The bookseller awoke much earlier than he wanted. That was so often the case. The thin light of the false dawn had started some birdsong.
Ayesha rested upon his chest. He had managed to slip in a pen as a bookmark where he had stopped. He hadn’t gotten very far reading. But he had traveled to many places after Hypnos had drawn his shade over the bookseller’s mind.
The exact plots of the dreams had faded, but tantalizing impressions remained. The feeling that he wanted to return to them was strong—almost a yearning. But he knew once light began, he could never go back to sleep.
He rose and began the morning’s routine. Much of the stiffness of rest had gone by the time he started down the steps with his book in one hand and the empty crystal tumbler in the other.
In the kitchen, the wrapping paper and twine was an incongruous pile on the green marble counter. He started the water for coffee and then stepped to the big bay window that looked out and down into the woods sloping from the house. The yellow orange of dawn was on the horizon. The sunrise would start some 30 minutes later. When the teakettle began screaming, he poured the water into the French press. He walked around the house a bit, but nothing had changed. It was a fairly large house, but he primarily used the kitchen, bedroom and bath. The rest of the place was essentially a permanent set now. But there was no play. No one visited much anymore. He thought of the past year and could count the number of visitors on one hand—excluding tradespeople.
‘Time to go,’ he thought.
He pressed down on the plunger. The brown black liquid swirled over the stainless steel disc until it disappeared in darkness. He then poured about 20 ounces of black coffee into an enormous mug.
Gathering up the book and wrapping it under one arm and curling a few fingers around the mug handle, he headed out. He finagled the front door open and walked to the book van. A red orange half-disc of sunrise reflected in the driver’s side window.
When he pulled the door of the bookshop open, the little silver bell above rang brightly but with a bit of apprehension.
He headed toward the front counter and was surprised to see Mathilda atop it. She was hunched over the laptop, staring at it intently. Next to it was an old book opened to its copyright page.
“Good morning Mathilda. Doing some research?”
She tapped her two front paws on the keyboard a few times. He heard the swooshing of an email being sent. That done, she looked up at him with a gimlet stare. She slipped her nose under the front board of the book and raised her head. The book shut with a gentle “woof.”
The bookseller looked beyond the cat and computer and saw there were about a dozen books spread out on the counter.
‘One, two, three…eleven!’ he tallied them mentally.
“I brought breakfast!” he said brightly. “I stopped at 7-11. They didn’t have much to choose from. There was no time for the grocery this morning.”
He withdrew three small cans from a plastic bag which hung from his wrist. He stacked them proudly upon the counter.
Mathilda looked over, and her eyes widened. The hair on her back rose, and her tail expanded to thrice its diameter.
Then she gave a great sneeze and tiny droplets of snot sprayed over the screen on the laptop.
She rose and swiftly padded to the bookseller and pushed the little stack over the counter’s edge. They fell to the black and white checked linoleum floor with a clatter. One landed on its edge and rolled out of sight down the Literature Isle.
“I take it that brand is not acceptable?” the bookseller inquired. “Maybe we can go online and look together for something will do.”
Mathilda hopped off the counter and trotted into the pantry. The bookseller followed, and she leapt to the counter on the old oak hutch. From there, she hopped up on to the second shelf above that. She began to push out the second to last remaining can of Genova tuna packed in spring water. The bookseller stepped forward and picked it up just before it headed for the floor.
“You like this Mediterranean tuna. Ok. I’ll prepare your breakfast, Mattie.”
There was a low growl, and the bookseller was able to see her bare her fangs since they were practically nose to nose.
“Ok. No nicknames, Mathilda.”
The cat landed on the floor with a soft thump and trotted back to the sales counter. The bookseller went to the sink and opened the can. He drained the water into the sink and then shook its contents out onto a Portmeirion saucer. He gently forked the cylinder of near solid fish muscle into smaller bits and carried the dish out to the counter. Mathilda was posed sphinx-like before the laptop. The bookseller looked over her shoulder. She was on a page of organic cat food recipes.
“You think I’m going to cook for you?! I don’t even cook for myself—beyond melting frozen leftovers!”
She gave a little growl and then moved to the saucer he had set to the left of the computer. She settled in and began nibbling on the fish.
