Literati: Tis my mission to point out the hidden meaning in words: Tarot spelled backwards is “To rat.” Job done.
Here is the second chapter in Michael Dilts’ novel. Once Upon a Time required our readers to actual write the novel that may have been nothing more than alphabet soup in their brains before the start of the contest. This chapter moves the story along nicely … you might say it gives us a foothold. Michael explains.
The Proprietor: (chapter two)
by Michael R. Dilts
It is Thursday morning, well after 10:00 AM – the time when the diligent proprietor of any bookstore should have the computer booted, the lights on and the doors open to welcome the first customers of the day. You, however, are a mile and a half from your store enjoying a luxurious latté at a local cafe and idly watching the occasional passers-by.
You have a long-standing arrangement whereby Olga Susanova, who works at the store part-time two days a week, opens for you on Thursday so that you can run errands, get some extra sleep if you need some or just come in late for no particular reason. Olga is very conscientious about not exceeding her authority but has no such respect for your privacy, so you can count on her to call your cell phone at the slightest provocation. That’s why it is currently resting on the café table next to your half-eaten butter croissant. You know from experience that it could start to buzz at any time. Thus far this morning, however, all is quiet on the metaphysical front.
When the suspense of the silent phone finally outweighs your need for caffeination, you toss the remains of your breakfast in the trash and head for the bookshop. You can tell from the moment your slip in the back door that, despite the lack of telephone communication with your staff, the ordinariness of this day is already in doubt. On most Thursdays, you arrive to find Olga dusting shelves or polishing jewelry to the synthetic drone of one of the New Age CDs you offer for sale.
Today, however, something is different. You are immediately aware of an unusual intensity in the store’s energy field, a high-frequency hustle and bustle punctuated by the cheerful clatter of the cash register. You peer out of the back office and see Olga at the front counter struggling to keep pace with a winding queue of middle-aged female customers. An even larger crowd throngs the shelves where Ziyva’s creations are on display. You catch your breath, stow your briefcase and rush forward into the breech.
As you step behind the counter to join Olga, you notice that each woman in line is clutching a handful of the brightly colored cards.
“Where did you get these?” Olga hisses. Even in a whisper, her ragged r’s and sharp sibilants betray her Central European origin. Her birthplace was in one of the former Soviet satellite states. Like Tuck, she is an asset you acquired along with the bookshop. Her accent and her preference for luscious silk scarves contribute an exotic touch which complements the esoteric aura you are trying to cultivate, so Olga, unlike Tuck, is not required to earn her keep on a weekly basis to justify her continued tenure behind the counter.
You whisper in response that you have found a new supplier. The two of you spend the next half hour ringing up purchases, bagging cards and thanking eager patrons for their business.
At the first gap in the endless flow of commerce, Olga rushes off for a bathroom break leaving you to man the counter on your own. You have barely enough time to notice that there are already some gaps on the display shelf when the front bell tinkles to announce the arrival of yet another middle-aged female, followed by a second and then a third customer of the same gender and age-group. You recognize one of the faces and offer the obligatory greeting, commenting that it has been a while since her last visit.
“Well I know,” she agrees, a mild flavor of the South still detectable in her vowels. “Somehow y’all were on my mind when I got up this morning so I thought I’d come on by and see if y’all had anything new.”
The other new arrivals have already gravitated toward the card display and your conversation partner quickly joins them. A few minutes later she returns to the front counter brandishing one of the Asael cards.
“Y’all have any more of these hidden away?” she demands.
You inform her that all of the available stock is on the shelf, but offer to take down her name and telephone number so that you can advise her as soon as the next batch arrives.
“Well how long will that take?”
A day or two is your best guess. You are in absolute shock that you need to place a new order after only a matter of hours. The day before you had done your best to lower Zivya’s expectations regarding sales figures, but she had insisted that your order contain at least 48 copies of each card. At the time, you had been sure you had enough product to last well past Christmas.
Olga returns from her break and rejoins you behind the counter.
“I put some of the cards aside for myself,” she confesses, sotto voce. “I hope that this is not a problem.”
You dismiss her concerns and as she takes control of the register you slip away toward the back office. The sooner you can reach Cindy/Zivya, the sooner she will bring in more stock and the more cards you will sell.
As you pass the display counter, you snatch up one of the cards from a stack that is still healthily populated. It seems to tingle in your hand as you hurry down the aisle – or is that just your own excitement throbbing in your fingers, the magical touch of success? The hand-written letters on the back of the card seem blurry or smeared. Are they lifting off the cardboard surface and floating into the air? You blink your eyes and give the card a shake. Nothing falls away, as far as you can tell. An interesting sensation.
