ISSUE 2 · SPRING 2009



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Copyright © 2009

B. Miller

The Letter

B. MILLER

 

 

Charleston’s old Slave Market in early October is always busy. Chris worked his way through traffic, windows down and the symphony of early autumn in Charleston drifting through the car. A group of girls crossed the street, their long legs bare and tan in the warm October sunshine. They laughed like a flock of chattering birds, cameras dangling from their wrists as they walked. A street vendor, his cart laden with hand-painted signs, windchimes, and hanging Gullah charms, ladled steaming servings of low-country boil into Styrofoam bowls for three dollars each. The enticing aroma of shrimp, corn, sausage and potatoes wafted into Chris’s nose, and his stomach gave a low, appreciative growl. Policemen on bicycles, wearing black shorts and white crash helmets, weaved in and out of the pedestrian crowds. And under all this was the exotic scent of Charleston herself—heady, rich marshlands, light ocean breezes, and a vague, indefinable spice only detectable in brief, secret flashes, like a child making a game of hiding in shadows.

Chris saw all of it and none of it at the same time; he was lost in memories as he wove his way through cars and people. Nina loved it here this time of year, he thought, taking in the crowd and traffic wending through Market and Meeting streets. He smiled faintly.

The atmosphere inside the Slave Market was even busier than the streets outside—rows and rows of long, low tables covered with anything from jewelry to vegetables to handmade sweetgrass baskets. Shouts of vendors rang out over the murmuring babble of the crowd, children laughed and ran between the tables, calling to one another, and swallows cooed and fluttered their wings in the wooden rafters. The smells of a hundred different spices and perfumes mixed in the air to make a tantalizing scent that was subtly overwhelming. Sunlight poured in through the open archways set into thick concrete walls, and while it was still late-summer warm outside the Market, the entire place had a cool, damp feel that settled on the skin in a thin shawl of moisture.

Chris made his way through the vendors slowly, stopping at this and that, ultimately working towards the tables laden with fresh vegetables. He paused at a table displaying sterling silver jewelry and stood looking over their wares, a small, wistful smile playing around his mouth.

“Can I help you, sir?” a woman asked.

“No. Just looking.”

“Well, let me know if I can find anything for you.”

He nodded and looked over a few more trinkets. His eye caught a band of silver woven tightly with a single thin strand of gold. Between the spiral’s curls, tiny stars were cut into the silver. Chris leaned over to look at it and the saleslady pounced, baring her teeth in a frightening smile.

“That’s handmade here in Charleston, sir.”

He jumped, looked up at her with a guilty expression.

“Somebody special?” she asked, gesturing towards the ring.

Chris blinked. “No,” he said. He turned his back to the woman and moved on.

He wondered as he walked why he’d come here, when he hadn’t been here in a year.

Tradition . . .

It was his birthday. For the past eight years he’d come here to shop on his birthday, buy produce for some kind of special dinner, look at the sights. Being in the Market made him feel like he was lost in the very fabric of Charleston herself, something he loved. As a treat to himself he’d started this tradition—well, to be honest, Nina had started the tradition. That was the year they were married, a year that now seemed like a giddy dream, imagined under the influence of some powerful anesthetic.

The produce tables were massive, stretching across fifty feet of concrete. They were covered with dozens of different kinds of food: apples, late-season peaches, plums, green, red, and yellow bell peppers, corn, pumpkins. Small baskets of dried peppers, spices, and seeds lined one side of the table. Four young black women worked behind the produce, taking orders, weighing vegetables, making change, and bagging purchases. Their movements seemed choreographed. Chris let himself be pulled into the crowd around the tables like a man giving in to the ocean’s undertow.

He selected a large green pepper and a couple of ripe apples and had moved to the rows of spices when the old black woman came up from behind the table. He hadn’t seen her at first because she was so short; she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. Her eyes, surrounded by nets of wrinkled flesh, were bright and curious. She wore a faded old chambray workshirt and a shapeless gray skirt mostly covered by a many-pocketed, voluminous apron. Her ears were pierced—on the right, a small silver stud winked against the deep mahogany brown of her skin; on the left, a hanging silver cross flashed and sparkled.

“’Choo lookin’ fo’, sweetie?” she asked. She smiled, exposing a gold tooth and several gaps of smooth baby-pink gum.

