The vault starts gathering books when Rictus is born. Soft minds breed soft children, Miss Giddy says, and the Immortan takes it to heart. By the time Dag is brought in, and locked up, there are over a hundred, and she drinks the words in like a flower finding water in dry earth. She marks her favourite passages with the water-thinned oil that Miss Giddy uses for her tattoos, and the books grow bright with her annotations and drawings.
She does not read for more knowledge like Toast, she reads merely for the pleasure of reading. For the way the words sound, rattling through her brain, for the way they sound tripping off her tongue, for the pictures they make in her head. There are stranger places than the Citadel in these words, and safer, and more beautiful, and less terrifying, and she lives there instead, with her eyes on the page.
Cheedo pulls her out of it sometimes, stealing the books and running her fingers lightly over the words that Dag has circled.
“She’s mad but she’s magic,” she whispers, pulling on a piece of Dag’s hair. “Do you only keep the words that are about you?”
“I keep the ones that are about you, stupid,” she says, and she snatches the book back, and closes it carefully, and pinches Cheedo’s cheek.
Dag thinks sometimes, watching Miss Giddy with her crinkled paper skin, that maybe one day she will have read so much the words will wriggle their way under her skin and fix there. Grey and green and ghost-like. Words like photosynthesis, written down the curve of her ribs, or ephemeral, curled up in the crook of her elbow. She thinks she might like to be a girl-book, unbreakable and permanent.
Angharad thinks the books are a way of keeping them quiet and soft. Like food to coax an animal into a trick. She is probably not wrong, but Dag doesn’t care, the words are the only thing keeping her from breaking her bones trying to knock the walls down. She is not a good girl in a cage. She prowls the edges of the rooms sometimes, reciting poetry in a loud and ringing voice. She spits things at Immortan Joe that she knows he doesn’t understand, and he hurts her for it, but she doesn’t care about that either. She is a book, not a body.
Miss Giddy gives her her first tattoo, with Cheedo peering over her shoulder. A series of dots under the second knuckle of one finger. These are words too, because writing her sisters names on her skin would be foolish. He would want only his name so permanently scarred. So she uses a dot for Angharad, and a dot for Toast, and for Capable, and for Cheedo, and Miss Giddy, and Dag herself. A dot for the only things in the world she loves that aren’t written on paper.
“There wasn’t anyone before?” Cheedo asks. “Before you were brought here?”
Dag thinks of a warm hand, holding hers, and a man with blue eyes, and a floor made of woven mats, and a car seat for a bed. She frowns at her hand, pressed flat on the rickety table in the bedroom, and Miss Giddy is waiting, and Cheedo’s eyes are wide, and she shakes her head.
“I didn’t exist until I got in here,” she says. “I didn’t exist until I found my books.”
“You did too,” Capable says, walking passed them. “Don’t make this into somewhere good.”
Dag ignores her, and shakes out her limbs, stiff from sitting in one place while Miss Giddy prickled her skin. Dag finds a book, and opens it, and holds her breath.
“We are not things,” says Angharad later, and Dag laughs.
“We are not impedimenta,” she says, hooking her arm through Toast’s, and swinging their arms wide. “We are not paraphernalia.”
“We are not things,” Angharad repeats, frowning.
“No,” Dag agrees. “We’re not.”
When Angharad’s plans to leave get more and more solid, Dag starts to worry. She bites her fingernails off, and she chews on her hair, and she tugs at the fraying skin on her fingers. Her mouth tastes like blood she chews on her lips so much. Furiosa will come to them in the early morning, and the Many Mothers will bundle them up in sacking, and fold them into crates like bags of potatoes. There will be little enough room for them, and no room for books.
“Perhaps I’ll eat them all,” Dag says quietly, to no one in particular. “Page by page.”
“You’ll be sick for it,” Toast warns.
“I’ll write you books,” Angharad says. “I’ll write you a thousand books if you come with us.”
Dag wants to laugh at the thought that she would ever stay, but she doesn’t. She accepts Angharad’s offer gravely, and imagines her own name written on the first page. For Dag from Angharad. It’s almost as good as photosynthesis.
When they leave, Dag leaves all of her books behind. She had been allowed one thing to take with her, a warm piece of their cold life in the vault, but she couldn’t choose it, so she chooses nothing. She takes Cheedo’s mirror instead, because Cheedo had already chosen to take her gloves, and because Dag likes catching the sun in the glass, and because she likes to make Cheedo smile. Flashing mirror messages is something close enough to words, like the dots on her fingers, like Angharad’s scars, like Capable’s braids. Patterns in a world of chaos. Things that make Dag’s breathing slow, and her fingers stop trembling, and her teeth stop tearing at her lips. Things that make her feel less like a leaf caught on wind, a bone picked clean and left behind, a burned book.
They go back to the Citadel when they’ve hit the edge of the world. They go back and Dag doesn’t go straight to her books. She has plants now, and Cheedo’s hand warm in hers, and beads in her hair, and a thousand people shouting for her. She thinks that maybe plants are like words too, growing up curled and crooked. Growing up green, and new, and alive. Angharad did not get to write her a book, but perhaps Dag will write her one instead, crossing out the stories she loves, covering them with the story of her and her sisters. For Angharad love Dag love Dag love Dag.