From the Library
of Kristopher Gentian
“New things and old co-twisted. As if Time were nothing.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson ~ Idylls of the King
“You can’t possibly have one,” Kristopher Gentian said, following a tall, narrow man up the stairs of the tall, narrow building on 3rd Street. The bottom floor was a small, fairly nondescript bookstore. The five stories on top of it were, well, whatever the landlord and various tenants wanted them to be.
But it seemed to Kristopher that there was only one tenant, right now. And that was the man who was leading him up to the top (the least expensive, rent-wise) floor. There was no elevator, at least no working one. The entire building seemed almost preternaturally quiet, as they continued their ascent.
“That book… rare as hen’s teeth. And way more expensive,” Kristopher added, not quite sure just how costly a ‘hen’s tooth’ might be, in actuality.
“Oh, I got one, all right. That’s why I keep it up here. You think I’d keep a thing like that down where the rabble could paw it?” his companion answered, turning a heavy key in the lock. They were six floors up. And Kristopher Gentian, underfed as he was, had felt every step of the climb up the stairs.
The store several floors beneath them was a simple one, and one a man such as Kristopher, - a struggling artist and general financial disaster - might be able to afford to shop in, from time to time. Most of the books in the shop were crack-binded copies of used paperbacks, with the occasional hardback nobody wanted: Textbooks about Sumerian cities, or outdated physics theories, written at a college professor’s level.
All of it cluttered the shelves of a dusty store that didn’t even seem to have a name, other than “Books.”
But this… if he really had it… Kristopher mused.
Kristopher hadn’t stopped to get the bookstore owner’s name, and frankly, didn’t care what it was. What he did care about was that while he’d stood inside the door to get out of the cold, they’d started talking about books. Good books, bad books, new books… old books. And very old books. As in first editions.
“Wait right here,” the man said, flipping on the light switch. They had to pause a second, until the bare, hanging bulb illuminated, and cast its harsh light down on what was clearly Spartan living quarters.
A cot was pushed up against the wall, and served as a bed. A wobbly table was using a paperback copy of Being and Nothingness to balance one leg, and a haphazard dresser with two drawers that couldn’t completely close held the man’s clothes.
Kristopher realized that except for the fact that there was no art on the walls, and it lacked the smell of paint and turpentine, the minimalist flat could be his own.
A battered storage trunk served as a window seat. One with a large padlock.
“I got it right here. You sure you got the money?” the man asked.
The artist figured that his dark-haired, slender companion didn’t seem exactly like the honest type, but neither did he seem imposing, physically.
Kristopher weighed his chances of getting jumped for the cash he had in an envelope. Cash which was earmarked for an important purpose, not for buying a book.
“I’m sure we can come to some… arrangement,” Kristopher replied, enough New Yorker in him to be at least a little vague.
“Arrangement? No. No arrangement. I ain’t interested in one of your paintings, or some doo dad you want to trade. I want cash. Take it or leave it.”
The man opened the padlock and reached into the chest, then pulled out the thing Kristopher absolutely coveted: Tennyson. First edition. Idylls of the King.
“You… you really have one.” Deep brown eyes flickered upward. “Where did you get …?”
“None of your business how I get my stuff. But it ain’t stolen, if that’s what you’re askin’. A woman came in. Rich type. Classy dame. Hair in between blonde and brown. Fancy cut. Pearls. Maybe old style clothes, who knows with women? But still… you could tell. She come from money. She set it on the counter and told me she wanted to trade it.”
Kristopher caressed the old book, opened it, and ran his fingers over the beautiful end pages. “Did she? Trade for it?” Kristopher asked, wondering what in the world a woman such as that would think this bookseller had that she would value.
“That’s just it. Damndest thing. A few minutes goes by, then an hour. I looked all over the shop. She was gone.”
Kristopher thought it highly unlikely that a woman would leave a first edition Tennyson on the counter of a rundown bookstore, and just leave, afterwards. But there it was. If it was a lie, it was a lie. Kristopher knew the man wouldn’t change his story.
The artist checked inside the front cover. There was no bookplate, but a very faded blue ink scrawl in the center of the page had clearly once been some sort of writing. The stylized end pages obscured the word, but if Kristopher tried, he could barely make out part of a name. It started with a “C.” Or perhaps a stylized “G” It looked like it ended with an “e.” Celine? Caroline? It truly was hard to tell.
