THE LETTER

JULY 25, 2015 | SNAPPING TWIG JOURNAL

 

Benjamin wasn’t expecting a letter. He rarely got mail, and never a letter. But today, a gray morning moist with unshed rain and silent of birdsong, a small yellowed envelope sat in his rusty letter box. He drew it out tentatively. His name was handwritten, the ink pale blue and flowing like a stream. Benjamin Ezekiel Clement. There was no doubt the letter was meant for him, he was quite sure that his was not a common name, it was probably beyond uncommon. The address simply read “last house, white, at the end of rutted road, RR1, Sable County”. The stamp was faded and peeling at its edges, its place of origin obliterated. He turned the envelope over – no return address. A red wax seal, old, worn, and brittle sealed the flap.

 

Benjamin felt that he wanted to leave the letter in the box. But, sighing, he took it and turned towards the house, his old barn cat weaving herself like a shuttle back and forth between his slow, bow-legged steps.

 

 “Well, my old harridan,” he said to her, “Let’s see what this is about.”

 

He let the cat into the house, a rare occurrence, but today he felt like company. He stepped to the sink to fill the kettle.

 

 “Some cream?” The cat assented with a growling purr.

 

The kettle boiled and the tea steeped, Benjamin sat with the letter placed in front of him. The cat leapt to the table and settled beside his elbow, making an elaborate production of grooming her cream-flecked face. Benjamin absent-mindedly rubbed her tattered, tom-chewed ears, staring at the letter.

 

Then, so quickly that the cat flattened her ears and hissed at him, he grabbed a jackknife from his pocket. He pried the knife beneath the brittle seal and pried it up. It fell to crumbled pieces. He opened the envelope and extracted a single page. A small gold ring fell to the tablecloth with a muted “ping”.

 

Benjamin picked up the ring. It was small, tiny. It sat like a ludicrous halo atop his little finger. Inside the loop he was barely able to make out the word “Sara”. The ring was old, the gold muted and worn. Benjamin knew of no Sara. He unfolded the letter, the page so dry that he had to be careful not to handle it too roughly, the edges crumbling to flakes despite his care. The same pale blue ink flowed across the page; some words were too faded to read. The letter began,

 

“Dear Benjamin  . . . .

 

You do not know me, nor I you.

It is not in me, usually, to interfere with other peoples’ lives, with their fates. We have never met and likely never will. And though it may sound cruel, I do not believe that I would like to meet you – I have seen the result of knowing you.

 

But I am prompted to write because of two events that cannot be neglected, two events that piqué my sense of duty. And though you were never made aware of the story, I feel that it is unconscionable that someone live out a life without knowing what consequences they have left in their turbulent wake. I am an unreasonably moral man.

 

One event is that the mother of the woman I love, has died. She died with heavy burdens that should not have been hers alone to bear. In her last hours, she told me a story and she gave me a ring. The ring that is contained in this letter – a diminutive ring, an infant’s ring.

 

The second event concerns the woman I have said I love, the daughter. She stares towards the horizon a lot lately – like she’s searching for something. She stares at the woods behind our house, too, and comments how that one by one the trees will lose their leaves and then the snow will fall, or maybe not. She doesn’t seem to care, though always before she has fretted about the small birds and how they will bear the winter – holding her hand to her heart imagining the rapid drumming of theirs.

Her name is Sara and she is your daughter.

Yours,   Simon ”

 

Benjamin’s eyes widened. His daughter?  What was this person speaking of? He shook his head slowly back and forth, as though he could shudder the letter and its words from his mind. He stared out the window into the growing dusk, falling gently to the ground in soft drapes of dark, over the hard dirt of the place he had farmed for 60 of his 78 years. And in those years he had rarely left the loneliness of it. He went to the open market in town once a year in the fall to sell his grain, his vegetables, and small wooden carvings with which he occupied his winters. He would buy fuel for his truck and his house, and seed for the spring. Other than that, he never left.

 

But before he had taken himself off to that white house at the end of the rutted road, before he had become the town’s eccentric hermit – the subject of stories with which to scare children, he had been, instead, the town swain – crackin’ handsome, wild and alluring. Benjamin had drunk hard and often; he had driven fast; he had slicked down his hair and dallied with many a chaste heart.

 

But one night when he was at his most discontented and trenchant; when swilling corn liquor until his eyes bugged and driving fast enough to decimate entire generations of rabbits held no satisfaction, he committed a hideous indiscretion. He charmed a young girl at the Friday night dance; he danced her out the door and into the fields. But he was not appeased with just shattering her heart.

 

Watching from above, outside of himself and looking down in an alcoholic heedlessness, he saw himself become someone he couldn’t comprehend, whom he would never have recognized.  And when it was over; when she attempted to hold her torn dress across her bruised breasts; when she held her hand to the blueness about her lips where he had pressed down hard to stop her from screaming; when she looked at him with tears and snot and blood clotted on her face and with her eyes like those of a heifer sensing the first clout of slaughter – he ran.

 

Benjamin stared at the page in front of him as though he were reading his own epitaph. He ran his finger gently under the name “Sara”. With an overwhelming punch of pain felt deep in his gut, which then upper cut into his heart with such impact he felt it wobbling like a world off its axis, he felt a loss – a loss he hadn’t even known was his to feel.  A daughter – Sara.

 

Was this man, Simon, writing to bring him into Sara’s world? Was he writing to say that wrongs could be righted? No . . . .  Benjamin re-read Simon’s affirmation that people should be aware of the consequences of their actions, of their thrust into the world. Benjamin read again the barely veiled accusation, the pity in the tone.

 

Benjamin looked at the frail paper; the yellowed colour; the antiquated writing and the brittle bits of a seal that no one used anymore. He saw that this letter had been an immensely long time in coming to him, more than decades. He saw that the gods of fate and irony had cruelly played him. In losing a letter that could have turned his forfeiture, they had made his loss more poignant, piercing.  His opportunity to amend was long gone, the letter was old, his daughter too – if she even still existed.

 

Benjamin took the letter with him out the back door, his old cat at his heels. He sat on the rotting steps. Here he and his cat had sat many evenings, gazing out at the wind-blown prairie, They had watched lightning storms, and antelope, and swallows.

 

Tonight, fireflies lit the prairie like sparks rising from a fire. Benjamin took the brittle letter and its fragile envelope and held them flat in his large, calloused hands. Then from the edges in, he slowly crushed the paper into shattered bits barely more substantial than dust. He then lifted his hands into the air and blew it all into the night air. The pieces flitted and darted about until they were indistinguishable from the fireflies. He and his cat watched until the freshening near-morning wind that turns the night into dawn. The wind blew the last of the fireflies and the letter out into the prairie until there was nothing left of either.

 

Benjamin took the tiny, golden infant ring and pushed it with his finger deep into the ground at his feet. He stamped hard on the soil. He scratched the cat roughly round the ears, groaned as he creaked to his feet, and turned into the house to put the teakettle on.

 

 

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