Tuesday 29 December 2020

Highly Commended 2020 Buzz Words Short Story Prize

The Book That Ate Secrets

© Vita Rinaldi (TAS)

It was my eleventh birthday when my mother gave me the book. She heaved the thing up

the stairs and placed it at the end of my bed, wrapped in blue paper.

          Go on, then, Ivo,’ she said, pushing the parcel toward me.

          ‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘A book?’

          ‘You’ll have to find out.’

          ‘Can’t I open it downstairs, with the rest of my presents?’

          My mother’s face went dark. ‘Not this one.’

          I unwrapped the paper, and lying before me, its leather spine broken, its pages yellow with age, was the book.

          ‘It’s a diary,’ my mother said brightly. ‘For you to keep all your secrets in. I had the same one when I was your age, and your grandfather had it before me.’

          ‘This one?’ I asked, undoing the latch. ‘But it’s empty. How could you –’

          ‘It’s one of a kind,’ my mother stood up. ‘Not like most diaries. Take good care of it, and promise me, Ivo, that you won’t write anything evil inside.’

          ‘Evil?’ I asked.

          ‘Anything that could hurt a person,’ she said, closing the door. ‘Some secrets are better off said to the wind, not left on a page. Happy birthday.’

          Happy birthday, I thought, here’s a dusty old book. But as much as it was old and dusty, I couldn’t help liking it. At the end of the day, after riding three times round the block on my bike, eating cake with my friends and trying my slingshot on the neighbour’s chickens, I sat down and turned the book over in my hands. I opened the first page.

          NAME HERE, it said.

          Ivo Oliveri, I wrote.

          ‘Ivo,’ the wind seemed to whistle my name.

I closed the shutters on my window and sat down at the book again. Secrets… what secrets did I have? I picked up the pen.

I don’t have any secrets, I wrote. Yet.

‘But soon,’ the wind said again, and I looked at the window behind me. The shutters had not moved, the night outside was still. I turned back to the book.

Are you speaking to me? I wrote.

‘Of course,’ came the voice. It rustled like dry leaves, turkey’s wings, butcher’s paper wrapped round a thick leg of lamb. ‘Didn’t your mother tell you I was one of a kind?

I didn’t write much at first. I was too busy with school, homework, and a girl, Rosina, who lived just two doors down the street.

          ‘I shouldn’t be telling you this,’ Rosina said as we walked home one afternoon, ‘but I like you, so I will. I’m a mermaid.’

          I laughed. Of course. All girls were mermaids, or fairies, or elves or nymphs or flying Pegasus children, whatever they told you.

          ‘I’m serious,’ she stopped in her tracks. ‘Every month at the new moon I wake up with a tail like a fish, and I feel like I’m drowning on air. My parents have to drag me into the pond. I’ll call you next time, see if you don’t believe me!’

          And she ran down the rest of the street, her dark hair flying behind her.

          Hello, Book, my hand wrote that night, though my head still didn’t believe it. I think I have a secret.

          ‘Good,’ the book said in its papery voice. ‘Do tell me.’

          Rosina is a mermaid, I wrote. I waited for the laughter to rise up from the page like a harsh wind around me. None came.

          ‘That is something,’ the book said, impressed. ‘You must bring me one of her scales.’

          So, at the new moon, I followed the call that drifted like whale song and water ripples over the rooftops, and came to the pond in Rosina’s garden. Her parents had left her there, just as she said, her skin glowing green in the water and a beautiful tail, long and sleek, thrashing in the water below her.

          ‘You believe me now,’ she said.

          ‘I do,’ I said, watching her tail whip the pond into a whirlpool. ‘Can I have just one scale?’

          She paused in thought, suddenly still. The water lapped at the edge of the pond, slapping the rocks.

          ‘I guess one won’t hurt,’ she said, and with a wince she pulled a single green scale from her tail. It shimmered in my palm.

          ‘You won’t tell anyone?’ She asked me, as I stood to get back to the book.

          ‘Not a soul,’ I said.

          ‘Swear it,’ she said.

          I swore it.

