Rare Books

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright


Books
Photo Credit: Ben Leto

My uncle Robbie works for the NYPD, so even though I only eat over there once a week, I’ve gotten used to almost every dinner being interrupted by a murder or a robbery. Aunt Lauren insists that we eat together “as a family” which means putting everything in the fridge until he gets back closed-mouth and depressed and we choke down the congealed, cold remains.

On this particular day we’re nearly done eating when the phone rings so I start cramming big bites of mashed potatoes into my mouth. Lauren shoots me a look but I just keep eating while Robbie grunts a lot into the phone.

He comes back already wearing his coat. “Jules, I’ll take you home. I shouldn’t have to be there long, and it’s in your direction.”

“Dad lets me take the subway alone,” I say, but he ignores me. I swipe a couple cookies and stuff them in my backpack.

Leaving Robbie and Lauren’s apartment on the Upper East Side is always surreal. The halls and stairs and elevator gleam, and the doorman always smiles at us. It’s a far cry from my dad’s and my cramped walk-up in Alphabet City, whose staircases usually smell of pot and are stained with vomit and other things I don’t want to look at too closely.

Robbie hails a cab and pretty soon we’re zooming down Second Avenue. Neither of us feels like talking. I stare out the window at the buildings flashing by.

“We can get out here,” Robbie calls to the cabbie. We’re in front of a swanky hotel that I’ve never seen before. Robbie looks at me and glances around. “You’ll have to wait in the hallway,” he says finally. I know he’s thinking that Lauren will yell at him if he makes me sit out on the street.

“Sid, can you keep an eye on Jules?” Robbie asks when we get upstairs, not waiting for an answer before he brushes past us and starts talking to one of the detectives. People in uniforms are milling around everywhere, holding coffees and notebooks and talking very seriously. I exchange half-hearted waves with a few who’ve seen me before.

Sidney, a rookie cop who has been stuck on Jules duty before, greets me amiably enough, giving no hint that babysitting isn’t really his job.

“Whatcha reading these days, Jules?” he asks, but his heart isn’t in it.

What we both really want to be doing is eavesdropping on the investigation. In unspoken agreement, we meander closer to the open hotel room door. There’s a table over in that direction where a hassled-looking young woman is handing out coffees.

Sidney saunters up to the table. “Hey Liz, how about snacks for me and my friend here?” He nudges me and I blush, but Liz smiles kindly and hands me a cup of lukewarm coffee. I don’t really like coffee but I take a tentative sip so I’m not just standing there.

Robbie sacrifices himself and keeps distracting Liz while I concentrate all my attention on eavesdropping.

“This was on the body,” someone is saying.

I hear Robbie’s distinctive rumble in response.

“It’s some sort of poem” is the response. “It says—

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.”

“Edward Lear,” I mutter to myself. Sidney looks sharply at me but I shake my head and he goes back to distraction mode.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Robbie says. “Suicide note?”

“My grandfather write poetry,” offers a distraught female voice. I lean a bit closer to the door and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating. “Maybe that’s how he decided to say his good-byes…” Her words dissolve into muffled sobs.

“Hey, Jules,” Sidney says, and I open my eyes. Liz looks a bit angry. I know I’ve been too obvious and she’s going to tell me to go stand by the elevator, so before she can, I dash over to the open door.

“It’s not a poem!” I shout. “I mean, it is a poem, but it’s from a book by Edward Lear. He must have…” Then my eyes go past a shocked Robbie and a woman with tearstains on her face and a bandage on her arm and fall on the enormous man lying dead in an easy chair, clutching a fork covered in some brown substance. His eyes are closed but his face looks like he’s in so much pain.

“Jules!” Robbie yells. Behind me, Sidney is apologizing. Robbie stalks towards me and drags me away from the room and out of the hotel. Outside he hails another cab. He doesn’t even yell, that’s how upset he is.

“Mom used to read the book to me,” I offer a few blocks of silence. “A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. I liked that one because we live in New York.”

He doesn’t respond.

“Do you think the granddaughter did it?” I ask after some more silence.

