Words remain even when the friends do not.
I have no idea how your missives have found their way among my papers. And yet, here they are, scrawled notes filled with rambling angst more suited to a twelve-year-old than a grown woman. (I’m assuming that you are both grown and a woman; there’s no need to correct me if I’m in error.)
Whatever sorcery this is, I ask you: please cease. I have actual correspondence to attend to.
P.S. After reading your missives, I encourage you, for the love of all that’s holy, to find some sort of therapy.
I have no idea who you are or how you’re reading my private words. Or, for that matter, after realizing that, yes, they are private, that you continue to do so.
There is no such thing as sorcery, and this prank isn’t funny. You’re not funny. You’re cruel.
Not that it’s any of your business, but my “missives” as you call them are part of my therapy. I’m supposed to burn them, but I can’t stand the smell of smoke, so I tuck them away into this box. I don’t read them. No one else should either.
I assure you, there is such a thing as sorcery. Those of us who practice the craft are always on the lookout for those who wield it as well.
I suspected you as one of those. Indeed, I still do, since—yet again—several missives, along with your note, have found their way into my correspondence box. This annoys and vexes me. I only wish to know why, every time I lift the lid, I find yet another scrap from you.
Perhaps if you stopped writing, things would right themselves.
You are aptly named. But you know what? I’m not going to stop writing my “missives” or using this box simply because it inconveniences you.
I don’t care where my journal entries go or what you do with them. Crumple them up or take pleasure in burning them. Toss them in the recycling. It’s a relief to open the lid and not see them in here.
I take no pleasure in burning.
Then we have that in common.
* * *
Dear Ms. Grant,
It’s been a few weeks now, and I wonder if you’ve found a new way to … deal with your journal entries. At first, I was relieved not to see them among my correspondence each and every time I lifted the lid.
Then I started to worry. It’s evident that you’re hurting. It’s also apparent that you have a keen and vibrant mind.
To be honest, I miss them. There’s a good deal of sass among all that pain.
If you wish to continue your therapy, by all means, do so. I won’t even respond if you don’t wish me to. Nor will I read what you have written. I’ll simply tuck the “missives” to one side and let them be.
Dear Mr. Payne,
Did you just call me sassy?
Dear Ms. Grant,
I believe I referred to your words and thoughts as “having sass,” but I suspect the adjective applies to the writer as well. I don’t mean that in a trivial sense.
You’re confronting your pain, and that’s no small feat. Take it from a man who has had many decades of practice in avoiding his own.
Dear Mr. Payne,
You could write missives of your own, you know, if you were looking to get rid of that pain.
Dear Ms. Grant,
And relinquish my name? I think not.
For the first time in a very long time, I laughed. You made me laugh.
I wish I’d been there to hear your laughter. I’m certain it’s filled with a certain amount of—dare I say it—sass.
I’ve noticed a lack of journal entries. If that part of your therapy is over and you’ve moved on, then I congratulate you. If you’re avoiding it for any other reason, please continue. I meant what I said. I won’t read them.
Your private words will remain that way. You have my promise.
No, I’m still supposed to write my journal entries. I haven’t been because I don’t want to put them in the box. I don’t want to burden you with them. These thin sheets of paper feel so heavy to me.
Most of all, I’d rather see your notes. I would rather keep writing to you. I’m tired of my journal entries. I’m tired of all the things that end up in them. I’m tired of writing to an uncaring universe. I’d rather write to a person.
I’d rather write to you.
But I doubt you want that.
My dear Lacey,
I am a man who owns a box whose sole purpose is to hold correspondence. What makes you think I don’t want to receive your letters?
You’re right in one respect: the universe does not care. This isn’t to say it’s deliberately cruel. When you’re as vast as the universe is, you can’t play favorites. You set things in motion and then let them be.
Sometimes that is for the best; often, it is not.
You could continue your therapy in our letters if you so choose. I understand that you served in the military. To be frank, I’ve not kept up with the recent wars. I’ve seen too many and fought in several that few have heard of, never mind remember.
