This story leaves off where 15 ends: read it here.
It took another full verse of Danny Boy for the bookseller to reach the back room where all the excitement had taken place the night before.
“But if ye come and find that I have left you
If I am dead as dead I may well be
you’ll come and find the place where I am lying
and kneel and say an Ave there for me.”
‘Hmmmm,’ the bookseller thought, ‘I wonder what the Danny Boy was all about?’
He was always looking for hidden meaning in events and coincidences.
He opened the door to the storeroom very slowly—cautiously. When it was cracked just a few inches, he peeped in. No frigid air poured out. He reached in gingerly and switched on the light. All he saw was just a room with a couple of paint-stained drop cloths covering the floor. He stepped in and walked to the center of the room. He kneeled down and pulled up a little of one of the drop cloths. The floor beneath was just old bare concrete. He stood and surveyed the four walls. They were just bare walls—a bit battered and in need of paint. He walked from one side of the room to the other surveying the space.
“Why haven’t I done anything with this space before?” he thought aloud. “It’s a waste. I could put a lot of books in here. I should just have Tim tear out the front wall and make this part of the store.”
The ceiling above let out loud and very pained: “GROOOAN.”
He quickly stepped back and nearly falling, pressed his back against the wall. He looked up at the ceiling worried it was going to fall in him. Drops of water like tears began falling from above. The bookseller sidled along the wall until he got to a corner. Staying tightly against the wall, he made for the door. He opened it only as far as necessary, slipped out and quickly pushed the door shut.
He hurried down the aisle toward the front. As he was passing through European history, a book dropped from above and landed on his head.
He looked down, and the book which had struck him was thick hardcover. He bent and picked it up.
He looked up for where he suspected it had fallen. There was a space on the top shelf that was the likely source. It was a subcategory in the England section. The book had dropped from London!
He carried the book to the front and ceremoniously dropped it on the counter in front of Althea who was pricing a tall stack of Folio Society classic literature titles.
It made a solid “Thump!”
Althea looked up in surprise. “Yeeesss?”
“The room seemed normal when I entered, but it suddenly made a loud “groan” and then the ceiling started raining.”
“That is odd. What did you do?”
“What do you mean what did I do?”
“To trigger such a thing. It has been quiet since last night, since you put the drop cloths over the floor where the stain was.”
“I really don’t know. I’ve been in that room hundreds of times over the years. It’s never rained in there before.”
“Tell me slowly and calmly exactly what happened. The last I saw you, you were walking back there humming Danny Boy.”
The bookseller told her everything he could remember.
“And did you say or think or do anything while you were in the room?”
He thought a bit. “Hmmm…I think I may have. I was surveying the room and thinking how useless it’s been all these years. Maybe…maybe I just mused aloud: ‘I could have Tim tear out this wall…’ I could make that room part of the store then.”
“Hmmmm…I wonder… Did anything else happen? Are you leaving anything out?”
“No. I don’t think so. I got so freaked out when the roomed groaned and the ceiling began raining that I backed up against the wall and slipped out as fast as I could.”
“And that is all?”
“Just that this book just dropped on my head from London!” the bookseller exclaimed.
“The London shelf in the England section in European history!”
“Why was Asimov’s Paradise Lost in London?” she asked.
“I DON’T know! I wouldn’t put it there. You and Sally wouldn’t either.”
“That is a big book!” Althea said.
“Asimov was a very prolific writer.”
She picked it up and began leafing through it.
“How many books did he write? He annotated other classics too, did he not?”
“The Bible. Shakespeare…others too. He dashed off a lot children’s non-fiction titles too. I’m guessing he wrote a thousand books. He liked writing. A LOT. That book you’re holding looks like it’s a thousand pages.”
“760 pages,” Althea corrected. She put down the book and began tapping away at her phone with her thumbs. “Wikipedia says ‘more than 500’ so your estimate is far too high as well,” Althea said flatly.
“More than 500 could be a thousand,” the bookseller stretched—trying to justify his error.
“Hardly. Wikipedia would not be that far off in scale. It does add that he wrote over 90,000 letters and postcards.”
“Keep that in mind if we come across any autograph material,” the bookseller paused and then chuckled aloud.
Althea looked at him questioningly. Her eyes were yellowish hazel today.
The bookseller had to take his gaze from them to regain his thoughts.
“Oh! There was a joke long ago. He died in the early 90s…”
“And he was fairly young…”
“72. That is quite old.”
“Not so old. I’ve heard it said the 80s are the new 40s now because of medical advances and less smoking and better diets for so many.”
