He was waiting for a Letter. It should've already arrived. Every morning he walked down the hill to The Postman, The Postman was on the edge of town. He counted the steps but he knew exactly how many steps, he counted. He was careful incrementally, counting was important or he would have to start over, walking backwards, subtracting, until things were right. He wanted to avoid this situation, since it was awkward. As he left, walking down the path, he yelled out I AM GOING so that Mary in the greenhouse would know that he was going to town. Mary had been in the greenhouse a long time he didn't know how long. Then he began counting his steps, no sooner. Mary had certainly been in the greenhouse every time he went to The Postman, absolutely. She nursed the plants, he didn't know, some ancient arts of horticulture. But he didn't want to get distracted, he needed to count.
The path went down the hill to the east, winding through ferns and boulders, then it curved to the west but at the bend through the trees you could just make out the Cliffs Of Despair and hear the water slapping the rocks. He always tried to get through the bend quickly because it frightened him, some buried primality threatened to explode, he could feel it, he could feel the stupid ape in the well of his physiology frightened of big natural things and eager to assign gods to something even slightly impressive. This water then, the crashing sounds, it poked that ape and he was happier when the sound was receding.
Once around the bend the path cut across the long side of the hill, rising and falling and if he looked up at just the right place he could see an edge of the roof of the shed. Really it was more a barn but he'd always known it as a shed and so far no opinion contradicted him although the visitors to the house he could count on one hand, left or right, it didn't matter so much. But he mustn't. This kind of divergence would distract him, he was already distracted. He resolved he would avoid looking at the shed.
Just ahead was a place of steeper descent. There had been stone stairs here once but they'd given up to dirt and mud that comes down from the hill. It was a slow defeat. And then they'd placed logs into the dirt, hammering these down with a mallet, so that the logs made plateaus in the general location of the stairs, so that he would not slide down this slope shamefully even fatally. This alteration was done at a time when Letters were frequent, not like now.
He had a recurring dream about this area of the path, although too they were a long time ago. And in that dream he was walking down the path and he got to this area, the stairs, and instead of logs they were fish, big fleshy sliver and pink things, squirming, they were laid out just like the logs and the incredible anxiety of stepping on slippery fish would overtake him and he would wake up in night sweat.
Now he habitually tapped them with his cane to assure, yes, they weren't fish but logs of wood. So far so good. The smell of the salt marshes, a reassuring peaty and tangy aroma would hang around the trees here, and those trees thinned at the bottom of the hill, he knew, giving way to the marshes with a line of demise, where tree skeletons made a stark and depressing wall. The crows, however, loved this and rejoiced there in excited symphonies of cawing. That's what he remembered anyway. He actually hadn't been down there in years.
What happened to those marsh boots he'd had anyway, maybe in the basement, no, maybe in back of the closet.
Can't get distracted. He reminded himself, he was going to The Postman. At the bottom of the hill the path widened and the coolness of the shade became an open field. The field buzzed, things buzzed in the field. The field was, had always been loud. Crickets jumped in front of you in total panic. Rabbits poked up their heads. And to his right there was the neglected path to the marshes and the base of the cliffs and the water. You could get to the beach from here if you were willing to suffer some of the swamp. If you wanted. He didn't want to. He and Mary used to go down there and stare at the wreck just off shore. Could the wreck still be there. It must. It was older than the trees and the hill and the salt marshes, the timbers will outlive the water itself, the wreck was at the beginning of time and will persist until the end of time. When and how it happened, they had no idea. When they were young they made up stories about it, playfully, great epics with convoluted power struggles and quests assigned by terrible rulers, and terrific journeys until the final moment. Of the wreck. He put a lot of those things in Letters back when he was verbose and extravagant with Letters, which he was not now in any way. His succinctness was an experiential side effect, he assumed. He could find no other reason for it. However, it wasn't worth effort or examination.
But such a long time between Letters. This wasn't right. He fingered the top sharp edge of the outgoing Letter he'd written that was kept in his left jacket pocket. It was of course written on the Paper Standard, Uniform Size, Approved Ink, Absolute Line Spacing, Stamped. There had to be formalities after all. But such a long time. Did it hint at sinister things. He always thought the worst, that was his nature. He jammed the sharp corner under the nail of his thumb accidentally and withdrew his hand quickly and examined the digit. No blood.
