The Letter

Fiction
Bartosz Maj


Photo Credit: Sylva K. Ficová/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She sat in the middle of the cell. I don’t remember how I could see her but I remember she didn’t see me. The cell was filthy, but she wasn’t. Her uniform was fresh, her blonde hair straight and her pale skin vibrant. I was seven. I later found out she was eighteen.

The cell was small. Almost claustrophobic. I wanted to talk to her but I was too shy then. I knew mother was looking for me. She hated it when I wandered off. Even then I knew I had found something I wasn’t supposed to have. So I kept my mouth shut. At first out of fear of mother. After that I’m not sure.

*

My eighth birthday was an extravagant affair. More extravagant than I wanted it to be. More extravagant than it should have been. Though of course in reality it had nothing to do with me.

My memories of it clash with each other, and sometimes I can’t know what was real and what was not. It took place at our villa. It was a bright warm day, as is every day after all, and the adults were all grouped around gazing at their prized possessions.

The walls were white. Everything was white all the time. The pillars, the walls, the dresses. The world was spotless, though no one ever cleaned it. I never questioned it. A part of me didn’t have to question it; I always knew really.

I had to talk to everyone though I don’t remember anyone I spoke to. It’s impressive they were all so forgettable; our community only consisted of forty people after all.

Community.

I know mother made a speech. I don’t remember most of what she said but the word community stood out. The adults cheered for and applauded it. The clapping echoed on. No one wanted to seem ungrateful for the community. No one wanted to be the first to stop clapping. To the children it seemed amusing, but now it seems pathetic.

*

By the time I was nine I had already spoken to her many times.

The cell scared me when I saw it. In a world of polished whiteness it was the only place with grey walls.

At first it was the fear that stopped me from going back, but with time I convinced myself it showed my moral virtue. After all who was I to disobey my mother and go wandering where I wasn’t meant to? But the curiosity of a child wipes away the lies we tell ourselves.

When we spoke for the first time we were both different than when I first saw her. I had grown, but she had withered.

She was frail. Old. Too old for a nineteen-year-old. Too old for anyone really.

The first few times I spoke to get her attention she ignored me. There was a pile of books in the corner and one on her lap. She sat cross-legged in the centre of the cell reading her book, positioned so that the paper was illuminated by the sunlight that forced itself through the small slits at the top of the walls.

Later she told me she learned to ignore the voices. There was always someone talking, though no one ever spoke to her directly. Well, except for me I suppose.

*

As the birthdays went on the extravagance became obnoxious. Things never stopped being white, but with time we gained new colours. Our roads became surrounded by trees, our gardens grew vibrant with grass and our skies became more saturated. It never rained. It always rained in my history books, but it never rained for us.

Mother didn’t seem to age, none of us did. The children grew stronger, more intelligent, fiercer, but the adults didn’t seem to get old. No one got grey hairs, no one got wrinkles, and no one ever became frail.

She became frail. She was almost always frail. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t but with time it became more than frailty. More than vulnerability. Exhaustion.

As I grew I had more time, and more access. No one ever had any jobs, but we had responsibilities. We had no builders, no plumbers, no electricians and no cleaners. I only knew of them because of their brief mentions in books I read and even then they were just that. Brief mentions. No one ever paid them much attention apparently.

We were told we were gifted and lucky to be a part of the community. Our only responsibility was to study. So I studied history.

The historians I read always seemed to feel connected to history. They were aware of their place in it, but I seemed to exist outside of it. There were no records leading up to our century. We had no century. The only time we had was our own age, and I only learned the concept of a century from the history books.

I asked mother what century we were in, she looked at me with her usual indifference and said, “We are beyond history my dear. We learned all there was to learn from the past.” It seemed my curiosity was more than just adolescent craving because I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. I was never satisfied with any answer.

I asked everyone. The librarian. The philosophers. The teachers. The students. Everyone gave the same answer as if they knew something I didn’t. The more I read the more distant I felt, though I presume that would have happened regardless of what I did with my time.

*

She listened to my stories. She listened like no one else did. I told her of the ancients. The myths of Heracles and the murder of Caesar. Of the word of Jesus and the collapse of civilisation. Alfred’s dream of England, Charlemagne’s Paris, the Hussars at Vienna and the Ottomans at Constantinople.

The Italians’ art. The Americans’ freedom. France’s blood. Napoleon’s failure. The Soviets’ prisons. Hitler’s solution.

Then came the fall from grace of humanity. If you could call it grace. A second darkness brought by arrogance. Humanity lost their respect for their gods. They lost their humility and stopped looking at themselves with judgement. They replaced judgement with righteousness, caution with blind pursuit.

My history books stop there. They talk of the fall of humanity but nothing else. Not of how we got here, who we are or where we are. But her books are different. Her books talk of what happened after.

*

By the time I was fifteen, an ocean had settled itself behind the villa. The outskirts of our community had been nothing but a white horizon before. I questioned it but no one had answers. Satisfactory ones, at least.

