The letter came five days ago, and while it looked harmless enough, once it was opened, I knew there would never be any going back. It is strange to think that something so small can alter one’s life so completely, but then my life has had many twists and turns. What is one more, with all that has come before?
I was finishing another square of my latest quilt commission when Mr. Walsh had come up the path, having been out in the fields. He held a letter in his hand, lightly, as if it might fly out and get away from him. “I shall get supper on,” I said by way of greeting, but he just shook his head and held the letter out to me, face up. It was addressed to “Grace Marks”, which is not a name I have been in the habit of using here in Ithaca.
“You haven’t gotten post in a very long time. The postman didn’t even ask me about the name.” Mr. Walsh’s voice held disappointment, as if he thought the name of a ghost from thirty years ago should come to mind for everyone as easily as it does for him. Still, I could barely keep myself from ripping the letter out of his hand.
He watched me as I turned it over, a weight to it its size did not warrant. Written in a flourish, across the seal, was the name “J. Pontelli.” It took all my strength to keep my face as blank as possible, for when I glanced up, I saw Mr. Walsh’s expectant gaze. No, this was not something I would share, even if he thought entitled to it. He merely brought the letter. This joy was mine alone.
For all my silence, his eyes still crinkled into a smile and his comment held no reproach. He was used to my silences by now.
“A letter from an old friend then? Someone you knew from the governor’s house? Or the penitentiary?” So eager, always, when it comes to knowing more.
“Oh yes, we were much together,” I replied, allowing him to see a small shred of gladness. He looked ready to speak again, so I pressed on to stop him. “We shared confidences, but I always wondered what became of them.” None of my words were lies, but as Mary would say, the truth can be used to cover up a greater truth; still, God would not begrudge me news of the only other creature on earth I can call a friend, nor would He blame me for keeping my real feelings to myself.
Mr. Walsh was satisfied by this explanation and gave me a big, generous smile. “Well, I am happy for you to get news of anyone. Heaven knows you’ve suffered enough. A good thing to come out of that place is rare indeed.” He walked into the house, calling over his shoulder, “Go on and read it. I will start supper.”
It is strange how a man will create a whole story in his head from just a few simple words. To Mr. Walsh, this letter was from an old prison friend, someone I had resigned to the passage of time. How delighted I must be to hear from her at last! But his kind words stung me, as I did not deserve them. But since he was content with his story, what harm was there in letting him believe it?
I turned my back to the door, so he would not see me from the table, as my hands were shaking as I eased the letter open. The paper had a grainy quality, as if it had once wrapped something else. As I unfolded it, there seemed a warmth radiating from the tight curves of the letters. I could feel my lips caress the words as I mouthed them, drinking them in like ambrosia.
“March 8th, 1874
I am not one for writing letters, but I felt that at last, I must reply to you.
I remember the day you bought from me those first four buttons; when I next saw you, they adorned your dress and I knew I was right to give you a fifth. But when I met you in the Governor’s drawing room so many years ago, I realized that those buttons had been lost. I never told you, but I carved them from bone myself, and I had saved the remainder. They seemed somehow too dear to sell, and knowing that so many had already been lost, I felt something like grief.
This is why I sent one to you while you were in Kingston. I knew you would know it and from where it came. I apologize for not writing a proper letter to accompany it, but somehow I felt that I dared not interfere any more with you, as any sudden correspondence might give a wrong impression to the authorities. I believed wholeheartedly you would soon be free, and that button was my wish for it to be so.
And it seems that now you are free, of a kind, though it took longer than I expected. It was a fair bit of doing to track down where you went after your release. I hear you are well, so well in fact that you have quite a reputation as a seamstress. I myself am now something of an entrepreneur too, and shall soon be starting a new venture, the kind that will require me to commission several costumes and other items that will take some time to create.
I can think of no other person alive to whom I could entrust such a job. I am, of course, willing to pay for your passage to Toronto, where I am currently in residence at the theater. Enclosed you will find a front-row ticket to my show, and I do hope to see your face in my audience soon. We can discuss particulars at that time.
I read it again, and then again, to be certain I was not dreaming. I had seen letters like this in my dreams before, but they always burned up in my hands, or their words blurred with blood and I couldn't remember them.
Why, after all these years, did Jeremiah ask for me now? I felt something like fate at work, as if some great hand were on my back, pushing me forward. I refolded the letter and stuck it into my apron pocket, then went in to help Mr. Walsh with supper.