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Reverdy

Posted: March 22, 2011, 01:03:40 am by jim


by Jessamyn West

I NEVER see asters without remembering her — never the haze of
their pink and lavender blossoming as summer dies, but her name
is in my heart: Reverdy, Reverdy.

I never say her name — not to anyone. When people ask about her,
as they do occasionally even now, I say "she" and "her." "She is still
gone." "We do not hear from her." "Yes, she was very beautiful," I
say. But not her name.

Not Reverdy. That is buried deep, deep in my heart. Where the
blood is warmest and thickest. . . . Where it has a sound to me like
bells, or water running, or the doves whose voices in the evening wind
are like smoke among the madronas and eucalypti.

I have longed all these years to tell her how it was the night she
left You may scarcely believe it, but it is worse to have a good thing
that is not true believed about you, than a bad. To be thanked for
an act you meant as harmful: Every year those words sharpen until
at last they cut like knives.

You musn't think she was like me. She wasn't in the least. Not
inside nor out. She had dark hair like a cloud. Yes, really. It wasn't
curly but it didn't hang straight. It billowed out. And her face — oh,
you mustn't think it was anything like mine. She had hazel eyes and
a pointed chin. And you've seen lots of people, haven't you, with very
live, animated faces and dead eyes? It was just the other way with
Reverdy. Her face was always quiet, but her eyes were so alive they
glowed. Oh, she was the most beautiful, most alive, and most loving
girl in the world, and she was my sister.

I cannot bear for people to say we were alike; she was really good,
and I was just a show-off.

Mother — she was better later, and gentler, but then she was bad,
cruel, and suspicious with Reverdy. Everybody loved Reverdy. Not
just the boys. But Mother wouldn't see that. She always acted as if
Reverdy were boy-crazy, as if Reverdy tried to entice the boys to her.
But it wasn't true. Reverdy never lifted a finger to a boy, though they
were about her all the time from the day she was ten. Bringing her
May baskets, or Valentines, or their ponies to ride.

And the big, tough boys liked her, too. When she was twelve and
thirteen, big eighteen-year-olds would come over and sit on the steps
and smoke and talk to Reverdy. They never said anything out of
the way. I know because most of the time I was with them. Reverdy
didn't care. She never wanted to be alone with them. Reverdy would
listen to them until she got tired ; then she'd say, "Good-bye for now."
She'd always say, "Good-bye for now," — and then she'd go out and
play, maybe run, sheep, run, with the little kids my age. And the
little kids would all shout when Reverdy came out to play with them,
and if the game had been about to die, it would come to life again. If
some of the kids had gone home they'd yell "Hey, Johnnie," or "Hey,
Mary," or whoever it was, "Reverdy's going to play," and then everyone
would come back, and in a minute or two the game would be better
than ever.

I used to be awfully proud of being her sister. I don't know what
I would have done without her. I was a terribly plain little frump:
I wore glasses and had freckles, and if I hadn't been Reverdy's sister
I'd have had to sit and play jacks by myself until Joe came along. But
boys would try to get Reverdy's attention by doing things for me.
They'd say to her, "Does your sister want to ride on my handle bars?"
And Reverdy would say, all glowing, happier than if she'd been asked,
"Do you, Sister?" Of course I did, and then when the boy came back
she'd ride with him just to thank him.

I don't know why people — why the boys liked her so. Of course,
she was beautiful, but I think it was more that she was so much — well,
whatever she was at the moment, she never pretended. She talked with
people when she wanted to, and when she got tired of them, she
didn't stay on pretending, but said, "Good-bye for now," and left.

But Mother would never believe she wasn't boy-crazy and I would
hear her talking to Reverdy about girls who got in trouble, and how

she was talking about, but it would make my face burn and scalp tingle
just to hear her. She wouldn't talk sorrowfully or lovingly to Reverdy,
but with hate. It wasn't Reverdy she hated, but you couldn't tell that,
looking at her. She would bend over Reverdy and shake her ringer and
there would be long ugly lines from her nose to her mouth, and her
eyebrows would be drawn down until you could see the bony ridges
they were supposed to cover, all bare and hard. It used to make me
tremble to see her. Then Reverdy would get mad. I don't think she
knew half the time what Mother was talking about either — only that
Mother was full of hate and suspicion. She'd wait until Mother had
finished; then she'd go to the foothills for a walk — even if it was dark
— and stay for a long time. And then Mother would think she was
out with some boy again.

I remember one time my mother came to me and said, "Clare, I
want you to tiptoe out to the arbor and see what's going on there.
Reverdy 's out there with Sam Foss and I haven't heard a sound out
of them for an hour or more."

