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WHALE BONE
by David Massey

 

 

The young man accompanied me outside to enjoy the air and sun.  So balmy out here always in July.  We walked slowly toward this swing, my favorite place to watch the birds, butterflies, squirrels, rabbits, and other charming creatures that ofttimes appear to this view; I was wearing a hooped skirt and, of coarse, this eternal corset, this whalebone and wire torture skirt that made each step I took such a mincing, laborious affair that I could see my companion growing ever more impatient at my pace.  By the time we reached this swing, I saw he had lost all interest in me.  What a pity that was, too!  I felt immediately that I might have liked him very much.  Chester was his name.  I remember he smoked some kind of aromatic tobacco in a Meerschaum pipe.  I would have liked him so.  I never liked my husband half so much!

That marriage was arranged for me.  My father was determined I should not be an old maid; it was a mark of shame in his eyes to have such a daughter.  By that time he already had declared his firm intention of never willing me more than this house:  he wished that I should have a husband, that all my needs of clothing and sustenance might be supplied, and he did not mind a farthing paying for my wedding to get me off his hands, albeit he refused to make it a lavish affair.

Oh, I wish for one moment in my life I could have thrown off this diabolical corset and opposed the will of my father in more ways than only the one I could not help!  I had such a slow, painful time getting from the house to this swing, dear Lord my God, that I never thought I should make it this time!  I fear I cannot live much longer--perhaps not even to another Sabbath—but come what may, I know I never can attain my favorite outdoor spot again, unless for one hour I can go without this iron let.

This is my last time in this lovely lookout.  Let me enjoy it.  Here is a praying mantis, high priest of nature, alighted on the arm of  my swing.  How he deliberates.  Don’t disturb him, Janette.  He is deep in thought.

#

Whenever I consider how my father dropped me forever from his affections, I am so bitter I almost despair in hopes of heaven.  He and Mother were not the only ones who mourned the loss of Juliette, they should have known that!. Oh!  It grieved me so that she allowed that uncouth, evil Eli McAllister to take her off to God knows where in the frontier state of Georgia.  I know she broke their hearts when she did that, but oh, Jesus Lord, she almost destroyed me, her sister.  I loved her, too!  O God in heaven, I loved her, too!  How could they behave as if a sister should be any less heartbroken over the loss of her belovèd other half than they were over the loss of their youngest child and pet?  Oh, my belovèd sister!  Bereft!  Bereft!  I became so furious on one winter night in the second week after she left that I leapt up from the dinner table and screamed, “I loved her as much as anybody!  Are you blind, Father?”  When Father demanded that I sit down and act like a lady, I stormed upstairs to my room.  I almost tripped and fell, clambering with all my might to overcome this everlasting corset.  Father could easily have manhandled me back to the table, so hampered was I; but he was constrained by his sense of propriety before the slaves.  They were his property.  He could not show weakness in front of them lest they grow emboldened, and think themselves people, and people might revolt.

I grieve, too, over Daniel, my nephew.  Daniel it was who told me at long last how his mother, my sister, died, brutally beaten to death by Eli McAllister with a shovel.  How I admire that young man, and wish my conformity to the mores of this paternalistic society  had not caused me to break with him when I learned he had involved himself in an affair with his Julia while she was still married to Adam Brooks.  I have little to leave for him—there is virtually nothing left of the two bequests that have kept me in food and raiment adown the years—but in my will made out last year at this season I gave him whatever is left after this house and grounds discharge the debts of my estate.  I wish I could do more—and how I wish I had contacted that brave young man before I became so weak, poor, and isolated that I no longer can.  I have not even Hattie to help me around the house now, and I live in filthy, dusty quarters.  I know the neighborhood he lives in, but do not know his address.  Shame on me.  My lawyer will have to locate him to give what I have left behind.

