When Vincent finished the drawing, he left us alone in the room to look it over. It did look like Mr. Zuijderland. Vincent even got the strange facial hair to look proper. I wanted to gaze longer at the drawing, but Vincent had left that little blue book out on the table. My eyes kept straying to it like they always did. I sometimes thought that if I could concentrate hard enough, I could understand the letters on the cover. Of course, that never worked. It remained gibberish to me.
“Something caught your interest?” asked Mr. Zuijderland when he caught me looking away.
I stuttered a bit before pointing out the blue book on the table. The old man reached for it and smiled as he gazed upon the cover.
“Ah, I love this one. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Why are you so intent on this one?”
He too could read, and he had read the blue book that haunted my dreams. I was not sure what to say, so I said nothing.
“Can you read this book?”
I looked around us for Vincent. He was still in the kitchen making Mr. Zuijderland his coffee. I shook my head slowly.
“Would you like to learn how to read this book?”
My eyes widened with shock. I could barely believe what he had said to me.
“I can teach you to read this if you would like.”
He smiled so warmly at me, and I felt my chest fill with happiness. If Mr. Zuijderland taught me to read, I would know what Vincent knew. I would be able to read and understand his artists. The little blue book would no longer be the great mystery of my life. He would never learn the truth and think me stupid. Then, a sudden realization hit me in the stomach. My eyes dropped and I exhaled all of the happy emotions out of my lungs.
“Mr. Zuijderland, I would love it if you taught me to read, but I have no way to pay you.”
I stared down at my bare feet.
“Maria, you do not have to pay me.”
“No. I heard from Vincent that your birthday is tomorrow.”
“Yes, it is!”
“Consider this my birthday gift to you. I can see that you and I will be great friends, and friends give each other gifts on their birthdays. Besides, you have given me another excuse to enjoy some fresh air instead of breathing nothing but old people’s air.”
He smiled and winked at me, and we whispered like conspirators.
“You must not tell Vincent.”
He nodded without question.
“It is a matter between you and me. I will not speak a word of it to anyone.”
The next day, there was a dinner for our family. Oma came to the house, and everyone celebrated my birthday. There was meat and drinking, and, for that evening, everyone seemed happy again. I received several wonderful gifts for which I was very grateful, but none of them could compare to Mr. Zuijderland’s secret gift. It was the best gift anyone had ever given me, and I could tell no one about it.
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