Hello, my (I hope) loyal readers! Though I have been away from posting for about two weeks now, and have nothing literary to contribute today, I nevertheless have something to say. I was at my brother’s in Vermont for an extended period of time over the Thanksgiving break because we were working as a family unit to plant garlic and build a greenhouse and cook meals and watch a young misbehaving (sweetheart) of a dog, and enjoy youthful games with a ten-year-old family member, and other chores and duties. We were looking down the road to a happy if more economical Christmas holiday break again three weeks from now in Vermont, when we got home today to a nasty surprise: sometime during our absence, someone had super-glued our condo door, and we couldn’t get in. We had several days’ groceries with us including frozen foods, which we had picked up on the way back home from our trip, and two large carriers full of luggage and vacation bedding, and we were outside our condo in the hall for nearly two hours while we waited for the locksmith to come.
We found what people’s tried and true selves were as we confronted our dilemma, but not everyone is playing with a clean hand (and some not with a full deck, apparently). The probable cause of our situation? There has been for several years now an intimidation factor going on in our condo building, and other people have had packages from the postal service stolen, items on cars damaged, things wrecked, mailbox and now (with us the evident first) condo doors damaged with superglue, among other acts of vandalism. There have been additional sorts of outrage going on which are harder to pinpoint, and no exact culprit or culprits has been located, because even though the building has several times discussed getting security cameras in the common areas, nothing yet has been done. This time, because our door was damaged from the hallway (which is a common area) the condo board was gracious enough to take the charge of payment for us.
The root source of all this, in an apparently middle-income to upscale building (depending on how high up you live)? It’s hard to pinpoint too, except that for several years now there have been two factions in rivalry for the unpaid positions of being on the Board of Trustees, and the additional hired jobs that are decided by the board. The pot is on the boil, and things have gotten steadily worse. How did we get involved? My roommate, who is my mother, a conscientious, highly intelligent, and tactful person with many friends, merely stood up in a meeting and said that we should all try to get along better the way we used to do, and that it would have been odd if the newest elected board members were the ones doing the vandalizing (or any of their contingent friends, or allies), because why would they? They had gained power by a legitimate election. She wasn’t taking sides, she was just using her noggin and voicing an opinion. This was all she said, and someone bided their time and waited until we went out of town and vandalized our door. Now, it’s useless to point fingers. In even the best communities, there are people who do damaging things because they are just wacko or wired differently from other people, and each person who has heard about it (with the exception of the one or ones who know they did it themselves) has a slightly different take on who’s guilty. The police came to take a report and were able to verify that many other incidents had happened in our building in the last few years, and that it wasn’t entirely unusual to find such situations even in otherwise ”nice” buildings. We are finding sympathy everywhere, and empathy among some who’ve had the same thing happen to them. And this situation is why–despite my mother’s strong and ebullient recovery from the negative surprise–I call this the Scroogiest season. This is the atmosphere not of fairness and equity which is supposed to obtain in a community like this one, but an atmosphere of special patronage and thuggery. We don’t live expensively, and had the Board of Trustees not guaranteed my mother repayment of the damage repair costs, it would have been a hardship which hadn’t been figured into the monthly amounts.
Here’s hoping the Christmas season brings the notion of concord and graciousness back to people’s minds, when true friends can be true friends, and enemies can bury the hatchet somewhere other than in each other, and we can all re-learn joy and peace, not just for a short time or a cold winter season when people are lethargic anyway, but for a permanent part of our lives and living arrangements. And here’s hoping you yourselves are enjoying or are preparing for a lovely holiday of whichever one is yours this year: may it be a comforting and enlightened one!
In honor of the fall and of the upcoming American Thanksgiving season, this post is dedicated to all gentle melancholiacs who at the same time feel affinities with the fall weather and the approaching change of season. Those of you Canadian readers who have already celebrated the earlier (October) Canadian Thanksgiving can still perhaps relate to this post and its subject, due to the fact that parts of Canada at least are still having relatively warm weather for this time of year, which means that they are no colder than a lot of areas in the Northern U. S.
This post centers on one of my favorite poems of all time, which tantalized and captivated me from the first time I heard it, feeling as I did so much in sync with its notions and ideas. The main thing I want to stress about it, in fact, is that its obvious complexity, which centers around Gerard Manley Hopkins’s innovative style of what has come to be called “sprung rhythm,” hides an absolute clarity of line and simplicity of emotional statement often overlooked when the poem is discussed. The poem is “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child,” and as it appears on at least one internet site already in its complete version (www.readbookonline.net), I can freely reproduce it here without copyright violation, though I intend to give also Hopkins’s original stresses on the words, which indicate his notion of sprung rhythm for the poem. Here goes:
Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
“Márgarét, are you gríeving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/Leáves, like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?/Áh! ás the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder/By and by, nor spare a sigh/Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;/And yet you will weep and know why./Now no matter, child, the name:/Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same./Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed/What heart heard of, ghost guessed:/It ís the blight man was born for,/It is Margaret you mourn for.”
