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The Price of Stories
by Shannon Winward
Mother is not the real librarian. You think she has always been here, but that’s the magic working.
The real librarian – the one who issued your first library card, painted castles in the reading room and taught you about elephants – she never existed, now. That’s why you don’t remember.
But don’t worry; she’ll be back.
Mother doesn’t come for the librarians.
Mother is beautiful when she pretends; her hair is fine and white as spider thread, her neck long and slender, draped with the delicate silver chain that holds her spectacles. They always catch the light, even in shadow. This alone should tell you she is magic, but no one notices. She ensnares you in the spell. You hang on her every word.
She speaks softly, as a librarian should. She knows everyone’s name. She knows what you’re looking for and where to find it. She tells you what you want to hear. She tells you what she wants you to remember.
I envy the patrons, each gifted with her full attention in their turn. She never looks at me that way, not even when we’re alone.
When the libraries are open, I might as well be invisible. I’m a ghost in the stacks, reading over people’s shoulders. I used to touch them, but they don’t notice, so I gave it up a long time ago.
Mother doesn’t talk much, when she is only herself. The highway is an ocean; there’s just so much of it. I lay on the floor in the van for days and days, watching the sky change through the high windows. The libraries are my islands, but we never stay long, and when we’re gone no one remembers we were there.
You might think this life is lonely. It sounds strange, I know, but it isn’t! Oh, I promise.
Sometimes, Mother lets me bring our blankets from the van, and we make our bed amid the stacks. It doesn’t happen very often–she says we take enough from the towns we stop in, we should not also take advantage. But for my sake, on the coldest nights, she allows it. This is how I know she cares for me.
These are my favorite times, in deep winter, when wind howls, and snow erases all that you can see. When you can imagine there is nothing left to be forgotten, Mother lies with me and tells me stories–real ones, unchanged by her magic.
It began with nights like this, she’ll say, in a time when darkness was measured not in hours but in lifetimes. When people huddled for warmth in the wombs of the earth, the storyteller came to shape the world.
The storyteller gave reason to fear, and to death. Beasts that hunt. Sickness that creeps. When it stormed, the storyteller told us, it was the sky god raging. When the ground shook, it was the Great Bear, restless in his slumber. When the game evaded capture, when bellies went hungry, the storyteller explained it:
Sacrifice is the price of survival.
And so, from the beginning, we have sacrificed. While we live, we give our faith to the storyteller.
When we die, we give our bodies back to the dark.
But we are more than flesh and faith. We, too, are beings of magic, born not just to live, but to imagine. From the spark within us we fashioned fire. We invent tools, empires, even stories, and this is just the beginning. We are each of us capable of bearing worlds, and the storyteller knows this.
Without our faith, the storyteller would be only one of us.
Mother says she tells me these things so one day I can be like her. Maybe this is true, but I think there’s more.
I think she tells me her secrets because she knows that I can’t share them.
The other children don’t know I’m here, but it’s not their fault. When they pick up a book, it’s only pages, some pictures, maybe. To them, a book is just a place to keep a story. They can’t do what I do, or go where I go.
When I pick up a book, it is a door.
But you know what I mean, don’t you? In a way, you do. I’ve seen the look in your eyes as you read, sitting crisscross on the floor.
My first memories happened inside of books. I remember climbing on a shelf that was a trunk; up, up, the steady safety of a giraffe’s head under my bottom. He wouldn’t let me fall. The shelves bobbed with books like ripe apples, branches reaching wide in every direction–this way, that way. I was never hungry, and I was never alone.
Mother changes what the world remembers, but this is how my magic works: I can pass into books like water through your fingers–it isn’t hard. It feels different there. I can touch, and be touched. My friends are in the inside worlds–the princesses and wolves, the monsters and the wild boys.
When Mother is working, they are my family.
