"Selecting stories for the anthology, The Ground Beneath Her Feet & other stories & poems was no easy task, but from the first read Harrison Solow’s ‘The Postmaster’s Song’ leapt off the page. The style is engaging and innovative. From the three possible beginnings to the delightful end, which invites the next leap of imagination, the reader is treated as an intelligent participant in this part fairy-tale, part creative non-fiction story. It’s refreshing to find an author who can not only spin tales, but also take risks – crossing genres, pushing the boundaries of perception, playing with language – and all with a light touch, beautifully controlled. It’s an exquisite story, finely told and will certainly make you want to read more of Harrison Solow’s work."
Dr Jan Fortune-Wood, Editor: Cinnamon Press
The Postmaster’s Song
First I wrote:
"This is a story about love, but not about the kind of love that most people know about. Children know about it, but then they forget when they grow up. Grown-ups remember it sometimes in the night, but they don’t believe it in the morning. Old people know all about it but they can’t tell anyone because they also know you can’t really tell anyone anything. People have to find things out for themselves..."
Then I crossed that out and wrote:
"Storytellers usually say “Once upon a time” when they start to tell a story, which is a pretty good way to start. It tells you that there is a story coming and that it happened a long time ago. But how do you start to tell a story that keeps happening?”
And then I scrapped them both and started like this: Once upon a time, and now, there was and is a couplet named Mallory. “Couplet” because she was two people. Or rather, one person from different times. It sounds unusual because it is unusual but that doesn’t mean it never happens. It means it doesn’t usually happen which is why people write about it.
Sometimes when a person grows up, she keeps herself. Usually not.
Mallory had the kind of mind that spans the city and the academy, which meant that she fit into neither very easily and into both rather too successfully. She also had the kind of beauty that both attracts and repels – too striking not to be desired and too desirable to be comfortable for almost everyone. The attention she garnered, therefore, was nearly always unwelcome in one way or another. People tended to walk toward her instinctively on sight. The closer they got, however, the less adequate they felt to cope with the realisation that what they saw would not be what they got, and would back away rather more quickly than they had approached - into an elliptical orbit, never really leaving but never staying either. Mallory trained herself to appear not to notice this after the first dozen years of pain.
'What a great wanting there seems to be in the world,' she would say to herself in the early years of her beauty after another hungry orbital body had retreated. 'Why do they all want a milk-breasted-saviour - a girlfriend buddy sweetheart mother teacher abbess mistress nurse and loyal-best-friend-forever all in one? Why do they think it exists? And why do they think it is me?'
In her fourth decade, therefore, she moved from a rich and powerful land to a minute and modest principality, no longer than a drive to lunch in her former life, no wider than a shopping trip. And it was so unlike both those activities that she found it enchanting, without realising that, in fact, it was. It is not often that what seems to be, is. But again, sometimes, in hidden places, it happens. For here, no one wanted her unduly. Everyone seemed content with what he had. And so in this place she thrived.
Because Mallory was a rather well-known writer under a trio of pseudonyms in the life she left behind, she also left a flock of managers (house staff, gardeners, accountants, lawyers) in that discarded chrysalis, and had recently begun, with serious pleasure, to manage her life, herself - looking after her thick-walled house and dark green garden with its berried and luminous flora and air of watchful inhabitedness. She signed her own cheques to pay her own bills and drove her little car carefully, herself – not too fast and not too slowly - and not too often, since there was no need. She walked everywhere in the little village in which she lived then and lives now. Adult and very responsible. She had been married once or twice with predictable results but she wasn’t at the time I am talking about. Was happier alone anyway. Until.
Mallory had two tall sons across the sea, who had lived with her all their lives until everyone except Mallory, including the boys themselves, thought that they were too old to live with their mother and so they left her, as boys do, or so people say, to become men. At least that’s what people said in the country where Mallory lived then – which was a country that had very strong ideas about what “being a man” really means. And of course it was one of the reasons she moved away in the first place, though it is not the reason she stayed.
Now, Mallory loved her children with all her heart – they had been lovely, enrapturing little boys and they grew up to be grand young men who inhabited their own houses and ran their own companies with both benevolence and success and became, like their mother, very responsible. She had tried to make sure that they too kept themselves intact as they grew up. She did not want them to throw their selves away as many do - with both hands, gleefully, stupidly, tragically – to wither and starve in the delicate maze of decades they would leave behind them on the road to manhood. But of course there wasn’t much that she could do. Everyone has to see these things for themselves. She did, with great love, her best for them.
She misses them. She misses them.
