Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Word Watchers

“We knew Gutenberg had resolved so many problems about printing books. We were waiting, waiting for this one, the big one. A group us gathered together on upper floor of a friend’s house—Rottlerin was his name—waiting for the big news. We had the buyers in place. All of them dedicated to our cause. All of them knowing that this moment would change everything.”

“What moment,” Sophy had to interrupt. “Change everything how?”

“Until then, until that Bible, no one had books to read, unless they could afford hand-made manuscripts carefully copied out by tired monks working under candlelight. Beautiful, beautiful books, but like all great art not something that the masses could access.”

“And that kept the masses illiterate,” Ari continued for her. “Imagine if reading material cost more than your house or more than a grownup earns in one year. No one would read. No one would be able to afford to read.”

“We gathered together there in Rottlerin’s sky parlor—that’s just what we called that old musty attic—not wanting anyone but us to know,” Glaydis picked up the thread. “Many people didn’t want the masses to read, to have knowledge, to have a life of the mind.”

“This book, this printing, especially with the paper, suddenly made books something that more average people could afford,” she continued. “Not the poorest folk, certainly, but more people than before. Minds opened as people opened the books, words flooded out, ideas, information.” She paused again and reached out to pat Sophy’s knee. “My dear, this event, this mere printing of a book brought about the European Renaissance.”

Sophy knew what the Renaissance was, how people began to emerge from the “dark ages” to find ideas and a life of the mind that had evaded so many for so long.

“But we knew there was more to it than just bringing people to knowledge. This wasn’t just words on paper. There was something else. We knew that this book, this Bible, was the first in the Collection. That we, come together for the first time as the Word Watchers, had to take on the task of ensuring that from that moment, the light would never go out again.”


Ari struggled up onto his ancient bony elbows. “To do that,” he said, “we had to put our minds to where They would have hidden the magic.”

The first sky parlor

Sitting on the edge of Ari’s bed, Glaydis folded her hands in her lap, cleared her throat in a quiet, dainty way, and then began.

“One of the first books ever to be printed as several copies at once was the Gutenberg Bible. That is where it all started.” She turned to Ari. “Do you remember, dear? That new book smell, right off of that creaky press. The ink smell was overpowering, so oily and metallic. We didn’t like it at the time, but now...” she drifted off for a minute, and Ari patted her hand. Shaking her head swiftly from side to side, as if to shudder away a ghost, she continued. 

“We each of us, the first Word Watchers, got a copy of the Bible. Forty-five of us. Not the ones on that cheap paper, but the copies on the lovely lovely vellum. Of course, it was 1454, and you didn’t even know from day to day who would still be around the next day, what with the plague and various viruses always making the rounds...”

“Not to mention the food poisoning,” Ari put in. “Remember that eel pie from the shop down the lane?” It was his turn to shudder away a ghost. “Ugh. Thought that was going to carry me right away.”

Glaydis smiled at him, as if to say, Not likely, dear, and went on. “Since we didn’t know what time any of us had left, we all felt that we had to rush. That bible had 42 lines of print per page. It’s an important number, 42, something we all recognized quite at once. It had turned up again and again, and Ari and I were the first to realize its significance. Go to the 42nd page. Line 42. And that’s how the Word Watchers were born. That Bible was the first book in the Collection.”

Sophy, not surprisingly, was utterly confused, unable to follow any of it. Eel pies? Vellum? Guten...who? Glaydis paused and noticed it. Turning to Ari, she said, “I’m afraid we’re not being very clear about all of this. It was so long ago when we started, and I’m just not quite sure how to tell the story.”

Ari placed his gnarled, papery-skinned hand on hers and said, “Start with the first Sky Parlor. That’s the best place to begin.”


The Collection

In the brief time Sophy had been in the attic, her eyes had adjusted to the dimness. She made out shapes in the gloom, mostly the kind you’d expect in an attic—boxes, stacks of old castoff lamps, clothes, ancient appliances. But as she came around a corner of boxes piled high, suddenly it all changed. Here there was no dust. Here, the floor opened up, neat and shining, to a clean fresh space lined on all sides with bookshelves. And on the shelves, free of dust as well, were rows and rows of books. Old old books with real leather covers and words in gold lettering that had faded with time. Some of the spines had ridges, some were smooth. Sophy, not even thinking about it, was reaching out a hand to touch one of the wine-dark covers when she heard Aristotle’s bark-like voice from a corner.

