Sasha's Last Chance
I went home from school with Nadia, and now we were sitting and drinking tea in the kitchen at my house. Aunt Miran had taken my sister Jamila out somewhere, and left a note for me:
I have gone with Jamila for a walk over to the park. There is a new merry-go-round that she wants so much to try. If you would like tea, you can probably make it yourself.
Aunt Miran had previously made tea for us when we drank it at my house, but now I was just as often the one who made it. As with Nadia, we had a ritual with the particular pots and cups we used. After making the tea, we sat in the living room and put together the puzzle that we had made at Nadia’s house some days before.
I poured the pieces out of the little cardboard box and spread them out so we could turn them correctly. Nadia looked over at the wall where an old mirror was hanging over the fireplace.
”I wonder if that mirror is a bit like the one Alice had in her room?”
I knew immediately what she meant because Miss Winterbottom had just read a chapter for us from an old fairy story by Lewis Carroll...
How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they'd give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn't good to drink—But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it's very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it's turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It'll be easy enough to get through--'“ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
”I actually imagined that mirror when she read the story aloud to us.”
”Right, it really could have been a mirror like that.”
”Imagine if you could go through a mirror like that and come out in another world!”
”Would you have the courage to do it?”
Nadia didn’t have any doubts.
”I most certainly would! I want so much to go someplace where you can do things differently than here.”
”That does sound exciting, but a little scary, too.”
In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one, blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind. “So I shall be as warm here as I was in the old room,” thought Alice: “warmer, in fact, because there'll be no one here to scold me away from the fire. Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!”
Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.
“They don't keep this room so tidy as the other,” Alice thought to herself, as she noticed several of the chessmen down in the hearth among the cinders: but in another moment, with a little “Oh!“ of surprise, she was down on her hands and knees watching them.
I looked up at the old mirror. Nadia was right. You really could almost believe just such an old mirror might have magical powers.
Nadia continued to turn the pieces over. When that was done, there were certain pieces that we started with in putting them together. That’s how it always was. Some are easier to place than others, and then they form a pattern to which new pieces can be added. Somewhat later, we had three groups that we then joined together as the puzzle grew.
”Maybe it’s just a dream world that Alice is visiting. You can interpret it that way from the book.”
”You may be right. Because in that world, things happen that Alice has wondered about in her own world, or there’s something she’s had trouble with coming back to her in the other world in an exaggerated way. That sometimes happens in dreams, too.”
”If we could go through our mirror, I’d like to imagine several things there as being different.”
”So would I.”
”For one thing, there would be boys in our class at school.”
We began to giggle a little in spite of ourselves. It was a strange thought but exciting to imagine. The boys’ world was a place that was filled with mystery and excitement, and where you were allowed to do many of the things that were forbidden for us girls.
”They’d probably make a lot of trouble.”
”And they’d probably try to decide everything, too.”
”But then Miss Winterbottom would put them in their place.”
”Right, she’d come after them as the Red Queen.”
”No, she’s too nice. The card soldiers would be the ugly rebels from ‘The Righteous,’ and their leader would be the queen who shouted ‘Off with his head!’ all the time.”
”Behind the mirror, we’d go for a lot of bicycle rides.”
”And we’d swim in the lake together...”
”And listen to forbidden music...”
Nadia looked around frantically for a piece of the puzzle.
”Now we only need one piece... But I can’t find it!”
”I know where it is.”
”In Jamila’s stomach. She ate it the other day.”
”Yes, there must have been something in the glue she liked...”
”That little scamp.”
”That‘s how it is with little brothers and sisters. They eat the toys and then play with the food.”
”I would have had a little sister, too, but she was born dead. I think her umbilical cord got caught around her neck.”
”How do you know?”
”Oh, you get to hear things. But it isn’t something you talk about openly.”
”That kind of thing would also be different on the other side of the mirror. There you would get the whole truth about everything.”
”Yes, and it would be impossible to lie. Everybody would be saying things the way they really are because lying and keeping secrets wouldn’t have been invented.”
”But sometimes you have to lie out of consideration for other people.”
”Maybe, but it wouldn’t be like that behind the mirror. Lies and deliberately not being clear about some things should be forbidden when children ask questions.”
Just then, Uncle Mustapha came into the room.
”Oh, there you are, Sasha. I was about to leave but thought I’d ask first if you might like to go with me to the bookshop.”
”I’d like that, uncle. We’ve just finished our tea, and Nadia has to leave soon anyway.”
”Then we can go to Nadia’s house together and take the bus from there.”
About once a week, Uncle Mustapha came up with an excuse to visit the bookstore in the center of the city. People usually called the place “The International Bookshop.” It was the only place at the moment where you could find the latest book releases from abroad. The store sold books from around the world, but mostly books from the West.
There were also a lot of people who ordered books by mail from abroad, but that cost extra. It sometimes even happened that the packages simply disappeared, and then it got to be expensive.
Uncle Mustapha was always in a good mood on the days we went to the bookstore. I could feel that he looked forward to the little adventure and it rubbed off on me. So I often asked if I could go with him, and he usually took me along.
