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The Letter Writer
Words by Jon Anderson
Image by Claudio Parentela
From the broad, concrete steps of the old Post Office in central Bamako he sees her approaching and looking around. She wears a pale blue boubou, not new but freshly washed and ironed, the fold lines proudly showing. The flowing gown has white embroidery. She sees him and comes over towards where he is sitting.
“Greetings. I hope the night was peaceful. Are you a letter writer?”
The young man looks up at her, squinting in the sun.
“Greetings. I trust you have slept well. Yes.”
“How much does it cost?” she asks.
“A long letter is 200 francs. A short letter is 100 francs.”
She feels the corner of her scarf where she has tied up her coins. The bus home would cost 150 francs.
“A short letter,” she says.
“Ok,” he replies. “Please sit.”
He gives her the old wooden stool and sits on one of the dusty, concrete steps of the Post Office. She carefully places her handkerchief on the stool, smooths it and sits. He gets out his small box of pens and paper.
“Do you have an envelope and stamps?”
“Where is the letter going?”
“A stamp is 75 francs. An envelope is 25 francs.”
She pauses and then asks “How much for a very short letter?”
“Still 100 francs.”
The woman decides that she will walk home; it’s not that far.
“Ok” she says.
“Do you have the address?”
She takes a folded letter from her bra and gives it to the young man.
The young man takes the folded letter and feels its dampness. It has a return address in Montpellier. The envelope is open. He hesitates but takes the letter out and glances through it. It is not long. It’s addressed to Fatou. The letter says that the man will not return to Bamako and that he frees her of all obligation to him. It says that he has met a woman who is smart and who understands him. The woman speaks French and can read and write and has a car. He is proud to be with her. The letter says that Fatou is simple and traditional and uneducated. The letter says that she should ask her parents to find someone in the village to marry.
The letter writer looks at the woman sitting on her handkerchief on the stool. She is young. Her hair is covered with a scarf but the neat ends of her braids have slipped out. Her skin is smooth and glistens with sweat. She sits erect, motionless. Her face is still.
He wonders who read the letter to her. He wonders if the reader read exactly what the letter says. He folds the letter and places it back in its envelope. He tears a sheet of paper from his notebook and picks up his pen.
“Ok,” he says, “what should the letter say?”