Objects Waiting to be Dangerous
The Rare Book Department’s motto was preserve or die. Housed inside the New York City Public Library, the Rare Book Department held one of the largest collections of handmade chapbooks, palimpsests, and original manuscripts. Outside, the city waited in the cold, rushing winds of Christmas season, but inside the vault stillness reigned; only the hushed clicks of the air conditioner and humidifier sounded, maintaining the perfect climate to fight mold, decay, and age. The vault door stayed open during the day so the staff could easily access, catalog, and repair books. Although the books inside were worth millions, the vault’s purpose was simply to avoid accidents, not theft. Even if the power failed, a generator kicked on so the temperature remained constant at 55 degrees. But once a year, two of its employees were freed from the impossible task of stopping time.
Eliza was quietly repairing the binding of an 1862, first edition Goblin Market and Other Poems. When she finished, she rubbed her hands tightly together, building friction warmth. Although dry from the white cloth gloves and smelling like binding glue, she brought her hands to her nose and inhaled deeply, detecting turpentine, something like Magic Marker. But she needed to stop daydreaming and work quickly. Annually, the library held a book contest, “The Tasty Reads Exhibition,” in which contestants created entries entirely out of edible ingredients. The Rare Book Room staff, meaning Eliza and Millie, judged the contest every year. It was no accident that the employees who were tasked with preservation were also tasked to judge edible books that could not be preserved. This year’s theme, the Brothers Grimm fairytales, was Eliza’s favorite so far. There was something hopeful about the happily ever after endings, even if spilt blood came first, even if each edible book ended the same: consumed and destroyed.
Before she left to judge the contest, Eliza wanted to finish a personal project in the vault; she created confessional postcards, and she didn’t want to work out in the open. Even though Millie had hired Eliza three years ago, Millie never really talked about herself. But Eliza felt her watching. No, Eliza needed the protection, the steel intestines of the vault. Millie was too observant, noticing when her hands shook repairing a first edition Poe and how her fingers barely skimmed, but skimmed too much, the pages of The Tell Tale Heart. How Eliza didn’t need to read the words to speak them aloud.
Grabbing Goblin Market very, very carefully, and her oversized tote bag from under her desk, Eliza headed into the vault, past rows of metal bookcases and drying racks. The last row waited, partially empty, for new acquisitions or returned loans. So much left empty on purpose. She liked to think she perfected the art of confession: she made postcards designed to inflict minimum fallout, to tell secrets without someone else offering or withholding forgiveness. Confessional mail — the only way to both tell and keep secrets. The mailbox turned into a mesh confessional, and the stars became candles. The postcards became treasure maps, riddles. Eliza sent her postcards to the middle of nowhere everywhere; the only trace of her name was a postmark. She wanted to believe the people at the other end used her confessions as bookmarks or fridge magnets. She sometimes made corresponding postcards, complementary ones like connecting puzzle pieces that she hid inside the rare books she repaired. Years from now, other researchers and explorers would uncover her confessions.
Eliza created postcards as carefully as she repaired 200 year old manuscripts. She had made a career of being careful after a visit to the Stowe Public Library when she was eight. She had torn a two page spread of Botticelli’s Primavera from a Renaissance art book. Eliza wanted to study the way Venus lorded over everyone: the Three Graces told her the future, Mercury guarded her garden, and Cupid obeyed her commands. In the corner, Zephyrus, the god of wind, chased a nymph while Flora scattered flowers into the air. Venus kept a secret, and Eliza was let in on it: secrets were power. And pain, she found out later.
Now, she didn’t let scissors exist in her world, those out of control, amputated arms and detached slicing legs, especially at the library. No, when cutting she used an Exacto knife to know precisely where the incision would occur. She would lay out her materials on a flat surface, then colors, shapes, and textures would combine in her head, words and letters from Cosmo or Time juxtaposed meaning. Sometimes, she gently photocopied old manuscripts and texts for backgrounds because she both loved and hated to destroy anything that had survived so long. Tweezers kept her from leaving fingerprints and quick drying decoupage glue didn’t leave wrinkles or hazy spots.