My basic idea about this poem is that everyone, regardless of academic background or love or disinclination to whatever degree for poetry, innately and instinctively can understand this poem, because it is so very simple. One can make false difficulties by concentrating or focusing on the accent marks, but the melancholy emotion discussed in the poem and its source, and the dramatic lyric voice of the adult looking on at the child and in the poem speaking to her and beyond the situation as well are simple: we grieve for our mortality, as we see evidence of it in the seasons of change, which are especially spring and fall (with here an emphasis on fall). Summer and winter, by contrast, are seasons of stability, but we always feel our own changes more in spring and fall, as we see the evolutions around us in nature.
But for the benefit of those who may doubt or still have questions, let’s take it line by line. Margaret, the young child, is addressed by an indulgent but realistically inclined adult, who asks if she is sad at the change from summer to fall. Leaves, he tells her, are like the passing moments and possessions and years of man, and because her thoughts are “fresh,” and therefore not accustomed by many years’ accumulation to the rotation of seasons, she can still be made melancholy in a child’s simple, somewhat clueless, and inarticulate way. He speaks perhaps more to himself than to Margaret when he tells her that over the course of time, her “heart” will “come to such sights colder by and by,” and here perhaps the only ambiguity–and a creative one at that–creeps in: not only does the word “colder” indicate that her heart will be “colder,” or less moved to grieve over such a simple thing, but also the sights themselves will be “colder,” or more momentous in human terms. He indicates that her grieving then will be over things she can assign motives to, no longer the ones like falling and dead leaves, which make her sad without her knowing really why. All sorrows, he hints, are really from the same well of emotion, regardless of their surface causes. She has not been able to “mouthe” the feelings, nor to analyze them, he further notes for her benefit, but her “heart” has heard its far away death knell, and her “ghost,” or spirit, has guessed what is to come in the distant future. He tells her finally that “it” (meaning not only mortality, but grieving over it and what cannot be changed, and centering oneself in nature on the presumption that man is the center of the universe in a humanistically prejudiced sort of way) is “the blight man was born for,” and then ends the poem by saying that she mourns in reality for herself, and not simply for the fallen leaves. One could wonder at this juncture if again he really is not talking to himself more than to the child, whose understanding of these issues he raises is likely to be limited, but we have the poem we have, and it is not a dramatic duologue, but a dramatic lyric with an unknown adult speaker, so we are in the dark as to Margaret’s reaction.
There are also those who find difficulties in Hopkins’s neologisms, his newly coined words, but it is quite simple if we take them just as they seem to mean: it is the neat compression of feeling and thought which produces them, and they are so obvious as to be even commonsensical, were they not also highly poetic. “Goldengrove” is a grove of colored leaves, either in spring or fall. “Wanwood” and “leafmeal” refer to the falling and dying leaves and dead trees, or denuded trees, left bare by whatever means or conditions. These compressions are especially clever because they convey the word pictures of what the two people are seeing or have recently seen, and call up associations for the reader in an especially innovative way.
The submerged subjects here–and every poem has submerged subjects, be they ever so simple–are projection and empathy. We are led to believe that Margaret, the child in question, empathizes with nature and feels “low” because she sees the decline of the fall season around her (and “sorrow’s springs” is of course a pun on the season of “spring,” which indicates that as long as Margaret lives, there will be a renewal in the spring, which, however, will be sad in its own way because there is always decline to come). But with a certain amount of cynicism, the speaking adult says that it is not so much empathy as projection, that is, projection of her own feelings about being human onto the weather and nature, which in poetry circles is known as “the pathetic fallacy.”
Finally, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “gift” of “being simple” and “free” in his self-expression is a gift to us his readers as well, because the shortness of the poem makes for easy memorization and recitation, two activities which used to be a large part of our literary culture, and which still should be. People used to get together and recite poems as eagerly as they read stories to each other aloud, and told tales, and sang old ballads. Therefore, this poem is my candidate for such endeavors, which should be started young, as young as one might guess the fictive “Margaret” is: acquaintance with words poetic which one can recite under one’s breath to oneself sometimes in affection for the lines and enjoy again and again by this method is a gift which children never outgrow. The funny thing is, in my childhood–which was some time ago–if one saw an adult person mouthing something to himself or herself aloud and no one else was close by, there was an even chance that it was a poem, not just a grocery list or a grumbling about something negative which had happened, or mental illness manifesting itself. Now, it usually means that the person has a smart phone ear bud in and is conversing with someone else by that means! Whatever your case, if you have an ear bud in and are talking to your best chum, why not take the opportunity to recite a short poem of your choice to them, even just a limerick: words are so much a part of what it is to be human, that we should never forget how much of a gift they are from other people, and how wonderful it is to share the best and most glowing, witty, and beautiful of them with another person!
