In which the cashier sees Sophie and recalls his younger sister.
Sophie picked up her deodorant brand and was about to approach the cashier when the teen talked to her.
“You must have this,” she said and gave her a piece of paper. It was a card containing suicide hotline numbers, often given to people in crisis so they could get help. The teen bowed and slowly walked toward the store’s exit.
Sophie said, “Thank you,” and wondered why she received a card containing suicide hotlines. She kept it and placed it in her bag. The teen did not even hear her reply, for she was visibly distraught, keeping herself from sobbing while her eyes flowed with tears.
The cashier saw Sophie walking toward him and was surprised by her nakedness. In his previous village, women were not permitted to wear clothes that showed too much skin, nor were they allowed to walk carelessly nude inside or outside their homes. It would take fortitude for a woman to defy their village’s conventions, so the cashier remembered his younger sister. He began to reminisce and quietly dream of his past.
The first time I met her, I called her “little worm.” I did not know. I was not thinking clearly. How could I call my younger sister, my only sibling who was still just a baby, a “little worm”? But I kept calling her that until she turned two years old, after which I named her “big boss” because she was like the boss of our house, always getting all the attention and everything she wanted. At age four, I began calling her “little monk,” for she was always reading and had already finished every book available in our village. However, in all those years I was calling her such names, I had always loved and cared for my sister.
Her name was Adelpha, and she was born when I was four. Though I was much older than her, she went to high school earlier than me, and by the time she started college, I was still in elementary. It’s not that I was dumb or a slow learner; she was just truly exceptional. She was one of those once-in-a-century prodigies that appeared in history books. But most of the things she achieved would not have been possible without the support of my parents.
My parents are those you would consider ordinary; Nothing special, not super smart, but just okay, like me. Before they met and fell in love, Papa was a cook in a food stall, serving congee, noodles, and soup to truck drivers in the market, while Mama was a vendor in a kiosk selling local comics, newspapers, and magazines. One day, Papa visited her magazine shop, not that he reads or anything like that, but he just wanted to see Mama’s face. He said she reminded him of his favorite actress and found her prettier than any woman. When she heard him say this, she was flattered, and of course, with his daily visit to her magazine stand and the free meals he consistently brought her every lunch and dinner, she agreed to be his girlfriend. Papa married Mama after five months of courtship, and he did this without getting her pregnant, unlike other shop owners who had babies before their wedding.
After their marriage, fortune favored our home, and Papa got a job as a cook in the biggest restaurant in our village. This restaurant was so popular that even our mayor and the principal of our elementary school ate there. With Papa’s increased pay and company insurance, Mama was able to stay at home as a full-time housewife. A few weeks later, she became pregnant, and after nine months, I was born. While waiting for my birth, she began the hobby of collecting food recipes, compiled meticulously in her notebooks. Later on, with luck on our side, she got a job in one of her favorite magazines and had a weekly column of her own about cooking and food recipes. She planned to collect enough of them so she could later turn them into a book on native cuisines. Since most of our dishes were local to our village, you would rarely find them in other existing cookbooks. When I turned three years old, she had already published two of her cookbooks, which she all dedicated to Papa and me.
Though Mama was a big reader of magazines, she did not have a single book except her cookbooks. That’s because she didn’t finish high school and hated studying. What she loved, though, was reading serialized romance novels and stories found in magazines. Hence, though she was an avid reader, you would never expect her to help you with your math or science assignments, and she would never check with you if you did your homework because she never did those herself when she was a child. Papa, on the other hand, would never get near any reading material because, like Mama, he didn’t finish high school. He was lucky to learn how to read and write.
Unlike most people who collected books and built libraries, Mama collected magazines. It was an acquired habit, so even though she no longer worked on her kiosk, she still bought them regularly. And what a huge collection she had made. We had four stacks of magazines that were higher than our refrigerator, which, in turn, was taller than our house door. Her collection spanned years, from when she started working at the magazine booth up to the present. And she took care of these like her treasure.
