Originally posted February 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
In later years, I often visited you in your bubble of healing, a one-person apartment perched above a quiet, cobble-stoned road in a valley below the Black Forest. That was over four decades after the end of the Second World War when marigold salve would once again soothe men’s stumps. The finely bound series about plants you had given me was forgotten in a trunk in my student’s quarters, but no sooner had I stepped into your apartment with the noise-absorbing green wall-to-wall carpet than your desperation for silent healing was all around us. Sometimes when we spoke for too long, your eyelids began to flutter uncontrollably because your nerves were frayed by what had come to pass. You mourned “all that was lost” by our family in Germany, Poland and Brazil, my birthplace. The story grabbed my attention and I couldn’t let go of it. I wanted to know what was in that nothingness that you stared into when you told these stories that wore you out.
You were not the only one in need of restoration. We’d both lived convulsive lives of different sorts, and I sensed that my healing was in knowing your past because it had formed me in ways I still didn’t know. Could my needs only be fulfilled at the expense of yours? I hoped that this zero-sum game would not apply to us, and sometimes stood with you in your tiny kitchen without asking any more questions, as you measured the dried herbs that you placed with excruciating slowness into a teapot. Then we’d sit down on the stools that screeched against the kitchen floor like mischievous children, and silently, without awkwardness, wait as the hot water drew the goodness out of the tea leaves. It was in those moments, rather than in the ones when I pressed you for your memories, that a very large door between us swung open next to the other closed doors.
As the years passed, I began to notice that sometimes you spoke of nature in ways that alienated me. When the church bells outside your apartment chimed, you snapped angrily that “the Pope should be shot,” and that only nature decided. According to you, its one immutable rule was that the strong had the right, and, in some instances it was merciful to put the weak out of their misery. I tried to find some indication in your face that you didn’t really mean it, but there was none. All of the doors between us slammed shut in the storm your words produced inside of me. It was as though we didn’t know one another at all.
Now the fine weave has lost its power to bind the pages of my medicinal plant books. The delicate paintings of herbs, flowers and their roots lie in a pile detached from their covers. Were they the strong or the weak? I haven’t had the heart to bind the pages back together again, as I continue to struggle with reconciling the different sides of you. To me, the robust marigold and the lithe-stemmed pansy had been our sanctuary, but to you they were other things too. If I bind them together again, perhaps the series can simply be mine. Outside, the plants in the collection have come to life, and as I become an old woman, having grown roots in a place similar to where yours were, I cannot deny that you prepared me to recognize them.
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