Friday, January 16, 2009

At the Crossroads : Of Tradition and Change

Chi Chun

When Mother was young, she would weave her tresses in to a long thick braid. During the day she wound it in to a shell-like spiral and piled it high on the back of her head. Evenings she undid it and let it hang down her back. When I slept I would snuggle up close to Mother's shoulder and playfully wrap my fingers around the tip of her braid. My nose was continuously assailed by whiffs of "Twin Sister" hair oil mingled with the smell of her hair. Though the odor was rather unpleasant, it was part of the security I felt in lying by Mother's side, and I would fall quickly off to sleep.
Once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, Mother would thoroughly wash her hair. According to rural custom, hair could never be washed on ordinary days as the dirty water would flow down to where the king of the underworld would store it up to make one drink after death. Only if the hair was washed on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month could the dirty water pass harmlessly out to the Eastern Sea.
So on that day, all the women in the village let their hair hang loose to dry over their shoulders. Some of the women with flowering hair were as beautiful as vineyard fairies, others as hideous as monsters. Take my fifth uncle's wife for example-a squat, withered old hag. On her nearly-bald head she used black ash to draw in square hairline, and then painted her scalp pitch black. Thus when shampooing her hair, the charcoal was completely washed away, and out shone the half-bald, shiny crown of her head, fringed with thin wisps of hair fluttering down her back. She would hobble to and fro helping my mother fix dinner. I never dared glance her way.
But Mother's raven hair was like a length of satin falling over her shoulders. When a breeze blew, locks of shorter hair would sometimes sweep against her soft white cheeks. She would squint, gather the hair in her hand, and smooth it back, but soon another puff of wind would pass by. Mother was near-sighted, and when she narrowed her eyes in a squint, she was remarkably beautiful. I thought, if only Father were at home to see Mother's glossy black hair, he certainly would go out and buy a pair of sparkling diamond hair clips for her to wear. Mother probably would have worn them a while, then, embarrassed, have taken them out. That pair of diamond clips would then become part of my headdress when I played bride.
Father returned home soon afterward, bringing not the diamond clips, but a concubine. Her skin was white and delicate, her head of soft cloud-like hair even blacker, shinier than Mother's. The hair on her temples seemed like folded cicada wings half-concealing her ears. Her hair, brushed back and knotted in a horizontal "S" chignon, covered the back of her head like a huge bat. She presented Mother with a pair of emerald earrings, but Mother just let me play with them, though. I thought she was probably saving them because they were too nice.
After the family moved to Hangchow, Mother didn't have to work in the kitchen anymore. Frequently Father would want her to come out and entertain guests. Her sever hairstyle really seemed out of place, so Father insisted that she change. Mother asked her friend Aunt Chang to style an "Abalone Fish" for her. At that time, the "Abalone Fish" was the style old ladies wore. Mother had just turned thirty, yet she wanted to look like an old lady. When the concubine saw it, she would only smirk, while Father would constantly wrinkle his brow. Once when we were alone, I quietly implored, "Mother, why don't you also do your hair into an 'S' twist and wear the emerald earrings that Auntie gave you?" Mother replied solemnly, "Your mother is a country woman, unsuited for that kind of modern fashion. How can I wear such fancy earrings?"
When "Auntie" washed her hair, she would never select the seventh day or the seventh lunar month. Within one month she washed her hair many times. After washing, a maidservant standing to one side would lightly swing a large pink feather fan to and fro. Her soft hair would float out making me feel light and dizzy. Father would sit on a sandalwood lounge chair puffing away on his water pipe. He often turned around to look at her and his eyes sparkled with laughter. "Auntie" dressed her hair with "Three Flowers" oil, and the perfume floated in all directions. Then she sat straight up facing the mirror, and entwined a glossy "S" chignon around her head. I stood to one side, entranced. She handed me a bottle of the "Three Flower" oil and asked me to take it to Mother. But Mother just put it in the back of the closet saying, "The smell of this new hair oil turns my stomach."
Mother couldn't always trouble Aunt Chang, so she styled a taut “Abalone Fish" herself. It turned out about the same as her first twist. Father didn't like it; even I thought it was awful.
At that time, "Auntie" had already hired a Mrs. Liu to dress her hair. Mrs. Liu wore a huge red bamboo pin in her hair and puffed and panted as her large duck feet carried her short plump body along. She came every morning at ten to fashion all different kinds of coiffures for "Auntie"-the "Phoenix," "Feather Fan," "Entwined Heart Twist," "Shallow Tail," etc. She was always changing the style. The coiffures accentuated "Auntie's" delicate skin and willowy waist, which more and more drew delightful smiles from Father. Mrs. Liu advised Mother, "Madam, why don't you dress your hair a little more fashionably?" But Mother, shaking her head, pursed her thick lips, and walked away without saying a word.
Soon afterward Aunt Chang brought a regular hair dresser, a Mrs. Chen, to Mother. She was older than Mrs. Liu, and had a huge flat yellowish face with two protruding shiny gold teeth. At a glance one could tell she was the kind of woman who liked to gossip. She would ramble on about people from old Mr. Chao's elder daughter-in-law down to General Li's third concubine, all while dressing Mother's hair. Mother sat wilted on her chair, not uttering a single word, but I listened with great relish. Sometimes Mrs. Liu and Mrs. Chen came together. Mother and the concubine would sit back to back in front of the breeze way and have their hair dressed. One could hear "Auntie" and Mrs. Liu talking and laughing; on our side. Mother just sat resting with her eyes closed. Mrs. Chen brushed and combed with less and less vigor, and soon quit altogether. I distinctly heard her tell Mrs. Liu, "This antique of a country hick-she still wants her hair combed and dressed." I was so angry that I cried, but didn't dare tell Mother.
From then on, I stood on a low stool and brushed Mother's hair into the simplest "Abalone Fish." I would stand on tiptoe and watch Mother in the mirror. Her face was already not as plump and radiant as when we lived in the country and she hurried about in the kitchen. Her eyes fixed on the mirror, she gazed at herself absent-mindedly, never again squinting and smiling. I gather Mother's hair a lock at a time and brushed, but I already knew that one little yellow willow comb couldn't brush away Mother's heartsickness-because from the other side of the breezeway came floating across the occasional tinkling sound of Father's and "Auntie's" laughter.
