Memory Box

Dear Emily,

Scott and I are settling in. We have everything unpacked, but it will be a while before they get out here to install a phone line, and longer than that before we get our internet access. I have to walk twenty minutes to get a single bar on my phone, and that’s not a solid single bar, either. Which is why I’m writing this letter. I’m not even sure how long this will take to reach you. I’ll ask when I buy the stamps in town.

Anyway, not much else to say right now. I’m going to start working on the garden. I’ll send pics when there’s something worth looking at. Tell everyone we say hello.

Yours, Vicky

PS. I was digging out the weeds near that old shed–going to plant tomatoes and you can’t have any! (of course you can have some)–and found an old box, almost like a chest. It has a rusty lock on it, and you’d think we’d have a way to open it, but you know Scott is the kind of man who doesn’t even own a hammer. I’m going to take it into town when I mail this letter, see if someone there can help.

Dear Emily,

You wouldn’t believe what they’re charging for stamps these days. No wonder nobody writes letters anymore.

Not that I mind that much. How often do we get to practise our penmanship these days? It feels good, like writing by hand belongs in this place. The physicality of the work here, of trying to wrangle the yard into something I can use, is a little overwhelming. In a good way, of course. Getting lost in something useful is exactly what I wanted. Being able to sit on the porch with a mug of tea and a pad of paper is a great way to wind down from that. Did you know that away from the city lights, you can actually see the stars during the sunsets? It’s beautiful. I took pictures with my phone the first night, though I knew I couldn’t upload them anywhere. Old habits die hard.

Scott took my phone away when he saw me doing that. At first, I yelled at him, but he reminded me that we moved out there to get away from that sort of thing. He’s right. But it felt, I don’t know, selfish to see that sort of natural beauty and not share it. Which is silly, right? It’s as if I’m getting a more personal and subjective impression of the sorts of things we used to take for granted. I have to take it in without the peer biases–that doesn’t mean you!–without the validation of a like or an up-vote. It’s weird how that feels weird.

But I can feel it fading, that constant static of second guessing and approval hunting. Like I can appreciate the fleeting moment, as itself, instead of a perceived value for posterity or notoriety. (And let’s be honest: posterity was never a factor. It’s all about those ego boosts.) Some things have value because they are only a part of a moment. A sunset that lasts forever, or that I can see at any time, is less special than one I have to wait for, that I might miss, that is only there for an hour. It becomes something singular and unique. You know what they say about the “unexamined life?” Sometimes I wonder if there’s something to say about the opposite of that, or at least about diminishing returns on sharing.

Does any of that make sense? I don’t know. It’s the kind of night right now that lends itself to fleeting, rambling thoughts. And, you know, have pen, will write.

Anyway, there’s more going on here than my daydreams and Instagram philosophy. Scott bought some tools and seems determined to get himself killed knocking down the old barn. But he’s finally sleeping well. I have to almost force him to sit down and eat each night before he stumbled to the bedroom and collapses. I’m glad, but you know the most physically demanding thing he’s done in his normal life is hanging a poster. I want him to ask for help in town, but he thinks it will make him look weak or something. We’ll see how that goes.

Oh, and I got that chest opened as well. It’s packed with old letters and newspaper clippings. I checked the dates on a few and saw that they’re from near the turn of the last century (or the one before that?). Scott thinks it’s some sort of time capsule, and maybe he’s right. I’m going to read through a few of them tonight. I’ll let you know in the next letter if there’s anything interesting.

Yours, Vicky

PS. I have included a copy of one of the letters from the time capsule. Most of them are still unopened, but this was at the top of the pile.

Dearest Maggie,

We ship out tomorrow. We are all anxious now. I doubt I will sleep tonight.

You have probably heard already that most of the local boys were placed in the same regiment. Everyone I have talked to is heartened by that. Together, we will put our town on the map.

The familiarity helps us keep our heads in order, too. This is the first time most of us have been further than the next town over. I met more new people in training than I had in all the rest of my life. But those are good men, too, and eager to show what they can do.

Soon, we will be out on our grand adventure. Who would have thought that I’d be brushing shoulders with officers of class, and seeing the world? This is the chance of a lifetime, though I know you are worried. Please don’t be.

I will write again when I am able.

All my love, George

Dear Emily,

I asked around town a bit while getting groceries. I think it’s pretty obvious what I’ve found, and it’s more personal than a time capsule. But I wanted to know if anyone else had some contextual history. Short of cuing up a montage scene where I put on reading glasses and dig through some forgotten shelf in a dark and dusty library or records office, the memories of the locals are all I’ve got.

