“Flood every river of your mind with only the muckiest of water and you will forever be quenched with the thirst of appeal.”
-Salamandre, excerpt from a rejected submission to The Brixie Journal of Jangular Babbles and Jingular Enterprise, Spring Vol. XVII
The first night among the shelves, Salamandre couldn’t sleep. Mr. Stickless had left him a folded blanket on a small mattress in a room nearby the one with the rhymes but still he couldn’t sleep. Usually, when he was restless in his room-containing-a-mattress, he had his books or his juice to keep him warm but tonight he had nothing but a letter and the metal disc in his shirt pocket. The disc offered no amusement so the letter was all that was left. He took the letter into the room with the shelves and read it from there, though the words written on its pages were much different this time …
“‘Twas all ways just Alberty
A prince prais’d by King en muther …”
He read the letter from start to finish beneath the glow of a book-shelf lamp. Reading it among so many books stuffed into so many shelved struck him as strange but he wouldn’t dare touch the magical rhyme books for fear of what his that might do. Not two moments after he finished the last line, a voice interrupted any thoughts he might’ve had on what the new words on the old letter could mean.
A young girl entered the room – from inside one of the shelves? – and Salamandre quickly crinkled the letter into his shirt pocket as she came closer. With each step she took, his heart clunked against his ribcage and all ten of his fingers began to tremble. This girl was simply it, with hair thick and stormy, uncombed and filled with restless sleep. Her body was thin but strong, a mess of slight curves that billowed beneath a dark cloak. She wasn’t quite as dirty as he would have preferred, but that was an easy fix.
“I’m so sorry about my father,” she said in a voice more delightful than juice. “I hope he didn’t scare you with the rhyme. I told him he should’ve waited until you settled in a little before he offered you anything rhymed up but he was too excited you were here at the shoppe. He’s the best Brixie I know but sometimes his passion for our powers gets the better of him.”
Salamandre nodded but barely heard – or understood – what the girl said. His insides burbled loudly and his chest was drumming a steady thud. All at once, he wanted to pick every rotted ghelleyberry in the world with this girl, coat the berries with fish butter and add a mattress just for her in his room-containing-a-mattress-and-nothing-else. He’d invite her to join him for dinner and feed her spoiled ghelleyberries one at a time as they sat on his mattress (hers would be too small for a meal) and talk about the charm of fish bones or the complexities of scab-art. He would show her all the greatness of the world from his mattress on the hill – how his mattress squeaked like a jopple bird when he moved a certain way, how it smelled, how his fallen armpit hairs formed a soft layer of fuzz across its top – and he would let her see his jars and his wonderful doorway and his sculptures, even if he never heard her name.
“I’m Louisa,” she said, interrupting his fish-berry fantasy with the perfection of her name. “It’s great to finally see you for real. You’re all the rage around Brixie. Everyone’s wondering where or how you’ll turn up!”
So she wondered about me?
“I’m supposed to take you to Kildare and the Braynes – they’re waiting for you – but I’ve got somewhere else to be first. Tonight is the big show from the Harmonettes and I’ve been waiting to see them perform for two years! If I don’t go tonight, I may never be able to hear them rhyme again! Last year their show was in Stelixer’s Secret Shoppe and we’re banned from their shelves after we reported that juice violation a few year ago …”
“Cynthia Stelix deserved it too!” Mr. Stickless was in the shelf-room, an empty glass in one hand, a book in the other. “Hi Salamandre. Sorry if you heard me rhyming and couldn’t sleep. I do a lot of my rhyming work late a night and the walls in these hallways are thin. Anyway, Louisa, you can’t go to the show. Do you expect Salamandre to fare by himself? I’m going to sleep soon and we need someone on guard.”
“Please, Pop! I’ve got to go! What if I bring him along? Patrice was supposed to take my extra ticket but she doesn’t care that much about the Harmonettes so I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I give her ticket away. I’ll take him straight to Kildare after the last rhyme, I promise.”
“Mmm, to the Braynes after the show …” Mr. Stickless stuck a thoughtful finger into the hole between his teeth and twisted out a little fishbone, which he examined with his left eye only. His right eye was fixed on Louisa. “I s’pose,” he whistled. “Alright, you can do that.”
Louisa grinned widely at the news and bent down to hug her father, a least a head and a half shorter than she was.
