Rosie, an eighty-seven-year-old woman, who lived in a well-fortified home in a remote part of Maine, regretted her charge to eradicate the word “great” and now vowed to make amends before she died.
Nationalist tendencies toward “greatness” had been the problem. Every nation strutting their military greatness until one nation went too far, resulting in The Greatest War of Mankind, renamed The War of Mankind.
At first, her new government job, after being a diplomat, seemed simple and manageable. Eliminate just one word. But then other words took its place until people’s fear rose that the ban of a single word wasn’t enough. For words, whether spoken or written, had become the universal scapegoat, the culprit, the one and only thing every man, woman and child—all weary from assigning fault to the war’s ever-changing cast of enemies—could unequivocally agree upon to blame. And so it was that superlatives—words deemed extremist in any way, whether for good or for evil—were systematically stripped from every language in the world in hopes that even the very word itself—“superlative”—would be lost forever.
That’s when Rosie, nearing retirement, found herself in the position of leading the charge to destroy all books. This was not a Fahrenheit 451 moment where book burning was done by the authorities. Instead, people everywhere were clamoring to partake, believing this single action could help create a safer world. For everyone in the world, or what was left of it after three months, wanted nothing more than to wipe its entire past irreparably clean.
Now Rosie believed she had one chance to undo some of what she’d done to the lost world of literature that she had always loved—and she pinned all her hopes on young Edward, her only living relative.
Waiting for Edward to arrive, Rosie rested her frail body against the back of her chair on the porch and twisted her gold wedding band, grateful her arthritic knuckles would never let it go. She admired the expanse of fifty-foot holograms of hickory trees, the only indication, aside from one dwarfed tree, of what her childhood forested world in Maine once looked like.
Then, like a whisper growing louder, she heard, before she saw, Edward’s fly-mobile land off in a distant patch of barren earth. Glints of sunlight caught the door as it opened like a bird’s wing, and Edward, tall and lanky, bounded up the side of the hill, his backpack in tow.
He walked within an inch of a holographic serrated leaf and asked, “Do the leaves change with the season?”
“No, but they sway with the wind. Not a real wind, mind you, but a programmed breeze.”
She wanted to tell him that they almost seemed alive to her and this gave her hope. Hope somehow that beautiful things would continue to live long after she was gone. However, she loved the scrawny dwarf tree more, because both of them were lucky enough to have survived.
As Edward entered the house, he recalled one of his earliest memories of being there. He was four or five and he’d scratched his initials into the frost on the windows, frost being something he hadn’t seen when he lived in California. It had seemed like magic to him. Something there and then gone. He kept looking for his initials to return. He didn’t know that they couldn’t. Then, he never dreamed he’d move out east. He never dreamed that someday there would be no California.
“Absolutely not,” Edward said, pacing the living room after Rosie asked him to take some books. “I can’t believe you kept some.”
“There’s not a lot of them. I couldn’t risk that.”
“You should have destroyed them, like everyone else. How could you—of all people—not have done that?”
“Just take one then. Just one book. No one would know.”
“Are you kidding? What if the authorities found out? I don’t want to just suddenly disappear. No, no, you have to destroy them. All of them.”
“I can’t do that Edward. I won’t.”
That night over dinner they spoke in hushed tones, as if both were conscious of not wanting to raise their voices too loudly, as if that might widen the chasm between them. They were both reminded of the decree: “To control one’s words is to keep all things under control.” But Rosie had little time left to be cautious. She wanted to insist that Edward keep them. Plead with him. Make him see that she had no one else to give them to. That they were too important to be lost forever. But her desire was more than that. She didn’t want those books to be forgotten the way that she knew she would be forgotten one day. She wanted those stories to live on. She also desperately needed, in her own small way, to right the wrong she had done almost thirty years ago.
The next night, Rosie came up with a compromise. One she thought Edward would agree to.
“Why should I read one?”
“Because you’ve never read anything like them. What the authorities allow people to read is nothing but watered-down milk toast. Whatever passion a writer might have had is censored until all the color is drained. Edward, I want you to experience more than that…more than just this homogenization of the homo sapiens.”
