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A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"But all this- the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all- made no impression on the man. He was a newcomer to the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination."
-Jack London, "To Build a Fire"
"My name is Nancy Matteo. We spoke on the phone earlier. I'm here to see the book collection."
It wasn't a particularly difficult sentence, and I'd been softly rehearsing it on the bus ride from downtown. Shouldn't have been a problem at all. It was the negotiations that I should have been worried about. But the greeting felt like it was stuck on the tip of my tongue, a kid hanging her toes over the diving board deaf to the shouts that she was holding up the line.
Now that was just great. I was nervous enough about the present, and my brain decided to start processing childhood embarrassments.
I focused on the street numbers: Thirty-nine, forty-one, forty-three. The sky above was grey and darkening as I passed rows of brownstones on a late afternoon in January. This was Worcester, Massachusetts. My city. It's grimy and cold, a black sheep of Boston's family. A working-class mill center long past its prime that hasn't quite managed to rise into the realm of quaint or even nostalgic. On this particular night, I'd taken the bus across town to see a man about a collection of books for my store.
That was all it took to get me daydreaming again. I'd worked for years, filling up my apartment with old books, buying and selling them on the internet, working retail while I dreamed of the day I'd be able to open my store. That day was coming at the end of the month. I already had the lease on the place and I was in the process of acquiring the rest of my stock.
The man at fifty-seven Berkshire Street was going to sell me one of the best private collections of occult and paranormal antique books in New England, possibly in the entire country. They were part of the estate of Robert Olson, one of the founding members of the New Hampshire Paranormal Society. His family once owned real estate all over the northeast, but I'd heard that the current generation hadn't been so fortunate in their business dealings. They'd been selling off property, and the townhouse in Worcester was one of the few that remained in the family. It probably wouldn't be with them much longer.
I looked at the house numbers. Sixty-three.
"Damn it, girl. Get your act together," I muttered as I turned around. It had started to snow by the time I made my way back to number fifty-seven.
The apartment wasn't lived-in. I noticed that before I noticed anything about the man who answered the door. It wasn't dusty. The place was spotless, in fact. But there was only one coat on the pole near the door, and the furniture was draped in sheets, standing long unused on the bare hardwood.
"Are you with Mr. Matteo?" The man was looking me over, trying to reconcile me with his notion of an antiques buyer. I'd tried to dress up for the visit, but my overcoat rendered me a shapeless dark blob in the light of his doorway, and my resolution that I wouldn't compromise on the nose-ring for appearances sake suddenly seemed the height of vain foolishness.
"I'm Ms. Matteo," I explained, emphasis on the 'miz'.
"James Olson," he said. He was as bland and stark as the apartment. Drab in his dress, his movements and speech slow, deliberate.
He ushered me in and took my coat. I declined his offer to take my briefcase. I'd brought a notebook and some references to use for the appraisal. I caught his gaze as it lingered on my skirt, my shoes. I looked back for a moment's glimpse of the snow, big flakes now, shining in the glow of a streetlight before he closed the door and the shadows of the gloomy hallway enclosed us.
He started toward the stairway and I turned back to the clothes pole, removed an envelope from the inside pocket of my coat and slipped it into the front pouch of the briefcase before following him up.
The books occupied one wall of a small windowless room at the back of the house, lit by a tiffany ceiling fixture. There were two sheet-covered chairs, and a small coffee table. The room was lined with bookshelves, but the walls to the left and right were empty.
"The collection was housed in boxes in the attic," he explained. "After we spoke I arranged for them to be moved here so you could examine them comfortably. I trust this is to your liking?"
"Oh, yes. This will be fine. I'll need some time to look the books over."
"Of course. I'll be downstairs. But I hope you can work quickly. They say the roads could be bad tonight."
"I'll do my best. I want to be able to offer you an accurate appraisal."
He nodded and backed out of the room. I listened to his steps fade down the stairs before I got to work.
I took the first book off the shelf and laid it on the coffee table, turning the pages carefully. I took the note pad and pen from my briefcase and started jotting down details about the book: date and place of publication, condition of the spine, tears and yellowing in the pages, a penciled-in date and set of initials on the inside of the cover. It was more detail than I would need to price the book for sale in the store, but years of setting up online auctions had left me with a routine, and I followed it. Besides, a lot of these books were specialized collectors' items. Someday, people would travel miles to seek out books like this at my store, but I knew that was probably still years away. Part of this collection would have to be sold online just to recoup my investment.
