by Susan E. Wagner
Once, very long ago, there lived a young woman, quiet and demure. She was the daughter of the leader of their small town so she was known by sight by all. But because she was shy and quiet and kept to herself, she was dismissed by the townspeople as unimportant.
Oh, they were kind enough to her whenever she was about. They helped her at the market as they would help anyone and spoke nicely to her at all times because of who her father was.
Even when she was young and went to the little school with the other children, she kept to herself, preferring to stand quietly at playtime and shaking her head no when asked to join in the games. After a while, the children stopped asking her and that suited her well. In class, she learned to read and write and do easy sums. After she had learned those things, she left the school and even though her teacher went to her father and begged for the girl to return, she did not.
She spent her days after that reading in her father’s large library. They called it the library but it was really a converted chicken coop that still smelled of chickens on rainy days. But her father had whitewashed it and put up shelves. He bought books whenever he could and even sent for more from the cities. Books came by the box load and he would spend his evenings putting them away in the correct order by title. Then he would step back to admire his work and ask his daughter to do the same. She would always get up from her chair, where she sat reading, to see the new books and to tell her father how wonderful he was, which was exactly what he wanted to hear.
Now and then, a town elder would drop by asking if he had such and such a book and the father would invite him or her in and they would check the shelves. If it was there, he gladly lent it and if not, he said he would order it. Books were important to have he would tell people. We must have books.
What the town did not know and the daughter did, was that the man never read one of his books. In fact, the man could barely read. That was the real reason he did not tell his daughter to return to school. He did not believe it was necessary. Oh, yes, some learning was necessary in this day and time but too much learning could give a person ideas that were not helpful when living in a small town.
His daughter, being both observant and understanding, knew how her father felt and promised herself she would never make him feel unworthy. She wanted him to be the man he thought he was, so she kept to herself any ideas to the contrary. They lived together this way in peace.
That is, until one day when the man walked into the bakery and overheard two townspeople talking about his daughter. They were laughing about the odd daughter of the town leader who spent her days with books and not with a husband or child. She would grow old and die alone with her books if she was not careful, they said and laughed, not seeing him there. The father turned and walked from the bakery.
He stopped and sat in the town square to think. He thought about his beautiful daughter, so quiet, so supportive of him and he almost wept with worry for her, for indeed, who would be there to help her after he was gone?
The longer the man sat and thought, the more fearful for his daughter he became. But he could not find a solution to the problem. Troubled greatly, he rose to go home and walked right into an old woman carrying a large package. It fell from her hands and landed at his feet. He apologized to her and soon found himself on his way with the package in his arms.
The old woman gave it to him, he thought. For his daughter, he thought. The package was heavy and it became a struggle just to carry it. By the time he got home and set the package on the table and called for his daughter, he had forgotten everything but that it was for her. He did not remember the old woman or even the words he overheard in the bakery. He wandered from the room to his bed where he slept until morning.
The daughter worried. She had never seen him so, but thought it might merely be a cold coming on. So she hoped. She then opened the package.
Years later the townspeople would say they still thought she ran off with a traveling tinker. But she did not. What she did do was open the book that was in the package. It was a blank book, a beautifully decorated, leather bound book. Instantly, the young woman’s essence went into the book and there she lives very happily to this day.
As for her dear father, he practiced his reading. Though no one knew it, he read only one book every day for the rest of his life, taking great delight in the exploits of his daughter and her family. On his deathbed, he bequeathed his library to the town, requesting they make copies of the book and send them to the far reaches of the world, where even today you can read it.
Susan Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry on mental illness and families. A former therapist, Susan facilitated creative and poetry writing group therapies. She has published poetry, short stories and feature articles and taught both creative and business writing. Susan is an editor with The Pearl S. Buck Writing Center and currently finishing her second novel. Her next book of poetry, another in the Unmuted series, will soon be available on Amazon.