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Antiquities and Tangibles by Tim Pratt

The bell above the door to Martin Grinde’s shop tinkled a chime of surpassing beauty as a young woman pushed her way in. The door had the words “Antiquities and Tangibles” written in flaking gold-and-black letters on the frosted glass, but Mr. Grinde thought of it merely and eternally as “my shop.”

The woman’s hair was the color of wet beach sand, her coat the color of wet cement, and her forehead a relief map of furrows, face so scrunched in some effort or anxiety that it was impossible for Grinde to tell if she were pretty or ugly or plain.

“Welcome to my shop,” Mr. Grinde said as the woman looked around the press of overflowing shelves, racks, tables, and cubbyholes. Her face smoothed out and she even smiled briefly–she’d seen the Mirror of Jade, he suspected, which gave you a fleeting glimpse of your own best face–and that was answered, then: she was plain, but a rather determined-looking sort of plain.

She approached the counter–which was really a glass display case containing various metal-and-glass automata in the shape of birds, milkmaids, elephants, and less realistic things–crossed her arms, and stared at him for a moment. For his part, Mr. Grinde gave her the same faintly encouraging smile he gave everyone who walked into his shop–not that many did. The light outside the windows was harsh, the sort of light he associated with desert places, and it was probably hot out there, wherever it was, but it was very cool inside; the shift in temperature might explain why she shivered, though it could have equally been due to other factors entirely.

Some people needed more encouragement than an encouraging smile. “What can I do for you today?” Mr. Grinde asked.

“I was given this address.” Her voice was slow, deliberate, thoughtful, as if she were reciting something she’d committed to memory a long time ago but hadn’t had occasion to vocalize since. Her accent was American, he thought, or perhaps Canadian–the distinction was too fine for his unpracticed ear to discern. “I was sent here and told to pick out a present for myself.”

Mr. Grinde clucked his tongue. “Imprecision. You can choose a gift for yourself, but you cannot choose a present–the reason is evident in the word itself. A present is a gift that is presented to you by the giver. A gift may be sent through the mail, or arranged through an intermediary–” he touched his own chest with his hand, modestly–“but a present can only be given in person.”

She shrugged. “I’m just telling you what I was told. Aren’t you lecturing the wrong person?”

“I suppose I am. Forgive me. I tend to… Well. You’ve come for a gift, then.”

“Do you need some proof that I’m, ah, entitled? I wasn’t given a gift certificate, or anything.”

“It’s all taken care of,” Mr. Grinde murmured. Her presence here was proof enough. “You need only tell me what you desire, and–if my inventory can provide it–it’s yours.”

“All right.” She uncrossed her arms, thought better of it, crossed them again, looked at him defiantly, and said, “Give me happiness.”

Mr. Grinde looked at the high vaulted ceiling for a moment, hummed a few bars of an ancient Etruscan marching song, and then nodded a few times, briskly. “What’s your name?”

“Why do you want to know?” Flinty, now, and her face all furrows again.

“I keep records, of course. Of all my customers.”

“Oh. My name is Eunice. Stuart.”

“An old-fashioned name, in these times.”

“Most people call me Eunie.”

“I see. You ask for happiness, Ms. Stuart. Certainly, that’s what everyone wants–Aristotle said happiness is the ultimate goal of all people, and that the desire for wealth and fame and power are all just paths to happiness. And yet…happiness…it’s a bit abstract, isn’t it? As the front door says, I deal in antiquities and tangibles. Which is not to say I can’t cope with more aspirational requests–if you asked for the aforementioned wealth or power, or for youth, or beauty, or inspiration, I have items that can grant all those wishes. But happiness… Can you be a bit more specific? Can you tell me what would make you happy?”

She sighed. “If I knew that… Is there, I don’t know, a catalog or something?”

“I am in the midst of making a complete inventory, but it’s a long way from being finished, I’m afraid, and in the meantime, the shop is even more disordered than usual. But if you can give me some guidance…”

“I don’t… Listen. My life has been hard. I won’t bore you with the details, but I left home as soon as I could, and tried to make it on my own, but I’ve just been scraping along. Every day I worry about money, and my apartment is too small, and I couldn’t afford to eat in the restaurant where I work if not for the free meals, and it’s not even that fancy a restaurant… Is happiness the absence of worry? That seems like a good place to start.”

“You’d like a life free of financial difficulties, then. That I can easily offer.” He came around the counter and walked to a wall of many square cubbyholes, all about 18 inches across, which held various objects that were best kept separate from one another, lest there be bad interaction. Ms. Stuart followed, peering into the recesses, and he knew what she saw: One cubby held a wrinkled, mummified monkey’s paw; another a milky-blue glass bottle with a dark shape moving inside; another a broken goat’s horn incongruously spilling forth fruit and flowers. Any of those would serve to grant her wish, but all had drawbacks, and he had something more elegant and direct in mind. Mr. Grinde reached into a cubbyhole at chest height and drew out a small dark brown leather coinpurse held shut with a drawstring. “There you are,” he said, handing it over. “Wealth inexhaustible.”

She frowned, hefting the bag, which didn’t weigh much, he knew–it felt as if it contained only two or three coins at most. “How does it work?”

“Reach inside. Remove money. It never runs out. Quite simple, really.”

“Huh. Is it, I mean…legal tender? It’s not ancient doubloons or something, is it?”

“Try and see.”

