"The Letter" is the third and final installment of Making Magic, a limited series of original short stories from The Paper Mouse team. We hope these stories will amuse and transport you.
The letter arrived on a Thursday afternoon, looking magnificently inviting. The envelope was large, rectangular, and powder blue, with a scalloped flap and an embossed silver border around the address, which was written in impressively loopy magenta calligraphy.
From the moment he laid eyes on it, Otto knew he’d been waiting for this letter all his life. He opened the envelope very carefully to preserve the scalloped edge. It was addressed to Miss Otta Bell (Otto could only assume someone had misread his name). Inside were three sheets of creamy letterhead emblazoned with the words Mrs. Penniwether’s Prestigious Pen Pal Society.
To the esteemed Miss Bell:
Mrs. Penniwether’s Prestigious Pen Pal Society is pleased to invite you to join our number. Our Society encourages young ladies all over the world to partake in the time-honored tradition of correspondence, creating new bonds of friendship, sharing experiences, and reveling in the joys of the written word. We welcome you to join our Society.
If you wish to participate, please fill out the enclosed questionnaire so that we may match you with a suitable correspondent, and return it to:
Mrs. Penniwether’s Prestigious Pen Pal Society
14 Truefeather Lane
Otto chose his favorite pen and filled out the questionnaire, taking his time to write neatly and answer thoughtfully, from Question 1 (List your interests and hobbies) to Question 20 (Do you speak any other languages?). Then he carefully addressed a fresh envelope, affixed a postage stamp precisely three millimeters from the top and right edges, and carried the precious missive to the postbox at the end of the street, where he mailed it off with a heart full of hope and pleasure. As soon as he was home again he prepared himself for happiness. He searched his drawers to find his best stationery, his colorful inks, his ruler and pencil, and his etiquette books, and he arranged his desk in complete readiness for the receipt of his new pen pal’s letter.
There was only one problem. Otto, of course, wasn’t Otta, a young lady. He wasn’t even a young man. Otto was an ogre.
The first letter arrived two weeks later. Otto opened it with trembling hands, almost dizzy with eagerness, though even in his excited state he couldn’t help noticing with some surprise that his new pen pal wasn’t what you could call neat. The ink on the envelope was smudged, the stamp was all higgledy-piggledy, and the letter inside was crinkled and full of underlines and capital letters.
Dear Otta, it began,
My name is Theodora Trask, but PLEASE don’t call me Theodora, or Dora, for that matter. It’s Theo. Mrs. Hodges refuses to call me anything other than Theodora, which she says is a very fine name for a young lady (I wish I could make you hear on paper how her voice sounds all nasally and slow when she says “young lady,” but I guess you can’t really do impressions in a letter).
Oh drat, I’m already doing this all wrong. Miss Sterling—that’s our etiquette teacher—says there’s an order to things when you’re writing a letter to someone new (Otto privately agreed with Miss Sterling), and you ought to introduce yourself logically, chronologically, and ideologically, or something like that. So let me start again.
My name is THEO Trask, and I am a pupil at Mrs. Hodges’ Elegant Institute for Young Ladies. (I don’t know why they always make us say “pupil” and not student, or, more truthfully, inmate. “Pupil” comes from Latin and it sounds very elevated, I suppose that’s why, but I think “student” tells you right away that I’m studying, and “inmate” tells you right away that I’m here against my will.) Here at Mrs. Hodges’ we are PUPILS of proper behavior and manners, as well as math, history, reading, and some other useful things. My parents sent me to Mrs. Hodges’ school because apparently THEO isn’t a proper name for a young lady and scaling walls isn’t proper behavior for a young lady and so forth, though I’m not sure why they thought it would help to send me to a school with so many towers.
