The Letter

“A lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth.” —Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

A short story,   by Sha’Tara 

       She ran across the freshly ploughed field, bare feet digging in soft loam, long dress held up with one hand, the other waving a yellow envelope as she jumped uneven furrows.

     “Samuel, Samuel!”

    The team stopped and the man waited, leaning on the arms of the plough, sweat pouring down his dirt-streaked face and opened homespun shirt.

     “A letter from Timmy…! she cried, breathless from her race across the rough ground.

     “Now, easy, woman. How d’you know it’s from the boy?” he answered cautiously in a soft drawl.

     “I jes’ know! Please, Sam, let’s go have it read!” Her eyes danced with excitement.”

     “Now, Susanna? Ya know the preacher’s on his rounds and teacher’s off for the summer… and the notary charges for readings.”

     “Please, I’ve got to know how he’s doin’! Please?”

     He sighed heavily and looked up for a moment: “Alright, woman, we’ll go. Hitch up the gelding. I’ll bring these in and feed ’em. Reckon the ploughin’ can wait one more day.”

     As they rode their battered surrey into town, she tried to imagine the contents of the letter, all the things her son would be doing and seeing. Even though the war was raging, he’d have seen the mansions with their armies of servants, the women in their pretty getups, maybe even been to some fancy do… “I jes’ hope he ain’t fallen for none of them fancy types. Who knows with young un’s away from home so long? Two years, three months and nineteen days…”

     She was jolted from her dreaming when the rig stopped in front of the notary’s office. They went in, Susanna holding herself shyly, a distance behind Sam. They waited patiently until the rotund man sitting at a desk, a shade on his balding head, stopped shuffling the pages of a paper, took a cigar from his mouth, blowing the smoke to the low ceiling, and nodded for them to approach.

     “Can I help you folks?” He had studied them and smirked inwardly. He already knew what they wanted by the envelope the woman was now holding tightly to her breast. He savored the momentary power their ignorance and threadbare poverty allowed him.

     “We need a letter read, sir.” Sam said, matter of factly.

     “Sure, no problem.” He snapped his fingers, “You got the two-bits?”

     “Two-bits? Ain’t that a heap o’ money for a readin’?” The farmer was incredulous.

     “‘Tis the goin’ rate these days, folks, what with the war on an’ all.”

     “Look, please, Mr. Raines” she came forward, daring to interrupt, holding out the letter to him, “it’s a letter from my son in the army, sir, from the war, an’ I jes’ want to know what it says… please?”

     Pushing out his chair, placing his feet on the desk and looking past her at a rider on the street, he answered arrogantly, “This here’s a business, ma’am. Gotta have money to make it run. If I read your letter for nothin’ everyone’d want the same priv’lege an’ I’d be outta business, see?”

     “Please…” she hesitated briefly, then tried again, “would you take some eggs, or milk, or a chicken, maybe?”

     “Didn’t you read my sign? ‘Course not, you cain’t read! Look at these here big letters” -he struggled his bulk out of the swivel chair, stood up and poked viciously at the sign on his desk, then slammed his fist down -“How many times do I have to tell you people the same thing? NO PAYMENT IN KIND ACCEPTED. That means, cash, understand? Good day!”

     He went back to his chair, relit his cigar and exhaled with extra satisfaction. He flicked open his paper with a noncha­lant gesture, ignoring Sam and Susanna who turned and left the office, the droop of their shoulders accented by another of life’s endless defeats.

     “I tried to tell you, woman” Sam said to her, not unsympathetically, as he helped her into the rig. “Edjicashun cos’s money and Ben’s edjicated and we’re jes’ dumb farmers. Like preacher says, we gotta accept this from the Lord an’ not go put on airs. Jus’ wait ’til Timmy returns and he’ll read us the letter. By the look o’ that envelope, I reckon it’s a mighty fine letter.”

     Moved by her silent, bitter tears, he reached for her with his large, calloused hand and brought her close to himself, flicking the reins with his free hand. She turned her face to him for a moment, then leaned against him, holding the letter between them.

     She rode the rest of the way silently, crushed by her ignor­ance and shamed at having taken Sam from his work.  Approach­ing their homestead in the early fall twilight, she did not experience the usual sense of happiness and security which the sight always gave her. She could not articulate the deep sadness which held her as she disembarked and entered the shack.

