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Prelude: Taste and Try

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Prelude: Taste and Try

What Jeanie loved best in the world was poetry. That is why she did it. Jeanie loved poetry, and what she most wanted in the world to do was write it. Professionally. It wasn't what she first wanted, of course. Her first want was to marry James Enright, everyone knew that. But it was her first love. Jeanie had loved poetry since she was a little girl, passing time in her wealthy father´s big library. She was famous for it in school, reciting exciting poems recently printed in London for every Christmas concert that was put on, and she read and recited in Church, too (but the pastor chose those poems).

She read it constantly, and one day, all those sonnets, ballads, elegies and limericks started pouring back out of her. She scribbled on anything; on the margins of her school assignments, on the back of brown paper bags, on fogged up windows. But mostly, she wrote on the thick, heavy, cream coloured stationery paper her father bought her just for that purpose. By the time she was grown-up, she wrote so much they eventually made up a bundle of the pages, and sent it to a friend of her Pa’s in the city.

That was the beginning of it, though we didn’t know it. After all, it was quite a common thing to do; any proud parent would be happy to share their daughter's accomplishments with some good friends of the family. The package was sent off and soon forgotten in favour of other, more interesting occurrences, such as Jeanie's engagement.

More or less the same time she started to write, Jeanie started to notice boys. At first, it was those silly, short and sweet school-girl crushes on the handsomest boy in class, or the ones that were polite and brave enough to open a door for a girl, or give her a hand getting down some steps. By the time we all finished school, however, there was only one person who could hold her attention, and her feelings weren't a passing thing. James Enright, a couple years older than her, loved words almost as much as she, and wanted to be a lawyer. The Christmas before he left for law school, Jeanie chose to read a love poem for her recital at the town concert, and she recited it all looking straight into his eyes, and it was the fiercest reading I have ever heard in my entire life. He looked just about lightning-struck, watching her up there, and I'm sure no one worried a whit he might forget her while he attended college, not with a performance like that to remember her by.

The same week James left for law school, with promises to come back, Jeanie's Pa's friend wrote back that they had shared the poems with some few friends, and they had quite liked the work. Would she like to visit, and bring some more with her? It would have been a wonderful opportunity to see James, but Jeanie reluctantly declined. Mr. Grey was unwell, and she wouldn't leave her father behind. What she could do was write more, and in no time they sent another bundle of creamy white pages to the friend. This continued on for some years, the praise getting higher and higher from the literary-minded folks in London. By the time James came back, ready to marry her, there was talk of a book, a collection of her poems, being published.

That spring was probably the happiest I ever saw Jeanie. She was glowing: with her wedding coming closer every day, and with the promise of not just writing her poetry, but sharing it beyond our little town. This news certainly did warrant a visit to the city, to discuss which poems would be selected, and how many copies to print at first, and how to price, and where to advertise...

I have this picture of her in my head of how she looked just before she left on her trip to the city. I shall do my best to describe her as she looked that early morning, for that is how she deserves to be remembered. She looked like a poem. A nighttime poem; her smooth, white skin was like moonlight, and her long, thick hair like a river, flowing darkly and with subtle shine. Her eyes rhymed with her hair, dark, and deep and liquid, so as you could almost drown in them. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes bright with excitement, but still she moved like she had always moved, lightly and delicately, and spoke as she always spoke, so carefully and deliberately you might think she was reciting a poem all the time, instead of just talking. You could only see that fierceness in her hands, that were rock-steady as she swung up into the buggy. This was something she wanted, and even though she might look like a beautiful, excitable, nighttime poem of a girl, this was a woman determined.

That is the picture I like to keep of her, in my memory. One from the beginning - or maybe, one from the end. I am not sure. Looking back, I am sure that was both a beginning, and an end. An end to Jeanie’s previous life, and the last beginning - the beginning of her end.

*

In truth, I think Jeanie was sick even before she fell ill. You could tell from the moment she got back that the visit had not gone as well as they'd hoped. Their friends in the city had introduced Jeanie and James to the editors at the publishing house, and they'd loved her poems. What they hadn't loved, was Jeanie. Or better, that she was a Jeanie, and not Jean. They were perfectly willing to publish her poems, so long as she did it under a pen name, a male one. Jeanie hadn't understood why there was a need for that, had argued for the right to publish as herself, and not some other, ghostly person. Why could her very own poems, written by herself, not be published under her own name? But the editors were adamant. The book would only be published under another name. Perhaps her fiancé's name - wouldn't that be nice, Ms. Grey? In the end, she agreed. Better to share her poems, even if they didn't seem hers, than to not share them at all.

