Home > Fiction > The Letter
Published: Mon Apr 15 2002
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
The Letter

On a sunny but cool Tuesday in early spring, Herr Alfred Zorn, federally chartered engineer, father of a son and daughter, loving husband of twenty-four years and long-standing resident of a small city in the vicinity of Basel, received a piece of upsetting news. It came in a phone call around lunchtime, when a trembling and out-of-breath voice informed him that his son, the younger of his two children, had been gravely injured while on maneuvers with his battery in the countryside surrounding Luzern. Because there was some doubt as to the young man’s survival, the speaker, a lieutenant whose name Herr Zorn forgot immediately, urged him to come as quickly as possible to the surgery ward at the cantonal hospital. Between rushing home from the office, repeating what he knew of the story to his wife, and finally taking his seat on the quarter-past-two to Luzern, he had not taken much time to reflect on what the phrase “gravely injured” might mean. On the train, though, as he wrung one hand between the other, Herr Zorn thought of nothing else.

They arrived in Luzern at half past three and were at the hospital by four, where, on the ward, a young man dressed in a dirty uniform and holding his beret crumpled in his fist stepped forward to introduce himself as the officer with whom Herr Zorn had spoken that noon. He explained that their son had been riding on the back of a truck when the rear gate had sprung open, spilling four recruits onto the road. Their son had received the worst of it. The lieutenant apologized profusely for the situation, then, after having pressed both their hands, set his beret back on his head and hurried down the hallway.

Their son was laid out in the recovery room, where, in the half-dark, a nurse was dozing on a chair in the far corner. He was unconscious and breathed only with the help of a machine. Tape held a large dressing to his chest, upon which three small spots were beginning to blossom into larger stains. The force of hitting the road had torn his aorta, but his helmet had spared his face any major insult, and despite a livid welt on the left side of his jaw, Herr Zorn thought that face might have been a perfect model of his own, from thirty years ago. He and his wife sat watching, stiffly, on two rolling stools.

Within the hour the young man had suffered another hemorrhage, a great upwelling of blood that turned the bandages’ color from one moment to the next. The sleepy nurse jumped up to call for the surgeon, and ushered Herr Zorn and his wife out of the room. The surgeon came running from the corridor, only to reemerge a short time later, his hands clean and in an unstained gown. He made father and mother sit down in the waiting area, where in a grave voice he told them, “There was little we could do, given the nature of his injuries.” Husband and wife nodded in agreement as though they, too, could not have foreseen any other possible outcome.

For an hour they sat, their arms wrapped around one another, until interrupted by a young man who came through to tell them that the body couldn’t be released until the following morning. As they sat there, Herr Zorn, still locked up in his wife’s embrace, decided he had no intention of spending the night on the hospital’s hard benches, or even in an unfamiliar hotel bed. Their daughter would be home from her lectures at the university, in any case, and he imagined that someone ought to be there to let her know what had happened.

“We should get home and tell Greta,” he mumbled into his wife’s ear, while trying at the same time to disengage himself from her. She only clutched him harder.

“You can tell her tonight,” his wife said.

“Very well. We’ll return tomorrow for—”

“No,” his wife said. “I’m going to go light candles.”

Herr Zorn pulled away, and as his wife busied herself with searching in her purse for her rosary, he glanced at his watch. He had nearly an hour remaining before he had to leave for the next train home, and though he wanted to go straight away, he realized his wife would expect that he remain with her until the last possible instant, rather than save the taxi fare to the train station. For a time Herr Zorn tried convince her to come home, but she was just as insistent on her staying behind as she was on his going, and even though he knew there was no use in the exercise, he remained, pretending he could talk some sense into her.


On the train Herr Zorn played the stoic, and he played the role almost perfectly. He was a statue. He was a crucifix. He was Socrates waiting for sunset. He did his best to marshal any lingering traces of his will, and yet fat tears still formed at the corners of his eyes. Herr Zorn leaned his head against the window, dabbed at his cheeks with a folded paper towel from the lavatory, and hoped the other passengers wouldn’t notice.

He couldn’t help thinking that he was to blame for his son’s death; he had, after all, suggested that his son join the anti-aircraft, as he had done, during his own military service. The work there was lighter than elsewhere, he’d argued—one could, for example, ride on the truck that towed the cannon, rather than slog through the snow and rain like everyone else. Herr Zorn had used those very words to persuade the boy, and why? Had he really been worried about his son getting blisters or catching cold? No, there was something else to it. Herr Zorn, too, had traveled these rails dozens of times during his stint in the Army. And even though his son’s body was just now going cold, Herr Zorn wasn’t crying only for the boy, but for himself, too.


