I loved an old bookstore once. I loved everything about it. The bell that trembled like a tinkling fairy when the door creaked open and scraped over the buckling floorboards; where stacks of books had made themselves quite at home for many years. There was usually an older gentleman, quite Dickensian in appearance, sitting behind the counter reading, of course. I remember him having an over large, button down sweater always with note cards, pencils and other treasure overflowing its pockets. He smelled faintly of cough drops. He had glasses at the end of his nose through which he would peer at you in a very distinctive, if disconcerting, way. I learned over time what that glance meant. He was separating the sheep from the goats who crossed his threshold; for he knew, by long experience, the true book lovers from the mere browsing diletantes. The book lovers always paused in that doorway for the merest second, sniffing like hounds eager for the scent, that familiar tang of authenticity: the musty, dusty deliciousness of old books. Scent captured, they quickly disappeared into the twisted warren of bookshelves, not to be seen until two hours later. Once in a while, like the baying of hounds, you could hear them calling to one another with excited discovery. These were my people.
I found many treasures in that unassuming little bookstore. I read old tomes of poetry while sitting on top of a pile of old magazines stacked against an ancient radiator which made a pleasant nest during the winter months. This is where I was introduced to, and made friends with Keats, Wordsworth, and Dickinson. I slowly turned the pages of art books and reveled in the colors of time. Michelangelo, Vermeer, Fra Angelico, the gorgeous cerulean blue signature of Renoir and his joyful take on life – this man who made me fall in love with the magic that is Paris. I browsed through old Bibles and sometimes found ancient holy cards that might belong to a small boy who made his First Communion long ago and had a great Aunt Sally who was praying for him. I always had the impression that the shelves echoed with muted voices, voices eager to be heard if only the books were opened and the pages free to turn. It was a magical place, this bookstore.
My warmest memory by far is the day I met one of the best friends I would ever have in my inner literary circle, who went by the quirky name of Rumer Godden. I found her quite by mistake one winter afternoon in the FICTION F-H aisle. She was waiting quite patiently there for me to find her, as though she knew I was coming. I confess I loved her name first. It is what made me stop to take a look. Someone had donated a whole stack of her stories to the bookstore. I pulled one volume after the other from the shelves. Little did I know then that I would soon be walking the halls of an ancient English Benedictine Monastery and falling deeply in love with what I found there between the pages of her In this House of Brede. I would soon come to taste and smell the rich intoxication of India through her many novels set in that mesmerizing place: Kingfishers Catch Fire, The Peacock Spring, Black Narcissus. All titles that fed my romantic fancy like exotic bon bons. But always bon bons with that solid English center.
I would eventually know all these books as old friends and read them over and over just willing them not to end. For Rumer Godden has a magic pen. She is a weaver of rich and tapestried stories. She uses many jeweled threads that pass in and out of each other in magical narratives. She demands your close attention all throughout and then suddenly you see the whole picture appear before you with every single thread intact and in place. But the trouble with tapestries is that they are hard to describe. There are so many threads that if we take the time to unravel them all, the tapestry is ruined. So it is with Rumer’s stories. She must be read to be understood. She defies a second hand telling. It is the way of tapestries. There is always something you did not see before hiding behind a tree or flower there. Her stories change just a little bit each time you read them, and you always find what you need to find when you need to find it, or so it has always been with me. Rumer leaves treasures everywhere in the ruffling pages of her books.
On this particular winter day, it was the book at the bottom of the stack that caught my fancy. It was a whimsical, unassuming little tale, and was to be the first gift I received from her pen. Here before me was a deceptively simple tapestry woven with a flock of charming, albeit ordinary, little birds. Its title: An Episode of Sparrows. The “sparrows” of this tale were, in fact, children. The many children who made their home on Catford Street, an ordinary street filled with ordinary people in the heart of a lower-class London neighborhood. Children no one would find especially exceptional. The more practical, no nonsense grown-ups on the street called them sparrows because they sounded like a “vast lively cheeping” when they gathered to play; just a flock of grubby “cheeky, cocky, common sparrows” and that was that. Just children. But scattered quietly in that neighborhood were the grown-ups who could recognize the real heartache, the depth, the emotional intensity, the very real beauty that dwells in the seemingly small hearts of children. And they knew quite instinctively that there is no such thing as an ordinary child. They were unlikely heroes, these particular grown-ups. A timid, quiet, sickly, impractical old lady who admitted she was ill-suited for anything of importance, but loved to watch the children at play; a poor priest who could barely keep his Church going; an overworked middle aged lady in her dowdy dresses who had a warm and soft nest of a heart to give to a hurting child. These were the ones who realized that not one sparrow “was forgotten by God”; that each was to be counted in His sight. The ones who knew the truth about sparrows, spoke their language, fed them with love and understanding, and simply said, “I see you”. I began to realize as I read, that sometimes adults are too busy doing good to see the good that is sprouting underneath their eyes, and that those who acknowledge their great need for a Father’s care in their own humble, awkward, hopelessly inefficient lives are the ones who have been given the eyes to see. These are the keepers of the sparrows.
I read this entire story sitting in that bookstore. I was charmed by it, but it would be much later in my journey that I would begin to understand why it had “chanced” into my hands. For I was to become a keeper of sparrows in my own right, and many a sparrow would fly into my world. I became a mother to seven of my own. It was this little story that helped me to slow down sometimes and just watch each child even though nothing was getting done around the house. I started to pay closer attention and began to marvel at what I saw. Baby smiles, perfect little ears, pudgy hands on my cheeks. A little son who gave away all his First Communion money once to buy ice cream for his friends from the ice cream truck. A daughter who stoutly defended her little brother quite bravely from a group of bullies. I actually forced myself to listen to their jokes which were quite hilarious, or at least tried to be. I read their first attempts at poetry and asked with true awe in my heart, “who can this child be who has such thoughts?” I heard them pray for very profound things at the oddest times. I watched their fingers run deftly over the strings of a guitar. I watched them dance and marveled. I shared and felt their heartache at being shunned by a seeming friend. I tried my best to SEE them, and to realize there is no such thing as an ordinary child. I have even learned slowly to accept the fact that my own heart is hopelessly flawed, small and inept in so many ways. I have made so many mistakes, but God has trusted me anyway. This is the humbled way of the sparrow keepers.
The Father’s trust in me has also overflowed over the years into classrooms where I have taught whole flocks of sparrows. He taught me over time not to startle the shy ones, to cheer on the bold ones, to laugh at the cheeky ones, and to never patronize the sorrows that come into their small but profound little hearts. I have learned to understand the absolute gift I have received when a painfully shy little girl perches near my elbow and has the courage to say, “Can I tell you something?” in a breathless little voice trembling with every ounce of courage she owns. It means she trusts me now and I am abashed at the beauty of that trust. I have known students who would never have been brave enough to get up on a stage and act, though they wanted to so badly. They would always hide behind the lights or the scenery backstage and dream. I have learned to coax these children out of hiding with seeds of encouragement and honest praise and they have flown and known applause. Yes, I have lived though many an episode of sparrows through the years.
Sadly, my lovely old bookstore closed many years ago. I like to fancy that it had waited for me to meet Rumer before it disappeared as magically as it began. For I bought all her books that day. She still fills me with wonder at each tale I read again and again. But it is An Episode of Sparrows that holds pride of place on my bookshelf. Rumer would be glad of it I am sure.
May there always be old bookstores with tinkling bells and sagging shelves laden with treasure, where thoughts fly like happy sparrows out of every fluttering page. May there always be tapestries to discover, and may there always be keepers of sparrows who whisper that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.