The Grammarians

BO´OKISH. adj. [from book.] Given to books; acquainted only with books. It is generally used contemptuously.
A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
In the evenings, the sisters waited for their father, kneeling on the couch, side by side, staring out the living room window.

“Maybe a wolf did suckle them when I wasn’t looking,” their mother said. “They have a canine sixth sense. They know when you’re coming.”

He suggested they bring him his slippers in their mouths, one slipper per.

“God, don’t let them hear you. They’ll really do it.”

The night the dictionary arrived, they were there, on the couch, waiting. Their hands, like four paws, lined up along the back of the couch, their two chins resting on them. They were always mercifully silent at that time of day, Sally noticed, gazing into the dusk. Sniffing out their prey, she thought. She laughed, and they turned to look at her, two sweet and innocent faces. She leaned down, kissing one on the top of the head, then the other, in the blissful quiet that held them until Arthur came home.

The night the dictionary arrived, the girls heard the drawn-out crunching of gravel as they did every night, a favorite sound: the car in the driveway, their father. As adults, years and years later, they both particularly remembered that night. Happily watching their father step out of the car. The car door slamming shut. Another night. Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home. But then Daddy opened the trunk of the Buick and lifted out some sort of wooden stand. He lugged it into the house. No, no questions yet. Just wait and see. They stood on the front porch, then, cold bare feet, watching him lift an enormous book from the dark trunk of the car, like a doctor delivering a baby, they later said, the biggest book imaginable.

The stand was dragged into the new den. The biggest book imaginable was placed on top, open, each side swelling like a wave in the ocean.

Their mother said it looked like an altar.

“What’s an altar?” Laurel said.

She didn’t really care. And she knew what the word “altar” meant, somehow, without being told. But their father said, “Let’s look it up.”

He flipped through the biggest book imaginable, the dictionary, a book that contained and explained every word in the language, he said. The print was so small it looked like print for a mouse to read.

But the page that should have had the word “altar” was missing. Thousands of tissue-thin pages, and that one was lost, torn out, gone forever.

“Damn,” he said.

Their mother laughed. “Look that up for the girls instead.”

Daphne wanted him to close the big book. She wanted to run her hand along the cliff of compressed pages notched with steps the size of a fingertip, each one labeled with letters of the alphabet.

Other books were unloaded from the trunk of the car that night, but none of the other books had its own altar. A man who worked at their father’s office had sold all the books to Arthur. The man’s father had died, and the man had no use for his father’s old books.

“You could say we’ve inherited them.” Their father handled each one as if it were precious, breakable.

Laurel and Daphne watched their parents put the other books in the new, empty bookshelves. The den itself had just been constructed, converted from a small screened-in porch. Their parents admired how the new room looked. There were only thirty or so books, but they were impressive. Some were bound in leather.

* * *​

It was an instant library. Like instant coffee or instant soup. That’s what Uncle Don said. He said books were not meant for display, they were meant to be read.

Their father had been sitting comfortably in his new armchair in his new room, his legs stretched before him, pointing out the books to his brother. When Uncle Don said what he said, Arthur pulled his feet back. He no longer looked comfortable. One pant leg had risen up, and Laurel saw his skin, which looked uncomfortable, too, a strange colorless patch, vulnerable, almost frightened, like a squirrel waiting, frozen, on a branch until you passed by.

“Why not fill the shelves with your own books, books you’ll really read?” Uncle Don said, as if answering their father, though their father had said nothing.

“We read them,” Laurel said.

“Yes, well, they would, wouldn’t they?” Uncle Don said. He pulled a volume from a shelf. “The King’s English. Utterly appropriate for a five-year-old.”

“Don’t start up with them, Don,” their father said, a little wearily.

“Yeah,” Daphne said. “Don’t start up with us.”

She got a look from her father and said quickly, “Sorry, Uncle Don. Start up with us!”

That made their father laugh and Uncle Don look up at the ceiling and say, “God help us,” which pleased Daphne. She looked at Laurel expecting a sly smile of approval. But Laurel was now sitting on the floor, her lips moving as she slowly read from The King’s English.

