A Reader

Mika Taylor

She read the story every day, once a day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes after noon. On busy days, she fit it in before bed. At first it was just an exercise, one she’d concocted for herself. Then it was a habit, then a routine. Some days it felt like a compulsion, other days a chore, but she read it every day, no matter how she felt. She’d heard once that carpenters could not master their craft until they’d spent 10,000 hours shaping wood. She knew that reading a single story had no such term of mastery, but she set no expectation. Once a day every day, she opened the book to the same spot. Every day once a day, she read eight pages, one and then the next.

The first time she read it, she enjoyed the plot. The second time, she admired the heroine. The third, she saw nuance in the language she’d missed the first times through. Her fourth reading was rushed, but she was glad she’d done it.

Her fifth felt again like the first. She was proud of herself on the sixth reading, knowing most people didn’t have the discipline to do what she’d done, or even to set themselves such a task. On the seventh day, she felt she understood the story in a way she never could have when she’d begun.

The eighth day, she read it aloud, feeling the words move through her throat into the chamber of her mouth—surprised she hadn’t done so before. The ninth, tenth, and eleventh days, she spoke the story as well, and noticed each time how quiet the world seemed afterwards. When she read again in silence the next week, she marveled at how her mind echoed her voice in that private inner way and wished, for a moment, that she never had to speak again, that she could just read and be read from that point on.

After a month, she wondered if the story was written in translation. Simple phrases looked wrong on the page—as if “she” and “held” and “it” should not be in that order at all. A few weeks passed and she understood the narrative structure, could see the architecture of each interaction, each realization, each change of pace and tone. Eventually she realized she’d memorized it, and found herself anticipating words and phrases.

She endeavored over the next few months to be present with the story, to not get ahead, to read the words one by one, even if she knew them all already.

She lost count of the days.

Somewhere in the hundreds, she was shocked to hear her father narrating, though she hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. His gravelly tone and the slight downturn he gave each sentence changed how she read the ending, making it new once again. Each time after that, another family member told the story. When she’d gone through them all, she heard it narrated by friends, then acquaintances, then strangers—each with his or her own intonations and personal prejudices, giving it as many different meanings as there were days.

That autumn, she ran out of voices she knew.

Eventually, as the weather drew in, there was no voice at all, not even her own.

Some days she reached the end and could not remember having read, even though time had passed and pages had turned. Some days, she felt as if this were the last time—that she could not do it again. Some days she had the urge to reread the story right then and there, but she always resisted.

In spring, she found herself worrying over the punctuation, wishing to rearrange spacing, erase commas, undo an exclamation point in the middle. By summer, she caught herself counting lines, words, syllables, letters, tapping out the count with her teeth, click-click, click-click, developing complex equations to better order it all. Later still, it began to seem words were not the things they meant, only black symbols on a white page that could be anything, everything, or nothing at all.

A few years passed before she really understood the shape of letters, the way they nestled into one another, cradling meaning.

A few more passed before that meaning disappeared.

Some days she could see the author bent at his desk, pen dipped in ink, scratching furiously. Some days he was clacking away in a riotous storm of type. Some days he lounged in a hammock penciling on his pad. More often though, she felt there was no author, that she was the author, creating and recreating, giving life to this world for the first time every time.

She read the story as if it were a violin, a barking dog, a piece of glass. She read it alone in her apartment, out on the street, riding backwards on the train. She read it in her first home while her husband made dinner and their child slept in her arms. She read it on holidays and normal days, before work, and after sex. She read it until she forgot why she read it. She read it to remember again. She read and it was the ocean. She read and it was a dream. She read it after the death of her parents, who each passed on a Sunday night nearly ten years apart.

When she first began so long ago, long before she knew how many days every day could be, she’d worried. Had she chosen the right story? Would it retain its power over time? Would she be able to read it again and again, once a day every day? She learned anew with each reading that these questions were not the right questions, that no story could sustain itself through so many iterations, so many repeated readings, that every story was at its heart the story, at the same time that it was no story at all. Within each was the face of God, looming, shrouded. Within each was the self.

And so she read it again.

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