Cast of Wonders 267: For (Banned Books Week)

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


by Sandra M. Odell

Maggie Alvarez leaned against the counter of the dry goods store to get a better look inside John’s satchel.  Was that a book beneath the flap?  Had to be.  Dingy white cover, faded black letters along the cracked spine.  All her life she’d watched Lessonkeepers hurl books on the bonfires at purity rallies.  Books were illegal, filled with the lies that caused the crumble of the old world.

Her heart sank, then bounced back twice as high.  A real book!

She eased her weight off her knotted left foot, and shifted hold on her crutch.  “So, John, you planning on settling here for a time?”

He leaned against the other side of the wooden counter.  “Nah.  Pretty soon I’ll head east to the Missip river and winter over in Nuloreans.”

Maggie didn’t catch her disappointment in time to keep it from her face, and John was quick to add, “I’ll be here for a time yet.  People always need their knives sharpened.”

“Of course,” Maggie said, and smiled to hide her relief.  “And you’ll be needing supplies.”

Pink touched John’s tanned cheeks and he picked at the edge of the counter top.  “Of course.”

Maggie leaned forward a bit more for a better look at the book, but the top of the satchel blocked her view.  “I’ve never been to Nuloreans.  I heard it’s nice there.”

John laughed.  “It can be so long as you don’t mind the rain in winter and mosquitos in summer.”

Maggie nodded.  “Oh, we have those, too.  Skeets so big they can carry off a horse and rider.”

John looked at her and cocked an eyebrow.

Maggie smiled sweet as could be.  “I swear on my family’s name, and we’ve been here since before the Crumble.  My Pa owns the store and the boarding house across the street.”

With her free hand she motioned to the three-story house visible through the store’s dusty glass windows and the shimmer of heat outside.  This late in the summer, the sun had beaten the life out of the Okkies and road folk alike.  People on the street didn’t walk so much as hurry to the next piece of shade.

She was babbling like a nellie without a thought in her head when what she wanted to do was ask John to open his satchel.

John looked at the shelves lined with dry goods and necessities.  “You have a lot to choose from.  It’s kind of nice to have choices.”

Maggie brushed bits of nothing off the counter, both annoyed and relieved that he didn’t mind her prattle.  “My Pa likes to keep a good selection for the trains when they come through.”

“Yeah.”  John straightened and looked at the goods in front of him on the counter:  two jars of Mrs. Dunn’s put-up peaches; a jar of pickled beets; a pound bag of rice.  “I should probably be getting on.  How much do I owe you?”

Maggie hated to let the book out of her sight almost as much as she hated to see him go.  There weren’t many young men her age interested in talking to her without the assumption of marriage, and he hadn’t asked about her crutch once, which was more than she could say for most of the Okkie City boys.  “A dollar and a half would cover it, but I could throw in a slab of cheese and make it an even two dollars.  It’ll go real good with those peaches.”

John opened his mouth to answer when a tall stocky fellow in a Lessonkeeper’s long coat stepped through the door.  He removed his wide-brimmed hat and smoothed back his hair.  “Afternoon, Maggie.  Hot enough to fry bacon out there, isn’t it?”

She gripped her crutch and gave Zachary Keebler a bland smile.  “I suppose, if you like walking around with bacon on your head.  What can I get for you, Zachary?”

Zachary would show up when she least wanted to see him.  He liked to think his new position as a Lessonkeeper cemented his claim on her.  Maggie thought otherwise.

The Lessonkeeper moved up to the counter, set his hat in front of him.  “I thought I’d stop by on my way home and see how you’re doing.”  He glanced sidelong at John.  “Hey there.”

John rested his hand on his satchel.  “Howdy.”

From the set of John’s shoulders, he didn’t seem to care for Zachary’s look and Maggie couldn’t blame him.  “John and I were finishing up a bit of business.”

The Lessonkeeper smiled kind of like a rattlesnake.  “John, huh?  You’re a tinker.”

Maggie cursed herself for a fool, and Zachary for an ass.  Why’d she have to mention John by name?  “I’ll be with you just as soon as we’re finished up here, Zachary.”