Still, she didn’t mind living alone in her quiet house with its bookish rooms and collections of fine art and rare teapots and the few toys she had kept all her life. Mallory was used to having a grownup self outside and real self inside and did not think about it much anymore. She was interested in her own life. She had her pursuits, passions and obsessions - and her work, which happily involved all three. Though she did not write anymore. She had stopped instantly one day from shock several years before. The sort of shock that only innocence can attract, that only innocence can heal, though people never know it when they first come to Wales. Only afterward, when things happen.
At the time I am talking about, Mallory was learning Welsh from the people, books and stones around her; reading philosophy and faces by turns in the library and the village; and exploring the myriad Celtic mysteries dancing in the subtexts of the conversations she had every day, with the Postmen, the shopkeepers and the land. She was also lecturing in Literature at the university, which was ostensibly why she was there. Late at night, she listened to one man’s music and painted tiny paintings for miniscule books, the kind that children used to like a long long time ago. The man was William Thomas, former Princeps Cantorum of Wales. The paintings were of the Mabinogi.
Sometimes she would get on a plane and fly to crowded halls in other lands where she would lecture to hundreds of people in a succession of gleaming cities about what was in the books she had written when she was younger. And afterwards, she would be escorted by her ardent and well-behaved hosts to a parade of midnight suppers and would talk or dance through the night. But always, she came home to her village, deep in the heart of Wales. And while all these things might not be particularly appealing to you, they were to her and so she should have been happier. She was happy, you understand, but not as happy as she could be.
“It’s hard sometimes to think you’re the only one of something,” she had told her boys, who, at six and seven, sat like two chicks in the great nest of quilts on her bed one winter morning two decades past, and listened, in the habit of their mother, with all their hearts. “The only brilliant child in the class, or the only one who is terrible at sports, the only one who didn’t understand the question, the weakest, the fattest, the one who goes to synagogue instead of church - or is diabetic or the only one whose parents can’t afford or won’t let him take music lessons when he really wants to - the only one who stutters, or who has a mean dad, or is fantastically gorgeous or can’t hear very well. You know what I mean. But there really isn’t anything to be except what you are, my darlings. One of a kind. Or two. Or one of a tribe. Or not.”
The boys had looked at her with their wide believing eyes, not quite understanding. They had each other. They had her. Whereas, after they left home, Mallory didn’t know a single person like herself. Of course, half of her was very comfortable sometimes and half of her was very comfortable at other times. But never ever was all of Mallory comfortable at the same time.
And then, one September day, Mallory had a birthday. When she got up on that heraldic morning, it was just the sort of day she liked. Rainy and windy and dramatic – with dark leaves flying and that pattery sound on the windowpane – the sort of day when she could wear her tall boots and high-collared, wind floating coat; when everyone’s cheeks were busked with weather and Mallory’s breakfast was ambrosial. Thick yellow Welsh honey on toast and local milk in the tea. An excellent beginning to an excellent day. It was about to become bendigedig. Bendigedig is a Welsh word that means fantastic, splendid and brilliant. Not quite what is meant by those words in English, but still superlative, in a solid, Welsh sort of way. (There are some lovely words in Welsh for “fantastic.” Godigog – penigamp – gorchestol. But bendigedig is the one that would have come to mind if Mallory had known what was about to happen.)
When she had finished her breakfast, Mallory washed her dishes, put on her swashbuckling coat, picked up her satchel and umbrella and walked out of the door into a new life. On the way to the university, even though she was running a little late, she stopped at the Post Office, which was just across the road from the campus.
The Post Office was Mallory’s favourite place in the village. On pale November mornings, white and gauzy, it seemed like an Edward Hopper painting and on late golden summer afternoons, it took on the imposing air of an Italian palazzo. This morning however, it looked like the uncompromisingly grey damp Welsh building it was, though Mallory rarely saw it that way, largely because two of her favourite people in the world worked there: Aaron, who was tall and thin and handsome with damson eyes and a calming voice, and William who was short and round and handsomer, with eyes so sparkly that they really could not be said to have a colour at all - and whose voice can never adequately be described.
Once each millennium, perhaps, a voice like this is born. Once in a thousand years do the gods descend to bless the tender throat of a newborn babe. But, in William, that is where it stayed - deep in the throat of a protracted infancy, surrendered to a secret twenty years before. Mallory knew that he had lost the career of a lifetime. A life of Carreran splendour, a fame of Pavarottian proportions. All the village knew it, though they knew not why. All kept silence. Except, as it turned out, Mallory.