“What?!” Robbie exclaims. He’s really shocked. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, if you were dying and you ripped a page out of a book,” I explain, “you probably wouldn’t have time to put the book back on the shelf, but she pretended there was no book. Maybe the book had evidence and she threw it out so you wouldn’t find it.”

My queasiness about seeing a dead person is now entirely replaced by this idea. Robbie, on the other hand, now looks ill.

“Jules, if the man was trying to tell us anything it was that he was sad and wanted to end his life. Maybe that book gave him comfort at the end.”

I can tell Robbie doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I fall silent, but I’m still thinking about it. I’m thinking, if I’d murdered my grandfather and there was a book that might lead the police to me, what would I do with it? If I just threw it in the trash they might find it. And then I know I have to find out what the next limerick in the book is. Maybe it’ll be something like—

There once was a young woman who—

and then I’ll know it was the granddaughter.

Robbie doesn’t say anything when we pull up in front of my apartment but I know I’m still in the doghouse. I run up three flights of smelly stairs and unlock the two padlocks on our front door. Dad’s sitting on the couch watching Reservoir Dogs like he’s going to be quizzed on it.

I go to bed but I can’t sleep, staring into space and thinking about poems and forks and Edward Lear. The light of the TV from the living room dances on my ceiling all night long.

The next morning I get up early. The TV is still on and Dad has fallen asleep in front of it. I shower and make some cereal really quietly. It’s Saturday so the buses won’t be running very frequently. I weigh my options and decide to walk the mile to the Strand since it’s not raining.

Mom’s copy of A Book of Nonsense disappeared a long time ago. I think Dad got rid of most of her books after she died, excepting the few I was able to sneak into my room. I’m determined to find a copy and figure out what the next limerick is, in case it points to a killer—the granddaughter or someone else.

Usually I try to avoid the clerks at the bookstore but today I need help. I approach the skinny guy who’s standing just past the notebooks and new fiction and he smiles at me.

“I’m—I’m looking for a book?” I stutter and his smile widens.

“We’ve got plenty of them here,” he jokes.

“It’s by Edward Lear? A Book of Nonsense?” I add weakly, wishing everything didn’t sound like a question.

He leads me over to one of the computers and punches it in, then points out the right aisle.

I find the book and sit down in the middle of the aisle to read it. It isn’t a very long book, so it doesn’t take long before I realize I’ve reached the end and I haven’t seen the one about New York and the man with the fork. I flip back to the beginning and read it again, more carefully this time, but it still isn’t there.

Two employees happen along just as I finish. The guy says, “Hey, you’re not allowed to sit in the aisles.”

I scramble to my feet. “I—I have a question,” I say, and he raises an eyebrow. I hold up the book. “I’ve been reading this, but it’s missing pages. I mean, there aren’t any pages torn out or anything,” I add hastily, afraid they’ll blame me, “but there are poems that I remember being in it that aren’t in here.”

“Oh,” says the girl. “It’s a different edition. There were more illustrations in the first two editions, and that one’s the later one. I like Lear, too.”

“Do you have the other one?”

“We might have it up in the rare book collection. It’s pretty expensive…”

“It’s pretty important,” I say, barely louder than a whisper. She glances at the guy, who shrugs, and takes pity on me. I’ve never been up in the rare books collection before. I look around me with awe as I follow her.

“I remembered it because we just got this copy in,” she says, placing it carefully on the table in front of me. “Did you remember that there’s a poem about New York in it? That was always my favorite…” She rifles through the pages just as I did downstairs, with the same expression when she comes to the end and it isn’t there.

“Maybe… it’s been torn out?” I suggest.

We go through page by page, and to my immense excitement find a ragged edge in between two of the pages.

“Whoa,” she says. “That’ll bring down the price. It’s in good condition otherwise.”

I would argue with her—it smells musty and you can barely turn the pages without breaking them—but I’m too eager to see the next poem. I sit down and open the book wide to that page. It says:

There was an Old Person of Chili,
Whose conduct was painful and silly;
He sat on the stairs,
Eating apples and pears,
That imprudent Old Person of Chili.

I sit back, disappointed. I can’t make any sense of it at all. But maybe Robbie or one of the other cops can?