John fished two coins out of his pocket and set them on the counter.  “That’s fine.  I’m done here.”

“If you insist,” Zachary said.

God above, how she wanted to slap that smile right off Zachary’s face.  She smiled at John by way of an apology.  “Let me slice you some cheese.  Made right here in Okkie City.  There’s none better.”

John twisted his satchel against his body and undid the strap.  “No worries.”

As John loaded the goods into the satchel, Maggie did her best to take back the Lessonkeeper’s attention.  Zachary was rock dumb, but had a sharp, suspicious nature.  “What can I get for you, Zachary?”

John walked out, hand tight on the satchel strap.

One by one, Maggie picked the constellations out of the night sky.  “The scorpion.  The rider.  The hero.  The moth.  The water boy.  The spider.”

Papa smiled around the stem of his pipe.  “Your Ma would be proud of you.”

Maggie smiled and leaned back on the porch swing.  The sky stretched almost farther than her imagination could see above the dim post lights. Almost.

The heat of the day had given way to the chill of a clear evening.  Early on, neighbors stopped by to share a word or three, but this late most had settled in for the night and the coming curfew bell.  Somewhere north, a train wailed lonesome in the night on its way to a different city beneath the same sky.  She’d be on that train someday.  See new cities, meet new people, never think about Zachary Keebler again.

Maggie sighed.  Someday.  For now, she sat on the porch swing and watched the stars turn around the world.  Some nights, like tonight, Papa brought out his pipe and joined her for a spell.  She didn’t mind; there was more than enough sky to go around.

She brought up her left foot and eased off the thick leather sock under the cover of her skirt in case someone stopped by.  She massaged her three stubby toes and the thick calloused pad that made up her foot, ticklish and numb by turns.  She would need a new sock before winter, this one smelled worse than an outhouse.  Maybe she would knit a wool undersock, too.

Papa broke into her thoughts.  “Zachary tells me he stopped by today.”

Maggie snorted.  “He did, and he was rude to boot.”

“Ah.  The tinker.”

Maggie slipped the leather sock over the arm cuff of her crutch.  “His name is John.  We talked for a time, he made his purchase, then left.”

And he had a book.

Papa nodded.  “Tells me he thought you were being too sweet on this John.”

Maggie stomped her right foot on the porch.  “Well, Zachary Keebler can roll his opinion in salt and eat it, for all I care.”

Papa dipped his chin in a nod.  “Thought you might feel that way.”

She continued, eager to push thoughts of the book away before she spoke them out loud, “Besides, can’t I talk to a man without being sweet on him?  We talked sharpening knives, and canning peaches, and what it was like to live on the road.  Is that such a crime?”

“Well,” Papa said after a long moment, “you are unmarried at seventeen.  Some might find it strange you talking to a tinker when a Lessonkeeper wants to take you to the altar.”

Maggie gritted her teeth.  “Then they can damn well stand in line and take a bite out of Zachary’s opinion when he’s done with it.  Zachary’s so full of himself, I’m sure there’s plenty to go around.”

Papa chuckled, sending puffs of fragrant white smoke into the night.  “Yep.  You are your mama’s daughter.”

“That I am,” Maggie said, and gave her attention back to the sky.

They settled into silence.  Papa finished his pipe and stood.  He bent down and kissed the top of her head.  “I love you, Maggie.  All I can ask is that you make good choices.”

Maggie kissed his scruffy cheek.  “I try, Papa.”

She sat with the stars for company until the tolling of the curfew bell, then slipped on her sock and headed into the house.  She washed her face and hands and combed out her hair in the washroom before heading up the stairs to her attic bedroom, her crutch making a soft *thump* on every other step.

Her room was hot and musty from having been closed all day, with only the moonlight streaming through the window to help her see.  Maggie locked the door and eased open the window, cherishing the shiver of chill air against her skin.  Safe, she hobbled to the bed and retrieved her most prized possession, a final gift from Mama before the sickness took her.  Her own book.

