Chapter 7 - A Tale of Letters
~The Weak Link~
My name is Riku. I am a dog. I have long, soft, white fur. I may always look like I'm smiling, but I was just born with this look; it doesn't necessarily mean I am happy all the time.
My owner is Master Shizu. He is a young man who always wears a green sweater. Complex reasons have left him without a homeland, and now he travels the world on a buggy.
Another member of our group is Ti. She is a silent little girl with a fondness for grenades. Complex reasons have left her without a homeland, and so she recently joined us in our journey.
We were on a very cold plain.
From the stopped buggy we could see rocky brown earth, not even a single blade of grass poking through the cracks. Over our heads was nothing but dark cloud cover.
It was past noon, but it was impossible to tell where the sun was located. The temperature was below freezing. Our breaths froze in the air.
There was no wind. We could hear nothing save for the soft, low rumbling of the buggy's engine.
"I don't see anything. Let's move on." Master Shizu said from atop the driver's seat, and slowly sat back down.
Over his usual sweater, Master Shizu wore a thick green winter jacket and a hood over his head. He had a pair of goggles over his eyes, and a muffler was covering his mouth, pulled up from his neck. There were thick winter gloves over his hands, which were carrying a large pair of binoculars.
Ti quietly sat in the passenger seat, with myself between her knees and her chin on my head.
She was also dressed entirely in white winter clothes. Her tiny white form, along with the puffy cut of her jackets, made her look rather like a little snowman. On her head was a wool hat we acquired in a country we visited earlier, and around her neck was a muffler in which some of my fur was mixed. Over her emerald-green eyes were a thin pair of goggles used for horseback riding.
Master Shizu started the buggy. We briskly drove across the hard soil. Icy wind blew into the car and blasted us mercilessly.
Of course, being covered in fur, I wasn't very cold.
Ti quietly embraced my head. Was she feeling cold, or was she worrying for my sake? I could not tell.
Master Shizu continued driving for some time.
And he stopped the buggy again at some point on these desolate plains.
Master Shizu stood up on the driver's seat again, and slowly looked around through the binoculars as though searching for something.
As Master Shizu slowly rotated from his seat, he stopped suddenly.
"There! I see him!"
Master Shizu hurriedly took a seat and quickly started the buggy again.
It had all started the day before.
During our travels, we passed through a very cold land and arrived at a certain country.
It was a peaceful and laid-back country that was not very well developed. Machinery and engines were limited to factories and the like. The country's vast lands were covered in fields that had been completely harvested, now covered in snow.
We were welcomed with open arms, but again our dreams of settling permanently were let down.
In the end, we stocked up on fuel and supplies, intending to set off immediately for warmer climes. However, we were suddenly stopped.
"Traveler! We need your assistance! Please, help us find someone!"
A group of desperate-looking men in black uniforms rushed over to us. They were postmen.
Master Shizu carefully listened to their story.
According to them, this country had a very good relationship with its neighbour, interacting with them constantly. They had a large quantity of mail passing between them as well.
We were told that postmen carried letters from one country to another via small horse-drawn carriages. However, one of their friends was missing--it had already been four days since his scheduled arrival date.
They suspected that their friend may have been stranded by the unusually sheer cold. They had resolved to go out to search for their fellow postman. However, they had a problem.
"Traveler, I'm sure your vehicle will help us locate our friend much faster than our carriages. Please, we beg of you! It's not much, but we will compensate you to the best of our abilities!"
Master Shizu did not speak of the men's intended compensation and heartily accepted their call for help.
We left to search for the missing postman at the break of dawn.
A slight distance ahead of the buggy was the object Master Shizu had found with his binoculars.
First we saw a horse, completely still and lying on the ground. It was probably dead.
As the buggy got closer, we spotted a man beside the collapsed horse. He must have been the missing postman. He was lying on the cold earth, clutching something in his arms.
Beside him were signs of a campfire. Seeing as we could not see a carriage anywhere, he had likely broken it down and used it as firewood.
I recalled the postmen's conversation.
[If he used the carriage for firewood… or even the letters… he might still have a chance!]
[But… but that's against regulations…]
[Who cares about regulations?! He might die out there!]
If he had kept the fire going all this time, there was a chance he had not yet frozen to death.
Master Shizu drove the buggy as fast as he could and came to a sudden stop beside the man.
"We're here to help you!" Master Shizu yelled, jumping off the buggy and running up to the man. Ti and I followed behind him.
"We're here to help! Can you hear me?"
Master Shizu reached out a hand to the fallen man and slowly looked into his face.
Soon, we could tell if we were talking to a man or a corpse.
