quicksilver lizards in the adobe walls,
the bird that punctures space,
thirst, tedium, clouds of dust,
impalpable epiphanies of wind.
The pines taught me to talk to myself.
In that garden I learned to send myself off. Later there were no gardens.
―Octavio Paz, from “A Draft of Shadows”
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. – Plutarch
The somber sound of a bell monotonously tolling somewhere in the distance woke Hiram from a deep sleep. Momentarily confused by his surroundings, he sat on the edge of the bed before getting up, staring out of the huge floor-to-ceiling bedroom window. Just a couple of feet from the window stood a low, cobalt blue adobe wall draped in vivid orange Bougainvillea. The colors of the wall and flowers were striking against the white washed interior of the bedroom. Looking up, he could just make out the last vestiges of a bright pink and pale blue dawn sky. Since arriving in Mexico, Hiram had never been so aware of color.
Maude was sound asleep, buried almost entirely under the rough, cotton sheets that smelled of something wonderful and quite different than the sheets at home. Hiram watched his wife for a moment, unsure whether he should awaken her. She looked so warm and comfortable; he almost crawled back into bed.
Instead, and with a little sigh, he stood up and put on his robe. He could figure out what to do about coffee. Let Maude keep sleeping.
Coffee, as it turns out, was not a difficult task. A coffee machine sat prominently on a kitchen counter, along with a bag of ground beans, filters, and a jug of bottled water. Accustomed to browsing through a newspaper with his coffee, Hiram walked over to the large bookcase in the living room to see if there was something to read. An assortment of paperback and hard cover books filled most of the shelves, along with a couple of board games, a deck of cards, a Spanish/English and a Spanish/German dictionary, an entire row of green leather-bound books, and a couple stacks of tattered magazines. Hiram selected a magazine from one of the stacks and quickly thumbed through it. He put it back and reached for another. He recognized the cover, a People Magazine, dated three years prior, but it was all in Spanish. He put it back and combed through the rest of magazines hoping to find a National Geographic. Nothing grabbed his attention.
He found himself staring at the row of green leather bound books. From the looks of their pristine spines they appeared new. Hiram scanned the titles. The first one read, Tennyson to Whitman. Marlowe Shakespeare was the second. Hiram thought for a moment. His first name is William, isn’t it? Homer was the next, followed by Franklin Woolman Penn, The Thousand and One Nights (that one sounds familiar, he thought), Thackeray Newman Ruskin Huxley Thoreau and Others.
“Oh, I see,” he said aloud. “These are last names!”
He looked for the one with Shakespeare. “Marlowe” must be another author’s name, he thought. He scanned back to where he left off.
Emerson, Dante (something about “inferno” came to mind with that one), Cervantes, Aesop Grimm Andersen, (of course these are last names! The kids had all those Aesop Fables books, Grimm Fairy Tales, and I bet that’s Hans Christian Andersen), American Historical Documents, (odd thing to be among these), Plutarch, which he pronounced in his head with a silent “ch.” Below each title, under a gold embossed decoration read, The Harvard Classics: Collector’s Edition.
He pulled one of the books out at random and opened to the first page: “The First Part of the Delightful History of the Most Ingenious Knight Don…” Hiram paused at a word he couldn’t quite make out (Quicks-aught?) “…of the Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Thomas Shelton.”1
“Of the Mancha,” he said out loud. Hiram recalled a Jeopardy! question about the musical, The Man of La Mancha; something about it being based on a book. He studied an illustration on the opposite page of what looked like a knight on a horse, carrying a shield and spear, riding alongside a heavier set man in a kind-of Santa Claus hat, riding what looked like a donkey. In the background were a couple of fairytale-like castles, with those rounded buildings on the corners, tiny slots for windows, and those jig-jagged tops. Was this a children’s book, he wondered?
“Keyhotay!” Hiram suddenly blurted. That was the name of the book mentioned on Jeopardy! Don Key-ho-tay. OK, he thought, so that’s how you spell it. Strange.
The reason why Maude suggested a trip to Mexico, of all places, was beginning to make sense. He remembered she drilled him that night of Jeopardy! with the Man of La Mancha question about whether he ever thought about visiting Mexico. Well, actually, it was because of that National Geographic on Colonial Mexico he kept looking at. And, it wasn’t the Man of La Mancha question, now that he thought more about it, it was the question about what other country with States also has two coasts, or something like that. Anyway, the answer was Mexico. Though, why they were in rental home and not at a resort on the coast still baffled him. In any event, at least some of the pieces were coming together as to why they were in Mexico. Maybe. Somehow. With Maude, these things were sometimes difficult to track.