“Sophy!” he gruffed. “You look so much like your mother. Beautiful, beautiful mother. Ah, how I miss her.”

Turning her head to his voice, Sophy saw him. He was small, too, possibly even tinier than Glaydis because he was not as robust. All chin and cheekbones in his face, with thin, soft-looking skin hanging loosely around his features, wispy white hair springing from his scalp. He laid in a bed with blue-striped sheets pulled up to his chest. Over the crisp sheets he had folded his ancient-looking hands, bumpy and spotted and bony looking, pajama cuffs almost swallowing them completely. Propped up on brightly white pillows, he looked old and tired and sunken. Not until you looked closely at his eyes did you realize how much life burned hot still inside the frail-looking body. They gave the feeling that if he could move things with his eyes, his power would be limitless.

“Oh, Ari,” said Glaydis, patting one of his gnarled hands softly, “you always did have a weakness for brown eyes.”

“Hmmmph,” Ari gruffed again. “Eyes have nothing to do with it. Antoinette Thorne was beautiful inside and out. So was Edward, for that matter.” He turned his head to Sophy. “Your parents were wonderful people. I’m sure many have told you that.”

Tears burned in Sophy’s eyes. She tried to find the voice to say that no, no one had bothered to tell her that. That no, no one ever really even talked to her about her parents. That her aunt and uncle seemed to think it was in her best interest not to dwell on her parents, lost to her now forever.

Glaydis seemed to understand immediately. “We’re telling you now, dear girl,” she said, her voice comforting and soft. “We’re telling you now.”

Sophy sniffed. Reaching a tiny hand into a hidden pocket, Glaydis extracted a little soft square of cloth. “Here, dear,” she said, stretching her arm toward Sophy. “Take this for your nose.”

The cloth was barely larger than a square of toilet paper, and Sophy carefully dabbed around her nose and eyes with it. Sniffing rather loudly, she looked around for somewhere to sit, feeling overtall and large in the small, tidy, book-lined space.

“Oh!” Glaydis cried, “let me get you a seat.” She bustled behind one of the shelves and emerged with a small footstool. “This will do,” she said, and she put it at Sophy’s feet. Sophy, taking her cue, carefully sat down on the small stool. She found it surprisingly comfortable.


“Well,” Glaydis said. “Now that we’ve got you seated and all ears, I think it’s probably time that we explained a few things. Perhaps we should start with The Collection.”

We

After a pause so quiet she thought she could hear the dust settling, Sophy finally said it out loud. “What do you mean by ‘we’?” she asked.

The old lady put her hand up and waved it in a half circle. “All of us, dear. We are your people, even though you do not know us.”

“My people,” Sophy echoed. She sat again on the bed, still hugging the pillow, and puffed up another dust cloud. “My people?”

“Your parents were our dearest friends,” Glaydis said. “We loved them so, and we miss them terribly. We cared for them, and they cared for us. In fact, it was for one last part of the Collection that they went out that fateful day. Being a Word Watcher can carry its dangers, there’s no question about that.”

“I don’t understand,” said Sophy, thoroughly confused. “I don’t understand any of this. I don’t know who you are. I’ve never heard of you or anyone else and I don’t understand how you knew my parents. And what is a Word Watcher? What is the Collection?”

Glaydis didn’t answer any of these questions directly. “We have been waiting for you to come for quite awhile now,” she said, instead. “It’s been two years since we lost your parents, and we’ve not been quite sure what to do. At first we thought...well...since the house belongs to...”

“Glaydis!” suddenly came from the dark corner where all the scuffling had started. “Glaydis! What is it?”

Glaydis laughed, a tiny chortling laugh and put a tiny wrinkled hand over her mouth. “Bless me!” she said, laughing again. “I forgot all about Aristotle.” 