After I grew up I left home to pursue my studies. When I returned home for summer and winter vacations, I would sometimes dress Mother's hair. I gathered her hair together in the palm of my hand and felt it becoming sparser and sparser. I remembered back in my childhood when on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month I saw Mother's soft raven tresses flowing over her shoulders, her face filled with joy, and I couldn't help but feel heartbroken. When Mother saw me return home, her distressed look occasionally gave way to smiles. No matter what, the happiest time was when Mother and daughter were together.
When I was studying in Shanghai, Mother wrote to say she had rheumatism and couldn't lift her arms. Even the simplest twist came out all wrong so she just cut her sparse locks off. I clutched her letter in my hands, and as I sat bathed in desolate moonlight beside the dormitory window, I cried in loneliness. The late autumn night breeze blew over me and I felt cold. I draped the soft sweater that Mother had knit for me over my shoulders and warmth crept over me from head to toe. But Mother was old now; I couldn't always be at her side. She has cut off her thinning hair, but how could she trim away a heart full of sorrows?
Soon afterward, "Auntie" came to Shanghai on business and brought me a picture of Mother, I hadn't seen her for three years-her hair had already turned silvery white. Saddened, I stared dumbly at the picture, yet had no way of pouring out my feelings to "Auntie," who stood before me. Almost as if sympathizing with my thoughts of Mother, she rambled on and on about Mother's present condition, saying her heart was weak and she was troubled again with rheumatism, so she was not as strong as before. I bowed my head and listened in silence, thinking that it was she who had made my mother unhappy all her life. But I didn't hate her anymore, not even a little bit, because since Father's death, Mother and "Auntie" had unpredictably become friends in their mutual suffering. Mother had stopped thing her long ago.
I looked at her closely. She wore a gray padded cloth gown, with a white flower tucked in her hair. Her nape no longer was draped with the rich and versatile "Phoenix" or "Entwined Heart" twists of days past, but was covered by a very simple "Banana Roll." She didn't apply makeup, and appeared sad and lonely. I couldn't help feeling unlimited pity for her, because she wasn't a woman like Mother, contenting herself with a tranquil life. Having followed Father close to twenty years, she had enjoyed honor and wealth, but once her support was gone, her feeling of emptiness and loss was even greater than Mother's.
After coming to Taiwan, "Auntie" became my only relative, and we lived together for many years. In the breezeway of our Japanese-style house I watched her sit by the window brushing her hair. She occasionally pounded her shoulder blade with her fist saying, "My hands are really stiff. I'm truly old now." Old-she too was old. Her black hair, like a silken cloud in those days, had now gradually thinned out, only a wisp remained, and that was speckled with gray. I remembered the days of their rivalry in Hang chow, when she and Mother sat back to back in the corridor, having their hair coiffure, not exchanging a word. In a flash all that was past. In the human world, what then is love and hate? Old decrepit "Auntie" had finally started on a vague journey in an unknown direction. Her life at this time was lonelier than anyone else's.
Startled, I stared at her, and remembering her lovely horizontal "S" chignon, said, "Let me brush it into a new style, all right?" But she gave a nervous little laugh saying, "What do I still want to wear fancy styles for? That's for you young people."
Can I stay forever young? What she had said is already more than ten years past. I'm far from being young anymore, already callous and wooden toward love, hate, greed, and foolishness in this world. The days with Mother slip farther and farther behind me. "Auntie's ashes," too, are deposited in a lonely temple somewhere. What, after all, is eternal in this world, and what is worth being serious about?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

War by Luigi Pirandello

The passengers who had left Rome by the night express had had to stop until dawn at the small station of Fabriano in order to continue their journey by the small old fashioned local joining the main line with Sulmona.
At dawn, in a stuffy and smoky second-class carriage in which five people had already spent the night, a bulky woman in deep mourning was hosted in almost like a shapeless bundle. Behind her – puffing and moaning, followed her husband – tiny man; thin and weakly, his face death-white, his eyes small and bright and looking shy and uneasy.
Having a last taken a seat he politely thanked the passengers who had helped his wife and who had made room for her; then he turned round to the woman trying to pull down the collar of her coat and politely inquired:
“Are you all right, dear?”
The wife, instead of answering, pulled up her collar again to her eyes, so as to hide her face.
“Nasty world,” muttered the husband with sad smile.

And he felt it his duty to explain to his traveling companions that the poor woman was to be pitied for the war was taking away from her, her only son, a boy of twenty to whom both had devoted their entire life, even breaking up their home at Sulmona to follow him to Rome, where he had to go as a student, then allowing him to volunteer for war with an assurance, however, that at least sic months he would not be sent to the front and now, all of a sudden, receiving a wire saying that he was due to leave in three days’ time and asking them to go and see them off.
The woman under the big coat was twisting and wriggling, at times growling like a wild animal, feeling certain that all those explanations would not have aroused even a shadow of sympathy from those people who – mostly likely – were in the same plight as herself. One of them, who had been listening with particular attention said:
“You should thank God that your son is only leaving now for the front. Mine has been sent there the first day of the war. He has already come back twice wounded and been sent back again to the front.”
“What about me? I have two sons and three nephews at the front,” said another passenger.
“Maybe, but in our case it is our only son,” ventured the husband.
“What difference can it make? You may spoil your only son by excessive attentions, but you cannot love him more than you would all your other children if you had any. Parental love is not like bread that can be broken to pieces and split amongst the children in equal shares. A father gives all his love to each one of his children without discrimination, whether it be one or ten, and if I am suffering now for my two sons, I am not suffering half for each of them but double…”
“True… true…” sighed the embarrassed husband, “but suppose (of course we all hope it will never be your case) a father has two sons at the front and he loses one of them. There is still one left to console him… while...”
