The Leather Satchel

Short Story by Jaime Balboa

The Leather Satchel

Muriel decided to catalog the desiccated remains herself. Her heart raced. Her fingers tingled. Electric lanterns placed every few feet illuminated the cave. Layers of dust and the neglect of time conspired to make it all but unrecognizable. Was it female or male? From when? She studied it, looking for signs. So much anticipation. So much hanging in the balance. Her doctoral students and undergraduates gathered, hushed and eager. The small team of researchers, on the twenty-ninth day of a thirty-five-day dig, had made little progress until Guillermo, a first-timer, found what looked to be a canvas jacket from the First Common Era baked into the wall of the dry Nevada desert cave. He dutifully marked off the area with little yellow flags atop foot-high wire stakes and then reported the find to Professor Muriel Zha-Giddeon, the principal investigator. She recognized immediately that there was more than just a jacket baked into the red earth.

"What era, Professor," Guillermo asked. She didn't answer. She couldn't. Not yet. Using her stainless-steel trowel, Muriel gently lifted a flap of the jacket, allowing a puff of stale, musty air to escape. The corpse was preserved by the hot, dry climate. The scent of death had long since be replaced by the staleness of the cave.

"What's this?" Muriel asked, speaking her thoughts aloud. Inside the flap of fabric, nestled next to the rib cage of the cadaver, rested a leather satchel. The cadaver's gaunt, stiff hand still clenched it after all these years. Muriel set her trowel down and pulled a toothbrush from her vest pocket. She gently brushed the dust off the satchel, revealing lettering, stamped near the time-worn opening. "Official Courier. People's Republic of California, Nevada District."

Muriel gasped. "Please tell me it’s full," she said, again narrating her thoughts aloud. She used her toothbrush to gently push the flap on the satchel open. Peering inside, she saw what appeared to be a cluster of letters, still in their envelopes.

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-101
Description: Sealed personal correspondence, handwritten (blue ink) on personal stationery
Conservation & condition: Acid-free mat board, UV-filtering plate glass, standard preservation storage, excellent condition.
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

April 16, 2178

Dear Nathan,

I thought of a thousand ways to start this letter but nothing seems to work. Please, sit down with a friend or someone who can give you comfort before you read this. I have sad news that I am sending to you together with all my love. I would have written sooner, but the circumstances I'll explain will make it clear that it simply wasn't possible. What I wouldn’t give to be there with you now. You're on my mind every day, my son. Forgive me for taking so long. But I only now arrived in Sacramento.

Two weeks ago, today, your father and I were attempting to comply with a mandatory relocation order. It was the third one we were given in as many months. If my last letter ever reached you, then you already know how quickly things are deteriorating. It's becoming clear that there aren't any more safe fallback zones. And with each relocation order, more and more of us are required to stay put, awaiting another redrawn border. This time, almost everyone was to be left behind to a life outside the protection of the Republic, including most of our Citizens Council.

When we received our relocation notice, we thought it was some sort of mistake. Nobody else in our labs received one and, up until then, we had traveled as a cohort. I suppose chemical engineers are still of value to the Republic, even if our lab personnel aren't. This relocation order was different than the others. They weren't moving our labs—no time—and we were to report by caravan to another lab just outside Sacramento. They didn't say it, but it was clear that the Republic was preparing to pull back from the entire Central Coast.

When we tried to leave, our caravan was mobbed. Those without relocation orders—our dear friends and colleagues among them—blocked our way. At first, it looked like another case of civil disobedience, as happened with our second relocation. But this time they swarmed us, trying to force their way onto the buses. The People's Guard did their best to hold them back without deadly force, but the mob numbered in the hundreds. The confrontation became violent before we really even understood what was happening. They turned on us, the mob, when it was clear that joining the caravan wasn't going to happen. Your father and I had never seen anything like it. It was as if, by being selected for relocation, they thought we had personally betrayed them.

Two of the nine buses were burned. There were families on those buses, Nathan. Entire families. The whole thing was so terrifying, like a nightmare you couldn't wake up from. As things continued to escalate, your father thought he recognized some of the people in the mob and left our bus, trying to plead with them.

