A Strange Encounter

I don’t for one minute think anyone will believe this. But it really happened, and it happened just the way I will relate it to you.

Last fall, I entered a small used bookstore in Goshen on a Saturday afternoon. It was raining lightly and the wind was blowing when I walked through the door. I felt a bit chilled, and expected to get warm inside the shop. But, surprisingly, it was colder inside than it was outside. I could actually see my breath for a few minutes as I stood inside the door wishing that it was warmer. It was so cold that I considered leaving and going back out into the rain. But I changed my mind when I saw the thousands of books neatly stacked on wooden shelves that extended from the floor to the ceiling in every direction. The place smelled wonderfully of old books and ancient ideas, and I soon forgot about the cold atmosphere.

I didn’t know what I might find in the place, since I had never visited the shop before. I had seen the sign outside on several occasions as I drove past, and my curiosity finally moved me to enter the door. I’m attracted to used bookstores generally, and always hope I’ll find some unusual treasure while randomly thumbing through the stock. It’s hard to stay out of a store I’ve never visited for this reason. At any rate, I was pleased with what I found in that shop, and stayed for over an hour before I realized that it was later than I thought and that I must get going.

I had found a couple of minor treasures, so I had to make my purchase before leaving. I had been so engrossed in my book browsing that I failed to notice where the cash register was located. I walked back and forth across the shop several times before finally noticing a small cabinet in a corner of the store. A lighted candle sat on top of the cabinet. It was, oddly, the only light in that corner of the shop. A small sign hung on the wall behind the cabinet. “MAKE PURCHASES HERE,” it said.

I walked up to the cabinet and looked for a clerk. A wooden stool stood behind it. No one was in sight. In fact, no one was in sight anywhere in the store. For a fleeting moment, I thought that perhaps I had lingered after closing time and had been locked in inadvertantly by the very person whom I could not find. I walked to the entrance door and tried to open it. It was unlocked. I noticed when I looked out that the rain had stopped, but it was still very cloudy and windy. I had left the books I wished to buy on the top of the cabinet, and thought that perhaps I would just forget about them and leave before the rain started again. But I really wanted to take ownership of the books, so decided to try once more to find someone to take my money.

I returned to the cabinet. The candle was no longer lit. I smelled a hint of smoke, probably from the candle. “Hello!” I called out. “Is anyone here?”

I thought I heard a noise behind a door in the wall behind the cabinet. It was a muffled sound, as if someone were trying to speak but encountered some sort of difficulty. “Hello!” I called again. “I would like to purchase some books!”

Again, I heard a sound behind the door. With just a bit of apprehension, I stepped behind the cabinet and approached the door. I looked back into the shop to see if anyone was there. I saw no one. “Hello!” I tried again. “Is anyone there?”

I considered leaving once again. Then I looked back to the cabinet and saw the books I wanted lying on top. I seemed to be needing those books more each minute. Perhaps it was the difficulty I was encountering in purchasing them that made me covet them so badly. I turned back to the door, put my hand on the knob, and turned it. I pushed the door slowly until I had opened it enough to put my head through the opening. I leaned forward, slowly, trying to see what lay behind it.

On the other side of the door was a storage room, with boxes stacked up on the floor and a table covered with books in various states of repair. The light in the room was dim, but I could tell that there was an interior source of light somewhere. I looked to the right, and was startled to see a young woman sitting in a chair, reading a book. A small lamp on a small table near her lighted the corner where she sat. She was deeply engrossed in the book in her hands. She looked almost mesmerized, her dark eyes wide open and her brows arched as if she were intensely affected by whatever it was she was reading. I stood for a minute or two, watching her with wonder. I was taken by her extraordinary pose as much as I was amazed that she apparently had no knowledge of my presence.

The young woman was so absorbed in her book that I was hesitant to call her out of her reverie. Further, I found myself enjoying my secret viewing of a creature caught in the wild, so to speak. She was pretty, she was completely unaware that anyone was watching her, and she was, for the moment, in another world – that world within the fiction held in her own hands. It was a special moment for me, and one that I was reluctant to give up.

I stood there long enough to see her turn several pages of the book. Finally, as time continued passing and my ultimate departure from this place grew later and later, I knew that I must act.

“Ma’am,” I said softly. The woman didn’t respond. “Ma’am,” I said a bit louder. Still no response. Was this young woman deaf? “Hello!” I fairly shouted. Unbelievably, she didn’t react at all. Still she read on, oblivious to me and, apparently, to anything else in this world.

