This continues the weird story taking place in the old bookstore.
When the three reached the sales counter at the front of the bookstore, Barbara turned and said:
“I need to leave. I must find an old friend and get her advice.”
“What should we do?” Althea asked.
“Well, you can start by picking up all the books on the floor. This store is a mess. You should be embarrassed.”
The bookseller mumbled something under his breath.
“What’s that? Speak up.”
“I said the books weren’t jumping off the shelves until you came in.”
“Well, nevertheless, it will help get your mind off the Snallygaster haunting the back of your store.”
With that, Barbara turned with a flourish and headed toward the front door. The heels on her tall boots with laces up to her knees made a hard hollow “clooking” sound with each step.
‘Are they hob nailed?’ the bookseller wondered to himself.
“Nonsense,” Althea said. “Hobnails were not used on boots much after the 1850s. Barbara’s expedition boots are much newer than that. Her heels are cobbled out of hardened camel leather layered, I’d guess, thirty times. I would say Italian made. Likely Milan.”
He had given up being surprised when she’s read his mind.
The bookseller had a vision of a Geppetto-like cobbler tapping away, straddling an ancient shoemaker’s bench.
“Things have quieted down in back. Let’s pick up the store and decide if we can open soon.”
“Yes. You would not want to miss any sales,” Althea said sarcastically.
“Actually, it’s the buys I’m concerned about. Just think of the wonderful books that may be passing by the parking lot and seeing we are closed.”
“Where else would they go?”
“Well, there is that.”
For this shop was one of the last in the region, the bookseller thought wistfully. The nearest were many, many miles away in any direction.
“And they are so picky. Customers have told me if they take books to that shop in the city…” Althea spoke authoritatively.
“They’ll take ten boxes in and be sent back out with nine and a half. You’ve told me that anecdote before.”
Althea’s tiny foot slapped the black and white checked linoleum tile floor. Her arms crossed tight across her chest. She gave him a withering glare.
The bookseller knew discretion was the better part of valor. He turned on his heel and headed back down the history aisle, picking up books and shelving them as he went. He had gone about thirty paces when Althea touched him on his shoulder.
“You have not told me what you saw,” she said softly.
“When we awoke you in the van, there was something in your eyes. Barbara saw it too.”
He turned and faced her.
“Your eyes!” she exclaimed.
“They are hazel! They have always been brown! You put on the ring last night, did you not?”
“What did you see? Where did you go?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You cannot say that!”
“Maybe after the Snallygaster issue is resolved. I want to think about it before we speak.”
He closed his eyes and remembered. He saw Althea’s home. It was empty. Old once white shades were pulled down in every window like closed eyes. The porch was bare. No lush and blooming potted plants. No overflowing window boxes. There was just a wooden rocker on the porch. It was moving slowly, on its own, back and forth.
It looked like an old, old maid’s house.
He had visited many like this over the years, buying the books.
Small clapboard cottages. Dusty wood. The foundation gardens long claimed by the expanding weedy lawn.
Going into these homes was sad. The owners had given up long ago. Everything about the house would be tired. Tired of loneliness. Tired of life. Sore with age.
Yes, he had visited many places like this buying the books. Sometimes the woman was still there, sitting in the front room. Knitting in a sad worn rocking chair, an afghan spread across her lap. Wispy white hair. Knitting and rocking until time ends. She had given up on flowers and plants. The kitchen was spartan for spartan meals. If you could call them meals.
Sometimes the woman was already gone. But the rocker was still there, and he felt he could see her sitting in it. Sitting and rocking until time finally ended and she could go.
Downstairs the books it seemed in memory were invariably on 5 shelf wooden cases. Three feet wide. Filled with books too old for even her. Her parents’ books. All unopened for fourscore years. Left on display for a lifetime. Another small bookcase in her bedroom would hold novels 30 years old. Ragged from rereading.
No pets. The last cat had wandered off to die a decade before.
It was so dry in those houses.
“I don’t want to talk about it now,” he said, and his breath caught in his throat.
She stepped back a pace and studied his face.
“Do not believe everything you see in dreams. Or believed you saw in times of great stress.”
“I saw what I saw,” the bookseller said, and his shoulders slumped heavily.
“Rings can be such liars.”
“It didn’t lie about Priscilla.”
“Sometimes they show what can be, not necessarily what will be.”
“When I have seen the past, it has been accurate…or as accurate as my understanding of history believes it to be.”
Althea sighed deeply. “We can discuss this when things have settled down here.”
