The Good Librarian (complete)

S zentangleThe Carding Chronicles are short stories and sketches about the little town no one’s ever been able to find on a map of Vermont. When you subscribe to the Chronicles, a new story will be delivered to your inbox every Friday.
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Since Jane was the younger of the two Twitchell sisters (the other being Isabel) her parents held out hope that she would marry way past the expiration date for that sort of dream.

Try as the parents might, both girls regarded the male half of the human race as a mere curiosity, preferring the company of each other, their books, and their work.

Except in one way, the sisters grew up to be so much alike, it was difficult to see where Isabel ended and Jane began. The difference lay here: Isabel developed a taste for travel while Jane didn’t care if she stirred beyond the borders of Carding. Accordingly, Isabel followed the toes of her shoes from one international school to another, teaching English to students that probably would have preferred to be left alone. Jane followed her mentor, Agatha Norcross, as the keeper of the Carding Public Library.

Jane considered the care of a library a sacred trust. While she did not like all books equally—science fiction bored her and she would be content if she never read another memoir—she regarded all words on paper with the affection of a doting aunt.

She started working at the Carding library when she was still in high school, left town to get her degree in library science, and then returned to take charge of the books at Carding Regional. Then, when Agatha retired, Jane took command of the public library’s card catalogue and sat behind the great wooden desk that had once belonged to Senator Danielson Wolfe.

Before she took the job, Agatha and Jane held many long discussions on the importance of librarians, their responsibilities to their patrons and to literature.

“Truth is all,” Agatha used to say. “Remember, the books we give space to on our shelves are there to illuminate life. It could be something as small as how to build a birdhouse or as large as what happens when we die. But it’s all truth, and we must honor that in our lives as well as our work.”

Agatha could not have asked for a better pupil or follower than Jane Twitchell. When anyone in Carding talked about her—which was infrequent, given her quiet life—the word they used to describe her was “scrupulous.” So everyone in town would have been shocked to learn that Jane had a secret.

Not a deep, dark, wretched secret, you understand. No. No. Nothing scandalous like that. (Why would you think that about Jane Twitchell?)

No, this was a secret that exactly suited Jane’s temperament for she had uncovered a literary treasure in the Carding Public Library.

And she had no intention of telling anyone else about it.

Ever.

It all began with Martin Chuzzlewit, that bleak, rather boring novel by Charles Dickens in which the great British author skewered America as a backwater best ignored and deplored. While Dickens had his adherents among Carding’s readerly population, none of them liked “Martin,” as they called the book.

(Actually, to give Mr. Dickens his due, his negative attitude toward America and Americans is easy to understand when you know that 19th century publishers in our country were printing and selling copies of his most popular books without paying him royalties for his work. The Chinese are hardly the first people to sell pirated books.)

Anyhow, back to our story. Jane Twitchell’s uncomfortable secret began when with her annual culling of the library’s shelves in preparation for the used book sale held each year before Christmas. She’d never considered eliminating any of Dickens’ novels from the collection before but the space needed for new books, movies, and audiobooks was so great, she thought it a good idea to be more fierce in her discarding duties.

Her decision about Martin became easy once she looked to see how often it had been taken out. She was not surprised to discover that the yellowing book hadn’t moved from the library for more than 20 years.

“Hmph, time for you to go,” Jane said, being no fan of Martin Chuzzlewit herself. She gave the book a little toss into her discard box, and an envelope slid out from behind the back cover.

Now, Jane loved what she called “oddments,” the strange and sometimes puzzling items that people tucked between the pages of books. In fact, she kept a small collection of her favorites in her top desk drawer. There was a 1939 ticket to the movie Gone with the Wind when it opened in New York City, a 1950s Disney Land memento of Dumbo, a bookmark featuring a psychedelic zebra painted by Jasper Johns, and a small image of John Lennon wearing a T-shirt that read New York City.

So she dove to the floor after the old envelope with delight and many expectations.

The short note inside was penciled on a piece of erasable bond, a crinkly paper once widely used in typewriters, and Jane recognized the obsessively small, neat handwriting immediately. It was from her predecessor, Agatha Norcross.

“Dear Jane,” the note began, “for I assume it will be you who follows me, please forgive me for not telling you about this matter in person. I had always hoped I would have the fortitude to destroy the last copies of Hanson Willis’s ‘D-H‘ books myself. But I must confess to you that I fell under their spell like so many before me, and I could not bring myself to do it.

