Welcome back to our second installment of our tale of the unusual, “The Book That Sells Itself, a Parable in Four Parts.”
You might recall from last week’s episode that our two heroes parted company after discovering the magical properties of an unusual book—in fact, an entire chest containing dozens of copies of this unusual book!
Let us continue.
With his partner gone, Leighton has no other choice. He gets up onto his horse-drawn wagon and continues on, pursuing the only trade he knows, that of the traveling salesman. He quickly learns that he needs no sophisticated sales technique to get people interested in The Fruit With No Stone. If he manages to convince someone to open the cover and read a few lines, he always makes a sale. With every copy, the words turn to vapor once read, and those vanished words awaken something deep inside the amazed reader.
Just what is Leighton selling? Enlightenment? Delusion? He has no idea. Try as he might—and he tries every day—he cannot get any copy of the book he sells to make an impression on him. He reads, and reads, but to no avail. He has no impact on the words (he cannot make them vanish), and they have no impact on him.
Each time he sells a copy, he feels his chance of learning its secret diminishing. He started with 97 copies of The Fruit With No Stone, and he finds his stock depleting at a fast clip, even in remote rural regions.
Today is like any other day. Well, almost like any other day.
He sits high up on the padded bench of the horse cart. He wears a wide-brimmed hat pulled down so far he isn’t able to see the road ahead. But one mile looks much like another of this abandoned highway. Pecan and hackberry trees grow in close to the cracked pavement. The wagon clatters past the sad remains of a dilapidated gas station—the relic of a lost era.
The rhythm of travel surrounds him. A bubble of repetitive percussive music: the squeak of both axels, the creak of the leather traces as they rub against the horse’s harness, the rattle of all manner of luggage and cookware lashed to or hanging from the vehicle.
And then Leighton gives a gentle tug to the reins, prompting the horse to pull the cart down a promising shaded lane.
There is a proper etiquette when one comes calling. Roll in slow so that the sound of shod hooves and studded cartwheels announce your arrival. Leighton knows not to sneak up on country folk.
The horse stops in the front of a farmhouse—dropping its head to nibble on a clump of buffalograss—and Leighton swings his legs over the side.
“Howdy,” an old and lanky man says. He sits in a rocking chair up on his shaded porch.
Leighton removes his hat. He smiles.
“Don’t get many travelers,” the old man says. “Roads aren’t what they once was. And fuel is so hard to come by.” The he laughs. “But I guess you and that old dobbin don’t have much need for gasoline.”
“Just a bucket of oats,” Leighton says. “And water from a creek.”
“Salesman, I’m guessing,” he says, beckoning Leighton to the porch. “Well, young sir, show me what you’ve got.”
Leighton reaches up and retrieves a worn leather briefcase. It has lost the handle, so he tucks it under his arm.
There is a second chair. Leighton sits and places the case on his knees. He opens it up to reveal the single item within.
“Just that?” The old man tilts his head ever so slightly as he eyes the book. “Well, I’ve been known to lose myself in a well-crafted yarn.” He leans back into a comfortable slouch. “Then get to work. Sell me on the virtues of this book.”
“My words will not do it justice,” Leighton says. “This is a book that sells itself.”
“That’s a peculiar thing to say.” The old man smiles wryly. “Are you sure you’re a salesman?”
“Just read one page,” Leighton says. “Maybe two. Then you can decide if you want to buy it.”
“Two pages? Will the story grab me that quick?”
Leighton slides the briefcase closer to the man.
“And if I don’t warm to it, you have others?”
“It’s the only book I sell,” Leighton admits. “And my last copy, to be honest.”
Curious, now, the man takes the book from the case. He opens it.
“The Fruit With No Stone,” he reads the title aloud. “You’ve read it?”
Leighton hesitates a moment before saying that, yes, he has. It is not, technically, a lie.
The old man settles back and lifts the book up. He turns to the first page and allows his eyes to rove back and forth.
Then the magic happens, as it always does.
It takes a moment for the old man to comprehend what is occurring. He stops, looks across at Leighton. A trick? He glances back at the book and continues to read, a compulsive hunger now activated. He turns the page. Reads with intensity all the way to the bottom of the second page—a page now wiped free of words.
Leighton reaches out and places a hand on the man’s knee.
“Would you like to buy it?” he asks.
“Of course,” the man whispers. “Of course.” He keeps his eyes on the page while pulling a wad of cash from his pocket. “Will this do?”
Do you remember when I said that today is almost like any other day? No? No matter. I’ll explain anyway. You see, when Leighton told the old man that the book in the briefcase was his last copy, that was not part of his salesman’s technique. That was the truth.
Well, mostly the truth.
In the strictest sense, one could say that the old man had not bought Leighton’s last book. Leighton still had another. The one that Alabama had read. But his former parter had used that copy up, one could say, until it was as pristine as the inside of an eggshell. Of course we all know that’s not how books are supposed to work! You should be able to read a book time and again. Reading a book isn’t supposed to be like eating a sandwich. So you can imagine that the book—the one he keeps under the bench of his wagon—isn’t suitable for selling. Worthless, right? A book with all the pages blank? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s of no interest to a reader. But, the thing is, not all of the pages are blank. There are a few words within that have not disappeared. There’s the name of the book which is printed on the title page; and also there are two scant lines of text when you turn that page over to look on the backside—the date and location of where the book had been published.
The location being a tiny town found on very few maps.
And so there is one other reason that this day is different for Leighton. He has steered his horse in the direction of that tiny town of Torumbra.
It isn’t far. In fact, we only have to jump forward one day to find Leighton as he rides down the lonely thoroughfare that skirts the eastern mountains. The early morning sun glints off a hand-painted sign that points down a little road, barely more than a gravel path. When he arrives, Torumbra is not so much a town, as a settlement. A hamlet, perhaps. He easily locates the shop. Torumbra Press.
When Leighton enters the printing shop, the upper edge of the door grazes a small brass bell that announces his arrival. He stands in the threshold a moment before stepping forward and shutting the door behind him.
Two men have turned in his direction. They stand at a work table in a large airy room. One is elderly, thin with a shock of thick white hair. The other is much younger, doughy and dark. They wear ink-stained aprons.
A counter runs the length of the room separating Leighton from the men. The floorboards creak as he approaches. The older man tilts his head, listening. Milky cataracts, white as heavy cream, cover his eyes.
Leighton clears his throat, uncertain which to address.
“If you’re looking at my assistant here,” the old printer says, “you should know he doesn’t speak. Though his hearing is keen and his mind, sharp. As are mine.” He pauses. “My eyes, well…not so serviceable.”
Leighton places his last copy of The Fruit With No Stone upon the counter.
“Would I be correct,” Leighton says, “that this book came from your shop?”
The blind printer walks to the counter. With a smooth and unhurried motion he slides his hand along the counter until he finds the book. He lifts it to his face and inhales deeply. He softly caress the cover. He raises and lowers it, as if assessing its weight. Then the corners of his mouth lift. “Ah.” A wistful tone of fondness coats his words. “The Fruit With No Stone.”
He taps the front of the book with a finger.
“A homecoming,” the blind printer says. “Of sorts.”
He hands the book back to Leighton.
“No,” Leighton says. “I have no use for it.”
The printer now cradles the book in both hands. He tilts down his head to let his lips brush against the front cover with something akin to paternal intimacy. He then holds it out and his assistant steps forward to take the book.
“You have questions?” the printer asks.
Leighton looks at the floor, not sure how to phrase a question. As I’m sure you’ve learned, Leighton is not much of a talker. Inquisitive and attentive, no doubt. But when it comes the, well, the magic that might have once existed on those now blank pages of the book, Leighton lacks the words to speak about matters of cosmic consequence.
He is no Alabama Brocade.
The silence hangs just long enough for a cardinal in a tree outside to go through its simple song.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Leighton finally says.
“Understood,” the printer says. “You’re trying to unravel a mystery.” He sighs. “The fact is, there’s not much I know. The book and its author, they are mysteries to myself as well. However, I’ll gladly share with you the paltry clues I do have.”
Leighton places his hands on the counter and moves closer as the printer bows down his head as if to better remember.
“There is a hill overlooking this town—I assume you saw it when you rode in. If you climb to the top, you’ll see another larger hill in the distance. On the other side of that hill is where it came from. The book. The Fruit With No Stone was delivered to me by a child. That was more than a decade ago. Almost two. The little boy was so small he had to reach up to place the parcel he carried onto this very countertop. It contained the manuscript of the book as well as a great deal of cash. There was also a note that instructed me to print as many copies of the book as the money would allow and to send them out into the world. No signature to the note. No author’s name attached to the manuscript. I printed several hundred copies and mailed them off to various big city bookshops.”
“You’ve read it?” Leighton asks. “The book.”
“I wasn’t always blind,” says the printer, which, if one thinks about it, really doesn’t answer Leighton’s question. This is probably the reason Leighton shifts his attention to the other man.
“Maybe your staff has some insight.”
“Meaning my assistant?” The printer shakes his head and smiles. “No, he would have none. Sadly, he never leaned to read. Though he knows that The Fruit With No Stone is a book of great wisdom. Clean and simple in style. Exactly how one should receive a great truth. Not through some complicated contract with a shadowy figure who appears at a crossroads during a moonless night. Just a book. Something you can read in bed, or while lounging in the shade of a tree.”
The assistant nods, looking down with a simple reverence at the book he holds.
“Just a book,” is all Leighton can think to say, echoing the printer’s assessment. Leighton’s words have an almost caustic edge as if he has come to the end of a pointless quest. But then he brightens. “You said something about a hill.” His voice is now soft and hopeful.
“The hill, yes. It’s visible through our window.” The printer points to the wall behind him. His assistant gently places a hand on the printer’s shoulder and pivots him a few degrees so that his finger is aimed at the tree-covered hill several miles distant. “There’s no road,” he adds, “but it is an easy climb.”
“I have a wagon. And a horse.” Leighton pauses as if looking for the right words. “They’re out front,” is the best he can come up with.
“Don’t worry,” the printer tells him. “They’ll be taken care of.”
“You’re very kind,” Leighton tells the men, and then he crosses to the door and leaves the print shop.
I’m sure you’re curious to learn what Leighton finds on the other side of the hill beyond the hill. Maybe you’d like to discover what makes Leighton different. Why those words in the book have no impact on him. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to say you’ll have to give up such hopes.
You see, this is not the story of Leighton Lochmoore.
Join us next week, when we continue our tale of this unusual book. When we will learn that the blind printer in Torumbra knows much more than he was willing to share with a traveling salesman who—for reasons we may never learn—was unworthy to be given the gifts of The Fruit With No Stone.
Erik Bosse is a New Orleans-based writer, filmmaker, and creative collaborator. His short stories have appeared in many literary journals. In the summer of 2023 his novel, Tales of Lost Southtown, will be published by FlowerSong Press. Much of Erik’s work can be seen on his website, www.erikbosse.com. Erik recommends URBAN-15.