Walking home from the post office after church, I trudged through a foot of snow. I carried a bundle of letters that my mother and brother Sergei sent to me.
In his youth, Sergei had huddled away in my father’s study, learning how to make fine lines on paper with pencil and ink pen. He learned how to sketch structures in minimized proportions that could someday be built on earth, by wood and by stone. Yet, even as a grown man, Sergei had yet to match the delicate artistry that our father possessed.
We boys had admired him from up close at a young age, let into his study to observe his craft. But Sergei’s talents leaned toward that of drawings and paintings, of architecture, while my talentless hands reached blindly for something to hold.
Father, I would wish as a child, be proud of me.
Now, these unskilled arms of mine hold letters, not unlike the tons of paper I had carried from one place to another as a young man in a paper factory. Letters like these came with love from my remaining family members, and still I felt frost on these envelopes, which closed me off from the warmth of family. They pitied me, and visited only so often enough as to make me not want to lose face in my community.
Family had granted me a place to stay in my early retirement, my grandparents’ old home. Did they expect me to be grateful when their motive was to keep me far away from them? My brother, the sick bastard, only cared about architecture. My mother hated me for not providing grandchildren, and my father passed away years ago, only to say on his deathbed that he, too, wanted me to be a normal man one day. It’s cruel for those close to you to treat you like a stranger—even crueler for them to ask you to become one.
God must be looking at me with meanly humored eyes, I thought. He who makes me the way that I am. He who makes me weary and alone.
A part of me desired to fling the letters into the air, let them fall like snow onto the ground and disperse undetectable for the rest of eternity. What good news could come from letters, anyway? My relatives only knew how to ask questions without desiring a genuine response. No, I have yet to marry. Yes, I still attend church. No, I cannot work, because they say my mind is “frail” and “weak,” “too spongy to take orders.”
Often on my treks home I was adrift in my thoughts. Nothing outside beckoned my attention. Yet, today, something beyond the walls of my skull and the letters in my arms called out to me.
I saw a pointed fence with a black gleam. I touched it with my leather glove, dropping a few yellow envelopes onto the frozen snow in the process. They didn’t sink in, stopped by a thin layer of ice that, at the very moment, dug into my shins like blunted blades.
The iron fence made me shiver, even through the tanned leather. It reminded me of a feeling from my youth, of clutching at a blade pressed against my throat—
I shook my head to banish the memory. No one was forcing me to do anything anymore.
Beyond the fence, in front of a forest of trees drooping white, were carved headstones of varying proportions. The clouds above me prevented sunlight from reaching those resting places, thus saturating the air and ground and rock with cold. My nose ran. I wiped it on the rough, brown sleeve of my coat, then dropped the rest of the letters.
Voices entered my right ear—the left had clogged. I jumped at the sound, breath catching in my sore throat.
Off to the rightmost side of the graveyard was a small crowd gathered in black, joined by an Orthodox priest in a gravestone hat wielding a box full of smoke that he swung to and fro, lightly, birdlike. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that a coffin sat beside a hole.
I crept around the fence, not daring to sneak in through the gate, which was ajar by an inch. Most of those present had too many wrinkles to count, much like my mother. Tucked between their parents were three beautiful girls, brown locks cut at different lengths, braided.
Reaching into one of my pockets, I fumbled for my glasses. Once I had put them on, I could make out the individual lines of each girls’ braids. The criss-crosses like diverged streams merging, the repetitive motion of strand paralleled strand. Like veins, a woman’s hair carries her lifeblood. Perhaps an outdated thought, the longer the hair, they say, the better the wife.
But these girls were likely unmarried. I wouldn’t be able to make out rings under their gloves, but each rosy, plush cheeks obscured simplistically by falling specks of frost implied youth yet to bloom. How does a flower bloom in winter, anyhow? I know of only one who did, and she lies somewhere up north, near my last residence. Near childhood.
The last moment I felt close to another human was long ago, and she would have long withered to bones. She died so young, before she could consent to a marriage. Her parents’ devastation at this led them to make a terrible decision.
I shook my head again. No point in thinking about that, I reminded myself. No point in losing myself in delusions crafted by a faded night, no matter how vividly I remember it.
I felt a stinging on my left ring finger, the one which used to bear the curse of unwanted union. If only I could cut it off—how I wanted to when they made me lay next to my perished friend—but I needed my hands then and still need them now.
Realizing how swept away in my thoughts I had gotten, I slapped my hands against my chest and coughed. Focus, now—you’re witnessing a funeral, not your friend’s and not your own.
I ignored the bite of the wind; broke free from the shallows of superficial interaction. My poet mind was let to wander by an unaware part of my brain, to tiptoe into the gathering of loved ones who would so dishearteningly toss a gorgeous girl into the ground, like tossing bones into the woods instead of boiling them for their broth. This coffin painted blue matched the eyes of the budding girls, and in the springtime would come to replicate the color of the sky.
In my mind, I knocked that silly old man’s hat off his head and the prayer book out from his hand. No eulogy would cure her of this ailment. Prayers spoken now were prayers too late.
She, abandoned in twisted love, as how a bird pushes its chicks out from the nest. How can parents, sisters, brothers, bleed into the dirt like this? They cut their ties frivolously, without a kiss goodbye or celebration for what once was life.
One of the girls looked at me. Her braid went down to her waist. Tears welled in her pinkened eyes. I faced the snow that was piling around my legs, released the fence, and stepped back onto the walkway toward home.
An angel came to me the night after the forced marriage, with wings of white silk and a face mirroring the moon. She cradled me as I sobbed in my bed, brushed the sweat-matted hair from my forehead, and kissed me on my bruised cheek. “Son,” she said with a voice like my mother, “you loved her, didn’t you? There’s no need to cry over the love you two shared before her passing.”
I didn’t reply, too broken to form words.
“You will find love that reciprocates one day. Her parents cannot prevent you from divorcing a spouse who’s deceased. You will get married again, my son. You will have companionship that lasts.”
I later sobbed about what had happened to my mother—not about the angel but the torturous ceremony. She told my father, who didn’t believe me. “That’s nonsense. Where’s your proof?”
My proof was a ring that I had thrown into the woods as soon as my dead bride’s parents let me go.
Of course, my father didn’t believe me. He never believed in me.