She bent and retrieved a book from the floor. She straightened and stretched to put it up on the shelf.
“Well! You haven’t gotten much done!”
“Barbara!” the bookseller exclaimed, startled when she appeared a pace behind him.
“Where did you come from!?” Althea asked, looking around at her in genuine surprise.
“I have been far and wide seeking answers. And I believe I have some.” She fairly chortled.
“But you only left a few minutes ago.”
“Did I really?” she mused. “Time can be such a silly thing betimes. Sometimes time flies!”
“I think that’s not all that…”
“What did you find out, Barbara?” Althea interrupted.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” the bookseller countered with a bit of suspicion. “The bell above the door didn’t say a word.”
“Perhaps it needs to be checked. Dereliction of duty, perchance. I have gotten some answers. It took some doing, but I found…well, I can’t really pronounce her name in a way that you would understand…I hadn’t seen her in ages. Really!”
“Where was this? You couldn’t have gone far,” the bookseller inquired.
“Neither here nor there. That’s where!” Barbara was getting impatient at his interrogation.
“Hush!” Althea said to the bookseller. “Barbara, what did you find out?”
“She was so happy to find out where it was found at last. She knew it still existed, but no one knew where. Kind of like the unicorn herd…”
“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. Not that it matters. You’ve always been so…unimaginative.”
“Barbara, please!” Althea slapped her foot upon the floor tile.
“Ok. Ok. Do you REALLY want to know…?” She chuckled at the dumbfounded looks before her eyes. “We need to get some quelling powder first.”
“Powder? What?” The bookseller queried confusedly.
“Where, Barbara? I have never heard of it.”
“Why, Althea, we make it! All the ingredients are growing in your woodland garden last I looked.”
“All my plants are green. Will it not take a long while to dry and powder it?”
“Oh my! So many recipes would take days or weeks before there were microwaves.”
“Still, I imagine it will take some time to prepare.”
“Indeed! But there’s still plenty of daylight. We should go. Now. May I ride in your automobile? It’s been…well, I won’t say the last time I rode in a Tin Lizzy, but these boots were practically new then!”
“You won’t be needed. You should stay and pick this place up. You may be able to reopen in the not too distant future.”
With that, both women turned and headed toward the front of the store. In their wake, a book dropped off a shelf every pace or so.
“I don’t know why I bother,” the bookseller grumbled aloud. “Quelling powder? Unicorns? Unbelievable. But then, I’ve seen some strange things in this bookstore over the years.”
With that, he bent and picked up a book and shelved it. From the front, he heard the door opening, and the silver bell above it gave a little chuckle as the women let themselves out. He looked back up the aisle and then down it. There were dozens of floored books in that aisle alone.
He decided to go down rather than up the aisle. As he bent to the next book, he mumbled:
“I don’t know why I bother.”
The bookseller awoke the next morning with the two women tapping on the driver’s side window of the van to wake him again.
He struggled up on his elbow before pushing onto his knees. His back ached. Sleeping on piled quilts in the back of his van was not something he’d ever expected to do again.
He’d managed to pick up all the books in the store before dark. Then he’d made a bachelor dinner in the shop’s tiny pantry. A bowl of canned soup and saltines and a big glass of 2% milk. Italian Wedding, if you must know. Then he’d taken a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse out to the van, and by candlelight he read until sleep took him. The silk scarf Althea had given him yesterday to salve his injured forehead he kept pressed to his cheek all night. It was likely the scarf that had directed the ring to take him to see her future the night before. Past experiences usually connected an object at hand to be the subject of whence the ring took him.
He poked his head between the two front seats and looked toward the window. The two women looked far too chipper. Althea raised one hand and was holding a small canvas sack that, if anything, appeared to be full of pancake mix. Buckwheat, if you must know.
He gave her a thumbs up and then struggled back to the sliding side door. His legs were dangling over it, and he was pulling on his first shoe (the left one if you must know) when the two women got before him.
“How was last night?” Barbara asked brightly.
“My back aches miserably. I’m sore all over.”
“I wasn’t inquiring as to your comfort. I was asking about your guest.”
“Quiet as a mouse. Albeit an enormous mouse.”
“Brilliant!” Althea chimed.
“We had a wonderful evening. After we’d made the powder, Althea whipped up vegetable soup with things we’d picked in the garden. It was the best soup I’ve had in…”
“Ages,” the bookseller finished. “I had a can of…”
“Progresso,” Althea finished. “That’s all he ever buys.”
