Saturday, December 22, 2012


1921 British Sixpence. 

The coin was maybe a little smaller than a nickel; tarnish creeping across the silver like pond scum.  A gentlemanly looking man with a short, tightly-combed haircut and a thick mustache looked left across the coin.  The coin sat nestled on a stained purple cushion.  The handwritten tag leaned against the cushion.

“Brian May uses coins like that to play guitar with instead of a pick.”

Jun turned.  Three glass display cases, each staggered slightly, and a bookshelf that obscured half of the front desk were between him and the stooped old man behind the desk, but the man seemed to know where Jun was despite the view.  His voice was accented, something coarse and throaty.  Jun guessed it was German but the subtleties of distinguishing foreign accents had always been lost on him.  The man’s accent could have been Pakistani for all he knew.

“Who’s Brian May?”

“He was Queen’s guitarist.”

“Isn’t Queen still around?”

The old man snorted softly.  “I guess so.  Technically.  It just isn’t the same without Freddie Mercury’s voice.  It’s like taking a man’s hand and sewing on a different one.  Is he still the same whole?”

“I guess.”

He snorted again.  Jun moved on, his gaze falling on an octagonal display case to his right.  Inside the case was a small, square platform made of dark wood.  Atop the platform rested a clean white handkerchief, folded neatly into a square slightly larger than Jun’s palm.

Pocket full of sunshine.
Guaranteed to brighten the darkest of days.

Jun stared at the little white tag and made a face.  What shit.  He let his eyes wander about the store looking for his next stop when the glass display case with the ridiculous little handkerchief caught his eye again.  Brow furrowed, mouth set in a tight line, Jun stared at the display case half expecting to see some faint luminescence emanating from the pristine white cloth.  When no such display was made, Jun rolled his eyes.  What shit.  The next display case over was empty.  No trinket, no pedestal or cushion, and no handwritten tag.  Next to the empty display case was a small end table.  It looked like the same wood as the bottoms of the display cases and the little pedestal underneath the handkerchief, but where those had a rough, more natural finish the end table was polished to a mirrored sheen.  The dark whorls in the wood seemed to descend for miles, far deeper than the underside of the table, past the little curio shop’s dusty floor and into the rocky exterior of the Earth’s crust.  Jun wondered for a moment if the whorls ever ended.  Maybe there was a matching table with matching whorls on the exact other side of the Earth.  Maybe someone was standing over that table and peering into the depths, wondering about the exact other side of the Earth.  He stared at the end table for nearly a full minute before noticing that something was resting atop the table.  It was a gardening trowel with a contoured orange handle made of plastic and a six inch blade that was white where it was not so worn that the metal underneath shown through.  A white tag rested flat against the table and read simply:

Garden trowel.

Jun picked up the little white tag, running his thumb over the front.  The card was oddly textured, like miniscule paper pebbles were imbedded just below the surface.  He flipped it over.  There was no writing on the back.  Garden trowel.  No descriptions, no clever phrases, no childish imaginings; just “garden trowel”.  Jun set the card back down and stared at the trowel.  Something had to be special about it, something made it worthwhile for the stooped old man at the front desk to have bought it and put it on display.  Jun looked left and, sure that the old man could not possibly see him through all the displays and shelves, ran a finger over edge of the trowel.  It was cool to the touch without being cold and the edge was so dull it was almost flat.  His finger wandered further up the trowel.  The grooved side of the handle was worn smooth like a well-used basketball, devoid of any grip.  Light flickered off the blade of the trowel giving off a gray-blue reflection, contrasting with the pale yellow of the lamps placed sparingly across the shop.  Jun blinked.  The blade seemed to be reflecting that cloudy blue in a pattern.  Every few seconds a flash of slate light rolled across blade before it descended back into darkness.  A soft crunch accompanied the next shift from light to dark, like metal cutting through soft soil.  Jun pulled his hand back as if the gardening tool had become a snake, rearing back and ready to strike.

There was no second crunch.  The shifts from light to dark stopped.  Jun was once again staring at a “Garden trowel.”

Jun ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and swallowed hard, Adam’s apple jerking with the strain.  His heart tripped over itself, stumbling drunkenly around his chest cavity and a cold, tingling buzz filled him to the point of overflow.  Jun opened and closed his hands.  The cold made his fingers feel brittle and stiff.  His eyes flicked around the shop looking for lights that would reflect blue or a rocking chair rolling over a dead leaf that blew in off the street, but the shop had no overhead lighting and the lamps scattered around the room all gave off a dull yellow light.  There were no rocking chairs and the floor was immaculate.  He ran a hand over his jaw and cheek.  He had shaved this morning and there was not enough stubble to give the gesture any real feel, but it had always seemed like a thing men did when they wanted to look more tired than scared in the face of the unusual.  Some part of Jun’s mind was screaming at him, but the thought was distant and muffled like someone buried alive and crying out for help.  It was the part of him that had secretly believed in Santa Clause until he was twelve; the part that had been unable to resist a trip into the little curio shop.  It was the part of Jun that he had learned was better left ignored.  Jun snorted, rolled his eyes with the kind of melodrama that only a high school student can manage, and gripped the trowel’s handle firmly. 