“I need to take this with me,” I tell her. “It might be important evidence.”

“Slow down, kiddo,” she says with a smile. “It’s still worth a couple thousand dollars, even damaged. This is a very rare first edition.”

I call Robbie, hysterical. “I found the book!” I say. “I found the book and the page is torn out but the next page doesn’t make any sense and she sold it so she must have been…”

To Robbie’s credit, he doesn’t tell me to shut up or to forget about the case, he just says he’ll be here as soon as he can.

I’ve calmed by the time he arrives. He looks angry but I jump right into my explanation. “She must have sold the book,” I say. “She knew there was evidence in it and she couldn’t throw it out, and maybe she knew it was expensive. It’s worth a couple thousand dollars,” I add. “But I can’t make sense of the next limerick in it. Maybe you can or…” We flip to the torn-out page and he inspects the ragged edge. Unlike the rest of the pages in the book, the one about Chili is stained with dark trails. I wonder if it’s the same thing that was on the dead man’s fork, if he spilled that last meal on this page.

“Jules…” he says and trails off, closing his eyes.

“Did you find out something more?” I say suspiciously.

“Yes,” he says. “He died from poison. If he committed suicide, we should have found the bottle by now, but we haven’t.”

I’m reeling but he just stands up and flashes his badge. “I need to take this with me,” he tells her, and she actually lets him.

Three days later, I’m microwaving canned spaghetti when Robbie calls. I tuck the phone under my chin and stick one bowl on the side table next to my dad’s spot on the couch.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, sounding tired but with a smile in his voice, “but you were right. There was evidence in the book.”

“The poem made sense?!” I ask excitedly, sloshing tomato sauce over the brim of my bowl.

“Not exactly,” Robbie says. “Those stains on the page turned out to be the granddaughter’s blood. We also found her blood on the fork the dead man was clutching. He must have realized that she’d poisoned him and attacked her.”

I’m stunned. I remember, vaguely, that the granddaughter had a bandage on her arm when I saw her sobbing next to her grandfather’s still body.

“What happened to the book?” I ask after a moment.

“We had to take out the other page to analyze the stains,” he says hesitantly. “It’s not worth as much anymore, and we’ll have to keep it for the trial, but… would you like to have it, after that?”

So I don’t have my mother’s copy any more, and I don’t have the poem about New York, but the book is sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to my desk. It reminds me of my mom, and the dead man whose last thought was probably of it, but it’s not really morbid. It reminds me that books are meaningful, even if not always in the way you expect.

pencil

Ellen Wright lives in New York and works in publishing. Email: ellenbwright[at]gmail.com

As Winter Falls

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright


Wake up. The sun is peeking over the mountaintop, and gentle fingers of sunlight probe at you, awaking again feeling and thought. Stretch your limbs toward the sky, let the wind rustle your leaves.

It is harder to wake, now, as the season grows cold. That was always the case, but once I did not reach as high as I do now, and once I could warm myself.

I have always felt an affinity with those creatures of the wood—that is how I think of them—that stand calm and unmoving, passive regardless of what happens around them. When I was five, I planted an acorn in our backyard. My mother and father insisted that it would not grow, that acorns and seedlings need devoted care if they are going to survive. I ignored their protests, and eventually they gave up in exasperation. I had watched, after all, many acorns fall from their parent trees and sprout without the slightest bit of human interference. But I thought that maybe little trees needed attention from their parents just as I needed attention from mine, so I planted my acorn in the shadow of a great oak.

If my parents hadn’t convinced me that growing things need plenty of ground and water, I might have dug it up and potted it in my room as soon as the tiniest hint of green appeared with the first hint of spring and rebirth. Instead, unhappily, I settled for a pot of roses my mother bought at the grocery store. Flowers were for girls like my sister Lily, who loved them; only the great oaks had that sense of majesty I admired.

Feel the insects buzzing around your trunk. They seek shelter, or food; either way they mean no harm. Feel the few leaves that remain grasping at air, longing to be afloat, even if their journey to the ground will be short and their life after that even shorter. Feel the knives bite into your skin, tracing patterns that will be there long after their designers have abandoned this place.

