This Weeks Prompt: 86. To find something horrible in a (perhaps familiar) book, and not to be able to find it again.
The Prior Research:a book
It was either Borders or Barnes and Noble. Yes, I know one closed ages ago, but this was ages ago. Yeah, their two separate companies, but they have the same vibe you know? They’ve got the same big sign, the same letters, the same rows of books arranged in the same categories, all of them new and fresh. It’s not like a Bookmans, where the books are sprawled and it takes a bit to piece together the categories. It’s not a university store, with it’s basement and maze, and categories you didn’t realize people made a living writing books on.
I started there because it was easy enough. Again, easy to navigate. Easy to find. Easy even to check online to make sure they had the book I was looking for.
The notion had come to me, like memories usually do, when I was at work. I was doing inventory again—in one of those parts of the office where inventory hadn’t been done in years. Wouldn’t have been done in years, if it weren’t for an oncoming audit. I had been going through the supplies, finding all sorts of strange things—board games, for instance, based on President Obama’s election. Did you know there were two of those? They made two whole educational board games about it. Several hundred unsold CDs by local artists that were friends of the office. DvDs, mostly of the same educational video.
I had found two stranger things, however. They really were innocuous—eight envelopes. Three labeled “Numbers”, five labeled “Words”.
They felt important—I could feel paper shifting behind them. Probably, honestly speaking? They where flash cards for little kids. That was it. Just. Just flash cards.
But okay, if they were flash cards, I wouldn’t be here, looking for that book. Moldovi’s Ancient and Classic Stories: Tall Tales and Exciting Adventures from Around the Globe. It had a leather cover, gold lettering on the front, and a wonderful print of the globe with little monsters coming off the side. Well, mine did. The new edition did that terrible thing, where it was just a picture of a single ominous image—a globe held by a contemplative statue.
Anyway, I loved the book as a kid. Adored it, read it constantly. But I remembered this weird page—it was page after the story of Brandmante. A reprint of Bulfinch’s Mythology’s section on Charlemagne. There was this page, and I couldn’t quite remember what was on it honestly. Only I didn’t read the book again after that. I think it involved a bird.
I flicked through the new introduction, glossy paper feeling sharp on my fingers. They’d kept some of the original illustrations in the new version, but not all of them. Some had been replaced by a picutre of an archaeological thing. You know, a Greek vase for going over the story of Hercules, some Philippine art for Maui—no, that’s Polynesian. It jumbled the text sometimes, but eventually I reached the end of Bradmante’s bit and reached—Byrnhild.
I flipped back and forth. No middle page. Frowning, I checked the editions listing. I knew something was missing, might have gotten lost in an edit—it had editions from 1920, 1935, 1950, 1980, 1991, 1995, reprint in 1996, an updated edition in 2005, and then this one. Maybe it had gotten lost in the shuffle. I slipped the book back on the shelf, and hoped no one really noticed me as I left. I know Borders and Noble “isn’t a library”, but when you need to check one thing…whatever.
Tracking down an older edition of a book is relatively easy, if you want to actually own it. Finding a place that will let you, you know, just quickly check a page is a bit harder. Luckily I knew a place that tended to accumulate books. I did look before—the cover of mine was a 1935 copy. Second printing, had the gold orb with the little people sprouting off of it. Looking at the cover on my screen I realized that, huh. The people were in costumes. I hadn’t noticed it as a kid, but the little boy sticking out of the US definitely had a cowboy hat.
It was a dense store. Shelves up to the ceiling, with just enough room for you to slip in between them. Towards the back, there was an opening into even more shelves, more books, and that way was a maze of the strange. I’d found centuries old books here. I’d felt like I lost centuries wandering around in here. So I thought this time, I’ll just check the front.
“Hey Phil.” I said, walking up to the counter. Phil sat on a stool, glasses nearly falling off his nose as he looked over a small crate of new arrivals. His hands only had color relative to the pale yellowed pages that he was looking over carefully. “Hows the catalog going?”
“Its wo going along fine. What do you need?”
“I’m looking for an older book.” I said, drumming my fingers. A crow screeched outside, as Phil nodded slowly.
“I might have a few books that are old.”
“Right, duh. I’m looking for a copy of Moldovi’s Ancient and Classic Stories: Tall Tales and Exciting Adventures from Around the Globe. Older the better—First Edition if you have it.” I said, holding up a picture of the cover on my phone.
“Lemee see…thats a new name.” Phil said, turning over to his computer. He’d spent every day I knew typing into the computer—name, title, edition. A growing record of what he’d inherited from the old man, what he had bought from collectors, what he’d sold to other collectors, libraries, and more. A few clacks later, he nods and gestures for me to follow.
“So, Jim had a second edition—that’s as old as I’ve got. That sound right?” Phil said, descending into the depths of the musty cellar. I shrugged. Might be.
The second edition had a similar cover—not exactly the same, but a globe, people popping out of it. I automatically skimmed to the page after Bradmante. There was a brief poem, about a bird—the Awal bird.
“Up and Down it goes
The sound grows and grows
The Awal Bird catches and drops
The Mouse screams as it squawks
As the rodent’s heart gives out
the Awal Bird eats the mouse.”