Just yesterday, I was musing nostalgically over all the things I “learned” when I was an undergraduate, including the many authors I came to be acquainted with in my Comparative Literature courses, authors whose works covered many different areas of world literature. True, the acquaintance didn’t run very deep and was instead broad; still, it was an instructive “placement” issue in relation to stories, novels, and tales all around the world and my place-to-be in relation to them. One of my favorite authors was Pushkin, and the book of his we read from front to back was a Norton publication called The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, translated by Gillon R. Aitken. I checked and verified that it is indeed still in print, though of course the cover or “face” is different. The book is available from Amazon.com (just in case any of you are looking to make Pushkin’s acquaintance in translation). Accordingly, here is an excerpt from the Introduction, and a short précis of one of my favorite (though quizzical) Pushkin tales:
“Pushkin holds the supreme position in Russian literature. It was his genius, in his prose as well as in his verse, which created, in the fullest sense, a national literature, and which laid the foundations upon which that national literature could subsequently be built. Until his emergence, writing in Russia, with the exception of a handful of works, had been mainly imitative, pursuing pseudo-classical principles, and reflecting closely the trends of various Western European cultures–French, in particular. The lyrical simplicity and the absolute precision of Pushkin’s poetry, the natural, straightforward grace of his prose perfectly expressed the Russian mood; and, in that expression, Pushkin gave to Russia for the first time in her history a literature whose inspiration came from herself, and which succeeded in setting the tone for successive generations of Russian writers. But, of course, his achievements were more than national: his universality of vision, his ablity [sic] to transmute what he saw and what he understood into language of the utmost purity and point have created for him a permanent place in the literature of the world.”
To sketch a brief biography of Pushkin, he was born in 1799, to a boyar-descended father and a mother whose descent was from an Abyssinian prince, and whose ancestry is reflected in one of Pushkin’s unfinished novels entitled The Moor of Peter the Great. Pushkin’s father and uncle were both inclined to literary pursuits, but this had a less direct influence on him than the tales of Russian folklore told by his nurse, Anna Rodionovna. His reading and writing both started early, and were at first in French. When he was twelve, Pushkin was sent away to school, where he started to compose poetry for perhaps the first time. By 1814, he was already in print, and by the time he left school in 1817, he was already seen as a new young literary spirit. He released his first important long poem, Ruslan and Ludmilla, in 1820, which “established his reputation beyond question.” Pushkin’s life wasn’t without its travails and hardships–he was exiled to a minor officialship in Southern Russia by Tsar Alexander I because of his role as a liberal. Still, he was able to make good use of this time as a literary force, and blossomed in his literary work. It was during this time that he first read Byron, who made a strong impression on him. It was between 1820 and 1826 that he wrote a number of long poems, lyrics, ballads, plays, and a novel. Two of the things he wrote, a play called Boris Godunov and “the masterpiece for which he is best known,” Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, have both since been made into powerful and resonant operas of which there are Russian film versions available. In 1829, Pushkin got engaged to Natalya Goncharova, and this had a gradual influence on the tenor of his work: before, he had been a passionate liberal spirit; after his marriage in 1831, he became more of a serious conformist, and incidentally also more of a prose writer. “In 1836, Pushkin received an anonymous letter suggesting that his wife was having a love affair with a Baron d’Anthès. He was persuaded to withdraw his challenge to [the baron] to a pistol duel. Fresh insinuations made a duel inevitable, however. It took place on January 27th, 1837…[and the baron was only a bit injured].” Pushkin, however, received his death shot, and died at the relatively young age of thirty-seven. The odd and interesting thing is that the story I am going to comment upon today, “The Shot,” a story of a strange duel, rather non-duel or quasi-duel, was written in the years before Pushkin himself ever had a reason to fight, and was published in 1831.
At the beginning of the story “The Shot,” we become acquainted with the perspective of a young army officer stationed in a small town, whose social opportunities are small and restricted largely to his fellow soldiers and a mysterious former soldier named Silvio, who also lives in the small town. Much of the story is devoted to establishing Silvio’s eccentricities and quirks, such as his seeming to avoid any serious cause for quarrel with anyone. The young officer from whose perspective the story is narrated has what would appear to be a typical young fire-eater’s view of things, which is that however small the slight to one’s honor, it must be avenged. He relates how, after a possibly drunken lieutenant insults Silvio over a game of cards, Silvio, instead of challenging him to a duel as would be his right, “contented himself with a very slight apology and made peace with the lieutenant.”
This lukewarm attention to honor affects the narrator’s respect for Silvio, the older man who up until now has obviously been his hero. It also for a while lessens his following among the other young men, although this doesn’t last. But for the narrator, it is a serious matter. He becomes cold toward Silvio, which fact the older man notes, and after a few attempts to befriend him again, gives up what had been their private talks together. This continues until one day a message arrives for Silvio, and he calls all the young men together to announce that he must depart, and wants them all to attend him for one final dinner. After the party is over, he asks the young narrator to remain behind; apparently, he has a tale to tell, and it is a strange and provocative one.
