The Burden of the Post

Uttarakuru is the fantasy world in my head, and some of my writings. I’ve been meaning to write stories in it, and the book I’m working on will be set in it. I want to use this space to write a couple short pieces about it. I’m trying a different, a bit more ponderous style of writing. I don’t know whether it will seem different, but just so you know. As usual you are quite welcome to comment and let me know what you think. 

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There was a bulletin board pinned to the building’s center column, and big, bold script written overhead, each character curling elegantly into the next. The board greeted every customer who walked through the door; the first thing they could see was a bright and cheerful, “What Is New At The Sleet Street Post Office?” There were several different papers and pictures tagged to the board, each with news and tips to make one’s post office journey more pleasant. The price of stamps had risen by 2 copper, and there was a pleading reminder for everyone to bring exact change. Photocard rates had gone down 1 copper, thanks to a good crop of Ash Herb this year. A glossy Photocard of Calis and Kamlee, sole employee and sole manager of the Sleet Street post office, smiled at the customers as a vibrant example of the premium quality pictures they could buy. Below them, wanted posters hung by Arbiters and the Gendarmerie mugged at the entryway and listed fresh, frightening crimes.

Calis Maharapatram stood from behind the counter, and searched everywhere for onlookers and busybodies. He looked outside to the frosty streets. He looked in the washroom. He looked around the front office. He was thankfully alone. Nobody was watching – except the spirits whom he would soon disappoint. Tail stiff and erect behind him, he rushed up to the column, silently prayed to the spirits of justice to forgive him, and took all of the wanted posters. He quickly moved them to a much less cheerful bulletin board in a corner of the boxy post office lobby. This was the official and unspoken location policy on wanted posters. “Nobody wants to see a bunch of crooks leering at ‘em when they’re coming to the Post,” Post-Manager Kamlee had said, reverentially waving her hands as she invoked the name of the sacred Post, the great purveyor of stamps.

“Leave the posters there for a few hours, then jank them out when no one’s looking and put them on the other board. I don’t want them seen from the door. A wanted poster’s never caught a thief anyway.”

Calis did not agree with the Post Manager, but he was a Post Employee, and it was his job.

In the midst of his miscarriage of justice, he heard bells ringing as the front door swung open and struck them. “One moment please!” He called back, hurriedly pinning the papers. Passing by the counter he glanced at the customer in front of the column, reading the bulletin board with the new rates. He smiled suddenly. It would probably be a photocard – when they stopped to read the rates, it was always a photocard, and those were all kinds of fun.

The customer called back. “Take your time!”

She waved her hand over the side of the column.

Calis took his place behind the tall wooden counter. Having been given a bit of leeway, he feigned as though he had to search the shelves behind the counter for something; instead he crouched out of sight and touched up his pigments, quickly applying a bright red lip pen and a eye pen, and powder to smooth his skin further. He checked the pin holding his long hair against the back of his head. Once certain he was comely and Lilly-like, he stood up anew, fixing his tie and pressing down his warm red uniform skirt and jacket. Reds were the chosen color of the Post in the city of Oomash. Sleet Street, and all of Oomash for that matter, were constantly battered with snow, due to their position atop the Hetuku – bright, hot colors and a crisp appearance was just one thing the Post could do to make customers feel warm in the mountain weather.

His customer approached the counter. Had she wanted to deposit a letter, there was a tube with a small pump on the left-hand side of the room which would drop the letter in a basket in the back office. No, Calis thought, what she wanted was service. He smiled, and held his hands clasped together in front of him on the counter. Though he knew better than to assume things, she seemed a monied person – under her blue, shimmering drake-scale coat he could see silk and bright gold buttons and a bit of chain around her neck, perhaps a fine jeweled necklace, and when her coat split as she sought out her purse, he noticed very fine-looking long robes of a quality fabric, and a very colorful sash around her stomach.

The woman deposited a piece of paper on the counter.

“I would like to send this message to a person in Karst, in the Southland.”

Calis closed his eyes. He was still smiling. “Come again?”

“A telegram; you offer telegraph services, don’t you?”

“Why, yes, yes we do.” Calis said. His voice wavered slightly, and his fingers trembled. He ran through the calculations very quickly and subtly, all in the midst of flipping and arranging some of his stray hair over his dog-like ears. Casual fidgeting helped hide the math work. Distance, standard message codification fee, materials, average message length with optimal typography; in a moment he had the price. Yet his heart would not stop pounding, and he felt a bit of perspiration building. “The price is a bit prohibitive; regulations and all. It will be six silver, five copper.”

“I don’t mind the price. I need to send a message to my wife, it’s very urgent.”

“Alright. One moment please!”

Calis bowed his head and calmly retreated through a door beside the front desk. He closed it behind himself. The back office was quiet, save for the thump of an official seal being punched on letters, and the drip of a leaking pipe, unable to freeze shut due to the heat from the interior furnace. He walked past his desk, and stood in front of a larger and more desk. Though obscured by a mound of letters, the occupant was certainly active; periodically a letter, now punched with the official seal of the Oomash post, would fly out and strike the wall, then flutter down unto a large, wheeled basket of out-bound mail.

