This is not a sequel to The Princess Bride. For years, I thought it would be. Maybe for years I hoped it would be. I have so many questions. Who kills Humperdinck? Does Inigo become the Dread Pirate Roberts? What happens to Fezzik? Is True Love really that terrible? (Spoiler: It is.) Why did you read this? Stay with me. Yes, it is a story about a lost Princess, a Pirate, Friendship and True Love. Yes, there are giants and witches and miracle men and evil Princes. It is a story of Love and of Adventure but it is not Morgenstern, nor Goldman. This story started with them. So, it is with The Princess Bride, the book and my obsession with it, that we will begin.
I’ll admit, I saw the movie first and not in the theater. We watched a VHS copy during a sleepover, sometime in the spring of 1988. I can’t recall the exact date, neither does Bonnie, but we met Fezzik and Inigo together on the pull-out couch at her parents’ house. The right movie selection ripples through a friendship for years. Inconceivable? It’s true. From that sleepover we have laughed our way through the pain of existence. For more than thirty years, we’ve rhymed with peanut, filled out “Hello, my name is” tags with “Inigo Montoya”, and shouted “to the PAIN” or “LIAR!!!” at each other during moments of need. I was nearly 10, Bonnie was nearly 9. The Princess Bride became the first entry on the Rosetta Stone of our friendship.
I experienced two great traumas in 1987; I became a middle child, and we moved. New school, new library, new room, new house, new bed, new brother, new everything but me. I was still the old me but was suddenly expected to be something more. At 9, I didn’t really have a lot of experience with becoming something other than what I had always been. My sister is 18 months older than me. Meaning when my brother arrived, she just gained a little brother. She didn’t have to become something other than what she’d been since I arrived. She had an annoying and instant affinity with our brother. Thanks to this, she was also trusted by adults more readily when it came to handing the baby over. She’d had nine years of practice and was proficient in being bigger than me in every way.
My brother was a monstrously huge baby. He was no Fezzik, but he was top of the scales upon entry. As the lone possessor of the y chromosome in our sibling gang, he automatically took up more space than I ever would. To be fair, I had very little interest in this contradictory usurper of my spot as “youngest child.” So it was generally Them, together, basking in the glory of living up to expectations, and Me, beside them, in the shadow of becoming but not quite. It was a small shadow, one They had no intention of casting, but I lived in their shade all the same. Then I met Bonnie. She didn’t mind that I was me, that I preferred the shadows, that I brought a book to our first (every) sleepover. I didn’t have to be anyone but who I was. We wove a cocoon of acceptance around each other and filled it with laughter and witches and giants.
I was already addicted to reading. Didn’t matter what, if it had words, I was reading it. Inigo seemed like a decent fellow; I wanted to read him. This was no surprise to anyone who knew me. I asked the librarian for “The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern.” She sent me to the “G” section. G? I executed an eye roll of epic proportions. She was new. (She was new to our library but she was not a new librarian. She was a great librarian. She instantly diagnosed my biblio-addiction. She did her best to redirect my selections to age appropriate materials. I would hiss, “Censorship” and she would hiss, “Banned for life.” We came to an agreement on this after I checked out and read “A Clockwork Orange” when I turned 10. She would point to a book I might not be ready for in my stack and say, “Burgess.” I would ask how old. She would say an age that was a million years away, like 16. I’d roll my eyes and ask, how old for me? She would ask if rolling my eyes made me deaf. She was fun.) I’d read “The Witches” the previous fall and this librarian had suspiciously large nostrils. I checked the M section. No Princess Bride. I marched to the Gs muttering about censorship just loud enough to raise a single eyebrow from my large nostril-ed nemesis. There it was. It was a mass market with a fancy lady riding a horse on the cover. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. A Hot Fairy Tale. I scoffed, then I opened it to the title page. “The Princess Bride S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. The ‘good parts’ version Abridged by William Goldman.” Librarians are never wrong. Tricksy librarians.
I was able to read it twice through before it was due back. I loved it. But what happened? It’s titled “The Princess Bride” but has very little to say about her except that she is pretty and dumb, pretty dumb. Which was par for the course. (Like Barbie, who could do anything, right? My “Barbie 6 O’Clock News Playset” arrived with ‘Weather Girl’ Barbie. ‘News Anchor’ Ken was sold separately. Barbie News presented by Ken.) Inigo was in for a tough go. He had fulfilled his life’s pursuit. He’d done it. Revenge accomplished. Would he be satisfied in his life choices? Why was Westley mad at Buttercup for getting engaged (she thought he was dead) when he chose to be the Dread Pirate for at least two years? (Barbie News presented by Ken: Successful man returns to stop pretty woman from marrying warthog faced buffoon who is trying to kill her. Does she deserve his help?) She had no choice. (Barbie News presented by Barbie: Warthog Faced Buffoon holds woman captive for three years. How she survived multiple attempts on her life before escaping a forced marriage to her captor. Tonight at 11.) But mostly, I wondered about Fezzik. His whole life he was looking for acceptance. He found it with Inigo. Did they stay friends? Did Fezzik get to retire and stop fighting?
