In the last episode, Mathilda—a cat who does biblioresearch on antiquarian and rare books—had told the bookseller he should make the house call that the odd visitor named Athelbert was urging.
Well, she did not exactly “tell” him. She couldn’t speak. At least not English. But her body language had made it clear she felt the bookseller should say yes.
“Yes,” the bookseller told Athelbert.
“Well, well, I am certain that this will be a profitable evening for you both.”
Mathilda raised her head and made eye contact with Athelbert. Her eyes glowed gold and brass and bronze all at once.
That apparently disconcerted the fellow, and his head set to wobbling prodigiously.
“Here now, Athelbert,” the bookseller said softly. “Settle down, please. You’re making me dizzy.”
“I am quite sorry. But her eyes! They glowed like rare coins. I have never seen that except in drag…except…well, I have never seen the like in mammals.”
“Have you tried holding your head in your hands to stop it…wobbling so?”
“It would only make it worse, I am afraid. Likely it would set everything into motion. It can take a great deal of time and mental effort to settle everything down. Besides, I have never lost my head…thus far.”
Mathilda gave a solid shake of her head and sneezed.
Athelbert’s eyes widened with pleasure as all his parts ceased moving!
“Gracious sakes, Mathilda. Thank you! And bless you too!”
With that, he reached into his vest and retrieved a pale blue sheet of paper. With barely a tremor, he laid it upon the counter before them both.
“I have made detailed instructions…umm, directions for you. If you follow them to the letter, you will arrive in practically no time after you leave this state.”
“Mary…oh, geography.” Athelbert chuckled. “No. I mean after you have left an entirely different kind of state. I will leave the catalog of books with you. Mathilda can study it further for the rest of the day. You must bring it with you, however. MUST. If you do not, I will be… He will…”
His body gave a great shudder. Every part shook briefly and then settled back into place.
“You must bring this list with you!”
With that, he turned and headed toward the front door. His yellow boots clicked and clacked across the black and white tiled floor. He paused and turned after a few steps.
“I see that you close at 6 this evening. If you depart immediately, you should arrive at 7:11. Barring misadventure, naturally.”
Both the bookseller and Mathilda leaned over the counter’s edge so they could follow the rest of the man’s progress. With each step he took, he tilted 23 degrees to the right or 19 degrees to the left. However, his body parts did not wobble.
He pushed the front door open and disappeared when it closed behind him.
The little silver bell above the door trilled tremulously.
“Why, he barely wobbled at all. You cured him, Mathilda—with your sneeze—like curing hiccups!”
“Pffft,” she uttered derisively.
“These directions seem pretty clear. ‘At the exit of the parking lot, turn east. At the third stop sign, turn east. In 1.3 miles when the road splits, bear east.’ How can we continue going east without going in circles? There must be 29 turns on this sheet. Wait! Look at the final instruction: ‘When the road ends, keep going. You will arrive shortly thereafter.'”
Mathilda stood, stretched languorously and then peered at the directions. She looked at the bookseller. Her eyes glowed like old gold coins. They then became silver.
“‘When the road ends, keep going.’ What can that mean?”
Mathilda sidled over to the list and continued perusing it. Periodically she would extend a single claw and prick a hole with it into the paper beside a book’s entry.
“You think they actually exist and are that good?”
She gave a deep and rumbling purr.
“Do you think there is any risk? I mean Athelbert has said some very strange things.”
Mathilda made a soft chirping noise that lasted a few moments.
“Yes, I agree. It is the things he ALMOST said that are even more troubling.”
He started to turn from the counter and then brought himself up suddenly.
“How did you speak to me?! I understand exactly what you…chirruped!”
Mathilda turned her head over her shoulder and cocked it at him. She contorted herself and groomed her left hip with her tongue. She then turned back and continued scanning the list.
“I suppose I’d better put empty boxes into the van. I’ll go get it fueled full as well. Though the trip may only last 1 hour and eleven minutes—according to Athelbert—I suspect we may be going a lot further.”
He sauntered over to the door, rocking right and left a bit as if Athelbert’s gait had been contagious. When he exited, the bell above rang chill—as if it was shivering.
