I was twelve and Thomas was eight. We were old enough to know what was going on. We’d been waiting for the day for some time, everyone was. It wasn’t every day that they hung your mother, especially in our small town.
When the man in black left, Daddy sat down on one of the straight back chairs at the oak dining room table. He sat silently with his hands hanging at his sides, staring straight ahead at the blank wall. I took Thomas’s hand and we went upstairs to my bedroom.
We sat on the edge of the bed and Thomas started crying quietly. “If Daddy hears you crying he’ll be angry, “ I said dry eyed. Daddy’s strict rules about girls and boys didn’t allow for crying from Thomas. I looked at the note still clutched in his hand. I was scared of it. What did she want to say to us? We were only children. I wondered if she had remembered that.
With shaking hands I reached out for the paper. I tried to think of Mama. It had been a long time since we’d seen her. Once her appeals were finished, she begged Daddy to stop taking us to the prison on visiting day. He’d go alone and we’d stay out at Aunt Carmen’s. He’d come home the next day, his face pale, his clothes smelling of beer. Aunt Carmen, Daddy’s older sister, always said the same thing.
“The trip go okay?”
“Sure did,” Daddy’d say. Then we’d come back home and it would be two or three days before Daddy’s skin would go back to its right color and he’d talk normal, not as if somebody had handed him the lines.
Sitting on my bed, with Thomas crying next to me, I tried to conjure up Mama’s face. I wanted a picture of her face in my mind before I read the letter, but it wouldn’t come. The only thing I saw picture clear were her hands. No matter how much I tried, only her hands were there. The short fingers with thick wrinkly knuckles. She always said they were the ugliest part of her. I never thought they were ugly, though, to me they looked friendly and used. Later, after the execution, I used to wish Thomas or I had gotten her hands so that I could see them once in awhile, but we had my father’s hands with long fingers and small, tidy knuckles.
It’s funny how little irrelevant details remain. Things like the color of the paper. It was off white, almost yellow, with blue lines drawn on it, like a sheet torn from an old exercise book. The writing was slanted to the left and all of the letters were tall and thin, as if space were a problem, even though it wasn’t because most of the page was empty, only the one line across the top. I often hoped she meant to write more. Maybe someone stopped her, or she couldn’t find the right words and then it was too late to fill the page as she had intended. I think that when I’m being charitable.
I was thinking of Mama’s friendly hands when I opened the yellowed paper torn from the exercise book. I saw her picking up the pen and writing in the odd way she had, gripping the pen tightly and writing downwards from the top of the line. I read the words out loud so Thomas could hear them through his tears.
“Forget me and all of the sadness I brought to you.”
That was it. No “to my wonderful children” at the beginning or “I love you” at the end. I turned the paper over to check the other side. Nothing. I sat for a minute. I thought maybe it had not been intended for us. Maybe the man in black got it wrong. Maybe this note was for someone else and our note was somewhere out in the rain in the pocket of his cold coat.
As Thomas’s crying grew louder, I accepted that the man in black wouldn’t have got such an important thing wrong. I took the yellowed paper in both of my hands and I tore it in two. Then I tore it again and tore and tore and tore until it was nothing more than pieces. No more words. No more hopes for something more. Just yellowed pieces with a few drops of ink, a spot here, a spot there, incoherent and harmless. Then I held the pieces above my head and let them rain onto the floor where they fell like confetti at a party.