Today was even gloomier than usual. Moody storm clouds loomed over the harbor, casting a nauseating haze over Boston. Watching darkness drift in from what seemed like the edge of the world, the boisterous city fell quiet.
Moreover, a peculiar fog crept quietly through the maze of hilly streets. It swirled about, tonguing the outer walls of old brick buildings. In the thick of it, one could scarcely see across the street, and Old Boston's antique gas lamps were of little help.
At the corner of a foggy market square, there lingered a specter of a distant past: a little colonial shop, tucked away like an irrational memory. Evermore Books & Stationery, a brick box now under the management of one Edward Evermore. The storefront window advertisement, very old and yet freshly painted, sang as follows:
For Papers neat, for Inkwells Deep,
To Etch with Quill a Dream to Keep.
With will of Mind, and practiced Hand,
This Art shall be at your Command.
Be Not Afraid to Be Forgot,
For Thoughts will Fade, but Ink will Not.
Behind the squat, unassuming building, a proud oak stood in a small square of matted grass. As orange and brown leaves leapt from the branches and twirled to the grass, a teary-eyed young man knelt in the sparse shade of the tree, clawing at the dirt with some fervor. Strike after strike the earth packed under his fingernails, causing them to split. He kept digging.
Edward, an older man with pale red hair, appeared at the young man’s side. He wore an ink-stained apron and a sympathetic look. “Thomas?” he asked, rolling his sleeves. “Why don’t you come on inside, son? There’s a storm coming.”
Thomas froze and looked up at his father. His eyes were pink and swollen, his cheeks shimmering. The muscles in his neck pulsed as he shouted back through clenched teeth. “Do you even care? Look at this. Look. This is Grandpa. For Christ’s sake, he’s your dad. He should be in a graveyard somewhere with a headstone. Somewhere nice. Somewhere dignified. And you… what? You just threw him in the ground like litter? Like nothing? It’s not like we don’t have the money!”
The vague shape of a curious neighbor peeked over the property fence, then ducked away, disappearing in the fog. Ed nervously wiped his hands on his apron, inadvertently staining his fingers further. “It was his wish to be buried here. I didn’t really have a choice.”
“He was senile!”
“He wasn’t. He was sharper than both of us combined, and you know that.”
Thomas shook his head and wiped away snot, then continued to burrow. Choking down sobs, he dug like he was trapped and fighting for a pocket of air. Seeing this frenzy, Ed elected not to intervene further. Instead he waited with his back to the bricks, pushing away the doubled pain he felt over his son’s anguish.
The digging stopped. Suddenly, Thomas shoved himself away from the grave and fell to his side, gasping. He looked like he’d seen a ghost, and in a way, he had. There, at the bottom of the hole he had carved, was a sheet of black cloth and two golden buttons. An uncovered fragment of the man that used to be Alvin Evermore. At his own request, the old man had been buried without a proper casket, or even so much as a plastic wrap.
It had only been a week, and the worms were already biting holes in the fabric of his suit.
“Come inside,” Ed said. “I’ve got a job for you.”
Ed led a defeated Thomas back into the shop, through the antique writing materials which were there by choice, past the shelves full of mass-market books which were there by necessity. “One quill," he said. "One inkwell. A couple sheets of paper. Doesn’t matter the type. Pull up a stool.”
Thomas sniffled and did as his father asked, slouching over the checkout counter. His eyes were far away. “What’s this for?”
“I have a story I want to get down.”
“I can’t just type this up?”
Ed glared. “This one’s too important. Anyway, it’s past time somebody wrote it down. I heard it from my father, and he from his. You should hear it, too. It’s about the first man to ever carry our name—the first Mr. Evermore.”
Reluctantly, Thomas cracked his neck and dipped his quill. The wave of his hand said get on with it, but his eyes said please.
“Now, granted, this all happened a very long time ago, and some of the details could have been tweaked or played up over time. It’s hard to get a story exactly right just from memory, you know. That’s part of the reason I wanted to get it in ink...”
Back in the 1700s, a boy named Jacob Walker lived on a farm in the south of England with his parents, John and Lorraine. An only child, Jacob enjoyed a balanced upbringing. Not too rich, not too poor. His father gave him work in the fields, but his mother doted on him. When the working day was done, he was free to play as he wished. Even so, he often found himself bored, wandering the land aimlessly.
