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She talked about books the way poets speak of love. I adored that about her. Sometimes I’d ask her about what she was reading; pretending to be striking up a casual conversation, but it was really to see the way her eyes lit up. She’d close the book, careful not to bend the pages or scratch the cover, and hold it to her chest as if she could talk about it more easily if the words were closer to her heart. Maybe she could.
As she spoke, her fingertips would stroke the spine and just when she got to the part about the most beautiful sentence or the most moving scene, she’d lean forward and speak in an excited whisper. It was like she was letting me in on a secret, her tone hushed and almost breathless.
I can’t envision her without a book in her hands. They were like extensions of her fingertips, a physical part of her. There would be a new one every day; she could devour them in a matter of hours. Every so often I’d see her with one closed in her lap, staring into space. She’d tell me she needed to let it sink in. Her voice was faraway, her mind still folded between the pages and twined around each line, each letter.
She always carried one with her in case she had any sliver of free time. I knew she didn’t mind waiting in lines because she could always pull out a book while she stood there.
“Why do you like it so much?” I’d asked her the second day I’d known her, so many years ago.
“Because this is magic,” she’d said. “Right here.” She clutched the book tighter. “These words, they’re the only magic that’s real.”
“How do you know they’re magic?”
“I can feel it.”
I didn’t understand.
“It feels… it feels like my soul is expanding. Every time I turn a page it gets a little bit bigger. You’ve never felt that?”
I shook my head, couldn’t help smiling even though I couldn’t comprehend what was going through her head. That was the first time I saw the light in her eyes that shined while she spoke.
So began my habit of starting conversations about whatever she was reading. Every time, I think I understood her concept of magic just a little bit more. It was the way she’d squeeze so many words together and forget to breathe, get as many thoughts in as possible and taking little gasps whenever she ran out of air, oftentimes midsentence. Like her mind worked faster than she could speak and was trying so hard to keep up.
She loved them more than she loved me, I know, but that was okay. I was happy she cared about me a fraction of how much she did about books. She loved them with every fiber of her being and I was more than content to accept whatever was left. They just deserved more of her love than I did. They were always there for her, her entire life, whenever she needed them. What could I possibly do that would ever compare?
The walls in her room were completely covered with bookshelves; hundreds, maybe thousands of books had been carefully placed in them. Every book that had ever struck her fancy at a bookstore or yard sale, shelved and waiting for when she was ready. She added more of them quicker than she could read them, so it was always growing, this world of possibilities at her fingertips. This, she told me, was all she ever wanted. Shelves upon shelves of books and a lifetime to read them.
She always tried to convince me to read her favorites, but listening to her describe them was far better than anything I’d read myself. To me, books had no spark without her voice describing the best parts, repeating the most delicately crafted phrases in her exhilarated whispers.
I don’t think reading was her escape from reality. They were her reality. Those tiny printed words, the stories they wove, were far more real to her than anything else. I’ve always thought that her feeling of an expanding soul was a little part of herself that she left inside every piece of literature, her very being spread through each tome on those shelves, like tree branches reaching outward and upward as they grew.
That thought, the idea that pieces of her lived in every book she’d ever read, was what kept me going once she was gone. At first I didn’t realize it. She looked so… so wrong in that wooden box without a book in her hands. They were lightly folded over her chest, but all I could think about was when she used to press one close to her heart to describe it. I wanted to yell at them to stop; they couldn’t bury her without one. I didn’t believe in an afterlife, but she did, and I couldn’t shake the image of her in line at the pearly gates with nothing to read, no words to make her soul expand.
It wasn’t until later, in her room, when I brushed my fingers across the spines on her shelves that I felt it. It felt like seeing her eyes shine again, listening to her speak about the most beautiful stories. Felt like the magic she described so well but could never make me understand. There was the feeling of a soul expanding.
Since then I still haven’t read every one of them; there are so many and I can’t get through them nearly as fast as she could. But after every one I finish, I sit there with it pressed to my heart, staring into space and letting it sink in. It’s her soul and mine, reflecting. I can still hear her breathless voice repeating the best parts. Right there, that’s the only magic that’s real.