“Can we build a treehouse?” Lily asked, following my gaze out the window. “Or a swingset? Please?”

My mother, bemused and distracted, said, “We’ll think about it, honey. Here, have some cereal.” I was ten, and Lily was 6, and just starting school that day. She was anxious, but trying to hide it. Our parents’ eyes were blind to the clear signs on her face, but I reached over and offered a hand. She took it gratefully.

“Maybe I would be able to concentrate on my schoolwork better if I had a swingset to play on,” Lily baited. She was concentrating out the window at the great oak and the sapling growing below it, my sapling.

“I’ll have to ask your father.” Of course we did get one. Both, actually; a treehouse first and then the swingset a few months later, once the snows started to melt. By the time Lily’s first year of school had ended, and she and I were playing in the yard with Rob, my 8-year-old brother, there was a solid rope ladder extending down the trunk of my oak, on the opposite side from my sapling. Rob stayed almost entirely on the swings, but Lily and I climbed up into the tree.

“Do you think it hurts the tree?” Lily asked, her childish fingers caressing gently the place into the trunk where the boards had been nailed.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and wondered. Would I want boards nailed into me? I decided that if it were for these children, to give them something to play on, I would gladly make the sacrifice. I smiled, and Lily’s worried expression disappeared under a smile of her own.

Lily never wondered what I was doing when I wrapped my hands around the big trunk and closed my eyes, breathing in the scents. I stood perfectly still until one of my parents called us in for dinner, or until Rob, scoffing, yelled up at me.

“What are you doing?” he yelled from his post on the swing, trying to get his feet as high in the air as he could. Sometimes I thought he wanted to be a bird.

“Being still,” I said back, my voice muffled in the trunk. When I stepped away, I would have marks on my cheek from the parts of the bark that stuck out. They never lasted long, no matter how I tried not to touch them, not to push them back into my skin. Every time after that, when Rob yelled at me, Lily would defend me; the first time she was confused, too, though she no doubt would have jumped to my defense if she’d known how.

“Being still is boring,” Rob said with perfect authority. The swingset groaned with his weight, insignificant though that was, as he flew off it, through the air, to land just on the other side of the sand pit that had been filled underneath it. He stumbled, landed on his knees, and pulled himself up again. “Let’s go inside.”

I obeyed, but turned back to gaze wistfully at the paired trees as we slid the door open; I let a sigh escape my lips, and Lily looked at me oddly. “Come on,” she said, and pulled on my arm. The door slid back closed and though I wrenched my neck around backwards, I couldn’t get that last glance that I longed for.

Listen to the birds calling as they fly away in search of a warmer place. Listen to the last flowers wilting, unable to stand firm in the face of what cold awaits. You would shelter them if you could, but you will have enough trouble withstanding it on your own. Listen to the children calling out their happiness as they come home from school for the last time.

I was never very popular at school. I suppose I was lucky to have Lily, for she understood me more often than not, and more often than anyone else did. The year I was fourteen, there was a girl named Sarah. I think I liked her most because she was so unlike me, graceful where I was clumsy, energetic where I was calm, pretty and articulate where I was unnoticed, tongue-tied. For some reason she latched onto me, and so I invited her to our house.

Mostly I just wanted her to see the treehouse, to see if she would feel the same kinship with that place as I did.

“You still play in a treehouse?” she said, a faint amusement flitting around her mouth and eyes. “How cute.” I felt inadequate.

“Mostly with my brother and sister-” I tried to say, but she was already ahead of me, out the back door and running across the lawn. I stumbled to keep up.

“How do you get up?” Sarah asked, staring with her big brown eyes at the treehouse, towering above her heads, and the rope ladder, dangling at her waist.

“You have to take the rope ladder.” I demonstrated, hooking one foot on the bottom rung and swinging myself to standing. Here I was in my element. Here I could find for myself some of her grace. Sarah held out her hand and grasped mine, and I thrilled at the touch.

>From inside the treehouse, most of our large lawn was visible—everything that wasn’t hidden behind other trees. I felt the distance, looked out over it, clasped in my fist a thin limb that was just suited for my hand. Sarah was crouched in the corner, inspected the flowers Lily had planted. I thought she was standing behind me.