Anyhow, letter writing is supposed to be a proper thing for young ladies to do, and so they’ve signed us all up for Mrs. Penniwether’s. That makes it sound like I’m not happy to be writing to you, but truly, even though you can probably tell I’m not too fond of etiquette, I’m very glad to meet you, Otta. It’s not your fault you’ve gotten a grouch for a correspondent, so I’ll try to be a good pen pal. For your sake, you understand, not for Miss Sterling’s. I want to hear all about you! Are you in school, too? What’s your favorite subject? What do you like to do for fun? What’s your favorite flavor of cookie?
I suppose it wouldn’t be polite to ask you all these personal questions without telling you the same about myself, so here you go:
- My favorite subject is botany. We have a greenhouse and a garden here at Mrs. Hodges’ and every girl gets a garden bed of her own, plus we spend Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the greenhouse learning about plants. I love to be outdoors and it’s very nice to know how things grow.
- For fun, I like to climb things. As I mentioned before, this is not considered young lady behavior, so I have to do it on the sly. I’ve made it onto the greenhouse roof twice, and my next challenge is the dormitory tower, but I keep falling off. Otherwise, I enjoy sewing. That probably surprises you, but it’s very handy to know how to mend rips and things.
- My favorite flavor of cookie is CHOCOLATE.
I look forward to hearing from you soon, Otta.
Otto finished the letter and sat back, feeling a combination of surprise, dismay, and delight. He didn’t know quite what he’d expected, but it wasn’t Theo. He got the distinct feeling that nobody ever quite expected Theo. This, at least, was a familiar feeling, as he was often received with similar confusion by his fellow ogres.
Dear Theo, he wrote,
Thank you for your letter. I’m very pleased to meet you, too.
Before I go any further, I must clear up a little misunderstanding. The truth is, I’m not a girl, but a boy. My name is Otto. I think there was a mixup at Mrs. Penniwether’s, but I’m so fond of writing and I was so eager to have a pen pal that I didn’t inform her of the mistake. I hope you won’t mind.
Otto had thought long and hard about whether to mention the fact that he was an ogre, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Theo didn’t seem conventional by any stretch, so perhaps she wouldn’t mind, but Otto had gone so long without someone new to talk to, someone who wasn’t a boisterous cousin or a disapproving teacher or, quite plainly, an ogre, that he wasn’t going to risk it. On paper, it didn’t matter; his pen pal needn’t ever know.
I live in a town called Bonhaven, near Bannbury. It’s not a very big town, but I suppose it might look rather picturesque to someone visiting. Since I live here, I am sometimes guilty of forgetting that it’s charming. Bonhaven has a town green, where there’s a market on Wednesdays; a modest inn; and an immoderate number of sheep. I am very partial to these little woolly inhabitants. The best part of town is the Bon River, which runs right through the middle. It has a charming path where I like to walk.
I enjoyed your letter very much. Mrs. Hodges’ sounds like an interesting place. I’m sorry you do not like being there, but your studies sound useful and eye-opening. I enjoy history and reading, and I confess I even like to read books of etiquette, but I understand how it feels to be in a place where you don’t fit in. I live next door to my five cousins, who are all very different from me. They like to run races, jump from tree branches, and dunk each other in the Bon. They would probably love to learn how you climbed onto the greenhouse roof. (Wasn’t it slippery?) Me, I prefer quieter activities, like writing and testing new recipes. My cousins don’t tease me about it much, but sometimes I catch them looking at me like I’ve got three heads.
I was glad to read that you like botany! I like to garden myself. I have a little vegetable garden here at my parents’ house. I have just harvested my first beets of the season. What are you growing in your garden? I wish I could see the greenhouse.
To answer your questions:
- I am in school, too. Bonhaven has a small school, but we don’t learn as many subjects as I think you do at Mrs. Hodges’ place. Mr. Grusse, the teacher, knows a good deal, but he teaches all of us from the wee ones right up to the oldest students, so I have to pester him after hours if I want to know something particular, and I think he’s gotten a little tired of my questions. Fortunately, we have a very fine library in town.
