AN INTRODUCTION BY LEMONY SNICKET Is there any author more mysterious than Harris Burdick?
Modesty prevents me from answering this rhetorical question, but the fact remains that Harris Burdick has cast a long and strange shadow across the reading world, not unlike a man, lit by the moon, hiding in the branches of a tree, staring through a window and holding a rare and sinister object, who cast a long and strange shadow across your bedroom wall just last night.
The story of Harris Burdick is a story everybody knows, though there is hardly anything to be known about him. More than twenty-five years ago, a man named Peter Wenders was visited by a stranger who introduced himself as Harris Burdick and who left behind fourteen fascinating drawings with equally if not more fascinating captions, promising to return the next day with more illustrations and the stories to match. Mr. Wenders never saw him again, and for years readers have pored breathlessly over Mr. Burdick’s oeuvre, a phrase that here means "looked at the drawings, read the captions, and tried to think what the stories might be like." The result has been an enormous collection of stories, produced by readers all over the globe, imagining worlds of which Mr. Burdick gave us only a glimpse.
I always had a theory regarding Mr. Burdick’s disappearance, however, that I have lacked the courage to share until today. It seemed to me that the mysterious author was hiding—but not in the places people usually hide, such as underneath the bed or behind the coats in the closet or in the middle of a field covered in a blanket that looks like grass. Mr. Burdick likely hid among his cohorts, a word that here means "other people in his line of work." Rather than give any more of his work to Mr. Wenders, Mr. Burdick might have distributed his stories, over a period of many years, among his comrades in literature. Perhaps he gave them as gifts in acknowledgment of their allowing him to hide in their homes. Perhaps he hid them in their guest rooms in the hopes that they would never be found. In any case, it was always my hope that the rest of Mr. Burdick’s work would surface, even if the mysteries of Mr. Burdick—who by now is either very old, quite dead, or both—remained unsolved.
This book, then, is suspicious. The stories you find here may have been written, as so many Burdick stories have been written, as the guesswork of authors drawn to Mr. Burdick’s striking images and captions. But I believe these are the actual stories written by Harris Burdick, given by Burdick to the various authors who are now pretending to have written them. I have no proof of this theory, but when I questioned the authors involved, their answers did nothing to change my mind. Sherman Alexie told me it was none of my business. Jules Feiffer told me it was none of my concern. Lois Lowry told me she’d never heard anything so ridiculous in all her life. Louis Sachar told me he’d heard something equally ridiculous but that it was a very long time ago. Kate DiCamillo told me to talk to her lawyer. M. T. Anderson told me to talk to his doctor. Tabitha King told me to talk to her husband. Stephen King told me to talk to his wife. Cory Doctorow told me I should ask Walter Dean Myers, who told me to go bother Linda Sue Park, who directed me to Gregory Maguire, who told me that he had a special message from Chris Van Allsburg, which was to go away and leave him alone and stop talking about Harris Burdick. Finally, Jon Scieszka told me that he would be happy to answer my questions, and to please come in and have some ice cream, and then after a long pause he fled through the window and left me alone and it turned out to be sherbet.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps these stories were written by Harris Burdick and perhaps they were not. Either way, the mysteries of Harris Burdick continue, and if you open this book, you will likely be mystified yourself. As you reread the stories, stare at the images, and ponder the mysteries of Harris Burdick, you will find yourself in a mystery that joins so many authors and readers together in breathless wonder.
THE THIRD-FLOOR BEDROOM It all began when someone left the window open.
MARCH 28, 1944 Dear Martin,
I am a prisoner. Did you know that this would happen when you put me on the train to her? She has very fat ankles, Martin. You insist that she is our aunt, but I don’t believe that it’s possible for me to be related to someone with such fat ankles. And I’m not lying: I am a prisoner! She locks me in this room. She has a key that she keeps in her apron and she uses it to lock the door behind her; and after the door is locked, she rattles the doorknob, checking herself. I can feel the rattling of that doorknob in my teeth. I have extremely sensitive teeth. I don’t know if you remember this about me. Sometimes I worry that you won’t remember me at all.
In any case, you might like to know that the room (my prison!) is on the third floor. I can see mountains. There is some consolation in that (the seeing of mountains), but not enough that you should think I feel cheerful. I don’t. I feel abandoned. In fact, my feelings of abandonment are at this very moment so profoundly overwhelming that I am forced to bring this letter to a close. Mrs. Bullwhyte taught us that all good letters should end with a summation, followed by an offering of good wishes. Here is my summation: I am a prisoner. The "relative" who is keeping me prisoner has fat ankles. Also, I didn’t mention it earlier, but I am sick. Here are my good wishes for you: I hope you don’t get shot.
Cordially, your sister,
Pearlie George Lamott
P.S. What do they feed you in the army? Who feeds you? I am a good cook. I could have taken care of myself while you were away.
P.P.S. I didn’t bat an eye when Ma left, did I? I expected it, Martin. But I did not ever expect that you would leave me.
MARCH 29, 1944 Dear Martin,
Here is a sketch of the wallpaper in my prison. As you can see, there is a bird and then another bird and then another bird and then another bird. There is a vine and then another vine and then another vine and then another vine (although it could all be the same vine; it’s impossible to tell for certain and I’ve given up trying). There is a word for this wallpaper and that word (one of Mrs. Bullwhyte’s vocabulary words, which she would be happy to see me make proper use of) is relentless. The wallpaper is so relentless that when I close my eyes against it, I still see it. Even if I weren’t locked in this room, I would feel as if I were imprisoned here due to the relentlessness of the wallpaper. It’s as if the whole room is under the spell of some witch (a witch with fat ankles). Do you know that once Mrs. Bullwhyte said about me (in front of the whole class) that she has never known a child with such a propensity for verbiage? It pleased me inordinately when she said that. But I must tell you that since I have arrived here, I have not spoken one word. Not one, Martin. Bringing this letter to a close, I will say, in summation, that I am caught in the lair of a witch. My good wishes to you (the recipient of this letter) are that I continue to hope you don’t get shot.
Pearlie George Lamott
P.S. You should know that I am very sick. This happened when I set out to try to find you. I was outside for one full night and it was very rainy and I slept in the crook of a tree and I caught a cold. (Mrs. Bullwhyte said that it is a superstition, an old wives’ tale, that you can catc...