Heidi checked the address again after the Uber dropped her off. This wasn't at all what she was expecting, after the tedious description in the lawyer's letter.
"It does look like wisteria," she muttered. "I've always loved wisteria." She cautiously tried the key in the lock.
Keys always defeated her at the book store, where no cabinet opened upon the first try of its designated key. No, one had to try all keys three times in a secret pattern known only to the owner and rarely discovered by the hourly booksellers.
To Heidi's surprise, the elegant key easily turned in the lock, and she entered the Wisteria House.
With some trepidation, she pushed the door harder until it fully creaked opened. She shuddered at the noise, a chill down her spine and goosebumps rising on her arms. Horripilation again. "This is not going to go well," she sighed, and returned the key to her purse.
Why had the owner sent her into spaces where he feared to go? Her job description did not include book hunter.
Heidi faced a long book-lined corridor. But something was off. The wisteria vines seemed to have begun to work their way into the hall. She reached up to tug a book off an upper shelf, just out of reach of the encroaching vines. The book tugged back.
Well. That was odd. She tugged again then abruptly let go, only to hear a clattering noise behind the bookcase. Certainly not a ghost, she thought. They're quiet.
She moved forward a few steps, where a book on the other side caught her eye.
A print of wisteria twined around the spine. As she moved her hand towards it, a smoky silver tendril encircled her wrist.
A mellifluous voice chimed in her ear, "I'm sorry, Miss. You can't take that. It's property of the master."
"I don't know who your master is but Mr. Gregory's lawyer sent me here to search for—"
"Sir Edwin! Sir Edwin still exists?"
"Mr. Gregory? His first name is Edwin. He's missing."
The silver tendril retreated from her wrist, then coalesced into a hand, arm and shoulder. Slowly, a shimmering figure appeared from between the books. Hazy at first and then suddenly sharply clear, as if a projectionist finally realized the film was out of focus.
A tall, slightly stooped gentleman with long silver hair leaned towards her, toppling books off the shelf as he emerged through them.
Heidi realized her preconceptions about quiet ghosts were completely wrong.
"Missing? He's been missing for forty years," said the man, as he stumbled through the fallen books and brushed sparkling silver dust off his elegant clothing.
Heidi frowned. "Forty years? No, he's owned the Twisted Vine Bookshop about that long."
"He stepped through the shelves here one day and never returned. How long has he been missing in your time?"
"My time? Three weeks. He went on a hiking trip and never returned. Yesterday a lawyer brought by the key and a letter. Here, read it for yourself," Heidi said as she pulled the note from her purse. "Who are you anyway, a ghost?"
"Oh, you can call me Tom," he replied as he squinted and held the letter up closer to his antique glasses. "I'm not a ghost per se, at least I don't think so. You could say I'm a protector."
"Tom, would you also be a… Sir…?
"Well, I don't like to be fancy but yes. Sir Thomas Gerald at your service. Say, my eyes aren't what they used to be. No wonder, wearing these ancient things. Would you mind reading this for me with your pretty purple spectacles?"
"'If you are reading this, you are my only hope. Take this key to Wisteria House and find the arcana.' What? That's not what it said yesterday! It only gave directions here and said I was to pick up a book."
Heidi took off her glasses and scanned the note again. The lawyer's mundane directions were plainly apparent. "What is with these new glasses?"
Sir Tom sighed. "Here's our dilemma. Long ago Sir Edwin and I were tasked to protect the Wisteria Arcana but the problem is that we've never been able to find it."
"Arcana? Like tarot cards?"
"So much more than that. A compendium of all the secrets and mysteries in the world. All the light and life, the joy and beauty, held together in one perfect volume."
Sir Tom's eyes glistened and his voice broke. "We've been through and beyond these shelves thousands of times. There should be clues to its location in the books. Five clues."
"Maybe the clues are somewhere else?"
"Ah, these shelves all lead to other shelves. We've traveled the world through the shelves and never found a clue."
"Sir Tom, what about this?" Heidi pulled the wisteria embossed book off the shelf. "Can you see it?" Sir Tom picked up the book with the loving care of a longtime bookseller. "It's a beautiful volume, but no, I don't see anything special."
Heidi carefully took off her new glasses and handed them to Sir Tom. "Look at the book through these."
He respectfully held her glasses in front of his own, and drew in his breath. "Oh my! I see it!" The wisteria embossment moved on its own, the blossoms nodding. He looked further away and gasped again. "And there! And there! Good gracious, dear, take these magic glasses back and lead us to them."
