On Reading

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My memory is hazy at the best of times. When I’m stressed or under pressure it retreats completely, leaving behind the sensation I imagine a sentient computer would experience after having its hard drive wiped clean: lighter, freed somehow, but also bereft and void of meaning.

When memories start to return, they sneak up on my consciousness warily, like wild animals judging the intention of a foreign object in their territory. "Do we want to be seen?" They seem to question, circling the perimeter of my awareness. This dance, in which the sentient I, the thinker-about-thinking, must stand absolutely still, must not direct attention squarely at the memory, must wait to be approached, often results in the type of fractured image one gets from looking into a hand mirror in order to see the back of one’s own head.

In one of these tilted reflections, I am a young girl, maybe six or seven—old enough to be reading, young enough to be read to—and am apparently spending the night at my grandparents’ house. And because my memory functions much like my dream states, other details have been conveniently smudged, practical details now weighted in their haze with hidden portent: where my parents are, or why I am here, or how it came to be that we are reading what we are reading.

We are in my grandparent’s bedroom, just the two of us: my grandmother and I. It’s dark outside—the kind of inky, sweltering darkness that the deep South produces, and the darkness seems to seep into the room through the edges of the panes in the panel of windows behind our heads. We sit in my grandparent’s enormous four-poster bed, resplendent with sinuous snaking columns at each corner. The bed is open to the room around it, former hangings lost to age and neglect. The light from the nightstand is a warm glow that spreads beyond the columns, across the burnt-orange shag carpet leftover from a bygone era. Beyond the curved rim of the lamp’s glow there is more darkness, kept at bay temporarily, awaiting its imminent reunion with the hot pressing dark outside.

We are essentially sitting in a pool of light, my grandmother and I, hunkering down to read. In my memory I see us from above, small figures on a small island in a large dark sea. My grandmother holds a long narrow book in her hands. The cover is a swirl of black ink that twines around itself in languorous threads, shaping the looming and ominous figure of a bird like the ones that sit day in and day out on the telephone wire just outside her house. At the center of the mass of dark strands is a single, tight, red spiral, the ink so rich that even on the aged paper it shines like blood, like magic: the bird’s eye is so vivid that I shrink behind her shoulder to avoid its gaze. Her voice as she reads is soft, its cadence measured. She reads with the grace of years of practice, and I am drawn into the tale by the power of the words even as I am fixated by the raven’s stare. Nevermore, she intones, and I am swept away into the unknown waiting in the pages, knowing somewhere in my girlhood bones that I am lost, now, that words and the worlds they create are all I will love, forever and evermore.