Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fiction: Marie's Curio

The shop was somehow both claustrophobic and never-ending. Odd objects littered the mismatched shelving. Any bookcases, basement shelving, or crates that found themselves in the vicinity of Marie’s Curio couldn’t help but end up inside, forced to hold old books, ancient lamps, video tapes, trivets, magazines, bowls, teddy bears, crystal goblets, collections of China, singles of China, paintings set in China, bar sets, radios, ham radios and any other piece of usable junk. All sizes, shapes, colors, and textures of shelving found itself sucked into the store by some unseen shelving magnet.

An equally mysterious magnet drew the junk and treasure that littered the shelves’ surfaces. Customers were drawn in by something like gravity: a pull so strong that even though all they saw from outside were tarnished silver and junk drawers dumped out onto flat surfaces, they felt compelled to go in and search for Treasure.

It smelled of nutmeg, cinnamon, black tea, and age.

Harri made her way through what passed for aisles: meager portions of bare floor amid the clutter of the shop’s wares. Some of the slender slivers of floor were almost impassable; the contents of shelves or piles on one side or the other had collapsed and partially blocked the path. After navigating her way toward the back of the store for what seemed an impossibly long time Harri turned around. She had had enough of the smells and the clutter and the walls closing in on her.

An elderly woman blocked her path.

“Hello dear,” she said. “I am Marie. I was about to take a break. From what I’m not sure, but a break nonetheless!” She extended a gnarled arthritic hand. Harri took it in her smooth unblemished one. She shook gingerly afraid the old woman’s hand might break off at the wrist.

“Nice to meet you. Have a nice day,” Harri said as she tried to extract her hand and maneuver the little woman out of her way without hurting her. “Oh! no dear! I wasn’t trying to tell you to leave. Silly me!” Marie would not let go. Her old, arthritic, gnarled hand should have been weak. Instead unnerving strength in her grip told Harri that the woman had raised many children, stirred many pots, stoked many fires and that she had no intention of stopping. Ever.

“I meant to invite you to tea and cookies! The cookies have just come out of the oven. And the tea, well, that’s on now. You must think me terribly pathetic! Begging a stranger to have tea with me. I don’t get many visitors or customers. When one or the other drops by I try to turn her into both.”

Trapped and staring as the old woman prattled on, Harri struggled to place the elderly woman’s accent. “Where are you from?” Harri asked as she followed Marie into a small room behind the till even though she didn’t want cookies or tea.

“I’ve never been from anywhere but where I am.” Marie motioned to an armchair as she spoke.

“But your accent is different from the other people I’ve met in town.”

“Ah, so you’re new to town! How wonderful! How wonderful indeed! Most people don’t like strangers much. I never have understood that. Even your own mother was a stranger before you met her!” Marie took a short breath then continued rambling about the town’s people and how unfriendly they were despite thinking themselves very friendly indeed.

The small room was dimly lit and smelled heavily of baking and tea. The room was as cluttered as the store, but Harri did not see an oven. Marie smiled broadly and interrupted the younger woman’s thoughts. “Toaster oven dear. We must make due! Oh! we must make due!”

The elderly woman went on to explain people in small towns: they keep to themselves unless something interesting goes on in someone else’s life. Of course, something interesting happens every day. New residents were New Comers the whole time they lived in town. Even the ones who were particularly active in the community were never granted the privilege of being considered Locals. At least not until they died.

Marie paused to sip her tea and nibble at a cookie. Both had gone cold. Harri took her opportunity. “I haven’t really noticed anyone treating me badly or differently from one another.”

“Oh, of course you wouldn’t dear.” Marie got up from her little stool and swished past Harri into the shop. Her long skirt dusted the floor as she went. Harri jumped to go after the old woman but a sudden surge of pins and needles in her rear stopped her. Marie called from the shop, “I have something I think you’ll like.”

