Letters and cards of sympathy come in first. They are sent by individuals, whole schools, churches, youth groups, Brownie troops, the town’s sister city in Estonia. They are thinking of the families, the letter writers claim. Praying for them, keeping them tight in their hearts. So many letters are sent the first week after the shooting that it’s clear someone needs to be in charge of organizing and distributing them. As the town tax assessor, it’s your slow season, so you step up. You start a filing system in the basement of Town Hall, gather volunteers, inform the families so they can come read the letters.
The second week after the shooting, the Post Office sets up a new substation to handle all the mail. Because it is so near Christmas (why do these shootings so often coincide with holidays?), there is an abundance of Santas, reindeer, snowmen, candy canes, wreaths, and angels on the cards. Those written by children often conclude with “I hope you have a Merry Christmas.” You’re surprised, though perhaps you shouldn’t be, that God is mentioned so often in the letters, God whose plan we cannot understand, God, who works in mysterious ways, who giveth and who taketh away.
It’s a cold, clear day a week before Christmas, when the first box of paper snowflakes arrives. Outside there’s still no real snow to speak of. Holding up a snowflake from a first-grade class in Fort Wayne, Indiana, you remember making these as a boy, folding the paper, snipping at the edges. You struggled cutting shapes from the thickest folds with your kid scissors. These snowflakes are flecked with glitter—silver and white—which comes off on in your hands, sticks to your clothes and face. You take the snowflakes to the makeshift memorial that has sprung up on Riverside Road on your way home after work. That night, your wife Gwennie teases you about the glitter. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were stepping out on me, Mack Stevens,” she says, using her thumb to rub off the last of the glitter from your whiskers. When you tell her about the paper snowflakes from the first-graders in Indiana, Gwennie grows quiet. You both agree it’s a kind gesture.
The first batch of twenty-six teddy bears arrives from West Hartford. Then more from Boston, Chattanooga, St. Paul. After that, you can’t keep track. People send white bears, brown bears, pink and blue bears, bears in sweaters, bears holding American flags, bears in baseball caps and Santa hats. You’re astounded by the generosity and love—speechless—then worried. Yours is an old town, established in 1705 by a pious and industrious people who wanted only to practice their unyielding form of Christianity. Those early settlers built sturdy clapboard houses and stone walls which still line the narrow winding roads through town. This is “the land of steady habits,” after all. There is nowhere to store everything that is sent.
Quickly, the twenty-six dead—the twenty-one children and the five teachers—are called “angels.” Outside the school, someone erects plywood angels, the names of the slain in pale blue script. People send angel ornaments, angel wind chimes, angel sculptures for gardens or fireplace mantles. Angels float on posters and quilts. Many of the cards and letters declare that the angels are in a better place now.
Strawberry Fields, a nursery in nearby Fairhaven, sends over twenty-six Douglas fir trees for the victims’ families. After the news reports the tree donation, people send ornaments and garlands of shiny beads, stars or more angels for the tops.
People send money orders and gift certificates; businesses call and offer vacations and cruises for free, mani-pedis for the mothers of the slain children, facials, massages. The list of promises grows to 600 pages. Twenty-six park benches, twenty-six dogwoods.
Your work day stretches to ten hours, then twelve hour days. Gwennie worries about you, reminds you to stop and eat, but you have no appetite, despite the sandwiches she makes and wraps up for you. And there is so much to unpack, to catalogue. At night, in bed, you toss and turn wondering where to put everything, wondering when the offerings will stop.
People send toys and dolls, games, wooden blocks and Legos. A grandmother from Tuscaloosa sends Barbie dolls outfitted in hand-crocheted flamenco dresses. They send flowers, fashioned from silk or from plastic or handmade with crepe paper, flowers arranged in bouquets and baskets or strung together in garlands. Roses, daisies, carnations, mums, lilies in bright colors.
People offer psalms: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This embroidered on a throw pillow. They send quilts embroidered with the names of the dead, or decorated with hearts or hands or angels. They send signed baseballs and hocky pucks. And one church from Ypsilanti sends boxes of used clothing as though you’ve been through a hurricane or tornado, some natural disaster.
Some people send multiple times as if trying to get it just right.
And though it doesn’t make sense, more Christmas trees arrive. But you’re starting to see that none of this makes sense. There is a desire to help, to reach out to those who are suffering. This is good, surely. But the consequences of that kindness mean you will need more storage space. The warehouse you’ve rented just outside town is full to the rafters, and more offerings keep coming. They arrive in boxes and cartons, big padded envelopes, in mailing tubes, pallets and industrial-sized boxes that a child might turn into a fort, nestling inside with a book.
