By Robin Winter
The following excerpt of "A Blot in Cyrillic" is from Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales, now available in our bookstore and on Amazon.
I never meant to live alone, if you believe a person with books ever lives alone. My black cat Blot, I know would also object to the “alone,” but all of that is about to change. I have found myself a good prospect in James, and I really mean to follow through this time.
All those years past I used my mother as an excuse; she’s gone now, off to the reward that she anticipated every day of her life. I remember her saying when I was old enough to speak my own first words, “Katie, you must be resigned. We all must die, and I shall lay me down with a will.” And then she’d quote Robert Louis Stevenson, and as I grew older, I would try to see if I could drown it out with bits of the Beatles—only inside my own mind, of course, for my mother was always so sweet that no one, not even the police when they explained my father’s disappearance as a likely death, could bear to disappoint her. None of my friends understood why I always took the idea of death so casually, but I know I owe it all to my mother.
I used to imagine her while I was at college, setting up an extra cup of tea in the afternoon and putting out a few cookies in case this was the day Death chose to arrive. All metaphorical, but that was the image that rose in my mind. I know she didn’t miss me; she told me on the phone every weekend that this was just a preparation for the Great Divide that would come between us and that I should learn to enjoy my freedom. And that is of course why I had to come back home and get a job in our old town of Stephen’s Row, assisting Grant Kemming to run the bookstore.
In a Vermont town, you can make ends meet with a bookstore, because people read, and tourists expect the quaint little booke shoppes scattered over the hills in random old barns. They come and collect musty books that no sane Vermonter would let into the house. So when Grant Kemming died, I bought out his widow and settled down to take care of mum and the store, and the cats that came and went through our lives. Sometimes I, too, made cookies for my guests, but none of them happened to be Death, and mum got restless.
It was an afternoon in late September when I stopped outside her room, smelling a candle burning and I heard Blot say in an indignant squeak, “Nyet!”
“Mum, what are you doing?” I asked, for I really hadn’t any idea why she would be standing in the middle of her room, the rugs rucked up to one side and a candle flaming in her upraised hand. Her face seemed set in wood, so concentrated was her expression.
“My, Katie,” she said, “you gave me a start. I think I almost had it.”
“Had what?” I asked, but she said nothing, just folded up the corners of her mouth like an envelope, blew out her candle with the careful puff one learns will not spread wax droplets everywhere, and turned away. Not her usual courtesy at all.
I picked up Blot, and noticed that his warm pudgy body felt taut and he turned his head as if to watch her. I soothed him with my hand and headed out, ducking the door frame which sure wasn’t made for people of my height. I turned sharply to make my way back down the stairs, thinking someday I would have those stairs rebuilt so all the steps came equal.
“So, Blot,” I said, “that was different.”
He turned on a purr that seemed bigger and better than the simple pat deserved, and went back into the soft furry mode I expected.
Less than twelve hours later I went in to wake mum for her morning tea and realized that her anticipated guest had finally arrived for his appointment. She looked disapproving, which I did not expect, and I experienced a shocked surprise, which I also did not expect.
Indeed, after all the usual services and ceremonies, I found that the house felt strange, not, curiously, as if I had lost a housemate, but as if there were another resident, whose steps were always too quiet to disturb, and who always moved out of my line of sight just before I came around a corner. These old houses frequently breed such feelings and lots of mice, and I figured that the best thing to do would be to get another cat.
But I knew Blot. He preferred people and more teas, so that he could get his tithe of forbidden cream cakes and oatmeal cookies under the table, from the softhearted. I know cats aren’t supposed to like treats of these kinds, but Blot was an exception. I still recall the day the wedding cake I made for Dorothy turned out to have half a cup of whipped cream and white chocolate icing licked off of its backside. Blot avoided me for a whole two hours after.
Another cat seemed like a lot of persuasion and effort, so instead I had neighbors every few days over to tea, and that’s how the reading group got started. James was there. I’d always had this sneaking suspicion I might like him if he ever spoke, and that he liked me, which could be why he never spoke. Except for “Yes, Miss” and “Hallo, Miss” when he cleaned out the kitchen trap or put a new washer on the hose bib, that is. We went to the old school on Bridges Street together all the way through twelfth grade, but we didn’t talk. He’s a good plumber now, the best and the only in town, and he took over the business from his dad who was even less chatty.
