There are many circumstances in which you might need something to freeze. You might use the appliance known as a freezer to keep ice cream cold so you can turn it into a root beer float, or to hide a body from the authorities. Alternatively, if the police tell you to freeze, they are probably not asking you to lower your body temperature but rather to cease movement, so that they can inspect your kitchen for bodies. I was recently reminded that freezing a paper document can be a good way to store it to prevent long-term water damage, such as that inflicted by an automated sprinkler system.
"Once Hector's device confirms the books have spent long enough in the vaults to be restored, it'll send an automated alert to Klaus," my niece Beatrice informed me with a look of unconcern.
"There were dozens of people at the Magnificent Metropolitan Library last week," I babbled.
"Isn't that good?" she asked. "Parents finding books for toddlers? Advocates doing research on policy issues? Vagrants taking shelter from the weather? I mean, it's not good that underfunded public institutions often have to improvise as a societal safety net, but at least people are using it."
"Any one of those people," I pointed out, "could have done it."
"Done what?" Beatrice echoed. "Sorted the books by level of sprinkler damage inflicted? Because I think I have more experience than most, what with that time in the Queequeg and all. Of course, some people--"
"Anyone could have started the fire!"
"Oh," she said. "Well, yes, but it's just as likely to have been a faulty electrical system."
"That's easy for you to say," I began, then checked myself. True, Beatrice had not experienced childhood paranoia like myself and many of my colleagues, who feared schisms and betrayals left and right. But her upbringing had been stressful in its own way, as the Baudelaires shielded her from overinquisitive reporters and tasteless theater critics while themselves readjusting to a life where nobody was trying to kill them.
"In fact, I was there this past Thursday," she went on. "I found some interesting volumes on the difficulties of translating piyyutim to modern Portuguese."
"Good for you," I said. "Let Isadora borrow them when you see her next, she'll enjoy--"
"You don't suspect me, do you?"
"Suspect you?" I echoed.
The phrase "blood is thicker than water" usually means "people can be loyal to their close family members even when it is disadvantageous," although it sometimes means "test flotation devices, rigorously because you never know the density of liquids you might need to survive amid." Although Beatrice is my sister's daughter, I had not known her for the first ten years of her life, and I consider it dangerous to form a positive or negative opinion of someone based solely on their relatives.
Nevertheless, in the time I had met her, she had always impressed me as a principled child (to say nothing of her skill at a variety of theoretical and practical abilities). "Don't be ludicrous. I know you would never do such a thing."
"I'm not altogether noble," she pointed out. "No one is. Couldn't there come a time when I reasoned my way into doing something terrible?"
"I suppose," I said. "Is there something you'd like to confess?"
"Of course not!" She looked as repulsed as if she had just bitten into unripe horseradish.
"Well, I don't see what your concern is."
It would be much more pleasant if you could supply for yourself a scene of Beatrice entrusting me with her concerns and me responding with maturity and empathy. Sadly, as is so often the case when members of different generations attempt to communicate about matters of deep anxiety, she could not bring herself to share her emotions. "Of course you wouldn't," she muttered, and paced back towards the archival facility.
Beatrice had an abundance of guardians in her life, but that did not always mean she could consult with them easily. Klaus, for instance, seemed to her to have nothing but praise for any book he came across. (This was not in fact the case, but Beatrice's limited life experience had not made her aware of this.) Sunny, in contrast, was flippant and thought nothing of ignoring the advice of any cookbook she disagreed with. Words were merely suggestions on paper, capable of being forgotten as soon as they were encountered.
Violet, then, would have been the best Baudelaire for Beatrice to talk to. However, the fire at the MML had created an urgent need for technicians who could evaluate the proposals for refurbishment in terms of safety and cost-effectiveness, a phrase which here means "help the city to make sure it didn't get sued any more than usual." Violet was eager to share her expertise, but also exhausted by the time she returned home from presentations.
This left Beatrice to seek out another source of counsel, and she found it in the person of Isadora Quagmire. The Quagmires had not chosen to remodel the self-perpetuating mobile home after landing to confirm that Olaf was no longer a threat, but Quigley still dabbled in algae farms and other ecologically creative tasks. He was idly dangling and inspecting a solar panel as Beatrice dodged underneath him to enter the Quagmire residence.
"Bea!" Isadora smiled, offering her leftover muffins that Sunny had "accidentally" left behind. "Is everything alright?"
"I'm fine," said Beatrice with a glower. Despite our many obvious differences (for instance, I am much older than the Quagmires, and much less gifted at writing couplets), they too could strike Beatrice as overprotective in the ways I am prone to.
"Well--that's good. What's going on?"
"Have you ever hated a poem?"
"Oh, all the time!"
"Of course. The other day I was trying to write something for Sunny--Thank you for these muffins sweet, they were so nice and good to eat. Well, people have tried to rhyme "sweet" and "eat" a million times, my version sounded dreadfully cloying. I tore it up."
