A friend of ours recently moved from Chicago to New Mexico. His wife is a physician and will work the next few years on an Indian reservation there. These are two really interesting people. He lived and worked in Micronesia. She walked the Appalachian Trail. They travel—and really immerse themselves in the culture around them. But what really got my attention was a postcard he sent. On the front was a gorgeous photo of Arches National Park. On the back, a quick update on their drive west. It was wonderful to hear from him…but what really struck me about his postcard was how much I miss mail. Seeing his writing…the card he chose…even the stamp…told me things about our friend that I could never get from the many emails and phone calls we normally exchange. We’ll continue to communicate those ways—and we’ll share photos on Facebook…but I realized anew how much a hand-written letter matters. How much it tells about the relationship and the sender.
I was a friend for decades with a wonderful woman—an educator, writer and photographer of significant acclaim. She died almost three years ago. I miss her…but I can recapture some of our history through her letters. She was a terrific letter writer and often made her own cards or enclosed photos. She also drew pictures to illustrate her ideas. Her choice of paper, drawings, scratch outs— even the occasional coffee stain on the paper brings back so much that email—for all its instant gratification—can never capture.
This also got me thinking about a story I wrote some time ago that I’m adding it to this post. It’s called Natalie’s Postcards. I hope you enjoy the story. Just as important, I hope you sit down and write someone a letter.
Carl and Edna Traverford have been receiving photographs—solemn self-portraits, details of body parts—taken with a camera’s timer, and pasted over postcards with rubber cement. They know that other pictures lie beneath these anatomical ones, because the captions on the reverse of the cards remain.
The cards are from their friend, Natalie, a self-styled photographer whose street scenes and playground pictures have given way to self-studies, which range from studio-type portraits to clinical, documentary styles. They are all of Natalie’s body, offered as testimony to her physical complaints. When Natalie sends one of these postcard photographs, she writes brief, intense messages on the postcard’s other side. While always related to the anatomical photos, her messages comment on the printed captions as well.
In early January, the first of the anatomical photographs arrived; a three-by-five postcard wedged sideways into a pink onionskin envelope that smelled of air freshener or dime-store perfume. The photograph on the card’s face showed a serious Natalie, sitting slightly forward in a straight-backed chair.
“She’s sitting near a window,” Carl announced, as he handed the card to Edna for inspection. It was their habit with the mail that, although Edna retrieved it from the slot, Carl always opened it and made some pronouncement about the contents before handing it to his wife. “You can tell by the light—a white, natural light that gives a special feel to this portrait.”
“She must be in the dining room,” Edna answered. “She knows how much I like that room and its chair rail.” She studied her friend’s photograph and thought how like a child’s school portrait it seemed. When she turned the card over, she was surprised to find a printed caption on the other side, and read it aloud to her husband. “The Washington Monument, dedicated in 1885, is a tapering obelisk of white marble, 555 ft., 5 –1/8 inches high and 55 ft., 1 –1/2 inches square at its base. A symbol of our nation’s freedom, the monument has eight small windows, 2 on each side, located at the 500-ft. level, where points of interest are indicated. ”
Carl leaned forward. “Read the card again.” After she had re-read the printed caption, Edna looked up, waiting for her husband’s response.
“I wonder if it’s some sort of standard mathematical equation—all those “fives” in the monument’s dimensions?” Carl and Edna considered the monument’s statistics.
“There’s more. Natalie’s written a message.” Edna cleared her throat and began reading at a cheery pace, “My eyelids are sagging.” She stopped and looked questioningly at Carl, whose reaction she could not read. She continued, this time more slowly. “So far it’s only the upper ones, but I am monitoring the lower ones closely. Looking back, I know that years of wearing contact lenses have taken their toll on the fragile tissues and muscle structures around the eye. But of course, they never tell you this at the time. I gave up the lenses long ago, but the damage is done. Have a Happy New Year. I have always liked Washington for its monumental architecture. ”
The Traverfords sat together in silence. Carl took the photograph and studied it again. He picked up the magnifying glass he used for reading the morning paper and examined it more closely. Edna watched his pale blue eye, huge and watery, behind the glass. He moved closer to the color image on the card. When he had re-examined the photograph from every corner, he got up from the table and walked, without speaking, into the next room. Edna watched him as he went, and then picked up the photograph and the magnifying glass. On closer examination, she did not see Natalie’s thin and solemn face, touching and vulnerable, as she gazed into the camera’s lens. Instead, she saw the eyelids, sinister and dark in their subtle advance toward Natalie’s cheeks.