Don Quixote still in hand, Hiram walked back into the kitchen and looked for a microwave. His coffee needed reheating. There was none that he could see, so he dumped the cold coffee in the sink and poured a new cup. He saw a plate on the kitchen table of what looked like some sort of roll sprinkled in pastel pink and pale yellow sugar. He lifted a yellow one from the plate, gave it the once over, and took a bite. Really sweet. Dry. Different, but not bad.
Instead of sitting at the table to eat the roll, drink his coffee and thumb through the paper, or in this case, a book, as he would have done on a typical morning at home, Hiram decided to go out on the patio. Using the book like a tray, he placed the roll and his coffee cup on top and headed outside.
Though the morning had barely begun, the sun already seemed at full strength. He sat at a small, decorative table with chairs perfectly situated in a shady spot under a giant, overarching tree with delicate leaves that looked a lot like fern, only this tree had garlands of lavender blossoms that reminded him of the wisteria that grew over various trellises and eves of porches back home.
He opened Don Quixote again, this time letting the cover fall open to wherever, and began to shuffle through the pages, back and forth. Since there were no other illustrations than the one at the front, he concluded it was not a children’s book, as he thought earlier. Besides, it was too big. He paused at the very end on a page that looked more like poems. At the top of the page was a title in all capital letters: “THE ACADEMICS OF ARGAMASILLA, A TOWN OF THE MANCHA, ON THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE VALOROUS DON QUIXOTE OF THE MANCHA: HOC SCRIPSERUNT.”
Hiram could not make heads or tails of that sentence, except maybe for the middle part. He did not think Don Quixote was based on a real story. In fact, he assumed it wasn’t. But, here were these two pages with poems, a couple entitled “Epitaph,” one of which caught Hiram’s attention: “Chachidiablo, Academic of Argamasilla, on Don Quixote His Tomb. An Epitaph.” This made Hiram wonder if this Don Quixote actually existed, maybe back in medieval times, as the illustration at the front seemed to indicate. Maybe he was the knight? Certainly he wasn’t the little fat guy. Hiram was confused, but also a little curious. A man to have lived hundreds (thousands?) of years ago and inspired a large book about his life, as well as a musical; someone that gets a question on Jeopardy! is someone maybe he ought to know more about.
The problem was, as a rule, Hiram did not read books. He looked through newspapers and scanned magazines, but he did not read books. However, the one thing he did know is if you are going to learn about something, you start at the beginning of the story. And this man’s story is in a book.
He flipped back to the cover and started to leaf through the pages, this time one by one: “Table of Contents,” which seemed extensive, an “Introductory Note,” of which he read only the first two sentences (it was all about the author, Cervantes, so, whatever), and then “The Author’s Preface to the Reader,” which also went on for several pages. He read none of this. He wanted to get to the story of Don Quixote, but what followed was “Certain Sonnets.” This, too, went on for several pages. Makes sense, I guess, Hiram thought. Start with poems, end with poems, but where is the start of the story? Finally, he came to the title page. He began reading in earnest:
THE FIRST BOOK, CHAPTER 1: WHEREIN IS REHEARSED THE CALLING AND EXERCISE OF THE RENOWNED GENTLEMAN, DON QUIXOTE OF THE MANCHA. There lived not long since, in a certain village of the Mancha, the name whereof I purposely omit, a gentleman of their calling that use to pile up in their halls old lances, halberds, morions, and such other armours and weapons. He was, besides, master of an ancient target, a lean stallion, and a swift grey-hound.
It was tough going for a man who couldn’t remember the last book he read. The language was almost unfathomable. Under normal circumstances Hiram would have put the book back and that would have been that.
Hiram recalled his school days when the teachers asked students to stand and read aloud. He remembered it made understanding things like the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address much easier. His grandmother used to tell him to do the same when working a particularly tough math problem, something Hiram continued to do in is adulthood, only mouthing the numbers silently to himself so as not to betray his struggle. Ironic, for an accountant, but life is admittedly odd that way sometimes.
So, Hiram continued reading, this time out loud: “His pot consisted daily of somewhat more beef than mutton: a gal…”
He paused and tried pronouncing another unfamiliar word: “… gall-i-m….gallimauf…fry. A gallimaufry. What the hell’s a gallimaufry?” He had seen a glossary at the end of the book, after the epitaphs and poems, something he also hadn’t encountered since his school days.
Gallimaufry, hodgepodge, hash.
“Oh. Hash, like corned beef hash, I suppose.” He continued on reading out loud: “….a gallimaufry each night, collops and eggs on Saturdays…”
He looked up “collops,” but it wasn’t in the glossary. Why would they list ‘gallimaufry’ but not ‘collops’ he wondered? He pressed on:
“…lentils on Fridays, and now and then a lean pigeon on Sundays, did consume three parts of his rents; the rest and remnant thereof was spent on a of fine puce, a pair of velvet hose, with pantofles of the same for the holy-days, and one suit of the finest vesture…”
Hiram paused again and said aloud, “We’ve moved from food to clothing it seems.” He continued. “…for therewit…” (pause). …for therewithal he honoured and set out his person on the workdays.”
