“Imagine the world without The Diary of Anne Frank,” said Mr. Fowler. “Books, they’re our hedge against forgetting. They’re a way of understanding the world at a pace that actually allows comprehension, allows us to breathe and be at ease, be thoughtful. Not like the world we live in now, a world without books, at least not paper ones.”
Mr. Fowler was a regular customer. He owned Pen and Ink, a fountain pen shop in the antique mall where I’d been renting an alcove since 2025, four years now. My shop was simple, three sides with no door to enter, just open to the rest of the mall. I had painted the walls a brick red and put a twentieth century cherry wood armoire to the side and a matching desk in the middle. The only thing on the desk was an arte nouveau cardholder with cards that read: Cynthia Carter, Bookfinder.
It was hard to get used to a bookshop without books, but I’d been warned once already. It wasn’t the books per se, but paper books that the vigilantes, a group fashioned after The Firemen in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451, objected to. They wore a disc with a phoenix in the middle and a salamander on their sleeve like Bradbury’s Firemen.
“I loved bookmarks! Didn’t you?” Mr. Fowler’s voice jarred me out of the place my thoughts had taken me. He was rhapsodic but I was ready to be annoyed by his use of the past tense, as though he no longer loved them. What he meant, of course, was that bookmarks were now something that had disappeared, that were, in fact, as obsolete as flip phones. “I remember one bookmark.” Mr. Fowler smiled a Cheshire Cat smile. “It was the shape of a cow and when you pressed a certain spot it mooed! The cow was black and white with a thin red ribbon holding a tiny gold bell around its neck.” He held his fingers together to indicate its tininess. “I had a whole collection I kept in the plastic sleeves of a photo album and when I’d get a book, I’d pick out the bookmark that I thought was best suited, that had a kind of symbiosis with the book, as though they needed to love each other, be friends.” He paused for a long while, eyes cast toward my ceiling, hands collapsed across his paunch. “Heidi of the Alps,” he said wistfully. “The cow marked my place in Heidi of the Alps.” I thought he might be getting ready to leave; it was closing time for me, but then he went on, “I read The Dairy of Anne Frank when I was thirteen. Never forgot it. How can anyone forget a book like that?”
“Indeed, Mr. Fowler. Who can forget Anne Frank? But, you have a request? Is there something I can find for you?”
“Yes, yes!” Mr. Fowler fumbled in his jacket pocket with both hands and pulled out a perfectly oblong scrap of paper. He straightened the paper, smoothed it, and then looked closely at it. “I’m afraid I’ve given you quite a task this time.”
“Let me see.” I held out my hand for his scrap of paper but he seemed reluctant to turn it over. After a few more seconds of scrutiny, he handed me the paper.
It wasn’t Mr. Fowler’s handwriting, which was fluid and graceful and always written with one of his own precious fountain pens. This was almost illegible, scrawled across the paper in green ballpoint pen. Instinctively, I turned the paper over. There was nothing on the back but a smudge of something brownish. This was very unlike Mr. Fowler.
“I’m not sure what this says,” I told him. “Is it something Hummingbird?”
“May I?” Mr. Fowler held out his hand and I returned the paper to him. “Hmmm, I think it says A Cunning Bird. See?” He pointed to the H that he saw as a C and the ms that he saw as ns.
“Who recommended the book to you? There’s no author or date of publication.”
“I told you this would be a devilish task.” This made Mr. Fowler chuckle and then stifle the chuckle. “Actually, I ran across this scrap of paper in a book I was reading. It was tucked between the pages in the middle of the book as if to mark the reader’s place. At first I just left it there but I became more curious as the days went by and decided to see if you might be able to locate this book for me.”
“Are you sure it’s a book? I mean this could refer to a person or a restaurant for all we know. It could be a reminder of something the reader needed to do.”
“Well, Cynthia, I’m pretty certain that it’s a book; I feel it. Would you mind looking into it? Make a few phone calls? Rule out that it’s a book? You don’t seem very busy right now and I could pay you for your research.”
Mr. Fowler did quite well with his pens. Besides, he’d been a good customer of my father and when my father died and I closed the bookshop, Mr. Fowler recommended that I rent a spot here.