“I got you milk, but it’s not organic. Want some?”
The cat purred and nodded her head without taking her face from the food.
The bookseller went into the pantry and poured some milk into a bowl. He took it out and set it next to the food.
“It’s cold. Is that ok?”
Mathilda purred in assent.
“If it’s ok with you, I’ll catch up on my orders and emails. I can’t be looking up cat food recipes all morning.”
He minimized the organic chicken recipe for future study and started looking at his emails. About a dozen dropped in from “Mathilda.”
He clicked on the name in one that he opened, and the email address was: “Mathilda@…HIS BOOKSTORE!”
“How did you get an email account?”
The cat ignored him and continued eating.
The bookseller turned back to the email. The subject line was a book—title and author. When he looked at the body of the email, it was a catalog description for the book with a price. Below that were notes:
“Via Libri matches 5. Prices $55 -175. 2 by amateurs (“Book is super clean!”…) Our copy is far better than others. $275 is my recommendation. World Cat shows 37 copies.”
He started opening the others. There were eleven total. All were spot on but one.
“Results are contradictory. I might want your opinion on this one.” Followed by the data she had found.
He looked at the books on the counter. They matched the books described in the emails. He compared each one. The descriptions were spot on. He went to Via Libri and looked at matches there.
“Exactly…I can just cut and paste the descriptions onto my database.”
He looked at the time stamps. The eleven books had been searched and described in about an hour.
She cocked her head slightly and gave him a supercilious look out of the corner of her eye. She moved to the milk and began lapping daintily at it.
The bookseller began cutting and pasting the description into his books for sale database. He gave each one a catalog number beginning with “M.”
By then Mathilda had finished her breakfast. She stood and stretched. She arched her back and then pressed down on her front paws, raising her rear end—pointed demurely away from the bookseller.
“Clean plate club!”
She gave him a “that’s a bad joke” look and hopped off the counter.
“Don’t worry. I’ll do the dishes.”
She returned in a few minutes just as he was coming in from the office with a stack of books to research. She sat on the counter and began cleaning herself, doing impossible contortions.
“Wish I was that limber. You want a job?”
She didn’t look up from her licking.
“I’m afraid I can’t offer you more than room and board. I don’t suppose benefits would do you any good.”
“Your research was excellent, I must say. You can CAT-a-log all day if you want!” he laughed aloud at that.
“MrrrrOOOOOOWWW!” she howled in derision.
She moved across the counter and nudged his hands away from the laptop. She lifted her head up toward the big white moon face clock and flicked her tail impatiently. He followed her gaze.
“Ah…opening time. I’ll turn the sign.”
He left the counter and headed for the front door. Mathilda pushed the top book off the stack he had left. She swatted gently at it until the front cover flipped open. Then she used her damp nose to turn the pages until she got to the title page. She turned to the laptop and began tapping away at it with certain claws extended. When the bookseller returned, he stood across from her in stunned astonishment.
She would use her paw on the mouse pad to move the cursor. Sometimes she would dampen her paw with her pink tongue.
“You’re pretty good with that MOUSE pad! Hahaha…!”
At that, she reached up and pulled the laptop closed with her two front paws. She stood glowering at him, her tail flicking perturbedly.
“Ok. Ok. Sorry about the puns. This is new territory for me. I’ll have to get used to this. Is it ok if I go out and pull some orders?”
Mathilda sat and nibbled at her right paw.
“How ’bout I plug you in. I don’t want the battery dying on you. “
She circled a couple times and set herself before the computer.
He pulled open the machine and fished out the charging cord and plugged that in. Then he walked into the office and brought out another stack of books for her to look up.
“I’ll be out in the stacks. I’ll be able to hear the door open if anyone comes. Tim might be in to finish sealing that back wall where the Snallygaster busted out.
Hours passed, and there were no customers. But the bookseller was several days behind pulling online orders, so he had plenty of work to do.
He noticed there were no errant books lying on the floor.
“The books must be exhausted from all the excitement recently. I hope they continue resting on their shelves. I need a break too.”
He thought about calling Sally in to help. There was a lot of stocking to do.
“‘Mathilda won’t be able the stock books…will she?’ he pondered.