Gathering all my bravery and relinquishing my inhibitions, I walked over and stood next to her. It was then that I noticed her apparel. She wore a long dress with long sleeves. I thought at first she might be Mennonite, but the dress was more in the standard style of a hundred years ago than of contemporary Mennonite or Amish garb. She wore no makeup, making her face even more interesting in its natural beauty and unmasked purity. The book was nestled in her lap, and she so tightly gripped it that her fingers were white like alabaster. I placed my hand on her arm. It took a few seconds for the pressure of my hand to reach her consciousness. Slowly, she lifted her head up and looked toward me. She didn’t look at me, just toward me, as if she knew something was happening in this room that she might be vaguely interested in but yet was not ready to fully acknowledge. The world in that book must have been exceedingly difficult to leave.

“Excuse me,” I said, my hand still on her arm. “I would like to purchase a book.”

Her gaze gradually became more cognizant. It was as if she were refocusing her eyes to the place we occupied together, and away from that faraway world she was so reluctant to withdraw from. After a few seconds, she looked directly in my eyes and I knew that she now was ready to communicate with me.

“I’d like to purchase a book. Can you help me do so?”

“Oh, my goodness. I’m so sorry!” she said. “I wasn’t paying attention. I must have fallen asleep.”

“I think you were just absorbed in your book,” I said. “Must be a good one.”

“Oh, well, yes, it’s pretty good. But that’s no excuse.”

I removed my hand from her arm and she rose from the chair.

“How long have you been waiting?” she asked.

“Not long. It took a few minutes to figure out where you were, though.” She was a bit wobbly and grabbed my arm to steady herself. We walked to the door and went out into the shop.

“I’m so sorry. I was back there doing some filing and somehow ended up in that chair with that book. I can’t imagine what got into me.” She looked puzzled and disoriented, and was obviously embarrassed. Her hands shook slightly as she laid her book down on top of the cabinet, next to the ones I wished to purchase. I wanted to see the title, but the cover was face down. I wondered what sort of book could have enraptured a person so completely.

“Are these the books you wish to purchase?” she asked.

“Yes ma’am.” I couldn’t help but examine the young woman carefully while she prepared my books for purchase. Her dress was like those I had seen in old catalogs from the early 1900s. It was generally beige in color, with a small plaid pattern of light and dark brown lines. The sleeves were slightly puffed, with white cuffs at her wrists. A solid brown band surrounded her waist, about 4 inches wide. It was knotted at the back in a graceful bow. The neck was high and was framed with large white lapels. The dress, though very much an antique, looked extraordinarily good on her. Her hair, dark brown, must have been very long but was pinned up. It made her look taller than she was. The style seemed to be in the same period as that of her dress. Although the style was so much outdated, she was very attractive in the wearing of it nonetheless.

“That’s a very interesting costume you’re wearing,” I said. “Do you always dress like that here?”

She looked up at me and appeared puzzled.

“Sir?” she said.

“Oh, I just noticed your dress. It’s very unusual to see someone dressed like that these days.”

She was completely disconcerted after my comment about her dress. She seemed offended and at the same time frightened. Her cheeks flushed red, and her hands trembled. She fumbled with the books as she tried to put them in a paper bag.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything,” I said.

She looked down and shook her head.

“It’s quite all right, sir.”

She would not look at me, and I presumed it was because of my comment about her attire. The blush that had just been displayed in her cheeks drained away, and she became as pale as her fingers appeared when she was clutching the book she had been reading. I was consumed by terrible feelings of shame and remorse. She was so innocent and unassuming, and I spoiled whatever friendship we might have enjoyed by my crass rudeness. I so wished to make things right with her, and the only way to do so was to apologize and try again at conversation, this time with a different subject altogether.

“Miss,” I said. “I’m so very sorry for being rude to you. I had no intention of hurting your feelings. I hope you can forgive me.”

“Sir,” she said, still avoiding my eyes, “you have nothing to apologize for. It’s not my place to take apologies from customers anyway. If I would have been seeing to my duties, you would have made your purchase long ago and would probably be in much more cheerful surroundings by now.”

She added my purchases up on a pad of paper and told me the total due. I reached for my wallet.

“Are you the owner of the shop?” I asked.

“No, sir, I am not.”

“May I ask your name?” I knew I was pushing perhaps too far, but I really did want to know her name. It might be the only point of reference I would ever have.

“My name is Lucy Westenra, sir.” She finally looked up at me when she spoke her name. When she said it, it was as if she were a teacher telling it to a room full of first grade students. Each sound was uttered carefully, and each syllable was phrased with eloquence. She was proud of her name, or at least it seemed so to me.