          Books didn’t have souls, after all.

    The book ate the scale up greedily, wedging it tight between its pages.

          ‘You see?’ It said. ‘People have secrets. And with a friend as trustworthy as you, they’ll be sure to tell you even more.’

          The next day Carlo pulled me aside in the schoolyard. I had known Carlo since we were babies, his family was practically mine.

          ‘Ivo,’ he said, in a rushed voice that wasn’t much like his usual one. ‘I have something to tell you. But it’s strange, right, so keep it to yourself.’

          ‘Sure,’ I said.

          Carlo raised his fist. ‘If you don’t…’

          I backed away, ‘I won’t tell anyone, promise.’

          ‘When we were kids,’ he began. ‘Well you probably don’t remember, but I was born with two horns on my head.’         

          I stared at him. ‘Horns?’

          ‘Like a goat. The doctors said there wasn’t anything wrong with me, but there is. Every now and then, when I’m not paying attention, I let out a bleat. I think I’m half animal, Ivo.’   ‘But where are the horns?’ I asked.

          ‘My father blunted them down.’ He parted his mess of dark hair, and there, either side of his head, were two solid nubs.

          ‘It’s a secret, okay?’ He said, combing his hair back in place with his hands. ‘I don’t want anyone knowing. And if you hear me bleat, just give me a slap on the back.’

          I nodded.

          Carlo has horns on his head, I wrote that night.

          ‘Good,’ the book said. ‘You must bring me a tuft of his hair.’

    On it went. With each new secret I wrote in the book, another came to me. Fabio’s eyes turned green as a cat’s at night, and he hunted for mice till the morning. Rufino had hands and feet that stuck like a gecko’s on the wall, and he climbed on the ceiling of his bedroom when his mother called him to help sweep the tiles. Elisa had headlice that sang La Cucaracha whenever she closed her eyes to sleep, and Delfina would float in the air if she ever lost her temper. All these and more I wrote in the book, and Fabio’s dead mouse, Rufino’s finger prints, Elisa’s crushed flea and the rocks Delfina used to weigh down her boots were each swallowed, one by one, into the depths of the pages.

          But with each new secret, my friends’ voices haunted me.

          ‘Don’t tell a soul,’ they said. ‘I know I can trust you.’         

          My mother’s warning came back to me too, and so I began to wonder if what I was writing was evil.

          ‘You must be getting full,’ I flipped through the book as I finished writing about a girl, Brigida, who sneezed nectar and wore a hat with netting to ward off the butterflies.

          ‘I never get full!’ The book said with a shriek like a papercut. ‘There are always more secrets to be told.’

          ‘Maybe so,’ I said, turning a new page. ‘But I’m finished telling you.’

I picked up my pen.

          I don’t have any secrets, I wrote. Anymore.

          I closed the book, holding it down on my desk as it wriggled and writhed, trying to open itself back up.

          ‘You broke the rule!’ It gasped, as I felt for the latch. ‘You wrote evil things. Evil!’

          ‘I didn’t,’ I hissed, snapping the buckle tight shut. ‘None of it’s evil, they’re only secrets because people don’t like being strange. But that’s okay. I’ll be strange for them.’


I was nearly twelve when I jammed the book in my school bag, still wriggling and squirming against its latch. It beat itself against my back as I walked, wheezing its papery rage.

          When I reached the schoolyard, full of my classmates and parents, I opened the book and began to read. It tossed in my hands, its voice like the shredding of cardboard.

          ‘Secrets, secrets!’ It cried. ‘Secrets – you should all be ashamed!’

          I spoke over it, clearly, loudly, letting the words come out clean. The parents stood shocked, my friends did too. Rosina’s mother screamed I was wrong, Carlo’s father shouted and swore.

          ‘Lies!’ They all cried, holding their children close to them. ‘Where did this boy come up with such lies?’

          But they weren’t lies, or secrets. They were the truth. And telling the truth can be strange, but not evil.

I looked down at the book in my hands. It was silent, its pages blank again.

Somewhere in the distance, my mother smiled.

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