I glanced at my watch. This was going too slowly. The collection was beyond anything I'd hoped for and I knew I should arrange to come back and finish it another day. But if I did that, the books might sell to someone else. There was an extensive selection of Masonic writings, not all that interesting in themselves, but many of them were painstakingly annotated by hand, and I recognized a few names from the research I'd done on the New Hampshire Paranormal Society. I noticed with some satisfaction that a copy of Etidorhpa - The End of the Earth - The Strange History of a Mysterious Being by John Uri Lloyd was included among the Masonic volumes. This was an original printing from 1898, a true rarity. There were older books too: The Spirit Land by S. B. Emmons, published 1859, and Ethan Scarboro's Maladyes of the Ethereal and Inferneal Spheres from 1894, and some others I didn't recognize from even earlier. There were early UFO books from the 1960's and anthologies of New England folklore and ghost stories dating from the early 20th Century to recent times.
Each book was a new treasure trove, almost all of them titles I'd never seen before. Every time I opened one I found something to linger on. Sometimes it was an antique typeface or an inscription, sometimes an unexpected set of illustration plates or some odd bit of verse. Some of the older books were wholly or partly in Latin or Greek. There were other languages as well: Arabic and Hebrew, and some that I wasn't sure of. Some of the books in English seemed almost foreign, as they delved into convoluted metaphysical discourse. Every so often a passage would catch my eye, and another bit of my time would vanish as I puzzled over some explanation of the ethers or the mystical properties of geometric patterns.
I consider myself a Wiccan, although lapsed Wiccan might be a better description. I recognized some of the parallels between these old metaphysical treatises and the watered-down fluffbunny stuff that I used to watch the goth kids pore over in the New Age section of the chain bookstore I worked at. I wondered how much of these books I would really be able to grasp if I had the time to study them. I knew I wasn't an expert. I was hardly even a beginner. But I have an imagination and I can make connections. I've always been able to make connections.
It was the cold that finally convinced me I needed to stop, although Olson's footsteps on the stairs came just a minute or two after I realized that I was shivering badly and put down the book I was working on, resolved that it would be the last for the night.
"It's late. And it's getting bad out. Do you want to come back?"
I took a deep breath and stood.
"No," I said. "I want to make a deal."
I took the envelope with the cashier's check out of my briefcase and handed it to him. I studied his expression. I could tell he wasn't satisfied, but I'd anticipated that.
"That's a deposit," I told him. "I'll pay twice that. We draw up a contract tonight, and I take a couple of the best pieces with me, and then you'll get the other half when I arrange for pickup of the rest of the collection."
He smiled for the first time all night.
I fell on the outside steps as I was leaving. I caught the iron railing and twisted around so I landed on my side instead of on my face. The snow got all over me. Winters hadn't been that bad for the past few years, and my coat wasn't all that good. It was just something cheap I'd picked up in a thrift shop. I hauled myself back up in time to see James Olson's BMW emerge from the alley next to the brownstone. He almost spun out when he turned onto Berkshire Street, and I watched his wheels kick up snow as he regained control of the car and headed into the storm and out of sight.
My bus stop was at the corner of Berkshire Street and Park Street, a few blocks away. I'd checked my bus schedule when I was packing up. The schedule only listed times for a few major stops on the route. The shopping plaza at Marlboro Street was closest to where I needed to get the bus, ten minutes away, probably longer in the snow. It was a five-minute walk up to the corner, plenty of time in normal conditions. I figured I'd better get moving. I slipped again a few yards up the sidewalk, barely keeping my balance. My feet were already wet, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd stuffed too many books into the briefcase. Nobody had shoveled yet and there wasn't a plow in sight.
In fact, there wasn't anyone in sight.
I got to the bus stop, which consisted of a bench and a partly open shelter plastered with advertisements for a "little purple pill". None of the ads quite got around to explaining what ailment this marvel of medical technology would cure, but they brightly urged me on from three sides to consult my doctor. I wiped an inch of snow off the bench and sat down to wait.
I really wanted to open up the briefcase and continue browsing through my new acquisitions, but obviously that would not be possible sitting out in the snow. Instead I let my mind drift back to the little details I had already uncovered in the collection. I'd decided that I was going to keep one or two choice finds for myself. Not the best business decision, but it had never been all about business. My interest in all things literary went back to my days in grade school, nestled in the "quiet corner" with Laura Ingalls Wilder or Madeleine L'Engle, often asking the teacher if I could skip going outside for recess so I could finish another chapter. Fourth grade was my favorite. Mrs. Anderson always let me stay in to read, and she'd arranged a reading area with cushions and a bean bag chair that was warm and cozy. Thinking back to those days made me forget all about the cold, and the wetness.
