Emile Louwrens ran a professional eye over Milly Morgan’s 1902 edition of Misdemeanors in Madagascar: The Confessions of a Trollop. The leather cover was dry and uninviting to the touch.
He would never read this book, he realized.
The thought devastated him.
No book passed through Emile’s Atmosphere unread. Each acquisition lay in an upstairs room until transferred to Emile’s night table beside his bed. From there the book moved to his desk for cataloguing, and from there to the shop where long-suffering customers browsed and waited while their favorite bookseller satiated his obsession.
Emile wedged the end of his pencil under the cover, bracing his back against the chair. The leather trim inched upward. Skeletal fingers groped from the pages, clutching blindly at the eraser tip. Emile jerked backward, dropping the cover into place.
Definitely, a woman’s hand, he confirmed to himself.
He had ordered the book for the twins from an antiquarian shop in Christchurch, New Zealand. The antiquarian seemed pleased to sell. He reduced the online price by sixty percent and included the cost of shipping in the final amount.
Emile understood why. Books programmed to disembowel readers did not sell quickly. Stock had to keep moving to pay the bills.
Emile Louwrens scratched his temple with the back of the pencil.
His mind ticked off the different explanations he would give to the twins who had ordered Milly’s memoirs. None seemed quite right.
A sharp rap on the shop counter broke into his thoughts. Emile pushed himself up from his desk, stretched, bent forward, and placed Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on top of Milly Morgan’s memoirs. Just in case.
The man who stood at the counter was shorter than Emile but they were about the same age, touching seventy.
The man bowed.
“Mr. Louwrens?” he queried in impeccable English.
“I am Emile, yes.”
“I am Lee Lu. A lady named Betsie said you would help me.”
The man bowed again.
Emile Louwrens smiled. Few men called Betsie a lady. Betsie worked the bottom of Yonge Street. She called herself a stress release therapist.
“Betsie said that you knew my daughter, Lee Sun. I believe you knew her by another name. Mei Rose.”
Mei Rose had entered the bookshop as Emile finished wrapping a book for delivery. She was the loveliest creature he had ever seen.
“Yes,” he replied to the old man’s question, with effort. “I knew your daughter.”
“Can you help me find her?” asked the stranger.
She had had the telltale eyes of a working girl, filled with weariness and too much knowing.
“I think, my friend,” Emile responded, “Mei Rose is beyond finding.”
The man across from him nodded.
“Still,” he said. “I would like to try.”
Emile again thought about that first day Mei Rose had entered his shop.
“Betsie said you could help me, sir,” she said.
“How?” he had asked eagerly.
“I need books for my classes,” the girl replied, dropping her eyes.
“Give me the list. I will get them for you.”
“I will pay,” she said. “With money.”
“Few girls ever leave the streets,” he said to the old man who was waiting for a reply. “Mei Rose signed up for classes but she did not have the courage to face the academic bookseller who followed her about in case she slipped one of his expensive textbooks into her purse. She lost her nerve and Betsie sent her to me. I have tried always to help the girls,” he added.
“Was my daughter a good student?”
“She was. My friend, your daughter went missing twenty-eight years ago. I searched for two years and found no trace of her.”
The man nodded. “Mei Rose was my only child. She was kidnapped from my side in a busy Hong Kong street. She was ten years old. I spent six years of my life looking for her then my wife fell ill and I returned home to take care of her. I am a doctor, you see. My wife died five years back. Before I follow her, I must know what happened to my daughter.”
“She was sold to a businessman in Yemen. He moved to Vancouver when she was fourteen. A year later, when she was fifteen, she escaped and worked her way across Canada to Toronto. Betsie found her and took her in. Betsie is like that. Mei Rose did, you know, have to work for a living?”
“Come into the kitchen,” Emile said. “I will make a pot of tea.”
“Thank you. I would like that very much.”
While Emile poured the tea his mind slipped back to Mei Rose.
“Thank you! Thank you! Mr. Louwrens, thank you!”
Mei Rose paged through her new textbooks. She touched the pages as he, Emile, touched books. Knowing this made him happy. She was as excited as a small child who finds cotton candy under her bed on Easter Sunday.