She prised open the mouth of the bag with her fingers–her nails were clipped sensibly short, but were well maintained, not bitten or cracked; he approved–and shook it out over her hand. A single small coin landed on her palm, showing the face of a rather homely-looking woman in profile, surrounded by stars, with the word “Liberty” written on her crown and a date, 1913, at the bottom. “What’s this, then?”

Mr. Grinde leaned forward, peered at the coin, and grunted. “1913 Liberty Nickel. Only five are known to exist. If one were ever found in perfect condition, it would be worth, oh, twenty million dollars? This one’s rather worn, though, showing its age, so it’s only worth, at a guess, six million, perhaps a bit less, or perhaps more to the right collector. I suggest you find a reputable numismatist and say you found the coin in a trunk in your grandmother’s attic, or something similar. You’ll lose a bit in auction fees, and half of whatever’s left when you pay taxes–please, pay your taxes, you’ll find wealth is little comfort in prison–but it should be enough to make you comfortable. And, of course, if the money ever runs out, you still have the purse.”

She stared at the coin as if trying to bore a hole through it by vision alone. “And, what, this bag will just keep dispensing magical nickels?”

“I doubt it. Their rarity is what makes them valuable–a slew of them on the market would devalue the whole bunch. The bag will dispense other coins, I’m sure. You may wish to hire a discreet lawyer with your first funds, to handle any future sales, lest you attract suspicion. But all those details can be left to you, of course.”

“Millions,” she breathed. “What would I even do with all that money?”

The question was asked to the air, to herself, to the future, but he answered anyway: “Why not just enjoy yourself?”

#

At a guess, it was only a year or two later; there were calendars in the shop, or at least things that charted the movements of celestial bodies, but Mr. Grinde didn’t pay them much attention, keeping himself busy with his never-ending inventory. Still, he’d had no customers in the interim, and he usually saw four or five people per decade, so based on averages, it was probably less than two years before she came back.

The shop door opened into a flash of sunlight, and let in a whiff of sea air that made him faintly nostalgic, in that way you can get, sometimes, for a past you never even had, but just read about in a work of fiction. The sound of waves crashing entered, too, but they didn’t drown out the unspeakably clear voice of the bell that rang as the door swung wide.

Mr. Grinde suppressed a frown. Repeat business was not unheard of, but it was certainly rare, and worst of all, in this case, it probably indicated failure.

“I read something interesting,” Ms. Stuart said, marching up to the counter and dropping the coinpurse before him, where it gently clinked. “Did you know, there was a scientific study that showed lottery winners aren’t happy?”

“I did not know that,” Mr. Grinde said. “Though I confess, now that I consider the issue, the fact does not shock me. They say you can’t buy happiness, you know.”

“Then what, exactly, am I doing here?”

“I never said you could buy happiness. I suggested that I could give you something that might help you attain happiness, depending on how you define the word.” He picked up the bag and put it away. “And I suppose you’re here to make an exchange.”

“I guess I am. I want to try again, anyway. Something other than,” she shuddered, “Money.”

“Tell me what went wrong. Only by understanding this failure can we hope to succeed with your next acquisition.”

“It was like this,” she said.

#

She took Mr. Grinde’s advice. Found a reputable coin dealer after poring over reviews on the internet. Nearly gave him a heart attack when she showed the sharp-nosed old man what she had, saying in a tentative voice that she’d looked it up on the internet and it seemed pretty valuable but that couldn’t be right, could it? It had to be some kind of novelty item, right?

To his credit the man didn’t try to cheat her–she’d been testing him to see if he would, after all–but examined the coin, called in his business partner, and soon verified its authenticity. They arranged an auction, and when all was said and done, she had a check in hand for almost five million dollars, promptly hiring an accountant who paid a godawful percentage of it to the US government. The remainder was still more money than she’d ever expected to see in one place in her life, and she walked out of her now very friendly bank with a checkbook and a rectangle of plastic embossed with her name and an account number that would allow her to access dizzying quantities of money.

She threw a party, inviting all her friends over, and the trouble started there: they were mostly other waitresses from her restaurant or nearby bars, and though they tried to make jokes, calling her Mrs. Moneybutt, asking her if she was going to buy a gold-plated toilet, and so on, there was a thread of awkwardness, like they didn’t know how to treat her anymore: like they could sense the rich are different. It was like they were all afraidshe was afraid they were going to ask her to borrow money. It also became apparent they expected her to quit her job at the restaurant, and that made sense, didn’t it? Why would she continue to be a waitress when she was filthy rich? She considered buying the restaurant just to keep those people in her life, but then she’d be their boss, and that wouldn’t work, either, would it?

After the party broke up, earlier than she’d expected, with many nervous affirmations that everyone should keep in touch, she sat in her empty living room and watched TV, same as a thousand other nights alone.

The next day she started trying to fill the hole in her life by buying things. She soon had everything she’d ever wanted over the years, but that wasn’t much. Some books, nice shoes, a better bed, a new car. She went shopping for houses but they were all too big and full of echoes. Men became more interested in her than ever before, but it was, she suspected, only because word had gotten out about her windfall, and even the men who might have genuinely liked her were subject to her distrust, so she didn’t date much. Her friends drifted away, and her offers to pay off their student loans and credit card bills and so on only drove most of them away faster, and those who accepted were strange around her, nervous, uncomfortable, and soon they were gone, too. She considered going to college now that she could afford it, she was only a few years older than most freshmen, but why bother with a degree when she’d never need a career? She just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm.

Soon she started drinking a lot, and at one of the clubs she forced herself to visit on weekends, buying vastly expensive bottles of champagne, a friend-for-the-night introduced her to cocaine, and she spent a great deal of money on that, and moved on to other substances as the whim and opportunity took her. She made new friends, but she didn’t like many of them much except when she was high.