I took the paper back from him and nodded. He was right; I wasn’t busy, hadn’t been busy for…well, never…I was never busy. My father’s bookshop had been a popular meeting place off the main street in the heart of the city. It was big enough to have its own coffee shop where intellectuals and artists gathered. Now, books barely existed and I wondered if intellectuals and artists existed either. My father had opened the bookshop in the sixties when he was just twenty years old and he’d had a good run for more than half a century. Then, we entered the electronic age. Electronic books were fast over-coming print books and my father died just before the book publishers started to close their doors back in 2010. There are no books left to sell, no new ones anyway. Oh, there were still specialty publishers who produced a hundred copies of this or that, a memorial to a sainted mother, a celebration of a wedding to set on a coffee table, gift books not meant for the general reader. In the past several years, even used books, my livelihood, didn’t make enough profit to pay my rent. Things weren’t looking good for my current enterprise. The mall owner gave me the space for a percentage just because the space, without walls, was pretty useless. I had a few regular clients, but finding books was expensive. Once, though, not a regular, Mr. Aufman, sent me to Germany to bring back a number of books before the German titles were all in private collections. They were “esoteric” books he said and not likely to be transformed into digital copy. He’d feared they’d be lost forever like the ancient Egyptian scrolls in Alexandria, the cave-like library of stone shelves mysteriously ravaged by fire. A few clients like Mr. Fowler came in from time to time asking for something long out of print or not available, at least not yet, in electronic form.
Besides, fewer and fewer people actually saw the value of reading. Books certainly had no advantage over the short, succinct entries one could find easily on-line, or so I’m told. Reading a book took too long and what was the point? I’m not quite old, I was born when my parents were in their forties, but I don’t understand this. I don’t understand how young girls reach adulthood without reading about Katherine and Heathcliff, about Anna and Vronsky. In two hundred years love stories are unchanged. They are never obsolete and they need the sensuality of the physical page. Without paper, Vronsky and Heathcliff are like electronic love letters.
I got my coat and purse from the armoire and started walking through the mall to the exit. The Mall was open until nine in the evening but I closed at five, so as I walked, I passed open shops of china, fine jewelry, vintage clothes, and vinyl records in a shop that also sold stereos to play them on. Next to the music box shop was a teashop where weary shoppers could rest. Outside the shop was a cash machine that was already out of date because people were having credit chips implanted behind their ear. No one took cash anymore, in fact, paper money was no longer minted, but if a plastic credit card were produced, the shop owners grudgingly accepted it. A sale was a sale.
Usually, I stopped to look in the jewelry store window or to talk to Mrs. Bradshaw who owned the shop. We would commiserate over the fact that so many places were on-line market places and that only grocery stores managed to stay open, but the antique mall still existed because it was one of the few places that served as a gathering place, as markets all over the world always did from ancient times—biblical times—the agora. We had a small movie theater, albeit the movies were streamed, but people loved to come and sit in the large dark theater as part of a popcorn-munching audience who laughed or cried in unison reacting to the actors on the screen. An elegant chocolate shop was near the entrance so that people could stop in for a quick purchase. But, today, I was in a hurry and passed by barely peeking to see what Mrs. Bradshaw might be doing or what new piece might be displayed in her window. The Arkush library was selling off its stock. They would stay open, but the book stacks would be replaced with electronic stations. The sale had started this morning and I’d probably already missed the best bargains. I flagged a taxi and told the cabbie my destination.
“The driverless cabs hit the streets today,” the cabbie said when I had settle myself in the back seat. I’d heard something about it. I knew it was coming, but everything happened so fast or so it seemed.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him.
“Drive a cab. That’s what I do.” He looked at me in his rearview mirror.
“But, how can you compete with cab companies that don’t have to pay a driver? Won’t all the cabbies be put out of business?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody’s going to save money on cabs,” he almost smirked. “Didn’t you hear? The rich just get richer. The price will be the same whether there’s a driver or not, but more people will be out of work, and the people at the top will just make more profit.”
Somehow I felt that the driverless cabs were going to meet with some odd collisions like cartoons in which pianos fell mysteriously from the sky.
“Some of the fellas have already moved to a commune. Self-sustained: built our own houses, grow our own food, make what we need.”
