“In the Library of Longing” was first published by Daily Science Fiction, February 2021
by Mark Joslyn
You were right, you know. When you were a child.
I was hiding under your bed.
You knew it, even though you couldn’t prove it. Even after your mother kissed your cheek, and tucked you in, and told you there was nothing to be afraid of. Even after your father knelt and checked and told you there was nothing hiding down there. Even when you summoned up all your courage and looked for yourself, hanging off the edge of your bed, your trembling flashlight shining on nothing but forgotten socks and lost toys. You still knew, that somehow, someway, I was down there.
You knew the truth back then. That this world is so thin. So much of it no more than a dream. And that there were old things, hungry things, waiting on the other side. Yearning to come through. And so you lay frozen in your bed, seeing me in your mind with a clarity that your eyes could never match. You saw my endless rows of teeth. My burning red eyes. My greedy claws just waiting to snatch up little children left alone. Snatch them and drag them down that nightmare tunnel, to a forgotten hole in the world, where legs cannot run and screams cannot be heard.
And it wasn’t the prayers you said, or how tightly you pulled up the covers that kept you safe.
It was just you.
Running, leaping, bounding, climbing, laughing, invincible you. How could I have ever competed with you? You, who conjured worlds of magic with shrieks and jumps. Who could stretch a summer afternoon out for an eternity. Who could transform little sticks to mighty swords, and couch cushions to pirate ships. You, who stole kisses and conquered trees and tumbled down great hills only to sprint back up them again.
I never would have stood a chance.
But that’s not who you are anymore, is it?
Now there’s a new you.
Groaning, trudging, sinking, binging, snarking, fragile you. You, for whom the new day is no longer an adventure, but a chore. Who seeks not fun, but distractions. Who no longer dreams of alien worlds and lost kingdoms, just paltry things, things that deep down you know you’ll never have. You, who dies a hundred little deaths a day from frustrations and limitations and disappointments.
That’s who you are now. The you that you were is gone.
But I’m still here.
And I’m still hungry. Still waiting. Still ready to swallow you down into that deep, deep dark where nothing is ever found again.
You’re not quite ready yet. Not quite ripe.
But that’s alright. I’ve waited this long.
I can wait a little longer.
In the Library of Longing
by Xan van Rooyen
Eris sterilized her instruments with dabs of a rosemary-blood decoction. It smelled wholesome with only a hint of iron. She prepared a jar too, the glass bright green.
Her client sighed in annoyance as she flipped to the final page of the contract.
“Is this really necessary?” Mrs. Fernsby asked. “She’s only eight.” She glanced at the girl perched on the settee beside her.
“Your daughter is the one undergoing the procedure.”
Mrs. Fernsby shoved the contract and pen into her daughter’s fingers. “Write your name,” she said. “No heart on the i.”
The pen trembled in the girl’s hand. She frowned in concentration, freckles scrunched and tongue peeking from her mouth as she formed careful letters. Eris tucked the contract into a drawer overflowing with others.
“Go on, Jessica.” Mrs. Fernsby nudged her daughter toward the table draped in white sheets. Jessica shuddered, her gaze resting on the blades.
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt,” Eris said. At least not in the way her clients feared.
She helped the girl onto the table.
“I know others wait until their kids are older, but I think it’s best to deal with these things before they do damage,” Mrs. Fernsby said.
Eris forced a smile. “It’s best if you wait in the drawing room.”
“Be good.” Mrs. Fernsby kissed her daughter’s ginger hair before sashaying away.
“Lie back and close your eyes,” Eris said.
Jessica did, fists clenched tight at her sides.
“Mummy says I’ll feel better once it’s all gone. But what if–what if…” She bit her lip, a frown crumpling her gossamer-fine brows. “What if mummy’s wrong?”
“Shh, it’ll be over soon,” Eris said. Yet she hesitated before slicing open the child’s potential.
The contract stated a simple extraction: remove the ‘silly dreams,’ leaving intact all ‘sensible ambition.’
Eris pried apart the fibrous tissue of the girl’s soul stuff, slicing through tenuous strands connecting lofty ideals with realistic goals. When Eris was finished, Jessica would never have to face the disappointment of aiming too high and missing.
Eris took up a hook. She dipped it into the depths of Jessica’s aspirations, catching the ‘silly dreams’ with deft flicks of her fingers. They gathered on the point, writhing as Eris transferred them to the waiting jar.
She studied the wound. A flash of silver burrowed deeper. Eris picked up slim tweezers, then went hunting through the filaments of desire.
