Recently, every person in my university who is in the English Department was invited to submit work into a writing competition. Now, for reasons that allude me I generally don’t participate in things like this. (I really need to get over my fear of sharing my writing if I’m ever going to be an author.)
Another reason I have a hard time submitting work to these things is because I’m, in general, just a novelist. I don’t write much of anything else, and usually all the other things are what you submit to things like this. However, this time I conquered all of that and I actually wrote a short story.
Let me tell you, short stories are basically my biggest fear because they are so, so incredibly difficult to write. Give me a few months and 50,000 words or so and I’ll crank out a novel for you. No problem. But a short story???? Sure. Let’s cram everything we need to say into a few pages and try and make it change the world. That’ll be fun.
That is why I’m actually quite proud of myself and more than a little intrigued about how all of this will play out. Quite honestly, this short story could be complete garbage for all I know, except for the fact that I actually wrote one. That’s exciting in and of itself. And since I never, ever, ever share my writing on this blog (Don’t even get me started on that little bit of insanity. How ridiculous is it that I can’t even share my writing on my own blog?! Besides the occasional poem. I do feel okay sharing those.), I’ve decided to share my short story with you today.
Feel free to comment if you wish, tell me what you think! But mostly just thank you for reading! I hope you enjoy it!
The Enlightenment of Pierre Ventoux
Every morning at a quarter to nine, Pierre Ventoux rode his red bicycle up the lane to the bookshop. It wasn’t a new bicycle, but kept in good repair and therefore still a very shiny red, with only one scratch near the front tire.
As soon as he reached the bookshop, known simply by a sign that read Books in faded gold letters, he settled his bike against the red brick of the building and walked inside.
The shop was never exactly neat and never exactly cluttered. Stacks of books sometimes teetered precariously on the end of old pine tables, some with bright colors and new faces and others with faded pages and cracked bindings. Each of them, however, were equally loved by the proprietor of the establishment. He was known only as Paul, and most singularly recognized for his failure to believe in any one thing. His greatest passion was the pursuit of knowledge without the finality of finding answers.
Pierre generally found Paul lost somewhere near the back, ever reorganizing his philosophy section while others lived with less avid attention. Paul was always thinking of new ways to arrange the section, by author, by topic, by the chronological flow of philosophy. His ideas never ceased to end, but one would expect this from a man who refused to believe anything with conviction.
Some days Pierre would sit in the corner of the bookshop in a faded chair so stuffed he was often afraid it would burst. He’d rest his feet on the old braided rug in front of him and consume whatever prose Paul had waiting for him. Pierre often left the bookstore even more contemplative than when he’d entered, and usually with more books to add to the piles he was accumulating. There were days when he was never entirely sure exactly why he went to the bookshop, but it had now become an irrevocable habit.
On one particular morning, a Thursday, Pierre entered the shop a bit more cast down than usual. Storm clouds were gathering beyond the gray rooftops of the town, threatening to choke out the sun that was for the moment shining brilliantly.
“Looks like rain’ll be coming soon.” Paul observed, startling Pierre from his sullen thoughts only to shove him right back inside them.
“Yes.” He answered a bit tersely, following the old man back into the shelves. Pierre had never been able to figure out how old Paul was, for on top of what looked like years of living sat cheery green eyes and a jet black beard.
“No need to get moody now, young man.” Paul reasoned, shuffling through some old books in a corner. “You can’t control the weather. I’ve been trying to figure out that secret for years.”
“Not that you’d act on it if you did.” Pierre hadn’t meant it to come out so reproachfully, but was surprised when Paul simply laughed and nodded at the accuracy of the statement. Pierre sometimes wondered if the man ever became exhausted at the continual pursuit of truth without any destination. Weren’t they all attempting to get somewhere?
“What are you looking for today?” Paul surprised him by asking, usually he had a pile of books waiting for Pierre.
“Something to cheer me up.”
“Then I suggest you stick to the front of the store, with the fiction. Truth and cheer are two entirely different things.” Pierre bit back a sharp comment on the edge of his tongue, not entirely understanding why Paul’s belief system suddenly irritated him. But surely the man had to believe in something.
The shop was quiet for several moments while Pierre perused the shelves, every once in a while hearing the sliding and thudding of Paul’s reorganizational efforts. Pierre saw many different titles jump before his eyes, but none of them seemed anything he needed that day. It was almost as though a thought was forming inside his mind, an ember of desire, and any moment it would burst into flame. How long it had been there Pierre didn’t know, but the sensation was uncomfortable.
“Aren’t you ever tired by the continual journey, Paul?” He finally asked, turning to meet the man’s eyes across his armful of Plato. “Isn’t there anything that you know for certain?”
Paul approached him then, weaving through the shelves of his world, and without saying anything reached behind Pierre to take a small book from the shelf behind him. It was small, about the size of a volume of poetry, with a cover completely faded to gray. The old man smiled a little looking at it, as though it was a friend he’d not seen in a long while, and placed the book carefully in Pierre’s hands.
“The secret is to understand, without a shadow of a doubt, what it is you are actually looking for.” His voice held a smile. “Perhaps that is what you need to know first.”
Pierre stepped out of the shop moments later, just as the bells of St. Edward’s Cathedral rang the hour. One could always see the tower of the cathedral anywhere in town, but as he looked at it that day it seemed taller than he’d ever seen it.
“Nine o’ clock. Right on the nose.” Pierre turned abruptly to see Giselle, the owner of the shop next to Paul’s. It was so close to the bookstore that the two buildings seemed mashed together.
