A Doomsday Book for Queen Mab – Entry #16
A census taker travels the length and breadth of the British Isles to survey the land’s supernatural inhabitants.
(I’ve decided to do a series of short vignettes inspired by the December 2012 prompts from the International Story a Day Group. Mostly to keep myself regularly writing and posting in this blog. This is based on the December 16 prompt “Urchins to Urchins”.)
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They were supposed to retrieve the package at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe located at the Fisherman’s Wharf in Westcliff-on-Sea. But when they arrived at the wharf, they did not find the shop at the address that the director had given them. Instead of the curiosity shop, the blue and white painted building at the site of the address housed something called The Giant Clam.
“It looks like a restaurant,” said the kelpie.
“Or perhaps the curiosity shop changed its name,” the census taker replied. “We should go in and ask to make sure.”
But once they entered the shop, it was quite clear that it was not Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe renamed. Nor was it a restaurant. Instead, it was some kind of specialty pet shop filled with aquariums of angelfish, pufferfish, blennies, dartfish, eels, gobies, seahorses, and all sorts of other marine species. At the far end of the shop, beside a tank filled with dark purple sea urchins was an enormous pool of seawater which housed the eponymous giant clam, encrusted with algae and barnacles. Very foreign magic faintly leaked out of the clam’s tank, perfuming the air with the scent of the sea during a storm. The proprietor was nowhere to be seen.
“Perhaps the director gave us the wrong address.”
The census taker had to reluctantly concede that he was correct. “I will have to give him a call. He will not be happy about this development. He seemed rather keen that this package we’re supposed to pick up will be essential in getting our next appointment to cooperate.”
“The director may be a prissy fancy pants, but I’m thinking that he has a valid reason in thinking that. Especially after what he told us happened to the last census taker who tried to gather information from the appointment.” The kelpie shuddered. “What makes him think that we’ll be able to handle this better than Mr. Beedle who apparently already had one hundred and fifty years of experience under his belt?”
The census taker shrugged. “Maybe he thinks since we haven’t been doing this as long, we’ll be able to think outside the box. And that since we’re water creatures, we’ll be able to handle it successfully. Mr. Beedle was some sort of gnome, I think. The director seemed to think that if Mr. Beedle even knew how to swim, he would have had a fighting chance.”
The sound of footsteps had them turning around to see a young woman of Asian extraction coming out of the back room hauling a large white plastic bucket. She seemed rather unremarkable in her appearance. She wore jeans and a light blue sweater. Her black hair was pulled up in a ponytail. She spotted them almost immediately and greeted them as she neared the tank with the giant clam. There was a slight golden sheen to her brown eyes which one could have contributed to a trick of the light. But there was no mistaking her sharp white teeth when she smiled.
“Hello. How may I help you?” Her accent had the cadence of someone educated at a public school.
“We’re looking for a curiosity shop,” said the census taker. “We were given this address. Do you know if there used to be a curiosity shop here or that we simply got the wrong address?”
“Oh, you mean Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe? The one owned by Donald McMurphy?”
“Yes. We were supposed to meet him.”
The pet shop owner shook her head. “You’re at the right address, then. There used to be a curiosity shop here, but Donald McMurphy decided to retire to Tahiti and sold the property to me a month ago. I decided to convert it into this.”
“You don’t happen to be from the census bureau, do you?”
“We are,” said the kelpie, eyes narrowing. “How do you know that?”
“Mr. McMurphy told me somebody from the census bureau might be coming by in the next couple of months.” The pet shop owner hefted up the white plastic bucket and poured its contents into the tank containing the sea urchins. Sea cucumbers, mussels, brittle stars, and sponges tumbled into the water. In response, the sea urchins began moving towards all the new creatures piled up in their tank. “He also had something for you. If you could wait a moment, I’ll get it for you.”
“Yes, of course,” said the census taker.
The pet shop owner took her empty container back to the employees section of the building. Meanwhile, the census taker and her assistant waited. But they could not help glancing into the tank with the sea urchins. The prickly creatures were moving remarkably fast. A couple of them had reached a hapless brittle star and had started devouring it in their characteristic voracious manner.
“What terrible manners,” remarked the census taker.
Her companion replied, “It’s making me hungry.”
“But you ate just half an hour ago! I distinctly remember you eating an entire packet of spicy almonds.”
“It was just one package.”
The magical command vibrated throughout the building. In response, the fish in the tanks huddled together in corners. The sea urchins momentarily stopped munching. And the census taker and her assistant froze before slowly turning toward the tank with the large clam. The sedentary creature did not appear to have moved from its previous position.
“What was that?” whispered the census taker. The kelpie only frowned.
The pet store owner soon arrived with a rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and twine. There was no writing on the outside except for two runes scrawled in ballpoint pen. “Donald McMurphy said that this would be for you. I have no idea what it is, but then again, with symbols for ‘water’ and ‘death’ written on it, I’m not sure I really want to know what’s inside.” She handed the package to the census taker.
Another wave of magic swept through the shop, making everyone’s hair stand on end. After a second, the pet store owner unfroze from her paralysis and leaned down towards the giant clam’s tank and whispered something. The clam replied by letting out a stream of bubbles into the water. The pet store owner straightened up and motioned for them to follow her towards the front door of the shop. The three of them stepped outside.
“Sorry about that,” the pet shop owner told them. “Grandfather gets really cranky when his afternoon nap is disturbed.”
“Grandfather?” repeated the census taker. “Is he enchanted or something?”
“If he’s enchanted,” added the kelpie, “we know some people who might be able to help him.”
The pet shop owner looked at them for a moment before breaking out into a chuckle. “Enchanted? Oh no. Grandfather just likes being a clam. You’re just lucky he’s not truly mad. Otherwise, you’d wish you were struck by lightning instead.”
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Additional note: “Mo cho” is Cantonese for “Be quiet”.