It does not seem so bad, to have your poetry shared with the world, even if you do have to lie about your name. Someone else wouldn’t have minded, would have perhaps come up with a humorous alias, and happily gone back to writing. It wasn’t so, for Jeanie, because for her, poetry was who she was. Her entire identity was tied up in it - poetry was her first love, the first thing she was good at, what she spent most time doing, either reading or writing, how she spoke to the people around her. How could she write, if not as herself?

Somehow, all that want and all that frustration twisted up inside her and with no outlet, and Jeanie became unsatisfied with her work. It must always be better, be perfect, and she spent more hours than ever, slavishly fitting words to metre, scribbling and crossing out, and scribbling again, searching for the perfect word, the perfect rhyme. For if it were good enough, perfect enough, perhaps the editors in the city would change their minds, and let her publish as herself. She became fixated with it, to the edge of madness, and it was a terrible sight to see.

In an attempt to soothe her, her parents forbade any further trips into the city, and encouraged Jeanie to pursue other, more restful activities than writing: music, perhaps, or embroidery. At first, she refused. For all her parents entreated her, Jeanie seemed caught in some kind of spell, or spider web made of words and letters, sent back and forth between herself and her editors. It was James who finally convinced her to rest, to let it go for a while. So long as she was happy when she was writing, he said, so long as it still brought her joy and enrichment, instead of sorrow, disappointment and stagnation, he would always support her in her dream of becoming published. But as soon as it became a chore, she must stop. Please, stop.

Jeanie might have loved poetry, but she also loved James, and so she listened to him. She took to taking long, rambling walks in the countryside, leaving behind the sight of her father’s library filled with books and of her own desk, strewn with half-finished verses. This seemed to do the trick, finally. Here she found some peace, wandering the grassy hills, basking in sunshine, laughing at curious woodland critters and enjoying the birdsong so absent in town. All summer long, Jeanie became less and less preoccupied with writing and turned her mind, instead, to her wedding. It was to be a Christmas wedding, which was terribly romantic, and there was a lot to plan, from what greenery and flowers could be obtained to the menu to seating arrangements.

When she did write, words came more easily: Nature proved an interesting and engaging subject. A score of poets before her had already spoken of the animal kingdom, from the friendly dog to the curious bird, a hundred more about the earth, in all her seasons, warm in spring and harsh in winter, and a thousand more about the sky, blue, and endless and deep. Jeanie made it new again. Her words did not only tell you of a curious bird, they made you see it and hear it, laugh with her at its games. A sunrise to her was not merely a sunrise, but a meditation on beauty, the unfurling of a bloom in spring a pure message in hope.

Spring might have been when Jeanie was at her happiest, but that summer was when she was at her most peaceful. It seemed, for a moment, that the time-proven remedies of fresh air, sunshine and brisk walks had done their part to ease the frustration her trip had caused her.

We were wrong, of course.

*

As summer faded into autumn, life became busier than ever, what with bringing in the last of the harvest, holding traditional festivals and preparing for winter. Even among the bustle, Jeanie found the time to once again begin to correspond with the publishing houses in London. The change in seasons also brought on a change in subject; Jeanie turned from the wonders of the natural world, of the beauty you can see and touch and smell and taste, to the fantasy of children’s stories and folk-tales. She became entranced with ancient tellings of myth and legend, involved herself with fable and fairy tales, eagerly listened to every folk song or ballad sung at the local pub, and thrilled at ghost-stories, superstitions and whispers of the spirit-world.

These last became more and more common as All Hallows Eve drew closer. Jeanie’s family, of course, did not celebrate All Hallows Eve, only All Saints Day, but in a rural community such as ours, the old traditions still persist. That year, Jeanie threw herself into learning these traditions, and every one tall tale and yarn she learned of, she strove to capture in her own work. This proved difficult, arduous work. The words seemed to escape her, as elusive and ethereal as the spirits she sought to speak of.

Folklore, on the surface, seems plain, a loose collection of simple, uncomplicated tales for the common folk. And yet for every story told there are a hundred variations, behind every sentence a thousand meanings and messages, and every word rings and echoes with a hundred thousand other voices from the past. Anyone desirous of dealing with folktales must understand this inherent double nature, be willing to grapple with its intricate interweaving of the said and unsaid in a complex, layered web of meanings that seems to slip from your grasp just as soon as you have pinned it down.

Folklore can’t be pinned down, for it is a living, breathing thing, and one must not forget that.

