“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.
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.