The Sugar Quill
Author: Seldes Katne (Professors' Bookshelf)  Story: Close Encounters of the Harry Potter Kind  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

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December 30, 1999

Ms. J.K. Rowling

c/o Scholastic Publications

555 Broadway

New York, NY 10012

Dear Ms. Rowling,

  I'm writing to you for two reasons.  First, to tell you that, like most of the rest of the world's population, I very much enjoy the books in your Harry Potter series.  I work as a Youth Services Librarian (a fancy title for a Children's Librarian) at the Public Library in Everett City, New York.  I've been reading the books not only because of their popularity with children, but because I like the stories and characters.  Thank you so much for telling their tales.

Second, I'd like to relate two incidents I think you'll find of interest.  Our library recently planned the first of several programs based on your books, and three days ago I was in an upstairs office in the library, cataloging some of our new materials, when one of our clerks on the front desk called up and told me there was a patron at the desk and would I please come down to talk to him. Right now.

When I got to the bottom of the inside front stairs, I found the clerk with a tall, lean man with dark hair and dark eyes.  Although he was well-dressed in black slacks, a dark green turtleneck sweater, and a long black coat, there was something rather, well, unsavory about him.  I could see why he was making the clerk nervous.  Nevertheless, I put on my best public-service smile and introduced myself.

"I'm the Children's Librarian," I told him.  "What can I do for you?"

As I spoke, the man was pulling off a pair of black leather gloves.  With a jerk of his head, he remarked in an accented voice, "You can explain that."

"That" turned out to be our flyer for our Harry Potter program, which we had entitled "An Afternoon at Hogwarts".  "Oh," I said, "that's a program we've been planning.  It's based on the Harry Potter books.  Have you read any of them?"

"No," the man replied irritably, tilting his head back so that he was staring at me down his nose.  "But I am...familiar...with them."

"Do you have any children who've read them?"

"Hardly."

I was beginning to wonder if he was one of those people who wanted to ban the books because of the whole magic-and-the-occult issue.  "Then you know about them--"

"I teach," he interrupted.

"Oh," I said, smiling, "then you're probably inundated with them at school."  At this point the clerk scurried away from the desk to help a patron who was waving at her frantically from the computer across the room, leaving me to deal with our visitor.  "Well, the program is a variety of activities based on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

The man muttered, "The Sorcerer's Stone," sourly, and frowned at me.

"It's called The Philosopher's Stone in most of the rest of the world," I explained.  "We've got 28 children signed up, and we'll be taking them upstairs to the dining room and the back of the library. We'll start with a reading from the book, then 'sort' them into the four houses at the Hogwarts School.  I know that some of my fellow librarians have chosen not to include Slytherin--"

"NOT include Slytherin?--"

"Well, yes; some people seem to think that Slytherin has a, ah, bad reputation.  But that's not the case here," I said firmly.  I noticed that his chin had come down about half an inch at this.  "We wanted to be as true to the books as we could. And there are, after all, some children who we figure will actually want to be in Slytherin.   Besides," I added, smiling, "I get to be acting Head of House for Slytherin for the afternoon."  The reason behind that was that no one else on the staff had wanted the role, and I didn't mind playing the "bad guy" for a couple of hours.

The man's chin came down another half an inch.  "You?"  He folded his arms and stared at me.  "Forgive me, but you don't seem the type."

At that I laughed.  "Well, some of my former students, from when I was a school librarian, would probably argue with you about that.  They would tell you that I'm admirably suited to be in Slytherin because I'm a mean, rotten, miserable person with a terrible personality."  I paused and shrugged.  "Of course, if they hadn't insisted on coming to the library and sitting around with their feet up on the tables and yelling things at each other across the room and stealing the daily newspaper and making obnoxious, insulting comments to the faculty members, they might not have had to see the dark side of my personality."

By now the man had lowered his head to the point where he was actually looking me in the eye instead of at me down his nose.  There was a hint of a smile around his mouth.  "It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?" he asked dryly.

I nodded and chuckled.  "I'll say."

"So.  What else will be happening at this program?"

