THE PASSING OF THE BOOK • by Gerald Warfield

Jason, a bronze sickle in one hand, glimpsed movement at the edge of the woods and straightened to peer above the golden stalks of barley.  At the far end of the field, Dame Stilwell, his teacher, had emerged from the trees.  There were no paths in that part of the forest, and she wore no cape, her full, black dress clearly unsuited for trekking through the woods.

“Dame Stilwell,” he called.  Startled, she turned her face to him, but then smiled and began picking her way through the cut portion of the field, raising the hem of her dress to clear the stubble.

Jason hadn’t attended Circle since spring planting. No other boys his age went to school, but his father encouraged him, excusing him from some of the winter chores. “Maybe you’ll be a scribe, or a priest,” he said one evening at dinner. His brothers, who resented making up his chores, only smirked.

At the old guild hall, Dame Stilwell chalked words onto the walls, and Students read aloud or copied onto thin, black slates. Some days she even taught Kitheon, a beautiful but dead language.  The first time he saw her hold a piece of chalk sideways and draw the graceful curves of Kitheon letters, the skin tingled on the back of his neck. Magic lurked within those words, he was sure of it.

Dropping the sickle, he strode across the field to meet his teacher.  Burrs clung to the hem of her dress, and strands of hair had escaped the shell combs she always wore.  He had never seen her in anything but immaculate garments, her hair coiffed, her collars starched.  And she made it known that clean attire and bathing were required of her students.  He suffered many a bath in the frigid creek in preparation for her class.

“What are you doing here?”  Jason asked. The impertinence of the question embarrassed him, but the circumstances were so odd that the words tumbled out before he thought.

“Hello, Jason.”  She hadn’t taken offense.

He nodded, hoping to make up for his abruptness.

“We’ve missed you.”

He grinned.  “I can hardly wait for winter when I can start again.”

There was an awkward pause, and she gestured to the woods.  “I… I was looking for mushrooms.”

His gaze fell to her empty hands.

“Oh,” she said, apparently seeing his glance.  “I didn’t need a basket.  I was just going to pick a few.”

One of her sleeves was torn.  Only a snag, or perhaps something had happened?  Jason squinted in the direction of the forest.  A new order of monks had taken over the temple.  Fanatics, he heard, and they stirred up the villagers against the old teachings.

“It’s so fortunate I found you here.”  She lifted a small bag that hung from her belt.  “I have something for you.”

“For me?”

“You were always so good at Kitheon.  The language seems to — resonate with you.”  She pulled out a tiny book hardly bigger than her hand.

He had seen two books in his life, the holy book at the temple, and another that Dame Stilwell, herself, had brought to the Circle.  Each student got to read a page.  This was not that book.

“Won’t you take it?”

The binding was tooled leather, stained dark brown.  A small clasp held the fore edge. The title, now faded, was embossed on the front in graceful, flowing letters.

He extended both hands as if afraid he would drop it.

The book was heavy for its size.  “Stosthopis ani Crenthopis,” he read.  “Light and Dark.”

“Ah, you haven’t forgotten.”

Suddenly aware of the grime on his calloused hands, he held the book out as if to return it to her.  “I can’t… People will think I stole it.”  Again, he cringed at the bluntness of his words.

“Then best keep it a secret — just between us.”  Her smile faded, replaced by a look that Jason couldn’t read.  She opened her mouth as if to speak again, but instead turned back to the woods, leaving Jason in the field staring at his treasure.

“Thank you,” he said, after her retreating form.

She did not look back. When she reached the tree line, a partridge broke cover and flapped noisily into the sky.

At sundown, Jason shocked-up the stalks of barley he had cut and took the back trail to a remote storage shed.  Barely able to see, but fearful of striking a light, he wrapped the book in bittercloth to keep the rats from it and wedged it among the rafters.

They caught Dame Stilwell the next day.  She had made it to Cromley where a suspicious innkeeper had summoned authorities.  Rumors flew through the village: witchcraft, blasphemy, corruption of children.

Three monks of the new order visited the farm a few days later, their faces shadowed in cowls.  Jason was terrified they knew about the book, but instead they asked about the Circle.  Had Dame Stilwell taught Kitheon?  “I wasn’t a good student,” he told them.

“He quit,” his pa added. “He wasn’t going back.”

