The book was huge, maybe 12 x 15 inches, encased in a linen-like material that matched its pale yellow binding. At seven, I’d never seen a book with its own coat. My mother showed me how to carefully slide the book out of the sleeve, carefully turn the pages. On the cover was the title: Fairy Flowers. By Isadora Newman. Illustrated by Willy Pogany. Inside the front cover, a dazzle of gold letters and dancing figures. The first illustration was of a gypsy cart, decorated with ribbons and bright flowers; a bride and groom were riding away. At the bottom of the picture was the road: it seemed to unfurl from my chest where I’d lodged the book. This was one of the pictures I remember most vividly: escape, joy, some magic down the road.
I turned the pages from one illustration to the next: a giant boy, grasping the sun, slowly sinking into the soil, his distraught parents watching, terrified. The Legend of the Sunflower. Then a small child in golden clothes in a gold four poster bed—a prince, probably—looking spoiled and petulant. The colors glowed on the beautifully printed, pasted-in illustrations. As soon as I came to the final illustration, I went back to the beginning of the book and began leafing them through again.
Fairy Flowers, according to the subtitle, is a collection of stories and fairy tales about the factual and legendary origin of flowers. The text was supposed to be read to, not by, a child—many of the words were ones I’d never seen or heard. A first edition, published either at Oxford University Press, or as the first American edition in 1929, it was an expensive book, not really appropriate for a second grade child. My godmother, Aunt Dee, gave me the book for no reason—it wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday. But coming in the mail at the drab, damp, cold middle of winter, when we rarely got to the public library, the book was doubly welcome.
All Dee’s gifts to her nieces and nephews seemed inappropriate, at least to my parents. Why give a small child such a book–suppose it was ruined by my younger brothers and sister? Would I take care of it? Who would have the time to read it to me? How much did it cost? How much food could have been bought, bills paid, if Dee had given that money to them? They always seemed to have questions about her gifts.
Some parents might have put the book away, brought it down from a high shelf for special occasions, but I was allowed to keep it in the room I shared with my toddler sister, perhaps because my mother was an artist and encouraged us to look at her collection of prints—or more likely, because it kept me quiet for hours. They also didn’t want to annoy Dee. She had money, was childless and nearing forty. I was her godchild, had her name, her exact name before she married. I was the first grandchild. So I was to be indulged, encouraged. In any case, given my carelessness with possessions, the book wouldn’t last long. Very soon, inside the front cover, I wrote my name in huge letters with a big black crayon. I meant it not as a desecration, but as a declaration of my joy in possessing Fairy Flowers.
While my parents considered the book a foolish choice for the careless, rebellious child I was, Dee had the gift of knowing exactly what toys or books would resonate with me. Her gifts were subversive, instinctively tuned in to the psyche of an unhappy little girl. I think she chose those gifts because she had also been unhappy, and that child still lived in her, lived to choose the elegant, odd, inappropriate things she gave me. Fairy Flowers, I think, represented her ambitions for me—to love beauty, to become a reader, to become educated, to become the artist she hadn’t had the chance to be.
The pictures in Fairy Flowers were so powerful that, for the next two years, I struggled through the text, as if that were the fee I had to pay to earn the pictures. I don’t remember my mother reading me the book, but she probably did, or told me the meaning of words when I asked. The diction was florid, the vocabulary way above our second grade text books. “The Legend Of The Purple Dahlia” described the main character:
As his name implies, Monsieur Rosette was a most formal and methodical servitor, precise and punctilious in his duties, which he performed each day….Indeed, he was an exceptional gentleman, a paragon of etiquette, whose only desires and pleasures in life were in the service of his sovereigns.
I might have figured out that he was a good servant, but the line drawing that illustrated the story showed me that he was silly as well as noble, a serious man, admirable yet quaint.
The most enthralling illustration was the one for the water lily legend. In it a young woman was floating underwater, naked except for her long hair and a few cleverly placed wave swirls. I’d never seen a naked person in a book before. I stared at the woman’s breasts. According to the words, she was a princess who’d drowned while foolishly clutching gold she’d found at the bottom of the pond, a gift she would give to the prince she loved. Sinking into the mucky floor of the pond, unable to drop the gold or pull her feet free, she’d been transformed into a water lily–the very first water lily. Reading the words, I felt the suck of the mud, the weight of the gold in her hands. Terrifying. The story had a moral, maybe a few of them: 1. Don’t be greedy; 2. Stay close to home; 3. You are not the equal of the prince you love; 4. Expensive gifts and swampy ponds are dangerous.