Naturally, I asked my librarian. It’s their milieu. She said, “Good authors think about telling a story. Good storytellers make you tell yourself one.” She said things like this sometimes. You just had to wait a minute and stare blankly. She explained that there is another version because the Goldman was an abridgment. ‘The Good Parts’ as determined by Goldman. This was scandalous censorship! She knew I’d think so. (She pointed at “The Handmaid’s Tale” in my checkouts and said “Burgess.” I rolled my eyes. She swapped it for “Matilda.” Since “Matilda” was still new and on a wait list, I allowed it. She was a very good librarian.) Librarians are never wrong.
Tracking down an original Morgenstern became an obsession. The white whale of my personal collection. It started small. I’d just track down a pre-Goldman edition. Easy peasy. My mother was a champion shopper. She began our training at birth. One Black Friday, we hit four malls in six hours. She could fill whole weeks with discount stores. (This was in the 80s, when there were still ashtrays in the children’s dressing room cubicles and possessive apostrophes on buildings.) She can really spend time in antique stores. Swap meets, rummage sales, yard sales will do in a pinch, but the antique store is her favorite playground. Antique stores sometimes have books. While my mom scouted for shiny blue bits from Victoria’s reign, I would look for sign of old books.
Book scouting is easy if you know where to look. Used books hide. They are good at survival. It’s how they avoid being tossed into the garbage or recycled or used to level furniture. In a general, second-hand environment, the books are hidden in plain sight. Used as décor, to fill space between vintage cast iron pots and Mason jars. They are casually displayed in a basket featuring porcelain clown dolls (aka nightmare fuel), or stacked to elevate recovered glass floats. The trick is to check the corners of the store. The low shelves. The spaces where the forgotten and non-shiny items migrate to. You should also look up, to the top shelves. If there is a rickety staircase leading to a cluttered dusty loft, there will be books up there. They lurk in the high, dry spaces or lie in the musty damp.
Aside from these free-range, somewhat feral used book gathering spots, most antique stores have a small, semi-domesticated book selection. This section is almost always near the back, in close proximity to the bathroom. Usually no larger than one case, sometimes just an old plank across some cinder blocks with pre-ISBN Zane Grey pocket books making a last stand with a ragtag army of Burroughs. When it was time to go, my mom would yell through the store and I would bring my finds to the clerk. I would ask if they had seen any Morgenstern as I placed my leather bound rescues on the glass. They would present a dust jacket-less Nancy Drew and tell me it was a first edition. They were not book dealers. I would forgive them this transgression. My mom would ask if I wanted the “more expensive” book the clerk showed me. I would tell her it was a reprint. The clerk would mumble something about all hardbacks being first editions. We would move on to the next shop.
If I was lucky, there would be a used book dealer renting a space in the same strip mall. Book dealers are a weird lot. They don’t follow the rules of retail customer service. In general, they are curmudgeons. Grumpy, irrationally angry at questions, and dismissive. They are addicts who have placed their addiction on display and invited you to walk through the echoes of their pain. I learned you should always approach a used book dealer with caution. They are not motivated by making a sale, they are dragons guarding their treasure.
Children are also terrifying creatures. I was one. It was the only thing I could be considered an expert at. Children are unpredictable at best and usually don’t have any money. What’s worse is children are almost always leaking or mysteriously sticky. Not a good combination for fragile, paper-based treasure hoards. I am, and always have been, a “Messy Bessy.” (I’m over 40 and all of my clothing is stained, ripped or in some way bear the scars of my chaotic, accident-prone existence.) At 10, I was a walking hazard to the neat and tidy. I could stain my siblings’ clothes from fifty paces. I was a threat to lazy afternoons used book dealers were hoping to enjoy. In short, I was a lot of work, and I was unattended. When you are the physical embodiment of barely contained chaos, you get a lot of practice knowing when you will be asked to leave. Since my goal was to search the hoard for a specific treasure, I learned to tame dragons.
First rule of dragon taming is entering the lair with the respect it is due. If you are chewing gum, stick it to the roof of your mouth. If the door makes a noise, move away from it quickly. Do not bring your siblings. Locate the dragon and acknowledge them. Eye contact or a head nod will be sufficient. For the love of all that is holy, do not engage in conversation before surveying the lair.