Wasn’t confession proof of life as much as locks of hair, tiny fingers, diary entries? She wasn’t Catholic, though sometimes she’d walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral pretending among the gothic arches and dusky corners, closing eyes and bowing backs. Early mornings were best, empty and quiet, sunrise barely illuminating statues. Jesus on the cross simply looked like a disproportioned monarch butterfly. The candles looked like fireflies. Pews and benches became roots and sideways trees; Eliza could believe in natural things. When she was six, she drew images, little hearts, upside down churches, inside the hymnbooks. When she was thirteen, she made out with Joey Zanelli in a confessional. She always wondered afterward if he had confessed it.
When Eliza finally finished repairing her postcard, she gently placed it on the drying rack. The postcard was full of dark velvets, inked barbed wire, and a thin layer of fabric mesh only needed the perfect words to be complete: Last night I dreamed I murdered someone else and took over her life. Quickly packing up her supplies in a vintage Wonder Woman lunchbox, Eliza returned to her desk. Wonder Woman’s hair wasn’t black anymore, but gunmetal gray. She was positioned in her typical spinning fashion: head thrown back, eyes on the sky and arms spread wide at her sides.
Eliza heard movement at the vault door and quickly slid Goblin Market in front of her.
“So, Eliza, you ready to go judge the contest?” Millie asked.
“Almost. I have to finish repairing this first edition,” Eliza said.
“Come on, you can do that later,” Millie said. “The cakes won’t wait.”
“True enough. In just a minute,” Eliza said, glancing up at Millie. Millie just raised an eyebrow. Past experience had proved when Eliza said a minute she meant an hour. Millie tapped her low heel pumps on the floor. Past experience had proved that Millie liked to hover.
“Really. Love your Christmas sweater, but you don’t have to wait for me.” Some days she needed to lose something, and some days she needed to create something. Most days she needed both.
When Eliza started to stand up slowly, Millie turned and left.
The contest began at noon and took place in the Celeste Bartos Forum under a thirty-foot glass dome ceiling and marble floors. Natural light provided perfect viewing for each entry, eliminating dark, hidden corners. Cocktail style, the room held 500 people, and for a few hours New Yorkers strolled around talking with contestants and uncovering baking secrets. Although Eliza preferred Astor Hall with its white marble arches, spiral staircase, balconies, and crystal chandeliers, especially considering the fairytale theme, at least in the Forum she could occasionally glance up at the sky through the birdcage-like ceiling. The Forum often hosted wedding receptions as well, and yes, people wanted to get married in the library; however, ceremonies weren’t allowed, religious or otherwise, as if the library was a sanctuary for all beliefs and none.
As a judges, Eliza and Millie were required to walk around and take notes. Eliza had learned over the past few years, however, that this task could be accomplished fairly quickly by nodding a lot, avoiding eye contact and hiding behind taller observers; in this way, she’d catch glimpses here and there, a fleeting impression of the project. She made her way smoothly from row to row, noting design, level of difficulty and inventiveness, but mostly she studied the creators’ hands.
Eliza bumped into Millie in front of a Hansel and Gretel display, a cake big enough to feed fifty people. A tiny gingerbread house with a triangle licorice roof, consisting of half a graham cracker with dark Hershey windows, decorated the top left corner, as if waiting for visitors in the distance. A trail of candy canes leading to the front door dominated the center, slowly becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, until lines, then specks. Two, child-like hands gripped each other at the bottom edge, as if joyously skipping towards doom.
The next entry was a vampire inspired version of Snow White. The fresh looking, blood-red lemon drops dripped down a pale, slender neck. No face existed above red lips and white fangs, the top of her knuckles and folded hands crossed over her naked body sacrificially.
“What do you think?” Eliza asked Millie.
“Those two cakes shouldn’t be kept so close together. They’re asking for trouble,” she replied moving onto the next table.
