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Volume 5, Issue 3

Clara Belby: The Last Tale of the Barefoot Mailman

Amy Letter

Clara Belby uncovered herself by pushing her blankets with tiny, sweating feet. She felt the breath of morning sigh across her face, across her eyes, tickling at her lashes. One sleep-puffy hand reached blindly towards the air, and delighted in sensing just when the sun came down into the palm of her hand. She opened her eyes to confirm the moment, and then closed them again, remaining still, vaguely hoping that it would last.

It did not.

Sara threw open the bedroom door, much as she had every morning, though with the contempt of newfound hopelessness.

When Clara heard her door bang against the wall, she lifted her body up and out from the sheets and stared for a moment at the doorknob-shaped dent in the gray drywall. Thump and bang. It went to her head. Sara picked her up by the armpits, moved her quickly through the air, and put her back down on the toychest in front of the mirror. She grabbed the brush from the top of the dresser and began to stroke through Clara's long white-blond hair.

Clara looked at her face in the mirror and smiled at herself. Her face was small, round, and pale. She enjoyed the feel of her cheeks as they rounded themselves into full white apples, but even more, she enjoyed the sight of her own face smiling back at her in the mirror. The pure joy of it made her smile improve, and the improved smile worked to greater effect. The longer she looked, the happier she became, the truer the elation she felt. She wondered if other people were as pleased by her smile as she herself was. Her thoughts were interrupted when Sara came upon the matted hair at the base of her neck.

"How does a child that never does a damn thing get so many knots in her hair?" Sara brushed harder, without remorse. "If you can't keep the knots out of your hair, I'm going to cut it down to the roots!"

Clara frowned at her sister's image, working away in the mirror.

As their eyes met, Sara stopped brushing and frowned back. "Are you going to start talking again now, Clara?"

Clara held her frowning glare.

Sara resumed her brushing, even harder than before. Clara remained silent, bearing her abuse with flinches and starts. Sara finally expired a self-satisfied harrumph, and said, "Do you know what they call people who don't talk, Clara? They have a word for it, you know. They call them dumb."

Clara watched her eldest sister's eyes carefully in the mirror.

"If you don't speak, you're dumb, Clara."

Clara did not look away.

"Fine then. Don't speak." Sara tore the brush up and out of Clara's hair, audibly ripping some of it out. "Dumb," she said, "dumb, dumb."

Sara had intended to dress Clara next, but Mother moaned for Sara from the other room, calling her away before she had the chance. Left alone to herself, Clara smiled into the mirror a few minutes longer and then left her room, still wearing her favorite white nightgown.

Clara liked the white nightgown because she thought it made her look like a fairy princess. It was long, white, and made of satin, with ribbons woven into the bodice. Its dragging hem, its short puffy sleeves and its modest scooped neck were all fringed with soft eyelet lace. The hallway outside of her bedroom was walled on one side by a mirror, in which she watched her reflection pass down the hall gracefully, pleased by the way her nightgown swished, while her legs, hidden in the generous folds of white, took deliberate, well-timed steps.

Her other sister, Dara, was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at a half-eaten bowl of cereal. Dara watched her younger sister come into the room, stood, threw the wooden bowl and silver spoon into the sink, splattering grainy milk all over the wall, and left. Clara took a banana from the kitchen table and ate it.

When she was finished with her breakfast, Clara walked into the living room, where Father and Darren, Dara's twin, were ignoring one another. Father was sitting uneasily in his chair beside the window, watching the gray surf encroach upon the beach just beyond the seagrape trees, a closed book held tightly in his hand. Darren lay on the couch, his arms folded across his chest. He was staring at the muted television, watching a Doppler image, imposed over the outline of the Florida coast, endlessly repeat its herald of a coming storm. Before Clara had decided to stop speaking, she called her twin siblings "Dara'n'Darren," so that it sounded like "Darren-Darren." Mother used to say that if Clara kept it up, she would never learn to tell her brother and sister apart. Mother no longer said such things. Now, it was clear that the twins were as much one person as they were opposites with interlocking parts.

Clara walked past Darren's snarling face, seemingly oblivious to it, and proceeded to her father's chair. She leaned her chin on the chair's soft arm, making it rock a little, and squeak as it did.

"Good morning, Clara."

Clara smiled, imagining her own face.

