This is not that story

An introduction to Waverly’s Tale.

This is not a sequel to The Princess Bride. For years, I thought it would be. Maybe for years I hoped it would be. I spent a long time searching for answers. Who kills Humperdink? Does Inigo become the Dread Pirate Roberts? What happens to Fezzik? Is True Love really that terrible? (Spoiler: It is.) Why did you read this? Stay with me. Yes, it is a story about a lost Princess, a Pirate, of Friendship and True Love. Yes, there are giants and witches and miracle men and evil Princes. It is a story of how love change us. It is a story of Princesses and of Brides but it is not Morgenstern, nor Goldman. This story started with them. So, it is with The Princess Bride, the book and my obsession with it, that we will begin.

I experienced two great traumas in 1987; I became a middle child, and we moved. New school, new library, new room, new house, new bed, new brother, new everything but me. I was still the old me but was suddenly expected to be something more. At nine, I didn’t really have a lot of experience with becoming something other than what I had always been. My sister is 18 months older than me. Meaning when my brother arrived, she just gained a little brother. She didn’t have to become something other than what she’d been since I arrived. She had an annoying, near instant affinity with our brother. He was a little moon in orbit to her earth. They formed an effortless, endlessly synchronized orbit. Everyone could see it. He trusted her, in turn, she was trusted by adults. She was a Big Sister. I was not quite. She had nine years of practice, and was proficient in being bigger than me in every way.

My brother was a monstrously huge baby. He was no Fezzik, but he was top of the scales upon entry. So it was generally Them, together, basking in the glory of living up to expectations, and Me, beside them, in the shadow of becoming but not quite. It was a small shadow, one They had no intention of casting, but I lived in their shade all the same. Then I met Bonnie. She didn’t mind that I was me, that I preferred the shadows, that I brought a book to our first (every) sleep over. I didn’t have to be anyone but who I was. We wove a cocoon of acceptance around each other and filled it with laughter and witches and giants.

I saw the movie first. We watched a VHS copy during a sleep over, sometime in the spring of 1988. I can’t recall the exact date, neither does Bonnie, but we met Fezzik and Inigo together on the pull-out couch at her parents’ house. The right movie selection ripples through a friendship for years. Inconceivable? It’s true. From that sleep over we have laughed our way through the pain of existence. For more than thirty years, we’ve rhymed with peanut, filled out “Hello, my name is” tags with “Inigo Montoya”, and shouted “to the PAIN” or “LIAR!!!” at each other during moments of need. I was nearly 10, Bonnie was nearly 9. The Princess Bride became the first entry on the Rosetta stone of our friendship.

I was already addicted to reading. Didn’t matter what, if it had words, I was reading it. Inigo seemed like a decent fellow, I wanted to read him. This was no surprise to any one who knew me. I asked the librarian for “The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern.” She sent me to the “G” section. G? I executed an eye roll of epic proportions. She was new. (She was new to our library but she was not a new librarian. She was a great librarian. She instantly diagnosed my biblio-addiction. She did her best to redirect my selections to age appropriate materials. I would hiss “Censorship” and she would hiss, “Banned for life.” We came to an agreement on this after I checked out and read “A Clockwork Orange” when I turned 10. She would point to a book I might not be ready for in my stack and say “Burgess.” I would ask how old. She would say an age that was a million years away, like 16. I’d roll my eyes and ask, how old for me? She would ask if rolling my eyes made me deaf. She was fun.) I’d read The Witches the previous fall and this librarian had suspiciously large nostrils. I checked the M section. No Princess Bride. I marched to the Gs muttering about censorship just loud enough to raise a single eye-brow from my large nostril-ed nemesis. There it was. It was a mass market with a fancy lady riding a horse on the cover. “William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. A Hot Fairy Tale.” I scoffed, then I opened it to the title page. “The Princess Bride S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. The ‘good parts’ version Abridged by William Goldman.” Librarians are never wrong. Tricksy librarians.