I could only see his eyes in the rearview mirror and he was hard to read. I couldn’t tell if it was pride or fear in his voice.
“Sounds a little scary!” I said.
His eyes were back on the road but I could see that his forehead had turned into a mass of furrows he could almost plow. He shrugged. We went the rest of the way in silence. We passed an invaded house. Scrawled in big letters on the exterior wall was the word “LUDDITE.” The street was still scorched where the books had been set afire. I’d heard, but I hadn’t seen before. When we stopped, he tried to scan my ear before I could hand him my plastic card.
It was silly, but I missed the feel of money, it’s dirtiness from being passed from one hand to another, slapped into dirty register drawers, wadded in pockets and shoved into wallets. I missed the stacks of bills my father brought home from book buyers who paid cash. I missed coins. Jars of pennies. A dollar under a pillow from the tooth fairy. I missed dropping quarters into a slot and then pressing a button to see my candy bar drop into the tray. I missed twenty-dollar bills tucked inside the birthday card from my grandmother. Something tactile was disappearing. I missed books that you felt the heft of and that left your fingers dry turning pages, cab drivers who told you their gripes from the time you got in until the time you got out, the almost sensual character of money where you could tell the difference between a lot of money and a little money by the space it took—that was all gone and the world was diminished.
There was no line trailing from the library book sale to the stairs outside. The building looked abandoned except that the lights were on but barely a soul could be seen. Inside, in the main library room where the librarians had been replaced by computer technicians who helped library users retrieve books from clouds and download them to other devices, there were only a few people perusing the book tables. The stacks had already been taken away, but boxes of books were stored under the tables ready to be brought up when a bare spot appeared.
“Cynthia!” Lysella was young and full of energy. She dressed in the androgynous fashion of the day, shaved head, a modern version of the Mao jacket, and storm trooper boots. “I thought you’d be here earlier. I set some things aside for you that I thought might be of interest. Come and look.”
I touched Lysella’s cheeks with my cheek, smiled, and followed her to her office where she’d accumulated about fifteen books that sat in two stacks on the corner of her desk. I picked up the first one.
“Anything you can use?” she asked.
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed and felt weak. I backed-up a few steps and collapsed into the nearest chair.
“Cynthia, what is it! Are you un-well?”
I shook my head finding it difficult to speak.
“I’ll get some water,” she said hustling out of the room.
When she returned, I had recovered a little. “Lysella,” I asked her, “did you ever read Fahrenheit 451?”
“Of course! Doesn’t everybody? Why?” It took Lysella only a second to connect things. “Sweetie, books aren’t gone. Nobody hates books. They’re only transformed into clouds. I mean, it’s better, isn’t it? They can never be destroyed now. No one can burn them. You can’t accidently leave them anywhere. They’re safe, Cynthia, perfectly safe.” She had been leaning against her desk but now she sat down next to me.
“You know what I like so much about books?” I asked not expecting an answer, “I like turning the pages and getting to the middle of the book so that you can see, even feel in your hands, that you are exactly in the middle. And then, one side gets lighter and one side gets heavier, a shifting of weight as I move through the book.” I felt bereft really, as though something I loved was dying. “If you were a book, Lysella, what book would you be?”
She laughed, “I’ll give you an answer next week!”
I wondered if I’d be back next week when all the tables would be gone and not one paper book remained in the library.
I took a sip of water. “I came over in a cab and the driver was talking about communes and I couldn’t help but think of 451, the people wandering the woods repeating the books they’d memorized.”
“The world is changing,” Lysella said, “and it ought to change. People have felt like you for as long as there was civilization. I’m sure when paper was invented, someone was bemoaning it’s fragility and claiming the superiority of indestructible stone tablets! Someone no doubt missed the horse manure in the streets when everyone began to drive cars. Don’t be a luddite, Cynthia! I know big, clunky books are your thing, Sweetie, but you’ve got to move with the times.”