“You have your assignment sheet?” he asked.
“Yes. Here it is,” Mei Rose replied, handing her class schedule to him.
Emile studied the sheet. “Mei Rose,” he said on impulse. “I will help you with your studies.”
Suspicion clouded her eyes and the smile died on her lips.
“No, child! I want to help you because you have no one else who can. I am just an old man who wants to see you succeed.”
Mei Rose thought for a while then replied, “I would like that.”
“We must set up a timetable. To succeed you need discipline.”
“Mei Rose came to me three times a week for the first year of her studies,” Emile Louwrens told her father. “She was an intelligent girl and a quick learner. She was doing well that first year.”
“How old was she when you met her?”
“So young,” whispered Mei Rose’s father. “She was so young.”
“People who do this to children deserve no mercy,” replied Emile as he stirred sugar into his tea.
“You speak as if she changed.”
Emile remembered shutting the English grammar book. “That’s enough for today, Mei Rose. Do you want some coffee?”
“That would be nice, thank you, Mr. Louwrens,” she replied.
“You have something on your mind?” he probed.
“Do you believe in dragons?”
“No. Not particularly. Why?”
“I met a dragon this last Sunday.”
He placed the kettle on the sink and turned to face the girl. “And where was this, exactly?” he asked tentatively.
“You don’t believe me!” cried Mei Rose, sweeping her hair away from her face.
“But, it’s true. I rented a car and drove to Niagara.”
She smiled, “It was the first time I’ve done anything like that.”
“It is important for you to become independent, Mei Rose,” interjected Emile.
“Important, you mean, to become independent from my life as it is.”
“Yes, that is what I mean.’
“Everything was closed down for the winter. It was just me, and the water. Mr. Louwrens, I found the dragon by following the tracks of some wild animals in the snow.”
“You should be careful, Mei Rose!”
“They looked like fox tracks.”
Emile Louwrens snorted as he placed a coffee mug on the table.
“Truly! I found a small cove among the trees. It was almost snow free. To the one side was this strange stone formation. It looked exactly like a dragon’s head, with teeth, ears on top of the head and flared nostrils. It seemed to watch me from the corners of its eyes.”
“You mean clearing among the trees.”
“No. I mean cove. It was like a cove to me.”
Emile nodded. Words shaped themselves differently for different people.
“I sat down beside the stone,” Mei Rose continued. “The head turned and the dragon was talking to me.”
“You fell asleep.”
“No! I did not!”
“What did it say?” asked Emile, allowing Mei Rose to live into her fantasy.
“It said that some women have a sacred gift. They can open and close the gates of Heaven and of Hell. The dragon said that it would teach me how to use my gift so that I could return home.”
Emile Louwrens closed his hand over hers. “Let me help you, Mei Rose,” he said. “I want no favors. For me it will be a blessing just to have you accept my help. I can buy you a small apartment and you can work for me while you finish your studies. I could do with some help in the shop.”
“No. No thank you, Mr. Louwrens. This is my journey. Always, I have had men make decisions for me. I want to take back my life. I want to be in control of it. Please understand. Men stole my father from me when I was ten. My master told me what to wear and when to wear it. The men I service tell me what they want from me. I never make decisions for myself, as a woman. Please, Mr. Louwrens, you are my friend, my true friend. Please understand.”
Emile Louwrens brushed the hair away from Mei Rose’s cheeks.
“Tell me about your dragon,” he said.
Emile Louwrens turned to the old man crouched over his kitchen table.
“Mei Rose met her dragon in the last week of February 1978. Her eighteenth birthday was on June 3rd. I had a party for her in the Alley. After an hour or so I missed her. I went looking for her and found her perched on a ladder in front of Mythology & Religion. I made her return to the party. Afterwards, I looked at the book she had taken off the shelf. It was the I Ching.”
“The book of changes,” said Lee Lu. “We are named from the book of changes.”
Emile Louwrens cleared his throat. “Every Sunday after her birthday she visited her dragon,” he continued. “Then, one day, at the beginning of September, she told me that she would spend the Mid Autumn Festival with the dragon. She said that it would be her last lesson in how to open the gates.”
