The rosy torch

This morning I went again to the public library to look for a certain book. And again I didn't find it. Sometimes I wonder if there doesn't exist such a supernatural creature as a Book Imp. I mean a creature that knows what book you are coming to the library for and enjoys making it disappear before you can get there.

Disappointed, I was heading out of the library when I noticed someone sleeping at a table in the corner. Sleeping people interest me. They seem so alone. And they've lost all power not only over themselves but also over me, over everybody. So I couldn't help going to the table and taking a seat very quietly, with even a finger to the lips of my soul, across from this solitary sleeper.

It was a girl, maybe twenty, with long, charcoal-colored hair, chalk-white blouse, blue jeans and, like me, in sneakers. Her head was cradled in the crook of one of her folded arms on the table, and she was breathing more softly than a shadow.

A sleeping person, you know, is not only powerless, but powerless in a peculiar way. Powerless in the same way that an immigrant is powerless. Like an immigrant, the sleeping person has also set out from an old to a new shore, has counted on arriving in one piece and beginning life again.

As I watched this girl sleeping I imagined her as an immigrant coming all alone, steerage-class, on a ship from the old country to the new, to the United States. There she stood, at the railing of the ship, scanning the horizon for the first glimpse of Ellis Island and for that old siren of hope, the Statue of Liberty.

Behind her were years of crouching in cellars while gunshots rang out overhead, of seeing barns and dreams go up in smoke. Days of journeying by horse and wagon to the ship, the wagon losing first one wheel and then another, the horse going gluey-eyed and stumbling into ditches.

And ahead of her -- who knows? Maybe worse times than those behind. But she had risked everything on the hope that they would be better.

Wouldn't it be terrible, I thought, if when this heroine of mine arrived on the new shore she didn't see a kind of Statue of Liberty? If all she saw when she awoke was me sitting there in my booklessness and my wonder?

So, to make matters right, I went and paid the librarian fifty cents for one of the fire-red roses in the vase on her desk, and then returned to the table. I found the girl still voyaging in sleep, sat down again and waited.

When she awoke she sat up straight and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. And I could have sworn that it was with an immigrant's open, hopeful smile that she looked up at me holding that rose like a Statue of Liberty torch and read in my eyes the gladsome tidings, ''Welcome to America!''

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