Eris caught the dream. It shimmered and twisted in the tweezers. It was no silly thing. No dream at all, but a truth camouflaged.
Should she leave it, it might lead to disappointment and pain. If she left this one, then the soul might remember the others it had lost. But to remove it? Eris listened closely as the sliver of silver whispered. She listened, and she understood. Her heart crackled like kindling in her chest as she eased the sliver back into the crevasse she’d carved. The spark within her grew, fanned by memory into fragile flame.
Eris stitched the wound and screwed closed the jar. On the lid, there was an empty space waiting for a name. She wrote the child’s true name, the one that whispered by silver.
Mrs. Fernsby paid and left with a clacking of heels. The child hesitated at the door and turned back to look at Eris with eyes as green as the jar containing his dreams.
“Goodbye, Dylan,” Eris mouthed and the child’s lips curled into a smile, his hand resting over the scar on his chest and his truth stitched safe.
Eris pressed her own hand against her chest, feeling the tender warmth of half-remembrance burning beneath her skin.
She cleaned her tools and set the sheets soaking in lavender before she took the jar to her library. She’d keep Dylan’s dreams safe–as she did for all her clients–just in case one day he returned for his jar and all she’d taken from him.
Her library held a hundred thousand longings contained within hand-blown glass. Eris walked barefoot to the nearest shelf and cleared a space for the green jar. She dragged her fingers along the others. She remembered and she grieved.
“What if mummy’s wrong?” Dylan’s words echoed in her ears.
Eris wondered how many truths she’d mistaken for silliness. How many dreams had she wrenched from souls when she should’ve left them to grow? How much joy had she murdered trying to save others from a life of misery?
What if it were she who was wrong?
She studied her hands, remembering a different time and a different name. Where was her truth? Trapped behind glass like a firefly destined to lose its light, wings broken in a desperate plea for freedom.
Eris stared at the rows of jars. In some, the contents still glowed, vital and eager to escape. Others had dimmed, while in many the dreams had already faded and turned to ash. She smashed these first, cutting her bare feet on the splinters.
She shattered every jar. It wasn’t enough to simply open the lids. Some longings had been caged so long, they wouldn’t know they were free unless she obliterated all that contained them.
The air turned nebulous and thick with wanting.
She roamed deeper to shelves wreathed in cobweb. The jars were caked in dust, their contents long since crumbled. But on the furthest shelf in the darkest corner, she found a ceramic pithos. It was cold to the touch. Eris prickled with trepidation as she hauled the jar from the shelf.
This was hers.
It had no name etched into its design, but she knew what it was even if she’d forgotten what it contained–what had been stolen from her.
The pithos cracked between her palms.
Ash and oily residue spilled across the floor. Eris wept as she knelt among the remains of all she could’ve been. She sifted the grit through her fingers, searching, her chest tightening on the emptiness she longed to fill.
Her fingers snagged on the sharp edge of something bright struggling through the detritus. She washed it with her tears and cradled it in her palm.
A name. Her truth.
Not Eris, not strife.
She was Elpis, even if she’d forgotten… even if they’d taken it from her.
The living dreams swarmed around her. The brightest were Dylan’s–pure silver with edges tinged red from recent removal.
She strode from the library and flung wide the doors to her home–her prison. The dreams and aspirations sped into the night, streaks of incandescence, searching for their rightful roosts.
And Elpis smiled as the emptiness in her chest filled with hope.
About the Authors
Mark Joslyn is a defense attorney, working for the Cook County Public Defender’s Office. His work has appeared in Dark Matter and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He lives in Chicago with his dog, Kirby, and an obscene amount of comic books.
Climber, tattoo collector, peanut-butter addict, and loyal shiba-minion, Xan van Rooyen is a non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. They have a Master’s degree in music, and–when not teaching–enjoy conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. You can find Xan’s short stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, and Bards & Sages Quarterly among others. You can also read their novels like I Heart Robot and By the Blood of Rowans. Feel free to hang out with Xan on Instagram and Twitter @xan_writer.
About the Narrators
Serah Eley is a software developer and writer who once, under the name Steve Eley, started a little science fiction podcast called Escape Pod. You might have heard of it. She was the original founder of Escape Artists, our parent company, before retiring from podcasting in 2010. She’s spent much of the past ten years exploring the frontier territories of multiple-identity and gender, and is just starting to write home about what she’s found. You can follow her exploits at https://serah.wtf/
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 Polu Texni.