(If you got a notification that I posted this early, sorry, I meant to schedule it but accidentally posted it, then scheduled it.)
And here’s the second half. I don’t think the actual writing of it is that great, but I more just wrote it for the idea of the story rather than anything else.
For a while after that, our lives were usual, only talking about the adventure in hushed tones in secluded rooms. It had happened on a day early in the summer, and, as the summer started drawing to a close, Debbie suggested going up there again.
“We could ask him what he was doing, and what those are,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, doubt heavy in my voice. I didn’t doubt that that was what she was, at the moment, thinking of doing, but I knew her, and she would probably decide to not do it before we had yet gotten there.
“Yes,” she said, adamantly. She looked straight in my eyes. “I don’t really want to, of course, but I’ve got to. I’ve got to know what those things are. It’s been bugging me all summer long, and I just… Let’s do it. Tomorrow. We can make a day of it, bring a picnic to have on the way.”
“In the woods?” I asked.
“Well, maybe. I don’t know. But let’s do it, please.”
There was a look in her eyes, I saw, that was almost like desperation. I nodded. “Sure, we can go tomorrow.”
To be honest, it had bugged me too. I don’t know why, it being such a minor thing, but it constantly nagged at me, like the tug of a distant memory that wants to be remembered but can’t.
I packed a small lunch and water bottle, and met Deb at our usual spot, under a huge elm tree that was on the edge of the town, near the mountain.
She stood up from where she had been sitting at the base of the tree, nodded at me, and headed off towards the mountain. I hurried to catch up to her, then slowed my pace as I came alongside her.
Without looking towards me, her hand took mine as we plunged through the thicket guarding the entrance onto the mountain.
We went at a much leisurely pace, this time, taking our time winding our way up the slope, stopping as we found some wild blueberries, taking a break to drink some water, and sometimes just sitting side-by-side next to a quiet stream.
Once we had arrived at the house, we again walked carefully around it, peering in at the windows, but couldn’t find the man inside. We had just moved to a side of the house that we hadn’t explored the previous time, when we heard a voice behind us.
“You could just ask to come in, you know.”
I turned around, as did Debbie next to me.
An old man, the same one we had seen the first time. He was sitting cross-legged in front of a small patch of flowers, studying them intently.
He looked up at us. “My name is Gabriel, what’re yours?”
I found my ability to speak, and mumbled out, “I’m Caleb, and this is Deb. We weren’t doing anything bad, I promise.”
He waved my words away. “I know you weren’t doing anything, it’s fine. You came up here a few months ago, right?”
We nodded hesitantly.
“Well, then,” he said, getting up and brushing dirt off his knees. “Come on in, and you can ask questions and I’ll try to answer them.”
Debbie held onto my arm nervously as we walked towards the entrance of the house. It didn’t seem safe, really, but I had to know what those things were, and he was the only person I knew of that would be able to tell me.
We stepped through the door after him, and he gestured to three seats that faced each other, and said, “Have a seat,” then took one of them himself.
I sat in one, and Debbie in the other. We looked at him anxiously.
He smiled calmly at us, then looked at the shelves around us.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what these all are,” he said.
“Well, I’ll tell you. And I’ll tell you a lot more than just what they are.”
Both Debbie and I leaned forward expectantly.
“They’re called books.” He leaned over and pulled one off a shelf. “They’re filled with words.”
“But we speak those,” Debbie interrupted.
“Not always,” Gabriel said. “A long time ago, words had a written – that’s sort of like drawing, but things that have individual meanings – significance. Before radio, before television, before auto-speak, we had books. They were collections of knowledge, and collections of thoughts. Fictional and nonfictional. Things for recreation and things for work. And most of all, for learning. Almost everything was for learning, in its own way.
“Books lasted for a long time. A very long time, as there were some going back further than we even knew. But that came to an end, eventually. Audio and video outmoded books and the written word. They were easier to understand, and children learned up to three times faster, they said. And they worked, to some extent, in the short term. But complacency set in soon afterwards. They couldn’t go back once they’d started, of course. They had to continue on, and go even further than they had already. Instead of merely outmoding books, they obliterated them, and every trace and memory of them. They didn’t make books illegal per se, just made them nonexistent. And it worked. I myself had seen it coming and took precautions, as you can see.”