It seems that when Silvio himself was a young soldier, he was brilliant and rakish and all hellfire and was followed and admired eagerly by all others in his unit until suddenly a young man still more brilliant in his prospects and qualities entered the regiment. The two could have been friends, and indeed the new recruit tried to make friends with Silvio, but Silvio resisted, eaten up with envy of the other’s qualities. Matters accelerated until Silvio insulted the opponent, who by the traditions of the time challenged him to a duel. When they fought, the opponent drew the winning lot for first shot, and placed a shot squarely through Silvio’s cap. Silvio, however, determined to have a thorough revenge, said that he would reserve his shot until another time, and refused to draw on the young aristocrat. As Silvio tells the young officer in the story’s present tense scenario, he has to go now because the time has come when he can properly get even with his enemy: as he says, “We will see whether he regards death with the same indifference on the eve of his wedding….”
There is a passage of some time, and the young officer finds himself in another small town again. It is a tiny and boring village, and has nothing to recommend itself in the way of social activity. For a while, the soldier’s housekeeper tells him tales, for a while he reads all the books he can lay his hands on, and he is quite frustrated and is afraid of becoming an alcoholic because there is so little else to do other than to drink. Then, however, he hears that a short distance away from him, there is a rich estate of a Count and Countess, and that they are coming to visit it in the summer. He determines to make their acquaintance as a humble visitor, and in fact does so. The conversation passes to how good each is with a pistol because of a couple of shots that the young visitor sees and asks about which have penetrated a landscape of Switzerland hanging on the wall. As they compare notes on the best marksmen they have known, it turns out that Silvio, the hero of the young officer in the recent past, is known to the Count. In fact, the Count is the same young aristocrat whom Silvio reserved his duel shot against years before.
Now it is the Count’s turn to tell a tale. He relates how Silvio, soon after the Count’s marriage, turned up during the honeymoon to take his long-delayed revenge. Silvio, however, had distaste for the thought of firing on an unarmed man, and so invited the Count to fire first, and when they drew lots, this is how it in fact turned out. The Count hit a landscape picture on the wall. Silvio took aim, but just at that point, the Countess rushed in, shrieking and throwing herself on the Count. He told her they were joking to calm her, but Silvio responded, “‘He is always joking, Countess….[H]e once struck me in the face for a joke, he shot through my cap for a joke, and just now he missed his aim for a joke; now it’s my turn to feel in the mood for a joke….’” He takes aim again, and the Count in frustration challenges him to fire and to quit making fun “of an unfortunate woman.” Silvio, however, says that he has had his revenge in seeing their “alarm” and “confusion,” and says further: “I forced you to shoot at me, and that is enough. You will remember me. I commit you to your conscience.” On his way out, hardly even looking, he puts a second shot through the landscape picture. The original narrator, the young officer who has just heard the Count’s story, understands that now he has finally heard the last of Silvio, and the tail-end of his story. The story ends thus: “I never met its hero again. It is said that Silvio commanded a detachment of Hetairists at the time of the revolt of Alexander Ypsilanti, and was killed at the battle of Skulyani.”
A few points about this story: first of all, the “shot” is in fact fired, because not only is Silvio’s revenge complete, but the landscape, a symbol of peace, tranquility, wealth, and privilege, is what he breaks into by deloping and firing at it. Also, the “shot” is fired because he has attained his revenge at the end. Another note on the story: it is a complex and satisfying story to read, but except for Pushkin’s clarity and smoothness of relation could be a bit confusing because of the complicated story-within-a-story structure which occurs first when the young narrator tells of Silvio, relates the first part of the interior story from Silvio’s point of view, goes back to telling of himself and his own presence in a second small village, and then ends by giving the rest of the interior story (this time from the Count’s point of view) and reveals at the very last what happened to Silvio. Making one final complication, the tale “The Shot,” along with four other tales, is published under the overall title “The Tales of the late Ivan Petrovitch Belkin,” an alter ego for Pushkin, and he even inserts an Editor’s preface to them which contains a short “biography” of Belkin supposedly written by a neighbor. The lives of the real author, Pushkin, and the alter ego, Belkin, are mainly alike only in one respect: both of them have heard many tales from a housekeeper. Thus, Pushkin was giving credit of a sort to one of his own sources.
This tale is one of the shorter stories in the volume, but even so it packs quite a punch literarily speaking; it is my hope that if you have not yet had the chance to make the acquaintance of this particular Russian literary master, that you will be intrigued enough to take the opportunity to read him. To make a bad pun with a Pushkin title, his works don’t “Boris” and are certainly “Godunov”!