Maggie returned to the window and eased herself to the floor.  She held the book up just so to make the most of the moonlight.  Would have been nice to crank up her hand lantern, but she couldn’t risk someone on the street after curfew noticing and asking Papa why she was up so late.

The book had lost its front cover long ago; the spine was cracked with use and age.  The yellow and black back cover had words strung together in sentences — was that the right word? — and a person looking through the narrow end of a long tube perched on top of a three-legged stand.  She turned the book over.  The brittle front page was discolored, the bottom half gone completely.  Above the printed words at the top of the page, written in uneven block letters, were the only words she could read:  FOR ROSA.

“This is an old, old book, Margaret,” Mama had said on her death bed when Maggie was twelve.  She’d read those same two words like they were a prayer.  “For Rosa.  It was a gift.  Take care of it for me.”

A book, a real honest book.  Mama had kept it hidden even from Papa, from everyone except her.  The Lessonkeepers told how books and reading confused everyone and made the world Crumble.  Written words were lies, the only true words spoken by men.  If word ever got out, the Lessonkeepers would take the book and burn it, put her in stocks on the shaming block for everyone to see.  Papa would disown her.  He’d have to sell the store, leave Okkie City and her behind.

John had a book.  What would the Lessonkeepers do to him if they found out?

She turned the page, then the next, and the next.  Ant-track words crawled around drawings of the sky at night.  Here and there, she found one of the words she recognized, For, not written by hand but part of the book itself.  “For,” she said in a whisper, touching the letters.  “For.”

She closed the book.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could read all the words?

John spit sunflower seed shells onto the cobblestones of Solomon Street.  Around them, folk went about their business while it was still mostly cool.  The clatter of wheels and shod hooves on stone echoed off the buildings on either side of the street.  “Must have been a long walk from your house to Tinker Field.”

Maggie bristled.  Her left leg and hip did hurt something fierce, but that was no business of his.  “Meaning?”

He held out the bag of sunflower seeds.  “Meaning it was a long walk.”

Maggie pinched a few seeds from the bag.  “Ah.  Sorry.  I misunderstood.”

John stepped around a young girl selling pickles from a barrel cart on the corner.  “You get that a lot?”

“Get what?”

“Pity talk.”

Maggie took a deep breath.  “From time to time.”

To her surprise, John nodded.  “More’s the pity on them.”

Maggie turned his words over in her mind.  She liked the sound of them.

She’d set out that morning on the excuse of getting the kitchen knives sharpened at John’s small covered-wagon in Tinker Field.  “Sharpening knives, huh?” Papa said from the kitchen sink where he scrubbed the tenants’ breakfast dishes.

Maggie had donned her hat and slung her carry bag over her right shoulder.  “Sharpening knives,” she said right back and headed out the back door.

By the time John had finished at the sharpening wheel, she’d managed to work up the courage to ask him for a walk around the city to see the sights.  John had agreed, but didn’t grab his satchel.  “Aren’t you worried someone might go snooping through your wagon?” she’d asked as he set his sharpening wheel and wooden sign in the back of the wagon.

John tied the canvas flap closed.  “Tinkers look after our own.  Folks will keep an eye out for looky-loos while I’m gone.”

Maggie had covered her disappointment with a smile.  “Good to know.”

Now they walked and talked and spit shells.  John made a fine walking companion, not too fast, and no complaints when she needed to slow down.  She wasn’t sweet on him, but he was a pleasure to have around.  Certainly better than Zachary Keebler or the other Okkie City fellows who insisted they didn’t mind her crutch but nevertheless always walked on her right side.

As they made their way along the shopwalks, Maggie chased her thoughts in circles.  She couldn’t stand to wait any longer, and there was nowhere close by they could sit for a spell without people looking at them with an eye towards where her ring should be.  Besides, John was a tinker.  For all his talk of hanging on, he might pack up and disappear and she would never see him again.  That’s what tinkers did.

What should she ask?  How should she ask?  Was it any of her business?  What if she hadn’t seen a book after all?  So many questions!  Almost to the rail house, Maggie grabbed one question by the tail and held on tight.  Probably not the best but certainly the most important.  She looked at her feet and said, “Do you know how to read?”