“Ah . . . sweet peppers.” He saw a basket of the dried spice and reached for it.

She shook her head, the charm on her left ear dangling. “Nah. I know what you lookin’ fo’ on th’ table. I mean, what you here fo’?” She gestured around at the bustling Market.

Chris held up his purchases. “Vegetables.”

She laughed, a dry sound that made Chris think of an old blackbird sitting on a telephone wire, cawing at passersby. “Mayhap dat’s what y’ think. But it ain’t what you really lookin’ fo’.”

Chris smiled, unsure of what to say. “No?”

“Nope. You lookin’ for somethin’ else. Somethin’ you don’t even know what ‘tis, I think.” She stepped back and surveyed him critically for a moment, then shook her small head. “Well, mebbe I’m mistaken. Mebbe you do know, but you won’t let y’self know. Dat’s some sad livin’, whitebread.”

Chris gave her a little smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, old mamma.”

She showed her gapped smile again at his term of affection. “Yeah, y’do, son. Sho you do.”

He looked over his shoulder at the other customers perusing the produce table, wondering if one of them could rescue him from this odd encounter, but none of them were paying attention. When he turned back to the old woman, she was studying Chris with a look of deep sympathy. The naked emotion in her expression made Chris’s stomach twist. Her eyes were bright and wet as she studied him. Her mouth pursed as she sighed and shook her head slowly. “Boy, you been stumblin’ around lost fo’ what feel like fo’ever to you, ain’t you?”

“I . . . I don’t—”

“Hush now, just hush.” She reached out, took his wrist. Her grip was warm and dry and surprisingly strong. She pulled him closer to her, and to his surprise, Chris allowed her to. He looked down at the strong, gnarled fingers of her little brown hand wrapped around his white wrist and blinked. Her fingers, with their bunched, arthritic knuckles and ropy digits, looked like the dark roots of an old tree wrapped around a piece of white stone.

“I got somethin’ fo’ you,” she said, dipping into the pocket of her apron and pulling something out as neatly as a magician executing a simple sleight of hand. She held it pinched between her first two fingers like a lady holding a cigarette.

The object was cylindrical, about three and a half inches long and half an inch in diameter. When she held it up he saw the blackened wick on the end and realized it was a candle. It was hand-cast; rivulets of melted wax turned it into a ripply, strangely alluring shape. It was deep purple, the wax so dark in places it looked almost black, but still shot through with lighter, almost lavender streaks. It seemed to sparkle in the low lighting of the lamps strung from the Market’s wooden ceiling, as if glitter had been mixed in with the casting.

He looked up at the old woman, who was smiling slightly. Chris raised an eyebrow. “A candle?”

“Yep.”

“A used one.”

“T’ain’t been used. Th’ wick’s jus’ black.”

“Black?” he leaned in a little closer and saw for himself; instead of being frayed and burned black, the wick was indeed neat and trimmed, and made of woven black cotton. “Why’s it black?”

“’Cause dat’s th’ way it’s s’posed to be.” She held it out to him.

Chris shook his head, recoiling. “I—I couldn’t . . .”

“Yeah, y’could.” She smiled widely again, exposing her gold tooth and smooth pink gumline gaps. “Think of it as a birthday present.” He blinked and she laughed again, still holding out the candle. “S’all right, boy,” she said. “Sometimes I just knows things. You know how ‘tis.”

Chris nodded, still unnerved by the old woman’s knowledge. He looked around, took a few deep breaths. Things seemed too bright, suddenly.

“But you lookin’ peaky jus’ th’ same,” she said. “Hold y’self steady fo’ jus’ a sec.” She called over to the table in rapid Gullah. Chris let the sound of it, low and spicy and somehow smoky, wash over him without bothering to try and make out what she was saying.

A young woman brought over a white Styrofoam cup and held it out to Chris. He looked in and saw it was filled with tea, choked with ice. A wedge of lemon peeked out from between two of the cubes. He smiled at her and nodded. “Thanks.”

She nodded back and went back behind the table, taking a handful of dates from an older lady in dungarees and weighing them. Chris took a long drink of the tea, let the sweetness of it roll over his tongue. He felt better already.

“Ella makes a good swee’ tea,” the old woman said, smiling.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She held the candle out to him again. “Take it,” she said.