The man was alive. A weak moan escaped his lips.
"Please, wake up!"
Master Shizu helped the man sit up.
The postman was a man in his late twenties. His eyes were shut, and his face was devoid of life. Hypothermia had left his nose and cheeks discoloured. His lips moved very faintly.
"W-who… who are…"
The man Master Shizu was supporting was clutching a large bag in his arms. It was made of black leather.
"I'm a traveler. Your fellow postmen back in your home country have asked me to search for you. It's all right now. We'll take you back to your country straightaway. Everyone will be glad to see you've held on." Master Shizu said. The man's reply was feeble and shaky.
"Is… the bag… still… here…?"
"Yes, it is. It's right here. " Master Shizu answered.
"I… I could… never… burn it… please… please…" He said, his voice more firm and resolute than ever before.
And with that, he breathed his last.
"Sir? Sir? No! Wake up!"
Master Shizu desperately tried to save the man, slapping his cheeks and attempting a heart massage.
But the man would never speak again.
Master Shizu sighed, his breath freezing into wisps of white.
"Is he dead?" Ti asked quietly.
"Yes. He is." Master Shizu said, not intent on hiding the truth.
Master Shizu folded the man's arms over his chest, and carefully opened the bag entrusted to him by the dying man.
Master Shizu looked inside first, then passed it over so Ti and I could see as well.
Inside the bag were countless letters, bundled together by dozens.
I remembered what the other postmen had said.
"He might have survived if he had burned these letters." I said to Master Shizu.
"Maybe he could have."
Master Shizu slowly closed up the bag.
He then addressed the dead man.
"I will honour your request. You've protected these letters with your life, and so I will make sure that these letters reach your country. Every last one of them."
Ti watched Master Shizu in silence.
It was evening by the time the buggy arrived at the country, carrying the postman's corpse and the bag of letters.
The other postmen, faced with the corpse of their friend, and hearing Master Shizu's account, burst into tears.
After a long, heartfelt cry, the men returned to work. They agreed to deliver the letters in the morning, along with personal apologies for the delay.
"Please allow me to watch as well." Master Shizu said.
The next morning.
The sky was clear. It was starting to get warmer.
Two postmen started off on their route, carrying the letters in their carriage. We followed after them on our buggy.
The postmen visited the houses dotted over the country's vast territory. When they arrived at each house, they did not leave the letter in the mailbox--instead, they pressed the doorbell to deliver the letters personally.
"Here's your letter. We apologize for the delay."
The postmen politely apologized as they delivered the letters.
We watched it all from a distance.
Most people did not care very much that the delivery was late, not asking why their mail was delayed.
"Thank you." They said normally, accepting the letters.
They were about halfway through the letters, sometime in the afternoon.
"What is wrong with you people?! It's postmarked seven days ago! It normally only takes two or three days! What were you people doing?!"
Shouting at the postmen was a middle-aged man. The postmen made no excuses, merely apologizing over and over for the delay.
"Sir, we will make sure this does not happen again…" They said, bowing their head, but the man continued to raise his voice.
"This is unacceptable! What if I have urgent business, you lazy slobs?!"
"Why was my letter late?!"
"We apologize, sir, but I'm afraid we're not at liberty to disclose the reasons… We apologize again for the delay."
"You think you're going to get away with-"
Then, the man spotted us.
He spotted us, the anomalous travelers and our motorized vehicle.
"Aren't those people the travelers who came to our country earlier…?" He mumbled, and thought for a moment.
"Has something happened…?" He asked the postmen.
Master Shizu said nothing, merely watching the postmen from the distance.
Ti also said nothing, quietly looking into the man's face.
"We apologize, sir, but I'm afraid we're not at liberty to disclose the reasons…" The postmen repeated again, sorrow clear in their faces.
The man seemed to have noticed that something was wrong.
"I suppose something must have happened… Anything to do with this cold weather, by any chance?"
The postmen looked as though they were about to burst into tears.
"Fine! I won't say anything more. I'll take that letter, if you will!"
With that, the man turned around and stepped back into his house. But just before he closed the door,
He said loudly.
The postmen solemnly continued with their work.
It was evening, with the winter sun setting on the horizon. The postmen took the final letter to its destination.
"This is it. Once we deliver this letter, our work will be finished." They said to Master Shizu. They must have emphasized that word to include their late friend.
Master Shizu, who had resolved to see this work through to the last, quietly nodded.
I could not tell what Ti was thinking, but she was watching everything silently.
The postmen rang the doorbell. A woman in her fifties stepped out.