Recently, I’ve had an opportunity to devote some intense thought to the saying in the title of my post, i.e., “The greatest pleasure is relief from pain.” And while I know that there are many great pleasures in life, some so fine and worth pursuing and enjoying that it’s hard to imagine what could be greater, yet when one is in deep pain from emotional causes or from physical injury, the devout prayers one sends up to whatever being or force one happens to believe in, or the simple secular longing for equilibrium and away from the extremes of pain are so strong that I begin to agree with the anonymous author of my quote.
Now, first of all I must say that no one else is responsible for my quandary vis-à-vis pain. About a month ago, I over-stretched a muscle or tendon in my left hip, and instead of putting ice and then heat on it in the recommended fashion, decided (or rather simply neglected decision-making altogether) in favor of waiting it out. It was only a minor mishap, and it would heal, as all my previous mishaps had before. Only then one night in an equally stupid fit of hubris, I leaned out sideways and down from my new high bed to pick up something I had dropped, and raised myself back up by the inflamed muscle without other support. My hip had never given me any trouble much before, or when it had–and I had to admit to myself that occasionally I’d felt a twinge when sitting too long in my easy chair–the twinge had always disappeared again.
Loyal to me and my purposes, the hip only fussed a little at me in the next two weeks, but I just ignored it and assumed that it would stop after a while, if only I stayed active. But then came the real test: I went on vacation and exerted myself and slept with a heating pad on my back in intervals all night long–and contrary to what I had supposed, and what seemed at first to be working, I should’ve been using ice–until one fine night, after gradually getting worse and worse, the hip and my lower back and waist all combined to overthrow my dominion over pain: I was actually crying aloud with pain from every movement, however gentle, and could not get up out of bed without it taking me at least ten minutes to do so. I kid you not. I sat up for hours at night on the most comfortable couch it’s been my good fortune to meet, with the heating pad still on my back, and yet I had aggravated my anatomy to such an extent that every movement still brought pain. When my host (my brother) arose the next morning, he asked me “Are you ready for those pain-killers yet?” He had offered me a strong dose of over-the-counter meds the night before, but I had been too afraid of taking so many pills: but by the next morning, my whole body was crying out, “F— that, I want those pills!”
It was time to come back home anyway, so I dosed myself up with as much pain medication as was available and I was able to travel for the requisite 3 hours in the car to get to an emergency room near home. Not that it was pain free: every jolt and bump and sudden stop on the road was another agony, but luckily I was doped up enough with the pain meds that I didn’t scream out with pain and distract the driver or cause an accident. Then came the next part of the ordeal: the examination to make sure that it wasn’t actually my liver or my spleen or my kidneys or my gall bladder or etc.–I knew what it was, but doctors like to hedge their bets (and mine), so I put up with it. They ended by giving me some stronger prescription muscle relaxant and pain meds, and discharged me.
This story has several morals, the most significant one of which is that as we get older we can no longer assume that our anatomies are going to keep tolerating various abuses as they did when we were younger. Another is that when you’re in pain, ignore the “stiff upper lip” routine and admit you’re not a superheroine and do something about it. Finally, when someone offers you relief from pain, unless they are a known felon and pusher (which my brother with his pain pills was not), seriously consider taking the pills the first time they’re offered. And remember: every time your vacation to Jamaica is cancelled, or you have to pass up the champagne with dinner because you have a headache, or you don’t get to go to the amusement park as you’d planned, there’s always one pleasure greater than all those things rolled into one that you may someday experience, though at some cost–”The greatest pleasure is relief from pain.” You can quote me on that!
For my third Halloween post this year, I decided to eschew the werewolf-vampire-zombie-Frankenstein’s monster tack, and take up the merely eerie things that sometimes happen just when human beings think they have everything under control. My choice of story topic is Jack Lindsay’s “Judgement in the Underworld,” which takes place in the Valley of the Tombs in Thebes.
In the middle of a hot day in the East, two erstwhile friends, Iseri and Paibes, hunters in other times, are making their way steathily towards the Tombs, with something other than wildlife and bows and arrows on their minds. These two hunters are instead planning to plunder Sety’s tomb of its gold, and make themselves wealthy and powerful with the proceeds. Iseri has a secret, however. “He loathed Paibes more than anyone else in the world. Always he had been overtopped by him, beaten as a hunter, a runner, an archer, a drinker, and now, last and worst, as a lover.” It’s easy to see why Iseri at least resents Paibes, reading the dialogue between the two; Paibes is always putting Iseri down and gibing at him, making fun of him for his mistakes, and mocking his faults and hesitations. He’s a bit of a psychological bully, and very prideful about his own superior traits. “They had been good friends once, till Paibes had shown the full of his overbearing temper, taking arrogant possession of the younger man who admired him so frankly.” Lately, Paibes has even been courting Iseri’s understood betrothed, Zenra, and Iseri realizes that if Paibes proposes, Zenra’s father will accept on her behalf, regardless of the fact that Iseri and Zenra have a firm arrangement between the two of them. Little does Paibes realize what awaits him in the tomb, however: Iseri plans to kill him once the gold is found, and thus he himself can make his way back out both rich and favored by Zenra’s father as a suitor, while Paibes rots in the bowels of the earth, forgotten.