Although she was drawn to them both, Mallory had always thought she liked Aaron better (largely because she had never detected an orbital propensity in him and so felt free to like him without consequence) and had talked to him more over the years than she talked to William, who most of the time only looked at her with his radiant eyes and flushed when she said good morning.
The first thing that Mallory, in fact, had noticed about William (to her puzzlement since she had always believed that “eyes were the windows of the soul” and always noticed those first) was his sweet and tender mouth, but as he didn’t use it to talk to her much, Mallory found it easier to talk to Aaron, whose chivalry was cellular. They had more things in common any way: two sons each, a habit of sacrifice, and a tendency to laugh at the same time for what seemed like no reason at all. Loyalty was their mutual flaw. But of course having things in common is rarely why one holds another dear, and the real reason that Mallory would sometimes slip into the Post Office on her way home, after a day that had held some secret sorrow, was just to see that Aaron, in his mantle of archaic and invisible grace, was still there. His existence reassured her.
That morning only William was there, star-eyed and straight-backed as usual, so Mallory said simply “Good Morning, Postmaster” because he looked so much like the word “Postmaster” with his perfect posture, impenetrable shirt and serious face that it just came out before she thought about it.
“Good morning, Lady,” William answered gravely.
This was such a lovely thing to hear on one’s birthday that Mallory’s heart skipped a beat and she counted it as her first birthday present. She smiled at him and, when he smiled back, Mallory knew why she had noticed his mouth first and made a mental note (just as she used to in the days when she was writing) that there are other windows into the soul.
And because it was such a morning with the rain beating around them in the warm, empty Post Office and an unaccustomed comfort between them, she forgot she was late and stayed to talk to him. She noticed then, the tired little lines around his eyes, his copper flecked forehead, his faun-like ears and curiously calloused hands. They were getting on very well, as euphemisms go (for in other stories it would be described differently: little tendrils of feeling had begun to reach toward each other– to brush the sensitive surfaces of who and what they were; to shiver, thrill, recoil, return, entwine, and carefully climb up the casings of each other’s ipseity; unknowing, but sensing new life). Getting on very well, then, in Welsh terms, chatting about the news in town (the newly redecorated café, Meic the fishmonger’s new van, the horse show in Newtown, and how nice it was to have winter picnics) when Mallory suddenly asked, in the direct manner of the country she left (and with the grown up part of her voice), “Why did you call me Lady?”
The feeling in the room flickered, waned and died.
“I don’t know,” said William unhappily, looking almost frightened that he had done something wrong. His eyes went unsparkly, turned an anxious bluish-grey and it was at that moment that Mallory looked into them for the very first time.
What she saw there she never told anyone, not even years later when she was a very old lady and what was between them was illuminated. She kept it to herself. She keeps it now.
'Oh no,' she thought, a millisecond later, and fell instantly, wholly, in love.
This is where the part about being a couplet comes in. For inside William was the loveliest boy she had ever seen - as lovely as the memory of her children, as perfect as any poem, and as alone as she was now. And Mallory went right to the heart of that beautiful boy and heard his trebled song and something inside her said, “I shall never forsake thee.”
And that was when William blinked – and the boy disappeared. They had been engazed, these two, not breathing, not thinking, not blinking until that moment – when Mallory felt the second wrench of her life and again nearly cried-out, “Come back!!” But she did not. Her grownup self took over and said “One first class stamp please,” right over the scream in her heart. And William, who had a grownup self as well, though not nearly as grown up as Mallory’s, turned white and then red and said “Th – th - thirty two pence, please.” Mallory took the stamp, forgot to pay, left the Post Office, put the letter in the village waste bin instead of the post-box and said to herself, 'I shall take up poetry again.'
* * *
The problem was, of course, that William was a man. Not a man like Aaron who, on one black day of his youth had bowed his head and accepted the mantle of manhood from an unseen hand, but rather a male of forty years duration on the planet who, according to both the Welsh and English dictionaries, could no longer be called a boy. That much, those delicate tendrils had felt. And Mallory would not engage on any level her real self with any man. She had learned something in her bright glassy past, and having had to choose "life with" someone or "life of" her whole self, she chose herself for she would not be divided.
So, as she thought of it later, the boy in the man had been seen by the woman outside the girl, and he ran as he would have from a natural predator. For she knew now what choice William had made. Or what choices had been made for him.
But he had sung to her. She had heard it. Kept hearing it. What to do...