The arbor was a kind of little bower covered with honeysuckle.
There was only a tiny little door, and the honeysuckle strands hung
so thick over it the arbor was a kind of dark, sweet-smelling cave.
Reverdy and I used to play house there. I knew I ought to say I
wouldn't go spying on Reverdy, but I wanted to please Mother; so I
went creeping out toward the arbor, holding my breath, walking on
my toes. I didn't know then — but I've found out since — you can't do
a thing without becoming that thing. When I started out to look for
Reverdy I was her little sister, loving her. But creeping that way,
holding my breath, spying, I became a spy. My hands got heavy and
hot and my mouth dry, and I wanted to see her doing — whatever it
was — Mother was fearful of.

And then when I got to the arbor and peeped in, I saw that Chum-
mie, our ten-year-old brother, was there with them, and they were all
practicing sign language. Deaf-and-dumb language was the rage with
kids that summer, and there was that big Sam Foss sitting cross-legged,
practicing sign language so hard he was sweating. They had oranges
rolled until they were soft, and straws stuck in them to suck the
juice out.

That's all they were doing. Practicing deaf-and-dumb language, and
sucking oranges that way, playing they were bottles of pop. I guess
they'd taken a vow not to talk, because nobody said a word. Even
when Reverdy saw me peeping in she didn't say anything, but just
spelled out, "Hello, Sister." But my hands felt so hot and swollen I
couldn't spell a thing, and I just stood there and stared until I heard
Mother call me to her, where she was standing strained and waiting
on the back steps.

"They're playing sign-language with Chummie," I told her.

"Is Chummie with them?" she asked and her face relaxed and had
a sort of shamed look on it, I thought.

I went in the house and put on the old dress I went swimming in,
and floated around in the irrigation canal until supper was over and
so I wouldn't have to sit and look across the table at Reverdy.

Things like that were always happening. I loved Reverdy more
than anybody, and I hated Mother sometimes for spying and suspecting
and lecturing. But I wanted people to love me. And especially you
want your mother to love you — isn't that true? And no one loved
me — the way Reverdy was loved. I wasn't beautiful and spontaneous;
I had to work hard and do good deeds to be loved. I couldn't be free
the way Reverdy was. I was always thinking of the effect I was mak-
ing. I couldn't say, "Good-bye for now," and let people go to hell if
they didn't like me. I was afraid they'd never come back . . . and
I'd be left . . . alone. But Reverdy didn't care. She liked being alone,
and that's the reason people loved her, I guess.

One evening in October, when it was almost dark, I was coming
home from the library, coasting across lots in the hot dry Santa Ana
that had been blowing all day. Cool weather had already come, and
then three days of this hot wind. Dust everywhere. Under your eye-
lids, between your fingers, in your mouth. When we went to school
in the morning the first thing we'd do would be to write our names
in the dust on our desks. I had on a skirt full of pleats that evening,
and I pulled the pleats out wide so the skirt made a sort of sail and
the wind almost pushed me along. I watched the tumbleweeds blow-
ing, and listened to the wind in the clump of eucalypti by the barn,
and felt miserable and gritty. Then I saw Reverdy walking up and
down the driveway by the house and I felt suddenly glad. Reverdy
loved the wind, even Santa Anas, and she was always out walking or
running when the wind blew, if she didn't have any work to do. She
liked to carry a scarf in her hand and hold it up in the wind so she
could feel it tug and snap. When I saw Reverdy I forgot how dusty
and hot the wind was and remembered only how alive it was and how
Reverdy loved it. I ran toward her, but she didn't wave or say a word,
and when she reached the end of the driveway she turned her back
on me and started walking toward the barn.

Before I had a chance to say a word to her, Mother came to the door
and called to me to come in and not talk to Reverdy. As soon as I
heard her voice before I could see her face, I knew there was some
trouble — some trouble with Reverdy — and I knew what kind of trouble,
too. I went in the house and shut the door. The sound of Reverdy's
footsteps on the pepper leaves in the driveway outside stopped and
Mother put her head out of the window and said, "You're to keep walk-
ing, Reverdy, and not stop. Understand? I want to hear footsteps
and I want them to be brisk." Then she closed the window, though
it was hard to do against the wind.

I stood with my face to the window and looked out into the dusty,
windy dark where I could just see Reverdy in her white dress walking
up and down, never stopping, her head bent, not paying any attention
to the wind she loved. It made me feel sick to see her walking up
and down there in the dusty dark like a homeless dog, while we were
snug inside.

But Mother came over to the window and took the curtain out of my
hand and put it back over the glass. Then she put her arm around
my shoulders and pressed me close to her and said, "Mother's own
dear girl who has never given her a moment's trouble."