The adults seemed to grow stronger. With time I realised it wasn’t just that they didn’t age, but something more than that. Their youth returned to them. Their skin became brighter, their hair healthier and their bodies firmer. But still they had no answers.

With time I saw mother less and less. We were never told what the parents did. They had offices, in which they would pass their time, and then would come out to meet the others.

I remember as a child we used to have dinners. Humble but filling dinners. With time the dinners became more extravagant. We drank wine, fed on the corpses of animals, laughed with each other. At each other? The distinction was frail sometimes. I could usually forget about the girl in the cell after enough wine, though never for long. With time everything started reminding me of her for she spoke of everything, and it was impossible to separate the world I lived in from her.

She never complained about the cell. She never questioned it as if it was a matter of life that couldn’t have been any different. I complained, though only to myself. As I drank the wine I felt her around me. The sunlight reminded me of her hair and the ocean of her eyes. I never complained to anyone else. With age I began to notice the futility of voicing one’s true concerns.

*

When I was sixteen, she struggled to read, so I read for her. I would come to her every day by then. I would study during the day, drink in the afternoons and read to her in the evenings.

Her books taught me what my own could not. Of the savageness of humanity after its collapse. The collapse of community and the rise of tribes. The concept of humanity eroded with time as people became animals. It frightened me, but I couldn’t stop reading.

She would collapse many nights, fall asleep on the concrete floor out of fatigue, but I would continue reading long into the night. I was more frightened of waking up to another day than I was of reading about our cruel past.

From the savage times rose civilisation. Or at least they called it civilisation. Communities built on sacrifice. The utility of the community was in its bonds. The sacrifices of the few allowed the many to prosper in a community, though sometimes it was more than that. It was a family and the family was not free of its share of sacrifices.

*

“Have I ever told you the story of Dorian Grey?” I asked her one evening.

“I don’t think you have, no,” she said faintly. She was sitting down, leaning against the wall, doing her best to keep focused.

“He was a beautiful man, though he knew his beauty would end one day. He loved the immoral sides of life, and so he could continue enjoying them he traded his soul for eternal beauty and youth. He lived a life of pleasure and experience whilst a painting of him took the beating of his dying soul. The painting withered as he endured.”

“How does it end?” she asked.

“It doesn’t really matter how it ends. When he wants to change his path it’s already too late.”

*

When I was eighteen, mother asked me into her office. It was the first time she asked me to do anything instead of commanding it. It was also the first time I was ever in her office. It was painfully white like the rest of our community, but certain aspects were bogged down by darker shades. Her desk was black. Her walls white but her carpets grey. Her bookshelves were brown but the books were white, just like all the books I ever studied from.

But some weren’t white. Some were like the books which weren’t mine. The books from the cell. Her books.

“I’m glad you and your sister got along,” she said as she sat down behind her desk. She smiled. I had never seen her smile before. It was a tired smile. I had never seen her tired before.

“I don’t have a sister.” I looked at her, startled. I thought I knew what she meant but I didn’t want to.

“We both know that’s not true.” She looked at me with… pity? Or does she pity herself?

I paused.

“Why is she in that cell? Your own daughter?” I felt anger rise up within me. I’d never been angry before.

“And if she was a stranger’s child would it be any less detestable what we did to her?”

“We? I didn’t put her there. I was her friend, her only friend.” The anger didn’t last long, and soon something else rose.

“You didn’t think our pleasures came from nothing did you? You read the books. You read of the sacrifice.”

It was shame. Shame was rising in me. She pitied us both.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I turned from her, walked to the windows in her office, and looked at the ocean. It suddenly seemed far less vibrant.

“Why is she the sacrifice?” I asked again.

“The community votes.”

“I never voted.”

“You don’t get to vote. You’re a child.”

I didn’t question it. I knew she wasn’t wrong.

“She’s dead,” she said.

The world became blurred like it never had before. I felt my eyes water but the tears didn’t come. It almost felt like it didn’t matter. She couldn’t have died. She never lived.

The ending doesn’t matter when the path’s already been chosen.

“Has the community chosen the next sacrifice?”

*

They gave me a pen and a piece of paper. It was more than they gave her.

I don’t resist my punishment. I feel like I deserve it. It’s not meant to be a punishment. It’s sacrifice for the greater good. It’s practical. Cold. Calculated. But it’s my punishment. I see it as my punishment. For the path I took and never thought to stray from.

I only ever write one thing and that’s this letter. The letter of my life, and the only meaningful thing I gathered from it.

Nothing is worth trading everything for.

So I sit. Like she sat. I wither away as I read all the books I could ever dream of. The books I once dreamed of, and now have all to myself.

I sit hoping one day someone will read my letter and understand it.

pencil

Bartosz Maj is an unpublished short story writer and an International Relations student at Durham University in Britain, who holds British and Polish dual citizenship. He has an education rooted in history and politics, and this heavily influences his writing through laying a foundation of ideas and events from which he draw his inspiration. Email: bmaj3035[at]gmail.com

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