“Yes,” answered the other, getting cross, “a son left to console him but also a son left for whom he must survive, while in the case of the father of an only son if the son dies the father can die too and put an end to his distress. Which of the two positions is worse? Don’t you see how my case would be worse than yours?”
“Nonsense,” interrupted another traveler, a fat red-faced man with bloodshot eyes of the palest grey.
He was panting. From his bulging eyes seemed to spurt inner violence of an uncontrolled vitality which his weakened body could hardly contain.
“Nonsense,” he repeated trying to cover his mouth with his hand so as to hide two missing front teeth. “Non sense. Do we give life to our own children for our own benefit?”
The other travelers stared at him in distress. The one who had his son at the front since the first day of war sighed: “You are right. Our children do not belong to us; they belong to the country…”
“Bosh,” retorted the fat traveler. “Do we think of the country when we give life to our children? Our sons are born because… well, because they must be born and when they come to life they take our own life with them. This is the truth. We belong to them but they never belong to us. And when they reach twenty they are exactly what we were at their age. We too had a father and mother, but there were so many other things as well… girls, cigarettes, illusions, new ties… and the Country, of course, whose call we would have answered – when we were twenty – even if father and mother had said no. now, at our age, the love of our Country is still great, of course, but stronger that it is the love of our children. Is there any one of us here who wouldn’t gladly take his son’s place at the front if he could?”
There was a silence all round, everybody nodding as to approve.
“Why then,” continued the fat man, “should we consider the feelings of our children when they are twenty? Isn’t it natural that at their age they should consider the love for their Country (I am speaking of decent boys, of course) even greater than the love for us? Isn’t it natural necessity like bread of which each of us must eat in order not to die of hunger, somebody must go defend it. And our sons go, when they are twenty, and they don’t want tears, because if they die, they die inflamed and happy (I am speaking of decent boys, of course). Now if one dies young and happy, without having the ugly sides of life, the boredom of it, the pettiness, the bitterness of dissolution… what more can we ask for him? Everyone should stop crying; everyone should laugh, as I do… or at least thank God – as I do – because my son, before dying, sent me a message saying that he was dying, satisfied at having ended his life in the best way he could have ever wished. That is why, as you see, I do not even wear mourning…”
He shook his light fawn coat as to show it; his livid lip over his missing teeth was trembling, his eyes were watery and motionless, and soon after he ended with a shrill laugh which might well have been a sob.
“Quite so… quite so…” agreed the others.
The woman who, bundled in a corner under her coat, had been sitting and listening had – for the last three months – tried to find the words of her husband and her friends something to console her in her deep sorrow, something that might show her how a mother should resign herself to send her son not even to death but to a probably danger of life. Yet not a word had she found amongst the many that had been said… and her grief had been greater in seen that nobody – as she thought – could share her feelings.

But now the words of the traveler amazed and almost stunned her, he suddenly realized that it wasn’t the others who were wrong and could not understand her but herself who could not rise up to the same height of those fathers and mothers wiling to resign themselves, without crying, not only to the departure of their sons but even to their death.
She lifted her head; she bent over from her corner trying to listen with great attention to the details which the fat man was giving to his companions about the way his son had fallen as a hero, for his King and his Country, happy and without regrets. It seemed to her that she had stumbled into a world she had never dreamt of, a world so far unknown to her, and she was so pleased to hear everyone joining the congratulating that brave father who could so stoically speak of his child’s death.
Then suddenly, just as if she had heard nothing of what had been said and almost as if waking up from a dream, she turned to the old man, asking him:
“Then… is your son really dead?” Everyone stared at her. The old man, too, turned to look at her, facing his great bulging, heavily watery light gray eyes, deep in her face. For some time he tried to answer, but words failed him. He looked and looked at her, almost as if only then – at that silly, incongruous question – he had suddenly realized that his son was really dead – gone forever – forever. His face contracted, became horribly distorted, then he snatched in haste a handkerchief from his pocket and, to the amazement of everyone, broke into harrowing, heart breaking, and uncontrollable sobs.

Trifles by Susan Glaspell

Scene: The kitchen in the now abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, a gloomy kitchen, and left without having been put in order--unwashed pans under the sink, a loaf of bread outside the breadbox, a dish towel on the table--other signs of incompleted work. At the rear the outer door opens, and the Sheriff comes in, followed by the county Attorney and Hale. The Sheriff and Hale are men in middle life, the county Attorney is a young man; all are much bundled up and go at once to the stove. They are followed by the two women--the Sheriff's Wife first; she is a slight wiry woman, a thin nervous face. Mrs. Hale is larger and would ordinarily be called more comfortable looking, but she is disturbed now and looks fearfully about as she enters. The women have come in slowly and stand close together near the door.
COUNTY ATTORNEY (rubbing his hands). This feels good. Come up to the fire, ladies.
MRS. PETERS (after taking a step forward). I'm not--cold.
SHERIFF (unbuttoning his overcoat and stepping away from the stove as if to the beginning of official business). Now, Mr. Hale, before we move things about, you explain to Mr. Henderson just what you saw when you came here yesterday morning.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. By the way, has anything been moved? Are things just as you left them yesterday?
SHERIFF (looking about). It's just the same. When it dropped below zer0 last night, I thought I'd better send Frank out this morning to make a fire for us--no use getting pneumonia with a big case on; but I told him not to touch anything except the stove--and you know Frank.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Somebody should have been left here yesterday.
SHERIFF. Oh--yesterday. When I had to send Frank to Morris Center for that man who went crazy--I want you to know I had my hands full yesterday. I knew you could get back from Omaha by today, and as long as I went over everything here myself-
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Well, Mr. Hale, tell just what happened when you came here yesterday morning.
HALE. Harry and I had started to town with a load of potatoes. We came along the road from my place; and as I got here, I said, "I'm going to see if I can't get John Wright to go in with me on a party telephone." I spoke to Wright about it once before, and he put me off, saying folks talked too much anyway, and all he asked was peace and quiet--I guess you know about how much he talked himself; but I thought maybe if I went to the house and talked about it before his wife, though I said to Harry that I didn't know as
what his wife wanted made much difference to John--
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Let's talk about that later, Mr. Hale. I do want to talk about that, but tell now just what happened when you got to the house.
