I stash things in books. It’s an odd habit that’s been with me for decades. Recently I discovered a lovely envelope tucked between the pages of I Capture the Castle, an endearing novel published in the 40s but reminiscent of the 19th century. The writing is ripe with flawlessly compulsive lyricism: Characters pine and scheme and flourish with stories that extend for pages beyond paragraphs, but what captures me in it, mostly, are the descriptions of an English countryside.
That’s likely why the envelope made its way into the book; the unusually ornate letter casing resembles a painting of snap dragons and petunias and morning glories against a vibrant background made from water colors. The art is in perfect harmony with the book and in sharp contrast to the view from my own, real window.
My landscape is blue. Not summer blue, where color is so pure it vibrates, but ice blue. It’s the kind of eternal grey-blue that comes from a half-perched sun that is only potent enough to cast light by weakly reflecting against dingy snow. There is no escaping winter elements in my current situation: The snow is far too deep, the ice too treacherous and the temperature too perilous.
Something about this kind of drudgery lends itself to British literature. In my isolation I find myself longing to “take a turn” about the room with a lady prone to gossip. Intrigue seems a fine companion to imprisonment. There could be talk of match-making and heart-breaking and life would have more excitement than determining the meat intended for dinner.
I grab a Ruth Reichl book from my shelves. Comfort Me with Apples. She gives food its own narrative in a way that makes it nearly a stronger character than any of Austen’s. Inside, I find a folded menu from Tru, an upscale Chicago restaurant. Upon request, they will offer you a printout of your “experience,” not expecting you to remember all eleven of your courses after the accompanying wine pairings.
Dinner should often be this way. The choreography of wine being poured in unison by unobstrusive servers, the art of presenting food in ways other than the typical, the dissecting each flavor in joyful abandonment with a willing partner all make a meal spectacular.
Food tastes different in the darker seasons. That would reasonably account for the tendency toward stews and soups and fortification cravings, but somehow, deprived of other stimuli, my tastes veer toward the distinct. After a few glasses of wine I will tell you that I believe I can taste color in the winter. It’s probably just cilantro I’d be referring to, with all of its piquant, verdant diversity, and otherwise known as a “scent” on my fancy French menu. Still, the thought of it keeps me warm.
The windows of my front room crackle. Ice crystals that congregate on the screen rustle incessantly against the glass with every bellow of wind. I long for the sound of dripping. Wet, long drips that echo against my windowsill in erratic rhythm.
The change of season is slow here, marked by subtle improvements that start with the first thaw. Nature loses its crisp exterior, becomes pliable under warmth. Icicles melt with encouragement. Hemingway would call these first sounds a “false spring.” I know this because I’ve underlined the passage in A Moveable Feast, marked the page with a business card acquired from a waiter at Antoine’s in New Orleans. He was the one to tell my guy and I of the birthday tradition in the Quarter, a ritual that involves pinning a dollar bill to your shirt. My husband gave it a try. Our trip was warm and sticky – August in the Quarter tends to drip, enduring hour after hour with hazy insistence. As we walked toward and down Royal, Quarter inhabitants saw his shirt dollar, stopped us, and offered him another dollar in celebration. Those who didn’t have a dollar offered him only tidings, and for that, my guy gave them a dollar from his shirt.
I owe money for We Have Always Lived In the Castle. I’m sure Shirley Jackson isn’t concerned. But according to the slip within the book’s pages, in eighth grade I “borrowed” it from my middle school library and at seven weeks past its return date, should have paid $1.75 in fines. My literature teacher warned us that we would never graduate with an overdue library book.
I somehow hold a diploma from middle school as well as this book. Yet still, despite having advanced past the eighth grade, I look out my window and wonder if I’ll ever graduate past this winter. Like school, it feels unendurable and eternal. But I have a new book in front of me, Bellman & Black.
I wonder, when I return to it in a few years past as I do all my books, what I will have stashed in it to mark this particular passage of time.