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SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections Mystery Archives Series

Episode Three: A Thing with Feathers

The Archivist looked a litte distracted when she hung-up the phone. After all this time, I could read her like, well, you know, like a book.

Not one of those sterile e-books, but good old hard copy, the kind where you can see the little ways time and the love of reading have left their marks on the pages, have turned down the corners and frayed the edges. I feel like one of those books sometimes. Who doesn't?

"Lady, you look like as pale as Marley's ghost. Somebody die on the other end of that phone?"

"As a matter of fact, someone did die. That call was from a woman whose biological father graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh many years ago, a man whom she never met. She's looking for a photograph of him. He played basketball here. She only just found out about him. I guess it's too awkward to reach out to his family, so she has reached out to us. We're her last best hope because now her father is...."

"I get it. So he is the deceased. Got a name?"

The archivist slid her note pad across the table. It had a name alright, along with a sports jersey number. Bingo. I knew straight away that I'd just gotten a fresh date with the photo collection. My fingers were already reaching for my faithful magnifying glass, Betsy. 

"No problem. You just leave it to me."

A few hours later I was wiping the sweat from Betsy's beautiful pearl handle and admiring a fresh scan made from the photograph of a handsome young basketball player, a guy with what looked like the right jersey number, in full uniform.

"Easy peesey, lady. Case closed. You can e-mail this copy to your mysterious caller. Tell her we found dad."

The Archivist raised one eyebrow. Uh-oh, I thought. That's her definitely dubious look. Now, I don't know much, but I do know enough to trust her instinct. This time, well, I guess I was feeling just a little too cocky. I pretended not to notice her doubts. Big mistake.

Success. Tastes like chicken?

A few weeks went by. I was knee-deep in digging through a huge crate of donated letters. At the bottom I discovered the remains of an ancient, rock-hard, half-eaten chicken sandwich. That's when it hit me.

"No feathers," I heard myself exclaim out loud, almost against my will.

The Archivist looked askance from her work and saw me lofting the petrified poultry.

"Feathers, Inspector? Looks like it's been some time since that chicken had any of those!"

"This fine featherless fossil reminds me of Emily Dickinson. Emily said, "Hope is the thing with feathers."

"Now you've really lost me. Did you have lunch at the pub today, by chance?"

"I'm just thinking about that nice woman who called a while back looking for her biological father. You've been awfully quiet about that case. You can't fool me — I know you would have told me if that picture we sent her was really her dad. The truth is that we sent her the wrong guy, I feel it in my bones. Lady, you told me that we were her last best hope. But we —  or rather I — let her down. Now she has no hope left!

"Your brain works in mysterious ways, Inspector. But you are correct: that was the wrong photo. She was crying tears of joy when she first got it, but was crushed when her birth mother told it was the wrong guy in the picture. It's quite sad. I can't get her voice out of my head: You have helped me more than words can describe, she said. There was no sense in telling you because you've been through all the photos. That's an end to it."

"I can't give up, not on this one. Hey wait — I just remembered. We have some unprocessed basketball photographs in the Robin Brown collection!"

Well folks, to make a long story short, I'll cut the gravy here and get right to the mashed potatoes. I found that photo — a player wearing the correct number, which we scanned and e-mailed pronto to the woman. As I always say, When you can't afford to be let down, try a search in the Robin Brown. It was a mere five hours before we got an e-mail back. It gives me chicken-skin just thinkin' about it now.

"Hey lady, will ya read that last e-mail to me again? I want to hear it just one more time."

The Archivist took down the paper from the bulletin board and read aloud: It’s really him! You found my real father! You have been so thorough and so very kind. I will never forget what you've done for me. I had lost all hope, but thanks to you, I have it back. Thank you so much!

"Y'see, Lady, there's that word again: hope."

Yes, Inspector. The thing with feathers."

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson

The Mystery Archives Inspector

Oh, he's real alright. Would you like to meet him? Well, that just might happen when you visit Special Collections on a mystery adventure all your own. It's just another great reason to come on in and explore!

View more Mystery Archives episodes

Contact Special Collections at Feinberg Library

Debra Kimok
Special Collections Librarian
132 Feinberg Library
(518) 564-5206

Michael Burgess
Special Collections Associate
132 Feinberg Library
(518) 564-5206

Contact Special Collections at Feinberg Library

Debra Kimok
Special Collections Librarian
132 Feinberg Library
(518) 564-5206

Michael Burgess
Instructional Support Assistant
132 Feinberg Library
(518) 564-5206