Sometimes, people write letters. They pull their paper to them across a smooth wooden table, or unfold it from deep pockets, or gather it at great cost from glass-windowed shops. They dip their pens in ink, or unwrap the bit of cloth around their charcoal sticks, or take a piece of coloured chalk that's been hidden in a drawer or coat for many long days. They write a name, or an endearment, or a greeting, at the top of the paper; they write a signature, another name, an affectionate parting word at the bottom. Between the name at the top of the paper and the name at the bottom, they write what many hold to be the most important part of the letter.
They write stories.
Short stories, long stories, brief or angry, trite or contrite, loving, loveless, worried, careless--there is no end to the stories they put down on their paper, wherever they got it, whatever they use to write with. They conjure up worlds. They invent the saddest fantasies, and the bitterest joys. They use letters to write the strangest stories in the world, even on cards that have no more than a line scrawled across the middle. If it is a letter, it is a story.
On the second day of summer, at twilight, a young man who looked very much like an old man was writing a story.
It began with a name, because most letters do. The name was seven letters long, and had been written badly because the young man--though, perhaps, it would be better to call him the old man from now on, as he was far older than younger--because the old man's hands shook a little. This was strange to him, because it had been many, many years since he had written a letter and noticed his hands shake as he was doing it. He was very good at writing letters these days, and had never had to consider keeping his composure. In the usual circumstances, he was a calm man, reasonable and self-controlled, with a mild expression. Now, though, as he wrote his story, he looked down at his hands as though he were amazed at their slight shaking, and tried to go back to his letter.
At this point, he put down his pen--he was writing with a pen, a fine one, that matched the inkwell he was dipping it into--and sighed softly.
Finally, he began his story.
It started with a question, which is different from the beginnings of many stories. It continued with four or five scratched out lines. Then, because he had realised he was making runs in the paper and the ink was splotching the tablecloth, he wrote very carefully,--
"I had heard that there was an accident."
He stopped, and stared at the sentence. At last, he shook his head.
"I had heard something of an uprising in Marianstat, and they said and that several people were killed. They told me of a man, two women, a boy--three more men elsewhere. I wondered if you would this was true."
Taking his story up in his hands, he crushed it and threw it away.
He murmured something softly which might have been a curse, and took another sheet of paper. He began again.
"How are you now? We're worried about you here--we heard that there was a brief uprising in Marianstat, and that men and women were killed. Is it true? Do you want us back? We're ready to come, I think. She has made bundles of half our clothes, that we might ride as soon as we got word, and every day we each undo a different one so that we have something to wear, and soon there won't be any bundles left, and she'll have to wash our things and start over again. I think she's by the window now, watching the post road. Is there trouble? Do you want us to come? We're ready to come."
The old man put down his pen for a moment.
"We're happy here, though. I haven't written in a very long time, but we have a farm of sorts. We have a vineyard, and and-- a daughter who is just eight, and dances in the garden in her smock; and a son, who is small enough that he would only come to your hip standing, and has eyes like yours. We call him Sahen. Our daughter is named Rina, because--I don't think I can tell you why. I hardly knew her; I only watched her and pitied her, and that's not a very good reason to take a woman's name, is it? But Rina suits her. She laughs all the time. Sahen loves her dearly."
He shook his head again, and continued writing, because it seemed to him he could hardly stop. He could hardly stop now.
"They're always together, and it makes me terribly glad. I think I understand--I'm pretentious enough to say I understand--why you had so many children, why you took so many of them and called them your children. You brought them all together and made them yours, just as Rina and Sahen are mine, together, when they dance or play. But we never played for you, did we? We just fought. Not with each other; I know that. But you taught us to fight, and we went into it as though we were glad, and we all got ourselves killed, one by one, almost in front of you. I regret it. All of us, except for me, and I left you behind when I went into exile to have a farm and a vineyard and my own children. I will never be able to tell if this will make you sorry or make you smile. I don't know if you'll be bitter. I never knew what you were thinking, and I hardly expect to know now that I've been away so long--ten years, already?--and understood so much about myself. It was strange, understanding. It happened very slowly. Every once in a while, I'd just realise something. I'd go out walking, and I'd know why I'd always felt a certain way about something; or I'd be looking after the grapes and suddenly see what I needed to do to fix a problem between her and me. Once I was reading to Rina and had to stop and just--stop, because I knew why I'd done something I did years ago. I knew myself, and it made sense to me, and I was too surprised to speak for a moment. Now that I understand so much about me, I don't know how I'll ever understand you, because I'll always be making comparisons, and we're not alike--are we?"