“It seems very old for a man to me. It says he died of complications from AIDS. He contracted AIDS from blood transfusions during heart surgery in the 1980s.”
“I didn’t know that,” the bookseller replied. “And it’s not so old. He might have gotten to 1000 books if he’d had more time.”
She gave him her cynical look. Her eyes flashed amber like a cat’s briefly.
“You said there was a joke?” she asked.
The bookseller chuckled: “It was said he was working on an annotated version of the Britannica before he passed away!” and the bookseller laughed aloud very brightly at his own joke.
Althea tilted her head and gave him a confused and quizzical look. “Why would he do such a thing?”
“Well, that’s the joke. Who would annotate an already comprehensive encyclopedia?! Hahaha.”
“The Britannica was a large book?”
“It’s an encyclopedia. Maybe 30 volumes. Maybe 5 and a half feet of books. Plus they published a year book every year.”
“That seems very bulky.”
“Back then there were no smart phones. Many people would go to their encyclopedia for most any primary references. Most literate homes and most booksellers would have one at hand. That little piece of plastic and computer bits in your hand probably has more info in it than a hundred thousand Britannica.”
“Is that exaggeration again?”
“Maybe hyperbole. I dunno. Actually a wild guess.”
“So the joke is that for anyone to annotate an encyclopedia would be a bizarre exercise? Or futile?”
“Yes. No. An especially funny or…ironic…ummm…exercise… But what makes it so humorous is that in some ways it made sense that Asimov and his ego would attempt it. The best humorous hyperbole always has a bit of truth…uh…possibility in it. He didn’t, of course.”
“I understand now. I suppose that would be funny…to some.”
“Never mind. Does your analytic mind have any idea why Paradise Lost keeps falling on my head?”
“I have been thinking about that. And the cat books too. I need more data. I wish you had saved all the books that have been falling lately.”
“But not actually falling on you until recently. I wonder if it has anything to do with the goings on in that back room.”
“I wonder if it has anything to do with the goings on in that back room.”
“What is it do you think?”
“There is something going on back there. It screamed last night and moaned and cried today.”
“I believe what fell from above were tears. There may be some kind of spirit back there.”
“Tears…Spirit…do you really think so?”
“I am not sure yet. We will need to see if there are more manifestations.
“More manifestations!? That would be bad for business. It scared me in my own store. We don’t want to become known as The Haunted Bookshop.”
“That tile has already been claimed. And quite well too. Christopher Morley wrote a classic there. Too bad the rest of his large opus does not hold up as well.”
“Parnassus on Wheels is delightful!”
“Ok. I will grant you that.”
“Can you think of any other Morley that needs rediscovery?”
“Not off the top of my head. That thing in back…if it goes off when there are customers here, well, it could go viral!”
“Going viral may bring all kinds of people here out of curiosity.”
“I don’t want that kind of attention. Ghost hunters don’t buy many books.”
“How do you know? Have you had many in?”
“I dunno,” the bookseller replied sheepishly.
“I’m just guessing, if you must know. But I don’t want a spook in here distracting me. It’s confusing enough with all the others things that happen. And this thing is downright scary! I’d like to get rid of it,” the bookseller paused and then his demeanor brightened. “Hey! Maybe we could get it ‘mitigated’?”
“Not all of your ideas are far fetched.”
“Thank you, Althea. That is high praise from you indeed.”
“Do not become…over confident…what word am I looking for?”
Althea laughed so loud she spluttered bit of her tea onto the Asimov.
“I have never heard such a thing!”
The bookseller quickly reached under the counter and retrieved a roll of paper towels. He dabbed at the drops of tea on the jacket. The dust jacket was covered with a protective Brodart.
He then stepped into his office and returned with Barbara’s business card.
“Here’s her card. All it says is her address and ‘Spirit Mitigation,'” he said setting the card on the counter before Althea.
Althea picked it up and read aloud:
“We could drive out and see if she’s still there. It was only last night after all.”
“No, I do not think that would be prudent. One must be invited to visit Browne Knowe—when it is there. Perhaps I will try to reach out to her from home tonight.”
The rest of the day proceeded quietly. The Scotsman…the screaming crying room…the Bottle Tree…Browne Knowe…and the kiss—which really wasn’t a kiss—and the owls and the other excitements had sucked all the energy out of the bookseller. When it was time to leave, the bookseller asked Althea:
“Do you need a ride to get your car?”