Origami cranes come by the truckload. It is said that those who fold a thousand cranes are granted one wish. What do the senders wish for? An undoing? The dead returned to their families, whole and unharmed?
People send backpacks filled with school supplies—crayons, colored markers and pencils, pens, stickers, rulers and calculators, thick pads of paper. A veteran from Bachelor, Missouri sends a painting of a little girl, a red balloon escaping her grasp. From an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility, a long poem in rhyming couplets. “Here is a rainbow and a sun to make you bright every day,” writes Samantha W. from Poughkeepsie in the note that accompanies her drawing.
You begin to suspect the offerings are actually more for the sender. Maybe they’re the result of some residual impulse from ancient times, a gesture to appease the wrathful gods. No one sends a goat, but they do send promises of therapy dogs, one to each family that lost a child, then to the child survivors. Golden retrievers, labs, border collies. Amongst the surviving children there is an epidemic of night terrors, you learn. The children are said to sit bolt upright in their beds, crying and screaming, shaking. In the morning, they don’t remember their dreams, but their eyes are bleary, the skin around them dark as if bruised. Even with a dog curled by their side, what will become of these children?
On Christmas Eve, as you’re closing up the office to go home, a father of one of the dead children calls. “I’ve heard people have been sending toys?” You tells him to come on down and he does, bringing his remaining child, a four-year-old girl with big grey eyes. They light up when they see the boxes of toys, the mounds of stuffed animals. She starts to climb the mountain, sinking down and rising back up as she goes. She laughs and tosses down all the teddy bears that she wants. “Thank you,” the father says, his eyes glittering and full. “She hasn’t laughed since before.” After that, a few other families come and take what they want from the warehouse, but really they don’t make a dent.
In the new year, the offerings keep coming. People send scooters, wagons, and bikes—mountain bikes, ten speeds, bikes equipped with training wheels, sparkly banana seats, streamers dangling from their handles, shiny bells and baskets. They send jewelry—bracelets made of plastic or braided threads, friendship bracelets, necklaces with pendants that proclaim “we will prevail,” and lockets where one might slip a tiny photo of a slain child or a curl of their hair.
A knitting collective in Ottawa sends hats and mittens, green and gold, the school colors.
In March, a mother of one of the murdered children comes in every day for a week to read the letters. She comes early before the volunteers arrive, so she can read undisturbed. You find her there reading and weeping. You bring in a box of tissues, fumble for words. “I can’t read one more,” she says, standing. Her chairs shrieks against the tile floor as she pushes it back from the table. “Not one more letter.” But still they arrive.
To get to your office in town hall, you must pass the boxes of letters filed alphabetically by state or country, and all the unpacked boxes still to be catalogued. The hallway is narrow, crowded with boxes stacked one on top of the other. At night you dream of all the offerings—the bears and dolls spilling from their bins, tumbling from the warehouse windows. You have to stuff them back in, hold the doors closed with your whole body. Still, they fall out and drop onto the road, into the river, where they become a cold, sodden mass. You wake shivering, pull Gwennie close.
As much as possible over the next months, you will try to redistribute the stuff. You make calls, keep lists. Families come and take what they want. After that, toys go to daycares and nursery schools in surrounding towns and villages. Teddy bears, picture books, school supplies are sent to orphanages and hospitals around the world.
The anniversary of the shooting looms and with it the fear of more offerings. In the monthly town meeting, it’s decided that the stuff must go. There is the cost of storage, for one thing. But it’s more than that. The experts in these matters—the psychologists and doctors—urge a return to normal life, to old routines. Much is made of moving on, but how can anyone move on when so much stuff blocks your way?
It’s a crisp, cool day in October, the trees at their most glorious—burnished gold and deep red. At the incinerator in the next town over, a loader zooms in, shovels up posters, cards and letters, baby dolls, wreaths. Streamers and strands of origami cranes dangle from the shovels. Bits of shredded paper fall like confetti.
Everything is shoveled into a large rotary kiln. All those teddy bears, quilts, the paper snowflakes so carefully folded and cut and decorated, they’re just bits of colors in the mound. Maybe all love is like this, you think—a mixed bag, a hodge-podge, imperfect.
For months all these offerings have been your responsibility, and now, quickly, they catch on fire. They smolder and burn down to ash. From the tall chimney, soot and smoke billow, dark against a pale sky. You take a deep breath, let it out. Your breath hovers there for a second before it too drifts up and away. You wait to feel better, lighter, delivered.
Rachel Hall’s is the author of Heirlooms (BkMk Press) which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. Hall’s short stories have appeared recently in New England Review, Cimarron Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is at work on a collection of stories which examines gun violence. More information is available at rachelhall.org
Image By: Rachel Hall