I didn't see what happened next, but after only a few minutes a sergeant with the People's Guard pulled him back onto our bus. From what I was told, his injury was caused from a brick hurled by someone in the crowd, hitting him in the head. He went quickly and couldn't have even seen it coming. I held him and tried to stop the bleeding, even though he was already perfectly still. His fingers were limp. Others on the bus also tried to help, but I knew that he had already died. I think they knew, too, but still wanted to help.

I want to say this clearly, Nathan: your father didn't suffer. He couldn't have. It all happened too quickly. I take comfort knowing he was trying to make peace when he died. I hope you draw comfort from that, too. He loved you, Nathan, and was proud of you. He would tell anyone who would listen about his son, the police lieutenant in Montreal!

I’m safe in Sacramento now and have joined a new lab. We buried your father here after a small ceremony. I’ll tell you about it in my next letter, or, better, when we next see each other. I'll write again soon and I hope you will, too, Nathan. Let me know you received this and that you're doing well. My constant wish and daydream is that stability returns so that we can travel to see each other once again.

I love you, Nathan.

Until then, Mom.

P.S. The newspaper doesn't print regularly anymore and there's little chance they would run an obituary, anyway. Too much death to write about it all. But let's write one together for Daddy, sometime when we can sit side by side, and remember all the good he brought the world. I would like that very much.

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-102
Description: Sealed business correspondence, embossed letterhead, certified, notarized, investment instructions, laser printed
Conservation & condition: Acid-free mat board, UV-filtering plate glass, standard preservation storage, excellent condition.
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

April 14, 2178

Veronique Haas

Vice President of Wealth Management

Google-Schwaab Investments

1672 Saint Jacques Street

Montreal, Quebec

RE: Portfolio Diversification

Dear Ms. Haas,

Please liquidate remaining equity from any and all holdings in the following industries: Telecommunications including digital media and social media, Oil, Pharmaceuticals, Biotech, Bonds, and Notes.

By my accounting, this should net between $210-$217 million Québécois Francs. Regardless, all funds should be invested in the following, as indicated: (1) Cattle (35%); (2) Steel (20%); (3) Lumber (20%); (4) Textiles (10%); (5) Water Filtration (10%) and (6) Private Security (5%).

If the systems ever come back online, you'll see my instructions in detail. If not, you know my investment strategies more generally, and I’ll trust you to act accordingly. The usual diversification of small- and mid-cap stocks, as well as blue chip, should be maintained. Do what you must to preserve and grow my wealth for the intermediate- and long-terms.

Finally, with so much upheaval and communications such as they are, I am no longer able to manage my funds with the dexterity and specificity you have no doubt grown to expect from me. I am hereby authorizing you to act with full authority in any matters that may arise to preserve and increase the value of my investments.

Things will hit bottom one of these days and, when they do, I'll want to be well positioned to make another go of it.

Sincerely,

Lucca M. Sattone

Eric David Leung

Notary Public #CA-47271-EDL

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-103
Description: Sealed personal correspondence, lined paper, handwritten (pencil)
Conservation & condition: UV-filtering plate glass, both sides, standard preservation storage, fair condition: fraying, decayed paper
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

April 17

Dear Ezra,

Hey, little brother, I hope you haven't left for California yet. If you get this, please don't come. It isn't safe, not even inside the Republic. The borders keep changing, anyway. I swear, they redraw them borders every other day and the poor civilians never know where to go. Things are falling apart faster than we can put them back together. Even in the People's Guard we're told to coordinate leave time and travel in our squads. Kidnapping is a big concern and the top brass won't pay no ransom. Not even for officers and I’m just enlisted. Food and water shortages among the civilians, too. It’s bad. Something’s gotta give before winter, or they’ll all be fucked. But we're okay so far. Also, I don't know where you'd stay if you did come. Our [Illegible] mobile.

