“Those who speak of art as a truth, as a thing to know and understand in complete, bring a corruption to society far deeper reaching than any criminal mind could hope to create.” – Salamandre, Excerpt from Opening Ceremony to the Grackle Honeycreeper Ballet Company’s Performance of Tender Skies
It wasn’t mentioned before but should be mentioned now: Salamandre did not like flowers. He did not like their perfumes or their colors or how they grew taller and brighter with a good bit of rain. He thought people stupid who fawned over these flowers, emulating their habits, mimicking their ways. A being was not meant for pruning or watering or coloring on to make rosier, he thought. A being was meant to be. Hair and nails should grow long and windy. Hands and feet should callous from natural use. Bodily scents should accumulate undisturbed in a wonderful stench all one’s own. Skin should be leathered and worn into, covered by the dirt of a world created for the dominance of man. Uncleanliness was sacred because it meant a oneness with nature that beings could willingly embrace. A filthy exterior defined a man as an outstanding project of blood and flesh with the ability to choose his encasement by sweet soil and rich earth rather than be forced through sheer instinct to scrub it away. For Salamandre, it was only this man of the dirt who could rightly be called beautiful.
Salamandre’s thoughts often wandered to places like this when his mind was free and his hands were busy finding rotted berries for the next day’s drink. It had been a calm few days since the letter and the strange scene on the perch and Salamandre had almost forgotten about the whole thing. Almost.
From his seat below a tall ghelleyberry tree everything looked ordinary again; the hills and bay were back and the trail and mountains were nowhere to be seen.
He sniffed his skin with satisfaction; plucking too-ripe ghelleyberries gave him such a wonderful stink and what a happy mood he had on today! He thought a little about the curiosity of ghelleyberries, how they smelled sweet when newly formed and terrible if left on the tree for very long. What two-faced berries these are, Salamandre said to himself, and I cherish their fickleness with each bite!
Yes, it was definitely a happy mood he had on on today. He even decided to count his fingers again – he had counted once this morning – and scrape scabs for a while because he knew there was something lovely on his elbow and another scab in need of scraping on the side of his left ankle. When all fingers were accounted for and scabs plucked off, he would go inside and return to bed. Innocent as this plan sounded, it was one from which he would never recover.
As soon as Salamandre took a rest to accomplish the tasks, three extraordinary things happened. First: The ghelleyberry tree under which he sat started to glow with faint, blue light. Second: The tree disappeared. And third: The ground under this now-gone tree began to push down beneath Salamandre’s unimpressive weight. This third happening was by far the most strange of the three – not much thought was given to the first or second – and Salamandre soon discovered a chunk of land large enough to fit several of him at once calmly sinking into the hilltop. While he sat – what else is there to do? – half of this chunk dropped farther, and then half of that chunk even farther and the next chunk farther still until six drops later, Salamandre realized he was sitting on a staircase made from pieces of his hill. Usually he was very observant and thought that during some day spent writing in the Journal for Hilly Observations he would’ve noticed that his own hill contained a staircase inside, but he couldn’t remember noticing it and had definitely never travelled on it before. Yet here it was today and he was fast moving down – still seated – as a new stair formed from the old and he bumped along with the change, surrounded by ever-narrowing walls formed from woven, blue ghelleyberry branches and soil. Finally, counting forty-six every-smaller downward drops, the staircase ended, leveling off into a circular, glass tunnel with water all around.
