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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book

Shala had never been to the Book Seller before. The very thought of going to one willingly made her wonder if she was insane. She reminded herself that didn’t have any other choice. It was this, or death. Despite this line of thought, she couldn’t bring herself to actually walk into the building. She stood stock still, right outside its doors.Several people stared at her as they walked by, and saw the look of judgement in their eyes. There were only two reasons to go to a Book Seller, and it was obvious from the way Shala was dressed that she wasn’t there to buy. She pushed aside her embarrassment and allowed her anger to flare. She would show these people what she was really made of.

She stood up straight and walked into the building with a determined look on her face. Once she stepped inside, however, she faltered again. The inside of the building was dark. Not pitch black, but dark enough to make things seem deeper and keep you wondering if you were seeing everything. It put her off her edge, which was probably it’s purpose. A young woman wearing the white robes of a scholar-slave came around the corner. She stopped upon seeing Shala, and then smiled.

“Welcome madam,” she said. “Are you here for a binding?

Shala hesitated once more. Answering that question would be the end. There is no turning back at this point. Finally, she screwed up her determination and nodded.

“Excellent,” the woman said. “Allow me to guide you back to our Book Sellers, who shall walk you through the contract and then bring you to a binder.”

They walked down a short cooridor that ended in a door. Beyond the door was another long corridor, also cast in darkness. This corridor had many doors on it, none of them marked. The scholar-slave, however, seemed to know where she was going. She stopped at what appeared to Shala to be a random door, and opened it. A man was sitting behind a desk in a dark blue suit. He was busy with what appeared to be an abacuss and a pile of coins. He shoved the coins into a bag when he saw the two women at the door.

“Ah, good,” he said. “Another binder voulinteer, then?”

The scholar-slave nodded and left. Shala entered the room after the man invited her to, and sat down in the only other chair in the room.

“My name is Marik,” he said. “I’m here to answer any questions you may have, as well as explain the processes and get some information from you.”

He pulled out a wax stylus and a carving pen, quickly scribbling something on it. Shala was illiterate, and so couldn’t understand what he was doing.

“Now,” he said. “Is it safe to assume that you are coming to us because you owe debts that you cannot pay off?”

Sara was shocked to hear that the Seller already knew this. Where they somehow following her?

“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” he said. “It’s quite common. In fact, some of our best books came from overwhelming debt.”

Eventually, she nodded her head, and he smiled, marking something down on his stylus. “Now, I’ll just need your name, age, and Citizen Identification Number.”

Shala gave all three to the man, showing him the plastic card that had her ID number on it. He nodded and smiled again, and wrote more thins down. For someone that was taking her life, he seemed to be very friendly about it all.

“Excellent,” he said after getting all her information. Then, his look grew serious. “Now, before we go any further, I need to ask you an important question. Are you completely aware of what it is you are doing? Do you realize that you are giving up your life as a citizen in doing this? This decision should not be take lightly, and we would also like to make sure that our books are not going to try and run away from us.”

Shala nodded her head. She had heard all about the life of a book, and while it didn’t sound really fun or pleasant, it was far better than the life she had now. Jobless, homeless, in so much debt that even if she found a job, she would never be able to pay it all off. By becoming a book, she gave up her citizenship to become someone’s property, but in return, all her debt was erased and she avoided the hangman’s noose. Living as a book was better than dying as a debtor.

“Okay, then,” he said. For just a brief moment Shala thought she saw his smile falter. But if it did, it came right back. “I’ll just need you to sign here. If you can, just make your mark and tell me your name, so I can put that down.”

She told him her name and marked the wax with the stylus. He smiled at her and then thanked her. He opened the door to his office, and she found that another scholar-slave was waiting for her. She stood up and followed the white robed man down more corridors. She wasn’t quite sure how long she walked, but the whole place seemed impossibly large compared to the outside. Eventually, though, they came to specific door, and the scholar-slave stopped.

“Beyond this door is the Book Binder,” he said. “You will be with him for the next week, as he binds the book onto your skin. You are to do as he says, understand?”