Towards the end, Eliza stopped in front of an entry inspired by Briar Rose. Instead of focusing on the namesake, the icing cover showed cherry roses laced together surrounding a bed, which looked more like a coffin made out of cinnamon sticks and gold taffy. Empty and turned down, the bed was mussed as if someone just woke up or as if it expected company momentarily. Eliza turned to study the contestant’s hands. Her hands were still. Eliza turned to her face instinctively but the contestant was looking at the sky. Her blond hair fell back and her green eyes seemed to take up most of the space within her face reminding Eliza of forests. Her nametag read Susannah.
“Where did Briar Rose go?” Eliza asked her. Briar Rose couldn’t exist without the human sacrifice, the echo of necrophilia to complete the crime scene.
“She’s still there,” Susannah answered, “but you can’t see her. Even in the fairytale, she’s invisible.”
“No, she’s supposed to represent Beauty,” Eliza answered.
“Same thing,” she replied. “We don’t see her because we think we already know what she is.”
Eliza stood on the brink of Susannah’s small table for a moment then walked on. Eliza wondered what power the memory of beauty held, if the memory was simply another absence.
After the contest ended, Eliza, Millie, and Susannah carried the winning entries into the vault; each edible book balancing between sets of hands, always on the cusp of mush, of unhappily ever after.
“What is that?” Millie asked pointing to Eliza’s postcard on the drying rack, juggling her hands and arms to keep balance like a forest with hundreds of birds on the brink of being disturbed.
“It’s nothing,” Eliza said. “It’s getting late, let’s hurry.”
Millie placed the books down beside Eliza’s postcard on the drying rack and motioned for Susannah to do the same. “It’s nothing, like thin air, a figment of my imagination?”
“Yeah, the collage is an illusion you made up in your mind to assign meaning.”
“Uh, huh. Like I’d really —”
Before Millie finished they heard the sucking and sticking sound of the vault door shutting. The main lights blinked off replaced with tiny, red emergency lights.
“Oh, no,” Mille moaned.
“Well, fuck me,” Eliza seconded.
Susannah widened her eyes and stood even stiller, which Eliza didn’t know was possible.
Eliza walked to the door and shoved, then smashed her entire body, cheek to knees, against steel, listening for movement on the other side. She punched in the code. The door stayed shut. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, but it had no signal.
“Damn old buildings. When was the last time someone got stuck in here, anyway?” She asked.
“My guess. Forever ago,” Eliza said. “Someone will come along, eventually.”
“Can’t you open the door?” Susannah asked, standing in the same spot, eyes closed, as if waiting for a do over.
“It must be some kind of power outage,” Millie said.
“Then why do we have lights and air?” Susannah asked.
“The vault has a backup generator, but the door isn’t connected to it,” Millie answered.
The situation seemed impractical; no one ever trapped themselves in the vault. When the door closed, it closed so slowly they always slipped through, jokingly calling it “The Sloth.”
“Is anyone going to miss you tonight and call the police?” Eliza asked the others.
Millie shook her head, “I never married.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
They looked questioningly at Susannah who shook her head.
“We’re stuck,” Eliza said, “for a while, at least.” She sighed. “Well, maybe we could pretend this vault is the physical manifestation of our repression in a norm-driven society. Or, even better, our own fairytale misadventure. What’s the moral we learned today?”
“What do you know of repression? With your tight clothes, your college education, all the choices you have. When abnormal is the new normal? I grew up in the 50s.” Millie slowly lowered herself to the cold floor, back against a colder wall. She looked at Eliza, weighing her, perhaps weighing her mania. “I was in a cult once.”
Eliza slid down the wall, stretched her legs under the worktable which was tall enough so she could still see Millie. The table acted as an oversized metal halo, or maybe a bulls-eye, over Millie’s head. Eliza motioned for Susannah to get comfortable. “Really? A cult? With crazy religious fanatics?”
“No, just a group of likeminded people who shared a common goal or interest.”
“When I think cult, I think Helter Skelter and Waco. Death, insanity, and destruction. End of the world, the aliens are coming, let’s build a bomb shelter kind of mentality.”
