Part 17 ended with Althea, Barbara and the bookseller leafing through an 18th century Powwow book in manuscript. They got to a section of it that was not in a language any of them recognized. The bookseller was completely clueless, but Barbara posited that it might be an old version of Basque. Basque has no known antecedents, and some scholars opine its roots may be founded in ancient human residents of Europe. Althea started to read the words out loud phonetically. She was sternly cautioned by Barbara that speaking the words might cause something…unexpected…to happen.
The two women were scanning the words, and Althea noticed there were occasional Latin words interspersed. Barbara thought they might be neologisms—words for which the writer in the 1700s might have no “Basque” equivalent.
Althea became excited when the word “chimera” started appearing with frequency.
“Here it is again. And again! Chimera. Chimera.”
The bookseller offered that it might mean a fantasy. A chimera of the mind.
“Well, a chimera was also a mythical…”
“Maybe not mythical,” Barbara spoke in a dreamy voice.
“Barbara, do you know who wrote this manuscript?” the bookseller asked. He had pieced together some of her words and came up with that question.
“I might. I think. She may have been an early settler in this part of Maryland. German, like so many of the others here. Some thought she was some kind of witch, but when a child was sick or childbirth was problematic or the farmer’s prize bull was sterile, she would be called in. Even those who feared or cursed her would reach out in extremis.”
“Chimera!” Althea interjected. “Why do you think that word is interjected in this manuscript, a manuscript written in Maryland in the mid 1700s?”
“Althea, what do think ‘chimera’ means in this context?”
“I…I hope…I do not know.”
They continued turning the pages. Soon the language changed.
“Back to German,” Barbara said.
At this, the bookseller leaned in between the two women. He had enough German that he felt he might be able to contribute something.
Barbara gently drew her forefinger down, scanning the page and then turned to the next. At the top of that page in a bold feminine hand was a chapter heading:
“Swift Ghost!” the bookseller whispered.
“Ghost. Or spirit,” Althea replied.
The three leaned in closer and began reading the smaller script below “Schneller Geist.”
“Is she talking about spells for curing the ghost?” the bookseller opined.
“Actually, I believe she is working on ways to counteract it. Or repel it,” Barbara responded. “Some of these spells look familiar. Long ago, I met Katherine Wrenshall. Her mother, Letitia, had traveled into the western Maryland hills in the late 19th century and collected folklore—from Braucher.”
“Letitia Wrenshall that name rings a bell,” the bookseller mused. “I think I have a book of hers—on Poe.”
He slipped his iPhone out of his pocket and quickly did a search.
“Here it is. She contributed to a volume on the Centenary of Poe’s birth in 1909. I’ve got a copy of it somewhere. I wonder where it is? I haven’t seen it for years. It’s a charming slim leather…”
“Try you Poe collection,” Althea interrupted. “That second bookcase from the corner. Bottom four shelves.”
The bookseller continued tapping away on his phone while the two women bent and continued reading the manuscript.
“Hey, look what I found. This internet thing can be pretty useful. I’ve never seen this before. It’s a 1902 issue of the Journal of American Folklore. ‘Incantations and Popular Healing in Maryland and Pennsylvania’ written by…Letitia Wrenshall!”
“There’s some wild stuff in here!” he continued. He turned his phone to the two women. “Look at this spell!”
“A rose spell…” Barbara whispered. “This is getting curiouser and curiouser.”
“I’ve never seen this journal, this kid of local folk history before, and I’ve been selling old books in Maryland for…”
“…many decades!” Althea finished his sentence.
“Thanks a lot,” the bookseller replied. “But I never really had the time to root through old journals. They never sold well, and you’d have to go through dozens to find anything interesting usually. People would bring whole walls of old journals all boxed up. I couldn’t go through each one. Even if I put them out for a buck, they’d just languish and take up…”
Barbara interrupted his reverie: “I met Katherine at a literary gathering in Baltimore long, long ago. We were chatting over tea—how dreary—and somehow our conversation lighted upon my interest in…strange things. I told her I often lived near South Mountain in western Maryland. She became quite excited and told me her mother was Letitia Wrenshall, and that she had traveled in the mountains recording the living history of the area in the late 19th century. Well, one thing led to another, and she invited me to her home to see her mother’s papers and artifacts. There was some astounding material there. A real time capsule.” Barbara was now holding the bookseller’s phone and scrolling down scanning the old printed story.