It was not a very large farm. Just a few acres surrounded by forest, some chickens, and a hound for company. When harvests were bountiful, things were good, and there was little to worry about. When they were not, Jacob’s father would get to drinking, and things were bad.
Near the end of Jacob’s thirteenth year, things changed.
One bad day, in the middle of a bad harvest season, Jacob decided to explore the forests at the edge of the property. Between the trees, he found fields of daisies, soft sunshine, and prancing squirrels. Most enticing of all was a small, dark-blue butterfly. As soon as Jacob saw it, he knew he needed to catch it. But this was not an easy task. He followed the butterfly across a river, up a nettlesome hill, and through a tangle of vines into a vast clearing with a single tree at its center. There must have been thousands of butterflies just like the first, fluttering about and resting in the meadow's tall grass.
Beneath the tree, a woman in a pale shift sat cross-legged on the bed of a horseless wagon. She was a beautiful, benevolent witch.
“What’s wrong?” the witch asked him, noticing Jacob's bad-day bruises.
“My pa is in a bad mood,” he replied. “I guess that puts me in a bad mood, too.”
The witch thought for a moment, rubbing her sharp jaw. “Well,” she said. “What puts you in a good mood?”
Jacob said, “I like to draw. But Ma and Pa say paper is too expensive, and I don’t want to give them another thing to fight about. Sometimes I’ll trace things in the mud, but that's all.”
“That simply won’t do,” said the good witch.
The witch taught Jacob that ink and paper could both be made from a single oak tree. She showed him how to make ink from gall and a few other solutions, and how to make paper by pulping wood and pressing it flat. So, she pulled some materials out of the back of her wagon. They practiced together until the sun set, then she bid him farewell. Before she disappeared into the forest, she said she had taken a liking to him, and that if he ever needed her again, she would not be far.
Jacob skipped home cheerfully, his arms full with fresh paper, a bottle of ink, and a brand new quill. But when he arrived, he learned that weeks had passed while he was in the meadow. His father John had taken ill and was refusing to see a doctor.
The old man was praying when he died.
With the help of a couple of farm hands, Jacob and Lorraine were able to tend the farm for a few years. But each day was beset by a complicated bout of grief. At times his mother was a comfort, and at times she seemed haunted, like the hound during a thunderstorm. Jacob’s only reliable respite was his drawing. Another visit to the witch earned him knowledge of how to build his own pulper and press. Meanwhile, he continued to experiment with different recipes for ink, and in time the making of the materials became just as artful as their original purpose.
Time passed. Grief fell away and gave rise to resentment. Jacob decided he did not want to be on his father’s farm any longer. So, he sold the property and moved himself and his mother to a young colonial city called Boston, where they were able to open a specialty store called Walker Stationery. Lorraine painted an advertisement on the front window. Seeking to add some flair, Jacob added:
Be Not Afraid to Be Forgot,
For Thoughts will Fade, but Ink will Not.
Jacob dedicated the rest of his life to the business, selling everything a well-to-do lady or gentleman could need for their writing purposes. The quills he bought wholesale from an artisan, marked up, and resold. However, he insisted upon making the paper, and especially the inks, himself. It was a risk, but his items were consequently of unparalleled signature quality. Because writing at this time was so closely tied to status, elites would often seek out Jacob’s services and his services alone. This made him a very rich man in his day, and allowed him to rub elbows with some men you might recognize from history books: Jefferson, Hancock, and Adams, to name a few. Jacob would never confirm nor deny, but some suspect it was his ink that was used on the Declaration of Independence.
After marrying an American woman named Henrietta, Jacob sired a son, Jacob Walker II. As the boy grew older and was groomed to take over the family business, Jacob’s mood became highly volatile. He struggled with the concept of being a father—of having as large of an impact on somebody else’s life as his father did on his. By total accident, he became what he hated: an erratic drunk. Jacob was by no means perfect, but through strength of will he never got as bad as John. At the end of the day, he was there for his family.
In later years, as his son came of age, Jacob demanded one thing: to be buried with an acorn in a sunny meadow, and to have his grave watered frequently. In time he knew a tree would grow. When it flourished, his descendants were to make ink of its galls, and when it died, they were to make paper of its wood.
Just before he passed, Jacob legally changed the family name from Walker to Evermore.
And on the day of his death, he inked a letter for his son to read.
Ed reached under the counter and retrieved something rectangular, wrapped in cloth. An old piece of parchment behind dusty glass. Thomas grabbed it gingerly, blew away some of the dust, and squinted to read the archaic cursive hand.