He remembered with what impatience he had come home those Saturday mornings, finally in his stiff new dress pants and tunic, after having spent the week in his muddy fighting uniform. He had, early on in his service, acquired a girlfriend. Her name was Claire, she was slightly older than he, and, though she studied at the Basel Conservatory, Herr Zorn preferred to think of her as a street performer.

Those initial weeks of his military training were his first sortie away from home, and, in the evenings, after the sergeant was done yelling at them for the day, and when he and a few other recruits were allowed out of the barracks to go drink thin beer at a local restaurant, were the greatest independence he had ever known. Coming home Saturday mornings, he’d been reluctant to return directly to his family’s sterile house. Instead, despite the late February cold, he would walk from the train station to the top end of the Freie Strasse, which he would descend slowly, examining the contents of each shop window as he went. The third week, as he came sauntering down the hill, he found Claire at the bottom, before the portal at the back of the central post office, playing Pachelbel’s Canon on a violin.

Though he did sometimes toss the odd coin into the hat of an exceptional juggler or musician, he rarely stopped long to listen; but that day, he set down his kit bag and leaned against a nearby lamppost, to watch Claire play, and to admire the pink dabs that flowered on her cheeks and nose.

At first he had considered going straight up to her once she’d finished, but then he thought it would be funny to do something else. As she started her next piece, Herr Zorn ran into a toy store just down the street, bought a fist-sized pink plush bear, and tied a note around its neck that read, “My colleague and I cordially invite you to come out of the cold and have a cup of hot tea,” then, while she was still playing, he set the bear inside her violin case.

What followed were likely the happiest six weeks of Herr Zorn’s life. After their tea, they agreed to meet the next week. Claire brought Herr Zorn to her family’s apartment, a maisonette in Little Basel on the north side of the Rhine, where he was required to eat cake and say a few words of introduction to Claire’s mother before going upstairs. The next week they were permitted to skip the formality.

After their third week, Herr Zorn didn’t bother going home, not even to drop off his dirty laundry. Claire consumed him; even during the week, on guard duty, he found it hard to concentrate. His mother wrote several times to inform him that his behavior was the cause of a minor scandal in the town of Allschwil, and while the youthful Herr Zorn read every word she’d written, he chose to ignore her: for the first time he was in love, and this with a girl older than he, and he would be damned if he gave up his addiction before it had completely ruined him.

Sometimes, though, he did have doubts, and he did feel sorry for his mother, how she had to explain to her friends that her only son was too busy carrying on with some loose woman in town to come and see her. On one occasion Herr Zorn even felt ashamed as he and Claire, already fumbling with their buttons, tripped their way upstairs, while Claire’s mother observed from the open kitchen doorway. Besides, how long can one be consumed by—what was it? Passion?

In the end Claire spared him the trouble of any further concern. Their last weekend together, as Herr Zorn laced up his boots and zipped closed his kit bag, Claire, still naked and holding the duvet close around her chin, told him that he would have to go to the train by himself. When he called her the next Saturday, having missed her at their usual meeting place, she’d told him not to bother coming around again.

Whatever embarrassment Herr Zorn felt returning to his family when he came home that first night, the thought of having been naked in front of Claire was far worse. He wrote five letters to her, the last one of such a desperate character that sending it only left him feeling more ashamed than before.

In the weeks and months following, he had patrolled Freie Strasse, hoping he would see her playing her cursed violin. Even years later, even after he’d finished his studies at the Polytechnic in Zurich, even after he’d married, and even now, now that his son was dead, he could not help but feel that awful stab of embarrassment. How he regretted that desire he’d felt for Claire. How he hated her!


His daughter had already gone to bed by the time he got home, or so he judged by the closed door to her room. For a moment he considered knocking, but then decided to let the news wait until morning. He poured himself a glass of whiskey to help himself sleep, and as he walked through the rest of the apartment, he came across a stack of mail in the kitchen, where, sifting through the flyers and bank statements, he found a red-and-blue-edged airmail envelope, on which his name had been written in careful block letters. There was no return address, but the stamp bore the picture of a rippling American flag, and the postmark read San Francisco. Herr Zorn sat down at the kitchen table and took a large swallow from his glass. He did not know anyone in America, and that someone from that far away should seek him out terrified him. What could any American want from him? After some thought he decided he would not open the letter, that he was too tired after all. Instead he poured the rest of the whiskey down the sink and hid the letter among some papers in his study.