John stumbled and dropped the sunflower seeds.  Maggie stopped and kept her gaze down as she continued softly, “I saw the book in your satchel.”

People walked around them, set on their own business, not caring one whit for the conversation.

“And?” John said so low she almost couldn’t hear.

It had been a book!  Maggie noticed the way his hand shook as he brushed it against his dungarees.  “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody.  I just. . .I never knew no one who could read.  You can read, can’t you?”

John stuffed his hands in his pockets, the sunflower seeds forgotten.  “What if I can?”

Maggie could almost taste the words in her book.  “Where did you learn?  Who taught you?  Do you think they’d teach me?”

John frowned and eyed the passers-by headed for the rail house, many bound for the train to Kansas City or Windy City beyond.  Maggie swore under her breath, and took his hand.  “This way.”

She should have waited, found a better place, found a better time.  “Patience is a virtue, Maggie girl,” Papa always said.

Maggie had never been the virtuous sort.

They crossed the street and she led him to a row of benches at the far south end of the loading dock.  Two cars away, a bumbling porter wrestled with a handcart piled high with trunks and carry bags while a nearby knot of people laughed and chattered.

She eased herself onto a bench away from the worst of the crowd and extended her left leg in front of her.  Her knee and hip complained about her foot, her elbow and wrist about her shoulder.  She could already feel the leather rub against both sides of her swollen ankle.  There would be blisters for days.

John settled beside her.  He stared straight ahead for a time, then sighed and looked at his hands.  “A friend taught me.”

He looked younger, frightened by things she couldn’t see.  Best not to press.  “How many books do you have?”

John shook off whatever held him.  He shrugged and didn’t quite smile.  “Not as many as I’d like, but I have one or two.  I got the Qur’an in Delles.”

Maggie brought her left foot up and did her best to massage it through the sock.  “What’s a kor-on?”

Now John did smile.  “It’s a holy book from before the – ”

There came a clatter of metal and wood, a tumble of heavy objects.  Maggie looked past John and her excitement vanished.  The handcart had finally tipped, and the trunks lay in a scattered heap.  A heavy, black steamer trunk had broken open, and books littered the ground.  Big books and small, hard covers and soft, all filled with words.  Illegal words.

“ – Crumble.  What?”  John followed her gaze and froze.  “No.”

Someone shouted, “Books!  Contraband!  Hold the train!”

“Books?  Books!  Hold the train!” answered voices all around.

And other voices joined in:  “Get the Lessonkeepers!”

A man bolted from the crowd.  Two other men tackled him, then dragged him up by the collar.  People began to gather, eager to get a look at the criminal words.

Maggie levered herself to her feet.  “We need to go.”

John didn’t move.  He’d turned to stone.

“Come on,” she said.

“Make way!” voices bellowed from the direction of the rail house.  Maggie recognized one of them.  Zachary Keebler in his new Lessonkeeper long coat.

A woman with a round, pregnant belly spit at the trunks.  “Burn them!  Burn them!”

The crowd took up the chant, “Burn them!  Burn them!  Burn them!”

“No, wait!” the man who’d tried to run cried.

Maggie could already smell the bitter smoke, and it turned her stomach to knots.  She grabbed John’s shoulder and shook him hard.  He turned to her, eyes wide in his bloodless face.  She took his hand.  “Come on!”

Fear banished pain and she led him through gathering crowd.  For a moment Maggie thought she saw Zachary, but she didn’t stop to find out.

Okkie City purity rallies brought families from as far as Delles and Kansas City.  The Lessonkeepers cleared out Tinker Field for the week long celebrations of a just society.  When the book wagons piled high with wickedness were rolled in on the last day, folks gathered round to sing the Necessities:

“Trust your senses, not the word
Heaven’s voice alone is heard
Books of print lead us astray
We commit them to the flames”

Papa and Mama took Maggie to her first purity rally when she was barely old enough to use a proper toilet.  She couldn’t recall much about that day, but Mama’s tears she remembered.  “Why you crying, Mama?” Maggie had said as the Lessonkeepers threw another load of books on the fire.