The field felt like the longest part of the walk. The field went on and on. Just when he thought it was time for the road to intersect, the field went on and on. The slight roll of the path he believed was therapeutic, he towered over the grasses and bees and ants and the infrequent snake. Not recently had a snake been seen. But he towered over them and he felt this was an exercise of building self-confidence. Especially important given those other creatures he'd pass or need to pass, and the humiliation of the earlier path where he was small compared to the trees and water and cliffs. Living was adapting to context and scale.
Without provocation he took the letter from his pocket and checked the envelope for the proper postage and addressing. He'd been distracted recently and he had a sudden flare of doubt about having done something incorrectly he'd done correctly so many times before. How many times? No. These topical eruptions were becoming ridiculous.
The road was visible. The pleasingly familiar lumpiness of it. The ruts. The hedges on the sides. He could shake off the dust of the path. The gate at the end barely withstood. It served no actual purpose other than demarcation. No signs were necessary, the gate was all that needed to be said between the path and the road. The gate was courtesy. He fought with it, forcing it open then wrenching it closed again, the metal latch having broken once and now was replaced by a piece of rope and a hook. He was careful to note any steps backward in the operation and adjust the count accordingly.
He walked on. Walked closer to the shoulder of the road since sometimes the Junkman would be coming or going. The Junkman lived at the bottom of the Brittle Mountains and his old truck was instantly recognizable. Not that there were any other trucks. The road was quiet and free of traffic given their municipal constraints, or the nature of their world, they wouldn't have it any other way. Had it always been this way, it could never have been any other way.
The Junkman, once in a while, rattling down the normally quiet road with his scrap and metal and refuse banging together down the quiet road. A clacking. The Junkman grasping the wheel of the truck with sunburned arms hinted with the sheen of mechanical grease. The Junkman when seeing him not stopping or saying anything, but giving a cordial nod of the head and a practiced two fingered salute. He would sometimes leave things out for the Junkman and he was not sure how he came up the path to get it or knew that things were left. The Junkman was an all knowing agent who could traverse any topography. This seemed normal enough, or at least not worth questioning so deeply really.
Today there was no Junkman. As he got closer to the Hex he felt that familiar tingle. Just at the bottom of the scalp. He did not generally make social visits to the center of the township, but as necessary to the Postman or the Library or the Store. The top of the Hex jutted from the well kept trees nearby. It wasn't by definition a roof he supposed. It was flat, perhaps perfectly flat, as flat as the sides, flatter than anything else, and unaffected by weather. None of that rot and drop and mildew and peeling that was everywhere else. All things were in a state of decay other than the Hex. It was separate and irreducible. He had never seen birds on the Hex. They shunned it. He didn't know what it was made of maybe metal maybe leather maybe stone. The only differentiation in the Hex worth any mention other than the philosophical opaqueness was a difference in color between the top half and the lower half. There may have been a reason for this. But nobody knew the reason for this. One should be content not knowing reasons for everything in the world, he'd heard once in a sermon, maybe a sermon, he hadn't been in the Church for years. Maybe instead reason is a peculiar human illness that creates dissatisfaction, maybe there was a sermon about that, he didn't know. There didn't need to be a reason for the Hex any more than the Library or the Postman or the Letters. The Hex was, and it enforced no interpretation so it would be a mistake to aggressively apply one. Or at least this was a point he made in a Letter once, although in retrospect this perspective seemed fatuous or unnecessary.
And there was Ms Hasty walking with predictable swiftness away from the Hex down onto the road and towards the Library. Like her stride was a machine so excellently lubricated. Ms Hasty and Ms Keen lived together in a house in the little maze of paths just past the Library. It was a big house, older than his own although like the rest this distinction may have been illusory, certainly unprovable at any rate. He would not try to catch up with Ms Hasty. Not because he didn't want to talk to her, although he wasn't particularly excited about that possibility, but because she was clearly far ahead and either going into the Library to visit Ms Keen or into the little maze to her house. He would see very shortly.