Heidi put her glasses back on. Was her optometrist part of this strangeness? Granted her choice of purple frames had seemed a bit odd to some, but at age 60 she felt unencumbered by fashion and fondly remembered the purple glasses she had as a child in 1972.
She looked down the long book-lined corridor. Sure enough, another wisteria-embossed spine was beckoning, sending out a come-hither tendril. And further on there was a third, green gilt leaves frantically waving. She shrugged, situated her purse more carefully across her body, and moved on down the corridor.
Sir Tom gripped the first book in his arms and followed along.
So there were no keys, no clues. Just the books calling to her.
She took each book from the shelves and the emanating vines quivered.
"Let me carry those for you," said Sir Tom, ever the gentleman. But what with the twining and squirming, it seemed a bit much to handle, so Heidi dug in her trusty purse to find her Twisted Vines tote bag. She tossed it to Sir Tom.
He expertly bagged the books and smiled.
"Sir Tom, what now?"
"We go through the shelves to the store."
"Oh no, I'll just get an Uber back there."
"No, you can NOT. You must go through the shelves. You should have a few good passages before you get stuck in time like us." Sir Tom grabbed her by the shoulders and they pushed on through into —
— an indescribable maelstrom of…
…\pages\ *to be or not to be* \covers\ *some pig* \voices\ *and so we beat on boats against the current* \dust\ *is there anything in this world as joyless as muesli* \sounds\ *the night max wore his wolf suit* \ash\ *it is a truth universally acknowledged* \sand\ *i had the epiphany that laughter was light* \petals\ *why sometimes i've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast* \flashes\ *so it goes* \glimpses\ *it does not do to dwell on in dreams and forget to live* \illustrations\ *some things you learn best in calm and some in storm* \music\ *🎵🎶*…
As Sir Tom led Heidi through this page turning twirling twisting vortex, she wondered, "Sir Tom, with all due respect, how can you possibly know where we need to go?"
"You must form within your mind the thought of your chosen destination, if you have one. And the images of the books you wish to seek, if you know them. Otherwise, as you can see, eh, it's a bit… aimless." He chuckled. "Truthfully, you eventually get used to it." He paused, then something in the distance caught his eye. "Look ahead. Over there, I see the Twisted Vine's shelves."
A bookcase began to appear through the frenzy, all the books backwards on the shelves, as one would expect when approaching from behind. A light glimmered through a space in a shelf and they pushed on through.
Sir Tom brushed off his silver dust. Heidi shook off a cascade of purple petals, and looked around. They were indeed in the rare books section of the Twisted Vine Bookshop.
The Great Gatsby
Death & Croissants
Where the Wild Things Are
Pride and Prejudice
Alice In Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The Song of the Lark
Heidi fleetingly thought an Uber would have been faster and far less stressful.
But she was here in this moment. Somehow, this place she'd known for so many years now seemed very different.
"What about Mr. Gregory, I mean Sir Edwin? How can we find him?"
"Do you see anything odd?" asked Sir Tom. "Sometimes stuck books prevent our movement through the shelves. That first book you tugged out at the Wisteria House? You unstuck me."
"How can we unstick Mr. Gregory? What should I look for?"
"It could be anything, even as mundane as a book out of place."
Heidi laughed. "I can alphabetize!" she said excitedly. She smiled and started humming the ABC song, and as she did her eyes fixed on a book clearly out of place. Was that a history book in the literature section? That just wouldn't do!
She pulled the heavy book off the shelf and immediately a sandy gold tendril appeared in the space. Smoothly, the tendril turned into a hand, arm, and shoulder. Then, with much less disruption than when Sir Tom emerged, a lithe, sandy figure stepped out between the books.
"Oh, Mr. Gregory. At last! We've missed you."
Sir Tom smiled heartily. "Sir Edwin always has been spry as a mountain goat getting in and out of the shelves. And on the hikes."
Brushing golden sand off his plaid shirt and corduroy pants, Sir Edwin winked. "Merci! That book's been stuck for weeks. And to see both of you here together is unexpected! Tom, so glad to be in cahoots again. You missed some great hikes! Hey, Heidi, tell everyone I brought peanuts!"
Sir Tom blinked in confusion. "It's a joke," Heidi said dryly. "We say we work for him for peanuts and then he brings some back after his hikes. Hikes!?!" She glared at Sir Edwin. "Mr. Gregory, you have not been truthful."