"We'll be decorating 'magic wands'," here I wiggled the first two fingers of both hands in the air to signify the quotation marks around the words, "and making owls out of paper bags; then we'll have refreshments and a team trivia contest, with questions based on the first book.  We've got puzzles and book marks and stickers for people to take home.  There's more than that, but those are the high points."
"I see."  By now he was leaning against the circulation desk, which brought his eyes a little closer to my level.

"We're in the process of decorating the dining room to look like the Great Hall at the school," I continued.  "We're putting stars on the ceiling to simulate the night sky, we've found a really neat painting of a desolate castle that could be Azkaban," here he quirked his eyebrows at the mention of the prison's name, "and we're making owls to go in an owlrey off the main room.  We've also got a lovely carved wood cabinet we're going to turn into a Potion Supply Cabinet."

One corner of his mouth had twitched upward into a half-smile.  "Really."  He straightened and stepped away from the desk.  "Would you by any chance have a moment to show it to me?"

"Um, sure."  I told the clerk we were going up to the dining room and led the way to the back staircase.  Getting a look at him in profile, I could see that his hair was actually shoulder-length and had been pulled back into a small ponytail.  As we neared the stairs, I tried some small talk.  "Sounds like you're from Great Britain.  I'll bet the Harry Potter books are even more popular there than they are here," I remarked, unhitching the rope with its "Staff Only" sign from its hook.  "What in the world are you doing here?"

He was a step behind me going up the stairs.  "I'm attending the Educators' Conferences at the local university.  It's our Christmas holiday break."

I unhooked the second sign at the top of the stairs.  "And you just wandered over to our library?"  I was turning on the lights and leading the way into the dining room.

"Someone mentioned your program, and I was...curious," he replied as we halted in front of the cabinet.

The cabinet had come from Italy, and was over a hundred years old.  There were all kinds of leaves carved in the wood frames around the glass doors of the upper half of the cabinet, and figures of what looked like knights around the bottom half.  The clawed feet looked like small dragons' or gargoyles' paws; on the whole, it was a perfect Potions Supply Cabinet.  Usually filled with old, classic books and the busts of famous authors whose names no one remembered, the cabinet now held an assortment of glass bottles, curiously-shaped canisters, a frog-shaped pitcher donated by our library director, and tiny labels explaining what was supposed to be in each container.

My visitor bent down and squinted at the bottom shelf of the cabinet's contents.  I began giving him the background on the labels.  "We tried to find ingredients that were either listed in the books themselves or in other texts on magic."  He was nodding at this, still examining the labels.  "We actually had one jar labeled 'monkshood' and another as 'wolfsbane', but then I remembered from the account of Professor Snape's lecture in the first book that they were both the same thing, so I removed one and put a different label in instead."

The man straightened.  "Just so."  He actually smiled this time.  "You appear to have done your homework.  But I don't see any of the ingredients for the more advanced potions.  No powdered bicorn horn or, ah, shredded boomslang skin?"

I thought for a moment.  "Oh, no, those wouldn't be out here," I told him in my best lecture voice.  "This is meant to be a student supply case.  If I recall correctly, the ingredients you're talking about were mentioned in Book Two as being in Professor Snape's private stash.  You know, when Harry and his friends had to create a diversion so they could steal them for a potion they were making?"

All of a sudden the man's eyes narrowed and his mouth hardened.  "So that's where --"  He stared at me for a moment, then turned his head to glare out the window.

I put a hand over my mouth.  "Oh, I'm sorry," I apologized.  "I forgot you haven't read Book Two.  I'm sorry if I spoiled something for you."

For a moment he was silent, still staring out the window.  Then some of the tension left his face and he looked back at me.  "Not at all," he said in a reasonable tone.  "Actually, I'm grateful for the information."  He glanced around the room, and his gaze came to rest on the clock.  "Well, I won't take up any more of your time, ah, Ms...?"

"McAllister."

His eyebrows twitched.  "Emigrated from Scotland."

"Four or five generations back."  We headed down the back stairs.  "I'm planning a trip to Scotland for next fall, after our summer reading program here is finished, and I thought I'd take a few days to ask around over there."  I smiled, mostly to myself.  "I'd also like to take a couple of days to swing over to England and do the tourist thing there."

