Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Three Urban Folk Tales

I. The Postman

There was a postman whose father was a postman and his father a postman before him. Like them, the postman wore a blue-gray uniform with a stripe down the pants leg and, like them, he delivered mail on six days out of the week, resting on Sunday as was the tradition. Times change and traditions change, and many of the postman’s brethren took to wearing running shoes. Some even wore spikes so as not to slip on the icy winter sidewalks. But the postman still wore black leather shoes and polished these to a high gloss before he went on his rounds each morning.

The postman walked most of the time, but at a pace that made the pedestrians seem statues frozen in mid-stride, he a breeze sliding amongst them. Over the years, he came to know his postal route so well that he could predict under which awnings the birds would build their nests and the number of icicles that would descend from any given rain gutter. He could have walked his route blindfolded. He even did this once at night, when the entire city was dreaming, just to prove to himself the possibility, and did not stub a toe.

When your feet know the path then your mind is free, and so the postman was never bored, whistling a tune as he walked that put the birds to shame.

One day the postman found that roadwork had begun on the street adjoining an apartment building to which he delivered the mail, along the route that he normally followed. Large machines now tore the street apart and other machines layered asphalt and tar, all under the supervision of men in uniforms. Furthermore, a tape of orange plastic with the words “NO TRESPASSING” blocked his path.

He approached the tape and touched it with his right hand.

A man dressed in blue and wearing a yellow hard hat called out to him. “Can’t you read?” the man said. The question did not invite an answer.

The postman was bound by his code of employment to deliver the mail and so he decided to follow another route to the building, one of which he had heard but previously had no reason to use.

The route he chose was down a dark and narrow alleyway and was shorter than his normal delivery route. But, as luck would have it, he was set upon by a pack of dogs just when he thought he had reached the door to the building. These bit him and ripped his clothes, then raced off, taking the bag of mail with them. The postman did not know whether to follow the dogs or to run off in the opposite direction. He sank to his knees and wept, for he was a proud man, and resolved to try yet another route.

The next day he followed the alleyway where the garbage from the apartment building was stored. Officially, the garbage was removed once a week but, at the time of this tale, the garbage collectors had been on strike for over a month and garbage overflowed the trash bins and accumulated in great mountains along the alleyway. The day was hot and the smell of garbage intense. The postman covered his nose with a handkerchief, but to no avail. He passed out from the odor and, while he lay oblivious, rats came from the garbage and took his mail to line their nests.

On the third day, the postman returned to his former route, even though roadwork was still in progress. He ducked beneath the orange plastic tape that read “NO TRESPASSING,” passed between the machines that tore the road apart, and avoided the other machines that layered asphalt and tar. The men who supervised the machines called to him using profane names, but he blocked his ears and continued on. In this manner he successfully reached the apartment building and delivered the mail.

Nevertheless, his shoes had become so encrusted with tar that he was never able to scrub them clean.

II. True Love

“You will find your true love in the city.” This is what the young girls of the country tell one another in hushed voices so that their parents do not hear. The girls make secret pacts, sealed with blood and kisses, to leave home together when they come of age. These promises, like most, are soon forgotten by all but a few. It is these few who leave the country for the city. They find jobs and apartments, cats to name after their favorite drinks, shortcuts to sushi bars, and parking places that no one else even knew existed. But they never forget why they came to the city in the first place.

There was a young woman who came to the city and, to make ends meet, took a job at a copy shop. A man came into her copy shop every day. He wore a gray suit and carried a black briefcase from which he would take the papers he had her copy. He barely spoke and it was several weeks before she noticed him, and several weeks more before she began to expect him. One day she saw that the papers he gave her to copy were blank, and then she knew that he was in love with her.

Never let it be said that love is all in vain. The man found his voice, and soon they both were calling each other by pet names in public. A year flew by with walks in the park when the sun was out and movies when it rained. In the evenings, they would eat at the woman’s favorite sushi bar and try to guess the occupations of strangers that walked by. On weekends, they would buy discounted day-of-show tickets, park at a convenient spot the woman knew was always miraculously empty, and go to the theatre.

If love were simple, then this tale would be over. But one day, the man missed a date with the woman and, when she tried to call, she found that his phone was no longer in service. When she inquired around the city as to his whereabouts, she was only able to learn that he had quit his job and left with no forwarding address. She waited for a call or a letter from him. She invented reasons for why he might have gone. Sometimes she cried and at other times she bellowed in anger.

