Dead Letters by Caroline Gonda

The reading room is state of the art, climate-controlled to keep the rare books, manuscripts and prints in their best condition. Outside, it’s too hot for even a light jacket. In here, I wear a sweater, pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders.

Precious things, fragile things. There are foam rests to put the books on, and snake weights, strings of ceramic beads wrapped in plastic thread, to hold them open. My tablet’s on silent as I take photograph after photograph. My laptop keys click softly as I transcribe the words she wrote in these four small notebooks, more than two centuries ago. I squint at her handwriting through the magnifying glass, wishing I’d gone to the opticians sooner. My first pair of varifocals will be ready when I get back, six weeks from now.

I’d forgotten what it feels like to sit with these documents, to handle them. I have the digital copies, but it’s not like the real thing. The weight of it makes my chest hurt.

She wanted her private papers burned, like so many women who loved women. This is all that’s left. They’re not her words, but they are the words she chose to keep. Extracts she made from the letters of the last woman she loved, and quotations in Latin and Greek she transcribed from the books they loved and shared. Living with the ancients. Loving through the ancients.

Their love speaks obliquely, in quotations that make up a story I read in fragments. The ink is faded now, where once it was new; but so much of what she wrote was already old.

The scholars sleep in a clapboard house full of ghosts, just across the path from the new reading room. You’re not supposed to talk about the ghosts, but everyone has stories, their own or the ones they’ve heard from friends. The house is older than these notebooks. I sleep fitfully in a narrow single bed, and write my journal at a small table looking out on a tree that moves a little further each day into the red of fall. The September weather is eerily beautiful, day after day of heat and cloudless sunshine. After the reading room closes I sit on the terrace in my shades and t-shirt, and drink and watch the unfamiliar birds in the chokecherry trees.

On the day I finish my rough cut of the transcription, I browse the digital catalogue and stumble across another notebook I didn’t know existed, written by the woman she loved. I call it up and begin to read. The first thing in it is the other woman’s dream of her beloved friend, twelve years after her death. I’m shaking as I read it, my heart pounding. As I start to transcribe the dream vision, the weather breaks, thunder shattering the quiet of the reading room and torrents of rain hammering the slope of the roof.

Caroline Gonda writes flash fiction, poems and occasionally songs. Her work has been published by LossLit, Reflex, Lunate, and is forthcoming in Pastel Pastoral and the National Flash Fiction Day anthology. She teaches and writes on literature, gender and sexuality, and particularly on lesbian narrative and queer reception. Twitter: @liederfollower