In City of Stories, we travel to the magical city of Verily, where every brick, stone, and column is an individual story. In Verily, a young girl named Lily Marie seeks the truth about her father in the hope that it will help her build a story of her own.
About the Author
Abigail Anklam is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore and the 2018 recipient of the M.F.A. program’s Plork Award. The Plork Award honors a graduate student whose work best exemplifies creativity, energy and personal achievement in the integration of creative writing and book design. The word Plork comes from the idea that creativity is a combination of play and work.
Abigail is the author and illustrator of According to Their Kinds, a collection of short stories inspired by her love of animals and travel. Learn more about Abigail’s work at her website: abigailanklam.com
City of Stories by Abigail Anklam
I found my name on the streets of Verily, where every brick is a story.
Lily Marie Oates was my original name back when it was just the two of us, Mama and me.
“Who is Mr. Oates?” I asked Mama, when I was old enough to understand these things.
“That’s Granddad,” Mama said.
“But he’s your dad. Don’t I have a dad?”
“You will soon, pumpkin.
She was right. Mr. Lee had started hanging around a lot, cooking dinner for us and bringing us presents, like baskets of peaches and concert tickets. She married him when I was in third grade, and he adopted me. My name changed to Lily Lee. Isn’t that the worst?
Still, I must’ve had a real father—everyone does—and I wondered about him a lot. I imagined mine was tall and handsome with a heroic but troubled past. I thought he must have died because otherwise, he’d still be here.
The next time Father's Day came around, I asked Mama, “Who is my father?”
Mr. Lee frowned when he heard me, and I realized I should have waited until he was out of the room.
“Don’t be silly,” Mama said. “Go hug your Dad.”
I said, “Happy Father's Day,” to Mr. Lee, and I hugged him, but it was a stiff and clumsy hug.
Then, in sixth grade, my class went on a field trip to the Capitol Building in Verily. It’s said that every story ever lived can be found on the streets of our capital city because Verily was built with stories. Each brick, each beam, and each pane of glass was crafted by Verilyn artisans using secret narrative techniques. The Capitol Building itself was built from the purest narrative, and it shines with the light of growth, wisdom, and redemption. We learned all of this on our tour.
Inside the luminous rotunda, the tour guide instructed each of us to touch one of the marble floor tiles. When I touched one with my bare fingertips, an ancient story appeared, whole and clear in my mind, of an inexperienced militia defeating a vast army of skilled warriors. It was an edifying tale of faith and cooperation, and I knew every detail in an instant: the faces of the men, the weapons they carried, how they attacked at night using torches and noise to confuse the enemy.
While the other students talked about the stories, I slipped off my shoes and socks and ran barefoot across the gleaming floor, wanting to touch as many stories as possible. Before I’d crossed even half of the rotunda, I stumbled to a stop. My mind's eye swam with characters and settings fighting for space in my brain. My head buzzed, and my mind swirled with lofty words and feelings: integrity, honor, loyalty, enlightenment, and respect. It was an ecstasy and a burden, and I collapsed to the floor.
The tour guide brought me my shoes and escorted me to the water fountain for a drink. “It’s a rush, isn’t it?” she said. “You’d better take it easy now.”
I didn’t follow her advice. Discreetly, I touched bricks, windowsills, columns, whatever I could reach, and I learned the foundational stories of the country. It was the finest feeling, touching the stories, and I couldn’t understand why the politicians went about with gloves on, careful not to feel a thing.
That summer, between sixth and seventh grade, I convinced Mama to let me stay with Mr. Lee’s sister in Verily. I wanted to explore the city not only because I liked the stories, but because I believed the legend: Verily was built from every story ever lived, and if I looked hard enough, I would find my father.
For nearly six weeks I searched, touching hundreds of stories each day and hoping that the ones I needed weren’t too high for me to reach. I didn’t recognize my father the first time I saw him. How could I? But I found him eventually. His stories were in a derelict part of town, where the bricks were crumbly and the windowpanes cloudy. I saw him losing his dog as a child, losing his mother to a drug overdose, and losing his best friend in a car accident. Then I saw him with my mother and finally knew him.
His name is Frank Castle. He looks like me—our smiles are the same.
Frank Castle loved my mother, and she loved him. When Mama got pregnant with me, Frank Castle wanted to marry her and be my father.
He placed his hand on Mama’s belly and asked, “Have you picked out a name?”
Mama shook her head, frowning.
Frank Castle sort of smiled. “What would you call a boy?”
“I like James for a boy. After our fathers.”
“And a girl?”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” Mama said. “I haven’t even decided if I’ll keep it.”
“I like Marie for a girl,” Frank Castle said. “After your grandmother.”
Mama’s face softened, and she said, “Grandma would’ve liked that.”
But, like an idiot, Frank Castle got another girl pregnant too. The other girl’s family had money, and her father was a senator. They forced him to marry the other girl. He didn’t have a choice, not if the story was true, and it had to be true.
For his entire life, he lost every single thing he loved the most.
He lost me, too.
When I came home, Mama met me at the train station. “I want you to call me Marie,” I said right away.
“If you like,” she said. “Why?”
“Marie was almost my first name, wasn’t it?”
Mama frowned. “Yes,” she said, nibbling her bottom lip thoughtfully. “Who told you that?”
“I want my name to be Marie Castle,” I said, with all of the authority I could muster.
Mama’s eyes widened. “Oh, pumpkin.” She gathered me into a hug, as if she knew how hard I’d looked to find that name, as if she knew before I did that I was about to cry.
We talked about Frank Castle for the first time that night, but Mama never once said his name. I think she still felt stung by his betrayal, how he’d married that other girl instead of her.
“He didn’t have a choice,” I said. Mama hadn’t seen the whole story like I had. “He loved you more than anything.”
“You always have a choice, Marie,” she said, using my new name like I’d asked. “Even when neither option is what you really want, there is always a choice.”
Her words made me doubt Frank Castle, but only a little bit. I knew he was still out there somewhere, wishing he and me and Mama could have been a family.
When I told Mr. Lee my new name that night after dinner, he got up and left the room without saying a word. Mama glanced at me with worry in her eyes and followed after him.
Mr. Lee was extra polite and quiet around me after that. He called me Marie with no trace of resentment. Once, though, I caught him looking at me. I was doing my homework, stretched out on the floor with books and papers spread out around me, and when I looked up, he stood at the doorway with dishes in his hands, paused in his work of setting the table.
His eyes as they looked at me—how can I explain them—brimmed with hope and dejection, like those of a dog left out in the rain, staring at you from a distance through the window. Not a small dog though, but a big dog, a strong dog, one that could fend for itself and make do in the rain, if only you were out there with it.
I looked at my papers and pretended I hadn’t noticed him, and he began arranging the dishes on the table. It had been the smallest moment, just a nanosecond when our eyes had met, but I couldn’t focus on my homework anymore. I could only see his eyes and the silent wish inside them.
My name was Marie Castle now, and I couldn't change it back. I wouldn't do that to myself, to my past, or to my hope, but I wanted to make amends with Mr. Lee, so I started calling him “Dad.”
He tensed the first time I said it, like I'd zapped him, but then he relaxed into the best mood I'd seen him in in weeks. He tried to hide his grin from me, and I tried to hide my blush from him. Mama, who heard and saw it all, squeezed my shoulder and smiled. Pretty soon, I got used to calling him “Dad,” and he got used to hearing it, and our hugs became the most natural thing in the world.
About the Story
City of Stories is about a young girl struggling to find her true identity and connect with her estranged family.