I dreamed last night that I had walked across the street to the mailbox to leave a letter there for pick-up later in the day. It was early morning and the light was that bare, piebald kind of light that arrives when the horizon is just turning into the sun which has not yet emerged from the sea. The island was captive again in the golden-peach-pink light that makes Kill Devil Hills sometimes seem more like a movie set than an actual town by the storm-tossed edge of the Atlantic. Rigged. Staged. Hushed. Everything of import – the wind-slung tree boughs, birdsong, late-spring grass, the light, the tide, everything filtered through a salt lens – and its import to be revealed, slowly, as the day's play goes forward towards its scripted conclusion.
When I pry open the stubborn latch on the mailbox, there is a single envelope. I am surprised to find it there: perhaps I left it behind yesterday when I'd gathered an awkward armful of small parcels and letters. I lift it from the darkness of the box. It feels light and crisp in my hand and seems much worse for the wear of having traveled far, crumpled, smudged at the edges as if it has passed through many hands. I can see, by the clean, square absence in the cancellation postmark that there had once been a stamp on it. Even the postmark is watery and unreadable. On the front of the envelope is written, in elegantly thin cursive letters, "Dear Anne." Nothing more.
I turn it and turn it in my hands, feeling the delicious weight of anticipation, trying to forestall, briefly, the pleasure I always feel at opening a hand-written letter, unfolding the page, and reading it. There is a silence around me, as if everything waits. But how can this be? I am always imagining that I am accompanied by the ten-thousand things of the world, that they too lean in to see, to hear, to know. In lieu of a God, I suppose, whose presence I have never sensed, despite my most earnest desires to believe. Just a sign, Lord, I prayed as a girl, a small one, so I can know You are here.
But stealth seemed, always, to be God's modus operandi. That and a great and unbearable silence.
So I take what company I imagine I have. We lean in - the world and me - for a moment, waiting together for the reveal. I slip my forefinger under the envelope's flap and take out the paper which seems impossibly thin, as if it were threads of a cloth barely held together. I tremble, thinking it will crumble in my hands. Like so many things have. All those patients, barely held together by medicine and hope.
The living have seemed so fragile to me since then, though it has been many years now since I left that midnight underworld and stepped firmly again into the daylit world. I cannot help but see, even in their youth and good health, how fragile the children seem teetering from one side of the playground to the other, how delicate the retired couples walking the beach hand in hand, and the young mothers who look bruised and exhausted with caring for their children, and the fathers bent with obligation.
Barely. Held. Together.
I open the three folds of the paper and read there a single sentence: After a long journey, I have arrived.
I think of my friend, Lucille. And Ken. And of my grandmother who, as she lay dying in a hospital, dreamed the child I carried was a son, already born. I think of the ones who suffered whose names I do not remember now who once came into my care as a nurse. I think of childhood friends who kissed their mothers goodbye at the station and waved from the bus and train windows, the boys who set off for war and did not return, or who did return but did not come all the way back. I think of my former student who was buried young, three years gone now. I think of you too, my friend, there, wherever you are, smiling and waving, setting off again today in the golden-peach light of my dream, waving, happy, barely held together.