But Sally had always been averse to cats. Passionately averse.
“Maybe I can hide Mathilda in the Snallygaster room when Sally comes. She would never dream of going in there. I think the WiFi would work back there. But how would Mathilda feel about being shunted into a formerly haunted room?”
He heard the front door open, and the silver bell above chimed apprehensively.
By the time the bookseller got to the counter, there was a little old man standing before it. He wore a heavy near black woolen coat, though the weather hardly called for it. He was quite short. His shoulders were level with the sales counter. He had a bowler hat pulled down tight on his head. So tight the brim made his ears protrude. His left leg was much shorter than his right, and the small wrinkled shiny black leather boots he wore had a 3-inch heel on the right and a 7-inch heel on the left.
There was a box on the counter. Mathilda was on her hind legs and her front paws were pressed on the box so she could peer in. The bookseller circled the counter so he could face the customer while he inspected the box’s contents.
“What have we here?” he asked brightly, noting the little man had very thick round glasses. They were what the bookseller would indelicately call coke-bottle glasses when he was a kid. One lens was much thicker than the other, and it magnified that eye so his all black iris seemed to fill the whole thing.
“Playing cards! 30 dozen plus 6 less one! Mathilda here has been inspecting them!” the man said loudly.
“How do you know her…never mind. We don’t do much here with playing cards, I’m afraid.”
“These aren’t ordinary decks, sir! These are highly collectible! Take this one, for instance!”
The man stretched up to reach in and retrieve a set of cards. He set it on the counter between the two men. Mathilda dropped to all fours and leaned in close to inspect. The card box looked very old—perhaps early 19th century. Four images appeared painted on the outside.
“Have you ever wondered why there are four suits in a typical deck of cards?” the man asked.
“Two people. Four hands?”
“Possibly…but what do you see here, on the box?”
“The four seasons?”
“Indeed! Well done!”
He gently pried up the flap with his thumb and shook out the deck. He expertly fanned the whole deck out in a wide arc in less than a second.
“Ooohhh…” the bookseller exclaimed.
“Burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…” Mathilda rumbled.
They were stunning. Each card brilliantly painted. The traditional suits were replaced by red leaves, black snowflakes, red tulips and black ears of corn.
“Why, I’ve never…”
“I know you haven’t,” said the man whose accent was hard to place. Dutch?
He waved his hand rapidly over the spread cards, and they were back in their box in a flash.
“Here’s another one.”
With that, he reached into the box and withdrew another set. He held them about two inches about the counter between his right thumb and forehand middle fingers. He moved his arm to the right, and 13 cards dropped in perfect order face down. He moved his hand a few inches closer to himself and moved his arm to the left. 13 cards dropped one at a time in perfect order facing up. It took just a few seconds to repeat the process for the third and fourth rows. The cards that were face up were in perfect order. Ace to King. Those suits were represented by clouds and flames.
While the first set appeared to have done in oils, this set was drawn in pen and ink and watercolored and hand an 18th century appearance.
“The suits can also represent the four elements. Earth, wind, fire and water. The same thing, really.”
“I know they are.”
With that, he drew his hand across the rows that were face down and instantly they were realigned face up in perfect order with the rows below them.
“Now we have four rows of 13 cards. Why 13?”
“Mroooow!” Mathilda replied.
“Precisely! The lunar cycle has thirteen months or cycles!”
“And there are 52 weeks in a year!” the bookseller blurted out.
The little man cocked his head and his eyes widened. His black irises completely filled the thick lenses of his glasses.
“Would that it twere that simple!” he replied a bit pedantically. “But I suppose there’s no harm in amateurish conjecture.”
With that, he instantly swept up the four rows and boxed them.
His hand went into the box again and retrieved yet another set. He shook the deck out into his hand and in a swirling motion spread them into a spiral on the counter. He started at the outside, and the final card was perfectly positioned in the spiral’s center.
“Oooohhhh…” the bookseller exclaimed in childlike pleasure.
They appeared to be made of thick vellum, and each had the appearance of the hand of medieval illuminator. Bright spots of pure gold glowed warmly from each.
“How many pips are there here?”
The bookseller looked at the ceiling, calculating with his finger pressed to his lips.