HALE. I didn't hear or see anything; I knocked at the door, and still it was all quiet inside. I knew they must be up, it was past eight o'clock. so I knocked again, and I thought I heard somebody say, "Come in." I wasn't sure, I'm not sure yet, but I opened the door--this door (indicating the door by which the two women are still standing), and there in that rocker-- (pointing to it) sat Mrs. Wright. (They all look at the rocker.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY. What--was she doing?
HALE. She was rockin' back and forth. She had her apron in her hand and was kind of--pleating it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. And how did she--look?
HALE. Well, she looked queer.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. How do you mean--queer?
HALE. Well, as if she didn't know what she was going to do next. And kind of done up.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. How did she seem to feel about your coming?
HALE. Why, I don't think she minded--one way or other. She didn't pay much attention. I said, "How do, Mrs. Wright, it's cold, ain't it?" And she said, "Is it?"--and went on kind of pleating at her apron. Well, I was surprised; she didn't ask me to come up to the stove, or to set down, but just sat there, not even looking at me, so I said, "I want to see John." And then she--laughed. I guess you would call it a laugh. I thought of Harry and the team outside, so I said a little sharp:"Can't I see John?" "No," she says, kind o' dull like. "Ain't he home?" says I. "Yes," says she, "he's home." "Then why can't I see him?" I asked her, out of patience. "'Cause he's dead," says she. "Dead?" says I. She just nodded her head, not getting a bit excited, but rockin' back and forth. "Why--where is he?" says I, not knowing what to say. She just pointed upstairs--like that (himself pointing to the room above). I got up, with the idea of going up there. I talked from there to here--then I says, "Why, what did he die of?" "He died of a rope around his neck," says she, and just went on pleatin' at her apron. Well, I went out and called Harry. I thought I might--need help. We went upstairs, and there he was lying'--
COUNTY ATTORNEY. I think I'd rather have you go into that upstairs, where you can point in all out. Just go on now with the rest of the story.
HALE. Well, my first thought was to get that rope off. I looked...(Stops, his face twitches.)...but Harry, he went up to him, and he said, "No, he's dead all right, and we'd better not touch anything." So we went back downstairs. She was still sitting that same way. "Has anybody been notified?" I asked." "No," says she, unconcerned. "Who did this, Mrs. Wright?" said Harry. He said it business-like--and she stopped pleatin' of her apron. "I don't know," she says. "You don't know?" says Harry. "No," says she, "Weren't you sleepin' in the bed with him?" says Harry. "Yes," says she, "but I was on the inside." "Somebody slipped a rope round his neck and strangled him, and you didn't wake up?" says Harry. "I didn't wake up," she said after him. We must 'a looked as if we didn't see how that could be, for after a minute she said, "I sleep sound." Harry was going to ask her more questions, but I said maybe we ought to let her tell her story first to the coroner, or the sheriff, so Harry went fast as he could to Rivers' place, where there's a telephone.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. And what did Mrs. Wright do when she knew that you had gone for the coroner.
HALE. she moved from that chair to this over here... (Pointing to a small chair in the corner)...and just sat there with her hand held together and looking down. I got a feeling that I ought to make some conversation, so I said I had come in to see if John wanted to put in a telephone, and at that she started to laugh, and then she stopped and looked at me--scared.
(The County Attorney, who has had his notebook out, makes a note.) I dunno, maybe it wasn't scared. I wouldn't like to say it was. Soon Harry got back, and then Dr. Lloyd came, and you, Mr. Peters, and so I guess that's all I know that you don't.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. (looking around). I guess we'll go upstairs first--and then out to the barn and around there. (To the Sheriff). You're convinced that there was nothing important here--nothing that would point to any motive?
SHERIFF. Nothing here but kitchen things.
(The County Attorney, after again looking around the kitchen, opens the door of a cupboard closet. He gets up on a chair and looks on a shelf. Pulls his hand away, sticky.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Here's a nice mess.
(The women draw nearer.)
MRS. PETERS (to the other woman). Oh, her fruit; it did freeze. (To the Lawyer). She worried about that when it turned so cold. She said the fire'd go out and her jars would break.
SHERIFF. Well, can you beat the women! Held for murder and worryin' about her preserves.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. I guess before we're through she may have something more serious than preserves to worry about.
HALE. Well, women are used to worrying over trifles.
(The two women move a little closer together.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY (with the gallantry of a young politician). And yet, for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies? (The women do not unbend. He goes to the sink, takes dipperful of water form the pail and, pouring it into a basin, washes his hands. Starts to wipe them on the roller towel, turns it for a cleaner place.) Dirty towels! (Kicks his foot against the pans under the sink.) Not much of a housekeeper, would you say, ladies?
MRS. HALE (stiffly). There's a great deal of work to be done on a farm.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. To be sure. And yet... (With a little bow to her.) ...I know there are some Dickson county farmhouses which do not have such roller towels. (He gives it a pull to expose its full length again.)
MRS. HALE. Those towels get dirty awful quick. Men's hands aren't always as clean as they might be.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Ah, loyal to your sex, I see. But you and Mrs. Wright were neighbors. I suppose you were friends, too.
MRS. HALE (shaking her head.) I've not seen much of her of late years. I've not been in this house--it's more than a year.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. And why was that? You didn't like her?
MRS. HALE. I liked her all well enough. Farmers' wives have their hands full, Mr. Henderson. And then--
MRS. HALE (looking about.) It never seemed a very cheerful place.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. No--it's not cheerful. I shouldn't say she had the homemaking instinct.
MRS. HALE. Well, I don't know as Wright had, either.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. You mean that they didn't get on very well?
MRS. HALE. No, I don't mean anything. But I don't think a place'd be any cheerfuller for John Wright's being in it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. I'd like to talk more of that a little later. I want to get the lay of things upstairs now. (He goes to the left, where three steps lead to a stair door.)