Maybe it was mildly curious, what was Ms Hasty doing at the Hex, maybe not. There was nothing to do at the Hex. You could stand there. Otherwise you could sit there, on the grass. You could let that cold shadow grow over you as you sat in the grass, maybe with a picnic. This was absurd of course. People would not do this, and it wouldn't be illegal per se, you could do this if you wanted, but it would be an affront to one's normal sense of purpose and decorum. At least he believed it would. But what did he know, perhaps Ms Hasty has some radical new outlook. Yes, sure enough, she went into the Library, her flowered skirt catching the breeze emitted by the opening institutional door.
He was not going to the Library today, he was going to the Postman. He steeled himself for future interruptions he knew would happen, as sure as the wreck, as sure as the Hex, as sure as the rising Suns. He would stop in the Store carefully, as a preemptive strategy and also because he needed another pack of envelopes. He wouldn't like to find himself in a position of having no envelopes. When he was younger he was much more comfortable with risk.
Why so long without a return Letter? He could speculate. Perhaps there was nothing left to observe or make note of. The other townships may have unincorporated. They may have suffered a natural disaster. They may have surrendered to some powerful enemy. They may have run out of paper or ink. But all of these scenarios raised more questions than they addressed. Should he still send the letters. Yet the absurdity made him stop and pause and had he forgotten the count. No he hadn't. He could not contemplate the realities of other townships, this presupposed knowledge, this contradicted the Letters themselves. There were appropriate channels. Had he lost count. He hadn't lost count. He would suspend counting when he entered the Store. Then he would resume. There wouldn't be error, since error was unnecessary.
As he approached the Library he could see the sign on the front lawn. It was a glass case, and inside was a placard with movable type. The copper edges of the case were now a deep satisfying green with streaks and the corners of the glass were tinged slightly with light brown from years and the bottom of the case an impressive collection of dead insects. Rare the sign ever changed. But it did change. It always stated the Library's hours. Once when Ms Keen was sick it announced a break in service. And below the hours there was a pithy saying. This changed when the mood fit, he supposed, when Ms Keen's excitement got the better of her and she could no longer restrain herself. He imagined Ms Keen those mornings coming out with the tray of letters kept in the dusty cabinet and self-consciously unlocking the glass case over the sign and carefully replacing the words one by one then standing back and examining the results with elevated blood pressure.
Once one of her excursions in aphorisms had been brought up by the Council with a tone of scolding displeasure. He didn't remember which one exactly. There were a few he recalled more generally however, in no particular order.
"The spines of books are the backbone of townships."
"Hex or no Hex, but always six sides."
"Little ink is needed for big words."
And today's, which had been in place a long time.
"Asking the Postman for the time is like asking the Mountains for postage."
Admittedly, some of these didn't make much sense to him, and he wasn't really fond of any of them. Yet the sign itself was a reassuringly familiar way-point, the words and the case and the dead insects a mark of consistency. He inched his way to the Store which was diagonally across the street. Envelopes, he must remember to count, to increment, to properly increment, and to get the envelopes. He wouldn't want to wake up one day and discover he'd run out of envelopes.
He thumbed the latch of the door handle and the slight tinkle of the bell above the door greeted him politely. With the sound of this bell he suspended counting. All movement herein would be free of increment. "Morning", he heard. It was Mr Kuff at the back counter. Mr Kuff did not look up but had his nose buried in his ledger, a large book with pages of columns, the book never moved from that exact spot on the counter, a large book with the details of every sale. When you were ready to go Mr Kuff would assiduously take his long sharpened pencil that dangled precariously from behind his ear and recorded the necessary facts.
He deeply enjoyed watching Mr Kuff do this, if the universe was chaotic then this small action, he felt, protested with sustained civility and calmness.
"How can I help you today?" Mr Kuff said, now looking up from the ledger, his face a blank state of commerce.
"I'd like some envelopes."
"The usual sort?" Mr Kuff asked, knowing full well the answer, because the usual sort was the only sort the Postman would take and the only sort Mr Kuff sold.