I was able to read it twice through before it was due back. I loved it. But what happened? It’s titled “The Princess Bride” but has very little to say about her except that she is pretty and dumb, pretty dumb. Which was par for the course. (Like Barbie, who could do anything, right? My “Barbie 6 O’Clock News Playset” arrived with ‘Weather Girl’ Barbie. ‘News Anchor’ Ken was sold separately. Barbie News presented by Ken.) Inigo was in for a tough go. He had fulfilled his life’s pursuit. He’d done it. Revenge accomplished. Would he be satisfied in his life choices? Why was Westley mad at Buttercup for getting engaged when he chose to be the Dread Pirate for at least 2 years? (Barbie News presented by Ken: Successful man returns to stop pretty woman from marrying warthog faced buffoon who is trying to kill her. Does she deserve his help?) She had no choice. (Barbie News presented by Barbie: Warthog Faced Buffoon holds woman captive for three years. How she survived multiple attempts on her life before escaping a forced marriage to her captor. Tonight at 11.) But mostly, I wondered about Fezzik. His whole life he was looking for acceptance. He found it with Inigo. Did they stay friends? Did Fezzik get to retire and stop fighting?

Naturally, I asked my librarian. It’s their milieu. She said, “Good authors think about telling a story. Good storytellers make you tell yourself one.” She said things like this sometimes. You just had to wait a minute and stare blankly. She explained that there is another version because the Goldman was an abridgment. ‘The Good Parts’ as determined by Goldman. This was scandalous censorship! She knew I’d think so. (She pointed at the Handmaid’s Tale in my checkouts and said “Burgess.” I rolled my eyes. She swapped it for “Matilda.” Since “Matilda” was still new and on a wait list, I allowed it. She was a very good librarian.) Librarians are never wrong.

Tracking down an original Morgenstern became an obsession. The white whale of my personal collection. It started small. I’d just track down a pre-Goldman edition. Easy peasy. My mother was a champion shopper. She began our training at birth. One Black Friday, we hit four malls in six hours. She could fill whole weeks with discount stores. (This was in the 80s, when there were still ash trays in the children’s dressing room cubicles and possessive apostrophes on buildings.) She can really spend time in antique stores. Swap meets, rummage sales, yard sales will do in a pinch, but the antique store is her favorite playground. Antique stores sometimes have books. While my mom scouted for shiny blue bits from Victoria’s reign, I would look for sign of old books.

Book scouting is easy if you know where to look. Used books hide. They are good at survival. It’s how they avoid being tossed into the garbage or recycled or used to level furniture. In a general, second-hand environment, the books are hidden in plain sight. Used as décor, to fill space between vintage cast iron pots and Mason jars. They are casually displayed in a basket featuring porcelain clown dolls (aka nightmare fuel), or stacked to elevate recovered glass floats. The trick is to check the corners of the store. The low shelves. The spaces where the forgotten and non-shiny items migrate to. You should also look up, to the top shelves. If there is a rickety staircase leading to a cluttered dusty loft, there will be books up there. They lurk in the high, dry spaces or lie in the musty damp.

Aside from these free-range, somewhat feral used book gathering spots, most antique stores have a small, semi-domesticated book selection. This section is almost always near the back, in close proximity to the bathroom. Usually no larger than one case, sometimes just cinder blocks and an old plank with pre-ISBN Zane Grey pocket books making a last stand. When it was time to go, my mom would yell through the store and I would bring my finds to the clerk. I would ask if they had seen any Morgenstern as I placed my leather bound rescues on the glass. They would present a dust jacket-less Nancy Drew and tell me it was a first edition. They were not book dealers. I would forgive them this transgression. My mom would ask if I wanted the “more expensive” book the clerk showed me. I would tell her it was a reprint. The clerk would mumble something about all hard backs being first editions. We would move on to the next shop.