She ran out of money–drugs were an infinitely capacious expense–but the bag gave her more coins: a copper penny from 1943, a Confederate half-dollar from 1861, a double eagle gold coin from 1933. They were sold, and her bank accounts swelled sufficiently that she bought a private jet, though she mostly just sat in it on the runway, enjoying the luxurious leather seats as she sipped Scotch and snorted lines but unsure where on Earth she should go. She bought a mansion and filled it with staff, including silly women who were technically personal assistants but were really her paid friends, and they always laughed at her jokes, even when she didn’t make any. She started looking for men to keep her company, and discovered there were many gifted and talented and handsome gentlemen who were happy to make her happy, however temporarily, in exchange for little gifts and tokens of affection, like three-thousand-dollar suits and sports cars.

Every dollar she spent made her more miserable. She ran faster and faster just to stay in one place. She finally sat up one morning in bed, next to a tennis instructor whose name she’d forgotten but whose taste still lingered in her mouth, and looked at the latest paired bottles of whiskey and pills on her bedside table. She picked both up, poured their contents into her toilet–not gold-plated, she’d never gone that far–took a car, and drove to the bank, where she withdrew a number of cashier’s checks that amounted to her total net value after all outstanding bills were paid. She hand-delivered the checks to various charities she’d hurriedly researched on her smart phone, and then drove down the freeway until she found someone looking miserable and dejected next to a broken-down car held together with primer and prayer. After handing him her keys and signing over the car’s title, she hitchhiked back to her old apartment, which she’d purchased in a fit of nostalgia, and which now constituted her only remaining possession.

#

“I started living clean, and simply, and that was kind of satisfying, but it didn’t make me happy. So I got another job waitressing, and when I’d saved enough for the airfare, I came here.”

Quite a story, he thought, especially the parts about the sex and drugs, which she’d been rather matter-of-fact about. Looking at her now, he thought she was a bit prettier than he’d realized at first–you’d think months of sybaritic excess would have made her look haggard, or puffy, or over-used, but if it ever had, her subsequent, more spartan months had restored her; even cleansed her.

“I’m sorry the purse didn’t work out. We’ll have to find something better for you this time. Perhaps we can delve a little deeper into your desires… Tell me, what was the last thing that made you really happy? Before you got the purse, I mean?”

She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. “The man who first gave me your address, who told me to come pick out a present–sorry, a gift–as a reward for saving his life? He was eating at the restaurant where I worked, and he started choking. He wasn’t even at one of my tables, you know, but I was passing by, and I dropped the tray I was holding and put my arms around him from behind and did the Heimlich maneuver, and he coughed up the bit of bread he’d been choking on, and he told me I saved his life, and…” She shrugged. “I thought, ‘I did, didn’t I?’ That made me feel good. And giving away all my money to charity there, at the end, it was the same feeling, like I was making others happy, and that happiness somehow reflected back on me, too.”

“Ah. Helping others is a classic path to happiness. In fact, some say all altruism is inherently selfish, since doing good makes you feel good. We’re back to Aristotle again–’happiness is an act of the soul that expresses virtue.’ Come with me.” Mr. Grinde came around the counter and led her to a corner of the shop crammed with rolling garment racks, pushing several aside–they held cloaks of downy feathers, antique ivory wedding dresses, a leather jacket that appeared to have been rescued from a fiery car wreck, and other things. He found the rack he wanted–drat, the item he was after happened to be hanging next to a certain dress from Ancient Greece made of poisoned cloth, which had once killed a princess, and even wrapped in a plastic bag its lethality worried him. He picked up an olive branch from a nearby table, pushed the poison dress aside, and took down a flimsy red cape made of some cheap fabric that might have been satin but wasn’t. The cape was held closed on the hanger with a simple pair of strings at the throat, and tangled in the strings was a red domino mask that tied in back with ribbons. “Here you are. This should make you very helpful.”

She took the cape and mask, frowning. “What’s this supposed to be?”

“Try it on. If it doesn’t suit you, we’ll try something else.” He guided her toward a full-length mirror–polished brass, not glass, but highly reflective anyway.

She got the cape on around her shoulders, and he helped her tie on the mask. She gasped. “This–this—-”

“Indeed.” Mr. Grinde patted her shoulder. She looked like a young mother trying on her son’s Halloween superhero costume, but he imagined the subjective experience of wearing it was rather different. At first he thought the outfit made her look taller, but then he realized she’d merely levitated a couple of inches off the ground; that was all right. “May it bring you all the happiness you desire.” Mr. Grinde guided the young lady toward the front door and out into the world.

#

Some time later the bell rang again, and he looked up, and it was the same woman, this time emerging from darkness, fog swirling around after her.

“Ms. Stuart,” he said.

“Mr.–How can I not know this? What’s your name?” She wore a heavy dark coat, and her hair was damp.

“Grinde. Martin.”

“Mr. Grinde.” She placed an old paper sack, folded so often it had essentially turned into cloth, on the counter. “I’ve come to make another exchange.”

He opened the bag and peered inside. Mask, cape. “This was not to your satisfaction either, then?”

She took a deep breath. “It’s not your fault. At first, it really worked, but then, it didn’t, and…”

“Tell me about it,” he said. “This is how I learn.”

“Well,” she began.