SHERIFF. I suppose anything Mrs. Peters does'll be all right. She was to take in some clothes for her, you know, and a few little things. We left in such a hurry yesterday.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Yes, but I would like to see what you take, Mrs. Peters, and keep an eye out for anything that might be of use to us.
MRS. PETERS. Yes, Mr. Henderson.
(The women listen to the men's steps on the stairs, then look about the kitchen.)
MRS. HALE. I'd hate to have men coming into my kitchen, snooping around and criticizing. (She arranges the pans under sink which the Lawyer had shoved out of place.)
MRS. PETERS. Of course it's no more than their duty.
MRS. HALE. Duty's all right, but I guess that deputy sheriff that came out to make the fire might have got a little of this on. (Gives the roller towel a pull.) Wish I'd thought of that sooner. Seems mean to talk about her for not having things slicked up when she had to come away in such a hurry.
MRS. PETERS. (who has gone to a small table in the left rear corner of the room, and lifted on end of a towel that covers a pan). She had bread set. (Stands still.)
MRS. HALE (eyes fixed on a loaf of bread beside the breadbox, which is on a low shelf at the other side of the room. Moves slowly toward it.)she was going to put this in there. (Picks up loaf, then abruptly drops it. In a manner of returning to familiar things.) It's a shame about her fruit. I wonder if it's all gone. (Gets up on the chair and looks.) I think there's some here that's all right, Mrs. Peters. Yes--here; (Holding it toward the window.) This is cherries, too. (Looking again.) I declare I believe that's the only one. (Gets down, bottle in her hand. Goes to the sink and wipes it off on the outside.) She'll feel awful bad after all her hard work in the hot weather. I remember the afternoon I put up my cherries last summer.
(She puts the bottle on the big kitchen table, center of the room, front table. With a sigh, is about to sit down in the rocking chair. Before she is seated realizes what chair it is; with a slow look at it, steps back. The chair, which she has touched, rocks back and forth.)
MRS. PETERS. Well, I must get those things from the front room closet. [She goes to the door at the right, but after looking into the other room, steps back.] You coming with me, Mrs. Hale? You could help me carry them. (They go into the other room; reappear, Mrs. Peters carrying a dress and skirt, Mrs. Hale following with a pair of shoes.)
MRS. PETERS. My, it's cold in there. (She puts the cloth on the big table, and hurries to the stove.)
MRS HALE (examining the skirt). Wright was close. I think maybe that's why she kept so much to herself. She didn't even belong to the Ladies' Aid. I suppose she felt she couldn't do her part, and then you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that--oh, that was thirty years ago. This all you was to take?
MRS. PETERS. She said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, for there isn't much to get you dirty in jail, goodness knows. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural. She said they was in the top drawer in this cupboard. Yes, here. And then her little shawl that always hung behind the door. (Opens stair door and looks.) Yes, here it is. (Quickly shuts door leading upstairs..)
MRS. HALE (abruptly moving toward her.) Mrs. Peters?
MRS. PETERS. Do you think she did it?
MRS. PETERS (in a frightened voice.) Oh, I don't know.
MRS. HALE. Well, I don't think she did. Asking for an apron and her little shawl. Worrying about her fruit.
MRS. PETERS (starts to speak, glances up, where footsteps are heard in the room above. In a low voice.) Mrs. Peters says it looks bad for her. Mr. Henderson is awful sarcastic in speech, and he'll make fun of her sayin' she didn't wake up.
MRS. HALE. Well, I guess John Wright didn't wake when they was slipping that rope under his neck.
MRS. PETERS. No, it's strange. It must have been done awful crafty and still. They say it was such a --funny way to kill a man, rigging it all up like that.
MRS. HALE. That's just what Mr. Hale said. There was a gun in the house. He says that's what he can't understand.
MRS. PETERS. Mr. Henderson said coming out that what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger or--sudden feeling.
MRS. HALE (who is standing by the table). Well, I don't see any signs of anger around here. (she puts her hand on the dish towel which lies on the table, stands looking down at the table, one half of which is clean, the other half messy.) It's wiped here. (Makes a move as if to finish work, then turns and looks at loaf of bread outside the breadbox. Drops towel. In that voice of coming back to familiar things. ) Wonder how they are finding things upstairs? I hope she had it a little more there. You know, it seems kind of sneaking. Locking her up in town and then coming out here and trying to get her own house to turn against her!
MRS. PETERS. But, Mrs. Hale, the law is the law.
MRS. HALE. I s'pose 'tis. (Unbuttoning her coat.) Better loosen up your things, Mrs. Peters. You won't feel them when you go out. (Mrs. Peters takes off her fur tippet, goes to hang it on hook at the back of room, stands looking at the under part of the small corner table.)
MRS. PETERS. She was piecing a quilt. (She brings the large sewing basket, and they look at the bright pieces.)
MRS. HALE. It's log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn't it? I wonder if she was goin' to quilt or just knot it? (Footsteps have been heard coming down the stairs. The Sheriff enters, followed by Hale and the County Attorney.)
SHERIFF. They wonder if she was going to quilt it or just knot it. (The men laugh, the women look abashed.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY (rubbing his hands over the stove). Frank's fire didn't do much up there, did it? Well, let's go out to the barn and get that cleared up. (The men go outside.)
MRS. HALE (resentfully). I don't know as there's anything so strange, our takin' up our time with little things while we're waiting for them to get the evidence. (She sits down at the big table, smoothing out a block with decision.) I don't see as it's anything to laugh about.
MRS. PETERS. (apologetically). Of course they've got awful important things on their minds. (Pulls up a chair and joins Mrs. Hale at the table.)
MRS. HALE (examining another block.) Mrs. Peters, look at this one. Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It's all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn't know what she was about! (After she has said this, they look at each other, then start to glance back at the door. After an instant Mrs. Hale has pulled at a knot and ripped the sewing.)
MRS. PETERS. Oh, what are you doing, Mrs. Hale?
MRS. HALE (mildly). Just pulling out a stitch or two that's not sewed very good. (Threading a needle). Bad sewing always made me fidgety.
MRS. PETERS. (nervously). I don't think we ought to touch things.