Shala nodded. He nodded back, but this man did not smile. He opened the door, and Shala was lead into a large, well light room that nearly blinded her with the brightness. There were low couches and pillows everywhere, and a few tables that held trays of nuts and dried fruits. She sat down to wait and the scholar-slave left. It didn’t take long before someone came to get her. He was a large man, bare chested and muscular, with a balding head and gray hair pulled back into a long pony tail. His arms were covered in tatoos of different designs, mostly glyphs or tribal images. This, then, would be the Book Binder.

“Stand,” he said in a gravely voice. Shala obeyed. “Turn around.”

He looked her up and down, and then nodded.

“Good, you’re a big one,” he said, referring to Shala’s girth. She had never before heard anyone say her 250 pounds were good. She wasn’t sure she liked it now. “We can put a longer book on you. Come on.”

He lead her down a short hall to a large room. Inside were several pools, and it all smelled of soap.

“Clean yourself,” he said, pointing to a pool. “One of my women will be by shortly to take care of you hair.”

With that, he left. Not knowing what else to do, Shala stripped and got into the pool. The water was warm and inviting, and she luxeriated in it and the soap. Some time later, a thin woman appeared.

“You are new book, then?” she asked. Shala nodded. “Good. Come, we’ll take care of that hair of yours.”

She led Shala to a set of chairs on the far wall of the bath room. Once in, the woman set about cutting off all of Shala’s hair and shaving her scalp. When she was done, Shala looked very different, but her head was smooth and clean, and there was hardly any burning. She also felt five pounds lighter. She felt the top of her head. She missed her hair. Too late to go back now, though. This was when Shala learned that a shaved head was the least of the humilations she would go through. The woman also shaved her legs and then used a hot wax on them. She also shaved Shala’s private areas. There was to be no area of skin left covered by hair.

The woman stood her up and lead her, still naked, up some stairs to a room. She was told that this would be her place to sleep when the Binder wasn’t working on her. The actual binding would start tomorrow. And so, Shala, having had a long and emotionally draining day, went to sleep on the small, hard bed. When she went down stairs the next day, the woman was waiting for her and lead her to a third room, where the actual binding would begin. There were several sets of tools around the room, most of which were made of either metal or bamboo. There were also lots of ink. The room was brightly lit, but had a strange, almost dirty smell to it despite the apparent cleanliness. Shala sat in the largest of the two chairs in the room. A few moments later, the Binder came into the room. He carried three very valuable artifacts, actual books with paper in them. Even before the Collapse, paper books were rare, but afterwards, paper was just too expensive to waist on bound volumes. Thus, people like Shala became books.

“Now,” he said, “I like to let my books choose what they will be before sending them off. It’s a small luxury, I know, but I do try what I can to be nice. So, what we have here is ‘The History of Eastern Europe,’ which I admit is kind of stuffy, but what can I do, I just take the orders as they come in. I’ve also got ‘Huckelberry Finn,’ and ‘A Christmas Carol.’ So, which do you prefer?”

Shala blinked. The only one of these she knew was A Chrsitmas Carol. Everyone knew that one. She hadn’t ever seen a book copy of it, of course, but the story of a grumpy old miser and his visit by three ghosts was well known. She chose that one, fond memories of her dad telling her that story running through her head.

“An excellent choice,” he said, as if Shala had just picked a fine wine rather than the book that she would become. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

The next few hours were filled with pain for her as he hammered his ink into her skin. She did her best to ignore the pain and stand still. She knew that if she moved, it would make the processes all the harder and painful. He complimented her on that several times, but it didn’t make the pain any less. After he was don, the woman lead her to the small room upstairs again, where she collapsed into tears, eventually falling asleep. Later, the woman returned with food, and told Shala to eat and sleep, she would need her strength.

Things went pretty much like this for the next few weeks, as every available inch of skin was covered with the words that made up the story she was to carry to her new owner. The Binder was never expressly cruel to her, and the food they gave her was very good, better than what she received back in town. But it was a life of pain those weeks, and she often forgot how long it had been. Years? Hours? She could no longer tell the difference.

Then came the day when the last word was placed on her. It was unceremonious, with the Binder simply declaring “Done.” The woman then led her back to her bed, where she ate and slept as normal. The next day, however, everything changed.

