Once upon a time, there was an old man who collected books. He was known by the people of the village by his first name only. Thomas. In his ivy covered cottage, books lined the walls and they were stacked tall next to his fireside wingback chair. Often, he found books left outside his door and people gifted him their much loved tomes when they were done reading them. The only requirement was that the books – at one time – had to have been read aloud or else their magic would not work.
Thomas’ cottage was at the edge of the forest, at the edge of the lake, where people traveled only when they intended to visit him. One day, a maiden from another village stumbled upon Thomas’ path. Squirrels and chipmunks kept her company and the birds flew before her to make sure she did not wander too far from home.
“Lead me not too far, lest I get lost and I will be sorely whipped,” she said to her companions.
They chippered and tweeted in reply and they continued along the sun dappled path.
Suddenly, she heard twigs snap behind her and an earthy gust of wind swirled at her feet. When the leaves settled, Thomas appeared along the path. He was small and hunched, and he leaned heavily on his hand-hewn cane.
“My dear. You’ve found the path you were looking for,” he said, wise and knowingly.
The maiden kept her distance but was not afraid. She had her forest friends beside her. “But I was not looking for any particular path.”
“You were but you haven’t realized it yet.”
The maiden frowned, puzzled by the old man’s riddles. But his crooked smile and velvety voice soothed her and she found herself charmed. “My name is Katkia. I am from Walavia. Who might you be?”
“My name is what it has always been, what all have called me from way-back to now. I am Thomas.”
“You live here? In the forest alone?”
“Are you alone now?”
“I am not. I have you. I have my forest friends.”
“Exactly. And I have my other friends as well.”
“Do they live near here?”
“They live with me. They are my books.”
The maiden tilted her head. “Books? You speak of them as if they are alive. Everyone knows they are not alive and cannot afford companionship.”
Thomas took her elbow and guided her down the path. “Come visit with me. Your furry and feathered friends can accompany you. You will see that my books are special. They tell tales like none you have ever heard.”
“I have heard none before.”
“Has no one ever read to you or have you not ever read one yourself?”
“No. And I cannot read.”
Thomas’ heart fell with sadness but at the same time it was suddenly filled with hope. “Come, my dear. Now you will see why you have found my path.”
The two entered Thomas’ cottage with fluttering wings and tapping feet close behind Katkia.
“This, my dear Katkia, is my collection.”
She was in awe of the beautiful, gilded covers. The smell of leather and old paper hung in the air and permeated their souls. And Katkia was instantly in love.
Thomas settled himself into his tattered armchair and said, “The books are yours as much as they are mine.”
“But I cannot read them. There is no way for me to enjoy the tales they tell.”
“Ah, you can. My books retain the spirit and voice of their owners once they are read aloud. Open any book and it will read to you.”
Katkia opened a moss green leather book with gold leaf swirls on the front. A motherly voice began to recite tales and rhymes about geese, fox and out-smarted crocodiles. Katkia was thrilled and her eyes filled with tears. “This is wonderful.”
Day after day, Katkia visited Thomas and his books. She would hold up a book and Thomas would read her the title. Katkia always chose certain books, Thomas observed. Books that told of bravery, leadership and kindness. And day after day, she eventually learned to read on her own. On Katkia’s last visit, she brought a book to Thomas. It was full of deep thoughts of the most wise people from all over the world. And this book retained her voice and her love of reading for others to cherish one day.
Many years later, Katkia returned to the cottage. She surmised that if he was old when she met him, he must be ancient now. She knocked and minutes passed before he opened the door. He looked exactly as she had remembered him.
“Miss Katkia! How I have missed you.”
“And I you, Thomas.” She took his gnarled yet gentle hands and placed in them a package wrapped in brown paper and twine. “I came to leave with you one final book.”
“You know I will take any book as long as it is read aloud.”
“Well, this is somewhat different. You see, when you met me, I was actually Princess Katkia. Now I am Queen. You and your books have prepared me well. You have taught me to be a kind and just ruler. As a gift, I have written this book about you so for-all and for-ever will know you.”
Thomas sunk into his tattered armchair beside the fire. Katkia pulled up a footstool. And Thomas read aloud the tale about himself called The Maiden and the Book Collector. And that, dear reader, is the story you hold in your hands now, told to you by Thomas himself.