Althea tilted her head back and looked vacantly at the wall high above the bookseller’s head for a moment. Then she lowered her gaze and gave a little nod as if in affirmation.
“No need. It has been returned.”
“Oh…ok…I was thinking maybe we could grab a bite…”
“Another time. There is much I need to do tonight. And I am very tired. This has been a very exciting 24 hours for a sleepy used bookstore.”
The bookseller, completely deflated, trod heavily toward the front door. He pushed on it, and the bell above it gave a sad tired ring. He turned and mumbled: “See you tomorrow.”
He pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t open but for about 6 inches.
“Uh…the door is stuck,” he said and turned and looked toward Althea.
“No it is not!” she sang brightly. Her voice was like the beating wind chimes of thin crystalline butterfly wings. A warm smile poured from her and filled him. He straightened and returned her smile. And then there was briefly something more. Suddenly the door opened further, and he stumbled a bit as he almost fell through it.
‘What just happened?’ he thought.
He turned and stuck his head back through the head and spoke confidently: “Good night, Althea.”
“Nos da!” Althea spoke brightly. “That is Welsh for ‘good night’!”
He turned and crossed the wooden porch as light as a feather. He stepped down into the parking lot and there, indeed, was Althea’s ancient Opel Kadett parked next to his book van. He opened the van door and pulled himself up and into the driver’s seat. He reached into his pocket to retrieve his van key and what came out in his hand was the very old worn bookstore key he had taken out of the door the night before. He held it out in the palm of his hand and stared down at it.
“I’m so confused,” he mumbled. “Did she just blow a kiss at me?”
He reached in for the van key and started it. It rumbled to life. He put it into gear and rolled out into the night. He began to hum Danny Boy after the vehicle bumped down the entrance and turned left on to the street.
The next morning he parked a few feet from Althea’s Opel and bounded up the steps.
He pulled the front door open, and the bell made a kind of warning chime.
He was going to announce a bright “Good Morning!” to Althea, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw Barbara standing at the counter facing Althea on the other side. She appeared even taller than the last time he saw her—which only about 37 hours earlier. She was wearing a floor length 2-piece velvet gown. The skirt was a rich brown—like strong coffee with 2 good shots of cream in it. The bodice was a deep tan like mid-19th century calf book bindings. Her waist was cinched with a braided black velvet belt threaded through two rings of gold. The loose end dropped to mid thigh and had a golden book attached to its end like a clasp. In the center of the book’s cover was mounted an oval cloudy crystal nearly two inches tall and one and a half inches wide. She turned to face him and the skirt followed her movement just a moment after her body. It billowed just barely above her feet in a diameter of nearly three feet.
She interrupted his greeting with a stern scowl and raised a forefinger to her mouth in a shushing mode.
“I would no one hear that name in here just now.”
She froze him with a glance. One eye was forest green. The other arctic blue.
“Althea has told me about the room in back. The screams, the chilled air, the tears and cries can mean one of two things.”
“And what’s that?” the bookseller asked.
“I cannot tell you. Well, I could, but I do not think you would understand.”
“No one thinks I can understand anything.”
“Well, how is your Medieval Latin?” Barbara asked understandingly.
“I had four years of Classical Latin in high school,” the bookseller offered a little hopelessly.
“It is quite different, I’m afraid. It evolved as a way to have dialog among Christians on early ecclesiastical thought and theology. It turned into a lingua franca among the upper classes in the Dark Ages. It was also used by alchemists and, ummm, other less savory speakers. Still is, sadly.”
“Well, can you tell me ANYTHING?” the bookseller asked.
“Bar…she just arrived,” Althea spoke up. “I have told what happened the night we returned from Browne Knowe. And the occurrences the next day.”
“Have you told her about the books?”
“I was about to when you came bouncing in.”
“I believe we should first go back and inspect the scene of the crime,” Barbara spoke softly. “Althea, please lead the way.”
“Crime? Do you really think…?” the bookseller’s voice drifted off.
“I’ve no idea, but when Althea reached out to me last evening, I found the circumstances very…intriguing.”
The three of them headed down an aisle toward the back of the sprawling building. Outside they heard the banging and sawing of Tim and his helper working on the addition.
About every fifth step they took, a book would throw itself to the floor in their wake. Each would land softly, supplicatingly. The bookseller didn’t stop but looking back he recognized the books by their dust jackets—Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Michaels and Barbara Mertz titles all—except for a larger quarto volume—The Amelia Peabody Compendium—co-authored by Kristen Whitbread.
