The books grew wild here. Untamed. You only needed to look out the window to see the various species dotting the landscape. The beautiful, delicate petals of poetry, the tall sturdy trunks of nonfiction, the sprawling bushes of romance, the reaching vines of sci-fi, the looping rows of fantasy. And within each genre would bloom new colors, new shapes: always growing, always changing. There was a time when you couldn’t look across the meadow without seeing thousands of words sprouting up in every unlikely place.
The funny thing with such wild growth, of course, is you could never control what they say. One day’s harvest may tell you the best way to think and be. You read the crop and think you have it all figured out just to pick one tomorrow that says just the opposite.
And of course, that’s why people like me like them: because they’re unpredictable and chaotic and you are forced to think differently with every book you harvest.
And naturally, that’s why people like them hate them: because they’re unpredictable and chaotic and you are forced to think differently with every book you harvest.
And that was part of life. Some people felt compelled to make careers out of cultivating and harvesting these wild books. And some people felt the next to weed every little short story out of their own yard until it was bare.
Like most wild things, you can always expect that there will be some who love it and some who hate it just as much.
But I didn’t expect them to try to change it.
I’m old now. There are not many left who still remember what it looked like when our meadows were wild and alive with literature. When the hills bloomed with hundreds of different stories, each telling something entirely new. I still have a picture of it, at the time when these stories were allowed to grow in all their glory. When I show this treasure to my child and their children, I wonder if the image in my hand looks as foreign to them as the view from my window looks to me. Straight rows of crops, separated by species, organized, cultivated, domesticated, until they all say pre-approved messages. Gone are the days of wild growth. Gone are the times when the plants decided what they wanted to bloom, and it was up to us to decide what we wanted to think. Now everyone reads the same crops, talks of the same issues, and forms the same opinions.
It’s a shame.
I tried to fight it – of course. Many of us did. But fear works stronger than reason to sway opinion. Somehow, they managed to brand the books as dangerous. They told our community that the wild ones weren’t safe for children, that they could never be such if one was sweet with knowledge or poison. They pointed to the kids who would spew strange ideas, saying they had been tainted. Never mind the fact kids always come up with the oddest thoughts. Books or no books – there is never sound reason inside a child’s imagination. But that’s how it must be, so that they may wander through life always exploring, learning, and growing.
But sound reason soon left the minds of the adults as well. Like a disease spreading silently through the town, more and more became infected. Slowly parents stopped letting their children run free in the fields. They forbade them to read anything but the books they cultivated in their own gardens, presuming these to be the only ones that were safe. The wild books grew even more untamed as more and more people stopped harvesting.
Soon enough, cultivation and domestication were on everyone’s minds. And no one would say it was about control. Or that the books too easily spread ideas that certain people didn’t like. No. No one would admit to that. It was about the children. For their safety that this atrocity needed to be done.
And so, they cheered when the meadow was burned, then dug up into neat little fields with order and precision and control. Pre-Approved messages. No surprises. Books that told the “right” ideas.
There are few of us wild lovers left, lost to time. The new generation keeps being born into this reality; they do not even know enough to mourn what they are missing. I too can feel myself growing weary, and I fear how quickly the wilds may be forgotten.
But alas, age has not softened my stubbornness, and even with these withered old hands, I might still cause mischief yet.
“Grandma, what are you thinking about?”
My youngest granddaughter Daisy has noticed me staring off again.
“Oh, nothing dear,” I say, tousling her curly hair, “Just thinking about books again.”
She gives me a big smile, “Oh me too! Can you show me the picture again grandma?”
I take the worn image out of my drawer as she crawls into my lap to look out the window. Though I must admit she’s getting a bit big for that.
“Now see here,” I start, the same spiel as always, “and look out the window. See how the curves of the hills match the ones in the picture. You can see how it all used to look.”
And even after hearing these same words a hundred times, she does really look. For a moment we both sit in our own imaginations, pretending that the world of the picture is truly what exists outside that window. I quite like spending time with Daisy. Maybe because she’s still young yet but she’s the last of kin who truly seems to care about what I say. None of the others would say it of course, but I know they think I’m getting too old, and my mind is beginning to slip. Of course, I know that’s utter absurdity, but who am I to tell others what to think of me?
Our enjoyment is halted by the knock at the door.
“I bet that’s your mom, Daisy. You better go answer it.”
She hops off my lap, “But can I come back tomorrow?”
I smile, “Of course, dear. If your Mom approves, that is.”
The house is quiet without children. Peaceful. But rather dull. The air is pleasant today so I go to rest on my old, creaky rocking chair on the back porch.
I survey my garden with a smile: a beautiful bare brown patch, all those books growing from the ground dead or dying. I do water them, but the high walls and greenhouse in the back block too much of the sun for them to thrive.
My garden. My nosey family and nosey neighbors aren’t a fan. Other houses showcase their beautiful, cultivated gardens, an easy way for neighbors to try and outdo one another. How they just love to talk about how so and so has uneven rows, and the other lady always forgets to weed, and her neighbor forgets to water so often that even the hardy self-help books have dried up. Endless complaints that one plants too much fiction, another not enough. Debates on if sci-fi and fantasy should even be allowed to be grown and which poetry blooms brighter. Not that it seems to matter to them that they all grow the same stories, written by the same kinds of people, for the same audience. This is about the show. So, it’s strange to them why I keep mine hidden.