If I was lucky, there would be a used book dealer renting a space in the same strip mall. Book dealers are a weird lot. They don’t follow the rules of retail customer service. In general, they are curmudgeons. Grumpy, irrationally angry at questions, and dismissive. They are addicts who have placed their addiction on display and invited you to walk through the echoes of their pain. I learned you should always approach a used book dealer with caution. They are not motivated by making a sale, they are dragons guarding their treasure.

Children are also terrifying creatures. I was one. It was the only thing I could be considered an expert at. Children are unpredictable at best and usually don’t have any money. What’s worse is children are almost always leaking or mysteriously sticky. Not a good combination for fragile, paper based treasure hoards. I am, and always have been, a “Messy Bessy.” (I’m over forty and all of my clothing is stained, ripped or in some way bare the scars of my chaotic, accident prone existence.) At 10, I was a walking hazard to the neat and tidy. I could stain my siblings clothes from fifty paces. I was a threat to lazy afternoons used book dealers were hoping to enjoy. In short, I was a lot of work, and I was unattended. When you are the physical embodiment of barely contained chaos, you get a lot of practice knowing when you will be asked to leave. Since my goal was to search the hoard for a specific treasure, I learned to tame dragons.

First rule of dragon taming is entering the lair with the respect it is due. If you are chewing gum, stick it to the roof of your mouth. If the door makes a noise, move away from it quickly. Do not bring your siblings. Locate the dragon and acknowledge them. Eye contact or a head nod will be sufficient. For the love of all that is holy, do not engage in conversation before surveying the lair.

Casually survey the lair. Lairs follow a pattern of organization. Look for landmarks; locked cases, brooding space, desk, till, magic barrier to the back room. Where is the locked case? Is it free standing by the front door or part of the desk? Is it behind the desk? If you do not see a locked case, you will need to pay close attention to the stacks, especially those closest to the dragon. If you will pass the locked case before entering the stacks, glance at it but continue past. Lurking at locked cases right as you come in is like slapping your nana when she brings you a plate of cookies. Nobody is happy. Don’t do this. Are the books within the case modern? Clean? Signed? Faced out? Organized in any way? Scan the case, then move past. If the case is at or behind the desk, do not approach. (If you do this correctly, there could be cookies in your future.) Glance. Acknowledge. Move with calm silence. If the dragon moves to stand near a specific case, this is a warning. Move out of sight for a while or browse the ‘children’s’ section. This will soothe the dragon back to its brooding space.

Assess the content of the lair. How is it organized? How many layers? Has there been an attempt at alphabetization? Are there signs for browsing? Do the books fit the space? Are there books on the floor? If there are no stacks of books on the floor, you may want to leave. Resist. They could be new or have an overly enthusiastic Dragon-in-training. It could also be sign that they’ve lost their Keeper. Is there a format preference? Do they specialize? What is their focus? Once you’ve figured out their niche, find a way to compliment the dragon. “Oh, what a wonderful selection of mid-century Austen.” “Is this the 11th edition of the encyclopedia Britannica? The bindings are so clean!” Grunts or single word answers mean you are making progress. If the dragon approaches you, be small and listen. Try not to leak or fart near them. Answer direct questions but do not ask yours yet. Explore respectfully for at least ten minutes. If there are other customers, remain where the dragon can see you and don’t interrupt. Dragons appreciate self sufficiency. Locate your section and browse first. If you make it past the 15 minute mark and the dragon has returned to their brooding space (usually the desk with a book or a stack of books) you can cautiously approach the locked case/desk for a proper look.

Dragons respond best if you approach with an intended purchase. This book is bait. It should be within your price range and be something you want. The dragon will judge you on this selection. So chose wisely. Don’t just grab a random ‘last chance’ book. If you’ve no interest in it, the dragon will know. (There will not be cookies.) If you choose wisely, this is where the dragon will let you see their most valuable treasures. Those kept in the locked cases, or better yet, the Private Reserve.