"No," he murmured to himself. "No, perhaps we are."
"I don't think I would regret seeing you again, though. I don't think it would throw my world over and confuse me or anything of that sort. It might... hurt afterwards, but only for a little while. I sometimes wonder if you look the same. I know I do not; she tells me so often. She says my hair is greyer, my face is tireder, and I can only hope it's because I am growing old contentedly, wearing myself out with good work--and I suppose that's not very likely. I am worrying. How are you? How is Marianstat? The people ruled themselves well, didn't they? That's what the merchants who pass through tell me. They tell me it is a prosperous city. They mutter and shake their heads and clearly think it is all capable of crashing down in a moment, but until now they never said anything like that with any certainty. Now--they spoke of an uprising. They spoke of killing. Why doesn't anything last? Rina and Sahen will never leave the farm, I tell myself sometimes. I will keep them here for-ever where they can't go out and meet murderers and fools and brave men and poor men and men like you and men like Justin. I will keep them away from cities where men and women are killed. I will keep them here where the biggest concern is whether or not we will get a harvest good enough to make wine with, or does anyone know when this barrel was put in the cellar to age, because somebody forgot to mark it? That's the sort of thing they'll think about. And they'll think about marrying other country children and raising more country children. They'll never want more; they'll never fight wars or try to kill themselves or go mad with grief and become faceless captains of armies who only want to taste blood. They'll never--they won't be me. Or you. They'll be beautiful, joyful, ignorant children who believe the best happiness is a day without rain. That's what I want for them. I know that truly, it's not, and they will never forgive me if I try to keep them here, and sooner or later they'll want to leave and they'll go off to cities like Marianstat--but I want to keep them. I'll try as long as I can, anyway. I'll--"
He scrawled over what he had started to write, and then scrawled over it again so that it was properly hidden under tears in the paper, and ink. Then, with another sigh, and a quick dip of the pen into the inkwell, he went on.
"I've strayed most embarrassingly. What I really want is an answer. Tell me--what is the truth about Marianstat? Is there truly an uprising? What is happening? And--do you want us back again? Because we are ready. She is standing by the window. Rina and Sahen will stay with neighbours; they aren't afraid. Tell us, please, where we're needed, and we'll do what we should at once."
Now he wrote the final part of the story, the name at the end, at the bottom of the page. He wrote 'gratefully' first, as a parting, and then he wrote his name, which was only four letters. He wrote it well, and clearly, so that anyone could read it, and, having done this, he blotted the paper and folded it neatly, sealed it off with hot wax from the candle, and wrote an address on the front--all stories are titled like this, with wax and addresses, which tell in handwriting and impressions from rings who is the author, who is the dedication to, who illustrated, what it is called. It is the cover of the story, and the old man made his well.
He stood, and blew out the candle. He walked through the rooms until he came to the top of the stairs, and at the bottom saw a room with one big window in the wall. By the window, a young woman who had the eyes of a very old woman was standing with her hands against the glass.
The old man came down the stairs and walked silently into the window-room; he put his hand on the old woman's shoulder, and she turned to him.
"I can meet the post coach at the end of the road if I hurry."
"I'll come, too." She left the window and got a shawl, wrapping it lightly around her shoulders, as the old man pulled on his coat and left the buttons in the front unfastened.
As they walked along the road, which was soft and muddy beneath their boots and growing little sprigs of bright green grass in the centre, the old woman said,--
"What did you write?"
