Once upon a time there was me, a girl from Paris who likes bread and butter and traveling. I like more than that, but those are three of my favorites. My favorite of all though is probably traveling. I’ve been to fifty-seven countries. I know because I keep a chart. Somehow I missed China.
The elephant in the kitchen.
The whale in the pool.
I went there to see a grandmotherly workmate of mine from Lille. I knew her from when I worked for a bookstore there while going to university. In my opinion, France has some of the best bookstores in the world. I went to a bookstore once in Florida and asked if they had any French authors and the clerk said, “Is Shakespeare French?” I looked around the store and couldn’t find one Chinese author. Never trust a bookstore that doesn’t have at least one Chinese author. The only thing worse is a country with no French food.
It was in Shanghai where I met the blanket salesman. He had a bicycle, he said, filled with six hundred blankets. He took me outside and showed me. They were piled, roped, and pressed until he had something that was more bed than bicycle. He’d stacked up to a thousand blankets previously, but he found they were getting caught on telephone wires. He asked if I’d like a ride to Mínháng. He said I’d fall in love with its sea-green river. I told him there was no room, unless I was a blanket myself. He told me I could crawl between the blankets, that he’d untie everything and pack me in like sushi.
I texted my friend. She told me not to go.
We arrived at a street where the trees were fractals, where the sidewalk bricks seemed to talk. He said he was going to sell some blankets to a millionaire. I asked what a millionaire would want with used blankets. He told me used blankets have stories. The millionaire would read the stories written into the blankets.
The millionaire’s castle had multi-inclined roofs, verandas, and a narrow pool filled with glowing fish. I expected one to step out of the water and open the front door for us. It continued to swim purposefully. The blanket salesman leaned over and said, “In China, even the fish train for the Olympics.”
The door opened. A man with hair the color of South African lobster welcomed us. You could see the million euros in his posture. He walked like his spine was made of opal. A chandelier over our heads seemed made of pale-yellow diamonds as if it was attempting to be a haunting little sun. The rest of the house seemed just as celestial.
There was outer-space darkness, Big Bang hallways, and hydrogen carpeting where each step made you feel like you were floating.
He said that I didn’t think there would be wealth in China, now did I?
I told him that’s not true at all.
He said China wasn’t Communist anymore, that it was completely free.
He said something in Chinese to the blanket salesman.
I asked what he said.
The blanket salesman whispered, “He said, ‘Where did you find her?’”
“So, where did you find me?” I asked the blanket salesman.
“Shanghai,” he said, “Where you find everything.”
“Everything,” said the millionaire, then added, “What do you love more than anything?”
“Like,” he clarified, “Or hate. Or are addicted to. Or would find pleasure in seeing. You decide.”
We’d been following him through hallways. Open doors gave glimpses of ancient weapons, crystal goblets, extinction taxidermy, displayed maps.
“What do you do?” I asked the millionaire.
“I buy blankets,” he said, and patted the salesman on the shoulder. He grabbed my wrist and said, “Decide. We have business. What will keep you occupied?”
“I love books,” I said.
He switched directions, started walking backwards, eventually stopping before a room.
He opened the door. The room was lined with book after book.
“All the same book,” he said.
“Little Red Riding Hood.”
I reached. He took my hand. I noticed what could have been a pile of bones in a corner.
“They’re all different,” he said.
“Aren’t they all Red Riding Hood?”
“But different endings.” He took out a book, held it to me. I put my hand on it. He wouldn’t let go. He yanked it back and put it away. “Every book in here has a different ending to the fairy tale. I have someone hired solely to find me endings to the story that haven’t been found yet.”
“And then what?”
“I put them here.”
I could smell almond and vanilla, the perfume of pages.
I reached for a book again.
“Careful,” he said.
“They are worth a lot?”
“More important, careful with the endings.”
“Some end happily. Some,” he said, “don’t.”
“You mean killing the wolf?”
“That’s a happy ending,” he said, “There are versions that are quite, well, horrific.”
I looked at the shelves.
“I have to go,” he said, “But I’ll say this. The very happy endings start here. And as you make your way around the room, they build to very bad endings. Very bad. Very.”
He closed the door.
I stared at the books, their covers like mouths.
From the other side of the door, I heard a voice say that I could experience ecstasy or Hell, that they were waiting for me; all I had to do was choose the type of ending I desired. The voice continued, or maybe I imagined it, warning me that maybe there were wolves in the house, that there were axes and huntsmen and teeth, that sometimes you can become the story, that what we read repeatedly can become us.
I found my hand being drawn to the type of story I wanted to live, shocked at my own heart.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P.: a novel, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), and Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, http://msupress.org/books/book/?id=50-1D0-3479#.VKZ4kmTF-PU. His play “Carol” was in The Best Ten-Minute Plays 2012, The First Real Halloween was best sci-fi/fantasy screenplay for the 2014 International Family Film Festival, and his story “The Family Jewel” was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2015. Twitter: @RonRiekki.
Artwork: Laura Makabresku, “Lovers.. . .. .”