They're going to make one more push for Los Angeles and Seattle. I don't know about Seattle but I say fuck Los Angeles! Let the warlords fight it out and then once they're done beating each other bloody, that's when we should make our move. That's just the way I see it, but nobody asks me. What are they going to do with that place with the goddamn power grid down? My LT says there's other things like oil rigs, universities, and industry worth keeping. Assets, she calls them. My battalion will land on the beaches near LAX and clear a pathway straight up to the airport. I think they're planning to [Illegible] of resources to securing it. Even some light armored mechanized units, which says a lot (that they'd use fuel for such an easy target). There's no taking LA without armored mechanized units but I think we could take the airport with just a little air support, from what the intel says.

I still want to teach you how to surf and show you some of the best trail running in the Republic, but don't come here yet. I will send for you once the campaign for Los Angeles is won. There used to be a microbrewery right near LAX and if it's still standing, we'll go there and tie one on with my squad. I'm sure Oscar and Sylvia will be happy to have you stay there a little while longer.

I love you, little brother. Stay frosty.

Martin

***

Muriel tapped at the projected keyboard next to the tablet on the small, portable table in her tent, opening a digi-comm from Dr. Houle. The digital recording popped up in a foot-high, life-like holograph. His white, shaggy mane contrasted with the deep brown tone of his skin. His eyes were warm, even when delivering hard news. Muriel always thought that was one of his best qualities. Dr. Houle was in his office at the Institute for Advanced Knowledge, where Muriel worked.

“Dr. Zha-Giddeon, I’m afraid the funding for your project won’t be renewed or even extended. I tried to talk the Vice Minister out of it, but it’s hard to argue for funding when your team hasn’t discovered a single relevant artifact after three years of field work. I’m afraid I’m recalling you. We need to wind this down.” The message was the stuff of nightmares for Muriel. Losing funding and being recalled were the steps just before getting fired. Had Dr. Houle sent the message even a day before, it would have spelled ruin for Muriel’s career.

Muriel thought carefully about her response as the small, solar powered fan circulated the hot air, keeping it from going stale but doing little to relieve the desert heat. “Computer, respond.” A red light flicked on as the camera scanned her.

“Dr. Houle, your digi-comm arrived just as I was cataloging our find. It’s a postal satchel on the remains of a mummified cadaver. First Common Era, post America, for sure. If I had to guess, I’d say late People’s Republic of California. We haven’t even scratched the surface of this find. And the cadaver is remarkably preserved. This is exactly what the Ministry funded me to find. They can’t pull the plug now. See for yourself,” she said, gesturing at the three scanned letters attached to her holograph and an array of still photos of the find. “I’ll scan and send the rest as soon as they’re conservation-ready.” She reached forward and tapped the send icon, projected onto the table.

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-104
Description: Sealed personal correspondence, handwritten on manufactured floral print greeting card
Conservation & condition: UV-filtering plate glass (both sides), standard preservation storage, excellent condition.
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

Connie,

My heart greets you, open.

I’ve been accepted! Minister says I'm one of his most promising votaries he's ever seen and he’s invited me to transition to acolyte. If all goes smooth, the Order will induct me as an acolyte on the first Sunday in May. Minister thinks I'll make a Head Mistress of a collective one day if I stick to the catechisms and humbly walk the path. I can't believe I've been accepted. It's been such a long jorney and not everyone gets chosen. It is hard to not feel pride for what I’ve done but I know it wasn't really me, but the currents of the flow guiding me.

Love. Obedience in love. Serenity in love. Acceptance in love. If any of this sounds good to you (how could it not, right?) I hope you'll make the jorney to the coast and stay with us. No pressure, but I think you could make acolyte too. But if that sounds like too much, you could just take the vows and be a votary. Everyone seeking can take the votary vows. How does that sound?

Votaries are the first layer of house order. Trust me, I know. I've been a votary for two years now. And without us there would be no acolytes. Without acolytes, no disciples. With no disciples, there would be no Order. Without the Order, nothing but the currents of the flow, and nobody to tend them.

Today I will walk the harvest trail with Minister, so that all can witness the ebbs and flows of the current around me. I can't believe I've been accepted. Such a glorious day! Such a glorious, glorious day!