“No, really, I—”

“Take it, white boy, or you gonna hurt m’feelins. Ain’t yo mamma teach you better manners dan dat? When somebody givin’ you a present, you take it, smile, and say, ‘thank you, ma’am.”

Chris smiled, shook his head, gave in. He held out his hand and she dropped the candle into his open palm. It had a cool, greasy feel. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She laughed, that blackbird caw again. It floated up to the rafters and seemed to make the swallows stir. “Dat’s better.”

“How much—”

She held up a hand and shook her head. “Come back when you finished wit’ it and give me what you think it’s worth.”

“Finished with it?”

“I told you it was a birthday present, dint I? You got to make a wish on it.”

“A wish?”

“Yep. But be careful what you wish for, son.”

“I just might get it, huh?” he glanced down at the candle and then back at the old woman with a little grin.

She nodded solemnly, all traces of smile gone. “Yep. Dat’s jus’ right.”

.     .     .

The remains of dinner (low country boil; he hadn’t been able to resist its intoxicating aroma when he emerged from the Market) were safely tucked into the fridge, and a small white-iced bakery cake was in front of him on the green formica countertop. Everything in the kitchen seemed perfectly normal—sponge on the sink lip, dishtowels hanging from the oven handlebar, dishes rinsed and placed in the dishwasher.

Everything was normal, that was, except for the thing he held in his hand.

The encounter with the old woman had taken on a surreal, dreamlike cast in his memory. If he hadn’t had the candle to prove it happened, he might have thought he’d hallucinated the entire thing.

He stood in front of the counter, his reflection a wavery, shadowy shape in the window over the kitchen sink. What should I wish for? He’d gone over all the standard wishes and rejected them—he had no need for a lot of money as he was financially comfortable to begin with; he didn’t want to be famous or live forever. He had no one in mind to cast a “love” wish at; indeed, the only person he wanted to be in love with him was Nina, and she had been gone—

(dead, say it, at least THINK it—dead)

—for almost a year.

Which left resurrecting the dead.

He’d thought about it for a long time and finally decided against it; he had no desire to see Nina’s corpse exhumed, walking and talking, and he could think of no way to completely ensure that wasn’t going to happen. Even if it did happen, she would still be missing almost a year of her life, and there would be questions . . .

We could move away. Far away, start over again . . .

He shook his head, unaware he was moving at all, and the reflection in the window shook its head too. What kind of life would that be for her? Nina was an intelligent woman—she’d know a huge chunk of her life was missing, that she shouldn’t even exist.

Then there was the idea of going back in time to change things, but he rejected that as well—even if she had known of her illness, there probably wouldn’t have been a change in treatment or the fact she would eventually die. The last few months with her, while painful, had been sweet, and he had no desire to tarnish that time.

What I’d really like is some kind of reassurance, he thought. Something to let me know she’s still there, that she’ll wait for me. Something to let me know that we do go on after we die . . .

This’d been a frequent train of thought for him over the past eleven months; so much so he was beginning to fear it bordered on obsession. He’d taken out several books in the library and had only stopped when he realized the librarian was beginning to look at him with a deep pity each time he perused the reference racks in the “Paranormal” section. He’d spent hundreds of hours on the internet looking up websites, facts, essays, photos, and anything else claiming to prove the existence of life after death. And still his mind questioned . . .

“What if we just stop?” he said softly, staring at the candle in his hand. “What if there is no afterlife? What about that, friends and neighbors?”

It was the old debate that had haunted him for months . . . and his mind, like a terrier with a favorite old rag, worried about it incessantly.

I could wish to know what happens after.

This had been an idea he’d been playing with ever since the drive home, but he had refused to drag it out into the light until he’d exhausted all other options for wishing. He could wish to know what happened to people after they die, of course, and make the stipulation that he wanted this knowledge without experiencing death himself. But the old question of what if refused to let him alone. What if people just stop? Would he be able to handle such knowledge? Knowing that the rest of his life, day by day, hour by hour, was nothing but stones dropped into an ocean of time, stones that would disappear and mean nothing once he was gone?

“Yes,” he said. He looked up and met his own eyes in the reflection in the glass. “Yeah, I can handle that.”