In our village, people believe that when a mother is pregnant, the baby will inherit some attributes of the food she likes most. In my case, Papa said that Mama always wanted to eat mudfish when she was carrying me, and you know how lively a mudfish could be when you are trying to catch it, it is very slippery and hard to grab. So, when I grew up, I was the fastest boy in our village when it came to running, and nobody could catch me when playing tag.
In my sister’s case, it was not food that Mama craved: she always wanted to read. Even when Papa introduced her to new dishes he learned from the restaurant, Mama was still not in the mood to eat anything. She didn’t have the hunger people expected from pregnant women. Her only craving was to read. Maybe it was due to the coincidence that a famous author recently published a new romance novel. And for the first time, Mama, who never liked to read books before, began renting a paperback about two lovers who got separated during a war. She could not put it down and finished it in two days. From that day onwards, she began renting and reading all the other books by that author. After a few weeks, Mama went into labor, and Papa was afraid that she would give birth to a baby that looked like a book or something like that. Fortunately, that was not the case.
They said that when Adelpha came out of my mom, she was trying to read the name tags of the nurses and the doctors, which sounded impossible because she didn’t know the alphabet yet. I knew because she would learn the alphabet later on within the next two weeks. We could not deny, though, that they saw the baby reading; or correct that, looking at the magazine my Mama was holding a day before we left the hospital. Whether she really wanted to read on that day or not, it didn’t matter because the next thing was what was truly surprising.
Upon reaching home, my parents placed Adelpha in a wooden crib. This crib belonged to me and was hidden in the storage room in case I got a sibling. One day, during the first week after Mama gave birth, she left the baby alone in the crib while she started to prepare dinner. Unknowingly, she left the magazine she was reading in the crib with the baby. When I entered the room, I saw Adelpha reading the magazine or maybe just looking at the pictures. But she was really attentive and focused and was turning the pages gradually and carefully as you would expect from a child who knew how to read. I told Mama and Papa, who had just arrived from work that time, and we all returned to the room to see if she was still doing it. They witnessed it and believed me: Adelpha was trying to read. And she was just a week-old baby.
When the weekend came, Papa decided to buy pens, pencils, crayons, and notebooks so Mama could start teaching Adelpha the alphabet. Papa, though he didn’t like studying or reading, believed that big brains could change lives and maybe thought it would be good to have one genius in the family. Of course, that wouldn’t be me. Mama began teaching Adelpha the vowels and then later on the consonants. For every letter she drew, she pronounced it and showed it to my sister. And then she repeated the process for the rest.
We didn’t know how it happened or how we achieved it, but while Mama was teaching Adelpha the vowels, my sister started to talk after two weeks of being born. She could say “hello mom” and “good morning mom” and recite the sequence “a - e - i - o - u.” Maybe because that was what Mama kept repeating to her in the past few days. But after a month, she could talk fluently and recite all the alphabets, including the consonants. Yes, all of the 26 letters in the alphabet. When she reached two months, she could recognize all letters and read the words in nursery rhymes.
One day, I heard my parents talking about what to do next for Adelpha. Papa asked if they should give her a small dictionary and then leave her alone to see if she could learn from that. Mama said it might be best for her to learn how to read while enjoying the activity. So they decided to give her a magazine and see if she would be interested in actually reading it this time since previously we witnessed her trying to read even though she didn’t know the alphabet. Adelpha could not even speak yet at that time. I agreed with mom, and to do my part, I also planned to give her the comic books I collected and see if she would like them. We did this for one week. Mama always gave her a new magazine every morning, while I gave her a comic book every other day. By the time Adelpha reached three months, she could already read fluently.
She learned all this before she could even stand or walk.
For the next few months, all the reading materials Mama could give Adelpha were just her magazines as we didn’t have a library in the house, and the only books there were all cookbooks. This changed one day when we got a visitor.
During that time, we had a neighbor who worked as a math teacher in our high school. He had a wife who sold homemade sweets and always gave my parents a fruit cake every New Year. One day, our neighbor visited us with another female teacher from the literature and humanities department. He knew that Mama kept a huge collection of magazines, and his female friend wanted to borrow a few entries that contained a specific story she would like to use in her class. She asked if she could borrow them for a few days, photocopy them, and return them as soon as possible. Mama agreed because she was one of the nicest people you would ever meet. While the teachers were waiting for Mama to get her magazines, they noticed my sister reading. They became curious and asked:
“What is she doing?”