“How are you today, Giselle?” His voice sounded shaky and unsure, and it made her laugh and shake her brown curls.
“You’ve been with Paul only moments and look what he’s done to you.” She said it cheerily, and all but pulled Pierre inside with her. “Come in and have some tea.”
Giselle’s shop was a mix of tea and all things knitted. In the front of the store the walls were lined with racks of intensely colored scarves, hats, gloves, and even blankets. Beyond the brightness of that stood a clean bar with four stools adorned with brilliantly colored cushions. At this bar Giselle only served tea, though occasionally coffee, and a variety of baked goods.
“Put philosophy and the pursuit of undeniable truth to the side for just a moment, Pierre.” Giselle said, setting a cup and saucer decorated with purple swirls in front of him. “There is very little that tea cannot fix.”
Pierre was silent for a moment as he sipped the tea, still holding the small gray book in his hand. He often felt a huge shift in life when he went from the bookstore to Giselle’s little shop. Paul thought of life on grand, deep, and unfathomable terms, and to Giselle life was simple and happy.
“Paul believes that truth and cheer are two entirely different things.” Pierre said, finishing his tea only to have her refill it. “What do you think?”
“I think you worry too much.” Her voice was strong and without hesitation. “Since you arrived here, all you’ve done is visit that little bookstore and sometimes come here for tea. I see this sort of desire in you for something more, but yet I don’t think you even know what that is. And truthfully, Pierre, life is much simpler than you’re making it out to be.” Giselle poured herself tea into an indigo colored cup and reached for the sugar. “I think the answers are closer than you realize.”
It had been a very long time since Pierre had traveled further up the road than Giselle’s shop. He stepped outside and continued walking, leaving the mashed buildings on their corner while he wound his way through the streets. He did not walk with purpose or direction, and yet was unsurprised when he found himself just outside the cathedral grounds.
St. Edward’s rose before him tall and grand, the building falling outwards from the tower that stood in the center. It was surrounded by a lawn of brilliant green grass, so brilliant it almost hurt his eyes, with a black rail fence marking the edge. The gates were always flung wide open, beckoning in the troubled soul. But Pierre had never walked past them. He had only ever stood at the gate, looking in. It was strange to think of when he remembered that this building was the reason he was even in this place to begin with.
He remembered vividly the day he’d seen the tower from the road, and had almost been magnetically pulled into town. He had come and stood just like this, right outside the gate, and stared at the building. Magnificent it surely was, and beautiful, but more than that, it was peaceful. That day as well as this day, Pierre had only to stand at the gates of the grounds to feel a peace so overwhelming it nearly knocked him over. And yet he’d never been able to understand this feeling, and had come to almost fear it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d allowed himself to get this close.
Once again he looked down at the faded gray book in his hands, turning it over to see both sides of the ragged cover. It didn’t even have a title anymore. Pierre tucked it inside his jacket and looked back up towards the cathedral. And then he took one step forward, and another, and yet another, until he found himself walking quietly through large doors and into a building that was both beautiful and frightening.
The very first thing he saw was the ceiling, highly arched above him and painted with circles depicting different saints. The knave seemed very long, stretching out before him towards the altar. For a moment, he nearly turned around and left. It was so large, and yet so full of something that he almost couldn’t endure it. But that was when the music began.
He could see nobody nearby, in fact at first he’d imagined he could hear his own breath echoing throughout the vastness, but yet organ music began filling every empty corner. And suddenly he couldn’t take all of it in quickly enough. Not the beautiful side chapels or places to light candles, or the monuments and statues.
He stood in awe at the sight of a courtyard which housed two magnificent trees one couldn’t see from the outside of the building. And yet they stretched their limbs and grew inside their perfect square of bright grass. They knew something he didn’t know, and Pierre acknowledged that with a serene sort of ache. It seemed hours before he could pry himself away from such a sight and enter back inside the main cathedral.
Above the altar rose three pointed arches, and beyond them three stained glass windows with hues so vividly blue it was nearly unbearable. He sat quietly in the very front row of chairs, hardly worthy to kneel before such a place. Though the organ music had now stopped, the essence of it seemed to still be breathing throughout the room. He could almost see it.
Several times he took the little gray book out of his jacket, turning it over and over in his hands, but never opening it. The book had certainly been well loved throughout the years, though was surprisingly intact. He finally tucked the book back inside his jacket one last time, looking beyond the altar to the sunlight pouring through the stained glass. He couldn’t make out the scene being portrayed in the glass, but the shadows it cast were stunning.
Pierre sat in this way for long moments, utterly absorbed in his thoughts and yet unable to think much of anything. He sensed, rather, that he was soaking everything in as he’d never been able to before. And he felt something, just where that ember had been this morning, so akin to joy he knew it must be that. He was so unfamiliar with such a feeling. It had always seemed too real to be safe.
After some time, Pierre finally stood, breaking his gaze with the altar and stained glass as he walked in a straight line back to the doors of the cathedral. His steps, though not hurried, made sure sounds against the stone floor. As he left the building he worried for just a moment that perhaps all of this might leave him once he’d passed the sanctuary of the gates, but it didn’t happen. He stopped for just a moment and stood where he had before, staring at the building before him and wondering how he could’ve never gone inside until now.
The streets greeted him some moments later, but they didn’t hurry him along. He had a view of the cathedral for a long while, each time he glanced back. Briefly he felt the shape of the book in his jacket and thought that he’d have to return it to Paul the next morning. Pierre turned to his right and began walking home then, just as he heard the cathedral bells ring twelve times.