Despite her discomfort, Harri followed the sound of her hostess’s nearly ceaseless voice. Yes, do be careful. The store is crowded. Those books are about to fall! Oh dear! That poor armoire! It didn’t hit you as it fell, did it dear?

Down what seemed an impossibly long hallway, Harri found Marie. The elderly woman sat on the floor Indian style. She leaned back against a treacherous tower. Harri knelt. “What did you mean when you said ‘of course you wouldn’t’?”

“No, no dear. I said, ‘Of course you wouldn’t.’ Now, I’d like you to take something. A gift.” Harri opened her mouth to protest but the little woman cut her off. “No, I won’t have any fussing. You’ve brightened my day by sitting with me and having tea. I told you earlier, I don’t get many visitors. In fact – outside of family – I don’t really see anyone. People are too busy nowadays for the wares I sell. They don’t want the Old Things anymore. They want new modular furniture, books on Nooks, things with flashing lights and loud noises and fast movement. Take something as a gift.”

The last was a plea. Harri felt trapped. She didn’t want to let an old woman whose store, by her own admission, wasn’t doing well give her an undeserved present. But she didn’t want to be rude. “I wouldn’t feel right just taking something. I’d rather buy it.” Marie smiled. “No child. This is a gift,” she said. “You choose anything in the store. Take whatever strikes your fancy.”

Harri said, “You said you had something I would like. I thought it was something specific.”

Marie smiled. “I do have something you’ll like. I have everything in this little shop.” As she meandered through the store, Harri dropped a hand here and let a finger linger there. She stared into a giant crystal ball. The perfect smoothness of it and the bubbles hovering inside said it was glass. For a moment, Harri thought she saw an old woman on a dustbowl farm looking for a lost child. She blinked and the image was gone.

She paused in front of a large mirror. The gilded frame with its hand-carved vines and tiny flowers was both intricate and delicate, but overall it was a behemoth. The monstrous thing must have weighed one hundred fifty pounds with all the glass, fixtures, and frame. It was taller than she by more than a foot and a half. Harri backed away keeping her eyes on it lest the beast fall upon her.

As she backed along the crowded aisle, Harri saw a small egg in the mirror. When she got far enough away that the mirror couldn’t crush her as tumbled to the floor hungry to swallow her in its shimmering reflective maw, she turned and headed straight for the egg.

It was slightly smaller than a chicken’s egg and made of stone. The glossy black of the oblong was interrupted by a deep red mark the color of fresh cherry juice. The cherry juice wrapped the small end and curled toward the bottom where it pooled. The top of the egg was marred. She slipped a finger in and out of the imperfection and wondered it someone had tried to hammer a nail into the poor thing.

Harri turned to go find Marie. The elderly woman was right behind her.

“I’d like this.” The old woman squinted making her eyes recede further into the wrinkled folds of flesh. “Are you sure child?”

The egg looked and felt like stone but it was warm in her hand. Harri felt unaccountably safe with it in her grasp. “Yes, this is what I want. Do you have a display case? I would like to buy one.” She beamed at the old woman.

Marie stood motionless, frowning.

“Is this what you really need?” Marie stared at her guest. She surveyed the woman then grasped her right hand tightly in her own. She sighed. “Let’s go find that case,” she said and disappeared into the depths of the store.

Harri found Marie in another dark corner. She was sitting on the floor like a child again. In her lap sat a little wooden tray with a China eggcup affixed to it. A glass dome covered the tray. “Only remove the dome in daylight. Not just any light, mind you. Candlelight and electric light won’t do.” Marie inspected the bottom of the case. Harri caught site of a small price tag just before Marie tore it off. The faded currency symbol looked like it might have been foreign. “Five dollars.”

As she ushered the young woman out of her shop, Marie said, “You are welcome. Come again. If you need anything, I’ll be here.”

“Thanks so much!” Harri started to lean in to hug Marie then caught herself. “I appreciate this.”

Smiling, Marie shut the shop door and threw the deadbolt. As Harri watched, the old woman flipped the sign from Open to Closed.

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