A Learned Man
– Fiction by Sophie Gazarian –
Finalist of the 2020 Dreamers Flash Fiction and Nonfiction Contest.
I was ten years old when I concluded my grandfather was illiterate. I approached him with one of my books one day and pointed to a passage I found particularly hilarious. “Look, dido, isn’t this funny?” I expected raucous laughter in response, but instead he stared at the page for a good while before asking me to read the words out loud. So, I did.
Still no laughter. Instead, he forced a smile and said, “Yes, yes. Very amusing.”
I wondered if there was something wrong with his glasses, but I soon understood that poor eyesight wasn’t the problem. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The stories I’d heard about my grandfather made it clear this was nothing new: when my father was a child, he had to translate every report card or school notice he brought home. My grandmother was tasked with reading and writing all official letters on her husband’s behalf. I never saw my grandfather with a newspaper or book in hand. In fact, the shelves in his cottage didn’t hold any books; they were occupied instead by dusty knick-knacks and picture frames. He never read me stories when I was younger – at bedtimes, he recited folk tales from his home country, stories about hunts for flying ships and animals making homes out of fallen mittens. When I was old enough to read on my own, he let my books provide the entertainment.
This particular incident occurred during the summer and consumed most of my thoughts while I was holed up indoors to escape the stifling humidity and mosquito swarms. My parents had shipped me off to my grandparents’ cottage in lieu of a day camp, and I was often in want of things to do. They lived remotely, in a squat bungalow nestled in the deep woods. Only one road passed through the area and the nearest neighbour was a speck in the distance. There were no other children to play with, so I entertained myself by reading adventure novels and listening in on my grandparents’ conversations, which were in a garbled mix of their native tongue and English. I picked up on some of it – I knew, for instance, when my grandmother yelled at my grandfather to pick up his dirty socks off the floor – but the rest of their exchanges remained a mystery.
Once I had my epiphany, I began to pity the man. He had no formal education and had never worked a job that didn’t involve manual labour. He had spent the majority of his life toiling outdoors with his back bent double, sweat rolling down his brow, his fingernails filthy at the end of the day. The strain of it showed on his lined, mole-flecked face even years after his retirement. My father had been the one to sit in classrooms until he got a job in an airconditioned office. My grandfather often teased him, calling him spoiled. My father, meanwhile, would tell me in private to stay in school, lest I spend my adult life driving snowplows through blizzards or repairing roofs under the burning sun.
I generously offered to read to my grandfather from my books, but he refused, not unkindly, saying he preferred to listen to the radio or watch television. He sat in his rocking chair and chuckled at Night Court reruns, while I lay on the floor by his feet and wondered if he understood the jokes or if he was just going along with the laugh track.
Weeks passed, and one afternoon I sat with my grandmother at the kitchen table while she worked on her needlepoint. I was trying to focus on another book, but she was reminiscing out loud, breaking my concentration. She was describing her courtship with my grandfather. “He wrote such beautiful letters,” she said. “How could I marry anyone but him?”
I jerked my head up, and she laughed. “What’s that look for? You don’t believe me?”
I shook my head.
“I’ll show you! Your dido was a real romantic. You’ll see.”
She disappeared into her bedroom for a moment, then reappeared carrying a lacquered wooden box. She opened it and pulled out a small stack of bound letters, all written in black ink. She undid the string and handed one of them to me. “Now, read that and tell me it doesn’t just make your heart melt.”
I stared at it. The words were strange, all wrong. Some of the characters looked normal, but others were upside-down or facing the wrong way. I wondered if my grandfather had written to her in code.
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” My grandmother gently slid the paper out of my hands. “You can’t read Cyrillic.”
About the Author – Sophie Gazarian
Sophie Gazarian is an emerging writer from Montreal. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and an MA in Library and Information Science from McGill. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
*This story by Sophie Gazarian is a Finalist in the Dreamers 2020 Flash Fiction and Nonfiction Contest. See the full results!
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