"Mea culpa," Sir Edwin said. "Would you have believed all this?"
Heidi did some serious eye roll. "I might have, if I had been allowed to be 'in cahoots' too!"
Meanwhile Sir Tom was craving the peanuts. "I remember when I would get them in paper bags at the Planters Store back home."
"Good to see you, old man," said one Sir to the other. While the Sirs caught up on forty years of gossip and bad jokes, Heidi looked around. She pulled a tissue from her purse and wiped away a gray ashy smudge from a display case. I'll have to get on people about cleaning better, she thought.
The jokes did not seem to be stopping. She busied herself by taking the twining books from the tote and placing them atop the case next to her purse.
Sir Tom noticed her action and said. "Edwin, we found three books that seem to be significant. We're hoping two others are here. Heidi's glasses seem to have an affinity for them."
A rattling noise surprised them all. They turned to look at an ornate case behind them. Sir Edwin pulled a ring of keys from his pocket. "These books seemed promising. I found them on my recent forays. Er..hikes." He smiled impishly, selected a key, and opened the case on the first try.
At first Heidi saw nothing other than dusty volumes. But as she looked closely, there was a small glimmer deep in the case. "Let's move some of these out of the way." Hidden behind the larger tomes was a small volume which quickly wrapped a tendril around her finger. "Aren't you a cutie?" she cooed as she tried to take it from the case. It quickly shot another tendril into a deep corner. "You're trying to tell me something, aren't you?" The Sirs pulled more books out of the way to reveal a companion volume. With tendrils of its own, it quickly twined with its partner.
Sir Edwin pointed to a spot on the floor. A pattern she had never seen before emerged from deep within the carpet.
Heidi knelt on the floor and laid out the five books along the pattern, then rearranged them. She looked up at Sir Edwin, sighed, and said "Third times the charm." Sir Edwin chuckled, thinking he had trained her well. She altered their position one more time.
A book began to tremble. Another's cover flapped. One by one each of the five books fluttered open and streams of particles rose from the pages. The particles melded, spiraling into a circle above the books. The dust, sand, and petals that had scattered upon everyone's exit from the shelves joined the dance, swirling and sparkling until there was a bright silver, gold, and purple orb in the center of the room.
"It's time," whispered Sir Tom. Together, the three entered the orb—
—and they stepped out again into the most astoundingly beautiful library ever imagined.
Ethereal creatures flew between the coves and arches of the ceiling. The finely carved wooden banisters and balusters abounded with flora and fauna. And the shelves! Shelf upon shelf held an abundance of the most precious books in the world. The floor was patterned in an intricate manner, so perfect and pristine that soft felt slippers materialized on their feet as they walked upon it.
Moire drapery in shades of amethyst, periwinkle, and heliotrope graced the stained glass windows, each featuring a flower. A gilded dais rotated slowly in the center of the room. On it, atop a rich velvet cushion, lay the book of most ineffable beauty, too great to be described or even imagined.
"At last!" exclaimed Sir Tom and Sir Edwin in unison. They shook hands, then turned to Heidi, beaming with happiness.
"From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for your help and partnership. Now we can finally rest and protect the Arcana. And you, dear bookseller, should go back before the portal closes."
"But Mr. Gregory, the store—"
"I leave it in your hands. My lawyer will be in touch with the deed. Pay yourself more than peanuts, OK?" he said as he tossed her the ring of keys.
As she stepped back into the orb, Sir Tom called out "Say, who's your optometriiisssttt—"
Heidi stepped through the portal into the store again. She turned back towards the orb only to see it dwindle into nothingness. The store appeared as she always knew it, but with a tinkle of musical notes in the air and a sprinkling of ash on the books.
She gently picked them up, brushed them off, and placed them neatly on the display. Then she paused. Might they be safer in a case?
Well, that would involve the inevitable agony of finding the right key. She fervently hoped Sir Edwin's key ring held some of his magic. Her strange new glasses might help.
Or perhaps else she could take the books back to the Wisteria house? She picked up her purse and rummaged through it. Now where is that key…
She withdrew her hand, only to find it covered with gray ash but with no key.
That was odd. She was quite sure she had put the key back at the beginning of this adventure.
Should she dare a trip back through the shelves? Sir Tom had said she should have a few good passages before…. She shuddered.
"I think I'll take tomorrow off."