“Lou,” Mr. Stickless said, words muffled by the embrace, make sure to give him a disguiser rhyme or a hair rhyme. We can’t have anything funny go on before he gets to the Braynes.”
Louisa groaned and let go of her father. “Of course, Pop. You think I don’t know? Go get some rest and leave everything to me!”
Mr. Stickless left Louisa and Salamandre with a tooted “S’long,” and Louisa darted off, rummaging through the books near letter D. Salamandre slumped against the shelves as she searched, content to watch her move with confidence around the room.
I wonder if she’ll rhyme me some juice.
“Here! Found it!” Louisa said, carefully handing Salamandre a page from a book, Feigning False Facades: A Non-Fictional Exploration in Costume Couplets by Lennox Hox. The page grew a new sheet just as the first rhyme-book Salamandre encountered and then shut to a close, drifting in sluggish stops and starts toward the shelves.
“C’mon, hurry up so we can rhyme,” Louisa told the book, and it moved with a hint more pep finally finding its rightful place among the shelves.
The paper Louisa handed Salamandre was less worn than the one used earlier to produce his shoes and that seemed like as good enough reason as any to read: “Paynes me to know was friends of myne will saye but cover me up to be un-spotted or spotted in a not-me fairly waye.”
Salamandre squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself for what might come next but when he finished, nothing happened; the paper didn’t even vanish as it did for his first rhyme. Everything was just as it had been before.
“Vile verses! Give me that!” Louisa grabbed the rhyme from his hands. “It’s a dirty fyme. I knew it sounded off! Every so often we get these – all secret shoppes do – but at Stickless’ we try to be careful about the authenticity of our rhyme sellers. Still, it’s difficult to keep track of who sells us what. My father is well respected in the business so we usually never have a problem getting the good stuff but sometimes we run into a fyme or two.”
Salamandre shook his head. “I think I’ve heard about this problem.” (He hadn’t.)
“It’s truly awful when it does happen,” Louisa added. “I’m studying to be a rhymer, you know – I’d be the third rhymer in the Stickless family after my grandfather and father – and one day, when I write our rhymes this won’t happen anymore. Hold on a minute, I’ll mark this one bad; no time to dispose of it properly now – we usually burn fymes – and let’s find you another and make double sure it’s a solid rhyme.”
Louisa returned to search the shelves. After shaking her head at several books that were all not “nearly enough cover” she finally gave Salamandre a piece of badly puckered paper. “Read this, Salamandre, I’m sure it’s clean.”
“Alright,” he replied. He even liked the way her voice sounded when she was frustrated.
“Hurry and get it done! We’re almost late.”
Salamandre began: “A wrappe all anew in a casing un-in-pect’d. I seek shell-tur from sin-sair-ity so I may live un-detect’d.”
This time, the rhyme-page did disappear and Salamandre was not the same as he had been a minute before. Now, he was dressed in silver leggings and a loosely fitted tan blouse with “DON’T SHAEK THE LETTER” written in gold across the front. His rhymed shoes were still intact but his blue eyes sported thickly rimmed black glasses and his head was capped off with an orange, cup-shaped covering that looked like a drinking jar gone wrong, its two handles protruding oddly from above his surprisingly hairless ears. His face was hairless too, and it was overall much too scab-less and smooth. His nails had grown inward to almost disappear and his hair had turned from deep black to bright blonde, hanging so short on his head he thought it all gone save a few golden coils meddling with the brim of his drinking-mug hat.
“Not the best job but not the worst either,” said Louisa with feigned nonchalance. Her barely contained smile told Salamandre she was proud of her work. And what a sight it was to see her smile. “Let’s go, Salamandre!”
Louisa slapped some sort of bracelet on Salamandre’s wrist. “Your ticket,” she yelled behind her as she led him the short distance to the E shelf section of the room. Louisa pushed at the shelves there, which all easily slid up into the ones above to form a square opening. “All the shelves do that in case you were wondering. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of places you can get to from the Stickless shelves. The older the shoppe, the more shelves it has and ours is the oldest and shelf-iest there is!”
Salamandre thought he saw another smile stretch out on Louisa’s face but it may have been a shadow or even a frown; the hallway into which they entered was too dark for him to tell. He hoped it was a smile though, and decided in the dark that was a smile, only then realizing that the very thought, slathered in all the dopey giddiness of first-time love, made him smile, too.