“Did she leave a name? An address?” Kristopher asked.
“Nope. That was a week ago. I never seen her since. So now it’s mine. You want it or don’t ya? Cash money.”
The book practically hummed in Kristopher’s hand. And he knew he was about to do something he shouldn’t do.
Without taking his eyes off his prize, he reached inside his dark jacket and pulled out a tattered white envelope. It was what he’d managed to save for rent, that month. And though short of the figure he needed, it was all he had.
“This should cover it,” Kristopher said, handing the envelope over as he still stared at the book.
The tall thin man flipped through the cash. It was more than enough. Happy that things had gone so smoothly, he even peeled a ten-dollar bill off the stack, and returned it. “Here. Buy y’self a meal, sport.”
“Thanks,” Kristopher said absently, pocketing the bill without glancing at it. The pages were all but springing to life, in his hands. Tales of Arthur, Bedivere, Lancelot, Merlin…
He began reading from the first page of the first chapter of the book, reciting the line with a dramatist’s flair.
“The Coming of
His smile was immediate, and he flipped his Mets ball cap around so that the shadow of the bill wouldn’t cast itself across the page, as he caressed the old paper, and flipped through the illustrations.
“Real fancy,” his companion observed. “You should take it home, now,” he said, clearly not terribly interested in hearing Tennyson read aloud.
But Kristopher wasn’t quite ready to leave, yet. He felt the enthusiastic rush of being in the presence of something special, and he wanted to share his happiness.
“Gustave Dore’ did the best illustrations. Pen and ink, woodcuts… a master! Aren’t they amazing?” Kristopher asked, flipping the page to the one the book fell open to, naturally. He showed his companion the beautifully rendered picture. “Yniol is taking Prince Geriant to his castle. Great, right?”
Before the other man could even answer, Kristopher prattled on.
“Dore’ was famous in his own time. And successful. But got in a lot of trouble for doing the illustrations of a book about London.” Kristopher elaborated. “People wanted to see landmarks of the town. But he showed the poverty of the time, the people who were living on the streets, rather than the streets themselves. Some of his critics accused him of making it up. Isn’t that incredible?” His eyes were rapidly scanning the pages in front of him, as he spoke.
“Yeah. Incredible.” the man agreed, checking the cash again, before he pocketed it.
“They say that Tennyson wrote Idylls as an allegory for Victorian ideals, and society.” He lifted his head to actually look at his companion, again. ”Arthur was the man who was more than a man. The perfect specimen. The Victorian ideal of—“
“Yeah, yeah, that’s fascinatin’. Look. Enjoy. I’m gonna open up a beer and celebrate. So if you don’t mind…” He waved his hands before him in a “shooing” motion. Kristopher was clearly being asked to step backwards.
“Mind? Oh, no. No, I don’t mind. I plan on spending all night with this beauty. Thank you!” Kristopher said, glad the man had accepted his offer of cash. The artist was elated, as he stepped away from the threshold.
“Yer welcome,” the bookseller replied, as he practically slammed the door in Kristopher’s smiling face.
Kristopher pulled back the copy of Idylls, making sure the door wouldn’t hit the edge of the book, and damage it.
“Over a hundred years old, and practically perfect!” he crowed, happily thumbing through the pages, as his long legs took him down the stairs. Going down was easier than climbing up, and his earlier fatigue was entirely forgotten.
“A first edition Idylls of the King! Who’d have thought it?” he mused, stepping out into the New York night, his treasure open, before him. Passing streetlights illuminated each page, as he read, not really caring which way his feet took him. A bit of a mist rose up as Merlin was seduced by Vivienne, but then subsided as Elaine fell in love with Lancelot, in vain. Kristopher barely registered the damp chill, as he made his way back toward the general direction of the Village.
He was nearly hit by a taxi when he read that Pelleas found Ettare asleep with Gawain, and all but jostled into an open subway track by a boisterous teenager when he skimmed The Last Tournament. He boarded, never taking his eyes off the page, and settled himself onto a battered seat, never seeing either it, or the graffiti that covered the train car walls.
The clattering subway rolled through the night, as he turned page after page, reading each one with a devoted follower’s adoration. He lingered over every illustration, and gently stroked the pages. Beautiful words filled his agile mind, again and again. This was joy. This was treasure.
A first edition Tennyson. Perhaps Lord Alfred himself had touched it, once. He might have. Kristopher mused. The wealthy woman might have had it as some kind of family heirloom, something Tennyson himself might have gifted to her great-grandfather.
