Today, i'm going to find the perfect book
As I glanced up at the street sign, my eyes squinted at the harsh sunlight, an unusual time of the year for so much sun. I was pretty sure a bookstore was just around the corner. If I did only one productive thing that day, it would be to find a book, a special book.
Fog, a regular feature of San Francisco weather, wasn't rolling through the streets as it should on a November afternoon. The sunlight was welcome, sure, I guess, except it made everything look at bit too pleasant for my current mood. Either I’d cheer the hell up or find something interesting. I had hoped to slip into the gloom of a mystery, but I found myself walking through a quirky, lighthearted drama.
Someone once called me a bibliophile, a fancy word meaning a person who’s nuts about books. I'm pretty sure it wasn't meant as a compliment, but then how would I know? I’ve never been able to figure people out, although I feel a kind of affinity with them through books—through the words, the design, the binding, the paper, the stories. I'm especially nuts about old, dusty books, you know, the ones with a good weighty feel of history.
Books have personality: some appear to be content and satisfied, thankful for their longevity, while others have an air of self-satisfaction about them, mocking us humans for our short lives, and still others exude a deep loneliness. I believe the lonely ones are grieving for the people that created, owned, and loved them. I often think about how books are human thoughts and experiences in a tangible form, and how they retain and protect this knowledge when their creators pass on to a place beyond thinking.
Despite the chill, my walk was exceedingly pleasant, I thought with an eye-roll, as the street was flanked on either side with bright windows revealing sun-filled cafes, restaurants, and shops. Mixed with the din of the city, footsteps, conversation, and passing cars, I heard a brief moan of the wind and a creaking sound.
Up ahead, the bookstore’s weathered sign jutted out over the sidewalk and creaked as it swayed in the wind. I approached the store window and peered in.
I couldn’t make out much through the gloom beyond the window, so I cupped my hands around my eyes and leaned in close. Only then could see my prize—books—in cases and arranged on tables, visible at the front of the shop, although everything further back disappeared into shadows. A jarring peal of laughter erupted somewhere behind me; I turned to look.
Across the street was a busy café—people eating and drinking, working on their laptops, talking with their friends. I could clearly see the coffee bar at the back of the cafe and the guy working it, slinging drinks for a line of people.
Turning back to the book store window and the strange absence of sunlight penetrating the room beyond it, I noticed a film of dust on the glass, but wiping a bit of it away with my shirt sleeve did nothing to better reveal the inside of the shop. But before I could spend much time contemplating the contrast of sun and gloom, the tinkling of a bell startled me. A woman hustled out the shop’s door, brushed past me, and rushed away. After briefly watching her flight down the street, I stretched out a foot and stopped the door before it closed and stepped inside.
Behind me the bell rang again, but was quickly muffled when the door slid shut with a quiet swoosh of air. I stood just inside the doorway, scanning the store, as my ears and eyes slowly adjusted to the quiet and the murky lighting.
Ahead of me loomed, in the best possible way, rows upon rows of wooden cases literally overflowing with books. As I dropped my shoulders and felt my muscles relax, I smiled—I was in my happy place. I walked straight ahead, inching my way down the aisle, scanning the shelves on either side, pausing when something looked interesting. After hitting the end of the aisle, I turned and started to work my way down the next aisle. Coming to the end of that aisle, I looked up to decide which way to turn, and that’s when I spied a display case standing in the corner.
Low light from a nearby table lamp illuminated the dull finish of the dark, mahogany case. I reached out with my hand and touched the case, gently dragging my fingertips over the worn, decorative carvings of the hinged top, feeling the smooth surface of the heavy varnish, creating snaking paths through the heavy dust. Beneath the glass top covered with its own layer of dust was a large antique book with faded black letters embossed on deep, red cloth that read "Demons of the Modern Age." What modern age would that be, I thought, admiring the book’s antiquity.
I hooked my fingers around a small, tarnished metal handle, fixed to the hinged top, and lifted. The top didn’t budge. I looked around me, hoping to find someone to give me access to this special book that warranted its own elaborate case. Although, it couldn’t be a very popular book, I thought to myself as I stared down at the clumps of dust on my fingertips.
The sound of movement cut through the silence. A man stepped out from a room behind the front counter, turned toward me, and realized I was looking his way. His face brightened when he caught my eye, but when his gaze moved from me to the case and then back up to my eyes, he froze. I smiled and pointed at the case. His eyes widened, and his smile tightened and shrunk.
After a moment of this strange staring contest, he croaked out a phrase, breaking the spell, "Exquisite, wouldn’t you say?”
