The first time we go, it is late. I have insisted on waiting until the workmen go to bed and, after the workmen, my mother. Gen has snuck from the dairymaid two black shawls to cover our heads. She throws the wool over my head and ties the ends beneath my chin. Her hands are clumsy; they brush the sides of my neck. She tells me to shush. And though this was supposed to be my plan, she is now leading the way.
She skulks through the trees, along fences, to the north end of town. The mansion stands imposing on its tract, dark as it always is. We climb the gates and drop down; we creep below the line of the hedges, overgrown needles scratching her bare shoulders, poking at my cheeks. The basement window has a latch. Gen lifts it. It shrieks in the night, but no one is around to hear.
Still, the noise makes Gen turn scared, and she drops the window back. “I don’t know if we should bother,” she says.
I lift the window and slide in up to my knees. I say, “You’ll be annoying later if we don’t.”
“Wait,” she says.
The drop is longer than I thought it would be. I land feet-first but tumble forward, crashing to knees and hands, scraping concrete. I lie there only a moment before Gen follows after—the window snaps shut behind her, and as she falls, she makes an instant of scream, a bird-whistle, before she hits. I try to find her, crawling forward, led only by the square of moonlight from the window. The floor is cold, and my palms sting with grit. “Gen,” I call. She is close but I can’t find her.
Gen stirs, gathers herself into a shape, hands reaching blindly for mine. I catch them. Her hands weigh cold, like stones, in mine. “Did you hurt yourself?” I ask.
Gen uses me to push herself up and wanders away from the window, feeling along the walls. “There has to be a light,” she says. “I’ll find it in just another moment.”
She is okay, I tell myself, she’s okay, but I am all sickness and guilt, plus my ankle hurts where I scraped it.
With a buzzy click like a grasshopper stepped on, the lights come sputtering on. Thick glass globes glowing cat’s-eye yellow, spattered dark in the center from bug bodies. Big iron hangers carry the globes far down a long hallway, toward a room absolutely dark. The walls from here to there are cold, pitted stone.
“Is this a storm shelter?” Gen asks. “For emergencies?”
I confirm for her it is, though I do not know how I would know.
“Of course the rich man gets to be safe,” she scoffs.
“He doesn’t even live here,” I say.
“Right,” she says. “That’s what I mean. He’s not even using it. Maybe the town should know about it,” then she quiets, realizing it’d be us who’d have to tell them.
The hallway grows colder the further we go. The room at the end of the hall has a narrow, unremarkable entrance. I figure a boiler room, maybe a wine cellar, and this prospect is a little exciting—a bottle of the rich man’s wine as a treat for me and Gen, an easy prize for our bravery. As we approach, instead, I see the gold-plated plaque on the wall. LIBRARY.
Gen reaches around for a switch. “Bet he has more books than any of us have ever seen. All to himself.”
When she finds it, and the lights snap on, blinding bright, there are two dozen bookshelves at least, in close and even rows, each filled completely with books, thick ones, a dusty rainbow: blue slate, rust red, mud gold. Gen was right, and of course she was right, but it still strikes awe in me. To possess so many of any one object. To own so many words.
I go to them like the men to their jobs in the morning: hypnotic, half-conscious, mute.
There are books on business, on various arts. How to weave clothes and forge iron. There are books on the history of the town, of the continent, of the world. There are books containing diaries of people’s travels. Some of them heavy volumes devoted to just one place. Some of them thin and harder to catalogue. Recollections, maybe, of everywhere.
“Pari!” calls Gen. “Come here.”
I find her in an alcove in the back corner of the room. She stands over a long table of polished wood and bronze, inlaid with a glass top. Inside, laid out in careful rows, are valuables upon valuables.
There is no common theme between them and no repetition. Gen names them for me one by one, consulting a white card on the end of the table. A miniature god, a spinning wheel, a cuckoo clock, a two-reed flute, a golden censer, a white fur cap, a blue glazed teapot, a glass flower bouquet, a beaded baby’s vest, a crystal coinpurse, a silken wedding shoe, a miniature limestone bust. At the foot of each item sits a tented card naming its materials and country of origin. I count thirteen countries, four continents, before Gen’s voice lulls me, before I lose track.
And there are more. On the wall behind the table, shallow shelves run the length of the room, treasures lined up one after another, things too large to fit in the viewing table, or maybe too common to warrant protection. More curiosities are piled on a credenza against the wall, undifferentiated, unorganized.
“He wouldn’t even know they were gone,” Gen says.
I am shaken from my trance. “What did you say?” I ask.
Gen clamps my hand round with hers. She holds it quiet there a long time. Her fingers play my knuckles like piano keys. She says, “I don’t know.”
I wonder which treasure it is that she wants most. I imagine being the one to present it to her. The best surprise. The greatest gift.
We stand and look at the treasures until the feel of her skin becomes the feel of my skin.