When I was ten, my mother died of a horrible sickness that had plagued her ever since our move to Gordes, France in 1933. We owned the little bookshop on Rue du Belvédère, and lived in the small, one room apartment above. On hot summer nights, under the starry glow of the French sky, my little brother Tomàs, my grand-mère Abril, and I would sit at the window, listening to families and couples laughing contentedly as they headed home for the evening. I often wondered what that contentment felt like, being in a family that was blissfully whole, and not missing any pieces. My family had just emigrated from Iran, known then as Persia, where my father had been a professor of French literature at the newly built Tehran University. Things, however, in Persia were never easy, and my mother, who was born in France, sought refuge in her homeland. So we returned to France by her will, and only three months later, she passed away.
Death is a confusing thing, particularly for a child. Yet children have one thing that many adults do not; forgiveness. My father had a great deal of difficulty dealing with my mother’s passing, and had ever since, buried himself in his work in the shop downstairs, coming up for quick meals before returning to his office. Yet it was clear that the pain of losing the woman whose life he had held so dear had merely left him gripped with such sorrow, he hardly knew how to live without her by his side; and it was clear, though he would never admit as much, that a part of him hated her for leaving him there, alone in their bookshop, forcing him to move to a country he did not know, and then abandoning him. And it was difficult for him to forgive her.
It was around that time that a stranger came to the bookshop, carrying with him a parcel which at the time I assumed was simply a book that he wished to trade or to learn something of its history. My father greeted him with a half-interested smile, as though he had grown weary of the constant interruption of a local, searching for a good story. Apparently oblivious to any apprehension my father may have felt, the man approached him, laying the parcel down on the counter delicately.
“May I help you?”
The stranger smiled softly then said, “I don’t know if it’s a matter of you helping me, or me helping you.”
At this, my father’s interest was aroused, and closing his book, he regarded the stranger curiously. He was tall, taller than any local I had seen before, and he didn’t dress like the people of Gordes in his long, black trench coat and top hat. He looked like something out of a storybook himself. “I’m sorry, but, do I know you?”
“No,” he said confidently, “and that’s not important. What I came here for was to give you something; something I think will help your little bookshop take off the ground.” Then reaching into his coat pocket he removed a book of such tatty appearances, I wondered to myself who in their right mind could possibly want such a volume.
My father, however, had a much different reaction. He regarded the book with a great deal of interest, his eyes widening with disbelief, than a smile which I had not seen since my mother was still alive spread across his face that caused even the stranger to smile.
“Where ever did you find this?” he asked desperately.
"That’s unimportant. What I want to hear is your price. How much are you willing to offer me for it?”
My father, who up until that moment had not realized the man was a salesman, continued to flip through the pages of the book fervently. Then stopping suddenly in surprise, he regarded the man over the rim of his reading glasses. “But this book is priceless. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with an offer.”
The stranger looked pleased with himself. “Well, I am flattered. But rest assured the book is not priceless to me, as material possessions all come with their price. Now, about that offer.”
My father, looking despondent merely shook his head, removing his glasses and closing the book. “I’m sorry, sir, but I simply can’t. I’m sure that whatever price you’re searching for is far above my means. Thank you, though, for the opportunity to look at it. You’ve made a very unhappy man happy for a brief time.”
The stranger did not seem quite as satisfied with this statement. He regarded my father now with a look of distaste, and snatching back the book irritably he said, “Well I’m sorry to hear that. It is, as I’m sure you’re aware, your loss.”
Then turning abruptly, he stalked out of the shop, disappearing again into the night.
My father stared after him for awhile, a distant look on his face, before returning to his own book. I had watched the entire scene from behind a bookshelf, and now my eyes wandered to the counter and to the small parcel that was still there, that the stranger had forgotten in his haste to leave.
I slid out from my hiding spot and peered at my father over the counter. He smiled at me gently, closing his book. “How about that man?” he said, leaning forward as if he were about to tell me a cherished secret. “Do you want to know the name of that book?”
I nodded eagerly.
My father was theatrically pensive for a moment, then looking at me and seeing that I was antsy with anticipation, a smile broke across his face and he said, “It has been called many things, but it seems its author never had the opportunity to give his work a title. Most simply call it The Lost Play,” he said mysteriously. “What’s important is who its author is.”
By now my curiosity had reached such a peak, I was hardly able to contain myself any longer.
“Who wrote it?” I asked breathlessly.
My father smiled. “Shakespeare. William Shakespeare.”
I’d of course heard of the man before, as he was a worldwide phenomenon, but I was unfamiliar with his work, and this discovery came as a bit of a disappointment. Little did I know then how monumental such a discovery truly had been.
“Alas, I couldn’t afford such a piece,” he said with a half-smile. “I’m sure that the gentleman had been to several other booksellers before me to see to whom he could pawn off the piece.”