Because they have been making their way through the heat of the day to the tomb, the sun is slowly lowering toward the hills as they reach their destination, and they exchange the extreme heat of the valley for the breathless air of the interior of the tomb, Iseri with murder and the right moment for it on his mind. All the way through, as Iseri experiences first a chill in the heat and then shudders, knowing what he himself is thinking, Paibes mocks at him, thinking that he is afraid. The air grows heavier and staler as they descend into the earth. “Iseri clenched his hand to stop it from creeping to his dagger….Inside the tomb things would feel differently. Along in the sweaty darkness he, Iseri, would feel power nerving his arm; he would strike. Therefore he could bear with Paibes’s sneers for the moment.”
Just as the sun sets, the two hunters find the tomb entrance. They clear away a boulder and some rubble, and enter the tomb, Paibes leading the way impatiently, Iseri behind him, waiting for his moment. He wants the gold for the dowry for his marriage to Zenra, and so wants to find the inner chamber before striking Paibes down. He sees himself as an “instrument of judgment,” and is no longer bothered by the paintings in the tomb, as he has been in other tombs in the past. Once they find the stairway down to the inner chamber, Paibes turns and looks at Iseri, only to jibingly tell him that he would never have been able to find it by himself. “On again, and more steps to descend, and at last the burial chamber was reached. The great sarcophagus of alabaster gleamed nobly before the tired, stinging eyes–and things of gold, furniture and cups, all that a man might need, left here in the deep, buried silence like reflections in the mirror of death, to enable living men to view their life undistorted, to value it all at long last, if they had the courage to look; but into the terrible mirror of death none dared to look. There, encased in alabaster, lay the mummied king awaiting his releast and justification, his resurrection, living his life in the mirror, dead.”
After Paibes puts the lamp down and starts to sort through the precious objects in the tomb, Iseri thinks to himself that he must wait for an omen, that he will know when his time has come to kill Paibes. “His hate was so final that the gods must be on his side, as they were on the side of all things final and fated.” Suddenly, the omen comes. Out from behind an alabaster jar, a huge cobra, often seen as an Agent of Fate and a Messenger of the Gods, comes. Just behind Paibes it rears its head, ready to strike. But Iseri is ready to strike, too: to his own surprise, he kills the cobra just as it rears to strike Paibes! Paibes whirls back in his astonishment, looking first at the cobra, then at the man with him, who has acted the part of a friend. “[Iseri] did not know why he had done it. When one had hunted for years with a man, it was not easy to stand by and watch a cobra strike him. What had happened, Osiris? Was it the judgment?”
Paibes takes Iseri by both hands and thanks him, confessing, astonishingly enough, that he is sorry that he has tried to take Zenra away, and says that she has already rejected him. He also confesses that he himself has been hating Iseri too, and might have killed him in the night himself. He says that Iseri can have Zenra, which causes Iseri to feel, on the sudden, that he himself doesn’t want Zenra either, but wants his old friendship with Paibes back! But then, he admits that he wants Zenra, also. He cannot admit to Paibes, however, that he himself was planning to kill too, and it makes it hard for him to get back on their old terms without a clean confession. He finally admits weakly that he “would rather” be friends. Paibes says they will, and that he only meant that he was angry, and says he is no longer enraged. He again reiterates that Iseri can have Zenra.
“The two men stood indecisive, afraid. Suddenly the whole weight of the hills seemed to be pressing down on them, tons and tons of stone; and there was all the long passageway, sculptured with the indecipherable meaning of things, through which they must run the gauntlet of the multitudinous abiding eyes. Gold, why did they want gold?” As they collect bits and pieces to take with them, they watch each other “suspiciously,” neither wanting to be the one to go first on the way back out. Yet, they each know that they will not be able to strike the other: “They were both too frightened and weary, heavy-lidded with the heat, and wanted nothing but the night air of the open. In the open, perhaps, they would be able to draw close together again. After all; perhaps they would hate one another worse than ever. It didn’t matter as long as they got out.” Thus, two friends learn the price of meddling with Fate and the Underworld, and find themselves praying silently for the merely human terms by which they normally live.
For those of us reading their story, Halloween is an excellent time to reflect on life-and-death (and breath-beyond-the-grave) decisions: if it’s bad to kill people at any time, we should all try to be especially careful of how we treat them around All Soul’s Eve, when the dead are said to walk. And any other bad decisions we may have made in the past (even just making fun of old Aunt Ernestine, who’s now one of the dear departed) should be carefully pondered. Enjoy your Halloween fun, but be sure it’s really good clean fun, and not malice, or you may find yourself being tracked by a ghost or goblin (or trapped by a cobra, ready to spring!).