The poem was familiar. Yes, I’d read this before. It was next to the picture—a picture of the Awal bird and the Mouse. There was a footnote—a redirection to the introduction, for the second edition. Back through the pages.
The first printing of Moldovi’s Ancient and Classic Stories: Tall Tales and Exciting Adventures from Around the Globe contained a number of misprints and factual errors or outright forgeries. After some considerations, and much conversation, a number of pieces have been removed. Major alterations include: The Awal Bird* illustration, misprinted in one in three instances; the Jala dog*, which was determined to be a derogatory tale from local Spanish authorities and having no real basis in tales of the area; the Womi-tali*, a combination of nonsense syllables that again, appears to be an English invention of little providence; the illustration of Typhon, misprinted in one in four cases; an instance of the Grootslang* misprinted in one in five cases; the picture of the Faerie Queen, misprinted in six out of ten cases; the story of the Wandering Sword, rewritten after a second translation; and lastly the image of the dying Medusa, misprinted in one of five1*. In cases where originals could be found, they were printed. In cases where they could not be located, sadly, omissions had to be made. These are marked with a * above.
The introduction rambled on more about the responsibility of editors and parents in these trying times to monitor the stories of the youth to prevent a descent into insolent barbarism. Whatever. Missing page was a misprint was the problem. Which meant either spending ages looking for a first edition that maintained the misprint—a one in three chance—or finding the one from my child hood. And that meant going home.
Home is a rambling place. Home is a fetid place. I didn’t know that word, really, until I heard some author use it to describe the house I lived in, between the trees. The driveway’s perpetually marred by bird crap. Mom never bothered get rid of it, and the birds—the white birds, leaning over with their long legs and necks. They loved our home.
My car pulls up on the overtake driveway—cracks and dents from time rattling the tires. The birds all watch me—the pale ones look like a cat licked them slick. Feathers flicking out at the end. One ruffles its feathers with its needle beak. I hate them.
They only seem to come into this part of town—no doubt someone’s escaped pets. One of them squawks at me.
I fumble with the keys, cursing a bit. They haven’t changed the lock yet. Maybe they’ll forget to. When I final managed to convince the door its me, I open into the bare interior. The wallpaper is mostly gone—there’s a strip of a flur de les in the upper right corner of the living room. There’s a few chairs there. Ones no one would buy cheap, ones that would take too much effort to donate. Ones that were sick with mold.
I didn’t dally long. Well, no. I had dallied. Mom’s library was what I was supposed to clear out. Honestly, I hadn’t gotten to it yet. I would have but, but well. Books are heavy, in both the literal and cheesy way. Taking them out felt weird. And then things happen, things continue to happen. It was weird.
An impatient bird squawk comes from outside. The stairs creek beneath my weight, unaccustomed to a somewhat healthy adult presence. Much better for children, or potsmoking teenagers, or whoever actually came here anymore. The grafitti on one wall suggested they fucked—but who knows. Kids lie.
Still, the second story den door was shut. Still locked even. Immaculate. A persian rug, grey with dust. Some fungus growing out of one of the pipes. The bookshelf wore its age well, shelves like creases in some preserved brain. No, thats not right. Like ribs. If I’m going to compare it to a body, it was a like wooden, rotting, putrefying ribs.
I brushed away the spiderwebs with a stick, and then struck the floor a few times to keep them away and dead. Then I reached up—up—to the upper right. The red book, with it’s gold cover. Faded with time, yes. Pages feeling like crisp cloth, delicate and sharp at the same time. I carefully thumbed through it.
My heart stopped.
Six eyes. Seven eyes. Fractal eyes. Fractal, screaming mice. Rising and falling. Each instance, a hundred iterations. All of them—all the bird eyes, bird wings, flapping, falling, soaring, diving.
All looking at me, blended together into a single circle. Time had rotted parts of the page. The spaces in the ink were more eyes. It stained my fingers as I ran over it—it stained and stuck. The holes my hands left became more birds. More eyes.
I didn’t scream.
I stumbled back to car. The birds start flying, circling and then taking off. But the circle stays overhead for a second. Just a moment, an empty circle as the car starts.
The Awal Bird
A curious bird, sometimes called the yo-yo bird reported in a few mountain areas, particuarly in the Rockies. The awal is said to grip its prey, and fly high into the air. Unlike most birds, however, it does not tear into its food. Rather, it drops the morsel from a great height and dives after it. The awal bird does this many times, until the poor mouse—or larger creature—suffers a heart attack and dies. Then, the awal bird feasts on the perfectly preserved remains. Stories suggest that a larger bird, or that flocks of them, will seize small children for meals.
1This image in particular horrified some of our younger readers. It appears the image of the medusa misprinted to look as if she had a second set of eyes in her mouth and mouth beneath—we apologize for the distraught.
The above story still feels off. It feels too settled, and like the vestige of another, more intricate piece. The premise of the birds is a story I remember, but honestly can’t place. I think it might be from Borges, fittingly enough–but I didn’t check too deeply.
Next week, we resume a more normal programming, with the ways to raise the dead with ashes and even organs perhaps! Come and see the essential salts!
If you’d like to support the Society, receive more stories or research, or are feeling generous, please check out our Patreon here.