“We had a fresh tin of water crackers I just brought her from Harrods that paired perfectly with the broth she’d made. And for dessert, she whipped up some butterscotch chip cookies. You must tell me how you make those chips.”
“An old family recipe from Scotland.”
“Did you bring me any cookies?”
“Then we went to bed early. The down mattress in her guest room was like floating on a cloud.”
“You would know, I suppose.”
“No princess could detect a pea under that! Best night’s rest I’ve had in…”
By then, he was completely shod and stood on the pavement between the two women.
“Shall we?” the bookseller asked.
“You must tell me where you found such wondrous bedclothes, Althea.”
“Just some I made a while back.”
“Where’d you get so much down?”
“A donation.” What she did not say was that it was a gift from a flock of Arctic geese she had helped some time ago. They save d all their preenings for a year for her. “It’s the softest bed in Maryland, I would suppose.”
“I wouldn’t know, I suppose,” the bookseller grumbled as he strode toward the front porch of the bookshop.”
The old key was still in the lock.
“That’s not my key. Nor is it yours, Althea. Barbara, when we returned the other night, the store was unlocked, and this key was in the lock. I don’t recognize it. I have never changed the locks in all the years I’ve had the place.”
“That is troubling. I wonder if someone else has been coming in here—thereby stirring things up. I had assumed it was you.” Barbara looked down her nose at him pointedly. “Perhaps you had some help.”
“We first thought that perhaps there had been a murder back there. There appeared to be blood welling up on the floor,” Althea said.
“There could well have been. That room may have had many problems in it. But right now, we have one problem to focus on. A BIG problem. Let’s go see if we can help the poor creature back there. Once that is done, we can go on with the other mysteries which may be associated with the room, the creature or something entirely different.”
The bookseller pulled the door open. The little bell above tinkled apprehensively.
The three headed toward the back of the store with Barbara leading the way—striding purposefully.
When they got to the door of the back room, the two women inclined their heads toward the bookseller.
“I know. I should open the door because I am…”
“Expendable,” Althea finished the thought.
The bookseller pulled his sleeve down over his hand to protect it from heat or cold or whatever surprises the knob might have in store. He turned the knob and pulled the door open.
No cold fog or screams emanated.
The three stepped in, and when they were in the center of the room, that was when the soft “thwopping” started. It was the sound of enormous wings beating the air. The winds from the sound had their hair flying in all directions.
“I believe you should spread the QP,” Barbara said to the bookseller.
“The Quelling Powder.”
She handed him the little cloth bag.
“When we shut the door, toss the contents into the air. We will return then to back you up.”
“You will be fine,” Barbara asserted.
Althea looked a little unsure.
Barbara put a hand on her shoulder and guided her out through the door.
When the door closed and he heard the latch engage, he said: “Here goes nothing.”
With that, he shook the contents of the sack into the swirling winds. The powder was the consistency of flour. It was dark tan. The dust immediately was everywhere in the room. The bookseller was covered in it as well. In a moment the winds subsided, and the room was silent except for an enormous soft purring sound. The room vibrated a bit with each purr.
In a moment, Barbara was on one side of him and Althea on the other.
“By Jove, I think you did it!” Barbara said enthusiastically and slapped him on the back of his shoulder.
“Are you all right?” Althea asked.
“I…am… I feel…very…calm…”
“Now, if my instructions are correct, we can free the Snallygaster. It is quieted and won’t go out wreaking havoc.”
“How do we do that?”
“We remove one of the hex signs.”
“I…have…been trying to do that since we first discovered them. No one would let me.” He sighed heavily.
“That was then. This is now. We should remove that one,” Barbara said, pointing. “That is the rear wall of the building. We don’t want the creature escaping through a wall into the store. That might cause all kinds of problems.”
“Like what?” the bookseller asked.
“I’m not quite sure. The instructions are a little vague at this point. Here. I brought you this.”
Barbara retrieved a little pry bar from the billowy folds of her skirt and handed it to him.
The bookseller took it and walked—very…calmly…—to the back wall. He began prying out the clamps holding the six-foot diameter hex sign. Slowly he was able to work the metal spikes from the mortar in the old stone wall. When he had two removed, it was a matter of simply rolling the sign out of the notch of the third. The sign dropped to the floor.
“What now?” the bookseller asked drowsily.
“Roll it away. Lean it against the wall over there,” Barbara instructed.
He rolled the wooden disc like a wheel across the floor. When he got near the corner of the room, he angled the sign until it became parallel with the next wall.
