This is not that story

An Introduction to Waverly’s Tale, continued.

A lot happens to a kid in the 2190 days between 12 and 18. The once little girls who wove a self-styled cocoon of acceptance around each other, emerged as full-fledged pre-teens. This is a dangerous and difficult time for women. We’re fragile, yet flexible, eager to find the limits of our malleability. Our bodies expand and lengthen at alarming and completely random rates. We gain knowledge with a terrible cost; life is pain. Our internal organs declare war on comfort. The first battles of womanhood rage within us. We turn on those closest to us. Especially our parents. (Sorry, parents.) They knew this would happen. Every month? FOREVER!? It was inconceivable! It remains total bullshit. (Sorry, kids.) We learn to weaponize our self doubt and throw daggers of insecurity with surprising accuracy. We toughen our own skin and fabricate our first set of emotional armor. Bonnie was challenged by cherubic curves, all at once. She spent her days in agony as her spine took its time lengthening. I was challenged by sharp edges and stagnation. I spent my days honing acerbic wit and sarcasm. At night, I remained small and in the shadows of becoming but not quite.

Together, we clung to our magic cocoon. We knew it was special even then. As we became, we fused the cocoon’s remains to our armor. We added new vocabulary to our private language. We rhymed with peanut. We looked puberty in the face and shouted, “DEATH FIRST!” We knew the secrets of the fire swamp. The trees were lovely. We spent our summers there, and every Wednesday night, and Sunday morning, and every other Friday, and sometimes Saturdays. We built up an immunity to iocane. Even as we turned left into childhood, we could feel The Machine sucking our lives away. In 1994, life took The Machine to fifty. Bonnie (and her family) moved to southwest Washington.

It was an emotional time for us. All of us. In the 2190 days between 12 and 18, a lot happens to parents of women as well. Parents of teenage girls are very much witches and miracle men. Frantically cobbling together miracle pills for every tiny thing. It takes all their energy and time and money. Their offspring fire them (we’re still pissed about the whole ‘life is pain’ situation) and then we show up with the corpse of our childhood and demand a cure. Our parents did their best for us, we were their teenagers after all. They offered the balm of time and patience. We raged at our inability to control the path of our journey. They calmly presented their miracle pills; phone calls, letters, and visits every summer. Since we were both mostly dead, and had already checked our pockets for loose change, we took them. The chocolate coating was a visit just three weeks after the big move.

We were mid-seize on the Zoo of teen-hood. (High school is the Zoo of Death. It’s filled with angry, semi-feral beasts who become increasingly dangerous the deeper you go. Nothing contained within wants to be there. Only those engaged experiments in pain enter willingly. Only those who can manage their own anxiety can escape the fear within. This is why we fabricate armor.) Even great fools can see that splitting your forces mid-seize is a terrible idea. We were not great fools, so we stratagized how to keep our forces together. I was for dropping out and moving into Bonnie’s garden shed. (We were not ‘great’ fools, merely teenagers and not so good with strategy.) This plan was scuttled on day one. My parents would probably look for me and Bonnie’s parents would for sure notice. We moved on.

In the next plan Bonnie would live in my sister’s second bedroom. (You read that right. My sister had two rooms. Her room and the guest room. She had reasons. They were bullshit but she held the title of “First Born” which has its privileges.) This plan involved some light human trafficking of Bonnie in my carry on luggage. (Notes on plane travel and security measures pre-9/11: You could go to the gate without a ticket. Yep, just walk right in. You could also wait at the gate to meet your visitors. This plan was legit and would have worked until our parents noticed.) I must mention that Bonnie was opposed to running away. She was a Big Sister and her family had just moved. She could not abandon them. Realizing I could not ask her to, we stopped talking about it. We would just have to make it through but be apart. But not yet, and not always.

We spent a few days locked in her new room speaking our language and reinforcing our defenses. We carefully unpicked our magic cocoon fibers from our too small armor. In the last days of together, the last weeks of heart & logic, we spun a little more until we each had an equal size piece. We were each confident the other would be all right. We buffed our newly re-forged armor with the fabric of our cocoon so it reflected the strength we saw in the other and hoped it would be enough.

My addiction eventually overcame our melancholy. Bonnie was one of the few people who did not view my need to visit a library or bookstore as weird. At home, when I was really in need of a hit, I would just go to the library, alone, which was pretty great. I needed a ride to the mall, to go to mall bookstores, which meant other people, which was a lot of work. Besides, mall bookstores were ‘new’ bookstores. New bookstores did not hold the same power over me that used bookstores did.

