As part of the event, the local writers' guild sponsored a short story contest—in 2,000 words or less, write a story about a world where the written word has been made illegal. I entered the contest and quickly discovered that it's pretty easy to burn through 2,000 words, and the restriction had me revising and revising and honing, making the most of each word I used. That's a really good exercise.
My story earned third prize, I learned the other day. As I thought about a world without books, I couldn't imagine a world without stories. We are storytellers by nature, and there are even discussions on why storytelling has evolutionary value. Humans have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years, and we've only been writing them down for about 5,000. So, if we remove books, doesn't it follow that we would revert back to oral stories? We certainly wouldn't just give up or only make films. With film making, only a select few can participate, but we each have a story to tell and ideas we want to pass on to others.
So, here is my story, "Mariah Plants A Seed."
|The Book Worm|
Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)
The old woman set a plate of cookies onto the table directly in front of the boy. He looked hesitant; with his hands tucked beneath his legs, head down and unwilling to lean back in the big dining room chair where he sat.
“Go ahead, Lucius,” Mariah said. “I baked them just this morning. Would you like some milk or some juice to go with them?”
“Juice, please, Mrs. Rule,” the boy said as he reached for a cookie and wondered about the neighbor he was forced to “visit with.” His mother had introduced them the day before and told Lucius he was to go directly to Mrs. Rule’s house every day after school and wait there until she got home. “Just visit with her for a while,” she had said. “Imagine how lonely she must be in that big house all by herself.”
“Day One” was how Lucius would think of this long afternoon, but the cookies helped ease his unease, soft with big chunks of chocolate that melted against his tongue. The woman returned with a glass of grape juice and said, “Please call me Mariah, honey. I haven’t been called Mrs. Rule since I was a teacher.”
“You were a teacher?”
“Years and years ago, I taught fourth grade, which is, I’m guessing, the grade you’re in, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he said between bites. “I’m old enough to stay home alone, you know.”
“I’m sure you are, but your mother thought the two of us could keep each other company. And you know what else? She just might have thought we could learn something from each other, with our being so far apart in years.”
“Like what? I mean, what could we teach each other?”
“Well, you could teach me about sports you play or subjects you learn in school. Maybe you learn things these days I’ve never heard of before. And…hmmm…maybe I could teach you new words? I know, I’ll give you a new word to learn every day. How about that?”
“I guess that’s not so bad,” Lucius said with his last bite of cookie. And as he leaned back into his chair, he thanked Mariah and asked what word she would give him that day.
She thought, with her hand on her pointed chin, and said, “Today, let’s learn the word scuttlebutt. It’s a good word, fun to say, and I bet you could even use it in a sentence.”
“What does it mean, scuttlebutt?” he said chuckling.
“A scuttlebutt is a rumor, like when someone whispers to you something they overheard but can’t prove. The scuttlebutt around town is that Mayor Fischer is going to jail.”
“Is he going to jail?”
“No, I made it up. It’s a rumor, a scuttlebutt. See what I mean?”
The boy’s mother stirred butter into the macaroni and cheese while Lucius set out a couple of dinner plates and forks on the kitchen table. As he reached for the glasses, his mother asked, “So, how did it go at Mrs. Rule’s house today?”
“OK,” he replied, setting a napkin beside each plate. “She likes to be called Mariah. That’s her name.”
“That’s nice of her. What did you talk about?”
“Nothing, just words, you know, like new words. She’s going to teach me a new word every day. Did you know she used to be a teacher?”
“I did know that. What new word did you learn today?”
“Scuttlebutt. It means like a rumor, like when you tell something to somebody, but you can’t prove it. You just heard it, so you tell other people.”
Lucius tucked himself into bed that night, long past the age of needing a bedtime story, he had declared to his mother. When he was younger, she would sit on the edge of his bed and tell him stories she remembered learning as a little girl, but he had asked her to stop that over the summer. “I’m too old for bedtime stories,” he had told her.
And now on his own in his dark room, he thought how he couldn’t wait for school to be over the next day, and how he wanted to run to Mariah’s house, eat warm cookies and learn a new word. “Scuttlebutt,” he whispered to himself, laughed and closed his eyes.
Lucius stomped up the front steps of Mariah’s house and opened her front door without knocking, a privilege she had granted him when he had become comfortable spending afternoons at her dining room table. He dropped his lunch box and let his jacket fall on to it with sleeves flopping every which way. He kicked off his shoes and shouted, “I’m here, Mariah. Just got off the bus!”
“I’m in the kitchen!” she called out. “I’ll be out in a minute, and you better be ready for that quiz I promised!”
Lucius was ready, and how could he not be? For three days, he had been reviewing the words she had taught him over the past several weeks, long ones, too, he thought, which didn’t seem fair to him considering he was only ten.
He sat down at the table and began reciting the words over and over in his head—confidant, anticipation, reliance, capricious, triangulate, incognito. “Incognito,” he mumbled. “To hide your identity. Crucible: A vehicle for change, but not a car. No wait, that’s something else. No, it’s crucible.” Finally certain his studying had paid off, he shouted out, “I’m ready, Mariah!”
