a certain modest extent. Beyond a certain threshold of comfort and security, more money doesn’t make people any happier. Having children doesn’t make people happier, either, oddly enough, quite the opposite. I was going to suggest you consider motherhood or adoption, that seemed obvious since everyone says children are a joy, but they simply aren’t. Children do seem to cause transcendent highs that are more memorable than the more consistent negative feelings, but the little darlings are a terrible drag on what you’d call the baseline level. Being surrounded by friends and family is supposed to be immensely helpful—but I have nothing here that can give you those.”

She nodded. “I know. I know all that. And everyone agrees constant happiness isn’t possible anyway, there’s no such thing as constant joy, I understand that. Happiness at its best would be a sort of, I don’t know, dynamic equilibrium, with ups and downs, sure, but the baseline should be pretty damned good, that’s all I want. I can live with highs and lows, there’s no avoiding them, but—”

“Well,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“Say what?”

“That you can’t avoid the highs and lows, and exist in a state of constant happiness. You can, of course.”


He shrugged. “Become a lotus eater. From The Odyssey, you know, Odysseus finds an island full of people who only eat flowers… no? Let’s see, I used to know a bit of it by heart, my own translation, so forgive any awkwardness: ‘My crewmen went among the lotus-eaters, who did them no harm, but bid them eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that all who tasted it gave up all thoughts of home, and would not even return to tell the others on the ship, but instead sat eating of the lotus, and were content.’ Perfect happiness. Odysseus saw it as a drug, you know, horribly addictive, but in my studies the lotus isn’t like that, nothing like heroin or cocaine. You can choose to eat it, or not, but if you do…” He spread out his hands. “Happiness. I didn’t think of it before because it didn’t seem right for you, too passive, but…”

“It’s hard to imagine how I’d accidentally kill anyone by eating flowers,” she said. “Let’s give it a try.”

“I keep it here.” He had a small porcelain pot on the counter, and inside it, a small plant of a delicate green with a single pure white flower on top, with half a dozen petals. “I keep it nearby. Not to eat—I wouldn’t be much good to my customers, I don’t think, if I ate the lotus—but the scent is lovely, too.”

“So I just…eat the petals?”

“One at a time,” Mr. Grinde admonished. “Too many and you’ll simply sleep, I think.”

“Sleep is good for hiding from misery, but I think it would be an obstacle to real happiness.”

“Quite,” he said, and bid her good day.

* * *

It didn’t take her long to return. He’d barely filled two pages of his inventory ledger before the bell over the door rang again. This time, the bleating of goats wafted in after her, and he saw a slice of green hillsides sparsely dotted with scraggly trees. She had a little cardboard cake box, which, he was sure, held the lotus flower in its pot. Ms. Stuart handed him the plant without a word.

“Always a pleasure to see you,” he said, and it was. His loneliness had been such a fundamental part of his existence that he’d never noticed it until her repeat arrivals had dispelled it. He’d secretly hoped she’d return, for the conversation alone. There were a few things in the shop that could talk—magic mirrors, at least one sword, a brass-and-clockwork head—but they were variously flatterers, psychotics, and outrageous liars, and he’d stopped talking to them years before he’d stopped talking to himself. “Though I regret what your arrival signifies. Before we move on the issue of an exchange, if I may ask… How do you keep finding your way back here? I’ve seldom had exchanges before, and I think you’re the only person to ever pass through that door more than twice. That is no reflection on you—the failure is mine for not understanding your needs properly—but I’m curious. I know how you found my shop the first time, you were given the address by a man who, hmm, had store credit he could pass on, you might say—a man who once brought me something I chose to add to my inventory. But you’ve made it back twice since, without directions. How?”

She shrugged. “It’s strange. It’s like I just remember the way back, but it’s a different way back I remember, each time. This time I remembered that I had to take a plane, then another plane, then a much smaller plane, then a dirty bus stuffed with people and their chickens, and then a long walk, and right around the curve in the road I anticipated, just where I expected—here you were.”

