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In an Absent Dream

the book In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire, surrounded by pencils, chalk, buttons, ribbons, twine, feathers, thread and a pencil sharpener

In 1962, Katherine Victoria Lundy turned six years old. She had a sister who was six years younger and a brother who was six years older and a mother who was busy with the baby and a father who was busy being principal of a school, but they were a good family who cared about each other. Katherine, never Kate or Kat or Kitty, did not have any friends because her classmates thought she would tattle on them to her father the principal. They thought she was a nerd, a teacher's pet, and, well, that's true, and Katherine was completely fine with it. She knew she would grow up to be a librarian because her favorite thing in the world to do was read and librarians get to be surrounded by books every single day. By eight years old, she had her entire life planned out. She was perfectly normal and perfectly remarkable, which set the rest of her life in motion.

On the last day of second grade, Katherine did not rush out of school like all the rest of the students, instead preferring to sit quietly and read, but her teacher was ready to begin her summer and ushered Katherine out of her book and out of her classroom. Katherine, nose back in her book, walked home down her usual path, but where she should have turned right, her feet inexplicably turned her left instead. She continued walking and reading until the leaves of a giant tree in the middle of her path blocked the light from her pages. When Katherine looked at the tree, she noticed it had a door, and on the door was a sign reading Be Sure. Katherine, sensible as always, was completely sure. She dropped her book and walked through the door. Hours later, everyone realized she was missing and not quietly reading in her room, and set out to search for her.

Katherine walked down a long, twisting hallway with an ornate rug on the floor and realized she must be inside someone's house, but turning around to leave, she found the door had disappeared. She meandered down the hallway and finally came upon cross-stitched signs framed on the walls containing Rules. Katherine always followed the rules. Rule one: Ask for nothing. Rule two: Names have power. Rule three: Always give fair value. Rule four: Take what is offered and be grateful. Rule five: Remember the curfew. Well, that's very confusing and doesn't make much sense at all. After reading the Rules, Katherine found another door and went through.

The other side of the door wasn't the path home, but instead it led to what looked like a carnival/market/craft fair all rolled into one, the Goblin Market, she would later learn. There were strange figures all around, not quite people, for some were fairies and some were giants and others were other things. As she stood gazing around, Katherine was approached by a girl with owl eyes and feathers in her hair. She told Katherine not to speak or ask anything but to come with her to see the Archivist. Katherine screamed, of course, but the owl girl, called Moon, stopped her and pulled her through the market to a shack housing the Archivist. The Archivist told Katherine that Rule one could be waived for the time being and that she could ask questions without needing to pay for them. Moon left and Katherine took the Archivist’s hand and traveled inside the shack.

The Archivist's shack was full of books, so we already know Katherine loved the place. The Archivist gave her permission to ask questions freely and tried to help her understand the rules. She also suggested that, since Rule two says that names have power, she should call herself something different that doesn't belong only to her. Katherine chose her last name, Lundy, and the Archivist told her she's not the first Lundy to come through the door. Lundy knew it was her father who came before, though she never thought he'd be the type. The Archivist also told Lundy that the doors to this place open several times, so she could come and go, but when she turned eighteen, the door wouldn't open any more. The Archivist, mostly sure that Lundy understood the rules and knew about fair value, not trading a sock when she could trade a single hair, for instance, sent her on her way to learn about the Goblin Market with Moon. Since she was allowed to ask anything of the Archivist on her first visit, Lundy asked to be able to come back and read her books. The Archivist agreed, with fair value being only that she cared for the books.

Moon and Lundy ran around the market and soon, Lundy realized Moon was playing with her, which is something that she never really experienced before. Moon offered to take debts for Lundy if she made a mistake and only if she would pay her back later, and Lundy agreed, not really knowing what she agreed to. The two ran around stalls until they approached one run by a unicorn centaur pie baker. Moon asked what Lundy had with her in her pockets, and she revealed two pencils, a quarter and a piece of chalk. Moon took the pencils and traded them for  meat and fruit pies, ten of each for both of them that they could retrieve in twos, which seemed to be a fair trade, especially when Lundy had a growling tummy. Pies eaten, Moon declared they would be good friends. 