And while my father looked reminiscently out the shop window, recalling in his mind what it was like to hold and feel the manuscript in his hands, I inconspicuously took the stranger’s package from the counter and slid it into my pocket.
It was much later that night, when I was certain that my family was already asleep, before I dared to take the package from my pocket. The pale light of the moon lit my mischievous ventures. The package itself was rectangular in shape and relatively lightweight. The wrapping paper was a deep purple and the ribbon translucent silver. With my forefinger I pried the wrapping apart from the tape, and delicately slid out the box that was wrapped within. The box itself appeared very expensive, a navy blue leather, that smelled old and rich and filled my small room with a warm scent. Then holding my breath, I opened the box, and there within, resting on a soft royal blue bed, was a beautiful silver and gold pen. I’d never seen a pen of such exquisiteness. It was like no other pen I’d ever seen before. With shaking hands I took the pen from its bed, and held it in my fingers, its cold metal awakening whatever hidden desire I might have had within me to write.
And then quite uncontrollably to me, it seemed, my mind started whirring with ideas, thoughts I’d never before formulated, words of which I did not even know their meaning, and suddenly I was fumbling with the wrapping paper and the pen was writing, guiding my hand, letting the words which I did not know were within me, flow out on the back of the wrapping paper until ever bare space was filled with jumbled letters. The script itself even appeared foreign to me, and when the thing was done, I hardly knew what I had even written.
My hand ached from the task and the moment the pen stopped working and the thoughts stopped flooding my mind with images, I threw down the pen and glared at it, breathlessly, thinking the thing must be possessed. Seeing the small form of Tomàs stirring in his sleep, I quickly picked the pen up with the box, fearing he may pick it up himself and at the age of six write a dissertation on his life.
Then hiding the pen in my night stand I laid back down, covering myself with the blankets, promising to never touch the pen again. But before going to sleep, I unfolded the wrapping paper and read the words I’d written there, the tears springing to my eyes and my body shaking with sorrow.
I remember her smell; it was always of paint and gutta serti, the things she used for her silk painting. I remember her warmth, her ability to light up a room, to make everyone smile even when all you wanted to do was give up and crawl into a corner and let your sorrow overcome you. And then the sickness began. It came with the cold and started with a simple cough that turned into a hacking tremor that shook her entire body and left her frail frame weak and helpless. She spent most of her remaining days sitting on an armchair, staring out the window into nothingness, her skin pale and strained against her bony visage, her warmth and happiness all gone beneath the weighted blankets and robes that she would wrap around herself to keep warm. Yet nothing could warm her; her hands were always icy cold, like the death that would take her only a few days later. And then she was gone before I could tell her how much I needed her to stay; how much I would miss her if she left. When she died it was like a piece of me had gone with her; a mother whom I loved dearly yet hardly knew. And through it all the thing that frightened me the most, the thing that kept me awake at night with tears burning my eyes, was the thought of forgetting her face. I would shut my eyes, close them tight and try to picture her features, yet every time she became more and more distant; more estranged. In these moments when I’d be alone in my room, trying to imagine her again, I would see faces of strangers; the face of someone whom I’d passed on the street, or someone who’d come into my father’s shop. And slowly, the features of her face began to disappear, to blend into the blackness, and leave me here alone with only the memories of her presence. And slowly, that’s all she became to me; a ghost.
I woke up after a fitful sleep, but was grateful to see the sun shining through my bedroom window. Perhaps it had all been a dream. But as I began to rise from my bed, I felt a crinkling beneath me, and saw the wrapping paper, still covered with the words that seemed to have been pulled from the very depths of my soul. I immediately balled the paper up and tossed it into the very back of my night stand. That’s when I saw the pen again. For a long time, I simply stared at it, wanting to pick it up, to feel its cool weight between my fingers, but resisting the urge. My father called to me, breaking my gaze with the shiny metal of the pen. I could see my reflection in the pens’ surface and wondered for a moment, if it could see me as well.
Things were quiet in the shop that day. A few customers came in, one asking my father to mend the spine on an old volume, another purchasing a copy of Dante’s Inferno. I spent most of the day pretending to be occupied but having a great deal of difficulty focusing on any one particular thing as my thoughts kept drifting back to the pen and the sudden, undeniable urge I had to write. It seemed as if that night the pen had pricked my soul and left an ink stain in my heart; a burning desire to fill blank pages with my inner thoughts, my deepest, darkest secrets which were hidden, it seemed, even to myself. My father had eyed me curiously all afternoon, seeing how I was not my normal, cheerful self.
"What is the matter, Camille?” He would ask me, yet I would always fake a smile and shake my head, assuring him that I felt fine, that nothing was wrong, telling him nothing about the pen and my newfound desires.