The Circle of Water, thought Salamandre and wondered briefly if he was standing somewhere below it. There were many more thoughts and wonders that fluttered inside his head after this one but they came about in such haste as to almost occur at once. On his staircase travels, Salamandre felt unexpectedly lighter with each thud toward the bottom, even in the occasional moments when his body knocked against the branch-and-root lining of the hill. Now, as he stood at the end of the staircase, the lightness remained, as if a bogged-down spell had been shattered and he’d been freed of all the feverish worries that kept him no farther than a short perimeter away from his room-containing-a-mattress-and-little-else. One by one Salamandre bid the cares farewell –goodbye, desire to stay in bed for three days straight! So long, fear of stepping beyond my perch! – and watched as they crackled into a nothingness that was the greatest something a thing could be. His mattress-stuck days were already echoes of a foreign figure that may have looked like Salamandre – same grime-covered form and unshaven face – but were not one and the same with the Salamandre who stood at this juncture of mysterious stair and bright water, yearning to journey on. It was very un-Salamandre-ish to be sure and he suddenly found himself free to just live, unshackled by a once-imprisoning existence he’d worked a lifetime to maintain. There is more beyond my mattress.
A purple and red spotted fish with pointed teeth and a blue nose –a fish with a blue nose! – nipped at the stretch of glass near his toe and another that looked like a skinny, spiky-edged line floated sluggishly across the tunnel’s broad arch. Any way he looked, hundreds of fish swam – some together, others lagging behind – and drifted across the glossy expanse of the tunnel in blurs of brilliant color. Salamandre walked with wonder drawn snug to his hairy face, amazed at both the nautical sight splashed before him and a newfound ability to ignore his body’s usual desire for sleep. He paused to take in a starlight-yellow fish that had been following him for several minutes. It puckered its lips at the clear surface of the tunnel and so Salamandre gave the fish a kiss back. The glass was cold but the fish was warm and did it wink at me before flitting away?
At last Salamandre came to the end of the tunnel, a little disappointed to discover such a marvelous structure finished into a long hallway decorated with all shades of dirt. The dim light revealed nothing but sinister nooks and dreary crannies, and tangled cobwebs that stretched from the big brass lanterns lining the walls. The brick walls were so tall Salamandre lost sight of where they might end but the darkness above seemed less appealing than remaining by the lanterns’ half-light. With unusual determination, Salamandre left the gleaming tunnel behind and walked slowly through the brick hallway. This seems like the kind of place that might have juice.
A man’s scratchy voice asked the question near Salamandre’s head as a brick by his ear fast slid away. Salamandre peered sidelong into two wide, green eyes that filled the small hole where a brick had been. One eye looked straight at him while the other gazed off to the right, into the shadows that seeped down the hallway with a graying touch of gloom.
“One moment, let me think,” Salamandre replied, not at all surprised by the question or even the eyes that asked it. He expected as much. A cross-eyed thing glaring at him in this alley found at the end of a water-bound tunnel reached by an unknown set of ghelleyberry stairs just discovered to be waiting for him at the top of his mattress-hill was exactly the perfect fit to the oddity of the past few days.
“Do you know the passcode?” Asked the eyes again. A high-pitched whistle punctuated the last word spoken. “‘Fraid I can’t let you in without the correct passcode.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember what it is,” said Salamandre.
The eyes searched him with curiosity, catching his face for the first time – or at least one eye did. Both eyes sparkled anew.
“Well ha ha ha!” Laughed the eyes. “Ha and another HA after that! Why didn’t you say so? Come in, come in. There’s never a passcode needed when the great Salamandre knocks at your door!”
Without a chance to reply – or argue that he hadn’t knocked – the bricks began to disappear and a space emerged in the wall so Salamandre could squeeze through. He stepped inside quickly and turned to find the hole in the bricks had vanished; the wall behind him was solid and sealed shut. This might have been the most fascinating happening at the moment, if not for the utter strangeness of the place where Salamandre now stood.
The whistling man from the bricks smiled at Salamandre when he spoke, exposing a row of black teeth missing the front and bottom two. (So much for the explanation of the whistling sounds).
“Seven is the passcode. Remember that for the next time you come,” he whistled.
“Thank you,” Salamandre replied, unsure he’d want to visit again. From where he stood, Salamandre observed the place inside the bricks to be much neater, larger and more spherical than he would have guessed from the moody alleyway just outside. Still, the orderly room was tinged with mystery and Salamandre didn’t like that very much.
