It Started with a Letter

Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign by Alpha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License
Foreign Language Bookshop neon sign by Alpha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“I pray to its shadow, / that gray place / where it lies on your letter … deep, deep.” – Anne Sexton, “With Mercy for the Greedy”

It started with a letter.  Brent had received an old-fashioned air mail letter, on thin blue paper in a thin blue envelope.  He didn’t think they made such a thing any more, but it was in his mailbox, so he decided it was real.  When he opened it, though, slitting it carefully across the top with a letter-opener and sliding out the crisp folded pages inside, he discovered it was written in a foreign language.

What language?  He couldn’t tell.  It certainly wasn’t any of the usual suspects, French or Spanish or Italian.  He couldn’t even recognize the letter shapes.  He thought, perhaps Arabic or even Hebrew, but a Google search indicated him that the writing in the letter definitely did not look like either of those languages.  It wasn’t Korean, either, and it didn’t look anything like Chinese/Japanese characters.

He texted his friend Maya a snapshot of the letter. She had just graduated with a degree in near-East languages, and he thought, maybe it was one of those “stan” languages –  Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, one of those – but she told him it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen.

A lot of help Maya was.

That’s how Brent found himself going down the stairs to the Foreign Language Bookshop near his Metro stop in Washington, D.C.  Surely they would know.

He wasn’t prepared for the reception he got.  There was an old man behind the counter, with a long white-gray mustache and thick glasses.  He’d looked bored when Brent came in, but when he showed the man the letter, everything changed.  Quick as a fox, the old man pulled down the shades and locked the front door.

“Wha-?” Brent said,

The old man shook the letter in his face.  “Why’d you bring me this?  I was doing fine, I was all right, and then you come into my store and show me this!  Are you trying to get me into trouble?”

“N-no,” stammered Brent.  “I just wanted to find out what the letter said.”

“Shh!  Keep your voice down,” the old man said, still holding the letter.  “It was better for you before you saw this.  Now, now it’s too late.”

“Too late?  I don’t understand – I just got the letter yesterday!”

“Precisely,” said the old man. The old man took out a magnifying glass and inspected the paper.  “Just as I thought.  This letter is from the future.”

Brent’s brain whirled, trying to make sense of it all.  A letter from the future?  On old-fashioned air mail paper?  And what was all this talk about it being too late?

“I’ll just take my letter back, thanks,” he said, and he started to reach for the blue paper.  But the old man snatched it away.

“Hey!” Brent said.

Suddenly, everything became blurry, a swirl of changing colors around him.  It was like being on one of those centrifuge-like rides at a carnival, where you’re spinning around in a circular cage, body pressed tightly against the wall.  Brent’s stomach started to lurch.

That was the last thing that happened before Brent found himself in the future.  One hundred years in the future, to be exact.  Where he landed, there was no sign of his letter.  Or of the old man.

This was one crazy hallucination.

Eventually, Brent returned from the future to his apartment in the Capitol.  But by then he had become a master of the language in which the letter was written, he had found the woman who wrote the letter, and he had married her and lived a long and productive life.  When he arrived back in D. C., he was an old man.

Curious, he went back to the little underground bookstore, the Foreign Language Bookstore, where he’d first gone into with the letter.  The owner had vanished.

The letter was tucked into a slot between the ancient cash register and the counter.

Brent stepped behind the counter and opened the letter. With that, he started the cycle all over again.

About this post:  Foreign languages are foreign worlds.

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