“You need to be careful about what you’re saying.”
“Oh, come on, no one’s listening. And I’m not asking much. Really, Edward, if you won’t take one, the least you can do is read one. It won’t hurt you.”
Rosie left the table without saying a word to sit on her porch.
When she was a child her imagination would venture into the stand of hickory trees that forested her view. She would remember the stories she’d just read and think about their endings and how they were really just the beginning of something else. What that something else was exactly, she didn’t know, but a new world had opened up inside her and she believed that this new world was still out there, somewhere, if only she looked hard enough through the glimmers of light that fell between the trees.
Edward came out to join her and sat in silence.
As a child, he had not known Rosie well and as an adult he knew only to admire what she had done. Now, though, he felt he didn’t know her at all. But maybe she was right. What could it hurt? How could he deny her dying wish? One day there might be something he needed someone to do, something he needed them to remember. Wouldn’t he want that person to be there for him?
The next day, they walked into her study where the floor to ceiling shelves were filled with masks from Kenya, a sun dial from Mexico, and woven baskets from Ethiopia. Numerous objects tightly grouped into a single reflection of her once well-traveled life. The wall unit displayed everything one might expect except for the very thing for which the shelves had been originally intended—books. But with a keen eye, one could find them tucked into dark crevices for cover or hidden behind curios should the wrong sort of curious eyes pay an unexpected visit.
Rosie parted two marble horse-head bookends butted together and extracted her favorite book—for it captured the anger, hopelessness, insecurity and fear that enveloped everyone—and handed it to Edward.
Edward pealed apart the brittle pages, eyes falling upon the opening lines: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” He did not know what either “best” or “worst” meant, but read on… “in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the degree of superlative comparison only.”
Closing it, he neither appreciated the prose’s elegant timelessness nor questioned those words he did not know; instead, he perched the book on upturned palms, aware for the first time the weight of an actual book, so unlike the paper-thin digital reading tablets of today. His nose nearly touched the cloth spine, riddled with moth holes, as he inhaled—not with the upturned nose of a skeptic, whose rigorous education had taught one never to seek answers from the past, but with an explorer’s inquisitiveness.
From that day forward and throughout the last days of his visit, they sat in matching worn green leather arm chairs and read from morning to night. Rosie often falling asleep with an open book resting on her bosom, while Edward read until dawn. During the day, Edward interrupted Rosie’s re-reading of works to discuss all the words and concepts he didn’t understand. But as Edward’s worldview expanded, Rosie’s shrank with the realization that this would have to be enough. Her hope that one person, Edward, wouldn’t forget.
On his last night, Edward and Rosie sat on the porch looking at a single star that had made its way through the haze.
“Since you won’t take them,” Rosie began, “I want you to burn them after I’m gone. I can’t bring myself to do it. Edward, are you sure you won’t keep just one?”
Two months later, Edward received a call that Rosie had passed away, and he returned to her home. This time when he sat in the green leather chair holding a book, he closed his eyes. He brought the book to his nose with the intense desire to experience all the places this book might have resided—perhaps it had been left askew on an ocean resort’s balcony chair on a brisk and cloudy day, or atop a cascading book stack on a winter cabin’s table next to a recently stoked fire, or on a bookstore’s utmost shelf scalable only by ladder and buttressed by copies of itself—all the places he had recently witnessed through words. But all his olfactory senses could discern was the dark mustiness of abandonment. Rosie was gone.
He carted each book into a pile outside, where he watched all but one of them burn. He took A Tale of Two Cities and held it his hands one last time. Then he burned it separately and mixed her ashes with it, scattering those ashes under that single dwarf tree hoping somehow, through Dickens’s words, that it would give her a “far, far better rest.” Words, among many, that he promised never to forget.
Sylvia Schwartz’s short stories and poetry have been published in Edify Fiction, The Airgonaut, The Vignette Review, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. Sylvia has studied literary fiction at the Writers Studio and One Story in New York as well as with Tom Jenks. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and currently lives in Hoboken, NJ. You can reach her at www.sylviaschwartz.com or @aivlys99.