Prompt from the Hubby
“He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two.”
One book caused it.
It wasn’t the ability to read, which was devastatingly extraordinary, and vital to his existence. In fact, when he was seven, dirty-faced and begging on the streets, not a letter to his mind attached to a sound that could make words, a stranger took pity on him and instead of giving him bread or water, she gave him letters with sounds. She gave him words. For two seasons, she’d show up before the sun, offer her gloved hand, walk him to a small hidden alcove that smelled like things he didn’t understand but saw and heard as the moon took the sky, and she taught him how to read. She never talked about herself. Never told him her name. She never asked him his name, where his mother was, or why he was homeless. She gave him letters with sounds. She gave him words.
To both of their surprise and joy, he was quick to understand and within months, he could read the small board books with pictures, then books with more words than pictures, then the thing he’d seen men carrying like purses: the newspaper. The newspaper was a portal to his world, and the world beyond which up to that point, the little boy never knew existed. All he’d known was cobblestone and cold, hunger pains and homelessness.
That first season was brutal, for the cold was a monster who stole their fingertips and hardened their throats. But her kindness kept them warm. And the letters, which he began to see like stars shining, showed up all around him. Everywhere letters. Everywhere words. She challenged him to bring her letters and sounds and words. And when the icicles began to drip into puddles in the alleys, he was offering her parts of his world: market, butcher, bakery, hospital. Each day was expanded by the letters and sounds.
In the summer, when he could wash in the busted fire hydrant in the market square, water bursting like laughter he’d not yet known, he felt his first zing of pride. He washed his clothing and his face, his hands and his hair. He followed the flower seller and collected fallen petals that he pressed to his neck and wrists because he loved the scents they offered. He felt like he could learn better when he wasn’t shivering and starving, and the hot summer sun gave him this. Somehow, his hunger got lazy under a blue sky, the heat sizzling his skin. And people were more generous in the summer. When he was clean, though the people knew he was homeless, they gave him more. One man stopped and stared at him hard. Then he reached into his suit vest and pulled out a pencil. The little boy didn’t know what it was, though he’d seen many hold one. He smiled curiously upon receiving the gift.
When he showed it to his teacher the next morning, she’d held it in her hands for a long time, rolling it between her palms.
“You’re ready then, to learn to write,” she’d said finally, handing him back his pencil. And she left abruptly without a lesson. But the next morning, she brought with her a pad of paper and her own pencil.
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