Casually survey the lair. Lairs follow a pattern of organization. Look for landmarks: locked cases, brooding space, desk, till, magic barrier to the back room. Where is the locked case? Is it free standing by the front door or part of the desk? Is it behind the desk? If you do not see a locked case, you will need to pay close attention to the stacks, especially those closest to the dragon. If you will pass the locked case before entering the stacks, glance at it but continue past. (Lurking at locked cases right as you come in is like slapping your nana when she brings you a plate of cookies. Nobody is happy. Don’t do this.) Are the books within modern? Clean? Signed? Faced out? Organized? Is there just one? Scan the case, then move past. If the case is at or behind the desk, do not approach. (If you do this correctly, there could be cookies in your future.) Glance. Acknowledge. Move with calm silence. If the dragon moves to stand near a specific case that is not locked, this is a warning. Move out of sight for a while or browse the ‘children’s’ section. This will soothe the dragon back to its brooding space.
Assess the content of the lair. How is it organized? How many layers? Has there been an attempt at alphabetization? Are there signs for browsing? Is there another room? Do the books fit the space? Are there books on the floor? If there are no stacks of books on the floor, you may want to leave. Resist. They could be new or have an overly enthusiastic dragon-in-training. It could also be a sign that they’ve lost their keeper. Is there a format preference? Do they specialize? What is their focus? Once you’ve figured out their niche, find a way to compliment the dragon. “Oh, what a wonderful selection of mid-century Austen.” “Is this the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica? The bindings are so clean!” Grunts or single word answers mean you are making progress.
If the dragon approaches you, be small and listen. Try not to leak or fart near them. Answer direct questions but do not ask yours yet. Explore respectfully for at least ten minutes. If there are other customers, remain where the dragon can see you and don’t interrupt. Dragons appreciate self-sufficiency. Locate your section and browse first. If you make it past the 15-minute mark and the dragon has returned to their brooding space (usually the desk with a book or a stack of books), you can cautiously approach the locked case/desk for a proper look.
Dragons respond best if you approach with an intended purchase. This book is bait. It should be within your price range and be something you want. The dragon will judge you on this selection. So choose wisely. Don’t just grab a random ‘last chance’ book. If you’ve no interest in it, the dragon will know. (There will not be cookies.) This is where the dragon will let you see their most valuable treasures. Those kept in the locked cases, or better yet, the Private Reserve.
You will have a small window to ask the dragon about your heart’s desire. This is generally a space of time from desk approach to till opening. “I didn’t see any Morgenstern. I’m really looking for a pre-Goldman Princess Bride, but I’d be interested in any Florinese literature or history.” The dragon will scoff or send you back to the stacks with minimal vocalization. Assistant dragons (dragons-in-training) will try to sell you a Stephen King. Dragon keepers will make a comment on your Cabbage Patch Doll belt buckle, take you to the basket of petrified Little Golden Books, and perhaps give you a candy. However, if you’ve made your approach correctly, your dragon may suggest something from their Private Reserve. In short, cookies.
The Private Reserve is the best of the dragon’s hoard. Be prepared, you will not leave the shop with it. However, just knowing it exists, seeing it, maybe getting to hold it… It will be kept close to them at all times, generally in the desk or a box under it. Sometimes they will leave the main chamber and retrieve it from the mythic space known as “the backroom.” Depending on the dragon, it may be wrapped. My first pre-Goldman Morgenstern was wrapped. The dragon was ex-military of the Vietnam era. He had a massive beard that was mostly gray. He wore a faded P.O.W. baseball hat that was clearly his uniform now. His hoard was mostly dead generals, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli. His keeper was a spherical hippie, all patchouli and crochet.
The hoard was located at the end of an antique mall somewhere just within the border of Prescott Valley. There was an abandoned railway station about ten miles north where we’d spent the morning collecting rusted bits of train remains to add to our backyard in California. (Your family is weird too.) My mother had disappeared into the antique mall shortly after lunch. She claimed to be looking for the bathroom. It had been at least two hours. My dad and the dragon swapped service stories as my siblings made an appearance and drew the attention of the dragon keeper. We each received a small piece of hard candy. Then my mother appeared and said the magic words, “There’s an open house tomorrow.” They all went outside to discuss. I presented my bait book, a well worn copy of “1984.”
The keeper coo-ed and asked if I’d seen the C.S. Lewis box set. Knowing I didn’t have a lot of time, I boldly asked after the Morgenstern. The dragon scoffed and said there were copies of the Goldman in the discount bin out front. I restated that I was looking for a Morgenstern, not a Goldman. The gray dragon asked for my .50 cents. I handed him my quarters and added, “Goldman is good but I’d like to read the original. It would be a shame if Morgenstern was forgotten.” It was manipulative. I know. I was 12 and suffering from extreme withdrawals. It had been almost three whole days without a library or bookshop. This bearded dragon would show me his treasure! The Keeper must have recognized my pain. She casually mentioned “that old bundle” might be of interest. The dragon blew smoke at her but she’d been with him a while and waved it away. He disappeared into the magic realm and returned with a brown wrapped bundle.
