By Raji Singh
Last week: It’s 1826, Cincinatti. 4-year-old orphaned foundling Carper is taken in by a sea-crusted ancient mariner.
In only a few minutes Mariner and Carper are at Mariner’s isolated ‘STATEROOM.’ A barnacle on the backside of an abandoned warehouse, the ten-by-ten foot wharf-shack juts out over the Ohio. It’s built of rancorous vegetable crate-wood. The river’s fishy odor is less offensive. Two nose-smudged porthole windows peep out. The oilskin tarp door groans a tired welcome when Mariner moves it. Inside, Carper scrunches his face and breathes cautiously.
One can see the sloshing water between inch-thick gaps in the planked floor. The structure sways like a ship in even moderate knot breezes and this makes it truly home for the Mariner. “I built ‘er seaworthy, Matey. Can launch this ‘skiff’ if I’ve a mind. Sail away wheres I choose iffa the city starts overtakin’.”
Firmly anchoring the wharf-shack are shelved books. They line the walls. Mariner can’t read, but pretends. For hours, he will stare at the print and mouth words he believes should accompany pictures.
You stare intently, entranced by the array of Mariner’s exotic objects never before this moment have you seen. BOOKS – bound in leather dyed blue, black, and red. The bindings’ wild animal pungency – primal; the pulp pages emit sweet, pleasant mustiness of the forest. These soothing scents overpower the wharf-shack’s odor. These scents, intoxicating, will draw you under their covers. Soon you will sleep. Dream. All their pages of excitement, knowledge, mystery will awaken a passion for life’s grandeur in you that never will dull.
There is no way that at this moment can your child’s mind perceive all you feel so deeply. You only experience…
The BOOKS: They begin leaping from the shelves. They slide down Harpoon. Its long face, snaggled with sharp-barbed tooth, is still gleaming with the sweet ardor of some past battle glory. When they reach the floor, BOOKS, in cadence begin marching round a three-legged stool and toward you. ‘Hup! Hup! Hup, hup, hup!’ In parade. Voices echo in unison, ‘JOIN US, CARPER. DON’T LET US PASS YOU BY!’
How do they know your name? Other books are open on rickety stands and on the floor. You smile as an artist’s drawing of a wiry pooch ‘WOOFS’ at you. On the page next to him, a little wooden boy dances clip-cloppity. You want to tweak his funny, ever-growing nose. But, ‘Ouch!’ You are afraid of splinters.
On the pages of a floored book, a pretty, golden-haired girl in a silver gown looks down from atop a leafy tree. She reaches for you. She has wings of silver, ruby, and gold. She reminds you of the butterfly that spent the night with you under the cart. You whisper, “Calico?”
‘COME FLYING WITH ME CARPER!’ she sings. She swoops down, takes your hand, and off you go go go, landing on the picture’s cloudy mountaintop. You lock hands and sing, skip and play ring around rosy, pocketful of posy. Ashes, ashes… all…fall…
‘No! No! You fist your hand in defiance. The fire-breathing monster won’t eat me,’ your thoughts shout, as you partly remember the nightmare. You blink. No longer do you hold her hand. You’re still clasping Mariner’s.
“Ouch! Carper, you got a clam’s grip there,” Mariner says as he bends creakily and closes the fairy tale book. Butterfly girl winks good-bye. Carper doesn’t feel scared or sad. He feels protected by Mariner and this place. He can visit the butterfly girl any time he wants. He will find many joys like her in – BOOKS. Carper will have read and absorbed each one in this dry-dock library before he turns eight.
BOOKS. They will become his life.
Carper will grow up to become James Thaddeus ‘Blackjack’ Fiction, publisher and abolitionist. (See picture)
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. My novel is available at Amazon, (Kindle and Trade Paperback) and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh