About the Author

Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence was born in 1926 in Neepawa, Manitoba. She published her first novel, This Side of Jordan (one of several works to be set in Africa), in 1960. The Stone Angel, published in 1964, was her second novel. It was an immediate success, as were her four subsequent Manawaka novels: A Jest of God (which won the 1967 Governor General's Award and was later made into the film Rachel, Rachel), The Fire Dwellers, A Bird in the House, and The Diviners — winner of the 1974 Governor General's Award. In 1971, Laurence was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Remembered also as a peace activist, she died in 1987.

Books by this Author
A Bird in the House

The Sound of the Singing
That house in Manawaka is the one which, more than any other, I carry with me. Known to the rest of the town as “the old Connor place” and to the family as the Brick House, it was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader’s embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness, its rooms in a perpetual gloom except in the brief height of summer. Many other brick structures had existed in Manawaka for as much as half a century, but at the time when my grandfather built his house, part dwelling place and part massive-monument, it had been the first of its kind.
Set back at a decent distance from the street, it was screened by a line of spruce trees whose green-black branches swept down to the earth like the sternly protective wings of giant hawks. Spruce was not indigenous to that part of the prairies. Timothy Connor had brought the seedlings all the way from Galloping Mountain, a hundred miles north, not on whim, one may be sure, but feeling that they were the trees for him. By the mid-thirties, the spruces were taller than the house, and two generations of children had clutched at boughs which were as rough and hornily knuckled as the hands of old farmers, and had swung themselves up to secret sanctuaries. On thelawn a few wild blue violets dared to grow, despite frequent beheadings from the clanking guillotine lawn mower, and mauve-flowered Creeping Charley insinuated deceptively weak-looking tendrils up to the very edges of the flower beds where helmeted snapdragon stood in precision.
We always went for Sunday dinner to the Brick House, the home of my mother’s parents. This particular day my father had been called out to South Wachakwa, where someone had pneumonia, so only my mother and myself were flying down the sidewalk, hurrying to get there. My mother walked with short urgent steps, and I had to run to keep up, which I did not like having to do, for I was ten that spring and needed my dignity.
“Dad said you shouldn’t walk so fast because of the baby. I heard him.”
My father was a doctor, and like many doctors, his advice to his own family was of an exceedingly casual nature. My mother’s prenatal care, apart from “For Pete’s sake, honey, quit running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” consisted mainly of admonitions to breathe deeply and drink plenty of water.
“Mercy,” my mother replied, “I don’t have to slow up that much, I should hope. Get a move on, Vanessa. It’s nearly five, and we should’ve been there by now. I suppose Edna will have the dinner all ready, and there won’t be a thing for me to do. I wish to heaven she wouldn’t, but try to tell her. Anyway, you know how your grandfather hates people to be late.”
When we got to the Brick House, my mother stopped hurrying, knowing that Grandfather would be watching from the bay window. She tidied my hair, which was fine and straight and tended to get in my eyes, and she smoothed down the collar of the white middy which I hated and resented having to wear today with my navy pleated skirt as though it had still been winter.
“Your summer dresses are all up to your neck,” my mother had said, “and we just can’t manage a new one this year, but I’m certainly not going to have you going down there looking like a hooligan.”
Now that the pace of our walking had slowed, I began to hop along the sidewalk trying to touch the crooked lines where the cement had been frost-heaved, some winter or other, and never repaired. The ants made their homes there, and on each fissure a neat mound of earth appeared. I carefully tamped one down with my foot, until the ant castle was flattened to nothing. Then I hopped on, chanting.
“Step on a crack, break your grandfather’s back.”
“That’s not very nice, Vanessa,” my mother said. “Anyway, I always thought it was your mother’s back.”
“Well?” I said accusingly, hurt that she could imagine the substitution to have been accidental, for I had genuinely thought it would please her.
“Try not to tear up and down stairs like you did last week,” my mother said anxiously. “You’re too old for that kind of shenanigans.”
Grandfather was standing on the front porch to greet us. He was a tall husky man, drum-chested, and once he had possessed great muscular strength. That simple power was gone now, but age had not stooped him.
“Well, Beth, you’re here,” Grandfather said. “Past five, ain’t it?”
“It’s only ten to,” my mother said defensively. “I hoped Ewen might be back – that’s why I waited. He had to go to South Wachakwa on a call.”
“You’d think a man could stay home on a Sunday,” Grandfather said.
“Good grief, Father,” my mother said, “people get sick on Sundays the same as any other day.”
But she said it under her breath, so he did not hear her.
“Well, come in, come in,” he said. “No use standing around here all day. Go and say hello to your grandmother, Vanessa.”
Ample and waistless in her brown silk dress, Grand mother was sitting in the dining room watching the canary. The bird had no name. She did not believe in bestowing names upon non-humans, for a name to her meant a christening, possible only for Christians. She called the canary “Birdie,” and maintained that this was not like a real name. It was swaying lightly on the bird-swing in its cage, its attentive eyes fixed upon her. She often sat here, quietly and apparently at ease, not feeling it necessary to be talking or doing, beside the window sill with its row of African violets in old ginger jars that had been painted orange. She would try to coax the canary into its crystal trilling, but it was a surly creature and obliged only occasionally. She liked me to sit here with her, and sometimes I did, but I soon grew impatient and began squirming, until Grandmother would smile and say, “All right, pet, you run along, now,” and then I would be off like buckshot. When I asked my grandmother if the bird minded being there, she shook her head and said no, it had been there always and wouldn’t know what to do with itself outside, and I thought this must surely be so, for it was a family saying that she couldn’t tell a lie if her life depended on it.
“Hello, pet,” Grandmother said. “Did you go to Sunday school?”
“What did you learn?” Grandmother asked, not prying or demanding, but confidently, serenely.
I was prepared, for the question was the same each week. I rarely listened in Sunday school, finding it more entertaining to compose in my head stories of spectacular heroism in which I figured as central character, so I never knew what the text had been. But I had read large portions of the Bible by myself, for I was constantly hard-up for reading material, so I had no trouble in providing myself with a verse each week before setting out for the Brick House. My lines were generally of a warlike nature, for I did not favour the meek stories and I had no use at all for the begats.
“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle,” I replied instantly.
“Second Samuel,” Grandmother said, nodding her head. “That’s very nice, dear.”
I was not astonished that my grandmother thought the bloody death of Jonathan was very nice, for this was her unvarying response, whatever the verse. And in fact it was not strange, for to her everything in the Bible was as gentle as she herself. The swords were spiritual only, strokes of lightness and dark, and the wounds poured cochineal.
Grandfather tramped into the dining room. His hair was yellowish white, but once it had been as black as my own, and his brown beaked leathery face was still handsome.
“You’d best come into the living room, Agnes,” he said. “No use waiting here. Beth says Ewen’s gone away out to South Wachakwa. It’ll be a wonder if we get our dinner at all tonight.”
Grandmother rose. “Yes, I was just coming in.”
Grandfather walked over to the window and peered at the plants on the sill.
“Them jars could do with a coat of paint,” he said. “I’ve got some enamel left in the basement. It’s that bottle-green I used on the tool-shed.”
“Is there no orange left?” Grandmother enquired.
“No. It’s all used up. What’s the matter with bottle-green?”
“Oh, nothing’s the matter with it, I guess. I just wondered, that’s all.”
“I’ll do them first thing tomorrow, then,” Grandfather said decisively.
No tasks could be undertaken today, but there was no rule against making plans for Monday, so my grandfather invariably spent the Sabbath in this manner. Thwarted, but making the best of a bad lot, he lumbered around the house like some great  wakeful bear waiting for the enforced hibernation of Sunday to be over. He stopped at the hall door now and rattled it, running hard expert fingers along the brass hinges.
“Hinge is loose,” he said. “The pin’s worn. I’ll have to go down to the store and see if they’ve got one. That Barnes probably won’t have the right size – he’s got no notion of stock. Maybe I’ve got an extra one in the basement. Yes, I have an idea there’s one there. I’ll just step down and have a look.”
I heard him clumping down the basement steps, and soon from the area of his work-bench there arose the soft metallic jangle of nails and bolts, collected oddments being sifted through. I glanced at my grandmother, but if she was relieved that he was rummaging down there, she gave no sign.
I did not know then the real torment that the day of rest was for him, so I had no patience with his impatience. WhatI did know, however, was that if he had been any other way he would not have passed muster in Manawaka. He was widely acknowledged as an upright man. It would have been a disgrace if he had been known by the opposite word, which was  “downright.” A few of my friends had downright grandfathers. They were a deep mortification to their families, these untidy old men who sat on the Bank of Montreal steps in the summertime and spat amber tobacco jets onto the dusty sidewalk. They were described as “downright worthless” or “downright lazy,” these two terms being synonymous. These shadows of wastrels, these flimsy remnants of past profligates, with their dry laughter like the cackle of crows or the crackling of fallen leaves underfoot, embarrassed me terribly, although I did not have any idea why. Walking down main street, I would avoid looking at them, feeling somehow that they should not be on view, that they should be hidden away in an attic along with the other relics too common to be called antiques and too broken to be of any further use. Yet I was inexplicably drawn to them, too.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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A Jest of God

