The Missing Book
Ruth Z. Deming
I still remember the first time I saw it. A small brown book, fuzzy cover like a kiwi fruit, soft to the touch. The moment I saw it I knew it was calling me. Removing it from the shelf, I stared at it. Longingly, delaying the pleasure of opening it up. I found a table near the window and sat down, my pocketbook on the table. When I opened to page one, I felt the author was addressing me personally, saying: “You are the one I’m writing for, only you.”
The library was a tiny one in a Philadelphia suburb. A tree stood outside the Georgian columns with a memorial plaque for the former librarian whom I was very fond of. I couldn’t believe what happened to her. Killed in a head-on collision.
“Dear Master,” the book began. “I am ill – but grieving more that you are ill.”
The librarian, Harriet, was a snob. Never chatted with me. And stared with murderous eyes at everyone who took a book down from her stacks. Once, I had sworn I would never visit the library again, but it was on the way home and I feel lost and empty if I’m not reading a good book.
But I hadn’t planned on this!
Such irresistible passages: “I wish that I were great like Mr Michael Angelo, and could paint for you.”
And then, “A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart – pushing aside the blood.”
There were more wonderful lines, of course. I read the entire fifty pages in less than fifteen minutes, barely noticing the cool gusts of spring winds that blew through the open window or the young children who ran through the doors.
“No running!” yelled dark-haired Harriet from behind the desk.
I would have this book. Yes, I would have it. The last time the book had been checked out was in the 1950s, which, if memory served me correctly, was during the days of the Korean War.
“The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson” was written in large black letters across the front cover.
Emily wanted me to have it. No doubt about it. She was speaking to me from beyond the grave.
I checked it out with the intention of never bringing it back. Did Harriet know this? The look she gave me was as if I were already a convicted felon.
Off I rode to see my friend Walter Straus. He wanted to marry me. Fancy that! He was in his nineties.
From my pocket book I took out “The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson” and handed it to him. I watched with amusement as he fondled the furry cover and adjusted his glasses, then turned to the first couple of pages.
“Interesting how they do this,” he said, “Never seen anything like it.”
“I’ll tell you something, Walter. Once you open this amazing book it’s like being with Emily Dickinson herself.”
Facing each printed page was Dickinson’s original manuscript. You could actually see her handwriting, including words she’d crossed out or added with a tiny caret.
I laughed, “It’s like having a tete a tete with The Belle of Amherst herself.”
We took turns reading the book out loud.
“You’re right, Ruthie. Magnificent writing.”
Her cursive writing was quite easy to read. Written during the Civil War years, it was no different than today’s script, some one-hundred fifty years later.
Tucking the book into my brown leather purse, I thanked Walter for enjoying the book with me.
“I’ll wave to you,” I said.
When I got to my car three stories below, I saw Walter on his balcony, where he grew tomatoes. I blew him a kiss and got into the car.
On my way home I stopped into a church which was open during the day. Although I’m Jewish I was in the habit, in those days, of meditating in various churches.
I walked up the church steps and entered the sanctuary. I was all alone. It was dusk and the lights hadn’t been turned on yet. Blue-ish light filtered in through the stained glass windows. As I walked toward the altar, I watched as the light of the stained glass painted my jeans and lightweight spring jacket.
I stood by the altar and looked up at the Cross. There was Jesus, gazing straight ahead, with that mournful expression on his face as if to say, “Was my sacrifice worth it?”
I sat down on a bench and pulled out “The Master Letters.” I was trying to figure out what to do. I couldn’t make up my mind. The library had a book drop which would be a convenient way to give it back.
I had already read it, had met Emily Dickinson practically in the flesh, and decided there was only one thing to do.
I am a woman who reads at least five books at a time. They’re scattered all over the house. In the kitchen, I’ve just finished a Jack Reacher crime-fiction audio book.
To say that I lost “The Master Letters” is a misstatement. It’s here in one of the rooms: the bedroom where books and magazines lie on the husband’s side of the bed; the red couch in the living room, where books have fallen between the cushions; or out on the screened-in back porch where, outside, huge sunflowers thrust their merry faces toward the sun.
I searched the house and searched again and again.
Emily, I discovered, was hiding under the bed in her long white dress, as fine as lace. I picked her up, brushed her off, and drove to Staples, sipping on my Colombian Roast I’d bought the day before.
There I found an empty copy machine, poured in the coins, and copied every single page before returning it to Harriet’s library. Sure hope she doesn’t mind being alone again. It could be another ten years – or never! – before anyone discovers “The Master Letters.”