Lucky for me being an old woman comes with certain assumptions, one of which is that you are simply benign. What harm can an elderly lady cause? So, though they complain, my family and neighbors take my declaration that my garden is for my eyes alone.
It’s far too quiet sitting out here alone. Perhaps it is a reminisce of growing up in a time where outdoors meant overhearing giggles, and delighted shrieks, or even tears. It is far too orderly nowadays. Far too scheduled. I know that it will be quiet out here now till after dinner time when the neighbors finally emerge to babble. Of course I try not to be around for that.
Perhaps too I dislike the quiet because it brings back memories. Happy and painful, but memories all the same. As I feel my body inching towards the end I find it harder and harder to stay in the present moment. It seems my mind always wants to take me elsewhere.
But what’s this? Faintly, oh so faintly, I think I hear laughing in the distance. Yes. That is good. We need more laughter here. Perhaps I’ll join them…
When I open my eyes next it is dark. Lost in the daydreaming again. I have missed supper but I haven’t had much of an appetite anyway. I am thankful for the walls, however, and the fact that I don’t snore. It seems I managed to sneak in my nap without tipping off the neighbors who are all too eager to call my daughter on me.
Worried, for a moment that I’ve slept too long, I head back inside to check the time. It’s strange, seeing my house like this, totally dark. Though I know my way around through muscle memory alone, I still feel like a stranger in its walls. Within the cold hues of blacks and purples this home is not mine and I am not it’s.
With the flick of a switch the eeriness vanishes. Though still every day this house feels more and more empty. In the light, my reliable old wooden clock tells me it’s just past 8.
Perfect. Curfew just started. Time for my walk.
Of course, the word curfew implies some restrictive rule, but it is not so demanding. No, rather it has become a social norm. That by eight any respectable member of our community would be in their homes with their families.
But given I am not, in fact, respectable, I like to enjoy my evening walks. I am hardly the only one who ever does this, though perhaps the only one who does it as regularly as I do. But any caught out this time of night risks being the talk of tomorrow morning’s gossip.
So it’s a good thing I am as old as I am because I simply could not care if my name runs rampant in their mouths.
I like summer nights like these because there is just barely enough light in the sky for me to do my work. In early spring and late fall I have to be bothered to bring a flashlight.
The warm air is soothing to my lungs as I shuffle my way through the twilight, gripping my little woven satchel. I walk past house after house, each identical to the rest, counting them as I go so I can remember how many to get me back to my own bed.
Twelve houses, twelfth doors, passing twelve little families each inside their homes.
Until I’m there. Seeing the fields in front of me always pricks my chest with the questions of what if. But also my shoulders relax a little and my breath falls easier. Domesticated or not, books are books.
Slowly I make my way down the rows, sweeping my eyes back and forth ahead of me. I keep my eyes peeled to the ground as I enjoy the smell of the pages. In my youth, these trips took me only an hour to make my way up and down each row. Now I can only do a quarter of the fields a night and still it may take me well past two or three hours to complete.
Most nights I come back empty handed.
But still I make my search each and every evening.
My eyes catch on a flash of bright color in the fiction section. Tonight may be my lucky night.
With great effort I bend down and carefully take my tools from my bag. Though my hands are weak and shaky, my muscles know the task and as if on autopilot I carefully dig around the roots. It’s small yet, only a sampling, but in its bright, erratic bloom I can see the cover of a castle resting high up on the clouds.
A wild fantasy novel perhaps.
See, they never could truly breed the wildness out of books. Something within their design craves to go back to the freedom of the old days. And though they do everything in their power to keep the stories in line, every so often weeds like these will appear. When the book tenders find them, they are pulled. But when I’m lucky, I find them first.
Pleased, I go to stand, but my legs give out from under me. Breathing feels heavy against my chest and the coolness of the dirt sends a shock through my system. I feel frail.
But now is not the time or place for that.
Carefully, with time and effort I am able to get myself on my feet. But the endeavor has exhausted me. I can feel a cold sweat pooling along my thin skin.
I stare down at the poor wild book I dropped. My body warns of the risk of bending down again, warns that next time I may not be able to get back up.
But I aligned my cause with these books long ago. I cannot just leave them now.
With great pain and exertion I reach down for the sampling. For a moment, I feel myself slip again, but I am able to regain my balance.
My little book in hand, I leave. There is still more field to inspect but the whole ordeal has been too much for my body for one night. I will have to return again tomorrow.
Back in my home, I think about planting it in my greenhouse, where it can grow free surrounded by the other wild books I have collected.
But tonight my bed calls. Instead, I put some water in the little pitcher and set the book inside. I leave it on my bedside table. I will plant it tomorrow.
As I lay there, I admire what magic the cover supplies. I look forward to when she is grown so I may read it’s unique story.
I don’t know what I hope to accomplish with this, all the sneaking around and stealing. Perhaps it is my last act of defiance. Perhaps it is the last collection of a woman who doesn’t know how to let go of the past. Or perhaps I do this so when I go, someone, anyone, maybe even my little Daisy, will find my greenhouse of illegal wild books. And they too will dream of castles in the sky.