Jeanie’s poems became dark and difficult, a morbid, almost strained tone snuck into them, reflecting the struggle it took to produce them. Soon, her fantastical, whimsical pieces became more akin to nightmares or tales of terror meant to scare and warn away. As Jeanie sunk further and further into the nightmarish process she became fixated on one single piece she was convinced would change her editors’ mind. This one poem that she worked on must be the one to convince them, finally, that her work was worthy of being published under her own, female, name, for none would be able to reproach or find fault in it.

She worked on it endlessly, and this time none could tear her away from it. The search for the right words was just as slippery as it was inevitable, an impossible task. The outside world could no longer hold her attention; it was the mirror, the illusion, that mattered most to her. She continued to go on her long walks, but they seemed an empty, rote behaviour now borne out of habit and not enjoyment any longer. Her thoughts were perpetually elsewhere, and her eyes, though open, were unseeing of the beauty around her as the earth clothed herself in the rich browns, reds, yellows and oranges of autumn around her.

Her madness, at first, seemed of the unfocused, scattered kind. She jumped from one myth to another, unable to decide which would best express what she so ardently needed to say. No yarn-spinner or story-teller was good enough for her; she required them to repeat their tales again and again, asked of them a thousand questions, searching from some small detail, some spark of inspiration that would allow her to finish her poem. Simply listening to another's words, however, was not enough to inspire the greatness she chased. She must live it, feel it, taste it, to be able to portray it. And so she was forever frustrated.

That is, until she stumbled, one late autumn afternoon, upon a hidden glen.

*

I can imagine how it must have happened, for it has happened to me, also. It has happened to almost every girl and woman in our village, for everyone, at some point, visits the glen. It is an ideal place for girls to play, young women to fetch water, mothers to clean clothes, older women to remember. It was such a natural, ever-present part of our lives that though everyone made their greatest effort to recall every last tale and story there was to remember, every rhyme, chant and song, nobody spoke of glen except in occasional, unrelated bits and pieces, scattered so seamlessly in normal conversation one wouldn’t ever know it had been alluded to unless one already knew.

Jeanie had no reason to know. Jeanie had never played in the woods, staying on her family’s manicured lawn where she could be easily watched, perfectly content with her expensive toys and not needing to play at make-believe with sticks and stones, leaves and mud. Jeanie had never had to fetch water from a river, for her house had its own well and staff besides to fetch water from it. Jeanie had never had to wash her own clothes, and was still too young to have need to remember. And so all the way through August, September and most of October, Jeanie heard these comments and thought nothing of them, too caught up in her own tangled narrative to detect any half-formed messages or subtle undercurrents of meaning.

Jeanie listened to them and thought nothing of them, until one late autumn afternoon, the last warm day before the cold snap set in, when she stumbled upon a hidden glen. She was on one of long walks, and had stayed out past when she normally would have. The sun was low in the sky, enveloping her surroundings in a golden haze. She came upon it quite suddenly, spilling out from between the trees into a small clearing. In the centre of the clearing ran a stream, skipping and tripping over mossy rocks, and on the other side of it the grass was trodden down to form a narrow foot-path.

Jeanie felt a tingle in her fingertips. It was quite possibly the loveliest place she’d ever seen, and for a moment, snatches of her own nature-themed verses came back to her. If she had known of this place then, how much more inspired would she have been, how much more graceful, majestic, would her verse have been? As she wandered further into the glen, she noticed blue-bells dotting the grass leading up to the brook. The sinking sun seemed to set the tops of the trees ablaze, catching and reflecting the red glow of their leaves and casting deep, dark shadows beneath them. Jeanie sat on a stone near the water to admire the view.

The blue-bells should have been her first warning. She had already learned them as a sign of the Fair Folk, and knew also that they were typically spring flowers - never in autumn. But Jeanie, with fingers itching for paper and pencil, did not stop to question the flowers.

As she sat in the gathering dusk, the sky slowly turning pink, then purple, a breeze ran cold fingers over her cheeks and through her hair. It brought to her the strange sound of music - high voices, lilting pipes and the wild beat of drums. This was her second warning. Any other maiden would have left long before, as the first shadows began to darken the glen, in time enough to return home in daylight. If not then, they would have left now, when the sound of Them drew near.

But the shiver that made its way down her spine was not one of fear, but of curiosity and wonder. She now had an inkling of what was about to take place, and Jeanie was filled with a sudden, fierce longing. How she had wished for and chased after, all these last long, hard months, for inspiration so potent it would transform her, for an experience so powerful, that any account of it, though pale in comparison, would be the most compelling of narratives, the most exquisite construction of prose and poetry.

And here was her chance.

Almost as soon as she thought it, it began. From the far end of the clearing, the sound of footsteps came. But they were the strangest footsteps - a slithering, stomping, crashing, hopping kind of footsteps. And from among the trees emerged a line of merchant men, following the footpath, and these were the owners of those footsteps. But what they were the strangest of men - a hobbling, crawling, growling, snarling kind of men.

