It took three minutes to find the tall old-fashioned bookcase by the back door. It leaned forward an inch like it was injured and looked like it’d crumble into a pile of dusty wooden pieces. I would have turned around and went back to my Danish butter biscuits resting on the living room coffee table but then I saw the books.
Weak books with faded covers and spines hanging off three measly strings of thread. Some had reached their expiration date, lying face down on the wizened shelves, covers fallen and crisp tattered pages remaining.
I ran my gloved hand along the bookcase, over the age-caused cuts in the shelves, down the naked spines of the books, gently tapping along the crinkled edges of the fallen ones. A simple lift of the books and ruffle of a page could have saved them from withering away like dehydrated tulips, or at the very least added them an extra year to their shelf life.
I bent down and picked one on the bottom that was cover-less and had strips of dried yellow glue that only attracted balls of lint. I tucked it under my arm and cradled the bottom with my other hand, walking over to the living room table.
The bookkeeper in me emerged slowly at first, shrouded in cowardice, but then he appeared - forceful, almost knocking me over as I dashed around, making sure entryways were shut and that no raw winter air could get inside. The fire I started outside first thing once I arrived here stayed strong, sending thick gray curls of smoke next to the cabin and shooting up small blue sparks. It'd kept me snug and made me want to search the rustic cupboards for s'mores ingredients, but if there was one thing I knew, it was that books and heat never went hand in hand.
I filled two buckets with water from a deep capacious puddle that used to be ice and poured it over the fire. It hissed at me like it was in pain before shriveling into ash and twisting smoke.
Twenty seconds after the fire died, my arms under my coat were attacked with rough goosebumps. Craving the warmth I extinguished, I rubbed my gloved hands together and went inside the cabin, shutting and locking the door. The book lied waiting for me on the coffee table and I walked towards it, gently picking it up and cradling it against my chest.
I sank into the beige microfiber couch and rested the book on my lap. When repairing a bare book, look inside first to know what cover to put. Here, I couldn’t pull out my iPhone seven and google the first two sentences. I had to read it, even if it was brief, and I turned the page after the dedication and started from line one.
I figured it out on page two but continued to read until page twenty-nine. Lord of the Flies. It was an honor to repair such a classic. I set it down and picked up a biscuit. I’d finished my thermos hot chocolate an hour ago and my mouth ached for some more. I didn’t let the thought last for longer than thirty seconds; I’d need to start the fire up again and my attention had to be trained solely on the book on my lap.
My old bookkeeper habits stuck with me; I lived through every day carrying around repair materials that ended up being set unused on my dresser next to Jane Eyre every night. I’d brought them with me, to this isolated cabin with thick snow on the roof that dipped into icicles hanging off the rafter tails. I’d thought that they’d be set on my dresser untouched again once I got back home.
I pulled them out of my coat pocket – PVA adhesive, ruler, needle and yarn. Love, patience, and understanding, too, of course, but they weren’t tangible.
Lord of the Flies stared at me from the table where it rested and I looked back at it, laying my hand along the fore edge. I wasn’t going to hurt it. Gently, so that I was barely making contact, I tore the peeled and crumbling pages from its gutter and set them down on the coffee table adjacent to the butter cookies I stopped eating.
This used to be my norm – fixing books from a single ripped page to shredded spines and rotting covers with old spilled foods that aged into a sticky substance I had to use a nose plug to be around. My adopted son had spent all his time at the bookstore with me, occupying himself by peeking at passersby from the little spaces in between shelved books or curling up on the velvet couch next to the heater and reading something he picked up that day.
He tore books often, consistently apologizing and taking place in between the shelves to peer at people. I always made him apologize to the books, too; they didn’t like to be wrecked. By the end of the day, I returned them in better condition to him, ready to repeat the same cycle the next. I’d never forgive cystic fibrosis.
My hands were vibrating now – fast, like a plucked guitar string. I hated that the adhesive reminded me of his sticky lungs. I hated that everything now reminded me of him, even the sewing needle, something that wouldn’t seemingly jog back memories.
Lord of the Flies was lying there, quiet, broken and helpless and here I was, tearing up, about to get salty eye water on the already rumpled pages.
I picked them up in my cold rigid hand and arranged them in the right order. Page 52, mussed and Dijon-colored on the top, all the way down to page 72. I got up, leaving a sunken space in the sofa and walked to the cabin door.
The iciness on the handle punctured my gloves and I instantly felt crisp dew on my fingers. The air outside nipped my ears and uncovered neck, making me clutch the papers a little tighter and wish I’d worn something heavier with a hoodie. Dandruff looking flakes of snow fell slow and measured on the roof, where the accumulated bits fell in clumps.
I licked my dry chapped lips and shoved the papers into the snow. “It’s cold, I know,” I whispered. When I began to lose feeling in my fingers, that’s when I drew them out. I struggled rushing back inside the cabin, but I managed to trudge my way into the small door frame, boots heavy with snow inside and out. I trailed a line of PVA sticky-lung-reminding glue down the inner spine and laid the snow-covered pages against it, watching as I began to remove my hands and leave the pages on their own.
“There you go. You’ll be whole again in no time.” I told Lord of the Flies.
Henry used to look at me and scrunch his nose when he heard me uttering things to the current work of art I was repairing. “Dad, why do you talk to books?”
My responses were always ardent, an excuse to ramble about my fanatical love for books. “What if, hypothetically, books could hear or could feel? I handle them as if they heard every word I was saying to them and could feel every little touch.”
“But why does it matter? It’s an inanimate object, right?”
I’d always nod and bend over so that we were eye to eye. “Sure. But we said hypothetical and kindness doesn’t cost a thing.”
He would shrug and agree so that he could go back to people watching in between the shelves until closing time, leaving me with a half-fixed story in my hands.
The cover was behind the bookcase, hidden title faced down, among two other disheveled and deserted covers. I knew which one it was the second I saw it. It felt raw and right in my hands, but I knew where it belonged.
Back in the seat and needle in between my fingers, I looped a narrow string of thread inside the small hole. “Over and under,” I mumbled. It was hard, at first, getting it caught in my glove spaces and almost pricking myself; I used to teach Henry how to sew covers back on. But then, mind blank and unable to process thoughts, I watched my fingers dance, the thread in their steps. Over and under. I knew my mind had spared me; the second I knotted the last hole, my previous thoughts came flooding back.
I smoothed the ruler over the cover, pushing away built up dust onto the cabin floor. It was going to be complete once it got its share of the sharp January weather. I set it outside, away from the piling snow and against the cabin wall.
It was barely anything, but I was smiling a rough cracked smile, and aching more than ever for that hot chocolate. I removed my soggy gloves, grabbed a butter biscuit and went to fetch a cocoa packet.