Father was thoughtful for a few minutes. He loved his Clara so much that it pained him not to hear her voice. Clara and he had been together when it happened; they two alone had witnessed it, and had both been struck mute. But Father's voice had returned with time, if angrier, and it was then, when his voice, full and angry, filled the house's days and nights, that he began to obsess upon Clara's silence. He saw it as a sign of inexpressible pain, a pain he thought he could end�but he had shot them all, and himself, and it went on. He resisted the urge to look at Darren.

Clara lifted her soft little arm and wiggled her fingers into Father's book. He let it fall open on his lap, and watched as she pointed her finger into the fold and then let it trace slowly down the page. She looked up at her father with eyes the color of seasoned oak�questioning him�no�asking.

"Do you want me to tell you this story, Clara?"

Clara liked it when Father told her his stories. Father read books that she could not understand, so he did not read them to her, but told them. He told her stories of ancient wars, full of proud, valiant, courageous characters, and incredible battles on land and sea. He told of the deeds of the men who died, of the genius of their leaders, of the strength of their wives; he told of their brotherhood and camaraderie, and how when they fell to jealous bickering they would suffer and strive to appease the gods. There were rituals, sacrifices, rites and reverie, murders and miraculous inventions. He spoke of things more important than pain, of things more important than pleasure; he told of the things that Clara, or any child her age, could truly understand.

The previous Thanksgiving, Grampa Belby had visited, and Mother told him of Clara's love for war stories. "Clara loves nothing more than her father's stories of ancient wars," she'd said.

Grampa Belby laughed when he heard this. "Odd for a little girl�especially one so gentle and good natured as Clara is. Were it Sara or Dara, I could see it, but�"

"Sara would scold the heroes for fighting and send them home to their wives," Father said to him then. "And Dara, Dara's just like Darren. They love the excitement of any conflict, but for them, it's the love of blood and gore, of destruction, of demolition. Clara doesn't love those things; she respects them. She understands what they mean."

Grampa Belby laughed again and dismissed Father's words with a wave. "Oh, she's just a little girl." But he eyed her as she ate her meat, a leg of the bird she ate to the bone, and after the others had finished their pie, Grampa took her onto his lap. "So you like war stories, is that so, Clara? Did you know that I once fought in a war?" Clara had not known, and so she asked to hear Grampa's stories about his war, and listened carefully as his breath, sweet with marshmallow yams, flowed warmly into her nostrils.

Grampa Belby had fought and killed years ago in a faraway land, and he had not been killed himself. The men who died there, Grampa said, died fearful, meaningless, empty deaths, without dignity. The way that Grampa described his war, faceless powers took men to death like half-ripe melons plucked from the earth and thrown to the ground, shattered, helpless, and left to be tromped on. Grampa meant to frighten Clara, to educate her to the truth of war, so that she would no longer love it. Clara decided instead that she did not like this kind of war. But the wars where men traversed mountains on elephants or built enormous catapults to sink insurgent ships at sea, those wars Clara still loved.

When Father finished telling Clara the story in his book, with a final, triumphant "The Die is Cast!" Darren switched off the television and stomped up to his room.

Father watched Darren take the stairs, growing angrier with each successive thump. When Darren's bedroom door sounded its bang, like a shot from his heart to his father's head, Father yelled in his great booming voice, "Dara!" Sara answered from the Florida room, where she and Mother were smoking and drinking coffee. "She's in here with us, Dad." Her voice was bitter, croaking under the weight of her righteous hatred. Sara had always been a woman of foul temper, but she'd been absolutely tyrannical since Clara stopped talking. Clara knew things would get better when she began to talk again, but she also knew she must not speak until everything she said would not be wrong.

Death might have improved her eldest sister were her killer not in the house. Mother seemed to relish death. She'd always longed to be a victim, and now there would be no end to her moaning about injustices, over which Sara could then fume. Dara and Darren were angry and afraid, and guilty, and knew better than to complain. Father was mostly surprised, but also sad, and disappointed. He'd thought his actions would have ended all this, but now he sat like a toppled giant, unable to fix, or admit, his mistakes.

Clara had slept through the whole thing: the first to go, by her father's mercy. Thump and bang. It went to her head.

Father sighed and looked out the window, past the seagrapes. Clara shut her eyes and pressed her head deeper into the arm of the chair. She dreamt of the landscape of war, the ruin of a battle fought shortly ago, and of her father stood high on a hill reciting the glorious deeds of the day, honoring men who died honorable deaths.

Father stood suddenly, and the chair shook, rocking back and forth quickly, its springs squeaking. Clara's eyes opened as she lifted her head. They blinked once or twice to erase the scene: the blood and bodies and broken swords, the heroes impaled atop piles of men, the beaten shields lying testament to their limits, were gone. Father stormed upstairs.

