One Christmas my father brought back from Laconia, his boyhood home, a mysterious crate. He put the crate on a pallet in a corner of the cellar. On stormy days in winter, while the family sat in the living room around the fire in the fireplace, I used to descend into the cellar to study Father's tools: the ratchet and socket set, the wood drill and bits, chisels, mallets and hammers, planes, tool-and-die set, and all the other interesting and serviceable devices. Now that the crate was also there, it was not long, of course, before I happened to look into it.
Most of the objects in the crate probably belonged to Grandfather Sinsac. I could not remember him because he was dead before I started remembering. But I had seen a photo of him holding in his arms a baby who my father said was me. Grandfather was wearing a white shirt and tie, his shoulders were broad, arms wiry and rugged-looking, wrists thick, hands knobby. His face was knobby and strong-featured, too, as if chiseled in dark, gnarled stone. He wore a goatee and glasses. His mouth was grave but I imagined a serenity there that amounted to happiness. Although he was a dignified and serious man, he was well known for being a great prankster and kidder. I wondered whether I should be snooping in this crate, in which was stuff belonging to whom I could not remember alive; but I snooped anyway.
On the top was a pile of six pair of leather boots, three pair of which were worn out and three pair almost like new. Under them in mothballs were a bowler hat and a suit of old, black clothes. There was also a shoe box full of tarnished silverware, and a sheaf of photographs of people whom I did not recognize; then a smaller crate made of rough pine slats, in which teacups were packed in wads of shredded newspaper. Stood up along the sides of this crate within a crate, as if for additional padding, were three dusty, ancient books. They were bound in sturdy leather, their type was large, clear, easy to decipher, and the paper was very fine and white, though stained here and there around the edges. In the margins and other empty spaces was much small, neat handwriting, some in English and some in Polish, a language I could not read. Two of these books were in English, the other in Polish. I could not resist carrying them upstairs to show my mother.
"Well, I'll be darned," she said, "these are your Grandfather Sinsac's old books. I have heard there is a crate of very deep and complicated books somewhere. I bet there are other things in that crate we should put out to make Grandmother Sinsac feel at home when she comes here to live. But these books will do as a start. Why don't you put them on your shelf beside your bed? I think Grandfather would be glad for you to have them. He often said that he dreamed an educated person might be in the family one day. You should ask your father about them. I bet he'll be able to tell you a good story."
One day after supper Father had a minute to sit and talk to me, and I showed him the books.
"I'm surprised to see these books," Father said. "I had been wondering where they could be, and now you have found them."
Then he told me this story about them.
"Your grandfather used to keep these two books on the table beside his easy chair, and he'd read from one or the other of them every day. This book here is The Holy Bible. As you can see, it is written in Polish, a very ancient and distinguished language. Your grandfather loved to read this book. And this book is The Dialogues of Plato. And this last book here was written by Edward Kuk, your Grandfather Sinsac's best friend.
"Mr. Kuk worked side-by-side with your grandfather in the metal foundry in Laconia for many years. In those days the Polish worked at the foundry while the French Canadians usually worked in the woolen mill.
"He was an old bachelor who lived on the second floor in Sebastian Weiss' house. You remember Peter Weiss, the one who made the puppets and put on the puppet show that day you enjoyed so much? He's Saba's son.
"Well, it turned out Mr. Kuk was a great reader, and over the years he stacked books every which way in his little apartment, and he was apt to stay up all night reading and thinking. One day, after many years, Mr. Weiss was inconsiderate to Mr. Kuk. The problem developed that the weight of all the books in Mr. Kuk's apartment was putting on the foundation such a strain that Mr. Weiss was afraid his house would topple over into the lake. Also, it was reported that Mr. Kuk had ceased going to church, and he could be seen on Sunday morning fishing beside the lake. Mr. Weiss, therefore, demanded that Mr. Kuk get rid of some of his books.
"Also, there was talk of a careless and impractical life, Mr. Kuk holed up in the study of his books.
"It was not a good situation that developed, Eddie, the disruption Mr. Weiss had put upon Mr. Kuk's thinking at night. Mr. Kuk had no alternative but to put on Mr. Weiss a very complicated and intellectual curse.
“It was the talk of the whole neighborhood of Podgorny Street. Everybody was arguing about it. Fortunately, your grandfather, who knew everybody in the neighborhood, was able to work out a compromise. In his house and also the house of Chester Yablonski, the grocer, a large bookcase would be installed. On these bookshelves in each house Mr. Kuk agreed to store the greater number of his collection of books until such time when Mr. Weiss could shore up his foundations. In return, Mr. Kuk had agreed to lift off the curse with which he was threatening Mr. Weiss. So this was carried out.
"But it was not a completely satisfactory solution because it would often happen that in the middle of the night Mr. Kuk would feel the urge to look into one of the books in either our house or in Mr. Yablonski's house. Many a night there would be footsteps on the sidewalk and a rapping at the door. Your grandfather would let him in, throw extra logs in the stove, and Mr. Kuk would sit in a rocking chair in the parlor in front of his shelves of books and fall into deep meditation.
"As you might expect, your grandmother was dubious about this situation, but your grandfather on numerous occasions insisted that to interrupt a thinker in the midst of his contemplation was a mortal sin whose punishment was eternal damnation in the deepest fires of hell. To make it worse Mr. Kuk was something of a poet.
"It turned out that Mr. Kuk's contemplation involved a book he was then writing. The book was about a man who, coming out of a distant country, visited a very strange land. It so happened that the inhabitants of this strange land were indifferent to the good and the beautiful. Although they were satisfied and happy if something worked, and they were good at making things work, they were mystified by the ultimate purposes of things. And the smartest people in this country were not interested in how to seek out purposes by going deep into the spirit. They had been taught to be satisfied by a few superficial tricks. Thus, they labored without purpose. And they were especially mystified by the good and the beautiful. In fact, in this strange land the good and the beautiful was considered to be an evil that was best avoided, as if a dangerous thing.
"It is a very complicated book. Perhaps you might one day understand it completely. Mr. Kuk spent thirty years writing and re-writing the book, and he finished it only because he became sick and was about to die. There, you see the last page? It ends in the middle of a sentence. As you can see, it is a very beautiful book. He had the printer make one-hundred copies, and he gave a copy to everyone who he thought would like to have one. It was a gift to the people in exchange for the life he had lived with them. Your grandfather extolled it and kept it near him always. He said it reminded him of a prayer. It is good that you have found it because now you can carry it on. Your grandfather told me many times that if you read The Holy Bible and The Dialogues of Plato and this book by Mr. Kuk, Strange Land, you would then know as much as the smartest people on Earth.
"So there, already you have every book you need for the rest of your life. Best to get started as soon as you can. Looks like there's a lot of reading there."
I went into my room and leafed through the scrupulous pages for hours in amazement. I did not allow Norma, my sister, nor anyone to lay upon these books a single finger, even though it was a sin not to share. In my room I studied the words, but I did not know what to make of them. On the overleaf was an especially interesting picture. A man was standing on a bluff, and in the valley below on one hand were houses clustered around a factory, while on the other hand were trees and farms. All of them, both factory and farm, were colored in warm hues of blue and brown and green. The book was sturdily bound, the paper thick and white, and the words were so neat, so perfectly put together that they seemed independent of the page on which they had been lain.
One day, I decided, these words must provide a message that would be necessary, but I'd have to wait. Though now it was winter, someday a summer would come in whose light and warmth I'd learn to understand. I was anxious; I did not want to wait long. But if it were summer all the time and all my evenings slept in quiet comprehension, I'd never sit in warm contemplation of Grandfather's exemplary books.