She was right, I knew she was right, but she was also wrong. I smiled weakly, gathered myself together, and spent the next hour going through the library tables, placing the books I wanted in a box to be delivered to my house the next day. My heart just wasn’t in it, though. What was I doing hopelessly clinging to a life that was fast disappearing? Why was I lugging home books to a house already stuffed to the gills with them. If library patrons didn’t want to read real books even for free, what made me think I could sell them? I’d asked Lysella to do some research on My Hummingbird or A Cunning Bird and before I left, I checked back with
“Well, there’s several books called The Hummingbird, most about how to attract and feed them in your yard, but nothing on My Hummingbird. I did find one novel; that listing shows the title as Hummingbird, no ‘the’ or ‘my.’ Nothing under cunning bird. Could it be The Running Bird? I found a listing for that title.”
I asked her to send the two novels to my home computer and went home. I was strangely spent. What had been tiring about the day I couldn’t pinpoint. I was exhausted—emotionally exhausted. Inside my apartment building, the electricity, now controlled by the National Centralized Energy Corporation, had failed again. No elevator. I walked up three flights. I held the handrail; the stairwell was dark. The security cameras had a back-up system, though, and I felt safe; the only people around were people like me coming home from work or kids using it as an opportunity to have sex in the darkness. Without electricity, the optical scanner on my front door didn’t work, so I resorted to my key and the small flashlight attached to my key ring.
Every available space in my apartment was already used for book storage. Last year, I’d gotten rid of my bed frame and placed my mattress on a platform of books. Tables were piles of books with glass or board tops; columns of books held lamps. The storage closet in the basement, the guest bathroom, the top of the fridge, everywhere was covered with books. And, more were coming tomorrow.
What was I doing? I was on the fast track to insanity. Trying to hold onto the world as I knew it, trying to reverse the clock, go back to non-G.M.O. foods, and furniture constructed only with natural materials. What good was all this effort? I couldn’t change one thing.
The electricity flickered and my refrigerator began to hum. I turned on some lights. Sitting down with a sandwich, I opened the one book I’d brought home with me from the library, The Infinities, by John Banville. I opened the book and read his first line: “Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.” How perfectly exquisite! First person narrative from a god’s point of view! Brilliant! I’d read the book twenty or more years ago, and again when I found a copy in a bookshop in England ten years ago. I’d forgotten the delicacy of the opening line, its lyricism. When I ask myself what I’m doing, I know that what I’m doing is for the sake of John Banville’s first line. The book is almost human with its pliable pages that can be torn, burned, kissed, written on, that can be held, that can die and rot like a human. The book is the mind of John Banville and it seems so. In those pages, John Banville has poured out his mind like water. The words did not come from the mind of a machine; even though the words are the same, word for word the same, they are somehow different. I do it for every poet who ever lived, even the bad ones, but especially for the good ones like Billy Collins who wrote about Aimless Love saying that he fell in love with a wren, and a bowl of broth, and a bar of soap because he was full of love for the world.
I do it for today’s writers who will never have a book on the shelf in the library or in a bookstore, will never have a book for which I will search, but only have air books in cyber-space, books in clouds someplace.
I slept fitfully throughout the night and the next morning, I waited for the books to be delivered from the library. I stacked books higher or pushed them tighter to make room for yet another pile, and I thought about renting a storage unit. This thought was constant, but where would I get the money? When I had made what I thought would be sufficient space, I looked at the books Lysella had sent, The Running Bird and The Hummingbird, but I could see right away that these were not books that would interest Mr. Fowler. The Running Bird was a Dr. Suess-ish tale of a roadrunner and The Hummingbird told the story of the building and first flight of a small plane.
The books came, I catalogued them, and arrived at my alcove a little past noon. A young woman was waiting when I arrived with a book in hand she hoped to sell to me. The book, though, was not rare and no one would hire a bookfinder to locate a book like this. It was written in 2020 by an African writer. African writers had been much in vogue in the last decade or so. The oddity of the book was not that it was an African author, but that the book was not electronic but paper, produced by an African publishing house on paper made from processed elephant dung. Africa was producing paper books because it had lots of natural materials to manufacture paper. In the last twenty years, most Africans had become literate, but many people were still in non-computerized households. Still, I told her no, the book was available online and most people preferred it online. I didn’t feel I could sell a hard copy. She looked a little downcast and I assured her that the book had some value, just not to me.
The only other customer was a man who came in looking for a First Edition copy of a Mark Twain book. These were rare because they’d all been bought up long ago for private collections or private reading rooms. That, and the vigilante book-burners targeted them. I didn’t have the book, I told him, and didn’t think I could get it, but, if he’d give me his name and address, I’d message him if I got my hands on one.