That wasn't true. Mother had plenty of fault to find with me
usually, but it was sweet to have her speak lovingly to me, to be cher-
ished and appreciated. Maybe you can't understand that, maybe your
family was always loving, maybe you were always dear little daughter,
or maybe, a big golden wonder-boy. But not me and not my mother.
So try to understand how it was with me, then, and how happy it
made me to have Mother put her arms about me. Yes, I thought, I'm
Mother's comfort. And I forgot I couldn't make a boy look at me if
I wanted to and blamed Reverdy for not being able to steer clear of
them the way I did. She just hasn't any consideration for any of us,
I decided. Oh, I battened on Reverdy's downfall all right.

Then Father and Chummie came in and Mother took Father away
to the kitchen and talked to him there in a fast, breathless voice. I
couldn't hear what she was saying, but I knew what she was talking
about, of course. Chummie and I sat there in the dark. He whirled
first one way and then another on the piano stool.

"What's Reverdy doing walking up and down outside there?" he
asked.

"She's done something bad again," I told him.

Mother's voice got higher and higher, and Chummie said he'd have
to go feed his rabbits, and I was left alone in the dark listening to her,
and to Reverdy's footsteps on the pepper leaves. I decided to light
the lights, but when I did — we had acetylene lights — the blue-white
glare was so terrible I couldn't stand it. Not to sit alone in all that
light and look at the dusty room and listen to the dry sound of the
wind in the palms outside, and see Reverdy's books on the library table
where she'd put them when she got home from school, with a big
bunch of wilted asters laid across them. Reverdy always kept her
room filled with flowers, and if she couldn't get flowers she'd have
leaves or grasses.

No, I couldn't stand that; so I turned out the lights and sat in the
dark and listened to Reverdy's steps, not fast or light now, but heavy
and slow. . . . And I sat there and thought I was Mother's comforter,
not causing her trouble like Reverdy.

Pretty soon I heard Mother and Father go outside, and then their
voices beneath the window. Father was good, and he was for reason,
but with Mother he lost his reason. He was just like me, I guess. He
wanted Mother to love him, and because he did he would go out and
say to Reverdy the things Mother wanted him to say.

Chummie came back from feeding his rabbits and sat with me in
the dark room. Then I got the idea of a way to show Mother how
much I was her comfort and mainstay, her darling younger daughter,
dutiful and harmonious as hell. Mother wanted me and Chummie to
be musical; she'd given up with Reverdy, but Chummie and I had taken
lessons for years. Usually we kicked and howled at having to play;
so, I thought, if we play now it will show Mother how thoughtful and
reliable we are. It will cheer her up while she's out there in the wind
talking to that bad Reverdy. Yes, she will think, I have one fine, de-
pendable daughter, anyway.

So I said to Chummie, "Let's play something for Mother." So he
got out his violin, and we played that piece I've ever afterwards hated.
Over and over again, just as sweet as we could make it. Oh, I felt
smug as hell as I played. I sat there on the piano stool with feet just
so, and my hands just so, and played carefully, every note saying,
"Mother's comfort. Mother's comfort. Played by her good, fine, re-
liable daughter."

We could hear Mother's high voice outside the window and Rev-
erdy's low murmur now and then. Chummie finally got tired of play-
ing — the music wasn't saying anything to him — and went out to the
kitchen to get something to eat. I went too, but the minute I took a
bite I knew I wasn't hungry, and Chummie and I went to bed. I lay
in bed a long time waiting to hear Mother and Reverdy come in, but
there wasn't any sound but the wind.

I was asleep when Reverdy did come in. She sat down on the side
of my bed, and it was just her sitting there that finally awakened me.
Then, when I was awake she picked up my hand and began to press
my finger tips one by one, and spoke in the sweetest, kindest voice.
You'd never have thought to hear her that she had just spent four or
five hours the way she did.

She said, "I'll never forget your playing for me, Sister. Never.
Never. It was kind and beautiful of you. Just when I thought I was
all alone I heard you telling me not to be sad." Then she leaned over
and kissed me and said, "Good night, now. I've put some asters in
water for you. They're a little wilted but I think they'll be all right
by morning. Go to sleep, now. I'll never forget, Clare."

If I could only have told her— if I could only have told her then.
If I could have said to her, "I was playing for Mother, Reverdy. I
guess I was jealous of your always having the limelight. I wanted to
be first for once." If I could only have said, "I love you more than
anything, Reverdy, but I have a mean soul," she would have put her
cheek to mine and said, "Oh, Clare, what a thing to say."

But I couldn't do it and next morning she was gone. And there on
the table by my bed were the asters she had left for me, grown fresh
over night.

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