It’s such a pity that I can no longer spend money keeping up the grounds.  Weeds have overtaken even this wholesome vantage, where the roses, oleanders, and willow trees struggle.  But I do not so much as have the means to buy provisions for another month’s larder, were I able to contact my attorney to release the funds.  A mercy it is that I am near death.  Let it come swiftly and peacefully.  The last time I needed food, over six months ago, I was lucky enough to fall and hurt myself trying to get back to the house from this swing, before a witness; Ezekiel Wheaton; that blessèd fellow, who was cutting through my property carrying small game he had killed with his long gun, rushed over to help me up and back into the house.  I was able through his goodness to send him to see Horace.  I have enough flour, lard, sugar, tea, dried nuts, and salted pork to last me another ten days if I live that long.  Then, I suppose, I shall starve.

I should have had the gumption to make them give me control over my own finances.  I believe Horace has cheated me, cheated me ten times over.  But no woman can keep her finances out of the hands of some man in this country unless she has the courage to insist, to fight our courts relentlessly.

I ought not have come out today.  I know not how I ever shall reach the back door this time.  Oh, I may have to take off my dress and remove this abominable corset in the very yard!  However else shall I make it?  Will the shadow of my father continue to dog my every feeble baby step right to my last hour on God’s earth?

Look!  A fox!  Had I a chicken coop, I should be worried now!  But I have only the delightful sight of his antics.  He must have been drawn to this neighborhood by the rabbits that teem in the thick woods yonder.  Thou art a sly creature.  So wily, even as you see me watching you.  Do you think of attacking me?  Ah, you are leaving.  Well, go thy way in peace, fox.

I remember so well the salon at which I first heard my nephew’s name and suspected who he was, recall it as if it were this very morning.  It was such a showy and ostentatious affair that my hostess has been driven from memory, a bovine, vain nature, her very name escapes me, I do believe I resented her very much.  Everyone, I quickly saw, was there only to see and be seen—mostly the latter!  But during my hour there I met Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who had only that year made a name for himself, with his Poetry and Poets of America; and Griswold it was who had the contacts I needed with publishers of Christian poetry to have a slender volume of verse by one of my friends printed out.

Poor Tildy!  She met her end nine years ago when the horse pulling her gig, frightened, as horses have the sense to be, by a hissing rattlesnake, threw her from the gig onto her head, against some rocks. She perished of the concussion.  In retrospect, I regret even the one good office I was able to do her, for Rufus Griswold proved to be a reprobate who divorced his second wife in a public scandal, then hounded poor Edgar Poe, one of the most unfortunate men ever to walk the earth, into his grave and beyond; for he would not let even Poe’s ghost reside in peace, but to the best of his ability  befouled Poe’s memory.  Thank God Poe had the last laugh, for his collected works have proved the most popular volumes going now.

I can only thank my lucky stars that the gaudy affair at which I met Mr. Griswold did not seal my heart against all accounts of this or that salon that I might have heard.  In the last year that I was healthy enough to make such a journey to New York City, I gained admittance to one of Anne Charlotte Lynch’s soirées, and oh, how heavenly it was to meet our hostess.  She was lovely, and her character shined through with a more beautiful light still.  I believe that splendid lady would have given her life for any cause she deemed the holy and, most of all, the kindly and compassionate one.  Would that I might ever have been so brave, or so effectual in bolstering others in their higher ambitions.  At Miss Lynch’s house I was introduced to Bronson Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, Bayard Taylor, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Nathaniel Parker Willis, and several more whom I cannot recall, inasmuch as I was in such a heavenly fog, and there were so many luminaries to remember..

