The Reader

As I began to read, it began to grow. Each word I spoke aloud from the strange book seemed to cause the little red bud to swell, until it was taller than I. And there were still many words and many pages yet unspoken.

What sort of plant was this? I wondered. What sort of life? Could words fertilize the growth of things? I found the book between the hands of a dead man. The box was lying by his side. I took the book into the wood. Nobody took this path any longer. It had become overgrown and ill-used since the old gardener had died.

Sherman, his name was. You remember. Klaus Sherman. He didn’t speak much but he was always reading something, and on several occasions I caught him out here reading aloud. Was he reading to the plants? Such an odd little man. Furtive. But he kept such wonderful roses. And tulips. All sorts of flowers, and they were lovely. Of course you remember. They were so freakishly big, and beautiful. Was the book his secret?

He had appeared soon after the war. His clothes were in blackened tatters. Dresden. We knew. There was a number tattooed on the inside of his arm. He was barefoot. The local boys pelted him with stones. He carried no belongings. At first I thought he was mad. I thought he was muttering. He held a finely crafted wooden box in his arms that he held as if it contained the remains of a precious ancestor. It turned out he was reciting in Hebrew. Something from the Pentateuch, but I didn’t know that until much later on. We took him in of course. You said it was our Christian duty, remember? The mysterious appearance of refugees was common and other families had done the same. He didn’t talk. He just kept muttering. But he submitted to our charity. I’ll never forget the color of his bathwater.

There were words carved on the outside of the box by a sure and practiced hand. And they were unrecognizable. Yet the book was in the King’s English, plain as day, and right good prose it was. Did he write it? Or was it something passed on to him? Something he found in the scorched ruins of the Jewel Box? That was what they called Dresden before we bombed it into oblivion.

I found him lying in his simple shack. A potter’s shed really. He was on the small bed and he was clutching the book between his crossed arms. There was no note. He looked peaceful. Did I detect a small smile? He was wearing the burned and peeling shoes I found him in so many years ago. Apart from that he was clean and almost glowing. The box was on the bedside table. I took the book and I burned the body. That was his expressed wish.

Several months had passed before I remembered the box and the book. I had taken ill myself and things were no longer pleasant between you and I. By then old Sherman’s garden had withered and gone fallow. Then you left. I found myself in empty rooms for no apparent reason. How much time had gone by? Could it have been two whole years? One morning I visited the shack where I had hidden the book. I’ve been reading from it for days now. I read it in his garden. I had only thought it proper. Nothing happened until I read it aloud and that’s when the garden woke from its slumber.

I know already your question. But I cannot reproduce its contents here. I tried. I tried copying the text, just a small paragraph, and I failed. My head swam and for several long minutes I went blind. I dare not explore that again. My health is already poor. Yet I find that when I read the book I feel better. And I wonder if it might have the same effect upon a human being as it does on plants. Which is why I’m writing to you now, because I know how you suffer.

I know how all this sounds but I swear to you that what I say is true. The old man’s book is a miracle. Will you come back Martha?

I still love you.

James

*

Another plastic effigy propped up before some curious object to give it all a sense of scale and wonder. Train people, little plastic figurines that add a sense of realism to a fabricated world in some basement where a man goes to escape his troubles.

They’re all so precious. Tiny statues that capture the mundane lives of busy human beings. This one is a commuter, engrossed in his newspaper. There’s nothing quite like the crackle of newsprint, or the way a seasoned commuter will fold his New York Times into perfect little squares.

The daily paper is a dying thing, like the commuter in a trench coat. You just don’t see it anymore. Men like this dominated the train platforms of Manhattan only thirty years ago. Quietly lost in the Daily News and their Wall Street Journals. The train cars themselves were all but silent, save for the rustle of the papers, a few hacking coughs and the clack, clack, click clack of the iron wheels. There wasn’t a single person on a cell phone or blaring tinny music from earbuds. Commuters weren’t trying to squeeze even more productivity out of their already hectic days. When you left the job in those days you pretty much turned it all off. If you had to make a call you had to find yourself a quarter and phone booth and you couldn’t take your music with you. You asked for directions or you carried with you a set of them you copied down on a piece of paper. A crossword puzzle was a mobile game and the only app that you knew of was the one you filled out on paper to get a job.

Everything is electronic, now. Everything is 0’s and 1’s. Everything is code, now. And that’s why this little train figure is so appealing. He’s analog. He’s real. As is the flower he’s reading to. It’s an actual life form. It knows nothing of all this. It is unemotionally non-sentient and simply following the protein-based instructions on a strand of DNA; which is nature’s code. ACGT. Written by no one, but unintelligibly miraculous.

o O o

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