Come and visit, Connie. You would love it here, even if you don't stay. You would love it.

My heart greets you, open as the wind.

Trudy

Votary of the Order of the Flow

Approved for dispatch, Disciple J. Martin

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-105
Description: Sealed personal correspondence, handwritten (black ink) on white paper, both sides.

Conservation & condition: UV-filtering plate glass (both sides), standard preservation storage, good condition, frayed edges, handwritten (faint blue ink), small patches of decayed paper.
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

4-15-2178

Dear Mohammed,

The People's Guard came through our camp today and executed a woman and a man for "fomenting division." I had never met the woman before, but I had seen her in the camp. She called herself Reverend Martha but everyone else just called her Martha. She was nice enough, always quoting the Bible, trying to convince people that their souls needed saving and that she knew just the thing to do it. Nobody paid her much attention, really. People would listen, but they were just bored or being polite as far as I could tell.

The man they killed, Justin, I knew him fairly well. He took offense to almost everything Martha said and loved to spar with her. He would follow her and his comments turned into a sort of heckling. He'd just shout out about the Crusades or pogroms, or slavery, or genocides, on and on. As if Martha herself had done those things. He could quote the Bible too and enjoyed trying to trip her up. "The Devil can quote Scripture," they'd say right back and forth to each other. That was also a quote from the Bible, from what I gather.

People would watch them, including me, but it was entertainment more than anything. I don't think anyone was divided because of them. But the People's Guard caught wind of it and ordered [Illegible] she couldn't stop and Justin just wouldn't. They ordered us to disperse and at least for that day, that was that. By the next day, they were back at it. They started out cautious, then as the day went on, they seemed to care less and less about the People's Guard or the fact that someone must have informed on them to begin with. By dinner time, they were going at it full bore, all over again.

The next morning, the People's Guard summoned all of us in the camp to an old landfill from American times, a good twenty-minute walk from the camp. Justin and Martha were tied to posts surrounded by piles of old rubbish. An officer from the People's Guard paced around with a serious look in his tailored uniform and our camp superintendent, a nice woman named Celise, stood there with him. Justin and Martha were terrified.

Once all six or seven hundred of us from the camp had gathered—even the children—the officer spoke, quoting the Articles of the Republic. "We have ushered in a new era in unity, and we leave behind us the perils [Illegible]. Let no ideology divide our spirit or sever our common bonds." He went on to talk about how the ideology of the old must stay buried in the past and that's why they chose [Illegible]

That's when Justin burst out crying, begging for his life and Martha seemed to be in a trance, mumbling to herself. The officer walked up to Justin and shot him in the head. He turned and shot Martha the same way. Like it was nothing. Like they were nothing. Their bodies went limp, tethered to the poles. Nothing I can do will get that image out of my head.

I met a woman named Alejandra on the way back to camp. (She’s the one who gave me a bunch of paper.) She’s from up the coast. She's pretty much alone, like me, and we've taken to spending time together. She said the same thing happened at her old camp, that the People's Guard seems to grow more and more violent with no due process.

Alejandra and I went back that night, after dark, to bury their bodies, but there were People’s Guard still there so we snuck back to camp. Later we heard they were to be denied a proper burial as punishment for their crimes.

I'm keeping my head down and my mouth shut, Mohammed. I got a work permit as a day laborer in an orange grove. I get full rations even when the work is less than full-time. I think they want to keep me healthy in case they ever get the grid back up. Even partial power could pull me back into a more important role. Until then, me and a few other computer programmers are biding our time in the orange grove.

I hope things are better for you in Niagara. I can't imagine they're any worse than here. I check every day for a sign that the grid might be brought back online, but I fear the worst. I can't help but shake my head at all we had, all [Illegible]

Write to me, Mohammed. I miss our long talks on our long-distance bike rides. Let me know how you are. Did you ever find DuMont and his family? I'm hoping that all turned out well. I will write when I can, hopefully reporting on better times.

