Guestwords: Occupational Hazard

By Maryann Calendrille

    Call it an occupational hazard. Booksellers are prone to fits of romantic distraction. Perhaps it’s even a job requirement. How else would anyone ever get into this business in the first place?
    One warm spring afternoon, early on, I was called to an estate sale at the home of a former literature professor; let’s call her Maude. Those handling the sale thought I’d be interested in her collection. She’d made frequent research trips to England and Ireland, bringing home boxes of rare finds. I’d been to Ireland myself once, on a dare of sorts. I love the literature, and the lure of its rugged coast held sway with me for years.
    That afternoon bargain-hunters snooped into every corner of the professor’s home. Waterford, linens, porcelain, carpets, antique furniture lay about the “great room” of what was her summer country house. In the driveway, Maude’s cherry-red Mustang convertible, parked at a racy angle, waited for the highest bidder. She loved to drive through town, her children said, her red hair flying in the breeze. No mild-mannered scholar she, but a fiery Maude!
    Absorbed in the professor’s volumes of Yeats, Heaney, Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, and more, I hardly noticed the commotion of scavengers carrying out urns, folk art, odd lamps until their activity grew from a vague annoyance to an irritation. I looked up from her books and noticed something far across the room on the mantel of a large brick fireplace. A strange metal object, coal black, stood sentry over the disarray. Its rough-hewn dignity drew me: a central vertical shaft topped by a ring from which four equal arms emanated. Someone inquired about it. The professor’s daughter said it was an old Celtic cross her mother brought from Ireland. “It’s been on the mantel forever,” she said.
    I put aside a book on Celtic mythology. From my corner of the scholar’s library, the piece appeared primitive, solemn. Its four arms reached out like points from a star, I thought hazily. On this warm afternoon, the library air was stuffy. The interested customer examined the piece further. “Can I hold it?” she asked. Turning the piece slowly, she exchanged a few words with the daughter, then replaced the cross on the mantel. There it stood sentinel over the miscellaneous objects of a learned life.
    I imagined that cross forged in a dimly lit blacksmith’s shop in some small village in the west of Ireland. The blacksmith, likely a devout believer, had worked his best efforts into that rustic icon. Perhaps he prayed over it as he fashioned the metal with his thick but skilled hands. The strangeness of its design seemed to verify its authenticity, its uniqueness. A cross galvanized by wild paganism yet schooled in Catholic symbolism. Perhaps the blacksmith’s father, and his father before him, had hammered out a humble, pious existence in the green and sea-swept region. This strange design a family trademark linking ancestors in a secret language with the divine. Each spoke of the cross’s rays a favorite saint, or branches of the clan. I could practically smell the peat smoke and taste the metallic salt spray in the air.
    But I was in the Hamptons, land of fast cars and faster deals, a place now so steeped in its own extravagance if I didn’t already live here, I never would have come. I moved toward that fireplace, one big enough for a child to walk into. Here was my chance! The spiky cross on its mantel was rusty with age. Rejected for some reason by the previous buyer, the relic of a dead scholar lay heavy in my hand. I imagined presenting it to a friend, fond of rusty bits and recently reconnecting with her own Irish roots. The cross might serve as inspiration.
    The late professor thought it important enough to lug home in her suitcase. Was it her personal Holy Grail? A gift from her beloved? Had she struck up an acquaintance with that old blacksmith at the local pub? Had he recited some lines of verse and charmed her in that way the Irish do? I noticed a series of holes at regular intervals along the arms of the cross. Ornamental details, I concluded. The blacksmith’s personal signature.
    “How much do you want for that?” I heard myself ask the scholar’s daughter. “Twenty-five,” came the reply. “It’s an unusual design,” she added. “My mother treasured it. It’s always had a place on the mantel.”
    She couldn’t tell me how old it was, nor from what stone altar in what small parish church it might have been rescued. No telling what sacred mysteries were forged into its shaft, or what might escape through those little decorative holes if conditions allowed. I paid for it and tucked it into my box alongside a facsimile Book of Kells. Was this my own Holy Grail? The afternoon sun shone brilliantly on my drive home.
    Sorting through my purchases the next day, I presented the object wrapped in newsprint. I’d hinted I’d found something extraordinary at the sale. “What’s this?” my friend asked, unwrapping it, a strange look on her face.
    “It’s a Celtic cross,” I said proudly. “Brought over from Ireland,” I added. “Isn’t it interesting? We didn’t know where it came from exactly, but it’s a piece from the auld sod.”
    She, the more logical and scientific, inspected the piece. Somehow it seemed duller in the bookshop light. Off its mantel perch it appeared smaller, less significant. There was a very long silence.
    “I think it came from an old stove,” she said flatly. “It looks like a gas burner. How much did you pay for this?”

    Maryann Calendrille co-owns Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor with Kathryn Szoka. They will appear at Fridays at Five at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on Aug. 23 with their book “Sag Harbor Is: A Literary Celebration,” edited by Ms. Calendrille and featuring photographs by Ms. Szoka.