Outside the Goblin Market, back through the door, eight days passed. Lundy’s mother was distraught and so was her brother and even her baby sister, but not her father. He knew what it was like through the doorway and knew the Goblin Market wouldn't keep his daughter on her first trip through the door. He remembered kisses he received when he was sixteen from a hind who knew he was leaving and not going to return even before he knew himself. When he saw his daughter walking home without her socks with feathers in her hair, he rushed out to hold her. She and Moon, and another, Mockery, fought the Wasp Queen to save the pomegranate fields, and she swore she would never return because Mockery died. She was lying, of course, and they both knew it.

When Lundy was ten, everyone, even her teachers, started treating her like a girl, like she was stupid and only interested in hairbrushes. During one particularly nasty encounter with her math teacher, Lundy left the classroom and found her door again. She returned to class to get her backpack, announced she vomited all over the bathroom and was leaving for the day, and went back through her door. She went to see Vincent, the unicorn centaur pie baker and traded three pencils and a pencil sharpener for a year's worth of pies for herself and Moon. It was hard for her to stop carrying things in threes, but she would need to learn that her friend Mockery was gone, dead, without fair value, but death is never fair. 

Lundy went to the Archivist who told her she's no longer protected as she was with her first visit, but Lundy had been practicing asking questions without really asking for two years and felt prepared. The Archivist told her where she could find Moon with a warning that things have changed since she left. Lundy found Moon by a stream, looking more owl like than before. Without Lundy and Mockery, Moon took on more debts than she should have and now had a beak instead of a mouth and fingers long like wings. Lundy offered Moon pies, paying off one of the debts she owed her, which made her beak return to a mouth. Lundy then offered to take another one of her debts. The reunited friends held hands and soon, Lundy's fingernails grew long like talons while Moon’s shrank back, closer to normal, but not quite there yet.

That night, Lundy went back to the Archivist who traded her a safe place to sleep if she would organize her books, which was a very fair trade. Lundy asked about Moon’s debts and The Archivist suggested they visit an old man who does all the laundry and offer to help him, so they did the next morning. By the end of the day, Lundy no longer had talons and Moon was more like a girl than she had been in a long time. Later, the Archivist explained to Lundy that the Market itself knew fair value and that sometimes it helped people who needed it and sometimes it did not. Greedy people, in the beginning, turned into birds, and now, if you weren't able to pay your debts, you became a bird, too, which was what was happening to Moon. 

The next day, Lundy decided she needed a bath, and her nose decided Moon needed one, so, after offering to pay, Moon went with Lundy to a bathhouse. Lundy began to understand why Moon had so many debts after she wouldn't take a bath unless someone else paid for her. It seemed Moon didn't like to do difficult things or things she didn't want to even if the cost was simple. Luckily Lundy brought her backpack full of treasures like buttons and thread and pencils and was fine with Moon paying her back later by showing her where the best berries grew. They bathed and decided that they'd be friends forever and that Lundy would never leave again, but again, she knew it was a lie.

Lundy returned through her door with battle scars and leather-wrapped fingers and lots of feathers in her hair for promises that she never intended to break and would have to pay back when she returned to the Goblin Market. She only meant to go home long enough to gather new things to barter with, but she saw her bed and thought a small nap wouldn't hurt. It did, though. The next day, her father plucked each of the feathers from her hair and then sent her to a boarding school for “troubled girls” where she would never be alone long enough to find her door again. A couple of years passed and Lundy, with fully grown eagle feathers growing down her neck where the downy soft baby feathers used to be, again found her door. 

Lundy, now almost thirteen, almost felt a little lost when she went into the Market in the dark. Some things were still the same, some things were different, and she was different, too. She knew the Archivist would be in her shack, so she took off running and the Archivist met her with open arms. Lundy asked about Moon, but the Archivist shook her head. After Lundy left again and was gone for years, Moon stopped believing in fair trade and became an owl, but Lundy still wanted to save her friend. The Archivist gave her permission to sleep in her shack like always, but Lundy would have to work harder at organizing her books the next day after she'd had proper sleep, a proper meal, and proper time to think about Moon.

