Scratch, scratch, scratch. Click, tap, tap, click.
Pencils on paper. Fingers tapped table-tops with no particular rhythm. The days were too short and too valuable to make music while deep in thought.
People scrunched up their faces, which were red and frustrated. Tongues bled under the pressure of teeth. No one spoke, no one looked at anything but the swirls of marble on the ceiling and the notebook in front of them. Everyone was in their own world, even while so close together, and they had to keep it that way.
Little dictionaries lay on the desks, people’s hands ripping through them like wind. Their gazes darted up and down the pages, becoming desperate. Some spent hours on a single sentence, a comma, a conjunction, an adjective. It was common knowledge that a good use of adjectives was a way to get through the day alive, or at least with a less fatal punishment.
Shelves and shelves of dull-colored books lined the Sanctuary of Word. Some of them didn’t have pages yet, just covers waiting to be linked to a story. Others were half full. Then there were some gaps in between the books. I shivered at the sight of these lost stories.
Someone vomited all over their notebook, bits of half digested food bleeding through their carefully selected words. They didn’t look much older than me. The person, whose gender I couldn’t tell from rows and rows away, muttered something under their breath, something like a number. Then they just stared into their ruined notebook, eyes full of fear and irritation. The Writer glanced up at the clock overhead, anticipating their coming doom.
It was a solid hour until midnight, but here, the minutes rushed by as quickly as fire catches.
I wanted to comfort them, but I felt as though there was a wall between us, like the screen of a mirror. That mirror being what held the reflection of my future self.
1,000 words per day. Starting from age thirteen, this was life. Tomorrow, I was set to become one of the thousands of Writers who struggled to write marvelous tales every day. I would pick up a pen and start to write. One of those many seats would be mine.
“It’s just two pages!” Ms. Penn, the head of the house I lived in for my earlier childhood, had taken to assuring me ever since my twelfth birthday. I would never forget that morning, when I’d woken up screaming from a dream where my hands became spiders and I couldn’t write, and then a Guard beat my head with a book until I woke up.
Ms. Penn never helped with her attempts to comfort me. They just made me think about how much she was wrong. She hadn’t mentioned the additional 130 words I had to write to live in a decent place without rats crawling around, which was practically everywhere except the Sanctuary’s boarding houses on the edge of town. Ms. Penn also failed to bring up the fines you’re given for spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors. Then, and most terrible, the Block, where a Writer went when they had nothing left to write, or couldn’t come up with anything good or sensical. Those people were known as Blocked. Their books were removed from their shelf, the words inside of them concealed from the world forever.
I swallowed hard, balling up my writing hand, my right, into a fist. I dreaded the moment it would hold a pencil, the words it would be forced to etch onto the page. After years and years of tossing and turning in bed, dreaming up stories I’d write in this hall, nothing seemed like the one I really wanted to write. I knew I’d have to write something. The only way to escape this was to finish one’s story, usually hundreds of pages long, have it released to the public, and have people know who I am. There was no other way.
The clock tolled eleven, time for me to go through the door all the way down the hall. At least that was what the letter I received that morning had told me to do. I didn’t know what was to happen, but I had a feeling I was going to be meeting a Storytaker.
The Storytakers ruled the Empire of Word, and controlled the Guards. They decided the fates of all Writers, and the values of their stories. Rumors told that the burning of bodies in the Block below the Sanctuary, and the paper from the stories burned by the Storytakers in their tower above was why this place usually smelled strongly like smoke and ashes.
I walked slowly down the aisle separating the rows and rows of desks. People muttered abstract words and metaphors madly to themselves as they watched me pass, no doubt planning to use my image for one of their stories. In this place, so dull and fear-filled, there was no way to get inspiration other than from your own writing or people coming in from outside.
I finally reached the end of the hall, and the door, which was not just a door, but a gigantic book. It had a shimmering gold cover and I could see coarsely cut pages sticking out from the top along with a pale red bookmark with the words “Take the Pen” written in puffy gold letters.
I looked around at the rows of Writers closest to me. No one glanced up from their work, now used to my presence. Shouldn’t I ask one of them if I could borrow a pen? What if I surprised them so much with my question that they forgot an important idea they had? I didn’t want to be the reason someone got sent to the Block that day.
I glanced back at the sign. Take the pen, take the pen… I began to search. Under the shelves, near the door. Beneath the desks, making sure my shoes didn’t squeak against the floor and cause a disruption. I began to get frustrated. Was this a test of intelligence, or just a simple thing I had to find to get in? Would I be fined with words if I couldn’t figure this out? Yes, that was probably it. An attempt to mess me up on my first day.
I pictured it in my hand, ball-point, gold as the book. Don’t ask me why, but somehow imagining things gets my thoughts straight. What did I want? A pen. Where could I find it? I didn’t—
Click. Shuffle. Shuffle.
The bookmark slipped into the book and disappeared. The bookshelves beside the book slid sideways. In response to having more room, the enormous glowing cover of the book opened to two blank, slightly yellowed pages.
I pressed my hands against the smooth parchment. I twisted my head around to find the people were still not looking at me. Did they have to deal with the same mysterious entrance the day before their ceremonies? I returned my focus back to the open book, tracing my hand to the place where the pages were bound together. There was no opening, no way to worm my way through. I started turning pages, which were heavy and easy to crease due to their intense largeness. And then, after what felt like hours of turning, I reached the back cover where, sure enough, was a little gold door. I pushed on it and it gave way, creaking on hinges of gold coil.
I laughed as I stepped through. I was coming through a book! Could I possibly be inside a story?
Creak. Whoosh. Creak.
The pages of the book all fell into each other as the book closed with a loud thump and the bookcases slid back into their places. The back cover of the book gleamed. But from what light?