When I wasn’t thinking about the pen, I was watching the door closely for any sign of the stranger. I was certain that he would return any moment and demand the return of his pen, which I now knew must be enchanted. Every time the bell tinkled, announcing a customer’s entrance, my heart leapt to my throat, and I’d strain to see who had come, relieved to find that it was never the stranger. I began to think he would never come back…that the pen was almost like a gift, wrapped and delivered just for me. Perhaps he’d left it behind on purpose, so that I would find it and it would find me.
Every night for three days, I would take the pen in my hands, unable to resist the urge, and write for what seemed like hours at a time. Sometimes my writing was clear and concise, like I’d practiced the craft for years when in fact it was the first time I’d ever written down any of my thoughts. Other times it seemed to come out like a long run-on sentence, my thoughts buzzing around the paper in jumbled words, neither concise nor eloquent. At times I would grow frustrated with the inconsistency of my writing, but at other times I’d write such masterful words, I’d find myself weeping with pride. And always, no matter the calibre, my writing always reached into the depths of my soul, pulling the story out from within me and committing it to paper. In those nights, it seemed that writing was like closing a door on a difficult time in my life, a way of treating old wounds that had been badly bandaged and never truly healed. I found myself coping more with my mother’s death as the days went on, and soon I began to feel lighter and freer than I’d felt in a long time.
My father noticed, but would never say anything to me about it, though I’d catch him smiling to himself with pleasure at seeing my face glow. Then one night he told me that I reminded him of Mother. Not in my looks, as I had inherited my father’s dark hair and broad features, but in my eyes, my warmth, and my spirit. It brought tears to both of our eyes, and I remember feeling as if I truly knew him in that moment in a way that I’d never known him before; as a human, as a man, capable of emotion. It’s easy, when you are a child, to take your parents for granted; to believe that they are invincible, unable to feel pain and hurt in the same way a child can. But then I realized that my father was just like any other person, and I grew a little that day.
On the fourth night, when everyone was asleep and I was writing by candle light, a ladybug landed on my paper. It was not the first time I’d seen one, and in Iran they are known as bearers of good news. I smiled at the sight of her, walking along my paper. She seemed to trace the letters of my words, as if she were reading my writing. I stood there watching her for a long time before she flitted off again and disappeared into the night from whence she came.
The following morning, I came down into the shop and saw that the stranger had returned. His eyes looked weary, as if he hadn’t slept in days, and he was busy asking my father questions, which I knew concerned the pen. Seeing that he was beginning to get upset, I quickly ran down the stairs and interrupted them.
“I believe I know where your package is,” I said looking up at the man who gazed down at me irritably.
“Oh, is that so?”
“Well go on then! Show me where it is.”
I looked at my father, who appeared small and scared next to the large imposing frame of the stranger, but I knew that he would never let the man lay a hand on me. I, however, was fearless. I pulled the package from my apron pocket. I’d wrapped it up carefully the night before, following the original creases and lines of the paper, so as not to indicate that the pen had ever been used.
The stranger snatched the package out of my hands and looked over the box suspiciously. Then he looked at me as if trying to read my eyes, to intimidate me into revealing my secret. But I didn’t waver.
“Well, there you have it, Sir. Now I believe you should be on your way,” my father said nervously but resolutely.
The stranger shot an icy look at my father, but did not object. He placed the package carefully in his worn pocket, and again regarded me piercingly.
“Good day,” I said.
The stranger humphed and stalked out of the store, into the bright afternoon, never to be seen again. This, however, would not be the first time he’d lose his pen, as he would forever be searching for it as it had an annoying habit of getting misplaced in the most peculiar of places, and always would turn up in another’s possession, always wrapped up carefully as if it had never been used.
My father looked at me irritably from over the counter. “Camille, why didn’t you tell me that man had forgotten his package?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Because he didn’t forget it, Father. It was meant to come to me, and now it must go on and find others who need to tell their story.”
My father regarded me incredulously, not understanding a word I’d said, but I didn’t care. Perhaps one day I’d explain to him how deeply I’d fallen into despair and how I was certain there would never be any light in my life again; or perhaps I would just let him read the story that the pen had helped me write over the past three days, that had pulled me from my prison and showed me the world I’d forsaken. Either way, I would probably never tell him about the ladybug, who I knew had been sent by my mother, who I know now watches over me still.
 Sometime later we learned that the play had been purchased by a scholar, who made a great deal of fuss about the discovery. He traveled the world going to important conferences and discussing the discovery with the press. It did not take long, however, for other scholars to refute the possibility that the manuscript was a genuine Shakespearean work. The scholar argued for the manuscripts authenticity. Soon, two camps formed; one who believed that The Lost Play was genuine and those who did not. Suffice it to say, the scholarly dispute that surrounded the manuscript caused the purchaser a great deal of difficulty in getting the manuscript accepted in popular universities and scholarly circles, and eventually the manuscript disappeared into obscurity, along with other lost manuscripts of disputed origins.
© 2009 Rebecca Huggins. All rights reserved.