Your friend,

Zvi

***

Muriel called the researchers together for an impromptu meeting. She set her tablet on the long table they used for meals and recreation. “Come on, everyone,” she called, waving them over. It was dusk, and the sun painted the sky in radiant oranges, yellows, and reds. The crew was tired but energized by the find, which anchored and gave direction to their efforts. “I have news.” When the last of the students gathered, she clicked open an e-comm from Dr. Houle. This time, he was in the office of the Vice Minister of the Institute, a slender woman with jet-black hair pulled tightly into a bun on the top of her head. Behind them stood a researcher from the division of literature and arts, Jae-Sun Roe, smiling warmly. Dr. Houle was uncharacteristically animated, smiling and gesturing as soon as the message started.

“Dr. Zha-Giddeon, I’m here with Vice Minister Melikian. Yes, you can see I invited Dr. Roe, as well.” He turned and smiled at the two of them. A few other colleagues from Muriel’s department were there, standing in the back of the office, too. “I showed them the letters and the photos,” Dr. Houle said, motioning for the Vice Minister to speak. Muriel smiled wide. She had viewed the message in the privacy of her tent only moments before and now was eager to share it with her team.

“Congratulations to you and your team, doctor,” Vice Minister Melikian said. “You’ve made a promising find. I’ve continued your funding and look forward to your proposal for the next phase.” The crew cheered, not waiting for the Vice Minister to finish speaking, drowning out the congratulations from Dr. Roe. This discovery secured work and prestige for every member of the crew.

Muriel pulled two bottles of champagne from a portable refrigerator unit. “Get the cups out. Tonight, we celebrate.”

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-106
Description: Sealed wedding invitation, laser printed calligraphy on cotton card stock, handwritten note (blue ink)

Conservation & condition: Acid-free mat board, UV-filtering plate glass, standard preservation storage, excellent condition.
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

Crystal and Emory Dahlgren request the pleasure of your presence at the wedding of their daughter, Lydia Morgan Dahlgren to L'Sheila Rosa Sampson, daughter of the Honorable Gail Murphy and Mr. Harold "Bud" Sampson.

The Nineteenth of October, Twenty-One Hundred and Seventy-Eight

The Oaks Inn, Ojai, California

The favor of a response is requested by the Nineteenth of September, Twenty-One Hundred and Seventy-Eight.

Auntie Sylvia and Uncle Reynaldo,

I hope we'll get to see you at the wedding.

Xoxo,

Lydia

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-107
Description: Personal letter, no envelope, undated, handwritten in pencil.

Conservation & condition: Acid-free mat board, UV-filtering plate glass, standard preservation storage, poor condition: frayed edges, decayed paper
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

Javad,

I'm leaving our camp and taking Leila with me. Sarai will stay, and I cannot persuade her otherwise. [Decay/Illegible] Salmon River but at eight years old, it will be a very long trek for little Leila. I have managed to buy a horse and think [Decay/Illegible].

We plan to travel along [Decay/Illegible]. Meet us there, if you can, at the winterized cabin. The same one we used for our rafting and fishing trips. If it's still standing, we'll build [Decay/Illegible].

It's not good inside the Republic. Much worse on the outside, where we've spent the last eight months. Starvation is the biggest threat, but also gangs, disease, human trafficking, [Decay/Illegible]. All sorts of [Decay/Illegible]. Better to make a go [Decay/Illegible] secluded.

[Decay/Illegible] without [Decay/Illegible]. The supplies stopped coming to our camp and one morning we awoke to find the People's Guard had left. [Decay/Illegible].

[Decay/Illegible], carrot and spinach seeds, dried fruit, potatoes, beef and turkey jerky, [Decay/Illegible].

***

Muriel took her wrist-piece off and laid it flat on the rickety, wooden nightstand next to the cot in her tent. She tapped its panel and it projected a menu of options. "Call Jae-Sun," she said.

"Calling Jae-Sun Roe," the digital voice responded. And after a moment, the real-time projection of Jae-Sun stared back at Muriel.

