I am the voice.
This one is different. The stack of envelopes I’m given seldom consists of anything other than the standard-issue white paper pockets. Sealed and stamped and packaged from the factories of wherever, produced by the hardworking hands of people who will never know what their hands put into creation, and torn open and the contents of, read and digested by people who will never know who worked to get it to them. Scarcely does anyone ever know the inner workings of the clock.
I pull the envelope that doesn’t belong from the stack. The tattered exterior. This one is recycled. Perhaps thrown to the floor without a thought by someone, having fulfilled its purpose, and decided by someone else to be worth another round. Zero wastage policy. You need every penny to win a war. Every saved penny is another bullet. Every bullet is another thunder of a shattering noise, bouncing spitefully in the walls of an ear in a battlefield there, in the valley of the blind and deaf and afraid.
Why did I have to raise my hand?
Whatever it was that did, got me here, at this desk, with a soon to be burning tongue and aching arms. At least I wasn’t asked to shine the toilets. Or worse yet, do it with a toothbrush.
The sergeant walked in and asked who was fond of music. He eyed us all, assembled into that cabin from everywhere: torn from villages and the city, from families and lives that now seem as distant as the stars in the sky, heaved into military uniforms, and told to answer to no one but the higher-ranking commanding officer. Order. Obey. Order. Obey.
I shouldn’t have answered. When he asked who liked music, I should have clamped my lips shut and bolted them with steel. Answering ambiguous questions of the sergeant’s never ends well. I should have known.
I raised my hand.
“I do, sir.”
He smiled at me.
“Come along, son.”
He took me to his office.
To his credit, true to the matter he originally spoke of, he slid the record in place, and the music played. The woman singing sounded like one I’d heard singing back home. She sang of home.
“The love of the Mother and the flutter of birds, intertwine and are one in the love of Her.”
Her. My country being referred to as a woman. Who is loved. For whom lives and souls are paid as tribute. In exaltation. With red coins of vengeful anger. With blood.
When the song drowned to a stop, he lifted the pin off the phonograph. You could tell that the new phonograph was a prized possession by the gentleness with which he handled it.
I’d been treated to the tune. I’d volunteered when he asked. Then, I’d agreed to his terms. I brought it unto myself. I was assigned duty at the Paper Mill. The finality of an order from the sergeant’s roaring lips. I should have known.
The Paper Mill is not one. It is not a place where trees are squeezed dry and flattened into thin sheets. It does, however, involve paper, and is a production … of sorts.
I was shown to my desk at the Paper Mill. Given the stack of envelopes. Told to not leave until Tuesday afternoon, when another fool would be tricked into agreeing as I did, doing what I will.
Back to the brown envelope.
It stands out in the pile of made-for-army-purposes envelopes. A knock on the door. A user of the Papermill. Step inside, please. Use me.
“Joseph?” the voice asks politely.
“Yes,” I return. “Come in.”
The voice walks inside in its brown nighty. The clothes you don’t see in the war posters. In times other than actual deployment in the field, soldiers wear a comfortable brown overall gown. The gown walks toward me, finds me at my desk. “If I won’t be too much trouble …” the gown says, sliding over a folded sheet of paper.
What unwarranted politeness. He needn’t ask for my services, but he did none the less.
“Of course,” I say. I nod at as the gown smiles and leaves, just as quickly as it arrived. I’ve seen his face before. Somewhere in the unending litter of faces. The entire time it was in the room, the gown smiled warmly at me.
Now for the job. I’ll make sure to treat his letter well. I unfurl the folds and read a line or two from the middle. If I’m to do this, I might as well make it interesting.
“And the itch is gone, too. The field doctor is a nice man, always smiling. I think he’s seen death too many times. He probably has. He must have. I’m leaving tomorrow morning, mama.”
I wonder where the itch was.
But I shouldn’t read on. A line or two is all I can permit myself. The line must be drawn somewhere. I do have some decency.
So he’s leaving in the morning. I’m spared the tip out, to the warzone, on account of my duty. In the morning, he will dress out of his gown, into the green, and be shown out of camp with a thousand others like him.
Helmet on head.
Gun in hand.
Fear in chest.
Hope … well, everywhere.
Because who wants to die?
I fold the letter back as it was. The tightly pressed creases fall back to their previous position. I slip it inside the lone brown envelope. The least I can do to reward his unexpected gesture is not stuff it in a hideous army-issue envelope. I lick the flap, tasting the rough rub of paper. I press the envelope shut.
So is the job of the fool of the Paper Mill. Place letters in envelopes, lick them shut. The light reading, however, is purely this fool’s humble addition to the routine. As I said, I am their voice. Without the fool of the Paper Mill, the letters of the war would not be delivered. Someone has to do it. The licking is the worst part. My tongue will burn blue. I should have known.
Another now. I slide it open.
“Has Jesse sold the goat? Tell that stupid Saukerl not to do it just yet. Who knows when the war will end. And tell him to water the field, not drown it. God, I miss his face.”
I stuff them in quick order now, the pile will only get larger by the minute. More gowns will drop through the door. With more letters. Until the shift ends. Until Tuesday. I lick the envelope shut. I read another.
“I need you to go to Markus’s house. Spend the day with his mother. She will need the company. Comfort her. Don’t mention any of what I said to her. Especially the …”
My mind loses the words in a fright.
I push the intruded-upon letter away in panic.
I shouldn’t be reading this. The cause of the interruption stands before me.Another gown pushes the door ajar. It drifts inside, wordlessly thrusts the folded piece onto the desk. The gown leaves.
Unspecial white envelope for you.
I read on.
“Especially the wounds. Don’t mention the wounds, Dana.”
I slide it in its pouch. Glue it with a lick. I slosh a drink of water against the inner walls of my mouth to moisten things. That should help. Another.
“Perhaps someone like Leon could phrase this better. Remember Leon? From my last letter? He is good with words. If he were here, I would have asked his help in writing this. But he has been stationed seventy miles away. I don’t know how better to say this. I love you. I ache to hold you in my arms. I ache to brush your lush hair and have it curl along my fingers. I love you. There is …”
Enough of that.
I’ve already read too much.
Another gown enters the Paper Mill. Even on Tuesday afternoon, the stack of letters will not get any smaller. The sounds of bombs not any fainter. The fear not any milder. The crusting of blood along the battlefield floor will not dry. Not completely. Just before it dries, just before it solidifies under sun smashing down on it, the wind of shouts and winter cold, it will be replenished with a fresh coat of red.
I have a feeling the smiling gown, the first one, won’t return to camp.
It is the smilers who die first. Always. They are not made for the trials and tests of the land of fire. They fall short.
We will soon know.
Another letter now.