As part of an artwork challenge on Facebook, I was nominated by a fellow writer to post my own art/writing for five consecutive days. Each day I’ll nominate another female artist to join with the challenge.
Here’s a small something I wrote a couple of years ago that may one day turn into the beginning of a larger something. This is “Books, Gryphons, and Tea Sets”:
Sundays after breakfast, I dust my tea sets and gryphons. Each week I rotate which tea set I use—porcelain, silver, ceramic, wood; dozens of sets from around the world. I make sure to use them all, trying to match the feeling of the tea set to the type of tea served in it. I know it sounds silly, but a tea set sitting on a shelf and never being used strikes me as heartbreaking. Unloved.
The gryphons, on the other hand, rarely get handled other than during Sunday dustings. When my nieces and nephews were little, I made sure to stock the lower shelves with kid-friendly versions—plastic, plush, puppet—and keep the heavier and more fragile ones out of reach.
I have gryphons holding little crystals like giant gemstones; a metal gryphon suspended in flight, touching only one paw to the ground; even a mother eagle and father lion in a loving headbutt as they gaze upon their hatchling baby. The prize of my collection is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of taxidermy—the lower body of a black cat and the head and wings of a black hawk (both animals deceased from natural causes), sewn together and fitted with bright green glass eyes.
That Sunday, as I set the silver Indian tea set back on its shelf (the room still smelling lightly of Darjeeling), the doorbell rang. I hoped it wasn’t missionaries.
Instead, it was a Girl Scout.
“Bookmobile!” she announced with a smile on her pudgy face. I guessed her to be about eleven. Her green sash was sparsely dotted with a few badges.
“No cookies?” I asked.
“No cookies, just books.”
“Well, I devour those, too. What do you have for sale?”
“Oh, nothing for sale,” she said, gesturing to the little red wagon at her side. “I’m more like a traveling library. Oh, I’m Mikaela from Troupe 219, I forgot that part. You can borrow up to three books at a time and return them to me next week. And if you have any books you don’t want anymore and would like to donate, I can take them.”
“Oh, I can always stand to get rid of more books,” I said, opening the door wider. “Come on in.”
I went to the tall shelves pecked with books, gryphons, and tea sets.
“Wowww…” breathed Mikaela, and I let myself grin with my back turned to her. I love these sorts of reactions, especially from kids.
“Can I touch them? I promise to be really, really careful—I never break anything.”
As the girl ran her fingers lightly, reverently over my collections, I scanned through the books, picking out the ones I probably wouldn’t read again any time soon and could find at the public library if I did want to. No library doesn’t have Tolkien. Out, too, came the books that had been sitting around for years and never finished.
I plopped the stack onto the coffee table next to Mikaela, who was examining the brass-and-silver clockwork gryphon with his little monocle and top hat. She looked up at me like I might be her fairy godmother.
“You’re donating all of those?” She quickly counted nineteen books. “That’s almost as much as my whole cart! I’ve only collected twenty-two.”
“Will they all fit?”
“Sure!” she said, scrambling to her feet and wheeling over the little red wagon. “I’ll make them fit.”
After an admirable game of book-and-wagon Tetris, she gave up. “Well, almost. I think it’ll work if you take one.”
The book that was left out on the coffee table was bound in a stained and ragged-edged beige leather. “Libraeternum,” I murmured aloud. “Huh.” I flipped open to a random page only to find that the text was all in French. “Huh,” I repeated a little louder.
“Oh, that one,” said Mikaela. “Yeah, I can’t read it. I was hoping someone else could.”
“I think I might be able to.”
“What language is it?”
“I think the title is a mashup-up of a couple of different Latin words, but the story is in French.” I flipped to the first page (hanging on by one binding thread) and tried to make out the first paragraph.
On the street of the something something…library of something…every book something written…every book something be written…Something Library of Alexandria, but the something blah blah blah.
“Wow. I took three years of French in high school, but that was a very long time ago.” Please don’t ask me how long, I thought. Being around kids makes me temporarily forget how old I really am.
I remember reading a version of “Beauty and the Beast” where the Beast’s enormous library was possible because it contained every book ever written and every book that would ever be written. That’s what this story reminded me of.
I flipped a little farther along to find simple pen-and-ink illustrations. The first was of—I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t—two huge stone gryphons that guarded the entrance to the library. A girl in a raincoat that looked kind of like the one I had when I was little was ascending the front steps. I couldn’t see her face, but I felt her sense of wonder; it was the same I used to feel when I was a kid, going to the castle-like library in my hometown of Fort Madison, Iowa.
I spent my whole childhood peeking in wardrobes; opening mysterious doors; peering down rabbit holes; and collecting rings, stones, lockets, keys, any little trinkets that looked like they might be magical.
I kept a suitcase under my bed packed with a clean change of clothes, rainboots and raincoat, a few cans of food, and a Swiss army knife, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice for when my adventure finally called me. But it never did.
I don’t want to say that Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, Michael Ende, and C. S. Lewis lied to me, but they certainly set me up for disappointment.
The next illustration sapped the breath right out of my chest. It was a close-up of the ring that—of a ring that looked just like the one I wanted when I was eight. It was only a little sterling silver ring at Khol’s, but it was the stone that captured me. It was sour-apple green and cut in some weird rhomboid shape, each of its many sides an elongated, curved triangle. It wasn’t like any cut stone I had seen before. I knew, in my eight-year-old bones and eons-old soul, that this ring was magical, and I needed it.
But twelve dollars was a lot of money, and when I went back next week fully intending to steal it, it was gone. I searched the entire jewelry section, even worked up the nerve to ask a sales lady in a brown skirt suit if they still had it somewhere. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember going home empty-handed, embarrassed, and crying. I had missed my chance, and my adventure was gone.
Now BAM, here it was again. The ring, gryphons, an infinite library. I was not letting Libraeternum out of my sight.
I shut the book with a snap. “Time to start restudying French,” I said. “I’ll take it.”