“I cannot wait that long! 220! If we assign the Joker 11. The queen 12. The king 13 that adds up to what?”
The bookseller started tapping the fingers on his right hand with the forefinger on the left.
“I haven’t the time, I am afraid. The answer is 364!”
He raised the cards’ box about two feet above the center of the spiral and shook. A lone card slowly floated down and landed atop the center of the spiral. It was a harlequin in white and red. In each hand, the harlequin held a golden ball.
“The Joker makes it 365!”
He shook the box again, and another card floated down upon the last. Another harlequin. This in black and white.
“How old are…”
“Fourteenth century! Flemish! Now all the rest of these decks are equally intriguing. And each tells a different story. A story a day for a year if you keep them that long. And the fortunes they tell I guarantee to be faultless! Do we have a deal?!”
“A deal for what?”
“For your Albertus Magnus. You have a set of 38 volumes from 1899. And I understand there’s a leaf from the 1476 De mineralibus in each.”
“I…I have never cataloged that…how did you know…”
“These things get around in my circle!” the little man exclaimed.
“I don’t know…” the bookseller leaned and peered down into the box. The decks of cards seemed to swirl and move about like serpents below. “I don’t have such experience with cards.”
“I can tell that at a glance! Do we have a deal? You will do quite well. These have astrological value!”
“You mean astronomical?”
He felt a slight pain and looked down. Mathilda had her front paws upon his hand, and her claws were gently digging in. Her eyes looked up and met his. Her head gave a little nod.
“I always like to know why a customer is parting with something valuable.”
“I am getting old. My hands have become too slow to do what I need to with these sorts of treasures. And I understand there may be notes on those leaves in your books. Notes that are valuable only to me and the formulae I have been working on for…ages.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“I’ll send my man by in the buggy this afternoon. He has no English, but you will recognize him by his hat. It is the same as mine!”
With that, the man turned and headed toward the door. The bookseller leaned over the counter and watched his progress. Despite his odd footwear, the man had no limp. However, it was impossible not to note that the man’s left arm was a number of inches longer than his right. When he pushed the door open, the bell above rang with the sound of wind chimes made of silver dollars.
“I guess we are broadening our range, Mathilda. I wonder if it was meant to be? Maybe it was in the cards…OWW! You drew blood!”
The day passed quickly. Mathilda cataloged 211 books. The bookseller pulled 59 orders.
“I’ll need to call in Sally to help me pack these, Mathilda. Can you work in the Snallygaster room tomorrow?”
She sat and raised her left hind leg straight up and licked the haunch. Her eyes looked daggers at him.
“Think about it. Maybe I’ll cook up some chicken tonight. Does it have to be organic?”
She mewed affirmatively.
“You can actually tell the difference?”
She mewed affirmatively.
“Ok. There’s one can of Genova left in the pantry that will have to do tonight. There’s plenty of milk.”
He went to the pantry and started prepping. Mathilda followed and leapt up onto the counter to observe. He carried the saucer of fish and the bowl of milk out to the counter. Mathilda leapt up and walked around the plates, deciding where to begin.
“Where is she, Mathilda? Althea,” his voice was an anatomy of melancholy.
Mathilda circled twice and then sat facing due west. Her tail flicked luxuriously.
“Can’t be more specific?”
She hopped off the counter and trotted up the Science Fiction and Fantasy aisle, looking over her shoulder indicating he should follow.
He came around the counter, and as he got to the aisle, he heard first one and then another book fall to the floor. Mathilda was atop the wooden library steps, looking down at them.
He stepped to one book and bent over it.
He moved to the other.
“Unicorns and wingèd cats? In what undiscovered country are they?”
She sprang off the steps and sped to the front. He heard her soft landing atop the front counter. When he got there, she was busy nibbling on the fish.
He reached blindly into the box of playing cards and withdrew a deck.
“Maybe I’ll play some solitaire tonight, Mathilda.”
With that, he went to the front door and turned the Open sign over. When he pushed the door open, the bell made a soft golden ka-ching sound. He stepped onto the porch and saw there was a red orange sunset. This one had distinct rays spreading like fingers across the sky.
“One, two, three…thirteen!”