The First Time
Clad in pollen-yellow waders, Mellie Beauchamp knelt within the shallow sea she'd made of her front foyer. Cleanser suds sloshed above the soaking tiles, while Mellie scrubbed a stubborn scuff mark just inside the entryway.
Outside, she heard footsteps, muffled and slightly slick from rain, and then her mail slipped through the slot in the door. Letters fluttered down; they floated like white barges above the tile. Mellie uttered a thin wispy gasp, one the postman could not have heard, but he pushed the mail slot open.
"Miss Beauchamp, is everything all right?" he asked. His voice was deep and pleasant to the ear. On his breath, she smelled the faint odor of sushi and melon.
"I'm fine," she replied, stifling a surprising urge to tidy her hair.
"Are you sure? Would you like some water or iced tea? Maybe a pretzel?"
"You're kind, but no. The letters just took a bit of a swim."
"You're a most intriguing woman, Miss Beauchamp."
The next day the postman knocked and waited for Mellie to approach before he slid her mail through the slot. It was bundled with a yellow ribbon. Beneath the ribbon, a salmon-flecked starfish the size of her palm clutched a hand-written note. I saw this star and thought of you.
Like a girl, she saved the note to tuck beneath her pillow. She housed the starfish in a crystal vase by the front door.
The next day she fed the starfish flakes of tuna and waited for the postman to arrive. When he knocked, she unlocked the door and pulled. It would not budge, as though the postman held it from the other side. She decided he must be shy.
"Thank you for the starfish," she said through the door. "He's quite affectionate. I've named him Jean-Claude."
"Excellent choice. Starfish are fond of the French."
"I had no idea."
"I've heard it's their favorite vacation spot. Nobody knows for certain, of course; they're very private about such things."
Mellie sat by the door and lifted the mail slot. She peered through. The postman's thigh faced her—a smooth, starless field of blue.
"Miss Beauchamp? Forgive me for being forward, but I see from your publications that we have many interests in common. With your permission, I'd like to call on you."
Mellie felt her heart flutter. An old-fashioned word. Flutter. Yet there it was.
"Call on me?"
"I'm an old-fashioned man," he said.
That sealed it. "I'd be honored."
She eased the mail slot down. She lay on the polished tile and watched Jean-Claude scale the facets of his crystal palace. She let out a long sigh.
Every day, with her mail, gifts slipped through Mellie's mail slot. A Chinese paper lantern, folded flat. A striped gull feather. An antique volume of sea shanties. A laminated letter from Thailand in a script so beautiful she had it framed. A second starfish, this one smaller, a pale yellow, that Mellie named Helene.
Every day, after delivering her mail, the postman sat on a small milking stool on her porch. One day Mellie sneaked a peak through the slot. There he was with his back to her—to protect her modesty, he'd said—but she was content to watch the rustling waves of his blue uniform shirt. As she watched, two women walked by on the sidewalk. They smiled at the postman, and from the blush on their cheeks, Mellie decided he must be quite handsome.
She learned the postman's name: August Todd.
They talked of philosophy, of the sciences, biology in particular. One day he told her that many birds' eyeballs are incapable of motion.
"Really? Why would that be?"
"It allows them to sense the movement of their prey."
"Nature offers such a miraculous, delicate balance."
"Yes, and speaking of the physiology of eyesight, did you realize that when we enter a dark room, in that instant before the baton of vision is passed from cone cells to rods, we are completely blind?"
"I had no idea."
While August told another amusing ocular anecdote, Mellie studied him through the slot. He sat with his shoulder to her. But then he raised his arm and she saw a flash of tan skin, a strong bicep muscle—a black-haired whale breaching the surface of her vision before dropping back down out of sight.
"Marvelous," she said.
"Miss Mellie, I think it's time we had a proper date."
Mellie covered her foyer with her grandmother's hand-tied quilt, then set out a picnic basket, a pitcher of hand-squeezed lemonade, and plates of homemade delights. Jean-Claude and Helene roamed a shallow china bowl and snacked on minced sardines. Mellie leaned against the door. Beside her, a flowering lilac sprig propped the mail slot open and filled the foyer with its perfume.
At the far edge of the quilt, a discrete distance away, Mellie's mother Piscus chaperoned from a lawn chair. Piscus fanned herself and complained. It was too hot. There were too many flies. And all that food was certain to draw a swarm of nibbling ants.
August lunched on the porch.
Mellie offered to pass him some melon balls through the mail slot. When he slipped delicate, tanned fingers inside, Mellie moved to touch them, brush against them as though by accident, but Piscus cleared her throat. "No," she said.
Mellie sighed and forked melon balls onto a small plate, which she passed to August.
They talked of childhood adventures, pets they missed, the exotic ports they'd like to visit.
"My grandfather discovered a hidden passage through the Andes," Mellie said. "He could have made a fortune, but never told a soul."
"Why such a secret?"
"The animals he found were shy and easily frightened. Light from Grandfather's lantern seemed to hurt their eyes. He finished his work by the dimmest of candlelight."
"He was both adventurous and kind," August said. "One of my ancestors sailed aboard The Beagle. I'm told he gathered mussels with Darwin himself."
"How exciting. Was he also a biologist?"
"A cook's hand, though while sharpening his knifes on a boulder, he discovered a unique genus of blue-horned starfish, one found only on the northern beaches of the Galapagos."
"Enough," Piscus snorted. "I'm getting sand in my eyes!"
"Forgive me," August said, then put his mouth to the mail slot.