She was wearing a coat, obviously feeling cold. Surprised at the postmen and us, the travelers, she asked what was going on.
The postmen apologized for the delay as they presented her the final letter.
The woman stared at it, annoyed and irritated.
"That letter…" She said, "It's from the lawyer, isn't it?"
The postmen checked the letter and nodded.
The woman sighed disdainfully.
"Could you take that letter back?"
The postmen were lost for words. The woman continued.
"That's from my ex-husband. We got divorced last year--he was the worst sort of man who'd beat me on a whim. He finally got arrested and charged. After that, he moved out of the country. I don't know how many times he's sent letters to me through his lawyer. But he never once apologized. Always trying to make excuses and defending himself. I stopped letting my daughter read them. I feel sick just thinking about him now. I was just thinking I'd start burning or ripping up his letters without reading them."
"So… um, ma'am…"
"This is perfect. Since you've come here in person, I'd like to officially refuse to receive the letter. Could you take it back and take care of it? I'm sure the post office has regulations for cases like this."
"…Y-yes, of course…" The postman said, dejected.
"Thank you." The woman said, satisfied, and turned around.
She froze on the spot.
"Ti?" Master Shizu said in shock, turning around. The postmen and the woman also looked at her.
"What is it, young lady?" The woman asked. Her tone was soft, but she was not smiling.
"You have to read it." Ti answered immediately, a stark contrast to her usual silence. The woman frowned in confusion as Ti repeated herself.
"Why do you say that? Listen, the man who sent me this letter would always hit me and hurt me. I get very upset just reading his letters. So why?"
The woman looked up at the postmen.
"Who is this girl? These people look like the travelers that came in earlier, but why are they with you?"
"We're terribly sorry, ma'am. But we're not at liberty to disclose that information."
"You can't expect me to understand that. Mr. Traveler, could you explain?" The woman demanded, glaring at Master Shizu.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you much more than these men are allowed. However…" Master Shizu said gently.
"A postman went through a great deal of trouble to deliver these letters."
"Is that all?"
The woman sighed loudly.
"I know that you must work very hard to deliver these letters, but that doesn't mean that I don't go through any trouble myself." The woman said.
"But you have to read it."
"Young lady, you can't just convince people to do things without giving them a reason."
"Young lady, do you even know how to talk? Can't you say anything else?"
The woman sighed loudly.
"Fine. But this will be the last time. Next time I get a letter from him, I will shred it on the spot, do you understand?"
"Hmph." The woman snorted, and snatched the letter from the teary-eyed postmen. They sighed.
The woman ripped open the envelope on the spot, and took out the letter inside.
"Ah, a short letter for once." She muttered, and quietly began reading.
She stoically read the first line.
At the second line, her brow furrowed as she glared at the paper with a look sharp enough to kill.
Then she was silent.
The woman's hands began trembling as her eyes turned into dinner plates.
We were next to be surprised.
Tears began falling from the woman's eyes like a set of waterfalls. Her tears ran down her cheeks and fell to the ground.
The woman wept as she clutched the letter to her chest, falling to her knees at her door.
"Oh… Oh… Thank God… Thank God…"
But she did not thank the people there.
"Good day, ma'am." The postmen said, turning to return to their carriage.
The men were sniffling, but probably not because of the cold.
"Are you leaving?" Master Shizu asked quietly.
"Yes. Our work is done…"
"Our job is not to find out about the contents of the letters, only to deliver them. If you'll excuse us, traveler. You have our deepest gratitude."
The postmen did not look back as they climbed onto the carriage. The departed, leaving only the echo of hooves in their wake.
The woman, who was crying on her doorstep the entire time, wiped her eyes with her sleeve and sniffled several times as she got to her feet.
The woman looked at the stoic Ti, her eyes red and swollen.
"Thank you, young lady."
"If not for you, I would never have known something so important."
"And I'm sorry for calling you a brat. You're a very sweet girl. I'm sure you'll grow up to be a beautiful young woman. Thank you."
"You don't need to thank me."
"Of course. But still. Thank you. Thank you."
Master Shizu looked at the woman's kindly expression and closed his eyes satisfactorily. He must have been remembering the postman who had entrusted us with this task.
"Then if you'll excuse us." Master Shizu bowed lightly, looking back at Ti. "Let's go."
He turned back to the buggy.
The moment we began walking away, the woman rushed into her house, letter in hand.
"Honey! Look at this! Wonderful news!" She said to her daughter, who was waiting inside.
We could also hear her voice.
And so we could clearly hear her say,
"It says that bastard just died in an accident!"
Continued in Chapter 8.
Continued in Chapter 8.