The January postcard occupied the Traverfords for days. In the afternoons, when they drank tea together, Edna could see that Carl was troubled. Several times, he would look up from his cup, take in a breath as if to begin a sentence, then shake his head, and sink back into his thoughts.
Then, days later, he announced, “We must formulate a response to Natalie’s postcard.” Edna retrieved her stationery box and Natalie’s card, and then positioned herself in the chair across from him. She placed the lined guide behind the first sheet of her writing tablet, opened her fountain pen, and waited for Carl to dictate their letter. He read the card and studied the photograph again. He began slowly, “Dearest Natalie. Your news of the Washington Monument has surprised and informed us both. Had we a better understanding of mathematics, this would not be the case. However, we thank you for the information. Thank you also for the lovely photograph. With best wishes for a Happy New Year, Edna and Carl.”
When Edna had finished writing, she looked expectantly at her husband. “Aren’t you going to say more?”
“We’ve answered the postcard, Edna. What more would you have me say?”
Edna re-read what she had written. “You don’t mention her eyes. She’s worried about the tissues around her eyes and you say nothing.”
Carl frowned. “Her eyes are fine. I’ve looked them over with a magnifying glass. There’s nothing to add.”
She addressed the envelope and placed it in the mail slot for afternoon pick-up. The Traverfords did not mention the card, or their response, again, although Edna carried Natalie’s photograph in her apron pocket for several days afterwards. When she was alone, she would sometimes read it over, comparing the printed caption with Natalie’s message, then turning it over to study the unsmiling face on the other side. Sometimes at tea, she would finger the envelope silently. It was her way of bringing Natalie into their conversations while her husband read the paper or buttered his bread. She felt that they had answered the postcard badly and worried that Natalie would not write again.
* * * *
In late February, Edna handed Carl an over-sized blue envelope, much too large for the postcard inside, which slid from side to side when she held it to the light. He examined the envelope over his half glasses as though it, too, was part of the message. When at last he opened it, they found a color photograph of Natalie’s right hand, palm down, on a tabletop. The hand, pictured from her wrist to the tips of her fingers, was such an intense close-up that the nail of Natalie’s middle finger ran off the photograph’s edge.
Carl’s breathing was slow and steady as he examined the image. Edna wondered if he had fallen asleep, when he suddenly looked up and announced, “The photograph was taken indoors, under a lamp.” The lamp had washed the photograph with an impoverished yellow tint that Edna found depressing. The image, too, was troubling—slightly out of focus and off center. She wondered whether the camera had been too heavy for Natalie’s left hand, or whether she had involuntarily moved her right hand at the moment the shutter opened.
“I don’t like this focus, Carl. There may be things we aren’t seeing.” She held the photograph close, following the outline of the hand with her eyes. She studied Natalie’s abbreviated middle finger, then turned the card over, expecting that the photograph might be finished on the other side. Instead of the missing fingertip, she found another printed caption, which she read aloud. “It’s hard to tell whether these adorable apricot teacup poodles are mere companions or a fashion statement.” She turned the card over to see the poodles for herself, but saw only Natalie’s hand. A shock coursed through her body, as though she was seeing the hand for the first time. “Do you suppose they’re really small enough to fit into a cup? How could anything so little be classified as a dog at all?” She absentmindedly wedged a fingernail between the postcard and the photograph.
“Is that all there is? Just poodles? Didn’t Natalie write this time?”