He placed “that old bundle” on the glass and opened the fragile paper, carefully exposing the calfskin boards. Neither of us breathed. There it was. It was at least a hundred years old. The front board was detached. The spine flopped horrifically, exposing the threads that held the tome together. The gilt was mostly gone from the fore edge. Just beneath that board were the answers. It was right there.
I felt strange. My mouth was dry. I was starting to tremble. My hands were sweaty. I rubbed them on my shirt. They left brown smudges. I looked at them suddenly (and not for the first time) angry they had failed me in this, my moment of greatest need. I could not touch this book with these disgusting appendages! My sister opened the door and announced that they were leaving. I looked at the dragon, right in the eyes. He saw the struggle within me. Without speaking, he removed the front board and turned the flyleaf. “The Princess Bride: A Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by S. Morgenstern.” The bottom half of the title page was missing. I would have stood right there and let the dragon turn each page as I consumed it with my eyes. The dragon may have let me, we were kin now. My sister would not. There were tears on my face as she dragged me from the lair. It would be six years before I saw another copy.
A lot happens to a kid in the 2109 days between 12 and 18. By September, the once little girls who wove a self-styled cocoon of acceptance around each other emerged as full-fledged pre-teens. This is a dangerous and difficult time for women. We’re fragile, yet flexible, eager to find the limits of our malleability. Our bodies expand and lengthen at alarming and completely random rates. We gain knowledge with a terrible cost; life is pain. Our internal organs declare war on comfort. The first battles of womanhood rage within us. We turn on those closest to us. (Especially our parents. Sorry, parents. They knew this would happen. Every month? FOREVER!? It was inconceivable! It remains total bullshit. Sorry, kids.) We learn to weaponize our self doubt and throw daggers of insecurity with surprising accuracy. We toughen our own skin and fabricate our first set of emotional armor. Bonnie was challenged by cherubic curves, all at once. She spent her days in agony as her spine took its time lengthening. I was challenged by sharp edges and stagnation. I spent my days honing acerbic wit and sarcasm. At night, I remained small and in the shadows of becoming but not quite.
Together, we clung to our magic cocoon. We knew it was special even then. As we became, we fused the cocoon’s remains to our armor. We added new vocabulary to our private language. We rhymed with peanut. We looked puberty in the face and shouted, “DEATH FIRST!” We knew the secrets of the fire swamp. The trees were lovely. We spent our summers there, and every Wednesday night, and Sunday morning, and every other Friday, and sometimes Saturdays. We built up an immunity to iocane. Even as we turned left into childhood, we could feel The Machine sucking our lives away. In 1994, life took The Machine to fifty. Bonnie (and her family) moved to southwest Washington.
It was an emotional time for us. All of us. In the 2109 days between 12 and 18, a lot happens to parents of women as well. Parents of teenage girls are very much witches and miracle men. Frantically cobbling together miracle pills for every tiny thing. It takes all their energy and time and money. Their offspring fire them (we’re still pissed about the whole ‘life is pain’ situation) and then we show up with the corpse of our childhood and demand a cure. Our parents did their best for us, we were their teenagers. They offered the balm of time and patience. We raged at our inability to control the path of our journey. They calmly presented their miracle pills: phone calls, letters, and visits every summer. Since we were both mostly dead, and had already checked our pockets for loose change, we took them. The chocolate coating was a visit just three weeks after the big move.
We were mid-seize on the Zoo of Teenhood. (High school is the Zoo of Death. It’s filled with angry, semi-feral beasts who become increasingly dangerous the deeper you go. Nothing contained within wants to be there. Only those engaged experiments in pain enter willingly. Only those who can manage their own anxiety can escape the fear within. This is why we fabricate armor.) Even great fools can see that splitting your forces mid-seize is a terrible idea. We were not great fools, so we strategized how to keep our forces together. I was for dropping out and moving into Bonnie’s garden shed. (We were not ‘great’ fools, merely teenagers and not so good with strategy.) This plan was scuttled on day one. My parents would probably look for me and Bonnie’s parents would for sure notice. We moved on.
In the next plan Bonnie would live in my sister’s second bedroom. (You read that right. My sister had two rooms. Her room and the guest room. She had reasons. They were bullshit but she held the title of “First Born” which has its privileges.) This plan involved some light human trafficking of Bonnie in my carry-on luggage. (Notes on plane travel and security measures pre-9/11: You could go to the gate without a ticket. Yep, just walk right in. You could also wait at the gate to meet your visitors. This plan was legit and would have worked until our parents noticed.) My dad was with me on this trip and he was bound to notice Bonnie emerge from my carry-on mid-flight, so that plan was out. I must mention that Bonnie was opposed to running away. She was a big sister and her family had just moved. She could not abandon them. Realizing I could not ask her to, we stopped talking about it. We would just have to make it through but be apart. But not yet, and not always.