The man opposite him frowned. “That would have been, let me see,” he calculated. “If I am not wrong the Mid Autumn Festival fell on September 17th that year.”
“Correct. It was a Sunday in the eighth month of the Chinese calendar.”
“Mid Autumn falls on the fifteenth day when the moon is brightest.”
“What happened then?”
“Well,” said Emile as he rose to refill their cups. “I was a little concerned but, you see, she had suffered so much that I simply wanted her to find healing. If, by believing in her dragon, she found peace, well, I was happy. She phoned before she left for the clearing. She said goodbye. It seemed so final, so inevitable. I never saw her again.”
He took a long sip of tea and steadied himself. The memory was raw inside him. “I telephoned the police but her profession counted against her.”
“They were not interested in finding her?”
“Unfortunately, no. I went looking for her. The weather turned bad and the best I could do until the following spring was drive around Niagara Falls. Then, in May, I found a place that seemed to fit Mei Rose’s description. It was a clearing with a stone formation to one side. The stone looked a little bit like a dragon’s head. Not much, though. Not to me.”
“Women are blessed with better vision than we are,” said Lee Lu.
“There was no sign of struggle, no indication that she had been hurt at that place. I searched the area around the clearing throughout the following year. One evening, just before closing the bookshop, I had a visit from the police officer who took my report on Mei Rose’s disappearance. He stopped by to tell me that a burned out rental car had been found in a wood lot along the river north of Woodstock, New Brunswick. The purse inside belonged to Mei Rose. The Woodstock police found nothing else. Betsie and I drove to Woodstock and searched the riverbank. We found nothing. I stopped looking after that.”
Lee Lu nodded.
“Thank you for trying to find my daughter,” he said. “I think I will start my search with the dragon.”
“I will draw you a map.”
They finished their tea in silence.
As Lee Lu walked through Emile Louwrens’ office, he noticed Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged edition.
“Ah!” he said, reaching for it.
Emile held his breath.
“Tibetan medicine! I will buy this from you, if I may.”
“Excuse me?” said Emile.
“This book. See. It is on Tibetan medicine, written in Mandarin.”
“Oh! Oh, I didn’t know that,” replied Emile. “Please. Let it be my gift to you for bringing such a precious human being into this world. Mei Rose touched many lives while she lived with us. It is the least I can do.”
“I am honored. Thank you.”
Lee Lu was about to turn toward the opening in the partition which separated the office from the bookshop when his eyes fell on Milly Morgan’s memoirs.
“That book carries a curse, you know,” he said.
“No I didn’t,” replied Emile with less confusion and more interest.
“Oh, yes. I treated an English police officer serving in Hong Kong while it was under British control. His wife bought a copy of the memoirs for his birthday. His injury was serious. I had to remove his left lung.”
“Is that so?”
“A wife’s intuition. The curse attacks only unfaithful men.”
Emile Louwrens waited until Lee Lu had turned the corner. He locked the bookshop door and twitched the OPEN sign to CLOSED. Walking to the telephone in his office, he dialed a number.
“Delia here!” said the voice on the other end.
“Dr. Delia, this is Emile Louwrens,” he replied.
“Oh, excellent! Tell me our book is in!”
“It is. You do know,” he began.
“That the book carries a curse,” replied Delia, completing his sentence. “Oh, yes. That is the reason we are interested. It is just so delicious, Milly concocting that surprise for unwary men. She worked with a local Madagascar witch, you know. The witch, rumor has it, was a woman with a formidable reputation for keeping men honest.”
“I am sure,” said Emile.
“The book didn’t, you know, hurt you, did it, Emile?” asked Delia with sudden concern.“My dear Dr. Delia, of course not! I am beyond matters of the heart,” he said.
Emile Louwrens is a bookseller who lives in a cul-de-sac off Yonge Street in Toronto. He and the other residents call it the Alley of Lost Arts. Strange things happen in the Alley.
Mei Rose is one of the many street people Emile takes care of, a girl whose father came looking for her.