Without acknowledging her husband’s question, Edna read Natalie’s message aloud. “Second metacarpal, lateral ligament. (Arthritis of the right index finger.) Symptoms: Heat. Pain. Lack of strength and restriction of movement. Duration: Six days. Don’t believe those aspirin commercials…I had absolutely no relief and finally had to resort to acupuncture. If you look closely, you can still see the needle insertion points on my right knuckle. I may need two more treatments. Frankly, I’d rather have cats.”
Carl searched the photograph for the needle marks without success. “I wish she’d circle these things.”
Edna had taken the kitchen calendar from the wall and returned to the table. “What’s the postmark on the envelope?”
“The thirteenth; no, the fifteenth.”
“She said it’s been going on for six days; so we should back-date to the ninth.”
Carl, whose understanding of math did not readily allow for backdating, counted back on his fingers. “She had to have the film developed.”
“But she could have done that during the six days.”
“Oh, all right. Put down the ninth.” Edna counted across the calendar to the box for February ninth and wrote Arthritis. She drew a small arrow through the week, ending on the fifteenth. Above the arrow adjoining the boxes she wrote, One acupuncture treatment; two more expected. She handed it to Carl, who verified the entries against his own calculations, then returned the calendar to its place. “When we formulate our response, we must remind Natalie to be more specific with her dates,” he said. “We could find ourselves on entirely the wrong track if this business of dates isn’t cleared up early on.”
* * * *
The Traverfords did not receive a card during the month of March. Edna hadn’t expected one until the middle of the month, but when it hadn’t arrived by the twenty-first, she became anxious that perhaps Natalie had been offended by their February response and had decided not to write again. She resented Carl for his insistence on the dates. Sometimes his demands angered her, made her want to rebel. When he had dictated their answer to Natalie, Edna had considered changing his words as she wrote; then, shocked at her own subversion, she had written the letter exactly as he had said and had dropped it in the mail slot immediately. Still, she found herself often alone, wondering about the next card, worried that her replies, if too inadequate, would discourage Natalie from sending more.
In April, when Edna and Carl were dying Easter eggs at the kitchen counter, the mailman delivered a tired-looking white envelope, yellowed at the edges. A narrow design of green holly leaves bordered the envelope’s face, making Edna think that it was left over from a box of Christmas cards. Carl opened the envelope at once, but instead of finding a color self-portrait, he discovered a black-and-white photograph of indistinguishable, amorphous shapes. He studied it for several minutes at the table, turning it sideways, upside down, then upright again. “It’s been taken with some sort of instamatic camera. You can tell by the paper.” He raised his chin and spoke slowly and deliberately. “These numbers along the side were made with a machine. It’s some kind of demarcation, or a measurement.” He moved his magnifying glass backwards and forwards over the card, trying to decipher the images before him. “I can’t make any sense of these numbers. I suspect it’s something important, but I can’t make sense of the code.”
Edna was alarmed by her husband’s words. Since February, she had secretly suspected that the postcards were really between herself and Natalie. She was certain that they represented some special, other message, composed of both words and images, having nothing to do with the way in which Carl understood the situation. When alone, Edna would place the postcards of Natalie’s eyes and hand side by side on the kitchen table. She had tried reversing the printed captions and substituting one of Natalie’s written messages for the other. She had even copied the messages down on her writing tablet and tried rearranging the words. Although she had once nearly reconstructed a line from a childhood poem, she was not able to divine any message beyond what Natalie had allowed.
Edna took up the April card, and viewed it from several angles as Carl had done. The longer she stared, the more fluid the images appeared. They seemed to revolve like planets, drawing her in so that she, too, became part of the image.
“…Edna. You’re not listening. I asked you to read the caption.” She knew he was shaking her arm, but she could not, at first, come back from the photograph. She peered out at him from behind a grey oval in its center and moved with the circling shapes around her.
