“In our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.” ~Edgar Allan Poe
It was as if he wasn’t really there. Completely blurred against the gray tracks and rapid rain. Like a ghost of someone who jumped in front of the midnight train. Another step and I was certain it was him. What other man did I know keep themselves so dainty and wore their hair in locks like raven feathers. Another step and now I was running; I was running so fast that I could feel my shoes slipping off my feet. I didn’t care and now I was barefoot with my arms around him.
“Excuse me, ma’am” That voice. That melody playing underneath his tongue. An instrument only he could play without missing a single beat. My god, how I missed him. My nose was now in his collar, breathing in his aroma. Almonds. Rain. 19th Century Poetry. Dark chocolate.
“Ma’am, this is rather inappropriate.” My lips reached up with the intention of meeting his but his arms pulled me apart from him.
“Ma’am, I believe you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“Theodore, please don’t play tricks on me! I’ve missed you, I’ve longed for you, Theo. I’ve been very patient and-”
“Please, ma’am, believe me when I say that I’ve never met you in my life. I don’t know who told you my name was Theodore and I have a feeling that Ernest and the rest of the lads set you up to this didn’t they?” He must be playing a trick on me. He must be.
“ I haven’t spoken to Ernest since you left to fight in France! I remember the two of you were the closest of friends but when he went to fight for Germany, the two of you never spoke again. You always said that a man has to look into his friend’s eyes and see his own reflection and nothing more.”
“ So you do know Ernest. My apologies. Whatever he promised you is worthless. Now go on with your evening.” Something wasn’t right. I looked him right in his hazel eyes that were held up by thin poison apple veins, and I knew. This was my Theodore.
“Theodore, it’s Vivian. Vivian Williams. My god, I even have your last name!”
“MRS. Williams. Good god, you have a lot of nerve to pretend that you’ve forgotten your own wife!”
“My wife?! We’ve only just met!” I wanted to strike him. Just fling my fingertips across his cheek. Except I wanted to cry even more. I was standing bare foot, soaking wet, looking into the face of my husband that’s forgotten me. All I could think about was the winter that him and I met.
“Do you recall the winter of 40’?”
“Well, it was the coldest-”
Month of the year and I regretted not listening to Madame Catherine as I felt the frigid air seep into every crevice along my polo coat. She told me to pack my fur lined coat but I refused. How could I have agreed to take all the books out of my suitcase and replace them with a brooding fur lined coat!? I simply refused. So here I am freezing the last fragment of dignity I have left in my pathetic polo coat.
I’ll never forgive Father for sending me to this god forsaken county that they call America.I’d rather stay in London and die because of The Blitz than die of loneliness and poor reading material here in boring Minneapolis. Yet, Father insisted that it wasn’t safe for a young lady like myself to be endangered by bombings and war. What rubbish! He only cast me here because he didn’t know what to do with me after they closed down the girl’s academy because of the airstrikes.Though, as my luck commands it, I’ve ran out of books to read. It’s remarkable, really. That I’ve been here for two weeks and I didn’t sniff out the bookstore until now. Then again, I’ve only left the hotel once during the entirety of the two weeks in order to demand the cab driver to take me back to the airport.
As I walked against the wind, the streets seem endless. Who knew if there were even streets?! The ferocity that the snow expressed was surely enough to legally blind anyone. Speaking of which, I was nearly struck by an automobile because I had accidentally wandered onto the middle of the road. Which madman would drive in this weather anyway?! And I’m the careless one… Although, my negativity and lamentations did prevent me from focusing too much on the horrendous cold and I even successfully discovered the bookstore. Or what was supposed to be the bookstore. The dust that snuggled atop the books made it difficult to decipher their titles and the lamps were so dim that one had to strain their eyes to see. Cobwebs intertwined where books should have been stacked, the air empty. My goodness! I knew that I shouldn’t have expected much from such a meager city. If I were to compare the bookstores in London to this one then it would surely put shame on whatever pride the Americans had over their precious American Dream. Oh! How could I be such a scrooge? Such weather and tedious travel has made me so pessimistic and weary. I was surrounded by poets and adventurers of the like; no matter the conditions of the bookshop. Just the mere thought made me giddy once more. Dust began to swell around me as I brought each book to my lips. Each page seemed to have gone untouched, unnoticed, unloved.
“Ah! How comforting it is to be among familiar faces! Tolstoy! Dickens! Shelley! Wilde! Bryon! Bronte! Tennyson! Ke-”
“I believe you’ve mistaken this store for a cemetery. Your poets are all dead, dear.” A voice coughed from the back of the store.
