It sat on the shelf like a glowering menace, dusty with age and disuse and fine cobwebs like a gauzy shroud. Even buried as it was behind apothecary jars and pestles, it was still the first thing the visitors to the six hundred-year-old museum wanted to touch.
At first I tried to dissuade them, though I knew the Old One was watching as if she were in the book instead of her resting place. But however much I tried, they would insist and I could not stop them from reaching with greedy fingers, brushing the filth off the book’s leathery surface and then coming to a disappointed halt when the covers refused to flip open.
“What’s wrong with it?” they would ask after having tried this way and that to pry the book apart. “Here, you try!” some would say, shoving it at me. But I would back away hastily.
Others would give up but continue to trace the ornamented script on the cover written in a strange, alien tongue. I would tell them the language was a lost one but beyond that I didn’t know. And eventually, they would replace the book on the shelf and move away, their attention seemingly distracted, yet before leaving, they would give the locked book one last lingering glance of desire.
And by the end of the day the book would isolate itself in dusty, cobwebbed splendor until the next day and the next trickle of visitors.
But once in a while someone would come along for whom the book opened. Someone who seemed to know exactly what the red-blazed lettering was, someone who would turn the pages curiously, their fingers running across the neatly scripted lines, and after a time, would turn and ask me if it was for sale.
“Not for sale,” I would reply as the Old One had instructed me. “But I will gladly give it to you if, in turn, you would grant me a request.”
I would tell them what it was and a few would actually turn away in disgust, replacing the book as if it had bitten them and bolting out the door without another word. I’ve always wondered at their escape.
But those who refused me, as I said, were only a few. Most were quite willing, even surprised that my strange request needed to be voiced. Of course they would promise to do as I asked and then, with profuse thanks and a suspicion that I might retract my offer, leave hurriedly, clutching the book as if it were as precious to them as anything they had hitherto owned.
Of course, I never saw those visitors again. But the locked book? It always reappeared by dawn the next day in its dusty moldering corner as if it had never left.