Of course, there was always the distinct possibility that the old woman had been having him on or was senile; this could be some hand-cast candle she’d made in arts and crafts class in the nursing home her granddaughters sprang her from every Saturday afternoon so she could help them sell produce down at the market. For all he knew, this candle had been made in the same room with a crocheted afghan covered in kittens and a beaded necklace that hung lopsided from its wearer’s neck because the clasp had been put on crookedly by old, arthritic hands.

Somehow he didn’t think so, though. The candle had something—a presence—that Chris didn’t think he was imagining.

He pulled the box of birthday candles out of the grocery bag on the table and began to place them in the icing on top of the cake. There were only twenty, twelve shy of what he needed, and he used them all. In the center he placed the candle the old woman had given him. It loomed over the rest like a dark watchtower.

He pulled a matchbox out of one of the kitchen drawers and began lighting the candles, saving the big one for the end. It took three matches. On the last, he saw his hand was shaking slightly.

Once all of them were lit, he stood there for a moment, looking down at their cheery glow. The flame of the old woman’s candle had a lavender tint to it. He inhaled deeply and thought he could smell the faintest hint of lilac mixed in with the sweet smell of cake and the thin, acrid smell of candles burning.

“I wish,” he began, and saw the flame of the center candle jump. His breath caught in his throat and his heart began to beat faster, making his skin tingle.

He swallowed. Was he really going to do this?

Yes, he thought. Yes, I am.

“I wish,” he said again (the flame stayed steady this time), “that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly what happens to people—people’s souls, their consciousness, I mean, not their bodies—when they die. Without me dying too,” he added hastily. He thought for a moment and nodded. “Yeah. I wish I knew what happened to people—specifically—” he swallowed and heard a click in his dry throat—”my wife, Nina Jean Taylor, when they die, and I wish to have this knowledge without any harm coming to me or my life ending.”

The flame continued to burn steadily. Most of the other candles were close to the icing of the cake now, bleeding pools of multicolored wax over the white frosting. The candle in the center, however, still had at least two inches left to burn.

Now what? he asked himself. After a second or two, he smiled a little, feeling the relief of a decision made and carried out flood through him, suddenly knowing what should happen next.

He leaned forward, took a deep breath, and blew out the candles.

.     .     .

He woke up the next morning with a crick in his neck from sleeping sitting up on the sofa—he’d fallen asleep waiting for some all-encompassing knowledge about the afterlife to be dumped into his brain. He sat up, scrubbed at his stubbly face, and massaged the side of his neck with a grimace. The remains of his single slice of cake, soggy now that it was sitting in a pool of melted ice cream, were still on the coffee table. Red wax had pooled over the top of the icing, and in the Sunday morning light streaming through the windows behind him it looked like spilled blood.

“Fuck,” he said, rubbing his forehead. The sunlight was making his sinuses pound. He rubbed sleep out of his eyes and thought for a moment, remembering the night before, the burning candles, the detailed wish. It all seemed so stupid somehow, here in the morning. He couldn’t believe he had fallen for the old woman’s gag.

Well, no harm done, he thought, standing up and stretching. All that had been wounded was his pride. He headed into the kitchen to start his coffee.

The cake, the candles sticking out of the top of it like tiny colorful grave markers, still sat on the kitchen counter. The dark candle in the center had a humped, misshapen cast to it. It looked old and used up. It looked dead.

Chris stood there for a moment, then picked up the cake and tossed it into the kitchen garbage can, his mouth twisted in a wrinkle of disgust.

From now on I’m picking up my veggies at the grocery store, he promised himself. Christ.

The coffee pot was halfway through its cycle when he heard the mail slot click and the soft sound of an envelope hitting the linoleum in the foyer. Yawning, he turned in that direction, inhaling deeply the rich brown smell of coffee brewing.

Should be almost done by the

It was Sunday. He stopped in the hallway between the kitchen and the foyer, frowning. Why was he getting mail today? A belated birthday card from one of his neighbors, maybe?

The envelope was face down on the floor of the foyer. It sure looked like a birthday card. The envelope was parchment colored and made out of the thick paper places like Hallmark and Card America sold to mail their greeting cards in. He reached over to pick it up, and when he did, he caught a brief, sweet scent of lilac in the air.

