Like most accidents, this one happened in slow motion: Sharra could only watch as her cat, Pumpkin, tightening his haunches and wiggling his rear, fixed his gaze on the usually-empty cart. That cart was now full of the glass bottles she’d moved carefully from the shelves for her weekly dusting. Large and small, frosty white and brightly colored, sturdy and delicate as spun sugar, all of them swirled with inner light. Her cries of “Pumpkin, no!” accompanied too-slow movements as he launched himself.
Bottles of dreams clattered against each other as they tumbled to the carpeted floor.
“Foolish beast,” Sharra scolded, though it was more her fault than his. Fortunately, they all seemed intact… No. As she knelt to gather the bottles, the sticky-sweet smell of overripe plums tickled her nose. “Oh, dear. Which one…”
It came from a plain, narrow bottle, now shattered, and vapors shimmered as they dissipated into the air. It looked too small to hold such a powerful dream.
Sharra sighed. Her shop hadn’t suffered such an accident in years, but she knew her duty. Fingering the tag at the bottle’s neck, she prepared to make a visit.
The dream’s owner lived in a plain, tidy house in a plain, tidy row in the merchant’s quarter. The house, like the bottle, was too dull for the dream within. A man answered the door, mustache puffed out in suspicion. “What do you want? Now’s not a good time for visitors.”
From within the house, Sharra heard singing, rushed and breathless, as if the singer had a thousand songs pent up and too little time to sing them all.
“I’m sorry to intrude, Friend Ardure. I’m here to see your wife, Celette.”
He made to close the door, but Sharra put out a hand. “I’m here from the capturey. We had an accident this morning, I’m afraid, and—”
“Oh. I see.” His face darkened. “Come in.”
The husband and wife were all contrasts: where Tiel Ardure was blocky and scowling, Celette Ardure was taller, pale, so thin she might have been pressed between the crisp linens Sharra spied half-finished in the back room. The woman had pressed herself away to nothingness.
“I knew something happened,” Celette said, clasping one hand at the hollow of her throat, after Sharra explained. “I was working, then suddenly all I wanted was to sing. I haven’t felt like singing in years.”
“And she hasn’t stopped since,” said Tiel. “You’re here to take it away again?”
“I’m deeply sorry. Captures should never be released so abruptly; I know it’s unsettling to regain dreams without warning. But a dream can only be captured once. I can’t take it back.”
“Then find another way,” Tiel growled. “She’s so distracted by song, she can’t even get the washing done. And she’s spouting foolishness about leaving, taking music lessons at the guild. At her age! You must make this right.”
Celette pressed her fingers to her lips, as if holding back the saddest song imaginable.
“Yes, I’ll fix it,” said Sharra.
Away from her home—and her husband—Celette became more animated. She hummed as Sharra led her into the capturey.
“So you used to dream of being a singer.”
“I dreamed of making all kinds of music. Other things, too. It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten half of them.” She laughed, high-pitched, decrying the foolishness of her dreams.
“Not forgotten. Preserved,” said Sharra.
Shelves lined the storeroom floor to ceiling, full of glimmering bottles. Dreams could fade if they were buried in a heart too long—but stored here, they remained fresh until the owner returned for them. If they returned. She gestured at Celette’s section of the shelves. “You had many dreams, once upon a time.”
“So many,” Celette breathed. Her fingers trailed gently over the glass bottles, all decades old, ink faded on the labels. “I wanted to travel, to study. To… fall in love.” She shut her eyes. “I had to put it aside until Tiel’s business was steadier. Then until the children were grown. I had to. Tiel needed me. And then… then it was too late.”
Pumpkin rubbed against Celette’s ankles, and the woman reached down to scratch his head. Though he was a menace to the capturey’s bottles, Sharra kept him around for moments of feline intuition like this. Celette looked up and asked: “Is it too late?”
Sharra had answered that question many times over the decades. “Never.”
“Then…” Her hand hovered for a long, long moment, then closed firmly around the nearest bottle, labeled seeing a place no one in my family has seen. “I’d like to take all of these. And there’s one thing I’d like to leave here.”
Sharra packed up the bottles, cushioned by straw, and told Celette to open them carefully, one at a time. To prepare herself before each one. Then she sat Celette down in the capture chair and placed the familiar silver mask over her face, its tube attached to a bottle of black glass.
“Breathe,” she reminded, though Celette knew the process well. “Focus very specifically on what you want to give up, then breathe it out. Let your breath carry it away.” This dream smelled sour coming out: long past ripe and turning to vinegar.
Celette left the shop smiling, already more vibrant. Sharra smiled too as she labeled the bottle and set it, all on its own, in the middle of the now-empty shelf.
Jo Miles writes optimistic science fiction and fantasy, and has stories in Strange Horizons, Analog, Nature, and more. You can find Jo online at www.jomiles.com and on Twitter as @josmiles. They live in Maryland, where they are owned by two cats.