MRS. HALE. I'll just finish up this end. (Suddenly stopping and leaning forward.) Mrs. Peters?
MRS. PETERS. Yes, Mrs. Hale?
MRS. HALE. What do you suppose she was so nervous about?
MRS. PETERS. Oh--I don't know. I don't know as she was nervous. I sometimes sew awful queer when I'm just tired. (Mrs. Hale starts to say something looks at Mrs. Peters, then goes on sewing.) Well, I must get these things wrapped up. They may be through sooner than we think. (Putting apron and other things together.) I wonder where I can find a piece of paper, and string.
MRS. HALE. In that cupboard, maybe.
MRS. PETER. (looking in cupboard). Why, here's a birdcage. (Holds it up.) Did she have a bird, Mrs. Hale?
MRS. HALE. Why, I don't know whether she did or not--I've not been here for so long. There was a man around last year selling canaries cheap, but I don't know as she took one; maybe she did. She used to sing real pretty herself.
MRS. PETERS. (glancing around). Seems funny to think of a bird here. But she must have had one, or why should she have a cage? I wonder what happened to it?
MRS. HALE. I s'pose maybe the cat got it.
MRS. PETERS. No, she didn't have a cat. She's got that feeling some people have about cats--being afraid of them. My cat got in her room, and she was real upset and asked me to take it out.
MRS. HALE. My sister Bessie was like that. Queer, ain't it?
MRS. PETERS. (examining the cage). Why, look at this door. It's broke. One hinge is pulled apart.
MRS. HALE. (looking, too.) Looks as if someone must have been rough with it.
MRS. PETERS. Why, yes. (she brings the cage forward and puts it on the table.)
MRS. HALE. I wish if they're going to find any evidence they'd be about it. I don't like this place.
MRS. PETERS. But I'm awful glad you came with me, Mrs. Hale. It would be lonesome of me sitting here alone.
MRS. HALE. It would, wouldn't it? (Dropping her sewing). But I tell you what I do wish, Mrs. Peters. I wish I had come over sometimes she was here. I-- (Looking around the room.)--wish I had.
MRS. PETERS. But of course you were awful busy, Mrs. Hale---your house and your children.
MRS. HALE. I could've come. I stayed away because it weren't cheerful--and that's why I ought to have come. I--I've never liked this place. Maybe because it's down in a hollow, and you don't see the road. I dunno what it is, but it's a lonesome place and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now--(Shakes her head.)
MRS. PETERS. Well, you mustn't reproach yourself, Mrs. Hale. Somehow we just don't see how it is with other folks until--something comes up.
MRS. HALE. Not having children makes less work--but it makes a quiet house, and Wright out to work all day, and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters?
MRS. PETERS. Not to know him; I've seen him in town. They say he was a good man.
MRS. HALE. Yes--good; he didn't drink, and kept his word as well as most, I guess, and paid his debts. But he was a hard man, Mrs. Peters. Just to pass the time of day with him. (Shivers.) Like a raw wind that gets to the bone. (Pauses, her eye falling on the cage.) I should think she would 'a wanted a bird. But what do you suppose went with it?
MRS. PETERS. I don't know, unless it got sick and died. (She reaches over and swings the broken door, swings it again; both women watch it.)
MRS.> HALE. She--come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself--real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and--fluttery. How--she--did--change. (Silence; then as if struck by a happy thought and relieved to get back to everyday things.) Tell you what, Mrs. Peters, why don't you take the quilt in with you? It might take up her mind.
MRS. PETERS. Why, I think that's a real nice idea, Mrs. Hale. There couldn't possible be any objection to it, could there? Now, just what would I take? I wonder if her patches are in here--and her things. (They look in the sewing basket.)
MRS. HALE. Here's some red. I expect this has got sewing things in it (Brings out a fancy box.) What a pretty box. Looks like something somebody would give you. Maybe her scissors are in here. (Opens box. Suddenly puts her hand to her nose.) Why-- (Mrs. Peters bend nearer, then turns her face away.) There's something wrapped up in this piece of silk.
MRS. PETERS. Why, this isn't her scissors.
MRS. HALE (lifting the silk.) Oh, Mrs. Peters--it's-- (Mrs. Peters bend closer.)
MRS. PETERS. It's the bird.
MRS. HALE (jumping up.) But, Mrs. Peters--look at it. Its neck! Look at its neck! It's all--other side to.
MRS. PETERS. Somebody--wrung--its neck.
(Their eyes meet. A look of growing comprehension of horror. Steps are heard outside. Mrs. Hale slips box under quilt pieces, and sinks into her chair. Enter Sheriff and County Attorney. Mrs. Peters rises.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY (as one turning from serious thing to little pleasantries). Well, ladies, have you decided whether she was going to quilt it or knot it?
MRS. PETERS. We think she was going to--knot it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. Well, that's interesting, I'm sure. (Seeing the birdcage.) Has the bird flown?
MRS. HALE (putting more quilt pieces over the box.) We think the--cat got it.
COUNTY ATTORNEY (preoccupied). Is there a cat?
(Mrs. Hale glances in a quick covert way at Mrs. Peters.)
MRS. PETERS. Well, not now. They're superstitious, you know. They leave.
COUNTY ATTORNEY (to Sheriff Peters, continuing an interrupted conversation.) No sign at all of anyone having come from the outside. Their own rope. Now let's go up again and go over it piece by piece. (They start upstairs.) It would have to have been someone who knew just the—
(Mrs. Peters sits down. The two women sit there not looking at one another, but as if peering into something and at the same time holding back. When they talk now, it is the manner of feeling their way over strange ground, as if afraid of what they are saying, but as if they cannot help saying it.) MRS. HALE. She liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box.
MRS. PETERS. (in a whisper). When I was a girl--my kitten--there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes--and before I could get there--(Covers her face an instant.) If they hadn't held me back, I would have-- (Catches herself, looks upstairs, where steps are heard, falters weakly.)--hurt him.
MRS. HALE (with a slow look around her.) I wonder how it would seem never to have had any children around. (Pause.) No, Wright wouldn't like the bird--a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.