My visitor paused at the bottom of the stairs as I replaced the "Staff Only" sign.  "Of course," he said.  "I'd certainly recommend it, especially when you've come all that way already."  He smiled, a smile that finally reached his eyes, if only for a moment.  "I thank you for your time.  Good luck with your, ah, program."

"Thanks," I said, putting a hand on the door handle.  "I'm looking forward to it, actually, even though I expect I'll end up with a stress headache from it afterwards."

"Children can have that effect.  Good afternoon to you."  He bowed slightly and swept out the door.  As he disappeared around the corner of the back entrance, I saw him pulling on his gloves.  I have no idea where he went from there, since the building blocks my view of the parking lot.

 

 

To be honest, Ms. Rowling, I'd have written the whole episode off as one of those entertaining but hardly monumental experience people in public service have from time to time -- if it hadn't been for the package that arrived this morning at the library.

We found it on top of the book return box.  It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with white twine.  Written on the front was my name, the library's name, and the street address -- no town, state, or zip code.  There was no return address and no stamps, so someone must have dropped it off.  Along two of the sides there were several small punctures, as if someone with long fingernails had pierced the paper, but we put that down to rough handling by whoever had delivered it.

I took it to my office, untied the twine, and pulled off the paper.  The box itself had a cover that slid down over the bottom, and I lifted it.  A breeze ruffled the papers on my desk.  When I looked in the box, I was startled to find not a scrap of packing material.  No crumpled paper, no styrofoam shapes, only the four items the sender had packed.  Given the nature of the items, the lack of packing was astonishing.

The first item was a dark blue glass bottle with a glass stopper.  Tied to the bottle was a note printed in meticulously neat writing: 

            For Headaches 
            Take two swallows (irregardless of size) 
            If needed more than twice in two days, see a physician.

The second item was a small book with a dark brown cover, entitled Elementary Potions.  Turning the pages, I found instructions for exactly what the title promised, many of which required ingredients I had no way of acquiring (although from the descriptions of what the potions did, it was probably just as well).

The third item was a long, thin box.  Inside was a flute-like instrument that made no sound when I blew into it.  The note in the box read

              Use this when you get to Scotland.

The final item was a parchment envelope containing a single folded piece of heavy paper.  On the paper was a simple message:

          Thought you might find these of use.  Thank you again for your hospitality and conversation.

The signature was an unreadable scrawl.

I took the package and contents out to the front desk and showed them to the library director and the clerk on duty.  We all puzzled over them, chuckling, and I blew on the flue again to show it didn't work.  Since the director had her back to the window and the clerk was peering into the box, neither of them saw the brown shape float up from the parking lot and land on the back entrance railing.

It was an owl.

It stared at me, and for a moment I stared back; then I wiggled my fingers at it in a kind of wave.  It blinked at me, then ruffled its feathers, launched itself into the air and sailed back around the corner of the library.  I put the flute back into the box.

I'm pleased to report that the program was a great success and that 28 happy children went home from the library that day.  As for the items in the mysterious box: the book was placed in the cabinet upstairs, and was an object of curiosity for the children who took the time to examine our display; the bottle of headache medication is sitting on a shelf in my office, as I haven't needed to use it yet; and the flute is now packed carefully in one of the side pockets of the suitcase I plan to take to Scotland next year.  I'm very much looking forward to that trip; I'm quite sure it will be endlessly fascinating.

Thank you very much for your time, Ms. Rowling.  My staff, my patrons and I await with great anticipation your fourth book.


                                     Most sincerely yours, 


                                     Arianna McAllister

                                     Youth Services Librarian
                                     Everett City, NY

 

 

Author's Note: Any characters and/or situations that sound as though they came from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are the property of Ms. Rowling.  Such items would include Hogwarts, Slytherin House, the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, and the concept of postal owls. This story suggested itself last December when the library for which I work hosted a Harry Potter program based on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  The descriptions of the library facilities are fairly accurate (although Everett City is a fictitious place), with some adjustments made for story-telling purposes.  As for the mysterious visitor mentioned in the story, well, public libraries really do get their share of unusual patrons.... 

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