To celebrate World Book Day, we’re publishing a short story by Carole Martinez, translated by Howard Curtis. So whether you’re on the move with an e-reader or curled up on the sofa, take a few minutes to read this heartwarming story about a young boy and his grandmother. Happy World Book Day to all PEN Atlas readers!
Once upon a time there was a boy named Kader, a little boy as sweet as honey, who dearly loved his grandmother Djamila. Often, before going to sleep, he would let his little fingers play over the old woman’s face and hands, following the crazy arabesques that time had drawn on them, stroking that skin as cracked and grey as bark, squeezing with all his might those dry, gnarled hands that were sometimes brown with henna. Djamila was a smiling old tree, an old tree with gold teeth, an old tree in winter that remembers the spring and calmly waits and waits, bending in the wind.In the shade of that tree, Kader grew. The son of her youngest daughter, the wild daughter who wouldn’t stay put, the one she’d had to let go. He was the only boy in the family, handed over to her by the most rebellious of her daughters, entrusted to her. “I’ll come back for him when the fine weather returns.” And ever since, it had been winter. Three years spent waiting for the fine weather to return, three years spent lighting the boy’s life with her golden smile.Kader had learnt to walk in a world marked out with metal bars and big grey buildings, a world without trees, a world of concrete edges, where the only things that grew were a few weeds on a patch of waste ground on the other side of a fence. Between the car park of the housing estate where he lived and that abandoned ground overgrown with weeds huddled a half-empty sandpit and two slides, their colours faded, which he had explored so much with the palm of his hand that he knew every rivet.More and more often, Kader asked Djamila to show him colours. ‘Show me some red!’ he would say. ‘A little bit of green! Something purple!’ And his grandmother would search desperately in the surrounding greyness for something to satisfy the boy. Eventually she would indicate a car and rub the dusty bodywork to reveal its colour.One winter morning, Djamila left Kader with her neighbour Anita. She was going to the tiny market which was held once a week in an open space a few blocks from their home, and didn’t want the boy to catch cold.Accompanied by the sinister creaking of her trolley, she hurried on in the freezing pre-Christmas air, wrapping herself more closely in her large dark shawl, but in spite of the melted snow and the flurries of wind, she stopped in front of a new stall, run by an itinerant bookseller, and her gaze came to rest on one of the books. On its cover, a magnificent tree, its foliage spreading into the sky, a tangle of branches, roots and leaves. The tree bore strange fruit: letters in many colours, glittering like Christmas baubles, as well as beans – beans the same size as the little boy in the picture, who was trying to find his way through this luxuriant vegetation. For a few minutes, Djamila stood staring at the book, daydreaming, long enough for the water to get into her shoes. She had no idea what the letters meant. She recognised them, had often seen them, but their shapes danced in front of her eyes without conveying any meaning. To her, the letters were mute – only their colours had drawn her attention. She haggled with the seller over the price of the book, the tree, the letters, then stuffed them all inside her old woolen overcoat and returned home, impatient to pick up Kader and give him his gift. To make up for the expense, she would cut down on something else.Hearing the creaking of the trolley, her grandson rushed to the front door and threw himself in her arms. In doing so, he shoved her, and the book fell from her coat like a ripe fruit. Kader immediately seized it and wouldn’t let go of it for the rest of the day. That night, before going to bed, he asked his grandmother to look through it with him. Together, they lay the big colourful book on the white sheets. Djamila’s hand trembled slightly as she opened it, and although she couldn’t read she launched into a fabulous story based on some of the pictures. A giant tree grew in their heads, and every night there were more and more leaves on it. For several months, that book with its many stories was their treasure, the medium for Djamila’s infinite imagination. How the old woman and the child loved those letters they couldn’t understand! How they loved the moment when, like accomplices, they would extract the book from beneath Kader’s pillow and savour the colours together! The book swept away their fear of the dark, the boy’s nightmares, the old woman’s insomnia. Its gardener hero sowed seeds everywhere in their minds, drawing them with him into new and unheard-of adventures.One day, Kader’s cousin, who