I filled that day and the next making calls to all my contacts, booksellers around the world but I couldn’t find a shred of evidence that such a thing as A Hummingbird, My Hummingbird, or The Hummingbird existed. There was a massive university library in the United Scandinavian Territories but nothing turned up that I could use. If they didn’t have it, it didn’t exist I was sure. Evidence of the books existence only an esoteric note in an old and unpopular book—I was probably wasting my time.
Then, I got a note from Lysella saying she had spoken to a woman named Jennifer Mooney and that I would be hearing from her. She didn’t elaborate; the library had become busier than ever. It took a couple more days before I got mail from Jennifer Mooney saying she’d like to meet. “It’s taken me some time to make this decision,” she wrote. “but, I need to do this to honor my husband. Can you meet me at the teashop near your alcove tomorrow at 5?”
I was oddly excited as I walked to the teashop the next day. I didn’t know whom I was meeting but Jennifer Mooney said that she’d seen me at work and would have no problem recognizing me. When I walked into the teashop, a tiny, frail woman raised a gloved hand and waved.
Approaching her was like walking into a hot house full of orchids. There was something beautiful and rare about her, something so melancholy that it pervaded the air long before I’d reached the table. She wasn’t an old woman, maybe seventy I’d guess, but she had the air of someone ancient, as though she had lived many centuries and I was totally enchanted by her before she spoke a word.
“I’m Cynthia Carter,” I said feeling foolish already. She knew who I was.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Jennifer Mooney. Please call me Jen.”
I sat down. There was an empty cup in front of me and a silver teapot big enough for both of us. Jen was drinking from a thin china cup so delicate I could see through it. I asked her how she knew Lysella.
“I’m a school teacher,” Jen told me, “and I rely on Lysella so much! In the past, I used to take every class on a field trip to the library as part of the life-long learning curriculum, but now, with no books, I’m not sure what the point would be. ”
As I watched her, she seemed to light up. The pale skin of her face seemed to take on color and vibrancy.
She was in no hurry. I settled back and refilled my cup. Jen said, “I knew your father; my husband and I frequented his shop. My husband was quite the booklover.” It was as if someone had flipped a switch in her. Her eyes took on a sparkle, the pale blue seemed now like sapphire.
“You knew my father?”
“Yes, and you were probably that little girl who was always messing about! I was a bride of twenty and you seemed to me about eight or so then.” I quickly did the math. She looked much older than late fifties. “We lived not far from the bookshop in those days” she continued, “and often went in on Sunday morning for breakfast and to read the newspaper your father offered for free.” She laughed then, a girlish giggle that startled me and made me smile. “Oh, but you are surely busy and I’m keeping you. We ought to get down to business. But first I must ask you who requested My Hummingbird? Who knows such a book exists?
“I have to assure you that I’m in no hurry. I would just be back in my dull apartment eating my nightly cheese sandwich so I’m delighted to stay as long as you can spare. To answer your question, a man named Mr. Fowler came to me with the request.”
“Fowler? I don’t know this man.” She lifted her gloved hand and took a little sip. Her gloves were lace and immaculately white. She was sort of retro-fashionable. Although everyone wore gloves these days with so much disease, seldom were they white lace.
“He has a fountain pen shop here in the mall,” I told her. “He had run across a slip of paper in a book that he was reading. The slip of paper had the words My Hummingbird written on it in green ball point pen.”
“Oh!” She covered her surprised mouth. “Where did he get that book?”
“I’m not sure, but I think he bought it from me. It was in my father’s shop and ended up being stored in my apartment. I’m always glad…no, grateful…when someone relieves me of a book stored in my apartment!”
“I see now,” she said. “I must have sold that book to your father, let’s see, almost three decades ago. I thought I’d taken all those slips of paper out of the books, but I guess I missed one.”
I cocked my head to one side. There was more that she wanted to say.
“My husband used to call me his hummingbird,” she explained. “He said that I was like a little hummingbird, so small with hands that fluttered like hummingbird wings. We both read obsessively. He wanted to be a writer. He would put bookmarks labeled My Hummingbird to mark passages he thought I would like.”
