I was eight years old when my grandfather first strained his crooked back to reach to the top dusty shelf of the bookcase that stood between the fireplace and the wall in his little living room and pulled down a tome that looked like it may have weighed as much as he did. I sank back into the plush couch, ran my fingers along the velvety cover, and snuggled into his arm when he came and dropped the heavy thing in his lap.
I held my breath as he slowly opened the front cover, as a world revealed itself to me in three dimensions, intricate pieces of paper forming houses with real working doors and rooftops made of individual cuts and birds that bobbed from chimney to chimney with the twist of a paper dial. Grass and trees and bushes rose and fell across the landscape, and a clock tower in the middle had real working hands. A girl popped up and down in a window, a boy rode a bike along a river that flowed with blue shimmering paper, a dog caught a ball in a park. As his fingers flew over the page and moved and twisted life into the pages, he began to tell a story.
“This,” he said, pointing to the girl in the window. “Is Margaret. Say hello, Margaret.” He moved the dial next to her and she rose and fell behind the pane several times. “This is Margaret’s dog,” he said, and made the dog catch and drop the bone. “Margaret loves Timothy, this boy here,” he said, and made the bike run forward and backward next to the river.
“Now,” he said, moving his hands away, “tell me a story.”
I looked the book, then back at him, then back at the book, then, carefully, so as not to rip the delicate paper, turned the dial next to the boy on the river.
“Timothy was going to the store to get some milk,” I said.
“Good, good,” my grandfather said.
“But he was riding too fast, and he fell into the river!”
“Oh, goodness, that sounds serious.”
“Look, do you see him? Do you see him in the river?”
I laughed. “Grampa, it’s just a story.”
“No, look.” He grinned and winked at me. “Timothy is flapping his arms around. Look at him splashing. He can’t get a hold of anything. He must be so scared!”
“I need to rescue him.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“So after TImothy fell in the river Margaret ran out of the house and the dog found a long stick and they stuck it in the water and Margaret pulled Timothy out.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“The end? Oh, no, that’s not the end, child. Timothy is cold. He is probably scared. You must make sure he is okay.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean, it’s just a story.”
He said nothing, only watched me with his eyebrows raised.
“Okay, okay, so…Margaret made Timothy some warm chicken noodle soup and he took a hot bath and sat by the fire and they read books and fell asleep in their chairs.”
“Well now,” my grandfather smiled. “Wasn’t that just lovely.”
I smiled back and reached to make the dog catch the bone.
“Do you see them, little one?”
“See who, Grampa?”
“Timothy and Margaret? By the fire.”
I laughed. “Sure, Grampa. They’re all warm and toasty.”
He kissed my forehead and chuckled and said nothing and returned the book to the highest shelf.
It was a rarity, even after that, to find Grampa in a mood willing to read to me from the popup book. It was by far my favorite of all the books we read together, but he seemed to reserve it for special occasions. Sometimes he would tell the stories, and sometimes it was me, but it seemed my imagination grew with each telling, the world we built and the little paper people made of just a little bit more magic than before.
Though my childhood waned and I eventually began to drift from youthful pursuits, Grampa never lost his fondness for the little world we’d created inside of that book. I would occasionally humor him and listen as he weaved new and complex tales, though as time went on it was with increased rarity I added to them myself, and when I did, it was with reluctance. His mind was taken captive by dementia by my thirtieth birthday, and by thirty-four, he had died.
I was the only child of my parents though my mother was not the only child of hers, so there were several others who staked a claim in his estates. I was busy with a new business and a new child and had no interest or need for any of his money, of which he had little. I gladly left it to my uncle and aunts to distribute and squabble over. However, about two weeks after his funeral, my mother’s oldest brother called and asked if I wouldn’t be willing to meet him for a cup of coffee.
Three days later we were sitting on a porch outside a bistro in the city, me sipping a hot cup of chai, my uncle a double espresso. He had produced the book and set it in front of me. It was nearly as big as the table.
“Your grandfather left this to you,” he said simply. “Any idea why?”
I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, it’s got some sentimental value, we used to love making up stories.”
“How much do you think it’s worth?”
“Oh, I can’t imagine it would be worth much. Grampa wasn’t exactly rich, he would have sold it if it were valuable.”