You will have a small window to ask the dragon about your heart’s desire. This is generally a space of time from desk approach to till opening. “I didn’t see any Morgenstern. I’m really looking for a pre-Goldman Princess Bride, but I’d be interested in any Florinese literature or history.” Your dragon will either scoff or send you back to the stacks with minimal vocalization. Assistant Dragons (Dragons-in-Training) will try to sell you a Stephen King. Dragon Keepers will make a comment on your Cabbage Patch Doll belt buckle, take you to the basket of petrified Little Golden Books, and perhaps give you a candy. However, if you’ve made your approach correctly, your dragon may suggest something from their Private Reserve. In short, cookies.

The Private Reserve is the best of the dragon’s hoard. Be prepared, you will not leave the shop with it. However, just knowing it exists, seeing it, maybe getting to hold it… It will be kept close to them at all times, generally in the desk or a box under it. Sometimes they will leave the main chamber and retrieve it from the mythic space know as “the backroom.” Depending on the dragon, it may be wrapped. My first pre-Goldman Morgenstern was wrapped. The dragon was ex-military of the Vietnam era. He had a massive beard that was mostly grey. He wore a faded P.O.W. baseball hat that was clearly his uniform now. His hoard was mostly dead generals, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli. His Keeper was a spherical hippie, all patchouli and crochet.

The hoard was located at the end of an antique mall somewhere just within the border of Prescott Valley. There was an abandoned railway station about ten miles north where we’d spent the morning collecting rusted bits of train remains to add to our back yard in California. (Your family is weird too.) My mother had disappeared into the antique mall shortly after lunch. She claimed to be looking for the bathroom. It had been at least two hours. My dad softened the dragon for me. They swapped service stories as my siblings made an appearance and drew the attention of the dragon keeper. We each received a small piece of hard candy. Then my mother appeared and said the magic words, “There’s an open house tomorrow.” They all went outside to discuss. I presented my bait book, a well worn copy of 1984.

The keeper coo-ed and asked if I’d seen the C.S. Lewis box set. Knowing I didn’t have a lot of time, I boldly asked after the Morgenstern. The dragon scoffed and said there were copies of the Goldman in the discount bin out front. I restated that I was looking for a Morgenstern, not a Goldman. The grey dragon asked for my .50 cents. I handed him my quarters and added, “Goldman is good but I’d like to read the original. It would be a shame if Morgenstern was forgotten.” It was manipulative. I know. I was 12 and suffering from extreme withdrawals. It had been almost three whole days without a library or book shop. This bearded dragon would show me his treasure! The keeper must have recognized my pain. She casually mentioned “that old bundle from Val” might be of interest. The dragon blew smoke at her but she’d been with him a while and waved it away. He disappeared into the magic realm and returned with a brown wrapped bundle.

He placed “that old bundle” on the glass and opened the fragile paper, carefully exposing the calfskin boards. Neither of us breathed. There it was. It was at least a hundred years old. The front board was detached. The spine flopped horrifically, exposing the threads that held the tome together. The gilt was mostly gone from the fore edge. Just beneath that board were the answers. It was right there.

I felt strange. My mouth was dry. I was starting to tremble. My hands were sweaty. I rubbed them on my shirt. They left brown smudges. I looked at them suddenly (and not for the first time) angry they had failed me in this, my moment of greatest need. I could not touch this book with these disgusting appendages! My sister opened the door and announced that they were leaving. I looked at the dragon, right in the eyes. He saw the struggle within me. Without speaking, he removed the front board and turned the flyleaf. “The Princess Bride A Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by S. Morgenstern” The bottom half of the title page was missing. I would have stood right there and let the dragon turn each page as I consumed it with my eyes. The dragon may have let me, we were kin now. My sister would not. There were tears on my face as she dragged me from the lair. It would be six years before I saw another copy.