I sat back then. The hummingbird was sitting in front of me. “There’s no book then? You’re the hummingbird?”
“Oh, certainly there’s a book and I’ll show it to you in a bit. There’s a book all right. I wish there didn’t have to be such a book.”
I couldn’t speak then. I felt the depth of the melancholy that engulfed her, that swirled around her, that she sat, unmovable, in the midst of. I waited for her to continue.
“Jason Mooney, my husband, was a waiter in a restaurant called Windows on the World in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In 2001, when the planes attacked the building, the North Tower was hit at 8:44 in the morning. The planes flew into floors 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99.” She said each number distinctly as though she were calling out the names of the dead. “Windows on the World was on the top floor, 107, and so was cut off from any means of escape. No one knows what happened, of course, but I can imagine that Jason sat there, maybe from 8:44 when the tower was first hit until 10:28 when the tower collapsed, knowing that it was impossible for anyone to save the people who were on that floor. Everyone was doomed. Jason, a writer to the end, wrote poetry those last two hours and fourteen minutes of his life, poetry to me.”
The building had been hit, was collapsing with thousands of people inside. The iron structure of the building was melting from the heat of the explosion, the fuel tanks from the airplanes that crashed into the ninetieth floors. How could a mere piece of paper have survived?
Jen read my mind.
“Jason had a metal container, a cookie tin, and…I can’t figure it out…he must have thrown it off the building, maybe from the deck somehow or from a broken window. It wasn’t found for weeks, months really, after 9/11, but one day a fireman came to my door with the cookie tin in his hand, a miracle he said. Jason had written a note to the finder asking him to please deliver the box to our address. Jason apologized for not having time to edit the poem, to illuminate the page as he often did when he wrote something especially for me. Somehow, the poem survived.” Then, she rummaged in her handbag on the chair next to her and pulled out a small volume. “Maybe this is the most precious book in the world. I had five made, but I think there’s only one now. This one.”
Hers was an amazing story; I was speechless.
“This Mr. Fowler,” she poured more tea, “what’s he like?”
I blinked. What was Mr. Fowler like? I’d never thought about it really.
“Is he a collector?” she asked.
“Yes: he’s been a good customer for a long time. A collector, yes, but a book lover too. I guess he’s a nice man, an honest man…”
“Is he a generous man?” she interrupted, “Is he a loving man?”
I thought a minute. “No, I don’t think he’s either one of those things. He’s curious, loves a mystery, a puzzle. He’s thoughtful in his own way.” I couldn’t tell if that satisfied her.
“Is he lonely? Was he ever married?”
“I don’t know. He’s a long time customer but not a friend.” That seemed to say a lot. Here’s a man I’ve seen most days for at least four years but I didn’t know much about him and I didn’t consider him a friend.
Then she offered the book to me, holding it in both hands, and inching it toward me almost reluctantly.
It was a simple act that moved me—extending those gloved hands waiting for me to receive her precious gift. Maybe it was the magical aura of the shiny black book in her lace-covered hand, the too feminine, too fragile, white hand and the masculine, glossy black of the slim volume. What was handed to me seemed more than the mere transference of an object; it seemed more the passing from one human to another of a tremendous sorrow. Suddenly, I was afraid as though I was being offered to take into my possession something so burdened by grief that I would be crushed by it.
“You take it,” she almost whispered. “You decide if Mr. Fowler is the right person. You’ll know what to do.”
I set the book down on the table in front of me and took a sip of tea. I was stalling. I looked at the book and near the top right corner a blue hummingbird was embossed. Jen seemed not even to breathe and kept her eyes glued to the book while I looked into her face. It was a strange kind of panic. My mind buzzed: did she intend to sell the book? Was Mr. Fowler merely curious or did he intend to buy this book? If she would sell and he would buy, did I really need even to open the book myself? How could a book of poetry be so daunting?
“Do you intend to sell this book, Jen?” I asked her.
“No, not sell,” she said finally looking up from where her eyes had rested on the book. “but give it if you think it will help…”
“Help? Help who?”
“Survivors?” her voice was weak and questioning. Then, in a stronger voice, “People who have lost a loved one. People who have lost faith in love. In humanity. I don’t know. People.”
