The Letter / Short Story / Hanah Bakri

A man, a woman, the other woman and the universal truth. If a letter could speak, what would it say? Read Hanah Bakeri's dark, hilarious and poignant short story

Illustration: Sylvia Hamama

By Hanah Bakri

Fiction 18 April 2018

This story won’t make sense but it’s the truth. I was something, now I’m another. Sunlight, air, the earth fed me. I was part of a cycle too timeless to fathom. Once ancient, deep, tall, now I’m thin, soft but sharp enough to draw blood.

I hardly remember how I died. It was like a dream told to me by someone who spoke a language I’d forgotten. I was chopped down. Shredded, hacked, mashed, then mixed with other things and separated. Was it a good death? I didn’t think so.

Everything that is alive, in a matter that it grows, has in it an essence. By that I mean a throbbing something. My essence was lost. I was a clean page. Sterile is the word one would use.

Though I existed, I still wasn’t living again until one day, as stories often start, my identity was poured into me with sorrow, passion and the mysticism of love. I was transformed, again, into a thing of power.

I’m the truth teller now. If broken down by an expert eye that reads the hidden strings that tie life together, they would clearly see who my creator is and why I was instilled with such power. Let me tell you what happened.

I was ripped out of a notebook one morning. It was a woman who did it. Dressed in nothing but a white sheet, her hair, dark, fell over her shoulders in a mess. From her ears hung delicate gold earrings, each with an oval green gem inside. Like in all fairy tales, the woman was beautiful. And as those fairy tales often described, our heroin’s beauty was in equal measure to her misery.

Her head jolted back. The breath, heavy, violent. She shook until a silence came from inside her. Something took control. Lifting her hand, she carried an instrument. With it she marked me. The ink dried in less than seconds. It started with a steady hand that eventually trembled. Her stare became sharper and from deep inside, where no one could reach, she pulled and threw into me raw, visceral splendour. It was truth.

Finally, she dropped her head, cheeks slammed into me. Breath, spit and tears. Words, ink and paper. Though I was already created, killed and remade, I was finally born. But she was dying as I had died. Was it a good death? Not entirely sure.

She folded me to ensure that my essence was concealed and between her palms, she kissed me before she left the room. I wished she’d taken me with her.

They walked out of the room a stereotypical, dysfunctional couple. What a cliché.

The sun came and left three times before someone found me. Another woman. A different woman. Every movement of hers was practiced, a dancer who knew the steps but had no rhythm. How ironic that on her hunt for morsels of imperfection she came upon me sitting on the table. If I could, I would have scoffed.

We observed each other. I had no idea of her first impression of me, the general promise curiosity held for most people I suppose, but she held no interest to me. I saw her for what she was, a bird with only feathers on its face, the rest of her plucked, boiled and dangling. Her body lacked appeal but the face was tight and pretty, made up of tiny twinkling things, painted, glazed then powdered to cover the nimble corruptions of time.

Careful fingers unfolded me and from my first words I knew I had her. The more truth I spoke, the more her inner truth came out. The lines of her face coiled like wire followed by a screech, while her hands threatened to pull me apart. We both knew though, that she could never destroy the truth I told her. I fell from her hand while she leaned on the table for support. Someone else entered. A man.

The room fell into a deep hum as if to recognize his presence. Dressed in white, the man had no reaction as the woman fell to her knees, taking one repulsive breath after another. It was all very dramatic.

I knew from the look he gave me that he wanted me. The man was tactical though. Lifting the woman from her hands with a tenderness that was surprising considering his large but oddly elegant build, he consumed her within his arms. Lame attempts to fight him off with weak thumps followed while her sobs were muffled into his chest. If I had them, I would have rolled my eyes.

The man kissed her head, whispered in her ear. Lies. She forgave him with a condition. The arm that came out from between them was like a frozen twig pointing at me. The woman couldn’t look, she couldn’t say the words, but the bargain was made. Destroy me. Oh, the drama.

The man picked me up, without even a glance at what I was trying to tell him, and walked to the fireplace. With a swift movement of his hand, he slipped me under one of the books on the mantelpiece and pretended to throw something into the fireplace. Then, he crouched over, turned a knob and a fire was lit. When he turned around, I couldn’t see his face, but the woman looked back at him, relieved, recovering. After a few moments, he turned the knob off, the fire disappeared. They walked out of the room a stereotypical, dysfunctional couple. What a cliché.

Nothing made him feel as small and as great then the sublime understanding that he was lucky enough to understand, to have experienced the words she wrote him.