Tennyson had been well-heeled. It did not stretch credibility to think that he spent time with other wealthy people, and occasionally brought one of them a copy of one of his books.
Kristopher’s fanciful imagination dreamed that it was so.
He knew he’d have to sneak back into his apartment (when the landlord was out, preferably) and put one of his bookplates on the inside cover. He knew it would obscure the vague writing that was already there, but there was no choice in the matter. The book was the jewel of his library. He didn’t want it to wander, or be mistaken for someone else’s.
He knew he’d never show it to his landlord, who would have a fit, but he couldn’t wait to show it to his friend, Jonathan Smythe.
The train sailed through the subway tunnels as he read of the great Lancelot, fatally flawed, yet eternally heroic. “You were their greatest knight,” Kristopher said, lovingly caressing the page. “The greatest knight of all.”
Sir Lancelot Approaching the Castle of Astolat, by Gustave Dore’
Two months later…
“I put my name in it. But I don’t think that detracts from the value, very much,” Kristopher said, some months later. He was standing in a bookstore, but not the one where he’d found the first edition Tennyson. This one was number 777 Booksellers, in Greenwich Village, and Jonathan Smythe looked at his young friend with some worry.
“I very sincerely doubt that anyone expects a book this old to have no name in it, Kristopher,” Smythe said, gingerly handling the treasure before him. “You traded rent money for this, didn’t you?” he asked, knowing the answer as he posed the question.
The youth before him had the good sense to look at least a little contrite. “I didn’t have all of it, and I was already behind. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d have given it to my landlord. But this! This is treasure!”
Smythe agreed that it was. And that it was far too valuable to accept for the little Kristopher was asking.
“You can’t possibly be thinking of trading this for food,” Smythe stated.
Kristopher shrugged his thin shoulders. “I already read it. And I can’t eat it. So… yeah. Is that soup I smell?” he asked, sniffing the air. He knew full well that Smythe often prepared modest meals in a kitchen in the back, especially on nights when he worked late. Like now.
“It is soup. And it’s on the stove. And I can’t take this in payment for that, Kristopher. Mercenary as I am, it’s far too valuable.”
Smythe flipped the sign on the door to the ‘closed’ position, and pulled down the shade. The store was now officially closed, and busy collecting refined dust.
Kristopher smiled a dazzling smile, knowing he was about to get fed. “You can keep it anyway. I think it feels at home here. I think it will like being here.”
“Jonathan, if I take it home I’m likely to find my place padlocked. If not today… soon. If the book is in there, my landlord will just take it and… I don’t know. Throw it out, maybe.”
Smythe knew they couldn’t allow that to happen to something so precious.
“Very well, then. I’ll hold it for you. But just for now, and just until you come to collect it. I won’t put it on the shelf to be sold.” Not until I’m sure I have to, he thought, moving back behind the counter to tidy up the area.
“Great! So… let’s eat! Did you know that Tennyson imagined a completely different fate for Guinevere than Mallory did?” he asked, as the portly man came out from behind the counter, again, the old book firmly in his grasp.
“That Mallory had Guinevere sentenced to being burned at the stake, then rescued by Lancelot, while Tennyson had her become the Abbess in a convent, to atone for her sins? Yes, Kristopher. I do read, you know.” Smythe replied.
“Tennyson held women as Ideals. Guinevere is supposed to be a spiritual ideal, for Arthur,” Kristopher replied.
“Yes. It’s why she can’t love Arthur. He’s too perfect to be real. Too much like what her father always had planned for her. So, of course that doesn’t work, and she’s unhappy! She wants a flawed man, but a real one. Someone she can love.”
They made their way to the back of the shop, together, as Kristopher continued to summarize the old tale: “Her decision to love Lancelot shakes the kingdom!” Kristopher said it with the kind of boyish ebullience for which he was well known.
“I understand women are fairly adept at such things.” Smythe said drily.
“Would you like crackers with your soup?” he asked, as he pulled aside the curtain which divided the front of the shop from the back.
“Sure! Hey… you don’t have cappuccino, do you?”
“I’m afraid just tea.” The reply was a droll one.
“Oh, well, beggars can hardly be choosers,” the young man sighed.
Smythe nodded that that was true, and carefully set the book on a clean space on the counter, while the two shared a bowl of warm soup at his small table. A table which, Jonathan Smythe noted, was appropriately round.