“Once upon a time there lived in Selkirk a shoemaker, by name Rabbie Heckspeckle, who was celebrated both for dexterity in his trade and for some other qualifications of a less profitable nature….In short, he was the Paul Pry of the town. Not an old wife in the parish could buy a new scarlet rokelay without Rabbie knowing within a groat of the cost; the doctor could not dine with the minister but Rabbie could tell whether sheep’s-head or haggis formed the staple commodity of the repast; and it was even said that he was acquainted with the grunt of every sow, and the cackle of every individual hen in his neighborhood; but this wants confirmation.”
From this curious beginning continues an “old wives’ tale” from Selkirk, which I found published with no other author given in an old book from London called The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories, which also has no copyright date. It seems that even though Rabbie’s wife Bridget tried her best to restrain Rabbie’s constant curiosity, ”her interference met with exactly that degree of attention which husbands usually bestow on the advice tendered by their better halves–that is to say, Rabbie informed her that she knew nothing of the matter, that her understanding required stretching, and finally, that if she presumed to meddle in his affairs, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of giving her a top-dressing.” (I’m not entirely sure exactly what a “top-dressing” is, but as I suspect that Rabbie was of the sort who made himself “disagreeable” to anyone who interfered with him, I think this was likely to be a wife-beating threat, which in such an old tale was often treated as a matter for raucous comedy rather than as the serious thing we now think it to be.)
Because Rabbie had much work as a shoemaker to do in addition to his not-so-neighborly “researches” into the lives of others, he usually rose early, “long before the dawn,” and was one morning putting the final bits on a pair of shoes for the exciseman (tax collector), when a rather unusual customer came into his shop. The customer was “a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a broad-rimmed hat drawn over his brows.” Rabbie was perplexed to have a customer so early, and moreover one who was a stranger in the town, and yet one he’d never had knowledge of. Rabbie tried his best to make leading conversation, but the figure ignored him, and instead picked up the exciseman’s prospective shoe and tried it on, taking a turn around the room to make sure the shoe fit.
Though Rabbie was caught up in watching the mysterious figure, his other senses were working overtime as well: “‘He smells awfully,’ muttered Rabbie to himself; ‘ane would be ready to swear he had just cam frae the ploughtail.’” But Rabbie had no time to think of this, because the stranger motioned for the other shoe, and pulled out a purse to pay for the pair. Once again, Rabbie noticed something odd: the purse was “spotted with a kind of earthy mould.” “‘Gudesake,’ thought Rabbie, ‘this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o’ the ground. Some folks say there are bags o’ siller buried near this town.’”
But imagine Rabbie’s surprise when out of the open purse fell a toad, a beetle, and a large worm, which wound itself around the stranger’s finger! Still, the tall figure in the black clothes held out a gold piece, and indicated in dumb show that he wished to buy the pair of shoes. But Rabbie, being a hard-minded, some would say eminently practical man, responded that “‘It’s a thing morally impossible,…I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight,…and better, I tell you, to affront the king himself than the exciseman.’”
The stranger stamped his foot, shod in the new shoe, in anger, but Rabbie stuck to his point, nevertheless being conciliatory in his own terms by offering to make another pair for the strange visitor within a day’s time, which finally the figure had to accept. So, he sat down on the three-legged measuring stool and held out his foot to the sutor, who measured it, all the while trying to find out something about his mysterious visitor through friendly conversation. But the figure was largely silent. When the measuring was done, Rabbie tried to insist on delivering the shoes himself, in order to find out something at least about where his visitor lived to satisfy his own curiosity, but the stranger replied, “‘I will called for them myself before cock-crowing,’…in a very uncommon and indescribable tone of voice.”
“‘Hout, sir,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘I canna let you hae the trouble o’ coming for them yoursel’; it will just be a pleasure for me to call with them at your house.’ ‘I have my doubts of that,’ replied the stranger, in the same peculiar manner; ‘and at all events, my house would not hold us both.’” Rabbie continued to try to insist on dropping in on his visitor at the latter’s home, but the stranger instead gave Rabbie a kick in the seat of the pants that knocked him down, and walked out. Mystified but determined to be satisfied, Rabbie ran out the door behind the mysterious visitor in his red night-cap as a cock called for dawn, and reached the churchyard at the end of the street before he gave up, not finding his recent customer anywhere. “‘Weel,’ he muttered, as he retraced his steps homewards, ‘he has warred me this time, but sorrow take me if I’m not up wi’ him in the morn.’”
With diligence which surprised his wife Bridget, Rabbie spent the whole of the day on his three-legged stool working on the pair of new shoes, and astonished all the neighbors by this as well, who all agreed “that it predicted some prodigy: but whether it was to take the shape of a comet, which would deluge them all with its fiery tail, or whether they were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, could by no means be settled” to their satisfaction. Moreover, Rabbie resisted every outside attempt to get him interested in local gossip, and instead worked steadily on the pair of new shoes.