Light rolled across the blade briefly; a cloudy day reflected in the curve of the trowel.  Light to dark, light to dark.  The crunch of earth and the wet, stifling heat of summer replaced the still coolness of the shop.  Crunch.  Crunch.  Crunch.  Jun licked his lips and tasted salt. 

He was starting a garden.  He had known from the moment he had moved into this house that the western side of the house would be the perfect place for a small garden and now that the unending showers of spring had past, he could finally start.  Crunch.  Crunch.  Crunch.  The trowel bit into the earth, carving out a bed for the new, nutrient-enriched soil that would usher Jun’s garden into the world.  Then the ground gave way and he saw a small tunnel running beneath his garden to-be.  He sighed and wondered how one went about humanely chasing away whatever was living in his garden.  Not willing to cave the tunnel in and unsure of how to continue otherwise, Jun sat back on his heels and stared into the hole.

A raspy screech floated out of the hole, almost too faint to hear.  Jun cocked his head to the side.  The screech repeated itself and for a moment Jun was sure he had collapsed the tunnels and trapped something down below.  Jun dug.  Careful never to bury the trowel so deep that he might accidently hurt the trapped animal, Jun started digging out the tunnels.  The screeches grew louder and Jun thought he could hear a scrabbling sound not too far down; claws trying to cut an escape route.  Jun scraped at the edges of the hole, widening it so that whatever was trapped could get out.

Sharp, needle-like pain tore at the back of his hand.  Jun jerked back and bit down a gasp. A bead of blood oozed from a small, shallow groove in his hand.  A small shard of rock stuck out from one end of the cut.  Jun picked the rock out of his hand, set the trowel down, and went to work widening the hole with his hands.  A dozen more stabs of pain stripped flesh from his hands.  Shards of rock the size of his fingernail were lodged deep into the back of his hand and blood was now flowing freely.  Jun scrambled backwards.  Pale, long-fingered hands clawed at the edges of the hole, some still hefting sharpened chunks of rock.  The faces that clambered over the edge of the hole were caricatures of human faces.  Smaller than an infant’s, their flat, wide heads were savagely scarred and sporting overly large mouths filled with splintered, cracked masses of ruined teeth.  Jun screamed.  He screamed and screamed until the humid summer air dissipated and all traces of sunlight withered away.  He screamed and fell backward, knocking a display to the floor.  The glass case shattered and a freckled conch shell skittered across the floor.  Jun screamed and shambled out onto the cobblestone road, clutching at his hands, trying to stem the phantom bleeding.  

1 comment:

  1. The idea behind Curio came from my girlfriend’s love of antiques. She loves finding odd old trinkets in antique stores as well as oddities of all kinds on the internet. While being dragged through a rather sizable antique store by a person half my size I let my mind wander a bit. I wondered about the origin of some of the pieces. I wondered what kinds of things had happened that led to their lining the shelves or covering the walls of this place. And then, as is my habit, I took all those imaginings and went straight to the dark, bizarre, and twisted possibilities. I thought of cursed vanities that drove loving couples to madness and lucky coins that backfire in the most unfortunate of ways. I thought about all of that and decided it would make for a rather interesting collection of short stories if I centered the collection around an antique store of sorts (although I much prefer calling it a curio store, it lends a greater air of peculiarity) and all the odd little trinkets held within. Curio was really just a story that came of a larger idea that I was exploring. I was brainstorming, trying to figure out what oddities would be in this little curio store, what oddities I might like to focus in on, and what was fantastic about these oddities. A lucky coin was obvious, a handkerchief filled with sunshine came from an author I am particularly fond of, and the trowel came from childhood daydreams about things that lived underground.

    I dove into the shopkeeper next. What kind of person runs a place like this? How does he interact with the patrons? How does he interact with this bizarre collection he might have spent his entire life collecting? Is the store’s inventory still growing? What kind of person is he? Is he genuinely interesting in magic of all sorts or is he just exposing people to frightening objects for some sick pleasure of his? I lost an unknown amount of time thinking of an imaginary man with no name. I ended up making him a wizened old foreigner who genuinely loves his collection because I wanted this collection of stories to represent a genuine sense of wonder at the possibility of magic, both pleasant and nasty, in a world that just does not have time for it anymore. It was that thought that spawned Jun. Jun is a high school student that grew up like a lot of people I know grew up: slowly being weaned off of the notion that there is anything magical and truly wondrous in this world. Your parents tell you your imaginary friend is not real, your peers tell you Santa Claus is not real, you see the world is going to hell and you grow into the notion that maybe even God is not real—there is nothing in this world that you cannot lay hands on. Jun grew up like that, he was born with an innate sense of wonder about the world like most everyone, but his never went away. Jun has buried his sense of wonder because his parents told him to, because his friends told him to, because the world told him to. All of these notions of Jun really spread through my mind as I was writing the story; he went from a slightly repressed teen to a symbol of a collective loss of innocence within a couple pages. At least that is what he did to me. The reader may find him childish and trying.

    What I want most for readers to get from this story is the magic of storytelling. Almost everything I write is a story first and foremost. My first love in writing is storytelling. The morals, the themes, and the hidden meanings all come as a side effect of my writing story. Curio (and the collection as a whole) is really just that notion boiled down to the purest form I can manage. Curio is a story told for the love of telling stories.