Monday, 16 November 2009
Some years ago, I knew an artist called Johanna. We had something in common, we were both addicted to books. In our little town with it's old churches, grandiose town hall and its university, Johanna was famous for her 'site-specific installation' or The Little Pool where there were lilies in the water and Johanna had placed photos and Chinese calligraphy in the chamber where the Little Pool was, in the park. A lot of people either grumbled about it for one reason or another, but mostly it was loved. Johanna had also put the sounds of birdsong into the chamber and children used to like that as well as tracing their little fingers along the lines of the Chinese characters on the walls.
But it was books that she loved as much as her art. She was fascinated by the ideas that they provoked and inspired in her own art works. A book of philosophy, a book about trees, a book about cities, these were a few she loved and returned to now and then. But where she and I differed was in the area of folktales and faerie lore. I loved these and still do, but Johanna was not interested in them because she thought them 'not real'. I did tell her it was not a good idea to say such things, especially in the park. At least, I managed to get her to wear some cold iron, albeit she did not know why. I gave her a very modern piece of steel jewellery and she fell in love with it. She wore it all the time - luckily for her.
A shop opened near the park and near the greengrocers. This was called, 'The Book Grocer' and it was run by a rather beautiful woman with red hair and big green eyes. Nobody seemed to know her name, but she was called, affectionately, 'Mab', for one of the more poetical book addicts among us thought she looked like a faery ought to. She smiled at that. It was interesting to note that many of the books were about food and gardening, but there was a sizeable section on woodland and natural landscapes. There was a wonderful section of poetry, a large section, which was unusual for a bookshop and my favourite - a section on art.
Mab also sold finely made silver jewellery the like of which had never been seen in our small town before. She always wore green and red with her own jewellery and many men fell in love with her. She on the other hand fell for nobody. The only suspicion I had was when I introduced Johanna to the shop. The instant we walked in, Mab went pale and fled into the back of the shop leaving her assistant, a teenager called Lindsey at the counter. I had seen Mab's eyes fall upon the steel jewellery that Johanna wore.
Johanna had not noticed, she was too entranced by all the books! She went among them picking them from the shelves with little cries of love and affection. Very much like myself a few days earlier when I had gone in. She took four books and shut her eyes.
"I must not look at any more," she said, "I will get in trouble with the bank!"
We went to the counter and Lindsey took my books and ran them through the till. She asked Johanna if any of the silver jewellery caught her eye. Johanna looked and smiled, picking up a very fine necklace. She bought it and I asked Lindsey if Mab was alright. She had, it seemed been violently sick and was feeling a little fragile. It was not remarked upon and at first I thought little of it. Two days later I met Johanna in a cafe and she told me that she'd had bad dreams. She had dreamt that she sat in a library and that all her books suddenly flew from the shelves and attacked her. I remarked that she was not wearing the silver necklace. It had given her a nasty rash, which she said her doctor thought looked almost exactly like a reaction to poison ivy. I asked her if she still wore the steel jewellery I'd given her and she smiled.
"Of course, I love that. Funnily, I feel better wearing it too, especially with that silver necklace," she said.
We sipped our coffee in silence and gazed out of the window across the park at The Book Grocer. I was puzzling over this when two gentlemen entered the cafe in a huff.
"...told me she was allergic to iron and steel and to take it away," one of the gentlemen complained to his friend.
"What nonsense, whoever heard of being allergic to such metals," his friend sympathised.
Somehow I knew who they meant. I told Johanna to leave the Book Grocer alone and see how she felt after a few days. To my surprise she told me that she had not been in there for some time and felt quite well, but somehow a feeling of terror and a nameless horror came over her when she had thought of going in there.
I could not tell her that Mab really was a faery, she would not have believed me, but the following month, the shop simply vanished and Lindsey went off to the university to study Ecology. Neither Johanna nor I mentioned the shop again. Though one weekend when I went for a walk in the woods, I could swear I saw Mab upon the brow of the hill and I heard strange and very beautiful music not far off.