Snippet from Letters of the Dead, a work-in-progress fantasy novel, by Jodi Ralston:
For someone who received letters from the dead, I was quite the coward at opening the living's mail, or rather, opening mail from home. Currently, the week-old letter occupied my pocket, out of sight, but not far enough from mind now that I had finished making my aunt's pills. Even without letter before me, I could see my sister's handwriting. I could imagine her at the writing desk, smiling despite each word. I could imagine my brother leaning over her shoulder, investing himself in each line she penned, speaking loudly with or without a single word--so loudly that even oceans away I could hear, ringing in my ear, his censure and disappointment for his errant little brother.
No. No, the letter and home was never far enough from mind. Things of mixed emotion rarely were.
I pulled off my work gloves and set them beside the pill box painted like a red flower. Inside it were the pills I had made. I picked up the container, a little too harshly it turned out. The opium-mix pills, covered up in pretty shells like pink candy, rattled inside. Far from innocent but pain didn't bear such considerations in mind. Pain was a fire, burning where it would. Sometimes these little pills offered the only help left.
I stood up, pills rattling, ready to take them upstairs to Mrs. E's bedroom so Mr. E didn't have to.
But circumstances conspired so I did not have to yet: Mr. E stood in the doorway linking kitchen to the mixing room. How much had he witnessed? The smile on my uncle's face said, Not much. That smile was like a warm day in a long winter, not common enough. That smile was more than enough to wipe away earlier thoughts and to bring better in their stead.
"Son," he whispered as he placed the letter beside my discarded gloves on the worktable. "You meet more misses at funerals than most find at dances."
A miss? It must be a dead letter. Like the postmen, Mr. E saw what the deceased wanted casual outsiders to see: directions to me and my location, not to where the deceased intended me to go. That didn't stop others from seeing the actual return address.
"With such luck," Mr. E was saying, "maybe I should hire myself out to mourning as well."
Then he seemed to remember the real recipient of his josh laid abed upstairs. Worse, he saw the unintentional morbidity and portent in his words: he sank in on himself as he stood there, hiding his apprehension by stroking his mustache. You had to look closely or share familiarity to notice that the mustache--more grey than blonde now--had grown as thin as his voice.
He needed distraction. "Mr. Elandris?" I picked topic mundane. "What do I owe you for the postage?" I touched his sleeve. "Sir?"
"Eh? Oh. Oh, yes. Don't bother yourself about it. Did you finish the scripts?"
"Yes." But he didn't refer to the customers. "Yes."
He took the pill box from me. Opened the lid. Counted the week's worth of medicine, all twenty-eight--doubled from last month. But he didn't see pills: he was seeing symptoms and a cure-all for the incurable migraines that led to attacks . . . that might lead, someday, to another stroke.
I saw not a cure at all.
Morbid, Roderis. Morbid.
"No, son," Mr. E said, as he closed the lid. "You go on." He turned from me. "I can handle any arrivals and appointments without my assistant for the afternoon."
But I preferred he wouldn't be alone. "Is Miss . . . " What was the latest maid-of-all-work's name? They turned over so quickly. "Is the maid coming in?"
"No." A tightness had entered his eyes and grip. "She worried Mrs. E's nerves."
Few were the reasons for dismissal in this household. One being too present, too noisy, distressing Mrs. E's sensitive ears and triggering her headaches. The other being talks on things the Elandrises rather strongly wished they wouldn't. If I recalled correctly, despite my best advice, the maid had a passion for the non-human slaves, the Possessions.
"But they are only myth--" I had said once when the dinner table sat three, not two. And Mr. E let nothing more be said. Not even that much would be tolerated now.
"Sir, we can look in the ads for a new help tonight, if you want? Or perhaps," I said, hoping he would take a nudge of advice, "we could invite . . . " The nearest relations lived in the country, and even if one cousin were in town, they were too full of sympathy and a caution to accept an invite. But maybe it wouldn't be so for others. "We could invite your friend, the one apprenticed the year before you at your master's. I've seen him and his wife several times now; they must have moved closer. I'm sure they would welcome renewing your acquaintance in person rather than over letter?" More than that, Mr. E could use some fresh companionship and Mrs. E could do with some careful, mindful same. "He might be able to offer a good recommendation, besides."
"Perhaps. . . . You go on now, son." His voice was half-here, half-up-there with Mrs. E, even before he turned away. "We'll be fine." He tiptoed out of sight.
Nudge not taken, but perhaps his friend could be found and a conversation struck up, steps taken to bring change into his household. Change for the better.
But for now, I was left with letters. The new one, at least, I could do some good . . .
I picked it up off the work table, and a name stared up at me. Poole.
. . . or maybe I could not.
A miss had directed this letter to an Honorable Beatris Poole. Poole was common enough a name. Surely, it need not be tied in any way to the late Baron Poole. Surely.
Yet, after almost a year of receiving the dead's letters, I had developed intuition. Or rather, my scarred fingers had, fretting over the name without command from my consciousness. Mr. E had his tic; I had my own.
Rarely had I opened a dead letter here, in this place, in this home. Not so much a superstition as a desire to keep lives separate, like the partition that divided kitchen from mixing room, home from work, the recovering Mrs. E from the succumbed baron, the living from the dead. But hadn't the boundaries already been crossed?
Crossed just over a year ago.
By a single train wreck that had scarred both of their lives--and so many more.
I held the letter, considering that.
I held it, knowing superstition held me back--but I would not read all of the letter here. I just needed to see.
I cracked the red seal--never quite sure who re-pressed that wax. The dead? Or the soul's conductor, the psychopomp who directed--or rather, misdirected--their mail to me?
Focus, Roderis. Deep breath.
I opened the letter. Over the original letter, the post-mortem script read:
F/SF/H/Hist #SampleSundays of Interest (no particular order):
- Fezariu's Epiphany by David M. Brown
- The Phoenix and the Dream King’s Heart by James Monaghan
- Where Darkness Dwells by Glen Krisch
- Safe Harbour by Julia Kavan
- Ice Cracker II by Lindsay Buroker