Even if this was the book Mr. Fowler was looking for, this was not a book that Mr. Fowler should own. That was easy to tell. I hadn’t opened it yet, hadn’t read the poems, but I knew that curiosity was not a good enough reason for Jen Mooney to part with the book. I was horrified to think of it even among the stacks in my apartment, e pluribus unum. This was a loved book, a treasure, an icon of history. It belonged in the museum where the twin towers used to stand. It needed to be honored.
“I take it you have the original poems?”
“Of course. In Jason’s own hand. I keep them in the battered cookie tin that Jason put them in. When I die, those will go to the 9/11 museum.”
I was relieved.
“Wouldn’t you like to read them?” she asked me, touching the book again and nudging it toward me.
Actually, I wouldn’t. I mean, not now, not in this place; the place was too public and the poems too private. I managed a smile. “Can I take them with me for a few days?”
I could tell by her face that taking the book away would be painful and yet there was also pain in my not taking it. When she didn’t respond, I said, “I shouldn’t have asked. It’s too precious.”
“Still,” Jen said, “if it would help. It is neither Jason nor his hand. It is only a book of poems that I put together myself. I can certainly do it again if need be.”
After another cup of tea, we parted promising to meet in a week, same time, same place. I tucked the book in a pocket in the folds of my skirt.
It didn’t seem right, me with that book, carrying it to my house with the masses of other books, a crowd like the Pope sees in Rio. Still, I was tired and hungry and surely the book wouldn’t mind spending a week among its own kind.
The electricity was once again not working and I climbed the stairs in the dark. Inside, my apartment was stuffy as it often was with so much paper around. The electricity must have been off for a while; the cheese was warm and limp inside the fridge and the ice had melted in its bin. An apple that had been in the fridge for a month and some peanut butter would be my dinner. I decided to watch old footage of the destruction of the twin towers. I tapped in 9/11/2001 and within seconds my wall screen was awash with light. Since it was satellite, the fact that the electricity was out made no difference, but the screen would be running on limited battery power. Since the wars in the Middle East were still being waged, there was easy access to this footage. I remembered, though. I was twelve when the airplanes struck the tower and I was getting ready for school. As usual, my mother had the television on and my father was fussing at her for disturbing his morning peace. This was a constant battle between them; this morning, though, the programming was interrupted so we could see with our own eyes this otherwise unbelievable news. The entire Nation froze not knowing where the next attack would be. The three of us stayed glued to the set for hours. Now, I watched once again as the south tower was hit, as one tower crumbled and then the other.
I imagined Jason Mooney huddled in a corner writing his last words to his Hummingbird. I turned off the screen, picked up the book, and opened to the first poem. Jason begins:
I loved the world through you,
Loved the world you made for me
With your hummingbird hands.
I imagined the smoke filling his lungs, the heat rising from the floors below, but I couldn’t imagine what it might be like waiting to die. I didn’t want to imagine it. I wondered how I would choose to spend time knowing they are the last minutes on Earth. Jason Mooney spent his last minutes honoring the life he shared with his wife and lamented that he would have to leave her behind in this world while he moved to the next, both of them lost without the other. He writes:
This I know: love
Speaks my name in your
Jen Mooney collected his poems, brought them together and named the volume after Jason’s pet name for her, his beloved. Love never goes out of fashion.
I was so enrapt in the pages of the book that it took me a good half-minute of utter confusion when my door burst open and two men and a woman rushed in. I bolted up, my heart racing and I shoved Jen’s precious book into my skirt pocket. They didn’t speak but began snatching up books and throwing them out my windows.
I was aghast, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been waiting for them, in a way. They were inevitable. I knew they wouldn’t hurt me; they just wanted to reform me, bring me into the twenty-first century. Still, I could have or should have hidden the books in some off-the-beaten-track storage unit. There was no use trying to stop them now. Nothing I said or did would change anything. I collapsed down into the couch again and tried to pick up my phone without catching their eye. I could try to mitigate my damage by calling the police. One of them wrenched my phone out of my hand, though, and threw that out the window too. On his chest, woven into the fabric, was the now familiar disc with a phoenix in the center, on his sleeve, a salamander.