James has a face that’s been lived and thought in, long winters and short summers and everything in between, with a nose that’s too big and a mouth that ought to smile more, good lines from weather and a cracking deep laugh. He looks ready and willing to be pleased, which is why it’s hard to understand why he never got married before.
We all knew the reading group was an excuse for spending time in company and competing over who could make the best muffins, but no one minded. We would be literary, and friendly, and have something more than weather to talk over. I wondered if we’d all been yuppified by too many summer tourists, but I squelched that notion as soon as James nodded his dark head and looked like he thought “yes” when he was asked to come to the reading group.
It was the same day we decided on a reading group and set up the rules that I went up to mum’s room for a tablecloth I’d stored there and saw that someone had been sleeping in the bed.
Or that’s what it looked like. Not the slight mussing of a careless hand, but a series of folds and runnels, shaped and compressed. As if I had let a dog sleep there. A big dog that had pulled the covers back on the diagonal and crept in between the sheets, then slipped back out after a time. The pillow was dented too. I didn’t want to touch it.
“‘And I laid me down with a will,’” I said.
Mice, I thought. Mice do crazy things, or maybe Blot’s taken up this new nest. Who knows what he does when I’m at the book barn down Stephen’s Row. I went below stairs and Blot made much of me as I talked to him about the bed, and I decided that it must be his doing. The good Lord knows he’s a funny cat.
Next day, James showed up at the store. He stood in the doorway; gave me a bit of a start since I was reorganizing and my head was in other realms than Vermont.
“Miss Kate,” he said, and I was shocked. He’d never called me by name even when we went to elementary school together under Miss Barker’s hard ruler. “I’d like your best Beowulf.”
Then James blushed.
“Best to look at or best translation?” I asked, and wanted to bite my tongue.
He shrugged and so I babbled on.
“I only have Raffel,” I said, “and nothing in Anglo Saxon. Is Beowulf what you’ll present to the reading group when it’s your turn?”
He nodded and kind of hunched his shoulders, taking off his painter’s cap as if he had suddenly remembered it. He said nothing as I handed over the book. He’d been to the community college, I remembered, while I’d gone off on a scholarship draped in ivy. I followed a half memory, rummaging through the index cards in the file by the store’s desk.
“You had an account here once,” I said. “Here’s your card.”
“Haven’t used it in a time,” he said.
“So shall I put this on? You’re paid up, paid up as of five years ago October.”
That was the same month I’d got my job in the store, I realized, and I most carefully didn’t look at him. Seemed like he used to read books like people eat potatoes around here, until I came.
“Yup,” he said, and he was gone.
I looked out after him. Autumn was winding down, with the leaves blowing off wet and depressed after the flare of color in October, and with them had gone the tourists. Soon I’d keep winter hours. No one else asking for my attention in the store — James could have stayed to talk. On the other hand, this was the most words I’d heard out of his mouth in a string since the time he’d dropped the ax on his foot in the schoolyard when he was about sixteen.
I went upstairs when I got home early, determined to make the bed. No more nonsense. Even suppose mum had come back a revenant, she’d give me the back side of her tongue for being so slovenly as to leave a bed unmade that way. I went into the room, ducking my head at the door, but then I stopped. The bed was made, just right, the way I’d left it after mum’s death. Smooth, the candle tufts marching in their pattern. I stood there a bit, fighting a jumpy feeling, and looked all around the room. The curtains hung starched and white at the window, the sogged browns and tattered yellows of autumn wavering through the old glass. The afternoon was spoiling and even though it was scarcely four, the light had near gone. I squinted as if I might see something new.
I must’ve made the damned bed myself, I decided. Maybe I’d twitched the covers back into place and run my hand over to smooth it. Maybe I’d exaggerated how rumpled the spread had been. When I turned, I saw a book on the floor. Only the corner showed under the big old empty wardrobe. Must be why I’d passed it when I’d cleaned the room after mum died, I told myself, but I have to admit it gave me the creepies to go over and tug it out from under. Then I left the room, making myself stop in the doorway to check once more around the room. There was nothing more to notice.
Blot met me at the stair bottom and he made a peculiar noise.
“Woh mow,” he said, his round green eyes glowing. “Oh, wow!”