He watched his young friend spoon chicken noodle into his mouth with the gusto of a young man who’d missed several meals. He’s thinner than he was last month. Yet his smile never wavers, Smythe thought, pushing some more crackers Kristopher’s way.
He eyed the book on the counter. And had the sorry feeling that it would be for sale in his shop, before the year was out. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Smythe knew that if it came to that, the book would have to sit and gather some refined dust of its own, waiting to see who found it next.
“Kristopher, the previous owner. Do you know anything about him?” Smythe asked. Such a thing as an antiquarian book was usually not without provenance, and first editions tended to be a thing owned by the wealthy.
“Her,” Kristopher supplied, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. “They guy who sold it to me said a rich-looking woman came into his shop and just left it on the counter.”
That was as unlikely a story as “It fell off the truck” in New York, and Kristopher heard Mr. Smythe scoff, openly.
“Yes, because wealthy women leave first editions lying around constantly. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you she left a diamond ring with it, as well. Or offer to sell you a wrist watch.”
“No watch,” Kristopher grinned, slurping a noodle as he showed his bare wrists. His own watch had been pawned for paint, long ago.
“What shop did you get it from?” Smythe asked.
“That one at the end of the block, on 3rd.”
Smythe raised a greying eyebrow. “There’s a bookstore on 3rd? Is it new?”
“No, no, the old one. Way off the park. You can barely see the trees, from there. Old apartments, dark alleys. It’s at the very end of the block. Six stories up. Row housing, but plain as day. The sign in front just says “Books.” Do you know it?
He didn’t, and that in and of itself was troublesome.
While Jonathan Smythe knew a great many things about a great many things, (one of which was that the video market was putting a fairly large hole in his business) the one thing he made it a point to know was where his competition was, and what they sold. Smythe could correctly recite every bookseller between the Village and Queens: who carried just the current offerings vs. who carried older treasure, who had authors coming for book signings, and who had Children’s Hour’s on Saturday afternoon. Who was letting their stock rot to bits thanks to a lack of air conditioning, vs. who had the entire inventory updated on a newfangled computer, as opposed to having it inside a shopkeeper’s considerable memory.
And he knew one thing. There was no bookstore on 3rd Street. There never had been.
“You must have been on 1st street. There’s a charming older woman there. She has quite the passion for the romantic poets, and…”
“3rd Street. Past the museum, past practically the last street light.”
“I think I’d kinda recognize 5th Avenue, Jonathan. This was a run down section. Kind of place that looks like nobody ever goes there. Truth to tell, I kind of got lost, the first time I found it. Got turned around, looking for a place to buy paint.”
“So you simply… found this shop? And this fantastic story?” Jonathan asked, knowing it would do him no good to press his young companion. Perhaps tomorrow he’d take a walk down 3rd street, and see what he could find.
“Yep. And the guy told me he had something special. Turns out he did.”
“And you know nothing more of the original owner?”
Kristopher shrugged, as he emptied his bowl. “Nope. Just that her name is under mine, or what’s left of it. I think it started with a “C.”
“Well, that certainly narrows it down,” Smythe replied, rising to get Kristopher another bowl of soup from the small, two-burner stove.
He brought it back to the table, and set it down before his unexpected guest. Before he could move away, Kristopher put a staying hand on his wrist.
The young artist’s tone turned serious. “Jonathan… if anything happens to me…”
“Nothing is going to happen to you, Kristopher. Other than you’re going to freeze to death if the weather turns particularly nasty. You should allow me to sell your book. Perhaps retrieve some of your rent money. Get you back in good graces, with your landlord. Even if he is rather… odious.”
“No. No, I don’t want it to go for rent. Or for… anything else like that. Jonathan… If something does happen to me… make sure it goes to someone nice, okay? Someone… maybe like the person who dropped off the book in the first place. Pretty. Classy. Somebody who’d appreciate it. Okay?”
Jonathan was uncomfortable with this line of conversation. For one thing, he knew they were discussing the demise of his friend.
“What’s puzzling me is still where you came by it,” Smythe deflected, knowing full well he was changing the subject back to where he was more comfortable having it. “I swear there’s no bookstore where you’re indicating.”
“Then it’s a ghost book shop; with ghosts for customers,” Kristopher replied, digging into his second bowl of soup.
