The Fiction of Distance

Dear sister,

I am writing to you with the hopes that this letter will reach you before Spring is over. The weather here is harsher than in the stories father used to tell us. The cold is cruel and sharp, and it has a malicious intent bordering on human nature. It somehow seems to me that, if I gave it the chance, it would tear the words from this letter and spirit them somewhere far away to keep it company. No wonder, though. When I first set foot in this town it was like stepping into one of those paintings at the Blue Gallery, where everyone seemed to have fled to the furthermost corners of the frame and the town was trying to inhabit itself by keeping a semblance of life.

The snow on the street is riddled with trails of wandering footsteps leading to all kinds of thresholds on the opposite site of which warmth and custom keep life barely awake, like small pockets of familiarity connected by lines of motion and absence. The whole town seems to be enveloped by a mantle of silence, broken only by the occasional treading of a solitary figure walking back home or the muffled toll of the church bell.

            Looking through the window of my temporary quarters, I can’t help but think about our time in the summer house with Philipp. The fixity of this place reminds me somewhat of those long days that seemed to stretch into a benign and placid eternity, when all that mattered was playing hide and seek in the moors and our greatest worry in the world was getting home on time, lest mother became upset. It is curious how, as I grow older, the silliest memories keep springing in my mind like a stubborn yet welcome bed of elderflower, while the darker, less enjoyable moments recede with increasing success to a relegated corner of my mind. With the passing of time, however, the flowers wither and die, and only those dark thoughts remain to keep me company.  Like that time when mother reprimanded you for stripping the skirt of your dress because it kept getting stuck on the bushes. As soon as her hand left her mark on your face, I could see the regret mounting on the corner of her eyes, on her other hand reaching for a daughter that she had already lost. As I ran after you ignoring mother’s pleas, I swore to myself that I would never let anyone hurt you like that again. I would protect my big sister just like she had done with me since the day I came to this world.

            Little did I know that I would be the one to break your heart again. Father was waiting for you when you got back to the house. Looking from behind the curtains, I was afraid that he would hit you, and I was even more afraid that it would be my fault. But the sight of your vanishing smile hurt one thousand times more than the blow that never came. Somehow, in ways that I would only later discover, the look in his eyes told me that he had known all along. The next day, someone came and took Philipp to the city. There were no good byes, no hugs or shared tears, just the raw and exposed finality of a pair of hands that would never hold each other again. I never told you, but I think you always knew. When I saw you and Philipp kissing among the tall grass, the unbearable thought of losing you took a hold of my mind, as I imagined you running away with Philipp, leaving me behind and alone. I guess none of it mattered after all. You left for the city anyway the next winter and we never went back to the summer house.

            I wonder if the trees miss our laughter sometimes, just as much as I miss running along the stream, holding hands with you and Philipp, and the peace of our secret spot near the bent of the river. Do you think the rocks miss the touch of our skin drying in the afternoon sun? Sometimes I wake up with the distinct sensation that it all happened yesterday, but then I feel the weight of the years bending my back and my voice ever so slightly, and I realize that that peace will never return. If only I could have made those days last a little longer…

            I hope you are well, Sabella, and that you remember me with the same fondness my heart feels for you. I don not expect to redeem myself by going out in this hopeless expedition of sorts, but to bring a semblance of peace to you and maybe even myself. I do not know what answers await on the other side of the vale, if any, but I have the feeling that there was always more to the stories that father used to tell us, and that’s what I have set off to discover.

If my calculations are any close to being right, I will be coming back home in one year. Although the vale in itself is not great in dimension, the winding path that goes through the mountain pass turns into something resembling a frost labyrinth during the winter. I must tread carefully if I want to make it back and bring to you whatever I find on the other side, even if it is only my empty hands and a heart full of remorse.

Ever your affectionate brother,

William Barker


Passing By

When the old man’s intrinsic self-contained cognitive field finally dissolved back into the background radiation of the Universe, his last thought was that of sunlight passing through a flapping curtain and childhood warmth.

The youngest daughter found him. She had gone to check on her father on the hospital bed. She had come the day before from another country. When she tried to sit him up, she found his breath was gone.

Time of death: 6.30 am

There would be no ceremony. The siblings saw to that. They had had enough of them in the last year. The neighbours didn’t understand, but they respected it. Mourning is a strange thing.

The oldest son went to check the empty flat the day after. He turned off the electricity and closed every door and window. It didn’t make much of a difference though. Many of those lightbulbs hadn’t been turned on in quite a long time. Later that day, he told his wife that he had forgotten to check whether there was any food in the fridge that could spoil. He would drop by the following day.

The cremation took place after lunch, though no one ate much that day. Only the family and a couple of neighbours were there. They met next to the parking lot, where the sun was warm. The oldest grandson stood in the shadow with his mother.

The smoke was white and unceremonial. It didn’t have odour, or taste. The eldest son stood firm. The youngest wanted to cry. The eldest sister found the air on her left hand a bit too cold and a tad too empty. The sister that had come from another country held her right hand. The sister in the middle didn’t understand. She had never understood much.

The eldest son let himself fall on the couch and told his wife that there had been two eggs and some fruit in the fridge. He also told her that the flat was crowded with pictures. Dozens of pictures of all of them. Every brother and sister, every grandson and grandaughter. He closed his eyes. He wanted to cry but didn’t.

The siblings met once more after that. They agreed to sell the flat and find a smaller, closer place for the sister that didn’t understand much. She agreed. She had never understood much.

Some time after, the flat was sold to some couple with lots of spirits and not that much money. The pictures were still there when they moved in.

They threw them away and filled the frames with their own.