Cindy’s answering machine is as simple as they come. There is a simple message confirming the phone number but providing no further identification. You recognize her clipped and oddly toneless voice as she recites the digits and have no doubt that you have reached the correct number. In your voice message you ask her to bring more cards – a lot more cards – as soon as possible and apologize awkwardly for your unduly conservative initial order. You assure her that you will take orders for out-of-stock items so she doesn’t need to worry about missed sales.
After disconnecting, you sit for a moment and study the card you are still holding. The register rings again at the front of the store. Very odd, this, even for a metaphysical book store. But so far you have no complaints.
The pace of sales slows somewhat as the day winds down and the selection of cards becomes more and more sparse. As closing time draws near, you dismiss Olga and begin drawing the shades in preparation for the final part of the daily routine.
Cindy/Zivya suddenly bursts through the door unannounced and marches to the front counter, upon which she deposits a strange, cage-like sculpture formed of twisted copper wire. You notice that the wire has the same hue and metallic sheen as her newly dyed hair.
You thank her for coming so quickly and inquire as to the nature of the copper contraption.
“It’s a display for the cards,” she answers impatiently, as if that should have been obvious to even the most feeble intellect. “It needs to go there on the counter, so clear off those other things.”
You are taken aback by her commandeering tone and begin to protest that the counter is reserved for the jewelry and gemstones which have been in their current location since well before you took over the store.
“Time for something new,” she insists. “How many of those things do you sell on an average day, anyway?
Her logic is incontrovertible, despite the irritating condescension in her voice, so you decide to go along with her plan for the moment. You can always restore the merchandise to its original condition as soon as she leaves. No need to rock the boat while the cards are selling so well.
The jewelry and gemstones are exiled to the shelves where the cards have been on display, and the cards are transferred to the new copper rack where they are joined by reinforcements from a new box unloaded from Cindy/Zivya’s car. She sorts and stows the stock with a speed and precision that are almost inhuman.
“There!” she announces.
The display is not wholly unattractive. The copper strands of wire of which it is composed are expertly bent into unworldly combinations of loops and whorls. Crystal beads wrapped around the wires at the top and sides of the display add a touch of artistry which is unexpectedly effective.
Cindy/Zivya takes a step back to admire her work.
More for the sake of conversation than for anything else, you remark that it is an “interesting” design.
“Of course it is,” she responds dismissively, “It’s something They showed me.”
A thought strikes you and you ask what other stores are carrying her cards.
“We’re just selling them here.” She actually gives a slight smile, although it is not exactly a pleasant one. “You should feel honored. They have chosen your store as Their foothold.”
Even though you aren’t sure exactly what a “foothold” is, the word strikes your ear with a discordant note. Before you can ask for any clarification, she continues briskly to a new topic.
“We need to talk about next Friday. I’ll be doing a workshop here.”
You verify that she means a week from tomorrow and then inform her, with as much firmness as you can muster, that the date has already been taken. Tuck Williams always gives a workshop on the third Friday of the month.
“He’ll have to give it on a different day,” she responds, as if pointing out an obvious solution to a half-wit.
For a moment you can barely speak. Potential presenters do not dictate the store’s schedule. Holding a workshop is a major commitment on your part as proprietor. You have to keep the store open late, usually staffing it yourself. You have to rearrange the fixtures in order to provide seating space. And then there is the issue of publicity. How will anyone know about a new workshop with only a week’s notice?
You repeat, again firmly, that next Friday has been assigned to Tuck and that he has already announced the date to his radio listeners.
“When is this radio show of his?” she wants to know.
You inform her that he is on the air every Tuesday at 9:00 AM.
“So he can announce the change of schedule on Tuesday,” she announces and then continues without a pause. “We will start at 8:00 PM.”
You protest that lectures actually start at 7:30 – that is what your customers will expect – and you repeat again that she will have to choose another day.
“How many people usually come to see Tuck?” she inquires.
You give her an estimate of 20 to 25, 30 tops.
“We will have 88 on Friday. They guarantee it. How big an audience can you accommodate?”
You explain that you have 50 folding chairs and another 8 padded chairs which can be commandeered into service from the aisles and back office.
“You’d better prepare for standing room, then.”
Without further discussion, she takes her mostly empty box and heads for the door. As she steps outside, she holds the door open and turns back.