We spent a few days locked in her new room speaking our language and reinforcing our defenses. We carefully unpicked our magic cocoon fibers from our too small armor. In the last days of together, the last weeks of heart & logic, we spun a little more until we each had an equal size piece. We were each confident the other would be all right. We buffed our newly re-forged armor with the fabric of our cocoon so it reflected the strength we saw in the other and hoped it would be enough.
My addiction eventually overcame our melancholy. Bonnie was one of the few people who did not view my need to visit a library or bookstore as weird. At home, when I was really in need of a hit, I would just go to the library alone. I needed a ride to the mall and other teenagers. (There is weird parent logic at work here. One teen, alone, is unsafe. Presumably because on my own I’ll be forced into joining a gang if left alone. Two teens are safer. Three or more is the safest, so I always needed at least two others to journey to the mall. Fun fact: Mall security qualifies a gathering of three or more as a ‘gang’.) I had to slip away from the gang to go into bookstores. I would lose social standing by brazenly bypassing the Hot Topic for the Walden’s and I did not have much social standing to lose.
Mall bookstores were ‘new’ bookstores. New bookstores did not hold the same power over me that used bookstores did. Don’t get me wrong, new books are great and new bookstores are wonderful. However, I’m an addict. I consume books at an unhealthy rate. New books are prohibitively expensive and only for special occasions. (Like whenever someone else gives you one.) New bookstores have a lot going for them. The booksellers are knowledgeable and friendly. (They were not dragons.) The basket of Little Golden books is shiny not petrified. They’re clean, tidy, and organized. (They were not lairs.) Your siblings are welcome. They have books but they would not have a Morgenstern. (No treasure.) Up to this point, my quest was limited to places I could walk to or antique mall adjacent lairs on family road trips. I had been limited to the Southwest. I was excited to meet some PNW dragons. By day three, I ached for it.
It had been 715 days since I’d seen the Morgenstern. I didn’t really understand what happened inside me that day. My mom noticed something was wrong. She thought it was dehydration or heat exhaustion. My eyes were leaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t breathe properly. I tried to describe what I was feeling but it made even less sense when I used words.
I’d felt a cracking inside me, a fissure. A loosening of tectonic pressure. Something broke, a little, somewhere deep inside. A tiny bit of something frightfully powerful escaped. It surged through me. I felt it swirling around my heart. I felt it settle into the sulci of my brain. It was euphoric and heartbreaking. It changed me. I noticed the change most when I was questing for the Morgenstern. I got tiny bursts of happiness when I entered a lair now. Dragons were easier to tame. Keepers no longer offered me candy. Hoards were easier to navigate. The tiny bit of something woke and danced under my skin as I browsed a promising lair. It guided me. It would pulse in my brain if I chose the right bait book. It fluttered around my heart as I spoke with dragons. I thought this was my addiction getting stronger. This scared me so I tried not to think about it. I was unable to ignore it on day 715.
I stepped through the door of Powell’s City of Books and would have exploded had my skin not contained me. The tiny something was instantly awake and moving and everywhere. This place called to it and it happily raced about within me looking for a way out. Bonnie felt it too. (We were arm in arm and I was vibrating.) This was a hoard. An impossibly huge lair! I detached from Bonnie. I heard her mom say, “two hours,” and I began to search for the dragon. I looked for landmarks. Found a desk and circled. Then I saw a brooding space. Then another. I was on the other side of the room from the initial brooding space scanning for a dragon, when I stepped through a doorway.
The lair expanded before me. The tiny bit of something constricted inside me, solidified in my stomach and then flew apart. I felt it dust the ridges of my brain. Goose flesh erupted across my skin. I saw a glass case and a desk. I circled this room. I ran into an employee by Dumas. I was so overwhelmed I just blurted out, “Morgenstern!” The swirling around my heart was making me nauseated. This was a dragon! The dragon took me to a shelf. There were three spines of bare shelf between Morgensten and Morgenston. The dragon spoke to me but I was too saturated with endorphins. That’s when the second dragon approached.
Then I was in a chair. The words “Parts Department” spun in my vision. Bonnie was soothing the dragons and reassuring them I was fine, maybe just a bit dehydrated. There were four adults, three were dragons, one was an assistant.
I’d never encountered more than one dragon in a lair. Lots of assistant dragons and keepers, but always one dragon. Dragons are possessive. They know what is worthy of their hoard. They train assistants to maintain the hoard, tidy the lair, protect it from constantly leaking womb goblins. They have keepers to, well, keep the dragon alive. (Keepers play a much more vital role to dragon survival than I knew at this point. I was young and did not understand how debilitating life as a dragon can be.) This place had keepers and assistants and multiple dragons.