“Such learning is the gateway to great evil,” the monks warned, regarding him with suspicion.

Within a fortnight, Dame Stilwell was tried and the next morning dragged into the square, the entire village in attendance.  Jason slipped away from his family to conceal himself in the back.  She wore the same dress, now in tatters.  As they lit the fire, she looked into the crowd.  He knew she searched for him.  In the end, she inhaled great gulps of smoke attempting a quick death. She did not succeed.

Deep snow had fallen before Jason had the nerve to slip away to the storage shed.  The bittercloth had worked.  The book was intact.  His breath in the cold loft clouded the words, and he had to be careful in gloved hands to turn the pages gently.

Not the gateway to evil, Jason thought, but to power.  They would regret what they did to Dame Stilwell.

Gerald Warfield’s short stories have appeared in many online venues and print anthologies including Perihelion, NewMyths, Bewildering Stories, Every Day Fiction, and Metaphorosis. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.

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 average 4.1 stars • 50 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    This story, I felt, violated the most basic rule of world-building–consistency of atmosphere. It was like a cultural grab-bag, and at the end all I felt was irritated. In flash, where every word must do heavy lifting in advancing the story, the author’s choices must make sense–or lead to a payoff when they don’t, at first, seem to.

    And–you don’t need to tell us everything. But what you do say ought to be important. How many times did you need to reiterate she wears a black dress? Two stars.

    • Stark14

      In the story it is mentioned she wears a black dress only once.

      I thought the story was beautiful, and the mood consistent.

  • Great story, Gerald. A subtle piece, offering hints at a much larger world. Leaves me wanting more.

  • With all the mystery contained in the story I felt detached. The story lacked emotion and I think this was due to the third person perspective. Here’s a story that would be stronger in first person from Jason’s viewpoint. As written it read quite flat to me.

  • MaryAlice Meli

    This story felt like a sliver from a much longer work. Beautifully written. I was captivated, willing to read much more of a genre I usually don’t appreciate.

  • Rose Gardener

    Most interesting. I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened to Jason.

  • S Conroy

    I like how so much goes unsaid in this story. It feels like the middle ages and I got a depressing sense that it’s not a mileu where the young farmhand could even think of helping a woman who has fallen into disfavour with the new powers. He doesn’t seem willing to meet her gaze at the end. Perhaps a mixture of shame and fear of people noticing. He does accept her gift which ties him to her and turns him into the guardian of her knowlege. Lots of room for the reader to fill in the blanks. Impressive.

  • Definitely read as part of a novel. Jason had every reason to hold back at the end, but it still felt like betrayal. I came away with the sense I was too late for the party. All the good stuff already happened and too bad about me.

  • Camille Gooderham Campbell

    The published story has been updated to include some small corrections and the last paragraph which had somehow been cut off. Apologies to the author for the error.

    • Gerald_Warfield

      Thanks, Camille! You’ve done so much for authors while EDF is getting its facelift.

    • S Conroy

      Funny. I actually preferred the version without the last line, since in the last line the author spells out pretty much what could be guessed from the whole set up and tone of the story. Still, I imagine there’ll be just as many readers who find it more complete with the explanation.

      • Gerald_Warfield

        Yes, that worried me, too.

        • S Conroy

          It’s tricky and I think pretty subjective. It would be interesting to know what other readers thought.

  • OscarWindsor

    I agree with what some others have already said, Gerald, this piece – with perhaps a little further attention – does have the potential to lead us into an interesting world with great dramatic possibilities.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      Nicely put.

    • Gerald_Warfield

      Thanks, Oscar. I’m coming around to that point of view. It wasn’t planned that way.

  • Chris Antenen

    I felt I was there, in the barley field, even though I have no idea what a barley field is. In my mind I think I converted it to a corn field, with the rustle of large leaves and dry shucks.
    Passing the book seemed almost sacred.
    Lovely story–complete. The boy would continue her passion for language.
    I looked for flaws because we readers have that task. I found none, but questioned a sickle made of bronze, an alloy not known for implements used for farming? Are we to assume we’re in the Bronze Age? That’s waaaaay back. I’m betting you did your research, however, so I’ll buy it!