She was awoken by the woman, who lead her through the bath house and cleaned her off. She then sprayed her in perfume, and gave her a long, red robe and cap. These would cover most of the words on her, and mark her as a book. The rob also had words on it, displaying the title of the book she now was. It was called the Book Cover, and she would be required to ware this in all occasions where she wasn’t being read. The woman told her all this while bathing her, even though Shala already knew this, because she had been telling her this for the whole time she was there.

After they were done, the woman led her to a door Shala had never seen before, and when it opened, she found herself blinking and shrinking back from the blinding light of the sun. Though the Binder’s offices were well lit with torches and oil lamps, there were no windows. It had been a long time since Shala had seen the sun.

“Where are we going?” Shala asked as they were lead down the street.

“Books do not talk unless spoken too,” the woman said. The rest of their trip was silent.

Finally, Shala was lead to an open pavilion where she saw several other books waiting in a row as people browsed the backs of their covers. She was placed in the line, facing a blank wall as people browsed. Shala did as directed, and stood there. She tried not to think of how degrading it was for people to look her over as a piece of property, and not a person. She had to remind herself that this was better than death.

She stayed with the Book Seller that owned that stand for nearly a month. Every morning, she would shuffle to her position, back to the world so people could read her title. She got breakfast and lunch while out there, and good portions too. They obliviously didn’t want her to loose any weight. At night, she would return to the Book Seller building and stayed in a large hall with all the other books.

Eventually, though, someone bought her. It was an older woman, who was shopping with a child that couldn’t be more than ten.

“Oh, A Christmas Carol,” the woman said when she reached Shala. “You love this story, how about this one for the first book in your library?”

“Yeah,” the boy said, and Shala cringed slightly at being placed in the personal library of some rich, spoiled little brat. But, her place was to be silent, and be read, not to talk or argue. The boy and his grandmother went to haggle with the Book Seller. They finally settled on a price, and Shala was led to their wagon. She sat in the front, outside, with the rider, who nodded at her. It was the first time since the binding that anyone had looked at her as a person. Shala smiled back. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as she thought.

The mansion where the boy and his grandmother lived was a good hours ride out of town on the wagon, and Shala was grateful for the first time that her Book Cover had a hood on it. The driver had a water skin with him, and he shared it with her. They didn’t talk, but that was okay with Shala. The simple gesture of acknowledgement was good enough for her.

When they arrived at the mansion, Shala whistled. It was huge. The farms required of all landowners by law surrounded the grounds, but the building itself was amazing. It was at least three stories high, and it was long. It was mostly a subtle cream color, with dark blue and red trim all over it, with the occasional splash of yellow every now and then around windows. All in all, it was a very striking and imposing building. Shala wondered briefly who lived here. She got her answer pretty quickly.

“Is daddy home?” the boy asked.

“The Lord Mayor is still in town on business, I’m afraid, young master,” the servant that answered the door replied.

The Lord Mayor? His son had bought me? Shala thought. It was at once terrifying and thrilling. Living here might be more comfortable than her free life was, even if she was mostly ignored. At the same time, this was the mansion of the man that ruled the city and county she was raised in. She had lived her whole life under this man’s rule. Or at least, his family’s rule.

“Nana?” the boy said, looking at his grandmother. “Can you read me my new book now?”

“Sure, Tev, sure,” the older woman said.

The lead Shala upstairs into what appeared to be a library. There were at least four other books there, all sitting comfortably in chairs or standing against the walls. Shala saw that they were drinking water and eating fresh fruit. When the three of them entered, however, they quickly stood and moved to positions along the wall, book titles facing out.

“Thank you all, but you may retire for the day,” the woman said. “Tev will be reading his new book tonight.”

The other books shuffled out of the room through a side door. The woman, who Shala was thinking of as Nana, directed her to a stool. She knew from her training that she was to disrobe, sit on the stood and be read. She did so, trying hard not to blush. Nana sat in a large, overstuffed chair, and Tev sat in her lap. Nana began reading. After about an hour, Tev yawned, obviously done with the reading that day. Shala noted that, while Nana did the actually out loud reading, Tev was quite capable of reading on his own. This made sense, when she thought about it, being the Lord Mayor’s son and all.

When Tev and Nana had decided to quite reading for the day, Tev climbed down. Then, he did something quite unusual, that wasn’t covered in Shala’s training. He walked around and faced her. Then, he spoke directly to Shala.