It wasn’t because he had anything particular in mind. Sometimes he went just to see what new titles had come in, but he always brought something home with him, especially books about economics or civil service. He was very interested in keeping up on how decisions were made in different places in the world. If he’d been given the opportunity to acquire an education in that subject, he would have undoubtedly chosen it, but it hadn’t been possible when he was young.
The bookstore occupied a large room on the ground floor of a corner building in a central location in town. When we came into the store, Uncle Mustapha and I went our separate ways. I had to see everything and I went quickly up and down the aisles trying to take it all in. Then, if there was time for it, I could linger longer at the shelves that interested me the most.
Now that I had begun to read English, many new possibilities had opened up for me. Before, I mostly browsed through picture books for children, and I could be totally immersed in the spectacular and detailed images printed in bright colors on large-sized pages. How wonderful the stories must be that could inspire such an abundance of beautiful or scary illustrations, and now I could read many of them myself.
When I went by Uncle Mustapha, he was often standing in the same place where I had left him. Not infrequently, he stood there with his nose buried deep in a little book and was obviously lost to the world. He was like that now. He looked up with a distant gaze and I could see a tear make its way down his cheek. He had been looking through the shelves with philosophy and poetry books.
I went over and stood looking up at him until he noticed that I had come back.
”Oh, there you are, Sasha. What have you found?”
Uncle Mustapha stood there with a distracted expression, as though he had just arrived from another planet and had discovered one of the natives here clinging to some fascinating object.
He put the little book of poems back and opened my large picture book.
”Well, I must say! There are certainly a good many things going on here, I can see that.”
That was no exaggeration. There were many colorful illustrations spread across two pages with dangerous monsters and brave warriors in a life and death struggle, and there was a cunning evil witch and beautiful damsels with long blond hair and pleated dresses as well as strong dwarfs and delicate fairies. It had everything that belonged in a good adventure.
”You almost don’t need to read the words.”
”A story like that will surely give you bad dreams.”
”I was mainly thinking of it as something for Jamila.”
”Oh no, that would scare the life out of her.”
”Not at all. I’ve made up several stories of that kind myself, and she liked them a lot.”
Uncle Mustapha picked up his little book again.
”What did you find? That book isn’t foreign, is it?”
”No, it’s a collection of old poems I read as a child. I haven’t seen them since then, but now they’ve apparently been reprinted. It’s strange how you can remember situations from your youth when you have the opportunity to read the same books again after many years. It’s as though the world is standing still and you’re somewhere else in time and space.”
”You seemed sad…”
”No, Sasha, it wasn’t like that, even though you might well be melancholy when you come back to the real world.”
”Is it that much worse?”
”Not necessarily. It has more to do with oneself. That you yourself have changed.”
”What do you mean?”
”You’re probably too young to understand. But you see, all options are open to you when you‘re young and you can handle anything. If conditions aren’t ideal, you’re convinced that you can just go out and fix everything, perhaps along with other young people who believe in the same things.”
”And you can’t do that?”
”No, and maybe it’s just as well. When you’re young, you don’t have the overall picture of the situation that you get as time goes by. With that passage of time, you find out what’s possible and what isn’t. Some of the things you were enthusiastic about when you were young are no longer so urgent or they turn out to be unrealistic. You also find out that you don’t have all the time in the world at your disposal and that life doesn’t last.”
”Honestly, you probably knew that even when you were younger.”
”Yes, in a way, but the possibilities just seemed much greater then, and I had the optimism and courage that are the driving force behind all changes.”
”And you don’t still have that yearning when you get older?”
”No, you rarely do. You resign yourself and lose courage when you see how enormous the task is, or even when you reach a goal and realize that it leads to some unfortunate consequences you hadn’t thought about when you were younger.”
”And that’s why you were sad?”
”Did it look like that? No, that‘s not true. Because if you feel that you’re working in the right direction, you can find satisfaction in the fact that even if you don’t reach the goal while you yourself are alive, you have still made an effort to change things for the better.”
”That’s what both you and my father have done.”
”Yes, and it has to be good enough. I often tell myself that when I encounter disappointments or setbacks. It’s not the outcome in itself that is crucial, because that also changes as time passes. It’s the process of being on the way to your goal that is important. You must remember that and feel happy about it. It isn’t the distant goal that you must judge things by because you might not get there in your own lifetime but only in the next. Remember that, Sasha. Enjoy the small steps in the right direction on a daily basis, because otherwise you might not find any joy in life.”
”It sounds very philosophical, Uncle Mustapha, but I guess you’ve thought deeply about these things.”
”You can be sure I have, but I’m not the only one who says so. Many intelligent people have pondered the meaning of life, and it was a poem about it that made me thoughtful. When I read the same words as a young man I didn’t understand the whole meaning, but I think I do now.”
We walked up to the counter and waited in line. Uncle Mustapha bought his book of poetry and I got my children’s adventure book. It wasn’t often that Uncle Mustapha told me something about the big things in life, but this had been one of those occasions.