At that moment, there was the sound of an enormous “YAWN.” Then a kind of sleepy startled “Eh?!?!?!”
Then the sound of rocks being pushed as if by an invisible silent bulldozer!
A gaping hole appeared in the whitewashed stone wall where the disc had hung! Stones tumbled out into the backyard of the bookshop.
A large black and bronze-scaled tail appeared. At its end were two forked spikes. Beyond the tail, they could see an enormous bulky body. The whole thing began to rise into the air above the remaining upper wall and disappear with the sound of vast flapping wings.
Dust filled the room and a cloud of billowed outside in the creature’s wake.
“When I was told it would go through the wall once a hex was removed, I didn’t think it would actually barrel through it!” Barbara exclaimed in surprise.
That’s going to be a mess to clean up,” the bookseller moaned softly.
The two women hurried to and through the wall outside. The bookseller ambled out behind them laconically.
Up in the sky behind the shop, the beast rose higher and higher above the trees. Three enormous owls rose from the forest and headed toward it. They appeared to herd it—directing it to stay in the area. The beast flew awkwardly, tipping one way and then the other. The owls continued round and round it and acted as a kind of shepherding escort. The beast turned back toward the bookshop, circling a bit.
The women stared upward, their mouths agape. The bookseller was studying the damage on the ground, toeing bits of rumble absentmindedly.
“I never thought I would actually see one!” Althea spoke in awe.
“I haven’t seen one in…” Barbara began.
“Ages,” the bookseller completed her thought.
Then to their amazement, the animal began to circle downward, spiraling awkwardly toward them.
It landed heavily about a dozen paces away and stood there swaying unsteadily. It looked at them with eyes about 6 inches in diameter that appeared to be Baltic amber with an obsidian slit in each as irises. It let out a huge sigh and ice-cold steam enveloped the three humans. Its wings still beat slowly, and the draft had them struggling to stay upright.
A tear as big as a heavy crystal shot glass emerged from each eye. It quickly solidified and dropped to the ground with light thumps. The three owls landed next to Althea and Barbara and stood calmly. The birds were as tall as their thighs. Well, in Althea’s case, up to her hip.
“What should we do?” Althea asked.
“I suppose this is the perfect time to build an addition to the bookstore back here,” the bookseller said, looking dreamily at the destruction about him.
“We must get it to safety. It simply would not do to have her discovered here.”
“Her?” Althea asked.
“Most certainly. Can’t you see she is gravid?”
“I thought it was just bloated,” the bookseller posited vaguely.
“I believe she has a clutch of seven within her.”
Barbara looked skyward, her head scanning round and round. Off to the west, there was a single white cottony cloud not high above the horizon the treeline provided. Barbara waved her hand at it as if to get its attention. Then she extended her left arm and began drawing the limb toward herself over and over in a summoning motion.
“You’re calling in a cloud,” the bookseller stated matter-of-factly in an unsurprised manner.
The cloud came closer and closer. Barbara began using both arms with a bit of urgency to speed it up. It became grayer and grayer as it approached. It began to descend toward them. Soon the all space behind bookstore was covered in an opaque gray mist.
Barbara’s words came from the spot where she had been standing between Althea and the bookseller. “Well! I think this may work nicely. Are you coming, Althea?”
“I’m not quite sure. We need to find somewhere safe for the Snallygaster to lay and hatch and raise her brood.”
“We can take care of her up on the way.”
The bookseller seemed to awaken from his confusion. “Althea?!” he called plaintively.
“I will require your assistance, Althea,” Barbara ordered.
“I…must…go. It is the last one in the universe.”
“But the bookshop…will I ever…will you ever…”
“Someday…some…time… I hope.”
With that, the cloud began to rise and head off above the treeline with the two women and the beast inside it. The three enormous owls were trailing it in formation.
Soon the cloud disappeared over the horizon in the direction of Althea’s cottage. It had become quite dark, and flashes of light were emanating from it every few moments.
The bookseller looked about him on the ground strewn with stone and rubble. He was alone. Where the Snallygaster had stood were two piles of crystal teardrops piled calf high on the grass. He stepped over and picked one up. It was very cold and very hard. He held it up to the sky. A brilliant white flash flickered inside it as if it were alive with its own fire.
“I suppose I should get a bucket for these,” he mumbled to himself.
He stepped through the hole in his wall. Passing the hex sign, he thought: ‘I wonder if it’s ok to sell these now.’