“Thank you, book,” he said. Unsure what to do or say in return, she simply nodded her head. The boy left the room, and Shala stood, putting her robe back on. Nana came around to look her in the eye as well. Nana’s look, however, was far more stern than the loving eyes that Tav had.

“Tev doesn’t quite understand that you are a book, not a person,” Nana said. “When he does things like that, you are to do exactly what you just did. Do not speak to him, just nod and let him move on. Do I make my self clear?”

Shala nodded.

“Good,” Nana said. “Through this door is where the other books went. One of them will show you to your quarters and direct you on your duties in this house and as part of Tev’s library.”

Shala nodded again, but then stood there, confused.

“Well?” Nana said, pointing to the door. Shala nodded once more, finally understanding. She left the room through the door to find another red-robbed woman standing there.

“Don’t mind Nana,” she said. “Just remember your place, and she ain’t that bad. Come on, I’ll show you around.”

There wasn’t much to show. The simple hall lead to a large room with several bunks in them. Being the newest, there wasn’t much choice for bunks, but she did the best she could. None of the other books seemed all that talkative, but Shala was told what the daily routine was like, what Nana expected from everyone, and how best to avoid being beaten, which rarely happened with books anyway. It was against the law to damage books beyond legibility. She found two things odd about the other books. First, they were exclusively all women. Second, none of them introduced themselves to her by their names, but rather by their titles. One in particular, a younger woman of about twenty five and who introduced herself as Little Red Riding Hood, was very haughty and acted like she was somehow in charge. Shala learned that this was because she was Tav’s favorite book. Favored books got better food to eat and occasionally got to sleep in a real plush, single bed.

This was, of course, where things went bad for Shala. You see, even after reading the story she carried upon her skin over the next few days, Tav was just not finished her her. He asked Nana to read from her at least once a week, and she would even get to sleep in his room, on that extra bed Red bragged about. But what really did it for her was the day Nana was out of town. He called in all his books, and went to get Shala. He told her to read him her first chapter.

She shook her head.

“Why not?” he asked.

She looked around the room, panic filling her eyes. The other books simply shrugged. He demanded once again. Finally, she broke down.

“I cant’ read,” she said.

“What?”

“I can’t read.”

“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “A book that can’t read. I’ll teach you.”

All the other books gasped, but Tav lead Shala out of the library and into his room. There, he started teaching her how to read. Over the next few months, he did his best to teach her. They would some of this time talking, and she learned a lot about him, and even answered his questions about her. Why had she become a book? Was it pleasant? Did the Binding hurt? One day, he did something that Shala never expected.

“Carol?” he said. He had taken to calling her that, a short version of her title.

“Yes, young master?” she replied.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

Shala paused. It was expressly forbidden for books to be individuals. She was A Christmas Carol, and that was that. Maybe she misunderstood him?

“You’re real name, I mean,” he said. “Not your book title.”

She hesitated again, but when she looked at him, she saw that look in his eyes that indicated that he just wasn’t going to let go. She broke down under that look, as she always did.

“Shala,” she replied.

“Shala. That’s a pretty name,” he said. She smiled. It felt so good to hear someone call her by her name again. Then, they returned to her reading lessons. He never called that again.

Things continued pretty much like this for the better part of a year, by which time Shala could read most of her own story, or at least those parts of it she could see. She had, of course, memorized most of her story as well. She could recite it to Tav when he asked, which wasn’t often. He liked to read on his own. Then it came time for Tav’s birthday.

“I want a new story!” he demanded petulantly. The books all looked at each other in the library as he stormed in, Nana in tow.

“A new book? Sure,” Nana said. “We can get you one. But there isn’t any more room in your Library. You need to get rid of one you have now.”

“No, not a new book,” Tav said. “I’m sick of all the same old books at the Book Seller. I want a NEW story, one no one has heard before.”

“The Book Sellers dictate when new stories are published, Tav,” Nana said. “You know that. They have said for years that there isn’t enough demand for new stories, so no new books.”

“It’s not fair,” he said, and Nana only shook her head. She left him to his tantrum and left. Tav stomped over to Shala, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into his room.

“I want new stories,” he said, still whining. “But Nana says I can’t get any.”