I thought about how it had all led to where I was today: My new business about to open. I thought about the library job at college, and then the years working at the bookstore chain, my first tentative efforts at buying and selling on the internet, trips to the Brimfield Antique Show and the New Hampshire Antiquarian Book Faire, and then finally my big break and the financial backing to open up the store. Suddenly all that preparation had paid off and I was very rapidly becoming a major buyer in the area. I still had a lot to learn, and a lot of work to do to get my name out there.
I thought about today and about how nervous I'd been ringing Olson's doorbell, worried about stumbling over my words, wondering if I could get him to look past the slightly dressed up goth-punk girl in her 20's to see a serious buyer. In the end, the money had done the talking, Olson had listened, and the collection would form the heart of my new stock.
I found myself stuck on that scene: Walking up the steps to Olson's door as the snow began to fall. But I was picturing it snowing like now, gusting winds driving big flakes of the stuff, making it hard to see, distorting shapes. I didn't look like myself anymore. I emerged out of the storm a dark shape, stretched tall like a shadow distorts under the streetlight. The door opened at my touch and I saw Olson shrink from the shadowy figure, who couldn't be me because I was shorter than Olson. Olson shrank away and fell out of sight with a low wet sound and then the shadow was moving up the stairs toward the door where I was sleeping on a sheet-covered chair with an antique book of Masonic rituals on my lap.
I screamed to wake myself up.
I woke up.
I was wet and shivering and there was snow on my lap and my shoulders. My arms had jerked up when I awoke from the dream, but my fingers were barely responding and I couldn't feel my toes.
I looked at my watch. The bus should have come twenty minutes ago. If I'd missed it, it would be an hour before another one came.
And you don't have an hour, girl. He came looking for you at Olson's townhouse and you weren't there, but he's tracking you through the snow. The wind covered some of your footprints, but not enough.
I shook my head hard, as if to force the thought from my mind. I'd felt fine when I sat down, but now I was going numb from the cold, and the visions of someone? something? tracking me through the snow kept playing over and over in my head. I wondered if I was getting hypothermic. Did you go delusional when you got cold enough?
In some ways the thought seemed ridiculous. I was in a city, for goodness sake. There was probably a 7-11 or a McDonalds a few blocks up the road and I could go in and get warm, have some coffee. They'd probably have a pay phone and I could call a cab if I didn't want to try for the next bus.
But the wind had picked up again, blowing the snow so that I could barely see the street, let alone what might be a block or two away. I thought of the Jack London story about the man, the tenderfoot, who froze to death a short way from his camp because his hands were too numb to handle matches and because he lacked the imagination to realize he could die out there on the trail.
I have never lacked imagination. I'd just fallen asleep on a metal bench wearing wet clothes in 20 degrees, in something that barely counted as a shelter, and the sleep had been as warm and cozy as Mrs. Anderson's bean bag chair.
"That's it, girl," I said to myself. "You need to move. Now."
I stood and picked up my briefcase.
Then I saw the dog. A pit bull. Low to the ground, almost sinking into the snow.
It was looking directly at me, just at the edge of visibility in the driving whiteness. I've never had a dog, but I didn't need to be a good expert to see the hostility: Teeth bared, ears flat back. It didn't come any closer, but it didn't take its eyes off of me.
It's only the hound. Here to keep you treed until the hunter arrives.
Nope, not lacking in imagination in the slightest.
I took a step out of the bus shelter and the dog took a step toward me. I thought I could hear it growl, but the noise of the wind was so loud I must have been making that up. I stepped back and started to pace around the shelter, trying to get feeling into my feet again. I briefly thought about lighting a fire. I had a pack of matches in my jacket pocket. There was a trash can in the shelter. I looked into the can for some newspapers to burn.
A new thought entered my mind, a vision of me burning the rare books in my briefcase for warmth. Of all the things I was suddenly considering, death by hypothermia or mauling or an even worse fate at the hands of this shadowy figure my dreams had conjured, it was the thought of losing those precious books that horrified me.
I rummaged through the trash can, but it looked pretty hopeless. The snow had soaked everything.
