The Grammarians’ Grimoire

An Urban Fantasy Short Story by E.E. King

The Grammarians’ Grimoire

by E.E. King

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Shirley picked it up at a Sunday rummage sale at the Waterford library. It was so old and worn that the title had been rubbed away. She imagined it was a children’s book because of its detailed and colorful illustrations, one in the series of color named fairytale collections she remembered from her youth. This cover was a blend of every hue conceivable. Shirley could not recall a rainbow volume, but there must have been one and this must have been it. It was dog-eared with use.

How come no one ever says ‘cat-eared,’ Shirley thought? My Tom has ears as mangled as any dog.

It was an unusually fanciful idea for Shirley. Normally she didn’t consider the words that ran through her head. They were as unremarkable as the buses that passed the library every fifteen minutes, as stale as the bread at Maggie’s Day-Old Bakery across the street.

Shirley was a charwoman. She made a steady income scrubbing the library every night, working from closing time at 6:00 PM till 1:00 or 2:00 AM. As a result, she arrived home just a few hours before the sun peered over the horizon and slept late, usually waking at noon. It was a solitary life, cut off from her mates by her vampire’s schedule. Her parents were long dead. Her only regular companion was old Tom, her ginger cat.

Generally, Shirley was not interested in books. They collected dust. They sat on the shelves, silently berating you with your ignorance. No matter how many you read, there were always more: more words, more ideas, more dust.

Shirley had dropped by the library Saturday afternoon to pick up her check and to buy some scones from Maggie’s. But, on her way out, the bright clutter of old books made her pause. The book she believed to be The Rainbow Book of Fairytales had whispered like a secret. She scooped it up. It nestled in her palm, familiar as an old friend.

She certainly didn’t need it, but it was only ninety pence, and she wanted it. She rarely wanted anything. She was fair, fat, over forty and content. She rented a neat, book-less, dust-free cottage, walking distance to the library. Her only causes for concern were the night meanderings and occasional battles of old Tom.

Shirley bought some scones and walked home, the book in her bag heavy as a promise. Once home she carefully wiped it clean and set it over the mantel.

The next night when she returned home from the library at 2:00 AM, a card was pinned to her door. It was handwritten, a rare thing these days, penned in rust colored ink. The card was woven of heavy parchment. The ink had caught in the fibers, splattering the card.

Thomas Conner Grammarian,” it read. Lines swirled beneath, ending in graceful snail shell curves.

Shirley examined it. The name seemed slightly familiar but she couldn’t place it. She rubbed it. It was both soft and rough. She didn’t know what it meant, but she took it inside and laid it next to the multicolored book on her hearth.

There was a sound at the door. When Shirley opened it, there stood Tom. He strolled in as if he were the one who owned the cottage and yowled for food.

Dogs, Shirley thought, you house ‘em, feed ‘em, love ‘em, and they worship you for it. But Cats, you house ‘em, feed ‘em, love ‘em, and they expect you to worship them.

She sighed, filled Tom’s bowl with food, absently stroking his battered head.

I‘d be careful of that book if I were you,” Tom said.

Shirley froze, hand hovering over Tom. She held her breath, time appeared to stop.

It’s okay,” Tom said. “All cats can talk. Even some dogs, though truth is they don’t have much to say. Nasty empty minds most have, full of food, disgusting scents, and human worship. “

If all cats can talk,” Shirley whispered, “then why don’t they?”

Why spoil a good thing? You humans need to feel superior and in control. Just look at how hard you fought against the notion that the earth was the center of the universe. No, humans like to feel that we need them. It works out best this way.”

So why,” Shirley whispered, “Are you talking now?”

Because you picked up a grimoire somewhere, and a very powerful one. I have a feeling all kinds of unpleasant creatures will be calling soon.”

Shirley remembered the odd calling card.

What’s a grimoire?” Shirley asked.

A grimoire,” Tom said, slowly blinking his golden eyes, “is a textbook of magic. They contain instructions on creating magical objects, how to perform magical spells, and how to summon supernatural entities. In many cases, yours being a case in point, the book itself has magical powers.