I understand the wasteland of the aftermath, how something can be vast and empty and claustrophobic all at once. I know what it’s like to burn and be burned. I’ve surveyed that wasteland and have been left wondering what it was all for.
Certainly, we had a reason for our destruction. In the end, it’s sometimes impossible to find that reason.
But we do not need to talk about such matters. We can do those mundane but delightful things correspondents do, such as provide advice and swap recipes. For instance, as of late, I have come into a surplus of figs. Regretfully, I have no idea what to do with them.
How many wars have you fought in? Honestly, I’m not sure I understand who—or what—you are. You mentioned sorcery. Are you a wizard? Are you very old? I would feel foolish asking you these questions except that some sort of magic must be involved. There’s no other way that my notes find you and yours reach me.
I remember many things about my time in the military, about the war, but none of them make sense. I can’t form them into a narrative, either in my head or on paper. This is why part of my therapy is writing things down. Things are trapped, locked away in my mind. If I can coax them out, expose them to sunlight, perhaps they will … not go away. None of this will ever go away.
Perhaps I won’t feel so fractured. Perhaps, with time, I can stitch the pieces of myself back together again.
But I’d rather ponder your fig dilemma. I’m including a recipe for a chocolate and fig tart. I’ve never tried it, but I found it on the internet, and it sounds delicious.
Ah, I must get myself an internet one of these days. At one time, in what seems like an eon ago, I was what they refer to as a lead adopter (I believe that’s the term).
I am more of a Luddite these days, although I have no desire to destroy machinery. Neither do I eschew technology. I fancy myself a bit of a kitchen witch, and the gadgets these days have made prep time a joy rather than a chore.
So, there, I’ve answered one of your questions. I am a witch. Women and men can be witches, and where, when, and how this wizard distinction came about, I can’t say. (I imagine that’s one of the many things an internet might tell me.)
In mortal terms, I am ancient. In witch terms, I am in my prime, such as it is. Witches have a lifespan that can stretch across the ages.
I have lost so many friends already. Mortals burst into one’s life, bright as a flame, only to be doused just as quickly. You all live such short, hard, beautiful lives, but after a while, the pain of saying goodbye becomes too much. Perhaps this was why I was a bit brusque with you in our initial exchanges.
Witches turn to other things, hobbyhorses, and perfecting the art of the curmudgeon. They bake twenty chocolate and fig tarts for the elementary school silent auction and then slip away before anyone can thank them. Because they know that they’ll outlive every single kindergartener who wanders past their table.
It’s why they … I … enjoy exchanging letters and notes. Words remain even when the friends do not.
I suspect some sort of sorcery connects my correspondence box with yours. Perhaps they were fashioned from the heart of the same tree. Two halves of a whole, if you will.
Oh, my dear Alistair,
Yes, I think I understand. It’s easier to push people away. It was always easier to keep new arrivals in our unit at a distance. Not to be mean or cruel, but as a way to protect yourself.
Because when we went out, there was a chance—a good chance—we wouldn’t all come back. There was a chance some of us would come back in pieces, physically, emotionally. When you’ve been broken, I’m not sure it matters which pieces are flesh and blood and which ones are merely in your head.
I know so many people who think they want to live forever. Isn’t that the goal? Immortality? I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose everyone you love again, and again, and then again.
I think you might end up shattered. I hope you’re not shattered, dear Alistair.
My dearest Lacey,
You are too kind, and I should not burden you with such things as my longevity. I assure you, witches come equip with coping mechanisms. I’ve mentioned my fondness for kitchen witchery. Truly, I have stepped into my kitchen at Thanksgiving and not emerged until the spring equinox.
Some spells and concoctions take time and patience. I can put something to simmer over the fire and then settle into the rocking chair I keep next to the hearth. I read and, of course, write to my heart’s content—for days or even weeks.
We have companionship in the form of familiars. These souls come back to us time and time again as different creatures: a cat one decade, an owl the next, and so on. It’s delightful to discover an old friend in a new physique.
Truly, if a witch is wise, he or she realizes that it’s not the quantity of friendship, but the quality.
