“Alice in Libraryland,” by Onésimo Teotónio Almeida
Translated into English by Katharine F. Baker
I was in third grade when a student at the girls’ school, who was a year ahead of me, won a prize. I have no idea if it was on the school, county, district or national level. But the reality of it left me slack-jawed: two shelves of books!
I’m almost certain that the girl was called Alice – she was swarthy with black hair, smaller than I was, and had dark eyes. She was spoken of in town as a very intelligent student, and it was lamented that she had been unable to continue her studies, but her parents were penniless. Today I look back clearly on her, that little brunette with a penetrating but demure look, because that’s how girls were expected to be. She lived along the steep Maria do Céu Way, which was flanked by cultivated plots set lower than the roadbed. The first house on the left after that (there were none on the right-hand side) was Alice’s (Alice almost certainly, but perhaps Maria Alice). It was a pink house, its ground floor covered with reeds, utterly impoverished but immaculate. I’m visualizing the two rows of books along the back wall in the open space on the left that served as their kitchen, dining and living room.
How is it that I know these details? Because the prize, a collection of books from the CNPED – Campanha Nacional Para a Educação de Adultos [National Campaign for Adult Education]
I haven’t the least notion if anyone else was going to her house, but I did regularly in search of books. I read I-don’t-know-how-many, one after another. I remember, for example, one about bees, another on Portugal’s Condestável [a 15th-century military hero and saint], and yet another titled Virtudes Que Vêm de Longe [Virtues from Afar] about various nations’ heroes. The latter I read when I was bedridden at home with measles, so did not go to school. My teacher customarily sent school assignments via a student for those who out were sick, so they wouldn’t fall behind. On the first day I waited in vain for my classmates to break that horrible monotony by bringing me the day’s homework; however, the wave of noise from the pack of boys leaving school passed my door without anyone knocking. I was heartbroken.
The next day I sent a message to remind my teacher, Zélia Bremonte, and she replied telling me not to worry and that it was important for me to get well. My heartbreak doubled. And so I had only Alice’s books to entertain me.
The truth is that I dreamed of winning her prize when I too finished fourth grade. Having those two rows of books at home would take my mind on journeys.
It was a huge disappointment. No one received anything, nor has anything ever been said about that prize. Until today. But Alice and the wealth that she possessed there in that room on two makeshift tables full of books were imbued with more magic, and I knew them better than the thousands of volumes I have at home today in my bookshelves and on the floor.