He straightened up, turning the card over in his hands. Suddenly all the strength went out of his legs and he sat down, hard, one of his knees popping and his left ankle turning painfully. The linoleum was cold under him, but he barely noticed that or the pain in his ankle and knee. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the address on the card:

               Mr. Chris Taylor

               4411 Washington Street, Apt. B

               Charleston, South Carolina 29415

The address was written in Nina’s handwriting.

There was no mistaking it—it was definitely her thin but firm writing, with its uneven strokes and funny little backlashed lower case ‘t’. Even his name looked how it should in her half-cursive, half-printed script. He felt a sudden, painful wave of longing wash over him. How long had it been since he’d seen his wife’s handwriting?

After a moment his brain thawed from the deep freeze it was in and he thought to check for a return address. There was none. He looked at the postmark: Charleston, SC, with yesterday’s date.

“Oh, my God,” he said in a whispery little voice. His heart was jackhammering in his chest and his stomach was twisting itself into one large knot. He hoisted himself up, grimacing at the pain in his knee and ankle, and hobbled into the kitchen, holding the letter delicately—as if it was part of a dream, and if he dropped or jostled it, it would simply disappear.

He reached the kitchen table and sat heavily in one of the wooden chairs. The deep, heady aroma of coffee was all around him. He held the envelope in both hands and looked at her writing some more.

“Nina,” he said after a few minutes. He felt his sinuses growing heavy, and tears burning the corners of his eyes. “Oh, babe.”

The envelope was thick and heavy. He took a deep breath and flipped it over. He slid a fingernail under the flap on the back of the letter, and pulled it carefully away from the envelope with a ripping sound that was as quiet as a whisper. He pulled up the flap and opened the envelope.

The smell of lilac filled the room, along with other scents—honeysuckle, sweet cut grass, heady marsh. The smell of Nina’s perfume, her hair, her skin. He closed his eyes and breathed in as much of it as he could.

He felt the warmth on the bottom of his chin at first, then spilling up under his cheeks, warming his eyelids, his eyebrows, his forehead. He opened his eyes and looked down, feeling the warmth spread throughout his body, out to his fingertips, tingling. A soothing, physical peace stole through him—every part of him, every sheath of muscle and curve of bone, sat perfectly against one another.

A golden light was spilling upward from the open envelope in his hands.

(Chris)

Nina’s voice. From inside the envelope? It seemed like it . . .

(Chris, read)

“Read?”

(Read my letter)

He never hesitated. Pulling the envelope fully open, he looked down into it. He looked at the letter his wife had sent him, eleven months after her death, from wherever it was she’d gone. Golden light ran over his face, filling in the lines, smoothing his cheeks, turning him into a boy again, amazed and filled with wonder.

The envelope fell to the table with a soft patter. Across the kitchen, the coffee pot’s automatic timer shut off with a barely audible click.


The Post and Courier

 

LOCAL MAN REPORTED MISSING

David Bryce, Staff Reporter

 

     Christopher Taylor, 32, disappeared from his Washington Street home sometime last week. Taylor’s landlord, Richard Brown, reported him missing day before yesterday, stating that he had not seen Taylor since Saturday of the previous week. When asked if he was aware of any possible places Taylor may have relocated to, Brown declined to answer.

     Any information regarding the disappearance of Mr. Taylor should be reported to Lieutenant Carl Greene of the Charleston Police Department. Lieutenant Greene can be reached at (843) . . .

 

The old woman smiled as she finished the article. She folded up the paper and called her youngest granddaughter, Susan, over to her.

“Mind y’give dis to yo mamma, now, child,” the old woman said, touching the young girl’s head briefly as she handed over the newspaper. “Give her somthin’ to wrap that rhubarb in, I reckon.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The old woman stretched, watching her grandchild carefully fold the paper and hand it to her mother. Susan moved towards the tables and began to place the apples in order, reds to greens. The girl’s smooth brown hands moved quickly and confidently; though she was only eleven, this was a job she’d done a thousand times before.

After a while, the old woman walked out to one of the archways and leaned against the stippled stucco surface of the outside wall of the old Slave Market. She turned her small brown face up into the sunlight and smiled, relishing the late summer warmth that spread over her wrinkled skin. Knowing her daughters had the run of the table, she settled in against the building to watch the sun rise up into the blue Carolina sky.