Round and Round Part 16 ended with Barbara and Althea deciphering an exotic Powwow manuscript. The bookseller was sent off to get them tea.
When the bookseller returned with three mismatched mugs of tea, he found Althea and Barbara murmuring in conversation while gazing down on the Powwow book opened atop the bookshelf. They stopped when they noted his approach. He was pretty certain they hadn’t been conversing in English.
He set the little metal tray atop the shelf not far from the book. Barbara looked at the mugs and made a sharp inhale of breath.
“Tea on a string?!” Barbara nearly gasped.
Althea let out a little disappointed groan. “Lipton?!”
“Ummm…that’s all I have here. I don’t brew tea often in the store.”
“I suppose we will just have to rough it. At least it is wet and hot,” Barbara spoke resignedly. “It IS hot is it not?”
“Yes. I burned my hand a bit picking up the mugs.”
“Lovely. Althea and I have found some interesting entries in this book. There is much old German written in here, but most of it is Latin so far. I always suspected who had written this. She was a kind of alchemist who came to America from Saxony early in the 1700s.”
“You may not believe this, but I…I… While I was making the tea, I recalled I had a dream a few months or so ago. I even wrote it down. I dreamed I found a Powwow book on a house call. It was in a very old and primitive Pennsylvania limestone house just north of the Mason Dixon Line.”
“That is odd,” Althea spoke with concern.
“Did you remember anything else in the dream?” Barbara asked.
“Yes. I bought the book from a very old woman who owned the house. When I stepped outside, her garden was full of glossy black butterflies. Their wings were each as big as my hand.”
He held a palm up before them.
“They would be nearly a foot across. That is an unheard of wingspan for Lepidoptera on this continent.”
“Not quite accurate, Althea. Thysania agrippina ranges as far north as Mexico, and some errant specimens have been reported in Texas.”
“The White Witch?”
“Yes, the White Witch,” Barbara replied.
“Witch butterflies?” the bookseller queried confused. “They were just dream butterflies. Black ones.”
“Do you recall anything else about the dream?”
“Yesssss…the Powwow book had the words ‘Receipts Between Life and Death’ written in sepia ink on a label on its spine.”
Both women turned and faced him. Their visages reflected a mix of shock and dismay.
“Why did you not tell me about this dream before?” Althea asked with a touch of anger in her voice.
“I did. I DID. I told you the next day I had a strange dream about a book buy.”
“You said nothing about a Powwow book.”
“It didn’t mean anything until I unwrapped the bundle Barbara gave me today.”
“Quite right. Quite right.” Barbara added: “Can you recall anything else about the dream?”
“I actually wrote down some notes because it was so strange and vivid. They’re on my desk.”
He stepped over and riffled amongst the sprawl of papers atop his messy desk.
“Here it is.” He stepped back to bookcase holding a rather battered and wrinkled yellow legal pad. He flipped through a few pages searching.
“What is all that scribbling?” Althea asked.
He stopped flipping the pages—all of which were full of single written lines—one atop another.
“Are those all poems you have written?” Althea asked.
Ignoring her, he said: “Here it is.”
He raised the pad up to his chest and began reciting the words before him:
“10/31/19. Bookstore Dream
At a house call in an old limestone Pennsylvania farmhouse
On a shelf was a book
A boldly lettered handwritten label in brown ink on the spine
of a very old book
It was a handmade title, and it read:
‘RECEIPTS BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH’
Paper label affixed
vellum binding of the early 1700s
I slip it off the shelf
I open it, and it is a Powwow book
May I buy this?
The owner is a tiny old woman
She is bent with age
She uses a rustic cane in her right hand
The cane appears to be beech
Its gray skin like bark is scored all about
The lines carved in the wood
She wears a large bonnet
Its long bill covers her face in shadows
She takes the book in two hands
She bends and appears to kiss it
She hands it to me
How much do you want for…?
She interrupts and waves her free hand at me
She has a coarse hand-knit glove
on each hand
All the fingers are cut away up to her first knuckle
Her hands are gnarled with arthritis
She motions me to the door with the cane
I step across through the low wood frame door
and cross the rough stone threshold
The sunlight confuses me
“Which way to Maryland?”
