I found five books. The Myth of Elainnor, Oskar & Pipany, The Wishing Jar, The Forest of Darkening Glass… And Ant & Caterpillow. All stories I now remember my father reading to me. And I think he read them to me in Neithernor.
I also found a sixth book, sitting on a table, but it’s sort of frozen in place. There’s nothing on the cover. I couldn’t open it, I couldn’t budge it from the table. It’s just… stuck. Maybe I’m supposed to figure out how to open it?
I read through the stories while I waited for Cole to come back. I’m not ashamed to say I was brought to tears several times. The memories connected to them washed over me, unlocking secret pieces of my childhood. Of some far off day I spent here with my father. A long and peaceful day. I don’t think it’s just recollecting. I think somehow those pieces, or the keys at least, were always waiting in these books. Like magiq.
I know I’m supposed to do something here, learn something… tell a story. I’m supposed to perform some difficult spell. I think it starts with remembering.
The First Book.
I recall listening to my father read The Wishing Jar to me while I wished that the fountain we came through had water in it so that the courtyard wasn’t so quiet. I wondered if years ago there’d been fish swimming in the pool or magiq coins sitting at the bottom. Holding wishes. Like the jar that held the last ray of sunlight in the story.
I took the book to the courtyard. And I sat it on the edge of the fountain.
“The little girl watched the wrinkles crinkle at the edges of her father’s eyes as he acted out the grandfather in the story. Her young father looked older in her memories now. Gray in his beard, and his hair growing thin. There was an urgency to his reading. It mattered. She didn’t know why at the time. She was just happy to have him.”
There are other places he read the books to me. I think I have to find them and leave the right book. Only I would know what stories and what locations. Only I could solve this puzzle.
Only I could tell a story about that day.
The Second Book.
A golden crown sat on a bench in the vault, near a deep pile of beautiful jewel-tone pillows. We sat there. Maybe I even napped there. I remember laughing with my father at the image of Pipany rushing to tell her father what had happened to everyone in the kingdom, only to find that he’d been turned into an ornate three-layer cake with a tilted crown sitting on top of his “head.”
“She was tired but couldn’t close her eyes so he rested his head on her pillow and they looked up at the ceiling and wondered what they would be if a vengeful witch turned them into desserts too. She said she wouldn’t be any kind of dessert. She’d be Pipany, the kingling, who knew everyone so well she could figure out their recipe. Or Oskar, the baker’s son, who used the recipes to skillfully “unbake” everybody. She remembered it made him smile a big smile. His daughter, the hero. No one’s dessert.”
The Third Book.
I had to find a way out of the vault. I packed up the books and went exploring the halls.
I found a stair that eventually emptied a few floors up into a great bronze and stone hall, with a gentle river passing through it. The river was wide enough and the hall tall enough that I imagine ships could pass to the sea beyond this beautiful castle. I could smell the salt on the air. The hall was so long I could just barely make out the ends.
I wandered along the edge of the river, eventually drawn to one of the berms of grass that grew out of the floor. Dips created natural places to sit. He read to me here. We ate fruit and cheese and candy. I remember the grass, the blue stained-glass high up in the ceiling of the hall. I knew what story he’d tell me here. I left the next book in the deep, green grass.
“He held her hand while reading Ant & Caterpillow. It touched him, the fable. His eyes were wet, and he would gently squeeze her hand when something in the story moved him. And she would squeeze back. She sat in the grass by the water, reflections of colored glass on the surface. Her head against him, holding his hand. She knew, even then, that she was comforting her father as much as he was comforting her.”
The Fourth Book.
A steep, spiraling ramp led to a watchtower. I remembered walking ahead of him, in case I slipped. I hadn’t been scared, but it was high, with no railing. He’d told me about the watchtower and I was determined to see the view from it. We read The Forest of Darkening Glass up there, twice. I wanted to make all new choices the second time and see how the story ended. I left it on the stone railing, with the telescope that had been there the last time I was.
“He’d given her a telescope to see the world beyond the castle. She had, up until then, never assumed they were anywhere other than New York. But now she saw the prismatic thing-shaped clouds, the great gray sea, the vast black forest at the base of the low, sharp mountains, and the tower sitting on top of it like a broken chimney. It all looked precious and endlessly fascinating. Like the maps you’d find on the inside cover of a fairytale. She looked and looked at the wild out there as his warm, comforting voice filled her ears, offering her safe or possibly perilous choices. He would laugh every time she made the same decision again. She couldn’t help it. She chose adventure and risk and exploration every time. Just like her father would’ve.”
The Fifth Book.
I remember we’d paced a long gallery full of tall, crystalline casks that glowed on their own and illuminated all the different styles of armour and weaponry inside them. He’d read to me The Myth of Elainnor there, until my legs were sore. The clunk of his walking stick on the stone floor, the book held open in his free hand.
The gallery wasn’t far from the hall. Some of the casks had been smashed by crumbling pieces of ceiling, some had toppled from wind perhaps. There was always a breeze blowing in from somewhere in this place. Often warm, but sometimes with a sharp eddy of cold inside. I left the book against a case that held a set of armour made of silver and sea glass. It had been my favourite as a child.
“She imagined Elainnor’s legs must’ve been tired too. All of her probably. Collecting the armor, the weapons, travelling the kingdom to save the woman she loved. Her father wanted to finish the story but she kept asking questions, had he ever used a sword, would he rather a bow or a crossbow, could you run in armour like the ones in the gallery, had he ever had to fight someone. He was patient with her questions. When she apologised for asking so many he said she should never ever apologise for being curious.”
The Sixth Book.
“There was one last lock. And the books were the five keys to it. She now had the memory of a sixth book. But nothing about it. It was a mystery. He’d let her read it, helping when she needed help, but also letting her struggle and figure it out on her own. She didn’t want to stop. She felt like it had been written exactly for her. The way only a handful of books feel in a person’s lifetime. But it was like the story passed through her eyes as she read it, off her tongue as she spoke, and she later found nothing stayed inside her. Not the title or the characters or the places. But his face, looking at her from the other side of the book was joyous and wistful. Like it was Christmas morning and he’d given her something he’d always treasured and found she loved it too. Not because she knew it would make him happy, but because he knew her well enough to know she would love it like he did.”
I walked back to the vault, exhausted. To the sixth book. The one I couldn’t move.
I felt the figuration work the moment I finished writing my story. I could open it now. I could read it. And I did. I could remember him there with me, smiling, tearful, sharing this thing that was so incredibly precious to him.
The thing he’d searched for all his life. The thing we’ve all been searching for.
The Little Red House isn’t a place. It’s a book.
A children’s book published by Ackerly Green in some version of 1955.
I just read the first volume of the Lost Collection.