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.