I think I would like that sort of life, one where I could put a pot on to simmer and then curl up and maybe read or write or knit.
I’m learning how to knit, although I’m not very good at it. All I can make are square potholders. Honestly, not a single one has come out as an actual square. Can I make you one? You’ll have to tell me where to send it. I’m not sure it’s something a correspondence box can deliver.
Does it bother you to sit by the fire, since it burns? Last week, my veterans’ support group went on a hayride that ended in a bonfire. The hay made me sneeze, but I didn’t mind too much. The fire was beautiful and awful.
I found I couldn’t get close to it. I knew it couldn’t hurt me. Well, I knew that in my head. My body had other ideas. The fire, the burning—it’s what I remember most about the attack where I was injured. I never went back. After my wounds healed, I was discharged from the Army. I’ve been … had been … a soldier since I was eighteen. Some days, I don’t know how to be anything else.
I stared and stared and stared until the fire died down, and a couple of the farmworkers doused the flames with water.
In the smoke and ashes, I swear I saw something. It sounds crazy, but it looked like figures, people rising into the air and then coming apart. And yes, I know detecting patterns is something humans do—seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast and all that.
Still, I would swear these figures were real.
Even crazier, I stayed because I thought those people needed someone to watch them go.
I shouldn’t even place this letter into the box except that witnessing those things made me feel … not better, but helpful, perhaps, purposeful. That maybe there’s something else I can do in this world besides soldiering.
Between that and writing to you, I feel more like myself.
Oh, my dearest Lacey,
Indeed, there must be a bit of magic about you, a power that goes beyond our twin correspondence boxes. I can’t say for certain what you saw. Depending on where you were, the possibilities are endless.
Undoubtedly, the souls of the trees burning were among the figures you saw. Invariably, they appear old and wise (most trees are, but some are simply stubborn and foolhardy).
As for the rest, well, the ground on where the fire burned determines that. What you saw was likely the aftereffects of past events, an echo of something that occurred. Those souls wanted a witness. You honored them by giving them that.
I, too, have a complicated relationship with fire. I still maintain a fire in my hearth. Some spells demand flame and cast iron and will not abide ceramic-coated cookware and the electric stove. In the winter, a fire is lovely and warm.
I hesitate to tell you this, as I do not wish to cause you any additional pain. It is all in the past for me.
I have thrice been burned at the stake.
In theory, anyway.
In practice? Witches don’t burn; mortals do. So often—too often—a friend of mine had been caught up in the same net that snagged me. Or, far more likely, snagged because of me.
I can change my form in such cases as this, appear as nothing more than smoke and ash.
I can—and could—do nothing to save my mortal friends.
Perhaps it is this that makes me so reluctant to make new ones.
Fire is such a necessary, destructive thing, but there are times when I wish I could simply do without it.
P.S. A kitchen witch is always on the lookout for new potholders. No, I don’t think the correspondence box works that way, but give it a try. Who knows what sort of magic it wields.
* * *
I’m not certain what has happened. I’m not certain this letter will reach you. Today when I opened my correspondence box, a thin stream of smoke rose from the interior. Instead of a note, ash greeted me, fine as silt, smelling charred and damp.
I don’t know what to make of this. Was it our talk of fire and smoke? Certainly, a hand-knitted potholder couldn’t wreak such damage.
Did something terrible happen? I worry that our exchanges took a turn toward darker thoughts and feelings. Perhaps that was not for the best. Perhaps I’m at fault here.
If you can, please respond and let me know how you are.
Oh, my dear Lacey,
I have done it this time, haven’t I? Nothing remains of our correspondence except my last (presumably) unread letter to you. I was tempted to break the promise I made to not read your journal entries. But those, too, have turned to ash.
If this is of your own doing, if you wish to break off our correspondence, I will honor that. I beg of you, however, to jot a single line to that effect. Let me know you’re alive, that you’ve moved on.
I will wish you well and shower you with all my blessings.
A wise man once told me:
This is how the world burns, my friend. Not all at once, but one human heart at a time.