Mama had wiped her cheeks, but the tears kept coming.  “It’s the smoke,” she’d said, her voice cracking around her smile.  “Book smoke is the worst.”

It wasn’t until years later that Maggie understood why Mama said that.

“Are you going to scoop that meal or stand there until it climbs into the bag?”

The question pulled Maggie back from smoky memories.  She smiled at Papa as best she could and dug the metal scoop into the twenty-pound canvas bag of cornmeal.  “Mosey thoughts,” she said, and poured the meal into the smaller bag on the hanging scale.

Maggie weighed out the meal, and Papa worked a treadle sewing machine to stitch the bags closed.  With a day so hot, Maggie was glad she didn’t have any errands to take her outside.  After poor sleep four nights running, that was the only thing she was glad of.

“Where’d they mosey off to?” Papa said, tossing a finished bag of cornmeal into the slat box beside him.

Maggie took her time answering.  “Back to Mama and the purity rallies.”

Papa nodded without raising his head.

Maggie filled and passed four more bags of cornmeal.  “Why’d we stop going to the rallies after Mama died?”

Had Papa’s hands slowed and then hurried to catch up before the bag bunched under the needle?  “I suppose they didn’t mean as much without your mama there, and I never got around to going back.”

Maggie sucked on her bottom lip, searching for the right words.  “Do you think it’s, maybe, sometimes wrong?”

“Do I think what’s wrong?”

“To burn books.  It’s been so long since people could read them, do we really got to burn them anymore?”

This time Papa took his foot off the pedal and pressed his hands flat on either side of the machine.  He looked at her from beneath his brows.  “What kind of question is that?”

A discreet cough and a knock at the front door saved Maggie from answering.  She looked up and smiled at John standing in the doorway, hands in pockets, satchel slung across his chest.  “John.”

He gave her a shy smile and stepped into the store.  “Maggie.”  John dipped his head towards Papa.  “Sir.”

Papa sat back with a placid smile.  “So, you’re John.  I’ve heard a lot about you.  How can I help you, son?”

John dipped his head again, looked at Maggie, then back at Papa.  “I’d actually come to visit with Maggie a spell if that’s alright with you, sir.”

Maggie flushed with equal parts embarrassment and anger.  “I’m old enough to know my own mind.  There’s no reason to ask my father’s permission.”

Papa chuckled and stood, putting his hands to the small of his back.  “You’re right, Maggie girl, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t appreciate being asked.  Come on in and have a seat, son.”

John motioned towards the door.  “I can come back later.”

“Nonsense,” Papa said.  “I need to tend to the washing anyway.”

He came around the sewing machine and kissed Maggie on the forehead.  “Good choices,” he whispered against her skin, and then headed out the door.

Maggie didn’t know what a good choice looked like any more.  She gave John a shy, hesitant smile.  “Haven’t seen you around lately.”

John scuffed his shoe on the floor.  “Plenty of dull knives in Okkie City.”

“Ah.”  Maggie tucked her hair behind her ears.  “I was beginning to think you were angry with me after. . .”  She made a vague gesture with both hands.

John looked at the floor, the familiar flush coloring his cheeks.  “I’ve been settling accounts and finishing up the last bit of work.  I’m, uh, heading out tomorrow morning.”

The world dropped out from under Maggie and she tumbled after it.  Tinkers up and left, that’s what they did.  “Oh.  Well, that’s a surprise.  I thought you’d be here a while longer.”

John shrugged.  “So did I, but I got word of good work starting soon in Nuloreans and I don’t want to miss the chance.”

Maggie fiddled with her skirt ties.  “Work is good.  I wish you luck, and hope to see you if you come back this way next year.”

John tightened his grip on the satchel strap.  “I actually wanted to give you a gift.  Sort of.”

Maggie eyed the heavy canvas bag.  “A gift?”

He nodded and looked back at the door.  “Mind if I close that?”

She shook her head, no.  “We’d roast.  Let’s head in back.”