“Considering how real the book is, I rather doubt that, Kristopher,” Jonathan chided, returning to his own meal.
Kristopher’s smile was electric.
“Jonathan, this is New York. Something magical happens almost every day.”
“Does it now?” the bookseller asked, clearly a skeptic.
“Sure! ‘Once Upon a Time.’ Just those words. Those four words. You say them, and you know that something… wonderful is about to happen. Something amazing. Say it.”
Jonathan frowned, and dipped a cracker into his broth. “I think I’d rather eat.”
“No, seriously. Say it, Jonathan. It’s like you’re casting a spell, like Merlin. Like you’re calling down the magic.” Kristopher raised his hand up and made the motion of pulling something down, out of the air. “Like you’re just plain daring the world to go on as it has before. And it can’t, because it’s ‘Once Upon a Time,’ now, and that means something. Something special.”
Smythe raised a skeptical eyebrow from behind his large spectacles and spooned soup into his mouth.
“Come on. Say it,” Kristopher prompted.
Jonathan swallowed, then wiped his mouth with his own paper napkin.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not,” Smythe demurred.
“Come on. Please. Just say it. ‘Once Upon a Time…’”
Jonathan sighed the sigh of the long-suffering adult who had an irresponsible youth on his hands. “Once Upon a Time,” he deadpanned.
“Not like that! Like you mean it! Like you’re going to … to be in the presence of something amazing, because of it. Once Upon a Time… in the City of New York… something magnificent happened! Something magical! Something that had never happened before, and would maybe never happen again! That kind of ‘Once Upon a Time,’” he exhorted happily, lifting up his cup of tea.
“Let’s toast to it,” Kristopher declared. “To the great, timeless stories,” he said, nodding toward Idylls. “And to ‘Once Upon a Time.’”
“To ‘Once Upon a Time,’” Jonathan Smythe echoed, still enough dreamer left in the portly businessman to know that the words were indeed just a bit, well, if not magical, at least fanciful.
“To ‘Once Upon a Time in the City of New York,’” Kristopher embellished, clicking his white ceramic cup with Jonathan’s green one.
Brown liquid sloshed over the rims, just a little, thanks to Kristopher’s enthusiasm. He drained his cup and set it down on the table with a satisfying thump, like a man at a bar who’d just downed a whiskey.
Jonathan got up to fetch the kettle over.
The atmosphere in the room was lifting to that of a convivially happy one, and Jonathan knew he had his young friend to thank, for that. That instead of sitting back here by himself, taking in a fast meal before he started doing some inventory, he was instead toasting to “Once Upon a Time in the city of New York” in the company of a high-spirited artist. One who forgot to put aside the rent money, most months.
Smythe had no idea what was going to become of Kristopher Gentian. But for now, he was warm, safe, and fed. And a first edition Tennyson was sitting on the counter.
“Kristopher… not that I want to give you ideas… but the paint shop next door was throwing away some supplies. Things they said they couldn’t use, couldn’t sell. I saw quite a large canvas back there. A rather long rectangle… if you’re inclined.”
“Really?” Kristopher asked, nearly rising to go get it, right then.
“I already brought it in.” Smythe waved him back down. “The bottom is warped, and has a little damage. But it is very large. Perhaps you could … oh, I don’t know. Cut the damaged part away, and re-stretch the canvas? Use it for one of your paintings?”
“Good as done!” Kristopher declared, already itching to get ahold of the cast-off canvas. He was often confined to working in a sketchbook, or on small surfaces. But it was the large canvases he craved. His dreams were large, as were his visions. He hated being confined by small areas.
“Do you still have my oils?” he asked.
“The ones you hid here last week? Yes. They’re in the back storeroom. What will you paint, do you think? Something like the figures you’ve done before?”
Smythe already had a few of Kristopher’s pieces of art. They were fantastical depictions. Of women, mostly.
“I’m not sure.” The dark eyes twinkled merrily. “I think I’ll do something a little different, this time. Maybe something inspired by “Once Upon a Time… in the City of New York.”
Jonathan poured the tea as he studied his talented, brilliant companion. Good humor shone in the brown eyes.
Smythe regarded him fondly. “You do that, my young friend. You just do that,” he encouraged, meaning it.
And Kristopher (at some point in time) did.
forth, for thou shalt see what I have seen,
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson ~ Idylls of the King
No matter where you are in your own fairy tale, I wish you love. ~ Cindy
Illustrations supplied by the author