"I don't mean your own poems," Beatrice said. People could be hard on themselves, especially people who were generally noble. It was another thing about adults she didn't understand. "I meant in a book or somewhere."
"Oh." Isadora chewed noisily, muffin crumbs falling to her lap. "Well, yes. There's this one about a red wheelbarrow that was said to be very important, I didn't find it particularly convincing. I've had lots of moments in my life where much depended on a few small things--my parents' death, Quigley surviving, meeting the Baudelaires, escaping with Hector--but I've never seen a red wheelbarrow amount to much. Have you?"
"No," said Beatrice. Before Isadora could interrupt, she rushed on, "So what did you do?"
"With the poem you didn't like?"
"Nothing. It was a library book, I couldn't exactly have ripped it out. Well, I suppose I could have, but..." Isadora broke off. "You were at the MML conflagration, weren't you? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. And I wasn't there, I came afterwards to help with the freezing."
"Good for you!"
Beatrice rolled her eyes. "Never mind."
"No, what's wrong? You can tell me."
"No I can't," she huffed.
"What?" said Isadora. "Cat got your tongue?"
The phrase "cat got your tongue" is usually used to press someone on why they're being more reticent, or quiet, than usual. Presumably, if a cat were actually standing on someone's head and clawing at that person's tongue, I don't think anyone in the vicinity would need to ask whether that was the case, and even if they did, the person would not be able to give a very coherent answer.
"I'm scared," Beatrice said quietly. "What if there's another schism?"
"What if there is?"
"What if I wind up like--like Olaf?"
"Is there anyone you'd like to murder for their fortune?" Isadora asked.
"Of course not." Beatrice snorted. "I mean, maybe I'm in line to inherit Uncle Lemony's, but how rich can he be with all his silly books?" (That's an answer for another time.)
"Would you ever disguise yourself to hide evidence of your past wrongdoings?"
"No. And it wouldn't even work anyway, you and the Baudelaires would see through anything I tried just like you saw through Olaf."
"Would you ever keep a troupe of minions around you while patronizing them behind their backs?"
"Never! If I had minions I wanted to insult, I'd say it to their faces."
"Well, in that case, I don't think you're very likely to wind up like Olaf," Isadora concluded. "Why do you ask?"
"Fernald told me about how the schism got worse. The adults wouldn't just get suspicious of each other for not reading enough books, they'd suspect each other for reading the wrong books. Books like The Pony Party where people were happy and festive, and things--rhymed. What if I still hate death and the unknown when I get older? You'll all turn against me like the noble volunteers turned against the wicked ones. And I'll be alone."
"Beatrice, you're not even part of VFD. There is no VFD, not anymore. We won't turn against you, even if you become obsessed with Zombies in the Snow."
"You can't know that," said Beatrice. "Not for sure."
"Hmm," said Isadora, carefully unwrapping another muffin. "Did you know that Italian has very few words that end in consonants, compared to English?"
"So it's easier to find rhyming words in Italian."
"That's why the traditional Petrarchan sonnet only has four or five sets of rhyming words, while the Shakespearean one has seven."
"I give up." Beatrice stood, pacing towards the door where Quigley was occasionally drooping to pick up supplies from the lintel. "Next time I'll just hurl myself into the fire, it's easier than talking with--"
"English authors aren't avoiding sing-songy rhymes because they think it'll make them sound deeper or wiser! They're doing it because they have different sounds to work with. Your uncle writes about the dismal and dreary things that matter to him because that's what he cares about, Duncan writes investigative journalism because that's interesting to him. We all make stories out of the pieces at hand, good or bad or in-between."
"And if Lemony thinks I'm stupid by the time I'm Klaus' age? If I still don't appreciate his moaning and groaning?"
"Then I'll help you track down some crows from the village of fowl devotees and train them to poop all over his house. Every day when they migrate."
"Yes I would," said Isadora simply. "And it would be for a noble reason."
There are times, of course, when encountering a supply of bird feces is a cause for celebration, such as when you are about to become rich from the nitrogen content of cormorant guano. But there are other times when you regard being pooped on from the skies as a metaphor for the unpleasant circumstances you find yourself in. You may be wondering whether how often, in the days that have passed since that conversation, I have been defecated on by crows. Or perhaps you may not be curious at all, and complimenting yourself for having overcome curiosity and resigning yourself to the reality of Unknownness.
As it happens, I have not been the victim of any crow-related schemes to date. Nor, despite the continuous growing pains of adolescence and beyond, have I ceased to enjoy the company of my niece.
This is not to say we always appreciate each others' tastes. For instance, despite being raised by Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, she has come to enjoy the taste of peppermint in her root beer floats. I do not. I find herring a delectable seafood; she does not.
And yet, I see in her not just her parents, not just the Baudelaires, not just the ashes of the era where we have found ourselves, but her own shape, taking clearer form as she grows. There is no telling when the books she has preserved will be opened again and who will find meaning in them. But in her faith that someone will, that what was once beautiful might again ring true, I see not a consuming but an affirming flame.