And it is yours, bought and paid for. The book can only transfer ownership if you choose to sell it, and some form of payment must change hands.”

There was a knock on the door.

Also,” said Tom, “if anyone comes to buy it I would not let them across the threshold. People have been known to lose their souls over less.”

A half-moon shown through the window, Tom leapt out; the curtains billowed in his wake like a ghost. Shirley shivered. Her door creaked open. A tall darkness stood in her doorway. A chill filled the room.

I believe you have something that belongs to me,” said the darkness.

Shirley swallowed.

I realize,” said the voice, slightly nasal and whining a little, “that you didn’t mean to steal it. I will take that into account when reckoning the price.”

I didn’t steal nothing,” said Shirley, proper grammar leaving her head like an ill wind.

Ah ha,” said the voice “Double negative – that means you DID steal something.”

Shirley remembered the voice; it was Old Master Conner’s, Latin and English instructor at Chelsea primary school where Shirley had gone as a girl. She had failed his class. It had sealed her fate. He had labeled her unable to learn, possibly dyslexic, certainly not public school or university material. Shirley’s parents, and Shirley herself, had believed him. She had left school as soon as it was legal, and began cleaning.

But Master Conner was long dead and buried, so why was he still here bothering her?

If you think I stole it, why are you offering to buy it?” Shirley asked. She was not brave, but she was not imaginative either. It is only those who envision consequences that are easily scared.

Because certain bookssssssss,” the darkness hissed the word like a serpent. “Certain books need purchase.”

Shirley considered. “Sounds like you have a cold,” she said. “I didn’t know the dead got colds.”

What you don’t know could fill all the libraries of the world, and there would still be enough ignorance left over to fuel an election,” the darkness sniffed. It, or he, definitely sounded plugged up.

No need to be snide,” said Shirley. “I ain’t your student anymore.”

NOT,” wheezed, the darkness. “You’re not my student. ‘Ain’t’ is an ungrammatical construct – it means nothing.”

Well, if it means nothing why are you getting so upset about it,” asked Shirley.

I despise ill usage,” the darkness said. He coughed.

Shirley wondered if dead germs were contagious.

Why are you lurking in the doorway?” Shirley asked.

I’m not lurking,” the darkness sputtered. “I’m hovering, and I’m hovering because the rules plainly state that I’m not allowed entry unless invited in.”

Shirley considered. Conner had always been a bit of a bully. He’d often managed to reduce other, more sensitive students to tears, but never Shirley.

Sounds like you could do with a nice mug of tea,” she said. “Tea, honey, and lemon, maybe even a shot of whiskey to kill that cold.” She walked to the sink, filled the kettle and put it on the stove.

You stupid cow,” the darkness squeaked. “I’m dead. I can’t ingest tea, and even if I could, I can’t cross your threshold unless invited.”

No need to be rude,” sniffed Shirley. “You’ll never get an invite talking like that. Still I bet…”

She drifted off. The kettle was already screeching. It had boiled faster than usual. Maybe, thought Shirley, it was the presence of a ghost that made it burn hotter than usual, though you’d think that would lower temperature not raise it.

Fire can’t be hotter than fire,” the darkness was almost weeping with rage.

So, thought Shirley, you can hear thoughts then?

Yes,” said the darkness, “It’s one of the benefits to non-corporealness.”

Even if you can’t drink it, perhaps just smelling the steam and all could do you some good,” Shirley said. She bustled around the kitchen, adding the best Earl Grey, her finest honey, and a splash of the Michael Collins Single Malt she had gotten herself for Christmas.

It was true that Master Conner was rude, but how often, thought Shirley, do I get visitors? Usually her only companion was Tom who had, until tonight, had always been rather taciturn.

Conner, or rather the darkness where she supposed Conner to be, made a sniffing sound.

That’s very nice, thank you,” said the darkness. “I died with a cold, and I haven’t been able to shake it. You’d be surprised how few people sip tea by open doors, or windows on a cold night.”

Shirley wasn’t surprised at all.