He watched me for a long time, then shrugged. “Well, it’s yours anyway, legally speaking. I’m just trying to figure out why he left it to you, out of all the things.”
“Sentiment,” I repeated, and took a sip of tea.
He grunted an acknowledgement. “Also, this came with it,” he said, and handed me an envelope with my name on the front.
“What’s this?” I took it and held it up to the light but could see nothing.
“Don’t know. But that’s yours. The book and the envelope.”
And that was all we discussed about that.
When I got home I plopped onto my bed on my stomach and opened the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of thick white paper, folded into thirds to fit into the envelope, with a single question handwritten in the middle:
Do you see them?
I read it a few more times then tossed it aside. Now with the book heavy in front of me I became overcome with nostalgia. I sat up, cross-legged, and moved it into my lap and cried. The smell of old paper and glue, the substantial feeling of it in my lap, made me eight years old again, curled up next to my grandfather, listening to his chest rattle as he spoke to compose delightful stories for my entertainment. I cried for some time, and decided then that I would pass on the tradition, that I would open this book for my own child and knit tales with him as my grandfather had knit them with me.
Drying my eyes, I opened the book in my lap, carefully, so the paper wouldn’t rip. The world unfolded itself as if I had never left, shrubs and towers and a dog catching a bone.
I looked for the familiar, tiny girl who could bob up and down in a window with a turn of a paper dial.
“Hello, Margaret,” I whispered to her.
Her head peaked out of the window, and I turned the dial, and it disappeared again.
“Margaret was feeling out of sorts that day,” I said. I smiled and closed my eyes and took a deep breath and it smelled like my grandfather, Old Spice and peppermint, and I opened my eyes. “She decided the best way to cure this was to go for a swim. So Margaret, Timothy, and Spiderman–” (I was eight when I named the dog) “–all met up at the river to cool off.”
And then, as I watched, and as I blinked and shook my head and crossed my eyes and stared, the little paper figures stood up from their little paper dials and made their way toward the little paper river.
I am ill, I thought, and wondered briefly if they would lock me up for hallucinations that didn’t make me want to kill people.
They aren’t hallucinations if you know they are hallucinations, the voice in my head said. I didn’t know whether or not to believe him.
But I opened my mouth, and spoke again.
“Timothy made a big splash that soaked Margaret.” And Timothy laughed wildly, and threw his arms up, and little paper water cascaded down on top of little paper Margaret, and she wiped her little paper face off with her little paper hands.
I caught a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye and turned my head and picked up the paper I had discarded. I flipped it over, but the words were no longer there. The paper was empty. As I stared at it, new words began to form. I mouthed them quietly until the sentence was done.
You are their god now.
I threw the paper down and jumped up from the bed, staring at the note and the book, terrified, terrified that this was happening to me, terrified of what it meant, terrified because I didn’t want to know what it felt like to go insane.
The front door opened and closed and my own son bounded through it and shouted for me. I heard my wife come in after him (they had doubtless been on a mall adventure) and head toward the kitchen. I called out to tell him where I was and he came into the bedroom, beaming, to show me a new scar he’d added to the collection on his knee. He was halfway through the story when he stopped and stared, entranced, at the little paper town.
“Cool, what’s that?”
“Just a, just a pop-up book,” I said, and came cautiously closer and sat on the edge. He sat on the bed and began turning the dials and laughing at the figures. “This is cool!”
Everytime he turned Margaret’s dial, she leapt in the water and splashed when she came back down.
“Whatcha doin’ there, buddy?” I asked warily.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the empty window. “She’s moving up and down!”
“That’s Margaret.” I picked him up and set him in my lap. “Tell me a story about her.”
“Oh, cool, okay. Um…okay, so, one day Margaret decided to run down to the post office. She thought it would be an uneventful trip…”
I watched as the little figures reenacted every word my son spoke, jumping when he told them to jump and running when he told them to run and falling and cutting their knees when he told them to fall and cut their knees.
When his story was over they were still in one piece, on the hill underneath the clock tower, having a picnic. I leaned down and whispered in his ear.
“Do…do you see them?”
“Margaret and Timothy. Under the clock tower. Having a picnic.”
He elbowed me.
“I’m not a baby.” He laughed and turned Margaret’s dial to watch her dance in the window. “It’s just a story.”