“ Pardon me?” One of the many phrases Mother always lectured me on was to always greet criticism with the knowledge that whomever is delivering said criticism has only the best intentions. She also always badgered me when I talked back to strangers. Always said to never assume. It’s rather unfortunate that I never listen.
“ I said I believe you’ve mista-”
“I’m not deaf. I heard you.” An awkward silence settled between the stranger and I. Scuffing the toe of my boot against the wooden floor, I picked up a volume of Tennyson’s poetry.
“You’re wrong, you know. My poets are not dead.”
“ It’s not my intention to swindle your hopefulness but no one is immortal, dear.”
“Stories are. Poetry is. My poets put their blood and tears into their work; therefore, their words become them. Maybe if you picked up some of their work then you would know that they are very much alive.” The voice slowly became a figure and a boy slightly older than myself entered into the light.
“ You’re not from here. Are you, dear?”
“No, I am not. And I’m quite grateful for it too. If I had to live in this bland little city then I wouldn’t live past infantry.”
“Crude words from such a newcomer. You haven’t given Minneapolis a chance, it seems.”
“ You are accusing me of crude words!? You told me that my poets were dead, and I must say that my poets don’t deserve to collect dust in this graveyard of a bookstore.”
“I’d use caution while speaking about my bookstore, dear.”
“Your bookstore? You are rather young to own a bookstore.”
“ And you’re rather young to be traveling alone.”
“ How do you know that I’m on my own?”
“No sensible caretaker would allow you to wear such an outfit in this blizzard.” I peered down at my inadequate winter-wear. Droplets of water started to drip onto the floor and I felt the weight of the fabric on my body. Out of pride, I wrapped it tighter around myself.
“ It’s sufficient enough. Besides, I believe that I should go. I wasn’t able to find anything desirable in your store.”
“Going so soon? Shame. I haven’t even shown you the collection.”
“ Not as good as your poets, I assure. Though I promise it’s a collection you’ve never seen before.”
“ New books?”
“ To your eyes, yes.” He stepped further into the light and I was able to finally analyze his features. He was a boy whose eyes captured sorrow and lust. His lips curved in a way that manifested late nights of reciting poetry and humming violin solos. They looked like they’ve been kissed but regretfully. Curls that spilled like ink atop his shoulders perfectly framed his face . He epitomized charisma. Nerve. Temptation.
“ Theodore Williams.” A writer’s name.
“Charmed. Right this way, Ms. Prince.” In that moment, I knew there were secrets attached to this boy. Secrets attached to his store that continued to become more and more obscure as I followed him into the depths of the shop. Authors I had never heard before, naked books without a single word staining their pages, and the most peculiar of all- blankets, canned food, and children’s toys littered throughout the shelves and floor.
“Do you live back here? Or do the books simply get cold during these dreadful winter months?”
“It’s a matter I’d rather not share with newcomers, dear, but I’d gladly give you a taste of what living, breathing literature looks like.” After revealing a key from his shirt, Theodore opened a door to a dreary looking room; he motioned for me to enter.
“Scared, are we?” He could sense the hesitation within my heart.
“Of course not.” He stepped in with me and we stood in the dark room. Minutes fled and I was certain I’ve made a terrible mistake. Fingers in my handbag, I scrambled for something to hold and potentially use. I felt him move to the back of the room.
“Aren’t you going to turn on the light?” I grasped the small dagger that I carry around with me .He flung curtains back to reveal a sizable window large enough to stand in. Sun reflected snow illuminated the room as it glided down from outside.
“Look around, dear.” My grip on the dagger released as I gaped at the beauty of the room. It was impossible to even identify the color of the walls because the books were lined from vertex to vertex, hard wood to ceiling. Authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, and so many other names that were familiar to me but not known. Their covers resembled portraits of the stories they contained.
“This is why I couldn’t turn on the lights, dear. It’s not good for the older books. Tears them down the same way the sun breaks down skin.”
“Who are they?”
“You mean to tell me you’ve never picked up a classic American novel?”
“I..well…Father insisted that I only study European texts. He was old fashioned and still bitter about the American Revolution, so I was forbid to “taint” my mind through American literature. And to be perfectly honest, I was much too invested in the literature of the Romantics to ever bat an eye at the American section of the library.”
“ Tsk, tsk, tsk. You claim to be an educated young woman, though you’ve only simply dipped your toes in the pool of culture. And here, your poets lean proudly against mine.” My eyes were pulled in the direction of his extended hand, the rest of my body propelling itself to the shelf. New editions of my poets! Wilde with gold spines, Tolstoy in silvers, Dickens in lapis-lazuli, Shelley and Bryon in dark maroons, Tennyson in forest greens. It felt as if I have just caught my old lover pass me on the streets dressed in jewels and velvet. Just as I was about to call out their name, Theodore’s thin caramel fingers grasped mine but quickly released them.
