Even with the door to the main street thrown open the post office was stifling. Having clawed back only a quarter of the year from the despotic winter, summer led a full-frontal attack all over Manchuria. It seemed to Hiromitsu that the mail had been frozen, a glacier of sacks bulked up over winter that now came flooding out in a sweeping rush of thaw. Propping himself against the counter, he sorted and re-sorted the undeliverable mail; some with illegible names and addresses, some written in good faith to dead soldiers.
A bead of sweat trailed from Hiromitsu’s hairline down his forehead, caught on a fine eyebrow and quivered, before raindropping silently to the envelope before him. It sat for a beat, magnifying the ink below it, interrogating the last downward stroke in the kanji for Manchuria. Then the moment and the drop were gone, as if absorbed by the great nation itself.
The letters, wrapped in envelopes like skin, were interchangeable from the outside but – the thought waded towards him – there were lives inside each one; the breath of loved ones caught in the cutaneous layers of mail, familiar gestures swept up in the brush strokes of gossip and pleasantry and duty. Paper was a strange messenger, inviting stains and creases onto the delicate surfaces of itself, hiding secrets made of nothing that slid across its planes and came to rest in its folds. Stuffing the letter into his lapel, Hiromitsu added his own story, as his thumb smeared the ink slightly across the paper.
Summer evenings were spent alone in the dim back room of the post office. Cloistered in the syrupy heat, surrounded by the smell of the family who had owned it, even the air seemed to begrudge his presence. It refused to circulate.
He sat at a low table, arranging his four netsuke in order of preference. The rooster, the snake, the tanuki, the rabbit — nearly a year ago he had chosen these four to travel with him to Manchuria. They all wanted to be on the far left of the row. Each time he reordered them he turned those that sat to the right of the favourite slightly to face it, so that three small carved animals displayed an act of proper deference to their superior. He rearranged them again and again, making them leap like Go pieces in competition. It had been a favourite pastime in his childhood, played with his grandfather’s and great grandfather’s cast off netsuke. He had built a little army of chipped animals and old favourites, their features worn smooth from so much care.
From the undeliverables, he allowed himself one letter each week. In the hot nights, at the end of hotter days, his skin gritty and slick, he would pull the chosen message from his lapel. The envelopes, wilted soft, were a marvel every time; they always came undone so easily in his hands —
All around the city, the cobblestones have nothing to say. As I walk to the shrine, the snow mutes my wooden shoes and engulfs them. I pray the gods will bless you, everyday. Do the wisps of incense reach Manchuria?
Your sister cracks the ice on the pond. One koi she fished out dead but the others seem to have grown rapidly to cancel the void. Or perhaps it’s the stretching illusion of the water.
Winter is the season for letter writing, don’t you think?
Your devoted, Mother.
Lying on his futon, motionless as a corpse, in love with the gaps between the floorboards through which drafts told stories across his skin, Hiromitsu sometimes wrote back, invisible letters in the air —
Yes, the wisps of incense reach me.
* * *
Winter. A month’s coal rations undelivered with no explanation. Days, weeks without a civilized word. The army had continued North and left Hiromitsu shouting at the locals, his mouth an angry train in the cold. Even official dispatches were lost, somewhere between the land and sky that together conspired to a sphere of unearthly, unheavenly, directionless white. There seemed to be nothing for Hiromitsu to do but stamp his feet and grind his inkstick into frozen water, scribing the official records ever-shorter.
The cold was creeping tight in his chest as he pulled on his thickest clothes. They blanketed him like a snow drift, softening his angles, rendering him as indistinct as the peasants in the street. He mounted his horse, Hachi, and keeping the village at their backs, together they were hoof prints disappearing.
All around them, lumps of landscape were shrouded with the same white blanket, like vast knees and shoulders and elbows in disjointed ruin. But who could say if there was really anything underneath? Before them, no distance could be measured between one gratuitous curve of snow and the next, and on turning, the village was gone. Hiromitsu’s eyelashes grew heavy with ice and air had to be sucked in past the damp fabric of his muffler. He took strength from the heft of Hachi’s body beneath him.
At last, there stood the two shacks he remembered, so tumbledown that the banks of snow seemed to be all that was holding them up. The weaker of the two was selected. He gave the peasants his orders and waited as the occupants of the rickety hut began scurrying back and forth to their neighbour’s, carrying furniture on their backs, bags of grain and babies under their arms. They looked up at Hiromitsu sometimes, their heads low.
Hiromitsu kept a distance that was proper, parading back and forth only for the sake of keeping the worst of the cold from Hachi. With the way clear at last, he dismounted, and went about securing a thick rope first to the saddle, then to the central post of the empty shack. On his command, Hachi pulled the shack down with a few locomotive paces.
Hiromitsu remounted, glad to raise his feet above the frozen ground, and watched as the peasants stacked the timber. They bound the wood together with twine plaited last season, then fastened the load like a sledge behind Hachi. The postmaster and his horse pulled away to retrace their journey, splinters of wood dirtying the snow behind them.
In a corner of the post office, a depleted mailbag offered a home for spiders. The small warmth of the fire, hard won from his journey, had enlivened the little creatures, so Hiromitsu thought, as he counted their webs and smoked his pipe.
The locals had been unable to dig a hole big enough for Hachi. Manchurian winter owns the earth a hundred miles down and the ground had shut itself off from any further invasions for the year. So the big body had to lie in the snow, the mane stiff as rope, the brown hide patterned with the story of snowflakes falling from the sky.
The end of winter is always the hardest to bear, and sure enough, whenever Hiromitsu looked out the window, all he saw was the hump of snow that meant Hachi. Another hill of snow, another victory for the Manchurian winter.
With delight the idea came to him. He struggled on with extra clothes and requisitioned one of the two rising suns that hung rigid on poles at either side of the post office door. With difficulty, he waded towards the hump and in snow up to his knees, stopped to consider the prospects. The flag would be even more visible from here. The pole plunged into the horse’s flesh almost by itself. Hiromitsu breathed hard from the exertion and gave a muffled whinny in celebration, his breath freezing almost before it left his mouth.
Zoë Meager is from Christchurch, New Zealand and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. In 2013 she won the Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, Pacific Region, and her work has since been shortlisted in a number of contests and appeared in various journals at home and abroad. There are links at zoemeager.com and tweets @ZoeMeager