With a glacial pace Mr Kuff put the worn red ribbon on the current page of his ledger then moved to the shelves at the side of the counter, a series of shelves with a pattern of items, like-things housed with like-things, a regularity of size and color, creatures of the same taxonomy. Mr Kuff reached below the counter, not really looking as he did so since the motion had been repeated so many times, looking was unnecessary, and he withdrew a pole that had clamps on the end, operated by a wire line down to the handle.
"Here we are", Mr Kuff said with the confidence of someone who had organized and operated the Store since the beginning. Then he stuck the pole into the air directing it to the top-most shelf and deftly grabbed a packet of envelopes with the mechanism as if it were his very own hand. "Just this then?" Mr Kuff moved back towards the precious ledger also knowing full well the answer was yes.
"Yes, thank you."
Mr Kuff patted the pack of envelopes exactly twice and gave him a nod as if to indicate total acceptance of this minor purchase in a way that demonstrated he might be going out of his a little for the effort, but that it was his pleasure to do so. That they were conspiring together in this purchase. "On your usual account?" Kuff asked, looking down into the ledger, moving away the red ribbon previously carefully placed, then Kuff reached for the pencil behind his ear.
"Yes, that's all for today."
Mr Kuff nodded again in a more perfunctory style and began to write. And like that, he was done, and the pencil was put back behind the ear at an angle that defied gravity. "All set then. Thanks and happy letter writing." Mr Kuff said handing him the envelopes with a smile that was proof of a completed and gratifying transaction.
He took the envelopes from Mr Kuff and made his way to the door.
"Oh, and one more thing." said Kuff, so that he stopped and turned back fully to face Mr Kuff upon this sudden breach of procedure. "The Sound has returned."
"Oh? I am on the hill and I am a very deep sleeper so it's possible I didn't hear it."
"Yes, this is why I mentioned it. So that you know. For the Letters." Mr Kuff looked at him searching his face for the required acknowledgment.
"Thank you for mentioning it."
The tension that held Mr Kuff to this duty was then broken and Kuff smiled slightly and they bid one another a good morning. On the way out the door the bell over it rang with specific clarity.
He didn't want to think about Mr Kuff's extraneous comment. The Sound. He wasn't entirely surprised, nothing disappears forever, in flux always, yes, but what comes and goes will likely come again. And go. Was there a suspicious tone to Mr Kuff's report? These were distractions. There were forces at work of course, always. Some things were primary. Irreducible. All things? This was a distraction. Sound or no Sound.
Next was the Postman. The morning had already gone on too long. and there were disparities. He would be the first to admit he operated by habit. There was a routine to the Letters, a satisfying regularity of correspondence. This was a sort of alchemical reaction, take one element and transform it in a crucible, take the elements of operation and reorder them into something differing in nature. If nature is the right concept. He thought, it may not be but maybe some central artifice, some totem.
Regardless. He'd like to dispense with abstractions. He walked. He went down the road to the Postman. He counted the steps. He'd written the Letters. His hand sat comfortably in his pocket on top of the sheaf of envelopes, the crisp dryness of them providing him with comfort. Temporarily, maybe.
Beyond the Postman, on the road, was the Covered Bridge. He'd never been on it, never crossed it of course, but then no one ever had, and once he stood at the road end in front of the bridge and he looked into it, as if trying to look through it, but was unable to see the other side because that was absurd. He thought he may have seen the Wreck, but he banished that supposition as also absurd. And he remembered. He looked through it, as much as he could, and wondered what might be over there, if it was a place like this with its own Mr Kuff and a Library and a Postman. Must be a Postman. Yes and the Letters all came from those impossible places beyond covered bridges everywhere with their own Postmen.
Was that the day the Sound started? Maybe. He assumed he was conflating. Not that it mattered, these kinds of connections never really matter.
Although he'd always muddled over it. The proximity of the Postman to the Covered Bridge. It wasn't that these things were odious, they were not odious, but they possessed a solemnity and gravity that the opaqueness of the Hex didn't. There were implications. But again, this was wasted energy.
The road leading up to the Postman rose almost as a hill but not so declarative. It was gentle. And the Postman sat on top it just off the road in a wide flat space that unlike the road which was flattened, hardened, made of dirt and gravel, was in a circular space made of cobblestones. The Postman was isolated, in the center of the cobblestone circle bordered by leafy trees on one side and tall grasses on the other.