“ Vivian. I’m worried about your diet, dear. I think you’ve ingested a little too much Victorian antiquity.”
“How dare you say such a thing!? I will always be hungry for my writers.” His light footsteps were barely audible as he moved across the room and elegantly flicked a book from its shelf and brought it to me.
“Let me introduce you to a different taste. And trust me, dear Vivian, you won’t be able to resist your cravings for more.” I stubbornly crossed my arms.
“ You must be mad to think that I’ll irresponsibly fall for another author. However, your determination to sway me is amusing. So prove to me, dearTheodore, that I should delve into your forbidden American literature.”
His lips wrinkled into a lopsided smirk, intensifying the shades in his eyes, causing his right eyebrow to marry itself to a strand of feathered hair leaning against his forehead.
“ Do you pose a challenge, Miss. Prince?”
“Do you oblige, Mr. Williams?”
“ Only if you are prepared to lose. I wouldn’t want to mar your deeply saturated British feelings”
“ You sound like an English man with the rhetoric of an American. You’re too charming for you’re own good.”
“At least I am able to say I’ve read and loved both. Maybe if you picked up some Twain, you could be just as charming. Trust me, if you weren’t so lovely then I’d have given up on you the moment you insulted my store.”
“ Do you desire an apology?”
“No, but out of the good nature of my soul, I desire you to accept this book. If you don’t take it then you have truly offended me and my store.”
“What if I revealed to you that I am indifferent to you and your feelings.”
“Then you would be lying to yourself. Think of it this way, dear,” The proximity between us decreased as he took a few steps towards me. “ You’re a curious girl, are you not?”
“My Mother always claimed it will do me wrong some day. So, yes.” I followed the trail of his eyes as they the locked at a pile of dirty clothing lingering just outside the door frame.
“ Reading the book will give you an excuse to come back and see me.”
“And what makes you think I want to see you again?”
“Because like all curious, lovely things, you tire easily of the mundane and consistent. You are being granted the gift of change, dear. You may take it and truly live or you may leave it and merely exist. Take this chance and never be hungry, leave it and always be unsatisfied.”
His eyes bore into the back of my head as I left the room.
Instead of lashing terribly down at the streets of Minneapolis, the snow fell lightly, resting on my eyelashes. I stared blankly at the “CLOSED” sign outside of Theodore’s bookstore. After an extensive bath in my hotel room, my plan was to root myself between my bed sheets and not emerge until I had received a telegram from Father announcing that I could come home. As the cloud hidden sun set, my eyes wandered around my darkening room. I thought of Theodore. He was a novel I was most afraid to open. To identify his emotions through his reflective countenance was a feat I didn’t feel ready for. Worthy for. My restless nature perturbed my ability to sleep for another hour and a half. The outline of my bag leaned heavily against the wall across from me.
Absolutely not. I mustn’t give into it. I must stand firmly with my initial decision.
Theodore’s image reappeared in my mind once more. I heard his voice in my head and wondered what his words tasted like. Before I could comprehend my own urges, I was on my feet, sliding the book out of my bag. Reaching to turn on a lamp, Theodore’s voice reiterated in my mind once again,
“This is why I couldn’t turn on the lights, dear. It’s not good for the older books. Tears them down the same way the sun breaks down skin.”
The drapes looked as if no one had pulled them apart in years, and when I finally managed to separate them, I knew why no one had thought to touch them. Effulgence transformed the space. Every detail of the room reflected the light, revealing every dark corner. I finally understood why some preferred the moon compared to the sun as I admired it from the window sill. A misfit of the sky doomed to broadcast her grey blemishes to the world. I turned over Theodore’s book in my lap: The Poetry and Prose of Edgar Allen Poe.
I didn’t receive a wink of sleep that night. I left the room a different person. Edgar’s woes had become mine, his stories, my biography. And just as Theodore had predicted, I was back at his store in the morning. It was barely seven when I found myself staring once again at the “CLOSED” sign hanging on his door. Before I gathered the courage to knock, he emerged in the display window, hastily reorganizing novels. As he was about to turn away, my glove-less hand collided with the glass. He blinked inquisitively at me and stepped away towards the door.
“ Dear, you really shouldn’t frolic in this type of weather without some sort of winter wear. Even your pathetic coat could have saved you from the cold. Come in before the wind blows you over. ”
“ I read the book.”
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
“My, my, Vivian. How is your father going to react when he discovers you’ve trained your tongue to speak like an American?”
“ He’s not going to know?”
“A secret, is it?” The space between the two of us continued to dwindle.