With a sudden yank, Louisa pulled Salamandre to the left and around a corner of darkness, which broke into a large, brightly lit room filled with hundreds of colorfully dressed … people? Brixies?Salamandre wasn’t too sure.
“Welcome to E-Shelf Club,” Louisa said.
They stood directly across from a wood-paneled wall lined by a stack of crackled blue ghelleyberry trunks four or five trees high. The trunks were positioned a short distance from this wall and rows of jars – yes, jars! – hung like glassy bait from wooden beams above. The beams themselves weren’t much in the way of beams but instead just long, thin ghelleyberry branches that arched their way across the length of the ceiling in gentle curves of brown. Still, they warmed the space with the rich, peppery musk of dried ghelleyberry bark.
“C’mon,” Louisa shoved Salamandre toward the jars. “You want a drink? I know Jaxin, the ghelley-bartender here. Kind of intense about his juice but mostly a good guy.” She spoke with a twisted neck, moving through the crowd as she explained how “talented” this Jaxin was at filling a jar with juice.
Between a short woman with a cropped gold top on that read “Harmonette This” and a tall man with enviably scruffled-up hair, Salamandre told Louisa he would very much like a drink.
“Okay, let’s ask then. Hey, Jaxin! Jax!”
A burly man approached from the other side of the tree-bar, bare arms covered from shoulder to fingertip with huge stains of blue. As Jaxin settled his forearms on the bark-counter, the blue splotches arranged themselves into sharply drawn renderings of fish, depicted with perfect detail down to the cycloid scales of their shiny fins. Jaxin glared at Salamandre and the fish designs continued to take shape around his now-percolating biceps and from the blue spots by his wrist.
“What do you want?” Jaxin slammed his hands on the bar. When his fists struck the wood, the drawings changed.
Does nothing stay the same? Salamandre asked himself but quickly brought his focus back to Jaxin’s fish. Salamandre watched as a triangular-shaped creature swam toward a well-calloused elbow then turned around and dove back with graceful ease, slipping across the knuckles of Jaxin’s clenched fist.
“Hello? What do you want?”
If only he knew.
“Do you still have my special drink?” Louisa chimed in, smiling at the fishy bartender.
“Well, look at little Miss Stickless returning to E-shelf!” Jaxin held out his hand to her, a small fish drawn from light blue squiggles gliding to his palm. “I didn’t even recognize you, Lou. Where have you been?”
Louisa took Jaxin’s hand and the fish swam in circles around Jaxin’s wrist. She suddenly let go.
“I know, I wish I could get out here more often,” she said softly. “It seems crazy I wouldn’t be able to visit our own club but I really haven’t had any time between working at the shoppe and studying for organic verses.”
“That’s right,” said Jaxin. “I forgot you’re a rhyme-worm now. How’s school going? Professor Featherfeld working you too hard?”
“No, no, it’s going okay. I think. Another month and I’m done with orgo and on to quatrain four.”
“Four already? Glad to hear it. Just sixteen quatrains to go!” Jaxin looked genuinely happy to hear the news. “And who is this?” His gleeful expression drained.
“This is my friend Sala … Salaslav,” Louisa sputtered. “He’s visiting me from out of shoppe.” She glanced around nervously. “Oh look! There’s Alaura. We worked together on a rhyme project in quatrain two. Would you excuse me? I’ve got to say hello to her. Jaxin, can you please take care of Salaslav? Nothing too heavy but I think he’s a little thirsty.” Louisa laughed at her own remark and the pleasant sound tinkered happily into Salamandre’s ears and made his chest splutter.
“Of course,” Jaxin replied as Louisa left. He glowered at Salamandre and his ill-fitting mug-hat. “So, what’s your drink, Mr. Salaslav?”
Because Salamandre didn’t know the answer, he paused a minute to think. Two blue sketches of swimming triangle fish warned Salamandre to decide quickly. They swam with furious premonition up and down the waves of Jaxin’s tensing triceps. “Next customer!”
“Just hold on,” said Salamandre, toying with a strange curl growing out of his left ear. “Okay, I’ve got it. Can I have some juice? You can put it in one of those jars up there if that helps.”