- For fun, aside from reading and gardening, I enjoy cooking. At the moment I am perfecting a recipe for stuffed squash blossoms. I suspect my parents think I’m a bit odd too, but they love my cooking. I’ll turn my attention to chocolate cookies next and send you some.
- My favorite cookie flavor is cardamom.
Who taught you how to climb buildings, or are you an autodidact? Are you ever afraid of heights?
I look forward to your next letter.
I can’t believe Mrs. Penniwether matched me with a boy! I think it’s great. Why shouldn’t you get to be part of the club if you like to write letters? And I can tell you belong. You’ve got the nicest handwriting I’ve ever seen. Miss Sterling would be proud to have you for a student, and I mean that as a compliment.
I haven’t heard of Bonhaven before. It sounds like a nice place to live, with all the little sheep. I come from Pella, near the mountains, where we have mountain sheep. They are good climbers too. I learned to climb all by myself. I think it’s starting to rub off on my little sister—come to think of it, maybe that’s why my parents sent me to Mrs. Hodges’.
You asked me whether the greenhouse roof was slippery. WELL, let me tell you a story! I climbed up there again the other day when it was foggy, and I nearly broke my neck. Wouldn’t you be sorry to have to find another pen pal so soon? There’s a trellis on one of the walls that I climb, but it turned out somebody had been digging around it and the trellis got loose, which I only discovered when I was nearly at the top. I managed to grab the frame of the roof and scramble up before the trellis fell down, but I nearly slid right off again. I’m going to wait until it’s good and dry before I try the dormitory tower again.
How were your first beets? What else are you growing in your garden? In mine I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and radishes, and also asters and marigolds. Then I’ve got my witch garden. I’m growing all kinds of nice witchy herbs and flowers, like vervain, lavender, yarrow, and chamomile. I’ve got poppies and foxgloves too, in case I need to poison anyone. (I’m kidding.) (But maybe I’ll use them on Mrs. Hodges someday.) (I’M KIDDING.) A witch garden DEFINITELY isn’t ladylike, but so far Miss Teague—that’s our botany teacher—has turned a blind eye. I think she likes me.
Your cousins sound like fun, but I’m sorry they don’t like to do the same things as you. It’s hard when you don’t share interests with the people around you. Some of the girls here are friendly, but not one of them likes to climb.
How goes your squash blossom recipe? That sounds like a very refined dish. I hope I get to try it someday. Your cookery sounds very impressive, and your parents are very lucky. What are your favorite things to make? I’m only average at cooking, but at least I’m not the worst in the class. Poor Edna Miller burns everything from Beef Wellington to carrot soup to a piece of toast.
What are you reading from the library now? I’m sorry your Mr. Grusse doesn’t like to answer your questions. Miss Sterling is the same way whenever I ask her questions about etiquette, like, “What’s the point of having three forks?” and “Who has to wash all this cutlery anyway?” I’m not a great favorite with Miss Sterling for some reason.
Otto and Theo’s correspondence blossomed like a spring garden, tentative at first but then bursting into an extravagance of new growth. At first they were cautious, friendly, and diligent, each a little uncertain of the other even as they enjoyed their letters. Wild, uncontainable Theo suspected she must offend refined, gentlemanly Otto, who in turn wondered doubtingly whether he was too stuffy and prudish for his funny, energetic new friend.
But Otto perfected his chocolate cookie recipe and sent Theo a batch, and Theo scrawled back, OTTO, YOU GENIUS, and by summer’s end they were writing each other practically every other day, Otto imploring Theo to be cautious on the dormitory tower and and Theo regaling Otto with tales of Miss Sterling and Otto mailing Theo tips from his etiquette books to impress her teachers with and Theo sending Otto cuttings from her witch garden.
Otto couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so happy. All through the fall and winter, his cousins joked about his constant trips to the mailbox and his delicate, un-ogre-like stationery, but he couldn’t care less. He’d thought that the comprehensive questionnaire in Mrs. Penniwether’s invitation would match him with someone like-minded, someone who loved quiet pursuits and a life of the mind. In fact, Mrs. Penniwether had done something much better: matched him to someone who complemented him perfectly.
