love letters
by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt


Zavir rested his head against the concrete wall, his eyes focused on a point just past the naked yellow light bulb. His captors liked to turn the bulb on and off at random, just to disorient him, to disrupt his sense of time. Not that it mattered what day it was. He knew he was going to die here.

He wasn't going to make it easy for them, though. There was more food here than the thin soup and hard bread they served when they wished to. One had only to be clever, clever and not too squeamish. Zavir lay as still as he could, not even twitching a finger. There. Movement out of the corner of his eye. They didn't like the light, but hunger drove one to do foolish things. Even when one was a cockroach.

It approached tentatively, testing the way with antennae aquiver. It could not resist the tantalizing morsel in front of it. Human fingernails. It moved closer.

Zavir's hand shot out. The cockroach tried to squirm away between his fingers, but he brought up his other hand. Each time the cockroach wriggled out, thinking it had escaped, he took hold of it in his other hand. The irony of what he was doing did not escape him, the prisoner become the captor. But he needed to eat.

He brought his meal to his mouth. He blinked. No, he was imagining things. He brought the insect so close he could feel its legs twitch against his lips. He pulled it away. The letters were still there. He squinted to make out the words on the cockroach's back:

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.

Zavir mouthed the words as he read them again, tasting them. The archaic diction gave them an exotic flavor, a spice sizzling on the tongue. He certainly knew what it meant to die to all the world. He read the words a third time. The dull red-brown letters barely stood out from the brown of the cockroach's body. He knew that color all too well. Dried blood.

Zavir repeated the words in his head until he had them memorized. He brought the cockroach to his lips and swallowed it with the words. He chewed, taking the message apart, breaking it down. Making it his own. It warmed him to the core.

Only after eating the roach did Zavir start to wonder who had written the message, and how, and why. He did not envision his captors planning anything so elaborate. Their usual methods were much less subtle. It was unlikely the roach had traveled from outside the prison. Thus the message had come from someone inside. He knew the writer was a woman. No man had such penmanship, such a delicate touch with the brush. Was she writing a love letter to a fellow captive? Words of encouragement thrown like a bottle into the ocean? Or writing only to keep herself sane? Zavir did not know.

Zavir envisioned her plucking her hairs and tying them together to make a brush dipped in her own blood. Was the wound self-inflicted or caused by their captors? Zavir imagined the words burning inside her, boiling in her blood, forcing their way out.

Would she write again?

Zavir kept the words inside him. They warmed him through the cold nights. They kept him company when the lights were off. They were the secret strength within his bones when his captors questioned him. He had a name. Even though he didn't know what it was, the woman who wrote on the cockroach had a name. That could not be taken away from them.

He lay on the floor of his cell, shivering, but with a smile on his face. He dozed off, he did not know for how long. When he awoke, there was a cockroach right in front of his nose. This one also bore a rust-brown message.

From hence, your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.

He studied the words, tasted them, treasured them. He saw the cockroach for what it was only as it started to crawl away. He sat up and snatched at the insect, but it scurried away through a crack in the cinderblocks. Zavir rested his head against the wall. He touched his face and found he was crying.

It took him a moment to figure out why. It wasn't that the cockroach had gotten away. It wasn't even that he had missed the words, though he longed to take them into himself and nourish his heart with them. He wept for their writer. What had happened to her since last she wrote? The mention of each part made him think that their captors had hurt her, seriously. Would this be the last message he received from her?

That was not the only reason he wept. The writer's words were like a kiss in the dark. He had made contact with her, if only for a brief moment. To not eat her words left them unfulfilled. He whispered the two sets of words to himself and let his tears flow freely. At the very least he would not forget them.

One of his captors had seen him cry. They thought they had gotten to him. They began questioning him in earnest. He started so strong, so very strong. But without the nourishment of the second set of words, he broke. He bled and he wept and he talked. He bared his soul to his captors, laid open to them the deepest secrets of his heart.

He recited the phrases from the cockroaches over and over again. He felt as if he had betrayed their writer. As if he had exposed her to the rape of their ears and recording devices. But he could not keep his traitor tongue from speaking the words.

Those words were not what his captors wanted to hear. They beat him until he could not stand, beat him until he could not see, beat him until he could not speak, and then they threw him back into his cell to die. His head hit the floor and he fell unconscious.

Dried blood flaked from his eyes as he blinked them open. He felt insects crawling all over his body, tasting his toenails, nibbling on his skin, feasting on his scabs. He was dying. He knew it, and he welcomed the cockroaches to their feast.

A cockroach crawled across his nose. It could not be, but it was. His jaw could not move but he sounded the words in his head.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read.

He let out a soft moan. The cockroach scuttled down Zavir's face and into his slightly open mouth. Zavir swallowed. The words went down into him and he died. He died, but he was not alone. He died with a smile on his face and warmth in his heart. He died, but he was loved.


Love Letters © 2012 Donald Jacob Uitvlugt