“Hmmmm…” she continued: “Very interesting, but there’s much that I saw that is not in this report. I suppose it was too volatile to be printed in those days—especially by a woman. But her scholarship and curiosity were spot on. I told Katherine she should be sure those papers got preserved in a library when the time came. I gave her the name of an old friend at the Library of Virginia. Then I had to go away for a few years—that was certainly a mission! Howard Carter and Carnarvon would have made a hash of things had I not appeared when Tut’s tomb was opened. Oh, the bloody debates we had in the desert! Those old sticks in the mud!”
She chuckled softly at some memories.
“And there was that French Egyptologist… Have you ever watched the moon set over Khufu? No, I suppose not. He said he loved me,” she sighed. “Then he said he was too old for me!”
At that she laughed out loud.
“Barbara, that was nearly a hundred years ago,” the bookseller whispered.
“So it was, my dear. Time flies.” She sniffled a bit and daubed her eyes. “Well, when I got back, Katherine was on an European extended tour, and we never crossed paths again.”
Althea had turned back to the book, and now it was her turn to get excited.
“Now look at this!” Althea urged, pressing a finger to a page. “And here. And here!”
Barbara handed the phone back to the bookseller, and they bent in to look over Althea’s shoulder.
She was pointing to a word which appeared a five or six times on the page.
“Hexenzeichen,” the bookseller spoke. “Hex signs.”
They continued on and on until the book ended.
“It ends in mid sentence. In Latin,” Althea said, looking at the blank pastedown. “That means there is …”
“Another volume,” Barbara replied. “I know. I know. I’ve never seen it. Maybe lost forever.”
“What do we do now? We have this ‘healing book.’ Do you know how to use it, Barbara?” Althea asked.
“No. One must have the talent. Many think one must be born into it. One must also have apprenticed for many years. I know a lot about it. But I don’t know how to do it.”
“Well, what do we do now?” the bookseller asked. “Find a translator for Old Basque?”
He chuckled at that. The two women leveled laser gazes at him.
“Well, we have this great old book that holds the secrets between life and death, but we don’t know how to drive the thing.”
“Let’s go back to the room and see if we get any ideas,” Barbara urged.
The three headed to the back of the store. Every twenty paces or so, a book would drop from a shelf and fall to the floor in their wake.
They got to the door, and the three of them stood there facing it.
“Ummm, what do we do now?” the bookseller asked, looking to the women on either side of him.
“You open it,” Althea said firmly.
“Why me?” his tone was a bit plaintive.
“Barbara and I each have our reasons. They are good ones that I cannot explain to you yet.”
The bookseller tentatively reached forward with his left forefinger while the rest of his body leaned back as far as it could. His fingertip touched the metal knob, and no bolt of light shot out sending him reeling backward.
Then he wrapped his hand about the doorknob and twisted it. They could hear the tongue of the latch disengage.
He slowly pulled it open, and chill puff of white steam blew out when the crack was six inches wide. He leaned in and peered into the room.
“I don’t see anything.”
“You wouldn’t,” Barbara said in reply.
When the door was open enough, he looked to either side and saw that he was expected to enter first. But somehow he felt protected in the company of these two strong women.
He walked to the center of the room and Barbara and Althea stood on either side. They all looked around the room’s four walls and the ceiling and the floor. They were all covered with very old bead and board paneling painted a dull matte white.
“Well…?” he pondered a bit impatiently.
“Hush!” Althea hissed. She stood erect and rose to her full height—all 5 feet of it. She faced one wall. Made a quarter turn and faced the next. Then the next. And the next.
She raised her head and then nodded down firmly.
“What is behind these walls?” she asked.
“Stone, I guess. That’s what Barbara told us. I always thought they were the same walls as the rest of the building.”
“This room is very old,” Barbara said. “Far older than the rest of the bookshop.”
“The walls are two feet thick or so. After Barbara told me the stone was concealed behind the existing walls, I did some measuring. I wonder why I never noticed before? Maybe because all the walls were covered with books.”
“No. I mean what is behind the wood paneling covering the walls.”
Althea turned and faced him. She stamped her foot with a strong “slap.” “Well!?”
“Tim’s coming tomorrow. I could ask him to check and see how hard it would be to remove them.”
“Then please contact him.”
They exited the room, and the bookseller tentatively pushed the door closed.
When they got to the front, Barbara said: “I must be off for a spell. But I’ll return if you need me. Althea knows how.”
She walked off, and when she pushed the door open, the little bell above it sounded like cathedral bells as best it could.
“I wonder what kind of spell?” the bookseller chuckled.
Althea froze him with a glance.
“I’ll send Tim a text. …Ummm, do you want to get some dinner?” The bookseller’s voice broke on the last syllable of the final word.