“Standing room,” she repeats. “8:00 PM.”
You call after her to request a title for the store schedule.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” she calls back as she walks toward her car.
You lock the door behind her, contemplating how little Tuck is going to appreciate this last minute change of plan. You have no idea how you are going to explain it to him since you can’t even explain it to yourself.
The photocopied flyers Tuck provides for you to distribute to potential clients inform them that his sessions will “exceed their expectations.” Tuck’s outrage certainly exceeds all of yours when you call him the next day to let him know that the date for his seminar has been moved. You listen as patiently as you can to the bluster and fluster followed by the fulsome pleas for mercy. He explains that he has been doing readings at the bookshop since before you knew it existed. You hear details about his financial situation and his delinquency in auto loan payments that you hope you will forget as soon as the conversation has ended. You have to admit that the interaction is not totally devoid of any enjoyment on your part – there is some satisfaction in hearing Tuck’s voluminous ego expand and contract like a bullfrog’s belly. Nor are you entirely without compassion, but… Well business is business even in a metaphysical bookshop.
You resist the urge to remind Tuck that no matter how long he has been using the bookshop as a location for his activities, he is not the owner – you are. Instead, as soon as his pleading and protestations begin to lose their initial intensity, you try a different tack. You apologize to him for assuming that he would be willing to help a less experienced psychic talent establish herself. You were sure that his audience was devoted enough to take such a minor change in stride and you thought he was secure enough in his career to act as a mentor to a struggling newcomer. You are very sorry you were so badly mistaken.
By the way, just so he is aware, you had been planning to give Tuck a commission on any purchases made the night of her talk. But, of course, if he isn’t interested… Anyway, you will give him some time to think it over because you have customers waiting.
Tuck’s silence as you end the call is promising. You hope that he will understand it is in his own best interest to go along with the change in schedule – maybe even to promote Zivya’s workshop when he announces the new date of his own session on the radio.
You weren’t actually lying when you mentioned waiting customers, but you weren’t being totally truthful either. The mysterious influx of business had continued when the store opened this morning, but is now reduced to a steady trickle, which is why you took the opportunity to make the dreaded call to Tuck. The only other person in the store at the moment is Ben, eager to continue your sparring session, or so you suppose. But Ben hardly counts as a customer, does he?
“Tough conversation?” he asks as you return the telephone handset to its cradle.
You assure him that it had been tougher for Tuck than for you and then ask if he has more examples of pure evil to explore.
“Evil? I’m not sure. Not yet. But I did find something you need to take a look at.”
He spreads some print-outs on the counter.
“You see this?” He points to a page filled with columns of arrow-like markings. “This is cuneiform.”
You ask if he is talking about the writing system of the ancient Sumerians. Isn’t it supposed to be pressed into slabs of clay or something?
He laughs. “Yes, but if you don’t have clay and a stylus handy, you can transcribe it like this. In fact, this is a computer font, see? I printed out a copy for you.”
You ask why there is a computer font. Who is writing anything in cuneiform these days?
“Scholars, mostly. And geeks like me.” He grins. “I’m actually being paid to work on this right now. Cuneiform is part of the Unicode standard for text encoding, and my company wants to demonstrate full compliance. So, yeah, I am writing in cuneiform.”
You nod. Okay, so this is digital cuneiform.
“What’s interesting,” he continues, “is that there are lots of different kinds of cuneiform. Different varieties. See, clay tablets were, well, like the CD-ROMs of their time – a universal medium for recording information. The problem was, in the beginning at least, you could only write Sumerian. The system worked like the Egyptian hieroglyphics. There was a different symbol for each word. Hard to learn to read or write, even if you knew how to speak Sumerian. If not, you were just out of luck. Until they figured out how to make it a syllable-based system instead of a word-based system. Then you could just record any syllable you wanted. You know, ‘ba-,’ ‘da-,’ ‘ga-,’ ‘bo-,’ ‘do-,’ ‘go-,’ without worrying about the meaning. They still used Sumerian words the way we use shorthand – to save time. But now they could write any language – even personal names and words that didn’t exist in Sumerian.”
You agree that this is all very interesting. But what do cuneiform syllables have to do with anything?
“It’s the angel cards,” he replies. “Like this one.” He pulls out a copy of Zivya’s Asael card.
Where did he get that?
“Bought it here,” he chuckles. “I came in the day after that woman was here. You weren’t around. It was that Russian lady.”
He turns the card over.
“Look at the writing on the back.”
