Arachne: A Literary Journal. No. 1
After The Dark
After The Dark
I am Harriet Bain, thirty years, sitting in a small green hospital waiting room, under a yellow lamp, waiting for a bed, for my child to be born. Telephones ring. Doctors go in and out carrying bags. The talk is casual, as if there were no struggle within the ochre pod of my coat.
Beside the little blue-cloaked, faded patron saint of the hospital a nurse stands. Her face is round-pink. I see her stout legs rose-shadow her white cotton stockings, but her reality is a greater fantasy than the faded saint. It is absurd to think unless of past time wedged, between pain, into so many flashes. And yet I am still not wholly possessed by this birth, by the terror I used to feel, thinking about such things before sleeping, lying in the small room near the macra-carpas a long time ago when I was Harriet Arkel.
A cross used to be in my mind, then, when I lived, a child, contained and sheltered in long corridors, polished, shadowed, and hung with tasselled curtains of velvet. The cross stayed until I left my encircling family, my grandmother Emmy Arkel, Lot and Agnes the aunts. For a while we had with us in the house a help called Lily Moloney, Lily, our Lily, dear Lily Moloney.
The cross hung silver on Lily Moloney's neck. I saw the cross first of all the night she answered our advertisement. When the front door swung open a star swam out from an island of cloud, and a young woman stepped past the wrought iron foot scraper onto the blue roses of the red hall carpet.
"Mrs. Arkel? I'm Lily Moloney,' she spoke out soft and quick. The cross pulsed with her talking for the neck was over full and her speech double fast. She wore a loose grey coat of fur and unbuttoned, the stuff of her dress beneath was of silk with tiny flowers. "Am I too late?" she asked.
I wanted her to be chosen. I wanted her youth for our sombre house where porcelains tinkled as you passed, where the fluted clock sat squatly on its yellow plush though the minutes had long ago ceased to tick.
She was not afraid of work she said. Her mother had seen to that and she'd come gladly, but would only stay nine months, no longer, as by Christmas Ted would be coming from the Coast to marry her.
"My fiance is a miner." And softly, "Ted Somers."
She won't be one to go gadding, flashed into my grandmother's eyes. She slid her lorgnette down its golden chain; held straighter her head with its two jet combs sunk into the snow of rolled hair. "I used to live near the mines myself, once, Lily."
How often I had heard her tell this, in many connections, a thousand dreary times, but as if it had taken all this time to be born, "I used to live near the mines myself" now fell with a new kind of beauty.
"Did you," cried Lily. She edged along the sofa, placing her hand on the scarlet arm of grandmother's chair.
"And is he a good man, Lily?" asked the old woman simply.
"O my Ted," the girl laughed out, looking up at a photograph of grandpa Arkel. Grandmother nodded at the photograph then shook her head and I saw Lily watching the old, pearl horse shoe rings in her ears. "I'd trust Ted anywhere, I would," she cried, brimful of pride.
Grandmother took up her darning egg and a long thread of black wool. "I read a chapter every morning, Lily, without fail, from my Bible."
"I go to Mass."
And so Lily Moloney came to us. And soon she belonged in our family, and we came to need her, not only for her work. We used up her vitality. The house, so long without passion, burned from her joy and Lily's Ted lived with us, a ghost of flame.
My small, mauve-lipped, childless aunt Agnes would cry from her corner behind half-drawn blinds. "Show me dear, please," and Lily would quickly slide up the blind. She page 6 would shake out the new bits of embroidery she'd made and spread them on Agnes's black serge lap. Then Agnes would trace round the devoted scalloped edges, feel with her waxy blue fingers the firm clusters of rose buds on doylies, say "Lovely" and smile on in the sunshine.
Friends said we'd found a gem. Even Aunt Lot with her knot of stern black hair, her prudent lips, her downright kindness, her demanding standards, even Lot's eyes smiled for Lily and praised the smooth piles of ironed linen. For every pretty face Aunt Lot prophesied calamity. When bad times came to beauty her voice softened with satisfaction. Lily had lively curls, and Lily had Ted, but Lily won her heart.
Lot was Presbyterian. Lily was Catholic. But each was a child of God, blindly devoted.
Lily went often to Mass. "Here you, Harriet," she would wake me with. "I've been to six o'clock Mass—all the way on my two feet. Up with you." All the way over three curving hills, along the priests' brick and ivy house; past the white Virgin Mary in the garden, its stone cloak bloomed green in its deep cave of leaves; and through the open doors of the Catholic Cathedral into that domed shade, while the bell went on pealing gathering up the district. What brought her back to us so renewed?
My grandmother's bible had a brass clasp. Inside on the shiny yellow lining was written sharply. Emmy Arkel "A Little Child shall lead them." It lay on a white fringed cover beside a golden watch that was kept in a satin lined bag, and between velvet framed pictures of Lot and Agnes and father. On the same white cover stood a drinking mug with gold words and pink roses, and a two winged locket with grey and auburn hair. Lily cared for each of these frail gods. Her hands moved among them like the caring hands of the blind. Before they had seemed old fashioned, slightly ridiculous, until Lily, touching them, brought each thing a fresh life.
One day grandmother knelt beside her ottoman. From her long stored hoard of linen, tucked away with mothballs and scented envelopes, she drew out a length of embroidered muslin which she opened up and hung over Lily's arm, so that I was amazed as the chest was full of untouchables. And I heard Aunt Lot say "Mother's giving away yards of that Indian muslin, that priceless muslin, to Lily."
"Lot, but Lot," Agnes whispered, gliding towards her sister over the green linoleum floor on her little, out of shape, black pointed shoes. Her cold hands were clasped to the purple front of her winter dress. "But Lot, mother knows best, I'm sure."