“She is reading.”
“Really? How old is she?”
“She’s six months old.”
“Impossible. A child that young would not be able to read.”
“Should not even be able to speak.”
“Oh no, she learned to speak when she was two weeks and learned to read at three months.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes! She had already completed reading all of Mama’s magazines and is re-reading them as we ran out of materials to give her.”
“Amazing, if true!”
So, the two teachers approached Adelpha.
“Good morning, cutie!”
“What is your name?”
“I am Adelpha. How do you do, sir, ma’am?”
“She truly can speak!”
“Is it true that you can read, Adelpha?”
“Yes, I can read.”
“What have you been reading?”
“Mostly magazines. For today, I read this copy. I’m waiting for tomorrow morning to get the next one.”
“Adelpha, have you read the story of the boy who can freeze time?”
“Yes, I have read that twice.”
The eyes of the literature teacher sparkled as it was what she was looking for.
“That is the story!” she told our neighbor.
“I still could not believe it,” he said. “There is only one way to prove this and remove our doubts.”
The professor opened his bag and took one of his books.
“This one should do. Adelpha, is it okay if you read a few sentences from this book?”
“It’s okay, sir.”
He handed the book to my sister. Adelpha opened it and began reading:
“This book is titled Elements by Euclid. Book I. Definitions. A point is that which has no part. A line is breadthless length. The extremities of a line are points. A straight line...”
She continued reading, and, to be honest, I really didn’t understand what she was saying at that time. But the reaction of our neighbor was interesting, for he started jumping like he had won the lottery.
“Amazing!” shouted our neighbor. “I believe we have a prodigy here!”
“What is a prodigy?” I asked.
“Well, someone as gifted and as smart as your sister.”
“She has the potential to become a genius if nurtured well.”
The two teachers were still glowing with excitement when Mama returned with her magazines. That day, the literature teacher almost forgot why she came to our house because she was too enthusiastic about meeting my sister, and Mama had to remind her of the magazines she was borrowing. They both talked to Mama and volunteered to help in Adelpha’s education.
The next day, the two teachers returned to our house, and Mama greeted them.
“Oh, would you like to borrow more magazines?”
“No, on the contrary, we came here to lend you some books.”
“But what for?”
“So Adelpha can read them.”
“My, thank you! I’m sure my daughter would love them.”
“I brought books in mathematics. I will lend her the Elements by Euclid, excellent for learning geometry and classical mathematics. I also brought An Introduction to Algebra and Trigonometry. And in case she runs out of things to read, I have the book The Calculus with Analytic Geometry.”
“Thank you! At least now she has new things to read aside from my magazines.”
“I also brought some books! I have The Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, and Earthsea.”
“I heard those are really good novels. I might even read them myself. Thank you!”
“We will come back in a few weeks and check with you and your daughter if there is anything we can help you with.”
Adelpha finished the books of the literature teacher within three days. And then, she began to read the geometry book by Euclid. That’s when we witnessed another surprising thing about my sister.
Normally, at least for kids like me, we learn first to write our names before anything else. But Adelpha learned geometry before writing a single word. A few days after the teachers lent us the books, my sister asked my mother to buy her something.
“Mama, can you buy me a ruler?”
“Do you know what a ruler is?”
“How did you know what a ruler is?”
“I saw it in one of your magazines.”
“Why do you need one?”
“I will use it for geometry.”
“Okay, I will buy you one after lunch.”
That afternoon, Mama bought her a new notepad, a pencil, an eraser, and a ruler. And just before sunset, my sister had already reached the Pythagorean Theorem and completed Book I of the Elements. A few days later, she completed Euclid’s whole book and asked my mom again to buy something.
“Mama, can you buy me graphing paper?”
“I assume you found that from one of my magazines?”
“What will you use it for?”
“For creating graphs, Mama.”
“Okay, I will buy you some after lunch.”