MRS. PETERS (moving uneasily). We don't know who killed the bird.
MRS. HALE. I knew John Wright.
MRS. PETERS. It was an awful thing was done in this house that night, Mrs. Hale. Killing a man while he slept, slipping a rope around his neck that choked the life out of him.
MRS. HALE. His neck, Choked the life out of him.
(Her hand goes out and rests on the birdcage.) MRS. PETERS (with a rising voice). We don't know who killed him. We don't know.
MRS. HALE (her own feeling not interrupted.) If there'd been years and years of nothing, then a bird to sing to you, it would be awful--still, after the bird was still.
MRS. PETERS (something within her speaking). I know what stillness is. When we homesteaded in Dakota, and my first baby died--after he was two years old, and me with no other then--
MRS. HALE (moving). How soon do you suppose they'll be through, looking for evidence?
MRS. PETERS. I know what stillness is. (Pulling herself back). The law has got to punish crime, Mrs. Hale.
MRS. HALE (not as if answering that). I wish you'd seen MInnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang. (A look around the room). Oh, I wish I'd come over here once in a while! That was a crime! That was a crime! Who's going to punish that?
MRS. Peters (looking upstairs). We mustn't--take on.
MRS. HALE. I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be--for women. I tell you, it's queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things--it's all just a different kind of the same thing. (Brushes her eyes, noticing the bottle of fruit, reaches out for it.) If I was you, I wouldn't tell her her fruit was gone. Tell her it ain't. Tell her it's all right. Take this in to prove it to her. She--she may never know whether it was broke or not.
MRS. PETERS (takes the bottle, looks about for something to wrap it in; takes petticoat from the clothes brought from the other room, very nervously begins winding this around the bottle. In a false voice). My, it's a good thing the men couldn't hear us. Wouldn't they just laugh! Getting all stirred up over a little thing like a--dead canary. As if that could have anything to do with--with--wouldn't they laugh!
(The men are heard coming downstairs.) MRS. HALE (under her breath). Maybe they would--maybe they wouldn't.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. No, Peters, it's all perfectly clear except a reason for doing it. But you know juries when it comes to women. If there was some definite thing. Something to show--something to make a story about--a thing that would connect up with this strange way of doing it.
(The women's eyes meet for an instant. Enter Hale from outer door.)
HALE. Well, I've got the team around. Pretty cold out there.
COUNTY ATTORNEY. I'm going to stay here awhile by myself (To the Sheriff). You can send Frank out for me, can't you? I want to go over everything. I'm not satisfied that we can't do better.
SHERIFF. Do you want to see what Mrs. Peters is going to take in?
(The Lawyer goes to the table, picks up the apron, laughs.) COUNTY ATTORNEY. Oh I guess they're not very dangerous things the ladies have picked up. (Moves a few things about, disturbing the quilt pieces which cover the box. Steps back.) No, Mrs. Peters doesn't need supervising. For that matter, a sheriff's wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?
MRS. PETERS. Not--just that way.
SHERIFF (chuckling). Married to the law. (Moves toward the other room.) I just want you to come in here a minute, George. We ought to take a look at these windows.
COUNTY ATTORNEY (scoffingly). Oh, windows!
SHERIFF. We'll be right out, Mr. Hale.
(Hale goes outside. The Sheriff follows the County Attorney into the other room. Then Mrs. Hale rises, hands tight together, looking intensely at Mrs. Peters, whose eyes take a slow turn, finally meeting Mrs. Hale's. A moment Mrs. Hale holds her, then her own eyes point the way to where the box is concealed. Suddenly Mrs. Peters throws back quilt pieces and tries to put the box in the bag she is wearing. It is too big. She opens box, starts to take the bird out, cannot touch it, goes to pieces, stands there helpless. Sound of a knob turning in the other room. Mrs. Hale snatches the box and puts it in the pocket of her big coat. Enter County Attorney and Sheriff.)
COUNTY ATTORNEY (facetiously). Well, Henry, at least we found out that she was not going to quilt it. She was going to--what is it you call it, ladies! MRS. HALE (her hand against her pocket). We call it--knot it, Mr. Henderson.

The Blank Page by Isak Dinesen

The Blank Page
Isak Dinesen

By the ancient city gate sat an old coffee-brown, black-veiled woman who made her living by telling stories.
She said:
"You want a tale, sweet lady and gentleman? Indeed I have told many tales, one more than a thousand, since that time when I first let young men tell me, myself, tales of a red rose, two smooth lily buds, and four silky, supple, deadly entwining snakes. It was my mother's mother, the black-eyed dancer, the often-embraced, who in the end -- wrinkled like a winter apple and crouching beneath the mercy of the veil -- took upon herself to teach me the art of story-telling. Her own mother's mother had taught it to her, and both were better storytellers than I am. But that, by now, is of no consequence, since to the people they and I have become one, and I am most highly honoured because I have told stories for two hundred years."
Now if she is well paid and in good spirits, she will go on.
"With my grandmother," she said, "I went through a hard school. 'Be loyal to the story,' the old hag would say to me. 'Be eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story.' 'Why must I be that, Grandmother?' I asked her. 'Am I to furnish you with reasons, baggage?' she cried. 'And you mean to be a story-teller! Why, you are to become a story-teller, and I shall give you my reasons! Hear then: Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence. Whether a small snotty lass understands it or not.'
"Who then," she continues, "tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all -- where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page."
The old beldame for a while says nothing, only giggles a little and munches with her toothless mouth.
"We," she says at last, "the old women who tell stories, we know the story of the blank page. But we are somewhat averse to telling it, for it might well, among the uninitiated, weaken our own credit. All the same, I am going to make an exception with you, my sweet and pretty lady and gentleman of the generous hearts. I shall tell it to you."
