The Odyssey

Ana Luísa Amaral

Artwork by Olaya Barr

A rectangular letter, almost blank, if it weren’t for the almost perfect lettering and that almost-work-of-art, the postmark. And the stamp. Her destiny as a letter had been clear from the factory to the shop where she’d been put on sale. Out of so many other completely blank letters, she had been the chosen one, the goddess—the almost-arrow. The one who bought her hadn’t been thinking about chosen moments, but she had: when the owner of the shop plucked her from the stack of envelopes and blank sheets of paper, when unknown hands picked her up, like the beginning of a friendship, her blank heart, half-envelope, half-enveloped, beat a little faster. And thus she became the mythical result of that love triangle between envelope, paper, and the hand holding the pen.

Only then did her fate as a letter—which had been clear since she was born—begin to be fulfilled. Passion or love at first sight, the romance grew as the hand composed the words; half of the letter (the sheets of paper) did not even move for the sheer pleasure she felt at the words the hand was inventing. And the soft touch of the other hand holding her steady on the table.

First came the date: a long day with two numbers, Winter, and the year according to the Western calendar. Then the hand had, for a while, left her blank. That blank space was a garden in which invisible flowers were springing up, making way for the name, repeated on the outside of the other part of the letter, the envelope. Here, after the name, after the blank space, the hand had stopped. It didn’t move, the fingers merely cradling the pen, silence. And the letter playing dead, holding her breath, waiting.

What happened next was almost a deluge: black marks like raindrops in a storm, the sheet of paper ravaged by all those things previously put on hold: brief confidences, between-the-lines hints of love interspersed among the titles of books, moments of affection. Later, she couldn’t even remember what had happened afterwards, being shoved into a box along with dozens of other letters. Then, though, she really was almost an arrow. In half now, the half of the self that had been involved in that romantic threesome.

The hand continued, more calmly now, pondering what to say, trying to convert thoughts into black ink. And, finally, the letter sensed the beginning of the end, the first ending. Perhaps because the pressure of the hand eased, or because there was so little blank space left, or because the breathing that accompanied the pausing of the hand was only a murmur now. Whatever it was, she felt the writing coming to a close. Dismissed, along with the pen, dismissed by the hand resting on the first name that had filled the blankness. Then: a brief empty rectangle, and another name emerging, repeated on the outside, on the other part that made up the letter.

She almost fell from the table, exhausted, but the hand sustained her, held her up. What she saw then from her half-body were loving eyes. And those eyes controlled hand, pen, and her.

Something flared up in the moment when those eyes rested on the paper. Eyes not so much dazzled by the paper as shining in the watchful space between paper and night. Two or three times she was set down on the table again in order for a word to be changed. Two or three times she felt more perfect. And after those two or three times, she was folded again and then again and wrapped in her other half.

Outside, as she already knew, she was now a whole and not two separate things: the same names as inside, only longer, another part of the name added. Places, numbers, marks, and then, the next day, the almost-a-work-of-art postmark, the stamp spoiling the symmetry.

Then there were days of waiting among boxes and people, the noise of engines and new streets. She was fascinated to see how different it all was from the shop where she had lived and from the factory where she had first seen light. With a faint rustle, she fell in among her sisters, but they were all so different: letters from banks, a foreign postcard, an advertisement for children’s clothing, mere clones.

The hands that picked her up were different, and they held nothing in their fingers. She was surprised at how different the touch was, at the lack of a pen: during her life, her entire destiny had been that: her, pen, and hand. But those hands were empty, weighing her gently, appraisingly. Then she was placed in a pocket to rest.

From morning until late afternoon, soft cloth wrapped around her, near-darkness. From time to time, she was woken by those bare hands and weighed again; she sensed desire in those fingertips, occasionally glimpsed light. And she played dead out of the sheer pleasure of that new game, learned in a single day. Then in the late afternoon, transported through spaces only drowsily intuited, she reached the final stage of the journey. Almost an arrow, then, or almost a goddess: the one who arrived bearing a message.

Fingers slowly tearing her open, her outer half being put slowly to one side by a different hand, a friendly hand. And again the pleasure of being read by different eyes. Now, the empty hand and the suggestion of a new passion: the pinnacle of the romance that was hand and pen forgotten and, in their place, those eyes—the third pillar of that romance.

Being read was a gentle process, more passive than the act of writing. Perhaps that’s why those hands were empty, she thought: because they didn’t need to speak. That’s why the eyes were more necessary, like a fresco painted along the final bend in the road. They were gentle eyes, as gentle as the process of being read: the centre rather than just one corner of the landscape.

Something flared up in the moment that those eyes ran over the paper: like those other eyes, glittering in the watchful space between paper and the coming night. Evening had fallen by the time the reading ended, and she was, at last, allowed to rest. Rectangular, placed in the drawer, caught between wakefulness and sleep, she could still remember the factory and the shop, those places of birth and life, and all jumbled up with other fragments of memory, two pairs of eyes, two different pairs of hands, the postmark that was almost a work of art—or was it the stamp?

Yes, a spoiler of symmetries, but she didn’t know quite what exactly: tiredness overwhelmed her, almost akin to love, and memories dissolved into sleep. When she finally dropped asleep, night was falling and with it the light.

translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa