Flea Markets, Old Letters, and Unicorns

A gripping tale of Encyclopedias and Magic…


All right, y’all. It’s story time with Old Man Pru. Pull up a seat.


As a child, I went nearly every Saturday morning with my grandparents to the big local flea market. It always smelled of the dusty tracks worn into bare dirt between labyrinthine tables and the odd, the incomparable scent of boiled peanuts (a true southern delicacy). It rang with the chatter of a hundred, two hundred haggling sellers and buyers while unintelligible music blared from different stalls–just a little something to stave off the sellers’ boredom as they manned their tables. There was always something just a little bit weird, a little bit embarrassingly redneck-y about the experience, but I will never forget the day, around the age of ten, that the White Horse Road Flea Market ‘n’ Fairgrounds gained just a little bit of magic.

On that fateful day, I was browsing one stall while my grandmother eyeballed a collection of truly nightmare-inducing dolls nearby. The table I stood by was filled with displays of costume jewelry, decades-old knickknacks, and surprisingly, a few stacks of books.

Now, being the owl-eyed book-nerd I was (am), guess where I gravitated.

Most of the books looked completely uninteresting: the worst of it was the tower of dour hardback volumes of Reader’s Digest. I remember getting a little excited over the near-complete set of Encyclopædia Britannica, which looked like the sort of thing Serious Business People kept in their study, right next to their fireplaces on dark hardwood bookshelves. You know, some serious Sherlock Holmes-looking stuff.

(I should mention, I was the kid that would read anything and everything. When I ran out of books, I read through my battered copy of Webster’s Student Dictionary in the second grade. My parents still joke with me over reading cereal boxes and phone books into their minutiae.)

I grabbed whichever volume was on top and started flipping through, and a little piece of paper fell to the ground. It was unlined, a quarter-folded letter on paper yellowed with age. It had the sort of ornate, loopy handwriting that reminded me of people writing with feather-quills and inkwells. It was dated 1942. Definitely feather-quills, then. I was certain of it.

Obviously I’d found a rare and priceless artifact that would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars because it was Really Old.

I don’t really remember the contents of the letter, except that it was from a woman to her brother. She talked about people they both knew, none of which made any sense to me. Still, I was spellbound. This was the sort of thing I read about in all the fantasy books I gobbled up. This was a portent of brilliant, impossible things that would quickly start happening in my life, something straight out of Narnia.

I studied the note, chewing my lip, weighing my options. I’d already spent all five dollars of my allowance on a box of snappers–those little twists of paper filled with sawdust and gunpowder that made a loud pop when thrown against cement–and a chipped knock-off Garfield piggybank. I definitely didn’t have the money to go about buying encyclopedias, that was for sure.

I was also absolutely sure that if I didn’t keep this note, then those mystical things couldn’t possibly happen. That just wasn’t how it worked in the books. I had to take it home, and then it would do something brilliant when I least expected it.

Okay, so it was imperative that I steal the letter. I had a magical fate to think of, and no amount of morality could stop that. It was scary, though. I was the kid that couldn’t lie to teachers about cheating on a math test or passing notes in class. It took a lot of deep breaths to work up the nerve to slip it into my pocket. Naturally, that was the exact moment my grandmother, fresh with her purchase of a really grody-looking porcelain doll, came wandering over. I had only just re-folded the note, and clutched it in my hands like she’d just caught me stealing the Eiffel Tower.

“Stop pilferin’ and put that back! We gotta get home, if y’want lunch!” She scowled and shifted the bag with the doll, her thick, nasal southern accent sharp with annoyance. Honestly, she was my step-grandmother and not very fond of children. The only reason I went with her was to see all the weird stuff.

Completely mortified, absolutely certain she knew what I’d been about to do, I stuffed the note back into the encyclopedia and put it back onto its pile so quickly I nearly knocked the whole thing over. With a mumbled “Yes ma’am,” I scurried after her, glaring daggers at the back of her head for probably ruining my life.

I was crushed. I had been close, so close! Bruce Coville, C.S. Lewis, and all the rest of my favorite authors were somewhere shaking their heads in disappointment at me, I knew it. Now I’d never know what sort of adventure would have befallen me. I’d never have any sort of magic powers or a… a pet unicorn or anything. On top of that, when I got back home, I’d have to clean my room. It was terrible.

Honestly, I don’t know where I’m going with this story. It’s got a passable beginning, an amusing middle, but no real end. I went home, ate the saddest grilled cheese of my life, and cleaned my room. The only upside was that my mom let me listen to her cassette copy of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 while I put away my dirty laundry and mourned the missed opportunity I’d been presented with. That’s it. Nothing even slightly paranormal happened.

I guess the moral of the story, if you’re a parent or grandparent, is that you definitely need to encourage your kids to steal the weird little things they find in books from the flea market. You’re doing them a great disservice if you don’t. Your child finding ghosts or aliens or unicorns depends on it.

A long time ago, when you were a wee thing, you learned something, some way to cope, something that, if you did it, would help you survive. It wasn’t the healthiest thing, it wasn’t gonna get you free, but it was gonna keep you alive. You learned it, at five or six, and it worked, it *did* help you survive. You carried it with you all your life, used it whenever you needed it. It got you out—out of your assbackwards town, away from an abuser, out of range of your mother’s un-love. Or whatever. It worked for you. You’re still here now partly because of this thing that you learned. The thing is, though, at some point you stopped needing it. At some point, you got far enough away, surrounded yourself with people who love you. You survived. And because you survived, you now had a shot at more than just staying alive. You had a shot now at getting free. But that thing that you learned when you were five was not then and is not now designed to help you be free. It is designed only to help you survive. And, in fact, it keeps you from being free. You need to figure out what this thing is and work your ass off to un-learn it. Because the things we learn to do to survive at all costs are not the things that will help us get FREE. Getting free is a whole different journey altogether.

Mia McKenzie, creator of Black Girl Dangerous, author of The Summer We Got Free (via etiquette-etc)

i think i gasped a little when i read this because it’s almost word-for-word my therapist’s explanation of why i learned to be anxious as a child (“if your dad might blow up at any minute then your anxiety protects you”) and why it’s not helping me now (“he’s not here anymore”). 

(via dorightwoman)

Ooh my therapist talked about talking about my life as exploitation and I went bone silent

The things we we learn to survive don’t always make us thrive

(via guyanapeace)

wow. this is hittin home for me in so many ways~ Wishin everyone good luck on their journey of unlearning~ (via kenyabenyagurl)

…This.  All of it.

(via nyxvalentine)

this is exactly what my therapist says, with the addition that the path to healing does not involve telling this part of you that acted as a survival strategy to fuck off and quit complicating your life; it involves acknowledging it, thanking it for its work in keeping you alive, and then working on reassuring it and the rest of yourself that you no longer need that protection. 

(via ceruleancynic)