“Anything wrong?”

“I need help.” Calis said. He sighed deeply. “It’s a telegram. A customer wants a telegram.”

Long ears the shape of falcon’s wings rose over the mound in alert. A pair of hands split the mound of letters down the middle, allowing Post Master Kamlee to peer out in shock. “A telegram, really?” She cried out, quickly buttoning up her post uniform over her undershirt, having unbuttoned it for comfort. She took one of her shiny postal service medals and pinned her short hair behind her head with it, trying to be as presentable as possible with as little effort as could be spared. “What kind of customer are we talking here; and are there really no other options for them?”

“Woman, and a Lilly maybe; young, I guess? Looks affluent. Message is for her wife.”

“Oh dear. She looks like she can pay the ridiculous rate then? And she’s motivated?”

Calis nodded. “She does and she is. She really wants to send this telegram.”

“Why doesn’t she send a letter?” Kamlee protested, stamping her fists on the desk and knocking some of the letters unto the floor. “What kind of reckless life does she lead that she can’t plan ahead for a simple and easy letter? I don’t want to judge, but I am judging! A telegraph, in this spirit-blessed year?”

“She assured me it was urgent and serious.” Calis said.

Calis and Kamlee slowly and with great dismay turned to the room corner, where the machine in question had lain for years now, unmoved, blissfully forgotten. It seemed now to brim with ominous new life. The telegraph machine was just small enough to fit through the door, with effort, and no smaller. Atop the beast was long and broad surface full of thick pearl keys and a long needle with a button to punch it down on the surface. This mechanism was used to type down messages containing the 90 accepted Standard Script characters that could be transmitted via the telegraph. It stood on four ancient brass legs with iron wheels and over time it had lost almost all of the gilded sheen and glossy pigment it had been given. Kamlee and Calis could hardly see their expressions reflected in its body anymore. Their brown skin seemed to disappear on it, and it was uncomfortably pitted, so they looked sickly in whatever glossy surfaces their faces could still reliably appear upon.

Inside the machine were a series of copper and gold sinews, carefully burnt in and blessed, and the various organs by which it consumed fuel and then transmitted its etchings to other stations. It was like a voice box, only infinitely more confusing. And it was now up to Calis and Kamlee to unravel the monstrosity, for six silver coins and five copper ones. Eyeing the beast and filled with dread at its coming awakening, the two clasped their hands and muttered quick prayers. May the spirits protect its iron soul; may they bless the post with the skill and strength to commandeer its esoteric powers.

Kamlee asked again, slowly drawling each word. “Are you sure you explained the rates?”

Calis nodded, his face grim. “Six silver, five copper. More than my salary for today’s work.”

Kamlee stood up her desk, and she marched to the telegraph machine, and kicked it.

Together, they seized upon the telegraph machine and pushed it out of its corner. They struggled to turn it, to curve it around obstacles, and to force it flush against the wall. It was a mammoth, a rattling beast, and they were never more aware that their limbs contained flesh, supple, vulnerable flesh, than when they attempted to wrest it from the back office. Pushed through the door at an angle, it could possibly even become lodged in the door frame and bar the way out – much of the struggle involved aligning the machine with the door in the precise way it would fit. Thrashing legs scraped against the floor; they ran with their shoulders set to the machine, just to move it inches toward a destination.

“Namaste! One moment please!” Kamlee called out to the post front.

“Take your time!” The customer said.

Once aligned with the door, the machine was forced out of it inch by inch. Calis and Kamlee set their shoulders against it, drew back, and shoved it, each charge pushing the machine just a bit further. Their customer hurried to one side as they barged through the door and rolled the machine out unto the floor of the front office, the polished floor giving them slightly better gains from each push and thrust. Calis felt a throb whenever he so much as moved his arm on the side he had been charging the machine, his shoulder a tight knot of pain. The two of them split up, as routine demanded.

Kamlee addressed the customer with a smiling face.

“Good afternoon, Mati–

She paused at the honorific, allowing the customer to fill in for her.

“Charee Lakhanpal.”

Kamlee bowed her head, and Charee bowed back. They held hands as part of the greeting. “We’ll get your message out in short order.” Kamlee gracefully led her to the counter, where she took a sheet of paper from a small box on a corner of the desk, and offered the woman her pen. “First, could you fill out this survey for us?”

Charee smiled. “Gladly.”

Behind them, Calis pulled the machine steadily across the room until it was closer to the wall. Using the slight distraction he had been given, he took practiced steps to prepare the machine for its task. He opened a sliding panel on the wall and attached a thick rubber-coated metal cable to brass contact points on one end of the machine. Inside the sliding panel was a small tin can. Its fluid, greenish-brown contents had frozen solid over time. Nonetheless, he scraped the crumbling brown chunks out of the can with the nib of his official postal service pen and into a fold-out reservoir on the back of the machine. He folded it back in, uttered a line of prayer, and peeked his head over the contraption to signal for Kamlee.