“Just plain juice?” Jaxin’s voice bubbled with fury. Within seconds, hundreds of little blue fish appeared on his arms, swimming with frantic speed all the way from his wrists to the sleeves of his grey shirt. “At my E-Shelf ghelley-bar, we don’t just sell juice.” Jaxin pointed a fish-filled finger with purpose at a sign hanging between the jars above his head:
The Ghelleyrista: 17 Fishubles
Flaming Ghelleybon: 16 Fishubles
The Sour Treatise: 14 Fishubles
Pale Ghellale: 13 Fishubles
Rhymers (approved for sale by the Ghelleyberry Guild)
Ghellini: 24 Fishubles (also available as a double for 48 Fishubles)
Old Berry Bomber: 21 Fishubles
The Signed Waver: 23 Fishubles (available stormed for an additional 4 fishubles)
Sizzleberry Ghell: 23 Fishubles
The Ghelleyberry Guild’s Original Ghelli®: 26 Fishubles
Salamandre gulped and answered without hesitation or insight: “I’ll take one Signed Waver.”
“Stormed or on the reg?” Jaxin fired back. “We make it both ways.”
“Oh always stormed for me.”
“One Stormed Waver, comminrideup!”
Jaxin worked with skillful ease, removing a book from beneath the bar. Simultaneously, he ripped out a page, replaced the book and plucked a jar from the overhead racks.
Laying the page flat on the bar, Jaxin murmured, “Do as I say, don’t question or probe, transform without dawdle from white leaf to blue globe.”
The torn-out page obeyed his words, first turning a deep blue then rumpling into a paper ball that hurtled itself inside the empty jar. Salamandre watched it all wide-eyed and wonderful as the ball exploded into a gush of sapphire liquid, its juice swirling around the jar in turbulent licks of a tiny, blue ghelleyberry sea. This was by far smaller than the Circle of Water Salamandre was used to.
Then, smoky clouds took shape above the swells, swaddling the water dull and lackluster as they set in. Seconds later, the clouds tore apart with little loud booms and quick splashes, spilling down blue juice. When the clouds were no more, slabs of creamy light emerged from the base of the jar, spreading their sunshine like fish jam up the depth of the juice and across the flat-breaded surface of a now settled jar-sea. Fast as it came, the brightness faded, and only blue juice was left behind. Jaxin pushed the jar along the uneven surface of the ghelley-bar, toward Salamandre.
“The storm doesn’t last long but it’s nice,” he said. “It’s a light drink with hints of fruit and undertones of saltwater fish.” As Jaxin described the juice, he spoke with confidence and even a little excitement.
“Is it good?”
Jaxin smiled. It was an odd juxtaposition to his usually hard-set face and it appeared his cheeks didn’t know quite how to react. Salamandre imaged most customers at the ghelley-bar in E-Shelf didn’t ask about the juice. They seemed very busy here. Bu as an avid berry-picker himself – though he never made the juicy stuff – the subject fascinated him and he never had anyone to ask and Jaxin clearly never had many people who wanted him to explain.
“The rhyme I use for my Stormed Wavers was written by a famous, old timey rhymer-type from Beda, Brixie, who rhymed during the Golden Age, so the juice you get in the end is very much a reflection of the time. Almost poetic, I think. Don’t you agree?”
“Well, maybe not poetic in the sense of a poem – you know how dangerous those things are to speak about around here – but poetic in the sense of the storm’s design and that definitely carries over into the juice. This is by far my noblest concoction on the menu, even if it is a little sad when you think of the era we live in now. The Brown Age of Brixies, I call it.” He laughed a laugh tinged with bitterness and mixed with a little regret. “Now drink it with the tip of your tongue and don’t ask anything more from me tonight. I know nothing … Salaslav.” Jaxin winked and turned away.
Salamandre wasn’t sure what the last wink meant but he put his lips to the jar, trying to taste the traces of fruity fish and a Brixie time gone by. He couldn’t taste a thing.
The juice was awfully sour and Salamandre had to drink it slowly unless fear permanent pursing of his lips. He left the bar with a quiet goodbye to one particularly well drawn fish on Jaxin’s right arm. It didn’t take long for him to find Louisa’s wild fray of chestnut hair among the crowd. She’d have more answers about the juice and if not, he didn’t mind what she said to him. As long as she was speaking, her unripe-ghelleyberry sweet voice made Salamandre feel a strange thing uneasily close to happiness.