Maggie led him behind the counter and through the back curtain to the storeroom.  She cranked the hand lantern for more light, revealing shelves of cheeses, dried goods, and the odds and ends of running a store.  Rashers of smoked bacon hung from ceiling hooks, and a large barrel of salted fish sat in the back corner.

John glanced at the shelves.  “What about the store?”

Maggie leaned against the barrel, setting her crutch to one side.  “It’s fine.  Folks call out when they don’t see anyone.  So, what’s this gift?”

John took a deep breath, and then pulled an art stick and a scrap of brown butcher paper from his satchel.  “Scoot over,” he said.

Maggie did.

He set the paper on the barrel.  “Is Maggie your full name?”

A butterfly twister stirred in her belly.  “No.  It’s Margaret.”

“Margaret,” John said, then in a whisper, “Mar-gar-et.”

Holding the paper flat with his left hand, John gripped the art stick with his right and drew a short, straight line on the paper from bottom to top, then top to bottom at an angle, back up at a different angle, and back down again straight.  John said the parts of her name again under his breath, and drew a mountain with a line through the middle.

Lines became letters, the final a straight line up and down with another line across the top.  John tapped the paper and looked at her, eyes as bright as his smile.  “That’s you.  That’s your name.”

Maggie stared at the shapes, afraid to exhale and blow them off the page.  She recognized one shape used twice – R.  The others were like a sunset, familiar and new at once.  “My name?  Really?”

“Really.  I thought it might be your name, and I’ve seen it in books before, so I figured the spelling had to be about the same.”

Something wonderful uncurled in Maggie’s chest.  It spread through her body on that butterfly twister.  She reached out a trembling hand and touched the black marks.  MARGARET.  “My name is in books?”

John’s smile grew wider.  “Yeah.”

He took her hand and ran the tip of her first finger under her name, sounding out the letters one at a time, and finished with, “Margaret.”

Maggie ran her finger under her name a second time, tears in her eyes.  “Margaret,” she said like a prayer.  Someone had written “Rosa” inside the book for Mama, but Maggie had never dreamed her own name could be written.  She wiped at her cheeks the way Mama had done all those years ago at the purity rally.  “Thank you.  I don’t, I don’t know what else. . .that’s my name.  That’s me.”

John slipped the art stick back into his satchel.  He folded the scrap of paper in half and pressed it into her hand, fingers lingering against her palm so long that he turned pink again and stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “It is, and it’s yours.  I wasn’t thinking too clearly the last time I saw you, but the Lessonkeepers haven’t come looking for me so I figure it’s the least I could do.”

Maggie smiled through the tears.  “I told you I wouldn’t say anything.”

John shrugged.  “Yeah, but sometimes. . .”

And he’d still come to see her one last time and give her something precious.  “None of that.  I say what I mean, and meant what I said.  In fact, I was hoping you’d teach me how to read.”

Now it was her turn to blush.  Maggie dropped her gaze, and when she dared a quick look up, John was looking at her with something that might have been hope.

“Maybe when I come back this way in spring,” he said.

The butterfly warmth trembled.  Maggie heard the night train whistle, and breathed in the dust of different streets.  “I’d like that.”

John scratched the back of his head.  He looked everywhere but at her.  “I should be going.  I need to settle some business, then finish breaking down.”

Maggie grabbed her crutch, then went to the curtain and pushed it aside.  “Could I talk you into staying for dinner?”

John followed her out of the back room.  “Maybe you could.”

Maggie moved around the counter and froze in her tracks.  “Zachary.”  Her voice broke on his name.

The Lessonkeeper stood on the other side of the counter, out of immediate line of sight of the backroom.  He looked confused, disgusted, then his attention turned to John and anger burned away everything else.  His hands balled into fists and he stepped towards them.  “You know how to read, huh?  How many books do you have in that bag?”

John moved to come around beside her, and Maggie put herself between the two of them.  “It’s none of your business what he has in his satchel, Zachary Keebler.”

Zachary shook his head.  “It’s everybody’s business, Maggie, you should know that.  Or would have known that if he hadn’t come around.”

