The house was deadly quiet as she looked through her books. She loved the smell of that big edition of fairy tales. It had a large font and colorful, detailed illustrations, not simplified, as in most kids’ books with huge-headed characters, but realistic and shimmering with ornaments. In a few, there were moving elements, like a window that could open or a clock with a moving pendulum and Mary was mesmerized by them.
Cheerful, happy world, dangerous, but in its dangerousness a perfect, logical world of excitement and clarity. If you love, you are rewarded, if you hate you eventually get just what you deserve. Both can be counted on.
Books were her only comfort, and she developed a habit of taking them to school, placing them at the bottom of her backpack, even though she would never read them during the breaks. Some kids at the village school, a grey cubic building with mud grey terrazzo floors, were still struggling with reading altogether and the thick books she loved would bring up constant questions and surprised attention. “What are you reading, Mary?” - followed by a hard look at the volume of the book, then a few seconds of deciphering the title -“What is it about?”. Mary hated attention.
But she carried them for comfort, soothed by the fact that the alternative world was always there to save her every day. One story from that thick book of fairy tales was of a girl who wore red shoes to church, after she died for such vanity her feet became stuck to the ground in those beautiful, red shoes, and she would stand forever in a dark cave, with nothing but spider webs over her head. When Mary stood at long church services, she thought of this girl and how much her legs must hurt from standing forever.
Mary’s parents met in their forties and wasted no time moving to the countryside and starting a family. Having older, educated parents in the village was unnerving. The mysterious nature of their relationship consumed her also. They never showed affection or touched each other in her presence. One time, on a sunny stroll through the neighboring town square her father briefly kissed her mother on the lips. Mary turned her head, pretending hard not to have seen it, her face turning red. She was terrified he would continue and quietly prayed this would never happen again. It didn’t.
One day there was a phone call that made her mother leave the room abruptly and change her voice. It became cold and formal, like she never heard it before, even during fights with her father. She must not have wanted this person to call, Mary thought. Was she scared of them? Mary ran to her room in the attic. It had two skylights and she could see the stars at night, sometimes so many there seemed to barely be spaces between them. When she opened one of the windows at dawn in the summer, a heavy, damp, dizzying scent of the dew covered orchard, combined with the deathening sound of the cycades would almost make her heart explode. Two large, heavy, wooden closets in the room were stacked with books. Books were one of Mary’s first memories. She remembered sitting in her parents’ king size bed, where she often slept with them in the first years of her life. It seemed then like a vast ocean, where food and books would be brought for her in the morning. Before the coal heater was started it was often cool in the morning, but from under the warm quilt she looked at rows of books, and to Mary they seemed to reach the sky. Ones directly in her eye-view were volumes of wartime memoirs. On their spines each had a little negative of a soldier’s head – a different color for every volume. Mary thought they must have amazing adventures inside, just like tin soldiers from “The Nutcracker”.
With time, Mary learned a code of behavior based on who, she was sure, THEY – as she referred to her parents in her thoughts - imagined her as. She made great efforts to become that, however, it was a delicate balancing act if she wanted to squeeze in something for herself too. She noticed cracks in their plots and learned to gain information from her own sources. Picking up the phone upstairs allowed to listen to conversations on the wireless downstairs’ phone. This had to be done at the right moment though, otherwise the person on the main line could hear a shift in the echoing of the voice. On another front, the alarm system in the house helped tremendously. It beeped every time someone entered the house. On Saturday mornings Mary would sneek into her fathers’ bedroom (her parents were not sleeping in the same room anymore) to watch a soap opera. It was a Latino one, about a poor servant girl, who falls in love with her employer’s son. Mary thought the employer’s son was very handsome and wished she was older and pretty like the servant girl. Then, somebody like him might get interested in her. Mary stood close to the TV, shaking from the cold in her pyjamas. She could not sit down and had to stay next to the screen, so she could keep the sound had to be on as quietly as possible to avoid detection; she had to be ready to turn it off and run back to her room at any moment. It reminded her of a time when she was three years old and asked her father to watch a VHS tape with cartoons on it. He frowned and then asked “Ok, how many?”. Mary thought for a moment. She watched it before and knew the entire tape had three episodes on it. “Three” she answered. It didn’t seem like a big number after all.
Eavesdropping was a big part of her orientation in the universe. A fight would usually start in front of her, then move upstairs. Mary’s anxiety, curiosity and despair skyrocketed. She would get down on all fours and creep up the stairs, knowing how to balance herself not to hit a squeaky plank. The doors leading inside had dimmed windows in their upper half. She crouched quietly on the floor, careful for her shadow not to be seen through by THEM. In her mind, she was participating in the fight, imagining what she would say if she was her mother. The intensity of voices was also important to watch, as well as the direction the argument was taking, although it always could come to an end abruptly. Like a wild rabbit, she was always ready to swiftly hop back down the stairs.
Now, a couple years after THEY divorced and Mary moved with her mother to the city, they were both sitting at a Starbucks in the shopping center. The heat outside was rising. Mary was tired. She usually felt tired and didn’t understand where people get the energy to do all these different things. And slowly her mother started telling her about a boyfriend she used to have at University. Mary listened quietly, and felt uncomfortable again. “I would be so much comfortable with the fighting then THIS” she thought to herself, shifting awkwardly in her seat. She then asked, if he was the one who called that one time when she was young. Her mother didn’t remember, so he had to remind her of the incident. No, that was a different ex. About the guy from Uni she was referring to, she felt guilty for some a reason which she explained, but Mary didn't understand, and so agreed to meet him once. “He knew I had a daughter, so he gave me these Andersen fairy tales for you”. Mary didn’t say anything. She didn’t know why, but for some reason felt a cog in some entirely foreign machine. “I thought you just bought it for me and I was so happy”. “You were always happy when you got a new book” – her mother replied.