A Jest of God

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A Tree for Poverty

A Tree for Poverty

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Out of Shew. Bed and Golda came Rahel Out of Malka and Benyamin came Danile, Out of Danile and Rahel came Hoda, Out of Hoda, Pipick came, Pipick born in secrecy and mystery and terror, for what did Hoda know?
In the daytime her frail and ever-so-slightly humpbacked mother, or so they described her to blind Danile before they rushed them off to be married, used to take Hoda along with her to the houses where she cleaned. And partly to keep her quiet, and partly because of an ever-present fear, for she felt that she would never have another child, Rahel carried always with her, in a large, cotton kerchief, tied into a peasant-style sack, a magically endless supply of food. All day long, at the least sign of disquiet, she fed the child, for Hoda even then was big-voiced and forward, and sometimes said naughty things to people. Rather than risk having an employer forbid her the privilege of bringing the little girl to work, Rahel forestalled trouble. Things can’t go in and out of the same little mouth simultaneously.

Hoda for her part enjoyed eating. She was on the whole a good-natured child. Even in the moments when her jaws were unwillingly at rest she was content to let her flecked ashgrey eyes linger contemplatively on the yellow and white dotted kerchief sack for what she felt were long periods of time while she restrained herself from disturbing her mother at her work. When at last she could refrain no longer, for she was only a child after all, Hoda would give vent to a surprisingly chesty contralto. “Ma-a-a,” she would rumble, “Maa-a-a-a-ah!”

Rahel would rise quickly from her knees, wipe her hands, untie the kerchief, and give her daughter another little something to chew on. It amused some of her employers to see this continuous process, and they entertained themselves by feeding the child too, just to be able to comment, in what Rahel mistook for admiration, on how much she could put away. Hoda herself never refused these gifts of food, though there was something of aloofness, even of condescension, in her acceptance, as there is with some zoo animals that people feed for their own amusement. It was as though in allowing them to play their game she was not necessarily accepting their terms of reference. Occasionally a woman with kindly intentions would scold Rahel for letting her little girl get so fat. Rahel misinterpreted the kindly intentions and resented these critics who wanted her to deny her child. She saw in it simply another sign that it is the way of the rich to deny the poor, and continued to make sure that her child was bigger and more beautiful every day. Why else does a mother crawl on her knees in the houses of strangers?

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Intimate Strangers

Intimate Strangers

The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy
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Long Drums and Cannons

Long Drums and Cannons

Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966
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Recognition and Revelation

Recognition and Revelation

Short Nonfiction Writings
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tagged : canadian
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The Diviners

The Diviners

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The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.

The dawn mist had lifted, and the morning air was filled with swallows, darting so low over the river that their wings sometimes brushed the water, then spiralling and pirouetting upward again. Morag watched, trying to avoid thought, but this ploy was not successful.

Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag would be certain to find it.

Now please do not get all uptight, Ma. I can look after myself. Am going west. Alone, at least for now. If Gord phones, tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.

Well, you had to give the girl some marks for style of writing. Slightly derivative, perhaps, but let it pass. Oh jesus, it was not funny. Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time. That wouldn’t happen again, not like before. Morag was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Not sure enough, probably.

I’ve got too damn much work in hand to fret over Pique. Lucky me. I’ve got my work to take my mind off my life. At forty-seven that’s not such a terrible state of affairs. If I hadn’t been a writer, I might’ve been a first-rate mess at this point. Don’t knock the trade.

