by Hervey Allen
When Simon died his young wife watched for him,
Scanning the shifting shadows of the sea
Three days upon the cliff, then called the dog
And went back to the house and sat alone.
She let her hands fall limply by her chair
As if all she had grasped ran out of them,
Till hunger barked at grief and roused her will.
Some mush she cooked, of which there was scant store,
And while the fire died, by the waning coals
She dreamed about the future; then lay down
To her first widowed sleep, and faced the day.
After hot tears, with courage and her hands.
The roof was not yet on. An ancient sail
Flapped dismally between her and the sky.
So roof, and food, and raiment were first thought.
Even the tools had gone with Simon's boat.
An axe she borrowed from a neighbor near,
And in the somber thicket by the lane
Cut ten strong cedar trees, then shaped them square
And dragged them homeward by an anchor chain.
Then to a former playmate, farmer now,
With snug house of his own, she went and told
Her great necessity with Simon gone.
And he, good man, with others came by night,
After the work upon his fields was done,
And raised her web of beams against the stars,
Thatching it in with broad palmetto leaves
Against the summer sun till winter came.
Meanwhile with needles of sharp fishesbone,
And rusty nail for awl, poor Sarah made
Herself new dress and hammock from the sail;
A hat from scented grasses; and she plied
The garden with bare hands, and shells, and sticks,
Planting her corn, casava, and what not
From seed by handfuls that she begged about,
Saving her bag of meal for desperate use,
And levying toll upon the generous sea
For fish, and mussels, crabs, and even birds
That left their young in crannies of the rocks.
Never a moment idle — late at night
Down in the quarry where the long saws stood
She and the dog were seen by stars and moon,
While through the sandstone hissing metal rasps
Bit, through the cast-off blocks the masons left,
A hundred, then a thousand little tiles,
Twenty, a night. And twenty by the day
She chipped and polished on the rusty prow
Of an old wreck that lay upon the beach,
Whose rusty iron remainders stained the sand.
Meanwhile the garden like the tile heap grew;
A straying hen came clucking to the door;
And to the neighbors for five miles around
Sarah in canvas gown went begging eggs.
Ten was the total. And nine chicks she got
After three weeks, and kept them in her room
With the proud mother and the rat-wise dog.
She foraged cobs of corn for them at night
To cherish them. From these her whole flock grew.
Now for some nails! No easy thing to get,
For not a single penny Sarah had.
They must be copper, too, to hold her roof.
So up and down the reefs for miles she ranged,
And dragged old timbers by a chain at night,
Striving with long, dank hair against the tide
When it was low and she could wade the bars,
Till in the cove the garnered ship-bones grew
And whitened in the summer sun and dried.
Now fire by fire for every mess she cooked
Of fish or greens, out of the fuel she drew
The precious copper nails shipbuilders use;
Hammered them straight; and hid them safe away,
Counted like sovereigns, and when autumn came
She had one thousand and eight more to spare.
Next through the sandstone tiles, with iron bolts
Sharpened and tempered by the fire and sea,
She slowly, painfully bored a careful hole;
Fitted a nail, and drove it in the beams.
So tile by tile, and, slowly, row by row,
With every row of single nail-pierced stones,
She closed the wind and weather from her head.
This was first triumph. Now she had a home!
What admiration struck the countryside
For poor John Simon's widow by the sea!
A pretty girl at that! The masons came
One afternoon and chinked her rooftree in;
Whitewashed the house; and one a window brought,
Set it within the wall, and made a box
Out of an old stone trough. And Sarah put
A bright geranium there, and clapped her hands,
And paused for joy to see her pretty house.
Thus two years passed while Sarah lived alone.
What tools she got, and how the spinning wheel —
Cast off by white folks when the cloth bales came —
Within her cottage came to life and whirled
Her cotton and her flax to thread she wove
Upon a loom made with a knife and hands,
There is no time to tell. Let but the roof
Suffice for here a symbol of her days,
And look about you in her little house
Some two years after Simon has been gone.