I step into her small yard
Giant glossy black butterflies
They fly all about me
They flutter about large black hollyhock flowers
Their stalks rise nearly as high as the cottages roofline”
“That’s all I wrote down.” He brought the yellow pad up to his chest.
“That was quite a dream.” Althea reached out for the pad. The bookseller drew it tighter to his body.
“Uh, there’s some personal stuff on the pad,” he said by way of explanation.
“Is that all poetry?” Althea asked.
“I did not know you wrote verses.”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, there’s an old saying: ‘Scratch a bookseller, and you’ll find a wannabe writer underneath.'”
“This dream of yours,” Barbara interrupted. “Have you ever experienced this before?”
“Not this one. I dream pretty often. Sometimes I write them down if they’re interesting. You have to do it right away though. My dreams—even very vivid ones—tend to disappear quickly after I wake up. I wonder where they go?”
“Perhaps I’ll tell you someday,” Barbara said.
At that, Althea gave a little stamp of her foot and evinced a surprised look.
Barbara continued: “Did you recognize the woman or the house or the locale?”
“No. I never really saw here face. She was quite small and very bent—with arthritis, I think—she was very tiny. I’ve been in plenty of colonial Pennsylvania limestone cottages and farmhouses over the years. This one didn’t seem exceptional—except for the butterflies and giant flowers.”
“And the other books there—do you remember what they were?” Althea asked.
“Old leather bindings mostly. Many squat and fat like typical Pennsylvania Dutch books. But it was just a dream.”
Barbara said: “Well, your dream manifested itself into a book that I gave you two evenings ago. And that dream took place almost three months ago on…”
“All Hallows Eve,” Althea finished Barbara’s sentence. There was a sense of wonder in her voice. She looked down at the bookseller from her perch atop the little stepladder with a kind of combination of respect and bafflement. It was as if she was seeing something in him she’d not seen before.
Barbara said: “And you dreamed a book you could never have seen before. I’ve had it in my possession…forever…”
“Books and dreams. Screams and howls. Rooms that rain and giant owls. Flying tomes and bloody stains…this bookstore is becoming…”
“Your bookstore has always had things going on it,” Barbara said. “You know that very well. Do you recall any more of the dream? The drive back?”
“I do. Reading my notes refreshes my memory. I asked how to get back to Maryland. Which is an odd question considering I got there somehow. I should have known my way back.”
“You were told simply to ‘Turn right’?”
“I left her garden. Turned right, and it seemed immediately I was crossing the Mason Dixon Line. It was just a dream.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. Anyway Althea and I have been scanning through this Powwow book. This tea is dreadful, by the way. There are a lot of the usual recipes and cures that Powwowers utilized. Here’s one for pain and bruises.”
Barbara pressed her forefinger down upon a page.
It was in Latin, but Althea readily translated it: “Bruise, thou shalt not heat;
Bruise, thou shalt not sweat;
Bruise, thou shalt not run;
No more than Virgin Mary shall bring forth another son.”
Barbara put her finger down on the opposite page. “And here is one on how to cool burns.”
“Two angels came down from the north;
one named Fire, the other Frost;
Frost said to Fire go away, go away;
in the name of Jesus go away,” Althea read aloud.
Althea and Barbara continued turning pages and whispering to one another. The bookseller stood off to the side and sipped from his mug of tea.
“It is bitter,” he thought aloud and grimaced.
“Why Althea, the pages in this section seem to be alchemical formulae. Look at this one! I believe it might actually work.”
“And do you believe the author of this was an alchemist?” Althea asked.
“I believe she was many things.”
“I just know.”
They continued turning pages and whispering their thoughts.
The bookseller felt like the third wheel that indeed he was, but he thought he should at least make his presence known.
“What was that inscription on the endpaper? It was in a far fancier hand than the rest of the manuscript.”
Barbara closed the book and then lifted the front cover. There was a large inscription in bold brown ink. The lettering was very complex. It looked sort of like a kind of German “shrift” calligraphy. But the bookseller didn’t recognize the alphabet that it was written in.