Circular bookshelves marked with scribbled blue letters covered towering walls, curling from floor to ceiling in rings then ringlets of smaller and smaller shelf size. At the very top of the rounded ceiling, the shelves finally stopped their shelving, but not before turning out one last tiny curl only a few inches high. On the floor, more shelves, set horizontal along the ground. Everything in the room was made from shelves; even the row of square tables running down the center seam of the space had bookshelves for legs and books arranged with their covers set side by side to create a reasonably flat tabletop. At the middlemost table was a lamp assembled from books stacked into a base that fanned out into a wider pile of glowing books to make something of a book-shade. Salamandre moved closer to the light coming from that spot.
“So how’ve you been?” The whistling man asked but didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s been a very, very long while and you’re looking … well, you’re looking just like Salamandre should! I’d say it’s been twenty years since I’ve seen you. Twenty, at least! Was your journey okay? I’m glad you’ve made it to Brixie and a special glad you’ve made it to my shoppe! There were rumblings you’d arrive tonight but of course rumblings in Brixie could mean anything from a light rainstorm to the shutdown of thirty-six hallways. No matter, you’re here, and it’s a fine pleasure and honor to have you standing among these shelves. We’re closed for the night, of course, but we’d never deny you.”
The whistling man was incredibly short; his head only reached to Salamandre’s chest and it poked out from a long, black cloak. He had a scrunched-up face that smiled a cross-eyed welcome below short, white hair tousled in every direction but the right one. Thankfully, these weren’t the only hairs to be found on his face; tinier ones protruded from the nostrils of a small, knobby nose. Salamandre enjoyed the tiny hairs most and wished some might grow inside his own nose, too. In fact, these nose hairs were the very reason Salamandre wasn’t the least bit afraid to stand before the whistling man, even if he was the first person Salamandre could ever remember meeting.
“Welcome to Stickless’ Secret Shoppe,” the whistling man said, one eye gazing at Salamandre, the other meandering off course to a shelf marked with a blue G. He gave the shelf closest to his hand a tender pat. “I’m Wilbur Stickless, by the way, shoppe owner, keeper and friend if you’ll let me. You can call me Mr. Stickless, everyone else does who comes by this shoppe.”
“Good to meet you, Mr. Stickless,” Salamandre said slowly, reciting part of a line he had read in a book. “My name is Salamandre.”
“Ha! I know who you are! Everyone in Brixie knows who you are!” Wilbur snickered with childlike enthusiasm.
“Oh. Well, this is a very nice place to be,” Salamandre said, repeating another phrase he’d read.
“We’re pretty happy here,” said Wilbur, giving the shelves another cheerful tap. “Stickless’ Secret Shoppe is one of the oldest secret shoppes in Brixie – three hundred and eighty four years old last month. It’s the most famous and best of ‘em too! Don’t you agree?”
“It is the finest secret shoppe I’ve ever seen,” Salamandre said. “It’s a shame I’m not in the mood for a book because I usually do enjoy the sport of a good read. Do you by chance sell anything else here? Maybe something with a little more liquid to it?”
“Ha! We don’t sell books!” Mr. Stickless puffed out his little chest. “These books aren’t for sale, not even for Salamandre. What a funny thing to think a secret Brixie shoppe sells books! I guess you didn’t get out much from that mattress-room on your hill …”
But he knows of the place?
“… Here we sell rhymes. We’re a secret rhyme shoppe, one of only a dozen left in Brixie, though we’ve got the widest selection of rhymes to beat the rest, and at the best prices too! At Stickless’, it’ll cost you just six fishubles for a Balding-Be-Gone rhyme, can you imagine? Just six fish! And for only fifty nine fishubles – minus a few more for a friend – the tiniest Brixies get a rhymed-up cottage high in shelf X that’ll last you a whole three days before it starts to disappear! It’s very beautiful up there, or so I’m told. I can’t fit through to find out for sure but they say the view is worth a lot more than fifty nine fish.”