Don’t get me wrong, new books are great and new bookstores are wonderful. However, I’m an addict. I consume books at an unhealthy rate. New books are prohibitively expensive and only for special occasions, like whenever someone else gives you one. New bookstores have a lot going for them. The booksellers are knowledgeable and friendly. (They were not dragons.) The basket of Little Golden books is shiny not petrified. (They were not a hoard.) They’re clean, tidy, and organized. (They were not lairs.) Your siblings are welcome. They have books, but they would not have a Morgenstern. (No treasure.)

Up to this point, my quest was limited to places I could walk to or antique mall adjacent lairs on family road trips. I had been limited to the Southwest. I was excited to meet some PNW dragons. By day three, I ached for it.

It had been 715 days since I’d seen the Morgenstern. I didn’t really understand what happened inside me that day. My mom noticed something was wrong. She thought it was dehydration or heat exhaustion. My eyes were leaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t breathe properly. I tried to describe what I was feeling but it made even less sense when I used words.

I’d felt a cracking inside me, a fissure. A loosening of tectonic pressure. Something broke, a little, somewhere deep inside. A tiny bit of something frightfully powerful escaped. It surged through me. I felt it swirling around my heart. I felt it settle into the sulci of my brain. It was euphoric and heartbreaking. It changed me. I noticed the change most when I was questing for the Morgenstern. I got tiny bursts of happiness when I entered a lair now. Dragons were easier to tame. Keepers no longer offered me candy. Hoards were easier to navigate. The tiny bit of something awoke and danced under my skin as I browsed a promising lair. It guided me. It would pulse in my brain if I chose the right bait book. It fluttered around my heart as I spoke with dragons. I thought this was my addiction getting stronger. This scared me so I tried not to think about it.

I was unable to ignore it on day 715.

I stepped through the door of Powell’s City of Books and would have exploded had my skin not contained me. The tiny something was instantly awake and moving and everywhere. This placed called to it. It happily raced about within me looking for a way out. Bonnie felt it too. (We were arm in arm and I was vibrating.) This was a hoard. An impossibly huge lair! I detached from Bonnie. I heard her mom say, “two hours.” and I began to search for the dragon. I looked for landmarks. Found a desk and circled. Then I saw a brooding space. Then another. Tiny cataclysms erupted from my core. I was on the other side of the room from the initial brooding space scanning for a dragon, when I stepped through a doorway.

The lair expanded before me. The tiny bit of something constricted inside me, solidified in my stomach and then flew apart. I felt it dust the ridges of my brain. Goose flesh erupted across my skin. I saw a glass case and a desk. I circled this room. I ran into an employee by Dumas. I was so overwhelmed I just blurted out, “Morgenstern!” The swirling around my heart was making me nauseated. This was a dragon! The dragon took me to a case. There were three spines of bare shelf between Morgensten and Morgenston. The dragon spoke to me but I was too saturated with endorphins. That’s when the second dragon approached.

Then I was in a chair. The words “Parts Department” spun in my vision. Bonnie was suddenly beside me, soothing the dragons and reassuring them I was fine, maybe just a bit dehydrated. There were four adults, three were dragons, one was an assistant.

I’d never encountered more than one dragon in a lair. Lots of assistant dragons and keepers, but always one dragon. Dragons are possessive. They have trust issues. They know what is worthy of their hoard. They train assistants to maintain the hoard, tidy the lair, protect it from constantly leaking womb goblins. They have keepers to, well, keep the dragon alive. (Keepers play a much more vital role to dragon survival than I knew at this point. I was young and did not understand how debilitating life as a dragon can be.) This place had keepers and assistants and multiple dragons.

It was a collective hoard. A horde of dragons working together. An assistant dragon handed a book to the first dragon who handed it to me in the chair. I took it and probably said something impressive like, “boop snoot.” Bonnie was able to make words happen so she thanked them and moved me out of the room. We bought the book (from yet another dragon!) and went out onto the porch. We sat in silence for a time watching the skate boarders play in the traffic on Burnside. Bonnie asked about the book. I looked at it for the first time. “History of the Florin Royal Houses compiled and edited by S. Morgenstern”

Inside me, deep in the very core of my being, the fissure splintered. I felt the warm power ooze from it and fill even the smallest space between cells. Outside me, I vomited. Bonnie told her mom I had an asthma attack and we rode home in mostly silence. Afraid that I would become undone, I would not return to Powell’s for several years.

The book became my first Morgenstern. It was dry and you got a real feel for why he hated royalty. It also made me wonder which royal house Lotharon and Humperdink were in. I scanned for Hammersmith. It was not listed. My quest continued. We went out to Seaside, to “the Coast” as PacWesters call it. I was having a hard time processing that Bonnie would have to live in such a dreary place. Even their beach was overcast and cold. I suddenly understood why Grunge Rock was a thing and why it could only have been bred in the PNW. The seaside towns had boardwalks, thrift stores, and quite a few lairs. None that would have a Morgenstern but a fair representation of the region. A lot of Herbert, Kesey, and Cleary.