It hurts my heart so.  Thinking of Anne Lynch’s character reminds me of that of my dear nephew.  When I heard of him at the 1842 gathering, I tracked him down to his one small rented room.  I remember I was wearing purple, from bonnet to shoes, and so complete was the concealment of anything carnal in me that the only parts of my body that showed were my face, neck, and hands.  Oh, how can I ever forget the compassion, the utter pity that flooded his face as he witnessed my halting gait into his small room?  He rued my corset.  He let me sit in his chair, taking my hand to help me ease myself into it, then sat down on his bed so we could talk.  He told me so much—how that evil Eli McAllister sank my poor, helpless sister in the deepest of hells, one day beating her to within an inch of her life as she was gathering scuppernongs to make a jam for her family, and on a final occasion of satanic drunken cruelty just sixteen hours before beating her to death with a shovel, held the palm of her right hand down on the red hot top of their kitchen stove, then threatened her with immediate death if she did not stop screaming, and dealt her such a blow when she could not stop that he knocked her unconscious.  When his mother next morning saw Eli coming back to the house to kill her before she could flee for her life, she screamed at Daniel, “Run, Daniel!  Run!  Run!” and the little boy, only seven, ran for his very soul into the road and climbed into the back of a passing farm wagon, hiding himself from his father’s rage underneath a tarpaulin covering fertilizer.  He had not slept in two nights for fear of Eli, and soon fell asleep.  When the wagon stopped, he was taken into slavery by the man at the reins of the mules.  That man was Julia’s father!  His little daughter, a five-year-old, dirt-poor farm waif, loved Daniel from the very moment she set eyes on him, and followed him about like a puppy watching his every move except when her father’s actions forbade it.  And this was Daniel’s Julia; hard was it when the world turned so coldly against them for violating the marriage bonds.

I, at least, should have been more understanding.  I had my own cross of beaten brass to bear.  When I stormed upstairs in such despair because Father would not so much as allow me to feel my grief without cruel rebuke, he yelled, “You will pay for this, young lady.  Remember, you shall pay for this.”  And indeed, I have.  He told me he would, at least, bequeath me the house and grounds—he would not have the world know he left a daughter of his without a roof over her head; but the only provision he would make for my daily sustenance was to find me a husband if I proved unable to find one for myself.  And this he did, in the last year of his life.  Jeffrey Williams, my husband, was a strait-laced ‘cold fish,’ the kind of man I, at least, had expected my father, a dictatorial Methodist minister, to find for me.  In the three years we were married, before Jeffrey died of a mysterious fever that swept through the country that winter, we did not even once know one another in the sense conveyed by the word “know” in The Bible.  I had no marriage; I had three years of prison; and my husband did not even have the means to provide for me upon his death.  Had my maternal grandfather and my father’s brother, in every way a kinder and better man than Father, not opportunely learned of my fate and made each of them a bequest in my name, I should have had no way at all of supporting myself.

And this is what our paternalistic world does to a woman who cannot throw off this iron corset!  Oh, I hate it so!

#

The most shameful thing I have ever done is that letter I wrote to my nephew.  It is engrained in memory like the badge of my  infamy.  Sir.  I shall not call you ‘dear nephew.’  You are beyond the pale of any intimate address.  I delayed writing you because I was hearing persistent disturbing rumors about you and Mrs. Julia Paley Brooks; and today I received information from an impeccable source that the two of you are involved in a relationship that looks like adultery.  Therefore, I tell you this, DO NOT WRITE TO ME AGAIN.  Any correspondence from you shall be burned.  This is your last word from me.  --Mrs. Janette Williams.

How could I write such a letter to a young man who had behaved with such chivalry toward me, and laid his heart bare for me?  A youth who had loved me from the very hour he met me?  He had told me how dreadfully it hurt him to lose Julia when, he knew not why, she had fled his ken and left him no trail to follow.  He was so confused.  He really did know why.  He and Julia had met after thirteen years of being apart at one of Margaret Fuller’s socratic dialogues, and fallen in love; but he had vacillated so between her and a woman to whom he had committed to such a degree that, in his eyes, no honorable disengagement was possible, that she had felt snubbed and cruelly rejected, and she left him in search of a man who could value her.  She married Adam Brooks on the rebound, and regretted it before even the vows were taken.  I do not know that whole story—was only able to pick up fragments of it—but she seems to have regarded her husband, an alleged poet, as the greatest plagiarist and fool residing in Europe.  She left him, came back to Boston, and there began the affair that sank herself and Daniel under a relentless dark sky of infamy.  It has been a long time now since I was able to hear any of the gossip of gentility, but when last I did hear, in ’48, that cloud had not lifted.