“Do you not stock these shelves properly?” Barbara asked: “They keep falling off behind us!”
“I believe they are prostrating themselves in your honor,” Althea chuckled.
“You don’t say. Should we stop and inspect them?”
“No. I think they are having fun. And it might embarrass them.”
When they got to the rear of the store, the bookseller stepped ahead. He reached to the doorknob. When his hand touched it, there was a flash bang, and he flew up and back landing on his seat. His back was resting against a bookcase—the How To section, if you must know.
“Are you all right?!” Althea asked as she stepped to him and put her hand upon his shoulder.
“Ow!” the bookseller exclaimed.
Althea quickly removed her hand. “I am sorry! Is your shoulder hurt badly?”
“No,” he grumbled, “My butt.”
Barbara had stepped to the door and was inspecting it from side to side and from top to bottom. She reached toward the knob with both hands cupped together but did not touch.
The knob began to glow molten red.
“Well! So that’s the way it is!” she spoke sternly toward the door. Then she turned.
Althea had her arms under the bookseller’s left arm and was helping him rise.
“Are you intact?” Barbara asked: “Is your hand burned?”
The bookseller looked at one hand and then the other.
“No…they seem to be find. It just hurts…behind.”
“I am not quite sure what you have going on in here. But it is quite old. Did you know this room is much older than the rest of the building? If you look under the old paneling, you’ll discover its walls are whitewashed stone. When you began tearing things up in there, you uncovered something—I am not exactly sure what—that was capped long ago.”
“Do you a have Dahlgren at hand?”
“A what?” Althea queried.
“You mean South-Mountain Magic? Yes. I have a fine copy back in the office.”
“I would like to look something up in it.”
The three headed back to the front stepping over some fallen tomes. They entered the office single file. Barbara was last.
She stopped before the desk. She bent and looked at the ring hung upon the wall.
“Very nice! I wondered who had earned that! That was years ago!”
“I…I…look at it often,” the bookseller said.
“I believe you should put it on again soon. You have earned it. Now show me the Dahlgren!”
The bookseller stepped over to his cases where he kept his rare books. When he found what he was looking for, he slipped it off the shelf and presented it to Barbara.
“Here you are. South-Mountain Magic.”
She opened and flipped the leaves to the contents.
She then opened the book near its center. She rifled through a few pages forward. And then she riffled a few pages back.
“I wondered what Madeleine was writing about when I first read this long ago. She was a bit of an excitable woman. You know it was Victorian times. Now, I think I may understand.”
“Madeleine?” Althea asked.
“Madeleine Dahlgren! The author. She came from the city and stirred up all kinds of things around here in the 1860s and 70s.”
“She did?” the bookseller asked as if he knew her.
“Where is that book I gave you the other night?”
“Book?” the bookseller asked.
Althea leaned toward him and whispered in his ear: “The gift she gave you. It was wrapped in red velvet.”
“Oh. That! I haven’t had a chance to open it with all the excitement. It’s on my desk.”
“Well, unwrap it, young man! I gave it to you because I thought you should have it. When I did, I had no idea it might actually be useful.”
The bookseller stepped to his desk and lifted the velvet parcel. He carefully unwrapped its soft loose wrapping. A lovely vellum quarto appeared.
He dropped the velvet onto the desk and inspected the book.
On its spine was affixed an ancient paper label. On it in brown ink were written the words:
“Receipts Between Life and Death”
“‘Receipts’ is an old word for recipe!” The bookseller spoke authoritatively.
Althea and Barbara gave him stares of “we knew that”!
The bookseller opened the front cover and leafed through page after page of neat handwriting.
“It’s a Powwow* book,” he said. “I’ve had a number of these but never one so ancient…and…grand.”
“That is a terrible term for something so important,” Barbara said. “Braucherei is far more lovely—and apt. This is perhaps the oldest one made in this hemisphere. It was made by a woman who came here from the Old World. When she settled around here, she discovered…well, you’ll find out.”
She carried it to an empty top shelf of a bookcase in the window. She opened the book and began drawing her hand along the text.
Althea went and got a stool since the shelf was nearly as tall as she.
“Now how did you say your Latin was?” Barbara asked. “Oh, that’s right you had four years as a school boy. How is your German?”
“I’m pretty good, I think. A bit rusty, but I could parse most anything out…if I had a dictionary.”
“I could use Google Translator!” Althea offered as she raised her iPhone above the open book.
“Not a good idea!” Barbara admonished brusquely brushing the device away. “It wouldn’t understand these words, anyway.”