I hope I have given you enough of a life. I do feel bad asking so much of you right at the end of mine, what with the complicated burial. But it is vital that you carry out my request, regardless of your opinion on the soundness of my reasoning.
When I was a boy, I met a very wise woman in the woods beyond our land. She taught me about ink, writing, and time. She is the reason for my success. Without her, I would have nothing, save perhaps my father’s wilting farm.
Some weeks ago, I went to meet her again. I knew I was going to die, and that death is natural, so I did not ask for eternal life. I did, however, ask her for some way to outlive my body, if only to visit upon the effects of my life and death. She said the soul is eternal, but the body is not. I will never look as I once did, and if I am to visit upon earth after death, I must rest for a very long time. As I understand it, this means you and I may never meet again, and by that I am devastated. Allow me to impart some final wisdom (for which I am so well known.)
I came from my father, and my father’s father, and so on, and the first man came from the earth. As I return to the earth myself, my body shall nourish the growth of new life—an acorn into a tree—and in time that life will be reduced to paper and ink which will alter the proceedings of other lives. I believe this is the greatest fate a living thing can ask for: to leave some small imprint on the shape of the realm.
By simply staining paper with ink—one fragment of life with another—we can speak words that echo long past the horizon of our mortality. Ink and paper mean people can share ideas, as the founders of this nation did. They can share love, like the letters that won me your mother. They can share the truth, like the name on your birth certificate, which tells me you are my son even when I cannot believe my luck.
The effects of the things we write in ink shall be felt generation after generation, in perpetuity. A quill dipped in a bottle of ink makes a ripple. Watch closely and find that the ripple lasts longer than you ever cared to notice. But that is just within the small world of a bottle—our world is large, and the ripples we make with our lives build and build until we cannot fathom their magnitude.
Perhaps one day I, Jacob Evermore, will be forgotten. This is okay. It is the way of things. As men, our job is not to last forever. It is to form a link, with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. I tell you, there is something magnificent going on just beyond our grasp. It ranges from the very first sign of life all the way to bittersweet annihilation. Just by being here, now, we ensure the continuity of that magnificence.
Still, it matters what we leave of ourselves for future generations to discover. They will reap what we sow, just as I reap what my father sowed. I have left you, my son, and I have left everything that I have ever written. I cannot wait to return and see how the ink bleeds.
As a wise man once said:
Be not afraid to be forgot. For thoughts will fade, but ink will not.
Thomas finished reading and looked at his father, who nodded his satisfaction. Then he got up, stretched his writing hand, and paced the room. His eyes glazed over, and the colorful bookshelves blurred by in his periphery. He walked and thought for several minutes uninterrupted. Finally, he returned to the counter. “Do...” he said, then shook his head.
“This is stupid. Do you think… Jacob could really be out there somewhere?”
“Hard to say. We have some old portraits, but according to the letter, we wouldn’t know him if we saw him.” A smile crossed Ed’s face. “Curious, isn’t it?”
Thomas scratched his head and shrugged. “Well, I guess it could be just about anyone we don’t see very often. For example, I’ve got a substitute teacher named Mr. Munck.”
“Could be one of those distant cousins you’ve only seen at weddings.”
“Could be anyone. Anything.”
A bell clanged as a customer wandered into the store: an occurrence so rare as to be startling. Thomas politely nodded to the woman and got his father’s attention. “I’m going to go out back and fix… yeah.” Then he plodded off, head spinning.
Out back by the great oak, which was merely a shadow in the thickening fog, Thomas’ heart thumped in his chest. His legs were heavy, and his feet felt firmly rooted in the matted grass. The grave was not as he left it.
Somehow, most of the loose dirt had been packed back into the hole. All that remained of the large pit was a shallow depression, about half a handspan across, with a matching mound to the side. Thomas inched forward and peered down.
A single acorn sat neatly in the center of the depression. With care, the young man scooped the excess soil over the acorn, packed it down, and wiped his hands clean.
Then, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Shocks of adrenaline raced out to his fingers and toes. He knew this feeling: he was being watched.
“Jacob?” he asked, whipping his head around. But there was nobody there. Nobody that wanted to be seen, anyway.
Drop. Drop. Drop.
Thomas looked up with a slack jaw, allowing the rain to hit his tongue. Despite the foreboding clouds overhead, only a light drizzle fell this day. Just enough to cool a hot head, or to coax an oak tree into sprouting.