With great effort, she pulled herself back to Carl. She studied the photograph from the outside now. The images were still, flat. She looked over at her husband, wondering if she should tell him about the revolving shapes. Instead, she read the caption. “On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronaut, Neil A. Armstrong, and Edwin E. Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission, became the first men to make a lunar landing. During their 21 hr., 36 min., 21 sec. stay on the moon; they collected 48.5 lbs. of soil and rock samples. ” Edna looked up to see her husband, eyes closed, nodding in agreement. She studied his face, which was simultaneously strange and familiar to her. When he signaled, she read Natalie’s message, “It is evidently the fear of cancer, rather than cancer itself, that is taking its toll on me. Of course, I have annual physicals, mammograms and pap smears, but the suspicion and the dull, unexplained ache in my left side remain. As you can see from this ultrasound photograph, though, the ovaries and tubes are ‘normal’. The doctors can’t see inside them with this ultrasound, but they assure me the structures would be enlarged if there was anything dangerous ‘going on inside’. They’re very relaxed and reassuring about the whole thing, although they say I was right to come in for tests.”
Edna re-read the card quickly to herself. She leaned forward, her expression grave. “She didn’t comment on the moon walk, Carl.”
* * * *
At Carl’s insistence, the Traverfords did not respond to Natalie’s April postcard. This had made Edna miserable, had caused hurt feelings and tears and cancelled their afternoon tea for three days running. Secretly, she knew that he was afraid of the photograph. After they had researched the meaning of ultrasound in their family medical encyclopedia, he had grown uncooperative and refused to discuss it further.
Their failure to reply weighed heavily on Edna, pressed in on her at night, and spoke to her when she was alone in the house during the day. Several times, she had made up her mind to write without permission, but could not quite bring herself to do so. Instead, she would sit alone in the kitchen late at night and stare at the ultrasound images, tracing their outline with her fingertip, trying to fathom the mystery she was sure Natalie was unfolding before them. At these times, she felt that Natalie was watching, telepathically imploring her to respond. Once, while Carl slept quietly in the next room, Natalie’s messages had become so loud that she had covered her eyes and ears to shut out their intrusion. Even then, she could hear Natalie’s thoughts, urging on a letter that she knew would not come.
By the third week in May, Edna found herself almost always in the living room at mail time. She would arrange flowers, or dust the mantle as she waited to hear the postman on their porch. When he dropped the mail into the slot, she retrieved it at once, scanning the envelopes for a letter from Natalie. She did not discuss this silent vigil with Carl, who had not mentioned Natalie or the April postcard again.
By the second week in June, Edna could no longer stay inside. She made a habit of working in her front garden at the hour the mail was due, as if her presence could somehow change its outcome. Each morning, when the postman came up the Traverfords’ walk, Edna would stop dividing her irises and look up at him significantly. He nodded, but never produced the missing letter. She took this to be a failure of her powers of suggestion—a thought that made it hard for her to concentrate when Carl opened the other mail, announcing totals on utility bills or requests from local charities.
On the fourth of July, while Carl placed tiny flags at the edge of the lawn, Edna sat alone at the kitchen table with Natalie’s April postcard. “If I take it out of the envelope, it will be as though it’s just arrived,” she instructed herself softly. “And maybe I’ll find something inside that makes it new again.” She took the card from its yellowed envelope and stared at the images. She could not imagine their grey and black shapes as part of Natalie. She fingered the photograph as she recalled the other cards, trying to remember the messages that went with each. Sometimes she confused Natalie’s own remarks with the printed comments on the cards; sometimes she misremembered their order. She took the calendar from the kitchen wall and reviewed the arrows and captions she had entered to match Natalie’s correspondence. She studied her notes carefully, as someone trying to follow a map in search of a vague destination. The way was unclear, and a great sense of uneasiness came over her. She believed they had been wrong not to answer the April card. She feared something terrible was about to happen to Natalie, or to herself.
* * * *
On the eighteenth of August the summer was at its peak. The lawn had taken on an over-bright, burned appearance and the flowers hung limp, no matter how much Carl watered them. By mid-morning, the heat was already oppressive, making it difficult for Edna to breathe.
Carl and Edna sat at the table eating their lunch in silence. He concentrated on his sandwich and beets as she gazed out the window, watching the shimmering heat rise from the sidewalks, and considering Natalie’s situation. At 12:00 o’clock, a brown, bulky envelope, padded as if for some fragile contents, dropped through the Traverfords’ mail slot. They went to it at once.
