This is not that story.

An introduction to Waverly’s Tale, part 3

The next part of this story is difficult to tell. It contains the strangeness that occurs when we retreat into personal cocoons and long to outgrow them. Heroines often have a space of time redacted from their history. We tend to avoid talking about how little girls become women, how common becomes uncommon. How truths become fiction. Goldman cuts this part from Buttercup’s story. He does it with the phrase, “What with one thing or another, three years passed.” Like Buttercup, we learned a lot. Though our education could be described as nothing more than intense drudgery with a side of general, Gen-x angst. We’re going to skip it.

What with one thing or another, two years passed…

I made my first trip to the east coast in the late summer of ‘96. On the third day, I stumbled across the Brattle Bookshop. They were closing up for the night and the Dragon was out, but the assistant told me there may be a Morgenstern outside. Brattle has a lot next to their shop with carts of ‘last chance’ books. There are also cabinets out there. It is amazing and terrifyingly reckless. She took my name and said she’d pull it and hold it at the desk until end of business the following day. This was not procedure, but we were kin. She warned me that it was in very poor condition. “It has one more read in it.” Our conversation ended with her passing me an application.

This was happening quite a lot in hoards and even new bookstores. On this trip to Boston, I’d been passed four applications and a business card (Just in case. In case of what? In case you change your mind.) I would explain that I was just visiting. The Dragon or Assistant or Keeper would smile oddly and say, “Whatever gets you through.” I didn’t understand it.

The maybe-Morgenstern turned out to be an actual Morgenstern and it was The Princess Bride. It was a reprint from the 20s. An English translation bound in red cloth, sun-faded to a dusky rose at the spine. A white Dewey Decimal number screamed tacky at the base of it, the only external indication that it was ex-lib. The deckled edges were darker in spots, stained with 70 years of reader’s remains. The top fore-edge claimed the book for “Stevens” in black marker. The boards were nearly detached at both the front and back. Corners swollen from years of damp, brown fans spreading between the bumped away fabric. The flyleaf and frontispiece were missing. A mid-century Librarian at Mather Elementary attempted a repair at some point. The possibly-not-always brown strip of binding tape, cracked and brittle with age, was splitting in places. Thin threads stretched across the gaps like desperate rope bridges across a canyon. I wonder if it was the same Librarian who eventually stamped it ‘Withdrawn’. Cradled in the palm of my hand, I let the pages slide past my thumb until they revealed the broken binding in three places. (Pages 158/159, 430/431, 602/603) All the pages appeared to be intact. The card pocket was missing but the tell tale grey adhesive square remained on the inside of the back board. Jane received it at Christmas 1962. Ben on his birthday in 1970.

I paid $2.50 for it. The assistant dragon wrapped it with care and handed it over. I practically ran from the shop. After six years of searching, the answers were in my possession at last. I didn’t attend my scheduled lectures that afternoon. I sat in a café and began reading. At 6pm, I called Bonnie. She was waiting for the Prince to return from a hunt. She began reciting the protocol for Waiting-for-Prince but I interrupted her.

“I found one. A Morgenstern. A Princess Bride.” I wondered if she could hear the imminent existential crisis behind my rushed confession.

“Really? That’s great!” There was a momentary pause. “A reading copy?” Her tone was cautious. She was always a good listener. She knew I was struggling.

“Yes. I own it.”

“And?” She knew I’d already begun reading it. She was expecting a full report. I thought about my answer. In truth, it was rather dull and slow going. Before I could articulate my disappointment, my long distance card ran out. You have one minute of call time remaining. “I’m out of minutes.”

“Oh! Call me Sunday. I don’t have plans with the Prince but we might attend Homecoming! I sent you the details. You’ll have three letters when you get home.”

“I’m flying Sunday…” You are out of minutes. The line went dead. This is when I realized the stillness inside me. Given my reaction six years prior, I felt achingly hollow. Not at all what I was expecting. The storm within me never broke. No river of power filling the canyons of my soul. No flashes of light. No deafening thunder. Just this still silence. The line inside me dead as well. Perhaps I’d out grown my childish fantasy. The treasure, now in my possession, felt like nothing more than $2.50 of slowly decaying fibers.

I wandered the cobbled streets of Beantown contemplating the nothingness within me. I visited the bones of American legends turning to dust side by side with the bones of ordinary people. I visited the bones of ordinary people and wondered if this was all there was. A small star in the center of a busy intersection marked the spot where ordinary people killed each other several centuries ago. I watched several tourists risk their lives to take photographs of it between light cycles. Their camera flashes a strange reminder of the absence in my bones. In less time than you would think, I was lost down an alley and found myself in Commonwealth Books.

Commonwealth had a classic, old bookshop smell even though their fixtures were clearly new. Lived-in leather, dry cotton, and parchment filled my lungs. The vellichor gently rolled along the inside of me, soothing the hollow ache with every breath. I felt it opening capillaries. I felt a low grade buzzing in my feet as I flipped through an ephemera basket. It ran up my legs and ended in my fingertips. The lair was organized, yet organically haphazard, like moving day. The point on moving day where you can’t tell if someone is preparing to move out in a hurry or is taking a really long time moving in. An old dragon in a corduroy blazer with leather elbows was brooding behind a fortress of wood pulp, hemp, and leather. We made eye-contact. He smoked lightly out one nostril when his eye’s came to rest on my battered Morgenstern.

“I picked it up at Brattle this morning.” Hoping to strike the right tone. A tone that was an acknowledgment of the horrendous abuse the tome had taken and that I was not the abuser, but its new, forever home. Dragons are particular about what you bring into their lair. He held out his hand and I held it up higher and pulled the receipt up so he could see it. I was delighted to realize that I was reluctant to turn it over. This was MY battered Morgenstern.

The dragon relaxed slightly. He appeared to steam evenly from both nostrils. “You might be interested in the Guilderian maps in the case. Back wall on the right. Third drawer.” I nodded my thanks. I couldn’t have spoken. The room was beginning to spin slightly and my vision blurred. The familiar pulsing of sparks burst happily around my heart. I felt tears welling. I was not dead inside! I mastered the wave with measured breaths taking care to finish browsing the ephemera basket. My fingers brushed the cellophane wrapper on the final item in the basket. An intense wave pulsed through my hand. I pulled the item without looking at it and made my way to the map case.

There were Guilderian maps in the case. They were all a bit too modern for my taste. There was an excess of smoke lingering in the corner. I fanned it away using the piece of ephemera in my hand. The not-so-tiny something was running amok through my chest and arms. I looked at the item.

It was a charcoal sketch on possibly parchment depicting a sword fighter in the courtyard of a mission. It was a rough outline at best. A series of roman numerals and what I assumed was Latin were scrawled along the right margin. I inspected the edges. It had been bound at some point. The regular holes and brightness of the left side suggested something more. I noticed the smoke blurring my vision again. It was coming from me. I bought the sketch, casually asking the dragon if he knew its provenance.

“I think this was one of Val’s.” He flipped through a slip case of business cards. (Dragons often use old slip cases for filing or storage of important documents. Almost every lair has an old Lord of the Rings box filled with pencils, rubber bands, blades of various sizes. You can sometimes divine a hoard’s focus based on their collection of slip cases-turned-desk accessories.) He extracted a card and slid it into the bag with my purchase. Even though I hadn’t seen it, I knew the card. I felt it calling to the center of me, silently screaming into the fissure that was now a canyon at my very core. I left the close comfort of Commonwealth for the cobblestone alley. It was the first time in over 6 years that I left a bookshop without asking after a Morgenstern. I was once again standing in a shadow of becoming but not quite.