The Shelf, And What Happened There

Mercury is a cookie. She is tall and gorgeous. Her hair is long and flows down her side. Her primary ingredients are whole grain rolled oats, brown sugar, and coconut. She’s a lot like a gingerbread man, but she’s prettier and has less ginger.

She cools on a pan for a while. Then Emma, who is five, picks Mercury up and puts her on a shelf next to the other cookies.

“You stay,” Emma says. “Talk to other cookies! If you have to go outside, tell Mommy first. That’s the rule!” Then Emma leaves.

“Hi,” Mercury says to the other cookies.

On the shelf, there’s a rabbit, and a dashing pirate, and a wolf, and a faceless man. All of them are cookies. All of them say “Hi,” except for the faceless man. He doesn’t have a mouth, so he doesn’t say anything.

“I’m a cookie,” Mercury explains. “I just cooled.”

“Welcome,” says the pirate. “We’re telling stories. Do you want to join in?”

“I’d better listen first,” she says. “I’ve never told a story before.”

“I bet you’ll do fine,” says the pirate. Even his voice is dashing. It brightens Mercury’s heart. “But you can have a turn after the wolf.”

“Okay,” Mercury agrees.

The rabbit says, “There’s a place. Very far from here.”

“How do you know?” asks the wolf.

“An angel told me.” The rabbit makes a throat-clearing noise, and continues:

There’s a place that’s white and cold and its sky is dark. It hangs high above the world. It looks down on the Earth. My people live there: not just one, not just ten, but thousands. Thousands of rabbits, their fur white with frost. The enemy cannot find them there. So they live in peace. There are plenty of things for them to enjoy. There’s one there whose heart is one with mine. She waits for me. She doesn’t care how long. She looks down at the Earth; and waits; and loves me.

“Ah,” says the wolf. “That’s very fine.”

“What’s love?” Mercury asks.

“I don’t know,” says the rabbit. “Not really. But when the angel said it, it meant something to me.” The rabbit coughs. “It’s your turn, pirate.”

The pirate thinks. “In the morning,” he says, “I’ll set sail.”

“How do you know?” asks the rabbit.

“Some things you just know,” he says. His voice shares both a sadness and a quiet joy. “It’s like this:”

In the morning, I’ll set sail. I’ll go to a faraway place. I’ll fight many battles. I’ll be a hero. Everyone will admire me. But you can’t be a hero forever. Someday, someone will get in a lucky blow. I’ll crumble. I’ll die. That’s okay. Whoever kills me, they’ll give me back to the sea. And my life will have meant something.

The rabbit thinks. “You’re lucky,” he says. “To know all that.”

“I suppose,” agrees the pirate. “But it’s sad that I won’t have someone to mourn me.”

“I’ll mourn you,” says Mercury, impulsively. “I’ll think of the sea, and say, ‘goodbye.'”

The pirate laughs. “See? A happy ending. But it’s the wolf’s turn.”

The wolf considers. “I could live,” she says.

The faceless man makes a noise.

“I could,” says the wolf. “It’s part of what a wolf is. Listen:”

This is what it means to be a wolf. This is the promise written in our bones. If we’re fast, if we’re smart, if we’re strong. If our senses are sharp and our footfalls soft, we’ll live. There’s always meat for a wolf, if we dare to find it. There’s always water. There’s always warmth. Some don’t make it. Some die. They get sick. They get killed. They go lame. But if you’re strong, if you’re fast, if you’re smart, you’ll live. That’s the only story wolves know. It’s the only one we need.

The faceless man makes another noise.

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough,” says the wolf. “So I don’t know if I’ll live. But I won’t give up. I’m a wolf.”

Mercury says, “You’re very brave.”

“Not brave,” says the wolf. “Just me. It’s your turn.”

“I’m made of oats,” says Mercury. “I was baked in the oven.” She thinks. “That wasn’t a very good story, was it?”

The pirate laughs. “You’ll tell a better one tomorrow,” he says. “It takes a little practice.”

Emma comes into the room. “Wuf!” she says. She picks up the wolf. She gnaws on the wolf’s ear. She leaves the room.

Mercury makes a startled noise. “Hey.”

“Ah,” says the pirate. “I wouldn’t have thought it’d be her, next.”

“What happened to the wolf?”

“She’s gone to war.”

“War?”

“It’s why we’re here,” says the pirate. “We’re waiting, to go to war. We’ll fight back the enemy. To protect everyone else.”

“Oh,” says Mercury, feeling a little stupid. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay,” says the pirate. “A lot of us get confused after baking. I’m sure you’ll be a fine soldier. But you have to live longer than I do, to mourn me.”

“And go home,” agrees the rabbit. “I don’t know if your home is like mine, but you should go to it. Afterwards. You seem nice.”

“I don’t have a home,” Mercury says. “Just you.”

“Then you should visit, afterwards,” says the pirate. “Visit the rabbit on the moon. Make a grave for me, down by the sea. See if the wolf survived.”

The faceless man makes a noise.

“You could visit the faceless man, too,” the pirate adds. “He’s the best of us, you know.”

“I will,” Mercury promises. “But oh, I’d rather if you lived too.”

“Ah, lass,” says the pirate. “It’s not such a world as that.”

Night falls. For a time, the cookies are silent. Mercury passes into dreams and visions. When she wakes up, there’s a tiny angel sitting next to her on the shelf. The angel’s not a cookie. She’s a girl. She’s got wings sticking out through holes in her jacket. Above the wings, the back of her jacket reads Magic.

“Hi,” says Mercury.

“Hi,” says the angel. “It’s the first dawn of your life, so you get a wish.”

“I wish I could be with the pirate when he dies,” says Mercury.

The angel dangles her feet off the shelf. “Wouldn’t you rather save him?”

“If I save his life, he might die again,” says Mercury. “But if I’m with him when he dies, he’ll know he’s remembered.”

“That’s sweet,” says the angel. “So I’ll see what I can do.” The angel sparkles and vanishes.

Slowly, the other cookies wake.

“Good morning, Mercury,” says the pirate. “Do you understand stories better after a good night’s rest?”

“I think so,” says Mercury. “I have a people, too. Like the rabbit.”

“How do you know?” asks the pirate.

“Because I’m alive, and someday I’ll be dead,” she says. “And in the meantime, this is how it must be:”

I have a people, in a faraway place. They don’t know the kinds of things I’ll have to do. They don’t know what it’s like at war. But they’ll know I’m fighting for them. There’s a boy in a field, and he looks up. He remembers that we’re fighting. There’s a lady in a school, and she looks up. She remembers that we’re fighting. All my people. Not often. But sometimes. They stop, and they remember.

“Mm,” says the pirate. “I think you’ve got it.”

“Thanks,” says Mercury.

Emma comes into the room. “Pirate!” She picks up the pirate. Then she looks at Mercury. She thinks. There’s an angel on one of her shoulders. There’s a devil on the other. For once, and Emma finds this very strange, they’re both saying the same thing.

“TWO cookies,” Emma says, happily. She picks Mercury up. Then, a cookie in each hand, she leaves the room.

Leave a Reply