High up in the blue mountains of Portugal there stands an old convent for sisters of the Carmelite order, which is an illustrious and austere order. In ancient times the convent was rich, the sisters were all noble ladies, and miracles took place there. But during the centuries highborn ladies grew less keen on fasting and prayer, the great dowries flowed into the treasury of the convent, and today the few portionless and humble sisters live in but one wing of the vast crumbling structure, which looks as if it longed to become one with the gray rock itself. Yet they are still a blithe and active sisterhood. They take much pleasure in their holy meditations, and will busy themselves joyfully with that one particular task which did once, long, long ago, obtain for the convent a unique and strange privilege: they grow the finest flax and manufacture the most exquisite linen of Portugal.
The long field below the convent is plowed with gentle-eyed, milk-white bullocks, and the seed is skillfully sown out by labour-hardened virginal hands with mold under the nails. At the time when the flax field flowers, the whole valley becomes air-blue, the very colour of the apron which the blessed virgin put on to go out and collect eggs within St. Anne's poultry yard, the moment before the Archangel Gabriel in mighty wing-strokes lowered himself onto the threshold of the house, and while high, high up a dove, neck-feathers raised and wings vibrating, stood like a small clear silver star in the sky. During this month the villagers many miles round raise their eyes to the flax field and ask one another: "Has the convent been lifted into heaven? Or have our good little sisters succeeded in pulling down heaven to them?"
Later in due course the flax is pulled, scutched and hackled; thereafter the delicate thread is spun, and the linen woven, and at the very end the fabric is laid out on the grass to bleach, and is watered time after time, until one may believe that snow has fallen round the convent walls. All this work is gone through with precision and piety and with such sprinklings and litanies as are the secret of the convent. For these reasons the linen, baled high on the backs of small gray donkeys and sent out through the convent gate, downwards and ever downwards to the towns, is as flower-white, smooth and dainty as was my own little foot when fourteen years old, I had washed it in the brook to go to a dance in the village.
Diligence, dear Master and Mistress, is a good thing, and religion is a good thing, but the very first germ of a story will come from some mystical place outside the story itself. Thus does the linen of the Convento Velho draw its true virtue from the fact that the very first linseed was brought home from the Holy Land itself by a crusader.
In the Bible, people who can read may learn about the lands of Lecha and Maresha, where flax is grown. I myself cannot read, and have never seen this book of which so much is spoken. But my grandmother's grandmother as a little girl was the pet of an old Jewish rabbi and the learning she received from him has been kept and passed on in our family. So you will read, in the book of Joshua, of how Achsah the daughter of Caleb lighted from her ass and cried unto her father: "Give me a blessing! For thou hast now given me land; give me also the blessing of springs of water!" And he gave her the upper springs and the nether springs. And in the fields of Lecha and Maresha lived, later on, the families of them that wrought the finest linen of all. Our Portuguese crusader, whose own ancestors had once been great linen weavers of Tomar, as he rode through these same fields was struck by the quality of the flax and so tied a bag of seeds to the pommel of his saddle.
From this circumstance originated the first privilege of the convent, which was to procure bridal sheets for all the young princesses of the royal house.
I will inform you, dear lady and gentleman, that in the country of Portugal in very old and noble families a venerable custom has been observed. On the morning after the wedding of a daughter of the house, and before the morning had yet been handed over, the Chamberlain or High Steward from a balcony of the palace would hang out the sheet of the night and would solemnly proclaim: Virginem eam tenemus -- "we declare her to have been a virgin." Such a sheet was never afterwards washed or again lain on.
This time-honoured custom was nowhere more strictly upheld than within the royal house itself, and it has there subsisted till within living memory.
Now for many hundred years the convent in the mountains, in appreciation of the excellent quality of the linen delivered, has held its second high privilege: that of receiving back that central piece of the snow-white sheet which bore witness to the honour of a royal bride.
In the tall main wing of the convent, which overlooks an immense landscape of hills and valleys, there is a long gallery with a black-and-white marble floor. On the walls of the gallery, side by side, hangs a long row of heavy, gilt frames, each of them adorned with a coroneted plate of pure gold, on which is engraved the name of a princess: Donna Christina, Donna Ines, Donna Jacintha Lenora, Donna Maria. And each of these frames encloses a square cut from a royal wedding sheet.
Within the faded markings of the canvases people of some imagination and sensibility may read all the signs of the zodiac: the Scales, the Scorpion, the Lion, the Twins. Or they may there find pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword -- or even a heart pierced through with a sword.
In days of old it would occur that a long, stately, richly coloured procession wound its way through the stone-gray mountain scenery, upwards to the convent. Princesses of Portugal, who were now queens or queen dowagers of foreign countries, Archduchesses, or Electresses, with their splendid retinue, proceeded here on a pilgrimage which was by nature. both sacred and secretly gay. From the flax field upwards the road rises steeply; the royal lady would have to descend from her coach to be carried this last bit of the way in a palanquin presented to the convent for the very same purpose.
Later on, up to our own day, it has come to pass -- as it to pass when a sheet of paper is being burnt, that after all other sparks have run along the edge and died away, one last clear little spark will appear and hurry along after them -- that a very old highborn spinster undertakes the journey to Convento Velho. She has once, a long long time ago, been playmate, friend and maid-of-honour to a young princess of Portugal. As she makes her way to the convent she looks round to see the view widen to all sides. Within the building a sister conducts her to the gallery and to the plate bearing the name of the princess she has once served, and there takes leave of her, aware of her wish to be alone.
Slowly, slowly a row of recollections passes through the small, venerable, skull-like head under its mantilla of black lace, and it nods to them in amicable recognition. The loyal friend and confidante looks back upon the young bride's elevated married life with the elected royal consort. She takes stock of happy events and disappointments -- coronations and jubilees, court intrigues and wars, the birth of heirs to the throne, the alliances of younger generations of princes and princesses, the rise or decline of dynasties. The old lady will remember how once, from the markings on the canvas, omens were drawn; now she will be able to compare the fulfillment to the omen, sighing a little and smiling a little. Each separate canvas with its coroneted name-plate has a story to tell, and each has been set up in loyalty to the story. But in the midst of the long row there hangs a canvas which differs from the others. The frame of it is as fine and as heavy as any, and as proudly as any carries the golden plate with the royal crown. But on this one plate no name is inscribed, and the linen within the frame is snow-white from corner to corner, a blank page.