Clara stepped out into the Florida room, where Mother and Sara spoke in hushed tones, occasionally punctuated by the strain of a syllable, agony or anger, neither nobler than the other. Dara sat scrunched in a beanbag chair by the sliding glass door, reading a book. Its cover showed blowing hair and flowing dress, muscle and bosom, flowering gardens, all through the haze of an unfocused eye. Clara sneered at the book because she knew it was without any honor. The book rested on Dara's small breasts, squishing and deforming them into four uneven lumps. Clara passed through the open glass door unnoticed.

She followed the path through the banana plants, stretching her legs at each step so that her feet fell only on the round terrazzo stepping stones. The path led to a wooden deck on piles, beyond which lay the beach. The wind pushed itself off the Atlantic in one long continuous gust, rattling the fronds of the palms and nearly folding their trunks. Clara could see that the wind was strong, stronger than she'd ever seen, but she could not feel it so low to the ground, behind the ridge of seagrape trees. She knew that she had to go farther.

She marched to the other side of the deck, down the steps and onto the sand, where the wind whipped her hair and filled her ears with a steady, whistling rush. Her princess gown billowed behind her legs as she stepped through sand blown flat and featureless. The waves were advancing, high and white. A few gulls hovered by the water's edge; their wings held outward, they rode the wind, looking as though they were dangled by something or someone, somewhere, on invisible lines. A pelican fished just beyond the waves. He dipped his body again and again, each time his large webbed feet emerging. Sometimes he surfaced with a wriggling fish he would swallow with two or three jerks of his beak. From the base of the steps, Clara could see small things crawling in and out of the sand where the waves washed over the shore. She went to see them, and to feel the water.

As she approached, they disappeared, and a wave crashed over her feet, soaking the bottom of her gown. For a moment she felt herself stuck in place by her hem, a part of the beach. She pulled her skirt up slowly.

"Hello, little girl!"

The man behind her was tall and darkly tanned. His clothes were torn and old. His hair and beard were the color of the sand. His feet were bare, and he carried a salt-stained leather satchel from his shoulder. She could see long black cancers stretching out across his forehead. His hands were dirty, wrinkled, and scarred. Under his beard, he was trying to smile. "What you doing out here by yourself?"

The gulls flew out to sea.

Clara thought she should answer, but her throat had become unaccustomed to speech. She watched his eyes, eyes so blue that they nearly looked white. Behind him the sky had begun to turn red. The pelican blurred to a silhouette. She thought she could see clear through his eyes to the raging sea beyond.

The man's smile faltered under her scrutiny.

He looked down to his feet and furrowed his brow, but the cancers there floated unchanged. "Don't matter none, if you don't want to say. Guess you could ask me the same thing, anyways." The man caught her eye and tried to smile again, then laughed a little, though she could not hear his laugh over the wind and crashing waves. The light began to fade as a congregation of clouds arrived from the North and gathered like ducks around the sun. Clara watched the way his eyes wrinkled up when he tried to smile. It looked painful, and more sad than when he didn't.

She grimaced at the sight of his smiling face.

The man stopped smiling and bent down on one knee. He looked at her closely, curiously, and then stood again with a smile as bad as before. "Had to make me sure you're real," he said. "Lots of tales surround the sea. Lots of stories of things that aren't what they seem. Lots of things to watch for, if you're a man in a situation, like me." The wind grew louder and the sea seemed to roar. "I'm lost, little girl, but I'm going home. Soon, I think."

Clara was intrigued by the promise of these stories, these stories of things that aren't what they seem, but she stood silent, unmoving, watching his face. It was a strange face, so worn, so beaten, so like the face of a dying hero on the battlefield of her imagination. She wanted to reach out her hand and touch it, to feel the grime and sand in his beard, to pull the crusts of salt from his eyes, but she stood, motionless, watching him. He stood watching her.

The lone pelican abandoned his fishing ground, clumsily taking flight. It soared beyond sight, behind the Belby house. The sky turned black and the wind blew harder, lifting up her wet skirt and flapping it against her legs, like a flag of surrender.

The man squinted one eye and examined her again, this time bent forward just slightly, as though he thought she might spring forward and attack him. "What are you, little girl?" His voice was whispered, and trembling, but clear to her despite the noise of the storm. "You're whiter than I ever thought a ghost could be, and seems to me," he pulled his head further from her, never breaking his mystified gaze. "Seems to me your eyes are red as fire."