I’d never heard a cat say anything so clear in English before, but it lightened me and I scooped him up and snuzzled his smooth black head. Nothing bad could possibly be happening when I had a cat who greeted me with “Oh, wow.” I took him into the kitchen and stoked up the Atlantic range before I gave him a dinner of leftover chicken bits. Maybe I did give him some that weren’t exactly left over, but mum wasn’t watching me to object and there’s something really comforting about watching a cat wash his face and paws after a super dinner.
I sat back down with my own bowl of soup and I set the book by. I finished eating quickly enough and got a kettle going. Now the room was warm with the fire burning hot and steady in the stove, I had my cup of tea at hand and the book was a mere reach away. I picked it up.
Worn brown leather covered boards, fine calf leather so the grain had a sweetly silky feel. Sewn binding, foxed end papers and deckled stock. Rag, of course. Older, near two-hundred years, could be. In Cyrillic.
I thought I recognized it—part of last year’s inventory at my barn, and I’d stuffed it into foreign languages for later sorting because I had got it in the sweeps from a clearance company, the kind of company you hire in when you’re from New York City and have a high-rise life and can’t be bothered to go through Great Aunt Martha’s three story and barn yourself before you put it on the market as a potential bed and breakfast. I looked over the cover, stained with the grease and sweat of many hands, and realized that it had to be more than a book of sermons. No book of sermons in my experience received this heavy use. Opening it I found the pages were set up like verse, old typesetting with notes written beautifully on the margins in various faded inks.
Blot came and hopped into my lap as though it were his due. He sniffed over the cover of my book, gave it an experimental scrape with his incisor and settled himself for the evening.
The really odd thing about the book was an array of candy colored Post-its stuck here and there among the pages. They couldn’t have been there before; I would have removed that sort of thing before categorizing a book, even in the first cut. Folks like to find old photos and embroidered bookmarks because that seems like eavesdropping on history. They disapprove of the vulgar modernism of Post-its. Besides, the acid in a Post-it is bad news. I should have put this into the rare category.
Mum liked Post-its. They had been the one frivolity I could buy and see her use, and I did because it cured her of her old habit of dog-earing pages. Sometimes she came up hill to the book barn, always hoping, I used to suspect, for a handy heart attack. She must have picked this book up then. I looked down at Blot’s rhythmically rising and falling side, the glossy black fur all smoothed out and gleaming, and I started to sound out the first Cyrillic letters.
I don’t know if you know Cyrillic, but I’d discovered when I was playing around with the pronunciation that sometimes you can make a fair guess at what Russian means if you sound it all out. Not by the names of the alphabet, of course, any more than you’d do that for English pronunciation, or you’d be saying things like tvyawrdy znak, which sure sounds like no English I ever heard—but going by the general phonetics. Well, it didn’t seem to be working. I couldn’t make out the title because at least half of it was worn off. There was no author, no publication date, and it would take some real detective work to figure out the provenance.
I turned to the pink Post-it. In the middle of the pages stood a few lines in a larger face. I tried whispering the sounds and Blot woke up. He hopped down and went off to find his cat box. I could hear him rearranging the litter in his usual fanatical fashion in the bathroom. So much for psychic cats. I went to the lime green Post-it, where I made out a penciled note “spell for stuffing quilts” in English. A spell book? That made me smile. I’d need a dictionary.
I opened to the lemon yellow Post-it and a folded piece of pink paper fell out. My mother’s writing. I never saw her write any foreign language and would have said she’d no interest, but here it was. A couple of crossed-out bits, still the text was clear. It went to prove that a person always harbors surprises, even for those nearest and most accustomed.
I got up and stretched. Time for bed, I decided. Looking at the kitchen clock I had a jolt. Nearly midnight? The clock must be wrong. I picked up my pocket watch from the sink side. It agreed. So where had the past three hours gone?
Read the rest of "A Blot in Cyrillic" in Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales.
Robin first wrote and illustrated a manuscript on ‘Chickens and their Diseases’ in second grade. Born in Nebraska, she’s lived in a variety of places, Nigeria, New Hampshire, upper New York state, and California. She pursues a career in oil painting under the name of Robin Gowen, specializing in landscape, and her work can be viewed at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara. Robin is married to a paleobotanist, who corrects the science in both her paintings and her stories. She’s published a handful of science fiction short stories. Her first novel, a historical thriller, Night Must Wait, came out through Imajin Books in 2012, her second, Future Past was published by Caliburn Press, and White Whisker Press published her third, Watch the Shadows.