She put the tea on the mantel, then pushed the small round table over to the doorway. She pulled up two chairs and laid two saucers on the table, carefully setting them on a delicate lace doily. Even if Conner couldn’t drink, Shirley imagined, it would be nicer for him to have his own place. She filled a second cup with Earl Grey honey, lemon, and a healthy shot of Michael Collins Single Malt, and laid it on the table.

The darkness sniffed, “Do you know,” he said. “I think it’s working.”

Of course it was working, thought Shirley. Imagine being surprised that people didn’t sit by open windows; imagine not realizing that a cold, even a deceased one, could benefit from tea, honey, lemon, and whiskey. Academics – always so lost in their heads, even when they weren’t dead and still had bodies.

Perhaps you’d like a nice buttered scone?” Shirley asked.

The darkness sighed. “Do you know how long it’s been?” he said. He sounded close to tears.

Shirley bustled back into the kitchen, first removing a day-old scone, then after a moment’s consideration, two. Even if Conner couldn’t eat, it seemed rude to make him smell hers. She heated them in the microwave. After a minute, she carried them to the table along with sweet butter, clotted cream, and her best semi-sweet orange marmalade which she laid out on thin china bowls, delicately rimmed by blue flowers.

She cracked open the scone, buttering it generously, adding a liberal dollop of cream and a heaping spoonful of the marmalade. She didn’t usually have such sumptuous teas, but this was a special occasion.

Just a tad of marmalade for me please,” sniffed the darkness.

Perhaps you’d prefer something sweeter, I have just the thing.” Shirley rose from the table scuttling over to the cupboard. “Blackberry preserves,” she said.

Yes, please,” said the darkness.

I knew it,” Shirley ladled the thick purple preserves into her last matching blue flower rimmed china. She carried it to the table and, after buttering and ladling clotted cream onto the second scone, covered it with blackberry. “It’s always the studious skinny ones that can get away with eating whatever. Just sit on their duffs all day and never gain a pound.”

Shirley couldn’t actually remember if Master Conner had been skinny or not, but who didn’t like being told they were told they were thin?

Bet you like yours sweet, am I right?”

If darkness could have blushed, it would have. The darkness inhaled, groaning with pleasure.

What’s so special about this book?” Shirley asked.

It’s an extremely significant grammar,” said the darkness. Shirley thought he sounded considerably clearer.

I was told it was a grimoire,” Shirley said. “Though it looks like a book of fairy stories to me.”

Who told you that,” the darkness said sharply.

Old Tom, my cat,” said Shirley, delicately dabbing a sticky, curling, rind of marmalade off her chin.

Cats,” hissed the darkness, “they think they’re so clever. Well, as it happens, Old Tom is wrong… or at least partly wrong. It’s a grammarians’ grimoire, the most precise dissection of magic in existence. It diagrams the structure of spells; it’s ‘The Fowler’s Modern English Usage’ of spells!”

Shirley was unimpressed. She didn’t know magic and had never been able to analyze a sentence; the combination seemed an unpleasant one.

Outside, the sun stretched fingers of light above the horizon. The darkness in the doorway paled. “Thanks for the tea and scones,” whispered the fading darkness.

Shirley cleaned up the tea things and went to bed. She awoke at 3:00 PM. Tom was sitting on her chest, carefully gnawing his saber claws and spitting old sheaths onto Shirley’s comforter.

Oh Tom,” she sighed, “Where have you been?”

But Tom only purred. Either the question did not warrant a reply or, most likely, it had all been a very odd dream. It was impossible to be sure. There were no signs of a late-night tea party, but Shirley was a good house keeper. She had put the room to rights before bed.

True, there was the book, back on the mantel, and next to it the odd card, but that was not proof. Shirley sighed. At 5:00 PM she left for work.

At the library, she scrubbed the bathrooms, wiped sticky fingermarks off the seats in the children’s corner, and then began the endless dusting.

Her habit was to begin at one and of the library and work her way through. It took about a month for her to complete the cycle. Tonight she began in the L’s. L was apparently a popular letter; there were books on Lancing, Lasers, Lassoing, and Lazarus; volumes on Legends, Lepers, and Lewis and Clark; treatises on Lost Artifacts, Lords, and Lourdes. Shirley was just reaching up to replace the tome on “Lost Artifacts of Ancient Religions” when a worn paperback tumbled down and landed at her feet. It was the “The Secret Spells of Syntax and Structure.”