He meant it as a warning, I believe. I had—and perhaps still do have—the propensity to rush into things, in witch terms at least. Friendships, relationships, new-fangled kitchen gadgets. Once, so very long ago, I even had a mortal family of my own.
Today I feel my heart burn. I miss you, dear friend.
Today I ventured from my cottage and took a trip to the library. There, I asked a reference librarian for assistance in using the internet they have for patrons.
Awkwardness ensued. I simply cannot keep up with human fashions. I have a few spells that maintain the clothes I do own in pristine condition. I purchase a new coat once every hundred years or so. I might upgrade if something catches my eyes. (Of late, I must admit, nothing has.)
Given all that, even on my best days, I appear eccentric. I dressed up today, thinking it would help my case. I suspect that this, too, was a miscalculation.
The conversation with the young gentleman went something like this:
Librarian: What else can you tell me about your friend?
Me: She was in the military.
Librarian: That’s a start. How old is she?
Me: I haven’t the foggiest.
Librarian: Where does she live?
Me: If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here, requesting your help, would I?
Librarian: You said you were pen pals.
Well, yes, I had said that. It seemed reasonable enough at the time.
Me: She’s in the military and recently moved.
Yes, a lie, and not a very good one. Honestly, I’m in such a state, and I didn’t think any of this through.
Librarian: In that case, maybe it’s better if you let her get in touch with you.
Wariness and pity warred across his face. His voice? The sort you’d use when trying to appease a willful child or someone slightly disreputable.
The obvious struck me then. I admit that I often miss the obvious. I think of myself as a witch first, and as a man second, or even third. Yet, there I was, an oddly dressed older man seeking out someone who is most likely a young woman.
I left right as he signaled his supervisor, a woman with hair the color of steel and a demeanor to match.
Perhaps the next step is getting an internet of my own. Perhaps I should venture from my cottage more often. I take the local paper, but I don’t know where you live. If you are halfway across the country or the world, I might never know what’s become of you.
Or perhaps I will take that young man’s advice.
Maybe it’s better if I let you get in touch with me if you can, if you still want to.
I will place this letter in my correspondence box and then wander into my kitchen to conjure up a spell of blessing for you.
It’s been an honor and a pleasure knowing you.
Be well, my friend.
* * *
I emailed the link to the article about your tarts. Click on it, and when it appears in your browser, click the little star. That will make it a favorite, and you can return to the article any time you want.
Thank you again for the lovely new correspondence box. I still have no idea how you conjured one so quickly (and yes, I suspect you actually did conjure it).
I know my apartment house won’t burn down again. Two fires are enough for any lifetime. Then I remember how you’ve been burned three times already. Maybe fire doesn’t keep count. From now on, I will store my correspondence box next to my bed in case of an emergency. There’s not much else I would want to save.
A wise man once told me:
Words remain even when the friends do not.
I’m going to put this note in the box now. I’m still not convinced it will work.
My dear, dear Lacey,
Of course, it worked. I recall mentioning that you had a bit of magic about you. And oh, look! Here is your note, and now, my response.
Thank you for helping me obtain an internet of my own. I imagine I was a poor and exasperating student. Your patience knows no bounds.
Yes, I have read the article numerous times. And yes, I am that vain, but mostly I’m flabbergasted.
Mysterious benefactor’s tarts save art and music programs.
Between you and me? I may have woven in a spell (or two). As you can imagine, chocolate makes an excellent conduit for magic. Still, I had no idea the spell was potent enough to start a bidding war.
I’m also a bit flabbergasted that this article led you to me. I swear, I would’ve recognized you anyway, but arriving on my door stoop with a potholder was a nice touch, sassy even.
I won’t say fire is sentient or that it latches onto individuals. Still, in my experience, it tends to favor those it has touched before. I will continue my blessing spell. Now that I’ve met you IRL, as the kids say (the kids do say that, don’t they?), it will be all the more powerful.
Thank you again for being clever and sassy and for finding me.
Thank you for helping me find me.
P.S. Yes, in some respects, you are still aptly named.
Letters of Smoke and Ash is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.