Mallory stayed away from the Post Office for awhile in order to think. But thinking did not help. There was that song, you see. Then, too, they worked in the same village. On the same road. So sometimes she would come across him, here and there – unplanned but never unexpectedly. She would realize he was nearby just before she met him, for the closer he came, the quieter became his song. Once, she knew him to be a few feet away on the other side of an aisle in the green-grocers because suddenly, all was silent. And when she looked around the corner, there he was. He always appeared to be operatically surprised to see her at these times though she knew he was not, for of course, the singing would stop in her presence. He knew, as her babies had known when she approached their restless cots in the night, that she was near. Their crying would stop.
When she wasn’t near, his song came though the thick stone of the Post Office across the road through the porous walls of the Canterbury building where she worked and into the cells of her heart, with sirenic, relentless beauty. Sometimes in the early dusk she would look up from her desk and out the window to see light streaming from the windows of the Post Office, like golden fingers across the foggy road. And even the light had sound.
So one day, she went back.
It was a dark December afternoon when she came in with her Christmas cards to post and frost on her hair. This time there was a line of people waiting, all with similar stacks of cards. As she slipped into the queue, the singing stopped. William, who had been busily sorting out something complicated with one of his customers and had no reason to look up, looked up. Imperceptibly to everyone but Mallory (and Aaron, who missed not a single breath of William’s life) he stiffened, bent his head a fraction lower over his papers and went on with his transaction. When it was her turn, in the line that staggered from William to Aaron, Mallory got William, as they both had known she would.
Aaron looked over from his window in the counter next to William and sent a little warning to Mallory along the wavelength of his smile. She chose not to see it.
“Well, hello,” William exclaimed, in an overly casual and unnaturally high voice that deceived no one. One or two people in line looked over at him. “And how are you today?"
“Fine,” Mallory said, looking at Aaron.
“That’s good to hear,” William replied, easing into a well-worn repertoire acquired as a child in his mother’s tiny post office in the hamlet where he still lived, alone now. “Terrible weather, isn’t it?” he continued, as if reading his lines in a well-rehearsed play. Mallory saw him with his serious eight-year old face, helping Mam, earnest and over-praised for the virtues that would one day silence him, imitating his elders and distancing his peers in the same act.
Though this was not the boy she had seen on her birthday. Not at all. She smiled at him, not without effort. He did not smile back. His eyes followed hers to his breast pocket, which quivered slightly.
“What can I do for you?” William asked a bit imperiously, as Mallory’s silence became uncomfortable. Mallory thought of twenty things in rapid succession and decided to mention only one.
“Why don’t you sing into other people?” she asked.
A great stillness seemed to pass through the already quieting post office. William looked at Aaron and then at Mallory and made no reply. An elderly woman in line shook her head. Aaron’s slight frown grew deeper. William bent his head.
“Be- because I don’t know the words to their songs,” he whispered almost inaudibly.
“William...” Mallory took a breath and went on, this time in a girl’s low tones, “I would like to talk to... that is, write about...interview, you. Would that be alright?”
William turned his face from her and clamped his beautiful lips together to repress the answer that burst out anyway. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Ye...” “What for?” Aaron asked quickly, over William’s third ‘yes’ while more heads turned.
“I am a writer,” Mallory said, the rusty phrase scraping her throat. “I am a writer,” she repeated, coughing slightly, “And I would like to write a story about William.”
Over the next three months she made four appointments with William. He cancelled them all, even as his song pulsed between them.“Postponed,” he called it, but Mallory knew there was no real intention to fix an actual date. He began to sing more insistently into her now - a silent, perpetual refrain.
She knew from this new melody that he wanted their meeting to happen without an actual act on his part. He wanted someone else to set it in motion, thus stamping it with an approval for which he would not be responsible.
She knew from the key that he had locked the shuttered doors and windows of the boy’s house. It sounded like E minor, though the octave had changed.
She knew from his tempo that what he really wanted was to have it already transpired - to be over without ever having participated. For there could be nothing worrisome for him to remember after an imaginary duet. No impropriate crescendos – no transporting finale. Nothing to think about in the soft dark night. No memory to warm his frozen spine, nor colour his cheek with telltale joy the next day. No sudden allegro in his warm stout body that the village could detect, could talk about as they would, with an unchartered though kindly authority, granted by no one, accepted by all.
She knew from the fact that he sang to her, what he wanted.
Outwardly, Mallory took each cancellation with equanimity, assuring him that next week - next month would be fine, when in fact it wasn’t. She did not understand why his suddenly having a cold would allow him to work all day talking to every customer at length but not talk to her over a quiet cup of tea – or why his vastly overcomplicated and fussy postal rota took precedence over his desire to be profiled in print as the Princeps Cantorum he was - in the world beyond the post-box, in the world of bards and men.
