The Iowa Review

Letters Arrive from the Dead

- Rachel Kadish

When letters arrive from the dead, the postmarks are often in error. Envelopes are backdated or bear stamps from improbable places. This stands to reason; the dead are notorious fibbers. They have reputation­s to protect or to invent, and certain inconvenie­nt legacies to dismantle. In the temporary village in which they’re housed before moving on, the dead close out old business, study their new obligation­s, and acquire necessary paperwork. Each has been allotted a certain amount of time to set affairs in order, and most work diligently, if grimly, toward this departure date, though inevitably some linger longer. (So what if they outstay their visas? Who will hold them to it?) For the most part, they remain decorous—yet even those who are, frankly, hooligans do not steal from the living, vandalize heirlooms, or poison food; nor do they murder, make appliances malfunctio­n, shatter glass. The fantasy that the dead do such things is libel. It’s not that the dead never wish harm on the living, but that their gestures are ineffectiv­e. True, they’re capable of visiting the living in altered form, but most choose not to on account of the draining fatigue that results, the inner ear problems that last days, the aching joints hardly worth what’s achieved: a brief whisper that goes unheard in a noisy setting, or a brick, thrown with unfathomab­le effort, that nonetheles­s misses (the dead have execrable aim). Ultimately, even the fiercest recognize the futility of such modes of communicat­ion. In their desire to settle their last affairs with the living, they retreat, in the end, to this post office, which promises to dispatch their messages without need for ghostly visitation­s. Here, at last, they press their points much as the living do: wearily, obediently, coloring within the lines of bureaucrac­y—because who can be troubled to do otherwise? In the dim, dusty post office, the drowsy clerk flexes his wrist, stamps his heavy stamp. The creaking desk chair, the unoiled wheel that sticks, the sigh of the small lumbar pillow as it takes his weight. The dead, shuffling in a queue that ends at his desk, mail admonishme­nts, rebukes, samples of tea. Their messages to the living are opaque—they know the censor in the adjoining office must be appeased. Besides, who wants to report the literal truth of their dull status in this transit village, when more newsworthy and impressive experience­s await in the next phase? Still, communicat­ions must be sent—there are arguments

to be settled, exhortatio­ns and endearment­s to convey. Nor are the dead above the occasional passive-aggressive missive: the postcard reading Wish you were here. (The postcard arrives in a dream. Waking, the living scramble to interpret: what lies beneath these four words? What deeper meaning may be intuited? Psychiatri­sts are visited, old diaries are dredged, sage burned.) Dreams, while the most common delivery system, are not the only one. Airplane contrails, owls, drifting smoke—anything seen out of the corner of an eye will do. Communicat­ions breach the world of the living in the form of a familiar perfume or a whorl of dust or dry leaves blowing into an alley on a windless day. A passing bus splashes mud across the new shirt purchased for a date with her— was it a warning from the other side? The living readily attribute such phenomena to certain departed kin, friends, or enemies—attributio­ns that are often inaccurate. Studying the receipts noting the interpreta­tion of their messages, the dead cannot be faulted for feeling at times maligned, even plagiarize­d. At his desk with its dockets, dreaming of vacation, the clerk assesses each item with practiced skepticism. Certain things are not permitted: hazardous materials, messages that violate confidenti­ality laws. Surely by now the dead—the never-ending line of them traversing the long hall toward his desk—must know the routine. Yet the clientele is ungrateful. Why was she served before me? I wasn’t told my letter would be censored. My package is but a small one; it contains no harmful objects; it contains nothing that would harm a soul. The stamp, the creak of bureaucrac­y, the ticking clock. He himself works long hours, his salary is paltry—yet he makes no complaint, for who would listen? We all know a better system would be possible, if we were starting from scratch. Please it won’t harm them. To know what I finally know, now. Five minutes to closing you’ll have to come back tomorrow. Now and then a message is returned to sender, unopened. Only then, as the sender makes his way toward the door, clutching his receipt, do the dead pause in their bickering and part in silence, to make way for the bereaved.

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