On the mantelpiece, under a thick copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, I waited for three days. I could hear them, the woman, with her children I assume, living their lives in the house, murmurs of their conversations, of parties, of trips, of other nonsensical things – My God, it was boring.

One would assume having the weight of the supposed father of English literature on me would be more entertaining than hearing what was happening in that house. But it was equally painful. I would have preferred something lighter to be pressed on me. A Russian extraction – perhaps Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, maybe even someone French? Hugo I’m fond of, though his lack of humour always bothered me – ah irony, wicked irony! Why couldn’t I have an intelligent woman whispering taught vernacular full of wit and wickedness without cruelty. I want to feel Austen’s embrace! Not this Chaucer with his heavy verse and prose whose winding rhythm bored me. Though I do like the Wife of Bath . . . but no it all bores me. Boredom is dangerous you see. It forces one to remember all the things they want to forget.

I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare then. More than anyone, I want to be buried under his words. How comforting, how true, how timeless they are. For some reason, I continuously recall, like a prayer, the words of Tatiana Queen of the fairies and her speech on the forgeries of jealousy. Then in the same way unrelated thoughts connect together, transform one another, I thought also of the beautiful Portia and her words on the quality of mercy. Why should those words come to me now? It doesn’t matter, because there he was. The man had returned to claim me.

I could feel anticipation surging through him, as he pulled me out from under that book. He unfolded me and I arched towards him. At close inspection, I saw that he was older than he seemed. From a small twitch, to the flare of his nose and the tip of his tongue circling the inner edge of his lips, his mannerisms took me through the journey that brought him here, to a fear that he was turning to stone from the inside out. Through me he saw what was supposed to have been and what actually was. In that moment, I fulfilled my real purpose and became the voice of the woman who marked me and I said,

My love,

While I’m writing this, I can still smell you on my skin. I don’t know where to start. They say it’s good to start at the beginning. So cliché.

My heart was broken before you. I was lonely before you. I was afraid. Fear kept me safe, alive but undead. I can actually say now, without a doubt, that I’m cured of that fear. The answer was in me the whole time. Like Dorothy and those fucking ruby slippers. I’m sure I’m not the first to discover this, but it’s the first time for me. The antidote to the fear of love is love itself. Dramatic, I know.

This realization gave me more than peace. Who knew bumping into you outside a bookshop while it was raining and then dropping my books on your foot would have changed my life forever? Do you remember what you said to me when I told you how sorry I was? You said, ‘that’s OK, you dropped them quite gracefully actually, what’s your name?’ And then we laughed when I told you my name, didn’t we? It was that easy. I wish it could still be easy. I saw your wedding ring and despite that I couldn’t help what was happening. Next thing I know, it’s five years later.

I’m sorry that I’m writing this but if I saw you, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I had an epiphany when you left a few minutes ago. The words you said weren’t supposed to hurt, I know. You said them without thinking, a manner all truths are delivered in before they destroy everything.

‘I have to go. They’re waiting for me.’

I stayed in bed after we made love and started to hate them. Who am I to hate them though? Who are you to betray those who have been good to you despite what we share?

Our love is ours, not an excuse for us to hate others, for others to hate themselves and us.

I could stay and you could have everything but we would lose our pride. Love without pride is a disease. I read that somewhere, I can’t remember where but it makes sense right now. Love without pride is a disease and before we become ill we have to leave each other.

Don’t be mad. Don’t hate me. Don’t look for me. I’m gone. I’m a memory. I’ll never see you again. I think, no matter what happens now we’ll always be inside each other. Please, remember me as what I am to you not as what I’m doing now. Please, don’t be sad. Don’t cry. Our love is greater than heartbreak.

Grace

The man was not man anymore. Nothing made him feel as small and as great then the sublime understanding that he was lucky enough to understand, to have experienced the words she wrote him. He wept. His heart writhed. He died, like I did, like she did. Was it a good death? I realized that it doesn’t matter. Death is subjective.

The man then placed me carefully into the great big book of Chaucer’s words and left the room. His visits were frequent at first but with time they decreased until one day they stopped all together. Time might have forgotten me but it didn’t leave him alone. The last time I saw him his hair was white and his skin a web of lines but in his eyes nothing had changed.

She was wrong, the woman called Grace. Love isn’t greater than heartbreak, they are equals, one of the same thing, living in a balance. It’s a thought that occupies me along with memories of those days. But thoughts aren’t what preserve my sanity, my self worth and vanity. I wait pressed within the heart of literature, content because I know that no weapon can kill as swiftly, no death sweeter, no truth can be truer than a letter filled with words.

Hello and Hala . . .
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