With all the bookstores, Kindles, and wireless downloads, it’s almost impossible to imagine books were hard to come by in the small town in Germany where I grew up. I devoured them all; the hardcovers with their pages stuck together, the bent paperbacks covered in dust, most of them tucked away in trunks and dark attic spaces. But sometimes my mother would go into town and return with a new book, still heavy with the scent of paper, ink, and glue. Those days were a blessing in disguise because that’s when the waiting began.
I’d watch my mother turn page by page, wanting her to finish the book, close its covers, letting out a sigh and handing me the book. I tried to pass that time with homework, chores, and friends, but she would never read quite fast enough. I barely knew the title of the book, hadn’t even read the back cover, but I didn’t care. The fact that she never commented on the plot or characters as she read made the books even more mysterious.
One day I was particularly impatient.
‘Hurry up,’ I said.
‘Is it any good?’
‘What’s it about?’
She looked up at me, stern, unwavering.
‘Are you going to be much longer? I really want to—‘
I could tell that she was torn between wanting to be left alone and understanding my dilemma and suddenly, without warning, she shut the book with her finger positioned bookmark-like where I had so rudely interrupted her, and tore its spine. Just like that she ripped the book in half. We both sat in silence for we adored books and treated them with kindness and her action seemed wrong to both of us in so many ways.
‘Here you go,’ she said and handed me the first half of the book.
I stared at the torn book, mesmerized, then I grabbed it and I sank into the next chair and began reading.
It turned into a ritual then and we repeated it with every book she bought and afterwards we’d place the torn books on a shelf, halfheartedly matching them.
But people began questioning us.
‘What’s with the torn books?’ they’d ask, imagining a feral child ripping them apart or a dog using them as chew toys. We just shrugged but eventually moved them to the attic where they would remain unquestioned. We somehow longed to keep this secret between us, maybe because we had other secrets we didn’t divulge and so keeping another one was second nature to us.
My mother passed of a sudden illness when I was in college. Eventually I moved to the U.S. and on a visit home I searched the attic for our torn books but they were nowhere to be found. I grabbed whatever books had remained and hauled them through Heathrow all the way to Texas.
Undisturbed they sat on a shelf for years before I realized they contained a few secrets of their own; flipping through Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, I discovered a four-leaf clover; a brittle Edelweiss blossom was pressed between the pages of Jacob Roth’s Job; and a typed and undated letter was tucked away in Jules Verne’s The Courier of the Czar in which my grandmother scolded my teenage mother for not putting her education first and spending all her time with ‘that boy.’
I wanted to believe she hid those things just for me to discover one day but I can’t be sure. The mysteries remain unsolved—did the four-leaf clover bestow any luck upon her? How did she manage to pluck a flower that can only be found climbing a steep Alpine rock face? Or did someone pick it for her? Who was the boy she was seeing? The letter was undated so it might have been my father, but I can’t be sure of that either.
The torn books have vanished and all that remains is a memory but I know with certainty that she wouldn’t mind that I shared the secret of the torn books with the world. She was generous that way.