“Ah, we’re ready. And just in time too. Here is a survey prize for you, Charee das.”

Kamlee procured a small leaf of paper with four commemorative stamps affixed, celebrating the venerable Urus armored car and its hundred years of service in various roles, including postal delivery. Charee folded the paper into her dress robes, between her belly and her ornate sash. Her tail wagged a little with appreciation.

The Post Master walked Charee to the telegraph machine, and made a flourish of her hands as though to introduce a valuable member of the staff. Calis struggled not to laugh or make a gesture that would hint at the sheer insincerity behind their actions. Both of them hated this machine and hated using it but their contempt could never be allowed to spread to the customers desiring it. The Post was about Service, the almighty Post, and it had a reputation to maintain. Calis kept himself stoic as possible, offering a smile only if Charee’s eyes neared his way. While Kamlee explained some of how the machine would work, and took Charee’s message, Calis smacked his lips as though to even out the pigments he had applied on them, and made as though to sort out his hair, flipping some over his ears and running his fingers lightly through it.

Finally their customer stepped back from them, and Kamlee hovered over the machine and pulled on a lever. This produced a cough of pale yellow smoke from a different hatch on the side of the machine, and it began to rattle and generate heat. Its engine labored to burn and consume the frozen esochem Calis had fed into it.

“Calis, please punch down the message I’ll be dictating to you.”

Calis stood on the tips of his shoes and leaned over the machine. He was not tall enough to use the machine comfortably, and his face was soon dripping with sweat. On one hand he had a lever which would turn the thick, brutal-looking and menacing needle arm atop the telegraph machine, and slide it up and down across the keys, emblazoned with the characters available to spell out messages; his other hand he kept over a square button, which he could hit with his fist to trigger the arm descending unto a key, transmitting that character through the wire via its strange powers, across vast tracts of land, to a similar office which was equipped with a receiver machine that could print out the message.

“Dear Mati Upsala Ramayan, stop from beloved wife Mati Charee Lakhanpal line,” Kamlee began her dictation and Calis began to move the needle and punch down the characters, each time causing the machine to rattle more violently for an instant, and then a tiny spark to issue from the cable panel on the wall, “Sincerest apologies for my behavior, stop, I wish once again to live with you, line, living apart from you has been hellish, stop. My heart and flesh long for you like no other, stop. There can be nobody in my bed but you, line. I shall disavow the third party forever, please return to me, end.”

Calis’ face grew very red while typing the message. Not just from the heat wafting up from the beastly telegraph machine, but the fact that all of this resulted in a reconciliation letter regarding an affair!

But Charee and Kamlee seemed unmoved by the dictation, so Calis kept quiet and did his work, and tried not to nurse any theatrical fantasies about the letter and its origins. Once it was fully written, Kamlee pulled the lever again. A final spark of power blew from the back of the machine and traced the length of the cable into the wall, and then on its way down to the Southland. Kamlee nonchalantly wiped her own brow with a handkerchief, pocketed it, and bowed again to Charee. “Your message is now on its way. I hope it will touch your wife’s heart, as it touched ours.” She said graciously.

“I sincerely hope so as well.” Charee said.

“May the spirits of love tie a red knot around you two, once again.” Calis said. His own voice was exhausted. His hair was somewhat disheveled, and he would likely need to redo his pigments.

Charee took her leave, complimenting Calis on how wonderful he looked with his lip stick and skirt. The two postal workers exchanged bows and hands with their customer, and Charee handed Kamlee a bank note from the Center Circle, the portion of the city inside the mountain that housed the apparatus of government. The note covered the cost of the message, when exchanged. The moment the door bells rang again, and the door swung shut, Kamlee and Calis collapsed against the machine. They promptly regretted it, as the fiend was still red hot, and burnt them through their uniforms.

“Spirits-cursed thing! I want it melted down!” Kamlee shouted, kicking it again. Her winged ears beat fast in her anger, and her feathery tail closed and folded open rapidly. “I want it shot!”

“Must we push it back in now?” Calis cried, brushing his hands hard against his back in a desperate attempt to cool the stinging pain running down the back of his neck and down his spine.

“We should roll it down the street! Roll it off the mountain!” Kamlee shouted.

But they could do no such thing. Sleet Street Post offered telegraph services, had offered them for close to a hundred years, and they would continue to do so for a hundred more. Realizing their situation, Calis and Kamlee cursed the machine more, resigned themselves, and when it cooled, prayed to the Spirits for strength. They would have to push it back inside the back office, to await the next customer who required a message sent miles and miles overland faster than a letter could arrive. Regardless of their reservations, it was this, which was truly the burden of the post.