Mellie gasped when she saw the coral-hued lips, the white reefs of his teeth. August began to sing—whale songs, haunting, fluid, and yearning. After a moment, Mellie felt faint. Piscus nodded, then slipped from her chair. She curled like a cat on the quilt and drifted off to sleep.
The lilacs retreated from the slot and a pair of eyes appeared. His eyes. Grey blue oceans, flecked with aquamarine. Two eyebrows like trimmed forests along the shore. A pale streak bridging his nose. Then he must have smiled, for small rivulets dipped from the corner of each eye. At that moment, Mellie knew those eyes belonged to her.
One afternoon, when the knock came and Mellie opened the mail slot, two pairs of eyes greeted her. The same grey-blue as August's, but not as sharp and clothed in folds of clam-colored skin.
"We're Flora and Wayne. Augie's parents."
Flora squinted, eyed Mellie's eyes up and down. She grunted.
Behind them, Mellie saw a neighbor's dog lope by; it appeared to leap from Flora's ear to Wayne's. Mellie blinked and choked back most of a laugh.
"Not quite what I was expecting," Flora said. "Do you need a pretzel?"
Wayne frowned. "We have some questions."
Mellie pulled back just in time. A long roll of paper unfurled through the slot. Then came a pen, a ticking kitchen timer tied to a string.
Wayne said, "You have fifteen minutes."
Mellie grabbed the pen, reviewed the list of questions. Beside each were three boxes: YES, NO, NOT SURE.
Do you floss three times a day?
Do you cheat at Yahtzee?
Do you have any relations in Ecuador?
Do you support the genetic modification of gourami fish?
Have you ever correctly guessed the number of jellybeans in a jar?
And so on.
Mellie finished the questions with nine seconds to spare. She wiped sweat from her cheeks, terrified that her mascara had run. She returned the test, then picked her cuticles, waiting—for what she wasn't sure.
"Would you like some tea?" she offered. "Or I have several baby starfish if you'd like to take one home. They're quite affectionate."
Plastic, long-handled salad utensils speared through the slot. A gift, she supposed. They were followed by the test, marked with red pen.
She'd scored a fifty-three.
It was Labor Day weekend. No mail delivery for two unbearable days. Mellie fretted that she'd failed the test. She ate onions to dull the power of her tears. She unplugged her phone, tired of her friends' advice. If you send more letters, you'll get more in return. Some letters need more than a stamp.
Starfish covered the door, crawled the walls. Mellie slept with them at night despite the damp, scratchy way they cuddled and the whistling way they sang to each other as they dreamed. In her own dream, Mellie swam the pale ocean of August's eyes.
The Three Days
No letters arrived. Fish scales did—by the hundreds.
Mellie collected the iridescent petals, each the size of a dime, each inscribed with India ink—a fine, hand-drawn calligraphy that extended from scale to scale.
Mellie cleared her foyer of everything but the starfish vase. She worked the puzzle of the scales, fitting them line to line, curve to curve, breathing in the briny scent of the words as they came together: Will you marry me?
The Big Day
They wrote their own vows, which would be witnessed by Jean-Claude and Helene. On the big day, Mellie waited in the dark womb of the confessional and listened to the shuffling silence coming from the other side. She adjusted her gown, her headpiece and veil, which Helene held fast with suckered feet.
"Am I doing the right thing?" she asked. Though Helene offered an affectionate, reassuring squeeze, Mellie still wondered. In some ways, she knew August so well—his love of old hotels and finely-wrapped toiletries, his dislike of bagged tea and foundries, his belief in hand-delivered invitations, his quest to acquire strange and exotic antiques—yet she knew so little about his appearance. How could she vow to be a good wife if she didn't yet know the heft of his shoulders, the cut and curl of his hair?
The confessional door flung open, revealing the smiling face of the priest. Behind him, Mellie saw streamers of flowers strung across the sanctuary; demure sprays capped the pews; splendid bouquets perched like pelicans atop each organ pipe. A crowd swelled amid the flowers, and their chatter echoed that of the gulls circling the rafters.
Mellie dared not look to her right, where August waited behind the neighboring confessional booth's thin red curtain, but from the corner of her eye, she saw the fabric flutter. She leaned toward him, hoping to hear him speak, but instead she heard a faint humming. She recognized the tune and sang softly with the refrain: Yo, ho, blow the man down.
Dearly Beloved. The priest's words drifted over the flow of August's breath, which grew louder, pulsing like waves, a soothing in and out that rocked the rising heat of the confessional. They exchanged their vows, and when Mellie turned to accept August's ring, when his hands finally parted the veils between them, his long delicate fingers were damp like Jean-Claude's and Helene's, but hardly scratchy.
Into the Ever After
These were the fingers she embraced her wedding night. Eyes closed, she felt each line and whorl, the patterns they embossed into her skin. When she finally dared, Mellie opened her eyes and locked onto his. In the edge of her vision, she saw his long, wavy hair, the slope of his nose. But to look any farther would be overwhelming, blinding.
August's eyes never left hers. "Marvelous," he said.
Later, fingers entwined, they stared at the ceiling—a sky of stars, which the family of starfish had choreographed so affectionately for their wedding night.
Mellie stared up at the starfish until August slept and a slice of moonlight slid across a portion of his shin and knee. She climbed this mountain with her gaze, hungry to see the depth of him, the detail. She realized that this was the way she'd come to know him—inch by inch, hair by hair, cell by cell—a delightful, lifelong task, learning and loving the whole of this marvelous man.
Copyright © Barbara Jacksha 2005. Title graphic: "Mail Slot" Copyright © Karen Grunberg 2005. Used by permission of the artist.