Seems obvious when you think about it, and maybe the agent knew something about it when he sold us the property. The reason this old farm is in such disrepair, was up for sale, is because the family that used to live here imploded during the First World War and never recovered. It was nearly as bad for pretty much everyone else in the area. The town lost an entire generation of young men, just like that. They left for war, and not a single one came home. Can you imagine? Even by the brutal standards of the time, that’s some bad luck. And it shows. I go into town to buy groceries at a general store and stamps at the post office, but I pass rows of empty lots on the way. A few generations ago, this place was on its way up, and it’s only now showing small signs of that life.

But the real question is why so many of the letters in the box weren’t opened.

To think, I was worried I’d get bored with nothing on TV.

I’ll write again soon.

Yours, Vicky

Dear Emily,

It’s as bad as I thought. I started reading the opened letters, and most of them are from the front lines, from different men who must have lived in and around the village before joining up. Scott says the letters then were censored, but apparently not for violence. Talk of the artillery that shook the earth for hours like a the wrath of God–to the point where men went screaming mad, or sunk into catatonic stupors. (And I say men, but most of them were barely old enough to drink or vote.) Descriptions of every type of filth, of the mud in the trenches when the water isn’t up to their knees, of the blood and disease, of charging into razor wire and machine guns, of snipers killing without warning, even of gas and trench fighting, of killing and the most casual death. Maybe they couldn’t give their exact location for security reasons, but when most of Europe was a bombed-out hell, what’s the difference?

How a person can see those things and still form coherent thoughts, let alone write them down on paper . . . I couldn’t even read through all of the already opened letters. Scott got further than I did, but not by much. He has family in the military, who survived those wars.

And that would have been bad enough on its own. Everyone knows the stories of trench life. But there’s something almost worse. I wondered why so many of the letters are still sealed, and I think I’ve found the answer.

But I’m not sure what to do now.

There are a couple more open letters from George to Maggie, who was his sweetheart, apparently. Fiancée, I think, so it was serious. And I checked to make sure, and it’s obvious the majority of the unopened letters are from him, to her. So, again, why?

Here’s the clue: In his last open letter, he said he had something “very important” he had to tell her. Or discuss? Reveal? Seems he knew a secret, or learned it, or figured it out, but didn’t have the time or space in that letter. Whatever it was, it spooked Maggie into leaving the rest hidden away in a box for going on a hundred years.

It’s a safe bet George, like the rest, never made it home, so this is all he left behind.

Like I said, I’m not sure what to do now. Except my work, of course.

Yours, Vicky

PS. And somehow, even writing from the trenches, they still had better handwriting than me. Sigh.

Dear Emily,

The garden is about sorted out, including the tomatoes.

Now, we wait.

I wake up sore every morning, but it’s not a bad feeling. Scott and I are both sleeping like logs now. And I think he’s making some friends, which is nice. Some guys he met in town while getting tools showed up with their trucks to help pull the barn down. After laughing at him for thinking he could manage it himself with nothing but a crowbar and a sledgehammer.

They seem like good people. I want to say “salt of the Earth,” but can you imagine anything more depressingly middle class? I desperately don’t want us to be those people around here. My number one goal now is to not get the blame when someone buys out the town’s diner to open up an overpriced locally-sourced and organic tapas bar. We’re here to get away from gentrification, not cause it. Once we’re online again, I can order whatever I need anyway.

About the letters: I thought about it a lot, and talked about it with Scott. He said I should open them, but I wasn’t sure. They are, after all, the memory of some person that I have never met, and I didn’t feel it was my place to intrude. Maggie had her reasons for leaving them unread, and I think I understand. Would it be fair if I end up knowing more about the man who loved(?) her and who she loved(?) than she did? That doesn’t feel right.

At the same time, those letters are valuable. Maybe not in terms of money (I have no idea), but they’re a piece of history. I’m going to write to the nearest university and the War Museum. They should have them, since there’s no family to pass the box on to. (As far as I, or anyone in town, knows.)

And maybe it works both ways. If Maggie didn’t want to look, then what did George leave behind? Who is he, to history? Just another young man who died in a field, far away from his family, from his home. Abandoned, even in memory. His last words should matter to someone.

I’ll sleep on it. A nice, good, long sleep.

Yours, Vicky

Dear Emily,

I decided on a compromise. Everyone will get to read them anyway, if I give them to historians, but I still want to try and respect both sides. Seems silly, but that’s how I feel.

I found the letter with the latest date, the last one George ever sent, and opened it.

It’s a short one, so I’ll just copy it here.

“Dear Maggie,

It doesn’t matter. I love you anyway. I hope you understand that, after everything I wrote.

I still want to come home.

Love, George”

What a person writes when he knows he’s likely to die. Did Maggie know? Did she care? She must have felt something, or she wouldn’t have buried them. For what it’s worth, I hope she had a decent life. I’m sure George felt the same.

We get the landline tomorrow, so I might be calling you before you get this letter. But I might not. I might keep writing.

Hope you can visit soon.

Yours, Vicky

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