My husband liked gradient puzzles. He appreciated the way the color blurred and changed. All that color, he said, that no one’s fucked up yet.
After he finished a puzzle, he collected scraps of paper, bills, and junkmail. He brought back discarded paper from the office. The papermaking process was reserved for the basement, alongside an abandoned brewing barrel and burlap sacks of grain. He painstakingly ensured the paper was smooth and the mottles from different colors were barely perceptible.
When he moved back to the island where his family lived, the summer after we graduated high school, he sent me prototypes for the stationary. He scrawled little drawings and designs around the edges, with few words written in contrast to my letters crammed with words. On one of the envelopes he sketched a cicada emerging from its nymph shell, maybe in response to my question about his mother’s health. In words, he returned my questions with more questions. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. Questions that asked nothing at all.
Before we married my husband had half a dozen penpals, all of whom loved paper and ink not for their utility, but for their beauty. The ephemera club, I teased.
Everything is ephemera, he reminded me.
When I began framing all of his past letters in large glass frames, to prevent more tearing and so I could turn them around to read the back, he hated the idea that anyone could read what he had written. How are you? How’s the weather? I miss you. But you didn’t write anything personal, I responded. He returned to ripping up paper before carrying his filled basket down to the basement, where he soaked the pieces and screened the fiber with a small mesh frame.
When the sheets had dried, the paper appeared on his work desk in our shared upstairs office. Several ink bottles had been lined up at the top edge of his desk. Later that afternoon, he decorated pages with calligraphic loops and swirls around the edges—not words, exactly, but evoking words, on the edge of a hieroglyphic language. I tried to decipher them when he was asleep. Holding the sheets to the overhead light, I squinted at the markings as I slowly rotated the paper. The cryptic incomplete loops, the wilting m’s.
Before sunrise, he burned the letters above our gas stove. I heard the pilot light staccato on a few minutes before the alarm.
The next day he used the remainder of the paper to draw elaborate mazes. He began from the center and worked his way out, barely lifting the pen to mark dead ends or offer the right path. One year every maze was a heart. Another year the mazes became labyrinths. Only one way in. Only one way out.
The year all the mazes were hearts, and cicada song had shuddered into evening, I stayed awake beside my husband until he eased out of bed and padded to the office.
I slipped out after him, then paused when I heard talking. He was murmuring something. When he emerged from the office holding the letters, I was still standing in the hallway. He looked up.
There are words here, he said. They are trapped between the pages. He brushed past me to go down the stairs.
I didn’t follow. I knew the answers behind what he had been asking me for years. But I had never made much effort to translate what I assumed were easy questions. How no one else understood the unsent letters were memorials he burned to ashes. The questions he had been asking for years changed: How long has she been gone? Where is my mother? I miss her.
Alyse Bensel is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.