The next day, after she visited with Vincent the unicorn centaur pie baker and traded more pencils for pies, Lundy ate and searched for a tent the Archivist told her about where she would be able to pay off Moon’s debts. Inside the tent was… the Archivist. They talked of fair value and how it was different for everyone and, though she offered everything in her bag to pay for Moon to become human again, the Archivist told her it wasn't enough. After turning Moon back, there would be one more cost. Lundy would lose her friendship with Moon because Moon would never see them as equals again. Lundy took that risk, gambling that it wouldn't happen. If it didn't, if they stayed friends for one year, then Lundy would take on Moon's debt in a different way. She would become a bird. Regardless of the possibilities, losing a friend or losing herself, Lundy had to save Moon because it was fair value.

Lundy ran through the wood to find Moon and she spotted her, up in a tree as an owl but losing feathers fast. She fell down from the tree but Lundy was there to catch her. Moon asked about owing her, but Lundy told her all was forgiven, and they laughed and ran off together, still best friends. Lundy began spending more time with the Archivist which made Moon a little jealous, but she soon started working as an apprentice to Vincent and made great pies and earned extra pies and payment. They each took on small debts here and there and sometimes had feathers and sometimes had beaks, but they remained human, and they remained friends. An entire year passed without Lundy realizing it and, when Moon went out to work with Vincent, the Archivist called Lundy to her arm and she flew there as a bird. She would have to work very hard to become human again.

Another year passed and Lundy gathered berries and game and did errands for shop owners in the market and she finally bought her way back to being human. Before staying forever, Lundy decided she had to go back home one last time to say goodbye to her family, so she traveled back through the door and along not so familiar streets to her childhood home. Her father answered the door when she knocked and she told him she would be going back to the market for good, but she had to say goodbye. He made her feel terrible for leaving and let her know that her mother cried herself to sleep every night because of her. Her mother joined them then and slapped Lundy, so upset at her for leaving. Lundy told her father that he didn't offer her fair value for her life, sending her away to boarding school to keep her from leaving again instead of keeping her there himself. He countered that it would only be fair value if she stayed home with them for a year, hoping to convince her to change her mind. 

Lundy's father did all the paperwork required to enroll her in school, most faked from the time she was meant to be at the boarding school, but instead of wishing her well, he insisted she not be an embarrassment. Lundy told her father if he went back on her bargain, if he didn't give her fair value for her year, or if he tried to do anything that would force her to stay, she would leave without a second thought. He responded that the market preys on children and wouldn't try to keep her unless it wanted something from her. Everything he said made her want to leave even more.

But she stayed. She stayed for a year, not for her father or mother, but for Diana, her little sister, who wasn't so little anymore. Diana wanted her sister to stay, to see her grow up, to talk about boys, and so Lundy stayed. She went through the door again at sixteen, but Diana’s birthday was in a week, and she promised to go back to be there for it. Moon was upset and stormed off, but the Archivist only reminded Lundy that her time to choose was running short. Lundy said she was sure, and she would be back, but then she went back through the door to her sister.

Lundy returned to the Goblin Market three more times but always came back to Diana, who always had something else she wanted Lundy to stay for. When it was finally time for Lundy to go, her eighteenth birthday growing ever closer, Lundy explained to Diana that she never saw herself growing old in their world and that nothing seemed right there, so she was leaving for the Market and not coming back. Diana said she wanted Lundy to see her go to high school and wanted her to be her sister. Lundy gathered her belongings and ran for the Market. 

She went to see the Archivist and told her she didn't want to turn eighteen, so she would give all the things she brought with her if only she could have something that would make her not reach the age where she had to agree to stay in one place or the other. The Archivist took Lundy’s belongings and gave her a crystal of potion, but tried to warn her before she drank it. Lundy didn't listen to the Archivist’s warnings and drank, but if she had only listened... The Archivist told Lundy that wanting to be in both places wasn’t giving fair value and, though now she would never turn eighteen, she was banished from the Goblin Market. Lundy ran back home even though she was sure she wanted to stay.

Many years later, in 1990, Eleanor West visited Lundy's home after receiving a letter from a much older Diana whose son disappeared just like her older sister did. Her sister, though, didn't get older too, but instead, she grew younger. A fourteen year old Lundy answered the door and looked at Eleanor with much older eyes. Eleanor introduced herself to the old teenager and together they left through the door, not to the Goblin Market, but to Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children.

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