There was one night when she was fifteen that was especially cold. She had been through what she had thought was the coldest of colds two years ago, but this one was far worse. She felt her toes go numb and her fingers grow so brittle that it felt like they had been cut off. It was the first time in a while she truly wanted to leave the desert.
Amidst her sadness, interrupting her derailing brain, a sad caw of another pained animal echoed from afar. It was the first time she had heard another being since her arrival.
She threw herself to her feet, the sweet book about a dog who couldn’t smell in hand, and rushed over to find the steady cry of the animal. She stumbled all throughout the barren place until, there it was, right before her feet.
A lovely little bird with a red face and green body was curled up in the sand with its wings fluttering weakly. It cried each time it failed to fly. The girl did not know what to do, and she wasn’t sure if it was safe to touch it. Her father’s second wife had beaten her when she tried to heal a dying bluebird, and then she had snatched the poor thing and thrown it into a large anthill.
But that woman wasn’t here now. She gave the bird a gentle flip to see that its wings were ensnared in plastic. The girl took it off with as much tender care as she could and tossed the wrapping away. When it still could not move very well, she decided to read to it.
For a few minutes, the cold disappeared, and the bird’s cry silenced. She read every word with clarity and consistency, as she had done in her first grade class during popcorn reading. The bird looked at her and seemed to follow her every word. When the girl finished reading the chapter, the little bird fluttered its wings again, rose in the air slightly, and then sped off into the night to its home.
The girl stumbled back to her own spot of the desert, and she finished the book under radiant starlight that night. She wondered if there were more animals around her, if they could lead her home. She fell asleep pondering it.
When she woke up the next morning, heat restored to its former glory, she saw her stack of read books far outnumbered the unread ones. Most of the books still remaining were long, complicated, and made for people in high school. She figured she was ready for them now.
“Well, that’s just the truth.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“That’s your stupid loss. Get out.”
“How could you be so cruel? How could you?”
“I’m not explaining another thing to you. And I’m not selling that damn piano until I’m destitute.”
“Only a fool could go destitute with all the money you have now!”
“What did you say?”
“I think you would be a fool! You’re a horrible person.”
“I think you’ve overstayed your welcome, April.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Words were the only things she could feel. The girl was seventeen now, and if anyone had found her there in the desert, they wouldn’t have believed her that she had been there for years. She did not look beaten or worn or starved or sick. And she didn’t feel sick either. She read and read, not waiting for anyone to save her. She read about nature, science, philosophy, and all things she had never known. Everything around her blurred into nothing whenever she opened a book. On that day she turned seventeen, she understood it completely.
The knowledge of the texts were her food and drink and warmth and wind. It made her clothes stretch to fit her body. It healed and taught and breathed new life. She was certain she had died one night at the age of thirteen from the relentless cold, but she woke up to the sun and life in her veins. Maybe she was insane to think that it brought her back to life, but it was insane to not think it.
She had been alone for so long that she finally understood why she was here. She knew more about life, had more ideas, had more to say after years of saying nearly nothing. The day she finished her last book, after she placed it neatly in the stack of all the others, with the lightly colored ground below her now free of the sporadic clutter, she decided to make her way out the desert. The path to the exit entered her mind as if it had been there all along. It was clear, winding and twisting, but still so clear where she needed to go.
On the edge of the exit, there sat a small figure, legs crossed, reading a small cream book. When she got closer to the child, she saw her own, younger face buried in the book void of words and only composed of lines. The woman smiled at the girl, the latter not seeing the former, and walked out. The exit sealed up behind her.
The trouble was not finding her way home, but rather finding her home in the state it was in. Her home was littered in weeds, which meant her father had not been around to pick them. She stepped in and found his father’s second wife with her arms folded and glare deadly.
“Taking a ten year break from your piano lessons, April?”
The pair now stood in April’s room. The woman who had spent the entirety of her teenage years in a world of sand and heat and words gave the woman a composed yet assured smile.
“I have no proof if it was you who put me there. I know you think that you broke me, but you didn’t. I know who I am.”
The older woman scoffed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, April.”
“You know. I know you do.”
“What a ludicrous accusation.” The woman shuffled her feet.
“No matter. You need to leave.”
Her voice began to rise.“This is my home. You and your father abandoned it.”
“That’s not true at all.”
All of the lies the older woman had said in the last decade began to coil out of her mouth like black ribbons. It swept her and raised her in the air.
April laughed. “So many years on this earth, so many lies, and you were never able to find yourself in the truth.”
The woman was choking now. She swung her arm out. “Ap…April…”
“I hope you can find yourself one day.”
And with that the woman was tossed outside the door and miles past it in a swirling whirlwind of her own useless words. April never saw that woman again.
She lay back down only for a few hours more, until she could see the sun, so she would be rested for her trip to the bookstore tomorrow. When she came downstairs at dawn for breakfast, she heard the light twinkles of the piano in the foyer. She craned her neck about the walls and saw her younger self and her father, translucent and whole, tapping keys together because she could not play the song alone. April put aside her rigid agenda for that day and made her way to the piano. The phantoms disappeared and she had regained solitude again. She began to play that same song from ten years ago, and she played the little tune with unparalleled ease.
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