“Aristotle?” Sophy said, incredulous. “You don’t mean, that Aristotle?”

Glaydis laughed again. “Oh, no, my dear, although that speaks so well to both your acceptance of what is beyond this world and your knowledge of history! Well done.” She put her two hands to her head scarf and made a little adjustment. “No. Aristotle is my husband.” She turned again. “Ari!” she said, a little more loudly, before turning back to Sophy and whispering, “He’s a little hard of hearing. Ari!” she said again, a little louder.

“Yes!” he responded, his voice gruff but not unpleasant, like the bark of a friendly dog.

“My dear,” Glaydis answered, “She’s here! Sophy is finally, finally here!” She held out a hand to Sophy. “Walk over here with me, my dear,” she said. “Ari has a bit of trouble getting around.”

Sophy slowly rose from the bed, letting the ratty pillow fall from her hands as she did. Her mind stumbled around on everything she’d just seen and heard—a tiny old woman apparently living in her aunt and uncle’s attic with a hidden old man named Aristotle, both of whom knew her parents? Word Watchers and something about a Collection, and this wasn’t really an attic at all but the Sky Parlor, and now here she was, rising from a dusty, creaky old bed and walking toward an impossibly tiny woman holding out a kindly hand to her.

And still she walked forward, drawn perhaps by the unexpected kindness as a thirsty gazelle draws near water, even while sensing danger all around.


Change

Where to begin? The day that they sent her secretly crying, crushed, into the top floor room, a place of fear and dark and dust? Or many months, actually two years, before, when she arrived, tired and afraid, not sure of her place, not sure what would happen next? She knew her place now, that was certain. Her place was up there, in that dusty old attic.
Probably best to start at the beginning. In the beginning, Sophy was just any other girl. Well, at least, she was just any other girl in that she was a girl. She had brown hair growing soft and straight from her rather large head. She had brown eyes, big and deep and watchful, eyes that could fix on someone unintentionally intensely, until the other person looked away. She was smaller than many girls her age, but solid, often quiet, sometimes loud with passion, always odd, outside, on the edges. This edgy, small girl had lived her life happily alone with her parents until The Day School Started. It had all gone downhill from there.

With her parents, Sophy Thorne could read. She could think. She could talk and ask questions and enjoy a colorful, beautiful life of the mind, just the three of them melding thoughts and ideas into an almost magical internal world. But classmates were a different story. Too old for the others around her, at least in that large head of hers. Too young in years and too young in emotion, not familiar with the ways of the other children. A girl in every way except the way that seemed to matter. Sophy tried, but she never quite understood why girls did what they did. Why did they, one day, talk about being friends, list you first on their friendship list, only the next day to brush you off coldly, announce to everyone that you were no longer on the list at all? Why? There was no way, Sophy knew, that she herself had changed so much in a single day.

But then one day came, one single day, in which everything changed. Everything. Forever. Her parents, on what was to be a quick trip to a favorite old bookstore a couple of hours away, her father, driving well and carefully as he always did. It wasn’t enough. Not enough to keep them from crossing paths with a truck coming into their lane, going the wrong way, going 70 miles per hour. The driver, the police said, exhausted and asleep behind the wheel. A truck taking away Sophy’s parents, permanently. Her companions in her life of the mind were gone.

What did she have left?

She had an aunt, she had an uncle, both of whom had graciously given up their small ranch home to move into the rambling old house no one had occupied since Sophy’s grandfather had died. There was just more space, her aunt and uncle said, and with Sophy to care for, they needed more space. Plus, the schools were good. 

She had a cousin, a boy near her own age, the kind of boy who walked a razor’s edge of choices: He might end up good and kind, or he might end up unhappy and mean. It was hard to tell then, when the two of them were only young kids, which way it would go. His parents, Sophy’s aunt and uncle, Terrance and Trude Thorne, seemed like signposts pointing the way to Unhappy and Mean. They were well meaning, in their way, but ultimately self-absorbed and unintentionally unkind to this strange, odd girl they’d somehow inherited. And it was thanks to them that Sophy found herself moving up. They needed the tiny room she’d had for two years, needed it for...well, that had been unclear, but what was clear was that Sophy had to vacate and take herself and her meager belongings upstairs, to the top of the house, to the attic. She’d like having a little more privacy, they said, now that she was becoming a teenager. 