“That sounds like a nice arrangement,” Salamandre said with as much confidence as one could who didn’t know a thing about rhymes or the shoppes in which they were sold. “Though I’ve always thought shoppes were supposed to be a little easier to spot.”
“Easier to spot? Do you mean to ask about the bricks and the passcode business? This is a secret shoppe, you remember. If we were any easier to spot, how would we be kept a secret? No, you’ve got to use bricks in Brixie if you want to keep anything worth keeping. You do know what fine rhymes we have …”
Salamandre nodded. He guessed he did.
“I’ve got to protect them, don’t I?”
Embarassed, Salamandre turned away, just then noticing an empty picture frame hanging on the wall near where he had entered. It was one of the few items in the room not made from shelves.
Wilbur Stickless’ right eye fell on the frame. “You like that, Salamandre? It was a present given to the shoppe a few years ago. That’s an original Grackle Honeycreeper painting. ‘A Study in Flout Dotation,’ it’s called, or maybe ‘A Study in Doubt Flotation.’ I really can’t remember. It was a gift for my father, Larrabee Stickless, who retired from running this shoppe sixteen years ago and now lives a touch off Bifflewill Way. It was quite the honor that he gifted this to my father; Grackle Honeycreepers are worth a lot. He’s a well-known artist around town. Funny to think he’s so famous, his wife being Delilah Honeycreeper, head of the Department of Proper up in Brixbanx Village. You really couldn’t find a duo more mismatched than the Honeycreepers, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Salamandre said. (He didn’t.)
“Then you must also know how Grackle sits up in the drawing room at the Honeycreeper Estate in Far North Corner for hours a day creating wonderful images in his head – or so he says of them; it’s tricky to tell how much wonder they contain. He never bothers transferring the artwork onto anything outside of his mind. No canvas, no paper. ‘Art is an endeavor defined by the artist, and this is my chosen definition of art,’ he always says whenever anyone asks him about his methods. Nobody understands the answer but he gets paid wildly for his pieces because we all pretend we do. Beansie Hollen bought ‘Sanding Wonderbugs’ for a whopping sixteen hundred and thirty eight fish last month and then placed the armful of nothing Grackle delivered the next morning inside a pleasant silver frame, a little like this frame here in thickness but silver instead of wood. Some people made a fuss when Grackle gave this one to my father but Larrabee Stickless of Stickless’ Secret Shoppe is a long-time hero of the Brixies and Grackle will always be a supporter of the Brixie cause.”
Salamandre couldn’t speak. This Grackle Honeycreeper painting was the freest thing he’d ever seen; a window to a paradise world of mattresses and jars and skin sculptures ten feet high, just one fingernail and two shelves beyond his reach. Before he could stare any longer, his chair was swiveled around and he looked squarely into the nose-haired face of Wilbur Stickless.
“You’re lucky you found us so easily,” Mr. Stickless said, a hint of worry mixed into his whistle. “Many want to find our shoppe but most never do. Of course, why would you have any trouble?” Wilbur flashed a blackened, gap-toothed smile as he waddled over to the shelves, his hair swishing as he went, his cloak sailing behind him, his stubby arm motioning for Salamandre to join him at a bookshelf-table nearby.
“So what do you want? We’ve got rhymes for everything here. Just name it and we’ve got the right rhyme, no doubt!”
Salamandre sat at the table, surprised at how easy it was to relax into the absolute unknown. “Can I get some juice?”
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Stickless said sharply. “We don’t rhyme juice here.”