Still, he did not return.

The woman decided that perhaps a man’s heart is an open book but, if so, then it is written in an alien language. This is what she told her friends over drinks, and they laughed and said that the city was making her bitter. She said no, just men.

Not long after that, while she was in the lobby of her apartment building, she noticed the postman sliding envelopes into the rows of postboxes that serviced the apartments. She admired the calm efficiency with which he performed his task. Looking at his face, she realized that he was a young man, not much different from her in age. Glancing downward, she saw that his shoes were encrusted with tar. Because she had a kind heart, even if outwardly bitter, she invited him up to her apartment for a snack while she tried to clean the tar off his shoes. On the way up in the elevator, they began to talk and they were still talking the next morning when the rising sun reminded them that they had to go back to work.

So the woman found her true love in the city and, if the two are not divorced, then they are married still.

III. As Above, So Below

The city is not one city but many. Beneath the city of men and women lies the city of the rats. The mayor of this city had a daughter who was considered entrancingly beautiful. She had dark eyes, long whiskers, a glossy brown coat of fur, and a pink tail that could circle her body twice around. Her father desired that she should marry a lawyer, a banker, or a businessman, professions that in the city of the rats refer to those who steal, store, and exchange the food and trinkets that they value so highly.

The daughter said that her husband could be as poor as a church mouse. She had but one requirement, that he not be boring.

Many suitors came to win her hand in marriage. They performed acrobatics, acts of ventriloquism, sang songs, and danced. They did complex calculations in their heads based on any mathematical question she might ask. They guessed the identities of playing cards hidden inside a cereal box. Some, it is true, even had help from the mayor, who hired acting coaches so that his business partners might appear in a better light. But nothing worked. The daughter would eventually raise a small well-formed paw to stifle a yawn, and the suitor would be dismissed.

One day a young rat came forward to beg audience with the mayor’s daughter. He was not handsome, nor was he rich. But his eyes were bright and his paws were clean, as rats will say when they wish to say something nice about a poor relative. Moreover, the suitor said that he would not entertain before the mayor’s whole entourage, but insisted upon entertaining the mayor’s daughter in private. You can guess that tongues began wagging at that.

But the daughter, intrigued, reminded her father that she could more than take care of herself. The mayor did not answer. Instead, he scowled at the suitor for a full minute. He then laughed, for truly the suitor was of such nature that he would have difficulty inspiring fear in a mouse and, that being the case, how could he ever inspire love in his daughter’s heart.

Once alone with the mayor’s daughter, the suitor undid a large letter, still in its envelope, that he had been carrying.

“What is that?” asked the mayor’s daughter.

“This,” said the suitor, his whiskers twitching, “is a story from the city of men and women.”

The letter that the suitor read told of how a young man from the country fell in love with a beautiful country girl, but could only admire her from a distance. Whenever he tried to approach her, his legs would turn to lead and hold him fast to the ground. Anytime she came near him, his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth such that he could not speak. Nevertheless, when she came of age and left home for the city, he followed her. There in the city, she, thinking that he was from the city, fell in love with him. He, playing the role of a man that she might love, found that he could finally talk to her. But, although he did not initially realize it, he was trapped. He could tell her nothing of himself, only of this person that he pretended to be. So he had spun more and more lies as to who he was and what he did. Finally, sick of the lies, he had fled the city to go back to his home in the country. Now that he had finally told the truth in this letter, if she still loved him, she could find him there in the country. If not, he would never bother her again.

The rat suitor folded the letter back along its original creases and returned it to its envelope.

“What happened next?” asked the mayor’s daughter.

“That,” said the suitor, “is another story. In the city of men and women, there are more stories than there are stars in the night sky or hairs on a healthy rat. Some stories are meant for a large audience. Some, like this one, were written for a single person. The woman for whom this story was intended never received it, and so you and I are the only ones who know it. But if you will invite me back for tomorrow, I will tell you another such story.”

“Yes,” said the mayor’s daughter. “Tomorrow. And tomorrow’s tomorrow. And all the tomorrows thereafter.”

If rats can marry, then they are married still.

Eric Schaller

Eric Schaller’s debut fiction collection, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, was released in 2016 from Undertow Publications. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Fantasy: Best of the Year, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Wilde Stories, Nightmare Magazine, Black Static, and The Dark. He is an editor, with Matthew Cheney, of the on-line magazine The Revelator.