“While he was still alive, Mr. Willis said these books were just his overactive imagination at work. To the best of my knowledge, the only copies ever printed were done by Daniel and Kitty Wolfe, the couple who started the Carding Chronicle newspaper in 1912. But after reading all the stories and tales (more than once, I blush to say), I have come to the conclusion that Mr. Willis described truths about Carding that we might be better off not knowing.

“You and I were born here so we’re used to the town’s odd ways. But did you ever ask yourself why crows are always around the female descendants of the Cooper family, and why the women of the Wolfe family are wiser than anyone else or why dogs never go into the caves at the edge of Half Moon Lake?

“I think Mr. Willis discovered those secrets, and more. But he didn’t think anyone would believe him so he put them in books to fool people into thinking they were just strange stories that he made up.

“Maybe that’s all they are. I cannot judge any more so I will leave it to you. Start with Martin Chuzzlewit—the shorter D-H tales are found here—and then move on, if you dare.

“My dearest Jane, read with care and beware of where you place your personal beliefs. I cannot give you any more guidance than that.

“Yours—Agatha Norcross.”

Jane’s hands shook so hard, the paper rattled from between her fingers. Agatha Norcross was the most sober human being she’d ever known so for the former librarian to claim that the inexplicable eccentricities of Carding were more than odd behavior unnerved Jane to her core.

It was a rather uncomfortable—but not altogether unpleasant— sensation.

Who could resist such an invitation? Not me, and I dare say you couldn’t either. Let’s explore together, shall we?
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When you’re considered the wisest person in town, you come to accept it as normal that people seek you out for advice. Such was the case with Edie Wolfe.

At the time of this story, she was the latest in a long line of woman named Wolfe, all of whom were considered exceptionally wise, and all of whom were held in the highest regard, even by people who didn’t like them.

The original Wolfes (should we write that as Wolves?) arrived in Carding on the crest of the Civil War. At the time, the Wolfe family consisted of a widowed mother (the first Edith Wolfe), and her three sons, Rupert, William, and David. When they arrived, Rupert was an all-arms-and-legs fifteen year-old, William had just turned ten, and David had barely made it out of his toddling pants.

Edith, the mother, chose Carding deliberately, expecting to find help raising her brood from the faithful who populated the area at the base of the Crow’s Head Falls known as the “Campgrounds.” After all, her late husband had once been the keeper of that observant flock, and had taught them to be kind.

For their part, the congregants expected to—planned to—help the widow and her children, and if soothing words and warm wishes had been enough, everyone would have been satisfied with the arrangement.

However, as Edith once noted, “Good intentions make thin stew.”

Fortunately for Edith Wolfe, war started and drained the town of able-bodied men. That left plenty of room for the woman to grow unhindered in both skills and experience. Mrs. Wolfe was not one to sit and bemoan her fate so it didn’t take long before she ran the best boarding house in the county, situated right next to the Burlington & Northern railroad tracks.

In exchange for clean sheets and well-baked bread, her boarders—long-timers and transients alike—brought her gossip, news and stories from afar. And so Edith the Elder learned a lot about humanity without the bother of stirring from her seat at the head of her table.

You can learn a lot and get taken for wise if you’re willing to listen. Edith was an excellent listener, and before you knew it, folks in town were seeking out her advice.

Sometimes, they even took it.

This tradition of wise women stuck with the Wolfe family from that first Edith to the namesake that we now find sitting in the kitchen of her family home on Carding Green, watching the town librarian, Jane Twitchell, pace the sidewalk in front of her house.

It was obvious to Edie that Jane would eventually knock on her front door. But until that moment, she tried to imagine what in the world had rattled the poor woman.

Edie held the librarian in particularly high esteem. Jane was an energetic fundraiser. She was adept at treading the fine line between buying books of high quality to add to the collection while sprinkling in just enough lesser works to satisfy the town’s taste for trashy romances, scandalous mysteries, and rather shabby (though popular) fantasy novels.

And best of all, to Edie’s way of thinking, Jane had developed a way of suppressing the censorious tendencies of the town’s self-appointed moral watchdogs with nothing more than grim looks and steadfast stares. It was a talent that came in handy on many occasions.

But the Jane Twitchell she watched pacing the sidewalk was anything but steadfast. The librarian clutched and re-clutched a hefty cloth bag to her chest, now turning to walk back to the library then turning toward Edie’s house. Jane looked wretched, as if her mind wanted to come to two different decisions at the same time.

