The books had all but disappeared by the time Miguel was born. Words written were no longer useful for anything but fuel. You could boil water over Atlas Shrugged. War and Peace would fry an egg, provided you could find one. Infinite Jest could soften rice. Fish was done when each page of Les Miserables had blackened and curled and broken into bits that floated away upon the breeze.
The children were encouraged to explore the woods surrounding the village, rewarded whenever they brought something useful to the elders. On his sixth birthday, in the back of a dank cave, Miguel discovered a cache of books, wrapped in blankets and tucked inside several wooden cases.
"Elder Thomas." Miguel handed a book out shyly. "I found more fuel."
Thomas opened the book and ran a hand across the page. He coughed quietly into his palm and then broke into tears. "This is not fuel, Miguel. There are words here. Ideas. Listen." He pointed to the top of a page and began to read. After one page, he closed the book.
"Why did you stop?" Miguel asked.
"Reading is forbidden."
"Books are for fuel."
"The cave is full of them," Miguel said.
Thomas stood and glanced around at the other elders. "Show me," he said quietly.
When he saw the books, Thomas fell to his knees. "You must never tell anyone."
Miguel nodded and scratched at a scab.
Thomas taught Miguel to read in secret, Miguel sounding out exotic words that felt heavy on his tongue.
"You appear to have a talent for words," Thomas said a year later.
In the end, they were discovered hunched over the tiny print of A Wrinkle in Time.
The chief elder, Miguel's grandfather, ordered the hidden books to be burned to burn the bodies of the teacher and the boy.
The villagers watched as blackened bits rose to the sky and blew away.
This was written for this week's Trifecta Writing Challenge. The word was appear.