It was a collective hoard. A horde of dragons working together. An assistant dragon handed a book to the first dragon who handed it to me in the chair. I took it and probably said something impressive like, “boop snoot.” Bonnie was able to make words happen so she thanked them and moved me out of the room. We bought the book (from yet another dragon!) and went out onto the porch. We sat in silence for a time watching the skateboarders play in the traffic on Burnside. Bonnie asked about the book. I looked at it for the first time. “History of the Florin Royal Houses compiled and edited by S. Morgenstern” Inside me, deep in the very core of my being, the fissure splintered. Outside me, I vomited. Bonnie told her mom I had an asthma attack and we rode home in mostly silence. Afraid that I would become undone, I would not return to Powell’s for several years.
The book became my first Morgenstern. It was dry and you got a real feel for why he hated royalty. It also made me wonder which royal house Lotharon and Humperdinck were in. I scanned for Hammersmith. It was not listed. My quest continued. We went out to Seaside, to “the Coast” as PacWesters call it. I was having a hard time processing that Bonnie would have to live in such a dreary place. Even their beach was overcast and cold. I suddenly understood why Grunge Rock was a thing and why it could only have been bred in the PNW. The seaside towns had boardwalks, thrift stores, and quite a few lairs. None that would have a Morgenstern but a fair representation of the region. A lot of Herbert, Kesey, and Cleary.
I was relieved that I did not throw up in any of them. Bonnie insisted on coming with me to the first hoard. I’m glad she did. Moral support is vital to the survival of a friendship. (It’s a core value.) She didn’t know what happened to me either, but she didn’t shy away. We had been worried that I’d overdosed, or something. (If you didn’t live through the “D.A.R.E” years, you may not understand. I was still on a waitlist for Trainspotting and was wildly under-informed about drugs.) Since I was supposed to “Just Say No,” I feared telling an adult would prevent me from continuing my quest. The swirling bits had not calmed for two days. I was anxious and snappy. My dad was concerned. (He was the parent of a teenager. He was always concerned.) The PNW dragons soothed the power within me. They recognized my becoming. They knew even if I didn’t. By the third shop, I felt more in control. The swirling chaos settled on the inside of me again.
It no longer felt as if it was trying to escape, wildly flinging against every cell. During my success at Powell’s, it came on like an explosion or a tidal wave. Like being caught in the wrong spot as a set rolls in, a sudden mountain of water crashing over, into, and through me. Now, it was like a monsoon. A slow building pressure in every pore. I could sense the air pressure change. I could smell the water, I could hear the desert preparing for the deluge. Lightning and thunder precede the flood, but I could see how the landscape would keep dry land under my feet. It still sparked dangerously close to the surface in a promising lair but I could enjoy the ride.
In the final lair of our trip to the coast, I selected a mass market Jurassic Park, Chip Kidd’s masterpiece on the cover, and presented it to a middle-aged assistant dragon. Her hair was held in a French twist by several pencils. It was casually messy and practical. I felt an instant affinity towards her. There was an old leather tome open in front of her. Next to her was a stack of photocopies held together by a single metal ring. Post-it notes, like molting feathers, poked out randomly on all sides of the stack. I was going to ask after the Morgenstern but a very different question escaped me, “What are you doing?” She smiled oddly, “My job.” She turned the book and showed me the publisher’s mark and date. “If this matches the listing in this bibliography, then I might buy it.” She handed me the stack of photocopies and pointed at the relevant section.
The vocabulary was unfamiliar. At first, the entry read like gibberish. A collection of sentence fragments. While I read the passage through a few times, she pulled a pencil from her head and made a note on the back of a business card. I asked her several more questions that were not related to the Morgenstern. It was strangely involuntary and I was getting frustrated by my inability to focus. Bonnie waved at me through the window. I was running out of time. “What are you really looking for?” She tossed the life-saver expertly in my direction and pulled me in.
“Inigo…Fezzik…The Princess Bride. A Morgenstern. Have you seen one?” I stammered. I was flushed and my vision blurred momentarily. I was not in control.
“Not for a long while.” Her eyes sparkled nefariously. “Where did you see one?”
“Arizona. About two years ago.” How could she have known? My stomach was flipping over on itself.
“Arizona!” She laughed as she finished writing the receipt. It was a warm laugh. A lock of hair freed itself and framed her right eye, a visual parenthesis. She placed a copy of “ABC for Book Collectors” by John Carter on top of my bait book. “You’ll need this, eventually. Promise you’ll wait a few years.” I slid the last of my savings across to her. I didn’t notice the business card tucked expertly between the flyleaf and end page of the Carter until I was on the plane home.
Valerie’s Old Books & New Spells
On the back, written in pencil: Ask for Val. Don’t mention Goldman.