     She placed the letter on the small wall shelf above the table, next to the Bible and the faded blue ribbon Timmy had won at school in a spelling bee.

     Sometimes, on sleepless nights, Susanna would take the letter and hold it tenderly, visualizing her son standing by her side. She saw his green eyes sparkle as her hand went through his unruly reddish hair, his freckled face open in that special smile he had always kept for her alone. She would cry a little, then put it back. She never again dared to have it opened and read, although the preacher passed through several times, and the schoolmarm returned for another year.

     Rumors that the war had ended began to circulate through the county, but it was only when some of the boys returned and Timmy did not, nor send any more letters, that Samuel realized he had not written the letter and that Susanna had always known.

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27 thoughts on “The Letter

  1. Regis Auffray

    Poignantly moving and meaningful; a sad statement on the ways of this world which never seem to change. Particularly “in tune” with the horrific events in Orlando, Florida today.

    Reply
  2. Emma

    Love your stories, Sha’Tara, you sayer of the unsayable. This one had my heart breaking by the second para, and crying by the fourth.

    Reply
    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Ahh, that same place I found myself in when I “received” this story and wrote it. The truly humble, the openly accepting, the silently sorrowing and the quietly joyful: these people, their attributes, have fascinated me throughout this life. They are those rare and beautiful entities, like the wood lilies a wanderer unexpectedly comes upon in the northern aspen forests. I love weaving stories around such beauty, kindness and bravery.

      Reply
    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      She knows, but she’s also the candle that burns by the window in the wintry, snowy night to point the way home when hope is lost.

      Reply
  3. We come from dreams ~

    Oh we wept with this one, alright. And despite everything which comes from the Outside says we’re cooked, the spirit of Sara tells me – maybe not.
    And yet – the Bible, which America’s earlier denizens supposedly took to heart, has within its pages over 2200 injunctions to help the poor. Not just America, either; any nation for the last 2000 years which called itself ‘Christian’ was somehow miraculously blind to all 2200 of them. Including the notary.

    Reply
    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Thanks for that insightful comment. You’re so right, so sadly right. I was raised a Christian (Catholic, but hey it wasn’t my choice there 🙂 ) and I read the New Testament before I even heard of the Bible (wasn’t allowed in Catholic homes until the mid-fifties) and I focused on the synoptic gospels as being the meat of Christian discipleship. In the beginning I didn’t question much, certainly not the possibility that “Jesus” was basically invented, a cobbled together personality. Over many years of struggle in and out of the religion, I kept coming back to the famous “sermon on the mount” as expounded in Luke chapter 6. Key points: love your enemies. Give to everyone who asks. If someone takes what belongs to you do not demand it back. I didn’t care about the blessings, that’d take care of itself, but I pondered the possibilities of living such a life. Conclusion: outside of a miracle and the gift of an unusual source of spiritual power not of this realm, no way that could be done and still remain alive. So? Honesty had to trump hypocrisy. I left Christianity because I couldn’t live up to the commandments. A failed Christian, that’s me. But I’ve come a long way towards those commandments once out of the institution. It can be achieved, but only by turning everything we believe necessary to life on its head. At least I found a bit of that miraculous “force” I was once looking for in a divine entity in compassion. When in doubt, screw common sense, do the compassionate thing and let the chips fall where they may.

      Reply
      1. We come from dreams ~

        Well, I was raised a Prebyterian; Sara long ago a Catholic; and my dear Ceannt was an Irish Catholic boy if you will. My disillusion was long coming; I go back, I’d leave; but when the historian in me rebelled (finally) at the idea that the four Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) were really history, I was gone. Sara’s came after she died; there were no angles, no devils, only the sight of her parish priest debauching the altar boy. Ceannt never took it seriously, thanks to his mother – although he gets upset when anyone says anything negative about the Virgin Mary – who, as she is depicted, is the heart of compassion. “Take what you need that you think will last / But what ever you wish to keep you’d better grab it fast.” And yer last sentence says it all. Salud!

  4. L. T. Garvin, Author

    This is certainly a very powerful story. The character development is great, I can truly put myself in the shoes of that poor mother. It also says a lot about the character of people and what they value. Excellent work!

    Reply

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