As if she had opened the back of the book deposit, manuscripts began to leap from the shelf, crashing round her sensible brown oxfords. They raised a small whirlwind of dust. Shirley was embarrassed that so much dirt had been hiding on the shelves. She glanced around, hoping no one would see, but of course she was alone. It was, after all, the middle of the night. Suddenly, just then, as if to reassure her, the clock struck twelve.

She heard a rap at the library door. The door was heavy oak with chessboard sized windows of glass. Shirley peered through the pane. At first glance she spied no one, but when she squinted she saw a tall shadowy darkness deeper than the rest of the night. It looked vaguely familiar.

Collins?” she asked.

She heard a cough. “Oh no, I really thought that tea had helped,” she said. “That’s a killer of a cough you’ve got.” She considered her words. It was perhaps not the most tactful thing she could have said.

Look,” she called through the door. I can make you a cup here, but it will just be some P&G, nothing fancy. If you join me at home later I can make you a proper tea just last night.”

Do you know what you’ve unearthed, woman,” a voice from beyond the door cried. “It’s the lost treasury of the magic of lexicology.”

What,” said Shirley? The door was thick, and there was a shrill wind blowing outside. Conner, or rather the darkness-that-had–been-Conner, had a cold, and besides Shirley wasn’t sure what lexicology was.

Lexicology, woman, the study of words, their nature and function as symbols, the relationship of their meaning to epistemology in general, and the rules of their composition from smaller elements. Let me in and I can explain.”

Shirley doubted. She had never understood Conner when he was alive, and she was skeptical that death had improved his powers of communication.

He coughed again.

Oh you poor, poor, ma…uh…ghost; just wait right there and I’ll bring you a spot of tea. Then I’ll hurry up my dusting and you can follow me home for something more substantial.”

Bollox the dust, bollox the tea, you have just uncovered…” the darkness’ stream of vituperative was interrupted by a bombardment of hacking.

There now,” said Shirley, “serves you right it does when all I’m trying to do is make you better.”

The darkness sulked a bit. “Sorry.”

As well you should be. Now just hold tight.” Shirley filled the electric kettle. It boiled almost instantly.

I’m afraid all I have is Chamomile,” she said.

It’s alright,” the darkness said in a slightly muffed voice.

Shirley opened the heavy door. She had planned to put the cup just outside, but on second thought decided to leave it on the threshold. The wind was blowing vengefully, and so Shirley picked up some of the books that had lemmminged off the shelves and shoved them in the crack of the door.

NOOOO,” the darkness yelped as though it was in physical pain. Shirley wondered if that were possible. She had always supposed that pain dissolved in death.

Those manuscripts contain the key to glamouring grammar,” a shadow reached out of the night.

Shirley slapped at it. “Not without a library card you don’t,” she said. She had never had one herself, not much caring for books, but rules were rules.

My card has expired” wailed the darkness.

Shirley sighed. “Well, how about I put them on hold for you, and…” She considered. Conner could hardly return and get a new card. After all you needed to show a utility bill as proof of residence, and Shirley doubted that the water bill for the graveyard would work.

Tell you what. I’ll apply for one myself, but you have to promise me – cross your heart and hope to… well you have to promise not to stain them, and to return them on time. I can’t afford to be paying fines for you.”

But Shirley, these don’t belong to the library, at least not to this library. Don’t you understand you have opened a magic hole, an arcane vault to lost treasures of syntax and glamour.”

That may be as it is,” said Shirley, “but what’s in the library stays in the library, unless it’s checked out proper.”

Shirley noted that Conner had called her by her name for the first time and was pleased.

Now, if you’ll stop all your bother, I can finish up and we can go home.”

Let me in and I’ll help?”

Shirley considered. This was after all not her home, but what did a ghost know about cleaning? He was dust – the opposite of clean. And Master Conner had never been the neatest even in life. Also she distrusted his apparent hunger for those odd texts. She sighed. She hated to deny him, but… She hustled around and even so left half an hour before her usual time, something she had never done before.