She needs cake, Edie thought, lemon pound cake and good, strong tea. If that doesn’t do the trick, nothing will. So she quickly filled the kettle, set it on her stove’s back burner, and hurried to open the door.

“Jane,” she called, “I’m about to have my second cup of tea. Care to join me?”

The librarian jumped when she heard her name, hesitated for a moment but then stepped down the walk, feeling relieved. In a few moments, her burden would be placed in someone else’s hands.
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“So you see,” Jane said as she spread the falling-apart copy of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewitt across Edie Wolfe’s kitchen table, “it’s quite a mess. There are field notes here,” she gingerly extracted a large, crackly envelope, “but they don’t make a lot of sense because they’re so scattered.”

Edie picked the envelope up, and peered closely at its stamp. “Did you notice this?” she said, pointing. “This envelope, at least, went through the English postal  system.” She extracted some of the paper scraps. “I wonder if Hanson Willis did some of his research over there.”

“Oh, I think so,” Jane said. “There are quite a number of notes that have to do with the Cooper family before they came to this country, especially about the family matriarch, Margaret.”

“Hmmm,” Edie murmured, her eyes already moving across Hanson’s inky musings. “I wonder if he discovered the reason why the women in that family have such a strong relationship to crows.”

Jane started so hard, her knees hit the underside of the table. “Do you mean to tell me you think that is true?”

Now it was Edie’s turn to look surprised. “Why, yes. Don’t you?”

The librarian hesitated in her answer. Her sister, Isabel, often lectured about the failure of humans to distinguish between truth and myth, fact and legend. Because of that, Jane made sure to purge her bookshelves of her fantasy novels whenever Isabel was scheduled to visit.

Isabel never conceded there was anything to the persistent beliefs in Carding about crows and Cooper women, about the ghostly blue boy who wandered near the old railroad bridge or the ethereal figure of a former bootlegger who was said to inhabit the basement of Cooper’s General Store.

If left to herself, Jane was sure she’d enjoy all of these spirits and more but Isabel…well…Isabel was Isabel.

Edie waited, enjoying the play of play of shade and light across Jane’s face. Without asking, she knew that the source of the shade was Isabel. “It’s all right not to believe,” she finally said.

Jane sighed, and laughed a little. “Oh, I know. It’s just that I’d like to…you know…”

“Cross the line?” Edie asked.

Jane nodded. “Maybe some day.”

“In the meantime, why don’t we spread this material out so that we can see what we have here,” Edie said. “My grandparents used to talk about Hanson and Emily Willis with such affection that I feel as if I know them. And my father once told me that it was my grandparents who published Hanson’s ‘fairy stories and romances’ as Dad called them. I’ve always wondered what happened to them.”

As Edie cleared the table, Jane carefully lifted more and more loose pages from the cloth sack she’d been clutching when she first arrived. Some sheets were obviously torn from notebooks. Others were squares, now yellowed, of elegant calling cards along with a wide variety of envelopes. Judging by the great number of them, envelope backs were Hanson Willis’s preferred writing material.

Once the notes were cleared from the bag, Jane slid a short stack of typed pages into the center of it all, and looked at Edie in triumph.

“Have you read them?” Edie asked, pointing.

“Oh yes,” Jane said, practically wiggling in her chair. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“I think they are caricatures of the people that the Willises mixed with in New York,” Jane said.

Edie’s eyebrows made a pair of fine arches over her eyes as she edged the stack toward her. “I never met Hanson in person,” she said. “He died not too long after I was born. But I do have vague memories of Emily coming here to visit when I was a little girl.” She gently stroked the pages.

“I remember once telling my grandmother how I envied Mrs. Willis because she was so rich and lived in New York,” Edie continued. “Grandma laughed and told me that Emily envied me because I got to live in Carding and run around barefoot on the Green in summer. It took me a long time to understand how restricted Emily—and probably Hanson—felt in New York society. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that these are be satires.”

“They’re disguised as fairy tales,” Jane said.

“Really?” Edie said. Then she gave the librarian a thorough look. “Would you feel all right leaving these with me for a while?”

A smile flittered across Jane’s lips. “I’m hoping you’ll help me edit all of this, and put it in a book,” she said. “It would make a fine fundraiser for the library, don’t you think?”

The two women looked over their glasses at one another, barely holding their glee in check.

“How far have you gotten in your search for more of Hanson’s stories in the library?” Edie asked.

“I’ve just begun,” Jane said. “I think we’ll have plenty.”

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.

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