Untitled by Kate Lundquist
That fire season was particularly bad, covering everything in a light layer of ash. Though, curiously, the sun felt closer through the screen of smoke, casting a glowing unnatural orange over everything. Still, each morning as the ash fell, Ella stood on her porch and waited. Each morning the mail was delivered and Ella was left empty handed. This had been her chore for as long as she could remember, fetching and sorting the mail. Before she could really read when the letters were just shapes she could match to each other she would sort it out that way. Her mother’s name starting with a serpentine S, her father’s name with a ring of an O.
Once she learned to read Ella devoured books. She’d manage to read several a week. The local librarian sometimes had ordered an entire series in advance to make sure Ella wouldn’t run out before the end of the month. But now there weren’t new books. It started slowly at first with trees burning in groves, then swaths, and then acres upon acres alight every summer. Eventually there weren’t enough trees left to cut down to make the new paper to print on.
It had been ok, at first. People got creative, using just about anything they could find to make paper. Lint from dryers started selling for upwards of $50 a pound. But then those books became more and more expensive. Even if they didn’t hold ink well and often smelled of a noxious mix of detergents. It had been nearly five years since there had been a new book for Ella to read. The trees kept burning every summer.
Then about a year ago a letter arrived. On clean, crisp, new paper, and addressed to her in an unfamiliar scrawling hand. That year the fire season had started early in May and continued late into October. The ash thick on anything it landed on. Ella would write short stories in it with a stick on the porch to keep her mind off of Dad in the hospital, sick with a hacking cough.
The letters arrived fresh, each week, part of a story written on them. It was all Ella could do to wait between letters. Not an inch of space was wasted, the writing small and precise covering all of both sides of the precious paper. Even after Dad had died, they lasted for a while, helping to stave off the grief that seemed to have settled all around her just like ash. But last month they’d stopped, mid-story.
On Saturday Ella trudged downstairs, coughing a little. It wasn’t always worth checking the mailbox on Saturdays as you only really had half a chance anything would come that day anyhow. But today the little red flag was up and Ella flew right out of the house still in her nightgown. Inside was a single envelope, and for the first time it had a return address. O. Ella looked down at the initial and her last name there in the left-hand corner. In the scrawling hand.
She turned the envelope over in her hands. She had waited so long for this letter, but now she wasn’t sure she could bring herself to open it. Finally, gently tearing the flap of the envelope, she pulled out the thick stack of papers. Only the first had any writing, the rest were blank. “My Dearest Ella,” the letter began.
The author’s sense of place and tone is spot on. From the first sentence, the reader chokes on the claustrophobia of the smoke and welcomes the trope of the dying parent rather than rejecting it. – Dan Buck
Very good use of descriptive language. I could see the orange glow of the sun and could almost smell the smoke. Using few words, the author was able to give me a sense of Ella’s past, present and even her future to some extent). While the story was complete, I think this story could easily be expanded and I would enjoy reading the expanded version. – Karen Polsgrove
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