“Pretty,” she said.

I glanced around, startled, and relaxed when I saw that she didn’t mean my view. Pretty—what a word to use to describe that. “Lily planted those. She likes flowers.” The words fell flat even on my own ears.

“You don’t like flowers?”

“Not really.” I scowled. “I prefer trees.” Sarah laughed. Maybe she thought that was cute, too.

Whatever she thought, she didn’t come back to my house.

Oh, it is hard to wake up. Harder, too, now that the leaves have left without looking back. More will grow again in the spring, but what use is waking when your only companions are scattered on the red muddy ground, their colors fleeting in a last triumphant orison? They still celebrate, the wind encouraging them to fly, a whirlwind of fading color. You remember pulling warm blankets up around your neck after waking to the cold, and would shiver if you could.

Rob grew up quickly. He forwent the pleasures of flying through the air as soon as he realized not everyone shared his passion. Though Lily and I would still often be seen digging in the dirt at the base of that great tree or climbing in the treehouse, Rob would be staring at us out his bedroom window, occasionally making faces as if to prove that he was much happier where he was. He discovered books, which were foreign to me and seemed artificial. I preferred living wood to the dead.

Then he discovered girls. Once he could drive, he started bringing them home. They were twittery, bright-colored; none of them could bear the outdoors.

“Oh, I don’t like to go outside,” they would exclaim. “I like to get tanned, but only at the beach.” They ruffled their feathers, and Rob watched them like that proverbial cat.

“Don’t you want a boyfriend, a girlfriend, anyone?” he asked me, his current whim hanging on his arm and complaining loudly about inserts, swatting violently in front of her face.

“Not really,” I responded, looking down on him from my perch in the great oak. Lily dug busily at his feet, fourteen years old and wishing that boys didn’t exist. She had confided to me that there was a boy she liked at school, but he’d laughed at her when she left a rose on his desk, pruned off the bush that had once sat in my room but now graced our front porch.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, and we watched them return to the house. I glanced down at Lily, and she smiled up at me uncertainly.

Winter comes quickly.

As I got older, my grades declined, and my parents worried. Lily was ever-studious, and even Rob passed every class that he took. I couldn’t make myself care, and instead sat at my desk, which faced the window, books open in front of me, and stared outside with my head propped up on my arms.

The moonlight made the great oak shine like a jewel. I had a sudden urge to go outside, and with only a twinge of guilt slammed the books shut. Lily’s door, across from mine, slammed shut. I snuck past it, hoping she wouldn’t hear me and come out; she did sometimes.

The shine was even more striking the closer I came, and I caught my breath in awe. Before I realized it I was running, and all clumsiness in my limbs disappeared.

I enfolded the great oak in an embrace, letting my heartbeat slow against the much deeper rhythm I felt there. As my breath quieted I became aware of another sound behind it, something whispering and calling to me.

“What do you want?” I whispered, suddenly afraid. The whispering became soothing, calming. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be drawn in. I let go of the great oak, walked farther toward the small forest that divided our lawn from the rest of the surrounding land. The cajoling whispers grew louder with every step I took.

Taking a deep breath, I raised my hands above my head and tilted my head back. The change began almost at once; my skin grew rougher and greener, my limbs multiplied and stretched toward the sky.

Across the lawn, the sliding door slammed shut. Lily was running across the grass, calling to me, but her words fell on ears that were covered no longer with skin, but with bark. She slammed against me, her arms circling me as mine had circled the great oak, her sobs echoing within me. In vain I tried to wrap my arms around her, but my branches merely rustled; all of my efforts made a movement much like the lightest breeze could, though the air was still.

Brace yourself, for every cold spell chills more fiercely than the one before it. Brace yourself, for as winter falls, you will be alone.

 

pencil

Ellen Wright lives in Virginia and is a full-time college student and an aspiring full-time writer, though at the moment she’s compensated monetarily for neither. Her dream career is “freelance everything,” since her other hobbies include website & graphic design and translation. She’s never really wanted to be a tree, but thinks it might be fun for a day or two.