Letters from Yours
by Em Liu
Edited by Maurice Broaddus
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
1369 words — Reading time: around 6 minutes
Now that I have been a fortnight in their alabaster city, I think that I might try to write about them. When I first arrived with a dozen others, it was all I could do not to trip over my own feet, looking up and around at the high-rising city. They allowed us to linger, our noses in the sultry air, gaping at the architecture crafted by a superior intellect.
The city itself is constructed in narrowing concentric levels, like the layers of a birthday cake, frosted with porticos and balconata from which the aliens lean their long bodies. The clouds here hang low, and the upmost layers of the city rise above them into full sun. My companions and I were separated after we received our assignments, and I was led to an especially fine set of rooms near the apex of the city.
Their houses are made of sand baked into translucence, like lightning glass, and the walls produce a brightness that pervades everything and gives the impression of a desert swept clean. The air smells of ginger and cardamom, though I have tasted no foods or teas here that remind me of such homey flavors. Most food has been edible — though as I am the only human in my household, I have no one to ask for guidance, and consequently ate a fruit that I suppose I should not have and was sick most of my second night.
Are you well? Did the medicine take? If I have one regret, it is that I did not get to see you strong again, but know that I am always yours.
I realize that I have now written several letters marveling at their city while I have said not a word about them. I have filled the margins of Romeo and Juliet, and now progress to the title page of Macbeth, without having once mentioned my hosts.
They don’t wear clothes, but they do wear jewelry: long links of platinum too bright for human eyes, thick cords of red and white silk wrapped round their bulbous brows like prayer tassels, and precious stones in deep colors that echo the magnificence of their starlight skin.
They are not a fearful people, I think, although I know that you will disagree. Had they not, you will argue, stolen your lastborn, your only daughter still at home? But I had nothing else to trade — and it was a fair exchange, if it has restored your health. These are a people who value perfect balance.
Mine is a being whose name I know but cannot pronounce, a princeling of sorts in this shining city. I have taken to calling him Hamlet to myself, as he seemed particularly enamored of that play, the first I read to him from this collection.
He calls me to him with a name I feel but cannot hear. At night I sit on a cushion beside his bed, this book open on my knees, and I read a few scenes, or perhaps an entire act if his mind is particularly active. I do not know if they sleep as we do, but after a while, he sighs as though some knot inside him has come loose, and I creep away to my own room where I write to you in the margins.
It is too hot to sleep here. Most nights I lay awake on my mat, sweat beading on my forehead and beneath my back, and allow my mind to drift into a half-sleep that is somehow sufficient to sustain life. Perhaps the longer days or lesser gravity have reduced my need for sleep.
The first night I read to Hamlet — my third night here — I think my perspiration confused him. He touched my damp forehead with a finger that was cool and blue, more like granite than flesh. I think they must be cold-blooded creatures. When I walk through the corridors by day, I often see one curled up in a pool of sunlight on one of the many balconies.
When I pass another human in the corridors, I keep my eyes averted. Our smudgy pink-and-brown colors seem so out of place in this pristine palace. Sometimes, I worry I will forget that I am human at all.
Hamlet caught me writing to you today. I had just opened The Collected Works of Shakespeare, intending to begin this letter, when he appeared over my shoulder. At first I was frightened, thinking that he might be angry if he knew of my longing for home — that he might find me ungrateful. But of course, they cannot read, and as I remembered that, my pulse tempered.
He picked up my pen between his talons and brought it close to his face. I explained the very-human notion of letters, of well-wishes written and carried to loved ones who are far away. I told him that I was writing to my Papa, who is very far away indeed.
He then asked me why I write letters I cannot send.
That was a question with no answer, and so instead of answering, I turned to the sonnets and read:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw him move, but when I looked up he was still, his flickering eyes still intent on the pen in his hand. I read on:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
I had only ever read him stories before: comedies and tragedies in tidy arching acts. I closed the Shakespeare and waited.
“Papa,” he said finally. “Whose debt you are paying?”
“Yes,” I said.
The debt I am happy to pay, if it means you will be well.
My Hamlet has given me a present — this journal. For my letters to Papa, he said.
I had never considered that such a thing might exist here. Of what use can a blank book be to them? Perhaps it was an extraneous thing brought by another human many years before, hidden away in the library but never discarded, only to find its way into my hands now.
I was so surprised that I did not even remember to say thank you, but only stared dumbly at the precious paper.
Then he asked me to read him the letters I wrote to you.
So I read them to him, Papa, all these long months’ worth of letters, and as I read to him, I felt the knot come loose inside me, and I forgot to be afraid.
When I finished, he was quiet so long that my fear began to return, although what I feared was that he would be disappointed. They took us from Earth to hear stories, and I had given him instead a glimpse into my soul.
“I do not understand,” he said, after many heartbeats had passed. “The ending. It is missing?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but my eyes filled and overflowed instead.
I felt rather than saw him slide from the bed to sit beside my cushion; felt the coolness radiating from his body like a glacier, steady and silent in a placid sea. Three fingers touched my face, one beneath each of my eyes and the other above my chin, three cool points that formed a constellation on my skin.
I opened my mouth again, and the salt of my tears and sweat mingled together on my tongue as I made my confession: “This story has no ending.”
His arms moved behind and around me, and I leaned my feverish body back into the welcome cool. He called me by my name — not the name you gave me, Papa, though I will always be yours, but the name he speaks into my bones — and when the fever broke, he told me that we will find the ending to the story.