It was glorious. Until one day, Theo brought up the idea of meeting in person.
If I ever get out of this penitentiary of politeness, she wrote, can I come visit you in Bonhaven? And will you make me some of that cassoulet? I’ll bake the bread!
Otto panicked. He still hadn’t found the courage to tell Theo he was an ogre, and the longer he waited, the worse he felt. It was no longer a mere omission to a pen pal; now it was a lie to a friend. But if he told Theo, she might be horrified to discover that he was an ogre, or hurt that he’d neglected to tell her the truth. He didn’t know which would be worse.
And so he avoided the subject altogether. He told himself that Theo was simply dreaming of an escape from school and would forget all about visiting him.
But she didn’t. She brought it up again and again, writing about the walks they’d take by the river, the plants she’d bring for his garden, the climbing tricks she’d teach his cousins, and the books they’d read together. She asked questions about Otto’s parents, hoped he would teach her to bake her favorite cookies, and speculated about what Bonhaven looked like. Otto deflected, answered, avoided, and agreed by turns, all the while trying to ignore how dearly he himself would love it if Theo came to visit.
And then one day in March, she wrote:
Otto, can you believe it? Mrs. Hodges is sending us home for three whole months! She thinks it will do us good to “practice our new skills in our home environments,” though secretly I think she’s just sick of the lot of us and wants a holiday. I’ll be home from June till September. If my parents will let me, do you think I could really come to visit? Maybe in August? I can’t wait to meet you.
Otto was stunned. He’d never really believed that Theo meant to visit, though she was painfully honest at all times and he’d had no reason to doubt it.
Perhaps her parents wouldn’t want her to visit the boy she’d been corresponding with all year; it was hardly proper. But what if she did convince them? What if—he felt his face grow hot—what if they thought the polite young pen pal was a marriage prospect for their daughter? What if they started to research his family?
Otto couldn’t carry on the lie any longer. He could either give up writing to Theo—unthinkable—or put his faith in the strength of their friendship and tell the truth.
He wrote the letter.
I have something very difficult to write to you about, and I can only hope for your understanding and forgiveness. There’s something I’ve been keeping from you. I’m not sure how to write this, but here goes.
Do you remember how, when Mrs. Penniwether first matched us up, I told you there had been a mixup and I wasn’t a girl? Well, in truth, I’m not exactly a boy, either—at least, not a human one. I’m an ogre.
I don’t know what you may have heard or read about ogres. A lot of the books I’ve found in the library are very outdated, and speak of us as violent brutes who eat human beings. And I’m afraid that in antiquity, some of those stories may have been true. At least, Mr. Grusse says there’s a history of violence between humans and ogres, and it’s true that my kind can be rather boorish (witness my cousins, who would prefer to spend the day thrashing each other and competing to see who can throw boulders farthest than to cultivate their minds in any way). But these days we live quite peacefully. Bonhaven is an ogre enclave, but we often have human visitors at the market or the inn.
As ogres go, I suppose I’m a bit unusual. I’ve told you that my family thinks me odd for being so fond of reading and cooking and gardening. Physical strength is prized in ogres, though my parents have always been very supportive of me pursuing my interests. I’m not very big for an ogre—only about seven feet. My cousin Doss is eight-and-a-half, which is about average. The other folks around here are mostly farmers and builders, though there are a few like me who are interested in more scholarly pursuits.
I’m sure you have many questions for me. I’ll be happy to answer them all, but most importantly I want to answer the one you might not ask: why didn’t I tell you this before? When we first met, I was afraid to frighten you, and as we were only pen pals I thought that it wouldn’t matter. Then as I got to know you better, I was ashamed to tell you I’d been hiding the truth, and afraid to hurt your feelings and lose your friendship. I am so sorry, Theo.
You are very welcome to visit Bonhaven, if you still want to. I would love to show you around the town and bake you cookies. But I understand if you feel differently now. I hope you can forgive me for not telling you the truth.