Maggie drew herself up straight.  “Everybody’s business isn’t my business, and I thank you to remember that.  Now, I think it’s time for you to go.”

Zachary put his shoulders back.  “You think so, huh?  I wonder what you’ll think when I tell your father what you were doing back there.”

Maggie balled her free hand into a fist, her name crumpling under her fingers.  “You leave my Papa out of this.”

Zachary jabbed a finger at her.  “What you were doing was wrong, Maggie.  There’s a reason why the elders made laws against owning books and reading.”

John pushed by her, hands likewise balled into fists.  “Because they lied and said books were evil, but books aren’t evil, people are evil, and the worst of them wear coats like yours.”

Fear and anger burned away Maggie’s butterflies.  “That’s enough, the both of you.  Zachary, you get out of my store this instant, and if you say one word about this to anyone, I’ll – ”

Zachary turned a bright, angry red.  “Let’s hear you say that again, tinker.”

“You talk pretty big inside that coat,” John said.  “Why don’t you take it off, and you and me go out back and settle this?”

Maggie stepped forward and cracked her crutch on the wood floor.  “I said that’s enough!”

Zachary had a Lessonkeeper’s fire in his eyes.  “Oh, it’s only just getting started, Maggie.  I used to tell people you were pretty in spite of being crippled, but that was before I saw how selfish and irresponsible you truly are.  I charge you both with the crime of harboring books, reading books, and knowing letters.  We’ll find those damn tinker books, and I’m starting with this.”

Zachary grabbed the scrap of paper from Maggie’s hand and tore it in two.

Faster than thought, Maggie drove the end of her crutch into Zachary’s gut with all her might.  He doubled over, and she broke the crutch against the side of his head.  The Lessonkeeper dropped to the floor and lay still.

Time slowed.  Heart racing, gasping for breath, Maggie stared at Zachary, at the tiny rivulet of blood pooling at his temple, at the torn pieces of paper by his hand.  She dropped her broken crutch.  “He tore it.  He was going to, and he grabbed it, and he. . .”

The store narrowed, became a long tunnel with Zachary at the end of the line.

John ran to the end of the tunnel and rolled Zachary onto his back.  He put his ear to Zachary’s chest.  “He’s still breathing.”

The world tipped.  John called to her from somewhere far away, and the tunnel collapsed.

Papa set the pieces of Maggie’s name on the antique coffee table and looked at her, his face grave.  “What now, Maggie?”

Maggie wiped her nose on Papa’s handkerchief.  “He grabbed the paper and was screaming about telling you, and finding John’s books, and I. . .”  She spread her hands wide.  “I did what I did.  There’s no taking it back now.”

Papa nodded.  “True enough, but that doesn’t answer my question.”

Maggie had come to on the davenport in the sitting room, dusty sunlight finding cracks in the drawn curtains.  After a cup of water and a spoonful of aspirin powder, she’d dried her tears and told Papa everything.  Not that she didn’t want to cry, but tears and thinking weren’t the best of friends and right now she needed a clear head.  There’d been enough fear and anger already.

“A customer’s bound to find him any time now,” John said from his perch on the arm of Papa’s favorite chair.

Papa waved the words away.  “I set him in the back room and locked the store up for the day.”  He hadn’t taken his gaze off Maggie.  “I could have wished you’d told me about this book business before now.”

“It’s my fault, sir,” John said, shamefaced.

Maggie looked Papa in the eye.  “It is not.  I told John I wouldn’t say anything, and I didn’t.”

Papa picked at his fingernails.  “And you think that was a good choice?”

“I do,” she said without hesitation.

Papa gave a thin-lipped smile.  “That’s the girl I know and love.  So, you still haven’t answered my first question.”

Maggie took a deep breath.  “Because what I want to say is crazy talk, and not saying it means the Lessonkeepers punish you right along with me.”

Papa raised his eyebrows and waited.

Another deep breath.  “As soon as Zachary comes to his senses, he’ll have me in stocks on the shaming block or worse.”

She looked at John out of the corner of her eye, but couldn’t read his expression.  “If John has any sense, he’ll be long gone by then, so Zachary will tear apart our house and store looking for any books he can find.”