“I’ll get the calendar, and the magnifying glass,” Edna called. Carl held the envelope gingerly and followed her to the kitchen table. She brushed the dishes and flatware aside. He returned to his chair and placed the envelope on the table before them. Edna’s mouth was dry with anticipation. Carl pulled back the opening strip and watched it circle the edge of the envelope until, its circuit completed, it gaped like an opened mouth. They stared at the opening, afraid to reach inside.
Carl turned the envelope over and shook out its contents. A fine powder of paper dust from the torn padding coated the tabletop. Moments later, a color photograph slid silently onto the debris. Carl peered at it, as someone reading tealeaves.
“She’s had some sort of surgery, or an accident.”
Edna gasped and felt a sudden pain in her chest. The photograph was a glossy print of Natalie’s forearm, resting on a dark green bath towel. In the middle of the photograph, perhaps an inch above her wrist, a line of thick, black sutures puckered the medicine-yellow skin, looping in pinkish half circles at either end. “It looks as though she’s been attacked by pirates.”
“I count thirty stitches.”
“Why do they always have to use black? Why not white, or even colors?”
“There are probably more under the skin.” The Traverfords leaned over the postcard without touching it. After some moments, Carl turned to his wife, “Aren’t you going to read it?”
Edna hesitated. She wiped her hands on her apron, then reached out and tapped the card quickly with her index finger, half-expecting it to react. She took up the card, and then read the caption to her husband. “Masks worn by members of the Iroquois False Face society to visit sick friends. These masks represent cheerful spirits invoked to aid the recovery.”
Carl frowned. “What do the masks look like?”
“They’re under the postcard. We can’t see them.” Edna read the first few words of Natalie’s message to herself, and then stopped. When, after some moments, she began reading again, her words were halting and filled with emotion. “The expensive has turned brutal, aggressive…leaving my body scarred after the removal of a ‘suspicious’ mole—perhaps harboring cancerous intent. I have come to the Infant Jesus Medical Center for follow-up. What I need is an end to this self- betrayal. But Shamen are not easily located.”
Edna’s hands trembled. She felt as though Natalie was in the room with her, as though the voice that read the last words of the card was not hers, but Natalie’s, speaking through her. She turned the postcard over and stared hard at the wounded arm. They had betrayed Natalie with their dates and their silences and now their betrayal was having terrible consequences, consequences that were only just beginning.
“What’s the matter with you Edna? What’s happened?”
Edna heard Carl’s voice as if at a great distance. She could not be sure whether he was falling away or whether it was herself. “We should have written. Perhaps if we had written, she wouldn’t have suffered like this.”
Carl came around the table and took his wife by the shoulders. “What are you talking about?”
“This is only the beginning. It will go on forever.” She looked around the room, expecting that she would see other people in the kitchen with them. She saw no one, but she knew that others were listening. “Natalie will get worse and we are responsible.” She stepped back and leaned against the kitchen counter, glancing from side to side to catch a glimpse of the other presence.
“You’re not making any sense. What will go on forever?”
“She is suffering. Suffering because we failed her.” She tried to speak calmly. She wanted the presence to know that the failure to write had not been her decision.
“We haven’t made Natalie suffer. We had nothing to do with it.” Carl reached for his wife, but she sidestepped him and returned to her chair.
She ran her finger across the table top, making a line in the paper debris from Natalie’s envelope. She looked up, her eyes filled with tears. When she spoke, her voice was mournful. “Natalie was slipping away and we did nothing.”
“Please Edna. They’re only postcards.”
“But don’t you see how they’ve changed? They’ve been getting more desperate for some time now. But you didn’t notice.” She had begun to cry. “You didn’t see it happening.”
Carl pulled a chair opposite his wife. He placed his arms around her and rocked her back and forth. At first she resisted, but as her crying lessened, she relaxed into his chest. “I can’t stand it, Carl.”
“It will be all right.”
“I think my heart will break.”
He held her more tightly. “It will be all right. It will. I promise.” He smoothed his wife’s hair. “I will take care of you.”
He studied the wall before him as they rocked.