This is what happens when you arrange lunch with a folklorist whose office is in the university attic. This is what I was looking at the whole time. I think our discussion lasted about five minutes before Dr. Gilthead stopped politely pretending not to notice that I was distracted by the collection of bottles in the window behind his desk and asked if I wanted to have a look.
Yes, I did. So we stopped talking about what we’d actually met to talk about and started talking about a bunch of old glass bottles.
I should explain a couple of things here. Firstly: City University’s folklore department doesn’t exist anymore. It was absorbed into the Crypto-Urban Studies department about ten years ago, and this caused an uproar the likes of which only academics whose specialty has been (in their view) radically mis-categorized can raise. That is to say, a very large and very obnoxious uproar.
At first, the folklorists simply refused to acknowledge the reorganization. Then there were acts of civil disobedience and pranks (gluing the department head’s furniture to the ceiling, removing the indexes of every book in the department library, attempting to kidnap the department secretary). At last, the folklore department walked out en masse, and have (according to the official University literature) never returned. City University no longer offers a folklore degree or, in fact, any folklore classes. This is roughly when the legendary folklorist Phineas Amalgam left the faculty; it was Amalgam that I had come to talk to Dr. Gilthead about. And the reason we were meeting in the attic is that the truth is, most of the faculty did come back. But they refused to take offices in what was now part of the Crypto-Urban Studies department, so they found workspaces elsewhere.
For the last few months I’ve been doing research for a new edition of Phineas Amalgam’s most famous collection of lore, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. In the course of tracking down colleagues of Amalgam’s, I’ve had to approach City University less like a writer and more like an urban explorer. Dr. Coventry keeps an office in the old pneumatic tube depot that used to be used for interdepartmental correspondence. Dr. Yulett’s office is a decommissioned powder room, from days when the women’s faculty bathroom was literally called the powder room. Dr. Eglantine has taken to collecting antique paperweights not because she likes them, but because her workspace is on a balcony outside a chemistry lab. The day I interviewed her she warned me in advance to come over the roof rather than trying to cut through the chem lab, because she’d heard they were handling some fairly noxious chemicals that day. We conducted our discussion through two antique gas masks.
So, long story short, here we were in the attic, and I’d been distracted by a bunch of old bottles.
“Take a look,” Dr. Gilthead said, very kindly. At least, I thought he was being kindly. Now I wonder if he didn’t look kind of calculating. As I was turning the first dusty bottle over in my hands, he said casually, “Of course, you know the story of the Yankee Peddlers.”
I did, and said so; everybody in Nagspeake knows that story. It’s one of the famous ones. There’s even a poem. Phineas Amalgam’s retelling of the tale of the Yankee Peddlers is the centerpiece of The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. But I probably answered distractedly, because the comment didn’t seem to be related to what I was now holding and occupied with. There are four peddlers in the story: a tinsmith, a clocksmith, a conflagrationeer, and a catalog merchant; but there’s nobody whose wares would’ve come in bottles.
“Look at the bottom,” Dr. Gilthead suggested. So I turned the thing over. The handwritten label stuck to the glass was faded but perfectly legible: made by Natron Glassworks for Lympha Elixirs.
Natron Glassworks and Lympha Elixirs: two entities I’ve never heard of. It isn’t that I know every company that’s ever operated in Nagspeake, but here was this folklorist making a point of calling my attention to them.
“Blister, Bone, Nerve, Lung,” Dr. Gilthead said from somewhere behind me. Those are the names of the four Yankee Peddlers in the most common version of the story. “And then there’s Madame Blood in some variations. Interesting to find that there was also a Lympha Elixir company, isn’t it?”
“Do you know anything about this company?” I asked.
Gilthead shook his head. “No mention in any literature I can find. But it existed, and the name alone suggests it’s in some way related to the folklore about the peddlers. I find it very, very interesting that Dr. Amalgam, who obviously knew more about Nagspeake folklore than anyone else, never mentioned it.” He shrugged. “I just figured you might like to know.”
No kidding. So now I have this whole other thing to look into, which is at once very exciting and headthumpingly frustrating, because tracking down primary sources in Nagspeake is, to put it mildly, problematic.
This is what I get for taking meetings in attics.