There is a copper kettle on the hob,
The bottom mended in some white-hot sand,
The chiefest pride and glory of the room,
Seven clay dishes, and ten wooden spoons
Whittled from fragrant cedar, and a chair
Made from a tide-brought barrel, a bed, and cloth
Spun by her hands and folded in a chest
That Simon kept his gear in. Now, instead
Of hooks and lines and sinkers, there are quilts
Made of a hundred fancy odds and ends,
And snips from counters at the village store;
Linen, and thrice-bleached cotton white as lime,
Laid in verbena and sweet cedar chips.
And all about the walls a hundred things
Her tireless fingers made were hung on pegs:
A wooden lantern with oiled parchment sides,
Combs carefully rasped from cedar, and a cage
Woven of oleanders for white doves,
And baskets of lush grasses. On the floor
A carpet made of sacking graced the hearth,
With knotted fringes lapping round its sides.
Upon a shelf that glowed with twisted shells
Were gourds of curious shapes that she had bound
While yet upon the tree with fishers' twine
To make her cups and bottles, and goose-necked
Pitchers, and crane-like vessels shaped like those
The peasant's spade turns up in Italy.
And many a jug the sea washed up she wove
With cane withes and palmetto splits about
In deftest pattern, checkerboard or plait.
Scarcely a thing she lacked that other folk
With silver in their purses went to buy.
Out of her brain they came with lovely shapes
And quaint invention, carved with leaf and vine
And thistle-bud, pineapple, or pine cone,
Or veined like shells; while defter grew her hands,
And tides, and garden, wood, and copse, and field,
Meadow, and beaches brought her all she wrought.
So brisk a little house, so shining clear
With lime-washed stone, and polished wood, sweet grass,
And homespun stuffs, I think there never was,
With floor like marble, powdered clay and lime,
The window glittered in the morning light.
The dog and all his family kept the door.
Puss watched the hearth white-sanded where the brooms
Of rushes bound with grasses on a stick
Hung on their cypress pegs beside the fire.
Thus furnished forth a housewife, ran her fame
Through fields and hamlets, and for many a mile
On Sunday afternoons the young bucks came
To talk with Sarah, and admire her house.
Here each could see himself anon ensconced
With flock, and garden, roof, and comely wife
For a few hours' fishing on the side —
When luck was good, tide served, or winds were fair —
With hours left to bask and smoke the sun
Out of the evening sky. Tobacco dried
With brown and lanky leaves along the beams,
All that a man need do was twist a " hank "
A little — even with a broken knife —
Fill up a pipe, and thought, chief enemy
To men in fertile islands, was no more.
Thought slain — what else? On Sunday afternoon
Sweet clouds of incense drifted round her door
And tried to tangle Sarah in the dreams
That wreath-curled, lolling lovers thus evoked
From corncob pipes. But when the evening came
Her door was closed, and no broad hands that tapped,
Or voices in the moonlight calling low,
Or even faces pressed against the pane
Until her light went out, brought down the bar.
Sarah was obdurate, and time went on
And left her jesting with her dog and cat
About the simple prowlers of the night.
Fear of her conjuring took the place of bars,
While she possessed herself in careful peace,
Stronger than girlhood, proud she had known man,
But longing now instead to be fulfilled
By something more than talking animals;
Feeling there was a glory in her womb
That could not mate with night again, and yet —
Feeling and hoping only without words —
Knowing, as if unconscious destiny
Realized, and waited, and was glad of it.
So no one knew that midnight sometimes saw
This woman, tired of her long lonely bed,
Shaping smooth cedar boards before the fire,
Fitting and whittling, carving hour by hour
A cradle with a hood, and rockers curved
Out of a stranded whale's rib, while the light
Beat on the wood, the ivory, and her hands
As if she worked at something in a dream.
And so she saw herself, and dreaming slept
Till the white morning poured in through the door,
While one continuous song of roosters rose
Like bell notes, and delirious, eery horns
Greeting the cloudless face of sailing Sol.
Last updated September 05, 2017