Perfect Passages: ‘Maternity’ from ‘My Mother’s House’ + ‘Sido’ by Colette

Perfect Passages: 'Maternity' from 'My Mother's House' + 'Sido' by Colette

No sooner was she married, than my long-haired sister yielded to the persuasions of her husband and her in-laws and stopped seeing us, while the formidable machinery of lawyers and notaries was set in motion. I was only eleven or twelve years old, and I had no idea of the meaning of such expressions as ‘improvident guardianship’, and ‘inexcusable extravagance’, directed against my father. There followed a complete rupture between my parents and the young married couple. To my brothers and myself it made little difference. Whether my half-sister – the tall gracefully-built girl with the Mongolian features, whose amazing hair weighed her down as with chains – shut herself all day in her room upstairs or exiled herself with a husband in a neighboring house, it came to much the same thing, and did not affect us. In any case, my brothers, who had themselves left home, perceived only the distant reverberations of an upheaval that engrossed our entire village. A domestic tragedy in a great city can run its course discreetly, and its heros can slaughter each other in silence. But a village that vegetates all the year round in peace and inanition and has to content itself with meagre scandals afforded by local incidents of poaching or gallantry, such a village is without compassion, and its inmates are not likely to avert their eyes in charitable consideration from the spectacle of a woman whom financial disputes have robbed of her child in less than a day.

We were the only topic of conversation. Every morning there was a queue at Léonore’s, the butcher’s, in the hope that my mother might be cornered and forced to betray some emotion. Creatures who the day before had not appeared bloodthirsty, now gloated together over a few precious tears, a few words of complaint wrestled from her maternal indignation. She would come home exhausted, panting like a hunted beast. At home with father and me, she would pull herself together, cutting up the bread for the fowls, basting the roast, hammering away, with all the strength of her small hands and beautiful arms, at a box for the cat who was near her time, or washing my hair with rum and yolk of egg. She made a sort of cruel art of suppressing her grief and sometimes I would even hear her singing. But at the evening she would go upstairs to close the shutters of the first floor windows herself, so as to gaze across the party wall at the garden and house where my sister lived. She could see the strawberry beds, the espaliered apple-trees, clumps of phlox and three steps that led to a terrace with orange trees in tubs and cane chairs. One night – I was standing behind her – we recognised, lying on one of the chairs, a gold and purple shawl which dated from my long-haired sister’s latest convalescence. I cried out: ‘Oh, look! There’s Juliette’s shawl!’ and received no answer. A curious, convulsive sound not unlike stifled laughter died away with my mother’s footsteps down the corridor, after she had fastened all the shutters.

Months went by and nothing was altered. The ungrateful daughter remained under her own roof, and passed our threshold without turning her head. But sometimes, meeting my mother unexpectedly, she fled like a child that fears a blow. As for me I would meet her without emotion, only mildly surprised at the sight of this stranger who wore new dresses and unfamiliar hats.

One day the rumour reached us that she was going to have a child. But I had ceased to think about her, nor did I attach any special significance to the fact that just at the time my mother began to have attacks of nervous fainting, nausea and palpitations. I only remember that the sight of my sister, distorted and grown heavy, filled me with still more embarrassment and disgust.

Still more weeks passed. My mother, always lively and active, began to employ her energies in a rather incoherent manner. One day she seasoned the strawberry tart with salt instead of sugar, and instead of showing distress she met my father’s expostulations with a face of stony irony that upset me terribly.

One summer evening, just as we three had finished dinner, a neighbour come in bareheaded, wished us good evening with an important air, whispered a few mysterious words in my mother’s ear and departed forthwith. My mother sighed, ‘Oh my goodness! …’ and remained standing, her hands resting on the table.

‘What’s the matter?’ enquired my father.

With an effort, she withdrew her gaze from the flame of the lamp and answered:

‘Things have started … over there …’

I vaguely understood, and went upstairs earlier than usual to my bedroom, one of three that overlooked the garden opposite. After putting out my lamp I opened the window in order to watch, at the end of a garden turned purple under the moonlight, the mysterious house with all its shutters closed. I listened, pressing my beating heart against the window-sill. The scene was bathed in the nocturnal silence of the village, and all I could hear was the bark of a dog and the scraping of a cat’s claw on the bole of a tree. Then a shadowy form in a white dressing gown – my mother – crossed the road and entered the garden opposite. I saw her raise her head and consider the party wall as though she had hopes of climbing it. Then she started to walk up and down the centre path, where she broke off a sprig of scented bay, automatically crushing its leaves between her fingers. Under the cold light of the full moon not one of her gestures escaped me. Motionless, her face upturned to the sky, she listened, and waited. A thin cry, long-drawn-out and muffled by distance, and the intervening walls, reached us at the same moment, and she clasped her hands convulsively to her breast. A second cry, pitched on the same note, almost like the opening of a melody, floated towards us, and a third … Then I saw my mother grip her own loins with desperate hands, spin round and stamp on the ground as she began to assist and share, by her low groans, by the rocking of her tormented body, by the clasping of her unwanted arms, and by all her maternal anguish and strength, the anguish and strength of the ungrateful daughter who, so near to hear and yet so far away, was bringing a child into the world.

{ISBN 0-374-52833-0 | Pages 76 -79}