It bears little resemblance to the angular cuneiform symbols on his print-out, but you decide to let him finish up with what he is so eager to share.
“She said this was Asael – I was listening, remember? Well there is a variant of cuneiform where they took the syllable idea one step further. They started using the symbols for single sounds – for consonants. This was 1000 years before the first Phoenician alphabet, but the guys who did this with cuneiform spoke a related language, an early dialect of the language that became Phoenician. They lived in a city called Ugarit.”
All very interesting, but… Oh well, you might as well let him keep going.
“So if you write ‘Asael’ in Ugaritic cuneiform, it looks like this.”
Ben slides another of his sheets of paper to the top of the stack.
“Now look at the writing on the card. It’s more fluid – she’s using long flowing lines and flame-like points, but look! The pattern is the same. Her script is definitely Ugaritic!”
You keep silent not out of impatient indulgence this time but because you suddenly find yourself speechless. There is no doubt about it. Ben is right!
You have questions – a lot of questions. Where and why did Zivya learn to write Ugaritic cuneiform? Does she even know that is what she is writing?
All Ben could tell you was that the field of Ugaritic studies is a small and esoteric one – there are only a handful of experts located at major universities – but that the information is readily accessible if one knows where to look.
A new influx of customers made it difficult to continue your conversation, especially since they clustered around the angel display, which was now located right at the front counter. Ben eventually took his leave and you have been busy ever since.
At the end of the day all is quiet as you clear the register and turn out the lights. Locking the back door, you step into the nearly empty rear parking lot, where you notice a maroon Jaguar sedan parked next to your mini-SUV. A tall, slim figure leans against the Jag, arms crossed languorously, long blonde hair tumbling down over her black turtleneck sweater.
“Going my way, sailor?” she coos.
You smile in spite of your incipient suspicions. Alyce Leary is the previous proprietor – she actually prefers the title “steward” – of the bookshop. After surrendering the store to your “stewardship” she has been careful to maintain a connection with you and the business. She volunteers to fill in when employees call in sick and even steps in for you whenever you need a day off. Usually you are pleased when she stops by for an impromptu visit, but tonight you are certain that there is an ulterior motive behind her presence.
You ask her bluntly if she is here on Tuck’s behalf. Did he ask her to intercede for him?
“Let’s go and grab a coffee,” she suggests. “Tuck is just one of the topics we need to discuss. Climb in, sailor boy.”
She chauffeurs you a few blocks up the street to Charlie’s, your usual after-work haunt. Charlie had been born Casamir in post-war Poland. His coffee shop is as elegant as a little hole-in-the-wall in a forgotten suburb could be, mostly because of Charlie’s “old-world” charm, which might or might not be an act he puts on for his customers’ benefit.
Charlie greets both of you warmly as you walk in and begins preparing your espressos before you have time to order them. The shop is otherwise empty, so you and Alyce sit at your favorite table under a brightly painted mural of medieval Krakow.
You take the lead by suggesting that you might as well get the part about Tuck over with.
“Sure,” she agrees. “I know how demanding Tuck can be. I inherited him myself from the previous steward. He thinks of himself as a permanent fixture and is convinced that his time at the store gives him inalienable rights.”
You counter that he may think he has rights, but in fact he does not.
Charlie approaches the table and carefully unloads your cups from a brass tray. He responds to your murmured thank yous with a hearty injunction full of sibilants and palatals – an utterance probably meaning “enjoy” in Polish, you have decided.
Alyce spoons raw sugar into her coffee from the bowl Charlie has provided.
When she does not seem inclined to continue, you ask her if that is it. No ominous ultimatum from an indignant psychic?
She smiles. “I promised that I would come by and talk to you, which I have pretty much already done.”
You remind her that she said something about another topic.
“Well,” she begins slowly, “I’m intrigued by this angel woman who is threatening Tuck’s domain. Tell me about her.”
You shrug and begin your tale, relating how Cindy Corbin A.K.A. Zivya came into the store and asked you to identify some strange portraits she had drawn.
Alyce asks you to describe Cindy, and when you oblige she observes, with considerable relief unless you are mistaken, “At least she’s not one of mine. I mean I don’t remember having her as a customer.”
You tell Alyce that she is more a supplier than a customer. You describe the cards which are selling so unaccountably well. As you mention the strange script with which they are decorated, you instinctively lower your voice. You can’t see Charlie and assume that he is sitting behind the counter reading one of his Polish newspapers. It isn’t that you don’t trust him, you just know from experience about Charlie’s love for acquiring and sharing information about his customers. You have heard enough lurid tales about your neighbors and their goings-on that you don’t want Zivya to become part of the coffee shop repertoire. When you get to the part about Ben identifying the script as cuneiform, you speak so quietly that Alyce has to lean forward to hear you.
