Once upon a time there lived a young, sweet and clever girl, whose name was Martina. She liked to talk a lot and chatted all the time, even when it would have been better if she had kept her tongue still. Sometimes even her granny, who was a very patient old lady, got tired of hearing ten times the same joke or of answering twenty times to the same question and mocked her with the words:
"Young lady, you chat too much. Be careful because sooner or later you will loose all your words."
"It is not true," answered Martina. "One cannot loose the words. I have as many words as I like."
But when she was alone in her bedroom, she repeated many time the same word, sky sky sky sky ... sea sea sea sea ...wind wind wind wind... to see if her words might finish.
Day after day of this practice, she woke up one morning and she had lost all her words. She could not believe it: she thought of something and could not say it! She had some word left, but only those difficult, useless words, of which she did not even know very well the meaning. How can one talk of normal things using just words such as equinox, parallelogram, obsolescence, bureaucracy and dermatologist? So Martina was very sad and, while she was getting ready to go to school, she had tears in her eyes. Her mother did not notice anything strange, because she was busy as usual to dress kids, prepare breakfasts, wash clothes, do the shopping, and greeted her as she always did, with a quick kiss her and then watched from the window as she crossed the road. But Martina did not feel like going to school at all.
'Why should I go to school?' she was thinking. 'I won't be able to talk with my friends, not even to answer to the teacher's questions. Everybody will mock me and I won't even be able to say what happened to me.'
As she was brooding over her troubles, she walked away from the road to the school and she found herself close to the gates of the park. She felt wretched and, as easily desperation turns into fear, she started to run, through the lanes of the park, away from she did not know what, from people who might ask her questions she could not answer. She ran and ran and finally she fell on a bench, exhausted. She knew the park very well, but could not remember that particular bench. And she started to cry. What else could she do? Then, among her tears, she noticed that, in the lawn in front of her, there was a tiny house, the tiniest house she had ever seen.
Curiosity was stronger than despair and Martina forgot her troubles and went close to the little house. The roof was under her nose. On the tiny door there was a plate, like on the very important buildings, those who keep something precious inside, and on the plate: - PALACE OF THE WORDS -
Martina felt her hearth in her mouth. Maybe inside that tiny house she could find her words!
There was no bell on the door, so Martina pushed the little door and put her head inside. She knelt down and, shyly, went in.
She found herself in a huge room, so high that she could not see the ceiling and so deep that the bottom wall was lost in darkness. A small old man, with a ragged overcoat, sat on a stool, with a black kitten curled up on his lap.
"Good morning," said the small old man, "first thing I have to say is that this is not the Wonderland. Beside, I bet your name is not Alice."
'Not at all,' thought Martina, but, obviously, did not utter a word.
"Good morning," said again the old man and Martina, who did not want to appear ill-mannered, lowered her head, as in a bow.
Martina felt she had to answer. She struggle to find a suitable word among those left, a word which could sound like a name, and said in a low voice:
"I don't believe it," answered Calogero, smiling, "If your name is Ermenegilda, my name is Bustamante. I know too well what happened to you: you lost your words. You can't imagine how many kids get here every day with the same problem. Ten, twenty, every day. Boy as well, not only girls, who are well known to be the best chatters, many many boys as well."
Martina felt slight relieved when she knew she had so many companions of sorrow, but she could just say:
"Paleolithic arachnid" and she felt it was not very appropriate.
"Stop with nonsense," said Calogero. "If you want your words back, you will have to gain them, exactly as all the other did. I can give you one, just as a present, because I like you. Do you know the name of this animal right here?"
"Cat" said Martina and she was so glad to be able to pronounce a word that she felt like capering. But she could not even say 'thank you', because that was one of the lost words.
"Come with me," commanded Calogero and started to walk, with his ragged overcoat and the black kitten following by.
They walked for a long time, through wide rooms and finally got to a dark corridor. Calogero took out a candle, mumbled something about somebody that should provide him with an electric lamp, and illuminated a wall. There where many little doors on that wall, each of them as wide as a postcard, lined up from the left to the right and from the bottom to the top, and all were locked. On every small door there was written a word: arm... book ... cinder ... hand... house... sandwich... tree. A small case for every word in the world.
"Not that I have the keys, I do not," said Calogero, "I'm only the doorkeeper. The masters, the masters of the words have all the keys of the cases. They are the keepers of the words. The masters are powerful, and very wise too, and exceedingly fair. As they look after the words, they are very careful not to waste them and they speak very little, a word every ten years or so, only if it is really important. So they cannot just give the keys of the cases to a little girl like you, to every small kid that arrives here. It would be a pandemonium, worst than the tower of Babel."
Martina would have liked to say many things and ask many questions, but she said simply: "Cat", and she was very happy for that little word she had back.
"Let the cat alone, please!" said Calogero. "I am just slightly behind with my washing, and if you will help me and finish it for me, I will give you the key of a door, you will open a case and get one word back. That's the only thing I can do for you."
And while he was speaking, he was pushing Martina along the corridor, while the black cat trotted slowly behind. After a very long time, they reached another room, a sort of warehouse, with wide sinks, and buckets, and brushes and soap all around, and a huge hump of dirty clothes which reached the ceiling.
"When you finish the washing," said Calogero, "you will choose the word you like best and I'll give it to you."
And having said so, he went out, while the cat climbed over the top of the hump of dirty clothes, crouched down, and was quietly licking his hair.
Martina's eyes were full of tears and she was struggling to hold them. It was absolutely impossible for a little girl like her to be able to wash all this laundry without getting old in the meantime. And then, even if she could, even if finished all the washing, she would gain only one single word, and even if she might choose an important word, such as 'I want', she could but say: 'I want a cat', after such a hard work. She had good reasons to be sad, indeed.
Despite her misery, and because she had not much else to do, she started to fill a bucket with water and to soap the first shirt, which was so dirty, and greasy and spotted that it stood stiff as if made of cardboard. While she was rubbing it without much result, she saw that the cat had started to lick another shirt and, under his rough tongue, the spots disappeared quickly, as if they had never been there and the fabric turned smooth, and of a nice pale blue color. Before Martina finished to soap her first shirt, the cat had cleaned half of the laundry and it was now neatly folded over the shelf.
When Calogero came back, after less than ten minutes, all the laundry was clean and ordered in its place.
"Which word do you want?" asked Calogero, not surprised at all.
Martina, who had already decided to ask for the word 'want', could only whisper in a very low voice:
"Thank you, cat, oh thank you."
"Very well," grumbled the small old man, frowning with amazed approval. "You are a shrewd and lucky girl indeed, because the word you just muttered is a special word and it opens up all the cases. Now I must say good bye because I am extremely busy. So long and good luck."
"Good b..." started Martina. But before she finished her sentence, the small old man, the room, and the palace disappeared in a phantasmagoric wheel of colors.
Martina found herself on the lawn in the park and rubbed her eyes, which she felt numbed as after a long sleep. Had she dreamt? The tiny house had disappeared. But suddenly a black kitten ran across the lawn.
"That is the cat of the palace!" said Martina aloud. "Uhu, cat, ehi stop by me, please. I want to see you. You have been great. Listen, I can speak, I can speak again."
The girl ran after the cat across all the park, as far as the exit. Then she lost sight of him, as if it had vanished. Deep in thoughts and happy, she decided to go to school.
That is how thanks to a 'thank you', Martina got back all her words.