“Lucy, I am pleased to meet you.” I told her my name, and reached over the cabinet to shake her hand. She hesitated for a second, then reluctantly reached across and put her hand in mine. I was startled by the lack of warmth in it. I can go so far as to say that her hand was as cold as ice. I was so affected by the feel of her hand, small and delicate as it was, that I pulled my hand away quickly. It had almost hurt me to touch her. The temperature of the shop, still very cold, must have kept her body in an almost continuous state of frigidity. I felt even more sorry for her at this juncture.

“Lucy,” I said, “why is it so cold in this place? I know it’s uncomfortable for me, and probably for other customers as well. It must be awful for you to have to work in this place hour after hour.”

“Do you think it’s cold here?” Lucy said. She didn’t seem to be facetious in her response, but truly was surprised at my observation.

“Well, it does seem so to me. In fact, it’s so cold in here that this candle lost its flame.” I pointed to the candle on the cabinet top. I thought a small joke would put Lucy in better spirits.

Lucy glanced at the candle, and it was if she had looked in the face of a monster. Her face contorted to the point where I would not have recognized her had I seen her anywhere else. I could do nothing but observe her behavior and wonder what in this world might have caused such a violent reaction in her. She backed away as she continued watching the candle.

“Lucy, are you all right?” I asked. Lucy put her right hand on her breast as if to quell a wildly beating heart. She became even more pale, if that were possible, and I had a sense that something awful was about to happen.

“Lucy, please! Can I help?” I felt stupid and clumsy, and had no idea how I might help if she had requested it.

Lucy put both hands to her cheeks, and, as I should have expected, started to swoon. I rushed around behind the cabinet and caught her before she hit the floor. I put one arm around her waist and with the other grasped her shoulder, and carefully eased her down to the floor. She was much smaller than I had thought, and seemed almost weightless.

I looked for something to place under her head, and found a small cushion on the seat of the nearby stool. I folded it over and placed it under her neck to elevate her head. Lucy’s breathing was shallow, and her body, like her hand, almost radiated frost.

Not having any special training in emergency situations, I could think of nothing better to do than to stand by and help Lucy when she regained consciousness. I knelt on the floor next to her, and I spent my time examining her closely. Her features were fine and comely, and I was taken once again with her pure and unblemished beauty. I would have been proud to be seen by my friends with Lucy at my side at some social function. She looked frail and weak, however, and this aspect of her condition, coupled with the peculiarly gelid state of her body, suddenly put me in a state of morbid fear. I considered the possibility that she was actually near death.

As I now dealt with this new worry, I noticed something very odd. On the front of Lucy’s dress, just below the high neck, a spot of blood grew. It was perhaps an inch across when I first saw it. Although I was at first startled at seeing the blood, it was almost comforting to me to think that there might be an identifiable cause for the strange disorder that afflicted this young and troubled woman.

Any sense of relief on my part subsided quickly as I watched the spot of blood grow larger. What could have caused this wound? It was not for me to discover, for the wound, whatever caused it, was hidden under Lucy’s dress and whatever underclothing lay beneath it. Even if I had possessed first aid skills, I knew nothing about the removal of clothing such as Lucy wore, save for the expeditious use of a pocket knife. I still had presence of mind to consider my own future, which would have been murky at best if I had been found to have disrobed by knife a bloody, unconscious young woman. No, this was better left to someone else.

Knowing I must act in some way, I rose from the floor to find a telephone. It must surely be near that cabinet. I looked on the cabinet, inside the cabinet, and any place I could think that a telephone might be. If it was nearby, it was well hidden. I spent all of 30 seconds in search of it, then realized that a fire station was no more than a block away. I must run there and summon help. It would be the quickest way.

I started out, then rushed back to Lucy with a message.

“Lucy!” I yelled. “I’m going for help! I’m not leaving you! I promise I’ll return with help!”

I ran out into the drizzling evening and sprinted to the fire station. I dashed inside and breathlessly told several men on duty what had just taken place in the bookshop. They in turn rounded up several others and made ready to depart in their emergency van. Though I was still struggling for breath, I sprinted, as best I could, back to the bookshop. I heard the siren of the fire department vehicle as I entered the shop door. All I could think of was the blood on Lucy’s dress, and I was nearly sick with dread at what state the unfortunate girl would be in when I returned to her side.