“It’s not that I don’t like the stuff,” Mr. Stickless added. “When you’re my age, you learn that happiness is nothing more than a full bottle of ghelley and a rhymed-up berry bath to keep you warm. I do wish I could have juice available at Stickless’ for rhyme but the secret shoppes drew up a contract with the Ghelleyberry Guild six years ago and agreed not to sell anything that could turn to juice or even be considered juice-like. Too many problems with robbery and theft once we get our customers a little juicy. Some shoppe owners don’t adhere to the terms of the Juice Compact but I always respect the rights of the Guild. Keeping the Guild alive and prospering is all we have as Brixies, whether other owners believe that or not.”
“Anything else you want?”
“What about shoes?” How a rhyme could get Salamandre shoes he hadn’t a clue. The words just came out and even though he was usually against anything covering his feet – and what would fit over my long toenails? – his long walk through the tunnel had taken its toll and shoes might help soothe his blistering soles.
“Ha! Shoes? Easy as an eyelash trim on a Thursday!” Wilbur Stickless sashayed to the section of the room marked by a blue S, which he announced with a loud whistle – “S section here!” – before scanning the area with a serious scowl. “Now where is that rhyme?” Reaching for the shelf-stool, he positioned it to the right of the lettered sign and jumped on top. As his littlest finger traveled fast along the shelves, he spoke with soft whisperings of respect to every book he touched.
“What a beautiful rhyme and by any stretch completely right for the task, though in this case not perfect,” he murmured as his finger pet the binding of a thick, brown book. “Please don’t take offense, my friend, you’re right this could work but it isn’t quite what we need. No, no, completely wrong,” he told another. “A good thought at least! Aha! Here we go!” Mr. Stickless stretched his arms to a smaller shelf a little higher up the wall. “No, here we go! No, here we really go!” Mr. Stickless smiled a mouthful of black teeth and ran a hand through his messy hair. “I have to find you the exact rhyme for you, Salamandre,” he said. “We can’t have you running around in shoes that don’t match what you’ve got on now. It’s about dignity and the preservation of the Stickless name and honorable rhyme reputation. The book has got to match the Brixie, I always say.”
Salamandre stared at his dirt-stained clothes. Another man who understands the beauty in dirt.
Mr. Stickless hopped off his stool and stood near Salamandre. “Here you go,” he motioned, handing him a thin leather book. The cover read: Material Coverings and Digital Footations by Geoff Hound.
“Now turn to page 45.”
“Tear it out.”
“Yes, the page. Tear it out. Come on, Salamandre, don’t be shy. It won’t bite … I think.”
Preparing for the worst, Salmandre tore. The moment he started to rip out the page, it began to grow anew, sprouting from the binding of the book in a spread of smooth white. Then, letter by letter, a bold slop of writing appeared, mimicking the exact same writing that been placed on the now-gone page. Once the words were written, the book shut itself happily, and flew from Salamandre’s hand to its rightful place on the bookshelf marked with a sloppy, blue S.
“Read it!” Wilbur shouted. “Read it right away!”
The words on page 45 were poorly written and the sheet was badly crinkled but Salamandre attempted to read the two lines: “To stroll in the rane for wauks up hill en down. I wishe for sum shoos in a fyne shade of brown.”
“Well done!” Mr. Stickless pointed downward to Salamandre’s bare feet.
“Lovely rhyme, I see why you would sell so many,” Salamandre said. “What entertainment they provide. Now, let me warn you, I can’t pay for the rhymes however fun …”
Salamandre heard a soft fizzle and the rhyme-page faded into dust in his palm. Empty-handed, he peered at his feet only to discover them covered by a perfect-fitting pair of brown shoes. There was even extra room for his uncut toenails.
“Shoes for Salamandre! See? Shoes for Salamandre!” Mr. Stickless’ cries raced in joyful howls around the room.
Salamandre heard Mr. Stickless’ excited screams but at that moment, his mind wasn’t focused on shoes or rhymes or Mr. Stickless’ nose hairs; he looked only at Grackle Honeycreeper’s painting. In this brand-new life he had been given, buried deep below his mattress, he was just like the artwork; bound by nothing but the possibility of that which could not be seen.