You notice a strange expression cross her face and ask if anything is wrong. She leans back and raises a finger to her brow.
“No,” she responds. “It’s just that I’ve had some experiences of my own with cuneiform.”
You wait patiently and after a while she continues.
“It was back when I was researching my book.”
Writing under the not particularly imaginative nom de plume of “Alyce L.” she had collected a set of useful spells and self-published them. When she owned the bookstore, at least as she told the story, she had gotten tired of constantly scrawling formulas and incantations for various customers and had decided to gather the most popular items into a brochure which she photocopied and offered for sale to bring in a little extra money. According to Alyce, there are 5 basic kinds of spells which cover 99% of all of the requests she received, and she had included several samples of each variety in her booklet: Health Spells, Wealth Spells, Protection Spells, Divination Spells and, by far the most popular, Love Spells. You referred to her recipes many times for you own needs and recommended her booklet to bookshop customers without reservation.
“I taught myself a little cuneiform,” she confides, now lowering her voice just as you had done. “So when I found this one Mesopotamian spell, I knew there was a problem with the way it was written down. It probably never worked for anyone else, but I knew how to read it correctly. I never really learned to decipher all of the symbols fluently, but the spell was already transliterated into Latin letters. It was actually Akkadian rather than Sumerian – Akkadian was the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians.
“Anyway, I realized that the the transcription was wrong. Cuneiform uses some symbols which aren’t supposed to be pronounced – they are just hints to help the reader interpret a word by assigning it to a special category. These hints let you know if the next word is the name of a god or a person or a variety of livestock or vegetation – that kind of thing.
“In academic journals, the hints are printed in superscript to set them apart, but in the spell I found, they were written in regular-sized script just like all the other words. I recognized them and realized what they were – that they should be skipped over rather than spoken. For some crazy reason – I don’t remember what it was now – I started to read the spell out loud. I was home alone at the time so it was really a bad idea. When I was about halfway through I started to notice a horrible smell – something like sulfur mixed with a three-week-old cat box. Really, really nasty. I knew something was wrong, so I stopped, but the smell kept getting stronger. I realized that I had been reading a summoning spell, but I had no idea what I had just summoned.
“The smell was overpowering. I ran from the living room, where I had decided to conduct my little experiment, to the kitchen, but even there I couldn’t breathe. I paged through the other Akkadian spells, and when I couldn’t locate an obvious dismissal or exorcism spell, I panicked. Fortunately, I had a lot of magickal ingredients lying around – I had collected them for my research. One was a jar of holy water from the local Catholic church – don’t ask how I got hold of it. I sprinkled the water in the place where the smell was worst, and it got better. I was so relieved I started giggling hysterically. I’m glad there was no one around to hear me – at least no one human.
“I ended up using the whole jar, but there was still a noticeable smell, so I got out all of the rug cleaners and deodorants I could find and poured them in the corner the smell was coming from. It took months before the odor was gone for good.
“So,” she concludes, “Now you know why I am very, very cautious when it comes to cuneiform.”
At this point, all you can manage is a “wow.”
“And,” she adds, “you also know why we’re going to have to stop by the bookshop so I can take a look at the writing on the cards myself.”
Before you can nod or shrug or give any other kind of acknowledgement, she jumps to her feet, searches her purse for a few bills to throw down on the table, and is on her way out the door.
You try to find Charlie to say goodbye and notice that he has silently returned to his post at the counter. He waves for you to come closer.
“This red-hair woman,” he stage-whispers. Apparently your paranoia is contagious. “This woman, she come here to me. Ask me to put evil pictures on the wall and try to sell them.”
You ask what he had told her.
“I tell her not!” he insists with unnecessary vehemence. “I tell her those pictures are bad for business. Not good for this café!”
You assure him with complete conviction that he has probably saved himself a lot of trouble. A question gnaws its way out of your subconscious and you ask how long ago the “red hair woman” had come by to extend her offer.
“A week, maybe… I don’t know.”
You mumble some sort of thanks and, as you hurry out the door to catch up with your ride, you ask yourself how many – what had Zivya called them? footholds? – she was trying to establish for the beings she called “They.” And, more troubling, you wonder why she had felt the need to lie to you about it.