Morag read Pique’s letter again, made coffee and sat looking out at the river, which was moving quietly, its surface wrinkled by the breeze, each crease of water outlined by the sun. Naturally, the river wasn’t wrinkled or creased at all — wrong words, implying something unfluid like skin, something unenduring, prey to age. Left to itself, the river would probably go on like this, flowing deep, for another million or so years. That would not be allowed to happen. In bygone days, Morag had once believed that nothing could be worse than killing a person. Now she perceived river-slaying as something worse. No wonder the kids felt themselves to be children of the apocalypse.

No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie. Seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.

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The Prophet's Camel Bell

The Prophet's Camel Bell

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Innocent Voyage
May they not just possibly be true, the tales of creatures as splendidly strange as minotaurs or mermaids? Will there be elephants old as forests, white peacocks with crests of azure, jewel-eyed birds as gaudy as the painted birds in the tombs of pharaohs, apes like jesters, great cats dark and secretive as Bast, men who change into leopards at the flick of a claw?
Nothing can equal in hope and apprehension the first voyage east of Suez, yourself eager for all manner of oddities, pretending to disbelieve in marvels lest you appear naïve but anticipating them just the same, prepared for anything, prepared for nothing, burdened with baggage – most of it useless, unburdened by knowledge, assuming all will go well because it is you and not someone else going to the far place (harm comes only to others), bland as eggplant and as innocent of the hard earth as a fledgling sparrow.
There you go, rejoicing, as so you should, for anything might happen and you are carrying with you your notebook and camera so you may catch vast and elusive life in a word and a snapshot. There you go, anxious, as you may well be, for anything might happen and so you furtively reassure yourself with pages from the first-aid book in which it says the best thing to do for snakebite is to keep the patient quiet until the doctor arrives – luckily, you do not notice that it does not tell you what to do if there is no doctor within a hundred miles.
And in your excitement at the trip, the last thing in the world that would occur to you is that the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.
Our voyage began some years ago. When can a voyage be said to have ended? When you reach the place you were bound for, presumably. But sometimes your destination turns out to be quite other than you expected.
We could not have found a better-named ship than the Tigre to carry us away from a sleet-sodden English December and into the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. She was a Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel, and we had crossed the bilious channel and were waiting for her at Rotterdam. She was delayed, and we, almost penniless, walked the slippery streets of the chilly port, turning up our coat collars against the blowing snow and searching near the docks for a sailors’ café where we could afford to eat. We found it in Die Drie Steden, but we also found that English was spoken only in the more expensive restaurants, and we did not have a word of Dutch. Fortunately, wiener schnitzel, that fine old Netherlands dish, was listed on the menu, but we had no luck with dessert. Finally, the impatient waitress beckoned us to the front of the café, past rows of weathered old pipe-sucking mariners who peered and chortled, and we were faced with a glassed-in cabinet containing a selection of pastries.
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “Pick one.”
Slagroomwafel,” the waitress said, as I pointed blindly.
It was a waffle with whipped cream. For seven days, out of pure necessity, we ate nothing but wiener schnitzel and slagroomwafel.
We had plenty of time, during that week of waiting, to wonder where we were going, and why, and what it would be like when we got there. An advertisement in a London newspaper had started the venture.
‘H.M. Colonial Service. Somaliland Protectorate. A vacancy has occurred for a civil engineer to take charge, under the direction of the Director of Public Works, of the construction of approximately 30 earth dams over an area of 6,500 miles. The average maximum capacity of each dam will be 10 million gallons. The Engineer will be required to carry out all reconnaissance and detailed survey, to do all calculations and designs, to be responsible for expenditure and the supervision of staff and plant . . .’
Jack applied for the job and got it. It was no sudden whim on his part. As an engineer, he had felt a certain lack in any job he had in Canada or in England. We lived in an increasingly organized world, a world in which the most essential roads and bridges had already been built. He felt a need to work for once on a job that plainly needed doing – not a paved road to replace a gravel one, but a road where none had been before, a job whose value could not be questioned, a job in which the results of an individual’s work could be clearly perceived, as they rarely could in Europe or America. It may have been a desire to simplify, to return to the pioneer’s uncomplicated struggle. Or it may have been the feeling, strong in all our generation, that life was very short and uncertain, and a man had better do what he could, while he could. Perhaps these feelings were good and sufficient reasons for going to Africa; perhaps they were not. But they could not be shrugged off or ignored indefinitely.
After Jack signed the contract, the Colonial Office informed us regretfully that no accommodation for married couples seemed to be available in Somaliland at the moment, but perhaps Mr. Laurence’s wife would be able to join him in six or eight months. This arrangement did not suit us at all, so Jack explained carefully that his wife, being a hardy Canadian girl, was quite accustomed to life in a tent. In fact, I had never camped out in my life, but fortunately the Colonial Office was convinced by the striking description Jack gave of me as an accomplished woodswoman, a kind of female Daniel Boone, and I was permitted to go.
We had to consult an atlas to discover exactly where we were going. This ignorance was not unusual, we later found. Once we saw a gloomy note in the Protectorate News Sheet commenting on the delays in mail owing to letters having been mis-sorted by the Post Office in England, and explaining that “this arises, no doubt, from the fact that very few people outside this country seem to know where it is.”
What do you take to such an out-of-the-way place, when you have no idea what life will be like there? Tents or topees, evening dress or bush boots, quinine or codeine, candles or sandals? The Colonial Office provided us with a pamphlet designed to set at rest the minds of persons like ourselves. It was firm and clear in its advice. We must take a year’s supply of tinned goods and a portable bath. Fortunately, we were also given the name and address of an administrative officer from Somaliland who was on leave in London. He roared with laughter.
“Pay no attention,” he told us. “Those pamphlets are always half a century out of date.”
The booklet also warned us against “woolly bears,” a ferocious cloth-eating insect. In Somaliland we never once encountered a woolly bear, nor did we ever meet anyone who had heard of them. What a wily pamphleteer, focusing our attention on mythical beasts – had he warned us of the actual difficulties, we might never have gone and so would have been the poorer all our lives.