#

First, just the feeling of wearing the cloak, it was indescribable, but she tried: total safety, physical invulnerability, the ability to fly–that last always a dream, a literally recurring dream, now made reality–and helping people, oh, yes. The thrill that first night when she walked the filthy rooftops of her city and saw a man being mugged in an alleyway where she herself had once been mugged and fortunately nothing worse. She jumped from the roof, falling light as a feather to settle in the alley, and simply plucked the mugger off his feet and threw him into a mound of garbage bags. The victim was so grateful, she saw him fall in love with her right there, his face like a window opening onto the light. She said, “Run along,” and he looked at her, reached out, didn’t quite touch her, and ran. Then she picked up the mugger and flew high, higher, higher, holding him by his ankles, dangling him upside-down in the sky, looking at the jewels of the city lights spread out below, and said, “Look. The world is bigger than you and what you want and need. Do you see that now? It’s a world full of people, real people just like you. Do you understand?”

He shouted something, terrified but affirmative, and she took him gently back to the ground, too polite to mention the smell of urine from where he’d wet himself, and deposited him in the middle of a plaza near the theater district filled with tourists and young lovers watching street performers play steel drums. They all looked at her with awe, and she waved, and flew off into the sky.

Every night was like that. She still went to work, during the day, waiting tables for the lunch crowd, but at night she was something special–the bloggers and eventually newspapers and TV stations called her the Redbird, though she’d never felt the need to name herself, or to wear any costume besides the essential, going out in t-shirts and jeans and sneakers under her cape and mask. She stopped muggers, and burglars, and rapists, and car thieves, and men who hit their girlfriends, and women who hit their children, and even admonished those who littered or left dog crap on the sidewalk or spray-painted public property, though it was only the truly dangerous ones she lifted up into the sky for a lesson in forced perspective: look. You are not the only real person on Earth. Everyone else is real too, not things for you to use.

Whether the flight made any difference in their lives, she didn’t know, but she never picked up the same criminal twice, so she let herself believe she was making more than a momentary difference, even as she knew, deep down, she was only treating symptoms, not causes. If crime was the common cold, she was a bit of tissue, a cup of hot tea, a soothing lozenge, rather than advanced anti-virals.

Then one night the mugger she carried up struggled, and pulled a knife, and tried to stab her–a stupid thing to do in the sky, and the blade glanced off her unbreakable skin anyway–it startled her, and she lost her grip, and he fell. She managed to recover her wits, swoop down, and catch him before he crashed to the ground, but she set him down on a corner without a word, flew away, and perched atop a church bell tower. After a moment she vomited over the roof’s edge, spattering the bushes below, and it was an hour before she stopped shivering.

There had been videos of her for weeks, posted on the internet, showing her various exploits in cell-phone-camera footage and occasionally higher resolutions, and she’d taken to doing her flights over more populated areas, because she liked the gasps, the shouted greetings, the spontaneous applause. But several people had filmed her dropping the man and catching him again, and the internet was full of voices saying she’d done it on purpose to terrify the man, the Redbird was toying with her victims, and while some of the commenters supported her new, more violent approach, others were disappointed, calling her a common torturer. It was all she could do not to log onto message boards under a name like RealRedbird and say, “No, it was just an accident.” But that would be worse. If the Redbird could make a mistake once, she could do it again.

After that, she didn’t take criminals into the sky anymore. She did make other mistakes: Breaking up a fight, stopping a woman from kicking a man, only to realize she’d been defending herself against the man, who’d tried to steal her purse. Flying too high near an airport and being pursued by police helicopters and later military jets. Stopping a drug deal that turned out to be a police sting operation, and getting tasered. The electricity had no effect on her, and neither did the pepper spray, but it was clear the police wanted her captured–that she was a dangerous criminal in their eyes.

Still, even with the setbacks, even with dark grays slithering into her comfortable black-and-white world, she might have kept on doing it, kept on helping people, kept on flying, except for two things.

First: One day in her “real life”–what she thought of truthfully as her false life, her secret identity–while waiting tables she saw a couple, a middle-aged-man and his younger companion, having a fight. When he got up to leave in a huff the pretty woman came after him and grabbed his arm, and he shoved her, knocking her into a table.

Forgetting where she was, forgetting she was only Eunie Stuart and not the Redbird just then, she grabbed the man from behind and attempted to throw him toward the door. Without her cape and mask she had no special strength, and he outweighed her by a factor of two, so he didn’t budge. She was fired for attacking a customer, and he said he might press charges. She realized then that this was her real life, and the cape was her false life, that and strength you only had because of something you’d bought wasn’t real strength at all.

And second: A ten-year-old boy put on a red cape and red mask and jumped off the roof of his suburban home and hit his head on the brick border around a flower bed on the ground and suffered severe head trauma. The whole thing was captured on video: he’d set up the family camera to record his first flight. The news showed part of it, alongside footage of the Redbird in the sky. Over and over.

#

“So here I am.” She shoved the bag at him. “Take it back.”

“I’m so sorry. There may be something here, a way to help the boy…”

“He died.” Her voice bitter as the scent of cyanide. “Do you have anything here that can raise the dead?”

He had to think about it. “Nothing you’d want to use, no. Nothing that works very well.”

She shrugged. “It was over a year ago. I’m… I won’t say I’m over it… but I’ve got some distance, now. It hurts like an old injury. I think I’m ready to try again. God knows happiness seems farther away than it ever has before. I’ve been reading. About happiness, and things that make people happy.” She shook her head. “From neuroscience to practical advice. Sing in the morning. Enumerate your blessings every night. Write thank-you notes to everyone and everything. Have good genes–they think fifty percent of personal happiness is genetic. Take anti-depressants. Clean out your closets. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Be born in a first-world country. Be happily married. Have more sex. Eat chocolate. Believe in God. I tried all the little things. There were some good moments, but I always slump back to my baseline, and honestly, after my time as the Redbird, that baseline is even lower than before.”