“Well,” she said, “Nana is right. The Book Sellers control which books get sold, and they haven’t Bound a truly new book in a long time.”

“That’s not rigt,” he said. “I want a new story. It’s my birthday, I should get a new story.”

Shala wasn’t sure what to do. She had never seen Tav so worked up over anything. Finally, an idea occured to her.

“Have you ever wondered what the Ghost of Christmas Past was like before taking on that role?” she asked Tav.

He turned to look at her, and nodded his head. So, she began to tell him. She wasn’t at all quite sure what she was doing, but she began to weave the tale of a young boy that was selfish during his school time. When he was killed by another school boy by being pushed off the cliff near the school, he became a ghost, and was eventually told that to make up for his life’s sins, he needed to be the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge was to be his last assignment before he was released from his punishment and allowed to go on to heaven.

Tav ate up every minute of her little story. At least once a week over the next few months, he asked her to tell the story again. Eventually, he asked for another story, so, hesitantly, she told the story of how Mr. Scrooge came to hire Bob Cratchet. And when he asked her for a new story a few weeks after that, she told the story of Mr. Scrooge and his Nephew aiding an old widow after the events in the book. She had no idea where these stories came from, but she found that she enjoyed telling them. And Tav enjoyed them as well, especially the tales of Scrooge after the events in the book.

Over the course of another year, Shala told Tav close to one hundred different stories about the characters in her book. And Tav at them up. He had most of them memorized, and could correct Shala on them when she was telling things ‘wrong.’

Then, things went bad for Shala. She knew that Red was getting more and more jealous of her, partially by the beatings she gave Shala. On, they were subdued beatings. Punching Shala through a pillow, for instance. But thing had reached a head when Red burst into Tav’s room and over heard Shala telling him one of her stories. Red immediately ran to find Nana and tell her all about Shala.

It wasn’t that difficult. Nana was just in her own library, reading. Though Red was beaten for leaving her library and for talking to her owner, her report was taken seriouslly, and Shala was confronted with her crime.

“No new stories can be read to anyone without it going through the Book Seller,” she told Shala. “I cannot allow my son to be brought down in some criminal activity. You are gong to be sold.”

Shala tried to protest, but that only earned her a beating. Nana was far more creative with beatings that didn’t destroy the book. And so it was, without a warning or a chance to say good bye to Tav, Shala was sold back to the Book Seller. Over the course of the next twenty years, Shala lead the most miserable existence she could think of, outside being a labor slave.

She shuffled from master to master, owner to owner, some of which read her, other just had her as a trophy to put in their library. Almost all of her masters beat her, mostly for no reason that she could see, and other books were too caught up in their own misery to be friendly with her. Eventually, she was returned to the Book Seller, though, because she just kept trying to come up with new stories and tried to tell those stories to whoever owned her.

On her last return to the Book Seller, she was feeling particularly blue. This last master wasn’t careful about beating her, and her arm had a gash on it. She had to go revisit the Binder to get that part of her story fixed. She was sure that no one would buy her now. No one would want an old ripped book. A few weeks later, though, she was told that she was sold. In fact, the man purchasing her asked for her specifically. Curious, she went. The man doing the actual buying was still inside, but his carriage was out front. She got up with the driver, and missed her new owner when he came back out. He entered the wagon and the drive started. But after the wagon left town, the owner stopped the wagon. He indicated to the driver that Shala was to climb down and ride inside the wagon with him.

Unsure, Shala did as demanded. Once inside, she saw a young man, perhaps in his mid to late twenties. He smiled comfortably at her. Eventually, he pulled out a large box and handed it to her. She looked at it nervously, but he indicated that she was to open it. When she did, she gasped at what was inside. It was a book. Not one like her, of course, but a real book. Oh, it didn’t have paper in it’s hard cover spine. The pages were made of dried and cured leather. The words were stamped into it, not written upon it. But it was still a book.

When she opened it up, she was even more stunned. The stories inside this book were her stories. The ones she had told Tav all those years ago. She looked back at the young man, who smiled and winked at her.

“Tav?” she asked.

He nodded. She could feel tears running down her spine.

“Come with me, Shala,” he said. “You and I are going to change the world.”

The End

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