I whirled back around, seeing a fog of eery white light hanging in the air a few feet away.
I walked towards it. With each step a slight whirring in the distance got louder and more intense, while the light or fog or whatever you call it denser and overshadowing the looming darkness.
I turned my head every which way, expecting to see a Storytaker’s eyes staring back at me mysteriously.
I’d never seen one before, and no one had ever described them to me. There had been stories about people who’d died out of terror in a Storytaker’s presence. Even though there was no saying whether or not these stories were true, there was no denying that they were creatures most people in the Empire did not want to meet.
The white haze continued on. I walked faster and more impatiently now, the humming growing louder, almost like the very projected purr of a cat. Suddenly I realized I was passing through a ball of the pearly white fog, in the center of which was the most peculiar fountain I’d ever laid eyes upon.
The water was the same cloud-white as the light that had led me there. The liquid moved around in waves, hence the sound of an animal in content. The waves were bodiless dancers. They crashed, circled around each other, dived deeper into the water and produced bubbles which rolled around on the surface like marbles until they hit the walls of the fountain. I squinted at the walls, which seemed to be made up of books with heavy stone covers so tightly connected that no water leaked through. Without realizing I was doing it at first, I reached out and touched some of the water riding a wave. It was warm and soothing. I took only a drop or two out on my finger, and realized that even though I’d brought it out of the light, it was still the same white it was in the pool. The substance was almost like milk, although it smelled of ink and parchment dunked in a contaminated lake.
I wiped the substance off on my dress, a white stain soaking into the fabric of my skirt. Maybe the liquid was contaminated.
“It is the Wordpool,” said a voice behind me. I had no time to murmur a greeting before I was face-to-face with a stout man in a pale navy suit and thin wisps of white hair peeking out from behind two small, triangular ears. His eyes were worlds of white, thin of a mouth and pale cheeks rid of any redness or emotion. In his hands was a single pen dripping with jet black ink. I watched as he leaned over the pool and touched the tip of the pen to the water, writing upon the surface.
He stopped suddenly, watching as a white wave carried my name away. The ink fought against it, weaving for a moment around bubbles and small ripples and waves in an attempt to escape. But it could not fight against the oncoming larger wave, which pulled it down into the water without mercy.
For a few seconds afterward, the water was slightly grayer than before, but even that took its turn to fade.
“A reminder that all stories will be gone someday, as they all follow the tides of fate and, of course, time.”
But that wasn’t a story! I wanted to protest.
He continued, “The Wordpool also tells us that we have more stories to write. There will always be a blank page for humans to fill. We can’t ignore emptiness, no, blank pages create voids in our hearts and cracks in our character. Our job is to turn the emptiness into somethingness, although we become part of the emptiness in doing so.”
He knows, I thought, the reality settling in like a storm cloud in the horizon of my mind. He knows it’s only a matter of time before I go to the Block.
I followed his thoughtful gaze to the blank body of water and I suddenly realized that yes, it would be so satisfying to cover it up with words. It became so frustrating to just stand there and watch the blankness that I forced myself to look away. The man noticed my averted gaze and nodded.
“Although, what really and truly is empty is up to the Writer. And of course, the Storytakers.”
I ran through his speech again, fast forward to the very last word. I was pulled out of the philosophical tangles of madness I’ve just been bombarded with. “Wait— aren’t you one?”
“A Storytaker? No, I am your Counter. During inspections I will ensure you have written all that is required. The Storytakers are much too busy to explain to a child the importance of the Fountain.”
“So why am I here then?” I asked, ignoring his insult. As much as I enjoyed coming here through a book and listening to this mysterious man’s narrative, more appealing was the idea of going back to the apartment complex and getting settled in my new home.
He narrowed his eyes at me.
“You are here,” he replied, in a reprimanding tone, “to complete a task. It is a way to set you on your journey to Writerhood.”
I looked at him skeptically. Could it be more confusing than the one I had to do to get in there? And I still didn’t know what had triggered the book to let me in. I’d never heard of a book taking pity on someone before. Ugh! I didn’t think I could take any more puzzles today. They criss-crossed in my mind, overlapping like the lattices of a pie.
But the man did nothing but simply give me the pen, the actual pen he’d used to write my name.
I held it in my hand. It was smooth and silver, heavy. I felt a strange energy rushing up my arm, my throat, into my brain and back down again. I had no idea what its purpose was.
I looked to the man for further instructions.
“Write something.” He said it so simply, hurling the unexplained phrase at me like I knew he would.
“Where?” I asked. “And what?” My politeness had somewhat gone out the window since I’d learned he wasn’t one of the most powerful and revered beings in all the land.
“One word,” he replied, “Right there.” He pointed to the fountain, which at the moment contained only a few soft ripples, as if waiting for me to approach. I looked at the liquid parchment, and back at him.
“But it’ll just go away after I… The word will be gone and won’t matter?”
He didn’t say anything, but when I kept looking at him he finally decided to elaborate.
“It will matter to you.”
The pen suddenly felt much heavier.
“After you write, you may leave the way you came. The door will be open,” he instructed as I stepped towards the fountain, the pen shaking in my hand, little droplets of ink shimmied up my arm.
“And remember this: While creating something out of nothing, be sure not to lose yourself if you wish to have your way.”
He disappeared behind the now thick curtain of white and then became one with the darkness.
I was alone. I stared at the water.
I reached over the lipped rim of the fountain and positioned the pen above the center of the mountain of white liquid. My hand had stopped shaking. The energy running through me all rushed into it, steadying it, empowering it.
I took a deep breath.
And I lowered the pen to the water.
Written by: Emily Maremont
Art title: Eyes on Sunset