knew many things, came to lunch. He talked about the death of trees, about all the trees that were being cut down around the world. The great forests were disappearing, he said, they were being burnt to make way for fields and towns. He also said that the air they breathed came from trees, that books came from trees, he said that without trees everyone would choke, and that they ought to be replanted, and when night came Kader and Djamila dreamt about trees and forests.The following day, the boy hid his precious book beneath his anorak. It was so cold outside that the slides were frozen. He took advantage of a moment when his grandmother wasn’t looking, and slipped under the fence that separated the tiny play area from the waste ground. There, with his little blue plastic spade, he dug into the icy earth and buried the book, the letters, the big tree with the beans, as if planting a seed. He did it quickly because Djamila was already calling his name and the high walls of the housing estate were echoing to her panic-stricken voice. He went back to his place on the slide, which was where Djamila found him, tears in her eyes. He was smiling, thinking that all he had to do now was wait for his tree to grow.That night, Djamila looked in vain for the book. She asked him what he had done with it. He smiled but didn’t answer her. He seemed so secretive that she decided not to insist.The next day, nothing had sprouted and Kader was very sad. Trees didn’t grow so quickly, he told himself, they needed more time to take root. And every day, he sneaked out to water his dream with his little blue bucket. In spite of that, nothing emerged from the ground. Soon, a few flowers appeared on the waste ground, paltry things marking the arrival of a feeble spring. But then came the disaster. The waste ground was overrun with bulldozers, which turned over the earth, opening up a huge hole where the child had planted his seed. Kader wept for his sacrificed book, his massacred dream. He abandoned his not very blue bucket and spade and his lovely smile beneath one of the slides, stopped looking at the fence, and didn’t ask any questions about what the men were doing behind it. Djamila tried to console him, even though she didn’t understand the reason for his sorrow, she was as sweet to him as she could be, but nothing worked: he had stopped smiling.One fine morning, the fence was taken away and Kader could not resist the temptation to take a look at what that metal curtain had hidden for so long. What he saw astonished him: out of all that commotion, an incredible house had grown, a beautiful wooden building, full of windows and coloured blinds, surrounded by beds of red flowers. And on the front of it were letters in gleaming colours, letters like Christmas baubles, letters that made the word LIBRARY, letters that reminded him of the ones in his book.The door was open. He dragged Djamila to it. At first, she was reluctant to go in. Then they crossed the threshold and the child could not believe his eyes: his book, the source of all his dreams, had multiplied, the big house swarmed with its little brothers, its walls were lined with coloured albums, and in the middle of the thousands of books, his own book sat enthroned on a table, right there within his reach. He approached it, saw the tree and the little boy climbing over it, caressed this book that he had buried in the ground behind the fence one day, and felt astonished at what he had made grow thanks to his dreams. He felt like its secret garden
er, and told himself that he would learn all about the world thanks to this new kind of tree, that he would enjoy himself among the leaves of the library. He turned to old Djamila, and was happy to see her smile like the sun and her dark eyes glitter with stars.
Of course books couldn’t replace trees,but how nice it was to dream in their foliage!
About the authorA former actress, assistant director, and photographer, Carole Martinez currently teaches French in a middle school in Issy-les-Molineaux. She began writing during her maternity leave in 2005. The Castle of Whispers is her second novel, after The Threads of the Heart. The Castle of Whispers has just been published by Europa Editions in the UK and US. She won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens for The Castle of Whispers and the Renaudot des Lycéens for The Threads of the Heart, and both titles were bestsellers in France.About the translatorHoward Curtis has translated more than seventy books from French, Italian and Spanish, including two novels by Carole MartinezAdditional informationWorld Book Day is a celebration of authors, illustrators, books and (most importantly), a celebration of reading. In fact, it’s the biggest celebration of its kind, designated by UNESCO as a worldwide celebration of books and reading, and marked in over 100 countries all over the world.