Mama learned she could get a bundle of graphing paper instead of pieces. So she bought my sister two notebooks of graphing paper. While reading the second book, An Introduction to Algebra and Trigonometry, Adelpha found out that she needed to know how to write words before she could solve the quizzes at the end of each chapter. One afternoon, Mama and I watched her learn how to write the whole alphabet. She only needed a few minutes of practice, and then she was back reading the math book.
It took Adelpha four days to finish reading the algebra book, with all the quizzes of each chapter solved completely. Before starting the calculus book, she asked Mama to buy her two ballpens and three more notebooks. Mama didn’t ask anymore where she learned what a ballpen was; She knew Adelpha got it from one of her magazines.
Two weeks after the teachers visited, they returned and checked on my sister’s progress. They didn’t bring any new books, though, as they didn’t really expect her to finish all the ones they had lent. So they were pretty surprised when they found out.
“You mean you have completed reading The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Earthsea?”
“And you understood everything that you read?”
“I think so, ma’am.”
The literature teacher wanted to quiz Adelpha, but she restrained herself because that would show she didn’t believe her. Instead, she verified things in another way.
“Among the characters in the three books, who do you like to be friends with?”
“I would like to be friends with Gandalf because he is wise, courageous, and noble. Also with Hagrid, for he is kind to animals and is pure of heart.”
The teacher almost wanted to say “Very Good!” but she refrained because that would reveal she was testing her. So she said instead:
“I would like to be friends with them as well!”
Our neighbor also wanted to ask Adelpha if she had read the mathematics books. But he saw the bunch of papers brimming with geometric shapes and the notebooks of graphing paper filled with answers to the quizzes of the books, including the calculus one, which he didn’t really expect her to read. So he didn’t quiz her anymore.
“Amazing, she answered all questions completely and correctly,” he said while scanning the notebooks of my sister.
The two teachers talked to Mama afterward, saying they regretted not bringing any new books but would surely return tomorrow. We overheard our neighbor telling his friend as they left our gate:
“Her proficiency is now at the high school level.”
The next day, we had not just two teachers in our garden but a lot, for it looked like the entire faculty of our village high school had given us a visit. They greeted Mama and Adelpha, and then, like the mages of the Bethlehem story, each of our new visitors presented a book they would like to lend to my sister. The science teachers brought books about chemistry, biology, physics, geology, psychology, and geography. On the other hand, the literature teachers brought the complete works of Shakespeare, the epics Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and the novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, Austen, and Cervantes. One philosophy teacher lent us the complete volumes of Durant’s Story of Civilization and a copy of Story of Philosophy. My mother was overwhelmed and cried in front of them.
It was only a matter of time before the news about my prodigious sister spread in our entire village. Soon, everyone with an extra book in their house was donating and bringing them to our home. My mother, who was always accommodating, would never turn down anyone, so she just kept accepting every copy that came to our house. Soon, our house was overflowing with books of all kinds, and we acquired the biggest personal library in our village.
However, one surprising event happened when a wealthy man from a nearby town visited us and gave my parents a complete set of the World Book Encyclopedia. Even my father, who had never liked reading, knew the lavishness of such a gift. In my view, my sister had received books that would last a lifetime. However, that was not the case for her, of course. By the time Adelpha reached six years old, she had read every book the people had given her.
Most children attend school at the age of six. But since our village had no Kindergarten, we had to wait for her to reach seven years old so she could enter Grade One. That was when we learned we had a problem.
On the first day of Grade One, my parents realized that Adelpha’s skill was above elementary education. So, they talked to the principal, and the teachers performed evaluations on her to find out what grade she must begin. Within the same day, she was confirmed and moved to high school at age seven. Meanwhile, I was eleven years old and still in Grade Six of elementary.
However, our troubles didn’t end there. Within a week in the new school, the teachers informed my parents that Adelpha was ahead even at the high school level. However, she was too small and frail to start college. She graduated high school at age seven but stayed there for two more years, not as a student but as a mathematics and science teacher. The principal discovered that students learn more from her than from other older teachers. Nobody could explain how Adelpha became a good teacher, but my parents agreed because she was earning money and was enjoying it.