“Will this take a while?” the bookseller asked. “I can make us some tea.”
“Do,” Barbara said. “Black, please. I will have some questions for you when you return.”
[To be continued…]
* Powwow, also called Brauche or Braucherei in Deitsch, is a vernacular system of North American traditional medicine and folk magic originating in the culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Blending aspects of folk religion with healing charms, “powwowing” includes a wide range of healing rituals used primarily for treating ailments in humans and livestock, as well as securing physical and spiritual protection, and good luck in everyday affairs. Although the word “powwow” is Native American, these ritual traditions are of European origin and were brought to colonial Pennsylvania in the transatlantic migrations of German-speaking people from Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A practitioner is sometimes referred to as a “Powwower” or Braucher, but terminology varies by region. These folk traditions continue to the present day in both rural and urban settings, and have spread across North America.
Here’s what may happen between Althea and the bookseller in about a year from now:
“Round and Round Part …” [Maybe it will be Part 24 by then]
The holidays were over. The annual race from mid November through New Year’s was done. All that was left was some football…
There were no distractions and no relief. Only winter for the next few months.
To Althea—Four Seasons
It was the first kiss of spring
Brief fleeting the first flower against winter’s demise
Golden yellow—narcissus mostly
In ancient times these flowers moved from the Mediterranean
to the far east and then worldwide
I brought them to my home years ago
to brighten the dull dark forest floor each year
As spring matured more flowers kissed the sun
That season came to life
I brought you more and more flowers from the mountain
Snipped and brought down from on high for you
Their soft beauty fleeting—
fading wilting swiftly
In late spring I brought you wild berries from the mountain
Pink, red; soft as skin
I plucked them gently
So fragile their flesh would sometimes tear
Rosy sweet juice bled out upon my fingers
I would gently tug their pebbly bodies
They would resist just a bit and then
break away from prickly stems
I could not hold one between thumb and forefinger
without thinking of you
In summer I gave you the first love apple
True deep red round and voluptuous
Warm as the sun
lest it bruise
and lose its living tension
I could put one to my mouth
and gently, gently
set my teeth to her
The bitter juice would flow from it
Warm as blood but much thinner
I would pucker my lips to catch it
But love’s juice would trickle down my chin
Summer matured and peppers came
Glossy polished skin of green and red
Cool fruit hotter than sunlight
You would delight to burn those lips and that tongue
The pain is hard to get over
Harder yet to forget
But it leaves, nonetheless, a yearning
for more assaults on and inside you
The grapes ripened
Surprisingly each had your name upon it
At first hard green bitter impenetrable
Heat and light and time swelled them
Their skin turned dark pink and wine red
I would climb to reach and pluck a handful
Each fruit no bigger than a fingertip
I laid them upon your desk
They would roll bounce and bump before you
You would pick each between your thumb and forefinger
Place each namesake in your mouth
Press yourself upward with your tongue
Until you burst and sweet juice
poured from the broken skin
Wet warm evocative of the vineyard
Then sunflowers with heavy petaled heads
loaded with thousands of seeds
packed tight in no pattern
Protruding like tiny tongue tips
hard cased belying the soft white nut inside each one
Their faces followed each sunny day
Proud erect reaching for more heat and light
Their round faces framed in warm color
Gold, red, yellow, orange
Taller than the two of us
I’d sacrifice one head after another
When I’d give them
your face would brighten like dawn
You’d take them to your home
I hoped they’d brighten those rooms
which I had never seen
The freezes came
There was nothing living I could give
All was dead without
Withered, wilted, rotting, black, brown
Husks and shadows and skeletons and shells
The gardens were bare
but for dead sere leaves skittering over them
Cold dark festive season
I wished I could warm you
and in turn be warmed
Through all the seasons now
I have made a package
Each with your name scrawled upon it
Every day—cold hot wet or dry
I would find a book for you
I would scratch your name and mine inside
and then the month and year
It marked our time
—more apart than together
You would take them into your home
Today stacked upon yesterday
Tomorrow next week last month
until your vestibules were full of me
There was no more room
You were filled each and every where
Too much. Too many. Too much
The books will never wilt or fade or be consumed
These books may never die
They will abide upon your shelves
Til you tire of this one or that
You will take some away and voids appear
to be filled with books from others
But some will remain
Rare or common
Silly or serious
Look upon them from time to time;
season to season
and remember our four seasons
Open one now and again
Note two names linked together
for just one year
yet etched forever together
upon pages that may last
until there are no more books