This story was rejected for publication. Who can say if a rejection letter is worse in content or form? The content is—a given—bad news, but the form, intended to give comfort or at least not offend, often has the opposite effect. The generic manifestation:
Thank you for submitting “Your Title Here” to the Our Title Here. We had an exceptionally large pool of over XXXX submissions. The editorial staff was impressed with the consistent quality of the work, and we struggled to choose. Unfortunately, your submission was not selected. Please Read Our Title Here on this date to discover our choices.
We hope to see your work again in the future!
P.S. To subscribe to Our Title Here… website
How the supplicant might read this letter:
It’s easy to thank the unsolicited, and we get a shitload of said unsolicited. If it makes you feel any better, yours was consistent with all the rest of the rejected, and we were pretty damn pleased we received so many (feather in our cap). It was hard to go through them, but we did. Unfortunately (we’re saying “unfortunately” but our decision clearly indicates, from our perspective, NOT) your submission was rejected. Please blunt your disappointment with money in our direction.
By all means, waste our time again if you like!
Best we can manage regards,
Bitter? Maybe, but what’s wrong with “Listen, not this time, but don’t give up. We know it sucks to get a letter like this one…”?
Oh well, here’s the story anyway:
On an errand some years ago, he found himself lost. He’s been trying since to make his way home. At first he seemed near. Each fresh vista promised landmarks to lead him back, but little seems familiar now. He glimpses a tree outstretched or a low-hugging cloud. They could be from before or a memory from this journey, he can’t be sure.
The day he departed, he left his love in bed. Dipping his face close to hers, he watched her eyes flutter under their lids and wished he could join her in sleep, in dreams. “I’ll be back later,” he whispered, and let his hand rest on her upper arm, naked above the covers. She didn’t wake. He’s sure she didn’t, having so many hours to revisit the scene, but she did moan, and in her moan, he heard their desire.
At first, some of each day was knocking. Few people answered, and those who did opened doors just a sliver, their bodies blocking golden, glowing interiors where, sometimes, other curious faces lurked. On occasions they spoke instead of shaking their heads, they loaded their directions with distrust. He heard reluctance and couldn’t remember beyond the third change of direction or the sign he was supposed to know on sight. He couldn’t go back to ask again.
He leaves doors alone now and is well past crying out. Having used every name he’s ever known, his voice has died, its squeak no more than vocal chords rubbing. He said his love’s name most, and, in the end, his mother’s. Before he set out though, before he took whichever wrong turn, his mother was already gone. Even after all these years, he still sometimes imagines her form up ahead, back turned, bowing into her hands and sobbing over his loss. That, he supposes, is a wish. In life, she wasn’t demonstrative. In his old world, she never seemed surprised to see him.
When he was young, a measure of pride arrived if his parents called him “Little Man,” as it meant he’d stood up to some unanticipated injury or fury, dammed his tears, been complete in himself without needing instruction or help. The name brought him closer to separation he sensed they desired. They seemed exhausted, and his deepest affection was to grant them peace, let them rest. One dim afternoon, his mother waited at the door when he came home, and she said his father was gone. For a moment, grief stood before him—amassing as unaccountably as a wave—but he squared his legs. “Little Man,” his mother whispered, and turned inside.
The neighborhoods he passes through are orderly. Houses reach a natural average, less different with every reiteration. Windows stare back blankly, bored. And the streets’ angles of north, east, south, and west are razors. He turns like blinking. Suddenly the sun is behind or ahead or rising.
No matter what he does, the world goes on. A day comes when birds sing again, or he notes their songs again. There’s pleasure in those moments’ thaw and the softening air and earth. The slant of sun across his face is revelation. “If I’d learned to pay attention,” he thinks and sighs. The intake of breath plants him. If it placed him were where he wishes, he might be happier, but he only ever wanted to be happy enough.
Not very often, but sometimes, he stops. Pausing in the blue shadows of dusk, he takes inventory, checks to see if he wants to keep searching, how much hope remains. He always goes on because the sun rises and sets. The cycle of days and his mind run furrows scored by habit.
Dreams visit randomly. In one, he turned and stood on the walk leading to his house. He closed his eyes to be sure he was awake. When he opened them again, he detected someone moving in an upstairs window. The shadow shifted like a ghost. He knew (without knowing why) that it was his love. He had waited to find her, and she’d waited too, was even then rushing down the stairs to let him in. He woke weeping, his wet cheeks having ended the dream.
He may be home now. Had he chosen wandering, he wouldn’t care about living in this overlap of spaces. Home would be an idea easily carried. His trouble is expecting recognition, someone to say they’ve seen him before or someplace announcing he belongs.
As a boy, he wanted a horse, and that fantasy returns often. Then, he knew not to express such extravagant needs, but he feels a right to it now. When he was young he consoled himself by being the horse, galloping, forming lazy S’s in imagined meadows. More than anything else, he delighted in the twitch of musculature, the power and purpose and stateliness and certainty. The horse was his, he thought, and he was the horse. They shared honest love. He believed his daydream as only children can.
Every step leaves a little behind. Fatigue rises tidally, and eventually he’ll close his eyes for good. The darkness that awaits him may or may not be welcome, may or may not be familiar, may or may not be final. But he has his desires, which he dares not state, even to himself.
One memory lingers—his love’s breath. He smelled the spices she loved and, occasionally, he discovers some echo of them in fallen leaves or the faint smoke of someone’s fire. A light rain can raise the scent or sudden warmth on a winter afternoon. The day he left, that smell hung about her, clinging to her warm skin, and, though he felt embarrassed by the rapture it incited, he took it in. Of everything he misses, that matters most, just that much of her.
Another turn looms.
And night. In gray twilight, he recognizes streets beginning to settle, a sky assuring snow.