He coughed. “I confess, your request intrigued me, and I’ve been looking through my books as well–I have many books–and I wish I’d done it earlier. We could have saved some time. Money can buy happiness, but only to a certain modest extent. Beyond a certain threshold of comfort and security, more money doesn’t make people any happier. Having children doesn’t make people happier, either, oddly enough, quite the opposite. I was going to suggest you consider motherhood or adoption, that seemed obvious since everyone says children are a joy, but they simply aren’t. Children do seem to cause transcendent highs that are more memorable than the more consistent negative feelings, but the little darlings are a terrible drag on what you’d call the baseline level. Being surrounded by friends and family is supposed to be immensely helpful–but I have nothing here that can give you those.”

She nodded. “I know. I know all that. And everyone agrees constant happiness isn’t possible anyway, there’s no such thing as constant joy, I understand that. Happiness at its best would be a sort of, I don’t know, dynamic equilibrium, with ups and downs, sure, but the baseline should be pretty damned good, that’s all I want. I can live with highs and lows, there’s no avoiding them, but–”

“Well,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“That you can’t avoid the highs and lows, and exist in a state of constant happiness. You can, of course.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “Become a lotus eater. From The Odyssey, you know, Odysseus finds an island full of people who only eat flowers… no? Let’s see, I used to know a bit of it by heart, my own translation, so forgive any awkwardness: ‘My crewmen went among the lotus-eaters, who did them no harm, but bid them eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that all who tasted it gave up all thoughts of home, and would not even return to tell the others on the ship, but instead sat eating of the lotus, and were content.’ Perfect happiness. Odysseus saw it as a drug, you know, horribly addictive, but in my studies the lotus isn’t like that, nothing like heroin or cocaine. You can choose to eat it, or not, but if you do…” He spread out his hands. “Happiness. I didn’t think of it before because it didn’t seem right for you, too passive, but…”

“It’s hard to imagine how I’d accidentally kill anyone by eating flowers,” she said. “Let’s give it a try.”

“I keep it here.” He had a small porcelain pot on the counter, and inside it, a small plant of a delicate green with a single pure white flower on top, with half a dozen petals. “I keep it nearby. Not to eat–I wouldn’t be much good to my customers, I don’t think, if I ate the lotus–but the scent is lovely, too.”

“So I just…eat the petals?”

“One at a time,” Mr. Grinde admonished. “Too many and you’ll simply sleep, I think.”

“Sleep is good for hiding from misery, but I think it would be an obstacle to real happiness.”

“Quite,” he said, and bid her good day.

#

It didn’t take her long to return. He’d barely filled two pages of his inventory ledger before the bell over the door rang again. This time, the bleating of goats wafted in after her, and he saw a slice of green hillsides sparsely dotted with scraggly trees. She had a little cardboard cake box, which, he was sure, held the lotus flower in its pot. Ms. Stuart handed him the plant without a word.

“Always a pleasure to see you,” he said, and it was. His loneliness had been such a fundamental part of his existence that he’d never noticed it until her repeat arrivals had dispelled it. He’d secretly hoped she’d return, for the conversation alone. There were a few things in the shop that could talk–magic mirrors, at least one sword, a brass-and-clockwork head–but they were variously flatterers, psychotics, and outrageous liars, and he’d stopped talking to them years before he’d stopped talking to himself. “Though I regret what your arrival signifies. Before we move on the issue of an exchange, if I may ask… How do you keep finding your way back here? I’ve seldom had exchanges before, and I think you’re the only person to ever pass through that door more than twice. That is no reflection on you–the failure is mine for not understanding your needs properly–but I’m curious. I know how you found my shop the first time, you were given the address by a man who, hmm, had store credit he could pass on, you might say–a man who once brought me something I chose to add to my inventory. But you’ve made it back twice since, without directions. How?”

She shrugged. “It’s strange. It’s like I just remember the way back, but it’s a different way back I remember, each time. This time I remembered that I had to take a plane, then another plane, then a much smaller plane, then a dirty bus stuffed with people and their chickens, and then a long walk, and right around the curve in the road I anticipated, just where I expected–here you were.”

“Extraordinary. So tell me. How have we failed this time?”

#

She went home with the lotus flower in its little pot, and put it on a small table where it could catch the shaft of sunlight that slanted down between her building and the building next door to pierce her window. The flower seemed to glow, faintly, with an inner radiance. After looking at the flower for a while, and weighing her inner state–troubled, churning, turmoiled–she plucked one of the petals, opened her mouth, and placed it on her tongue. The flower dissolved, gently, with a flavor like vanilla-scented moonlight…and she was happy. All her anxieties drifted away. She sat on her couch and contemplated the flower until the light faded, and then she contemplated the dark. The sensation was not a high, not in the sense of being a stimulant, anyway; it was a pure euphoric. She sat on the couch all night, and when the sun rose, the lotus flower was no longer missing a blossom, having replenished itself in the night. She wasn’t hungry, or thirsty. The flower sustained her utterly.

So she plucked another petal, and ate it, and sat on the couch, and simply experienced bliss.

#

“Not much else to tell,” she said. “I did that maybe forty times. And then, one morning I didn’t eat the flower petal. Didn’t feel any particular craving for it afterward, either, not even psychologically–you’re right, it’s not addictive, doesn’t seem much like a drug, except in all the ways it does.”