He handed me the book he had taken off the shelf shortly before, and I opened it. Debbie leaned over to see inside as well, and I held it out slightly for her to see better.
It was all a mess of squiggly lines, meaningless to the both of us. I closed the book and handed it back to him. He started to take it, but didn’t pull it away, leaving one end still in my hands.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, “but I can’t ‘read’ it. Thank you very much for explaining it all to us, though.” I started to stand up, as did Debbie.
“You don’t have to leave yet,” he said. “I can teach you.”
I stopped where I was, half turned away from him. I wanted to reject his offer, but at the same time… I knew I needed something more, and perhaps this was it. Perhaps books could fill that void.
And they did. He taught both Debbie and I, day by day, slowly learning more and more complex words and phrases, syntax and grammar. We both learned very quickly, almost as if we had always been able to read, just never had the opportunity.
He taught us to write, too, at the same time. We went there every day that summer, to increase upon our share of knowledge. We read, and read, and read. We borrowed books and stashed them away in our houses out of the sight of everyone but us.
Reading was all we did, and soon we had read almost half of the books in his house, and we didn’t stop going at the rate we had been at.
There was one day, though, that made a ripple in our pool of literacy. Debbie’s mom had sprung a surprise room-cleaning on her, and one of the books was discovered. She tried to excuse it as a craft project she had been working on, but her parent’s didn’t quite believe it.
Nothing came of it that we saw, though, and we continued on reading, albeit more carefully.
“You ready?” Deb asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, hefting a bag onto my shoulder. “Let’s go.”
We headed up the now well-known path up the mountain, towards Gabriel’s house. As we came up over a small rise, we saw smoke rising into the air.
We looked at each other, not sure what to think, and continued up the mountain.
When we came up over the final rise of the mountain, in plain sight of his house, we saw what caused the smoke.
His entire house was on fire. I dropped the bag off my shoulder and both of us started running to the house. As we got closer, we heard yells of pain and terror coming from inside.
“He’s in there, Caleb!” Deb said.
I didn’t say anything. I was frozen to the spot, despite the heat. I didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly, I darted towards the door. Deb ran behind me, crying, “Wait, Caleb!”.
I didn’t listen to her. I headed towards the door, and outstretched my hand to take the knob. As soon as I did, it burned my hand and I jerked it away. I rubbed my hand, then braced myself and hurled my body into the door. It didn’t budge. Deb was watching me, and I motioned for her to help me. We readied ourselves, and threw ourselves into the door, but it still didn’t move.
Something must have been put behind it to keep it from opening. I heard Gabriel let up a yell, and tried rushing at the door again, and again, until Deb held me back.
“It’s not going to move, Caleb,” she said.
I headed over to one of the windows and looked inside. Something had been put in front of it, and was on fire. I moved to another window, and found the situation the same.
We rushed around and around the house, looking for any possible entry point, but couldn’t find any. Gabriel’s yells subsided.
We both collapsed onto the grass in front of the house, watching it slowly burn.
We sat there the whole day, and fell asleep on the ground, and woke up in the morning to find the house still smoldering slightly and utterly dilapidated in some areas. We carefully went in, and found that all the books had been completely destroyed by the blaze. We found a chair in the middle of the house with a blackened skeleton on the floor next to it. A few charred scraps of rope lay next to the skeleton.
We left the house, and went back down the mountain, and into our own houses, without another word. I forgot my bag up there, but didn’t bother retrieving it, or I knew I wouldn’t be able to force myself to go up there again.
Don’t look at this as a story, or a narrative, or anything other than what it is; a first step in the reconstruction of words, books, and reading. It’s a true story, of course, but that’s only one piece. It is a history, it is a report, it is a memory.
I dearly hope that this first step will bring about more writing. Debbie and I will teach those we know can pass it on to others, and those to yet more people. Perhaps the written word will return, and the legacy of type can be once more remembered.