I could feel the strange power pulsing between my fingertips through the card. The card itself felt strange. It wasn’t card stock. It was thin and warmed slightly as I held it, like skin. Skin I was familiar with. There was a light crackling sound, like embers. Possibly, the sound was coming from me. The longer I held it the less familiar it became. Less familiar, yet increasingly intimate. I knew this flesh by touch. I knew it deep, at the core of myself. It was entirely too much. I tucked it and the book away.
I intended to tell Bonnie about it. However, every time I tried, something distracted me. We were in separate pits of despair. Our forces were divided. Bonnie met a boy. Then another. There were Princes hunting near her. There were balls and concerts and castles on her horizon. I was trying to find suitable camouflage for my growing addiction to the written word. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with a horse named Horse and the collected works of Hugo and Dumas. The only thing I wanted on my horizon was a pre-Goldman Princess Bride. I wanted it so much, I became reckless with the hearts of others in pursuit of my goal.
Case in point: Bobby. I spent my Senior year dating Bobby. Bobby had eyes like the sea and hair the color of sunlight in Fall. He was only a year younger than me but two grades behind. He was poor and perfect. He was my social shield. I was able to opt-out of all forced social participation (dances) because I had a boyfriend and thus no longer needed to attain one. Brilliant. Or it was, until Bobby said he loved me about two weeks in. I liked Bobby, a lot. He was kind, empathetic, and generally up for whatever. Like spending endless hours being ignored by his girlfriend as she hunted through the musty lairs of SoCal dragons muttering about long dead translators and missing colophons. Bobby was a Westley. I was not his Buttercup. I had a strong feeling I wasn’t anyone’s Buttercup. The kindest thing to do was to end it. I did. The week I graduated. It was terrible, all of it. I did not mean to use him or break his heart. I had no intention of breaking my own. I was quite honest but sometimes hormones and romantic ideals make one deaf to truth. All the choices we make come at a cost. Life is pain, kids.
Goldman cuts large parts from Buttercup’s story. He does it with the phrase, “What with one thing or another, three years passed.” In fairness, the education of women has always been tossed aside as boring. Fictional heroines like the Protagonist Princess often have a space of time redacted from their history. We tend to avoid talking about how little girls become women, how common becomes uncommon. How truths become fiction. Like Buttercup, we learned a lot even though our education could be described as nothing more than intense drudgery with a side of general Gen-x angst. We’re going to skip it.
What with one thing or another, two years passed.
I made my first trip to the east coast in the late summer of ‘96. On the third day, I stumbled across the Brattle Bookshop. They were closing up for the night and the dragon was out but the assistant told me there might be a Morgenstern outside. (Yep, OUTSIDE. Brattle has a lot next to their shop with carts of ‘last chance’ books. It’s a veritable dragon playground in a parking lot. There are also cabinets out there. Year-round. In Boston. Where it snows. It is amazing and terrifyingly reckless.) She took my name and said she’d pull it and hold it at the desk until end of business the following day. This was not procedure but we were kin. She warned me that it was in very poor condition but had at least one more read in it. Our conversation ended with her passing me an application.
This was happening quite a lot in hoards and even new bookstores. On this trip to Boston, I’d been passed four applications and a business card. (Just in case. In case of what? In case you change your mind.) I would explain that I was just visiting. The dragon or assistant or keeper would smile oddly and say, “Whatever gets you through.” I didn’t understand it.
The maybe-Morgenstern turned out to be an actual Morgenstern and it was The Princess Bride. It was a reprint from the 20s. An English translation bound in red cloth that faded to a dusky rose at the spine. A white Dewey Decimal number (813.54) screamed tacky at the base of it. The only external indication that it was ex-lib. The deckled edges were darker in spots, stained with 70 years of reader’s remains. The top fore-edge claimed the book for “Stevens” in black marker. Corners swollen from years of damp, brown fans spreading between the bumped away fabric. The flyleaf and frontispiece were missing. The boards were nearly detached at both the front and back. A mid-century librarian at Mather Elementary attempted a repair at some point. The possibly-not-always brown strip of binding tape, cracked and brittle with age, was splitting in places. Thin threads stretched across the gaps like desperate rope bridges across a canyon. I wonder if it was the same librarian who eventually stamped it ‘Withdrawn.’ Cradled in the palm of my hand, I let the pages slide past my thumb until they revealed the broken binding in three places. (Pages 158/159, 430/431, 602/603.) All the pages appeared to be intact. The card pocket was missing but the telltale grey adhesive square remained on the inside of the backboard. Jane received it at Christmas 1962. Ben on his birthday in 1970.
I paid $2.50. The assistant dragon wrapped it with care and handed it over. I practically ran from the shop. I had to get out before the tears escaped. After six years of searching, the answers were in my possession at last. The economics of questing are unbelievably simple. The emotions follow no pattern whatsoever. I didn’t attend my scheduled lectures that afternoon. I sat in a café and began reading. At 6pm, I called Bonnie. She was waiting for the Prince to return from a hunt. She began reciting the protocol for Waiting-for-Prince but I interrupted her.
