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Chapter 1

Three crows stalked the edge of Old County Road as Ed Austin slowed his pickup to turn into Feener’s place. Ed admired crows and privately ascribed them mystical powers and a complex language. As for these particular three, he admired their unruffled nonchalance despite the baleful rush of car tires only a yard or two away.

The last of the traffic passed, and Ed steered off the blacktop and onto Feener’s gravel drive. When his old truck jounced as it came off the pavement, he looked to see if Zelda was all right. He was worried about Zelda. Just now she sat on the passenger seat beside him, leaning against the door as she tended to do, her tall, pointed German shepherd ears held high, her bright eyes focused on the crows. She’d always been ready for a hike or a ride but had lately seemed slow to rise and sometimes limped a little. He’d even had to hoist her up into the truck a time or two. He made another mental note to call the vet.

Gravel popped under the pickup’s tires as Ed pulled alongside Feener’s ancient gray Mercedes, parked as usual under an enormous stand of lilacs. His old dog sat at alert, ears up, eyes expectant.

“Guard the truck. I’ll be right back.”

He got out, shut the door, and started up the fieldstone walk. The day was overcast. The air held a chill. A small bird flitted through lilac leaves going brown around the edges—a wood-warbler that had lost its brilliant color. Ed climbed the weathered wooden steps and pulled open the squeaky door.

From his tiny writing desk, where he always sat reading or working on a crossword, Alexander Feener raised his wispy balding head beyond the clocks and lamps and stacks of books and considered Ed for a moment above his wire-rimmed glasses, eyebrows raised.

“Well,” Feener said. “Mr. Austin.”

“Call me Ed, Alex.” Their routine greeting.

“Have I got a treat for you,” Feener said. With a soft grunt, he rose from his chair and began to wind his way along the crooked corridor lined with dusty heirlooms.

Feener was a wizard who gave clutter the appearance of order. On sunny afternoons the light angling through his shop’s back windows warmed the rich colors of the wood grain of the tables and cabinets and longface clocks—the old man had several, with sailing ships rocking or moon faces smiling above their dials, each ticking and tocking independently, all chiming together on the hour—but today odd electric lamps lit the room from its teeming walls and corners. Feener had to wind all the clocks, light all the lamps, and navigate a maze to do it.

And Ed loved the smell of the place, some combination of must and wax, sawdust and cloves. On each visit he’d glance around at familiar pieces, like that absurdly narrow-backed corner chair and the metal “Drink Moxie” sign, and would feel a pang if one was missing. But he’d also cast about for something new. This day one new thing stood out: a three-legged spinning wheel, displayed conspicuously in what used to be the room’s only open area, now obstructing Feener’s habitual path from his desk.

“That’s new,” Ed said.

“Yup.” Feener sidestepped the great wooden wheel and looked up at Ed from his perpetual stoop. “Ol’ Will Starbird died, and I bought out his barn up to Faith Village. Which is where I happened on somethin’ you might like.”

Feener tipped his head toward the front door. Ed squeaked it open, held it for the old man, then followed him down the steps and across the yard to the big plank door of his low-slung barn, nearly hidden behind the lilacs. A miniature whirlwind kicked up some fallen maple leaves and sent them bouncing around the closed-in corner like pint-sized contra dancers. From a clump of keys tethered to his belt Feener picked out the one he needed. He twisted off the padlock and heaved his weight into the door, which slid easily open, then reached around and flicked a light switch. A single overhead bulb illuminated towers of crates and boxes, an old piano, a couple of cast-iron woodstoves.

“This ol’ fella come from there.” Feener patted the surface of a giant kitchen cookstove. “The boys wasn’t too happy movin’ that.”

He continued past the stove and shuffled sideways between it and a dilapidated wardrobe. Ed sized up the cookstove. It appeared in good shape, with its handsome curved back plate and great circular burners.

“Glenwood,” Ed read. “I might want that for my new kitchen.”

He often referred to his “new kitchen” or “new living room” or “new bedroom” when admiring Feener’s inventory. They both knew what he meant: the old house he intended to buy one day and spend some time restoring.

Ed heard a scrape and a clank, and Feener reappeared from around the dark corner carrying a flat metal box. He set the box on the Glenwood, covering one cold burner.

“Take a look at what’s in there, tell me what you think.”

As Ed bent forward, a small shape swept between the two men, fluttering, then back again, casting a fleet shadow beneath the bare bulb.