“No, we were fourteen. Four teens who felt repression like a glove, who thought we lived in an Orwellian world of control. Locks didn’t exist on our bedroom doors. We didn’t want to dress like proper girls, do proper things with proper boys. So we formed our own Cult of the Un-Mary. It was a small town. Still is.” Millie was silent, and Eliza feared she wouldn’t keep speaking.
But Millie looked at her hands and continued speaking. “You know, danger is created, not just found. We didn’t know that. Didn’t know that with our hands and minds, we built and crafted danger. What fourteen-year-old girl knows how to make danger?”
Eliza kept silent; it wasn’t the kind of question she could answer. She made postcards and confessions without personal consequences. Where was the danger besides admitting something, whatever it was, to herself? Was a danger made more real if witnessed?
“The four of us found an abandoned barn. The roof had caved in, but the four walls were mostly intact. The doors were gone, maybe used as firewood or torn apart by stampeding horses. The ground was just packed dirt. We looked at the fourth and said, ‘lead us.’ And she did.” When Millie glanced up at Eliza, away from her hands, Eliza saw something darker seeping in her eyes. “I haven’t talked about this since that summer. I don’t know why I’m telling you now.” She glanced around the vault looking for an escape, but the red lit ceiling didn’t sparkle like stars, didn’t offer any directions for the lost.
Eliza knew confessions were pulled to the surface with a system of levees and pulleys, a push and pull of hands and skin tightening like the way Millie stretched her face between her palms, flattening away the woman she had become, glimpsing a smooth skinned girl.
“We decided to lose, give away, kill — whatever — our virginity at the same time and place. We didn’t know the term orgy, but we knew our innocence was a trap they held us in. We brought blankets our grandmothers had quilted.” Suddenly she looked intense. “That was important, you know?” She gave a little half smile then. “What did we know of sex? Only that our mothers warned us against it.” She fell back on the cold floor, wrapped her sweater tighter around herself. “The fourth found a few older boys, and we stole liquor from our parents. Whiskey, bourbon, whatever we thought they wouldn’t taste the water mixed in. Hell, we didn’t even think to get condoms.”
“What were the others’ names?” Eliza asked.
“I can’t say their names,” Millie answered.
“What about the boys?” Eliza asked.
“They weren’t important enough for names,” Millie said.
Eliza understood it wasn’t about the act, the human to human contact, but some third encounter with the self, not a connection but a reconnection, a lighthouse beacon calling them back to themselves.
“We brought candles placed inside jelly jars. Made our own constellations in the center of the barn, left the edges shadowy. We started with our chant. The fourth said, ‘Please Goddess, make us stone against convention, family, and homes.’ Then we all repeated the same verse, our voices stronger together. The sex, well, was what you’d expect. Quick and fumbling. The boys stayed a little while wanting to play drinking games. But we got rid of them. We held hands, chanted again.”
“Then it was over,” Eliza said. “Were you relieved? Disappointed?”
“You’d think it would’ve ended then,” Millie said. “It was late, we knew we would be punished. We didn’t want to leave each other.” Millie didn’t sound defiant but resigned and lonely. Maybe she understood something Eliza didn’t, that among strangers something intimate could be revealed and still not establish a connection.
“Did it hurt?” Susannah asked.
“It still hurts,” Eliza said.
“Everything hurt,” Millie said, “after. You see, there was this cliff. All tragic stories are set in dangerous landscapes, like the moor in Wuthering Heights or Rebecca and the sea. Our cliff wasn’t more than twenty feet high, overlooking a tiny, sometimes lake when it rained enough. It had been raining all week. We thought it had been raining enough.” She looked at the water bottle in Eliza’s hands, her hands inside themselves as if waiting to be encased in a glass blown bottle.
“We held hands as we walked to the drop off. A daisy-chain. As if we were playing red rover, red rover, let danger come over,” Millie said.
“I broke my wrist playing that game in second grade,” Eliza said. For a moment she wanted to break the somber hush that had taken over the vault. She knew this story couldn’t end well. They had double-dog dared danger, something Eliza had never managed to do. She knew which side had won, could almost hear chanting in the generator’s hum.
“Yeah,” Millie replied, “we broke bones that night too.”