The shop keeper, a man on the far side of middle age, tugged at the ends of his frayed shirt sleeves that peeked out from beneath a coat carefully tailored for a man weighing at least twenty pounds lighter. He looked like a movie actor from an old film with his tailored, albeit worn, suit and ascot tie. He reached into an inside pocket of his coat and withdrew a wrinkled, stained handkerchief, which he used to mop his face while the edges of his mouth periodically quivered.
He dropped his eyes and reached behind the front counter. The sound of a drawer opening with some difficulty filled the room. After a few moments of searching, indicated by clinks and clunks of objects shifting around inside the drawer, he raised his hand, which held a set of keys. He flipped through the set, examining each key carefully, and then he removed one from the ring and without stepping forward, simply held it out to me, rigidly between his thumb and index finger.
I hesitated, a little confused, and then realized I would have to retrieve the key as the man wasn’t moving from where he stood. As I approached, he seemed to ever so slightly shrink back. Being forever anxious, my cheeks reddened as I hoped there wasn’t something I overlooked when checking myself in the mirror before leaving on my errand. I pushed through it though, extending my hand, and plucking the key from his fingers.
I stood for a moment holding the key and watched the man as he turned his back on me and quickly waddled away, moving, with effort, back through the small doorway leading into the room behind the counter. I heard him muttering the words “bad dreams” several times, and then I thought I heard something like “Take the damned thing, just take it, it’s my time to be free.”
With a shrug, I looked down at the key in my hand; it was surprisingly cold. I closed my fingers over it, holding it tight, waiting for the metal to warm, but the cold persisted and made the key feel increasingly uncomfortable in my hand. I turned and walked toward the case, and as I approached, I felt a warmth, like I’d stepped in front of a heating vent. I held my hand over the case and confirmed, yep, it was the source of the heat, odd. Well, I adore being warm, especially on a cold day, so who was I to complain? I lifted the key toward the case’s lock and as I did so, the key’s temperature rose. Well okay, makes sense in a weird way. I’m surprised I didn’t stop to think about this strange phenomenon, but there’d be very little that could distract me from a book once I’d set my sights on it.
I slid the key into the lock, turned it, and heard a faint click. Not finding a suitable place to set the key down, I slipped it into my pocket and, after propping open the case’s lid, I gingerly lifted the book. It was large, something like eighteen by twenty inches, and heavy, with a leather cover darkened and discolored with age. I hesitated, frozen for a moment, nervous that I’d been entrusted with what I could only assume was a very valuable book. My nervousness faded as I examined the book held in my arms. It was magnificent.
I breathed in the scents of aged leather and paper. Oh, look at it, I thought with a warmth of my own growing in my chest. It was the mystery I was looking for, not of the Agatha Christie variety, but my very own mystery, one I could explore without the interference of some autocratic detective. When was this book published, where is it from, who created this exquisite binding, how did it find itself in this bookshop?
Thinking that no self-respecting bookstore could be without an overstuffed chair, I looked around for a place to sit with the book and wasn't surprised to see, in the opposite corner, a lumpy chair covered in faded gold and green brocade. I sat, sinking into the soft cushion. After setting the book on my lap, I cautiously opened it, listening for any cracking noises, careful not to damage the spine. It parted near the middle to reveal a striking reproduction of a painting.
In the painting, a man and a woman sat opposite each other in a large room, before a lit fireplace. The woman leaned in toward the man as if she was speaking to him, although his face was turned away. The room, beyond the light of the fire, was in deep shadow, although after a few moments of staring at the scene, I could make out a few additional details--a wooden sideboard against the wall to the right of the fireplace and upon it, a small statue of a horse. It seemed, inexplicably, as if my eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the room within the image.
The text on the opposite page told of the story of woman, Evaleen Henry, from Cranston, Rhode Island. In 1905, Evaleen angered her wicked stepmother due to some petty domestic dispute, and the stepmother retaliated with a vicious curse. For seven long, tortuous years, demons plagued Evaleen during the hours between sunset and sunrise, until she was finally freed of the curse and its demons by the heroic efforts of Madam Fedorov, who, the book explained, was a well-known medium at the time. I eagerly looked back at the painting, curious to once again see the cursed woman, poor Miss Evaleen Henry.
Huh. That’s odd. I squinted and leaned in closer to the image. The angle of the man's face seemed different—he was looking up, past the woman, behind her. I could have sworn he’d been looking toward the fire. I then examined Evaleen’s image. Her position had changed too, it seemed, and her expression was not the same as before.
I remember I looked away then. I dropped my shoulders, which were again hovering up around my ears, and took a breath while I studied the room around me. Chuckling to myself, I took another breath and then looked back down at the book, smiling a sheepish grin.