"Hey babe," he said, the happiness evident in his voice. Muriel and he always scheduled times to talk when she is in the field to account for time zones, and to reduce the risk of missing each other. Unscheduled calls in the past usually meant bad news of some sort: an injured student, illness, weather evac. Not this time.

"Babe, I’ve just cataloged eight pieces—seven letters and a poem."

"That's fantastic," Jae-Sun said. “I saw the ones you sent Dr. Houle. What a treasure. And he couldn’t be happier with your find.”

"They were on the mummified remains of a postal courier from the late PRC. They're letters filled with news and fears and hopes flung out but never received. No documents of state, no scriptures or holy writings. Just everyday correspondence from everyday people."

“That’s what gives them their value, if you ask me,” Jae-Sun said.

"The postal courier—we’re calling him Guillermo, Jr., after my student who found him—even though he might be a she—we’re shipping him to the Institute for carbon dating, MRI scanning, and DNA testing. I’d love to know the cause of death. That will be one more tile in the mosaic.”

“Sounds like you have enough angles to fuel research for years,” Jae-Sun said. “I’ve never seen the Vice Minister so quick to offer more funding.”

“We’ll need it. We’ve only begun to map the cave. It’s only a few miles from where the late Republic’s desert skirmishes were and that proximity would have made it a prime location for refugees.”

"Maybe Guillermo, Jr. fled there, wounded?" Jae-Sun offered.

"Yes, that's one possibility. But we really have no idea just yet. So many layers of questions. It feels sacred, in a way. Each of those letter writers would have been only steps ahead of the total collapse and the coming dark age. They’d have been through so much already by the time they wrote those letters, that poem.” Jae-Sun considered the cataclysms she was referring to: the biotech wars, the collapse of the web, the loss of electricity, the fish flu pandemic, drought. “But still so much optimism. You know, it’s hard to imagine that any of them lived for more than two or three years after they wrote those letters."

"So few made it through," Jae-Sun said.

"Who would’ve guessed what was coming? So close and yet so wholly unaware."

"Have you run their names in the digital archives?" Jae-Sun asked.

"We will, for sure. But these letters are most likely all that remain of their lives."

"Tell me about the poem," Jae-Sun said, having respectfully inquired about the other elements of the dig long enough.

"I thought that would get your attention," Muriel said. Jae-Sun taught literature and writing at the same advanced studies institute where Muriel worked anthropological archeology. "It's short and unsigned. Handwritten and I can’t help but wonder if the postal courier was the poet, or maybe the poem was a gift? It wasn't in an envelope. Just sort of stuffed in the bottom of the satchel. I thought of you as soon as I saw it." She tapped a few holographic icons and sent the scanned poem to Jae-Sun. “Here, take a look.”

"Read it," Jae-Sun said. “Poems should always be read aloud.”

***

Catalog #NV-Satchel-Contents-108
Description: Poem, no envelope, undated, handwritten on cardboard stock, in blue ink, unsigned.

Conservation & condition: Acid-free mat board, UV-filtering plate glass, standard preservation storage, poor condition: frayed edges, decayed paper, water stains
Zha-Giddeon, Muriel; 14 August 119 Second Common Era

This Morning

This morning I dreamt I was cutting through waves

In the salty water

Racing in the green and cleansing balm of the ocean

This morning I dreamt I caught handfuls of salve and each stroke

Thrust me forward, like a skiff, like a harpoon, like a mighty sail fish

And when I awoke alone in this place so arid and hot

Skin caked with soot and dust, burned houses still in my hair

I could almost see you standing on the beach

Conch shell in hand, toes curled in sand, waiting for me to return

I wonder, this morning, as hunger and fear struggle and churn

How the hell does it end?

This morning I dreamt of water and waves

And I wonder, how does it end?

About the Author

Jaime Balboa

Twitter

Jaime Balboa's fiction has appeared in The Timberline Review, Lunch Ticket, Streetlight Magazine, Chaleur Magazine, Hobart, Fictive Dream and elsewhere. An editor for Flash Fiction Magazine, he and his partner live in Los Angeles where they are raising a son. Follow him on twitter @jaimerb.