“Do. And tell him first thing in the morning! I need to do some preparatory work and some study.”
She stepped quickly to the door, and the bookseller followed her with his eyes. When she pushed the door open, the bell trilled rapidly as if it was in a hurry to ring.
He let out a deep sigh and then began pushing at the little plastic slab with his forefinger.
Tim quickly replied to his request with a couple questions.
The bookseller replied.
“Not that room!” Tim responded. “It is so creepy!”
“Bring some help if you need to. I want it done right away.”
The bookstore got very quiet. It seemed to close in on him some. The books all seemed to focus on him standing behind the sales counter.
He turned and walked into his office.
The Powwow book lay upon his desk. He sat down and rested his hand upon it.
‘There are more things on heaven and earth…’ he thought. The book felt quite warm to his touch.
He raised his eyes to the ring which hung upon the wall.
‘Soon,’ he thought ‘Soon I will take my chances. Perhaps I will learn…something.’
He rose and left the office. He pushed open the front door, and the bell clinked a little forlornly.
He looked out into the woods beyond the parking lot. A large bird silhouetted against a gray sky fell from a high branch and then swooped upward in a smooth arc above the pavement before rising and disappearing above the treeline. There was not a whisper of sound when it moved its wings.
‘The biggest owl I’ve ever seen. Is it watching over us?’ he thought.
The next day Tim was already pulling tools off the tail of his pickup when the bookseller arrived. Tim was dressed in a bizarre fashion. He wore a big furry hat with earflaps pulled down. A leather strap was under his chin holding it on. He had on a big bulky coat that was far too warm for the temperature that day. About his waist…
“What is that?” the bookseller asked.
“Leather apron. I got it from an old blacksmith that was retiring.”
He wore laced leather boots that rose to his knees.
“Why, you’ve brought your armor!” the bookseller teased.
“I don’t know what’s behind those walls. I’m not excited to find out. I wouldn’t do this for anyone but you.”
“I’ll be around if you need me.”
“I brought these too,” Tim said. “Noise canceling headphones!”
“Uh, good idea.”
“I heard those screams—for outside!”
The bookseller pulled the front door open, and the bell rang with a bit of apprehension as if it didn’t know what this day would bring. He stepped behind the counter and began the process of opening the store. Tim passed by the counter with a tarp over his shoulder and a pry bar and a large crowbar in one hand. In the other were the headphones and a book.
“What’re you reading?”
“Bible,” Tim mumbled.
“I’m gonna open it on the floor in the center of the room. My grandma would do that in sick rooms.”
Tim’s family was from Pennsylvania. He still lived above the Mason Dixon Line. Old German stock.
Althea arrived about fifteen minutes later.
There was much banging and screeching from the back of the store. The screeches were the sounds of nails reluctantly being withdrawn from old dry wood.
“Tim?” Althea asked.
The store was open when the bookseller flipped the closed sign in the window. He and Althea went about their duties silently. Indeed, the demolition was so loud they couldn’t speak to one another without shouting.
It was late morning when the noise ceased. Thankfully, not a single customer had come to buy or sell books.
Far down an aisle, they saw Tim’s hulking figure walking toward the front. When he got to the counter, he towered over both of them. The big boots and hat made him seem even taller. As it was, he stood a good foot and a half over Althea. About ten inches over the bookseller.
His ridiculous hat was covered in white dust and flecks of old paint chips, as was his bulky coat.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” Tim said with excitement and some trepidation.
“What?” the two spoke simultaneously.
“All the walls, they were covered with that real old beadboard. Real old wood paneling. The ceiling too.”
“It was like pulling teeth pulling them down. Come see.”
The three trod to the back of the store and entered the room. It was a little cloudy from the dust that was in the air.
Off to one side was a four-foot stack of the thin old solid wood paneling.
They walked to the center of the room. They each turned 360˚ in silence.
“Well, I have never…” Althea trailed off. It was one of the rare times she was at a loss for words.
“Hexzeichen,” the bookseller said.
“What’s that?” Tim asked.
“Hex signs, Mr. Tim,” Althea said. “Old German folk art. They come in many styles. They are full of meaning: happiness, bountiful harvest, good fortune, fertility or…”
“Luck in love…?” the bookseller broke in.
Althea silenced him with a glare.
She turned and faced each wall and then looked up at the ceiling.
“Amazing,” she said with awe.
There was an ancient six-foot hex sign painted wooden discs and affixed to all four whitewashed stone walls and the ceiling.
“These are all seven sided. Heptagrams. I am not familiar with these,” Althea spoke to herself in awe.
To be continued…