Even the history we ferreted out from libraries had a limited meaning for us, despite its power to stir the imagination with past glory or disgrace, the tramplings of time over one corner of the earth. We were going to the same country where Sir Richard Burton had gone so long before, when he believed his footsteps were the first that really counted for anything in East Africa and when, disguised as the merchant Haji Abdullah, he preached in his superior Arabic at the Zeilah mosque, and was commended by the local elders, none of whom knew the Qoran as well as he.
But he had come late in the roster of explorers. That desert land was known to the ancient world as Regio Cinnamomifera, when ships from the Far East went there with cinnamon which they exchanged for frankincense and myrrh, greatly valued in those days and sometimes purchased by well-to-do Magi to bestow as gifts. There the forty saints from the Jadramaut landed, proclaiming the Word – There is no God but God, and Mohamed is His Prophet. It was a land of warriors, too, brave cruel men like Mohamed Granye, the Left-handed, the Somali king who in the sixteenth century very nearly conquered all of Ethiopia, until at last he fell to the intruding Portuguese, indomitably armoured, who had come to rescue the Coptic Christian emperor in the belief that he was the fabled Prester John, white knight in the black continent, and who were most perturbed when they discovered he was not.
For many men and women, princes and commoners from the distant forests and from the river lands as far away as the Niger, Somaliland was the end of a bitter journey and the beginning of a lifetime of bondage, for there the Arab slave routes had emerged at the sea, and from there the dhow-loads of slaves had once been shipped across the Gulf of Aden to be sold in the flesh markets of Arabia. In that same land, early this century, Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called Mad Mullah of Somaliland, had fought the British for years and was defeated only when at last his forts were bombed.
We read of these events, and pondered them. But they could not tell us what we would find there now.
At last the Tigre steamed into Rotterdam. About time, too. We were disgruntled and irritable after a week of having been snubbed by hotel clerks who had rapidly discovered our penury. We tramped on board dully, expecting nothing. To our amazement, we found we were the only passengers, and there, spread out before us, was our accommodation – the owner’s suite, an unbelievably spacious three rooms, full of polished brass and green plush and shiny mahogany, and best of all, paid for by the Crown Agents. When we had recovered from the initial shock, we set ourselves to adjust to our altered status.
“We mustn’t act surprised,” Jack said with a grin, as he sprawled luxuriously on the Edwardian velour sofa. “The idea is that we take it all completely for granted.”
But I could not get over the wonder of it, especially the fact that we had our own bathroom. In our year in London, we had lived in a bed-sittingroom and shared a bathroom with so many others that the nightly bath schedule was like a railway timetable.
The Tigre was our home for a month, and we developed a high regard for Norwegians. As passengers, we must have been a nuisance to them, but they never resorted to mere cold politeness. They were warmly friendly, and gave us the run of the ship. We were invited up to the bridge, and allowed to peer through the Captain’s binoculars. We chatted with Johan, the wireless operator, about modern American writers, feeling ashamed that we knew nothing of modern Norwegian writers. Hemingway was his favourite – there was a writer a man could understand.
At night sometimes we went up to the bridge and talked with the second mate while he was on watch. He was a burly, laughing man, who had sailed in the West Indies a great deal. Once he did not see his wife for ten years, he told us. In Montreal, on one occasion, he and a companion smuggled two girls aboard. The men had adjoining cabins, and suddenly through the wall had come an enquiring voice.
“Marie, are you doing any wrong in there?”
“No, Germaine,” was the virtuous reply, “I’m not.”
“Well, then,” called Germaine, “pray forgiveness for me.”
These French-Canadian girls, the second mate said. His laughter went booming out over the dark sea.
We were on the Tigre for Christmas. The Norwegians celebrated mainly on Christmas Eve, when there was a mammoth dinner and gifts all around. Jack was given a bottle of Scotch, while I received a little marzipan pig with a verse attached to it.
To our little sporty guest,
A happy sailors’ julefest!
That evening we sang carols in Norwegian, with the aid of aqua vite and songbooks, although the only word Jack and I could understand was “halleluja.” Johan, who had discovered that Jack’s people came from the Shetland Islands, originally settled by Norsemen, leaped to his feet and proposed a toast.
“To our ancestors and yours – the vikings!”
Skol! ” shouted everyone. It was a fine Christmas.
At Genoa the ship stopped for several days, and we walked on the hills and saw the harsh port town softened by distance, the pink and yellow walls looking clean and pastel although in fact they were dirty and garish, the harbour with the big rusty freighters packed in prow to stern, and the tugboats skimming around like frantic water-beetles. At the Staglieno cemetery, where marble angels loomed like spirits of vengeance among the green-black cypress trees and where the poor rented graves for seven years, we met two Englishmen who said they wondered if they had not been foolish after all to visit sunny Italy in mid-winter. The day was piercingly cold and we were needled by a sharp unceasing wind. We walked along with them to find a place where we could get shelter and a warm drink. The Englishmen had surely read somewhere how the English are expected to behave in foreign lands, for they were loyally true. They ordered tea.
“But first –” one of them said anxiously to the proprietor, “tell me, please – can you really make it properly?”
The Mediterranean, that time of year, was truly the wine-dark sea. High up on the Tigre, whipped by the icy winds, we watched the wild hills of Sicily pass by. At night we saw a far-off red glow in the black sky, Mount Etna in eruption. And sometimes in the darkness we saw a phosphorescence, plankton perhaps, frothing up suddenly in the waves and seeming to run along the surface of the water like sheet lightning. I wrote in my notebook – “for the first time, I can believe we are in southern waters.”
Port Said, and my first view of the mysterious East was a Coca-Cola sign in Arabic. But the dhows were there, too, with their curved prows and triangular sails, shabby little fishing dhows with the nets slung to dry between the masts, and big trading dhows from the ports of the Red Sea and as far away as the Persian Gulf, coming here with their cargoes of dates and millet or marvellously patterned carpets woven in Basra or Sheraz, perhaps, by weavers who learned their craft as children and were said to go blind young over their looms.
We went ashore and walked the crowded and intricate streets where stained mud buildings stood side by side with slick stuccoed apartment blocks in florid pinks and greens. Rows of ragged palms fringed the roads where horse-drawn carriages unbelievably rattled along like old engravings come to life. And the people – merchants waddling slow and easy in long striped robes and maroon fezzes, nimble limping beggars who trailed the tourists, girl children with precociously knowing eyes, self-styled guides who hovered around us like the city’s flies, wizened and hunched labourers wearing only a twist of rag around skinny hips, boys in flapping cotton pyjamas, business men in draped suits and shiny tan shoes, police in sand-coloured breaches and black jack-boots, thin stooped Egyptian women all in black and wearing the thick veil of purdah, westernized Egyptian girls with long black hair and short white skirts and high rhinestoned heels, the conjuring gully-gully men who would clench an empty fist and then open it and presto – there was a live chick.