I was relieved that I did not throw up in any of them. Bonnie insisted on coming with me to the first hoard. I’m glad she did. Moral support is vital to the survival of a friendship. (It’s a core value.) She didn’t know what happened to me either, but she didn’t shy away. Like Fezzik slowly reviving Inigo, easing him through a suffering of his own making, she stood beside me. We had been worried that I’d over-dosed, or something. (If you didn’t live through the “D.A.R.E” years, you may not understand.) Since I was supposed to “Just Say No” I feared telling an adult would prevent me from continuing my quest.

I was terrified yet I wanted more. I could feel the warm power cooling, solidifying along the inside of me, creating space for itself. I welcomed it. We were fragile, vulnerable, becoming but not quite. It no longer felt as if it was trying to escape, wildly flinging against every cell. It was like water, soaking all the fibers of me, dissolving into me, filling every space. A physical force of nature. The Arizona Morgenstern felt as though I was in the wrong spot as a set rolls in. A sudden mountain of water crashing over, into, and through me. This Oregon Morgenstern was like a monsoon. A slow building pressure in every pore. I could sense the air pressure change. I could smell the water, I could hear the desert preparing for the deluge. I was the the desert, I was the deluge. I was the ocean’s longing to embrace the land.

I was also anxious and snappy and kinda puke-y. My dad was concerned. (He was the parent of a teenager. He was always concerned.) The PNW Dragons soothed me. They recognized my becoming. They knew even if I didn’t. By the third shop, I felt more in control. The swirling chaos settled on the inside of me again.

In the final lair of our trip to the coast, I selected a mass market Jurassic Park and presented it to a middle-aged assistant dragon. Her hair was held in a French twist by several pencils. It was casually messy and practical. I felt an instant affinity towards her. There was an old leather tome open in front of her. Next to it was a stack of photocopies held together by a single metal ring. Post-it notes, like molting feathers, poked out randomly on all sides of the stack. I was going to ask after the Morgenstern but a very different question escaped me, “What are you doing?” She smiled oddly, “My job.” She turned the book and showed me the publisher’s mark and date. “If this matches the listing in this bibliography, then I might buy it.” She handed me the stack of photocopies and pointed at the relevant section.

The vocabulary was unfamiliar. At first, the entry read like gibberish. A collection of sentence fragments. While I read the passage through a few times, she pulled a pencil from her head and made a note on the back of a business card. I asked her several more questions that were not related to the Morgenstern. It was strangely involuntary and I was getting frustrated by my inability to focus. Bonnie waved at me through the window. I was running out of time. “What are you really looking for?” She tossed the life-saver expertly in my direction and pulled me in.

“Inigo…Fezzik…The Princess Bride. A Morgenstern. Have you seen one?” I stammered. I was flushed and my vision blurred momentarily. I was not in control.

“Not for a long while.” Her eyes sparkled nefariously. “Where did you see one?”

“Arizona. About two years ago.” How could she have known? My stomach was flipping over on itself.

“Arizona!” She laughed as she finished writing the receipt. It was a warm laugh. A lock of hair freed itself and framed her right eye, a visual parenthesis. She placed a copy of “ABC for Book Collectors” by John Carter on top of my bait book. “You’ll need this, eventually. Promise you’ll wait a few years.” I slid the last of my savings across to her. I didn’t notice the business card tucked expertly between the flyleaf and end page until I was on the plane home.

Valerie’s Old Books & New Spells
​Salem, Ma.

On the back, written in pencil: Ask for Val. Don’t mention Goldman.

I could feel a strange pulsing between my fingertips through the card. The card itself felt strange. It wasn’t card stock. It was thin and warmed slightly as I held it, like skin. Skin I was familiar with. There was a light crackling sound, like embers. Possibly, the sound was coming from me. The longer I held it the less familiar it became. Less familiar, yet increasingly intimate. I knew this flesh by touch. I knew it deep, at the core of myself. I felt the warm, powerful something widening the fissure within me. This flesh between my fingers sang into the core of me, calling, enticing, awakening. It was entirely too much. I tucked it and the book away.

I intended to tell Bonnie about it. However every time I tried, something distracted me. We were in separate pits of despair. Our forces were divided. Bonnie met a boy. Then another. There were Princes hunting near her. There were dances and concerts and castles on her horizon. I was trying to find suitable camouflage for my growing addiction to the written word. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with a horse named Horse and the collected works of Hugo and Dumas. The only thing I wanted on my horizon was a pre-Goldman Princess Bride.