When he returned from filling the van, there was a young woman with a stack of books before her on the counter. Mathilda was tapping the keyboard before the screen that acted as the cash register with one of the pads on her left forepaw.
“Good afternoon,” the bookseller said. “Did you find some treasures?”
“Oh yes! Some Roycroft classics. They are all hand-illuminated throughout.”
The bookseller stepped to the counter and picked up one of the limp suede books.
“Really?” He gently opened one. Indeed, the title page and all the engraved capitals beginning each chapter were meticulously colored.
“I wonder how I missed that.”
“Only one of them is signed.” The young woman picked up a thin Emerson. “See!”
She opened the book to the colophon page at the rear and pointed a long delicate forefinger to the page. The finger was lengthened another 31 millimeters by a carefully tapered fingernail. It was painted in a color he could not place. It was a kind of blue somewhere between turquoise and robin’s egg blue.
“Nellie signed it!” she spoke with pride of discovery.
“You speak as if you knew her.” The bookseller chuckled.
“Nellie? We keep in touch.”
“This work was illuminated 121 years ago!”
“Yes, it was. I am glad I found them all. And so reasonably priced!”
The bookseller looked at the penciled prices.
“What was I thinking!?” he exclaimed. “I must have missed the illuminations and believed they were just trade editions!”
Mathilda snickered. If you have never heard a cat snicker, you will just have to use your imagination.
The cat then placed a paw on the screen to indicate how much was owed. The young woman inserted a credit card in the chip reader on the counter. In a few moments, there was a “Ping” indicating the transaction had gone through.
The bookseller tore off the receipt and placed it inside the topmost book.
“Would you like a bag?”
“Do you need any help here?” the young woman asked. She was looking around the place. “You have books all over the floor. It is kind of a mess.”
“I…we do hire sometimes. What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t.” She laughed like a roiling stream flowing through infinite wind chimes.
“Oh. I don’t understand.”
“I thought I might like a summer job.”
“But it isn’t sum…”
“It is somewhere.”
“Would you like an application? It is just a formality. We need certain information for the accountant—taxes, you know.”
He brought out a sheet of paper from below the counter. She took it from him.
“I will think about it. I do not like being tied down in one spot too long.”
“Oh, you like to travel?”
“I suppose you could call it that.”
“Well, here’s the number. Call if you have any questions. May I ask your name?”
There was a pregnant pause.
“Ummm…well, thank your for your purchases. You found some nice treasures.”
“Nellie will be so amused that I’ve found some of her old work. You should see what she is doing now. It’s, it’s…celestial!”
“Nellie. Yes. 121 years old.”
“141 next June. Annirosa.”
“My name is Annirosa. At least one of my names.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m…”
“I know. I will consider the summer job. Are you flexible? There are times when I need to fly.”
“I…think…if you can give me a little notice, we can work things out. I’m here all the time. It would be nice to have any help right now. Mathilda is of great assistance. But there are tasks which she is incapable of.”
Annirosa reached across the counter to shake his hand. Her fingers were very, very long and overwrapped his hand entirely. She looked at him, and her eyes were the same unplaceable blue as her nails.
“Well, it sounds like my cup of tea. Old books speak to me.”
“They do to me as well.”
“Really? None have said so. Perhaps I will start tomorrow.”
With that, she turned and headed along the aisle to the front door. As she passed each aisle, a book fell from a shelf and dropped to the floor in her wake. When she pushed the door open, the little silver above it trilled like a mountain stream roiling through infinite wind chimes.
“Well, I’ll be… What are your thoughts, Mathilda?”
She purred softly.
The rest of the day proceeded apace.
The bookseller bought 23 boxes of books from 7 different sellers over the course of the afternoon. He sold the equivalent of 3 boxes to 11 buyers. A typical ratio.
As the afternoon aged, he began planning for their departure.
“Should I bring boots and a coat, Mathilda?”
The feline leapt off the counter and trotted to her bowl. She rattled it with her paw.
“Early supper, eh?”
There were no late customers. When 6 pm approached, he went into his office to flip the Open sign to Closed.
He reached for the light switch near his desk. The golden ring which hung from a pin in the wall above his desk glowed warmly. Without thinking, he reached for it and squeezed it in his palm. It was quite warm. He pushed it into his trouser pocket.