“Whoa,” Ed said.

“Bats in here,” Feener said. “I don’t much mind ’em.”

Leaning away, Ed watched the bat rocket back and forth once, twice, the third time finding the door to the outside.

“Nice ol’ tin box,” Feener was saying. “It’s a good one. And I’m confident what’s inside won’t disappoint ya.”

Ed reached for the metal box and pulled off the ornate lid. In the glare of the bulb he saw a faded sheet of paper, the top page of a shallow stack, its surface lined with fine, delicate handwriting from a bygone era. Here, a curled uppercase E; there, an old-style A; there, a long, graceful dash. The script was uncommonly legible for such old penmanship, distinct and compact, almost artistic. Ed’s eyes flicked quickly across the page, from a looping terminal “d” to a pointed, paired “pp” to an old-style “long s” to the elongated descender of a “g.” He sensed a warmth to the strokes, a sort of organic perfection that nearly pulsed with intelligence, like some goodness of mind flowing straight through a quill pen. Only then did he read the date neatly applied at the top of the page, “October 3d 1828,” and the first line below it, “My Dear Husband.” The cross-stroke on the “H” had a tiny line through it. Ed let out an audible breath of air.

“Yup,” Feener said.

“May I?” Ed asked without looking up.

“Go right ahead.”

Ed wiped his hands on his jeans, reached into the box, and gently collected the tidy stack of letters, their corners soft or slightly torn, their edges faintly crinkled. A couple had been folded, he could tell from the feel of the stack. Gingerly, with one finger, he paged through them. They’d been kept in the order of their dates: October 1828, December 1828, June 1829, ending in October 1829. He noticed a few stray drops of ink, blot marks in the margins, two or three crossed-out words. A dozen letters addressed to “My Dear Husband.”

Ed let the pages settle together and nestled them back into their tarnished container. Again he read the date of the first.

“Today’s October third,” he said.

“Why, so it is,” said Feener. “Ain’t that odd. So anyways, what you think?”

He smiled up at Ed, his hair casting spidery shadows across his reddened cheeks, knowing full well that he hadn’t had to ask.

“How much?” Ed said.

“What say twenty dollars for the contents—there must be ’bout ten letters there, so that’d be two dollars apiece for those. Now, that box is worth a little somethin’…”

“How’s about I give you a hundred, box and contents?”

Feener raised his eyebrows, which had miniature wisps of their own. “I’ll take eighty,” he said.

“I expect you’ll take a hundred.”

“Well, I suppose. If you’re gonna twist my arm.”

Ed brought the box through the wide barn doorway that framed the restless, overcast day. This season always filled him with a sense of delicious urgency, as if he could see into the future: lengthening nights, strings of geese in the sky, snow in the wood, ice on the pond. The little bird still flitted silently in the lilacs—a yellow-rumped warbler, was his guess. Up the drive beyond Feener’s car, Zelda was watching though his driver’s-side window.

Feener swung his weight into the sliding door, replaced the lock, and slapped it closed.

“These are wonderful, Alex,” Ed said. “Stunning, really.”

“I thought as much.” Feener gave out a high chuckle. “When I find myself thinkin’, ‘Now, that’s some handsome writin’,’ I know it’s time to give Mr. Austin a call.”

Ed followed Feener back to his shop, holding the tin box with care.

It all still seemed far-fetched. After grappling with deadlines for nearly two decades in the art department of a small trade publisher, Ed had stumbled onto a new occupation—an occupation that had turned out surprisingly lucrative. He was a craftsman now. A type designer. Ed created fonts for graphic artists like the one he used to be. It had begun with a crazy notion: to digitize his own handwriting, to make a typeface of it, so his fingers would never have to leave the keyboard, so he could substitute fast typing for the hand-cramp that came of his painstaking scrawl. He’d tinkered with that first font late into evening for weeks. It had to look authentic, had to fool people into believing they were reading something Ed himself had written and not some soulless series of computerized curves. But his idle dabbling had soon become an obsession that opened a rift in his home life, widened the chasm between him and Michelle, and even sent tremors through his relationship with Clare.