“I found one. A Morgenstern. A Princess Bride.” I wondered if she could hear the imminent existential crisis behind my rushed confession.
“Really? That’s great!” There was a momentary pause. “A reading copy?” Her tone was cautious. She was always a good listener. She knew I was struggling.
“Yes. I own it.”
“And?” She knew I’d already begun reading it. She was expecting a full report. I thought about my answer. In truth, it was rather dull and slow going. Before I could articulate my disappointment, my long distance card ran out. You have one minute of call time remaining. “I’m out of minutes.”
“Oh! Call me Sunday. I don’t have plans with the Prince but we might attend Homecoming! I sent you the details. You’ll have three letters when you get home.”
“I’m flying Sunday…” You are out of minutes. The line went dead. This is when I realized the stillness inside me. Given my reaction six years ago, I felt achingly hollow. Not at all what I was expecting. The storm within me never broke. No river of power filling the canyons of my soul. No flashes of light. No deafening thunder. Just this still silence. The line inside me dead as well. Perhaps I’d outgrown my childish fantasy. The treasure, now in my possession, felt like nothing more than $2.50 of slowly decaying fibers.
I wandered the cobbled streets of Beantown contemplating the nothingness within me. I visited the bones of American legends turning to dust side by side with the bones of ordinary people. I visited the bones of ordinary people and wondered if this was all there was. A small star in the center of a busy intersection marked the spot where ordinary people killed each other several centuries ago. I watched several tourists risk their lives to take photographs of it between light cycles. Their camera flashes a strange reminder of the absence in my bones. In less time than you would think, I was lost down an alley and found myself in Commonwealth Books. I felt a low-grade buzzing in my feet as I flipped through their ephemera.
Commonwealth had a classic Old ‘New World’ Book smell even though their fixtures were clearly new. Lived-in leather, dry cotton, and parchment filled my lungs. It gently rolled along the inside of me, soothing the hollow ache with every breath. I felt it opening capillaries. The low-grade buzzing ran up my legs and ended in my fingertips. The lair was organized, yet organically haphazard, like moving day. The point on moving day where you can’t tell if someone is preparing to move out in a hurry or is taking a really long time moving in. An old dragon was brooding behind a fortress of wood pulp, hemp, and leather. We made eye contact. He smoked lightly out one nostril when his eyes came to rest on my battered Morgenstern. “I picked it up at Brattle this morning.” Hoping to strike the right tone. A tone that was an acknowledgment of the horrendous abuse the tome had taken and that I was not the abuser, but its new, forever home. Some dragons are particular about what you bring into their lair. He held out his hand. Rather than hand it to him, I held it up higher and pulled the receipt up so he could see it. I was surprised to find that I was reluctant to turn it over.
The dragon relaxed slightly. He appeared to steam evenly from both nostrils. “You might be interested in the Guilderian maps in the case. Back wall on the right. Third drawer.” I nodded my thanks. I couldn’t have spoken. The room was beginning to spin slightly and my vision blurred. The familiar pulsing sparks burst happily around my heart. I felt tears welling. I was not dead inside! I mastered the wave with measured breaths taking care to finish browsing the ephemera basket. My fingers brushed the cellophane wrapper on the final item in the basket. An intense wave pulsed through my hand. I pulled the item without looking at it and made my way to the map case.
There were Guilderian maps in the case. They were all a bit too modern for my taste. There was an excess of smoke lingering in the corner. I fanned it away using the piece of ephemera in my hand. The not-so-tiny something was running amok through my chest and arms. I looked at the item.
It was a charcoal sketch on possibly parchment depicting a sword fighter in the courtyard of a mission. It was a rough outline at best. I inspected the edges. It had been bound at some point. The regular holes and brightness of the left side suggested something more. I noticed the smoke blurring my vision again. It was coming from me. I bought the sketch, casually asking the dragon if he knew its provenance.
“I think this was one of Val’s.” He flipped through a slip case of business cards. Dragons often use old slip cases for filing or storage of important documents. Almost every lair has an old Lord of the Rings box filled with pencils or rubber bands or blades of various sizes. You can sometimes divine a hoard’s focus based on the slip cases-turned-desk accessories. He extracted a card and slid it into the bag with my purchase. I left the close comfort of Commonwealth for the cobblestone alley. It was the first time in over six years that I left a bookshop without asking after a Morgenstern. I was once again standing in a shadow of becoming but not quite.
Desiree Ducharme is a writer. The greatest romance of my life has been with used books. Mystery? Check. Excitement? Check. Remoteness from everyday life? Check. Associated with love? Absolutely. It’s more than a passing fancy. Def not a fad. This is more than a “phase” or adolescent obsession. It might be an unhealthy addiction. If it is, I’m not looking for a cure. You can read more at desireeducharme.com