“‘… air of cheap or-na-ment…’”

* * *​

They liked to pull the ottoman in front of the altar, climb up, and stand there, leafing through the dictionary. Sally sometimes encouraged them to watch television just to get them away from the dictionary. It couldn’t be healthy, two little faces pecking at the musty pages of a dead man’s discarded book. Of course, it was educational, she told herself that. But what sort of an education? Bits and scraps, words as unconnected to one another as candy wrappers dropped on the street. She smiled at that thought. A lot of candy wrappers that would be, thousands. Where had the thousands of pieces of candy gone? Sally went to the dresser in the front hall and opened a drawer. She always kept a box of chocolates there in case someone stopped in for coffee. If the children wanted to read about words, why shouldn’t they? She went into the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and opened the box. She extracted two pieces heavy with caramel and nuts. But just two. They were quite rich.

Collie, colie, coaly, coal-black. See COAL. 1. A large dog of a breed originating in Scotland, where it has been used for generations in herding sheep. The breed is large, standing 20 to 24 inches at the shoulder and weighing 50 to 60 lbs. The variety with a rough and profuse coat is more common and decidedly more commanding than the smooth-haired variety.
In the frail, almost transparent pages, the collie looked like Lassie and was indeed commanding. On other pages there were other dogs drawn in fine-lined profiles. There was a long, low dachshund, decidedly less commanding than even the smooth-haired collie, and a seriously uncommanding dog with a fanciful name, the Dandie Dinmont terrier.

“And spaniels, spaniels, spaniels,” Laurel said. “Every spaniel has its own drawing.”

She brought this up with her father one night after dinner.

“Why isn’t the dictionary nice to cairn terriers? It gives them no picture. And look what it says about them: employed chiefly to enter rock piles and dislodge vermin.”

“Vermin.” Not a nice word. And while other dogs were described as “noble” and “loyal,” cairns were “employed.”

“The dictionary is not fair.”

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be fair, exactly,” their father said.

“It’s not supposed to be mean, is it?”

“Well, it has mean words in it, so we can understand them and know what they mean, but…”

“How can ‘mean’ mean mean and also mean mean?” Laurel said.

* * *​

“Perhaps we should get the girls a real dog,” Sally said that night when she got into bed. “They spend so much time looking up breeds in the dictionary, maybe a flesh-and-blood dog would do them good.”

“It’s you who wants a dog,” Arthur said. “Isn’t it? Two wolf pups not enough?”

How did he know? Could he tell she was lonely?

Sally Wolfe loved her daughters as much as her husband did, but she was less comfortable with them. She loved them the way you love the birds in the trees, that was the sensation: the birds sing, they flutter, their colors flash by; but you cannot touch them because you cannot catch them. She admired her children from a baffled distance, pretty little girls, as busy as birds, as alien. She worried about Daphne and Laurel, too, worried about how they would fit in, because they seemed to fit nowhere but with each other.

Sally was a dominating mother, when she could be, but it was all in self-defense, which was something the twins clearly understood.

When she told them bedtime stories, they listened intently, then commented, like adults exiting a play.

“That was not a good ending,” Laurel said.

“It doesn’t make sense, Mommy, and it’s a little boring because the bear never finds the honey anyway. And what bear would be friends with a spider? Spiders don’t have friends.”

“It’s a story, girls. In stories anyone can be friends with anyone else. And how do you know spiders don’t have friends?”

They thought about that for a while, until Laurel said, “No.” She shook her head back and forth on the pillow. “Uh-uh.”

There was such finality. Sally didn’t know whether to laugh or beg forgiveness. That was often how she felt with the girls.

“Tell us another.” Daphne was sitting up now.

“If my stories are so bad, why do want another?” Sally asked. “That’s silly, you sleepy girls.”

“We’re silly,” said Daphne.

Sally gave a sigh. They liked to make her words circle back on her.

“You can do it, Mommy,” Laurel said. “I know you can.” She gave her an encouraging nod.

Sally waited, counted to two, and there it was: “We know you can,” Daphne added, just as Sally had expected. She smiled at the two serious faces. Not only would she tell another story, she knew, but she would try harder.

“Good one,” Daphne whispered at the end. She was almost fully asleep.

“Thank you, Mommy,” Laurel said.

Sally left them, elated with her success.

* * *​

Arthur came home with a puppy a week later, an Irish setter mix the color of the girls’ hair, a bumptious, friendly creature who settled on Sally as his mistress the moment he galloped through the kitchen door. He slept on the rug on Sally’s side of the bed. He followed her, dogged her, as she liked to say, from room to room, his scarlet ears flopping, his nose reaching up reverently to graze her hand. If the dog was by a closed door, it meant that Sally was somewhere on the other side of that door. He listened when she told the twins stories, without comment or criticism of her narrative skills. The girls—inevitably, Sally thought—named the puppy Webster.