When Adelpha turned nine, my parents finally agreed to send her to college. A wealthy neighbor even volunteered to help us financially, but we didn’t really need it because Adelpha had already saved money after teaching for two years. Also, we would soon learn that she would get a scholarship to the university, and they would cover all of her expenses. We still needed our neighbor’s help, though, to drive my sister to her new school as it was in another village. When Adelpha began college at age nine, I was thirteen years old and still in Grade Eight of elementary.
Before Adelpha left for college, my parents held a farewell party for her. We invited all the teachers who appreciated her gift and helped her develop fully, especially the first two teachers who recognized and supported my sister, our math teacher neighbor, and his literature teacher friend. If not for their visit that day, we were not sure if Adelpha’s meteoric journey would have been the same. We were grateful to all of them. And they were very proud of my sister.
Adelpha was very excited because she would live at the university. Imagine the amount of knowledge she could learn there! But I never knew that the farewell party would be our last happy moment with her, for a tragedy would soon take her away from us.
Adelpha stayed in a coed dorm with another roommate, who was much older than her. A few weeks after the semester began, her roommate’s boyfriend visited their room, and since the girlfriend was not around, my sister told him to come back later. However, the boyfriend instead raped Adelpha and left the dorm afterward, threatening her that he would kill her family if she told anyone.
Adelpha was not scared by his threats and went to the University officials and informed them what happened, and then went to the police station to file a report. Unknown to her, the boyfriend had older brothers who worked in the military, and while Adelpha was on the way to her dorm, three soldiers came and arrested her on the charge of adultery.
The university officials tried to appeal, but the military stated that Adelpha had confessed to the accusation and had accepted the penalty for adultery, which, for this village, was death by stoning.
When our village learned what happened, we were brokenhearted, especially my parents and our neighbors. I cried the whole day. Soon, we all traveled to the other village and went straight to the military tribunal. They didn’t allow us to see my sister. Instead, they gave us the day and the hour when she would be executed.
“She’s not even married! Not even at marrying age!” exclaimed my father in front of the military personnel.
“She confessed to adultery, and that’s all there is to it.” the personnel replied.
“She is too young!” exclaimed my mother.
“She is in college, and she is at least nineteen.” said the personnel. “Your daughter came to us with an admission of guilt, and we repeatedly asked her to reconsider her confession, but she instead insisted that we apply the law and the corresponding penalty.
“The evidence came from her side, and she officially confirmed her guilt. She told us that she was happy with the punishment under the law.”
Two days later, a pickup truck with a loudspeaker began an early-morning tour of the neighborhood, announcing that there would be an execution. The venue of the event was a public stadium capable of holding hundreds of people.
Together with my parents and neighbors, we attended the public execution, planning to save my sister before they could kill her.
Looking from our top seats, we could see a hole dug in the center of the stadium. Half an hour before the start of the execution, a large truck loaded with rocks arrived. Soon the vehicles of the officials and soldiers came, and the stadium became filled with men from the military.
Ten minutes before the execution, a van arrived containing two nurses and the driver, and then the car holding my sister came. The moment she showed up and went out of the vehicle, we heard her shout:
“What do you want from me? I’m not going. Don’t kill me.”
Five minutes before the execution, four soldiers forced my sister into the hole, burying her up to the neck.
“Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.” my sister said.
And then they started the execution. Around 50 men, mostly soldiers, participated in the stoning, throwing rocks at Adelpha’s head.
After ten minutes of stoning, one of the officials asked the nurses to verify whether my sister was still alive. She was dug out of the hole, and the nurses confirmed that she was still breathing, after which she was put back in the hole, and the stoning resumed.
Although most of us were too afraid of the soldiers to intervene, my father and our neighbor attempted to save her. The officials responded by opening fire on them. They both got hit by bullets but survived after a week in the hospital.
Five minutes later, the official asked the nurses again to verify if my sister was still alive, and they confirmed that she was dead.
My mother and I cried and stayed in the stadium even after all the soldiers were long gone. We waited so we could dig out Adelpha, for Mama and I wanted to see her for the last time. We embraced her after digging her out. An ambulance soon arrived to pick up my sister’s body. However, the female doctor who came with the ambulance quickly checked her pulse and revealed to Mama that Adelpha was not yet dead but just in a coma.