Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lamp at noon

Ross, Sinclair. The Lamp at Noon and other stories. McClelland & Stewart. 1968.


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 without 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 his 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 musn’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 just 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 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 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 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.”

“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 after 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 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.”

He sat staring at the lamp without answering, his mouth sullen. It seemed indifference now, as if he were ignoring her, and stung to anger again she cried, “Do you ever think what my life is? Two rooms to live in – once a month to town, and nothing to spend when I get there. I’m still young – I wasn’t brought up this way.”

“You’re a farmer’s wife now. It doesn’t matter what you used to be, or how you were brought up. You get enough to eat and wear. Just now that’s all I can do. I’m not to blame that we’ve been dried out five years.”

“Enough to eat!” she laughed back shrilly. “Enough salt pork – enough potatoes and eggs. And look –“ Springing to the middle of the room she thrust out a foot for him to see the scuffed old slipper. “When they’re completely gone I suppose you’ll tell me I can go barefoot – that I’m a farmer’s wife – that it’s not your fault we’re dried out-“

“And what about these?” He pushed his chair away from the table now to let her see what he was wearing. “Cowhide – hard as boards – but my feet are so calloused I don’t feel them anymore.”

Then he stood up, ashamed of having tried to match her hardships with his own. But frightened now as he reached for his smock she pressed close to him. “Don’t go yet. I brood and worry when I’m left alone. Please, Paul – you can’t work on the land anyway.”

“And keep on like this? You start before I’m through the door. Week in and week out – I’ve troubles enough of my own.”

“Paul – please stay –“ The eyes were glazed now, distended a little as if with the intensity of her dread and pleading. “We won’t quarrel any more. Hear it! I can’t work – I just stand still and listen –“

The eyes frightened him, but responding to a kind of instinct that he must withstand her, that it was his self-respect and manhood against the fretful weakness of a woman, he answered unfeelingly, “In here safe and quiet – you don’t know how well off you are. If you were out in it – fighting it – swallowing it-“

“Sometimes, Paul, I wish I was. I’m so caged – if I could only break away and run. See – I stand like this all day. I can’t relax. My throat’s so tight it aches-“

With a jerk he freed his smock from her clutch. “If I stay we’ll only keep on all afternoon. Wait till tomorrow – we’ll talk things over when the wind goes down.”

Then without meeting her eyes again he swung outside, and doubled low against the buffets of the wind, fought his way slowly toward the stable. There was a deep hollow calm within, a vast darkness engulfed beneath the ties of moaning wind. He stood breathless a moment, hushed almost to a stupor by the sudden extinction of the storm and the stillness than enfolded him. It was a long, far-reaching stillness. The first dim stalls and rafters led the way into cavern-like obscurity, into vaults and recesses that extended far beyond the stable walls. Nor in these first quiet moments did he forbid the illusion, the sense of release from a harsh, familiar world into one of peace and darkness. The contentious mood that his stand against Ellen had roused him to, his tenacity and clenched despair before the ravages of wind, it was ebbing now, losing himself in the cover of darkness. Ellen and the wheat seemed remote, unimportant. At a whinny from the bay mare, Bess, he went forward and into her stall. She seemed grateful for his presence, and thrust her nose deep between his arm and body. They stood a long time motionless, comforting and assuring each other.

For soon again the first deep sense of quiet and peace was shrunken to the battered shelter of the stable. Instead of a release or escape from the assaulting wind, the walls were but a feeble stand against it. They creaked and sawed as if the fingers of a giant hand were tightening to collapse them; the empty loft sustained a pipelike cry that rose and fell but never ended. He saw the dust-black sky again, and his fields blown smooth with drifted soil.

But always, even while listening to the storm outside, he could feel the tense and apprehensive stillness of the stable. There was not a hoof that clumped or shifted, not a rub of halter against manger. And yet, though it had been a strange stable, he would have known, despite the darkness, that every stall was filled. They, too, were all listening.

From Bess he went to the big grey gelding, Prince. Prince was twenty years old, with rib-grooved sides, and high, protruding hipbones. Paul ran his head over the ribs, and felt a sudden shame, a sting of fear that Ellen might be right in what she said. For wasn’t it true – nine years a farmer now on his own land, and still he couldn’t even feed his horses? What, then, could he do for his wife and son?

There was much he planned. And so vivid was the future of his planning, so real and constant, that often the actual present was but half felt, but half endured. Its difficulties were lessened by a confidence in what lay beyond them. A new house – land for the boy – land and still more land – or education, whatever he might want.

But all the time was he only a blind and stubborn fool? Was Ellen right? Was he trampling on her life, and throwing away his own? The five years since he married her, were they to go on repeating themselves, five, ten, twenty, until all the brave future he looked forward to was but a stark and futile past?

She looked forward to no future. She had no faith or dream with which to make the dust and poverty less real. He understood suddenly. He saw her face again as only a few minutes ago it had begged him not to leave her. The darkness round him now was as a slate on which her lonely terror lined itself. He went from Prince to the other horses, combing their manes and forelocks with his fingers, but always it was her face before him, its staring eyes and twisted sufferings. ‘See Paul – I stand like this all day. I just stand still – My throat’s so tight it aches-“

And always the wind, the creak of walls, the wild lipless wailing through the loft. Until at last as he stood there, staring into the livid face before him, it seemed that this scream of wind was a cry from her parched and frantic lips. He knew it couldn’t be, he knew that she was safe within the house, but still the wind persisted as a woman’s cry. The cry of a woman with eyes like those that watched him through the dark. Eyes that were mad now – lips that even as they cried still pleaded, “See, Paul – I stand like this all day. I just stand still – so caged! If I could only run!”

