Long after the downstairs oven had cooled to the touch and the upstairs had grown warm with bodies cocooned in cotton sheets, she slipped her feet from beneath the thin coverlet and quietly made her way through the darkness, neglecting her slippers for fear that their clip might wake her sleeping husband. She paused momentarily at the girls room, hand on the knob, and leaned an ear against the door. A light snore trembled through the wood, and she matched her breath to it. If only she could halt the seasons, forget the past and present, turn the handle and climb in beside her like old times. But she could not forget. Her secret pulled her away, down
the narrow steps that creaked under weight, so she walked on tiptoe, one hand balancing against the wall.
In the kitchen, bundled dough mounds as white and round as babies
lined the countertop and filled the space with the smell of milk and honey, and promises of a full tomorrow. She lit a match. Its black head flamed and licked the candlewick before fuming to nothing. She preferred the candles burning ribbons to the electric bulb, buzzing bright and incriminating high above. Armed soldiers patrolled outside their doors; she couldnt risk inciting curiosity or waking her family.
She bent to her knees beneath the rising bread, pushed aside a blackened pot, and groped in the darkness for the split in the floorboard where shed hidden the new letter. Her palms, callused from the rolling pin, snagged on the timber planks. Shallow splinters embedded in her skin, but she did not take notice. Her heart pounded in her ears and radiated heat through her arm and fingertips until she heard and felt the crackle of the paper shed
bunched into the crevice earlier.
It had arrived in the days mail, sandwiched between a receipt from their local miller and a long- since- forgotten edition of Signal Magazine: its cover torn off; its pages watermarked beyond legibility, except for a pristine BMW ad boasting an aluminum bicycle for the modern rider. This tiresome correspondence made the letters delicate handwriting and old-fashioned wax stand out. Shed recognized it at once and quickly tucked it into her dirndl
pocket before anyone in the post office could catch a suspicious glimpse. At home, her husband had called to her, Whats the news?
Nothing new. Buy or pay. Shed handed him the magazine and bill.
Take, take, take, the world never stops. She shoved her hands into her pockets, gripping the letter tight.
Her husband grunted, tossed the disintegrated magazine into the trash, then slid a pointed blade across the top of the millers note. He retrieved the receipt and held it close, summing the numbers in his mind and nodding in agreement. As long as it keeps on turning, man will wake with hunger each morning. And thank God for that. Otherwise, wed be out of business, ja?
Ja, shed echoed. Where are the children?
Out doing their chores, hed replied.
Shed nodded, then retreated to the empty kitchen to hide the letter
until it was safe.
Now, with the sickle moon hanging high above like a fi shbone, she
crouched low and brought the candle to the ground. The letters waxy seal
had been cracked by her earlier clutch. Fragments littered the tiles. She
carefully swept them into the base of the burning candlestick, unfolded the
paper, and read the familiar script. Her hands trembled with each weighty
word, the sentences tallied; her breath came faster and faster until she had
to cover her lips to keep quiet.
The candle flame arched and quivered. A blue vein pulsed in its core.
The air had changed. She stiffened on the floor and listened to a faint rustle
of movement on the other side of the kitchen. A mouse, she prayed. A stray
dog sniffing at the back door. An alpine gust or passing ghost. Anything but
someone. She could not be discovered. Not with this letter in hand.
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