Reciting the Histories
Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

Reciting the Histories

Dear Ciela, I write to bring you news of your mother’s death was how he began the letter. He read it back to himself. I write to bring you news of your mother’s death. Clear. Informative. Succinct. Paulino was nothing if not to the point. Yet there was something not quite right. Perhaps the slight quiver in the lettering: an awkward finish to the o’s loop or the t’s cross. His hands had not worked fluidly in months and had recently degraded even further. Or it could have been the ink, a simple enough explanation and simple to resolve. The blot over the “I,” the smear into the “th.” But it was difficult to tell in the darkness. Even in the midday, the apartment let in little light. He was planning on adding a lamp to bring balance to the shadows.

He pulled a withered leg onto the wheelchair footrest. He urged one wheel between the chair and the coffee table, its corner rubbed raw where the wheel scraped it each day. He secured his chair beneath the far window and took up his pen. The afternoon light spilled onto his page, the smudges more evident in the sunlight. He tossed the paper to the floor and turned to a fresh page.

Dear Ciela, I write to bring you news of your mother’s death and her final succumbing to cancer. You will wonder why you are receiving this so late. True, it has been nearly a year since the funeral, but you should not read too much into that. Just as important to know is that I have begun writing to you many times but have been interrupted in each attempt. First came the move after her passing, a difficult task for a man in my condition. And what brought about the move in the first place? The apartment was too small—and broken up (as you probably remember) into rooms that wouldn’t suit my condition. If the owners had allowed me to make some small changes (hiring men to tear down the walls, perhaps) I might have been able to make do. But they were the owners and as stubborn as any owners I’ve come across.

Before the move came the packing. Then the search. Then the new apartment. Then the unpacking.

He looked up from the letter, at the stack of boxes that still lined the hallway near the bedroom. Had he attended to the unpacking months earlier, he might have been able to sleep in the bedroom, but the fold-out sofa worked just as well.

The unpacking. To be honest, there is more unpacking to do. And yes, I am still prone to putting things off, something your mother reminded me of for years (as you must recall).

The stack of his wife’s books had ended up on the table at the foot of the sofa bed during the move—books of the sacred, interspersed with Spanish to English dictionaries and pictorial histories of the southwest. He had closely studied the dictionaries, fine-tuning his grasp of English, and had recited the histories and, once or twice, the Bible. Book upon book, the stack had reverted to its original order, its original shape, something he had not paid attention to before that moment.

He rubbed the cramped fingers of his writing hand, which seemed to tense up more from the anticipation of writing than from the writing itself. The skin on his knuckles was dry, eczema according to the doctor at the clinic, but as he doubted the diagnosis, he seldom used his medication. He scratched at the dry patches—the blisters and the blood. His wife might have warned him about ignoring a doctor’s advice in favor of his own instincts, which were based on nothing. But what would she have said about the sacred voices she herself had listened to? What would she have said if he had confessed to hearing them since her departure? Would she think this any less crazy? Would she ask him, “Why do you believe these whispers? Why do you believe they even exist?”

He balled up the paper in his unsteady fist and tossed it to the floor. He dropped his pen and stretched his fingers, counting to five then drawing them into a fist, repeating this until he felt some flexibility returning. It was a temporary fix but one that would allow him to finish the note to his daughter once and for all. He laid out a new sheet of paper.

Dear Ciela, I write to bring you news of your mother’s death. Cancer, they have told me, but one that progressed quickly and painlessly. Your mother, as you well know, would have criticized me to no end for waiting so long to tell you of her passing, but life has interfered in many ways over the past year, and finding the time to tell you of our loss has been difficult. First came the move after her death and her funeral soon after that. You would have been touched by the service more than by my reasons for not telling you about it beforehand. Which is really more to the point of this belated letter. It is her passing more than my affliction that has left me paralyzed. While I might have been able to function—to wheel myself from this space to that space—how could I have existed within those same four walls where she existed, have taken in the air that she breathed and not been drawn into despair? How could I have lived amidst the reverberations of her voice rising from every corner of every room?

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Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt

lives, writes, and teaches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Ascent, Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Adirondack Review, Columbia Review, and Louisville Review. He was named finalist for the 2012 Fulton Prize in Short Fiction and holds an MFA from Goddard College.