Neither did Althea. “What language is that? It has some runic characters but is nothing I have seen carved in wood or stone or on paper before.”
“It is a kind of proto-Germanic I believe. I think I can parse it out. “
Barbara pressed her forefinger upon the paper and began translating aloud.
“‘Whoever. Carries. This. Book. Safe. Is.’… Why, of course. It is a Himmelsbrief—a ‘Heaven’s letter.’ ‘Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all his enemies, visible or invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drowned in any water, nor burn up in any fire, nor can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me.'”
“So, this is a Christian book?” the bookseller asked.
“It is many things. The author of this has pulled from many sources I’ve recognized already. Mostly ancient grimoires. Like Albertus Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets. But certainly the Bible is at the core. In your dream, one of the very fat books you saw would likely have been Die Bibel. But it would have been a very special Bible.”
Barbara was again turning pages. Althea was leaning in close. The bookseller began looking around his office like a student who has lost track of what his teacher was saying. His eye was drawn to the ring upon the wall. He started to walk toward it—not of his own volition. He stopped himself and took a sip of the bitter brew which helped reset him to where he was and the company with whom he stood in his office.
“Why, what is this?!” Barbara exclaimed.
Althea leaned in closer. “There are a few Latin words, but I don’t recognize most of the other words at all.” She began reading the words aloud phonetically.
“Stop!” Barbara cautioned her. “One shouldn’t speak aloud words one does not understand from a book such as this. Who knows what you are saying, and what your words might wrought!”
Barbara continued running her forefinger along line after line.
“I think I recognize the lilt of these words. Phonetically they sound like words I have heard on the north coast of Spain.”
“Galicia?” the bookseller piped up. “There are ancient Celtic roots there.”
“No. Far older than that. Basque is what I am feeling these words sound like.”
“Basque!” the bookseller exclaimed. “That’s a language with no known roots isn’t it?”
“Well,” Althea offered. “Many linguists feel there is no known roots to it. Some feel it was actually developed from a Paleolithic language. It could be much older than any Indo-European roots.”
“It is what is called an isolated language. No one knows whence it came,” Barbara added.
The bookseller chuckled. “I have a friend who feels that aliens came in spaceships and mated with Neanderthals or similar archaic humans. She feels that is what got us to the Homo Sapiens we are now. Actually, I am not so…”
His words were frozen by withering looks from both Barbara and Althea.
“…Ummm, it’s just a theory I’ve heard. I, uh, really don’t know. I…”
“If you really do not know something, perhaps you should keep your words inside yourself,” Althea cautioned.
“Ok. Ok. No more spaceships. There is DNA evidence of interbreeding by pre-humans. I read recently in Scientific American the bones of a first generation hybrid nicknamed ‘Denny’ was discovered with a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother.”
“Really. How fascinating,” Barbara spoke sarcastically.
Althea stamped her foot and glared at the bookseller like he was making a mockery of what was going on.
He tried to make amends asking: “But you really feel it might be Basque or some similar ancient language—older than anything?”
Barbara nodded in affirmation.
“How could the author of this manuscript…”
“She could have copied it from an older manuscript?” Althea asked.
“I think she knew this language as well as the other languages written in her hand throughout this book.”
The two women continued turning the pages.
“There are many pages in this language,” Barbara said.
“Why are there Latin words interspersed?” Althea asked.
“Perhaps there was no word in ‘Basque’ or whatever it is for it. So, the writer inserted a Latin word as needed.”
“Stop!” Althea blurted out. She pressed her finger to the page. “Look at this!”
She inhaled so sharply she wheezed a bit.
“Chimera!” she exclaimed.
“And there it is again! And down here!” she continued pointing to various words in the book.
” John Donne said: ‘a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.'” the bookseller offered.
“I don’t think that is the kind of chimera being written about here,” Barbara said.
“You do not think…” Althea whispered.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand the context because of all the Basque. I can’t decipher a single word of that.”
She turned a page.
“Here it is again. And again! Chimera. Chimera.”
“Well, a chimera was also a mythical…”
“Maybe not mythical,” Barbara spoke in a dreamy voice.
To be continued…