After the roadblocks were lifted, and the bricks and concrete were shoveled into wheelbarrows, and the pieces of clothing and flesh, and the glass that had fused to them, and the sun that waltzed across their surfaces had been stripped from the sidewalks, and the piles of letters had been sorted and arranged into verbs, adjectives and nouns, and were now reaching high up into the circling smoke in three vast pillars of words, the crowd stood with ash in their hair and smoke in their lungs and all was silent and heavy and still.
And standing with her back to the gutted husk of the dead letter office, The Girl, and I will never know her name, pulled at the hem of her dress and bit her lip and stared at the mess she had made.
The crowd of people should have been asking each other why, instead of envelopes and bank statements and warrants for arrests and electricity bills, the dead letter office actually contained exactly that: letters that had never been born, or letters that had died before their time. But this question was never posed and, therefore, I cannot answer it for you now.
An old man, sinewy and stained with the varnish of age, knew that those towering columns contained the hushed words that his wife had uttered before she died and which only her nurse had heard. When the old man had asked the nurse what his wife’s final words were, the nurse had hesitated and admitted that she had been too scared to listen.
The old man shuffled forward, paused, and then eased his way through the crowd and toward The Girl, who was staring absentmindedly at the bloodstains on her dress and the brick dust on her legs. As the old man approached, The Girl raised her head, and smiled, and stood aside to let the old man pass. After rubbing The Girl’s arm and casting a final, sentimental glance over his shoulder towards the crowd, the old man proceeded onwards towards the towers.
The letters themselves, when viewed up close, were hardly very imposing or impressive at all. The sheer number of words that they formed, however, was altogether staggering. Breathing deeply, the old man lifted his head and squinted, searching for the peak, but the letters were still obscured by the smoke that continued to pour from the shell of the building.
Placing his hand on the first stack of words, the old man found that the pillar was far more stable than he had imagined. He gripped either side of the tower, lodged the toe of his left foot between two of the lower words and, with three little hops, latched himself onto the column and began his ascent.
The Girl watched the old man climb until he too became lost in the smoke.
The crowd stood motionless, not daring to breathe or blink or even question what they were seeing lest the entire scene trickle away before their eyes.
Many were sure that the old man would never return.
And The Girl smiled and kicked a pebble against a broken digital watch that had at one time been looped around the wrist of a woman with long red hair.
A shuffling atop the middle-column of words brought a murmur of anticipation from the crowd and it wasn’t long before the old man, clutching a handful of words in the nook under his arm, scaled down from the heights he had climbed and dropped to the pavement below.
His face was flushed red and was glistening with tears. Great, desperate sobs heaved out from his stomach and chest and throat. Plucking the letters from his underarm and cradling them and weeping and laughing and walking away from The Girl, the old man parted his way through the crowd, who all turned their heads to watch him as he disappeared.
And when a young boy, who had forgotten to turn off his sister’s electric blanket the night that his parents never came home, broke free from the crowd and brushed past The Girl’s knees and leapt up onto the letters and words and climbed high into the smoke, The Girl knew that those who had kept the dead letters locked away, those whom she had torn from this world and crushed into crimson embers, had been dead themselves from the moment that they had imprisoned the words of those who were no longer able to speak.