There was a distant boom of thunder, as if in warning.
“I suppose I should call Tim and get him to bring some plywood or something to cover up the hole. I wonder how I could explain it.”
Hey reached gingerly to the doorknob, but it was neither hot nor cold. It felt just right. He stepped through the door into the bookstore proper and for some reason crossed to the literature aisle in order to head toward the front and make some calls.
A book was in the middle of the aisle some paces away. As he got closer, he saw it was an enormous elephant folio of Paradise Lost splayed, albeit gently, upon the black and white checked tile floor. The Dore image of Satan being cast from heaven was embossed in brilliant gold upon the blood-red leather cover.
At its sight, his fogged confused quelled mind focused suddenly. He dropped heavily to his knees, bent his head and sobbed uncontrollably.
When he was spent minutes or hours later, he rose, picked up the book and carefully closed it. It was too large to fit under his arm, so he marched to the front carrying the massive tome in two hands before him.
“I would have always wanted one of these had I known such a thing even existed,” he mused distractedly.
He set it on the counter and stepped around to the other side.
“‘Why not?’ he thought and walked to the front door and unlocked it. He turned the sign in the window from Closed to Open.
He went to his office and sat at his desk and looked up at the golden ring pinned to the wall above it.
He cursed it under his breath. He patted his pockets.
“My phone. Damn! I’ve lost it again!”
He walked out to the sales counter and stepped to the old landline wall phone which had hung there since he bought the place. It was a dial phone made of avocado green plastic.
He had never disconnected it. He had to look up Tim’s number on the ancient Rolodex that still rested on the shelf beneath the counter. He stuck his forefinger into the “1” hole and pulled it downward. Then he did the same with Tim’s area code and the next 7 numbers of his phone number.
“I need you right away. It’s an emergency.”
“I have a big proj…”
“Emergency, Tim. Now.”
“Do I need to pick up anything?”
He thought for a moment and then remembered the big pile of paneling Tim had removed from the wall.
“No. Just plenty of nails and screws and 2x4s.”
“I’ve always got those. What am I doing? You’re not making me work in that creepy room again, are you?”
“No. It’s outside. You’re covering a hole for me.”
“On my way.”
He leaned down and put his head onto his crossed arms upon the counter. There were no more sobs left in him, but tears dropped onto his sleeves. He felt abjectly sad and hollow to his core.
The front door opened. The silver bell tinkered surprisedly but then with a warm welcome. The bookseller leaned forward and looked over to see who was coming in.
No one was there.
‘Spooks,’ he thought.
He put his head back down on to his arms.
‘I can’t do this anymore,”‘ he thought.
There was a soft “thump” on the counter near him and then he felt a soft caress against his forearm. He opened his eyes. It was Mathilda. She was rubbing her furry smoky gray cheek against him. She was purring softly and deeply.
He straightened and gently scratched her back. She arched up in response and pushed back against his probing fingers.
“Well. I suppose this means you have adopted me? Now the store must have a bookstore cat against all my better judgment.”
Tim arrived, and they went outside and around the building. When they got to the gaping hole, Tim asked:
“I’m not sure. Just cover it up until we can figure out what to do back here. There’s been all kinds of strange animals around here recently, and I don’t any of them wandering in.”
“Ok, boss man.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Soon Tim was banging and screwing loudly, as he was wont to do.
The day passed quickly. The bookseller called Sally to come in and help.
“Hey! Call my cell phone, please. Maybe I can find it if I hear it ring.”
A minute later, Tim came from the back, holding the bookseller’s phone. “I heard it ringing under the rubble in that room.”
When closing time came, they had bought 47 boxes of books. They had sold the equivalent of three boxes. A typical ratio.
Tim came in about then.
“Done! Can I get a check? I’m a bit tight right now.”
The bookseller slid the big floppy checkbook from beneath the counter and began writing.
“What’s in the bucket?” Tim asked, pointing at the galvanized steel bucket on the floor by the bookseller’s feet. It was covered with a towel.
“Diamonds, I think.”
Tim chuckled at that and took the check.
“I’ll start making drawings for the addition back there.”
Sally followed Tim to the door. When they exited, the bell made a bittersweet chime.
He turned the sign to Closed.
“What’s for dinner, Mathilda?”
She leapt off the counter and crossed to the little pantry. He heard a little metallic clunk and went in. On the floor was a can of Genova tuna. Mathilda was pushing a second one off the shelf with her nose.
“That’s a meal I’m confident I can prepare. One for me and one for you.”