It is too bad I was not able to see beyond the blinders our society had placed on me.  In this, too, the heavy hand of my father made my perceptions as narrow as those of my compatriots.  I feel that this shirt of Nessus I have worn all my life is the very symbol of all that is wrong with my thinking.  I’m not sure it will even allow me to raise myself from this swing, much less stumble across the yard to the house.

Well, let me stop thinking so hard and enjoy the beauty a little longer.  The butterflies swarm around that pepperbush, how lovely, and what a soothing scene.  Even the gnats do not bother me.

#

She broke her parents’ heart, and saddened her sister.  THAT is how I described the effect of Juliette’s leaving home with that brute, when I spoke of it to my nephew.  Saddened?  SADDENED?  Oh, God! it almost destroyed me!!  After my father drove me from the table, overwrought and in tears, I went to my room and would not, could not come out for weeks, for I know not how long, while I wasted away and Annabel could barely get me to drink enough water and juice to keep me alive.  I wept and wept.  And all the while my father stormed about, threatening the gravest consequences if I did not stop my histrionics and begin acting like a young lady.  Both he and Mother felt that a sister should feel much less over a sibling’s loss than a child’s parents might do.  And when I told Daniel of Juliette’s leaving home with that willful and bullying Eli, the most that could escape my lips was that I was saddened?  Oh, may God have mercy on my soul, the long shadow of my father still put limits to my tongue.  It rules, to this very moment, even my thoughts.  Oh, let me end it, end it, end it now!

Thank God that after I said that to Daniel, tears streamed down my face, and I said, “No!  It all but destroyed me!”  At least he knew.

After I finally was able to begin eating again and come out of hiding in my bedroom, I felt differently toward my parents than before, and was ever after frosty toward them.  I never again told Mother or Father about my feelings for my sister, or, actually, about anything.  To their queries I gave such replies as, “You need not enquire about my feelings.  You don’t care, anyway.”  And the like.  I remember on one occasion I told Father, “Please don’t ask me a perfunctory question.”  I cured them of asking after my feelings—or even about a preference.  They would not honor my wishes above either of theirs anyway.

Perhaps such petulance, offered to their solicitude rather than a real declaration of my rights, is why I face penury and starvation now.  My father might not, after all, have left me so ruined a winter bough had my only crime been deep grief over Juliette’s departure.   But I was in his eyes a thoroughly ungrateful daughter.

Well.  I have to get up from this swing and into the house, somehow.  It is threatening a rain in forty minutes or an hour.  Should I get soaked, I might not last out the morrow.

Oh.  Oohhhh!  --There.  I am up.  Let me rest.  --Now.  The fumble-step must begin.

Oh!  So hard!  Let’s see.  One, two, three, four.  One, two.  One, two, three.  --Rest, Janette.  This is so hard.  How did the most elementary thing in life get so hard?

Oohhh!!  Oh, hard!  Father, I could murder your very ghost!  I hate you, hate you, hate you as I never have!!  Uh!  Uh!  Oh!  One, two.  One, two, three, four.  One— !Ah O God in heaven, will I ever get there?  Oh!--

--I blacked out.  I blacked out!  THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO ME, FATHER!!  I am your daughter, and this is what you have done!  But at least I am here, at the door, my trembling hands have a purchase on the handle.  And look at that, the dark, wet clouds have blown right over my bonnet, let me—

There.  I am inside.  But I am so frantic for breath I feel I may have a seizure and die before I can reach a place to rest my limbs.  I tremble throughout.  Oh, let me—one, two, three, four, one, two, if I count I can get to the sofa.  Oh, at last.  Now, sit you down, Janette.

How is it that I am so spineless?  Is this corset the only spine that I have?  It keeps me rigidly upright enough.

Why could I not tell the nearest relative I have left, and one who evidently loved me from the moment I introduced myself as his mother’s sister, how I felt about her elopement?  And then to turn against him so shamelessly when he found himself in trouble with genteel America!