Such plot lines (bad behavior/death/transformation/lesson) were frequent in the book, though some ended the way “proper” fairy tales did, happily ever after. But the words, the plots were beside the point—Pogany seemed to have his own interpretation of the legends, and the illustrations whispered his version: that perfect servant was an ass, the naked girl wasn’t weighed down with gold—she loved the water, look, her hands were empty, as if yielding to the element that embraced her, luscious blues and greens blending from gentian to palest aqua. She was ecstatic, erotic, full of the joy of her body. And she could breathe under water. Why not?
Of course, I wasn’t, at the time, consciously aware of this disjunction between the text and the pictures, but I was enthralled by their uneasy balance. Perhaps the book, in a dream-like way, reminded me of the gritty child life we were experiencing and the noble, confusing, abstract words we were supposed to live by—“transubstantiation,” “indulgences,” “purgatory.” It reminded me of the harassed, overworked, fallible, at times cruel nuns and priests my father worshipped and the sensuous experience of the high mass, incense, music, and the hypnotic litanies filled with strange metaphors: Mary star of the sea, Queen of heaven, pray for us.
When we moved to Camden two years later, the book disappeared. My mother had various excuses: my sister had donated it to a school book drive, the box containing the book had fallen from the truck, or maybe it was in her brother’s attic packed with some odds and ends left there during the move. I probably nagged her, harangued her, until she told me to never mention it again. For years I mourned the book, though I could still vividly see the images and remember sketchy plots of a few stories. My whole life I talked about the book and longed to find it, but it wasn’t until my own children were grown that I decided to search in earnest, calling and writing to dealers in rare children’s books. I began to learn more about the author and illustrator. Willy Pogany had been famous for his children’s book illustrations. A prolific artist, he’d worked on movie sets and for the Metropolitan Opera. The book dealers had seen Fairy Flowers long ago, they said, and once sold one, knew of a copy that had recently sold for $300. Would I be willing to pay that much? Yes. But no dealer could find a copy
Wearing white gloves, I was carefully copying in pencil passages from a 19th Century children’s book, taking notes for a graduate class assignment. I was working in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Children’s Book Collection. The librarian who had been helping me brought a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
”Would this interest you?” she asked.
“Very much, thanks.” It was a great place to work. I asked how many books the research library owned.
“Over 65,000 children’s books, published between 1837 to the present.”
“I had no idea.” I paused. I asked her if she’d ever heard of the Pogany book and described it to her.
“I’ll look, though it doesn’t sound familiar,” she said. I could tell she was the kind of librarian who enjoyed a challenge.
In about 15 minutes she returned. “We have two copies.” The librarian was smiling when she handed me the book; I hadn’t seen it for more than 40 years. Hands shaking, I opened it, half expecting to see my name in large black crayoned letters: Dorothea Freiermuth. My maiden name, my aunt’s maiden name. But there was no name inside. A more careful child had owned this copy. I was afraid that nothing would be the same, that somehow I’d only imagined those images, or that they would now seem banal. But there was the cart, the water lily lady, the leapfrog. Some pictures I’d forgotten, the golden boy, the tulip lady in front of her tulip cottage. Other I’d misremembered, or conflated, but all were as powerful and lovely as the first time I’d seen them. I didn’t have time to read the stories, but I didn’t need to, the illustrations were enough. My hands were shaking.
The librarian was still standing there. “Sorry to be so foolish,” I told her, fighting back tears. I thanked her again.
“Glad to help.” For half a second, I thought of stealing one of the Library’s copies of Fairy Flowers. “You can put the books on my desk when you leave,” said the librarian and the impulse passed.
My daughter Mimi, a jewelry maker, has inherited Aunt Dee’s talent for gift giving. Last Christmas she presented me with a lumpy package. Inside was a gold and emerald locket she’d made, and a 1950s patent leather clutch purse to replace the falling apart one I’d used for years and years. She’d found it on E-bay. She’d also found a really battered copy of Fairy Flowers. The book dealer, going out of business, sent a note saying she’d loved the book herself and kept it for years, because it was too damaged to sell. The spine was cracked, some of the brittle pages were torn and stained. The cover was different than the edition I’d owned and there was no sleeve. But someone had loved the book and poured over it again and again. At $25, it was a bargain.
All the glowing illustrations—the ghostly Indians, the Iris fairy—were still there, pasted on heavy stock. None were missing or damaged. And now I’d finally have time to read and understand the stories. It was the perfect winter gift.
Darcy Cummings recently completed the MFA in Non-Fiction at Rutgers, Camden. Her book of poetry, The Artist As Alice: From A Photographer’s Life, won the Bright Hill Press Competition in 2006. She completed an MA in poetry from The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminar, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Dodge Foundation and a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Commission on the Arts. She lives in Laurel Springs, NJ