I tried to keep moving. I still had half an hour until the next bus, if there even was a next bus. Maybe they had shut down because of the storm. Every time I got near the entrance to the bus shelter, the dog would raise its head a little, anticipating me taking a step out. I thought about running, but I remembered how I'd already slipped twice in the shoes I'd bought to impress the seller with my air of professionalism. And that had been before my feet had gone mostly numb. I could see myself losing balance, plunging into the snow as those jaws fastened onto the back of my neck. I remembered reading stories of pit bulls that wouldn't let go of a dog or a kid even after the police had shot them.
I suddenly noticed something different about the quality of the light, and I took my eyes from the dog. A car was making its way up Park Street, the first one I'd seen since Olson had skidded away into the night. I made my decision in a heartbeat, stepping from the pattern I'd been pacing to snatch up my briefcase and then out of the shelter and into the street, my arm waving.
The driver hit the breaks and his wheels locked up, but the car kept moving and I saw the dog take off after me at a run before the car blocked it from my view and slid to a stop.
I lunged for the door handle, my feet slipping, and pulled back to find it locked. I nearly screamed as the man inside mouthed "Oh? Sorry!" and hit the button to unlock the door. The pit bull came around from the back of the car, but its momentum carried it into a skid that took it into the snowbank next to the bus shelter.
I got the door open, slammed it behind me, and the wheels spun once before we pulled away. I tried to see the dog in the rear view mirror, but the entire scene was lost in the driving snow.
I savored the warmth of the car for a moment or two, but when I felt my eyelids getting heavy, the fear returned. This was too close to the warmth I'd nearly slipped into on the bus shelter bench. And besides I was in a car with a stranger, and that opened up the floodgates to a whole new torrent of worries.
The driver, for his part, was concentrating on the road ahead, and he took his time before finally breaking the silence.
"You all right, Miss?" Polite as could be. He was probably in his late forties, hairline receding, overcoat that showed a glimpse of a decent looking suit and tie. The car was nothing exceptional: A Chevy Malibu that looked in good shape for its years, better shape than the driver, who could stand to lose a few pounds. Not that I had any right to make judgments about that.
I thought about it for a minute. I was still scared. I still kept having this feeling that I was on the run from something. But the effects of the cold were passing, and I could wiggle my toes. Nothing would need to be amputated.
"Yes. Thank you. I'm fine," I answered.
"Thank the Good Lord I missed that turn or I wouldn't have driven by you. Things happen for a purpose, you know?"
He spoke the words "Good Lord" like a kid on the playground with a secret to share; it was a tone and a technique I'd seen with some of the born-again Christians I'd had to deal with when I was stocking the shelves at my old job. They tended to drop bits of religious phrasing like they were code words to be picked up on and answered with the proper countersign.
As a pagan I've picked up a natural suspicion of Christians, a form of prejudice that you find in both religions, though the writings of neither condone it. I could remember gleefully joining in with a group of skateboarders who would heckle one of the street preachers in Harvard Square back when I had my apartment in Cambridge. It was just something to do a couple nights of the week.
We stopped at a red light and he finally turned to look at me. He offered a hand, which I shook quickly.
"Peter Ward. Where can I take you, Miss?"
I shook my head. "Just drop me off somewhere I can warm up. I'll call for a cab."
The light turned and we were moving again.
"Wouldn't hear of it, Miss. Besides, I don't think any cabs are running right now. They've declared a state of emergency. Stay off the roads unless necessary. But I figure I'm on the road already, so I may as well get you where you need to go, Miss."
"Nancy. My name is Nancy," I gave him the address of the store. With everything that was happening, I just didn't feel right handing out my home address. Besides, the store was heated. I had a key. There was a comfortable chair and blanket in the back, and I could walk home in the morning once they'd plowed.
"We're gonna have to take the long way around," He explained as he made a turn. "Water main break turned a couple blocks downtown into a sheet of ice, and they closed roads."
We made our way out of Worcester to circle around to my side of town, and it wasn't long before Peter asked the question I'd been expecting.
"Do you read the Bible, Nancy?"
"I have." Actually it had been quite a while, but it was the truth. I'd read most of it. I'd even liked a few parts, although I was a long way from being converted to anything.
"But you don't anymore? Fair enough." He turned his attention back to driving. That surprised me a little. Most evangelicals I've known tend to push the issue. Although, as I thought more about it, I realized that I really wasn't even in a position to make that judgment. Fact was, there simply weren't any Christians I knew all that well.
