Once upon a time, in another life, there was a little girl who loved books.
At four she read the newspapers headlines, as if she were in a hurry to learn how to read, so that she could learn all the stories in all the books in the world. On Sundays, when her father was home, he would sit her on his lap and she would show him her progress, and he would unfailingly kiss the top of her dark, curly head and tell her he was a lucky man, because he had the brightest daughter in the whole world.
But times were hard, and although her father worked long hours, there were many mouths to feed: her mother, herself, her grandmother and her two aunts. There was no money for luxuries such as books, and when she passed by the bookshop she stood before the window looking at the books on display and made believe she was inside them and travelling in time and space, to days of damsels in distress and valiant knights in shining armour, and to far-away lands where exotic looking men and women, dressed in vibrant colours, interacted with all sorts of legendary beasts. Then reality dawned on her, and she would hurry home, otherwise her mother would scold her, and she didn’t want to incur in her mother’s wrath. No one did, in fact.
She knew her mother didn’t really love her; she had been a big disappointment. Once she had overheard a conversation between her grandmother and one of her aunts, and she had learned her mother had longed for a boy, and had been dismayed when, after the birth, they had put a baby girl in her arms. From that day on she understood the coldness, the stiffness, the hard look her mother bestowed on her, the little tolerance, the constant scolding, and she knew the fault was hers. In addition to being a girl, she was not blonde and blue eyed, beautiful like her mother, having inherited the dark looks of her father, neither handsome nor ugly, a bespectacled man who looked like a scholar but had the life of a working man.
Sometimes, very rarely, her father would come home with a look of expectation on his face, and he would hand her a brown paper parcel. Those were the happiest moments of her life, because it would be a book, a whole world for her to explore and discover, that she would treasure like the most precious jewel. First, she would slowly take in the cover, the colours, the title, then she would turn it in her hands and gaze at the back cover and read the story’s summary in case it was there; she would slowly open it, page by page, and softly, slowly caress them. Then she read it, time and again, until she knew it by heart. And then she would put it together with the few others she possessed, and she would look at them for hours and silently thank her father for bringing her such wonderful gifts.
But not even the fact that she was a precocious reader was enough for her mother. When she wanted to tell her about the stories she read, her mother sent her away, saying she had too much to do to listen to silly things. She would find some consolation in her grandmother’s arms; the little girl would read for her, and they would spend happy hours together. Late at night, when she lay awake, she didn’t dare go to her parents’ bed, but she would snuggle in with the old lady, who rocked her softly in her arms like a baby until she slept. Sometimes she thought she would have died of sadness if it were not for her books and her grandmother; nothing else mattered and no one else in the world really cared. Maybe her father, a bit, but he was always working, a permanent frown on his face from so many worries.
Time passed, and the family’s fortunes changed. Now she could buy all the books she wanted, and not only books, but clothes, shoes, everything. Her parents built a big house and they moved there; the aunts married and went to their own homes. Only her grandmother remained, older and frailer, but still loving. Even her mother seemed less bitter, and her father still worked long hours but now had an aura of success around him, and life was so much easier and more pleasant.
From girl to a woman, she always surrounded herself with books. She graduated in literature and became a teacher; during her whole life her mission was to teach her students about books and the meaning of words, how to read them and how to love them. And she always read, thousands of pages, from novels to the work of her favourite poets, from history to the classics, her love for books always present in her life.
Life went by, and the good years faded away. The little girl grew older and older, but still books were her passion. Even when she retired, and lost her other lifelong passion, that of teaching, books were her consolation and they would transport her to other times and places, where she could still be happy.
But life is often cruel, and time is unforgiving. It brings illness and decay, and one day she discovered she could no longer hold a book in her hands because they were shaking too much. She had Parkinson’s disease.
The girl of long ago, now an old, sick woman, sits on her chair, day by day, doing absolutely nothing. She absentmindedly looks at the TV on the wall, but she doesn’t really care. She can no longer time and space travel because she cannot hold a book in her hands, so she has given up. Her favourite books are all in the bookcase, one meter away from her, but they are out of her reach forever. There is no one left to scold her, but there’s no one left to console her either – they’re all gone, some long dead, others busy with their lives. Ghosts who have disappeared in the mists of a fading past.
The old lady dozes, and dreams of a time when she stood before the bookshop window looking at the books she could not buy. Deep in the recesses of her mind she knows that, as much as she could not buy those books then, she was happy, because she had hope. Now, all hope is lost, like her books and all the stories within, and she has nothing. No hope, no dreams – just this emptiness that, she knows even in her sleep, will never go away.