One evening he’d found among his mother’s keepsakes a few nineteenth-century certificates and bills of sale—a historical librarian, she’d put aside stuff like that—written with a purposeful flourish, in longhand. Digging further, he’d uncovered a small collection of Civil War–era letters home and orders from headquarters, each penned with its own peculiar tilt or quaver. The imperfections had fascinated him, revealing a sort of miraculous insight into each author’s character. And since he’d never seen a font that faithfully simulated antique penmanship, he’d made one. Then another. They’d proven popular with his coworkers, so he’d tracked down a distributor, who had greeted his work with enthusiasm. Eventually, he’d quit his day job, moved to Maine, got divorced, and here he was.

Alex Feener knew of Ed’s craft from a chance meeting at a yard sale that first Maine summer. Ayuh, Feener had allowed, he did run across old handwritten documents from time to time. Love letters, accounting journals, and the like. Soon after, Ed paid a first visit to Feener’s Antiques in Limetown, and their unlikely kinship had resulted in four strong-selling fonts so far. Seeing them on ads and in movie titles continued to astound their creator, and Clare had even spotted one the other day in Tokyo.

The work could be tedious. It took at least an hour to shape each character, and counting numerals, accents, and punctuation a font had at least two hundred glyphs. But Ed enjoyed the intricacies of manipulating vector graphics, the zen-like focus on curves and junctures, the “just-so” of a kerning pair. He also found the source material compelling. Across these scraps of aging brown paper flowed the living thoughts of long-dead souls—thoughts urgent or important enough to write down.

But none had yet so moved him as just the glimpse he’d had of the letters in Feener’s tin box. He could hardly wait to read them, to linger alone over their author’s words. The prospect made him feel anxious, even, like a teenager before a first date.

Ed squeaked the door closed behind them and placed the metal box on an antique gathering table. Feener had already begun scribbling in the yellow receipt book he kept next to his old register by the door. He used a fountain pen.

“That’ll be eighty dollars,” he said.

Ed reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a fold of bills. He counted out five twenties and handed them to Feener.

“Thank you, sir,” Feener said as he held out the sales receipt. The way his eyes twinkled in the light of multiple lamps made Ed wonder if the bent old gentleman didn’t moonlight as one of Santa’s elves.

“Thank you, Alex. You were right. This is a real treat.”

“My pleasure.”

As Feener shuffled back toward his hidden desk, Ed took another look around the shop. He wasn’t ready to leave just yet.

“You say you picked these old letters up at the Will Starbird place?”

“Yup.” Feener slipped with a grunt into his chair. “Also that spinnin’ wheel there, the ol’ Glenwood you saw, a few decent chairs, and a wardrobe. Ol’ Will didn’t leave heirs. There’s still some rusty ol’ farm tools in the barn out there, and the original kitchen cabinets look to be in pretty good shape. Also, too, the barn, for its age. Built about eighteen hundred, so they tell me. Been in the family all those years. But I don’t have the patience. I tend to pick and choose these days, what’s left of me.”

“Now, now.” Ed looked at the tin box on the antique table. “What happens to the house? And where is the place exactly?”

“I suppose the town’ll take it for taxes,” Feener said. “Although I hear Lakeshore Realty’s interested. Quite a few acres there, along with a piece of Pitchfork Pond. Just out beyond Right Hill.”

As Feener spoke, Ed reached again for the box, lifted its lid, and skimmed the neat, feminine script. He read the phrases “Heaven only knows” and “greatest Pleasure in the World.”

“Take Route 30 to Faith Village,” Feener was saying. “You know Eternity Road? Little road by the church, ends up at the nature preserve out there? Take that a mile or two. Where it turns to dirt, it’s the first place on the left, just across a little bridge. There’s a family cemetery there—all Starbirds, I believe. Can’t miss it.”

Ed only half-heard, as his eyes had reached the signature at the bottom of the page.

Your truly attached Wife
Lydia

“You still house-huntin’?” Feener said.

Ed gently replaced the box lid.

“Going on five years.”

“Well, outside the barn and kitchen cabinets, the place don’t amount to much. I expect some developer’ll snatch it up for a subdivision.”

“Doubt I can afford it then.”

“Pretty lonely ol’ road anyways. I hear the place has even got its own ghost.”

Feener was peering down at his crossword, and all Ed could see over the lamps and cabinets were a few white wisps of hair. He picked up the tin box and propped it carefully under one arm so he could squeak open the door.

“They say the place I’m renting’s got a ghost,” he said. “I haven’t met him yet.”

“Don’t believe in ’em,” Feener said.

“Alex. Thank you again.”

“You’re most welcome, Mr. Austin.”

Ed swung the door closed behind him.

 

 
 

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