L A S T KNOCK
The postman's knock brought the housewife whose husband was away. He asked for water as she grabbed the letter from his hand. As he drank, the glass trembled within the sad wrinkles of his hand. White hair crowded his brow, hiding a permanent frown. She consumed the letter again and again, but his glass was empty in no time.
The husband wrote only when he could, and she waited through the night for some dream to resolve her pain. His letters salved a deep wrenching ache she couldn't pluck out herself. When she wrote, "I miss you so much," he replied: "I don't even get time to think of home."
The postman knew these stories of departure and deprivation, and he wished he could offer something more. He scuttled back and forth like a fish in a drowning world, watching the death of hope, wanting to ask, "How can I help?"
He had known this woman for more than ten years, partaken of her laughter and tears. He now felt he was an inalienable part of her world. A comforting uncle whose word was enough to soothe her. He wondered how she would take his news.
The woman looked at him and said, "Thank you," and waited for him to back away from the door. He stood for a moment longer, wiped the sweat off his brow and said, "Madam, I won't be coming any more."
She paled. "Why not?"
"I'm retiring today."
"Then who'll bring his letters?" she asked.
Chellamma died with a prayer on her lips. Her husband lay down next to her and covered himself. He was soon fast asleep.
That morning, as she swept the tailor-shop owner's front yard, his wife had swooped down and shouted, "Stop coming if you can't even do this properly!" She was known for her evil tongue. Chellamma continued to sweep. When she ate an unripe mango for lunch behind the kitchen, the little boy saw her and reported to his mother who resumed her shouting.
The tailor-shop owner then sent for her and she had to get him coal for the irons. It was inevitable. He placed a flat palm on her hip, and once there it wasn't so flat any more. He stared at her breasts with open hunger and she stood still, waiting for him to let her go. She found herself becoming more and more impatient with such men now that she was with child.
After that there were three more houses. She liked the third one the best. There was a new little baby who had transformed the house. The master wasn't coming home drunk any more and his wife wasn't so finicky about Chellamma's work. She held the little one in her arms and saw her own future. She knew things were going to be different.
That night she served her husband and finally stretched out, exhausted. Her prayer rose unsteadily. Tomorrow she would wake up to another life full of the same old certainties.
* this story was published in the Pulse-Berlin Magazine, Directions Issue, 2006