In the silence Eliza mentally constructed a postcard for Millie: midnight blues, blue-greens, and a little orange-red mixed in. Stars forming Hydra or Lupus. A seemingly weightlessness floating through night and water, hands and breasts loose against wind and gravity. Eliza felt phantom pain, her body hitting the water. She wanted —
“Let’s all tell secrets,” she blurted. Did she stop the narrative because of the pain she saw in Millie’s eyes? Or because of the pain she felt in her own body? “When I was eight, I put flour rather than sugar in my mother’s hummingbird feeders. We had a yard full of dead birds.”
Susannah had been silent since the story began; now she shoved up the sleeves on her sweater and tilted her wrists down revealing horizontal cuts, some a translucent white and others slightly pink like rock formations. She said, “I want to hear how the night ended.”
“Sure, me too,” Eliza lied, “but I think I’m hallucinating from hunger. I swear I smell Red Hots and Twizzlers. I’d kill for some Twizzlers.”
“It’s Little Red Cap’s cape,” Millie announced quietly.
“Yeah, because that makes much more sense,” Eliza answered.
Mille sighed, “Honey, stand up.”
Eliza stood, humoring both of them and stared at Little Red Cap’s Red Hot cape. She had forgotten about the edible books; in second place was the Big Bad Wolf with Little Red Cap’s cape dripping from sharp, white chocolate teeth. “Ladies, it’s desert time.”
“We can’t eat those,” Millie said, “they’re library property.”
Susannah nodded in agreement. “Think about all the time and money spent on making these edible books. Think of all the calories.”
“We can’t starve or cut off our body parts and eat ourselves. Look, we’ll eat the fourth place winner. No one will care.” She opened the baker’s box. They didn’t have a knife, so Eliza dug her fingers into the edge of Snow White’s apple surrounded by a silver, murky mirror. She tore the flesh, ripped apart that symbol of temptation and enjoyed the sweet melancholy taste.
Eliza couldn’t eat the Twizzlers, which were the tropical kind anyway, because they twisted together to create Rapunzel’s long, glowing hair in the second place winner. The golden locks trailed down a tower of gray and navy blue Pop Rocks guaranteed to turn your mouth blue for hours.
In first place, Briar Rose’s bed of petals and thorns was an intricate lace doily, and ominous because it was empty. Since the book was really a cake, the threat couldn’t be abated or assuaged unless digested. The story couldn’t be read, the pages couldn’t be flipped through, stopped, changed, or started.
“Well, I’m too hungry to be good,” Susannah swished her finger through the mirror turning the silver a darker gray. “Mmm … vanilla icing.” She dug her hand in further, into the chocolate cake underneath. When she pulled her hand back, she held chocolate the size of a heart. “Millie, please tell the rest of the story.”
“Yeah, Millie, rip your heart all the way out too,” Eliza says gesturing to Susannah. She wasn’t sure she wanted to live with the consequences of knowing.
“At the end, there were just three of us coming up for air and then waiting. I write her letters sometimes, though her family moved away.” Millie stared at the empty space where Briar Rose should’ve been. “I imagine her in that barn or standing on the cliff, anywhere but beneath the water’s surface.”
The emergency vault lights softly glared red. Behind her eyelids, Eliza constructed a new postcard to preserve and forgive: a faded barn the color of dried blood, and candles spread wide across fields and trees. Each strand of grass a light against the dark night outshining the stars, igniting a path to the cliff. She felt the presence of a fourth.
Once upon a time, confessions were secrets and air. Weapons.
Once, they were fairytales, quarries of whiskey and water and shadow.
Once upon a time, four girls hunted and captured something to confess to and jumped into the night, sinking under. Once, four women listened and felt the hard hit of bodies against water, became receptacles of a rare secret.
“What was her address?” Eliza asked Millie.
Millie watched Eliza’s face then glanced at the postcard above and said, “3201 Brambleberry Road, Hopewell Junction, NY 12533.”
Eliza nodded. Their breaths mingled as they silently huddled against each other, as they breathed underwater and somehow found air, as they held tight to each other’s sticky, cake-stained hands.
Side by side by side by side.
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