The Postman was a red pillar topped by a weathered black terminus, a kind of flattish cap with decorative pattern on the underside, and likewise a black column that was its base, striated, that looked chipped and rusty around the edges. It was all metal. The central part of the Postman was a red column whose immediate undeniable feature was the shape of a face crafted into the metal — the large almond shaped eyes, cavernous, a slight bridge of a nose elevated from the surface and completing in flared nostrils. Below that, a down turned mouth, wide and open, and with sharp teeth prominent. The entire face one of atavistic anger, a terrifyingly primitive spirit mask, an intimidating thing, not especially aggressive, but judging and unsatisfied. Below this face, just above that black base was a sign. The white of the sign had since changed since he'd know it to very off-white, a pale yellow testament to the length of time the Postman had stood. And he read the sign once again, for the thousandth time.
Last Collection Time
First To Fifth
Sixth And Seventh
* AT DUSK
* NOT AT THIS TIME
* BY INVOCATION
As he stepped forward towards the Postman he saw the familiar glow begin in the gaping eyes, like a fire lit down in the metal column, a little flicker, but the color was wrong for fire, some arcing electricity then, the eyes blazing even in the brightest days. But the mouth remained hollow. He took the Letter from his pocket. The Postman groaned. It was always hungry for Letters. He stepped up and, edge first, stuck the letter into the mouth of the Postman, letting the envelope slip from his fingers and it be drawn in by a subtle inhalation of air. It disappeared into the blackness. And as he always did he stooped a little and leaned forward, squinting into the maw to make sure the Letter really was gone. Was there the faint smell of rust? He saw nothing and was sufficiently convinced the Letter was gone. The light behind the eyes changed color, became dimmer. Like from the bottom of a well he heard a voice, the Postman, somewhere far away but clear enough and with the hints of an echo. ONE LETTER RECEIVED. ONE LETTER DELIVERED. From the mouth the inhale changed to exhale, with a hushing sigh, a release from the depths of the Post Office, where ever that might be. Then with a sudden kerplunk an envelope addressed to him popped out of the Postman's mouth, landing just in front of the column at his feet. Well, finally. He thought. A Letter. It had been so long, how long had it been. Very long. His heart raced a bit and he reached down to the Letter as the Postman's eyes went black again, and the mouth was silent now and no air was forced in or out. He reached down for the Letter recognizing the standard paper of the envelope and yet the handwriting of his address, his name and township, was not known to him. But it was beautifully executed, in a cursive that hearkened back to an earlier time, as if this Letter were delivered from the past. It may have been he could never confirm or deny when the Letters were written. Past or future, or now, this was arbitrary.
Then he did something he'd never done before. It wasn't an impulse, although his heart continued to pound, like there was a thing buried in him, in there somewhere in his chest with his heart hanging there on a nail. There was no impulse, he was not impulsive, there was a kind of existential imperative, he knew what he must do next, he must open and read the Letter now, here, in front of the Postman. Normally he would wait until he was at home, at his desk in front of the tall window, maybe the sunlight inching its way across the floor and the cat following it in a long afternoon's strategy of napping. But he must open it now, he knew this.
Without his letter opener he pried up one small corner of where the flap and the envelope met, and with his pinkie finger he forced it into the opening, making it larger in the process, then with some strength dragged his finger across the top creating an ugly jagged tear through the flap that would've been completely avoided if he used a letter opener. It was regrettable.
He made a small pinching motion and grabbed the folded piece of paper out of the envelope. It was a single sheet he could tell even before removing it, he could tell it was a single sheet even before he opened the envelope. The weight of it, it was the precise weight of a single sheet. And he removed the Letter and unfolded it. The same immaculate cursive handwriting was there on that paper. He held it up and read the Letter in front of the Postman.
"Well, that explains it. That explains everything." He said.
He walked away from the Postman, Letter in one hand, the badly torn envelope in the other. He walked down the road, towards the Covered Bridge. The Sound behind him was rising in volume. He walked down the road an onto the Covered Bridge, and he looked back a single time.