Freedom Reader: Part Two
That evening after supper, Mama pulled me onto the sofa and said, “Why don't we read for a while?”
Morrie, my big brother, flicked his green tail and laughed derisively. “If there's anyone who doesn't need to spend more time reading, it's ol' window-eyes over there.” Morrie wasn't really mean, just sort of... blunt. He said what he was thinking matter-of-factly and with little regard to what others might think.
Mama smiled, but didn't say anything. She just waited until he and my sisters had traipsed up the stairs to finish the homework they invariably procrastinated over, then leaned over to the bookshelf beside the sofa and pulled out a very thin picture book.
I blushed, humiliated. Even I could tell it was a baby book, the sort of thing a four-year-old might read.
Pulling me onto her lap, Mama handed me the book and pointed to the first word on the front cover. “What's that?” she asked.
“'A'” I stated after a moment. That was easy, it was just a single letter, and sometimes, when I concentrated, I could pull some of my kindergarten memory, and recognise a letter or two.
Mama pointed to the next word. “How about that one?” she asked.
That was more tricky; there were four letters in this one, but two of them were the same. I stared hard at it and finally made out the firs letter, 'B'.
Glancing at the cover, I saw a picture of a purple Buzz. “Buzz?” I guessed, going on the assumption that the main character's species would be in the title, and I happened to know that 'Buzz' started with the letter B.
“Very good.” Mama smiled. Her finger slid to the last word. It was a lot harder; it had four letters in it, none of them the same, and the only one I recognised was 'I' in the middle. I sighed and stared, hoping that if I looked at it long enough, Mama would just tell me what it said. She knew I couldn't read, but what she didn't know was that I still only knew half the alphabet, which was why my spelling, and writing in general, were usually so utterly illegible; I only had thirteen letters to use.
“Sound it out,” Mama said, after waiting almost five minutes for me and getting no response.
I started in the only place I could. “I-i-i-i-” I stretched out the 'I' as far as I could, hoping she'd finish it off for me.
“That's the middle of the word; what's the beginning?” Mama asked, sliding her finger under the first letter just before the 'I'.
I sighed and redoubled my efforts, staring at the funny shape until somewhere in the back of my mind, an old memory materialised. At five years old, I was staring at the string of letters in the alphabet in kindergarten, and this shape, the one in front of me now, had had a picture of a Lenny next to it.
“Luh,” I said, mimicking the sound at the beginning of the verbalised word 'Lenny'.
“Good,” Mama said, “but when it's by itself, it's pronounced 'elll' like 'elephante'.”
I huffed. That was ridiculous. Who ever heard of letters changing sounds whenever they felt like it?
I twitched my tail impatiently as Mama tried to get me to pronounce the last word on the cover of the book again. “L-l-l-i-i-i-” I dragged it out, stumped by the next letter.
It was evident by this time that after nearly twenty minutes and a total of two and a half words, one of which was only a letter in its own right, Mama was getting as tired as I was.
“Life,” she said finally, “It says 'life'. Now, tell me the whole title.”
I stared at the cover again, only to realise that in my effort to figure out the word 'life', I had forgotten the rest of it. “I don't know!” I wailed, picking up the book and hurling it across the room.
Tears of humiliation and frustration welled in my eyes as I stormed up the stairs. Stupid reading, stupid words, stupid letters that changed their sounds on you when you weren't looking. Who needed dumb old reading anyway? I was in the fourth grade and I hadn't had to use it yet. I'd never learn how, I knew. I was doomed to grow up to be the world's greatest rocket scientist who couldn't read his own launch directions!
The next afternoon at school, I found myself sitting under a large maple tree, practising my math problems, using my stack of books as a table.
I was just finishing the last one when I heard a voice behind me. “Hey Feivel, what's up?”
I looked up and saw Mr. Griffith coming towards me, wearing the same tie as yesterday and carrying a book under one arm. I smiled slightly. “Hey,” I said lightly.
“Math problems, huh?” Mr. Griffith noted, glancing at my paper as he sat down beside me, pushing his tuft of blue fur out of his eyes. “I thought a literary connoisseur like you would be using your free time to read.”
I shrugged weakly and turned back to my paper, pretending to concentrate hard on my last problem so he'd go away and leave me alone.
But he was persistent. “What's your favourite book?” Mr. Griffith asked, resting the one he was carrying face down on his lap.
I bit my lip nervously. What kind of books would a guy like him read? I needed something he would never look at in a million years. Something childish, I decided. “Pirates,” I said after a moment. “I like books about pirates.”
To my dismay, Mr. Griffith's face lit up. “Really? Me too. What's your favourite?”
Now I was really in a jam. I started to sweat. “Um, I-I, well, uh... I-I don't really have a favourite. What's yours?”
Mr. Griffith smiled again. “Oh definitely The Curse of the Pirate Aisha; have you ever read it?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “W-what's it about?”
“Oh, it's great; you should read it. It's about this Aisha who's captain of the most dangerous ship on the Neopian seas. He spent his life plundering villages and robbing kings until one day a storm struck over Lutari Island, where he was getting ready to dock. The storm was so bad that it dashed the ship against the rocks and sank it, drowning everyone, including the captain. But...” Mr. Griffith paused for dramatic effect, “some say that at night, when the wind howls over the ocean, you can still hear the voice of the old captain swearing to return and finish what he started, all those years ago.”
“Wow,” I whispered. It did actually sound like a pretty cool story. Too bad I'd never be able to read about it in any more detail.
Mr. Griffith glanced at his watch. “Say,” he said, “We still have time before the bell for afternoon classes rings; why don't you come with me to the library and we'll see if we can find it.”