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The dust choked. The first time Sophy sat on the bed with its aged, flaking hand-made quilt, a little cloud of dust gathered around her and drifted up her nose, making her sneeze. Several times. Loudly. Her aunt had said they’d change the linens and set up a nice cozy nook, but that hadn’t happened yet. Sophy would look to it herself, probably. So, sneezing.

“Atchoo! Atchoo! ATCHOO!!”

With that last sneeze, Sophy heard something. A creak, then a scratching sound, then a rustle. “Oh, no,” she thought, putting a dusty hand to her mouth. “A rat?”

Sophy didn’t normally find rats that scary, but alone in the dusty, gloomy attic, suddenly a rat seemed like the scariest thing she could imagine. What if it came to her in the night, tried to chew off her toes?

Afraid to move, she sat, still and listening. But then another bolus of dust traversed her nasal passages, and suddenly, she needed to sneeze again. She wriggled her nose. She contorted her face. She pinched her nostrils. None of it helped.

“ATCHOOOOO!!!!”

That was the loudest one of all, and it brought on a commotion in the corner of the attic, a racket of scuffling, scratching, scraping that grew so loud that Sophy was about ready to leap out of her skin when a voice came from the gloom.

“Bless you!”

“Aaaaaaaaaagggggggh!!” Sophy screamed in reply. She leapt across the bed to the opposite side, huddling behind it, her back to the old paneling on the attic wall. As she cowered, she heard more scraping and footsteps scooting across the floor, as though the person or thing or whatever it was that owned the feet couldn’t lift them up very well. 

“Wha...what...wh...who...who are you?” Sophy stammered. She was near tears with the fear, hugging the musty pillow at the head of the bed, just peeking her eyes around it. A quick glance sideways told her the door was too far away, that whatever this thing was was far closer than any exit.

And then, into a beam of sunlight slanting through the clouded attic window, there stepped a little old woman. A very little old woman. She stood no higher than Sophy’s waist and was clad in clothing that looked old in every way, as though it had been made many many years ago and worn as long. The skirts, which fell to the floor and covered the scuffling feet, glided through the attic dust, leaving a trail of smooth, gleaming wood floor behind them. Their faded blue, in spite of its age, did not look dusty but instead seemed clean and fresh.

Indeed, the old woman herself did not carry the dust of the attic but smiled a cheerful, fresh smile from underneath her faded tawny head covering, which was tied neatly under her hair at the back of her neck. She looked at Sophy with brown eyes that didn’t twinkle but instead gleamed with a warmth and compassion that Sophy hadn’t seen in anyone’s face for two years.

“Don’t be afraid,” the tiny old thing said to Sophy in a soft voice that sounded strangely young, almost childlike. “I am Glaydis, and I mean you no harm.”

Slowly, Sophy stood up from behind the bed, leaning on it so that its old joints creaked under her weight. She kept her hold on the pillow, hugging it to herself as she rose. She glanced toward the door again. Then, looking down on the old woman, standing in the slanting sunlight and smiling so kindly, Sophy suddenly felt huge and human and ungainly. In reality, she was still quite small, even small for her age (she’d be 13 next birthday), but still much larger than the little old lady.

“Wha...what are you doing here, in the attic?” Sophy managed to choke out, still fighting the dust.

Glaydis looked around her. “The attic?” she repeated. “The attic? My dear, this is no attic. This is the Sky Parlor.”

“The sky parlor?” Sophy repeated, not understanding.

“Yes,” Glaydis returned. “This is our home here. We all live here in the Sky Parlor. And you are welcome here, as well. We’re glad you’ve finally arrived.”


Sophy couldn’t say anything in return. She couldn’t say “thank you” or “how kind” or “I appreciate that” because all her brain could process at that moment was that the old lady had said “our” and “we all” and her mind had arrested on a single question. “Who are the ‘we’?”