Your friend, always,
Otto’s heart was heavy when he mailed the letter. He told himself that Theo would eventually understand. She had always been generous, curious, open minded. But he couldn’t help feeling a niggling fear that he was writing to his friend for the last time.
A week passed, the longest of Otto’s life. He began to despair. Theo usually wrote back right away.
Then he received a note.
Dear Mr. Bell,
I have recently been made aware of your highly improper correspondence with Miss Theodora Trask, a pupil at my school. Miss Trask will no longer be writing to you. Please do not attempt to contact her any further.
Mrs. Agnes Hodges
Mrs. Hodges’ Elegant Institute for Young Ladies
Otto was crushed. Of all the possible responses—or silences—from Theo he’d been turning over in his mind, he’d never once imagined a letter from Mrs. Hodges. He couldn’t believe that Theo would show the letter to her hated headmistress. Did she fear ogres so much that she would go to Mrs. Hodges for protection? He was wretched.
He spent the next week in a fog, neglecting his garden, his cookery, and his books. He reread all Theo’s letters, tracing different outcomes, different pasts, different futures. He dragged himself to the Bon one day and stared at the water for hours, imagining what it would feel like to be a rock in the current, unfeeling, unmovable.
When he returned home there was a letter.
It was a strange letter, hard to decipher, written across the printed lines of pages torn from a mathematics book.
Otto, you dolt! I can’t BELIEVE you didn’t tell me you’re an ogre, and I can’t BELIEVE you thought I’d give a rat’s toot! You know what your problem is? Etiquette. You’re too polite, just like all the teachers in this stinking place.
But I guess before I bawl you out I’d better apologize for not writing to you sooner. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to answer you, but I’ve been in trouble. The truth is, I was a little upset when I first read your letter, and I had to go climb the greenhouse to really be able to think it through. So I took your letter with me and climbed up to the roof, but I wasn’t really paying attention, and, well, I stepped in the vent by accident. And I fell through the roof. And I broke some stuff inside. And I fell on Mrs. Hodges’ prized orchids, which I really AM sorry about, because no plant deserves to be squashed, even if its caretaker is a nasty old grouse. Well, Mrs. Hodges was livid, and she asked why I was sneaking around the greenhouse, and she made me turn out my pockets, and she found your letter.
And—get this—she was shocked that I was writing to a BOY! She said it was highly improper, and boys are brutes, and smelly, and dirty, and no wonder I wasn’t making any progress. I tried to explain that you’re much more polite than I am, but she just kept saying how you were a bad influence and I wasn’t to write you any more letters, and that she was going to put a stop to it. And then she took your letter and confiscated all my paper and she and Mrs. Sterling have been watching me like hawks ever since, day and night.
Anyway, I got so sick of it that I tore these pages out of my math book. I hope you’ll forgive me for that, but I couldn’t stand to think of you reading whatever poison Mrs. Hodges might have written to you and not hearing from me. I’m writing this in the loo. Sorry, I know you’ll hate that too.
Like I said before, I don’t give a toot that you’re an ogre. I DO have a lot of questions for you, like how the heck do you not like climbing things when you’re seven feet tall??? And can I really still come visit you??
It’s hard to write on this stupid book, so please send me some paper in your next letter. DOLT.
In August, Theo came to visit. Her wary parents came too and were kindly received by Otto’s parents, who gave them a tour of Bonhaven and asked many polite questions. Otto and Theo took walks by the river, baked chocolate and cardamom cookies, worked in the garden, read to each other, and surprised Otto’s cousins by scrambling up the library roof. And in the fall, when Theo returned to school, her parents wrote to Mrs. Hodges to inform her that Theo’s friendship with Otto Bell had their parental sanction and was not to be interfered with. Theo and Otto write to each other every week. Next summer they’re planning a trip to the mountains, where Theo will teach Otto how to climb.
The Ink Apothecary