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  • The Letters of Heaven
  • Barry Lopez (bio)

When I was a boy of thirteen I found a packet of letters in my father’s desk. I picked the lock to the drawer one day with one of my mother’s hairpins. Then, to keep my curiosity from being discovered, I took the small desk key one time when my father was sick, and in a distant quarter of Lima I had a stranger make a copy. That way I didn’t run the risk, each time I opened the drawer, of mutilating the lock and having my sin exposed.

The letters had been written in Castilian Spanish in the first decade of the seventeenth century between a man and a woman who did not sign their names but who wrote in exquisite phrases of desire and anguish about their passion for each other. During the years I read and reread these letters, I thought them composed of the most beautiful and, at the same time, the most illicit of human statements. The language of enthrallment was so unrestrained that the images existed for me outside the realm of sin and redemption, beyond the sphere of the Church. Please understand the complication—sometimes in reading the words I found myself with a powerful erection, but I did not consider this state of excitement, the vibrating ventilation of my skin, a violation of the sixth or ninth commandment. I felt my longing took place on another plane. I felt that my desire drew on many human emotions, and so was round, perfectly round and full—hunger, weeping, joy, even a peculiar fleeting anger. The shuddering ecstasy I experienced did not produce for me the sign of a sinful act, which I always imagined as quills sprouting suddenly from my face.

Repeated readings would eventually have broken the letters’ folds and marred them, so I copied each one out, word for word, and hid the copies in the ceiling of the house. I rarely went afterward to that drawer in my father’s desk. When I did, I held what I called the letters of heaven so respectfully my fingers trembled. I wanted desperately to protect a quality in them I understood as purity. I could have memorized them—they were short and there were only nine—but I felt to memorize the letters would have diminished their effect. I was then, too, someone anxious about the lack of substance in memory.

In 1967, when I was eighteen, my father developed cancer. Without [End Page 9] health insurance he knew his death was imminent, and so he soon completed the arrangements he wished to make with everyone, loving gestures that put each of us at ease. He spoke with my two uncles, the brothers with whom he ran a tannery, about the disposition of his interest there, including the skiving knives and mallets that had been his father’s. He bestowed small gifts on each of his relatives. And through the generosity of his love, by the breadth of his consideration of us, he steered my mother and my sisters and myself toward a rarefied emotional position. It was as though he were tearing himself neatly out of a book while taking pains to see the page would not be missed. Even as he was dying we began to sense that we were whole without him. We would miss him very much, but he was leaving us with a grief that strengthened us.

When it came my turn to have a private moment with my father, he said without warning, “The letters, Ramón, are the most holy, the most beautiful relics in our family. You must protect them. If you have children, give them to the child who is most drawn to them. If you do not, look among your sisters’ children for the one who should receive them.”

At eighteen I was too old to behave like a child, even before a dying father. I could not openly and fully express the remorse and embarrassment I felt at that moment. I did not know how to beg his forgiveness. I sensed for the first time that my clandestine involvement with the...


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pp. 9-17
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