Once inside, I ran to the back of the shop. I rounded the end of a bookshelf and turned toward the place where Lucy lay. I stopped suddenly. A man stood behind the cabinet, talking on a telephone. I was in shock at seeing the man, then, disregarding him, I stepped behind the cabinet to check on Lucy.

She was not there. I bent down and surveyed the floor, looking for some sign of her presence, and especially for the blood that must have dripped from her body onto the floor. I saw no blood.

“Excuse me,” the man on the telephone said. “Did you lose something here?”

“Lucy,” I said. “Where is Lucy?”

“Lucy? Lucy who?” he responded, acting for all the world as if he were completely baffled by my question.

“Lucy . . .” I said, then realized it would make no difference if I uttered her surname. Lucy was not there, and she would not appear if I gave this man any more information. I felt terribly alone and, at this moment, disconnected from reality. As I stood there attempting to make sense of what had just happened, the emergency team from the fire station came into the shop. The man on the phone ended his conversation to deal with the sudden increase in visitors to the shop.

Wild thoughts raced through my mind, even as I spoke to the man behind the cabinet and the men in firemen’s uniforms. I told them all what I had seen and heard, and as I told the story and saw their facial expressions as they reacted to it, its reality seemed to fade farther and farther away until, by the time I had finished, I was quite convinced, as I am sure they were, of my total insanity.

And after I had finished telling my story, they asked me questions not about what had happened to me or to Lucy, but about where I came from, why I was there, and whether I could prove my identity and my place of residence. The man behind the counter claimed that he had been on duty in the shop all day, and that he had not seen me there at all. I did my best not to be argumentative or unkind, trying not to antagonize anyone and thereby perhaps jeopardize my own welfare. As the questions continued, I looked over at the top of the cabinet and saw that the candle that had been extinguished was now burning brightly. I also saw that there were three books lying there, where I had left two and Lucy one.

“You see,” I said, interrupting one of the firemen, “these are the books I placed here earlier.” I picked up the two books, and saw that they were, indeed, the books that I had so much desired just a short time ago. And there, next to where they had lain, was the book that Lucy Westenra had placed there with her very own beautiful, white, cold hands.

My hand trembled as I reached for the book and picked it up. I brought it close to me, and turned it over so I could see the cover. “Dracula” in large black letters graced the cover, and the name “Bram Stoker” appeared in smaller letters below the title. I saw a marker in the book, and I opened the book at that place. I found a passage and read it to myself.

There was a long spell of silence, big, aching, void, and then from the Professor a keen “S-s-s-s!” He pointed, and far down the avenue of yews we saw a white figure advance, a dim white figure, which held something dark at its breast. The figure stopped, and at the moment a ray of moonlight fell upon the masses of driving clouds, and showed in startling prominence a dark-haired woman, dressed in the cerements of the grave. We could not see the face, for it was bent down over what we saw to be a fair-haired child. There was a pause and a sharp little cry, such as a child gives in sleep, or a dog as it lies before the fire and dreams. We were starting forward, but the Professor’s warning hand, seen by us as he stood behind a yew tree, kept us back. And then as we looked the white figure moved forwards again. It was now near enough for us to see clearly, and the moonlight still held. My own heart grew cold as ice, and I could hear the gasp of Arthur, as we recognized the features of Lucy Westenra. Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed. The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness. . . .

I couldn’t help but read on . . .

When Lucy, I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape, saw us she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares, then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour, but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew. At that moment the remnant of my love passed into hate and loathing. Had she then to be killed, I could have done it with savage delight. As she looked, her eyes blazed with unholy light, and the face became wreathed with a voluptuous smile. Oh, God, how it made me shudder to see it! With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone. The child gave a sharp cry, and lay there moaning. There was a cold-bloodedness in the act which wrung a groan from Arthur. When she advanced to him with outstretched arms and a wanton smile he fell back and hid his face in his hands.

I looked up from the book. The firemen had given up their effort to save Lucy Westenra and were walking out the door on their way back to the fire station. The shopkeeper was still behind the cabinet, talking once again on the phone that wasn’t there at all just a few minutes before. I reached for my wallet once again, as I had done when Lucy was standing behind that cabinet and had told me the balance owed. I leaned over the cabinet and looked for the pad that Lucy had written on. There it was,  and there were the numbers scrawled in large, bold, and flowing script, in the style of those who ciphered in the days when women wore dresses like that worn by Lucy Westenra, in this bookshop, on this very day.

One Response

  1. A Strange Encounter (Conclusion)
    A Strange Encounter (Conclusion) September 15, 2009 at 6:02 am |

    […] The complete version of this account can be found here. […]

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