Mariah joined him with a bowl of fruit, settled into the chair across from him and said, “Right, then. First word.” As had become their routine, she would call out a word, and Lucius would repeat it, define it and try to use it in a sentence. “The spy was incognito,” he said; and later, “I was excited with anticipation because I wanted a…um…a piece of fruit,” and he reached out for a chunk of watermelon with self-satisfaction spread wide across his face.
“You are filled with gratification,” Mariah said, when he finished his quiz.
“What does that mean?”
“We’ll make that our word for tomorrow. And you should be gratified, Lucius. You have worked very hard and learned so much in just a few weeks. Now, your turn to teach me something. What did you learn in school today?”
Lucius stared at the ceiling as he ran through the course of his day—science, social studies, math, lunch, listening. His listening teacher, Mr. Schumway, had instructed the students to close their eyes and listen as he recited a speech from American history, something President Kennedy had said so many years ago, it hardly seemed to matter anymore, Lucius thought. But he listened. He listened the way his mother had taught him with her bedtime stories and the way Mariah had taught him with her new words that seemed to come out of thin air so that he even wondered if they were real.
Lucius decided he would tell Mariah about that part of his day. “So, we have this listening class where the teacher has us listen to speeches or sometimes just sounds. Sometimes our eyes are closed, or our heads are down on our desks because he doesn’t want us to know what made the sound. Like yesterday when he made a noise, and we had to try to guess what it was, and it was an electric razor, and hardly anyone guessed, only I peeked, so I knew.
“Well, today, Mr. Schumway said some sentences from a speech that went like this, ‘I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our something restraint something something….’” Lucius stopped there. “I’m sorry, that’s all I can remember, but it was about poetry and art and what that means to America. What does restraint mean?”
“It means to keep something under control, dear. Your teacher recited some of the speech to you, and then what happened?”
“Well, it was weird, but then the door opened, and the principal came in and asked Mr. Schumway to go to her office with him, and she left a substitute in the room with us, and that was the end of class, I guess. We all just sat there until the bell rang.”
Mariah had been sitting with her head in her hands, but she put her shoulders back and took a deep breath. “My dear boy, I promised you a word today, but let’s do something else instead. My big old house has an attic that is just packed with treasures, and I want to show you what I’ve got stored up there. What do you say? Are you game for an adventure?”
“Then follow me up the stairs, Lucius, while I tell you a story.” Mariah grasped the stair rail for momentum and began the climb. “You know how your mother used to tell stories to you at bedtime until you told her you were too old for all of that?”
“Yeah, but how did you know?”
“I told those same stories to your mother when she was a little girl. I was her teacher, son, and we’re now confidants. Didn’t you know that? No? Well, the thing is, dear, I didn’t just tell these stories to my students, I read them from books, stacks and stacks of books from the school’s own library, and in some cases, my own private collection of books.”
“But books are illegal, Mariah. You could get in a lot of trouble for that.” Lucius was concerned and wondered why his mother hadn’t told him this before.
“Yes, they are illegal, but they weren’t then, not when I was younger, and when your mother was younger. In fact, you’re part of the first generation of children who aren’t allowed the privilege of books. Hold on here at the landing, dear, while I catch my breath.”
Moments later, Mariah opened the creaking door at the top of the last flight of steps and swept away the veil of cobwebs that had woven across the entrance. Lucius stepped into rays of dusty light beaming through the paned windows and slowly turned, just a few degrees at a time, until he had taken in the spectacle of the entire room.
There were bookshelves built floor to ceiling, bookshelves in little crannies, bookshelves behind bookshelves. And every level surface was filled with books in every color, of every size and on every subject.
“Can I touch them?” he whispered.
“Oh my word, Lucius, yes, please touch them.” Mariah said, with her hands to her cheeks, so hopeful in sharing her secret collection with the boy. “I want you to touch them and to open them and to read them.”
“I know how to read,” he said with pride. “My mother taught me a little, and I can sign my name.”
“And we can help you learn more, Lucius, and now you have your own library to explore. Our secret library, you understand.”
“Can my mother know?”
“She already does know, Lucius. That’s why you’re here.”
The boy ran his fingers over the spines of all the books he could reach, tracing the gilded titles and smelling the leather, ink and paper; and he climbed on gliding ladders to reach the higher shelves. There were biographies, and books about history and philosophy and science. He touched books from ancient mythology, books about world leaders, about wars, and about stories his mother had told him as he fell asleep.
And then Lucius pulled one book from a lower shelf and asked, “Mariah, can I have this one? Can I take it home for a while if I promise not to wreck it or tell anybody?” Lucius had chosen a dictionary, one he was sure contained all the words the old woman taught him and thousands more.
“Yes, my dear. Take the book and keep it safe. And Lucius, come back tomorrow and choose another one.”