Clara suddenly became very cold. She didn't understand the man. She did not know what to say. Her own silence began to hurt, but she could not think of what to say.

"Please don't go on staring like that. Please, child, say something. Say something so I'll know you're really there."

Clara opened her mouth, but nothing came out. The man closed his eyes hard and covered his face with his mealy hands. He began to step away, one foot falling back in slow retreat.

Clara was frightened. She'd scared the man. He seemed like a good man, she thought. He seemed like a man who died a noble death, like a hero whose sword rusts even now in the blood-soaked earth of frontier lands. She took a great swallow of the salted gale, made a grumbling sound in her throat, and opened her mouth to speak.

"I�"

The man looked up, and she was surprised to see his eyes the color of night.

"A storm is coming," she said, and pointed out to sea.

The man looked over her, to the sea, and moved to grab her quickly.

A wave struck Clara in the back, throwing her into the man and knocking the two of them down into a wash of churning sand and water.

Clara's mouth filled with salt. The man held her tightly beneath the wave. After a moment, he stood, lifting her above the water, which now came up to his chest. They both coughed and gasped. "You all right, little girl?" he coughed. She nodded, pressing at her eyes to relieve the sting. He looked down franticly into the water, but what he sought was gone. "My bag, my bag, it's gone," he said. "The mail," he said, to Clara and the gods, "there were letters in there. They were all that was left."

The water had pushed blood out from his nose. It flowed out into his moustache and colored it red. He held Clara tighter and turned back towards the house, fighting through the waves that would push them forward and a moment later try to pull them out to sea. Now, when the waves came, some of them crashed on their heads. Over his shoulder, Clara could see them coming, the tongue and teeth of an angry sea come to eat what had stumbled onto its plate. She cried when she saw one, and he held her close, and they slipped beneath until it had passed, and again they would rise and plough on through the waves, until finally, they reached the steps that led up to the wooden deck, steps which now lay half-submerged beneath the beast. He put Clara down there and faced the ocean, black and fierce.

"Those letters," he said gravely. "They're all that was left." The man stared out into the abyss, and Clara could not see his face. "Letters from more than a hundred years ago, now. I've got no place to go without them." He looked over his shoulder at Clara. "I've been carrying those letters I don't know just how long. Carrying them and thinking what might be in them. But all I know that's in them, little girl, is they're things people wanted other people to know." She knew what he would do. She felt a swelling in her chest as though her heart had grown too large. "You can't think about that enough, little girl."

Clara watched him start back out against the waves. She made herself cough again and cleared her throat. She pulled the air into her lungs and pushed it out again, hard. "Hey!" Her voice cracked with salt, but the mailman heard her, and turned.

"I'll tell," she said. She croaked through her salted throat, but he heard her. "I won't forget."

The mailman nodded. He turned and continued out into the storm.

Clara watched him walk out to sea, and watched as he disappeared under the surface, again and again, seeking lost letters, until at last he did not reappear. She turned and faced the Belby house, shimmering white into the darkness behind the wind- pummeled trees, and then shifted her gaze to the space below the wooden deck. She watched the water churn around the pilings that held it high and even with the house. The wind still blew hard and she still held tightly to the rail. Rain began to fall in dense, heavy drops. Clara remembered coming here with her father not long before, walking down the steps to the beach with her hand in his. It was high tide beneath bright sunshine, and all the world spread out, ocean-sized, before them.

Grunting had risen up from that grassy basin, breaking through the noise of the surf and the Belby family's seaside dreaming. It was there, below the deck, on the grassy land now drowned by the sea, that she and Father found Dara and Darren, naked, sweating, pressing into each other's bodies. It was a meeting that enraged the gods, and everything good and natural. It was a story that could not be told, never sent to people who care. It was a ground best sown with salt, and never spoken of.

Clara remembered her siblings' terror, her mother's grief, and her sister's rage. She remembered watching her father fall, the way he sank into himself. This she remembered most of all. She remembered his breath leaving him, how silently he wept without it, how his eyes were drained of the color that hope had always kept within them, and, until that half-remembered punctuating bang, everything that followed this, in silence.

�2005 Amy Letter

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Amy Letter is a native South Floridian who lives in Fort Lauderdale with the poets Brian Spears, TS Eliot, and Wallace Stevens (two of whom are her cats). She has recently received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg award, and has been published in Louisiana Literature, among other places. You can visit Amy at http://amyletter.com.