In the brief time that I was out in the world at large, I met a number of ladies who had freed themselves far more than I ever could from the lets our society places on every step of its women, and on every the tiniest thought I have had.  Of them, among the very doughtiest was Lydia Maria Child, a fearless lady who flew in the face of every prejudice held by our populace, from commonest laborer and housewife to most privileged of our élite.  She made me ashamed of myself.  She not only broke in her personal life from the constraints of society, but waged one-woman warfare on the cruelties of our natures.  Mrs. Child felt white women and the slaves are alike in that they both are subjugated by white males, and treated as property.  And she deplored the national persecution of the Indians wrought by the hatred of President Jackson.  She not only fought for the rights of women and slaves, but for our Native Indians as well; and for every defenseless and beleagured person or thing in the land, and she drew so much ire that the public have turned against her except with respect to some of her more charming verses.  Never you mind—like  my nephew, she continues her campaigns undaunted.  And I know my sweet Daniel continues on because only last year, Dorothea Sweeney, who disapproves of my abolitionist views but cares enough for me to bring me occasional tidings of the outside world, brought me his latest book of tales, and I am so proud of him, I feel it is his best book, it places him in the forefront of our authors of shorter fiction; but I am proudest of him for not giving up his guns. He mans his turret bravely, even in the face of oncoming war between the North and South, which one can feel gathering in all its violence here in this year 185s at my home outside Richmond.

The rain comes down hard now; it drums on the roof and lashes the east-side windows.  I reached safety in the nick of time.

If I could divest myself of this Procrustian girdle, I should little fear such lowering skies as I saw a while ago.  And I should, I truly trust, be capable of standing my ground as well as Daniel, or his first lover, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, who oversaw patient care for the wounded of the Italian war for independence while French bombs exploded on the hospital grounds, and went daily in peril of her life; and who also was among the earliest and most eloquent of warriors for women’s rights; or as well as Mrs. Child, or her friend, Angelina Grimké, a Southern lady who stood in the forefront of Abolitionists, and dared the utmost wrath of slavery sympathizers in the North, who pelted her, men and women alike, with eggs, tomatoes, and rocks, not only because she spoke out against the ‘peculiar institution,’ but also because, being a mere woman, she dared to take the stump.  Or even, dare I think, even so brave as Sojourner Truth, who went in peril of hanging by a mob of slaveholders and poor dirt farmers as she operated her Underground Railroad to secrete runaway slaves on their way to Canada and freedom?  Perhaps.  Who knows what I might have done, Father, if I could once have flung off this accursèd corset?  And rid myself of your dreadful shadow.  I am so angry.  My thoughts grow almost amorphous in my wrath.  You were a slobbering fool, Father, you slobbered when you preached.  How did I let myself be intimidate—so—so—

I will not.  I will not let you rule my life another day.  This whale bone devourer of innocent lives must come off now, and never again be strapped on!  It has stifled my every impulse toward freedom, made me hide my sympathies for the slaves from all but closest friends, cut me off from a nephew I love, my only living relative, the only person from whom I could have received reliable sympathy.  Now!  Now!  Oh!  Why is this dress—such a—maze of shackles—I’ll never even—oh!—oh—let me just----let me just—now—now—all right, now—all right, yes, that was the most difficult—I’ll soon have this dress—off, yes,  there, now, now this iron let—yes, oh, oh, oh, oh, aah!!!  There!!  It’s off, it’s off!!  Perhaps now I can live, forage in the woods for food, enjoy the out-of-doors, end my life with blessèd nature, find peace and freedom in these my last few hours on earth.  Feel the bark on trees, look at wild toadstools, hear the calls of birds that only live deep in thw woods.

So there, Father, go away from me forever..  Your gripe is broken and shall never crush me again.  I will live as I should always have done.  Go back in your grave.  Reason has taken a stand in my soul, and I’m not afraid of you anymore!

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

David Massey has a Master’s Degree in English Literature After 1660 from The University of South Carolina and while there took creative writing classes under George Garrett and James Dickey. He turned belatedly to an earnest engagement with the art of fiction but has made progress of late. He has had three short stories and ten essays on the craft of fiction published in the past two years.

 

 

 

 

     
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