"Charity begins at home, Aggie. Well, Lily's a gem. No one shall say I complain. We must count our blessings."
"Lily's an exception, Lot dear, we've always said that."
I carved Ted out of the darkness and the mining lamp on his head shone too bright to tell his face. Lily's wedding lightened the repeating days. It hung in the air like a child's promised Christmas, but no one faced her departure although spring uncrinkled leaves on the flowering currants, hung a host of bright hearts on the lilac, and Mrs. Dale, the dressmaker, was booked for late November.
A fire had been lit in the spare bedroom's black-leaded grate. The purple was covered with a white drugget, the sewing machine dragged into the light, the long coarse curtains of white lace parted; and Mrs. Dale with the red frizzed hair and the chin mole and the slight lisp had new flannel for my school dress bunched in her arms.
"She's shot up like a stork. Leave plenty for hem please," grandmother demanded, drawing me into the circle.
Then behind Aunt Lot I saw Lily standing in the doorway. She still wore her hat and coat. Mrs. Dale hung the flannel over me. There was a little fan of pins between her lips, little red hairs freckled her large white hands. "Turn round, Harriet," she ordered. But solemn, very quietly into the flustered room Lily said "Ted's come, Mrs. Arkel. We've been to Mass."
Grandmother swayed, to the sewing machine, raised one hand to her head. "Lawk a mussy me, Lily, you're not going to leave us?"
"Tomorrow he wants us to marry and when his mind's made up it's got to be. Mrs. Arkel, you've been so good to me, dear Mrs. page 7 Arkel, I'll come back. I'll see you all afterwards."
Afterwards. But never again after the wedding would Lily Moloney belong with us.
She came to say goodbye, still in her long white gleaming wedding dress and holding the first white roses we had gathered from the garden. Ted Somers, a short man, was at her side, but all I remember is the oiled red wing of his hair shining above his dark clothes as he led Lily away, and that he moved very fast, too fast for us who were to lose her.
Grandmother stood on the steep front steps looking out across the lawn, the flowering currants, the camelias where the birds went exploring, the lilacs and the path between. Brides, coffins and babies; she had blessed them all, she often said, from these very steps. "Mind Lily, mind you come back. Don't forget an old woman and God bless you Lily Somers."
One day I came home from school through the dazzling garden. Light slanted through the net of curtains into the drawing room, looped the chair legs, slip down the aspidistra leaves that Aunt Lot was dusting. Her silk rag pressed up from base to point while Lot stared beyond me as if I were glass.
"What a fool she is, Agnes, to go back to him, to that God-forsaken hole on top of a mountain. They never see the sun and the washing is grey and mildew, she says, is on everything. With us she had plump cheeks, decent clothes "——
"Hush Lot, there's Harriet ——
"And that poor little thing's hair is Lint White," Lot went on, in her narrow track, but then, as I threw down my bag she brisked up. "There's someone in the kitchen you'd like to see, Harriet."
I went in. I knew.
"Lily," I cried, then I kept still and silent.
It was Lily sitting in the morris chair at the end of the kitchen table. Her grey old coat hung loose with a patchwork of shabby worn shapes. She sat with hunched shoulders so that now, more than ever before, the full neck protruded and the bright cross seemed the only living thing about her. How thin were her cheeks and drained of their rose. And clasped to her was that extra weight, that burden, her child—a baby that looked too white to live, its face a day moon, its tiny shoes dangling from the stalks of legs, its eyes so dull, its nose too sharp—and grandmother, looking at them both, kept nodding her head and smiling and shaking a rattle. Slowly Lily began to animate the baby.
"This is Lavinia, Harriet. Would you like to nurse her a while?" said Lily. But I wished then for my arms to vanish. I could not move from my place near the stove, from my shelter between the clean sheets hung there to air. Even the old excited voice I once knew had hardened. Was it for this I'd loved my dolls? Was it for this pale ugly child that Lily had so loved Ted. I could not, I would not, for any past, pretend to touch it with joy.
Grandmother stepped up and took the little creature, rolled in its shawl. Folding her lilac sleeves round Lily's child she pressed its "lint white" hair against her, let her fingers sink deep into the yielding Shetland wool, fingers where the broad ring now slipped loose and where the bone gleamed whitely beneath the shining skin. How she teased, nodded, sang, crooned; how close she held it loving, adoring, whispering, rocking, loving, rocking it in a fantastically passionate ecstacy, laughing, loving, until the tears streamed over her face.
"O you dear, dear little thing. I could keep you and love you all for myself," she cried. I had never-seen her so happy, so ageless, so possessed. But this pure act of old Emmy Arkel shocked my youth and forged around it a chinkless defence of fear and dislike that has hidden my heart these long years.
Light. Ringing a bell. Everything is over now. I have reached the morning. There is no more pain.
Beyond this sheet and that white rod and these light walls a bell is ringing, while I rise up from the empty dark. The nurse moves nearer to me. Flowers and enamel and polished surfaces prick my consciousness. The nurse has come close. Yes, it is morning and over me, smooth and flat, lies a quilt of thick white cotton raised in its centre with patterns. In the nurse's arms, out of the pale wool page 8 cocoon she holds, I see a new child with its ancient, sleeping features, with its dark little crown of new born hair.
"Let me look, nurse. Let me hold him." And as she gives him, this strange son cries his first moments into the cold, weak-sunned day and the twist of my buried past smooths itself into glory.
Grandmother Arkel and Lily Somers ——
O Lily Somers, bless your baby lost in time.