As before, my eyes adjusted to the gloom in the picture. The longer I stared, the more details I could see—how was this possible? In a useless gesture, I know, I touched the picture in the book. As my hand moved over the even surface of the page, I was able to convince myself I was indeed simply looking at a flat image, printed in a book. Moving my hand aside, I leaned forward to again, closely examine the picture.
On the back of the chair, there was something there I hadn’t seen before—something draped there, a dark shape, perhaps a fur coat or a stole. Moving my face even closer, I noticed something shiny on the dark shape, no, a number of shiny somethings: one, two, three, four, there were five. I could make out the single drops of sparkling white paint, creating the illusion of light reflecting off a shiny surface. Remarkable. As I refocused my eyes from these tiny details to again take in the larger image, I felt my heart jump as I realized the dark and furry form was in the shape of a hand.
The happy warmth in my chest turned into the sinking feeling of dread. My heart pounded, while I repeated the litany in my mind, it’s only an image, it’s only an image, an image printed in an old book. Moving my gaze over the dark shape, the...hand, I saw it was connected to an arm that extended up to a silhouette of...something, in the shadows, looming over Evaleen. Now with wide eyes and a hand covering her gaping mouth, Evaleen looked over her shoulder, up at the figure. Her companion, also now with wide, terrified eyes, looked up. My chest tightened, and I gasped, struggling to take a breath.
"One of a kind. You’ll never find another like it."
My head snapped up, and I locked eyes with those of the bookstore owner. He stared at me and struggled to maintain a friendly smile, the corner of his mouth twitching with the effort.
“It's an absolutely breathtaking book. I'll make you a deal you can't refuse." I still struggled to breathe as I searched his face for clues--did he know? The edges of his mouth quivered with the strain of his sustained smile. His breath was labored and he wheezed faintly. He knew, and he was afraid.
With effort, I broke from his stare and glanced back down at the book. In the moment I had looked away, the picture had changed yet again. The creature in the shadows was hunched over with its hands around Evaleen's throat! Her back was arched with arms and hands stretched out tautly, and there was a single trickle of bright red that extended from her throat, down her chest, and pooled where the fabric of her dress began.
I heard an almost imperceptible sound--a scream? Despite its weight, I snapped the book shut with a loud bang. This was not the mystery I’d expected when I picked up the ancient, venerable, beautiful, oh so beautiful, book.
I stood and thrust the book toward the man. He dodged, stepping backwards out of my reach. I moved to the open case, clumsily dropped the book inside, and released the lid, watching as it slammed shut, the glass rattling loudly. The pressure on my chest lessened the moment the book was behind glass. I fumbled in my pocket for the key, which was burning hot. With a shaking hand, I dropped the it on top of the case with a loud clatter of metal on glass.
I lurched past the man toward the door. He grabbed my arm and tried to meet my eyes again.
"Take it. It’s yours." He grabbed my arm tighter and I stumbled.
“The book was meant for you.” His eyes opened even wider, with a distinct hint of madness. “It wants to show you things.” I looked up and met his wild-eyed gaze.
“You think you’re frightened, but you’re not...I can see it in your eyes. You want to see, you’re excited, you’re excited to be under its spell.”
Repulsed by his sudden passion, I regained my footing and roughly shook him off; I hurried toward the door, which I pulled open and let close behind me—the bell jangled loudly. Through the glass, from the street-side, I watched the man, almost obscured by the inexplicable gloom of the shop, pick up the key, hurriedly lock the case, and move lurchingly back into the room behind the counter.
Out on the sidewalk, the sunlight was impossibly bright. As I took one shaky step after another away from the bookstore, my eyes became accustomed to the light, and the tightness in my chest subsided.
Arriving home, I tried to recover from the incident by wandering through my flat. All I could see were books: surrounding me on shelves, in stacks, on table tops, on furniture. Collapsing into a chair, I looked directly across the room at a small antique table that was barely visible beneath the piles of bound cloth and paper. The books looked back at me. They looked different.
Once books offered me a world of adventures and fantasy, of human thoughts and emotions expressed in ink on paper with accompanying images. They never felt threatening...they never moved. Books had offered me a window, a window to worlds of the past and to imagination, but the large, scarlet book offered a door, an open door to...to what?
Oh, don’t misunderstand me, after the initial shock wore off, I surprised even myself to discover I wasn’t scared, as the shopkeeper had said, perhaps a bit confused...and very curious. All the books surrounding me now felt so...flat, so lifeless. I realized I’d been waiting for that open door. Promises of more, something lurking, something waiting to be discovered. My heart pounds still with excitement and I can’t hold back a smile at the thought of revisiting the shadowy bookstore. Perhaps I should buy the book. The bookstore owner promised me a good deal.
© 2017 Aimee Pavy. All rights reserved.