Bustling up to us came a plump and jazzy character, gabardine-suited, looking like a smaller edition of King Farouk in sunglasses and Panama hat. Port Said was a city of thieves, he informed us. He personally would see to it that we were protected from these undesirables. He called himself Billy the Kid, and told us he could get us anything we wanted for a reasonable price – binoculars, cameras, watches. We thanked him, but declined. He pattered along beside us for a while, and finally departed for greener pastures, singing “Rum And Coca-Cola.” We heard, echoing back to us, a voice jaunty as a sparrow.
“Working for the Yankee dollah!”
In the course of the afternoon, we shed many of his kind. We were a little pleased with ourselves. To avoid the clutches of the sharks and sharpers – that is not such an easy thing. We wandered through bazaars hung with cotton carpets horribly embellished with scarlet pyramids, blue camels, tigers yellow as egg-yolk. We looked at crocodile handbags, some plainly imitation and some possibly genuine, and all manner of cheap jewellery and souvenirs. Then, in a back-street shop apparently unvisited by tourists, we saw inlaid cigarette boxes. The inlay was ivory, the man told us. We were not deceived. We knew it was not ivory but bone. We liked the patterns, however, so we dickered over price and finally bought. We carried that cigarette box around with us for years, and ultimately in its old age it became a crayon box for our children. When it was left outside in the rain, not long ago, a small illusion was shattered. The inlay was not even bone – it was lacquered paper.
Who would ever suspect that the air would be so cold going through the Suez Canal? We put on all the sweaters we owned, wrapped ourselves in coats, and from the Tigre decks we watched the nearby shore where camels were squashing stoically through the beige sand. The water was a deep blue, so strong a colour it looked as though it had been dyed, and the sky, filled with particles of dust, was an astonishing violet. Villages of square clay houses slipped past us, and tattered children, and black cattle, and women in purdah.
The bleak stretches of the Sinai desert, then, and the distant peak of Mount Sinai where Moses received the stone tablets of the Law. And I recalled what I had chanced to read only a short time before.
Jack had foresightedly brought War and Peace, and in Rotterdam he had settled down to read it. But I had gone ill-provided with reading material and had paced the hotel room until I discovered in a dressing-table drawer the ubiquitous Gideons Bible and read for the first time in my life the five books of Moses. Of all the books which I might have chosen to read just then, few would have been more to the point, for the Children of Israel were people of the desert, as the Somalis were, and fragments from those books were to return to me again and again. And there was no water for the people to drink – and the people thirsted. Or, when we were to wonder how the tribesmen could possibly live and maintain hope through the season of drought – In the wilderness, where thou hast seen how that the Lord thy God bare thee, as a man doth bear his son, in all the way that ye went. Or the verse that remained with me most of all, when at last and for the first time I was myself a stranger in a strange land, and was sometimes given hostile words and was also given, once, food and shelter in a time of actual need, by tribesmen who had little enough for themselves – Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Aden at night. The shore lights seemed frail and wavering in the black vastness of sky and water. This was the parting of the ways, for here we would leave the familiar, the clean and wellventilated world of the Tigre, and move into something entirely different. From now on, we were committed to a land and a life about which we knew nothing.
We leaned over the railing and watched as our crates of books and dishes, our trunks of clothing, were carried off the Tigre and onto the small launch wobbling in the water below. Everything was carried on the heads or the backs of coolies. One very tall labourer, clad only in a loincloth, bent himself and braced his broad bare feet while the others heaved onto his back our largest trunk. His legs were so thin and reed-like, his sweating and trembling body so emaciated, that he looked as though he must buckle and break under the load. No one seemed concerned. The only anxiety was that the trunk might slip off and plunge into the harbour. Goods were more expensive than men, here. There were millions like him, in every city throughout the East, men with names and meanings, but working namelessly and with no more meaning than any other beast of burden. It occurred to me that Markham’s lines were more applicable here now than in Europe.
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings –
With those who shaped him to the thing he is –
When this dumb terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?
The Velho, which had been chugging from Aden to Berbera and back again for more years than anyone knew, was a ship inhabited by ghosts. The presence of Englishmen long dead clung around the saloon, where the bolted-down tables were once glossily veneered but were now chipped, their surfaces ringed with the wet glasses of innumerable greetings and partings. Behind the bar, a gilt and curlicewed mirror reflected leadenly the bottles of gin, orange squash, Rose’s lime juice. The air reeked heavily of tobacco smoke, curried soup, foul dishwater. The brass bar-rail was worn with decades of boots, men leaning there lazily, joyously, on their way to Aden and then home on leave, or heavily, tensely, on their way back to Somaliland again. In some cases, it would have been the other way around, men who went on leave only because it was compulsory, men who could hardly wait to leave London behind and get back to an exile that had become beloved. They were all there that evening, as we sipped our gin-and-lime and reflected on the place and those who had passed this way before us.
A firm of Bombay merchants owned the Velho, which had room for nine first-class passengers, eight second-class and an indefinitely large number of third. She was the flagship of the fleet, our fellow passengers informed us. Her sister ship, the Africa, was not so grand. We found our first-class cabin something of a contrast to our suite on the Tigre. The room was approximately the size of a matchbox, and the Indian clerk who had accompanied us on board had advised us to cram as much of our baggage as possible into the cabin with us.
“Otherwise, sar, you might enquire after it next morning quite in vain, oh my goodness yes.”
The mattresses on the narrow, rough-plank bunks were straw, and of an indescribable skimpiness. The grey hue of the sheets suggested that they had been used for the last dozen voyages or so. I had an unpleasant suspicion that we were not the only living creatures in this cabin. I would have preferred to encounter the bar-room ghosts in any visible form rather than the host of winged and many-legged things which my imagination assured me were ready to attack from every crack in the timbering, every straw in my palliasse. The rustlings and faint scratchings went on all night, and I remained stiff as bronze, open-eyed.
Jack, with his usual calm logic, decided that nothing constructive could be done about the cabin, so he crawled into his bunk and went to sleep immediately. As a result, the next morning he felt fine, ready for anything, while I felt queasy and jangled.