“I don’t know what day I have off,” he would cry in his liquid voice, strung with high tension. But he was the Postmaster. He could have any day off that he wanted to. And often did. Once, twice, three, five times in the weeks that followed, Mallory nearly gave up.
She sought out their mutual and equally mysterious friend Avryl for interpretation. “Why, why, why does he sing yes and say no?” she asked, wounded once again, unwittingly as of old.
“Oh dear,” Avryl said soothingly, “He doesn’t know what to do. He’s never known anyone like you before. He’s a little - well...”
“A little what?” Mallory asked cynically.
“Different, then, isn’t he? Sort of - well, you know. He doesn’t want to sing really, does he? Not to other people. Not in the world, I mean. Or he would have done it by now. And he lo – cares for you. He doesn’t want to disappoint you. But he’ll come round on his own, in time. Don’t try to change him.”
"Change him?” Mallory cried. “I don’t want to change him! I want to unchange him – I want him back. Back before that fork in the road, before the fear, before the harness - back when he trembled with expectancy - he, with his leonine lungs and singular passion - when he had dreams of a glorious future. I want to see him wearing the crown he was given at birth– the jewels still intact and shining, marching down the untravelled roads of Wales like the Prince he is - to claim his rightful Chair. I want him to want it - the way he did then.”
“But you didn’t know him then,” Avryl said, puzzled and a little unnerved, for her soft heart remembered the lad of fourteen about to ascend, though he did not, that waiting throne. And Mallory’s face was so strangely white and her voice so unsteady.
“I did,” said Mallory fiercely. “I do.”
And she wished to be done with him. But indentured to a memory and a vow, she would not forsake him. And so she began to write. She wrote stories about his hostile beauty, essays about his surrender, poems about his tender truth. She read them aloud, a lyric to his song, then burned them in the garden after dark.
As if sensing danger then, he began to sing with precision. His voice grew high, ephemeral, clear. He sang and sang with an incomparable sound through impermeable barriers of stone and flesh and time; finding her in her fingers as she worked; in her throat as she lectured; among the dusty vegetables in the market before her eyes; along the river Teifi as she walked, humming his ceaseless song; and as she lay in her solitary bed at night, under the single moon. He sang as the weeks went by until she could not imagine life without that internal music, infused as it was, deep in the blood of her body, travelling up and down her veins, burrowing into her secret tissue like a metamorphic force. And still he kept singing.
She stopped eating, as he filled her with music. Went to see Aaron more frequently as the days grew cold. Aaron told her she was too thin. But there was no need for food, she explained gently in answer to his compassionate enquiries. Her sustenance was music and the more she consumed, the hungrier she became. “It’s William,” she said finally to Aaron. And tall slender Aaron said, “I know” because he did.
So she walked, thinning, through that winter, carrying his song as it grew, speaking to no one but Aaron, writing under the moon. And late that March, in the chilly purple twilight, she saw for a moment an elfin Boy dancing at the edge of her budding garden, the last rays of the sun coppering his forehead and eartips, singing his susurrus song.
The next day, William suddenly felt he could manage to walk six doors down from the Post Office to be interviewed and rang Avryl (for he could never quite manage to ring Mallory directly) to arrange it. And although Mallory saw the conductor’s baton in Aaron’s hand in this, and although all this third party nonsense displeased her, she agreed to meet him.
And so it was that on one lucid blue morning, at 11:30 precisely, they met for lunch for the first time, in the village tearoom, both of them pale with separate dread. What happened during that meal is probably not a good idea to relate here, for this is a faithful chronicle and to detail the hour they spent together, privately in public, neither of them eating anything, would sound like a fancy or fable. And while, I suppose, it would have been called either or both in another century, it is not. I wish this tale to appear as simple “fiction” though it could as easily be labelled “creative non-fiction” these days. I have not yet learned the difference between the two.
An author I admire once wrote this fragment in a dialogue between friends: “...just because something happens, it doesn’t make it true.” I believe the reverse is also accurate. Just because something is true, it doesn’t mean it happens.
Nothing happened that day. Two people had lunch they did not eat in a Welsh village of no consequence and nothing they said has been recorded. A man met a girl in a tearoom and sang out “I am my mother’s son.” A woman saw a boy across the table and wrote on a napkin, “I am the mother of son(g)s.”
But what is true about that meeting is this: Everyone is someone’s song or story. I imagine you know what happened after lunch.
© 2006 -2010 Harrison Solow
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