    • Gerald_Warfield

      Thanks, Chris. The use of bronze persisted, especially amongst poorer people. It was often used in the middle ages, which is when I imagine this piece taking place. I’m glad you picked up on it, though. I intended it a signal that we aren’t talking modern times.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        And starched collars were invented…

        • Gerald_Warfield

          The extraction of starch was first described as far as we know by Pliny the Elder in the Natural History around AD 77–79.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I’m sure starch as a substance has been familiar to human society for a long, long time. But I’m dubious that women in the Middle Ages were starching their collars–or wearing dresses adorned with them. My problem with this piece is what I perceived as a liberal mixing of cultures and eras, making it difficult for me, as a reader, to develop a consistent sense of time and place.

  • JAZZ


    I would ignore the dogmatist. Really, why would one argue about starch of all things.

    • Gerald_Warfield

      You’re right, of course.

  • JAZZ


    • Paul A. Freeman

      Caps lock!

    • Camille Gooderham Campbell

      Jazz, please review our commenting guidelines. Disagree with other commenters if you wish, but please do it respectfully. Name-calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

      • JAZZ

        How do you feel about being disrespectful..? Seriously, take another look at the first response to this story: “violated, irritated, no need to tell us everything..” Basically a hatchet job …… Sounds like a personal attack to me.
        But Sarah appears to be untouchable while some of us who object to this women’s vitriolic critiques are censored…no free speech for us.
        Have you ever noticed that no one, particularly the guys, never respond first. They wait for Sarah to comment to determine what way the wind is blowing.
        Unfortunately for you, she has set the tone for your website. Others have wandered off, or perhaps slammed the door behind them when they left, others have been discouraged from submitting, and others like me are puzzled as to why educated people like yourself have been so co-opted by a cunning, rather mean women who is relentless in her goal of being first among strangers with no qualms in reaching this goal.

        • Camille Gooderham Campbell

          Jazz, I should redact many things in your comment but I will leave them for clarity’s sake. Please read back over what you’ve said and ask yourself how you’d feel if those adjectives were directed at you.

          1) To feel that a story breaks (violates) some “rule” of writing is a legitimate opinion. It is also a legitimate response to feel irritated by a story, and to prefer a lesser level of detail than the author provides. Those are all story critiques. I don’t have to like or agree with what Sarah says and I sometimes wish she would use gentler words, but she’s not attacking the author, she’s giving feedback about her response to the story.

          2) No one is untouchable. I have removed comments from Sarah and many other people when they cross our guidelines. You have been asked previously to send us a private message if you feel a comment is crossing those guidelines so we can discuss it in a more suitable forum.

          3) I have enough respect for EDF’s readers to trust that they don’t in fact wait for one particular commenter to tell them what to think. I also trust our community to ignore people whose opinion they disagree with and/or drown it out with on-point comments that focus on the story.

          4) We are coming up on EDF’s ninth birthday. I’ve seen a lot of authors and commenters come and go over the past nine years. No single person is capable of setting a magazine’s tone — it requires engagement from others. And this is not the first time I’ve heard the argument that authors won’t submit stories if we don’t force our commenters to be nice to them; actually, most serious authors value the variety of feedback they get and aren’t scared of a few negative reviews.

          I don’t understand your focus on Sarah or what your personal grievance against her is, but it cannot continue here. Please refrain from replying to her comments or referring to her, at risk of a full ban from the site. You are welcome to contact us by email if you wish to discuss this further — anything added to this thread other than an apology from you will be deleted.

  • Gerald_Warfield

    An interesting point lies just beneath the surface of much of the discussion here, and it is one that I have revisited several times myself: just how faithful does a fantasy story have to be to a specific historical period? If a steam engine pops up in a fantasy story identified as being within a Medieval time frame, is that necessarily wrong? Under what conditions does an interesting detail become an anachronism? Even historical accuracies can appear to be “incorrect,” depending on the reader’s knowledge of history. I think it’s clear that internal consistency trumps historical accuracy. But the lines get blurry in a fantasy world where a magic ring is more probable than a steam engine. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t want to knock a reader out of the story with a conspicuous anachronism that serves no further purpose. On the other hand, it behooves the reader not to create anachronisms by historical analogy. After all, it is the author’s world.

    • S Conroy

      I don’t know too much about the fantasy genre, but Game of Thrones has weapons of mass destruction (unlike Iraq in 2003).

      • Gerald_Warfield

        LOL! Good example!

        • S Conroy