He saw her running, pulled and driven headlong by the wind, but when at last he returned to the house, compelled by his anxiety, she was walking quietly back and forth with the baby in her arms. Careful, despite his concern, not to reveal a fear or weakness that she might think capitulation to her wishes, he watched a moment through the window, and then went off to the tool shed to mend harness. All afternoon he stitched and riveted. It was easier with the lantern lit and his hands occupied. There was a wind whining high past the tool shed too, but it was only wind. He remembered the arguments with which Ellen had tried to persuade him away from the farm, and one by one he defeated them. There would be rain again – next year or the next. Maybe in his ignorance he had farmed his land the wrong way, seeding wheat every year, working the soil till it was lifeless dust – but he would do better now. He would plant clover and alfalfa, breed cattle, acre by acre and year by year restore to his land its fibre and fertility. That was something to work for, a way to prove himself. It was ruthless wind, blackening the sky with his earth, but it was not his master. Out of his land it had made a wilderness. He now, out of the wilderness, would make a farm and home again.

Tonight he must talk with Ellen. Patiently, when the wind was down, and they were both quiet again. It was she who had told him to grow fibrous crops, who had called him an ignorant fool because he kept on with summer fallow and wheat. Now she might be gratified to find him acknowledging her wisdom. Perhaps she would begin to feel the power and steadfastness of the land, to take a pride in it, to understand that he was not a fool, but working for her future and their son’s.

And already the wind was slackening. At four o’ clock he could sense a lull. At five, straining his eyes from the tool shed doorway, he could make out a neighbour’s buildings half a mile away. It was over – three days of blight and havoc like a scourge – three days so bitter and so long that for a moment he stood still, unseeing, his senses idle with a numbness of relief.

But only for a moment. Suddenly he emerged from the numbness; suddenly the fields before him struck his eyes to comprehension. They lay black, naked. Beaten and mounded smooth with dust as if a sea in gentle swell had turned to stone. And though he had tried to prepare himself for such a scene, though he had known since yesterday that not a blade would last through the storm, still now, before the utter waste confronting him, he sickened and stood cold. Suddenly like the fields he was naked. Everything that had sheathed him a little from the realities of existence: vision and purpose, faith in the land, in the future, in himself – it was all rent now, striped away. “Desert,” he heard her voice begin to sob. “Desert, you fool – the lamp lit at noon!”

In the stable again, measuring out their feed to the horses, he wondered what he would say to her tonight. For so deep were his instincts of loyalty to the land that still, even with the images of his betrayal stark upon his mind, his concern was how to withstand her, how to go on again and justify himself. It had not occurred to him yet that he might or should abandon the land. He had lived with it too long. Rather was his impulse still to defend it – as a man defends against the scorn of strangers even his most worthless kin.

He fed his horses, then waited. She too would be waiting, ready to cry at him, “Look now – that crop was to feed and clothe us! And you’ll still keep on! You’ll still say ‘Next year - there’ll be rain next year’!’

But she was gone when he reached the house. The door was open, the lamp blown out, the crib empty. The dishes from their meal at noon were still on the table. She had perhaps begun to sweep, for the broom was lying in the middle of the floor. In the wan, returning light it seemed that even the deserted kitchen was straining to whisper what it had seen. The tatters of the storm still whimpered through the eaves, and in their moaning told the desolation of the miles they had traversed. On tiptoe at last he crossed to the adjoining room; then at the threshold, without even a glance inside to satisfy himself that she was really gone, he wheeled again and plunged outside.

He ran a long time – distraught and headlong as a few hours ago he had seemed to watch her run – around the farmyard, a little distance into the pasture, back again blindly to the house to see whether she had returned – and then at a stumble down the road for help.

They joined in the search, rode away for others, spread calling across the fields in the direction she might have been carried by the wind – but nearly two hours later it was himself who came upon her. Crouched down against a drift of sand as if for shelter, her hair in matted strands around her neck and face, the child clasped tightly in her arms.

The child was quite cold. It had been her arms, perhaps, too frantic to protect him, or the smother of dust upon his throat and lungs. “Hold him,” she said as he knelt beside her. “So – with his face away from the wind. Hold him until I tidy my hair.”

Her eyes were still wide in an immobile stare, but with her lips she smiled at him. For a long time he knelt transfixed, trying to speak to her, touching fearfully with his fingertips the dust-grimed cheeks and eyelids of the child. At last she said, “I’ll take him again. Such clumsy hands – you don’t know how to hold a baby yet. See how his head falls forward on your arm.”

Yet it all seemed so familiar – a confirmation of what he had known since noon. He gave her the child, then, gathering them up in his arms, struggled to his feet, and turned toward home.

It was evening now. Across the fields a few spent clouds of dust still shook and fled. Beyond, as if through smoke, the sunset smouldered like a distant fire.

He walked with a long dull stride, his eyes before him, heedless of her weight. Once he glanced down and with her eyes she still was smiling. “Such strong arms, Paul – and I was so tired just carrying him...”

He tried to answer, but it seemed that now the dusk was drawn apart in breathless waiting, a finger on its lips until they passed. “You were right, Paul...” Her voice came whispering, as if she too could feel the hush. “You said tonight we’d see the storm go down. So still now, and a red sky – it means tomorrow will be fine."

1 comment:

Information said...

Nice post. thank you.