Published on 2012/04/01

Strangers

Russell Bradbury-Carlin

The old bookstore sat in a constant cloud of fog. To the west was The Land of Heat and to the east was The Land of Cold. The bookstore had been built in the exact center –- the meeting point of the two very divergent lands. The bookstore was important to both lands because it contained all the knowledge that had been accumulated by both regions. Each piece of knowledge had been written down into small easy-to-read books that could be purchased inexpensively. There were books with such title as: What Type of Spoon for What Occasion; How to Get Rid of a Family of Snakes Living Under Your House; How to Find a Lover If You Live in the Isolated Valley Amongst the Mountains of Gelidity in The Land of Cold; and, How to Find a Lover If You Live on the Isolated Island in the Middle of the Lake of Candent in The Land of Heat.

The man from The Land of Cold came to the old bookstore because of his sister. He lived alone in a small home that he’d built inside a cave, where it was not too cold. His sister lived nearby and was his only living relative. His sister loved to tease him. They would be in the middle of a conversation, when she would suddenly start to tell stories in Latin –- a language she taught herself as a child -- as if the man could understand her, which he did not. She would speak long enough to annoy the man. Then she’d smile and return, in their native tongue, to whatever topic they had been discussing. The man from The Land of Cold decided it was time that he learn to understand what his sister was saying, so he could turn the tables on her by responding in Latin. He walked through the aisles of the bookstore in search of the exact right book to teach him this language. His frigid fingers left icy prints on each binding he grazed.

The woman from The Land of Heat came to the old bookstore for a friend. Her friend was on the hunt. On very, very hot humid days, her friend would search endlessly for a place with thick shade; a place where some remnant of the slightly cooler evening would remain and had not been snatched away by the insatiable rays of daytime’s sunlight. Her friend sometimes spent days searching in a particularly lush forest near their home hoping to find the largest tree with a thick canopy of leaves, or, even though they were rare in The Land of Heat, maybe a deep cave –- the coup de grace. The woman from The Land of Heat thought, maybe, she could find the exact right book on cave-hunting to assist her friend. The woman also walked through the aisle of the bookstore. She left small brown burn marks on each binding as she hunted for the exact right book.

The man and the woman nearly collided as they found the book they each sought on the same shelf. He noticed the book she found: How to Search for Caves in the Forest of Levitude in The Land of Heat. And he wanted to say something to her as he himself lived in a cave. She noticed the book he found: How to Understand Latin Spoken by a Sister Who Enjoys Teasing Siblings. And she wanted to say something to him as she had taught herself some rudimentary Latin from books at the store. But they could not say anything to each other. It had long been known that the literal mechanics of talking did not work between people of the different lands. No sounds were ever emitted from either in the presence of the other. And it had been centuries since any had tried.

The man stared at the woman. He wanted to tell her that he could come to her land and help her find a cave, even if no one could remember the last time someone from one land had gone to the other. He wanted to hear what her voice sounded like. And he wanted his voice to be heard by her. The woman pulled down the book on cave-finding and thumbed through it, very aware that the man was watching her. She was unsure what to do about it. Warmth radiated beneath the surface of her skin as if kindled coals glowed beneath the surface. He felt the invisible cloak of cold air that surrounded him become cool. It was pleasurable.

The woman, still unsure what to do about the man, decided that she should probably just buy the book and leave. She glanced up at him, though, and smiled as she made her way to the front counter. A lick of heat trailed on his cold cheek as she passed by. The man felt a pulse of panic rush through him. She couldn’t leave yet. He felt paralyzed. His thoughts raced wildly. Then, suddenly, he felt the urge to sing to her. He had once read in a book (that he had purchased before at the old bookstore) that women are attracted to men who could sing songs of love and romance. He felt a song coalesce deep in his lungs. He opened his mouth to let it out. But the song froze in his chest -- tendrils of frost weighed it down.

The woman left the store. The man raced to the counter with his book. He bought it and ran outside to find her. He found himself immersed in the thick fog that was always there. He waved his hands around to try and clear his vision. But he couldn’t see any further than the air he cleared at arm’s length. So, he started to walk west toward The Land of Heat. He passed more store-fronts and the fog began to dissipate. He was nervous, as he had never gone too far west. He was always afraid of how hot it was in that land. After a few blocks the temperature jumped to the point where he began to sweat. And, as he scanned the street and pressed his moist hands to the store windows to see if she was inside, it became apparent that he had missed her.

The man turned around and began to walk back east. He entered the cloud of fog, passed the bookstore, and started to walk into a snowstorm on the other side. He was passing a tea shop when he heard the jingle of the bell above its door. He came face-to-face with the woman from The Land of Heat. She had just left the tea shop with a warm cup of tea in her hands. And as she stood in a swirl of February snow, he watched winter melt around her.

She smiled at him. He took a deep breath to gather a boost of confidence and smiled at her. The woman stared up at him and waited, as if there was a chance that they could talk to each other. She was frustrated too that she could say nothing.

The man felt the urge to sing to her again. Only this time, he knew what to do. He let the song coalesce in his lungs. He took a deep breath and exhaled forcibly. A plume of frosted breath rose into the air, but no song. The man brought his finger up as if to say, “Wait a moment”. He reached into the folds of his mouth. He removed a piece of ice. The man held it in his fingers and examined it. Then he placed it in her outstretched hand. She looked away from him and stared at the lump of ice. It melted on the palm of her warm hand. And his song drifted up quietly to her ears.


Russell Bradbury-Carlin is a writer living in Western MA. His stories and poetry have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Rattle, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, and MonkeyBicycle amongst others. You can find him at Russellbradburycarlin.com.