He wondered a bit at the spelling of “honoured.”
“Well,” Hiram concluded aloud, “if there is one thing I do understand, no matter how they write it, it’s accounting. This guy was tallying up his expenditures, where it said…where is it,” he scanned back up the paragraph, “…three parts of his rents.”
Taking another bite of the roll and then reaching for his cup of coffee, he saw perched on the back of the other chair, so close to his person as he had never seen a wild animal before, a brilliantly colored, small red bird, staring right at him with one black shiny bead of an eye. It hopped around in a circle on the back of the chair a couple of times and then fixed him with another look. Hiram sat motionless, amazed at the spectacle of a wild thing seemingly so comfortable in such close proximity to him.
“Hello…how long have you been there?” Hiram asked the bird. The bird responded with a cock of its head and a couple of more circular hops. It then let out a loud chirp, and hopped again.
“What…you…you some of this roll?
The bird ruffled it feathers a bit. Hiram couldn’t believe it, but it looked like the bird shook its head.
The bird hopped onto the table. Hiram froze. The bird took another hop, and then another, landing on the book in Hiram’s hand. It then let out a loud chirp.
Every muscle in Hiram’s body tensed. Quietly, so as not to frighten the little thing, he said, “You…you want me…to read some more?”
“Hiram, who are you talking to, hon?”
Hiram jolted at the sound of Maude’s voice, and the bird took off. Hiram watched as it flew over the blue hacienda walls, flapping furiously, toward town and then out of view. Maude had made her way across the patio to the table and sat down in the chair where the little red bird had just been.
“Hon, you’re not even dressed! You should go get dressed. Did you make this coffee? It’s very good. Who were you talking to just now?”
“Did you see that bird?! It was on my book, right there, and where you are sitting, as close me as anything. It was like, it was listening to me!”
Maude was a little baffled by her husband’s uncharacteristic excitement. “Someone got a good night’s rest, I guess.”
“I tell you, it was sitting there, just like you are now…well, not sitting of course, but it was on the chair and it looked like it was listening to me read. I think, I mean, who knows, but, honest to God, I think it wanted me to read to it! Damnedest thing.”
She smiled, a bit confused. “Is that what you were doing? Reading aloud? To a bird?”
He frowned, “Of course not. It was there, on the back of the chair. I didn’t see it until just before you came out.”
“Why are you reading aloud? Actually, what are you reading? A book!?” She leaned forward and stuck out her hand. Hiram gave her the book.
Maude was now really confused. “Don Quixote? Where’d you find this?”
“In the bookcase in the living room,” Hiram gestured inside the hacienda.
“Hiram Rhodes, you’ve never read a book in your whole life!”
“Yes, I have. In school, I read plenty of books. And to the kids, when they were small.”
Maude patiently smiled and handed the book back over to her husband. Hiram continued, “It’s written in a funny way, from back when they spoke differently, like in medieval times or something, and it’s translated from Spanish, I mean, I assume…remember that Jeopardy! question? About Man of La Mancha? ” He waited for Maude to reply. “This is the book it’s based on. Anyway, I thought it’d be easier if I read it out loud.”
Maude honestly did not know how to respond. When had Hiram ever, in the whole history of the entire world, picked up a book to read, of any kind? Now he decides he’s going to read a book, and this is what picks up?
“Those muffins, or buns, or whatever…those any good?” she asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, they’re OK. A little dry. Don’t know where they came from.”
“Mrs. Sandoval’s girl, what was her name…Inez? She must have bought them with the rest of the groceries. Did you see all that food in the fridge? Oh, would you remember we are probably going to owe them money for all that. I don’t remember grocery shopping being included.”
Hiram nodded. He was still caught up in amazement about the little red bird, how close it was to him, how it seemed to actually ask him to keep reading. But it was clear Maude didn’t want to talk about it.
She continued, “Why don’t you go in and shower, change, and then let’s figure out what to do with our day, OK? I’ll make some eggs and whatever else I find in there for breakfast. Lord! It’ll be practically be brunch at this rate. I can’t believe I slept in!”
Hiram got up, taking Don Quixote with him, walked back inside and placed the book back where he found it in the bookcase. “That was the damndest thing,” he muttered to himself as he made his way back to the bedroom to take a shower and get dressed as his wife instructed.
 Anthology of classic works from world literature compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909 by Grolier Enterprises Corporation. According to Wikipedia, the collection is in the public domain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Classics/ ; “Enduring Success.”). All references in this story to Don Quixote are taken from The Harvard Classics.