He’d find Mama’s book, and those precious pages would burn with all the rest.

Papa nodded.  “Most likely.”

John swallowed.  “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t opened my satchel a few days back.  It’s only right that I stay behind to give the Lessonkeepers someone to blame.”  He hesitated, then smiled, a little bitter, a lot homesick.  “A good friend did the same for me once.”

Maggie twisted the handkerchief around her fingers.  “There’s no need, because I’ll be coming with you when you leave.”

John gaped, and Papa closed his eyes.

There, she’d said it.  Maggie unwound the handkerchief.  She gathered up the pieces of her name, smudged and tattered, but readable side by side.  “You and Mama always said life was making good choices, Papa.  It’s time I do just that.  I know your roots are set, but I’ll only make things worse for you if I stay.”

“You can’t just leave,” John said.

“I can and I will,” Maggie said back.  “I’ll come with you if you’ll have me, and if you won’t then I’ll make my own way.”

She wasn’t certain how she’d do that without a crutch, but she’d manage.  Maybe.

John gripped his satchel.  “As soon as folks figure out the Lessonkeepers are looking for you, they’ll find you for sure.”

Maggie set her hands on her knees.  “Then I’d best get packed.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” John said.

Maggie kept her gaze and voice steady.  “I know you’re kind, and I know you can read.  I suppose I’ll find out the rest along the way.”

John looked to Papa for support.

Papa tipped his head at Maggie.  “It’s not my decision, son.”

John looked at Maggie, cheeks pink as could be.  “You sure about this?”

Maggie dabbed at her eyes.  So much for not crying.  “No, but you said you’d teach me how to read, and I’m sure about that.”

The clock ticked away the better part of a minute before Papa put his hands on his knees and stood.  “It’s settled then.”

Papa walked over to the roll top desk, pushed open the top, and pulled something out.  He bowed his head, and his shoulders slumped.

She knew it.  He was ashamed of her.  Maggie’s heart tore in two.  “Papa?”

Papa straightened his shoulders and returned to his place beside Maggie on the davenport.  He set a flat rectangle wrapped in butcher paper in her lap.  “You’ll be needing this.”

Was it?  It was.  Maggie unwrapped the paper and touched the blocky letters written on the first page.  FOR ROSA.  She looked at Papa and the tears came in earnest.  “You knew,” was all she could manage.

Papa nodded and put an arm around her shoulders.  “She let on what she was going to do, and I couldn’t say no.”

Maggie looked from him, to the book, then back.  “You wrote this?”

“I’d thought of teaching you letters, someday, but there were lots of things that weren’t the same after your mama died,” Papa said gruffly.

Maggie pressed the book to her chest.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Papa held her tight.  “I got it from your room when I came into the house.  Figured I could unwrap it if things turned out different, though I wasn’t expecting all of this.”

Maggie laughed through her tears.  “Neither was I.”

John cleared his throat.  “We should probably get a move on if we’re going to try to make it out before nightfall.”

Maggie nodded and stood with Papa’s help.  She hobbled forward a step, her left foot aching with the unexpected weight.  “I’ll need another crutch.”

“You can make one on the road,” Papa said.

John stood.  “Maybe even a metal one.”

Maggie smiled at John.  “I’d like that.”

She tucked the two pieces of paper with her name into her book.  MARGARET.  A good name, a strong name.  She’d learn to write it herself, maybe even write it in a book of her own.  Wouldn’t that be fine?

About the Author

Xander M. Odell

Xander M. Odell lives in Washington state with their husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Cast of Wonders, and PodCastle. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.

Their collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, THE TWELVE WAYS OF CHRISTMAS, and debut short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES are available from Hydra House Books.

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About the Narrator

Dagny Paul

Dagny Paul is a lapsed English teacher, failed artist, and sometimes writer who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She has an unhealthy (but entertaining) obsession with comic books and horror movies, which she consumes whenever her five-year-old son will let her (which isn’t often). Dagny is Assistant Editor of PseudoPod, and you can follow her on Twitter.


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