“Mmm. Why did you give up being a lotus eater?”

“The happiness…it was all very well, you know, but every day was the same. I woke up smiling; sat there smiling; fell asleep smiling. There were no highs or lows, and when everything is a source of wonder, when your own plain white walls are as amazing as sunrises or shooting stars or ocean waves, it’s like nothing is amazing. And there was a moment every morning, just before I ate the next petal, when the happiness would ebb, just slightly, just a fraction, the effects wearing off, and in that moment, I couldn’t silence this little voice in the back of my head whispering that it was all pointless, that it was a cheat, that to be happy you have to do something, not just be. Otherwise you might as well be, I don’t know, a barnacle on a ship, or lichen on a rock. Is lichen happy? I don’t know. Maybe it’s content. But that’s not happiness. The lotus…it felt like a delusion.”

“Studies show that realists are unhappy,” Mr. Grinde said. “The happiest people wander around in a state of delusion and denial.”

“I just don’t have the right turn of mind to be that delusional,” she said. “I’ll have to try to find happiness in spite of my realism. So what else have you got?”

While he’d hoped she wouldn’t need another exchange–though it was lovely to see her, failure rankled–he’d nevertheless prepared for the possibility that she might return.

“Some poets and philosophers say the path to happiness is to live a life of tranquility and reflection in harmony with nature. How does that sound to you?”

“I think I’ve had enough quiet contemplation.”

“No, no. You’ve had…emptiness. Which many strive for, and I’m sure it has its virtues, but it’s not for you. No, this would be a chance to get to know your own mind, to understand yourself in the context of the natural world, to engage with a land of beauty and wonder, not to merely sit gazing at nothing.”

“Okay. I see the distinction. But I’m a city girl, Mr. Grinde. I never spent much time in nature. I think I’d starve to death, or get liver flukes from drinking out of a polluted stream, or eat the poison berries, or run afoul of a bear.”

He held up a finger. “Ah. But what if I told you I could send you to a perfectsort of nature, an idealized nature, a place where every stream is clear and clean, where the trees hang heavy with fruit, where the rains are gentle. Would that sound appealing?”

“Some time to myself. I could use that. What do you have to offer?”

“It’s here somewhere…” They walked deeper into the shop, to an area lined with aquariums and terrariums full of plants and animals, including tiny winged serpents, wise frogs, and venomous caterpillars. One tank, covered entirely in sheets of aluminum foil, held a basilisk, and he remembered the beast needed feeding. He had a collection of stone animals he could slip into the cage, and the gaze of the basilisk would turn the stone creatures into flesh and blood–the reverse of its more well-known power–allowing the cockatrice to feed without the need for Mr. Grinde to keep live rats or other delicacies on hand.

He didn’t want an animal, though; he wanted a plant, a miniature tree growing in a pot all on its own, branches heavy with small plum-sized golden fruits. He plucked one and took the fruit to the counter, put on a pair of thick rubber gloves, and cut open the fruit with a silver knife, carefully removing a single seed, which he placed in a clear plastic bag and handed to Ms. Stuart. “There you are. A seed of Arcadia. Plant it anywhere, water it, and…you’ll see.”

“Thank you, Mr. Grinde.” She was solemn, but also hopeful, and he was hopeful, too.

#

The bell rang and she returned with leaves in her hair, smears of dirt on her face, dressed in what appeared to be leaves and vines cunningly interwoven into a dress that was, he noticed with a hint of regret, quite modest. “Here, this is all that’s left.” Opening her palm, she dumped a handful of soil on the counter. Mr. Grinde sorted through it until he found a single seed. She’d returned the item, or its equivalent, which meant she was eligible for an exchange. That gave him an unexpected flutter of lightness in his chest–the thought of having to send her away disappointed would have been intolerable to him, but rules are rules.

She leaned heavily on the counter. “I’ll say this for the tree of Arcadia. When I chopped it down and the forest receded, I was standing right where I wanted to go.”

“You chopped it down?”

“I had to make an axe out of a branch, vines, and a sharpened rock–actually five axes, they all broke eventually.”

“But why do such a thing at all?”

“I’ll tell you,” she said.

#

Being alone in the woods drove her insane with loneliness.

That was the short form. In the long form, which he insisted she tell, she took the seed to her favorite little park, a tiny place that had once been an empty lot, bought by the city decades before, filled with grasses and trees and a couple of concrete benches and a little bubbling fountain, all ringed in a wrought-iron fence. She scooped out a shallow depression in the soil, planted the seed, covered it, carried handfuls of water from the fountain to sprinkle the soil, and sat on the bench to wait. She’d expected something dramatic, a beanstalk rocketing into the sky to open passage to a cloud kingdom, but nothing much happened, and she read a magazine she’d brought, and eventually dozed on the bench.

When she woke, the bench was wrapped altogether in ivy, and a great tree rose before her. Her knowledge of trees was fairly limited–she knew Christmas trees, and lemon trees, and beyond that, trees were all mysterious. This one had pale white bark and leaves of shimmering silver, and in growing, it had somehow brought a whole vast forest with it, because the city was nowhere to be seen.

The sun was still up, though it was shady under the canopy, and she went exploring, wishing she’d thought to bring a bottle of water or a sack lunch. But as Mr. Grinde had suggested, the streams ran clear and delicious, and delicious fruit–some she recognized, some she did not–hung from branches all around her. The ground somehow sloped so that she was always moving either level or gently downhill, even when she doubled back. There were animals, but nothing ominous–rabbits, squirrels, flittering birds. The woods weren’t silent, as she’d expected, but full of rustlings and bubblings and the song of wind over branches. When the sun went down and she grew tired, she stopped at the base of a tree and settled down on a mound of fallen leaves that proved surprisingly comfortable. It’s like a fairy tale wood, she thought, only not scary at all.