“In this part of the world,” he said, recalling the years he had spent in India during the war, “you have to learn that if you can’t change something, you might as well not worry about it.”
He was right, but it was many months before the time came when I could curl up on the seat of the Land-Rover and quietly conserve myself in sleep, when the road had somehow got lost in the desert and we had no idea where we were. That night on the Gulf of Aden I could not have conceived of a time when the bunks of the Velho would have seemed like the silken beds of a sultan’s palace.
The vessel’s mate had a lean intense face and a flaming beard. His eyes must surely have been penetrating, but they were always concealed behind sunglasses. He stalked silently around the boat not exchanging a word with anyone. Maybe he communicated with the captain, but we never observed them speaking together. The captain was an elderly Scot who had worked in the East for many years. He was dressed meticulously, a contrast to his grubby craft. What had brought him here, to skipper this pint-sized wreck from Aden to Berbera and back to Aden, eternally, under the blazing sun? We would never know. When I talked with him, he spoke of only one thing – his last leave in Scotland. I imagined he must have returned from there only recently.
“Oh no,” he replied, when I asked him. “That was seven years ago, lass.”
The wireless operator was a young Egyptian, a Coptic Christian. He led a lonely life in Aden, for he belonged in neither the Christian nor the Muslim communities there. He was fond of jazz, and homesick for Cairo. When we were a short way off from Aden, he laughed ironically.
“I can hear them now,” he said, “but they can’t hear me.”
His wireless set with its spark-gap transmitter was so antiquated that he could communicate only when the vessel was within a mile or so of shore. As soon as we decently could, without appearing too obvious about it, we went up to have a look at the lifeboats. There did not seem to be very many of them.
Among the Europeans on board were two Army sergeants, reluctantly returning from leave.
“This your first time out?” one of them said, gloomily gloating. “You’ll hate it. Nothing there but a bloody great chunk of desert. It’s got the highest European suicide rate of any colony – know that? Good few blokes living very solitary there in outstations, that’s the reason. They go round the bend.”
Another fellow passenger was a civilian, a member of the administration. He told us, confidentially, to watch out for the Public Works Department.
“It’s really gone beyond a joke,” he said sorrowfully, “the way those p.w.d. fellows look after their own people first. They corner all the best furniture and the most workable plumbing. Shocking.”
When he learned that Jack would be associated with the P.W.D., his manner became slightly withdrawn for a time, but he later grew friendly once more and told us how much better the trip from Aden to Berbera was than the return voyage.
“Going back to Aden,” he said, “the boat’s full of camels. They ride with the Somalis, down on the third-class deck. They bawl and groan the whole time, and the stench is terrible.”
The Somalis crowding the third-class section slept out on the decks that night. They were tall gaunt men, most of them, their features a cross between negroid and Arabian. They wore tunic-like robes called lunghis, knotted around their waists and reaching just below their knees. The cotton materials of their robes were of every shade and variety – splendid plaids, striped or plain, green and magenta and mauve. Around their heads were loosely constructed turbans, pink, white, blue. The few Somali women on board seemed a contrast to the brash, assertive men. They had soft features and enormous liquid brown eyes, and many of them had lighter skins than the men. The young unmarried women wore long robes of many colours, but the married ones were clad in black and red. All wore headscarves that billowed out behind them in the breeze. The women walked so shyly, so lightly, with downcast eyes, that I imagined they must be very meek and gentle creatures.
Beautiful a great many of them certainly were, and gentle they certainly could be when it pleased them. But meek – meek as Antigone, meek as Medea. I did not then know Safia, or Shugri and her mother, or proud Saqa, or the old woman of Balleh Gedid.
Berbera from the water looked beckoning. The sea was calm and turquoise, and the level shoreline was yellow sand. A few palms and pepper trees grew around the town, and the houses appeared pure white, their blemishes concealed by distance. The sharp thin minaret of a mosque rose above the squat dwellings. Beyond the town the blue-brown hills looked softer, less treacherous than they really were. Berbera had no harbour, so we anchored off shore and a government launch came out. Jack went ashore to discover what arrangements, if any, had been made for us, and I stayed on the Velho to guard our belongings. After a while Jack returned, accompanied by a Somali boy.
His name was Mohamed, and he looked about eighteen, a boy of unprepossessing appearance, clad in a purple robe and a clean white shirt, and sporting a small black moustache that looked incongruous on his youthful face. He was to be our houseboy. I felt, uneasily, that he had been hired too quickly. We didn’t know the first thing about him. He might be the most cunning crook in Berbera, for all we knew.
“The P.W.D. foreman knows him,” Jack reassured me, “and thinks he’s probably okay. I’ve only taken him on trial. He’ll do for the moment.”
It still seemed absurd to me. I could not see why we needed anyone so soon. With dwindling patience, Jack tried to explain.
“This isn’t Winnipeg or London. You don’t tote your own luggage here. It just isn’t done. Maybe we don’t agree with the system, but there it is. Another thing – he’ll be useful in the shops. If you buy anything by yourself, before you know what’s what, you’ll likely get cheated by the local merchants.”
Mohamed’s function in the situation, apparently, was to look after our interest, and that day he put on a wonderful display of enthusiasm, for he obviously was anxious to have the job. He carried suitcases, conveyed Jack’s instructions to the Somali coolies, cautioned me as I climbed down into the waiting launch.
“Memsahib – must be you step carefully-carefully –”
The whole performance amused and distressed me. I could not face the prospect of being called “Memsahib,” a word which seemed to have connotations of white man’s burden, paternalism, everything I did not believe in. Furthermore, I was not sure I would be able to cope with servants. We had a series of “hired girls” when I was a child in a prairie town, but they could not have been called servants – they would have been mortally offended at the term. Mohamed’s deference embarrassed me. I need not have worried, however, for he was not humble in that detestable way, nor was any Somali I ever met. But I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Mohamed, employed so hastily and on a temporary basis, was the first person I met and spoke with in Somaliland. It would have surprised me then to know that many months later he would also be the last person we saw when we left.
The launch set out for Berbera, and I held onto my broad-brimmed straw hat and felt the warm salt spray on my arms. Perched on the prow was a Somali coolie, and as the boat rode high, caught in a sudden swell of waves, I saw his face against the sky. It was a face I could not read at all, a well-shaped brown face that seemed expressionless, as though whatever lay behind his eyes would be kept carefully concealed.
I wondered if his was the face of Africa.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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The Tomorrow-Tamer