We drove on in silence. I wasn't sure where we were, except that the directions he was turning in seemed to make sense. The fear was still with me, the word hunted still dancing on the edge of my thoughts, and my imagination hard at work conjuring up all the bad ways in which this night could end. I had a fierce grip on the handle of the briefcase that was hurting my knuckles, but I didn't want to let go.
We were outside of the city now, making our way along a deserted stretch of winding suburbia.
"You're born again?" I asked. He'd backed off the religion topic so quickly that I was wondering if he was afraid of offending me.
"I put my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, if that's what you mean, Nancy, and finding that faith was like a new beginning for me. But I'll stop short at proclaiming myself saved. Part of finding faith is admitting that one is a sinner."
"Sounds to me like just admitting we're human. Goes without saying."
"Maybe. But I found it helpful to say it. And to read what scripture says about?"
"Peter! Look out!"
He was already spinning the wheel, swerving back to the right as the dog (wolf, I thought to myself) in the road leapt aside and the car spun into the snow bank to our right.
"You okay?" I asked. He'd bumped the steering wheel hard. He looked my way, and I could see the puffy areas around his eye. He'd have a nasty shiner in the morning, but he wasn't bleeding.
"Yeah. Fine. Praise Jesus, right?" He laughed a little.
I nodded. My seatbelt had dug into my shoulder and I'd probably have a welt there, but I was all right otherwise.
He put the car into reverse and spun the wheels. We didn't move. Not an inch.
"All right. Give me a minute to dig us out."
He reached for the car door and I grabbed his arm and pulled him back. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the car's headlight shining off the eyes of the dog (wolf) we'd nearly hit. It was waiting for one of us to get out of the car.
"What?" Peter looked annoyed and taken aback by my touch.
Damn it. I needed an ally, not an enemy. Think, girl. Put it into his language.
"Peter, listen to me. Do your beliefs include something like evil spirits?"
He was looking at the eyes, shining back from the road, and he nodded.
"Okay, Peter. We don't have the same beliefs, but we are going to be in the same world of trouble if we can't get this car moving without going outside."
Its only purpose is to keep you cornered until the hunter comes for you.
"And we need to do it now," I added.
He thought about it for a second, then asked, "Would it be all right if I prayed for us?"
"Um? Sure. But I won't pray with you."
He nodded. "I can pray and steer the wheel at the same time. You get in the back seat and see if you can rock the car to get us off this ice, okay?"
I took one more look at what was waiting out in the storm and scrambled awkwardly over the seat. Peter was reciting scripture as he gunned the engine and I threw my shoulder into the back seat, shifting my weight as hard as I could. On the second try the car began to budge, the wheels spinning wildly as the smell of burnt rubber filled the car. We slid inches back and forth five or six times, but finally the car found purchase on the road and sped back into the storm.
I thought I heard a whine of frustration as we pulled away, but it was probably the tires or the wind.
Peter tapped on the store window three days later, a heavily loaded paper grocery bag under his arm. He'd dropped me off the night of the storm, and I'd slept restlessly but dreamlessly in the chair in the back room. I had awoken to the city digging out and the sounds of kids heading to the park with their flying saucer sleds, ready to make the most of their unexpected day off from school. It warmed up that afternoon, and the blizzard would be remembered as a minor inconvenience to most of the people who remembered it at all. Worcester had been hit especially hard, but that wasn't uncommon for the cities outside of what the weathermen called "I-495 Belt".
The first shipment from the Olson collection had arrived the morning Peter stopped in and I was starting my preliminary sorting when I saw him at the window.
I let him in and he laid the bag, which I saw was full of books, on one of the small bits of available counter space.
"How's business?" He smiled.
"I'll let you know when I open. But it's coming together."
He looked around. "Yes, indeed. Coming together very nicely. I just wanted to make sure things were okay for you. Oh, and I brought these."
He unpacked the books. Bibles for the most part, and some theological works. All were old, some quite old.
"They were collecting dust in the attic of my church," he said. "They're probably not the kind of thing you're really looking for, but if you think you could sell any, they're yours. Always helps to diversify, right?"
I grinned. "I'll make room."
"That's great. I wish you the best, Nancy. You've picked a difficult path for yourself." He looked around the store once more. "But I have faith in you."
I never saw Peter Ward again, but every so often an older customer would come in looking for the inspirational section (located right next to the esteemed works of Christian authors Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien), and I wondered if he was out there sending customers my way.
I kept the best one of the antique bibles he had given me. It's on a shelf in my apartment, right beside The Brotherhood of Luxor and a couple of other selections from the Olson collection. And beside those is a first printing of White Fang.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007