...saw something.”
“What did you see?”
The man standing in front of her, this well-dressed gentleman, had just spent over 20 thousand dollars on books, books that claimed to contain magic. There they were, sitting in front of her, dressed in the colors of the Green Fairy.
“A spirit encircled your head three times and shot out through the window.”
A weight, one that Evelyn had not even been aware off, evaporated off her shoulders and flew up towards the heavens.
The pale thin gentleman rocked back slightly on the balls of his feet, as if taken aback, but possessed of enough will to withhold it. “You can see spirits.” It was almost a whisper.
“Not...the dead,” said Alison, shifting her eyes down towards the counter. “But, spirits of the air, and the earth, of objects and emotions.”
“Faeries, yeah.” she looped her hair behind her ear. “That's how I think of them, actually. But it feels strange to say the word out loud, you know?”
“Yes, yes I think I do.” His eyes scanned up towards the ceiling. “Can you always see faeries, or does it come and go?”
“It seems like I always can. I mean, I see them all the time. I even talk to some of them. In my head.”
Jonathan Frost's eyes went a little wide at this. He looked about the shop-room. “Are there, are there any faeries in here now?”
Alison shook her head. “You scared off the only one here. They don't actually come inside buildings all that much. It's why your emotions often seem...brighter somehow, out of doors. Faeries are more likely to be influencing you.”
“That's...that's quite astonishing.”
“Well, yes. Most people are pretty surprised to hear that faeries exist, but...”
“I mean that you can see them.”
At this, Evelyn could not help but look, for a moment, totally lost.
“I do know that they exist,” assured the pale thin gentleman.
“You-you do?”
Jonathan Frost nodded, almost sagely. “I am quite aware of the existence of faeries, it is only that I have never been able to see them. My studies, unfortunately, have not been that advanced.”
“They aren't? ...What studies?”
Jonathan Frost nodded his head forward in a motion of enclosing counsel. “I too, am a magician.”
“You are?” Evelyn almost certainly looked as shocked as she was feeling.
Jonathan Frost motioned towards the books wrapped in absinthe paper. “I do not buy these books for their value as curiosity, Miss Sharp, but for their utility.”
“You can do magic?”
This exhortation must have been slightly louder than was normal for polite conversation, for Jonathan Frost casually reclined his head and cast a careful scanning glance across the length of the shop, searching, one could only surmise for any other residence who may have overheard.
Evelyn felt her face flush.
“Yes,” returned Jonathan Frost calmly, his rounds complete. “I can do magic. Can't you?”
“What? No! I mean, no. Why would I be able to do magic?”
“Why, however else would you be able to see faeries? Such a feat seems, from my reading, at least, to be one of great training.”
“No, I-I didn't train for it at all! It's just, always been there. Since I was a kid. For as long as I can remember.”
A truly inscrutable look passed across Jonathan Frost's face then, a look that seemed to combine awe with disappointment. “So you are an adept.”
“An adept?”
“Yes,” said Jonathan Frost slowly, “it is a term used among those to in the study of magic for those are are naturally, well, adept at some aspect or another of the arts.”
“...And I take it, from your lack of familiarity with the word, that, despite working within the walls of a magic shop, you are not well-acquainted with the study of magic?”
She had been, of course, in a way. She had studied witchcraft, divination, folklore, ritual magic. She even knew what an adept was supposed to be, when she had time to think about it. But that was all academic study. The way Jonathan Frost used the word study, it meant something much, much more.
“Despite your tremendous gift?”
Jonathan Frost sounded exceedingly disappointed.
“I...should I have?”
Jonathan Frost shrugged, regaining his composure. “It is not a question for what you should, or shouldn't do, Miss Sharp. You may do as you will. It is just that it seems to be to be such an awful waste, to have such a ability, such adeptness, and to do nothing to build upon it. After all...” The absinthe bags moved. They moved of their own accord, or so it seemed, and slid off the counter. On their downward trajectory the bags uprighted themselves, turning in the air at such an angle that without any annoyance they found their handles within Jonathan Frost's waiting hands. “...the world is so much larger than all this.” The ashplant cane, which had, until moments before, been grasped in Jonathan Frost's hand, hovered momentarily upon the ground, then, as if thrown, rose up into the crook of his arm.
With a slight smile over his shoulder, his cane parallel to the floor, Jonathan Frost walked gracefully out of the shop. Pausing to open, the door, he tipped his head gently, with a wry smile. “Miss Sharp,” he said with courtesy, and was gone.
Later that night, after closing the shop, having had not too many more customers and none as significant, hungry, shivering, lying in bed in her pajamas, staring up at the bar of moonlight falling across her ceiling, occasionally eclipsed by the passing light of a car's headlights, she was still thinking about Jonathan Frost, what he had said and how he made the bags move. They had moved without him touching them. She was as sure of it as she sure of Minnie. All her life surrounded by wonder, she had felt so privileged, so special. But he had made the bags move. She felt lazy, sloppy. She had been wasting her life, spinning her wheels. She could have done something with herself, achieved something, lived a life, out there. But what was she now? No one. What had she done? Nothing. She was a shop girl. An entry-level no one with nothing to show for it. And somewhere out there magic was being done. She had just been sitting here content, with her faeries, her voices in her head. She suddenly felt very alone. Alone and useless in a dark room, with nothing and no one, while there was the whole world out there, lying on the peripheral, out of the corner of her eye. Now it was all she could see.
A small sprite shot in through the window and zipped across the room. A little person with wings. The sprite flew up to hover beside her face, smiling gleefully at her. “Go away,” she croaked, and turned her head. Evelyn could feel the faerie frowning, could feel its confusion, its wounded pride. Nevertheless, it turned around and zipped out the window. It would be several more hours before Evelyn got to sleep.