My heart leapt into my throat. “O-oh, gee, I-I dunno, I mean, I s-still have a lot of work to do here.” I indicated my math paper with the pencil in my trembling paw.
“Oh, go on,” the counsellor said, rising to his feet and flicking his long tail good-humouredly. “It won't take long; you can take five minutes out to go to the library. C'mon, it'll be fun.”
What choice did I have? Sighing inwardly, I packed up all my belongings as slowly as I could. “Come on then,” I said at last. “Let's go.”
We stepped into the library, and Mrs. Partridge, the Pteri librarian, peered over her gold-framed spectacles at us from where she sat reading behind her desk. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said cordially. “Feivel, have you finished reading those books you checked out last week already?”
I nodded awkwardly and slid my stack into the return bin, feeling rather guilty. Of the five books I'd checked out, I'd only looked at three of the covers, so two of them I couldn't even begin to fathom a guess as to what they were about.
“We're looking for The Curse of the Pirate Aisha, Mrs. Partridge,” said Mr. Griffith. “Do you know where we can find it?”
Mrs. Partridge chuckled, “You don't need me, young man, you have with you the only student in the entire school who has memorised this library's dewy decimal system.”
That was not strictly true. In order to have memorised the dewy decimal system, I would have to have known the titles of the books that went with each set of numbers. Instead, I had just memorised the layout of the room and the general idea of the pictures on each of the groups of books, so that whenever someone asked me where they could find a particular book, I'd just point them in the direction of the group of pictures I knew they were looking for. It was all part of my effort to keep up my avid reader's facade.
I led Mr. Griffith to the back corner of the room where I'd seen all the pictures of pirates, and stood in front of them anxiously. Now came the hard part. I was expected to find this book myself, so I did the only thing I could think of. I pulled the entire stack of fifteen pirate books off the shelf, and sorted through them, looking for an Aisha.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Griffith asked curiously.
Thinking fast, I said, “I can't read the spines of the books; they're too small, I have to be able to see the covers.” It wasn't a lie; I did have to be able to see the covers to know what book I was holding.
Eventually I found a book with a yellow Aisha brandishing a sword dangerously as he balanced on a hind peg leg. “I think I found it,” I said, holding it up for Mr. Griffith to see.
He paused with an odd expression on his face. “Um, Feivel,” he said slowly, “that's A Pirate Scorchio's Tale, see?” He pointed to the title, but my eyes slid below the words to catch sight of a menacing grey pirate Scorchio silhouetted against the background, who was pushing the yellow Aisha off the plank. I blushed deep crimson. I'd have to be more careful and pay better attention to the pictures if I didn't want to get caught.
Finally, after going through all the books but two, I stumbled across a black book with a skull and crossbones in the shape of an Aisha's head on the front. Not wanting to repeat my earlier mistake, I searched closely for signs of other pets in the background. Seeing none, I looked at the words, trying to pick out letters I recognised.
I saw a capital 'A', and right next to it an 'I'. Sounding out the pair of letters to myself in a whisper, I decided that this had to be the word 'Aisha'. I didn't want to spend too much time figuring it out, though, because Mr. Griffith would start getting suspicious.
I handed the book wordlessly to him, so that in case it was the wrong one, I could just make up any old excuse as to why I'd given it to him.
But fortunately he smiled. “Great, you found it. Let's tidy up the rest of these and go check it out.”
I breathed a silent sigh of relief as I picked up the remainder of the pirate books and put them all back on the shelf. I thought I was in the clear. Then Mr. Griffith spoke again.
“Hey, why don't you read the first chapter tonight and tell me what you think tomorrow?” He smiled.
My heart turned to lead in my chest, and started beating so fast I swore it would jump right out and skitter away like a frightened snowbunny, but it stayed intact, and I managed to keep my voice relatively even as I said, not looking at him so he couldn't see the panic on my face. “Y-yeah, I'll see if I have time, and if I do, I'll check it out.”
What that translated to was, “If my mother has time to read it to me tonight, you bet, I'll do it.”
The bell for afternoon classes rang just as I handed my book and library card over to Mrs. Partridge, who checked me out and sent me on my way.
“Bye, Feivel, see you tomorrow,” Mr. Griffith called as I drifted into the hall to be carried away by the sea of students.
“Bye, Mr. Griffith,” I called back just before I lost sight of him. Apart from his insatiable love of reading and his insistence that he share it with me, he really wasn't such a bad guy, I decided.
That evening while my brother and sisters were upstairs, I approached Mama in the kitchen where she was making supper. “Mama?” I asked. “After dinner, can you help me with something?”
“Sure, love.” She smiled, tucking her long reddish brown hair behind her ear. “What can I do for you?”
I reached into my backpack and pulled out The Curse of the Pirate Aisha. “Could you read me the first chapter? I-I kinda got myself in a tight spot today, an' the new counsellor wants me to read it and tell him what I think by tomorrow.”
Mama sighed a little sadly. I knew how much it bothered her that I couldn't read, but I also knew she understood that it wasn't entirely my fault. “Alright,” she said at last, “I'll read it to you, but only one chapter tonight, okay?”
I smiled and hugged her. “Thanks, that's all I need.”
“'Avast, ye hearties, we be settin' sail for Lutari Island,' Captain Pike declared, brandishing his sword dangerously as he clutched the enormous wooden wheel. The crew responded quickly, fearing the captain's wrath, and soon they were headed across the sea towards the great island.” Mama stuck her Faerie Kougra bookmark between the pages and handed it to me.
“Thanks, Mama!” I called as I took the book from her and ran up the stairs. This was great. Now I could tell Mr. Griffith all about what had happened in the first chapter and not have to worry about his finding out my secret. Or so I thought.
To be continued...