The theme for this assignment was “it made good kindling.” Enjoy.
Hester hadn’t seen them in a long time, those love letters from the early years of her courtship with her now-deceased husband Randall. Randall had been sweet and generous in those years, never failing to compliment or encourage the introverted young girl Hester had been as a sophomore in college. She had been a late bloomer, shy beyond all reason and hiding out in the stacks to avoid socializing. She couldn’t avoid Randall Henry, though – he was relentless in his pursuit of her – and they married just after graduation.
Randall had been a poetry major, exercising his brilliant command of metaphors and similes woven throughout the odes composed entirely in Hester’s honor. She had never before been the recipient of such literary devotion and scarcely knew how to respond. Through it all, Randall smiled softly and urged his “Butterfly,” as he called her, to enjoy the attention. “The mark of a true woman,” he once told Hester, “is the ability to accept all compliments as given, graciously and without protest.”
By the second year of their marriage, Hester began to have her doubts. By the fourth year, she was quite convinced that all poets were liars. It was their job to write passionate verse, after all. How could any mere mortal persevere in billowy affection once the minutiae of daily life crept in? Especially when one’s actions betrayed one’s words?
Randall spent less time with Hester and more time with the bottle, which he began to refer to as his “muse.” His thoughts were clearer, so he claimed, and the words flowed more freely with the dark liquid. But Randall’s odes were no longer about Hester. They were dedicated to the drink. All of Hester had been replaced by something no more substantial than could fit inside a brandy snifter.
Having nowhere else to go, Hester stayed married to a man who seemed more like a ghost in the waning years of their life together. She watched him wither and die, surrounded by his bottles, and then Hester got into bed and did not get out again, in any meaningful way, for a month.
Randall’s love letters were waiting for Hester, in a box, in the closet. She hadn’t read them in many years, and reading them now felt like a violation of someone else’s privacy. Hester was no longer the shy young college student for whom the letters were meant, and the writer was no longer around to account for his words. Had Randall meant all those things he’d written, or was it nothing more than homework for his classes? Hester often wondered if she were his test audience, her every reaction recorded to determine the wisdom of using certain phrases in future works. Not that it mattered now. Randall was gone, and there was little else left of him.
Hester pondered for days whether or not to destroy his letters. No. Her letters. They were hers, and she could do with them as she wished. Randall hadn’t meant the things he’d written for a very long time, if he’d ever meant them at all. But somewhere inside Hester still lived the bookish, lonely girl who had been singled out for attention from among the thousands of girls attending school that year. Singled out by Randall Henry, who convinced her she was indeed special and deserving of poetic devotion, a sort of literary immortality.
Nothing Randall did or said, or failed to do or say, after they married, could erase from Hester her first experience with romantic love. It had been real, and she had felt it, and that was that. With that in mind, Hester built a fire in the fireplace and fed it. She fed in sheaf after sheaf of the enemy of her lonely marriage, and when she was finished, there was not a single label remaining on any bottle of cognac in the house, and the letters affirming Hester’s eternal beauty and worthiness of love were safely tucked in a box, in the closet. The mark of a true woman, after all, is the ability to accept all compliments as given, graciously and without protest.