She tried to put “The Secret Spells of Syntax and Structure,” and the other books back on the shelf where she supposed they had come from, but they kept vaulting from the shelves, landing at her feet like trouble. Finally, she swept them into a bag and left them behind the front desk.

After cleaning up Conner’s tea, she applied lipstick, a fresh coat of powder, and walked to the front. The bag was blocking the entrance. She tried to step over it, but the bag twisted loops round her feet like a newly leashed puppy. She untangled her feet, but the bag, though it did not appear to grow, or move, continued to thwart her departure. With a sigh she picked it up and crossed the threshold, vowing to return and apply for a card tomorrow.

As she stepped into the night, or rather into the wee hours betwixt midnight and dawn, the wind screeched. A shadow loomed beside her.

Give me the books, Shirley,” it whispered. Then it coughed.

Enough of that now,” said Shirley, and she walked home, the darkness sniffing behind her. It was nice to have a companion in the darkness, even if the companion was darkness.

Once home she put on a kettle of tea. While it was heating, she rummaged through her cupboard. Way at the back she felt what she wanted, it was an old charred pan that she had meant to be disposed of long ago.

Taking a tissue in her right hand she struck a match with her left. She lit the corner of the tissue, watching as it burnt to cinders. Ash and smoke rose into the night.

What are you doing?” the darkness asked.

Well,” she said, “you are dead, dust, ashes to ashes and all that, right? So perhaps you can use the ash of a tissue and finally get a good blow.”

The darkness was silent. A sound like a fog horn split the night. “You know,” said a muffled voice. “It works.”

Shirley smiled and put the bag of books on the mantel. They barely had time for tea and toast before the sun peeped over the horizon and started heading east. Shirley fell into bed, rising late, hurrying to ready herself for work. She felt bad that she would not arrive early enough to apply for a card. She felt guilty about the borrowed books, and resolved to leave a note explaining what she had done.

Tom vaulted though the window and glared at her. His left ear was nicked and there was a fresh scratch across his face.

Oh Tom,” Shirley said. “Have you been fighting again? Let me clean you off.”

Tom struggled halfheartedly as she cleaned his wounds with alcohol and iodine. Then he ate, curled up on the foot of the bed, and went to sleep.

Night at the library passed without incident. No books cast themselves from the shelves, no ghosts rapped at the door. But when Shirley closed up and crossed into the night, a damp coolness linked through her arm.

How’s the cold,” she asked?

Much better, thanks,” said the darkness.

I was thinking.” The darkness cleared its throat. “Perhaps I was hasty.”

Shirley waited.

Perhaps I, well… perhaps I underestimated you. Burning that tissue was a very good idea you know.”

The darkness was silent for a moment. “You’re wasted as a charwoman, why with thoughts like those…” The voice drifted off,

I don’t mind being a charwoman,” Shirley said. “It’s what I know.”

Well,” the voice began again. “I was thinking. Perhaps you could… well someone really ought to… I need an amanuensis.”

Shirley waited.

“Amanuensis,” said the darkness. “A literary or artistic assistant, one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.”

Shirley smiled. So the man, or rather ghost, was too grand for the word secretary? She pictured herself spending the lonely wee hours of the night uncovering secrets with a companion. The night would be lonely no more.

Thus it was that Shirley left the library, winning acclaim as a scholar in the arcane art of spells and syntax, at an age when most people were retired. She always insisted that she had a silent partner, crediting a mysterious ‘Thomas Conner’ as co-author and chief researcher of all her works, but most supposed that this was some odd form of modesty.

Tom, who disapproved of spirit scholars, moved next door.

In spite of his departure, Shirley always followed Tom’s advice. She never let Conner cross her threshold. She wasn’t certain that she had a soul, but just in case she did, she’d prefer to keep it. Each night, bundled in a down parka, a wool hat, scarf, and open fingered gloves so she could type, she sat in the open doorway, taking notes, warming herself with tea and malt, and warming Conner with the aroma of tea and malt.

She did not fear catching her death of cold. She knew this was a partnership that would only be strengthened by death.

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