They moved with practiced, drill-like efficiency, not speaking, handling my books like so much rank trash. Out my window, in the middle of my street, the smoke from the bonfire began to rise up, to waft into the room where I sat barely breathing. One of the intruders pulled away my mattress and began taking armfuls of books to the window. I tried to think; where had I stored the first editions? Where were the philosophy books, the poetry? Where was Joan Didion? Stanley Elkin? But, the books weren’t organized, just shoved in where I could open a space. Someone must have called the police. I heard sirens getting closer.
“Torch it and let’s get out of here!” one of them commanded.
In unison, three hands pulled out three mini-firebombs, and then the three scurried out of the apartment and down the stairs. In seconds the firebombs would go off. I was paralyzed momentarily thinking how I could save the books but then I realized I would be lucky to save myself. Before I was out the door the first firebomb ignited the remainder of the books that had been my bed. Halfway down the stairs, the second and third bombs went off.
The tenants had rushed out of my building and were standing among the crowd that had gathered. The bonfire in the street was just ash and smoldering remnants of hard covers and singed and charred pages. The police began shoving us over to the sidewalk across the street to make way for the fire truck. They were asking the crowd if they knew if anyone was still in the building.
Making my way to a police officer, I told him that it was my apartment that was on fire.
Hours past and slowly the people who had someplace to go went there. The blaze was contained but one fire truck remained to monitor the ashes, to make sure the smoldering paper would not re-ignite. A police car remained and another took me down to the station to make a statement. It was two in the morning before a policeman asked me where he could drop me, but I had to tell him there was no place. My purse had burned up with the books and I didn’t have an implanted chip so I had no money at all and no phone. He told me that he could take me to a shelter for the night and I could figure things out in the morning, but when we walked outside the station, there was a man leaning against his cab. He stirred when he saw me and came over to us.
“Remember me?” he asked almost cheerfully.
I nodded. I remembered him…the cabbie…but what was he doing here? Was he waiting for me? Why?
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you home.”
“My home is gone,” I told him.
“Yes, I know,” he took my arm, “that home is gone. I’ll take you home.”
“What?” I couldn’t understand what he meant.
“We’ve kept an eye on you, Ms Carter,” he said still holding my arm.
“We knew you were vulnerable. It was just a matter of time.”
“Who? Who’s been keeping an eye on me?”
“Friends,” he said as though that explained anything.
“You know my name, friend; what’s yours?”
“Jimmy. I’m Jimmy.” He was holding my arm, but we weren’t moving. “We’ve been expecting you, Ms Carter. Please come.”
At this point I had little alternative. Besides, there was something about Jimmy, something I trusted. I nodded to the police officer who told me to keep in touch. He’d let me know when it was safe to go into my apartment again to see what I could salvage.
The cabbie…Jimmy… opened the door letting me slide into the back seat. I was exhausted.
“It’s a little ways,” he said. “Why don’t you lean back and rest?”
“Are we going to that place? You talked about a place…” I was already half asleep.
“Yes. I told them about you and they’re waiting. There’s a cottage for you. I think you’ll like it.”
I had My Hummingbird in my skirt pocket. I was too tired to think about what books I might salvage or the basement storage area. I was too tired to think about the three vigilantes. I had in my mind, though, a little cottage in the woods in a village of people who valued books and storytelling and making things with their hands. As I drifted off, the wheels of the taxi humming, I dreamed that there would be a garden of vegetables and flowers that I could see from my window.
6 thoughts on “Fiction”
I love it. The memories of 9/11 are so vivid. Your characters come alive on the page. I am a book hound. I have shelves and shelves of them. Boxes everywhere filled with books I have not looked at in 20 years. I felt like Cynthia as I read your story. Thank you for sharing.
Love you and your writing,
Thanks, Debra! Your comment means a lot to me. I guess books are in our DNA.
Love it, Jo! I can’t imagine a world without books – real, physical, hold in your hand, smell like aging paper, ink, glue books!
I agree 100%. Our world would be a sad place without books. I believe they are the cornerstone of civilization.
Yes! It’s true, but is there a difference between print books and e-books? I can’t help but believe that they are very different experiences. Maybe e-books have their purpose (maybe as classroom texts) but I just can’t love an e-book! Thanks for your comment, Debra!