The dust rose like clouds of red locusts around the small stampeding hooves of taggle-furred goats and the frantic wings of chickens with all their feathers awry. Behind them the children darted, their bodies velvety with dust, like a flash and tumble of brown butterflies in the sun.

The young man laughed aloud to see them, and began to lope after them. Past the palms where the tapsters got wine, and the sacred grove that belonged to Owura, god of the river. Past the shrine where Nana Ayensu poured libation to the dead and guardian grandsires. Past the thicket of ghosts, where the graves were, where every leaf and flower had fed on someone’s kin, and the wind was the thin whisper-speech of ancestral spirits. Past the deserted huts, clay walls runnelled by rain, where rats and demons dwelt in unholy brotherhood. Past the old men drowsing in doorways, dreaming of women, perhaps, or death. Past the good huts with their brown baked walls strong against any threatening night-thing, the slithering snake carrying in its secret sac the end of life, or red-eyed Sasabonsam, huge and hairy, older than time and always hungry.

The young man stopped where the children stopped, outside Danquah’s. The shop was mud and wattle, like the huts, but it bore a painted sign, green and orange. Only Danquah could read it, but he was always telling people what it said. Hail Mary Chop-Bar & General Merchant. Danquah had gone to a mission school once, long ago. He was not really of the village, but he had lived here for many years.

Danquah was unloading a case of beer, delivered yesterday by a lorry named God Helps Those, which journeyed fortnightly over the bush trail into Owurasu. He placed each bottle in precisely the right place on the shelf, and stood off to admire the effect. He was the only one who could afford to drink bottled beer, except for funerals, maybe, when people made a show, but he liked to see the bright labels in a row and the bottle-tops winking a gilt promise of forgetfulness. Danquah regarded Owurasu as a mudhole. But he had inherited the shop, and as no one in the village had the money to buy it and no one outside had the inclination, he was fixed here for ever.

He turned when the children flocked in. He was annoyed at them, because he happened to have taken his shirt off and was also without the old newspaper which he habitually carried.

The children chuckled surreptitiously, hands over mouths, for the fat on Danquah’s chest made him look as though the breasts of a young girl had been stuck incongruously on his scarred and ageing body.

“A man cannot even go about his work,” Danquah grumbled, “without a whole pack of forest monkeys gibbering in his doorway. Well, what is it?”

The children bubbled their news, like a pot of soup boiling over, fragments cast here and there, a froth of confusion.

Attah the ferryman — away, away downriver (half a mile) — had told them, and he got the word from a clerk who got it from the mouth of a government man. A bridge was going to be built, and it was not to be at Atware, where the ferry was, but — where do you think? At Owurasu! This very place. And it was to be the biggest bridge any man had ever seen — big, really big, and high — look, like this (as high as a five-year-old’s arms).

“A bridge, eh?” Danquah looked reflectively at his shelves, stacked with jars of mauve and yellow sweets, bottles of jaundice bitters, a perfume called Bint el Sudan, the newly-arranged beer, two small battery torches which the village boys eyed with envy but could not afford. What would the strangers’ needs be? From the past, isolated images floated slowly to the surface of his mind, like weed shreds in the sluggish river. Highland
Queen whisky. De Reszke cigarettes. Chivers marmalade. . . .

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This Side Jordan

One  The six boys were playing the Fire Highlife, playing it with a beat urgent as love. And Johnnie Kestoe, who didn't like Africans, was dancing the highlife with an African girl. Charity's scarlet smile mocked his attempts to rotate his shoulders and wriggle his European hips to the music. Her own fleshy hips and buttocks swayed easily, and her big young breasts, unspoiled by children and only lightly held by her pink blouse, rose and fell as though the music were her breath. Johnnie grinned awkwardly at her, then he jerked his head away. 'Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – baby!Fiyah, fiyah, fiyah, fiyah- ma,Fiyah deah come – ah ah!I went to see my lovely boy,Lovely boy I love so well –' At one of the tables around the outdoor dance floor, a young European woman watched thoughtfully. At another table an African man watched, then turned away and spat. Both were angry, and with the same person.  Music was the clothing of West African highlife, but rhythm its blood and bone. This music was sophisticated. It was modern. It was new. To hell with the ritual tribal dance, the drums with voices ancient as the forest. The torn leaves of the palm trees shivered in the wind and the strings of fairy lights glittered like glass beads in the musty courtyard. The dancers themselves did not analyse the highlife any more than they analysed the force that had brought them all together here, to a nightclub called 'Weekend In Wyoming', the wealthy and the struggling, the owners of chauffeur-driven Jaguars and the riders of bicycles. They were bound together, nevertheless, by the music and their need of it. Africa has danced pain and love since the first man was born from its red soil. But the ancient drums could no longer summon the people who danced here. The highlife was their music. For they, too, were modern. They, too, were new. And yet the old rhythms still beat strongly in this highlife in the centre of Accra, amid the taxi horns, just as a few miles away, in Jamestown or Labadi, they pulsed through the drums while the fetish priestess with ash- smeared cheeks whirled to express the unutterable, and the drummer's eyes grew glassy and still, his soul drugged more powerfully than the body could be. Into the brash contemporary patterns of this Africa's fabric were woven symbols old as the sun- king, old as the oldest continent.

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The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories

The Lamp at Noon

A little before noon she lit the lamp. Demented wind fled keening past the house: a wail through the eaves that died every minute or two. Three days now with out respite it had held. The dust was thickening to an impenetrable fog.
She lit the lamp, then for a long time stood at the window motionless. In dim, fitful outline the stable and oat granary still were visible; beyond, obscuring fields and landmarks, the lower of dust clouds made the farmyard seem an isolated acre, poised aloft above a sombre void. At each blast of wind it shook, as if to topple and spin hurtling with the dust-reel into space.
From the window she went to the door, opening it a little, and peering toward the stable again. He was not coming yet. As she watched there was a sudden rift overhead, and for a moment through the tattered clouds the sun raced like a wizened orange. It shed a soft, diffused light, dim and yellow as if it were the light from the lamp reaching out through the open door.
She closed the door, and going to the stove tried the potatoes with a fork. Her eyes all the while were fixed and wide with a curious immobility. It was the window. Standing at it, she had let her forehead press against the pane until the eyes were strained apart and rigid. Wide like that they had looked out to the deepening ruin of the storm. Now she could not close them.
The baby started to cry. He was lying in a homemade crib over which she had arranged a tent of muslin. Careful not to disturb the folds of it, she knelt and tried to still him, whispering huskily in a singsong voice that he must hush and go to sleep again. She would have liked to rock him, to feel the comfort of his little body in her arms, but a fear had obsessed her that in the dust-filled air he might contract pneumonia. There was dust sifting everywhere. Her own throat was parched with it. The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes. The little cry continued, and with wincing, frightened lips she glanced around as if to find a corner where the air was less oppressive. But while the lips winced the eyes maintained their wide, immobile stare. “Sleep,” she whispered again. “It’s too soon for you to be hungry. Daddy’s coming for his dinner.”
He seemed a long time. Even the clock, still a few minutes off noon, could not dispel a foreboding sense that he was longer than he should be. She went to the door again – and then recoiled slowly to stand white and breathless in the middle of the room. She mustn’t. He would only despise her if she ran to the stable looking for him. There was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman. She must stay quiet and wait. Nothing was wrong. At noon he would come – and perhaps after dinner stay with her awhile.
Yesterday, and again at breakfast this morning, they had quarrelled bitterly. She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.
Tense, she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening. There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright. But only to return – to return and quake among the feeble eaves, as if in all this dust-mad wilderness it knew no other sanctuary.
Then Paul came. At his step she hurried to the stove, intent upon the pots and frying-pan. “The worst wind yet,” he ventured, hanging up his cap and smock. “I had to light the lantern in the tool shed, too.”
They looked at each other, then away. She wanted to go to him, to feel his arms supporting her, to cry a little just that he might soothe her, but because his presence made the menace of the wind seem less, she gripped herself and thought, “I’m in the right. I won’t give in. For his sake, too, I won’t.”
He washed, hurriedly, so that a few dark welts of dust remained to indent upon his face a haggard strength. It was all she could see as she wiped the dishes and set the food before him: the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will. “Hungry?” she asked, touched to a twinge of pity she had not intended. “There’s dust in everything. It keeps coming faster than I can clean it up.”
He nodded. “Tonight, though, you’ll see it go down. This is the third day.”
She looked at him in silence a moment, and then as if to herself muttered broodingly, “Until the next time. Until it starts again.”
There was a dark resentment in her voice now that boded another quarrel. He waited, his eyes on her dubiously as she mashed a potato with her fork. The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance – there remained only a harsh and clenched virility that yet became him, that seemed at the cost of more engaging qualities to be fulfilment of his inmost and essential nature. Whereas to her the same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come. The eyes were hollowed, the lips pinched dry and colourless. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the little vanities of life, and lost them wistfully.
‘‘I’m afraid, Paul,” she said suddenly. “I can’t stand it any longer. He cries all the time. You will go, Paul – say you will. We aren’t living here – not really living –”
The pleading in her voice now, after its shrill bitterness yesterday, made him think that this was only another way to persuade him. He answered evenly, “I told you this morning, Ellen; we keep on right where we are. At least I do. It’s yourself you’re thinking about, not the baby.”
This morning such an accusation would have stung her to rage; now, her voice swift and panting, she pressed on, “Listen, Paul – I’m thinking of all of us – you, too. Look at the sky – what’s happening. Are you blind? Thistles and tumbleweeds – it’s a desert. You won’t have a straw this fall. You won’t be able to feed a cow or a chicken. Please, Paul, say we’ll go away –”
“Go where?” His voice as he answered was still remote and even, inflexibly in unison with the narrowed eyes and the great hunch of muscle-knotted shoulder. “Even as a desert it’s better than sweeping out your father’s store and running his errands. That’s all I’ve got ahead of me if I do what you want.”
“And here –” she faltered. “What’s ahead of you here? At least we’ll get enough to eat and wear when you’re sweeping out his store. Look at it – look at it, you fool. Desert – the lamp lit at noon –”
“You’ll see it come back. There’s good wheat in it yet.”
“But in the meantime – year after year – can’t you understand, Paul? We’ll never get them back –”
He put down his knife and fork and leaned toward her across the table. “I can’t go, Ellen. Living off your people – charity – stop and think of it. This is where I belong. I can’t do anything else.”
“Charity!” she repeated him, letting her voice rise in derision.
“And this – you call this independence! Borrowed money you can’t even pay the interest on, seed from the government – grocery bills – doctor bills –”
“We’ll have crops again,” he persisted. “Good crops – the land will come back. It’s worth waiting for.”
“And while we’re waiting, Paul!” It was not anger now, but a kind of sob. “Think of me – and him. It’s not fair. We have our lives, too, to live.”
“And you think that going home to your family – taking your husband with you –”
“I don’t care – anything would be better than this. Look at the air he’s breathing. He cries all the time. For his sake, Paul. What’s ahead of him here, even if you do get crops?”
He clenched his lips a minute, then, with his eyes hard and contemptuous, struck back, “As much as in town, growing up a pauper. You’re the one who wants to go, it’s not for his sake. You think that in town you’d have a better time – not so much work – more clothes –”
“Maybe –” She dropped her head defencelessly. “I’m young still. I like pretty things.”
There was silence now – a deep fastness of it enclosed by rushing wind and creaking walls. It seemed the yellow lamplight cast a hush upon them. Through the haze of dusty air the walls receded, dimmed, and came again. At last she raised her head and said listlessly, “Go on – your dinner’s getting cold. Don’t sit and stare at me. I’ve said it all.”
The spent quietness in her voice was even harder to endure than her anger. It reproached him, against his will insisted that he see and understand her lot. To justify himself he tried, “I was a poor man when you married me. You said you didn’t mind. Farming’s never been easy, and never will be.”
“I wouldn’t mind the work or the skimping if there was something to look forward to. It’s the hopelessness – going on – watching the land blow away.”
“The land’s all right,” he repeated. “The dry years won’t last forever.”
“But it’s not just dry years, Paul!” The little sob in her voice gave way suddenly to a ring of exasperation. “Will you never see? It’s the land itself – the soil. You’ve plowed and harrowed it until there’s not a root or fibre left to hold it down. That’s why the soil drifts – that’s why in a year or two there’ll be nothing left but the bare clay. If in the first place you farmers had taken care of your land – if you hadn’t been so greedy for wheat every year –”
She had taught school before she married him, and of late in her anger there had been a kind of disdain, an attitude almost of condescension, as if she no longer looked upon the farmers as her equals. He sat still, his eyes fixed on the yellow lamp flame, and seeming to know how her words had hurt him, she went on softly, “I want to help you, Paul. That’s why I won’t sit quiet while you go on wasting your life. You’re only thirty – you owe it to yourself as well as me.”

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Canada and the Nuclear Arms Race

Canada and the Nuclear Arms Race

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