Over the next days and weeks she explored, and the woods had no edge. There were clear deep pools for swimming, trees she could climb, branches wide enough to sleep on, waterfalls of towering magnificence, bird trills more enchanting than any pop song, sunsets so dazzling they made her eyes water, flowers with scents to rival all man-made perfumes.

What there wasn’t was anything to do, besides admiring the admittedly glorious glories of nature. She read the magazine she’d brought to tatters, even though it was just a dumb fashion thing. Pissing and crapping in the woods didn’t appeal to her, either, and even though it only rained in late afternoon, and gently at that, she resented the lack of real permanent shelter, and also profoundly lamented the lack of pedicures, blueberry scones, episodic television, library books, cheeseburgers, high-speed internet, espresso, and vibrators, among other things. How had she beenunhappy back in civilization, with access to all those hundreds, thousands, millions of small pleasures? What the hell had she been thinking? Coming to the Arcadian wood had been good in one respect–it gave her the realization that, crappy as her life might have been before, it was a lot better than living in the woods and wearing leaves because her real clothes got shredded by time and weather.

Worst of all, there was no one to complain to, no other human voices at all, and so she made her way back to the original Arcadian tree, crafted a number of axes by trial and error, and started trying chop the tree down. She wasn’t sure she’d ever manage it, but at least attacking the tree gave her something to do besides going crazy with loneliness.

#

“And I mean crazy, Mr. Grinde. I was telling rabbits about my childhood. I was talking to the moon. The creepiest thing was, I could sense intelligences there, sometimes I thought things were listening, but I knew they weren’t human. I don’t know if they were tree spirits or water spirits or animal gods or what, but they didn’t have any more in common with me than I have in common with a rolling pin, so I’m glad they never spoke up, really. I’m so happy to be out of there–yes, happy, I said it, though I know it’ll pass. The Arcadian wood is perfect for a weekend, lovely for a week, endurable for a month, but after that, knowing you can’t leave, at least not easily, that it’s a walled garden…no good. Not for me. I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need any people. I just need the right ones, in small doses, at appropriate intervals. Nobody at all is worse than too many people.”

He passed her a damp rag, and she began washing the dirt from her face, and it was, really, a face he’d grown rather fond of.

“All right,” he said finally. “Why don’t you sit and have a drink and talk withme for a while?”

#

“As much as we’ve learned about happiness, you’d think we’d do better at finding it,” he said. They sat in a pair of rocking chairs, side by side, with a round table between them holding a sweating pitcher of iced tea and a pair of glasses; the ice came from the moon, which for him was closer than any grocery or liquor store, but it was quite pure. Mr. Grinde, who’d seldom seen the same person more than once–and never before more than twice–in all the many years since he took over the shop, was pleased beyond measure to have something resembling a friend, or at least a regular visitor. It helped that she was someone he could admire: a woman who’d devoted herself wholeheartedly to a probably hopeless quest–not unlike his own hopeless attempt to inventory the shop’s contents–and who’d given his own life a bit more purpose by enlisting his help in that quest.

“I don’t know.” She swirled the ice in her drink. “Philip Brickman, the scientist who discovered winning the lottery doesn’t make you happy? He committed suicide. Dedicating yourself to the study of happiness doesn’t mean you’ll find it.”

“Mmm. I hope the pursuit didn’t itself hasten his despair.”

“I’m not despairing yet,” she said, but she didn’t look at him when she spoke.

“Good. We haven’t even come close to the end of my list.”

“You’ve got more ideas?”

“Of course. There’s an equation I found that some experts use to calculate happiness. H = S + C + V. That means, basically, happiness equals your genetic set point, plus your circumstances, plus what you voluntarily change. Genetics are beyond us–at least, changing them is dangerous–but we can certainly continue to alter your circumstances and your voluntary behaviors. Eventually we’ll hit upon a combination that has the desired effect.”

She took a sip. “There’s refined sugar in this tea, isn’t there? Forget everything else–refined sugar is happiness.”

“Oh, good,” he said, deadpan. “Then my work here is done. I’ve got a five-pound bag of the stuff you can take home with you.”

“Ha. Seriously, though, if you’ve got more ideas, I’m willing to try. I’ve spent this long and done this much, it seems silly to give up now.”

“Good. I’ve got a little notebook where I’ve been writing possibilities as they occur to me…”

Over the next few years they tried many things. They tried world travel–a compass that could take her anywhere, instantly–which just led to unhappiness and disorientation in assorted faraway locales. They tried fame and art–with a violin once won from the Devil in a fiddling contest–that propelled her to the heights of musical stardom, but the sycophants and hangers-on and embezzling accountants and obsessed fans destroyed her enjoyment of the music, and was troubled by the fact that her abilities were magical, and not the result of personal accomplishment. They tried meditation–a prayer wheel that offered insights into the structure of the universe whenever it was set spinning–but she did not find the realization of her own fundamental insignificance in the incomprehensible vastness of creation to be particularly pleasant. They tried revenges, none lethal but all unpleasant, against everyone who’d ever wronged her–an opportunity for him to get rid of various cursed objects, though she brought them all back, of course–but she didn’t have the right temperament to take real and lasting pleasure in the suffering of others.