‘Just in case,’ he thought, though he didn’t know what he meant by that.
He stepped out to the counter.
“Are you coming, Mathilda?”
She trotted out from her tiny private area. Her coat was…different.
“Wow! You look great! What did you do with your hair? I mean fur.”
She paused, bent and groomed her left thigh with her tongue.
She started trotting at his heel but thought better of it and accelerated to lead the way.
He pushed the door open, and the bell tinkled with great apprehension and concern.
They crossed the porch and descended to the parking lot.
He opened the van door, and Mathilda bounded up to the floor, to the driver’s seat and across to the passenger seat.
The old van sprang to life, rattling and wheezing and shaking.
He headed for the exit. Stopped. Removed the sheet of directions and spread it out on the console below the dashboard between the seats.
It was getting dusky. He pulled the knob to turn the headlights on. When he got to the street, he put on his blinker and turned onto it.
He followed the directions. Turn after turn. But always heading east.
Southeast, northeast, south-southeast, north-northeast…and just plain east.
For the first 45 minutes, the roads were familiar.
Then they were in some part…was it still Maryland? It had to be. But nothing looked quite right. The fauna was odd.
“I don’t recognize those conifers, Mathilda. They are kind of like hemlocks. I don’t recall hemlock forests in Maryland.
“They are enormous. Almost like redwoods.”
It became misty. Night was falling. The sun was down…somewhere. Drops of water fell from the branches high above.
“These remind me of the coastal groves in California. I would so much like to go to there again. This forest…it must be a state or national park I’ve never heard of…it feels prehistoric.”
The turns continued.
Southeast, northeast, south-southeast, north-northeast…and just plain east.
They continued in the forest for some miles. The trees towered over the van from both sides of the road.
The last instructions but one read:
“Turn east on the unmarked road in 1.11 miles. There is an old rusty sign on the corner that reads: ‘Bookshop.'”
A narrow break in the forest appeared up ahead on the left. The bookseller slowed the van and turned on the bright lights. There was a mere sliver of a road there. And a battered rusty pockmarked sign “Bookshop” was visible amongst the roadside weeds. It tilted precariously eastward on its decaying posts.
“What happens next, Mathilda?”
She replied with soft growling purr.
“So we turn onto this, eh?”
He was no longer surprised that he understood her.
“It’s little more than a path. Not much wider than the van. If that,” he whispered.
He turned and entered the lane. It was paved, but the ancient asphalt was cracked and potholed. Branches scratched both sides of the van. He stopped and peered as far as the headlights would let him. Beyond the last illumination, it appeared like a dark tunnel and gloomy.
“I wonder how far this goes? There’s no mileage on the instructions. And is there still a bookshop? I would think I would know a bookshop that was only an hour or so away.”
He started slowly down the road. Very slowly. The light, what remained of it, became strange. It was as if it was breaking up on either side of them.
“Mathilda, when I was young and foolish, I once chased a rainbow down a side road. I drove very fast trying to catch it, trying to get inside it’s base the foot of the rainbow. The light became like this. Fractalizing.”
Mathilda made an inquisitive purring growl.
“What happened then? I was within a sea of color for a few moments. And then the rainbow moved off the road, and I could only look up at it in the sky.”
“Very funny. You’re right, I AM no longer young, but I’m still…”
They drove on and on. The road got narrower. It then turned to gravel.
And then it ended.
The bookseller stopped the van.
Off to the right was a decrepit old clapboard building. The gray wood had long ago lost its paint. The whole building sagged toward the east. The door was ajar. The windows were vacant and black. They looked like empty eye sockets. A rusty sign dangled precariously from the front porch. It read “We Buy All Books.”
“I don’t think it is open, Mathilda.” He chuckled nervously.
She purred softly.
“They haven’t bought or sold books here for many, many years.”
Then he stared ahead. He turned on the bright lights again. There was no road. No path. Just the forest floor covered with dun colored hemlock needles.
“What do we do now?”
The cat made a sound.
“Go on? The van doesn’t have four-wheel drive.”
She reached and placed a paw on the instruction sheet. One claw pointed to the final line:
“When the road ends, keep going.”
She repeated the sound.
He put the van into low gear and crept ahead very slowly. Very, very slowly…
To be continued…