The funeral was the following week. Far-flung and rarely seen family members gathered for the service and afterwards sat at the long table in the back room of the Golden Ox to dine on veal and asparagus. Later most of them repaired to the apartment, where they filled the space with the sound of their talking and their smell. Herr Zorn endured as much as he could, but then he thought that if he had to brave one more arm swung around his neck, one more voice palavering in his ear about how things would be all right in the end, he might be forced to shout something improper and send his guests home early.

For a time he disappeared into his study, where he examined a set of plans a colleague had handed him before all this had happened, but then set these down and, moving a stack of papers, found the letter again. He tucked the envelope into the breast pocket of his suit coat and, without a word to anyone, made for the stairs.

Out in the street Herr Zorn found a bench and took out the letter. He wasn’t sure he wanted to open it, but he was curious. It was comforting to think it would likely turn out to be misdelivered mail and nothing more. And so Herr Zorn pulled out his pocketknife and slit open the envelope.

Inside he found a single sheet of tinted stationery bearing an address printed in wraithlike gray type across the head of the page. The writing was clearly a woman’s, stiff, neat and flawless enough that he wondered whether it wasn’t the fair copy of several successive and heavily edited drafts. The date at the top of the page was from fifteen days earlier. He did not know the hand, but he knew the salutation “Dearest Freddi!” at once. In all his life only one person had ever called him by that pet name, and that recognition filled him with a thrill of both longing and dread, the likes of which he had not experienced in a long time.

After smoothing the page Herr Zorn let out a deep sigh, and then began to read:

Dearest Freddi!—

It has been almost thirty years since we last communicated, and though I can imagine you would rather not hear from me, I feel you might be relieved that I’ve sought you out again.

I don’t doubt that you think I played some cruel trick on you, when I did not answer your letters. You must have thought me the most vicious person when I appeared to change my mind from one moment to the next, but surely you never considered that perhaps I was sparing you from an even greater tragedy. What I mean to tell you is that we have a son. I named him Zacharias; I hope it suits you.

I knew I was pregnant before I sent you away. That I could not tell you of my condition was clear—you would have insisted that we marry, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy living with you forever. If I didn’t tell you, I knew I would remain in your memory only as youthful experience, so I made a decision, the way a surgeon does, to sever what was already dying, and hoped you would recover.

Have you forgiven me? Have I overestimated you?

As for me, Zacharias has not weighed me down. With him I have traveled great distances, found a husband and made a new home here in America. Still I think of you often; Zahcarias’ face is a perfect map of yours. He is twenty-eight now, and well into his doctoral studies at Berkeley. We both hope that the three of us might meet some day. Of course, any other family you might have would be welcome.

                                Until then, I extend my best
                           wishes to you and yours,

By the time Herr Zorn was done reading, his whole body was shaking with sobs he could no longer disguise to passersby as a mere coughing fit. He fled home, and when he entered, still crying, someone said, “Look how it’s destroyed him, losing his son.” Herr Zorn locked himself in his study before anyone else could comment on his condition.

Later, though, he reemerged to thank his guests and shake their hands as they went home. The last to leave was an old maternal uncle, a widower, well into his eighties, who’d had too much brandy. He staggered towards Herr Zorn and embraced him, then, straightening his coat, said, “The high spirits of kindness may look like malice.”

“Whatever does that mean?” Herr Zorn asked.

His uncle only smiled and disappeared into the dim hallway.

For about an hour, Herr Zorn and his wife wandered about the apartment, picking up crumpled napkins, cracked plastic cups and empty bottles. Once she had gone to bed, Herr Zorn sat down again in the living room. Under the orange light of the wicker-shaded lamp he read what Claire had written one more time. Taking a box of matches from the kitchen and leaning out the window, he burned the letter to a triangular stub, the remnants of which he flushed down the toilet as he went through his nightly ritual.

He fell into bed beside his wife. As he slept, his usually impassive face bore an oddly distressed expression. The nighttime hours advanced, and Herr Zorn thrashed and cried out, but on towards morning his strained frown eased, and just before dawn he almost seemed to grin. Herr Zorn had a son, he still had a son.

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