“I’m not going back.”
“And why’s that, dear?”
“ I’ll never be satisfied there.”
“ Is that s-” I swallowed the rest of his sentence. The books he was holding plummeted to the floor while dust surrounded the air around us.
“A-chew!” I tore away from our kiss and turned to see a young girl rubbing her nose a few feet away from us.
“Mr. Villiams? Mama vants to know vhen ve go back to live with Mr.Hoff.” The girl noticed me gaping at her.
“Who this dame?”
“No one, Adina, please go tell your mama that Ernest will come and pick you up in zehn.” She showed him all 10 of her fingers as if to confirm the time constraint and smiled at me with her large grey -blue eyes as she swung her blonde braid behind her, waddling towards the back of the store.
“Wait! Vivian! Don’t go!”
“ I am not familiar with American standards as a whole, but I have enough sense to know that you are breaking the law.”
“Vivian, not all Germans are bad. They are fleeing to protect themselves. People are dying there.”
“That doesn’t make you less of a traitor!”
“Listen to me. Adina’s father is Jewish. She is half Jewish. If her mother didn’t leave everything to come here then they would be as dead her father. What my friend, Ernest, and I are doing isn’t legal but at least it’s ethical.” One of the books that Theodore had dropped caught my eye. It’s pages blank.
“ What on earth?” With a closer inspection I discovered that it was the copy of Tennyson’s poetry that I picked up the other day.
“ Every novel you see on display is blank. No one wants to buy an empty book, no one wants to enter an empty bookstore, no one wants to talk to a colored clerk.”
“Is that why you keep all those beautiful books locked in that room?”
“ You make it sound so criminal.”
“Because it is.”
“Can’t you see I’m protecting them?! Do you know how many of those writers were arrested, exiled, or murdered? Their systems failed them. Ridiculed them. If someone were to find out that I am smuggling German refugees, then what is stopping them from burning my store to the ground?! Think, Vivian! Think before it’s illegal, too!” Every instinct in my body was motivating me to go to a constable, although, there were parts of myself that were so afflicted by desire, empathy, and love that I was unable to make any efforts to move. My hand grazed a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray as I uncrossed my arms. Despite it’s barren state, Oscar Wilde’s words flooded me,
“There is no room for Love and Hate in the same soul. They cannot live together in that fair cavern house. Love is fed by the imagination, by which we can see Life as a whole:by which, and by which alone, we can understand others in their real as in their ideal relations. Only what is fine, and finely conceived, can feed Love. But anything will feed Hate”
“Oscar Wilde.” I hadn’t realized I was reciting the quote aloud.
“ Why haven’t you left yet?”
“I’m not planning to.”
“If I am caught and arrested, you will be too. Vivian, dear, you must go.”
“ Not a chance.” He couldn’t resist the smile that had begun to spread on his face. It was a smile that I saw everyday for the next year. Father was absolutely livid when he received news of my marriage to an American. However, the war he was fighting was against Germany, and not his impetuous daughter.
“Eventually, you and I had to part because you were enlisted to fight in-”
“So you do remember!” Relief filled my heart as the rain soaked through my skin.
“ Ma’am, I’m so sorry to tell you this again, but I truly don’t recall ever meeting you. You look familiar, almost like my wife. You definitely have the same habit of being under dressed when the weather is disastrous. Ah! Here comes the train. Farewell, Miss. Prince.”
“Miss. Prince!? I haven’t been Miss. Prince since two years ago! Theodore! Theodore, wait!”
He lingered in the door frame of the train before looking back at me with a pained expression on his face. Dread choked every part of me. I felt like I would never see him again if he got on the train. My feet scraped against the uneven pavement of the station as I launched myself at the now moving train.
“Theodore, plea-” Falling. I was now falling over the railing towards the tracks. Landing on my back, I faced the sky. A snowflake landed on my lips.
It was snowing when I awoke. My nightgown was plastered to my body and I felt ill when I tried to stand.
“A dream. It was just a dream.” I began to ease my heart when I realized it was Monday. The post always arrived on Monday. Theodore’s letters always arrived on Monday. Motivated by excitement I barreled down the stairs of our quaint townhouse and brought the pile of letters littered on the doorstep to the kitchen. Moving the stack of books from one of the chairs, I seated myself and began to rifle through the letters. Theodore is going to laugh when I write him my absurd dream. He’ll be absolutely-
A letter from the army.
“Dear Mrs. Vivian Williams,”
Is he coming home!?
“We regret to inform you…”
“That your husband, Theodore Williams…”
“Has been killed on the battle field. His body will be buried in a cemetery on American soil.”
Among the poets.