Late at night, he had finished the shoes, and placed them beside his bed for the dawn. Suddenly, startling Rabbie with his presence, the stranger appeared, asking for his shoes. “‘Here, sir,’” said Rabbie, quite transported with joy; ‘here they are, right and tight, and mickle joy may ye hae in wearing them, for it’s better to wear shoon than sheets, as the auld saying gangs.’ ‘Perhaps I may wear both,’ answered the stranger. ‘Gude save us,’ quoth Rabbie, ‘do ye sleep in your shoon?’” Not answering, the stranger put gold on the table and took the shoes and left the house.
Not to be outdone by the visitor’s reticence, Rabbie slipped out the door after him to follow and find where he went. Imagine his astonishment when the stranger went into the churchyard! Rabbie said to himself, “”Odsake, where can he be gaun?’…’[H]e’s making to that grave in the corner; now he’s standing still; now he’s sitting down. Gudesake! what’s come o’ him?’” And though Rabbie looked all around him and rubbed his eyes, he couldn’t see the stranger anywhere! This struck Rabbie as “uncanny,” but his curiosity being still stronger than his fear, he thrust his awl into the grave so he could find the place again, marking it for further investigations.
By the time the sun went down that day, the news was all over town, and it was decided to go and open the grave “which was suspected as being suspicious.” When the grave was opened and the lid forced from the coffin, a corpse was found, dressed in all its tomb clothing, but with a pair of perfectly new shoes on! With this, everyone else fled in all directions in horror, but Rabbie and a few braver souls stayed to “arrange” things more to their own satisfaction with the corpse. They agreed to nail the coffin and place it deeper in the earth, but Rabbie took the shoes back first, saying that the corpse had “no more need for them than a cart had for three wheels.” After re-burying the corpse as proposed, Rabbie and his friends went home, not at first thinking any more about the matter.
It’s true, Rabbie did have some “qualms of conscience” about keeping the stranger’s money and depriving him of the shoes he’d paid for, corpse or no corpse; but thinking that it would be a black mark against his family name to have made a pair of shoes for a corpse, and knowing that there was no court of appeal for the corpse, Rabbie soon put the matter out of his mind. “Next morning, according to custom, he rose long before the day, and fell to his work, shouting the old songs of the “Sutors of Selkirk” at the very top of his voice. A short time, however, before the dawn his wife, who was in bed in the back room, remarked that in the very middle of his favorite verse his voice fell into a quaver, then broke out into a yell of terror; and then she heard a noise, as of persons struggling; and then all was quiet as the grave.” When she went into the shop, the stool was all broken up, bristles all over the floor, and the door off its hinges. There was no Rabbie. There were, however, footprints, which she found to her horror led straight to the churchyard, to the grave of Rabbie’s former customer! The ground was disturbed, and several locks of Rabbie’s lank black hair were on the surface of the grass, whereupon Bridget ran to acquaint everyone in town with what she guessed.
The grave was re-opened, “the lid of the coffin was once more torn off; and there lay its ghastly tenant, with his shoes replaced on his feet, and Rabbie’s red night-cap clutched in his right hand! The people, in consternation, fled from the churchyard; and nothing further has ever transpired to throw any additional light upon the melancholy fate of the Sutor of Selkirk.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this second Halloween post, a very old story from the British traditional corpus (or should I make a pun, and say “corpse”?); just remember, if an unearthly figure makes its appearance and requests your services, stick strictly by the letter of the law, and keep your curiosity in check, or you may wind up “Gude” knows where, like the Sutor of Selkirk.
Confronting the re-publishing spectre in order to produce a Halloween shiver (my “old school” dilemma)
Hello, readers! For the last year now, gradually as time has come on, I’ve had it in mind to re-publish for you a post I wrote last October 9 (2012), a post which lives on famously for me because it has been so popular with you. Not only has it been the most popular post of the fall season, but it has been the most popular post of all on my site ever since it was published, even during spring lambing season and the summer heat which followed! So, thinking along the lines of newspapers which occasionally re-publish extremely popular articles with only a new headline or blurb to explain why, I thought I’d share it with you again this Halloween season, preparatory to a few other tales I also plan to feature, which are new to my site, though not to literary history.
Not being a computer whiz, I contacted WordPress.com support pages and forums, only to find, however, that it was not possible simply to re-publish the page with a single comment or perhaps a new title, and easily chill your blood. No, and it is also frowned upon to quote oneself (that attitude has a rather more understandable bias, since no one likes a windbag). After I corresponded several times with the folks at the forum, however, I did run across the suggestion–closest to what I wanted to do–to write a “new” post, and provide a link with the former post. This is what I am going to try to do now, providing again for you (I hope) a post on one of my favorite A. S. Byatt tales of all time, certainly, and demonstrably your favorite post of mine, though to be perfectly honest, the major part of the credit is hers, and not mine. So here goes: A. S. Byatt’s tale “The Thing in the Forest,” and my own more modest comments on the same. I hope you see what I mean about what real fear is!