I looked at my sister as she came through the front door, twelve year old Maria holding to her hand. My niece was, as usual, dressed in frills and bows, her hair a mass of pretentious, perfect curls. The girl glared and was already stomping her foot, the usual sign that she was bored.
"And what part of 'A gathering of adults to discuss literature?' didn't you understand?" I asked.
Sally gave a wave of her free hand, nearly hitting me with her purse. "Don't be silly, little brother."
I thought about sending her right back out, but I saw that the taxi was pealing away in haste, the driver probably fearing he might be stuck with the two again.
I should have expected this. Sally never went anywhere without Maria, except to work at the university -- and there had been times when Maria was even there, hanging around her mother's classroom and glaring like a troll from behind the desk. I'd heard students quit the class after a couple days of Maria around.
We were a small, insular group from the literature department at the college. My sister and I both taught. So did a cousin, while an uncle worked in another department. We were an educated family.
I looked at Maria. She met my look and sighed. That was the best reaction I'd ever seen from her.
I headed out of the entry hall, wondering how I was going to explain this to the rest of my guests. Most of them were gathered in the library already, examining books and having what appeared to be a good time. It was hard to tell with such a staid, quiet group of educators.
I went to tell the servants that Maria was here with her mother. Oddly, I only won nods. "Yes, of course she is," Brenda said. "We have a place for her at the table."
While I had dealt with the servants, Sally had marched Maria into the library, waved one elderly man out of a chair, and put her daughter there like a princess on a throne.
"I say, Dirk," one of the others began. "This is --"
But my cousin, who was far more respected then me, took the man in hand and gave me a nod. I thought this might not be an entirely hopeless situation, if we could just ignore Maria --
But I felt sorry for her. Apparently so did a few of the others, from the looks they gave the child. They couldn't talk to her; not that they didn't want to, but because Sally always answered for her. She might as well be a doll, sitting there . . . glaring.
"Oh yes, she reads four languages and has read most of the classics in their original form," Sally said. She patted her daughter on the top of her curly-haired head and from the look that won, I would have feared being bitten.
"Dinner is served."
I gave a sigh of relief. The food, at least, should make everyone happier. I had spared no expense and hired an excellent cook. From the start, the other eight guests were appreciative. And it would have been even better if Sally had shut up.
"It is so wonderful to see educated people talking about educated matters," she said with a wave of her fork during the main course. "We are being run into the ground by the lower classes, you know. We're all being dragged down. If only they would outlaw all books except the classics, we'd be a far wiser world."
I stared. She meant it. Others stared in shocked dismay. She took it as rapt attention.
"Well it is obvious to all of us, isn't it?" she said with a predatory smile as she looked around the table. "We need to start with the young people and wean them away from the dreadful schlock they pass off as literature these days. No wonder they're so terrible, all those children. I won't let Maria interact with them. I will not sully her."
Maria's eyes narrowed.
And suddenly I wondered what Maria actually thought. I rarely had a chance to talk to her without her mother taking over the conversation, but I had the feeling that Maria had some ideas of her own.
So I waited until Sally had taken a rather large bite of steak.
"What do you think young people should read, Maria?" I asked.
She glanced at her mother who was chewing furiously now.
And she smiled.
"Harry Potter," she said.
I swear the entire world stopped for a heartbeat. Her mother went pale and might have been on the verge of passing out.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because if they can't understand and enjoy Harry Potter, they'll never grasp the higher concepts in Thomas Aquinas or Dante," she explained, and leaned forward, intent on the conversation. "People of any age have to want to read and enjoy the process. Besides, the Harry Potter books are fun!"
"But -- but --" Sally sputtered. She took a rather large sip of the dinner wine. "But you have never read -- I don't allow such things in the house --"
"I have an ebook reader and an account," she replied and gave a wave of her hand that was so much her mother's action that I almost giggled. "I found your world too limited, mother. I've read too many classics not to have picked up one important message from them: be open to new ideas, to change, to everything that is available in the world. Never impose limitations on your own mind."
We stared. Sally stared.
Maria did her own talking for the rest of the night. Sally sat in stunned disbelief, all but ignored back in a corner of the library. And you know, I think we all learned something that night.
I've ordered a set of Harry Potter books. I don't think I was the only one who did so after the dinner.
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