When I was very little, I was raised by three grizzly bears. Pop held me on his lap and sang to me. Mama fed me warm buttered porridge every night, and when I was sleepy, they tucked me with Brother into a snuggly bed.
There never was a Goldilocks ‘til Mother found that girl in Tulsa. Her name was Isabel, or Anna, or some such, but Mother gave her a push, and now no one remembers. She’ll live forever as Goldilocks in the forest.
As I grew bigger, I rode with the woodsman. Then Mother gave him the pale young girl from London. The Queen took exception–she had always been the prettiest, but the one they named Snow was ever so much lovelier. Together we convinced the woodsman to slay a deer, and he traded its heart for his freedom. I jumped in the Queen’s mirror when she wasn’t looking.
But that’s not how it goes, you say. I know. When we sacrifice a life this way, the tales are changed forever. You remember them like you’re supposed to–the prince in the moon, Sherazade, Jack and his giants, solidified in stories. We are all of us beings of possibility.
You feel the magic of what was lost, not knowing what it means. You love them. You believe in them.
Mother knows this. It’s what we come for. It’s always been this way.
At least, that’s what she tells me.
But you–ah, you, with your sun-kissed skin and eyes dark as bibles. I thought she would come for you, surely. Knee-deep in books, you lose yourself in the magic. It swirls around you, a flock of birds, a school of silver salmon. They ate from my hand as I stood there, watching, the ghost of a memory dancing around me. I hoped it would take a while before she found you. I wanted it to be forever.
And then you looked up, and you said hello. I looked around, but it was only us two, here in the aisle. You were speaking to me! If you only knew how my heart sang, then.
I asked what you were reading, and, you answered. You held up your book to show me how the pictures and the words moved with your bidding. And just like that, I remembered.
Mother is not my real mother. Once, I was a little girl. I played outside under the wide, blue sky, on real green grass, with a woman who smiled when she spoke to me.
I had a name, even if it’s been so long it no longer matters.
She taught me to read in a park near our house. I sat on her lap and played with her hair. It tickled, and smelled like springtime. She called me her clever darling. She didn’t know that the living stories made it easy. They moved for me, like they move for you. They sang in my ears; I laughed and danced. I wanted more, more, so mother–the real one–brought me to a library.
She set me down among the books and told me to pick one. I made a pile, a mountain, a forest of stories, taller than I was. How could I not choose all of them?
An hour passed, days, it’s all the same when you’re that small. When I looked up for mother, she was across the room, talking to the librarian.
And then she left with a book.
She had forgotten.
Mother came to me, then, graceful and silver. She lifted her spectacles on their shining chain, perched them on her nose, and peered at me.
“My, my,” she said. “You’re a special one, aren’t you?”
Every child since, and, surely, every one before me went to live in the inside worlds. She has never told me why she keeps me–only that I should call her Mother, do as I’m told, and speak only when spoken to. Which isn’t often, as I said – only the cold nights, when she wants to tell her secret stories. And I think that’s why.
I think even the storyteller gets lonely.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You – you’re one of us. I think you could come inside, too, with just a little push–like this.
No, don’t fight. It won’t hurt, I promise.
There, now. You’ll be safe in here. This is my favorite book. I keep it with me, always. Now we can be together, and never be lonely.
Mother doesn’t have to know.
About the Author
Shannon Connor Winward has appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, Strange Horizons, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Star*Line, Literary Mama, and Scigentasy: Gender Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and has been awarded Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future Contest and as an emerging artist in literature by the Delaware Division of the Arts.
Her debut collection of poetry, Undoing Winter, is available through Amazon and Finishing Line Press. In between parenting and other madness, Shannon works to support local artists, and here and there has been intimate with a microphone. She lives and writes in Newark, Delaware. She has fiction forthcoming in Spinetingler Magazine and Stupefying Stories, and poetry in Scheherezade’s Bequest and Kaleidoscope.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is the Editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and forthcoming from Polu Texni.
About the Artist
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.