"I asked him if the rumours were true. I asked whether or not he wanted us to come. I told him about how we were; I think I told him much more than was necessary, and I hope he doesn't get tired of it before he gets to the end. I told him about Rina and Sahen."
"Did you tell him why we called her that?"
"No--I couldn't remember."
"No, I thought... Because she had such beautiful fair hair, and such big hands. Because she laughs, remember?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, I told him that. Do you think it will please him?"
"He'll smile, that's all. I don't really know whether he'll be pleased. He was always hard to understand."
"I told him that."
"How you anticipate me! Do you think he'll ask us back?"
"I really don't know, to tell you the truth. Remember that you said we'd see Marianstat again."
"I did, but perhaps I was just saying it because you seemed so sorry. Are you sorry? You do love it here, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. They do."
"They do," the old woman agreed, nodding. "I won't be sorry if we go back. I want to see what's changed. I want to know if anyone is still alive. It's going to be like walking through ghosts, piled high and shaping themselves into buildings. But I'm not afraid." She tilted her chin up defiantly. "No, I want to go back."
"I think I do, too. I've just gotten used to the idea of having lost my country. I like being an exile. It seems a lot like growing old anyway."
"I don't believe I want to grow old."
"You have." The old man stopped and touched her cheek gently. "You have, you know."
"Oh, I know. Be quiet. We're almost there."
"If we go back, you can't pretend to be the same girl."
"No one said I would. I'll be old in Marianstat just as well as I'm old here. I won't dress up like a vagabond and go running through thieves' dens, and I won't give my friends nicknames, and I won't buy knives to take home to my children. What do you think I am? Do you think I've deceived myself? I know what I am. I know that things have changed."
"Yes, and so do I. I know that everyone is gone. I know that Las Bombas in somewhere in another country that we don't know the name of, getting out of horrible scrapes with the natives with his usual ingenuity, and lack thereof. I know that everyone I know died years ago, except you--and him. We don't know if he wants us back, yet. He might tell us to stay here."
"I know. You'll want to go. That's why I said--you can't pretend."
"I won't pretend."
"I hope not. It's going to hurt if you do."
She glanced at him tightly, but didn't say anything else about it. Suddenly she pointed. "There's the post coach. We're going to miss it. Can you still run, old man?"
He laughed. "I believe I can keep pace with you."
"All right, then. Ready? Go, then!"
They got to the coach a moment before it left, out of breath and laughing. Their old faces looked strange when they managed to speak breathlessly, and wiped away the sweat over their eyes, and handed the old man's story to the coachman. As they watched him twitch the whip and the wheels begin to roll and the big coach slowly, and then quicker and more quickly, glide into the distance, they looked at once another secretly.
"There it goes."
"We'll just have to wait, I suppose. We'll see."
"Right... Should I make tea when we get back?"
"It would be nice," said the old man, nearly wistfully.
Without saying a word more, they turned and started home.
The old man's story travelled on.
It is curious, the number of stories a man can write in just one year. There are the congratulatory stories, the lauding stories, the stories about death and about achievement and shame and everyday life, about who gets married next week and who sells bread at the cheapest price. With so many stories written, it seems strange that anyone could have the inspiration to write them, to continue to pour out words when sure the fountain should have dried up or stopped working long days ago.
The reason it doesn't, the reason the little stories, with their titles, authors, dedications, illustrations, pages, fins at the end and once upon a times at the beginning, continue to be written, is quite simple.
People call them letters. They contain souls and minds and everlasting promises, but as long as they're letters, they remain trifles.
The old man's story, travelling away in the post coach, to a man in a faraway city, a man with weary eyes and pockmarks on his face, was just a trifle. As a trifle, the man in the faraway city received it. Upon opening it, though, he realised suddenly that he was holding a story. It was a strange story, but a story, a full and an important story.
Then he sat down at a little table, with light from a little lamp; he took a piece of paper and a stick of charcoal from his overcoat pocket; and he began to write his own story in return.