Eventually they just started trying things at random: a ring that made her invisible, a cloak that let her transform into a bat, a whistle that let her summon winds, a seashell necklace that enabled her to swim to any depth in the sea, with no need for air or worry about pressure. That one almost worked. She stayed gone for nearly two years, but when she returned, she said the sea was full of wonders, but it was cold and dark and there was no one to talk to, essentially the Arcadian wood all over again, only with squid instead of squirrels.

There were moments of happiness, even whole intervals of happiness, but eventually the engines of her joy brought with them darker consequences that tainted even the memory of the pleasures that had gone before.

“You know,” she said, leaning over, elbows on the counter, chin in her hands, “it’s gotten so I enjoy the day before I come here more than I enjoy what comes after. Each time, you see, I think, ‘Maybe this time we’ll get it right.’”

“Ah yes. The pleasure of anticipation. Alas, I don’t know of anyone who’s figured out a way to bottle that.”

“It gets a little less potent, though, every time we fail.” She stared into her glass of tea and sighed. “I think we’re getting to the end of the line for me. It’s been years, you know. I know there are more things we can try–I got a glimpse of your storage room once, I know it goes back, all the way back, full of treasures–but I just don’t have the strength for many more disappointments. I’m beginning to think I can never be satisfied. I’ve also been feeling way too obsessive and self-centered in recent years–who am I to privilege my own happiness above all else, even if Aristotle does say it’s the only real goal? What if it’s a fundamentally delusional goal–if trying to capture perfect happiness is like trying to catch the moon in a butterfly net? Maybe I’m just aiming too high. Freud said his objective was to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. My unhappiness is probably pretty garden variety. I should be content with that.”

“I wouldn’t give up yet. There’s one thing we haven’t tried.” He leaned over the counter, putting his face closer to hers. He’d been thinking about this. It seemed so simple–could it possibly be the answer? Perhaps the right answers were always the simple ones.

“What’s that?” She was looking into his eyes. This was the moment, if ever there was a moment.

“True love,” he said, and leaned forward, and touched his lips to hers.

They kissed for a moment, then each pulled back, more or less simultaneously; he was, perhaps, a hair faster. They regarded one another for a long moment.

“Well. That wasn’t any good, was it?” he said.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, but he wasn’t offended. “No. Whatever the opposite of chemistry is, that’s what we’ve got, Mr. Grinde.”

“A shame. It would have been a pretty ending, I thought.”

“I don’t know. True love cures all? It’s a little too pat and tied-up-with-a-bow for my tastes, really. But then–” she gave a modest laugh, a sound that reminded him why he’d mistakenly thought he must be in love with her–“we’ve already established that I’m difficult to please.”

“Right,” he said briskly. “Then there’s only one thing for it.” He took a deep breath. This was plan B, but in a way, it was even simpler than his true love gambit. “I’d like to announce my resignation.”

She looked startled–finally, a new expression, looking out-of-place on a face that generally seemed to expect the worst or hope for the best and nothing much in between. “You’re giving up the shop?”

“I’m giving you the shop. No, listen: you like to help people. The keeper of this shop does little else. You are bored easily and require new and interesting things to engage your interest–this shop has wonders so vast even I’ve never been able to uncover them, antiquities from every age of legend, and tangibles that will someday be the center of new mythologies. It’s impossible to be bored here. Boil all the details away and I think happiness, for you at least, is having your basic needs met, plus useful work that engages the body and mind, plus the occasional fine wine, orgasm, or fudge brownie. Don’t you see? Giving you the shop–it’s perfect.”

She shook her head. “I’d feel guilty if you left, just to make me happy. That would spoil it all.”

“Nonsense. I never much considered my own happiness, or even the concept of happiness, before I met you. My life was the shop; the shop was my life. But hearing of your exploits, even when they disappointed you, made me want to go out and experience the world, to have adventures, even if they are, as you say, periods of discomfort and inconvenience punctuated by too-few-and-far-between moments of joy. I’ll leave gladly. Is that your only objection?”

“Almost. But you forget–I’m a social creature, too. Too much time alone and I vanish into my own head. The shop is a wonderful place, but spending all my time behind the counter, by myself… I’d be miserable.”

“Hmm,” he said, thinking, I know you so well, pleased with how she’d led him exactly where he wanted to go. “There’s another possibility. There are, after all, other sorts of partnerships, besides the romantic.”

She cocked her head. “You mean…”

“Go into business with me. The shop is big enough that we wouldn’t get under one another’s feet, but small enough that we could always find each other if we wanted company. With two of us here, we could even take turns going out into the world from time to time, to bring back new acquisitions, or just to…I don’t know…see films. Ride ferris wheels. What have you.”

Ms. Stuart ran her finger in little swirling designs on the surface of the display case, brow knit up fiercely. “It’s…an appealing idea. Truly. But what if it doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t make us happy?”

“Eunie,” he said. “If there’s one thing you’ve learned by now, I’m sure, it’s that if one approach fails, you can always try another.”

“It would be sort of ironic if the only way I could successfully buy happiness…”

“Was by selling it to others?” Martin smiled. “Indeed. Do you accept, then? A partnership?”

She took a breath, stepped back, walked around to the far end of the counter, and stepped behind it with him. Together, side by side, they gazed toward the front door of Antiquities and Tangibles, where the delicate bell over the door just waited for someone to come along and make it sing out. “We’ll give it a try,” she said.

He linked his arm with hers. “I think this might be the happiest day of my life. How about you?”

“Time will tell,” she said.

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