“Extraordinary. So tell me. How have we failed this time?”

* * *

She went home with the lotus flower in its little pot, and put it on a small table where it could catch the shaft of sunlight that slanted down between her building and the building next door to pierce her window. The flower seemed to glow, faintly, with an inner radiance. After looking at the flower for a while, and weighing her inner state—troubled, churning, turmoiled—she plucked one of the petals, opened her mouth, and placed it on her tongue. The flower dissolved, gently, with a flavor like vanilla-scented moonlight…and she was happy. All her anxieties drifted away. She sat on her couch and contemplated the flower until the light faded, and then she contemplated the dark. The sensation was not a high, not in the sense of being a stimulant, anyway; it was a pure euphoric. She sat on the couch all night, and when the sun rose, the lotus flower was no longer missing a blossom, having replenished itself in the night. She wasn’t hungry, or thirsty. The flower sustained her utterly.

So she plucked another petal, and ate it, and sat on the couch, and simply experienced bliss.

* * *

“Not much else to tell,” she said. “I did that maybe forty times. And then, one morning I didn’t eat the flower petal. Didn’t feel any particular craving for it afterward, either, not even psychologically—you’re right, it’s not addictive, doesn’t seem much like a drug, except in all the ways it does.”

“Mmm. Why did you give up being a lotus eater?”

“The happiness…it was all very well, you know, but every day was the same. I woke up smiling; sat there smiling; fell asleep smiling. There were no highs or lows, and when everything is a source of wonder, when your own plain white walls are as amazing as sunrises or shooting stars or ocean waves, it’s like nothing is amazing. And there was a moment every morning, just before I ate the next petal, when the happiness would ebb, just slightly, just a fraction, the effects wearing off, and in that moment, I couldn’t silence this little voice in the back of my head whispering that it was all pointless, that it was a cheat, that to be happy you have to do something, not just be. Otherwise you might as well be, I don’t know, a barnacle on a ship, or lichen on a rock. Is lichen happy? I don’t know. Maybe it’s content. But that’s not happiness. The lotus…it felt like a delusion.”

“Studies show that realists are unhappy,” Mr. Grinde said. “The happiest people wander around in a state of delusion and denial.”

“I just don’t have the right turn of mind to be that delusional,” she said. “I’ll have to try to find happiness in spite of my realism. So what else have you got?”

While he’d hoped she wouldn’t need another exchange—though it was lovely to see her, failure rankled—he’d nevertheless prepared for the possibility that she might return.

“Some poets and philosophers say the path to happiness is to live a life of tranquility and reflection in harmony with nature. How does that sound to you?”

“I think I’ve had enough quiet contemplation.”

“No, no. You’ve had…emptiness. Which many strive for, and I’m sure it has its virtues, but it’s not for you. No, this would be a chance to get to know your own mind, to understand yourself in the context of the natural world, to engage with a land of beauty and wonder, not to merely sit gazing at nothing.”

“Okay. I see the distinction. But I’m a city girl, Mr. Grinde. I never spent much time in nature. I think I’d starve to death, or get liver flukes from drinking out of a polluted stream, or eat the poison berries, or run afoul of a bear.”

He held up a finger. “Ah. But what if I told you I could send you to a perfect sort of nature, an idealized nature, a place where every stream is clear and clean, where the trees hang heavy with fruit, where the rains are gentle. Would that sound appealing?”

“Some time to myself. I could use that. What do you have to offer?”

“It’s here somewhere…” They walked deeper into the shop, to an area lined with aquariums and terrariums full of plants and animals, including tiny winged serpents, wise frogs, and venomous caterpillars. One tank, covered entirely in sheets of aluminum foil, held a basilisk, and he remembered the beast needed feeding. He had a collection of stone animals he could slip into the cage, and the gaze of the basilisk would turn the stone creatures

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