Jeanie was suddenly frightened. They might have the bodies of people, and travel in a line such as people do, but even through the gloom she could see they were shorter than any person save for a child, and that their faces were like that of animals - lizard and rat, snail and cat, ratel and wombat. They moved as animals too, not at all human-like in their dragging, prowling, hurry-scurrying.

She shrunk back into herself, all at once aware of the growing dark and the long way home. She might have even escaped her fate had she also shut her eyes and covered her ears, for the strange merchant men - and now she realised these must be goblins passing through on their way to the Fair Folk’s market - had not seemed to notice her at all as they wound their way along the path.

Jeanie might have escaped even then, with the goblins so near, and lived to tell the tale of her own brush with the Other - if she had shut her eyes and covered her ears. But as they came closer and closer, the goblins raised a plaintive call, ‘Come buy, come buy’, and to her human ears, their growling, hooting, snarling voices sounded like the cooing of doves, kind and pleasant. And when they finally drew even, a flash of brightest colour drew her attention, and she saw what these merchants peddled: fruit.

Oh, what fruit they were! The ripest, juiciest, plumpiest, most beautiful of fruits. How vivid were their colours, how perfumed was their smell! Jeanie could no longer look away from them, and her mouth filled with water. In the back of her mind, a thought took shape slowly: what would it be like to taste one? What raptures might she not experience, what sensations might she not try? Every tale ever told spoke of the wonders of the Other-worlds food.

What words might not pour from her, after such a feast?

It was then that Jeanie was truly lost, set upon a path irrevocable.

*

Some might say she had always been upon it, from the moment her love of poetry and her desire to be recognised it became more powerful than anything other, more powerful than friends, more powerful than family, more powerful than a lifetime companion and partner.

I do not believe them, for in my mind the human heart has room for many loves and many passions, and they need not choke each other as they grow like a weed chokes the plants it shares space with. For me, Jeanie’s dream of being a poet until this moment was a strength in her, a thing undeniable, so unquestionably her, that it had moved a town to share its secrets with her and a man to love her.

She should have remembered James’ words, his entreaty of her to ‘stop, please stop’. A person’s value, man or woman, cannot be measured solely from the outside, by achievements or accomplishments. Another’s opinion must never be worth more than the happiness and joy one can find in doing something beautiful to share with others.

But the tragic truth of it is, she didn’t. Jeanie was who she was, and no one could have asked any different from her. She was a woman who fought till her last to make her greatest dream come true. She did not do it to hurt or wound, she did not do it out of spite or anger, nor did she do it out of foolishness, though she was unknowledgeable. She did it because it was the only path her confused, tortured mind had been able to find, under the conditions she had been given. It is human to love, and human to err.

Perhaps we might have been able to do something for her, something to avoid the outcome. Perhaps we could have seen her more clearly, watched for her more carefully. But perhaps also, if she had stopped to look, she would have found she already had the recognition she wanted, the room to grow she needed. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Jeanie’s passion was never going to fit in the reality of our tiny village, our unchanging fields and our ancient woods.

The fact of the matter was, when the goblins offered, Jeanie accepted. That All Hallows’ Eve, she traded a lock of her hair, a tear from her eye and a night of her time for a crown of their flowers and a meal of their fruit. And when she returned to us on All Saints Day, her dress torn, her hair in snarls, her lips bruised and her eyes wild, we all knew what had happened.

She was shivering, icy blue and chilled to the core, for there had been a terrible cold-snap and she had been out all night. Jeanie was taken home, given warm blankets and hot broth, but she did not recover. Though the evidence of that night left her body, it remained imprinted on her soul. She wrote feverishly, and when she did not write, she longed, cried out, for another taste of the fruit. At first, she continued her long walks, though now she sought not inspiration or respite, but the mysterious glen she had come upon that day. It was of no use: even when she could find her way through the trees to it, there were no blue-bells peeking up growing in the hard, bare earth, no strange music in the air.

Soon, she ceased to eat. No food could tempt her, not sweet nor savoury, not fruit nor bread nor honey. She grew grey and pale, as weak as the winter sunlight that barely made it past the heavy clouds. She no longer could go on long walks, though she still wrote, and when she had tired herself out with writing and longing, she slept and dreamed of autumn leaves, golden sunlight, and a wonderful thing just out of reach. She invariably awoke feverish, soaked in sweat and weaker still than before.

The wedding was put off, the doctor called in from the city. In an attempt to soothe and cheer her, a number of her winter poems, the most beautiful, were collected and sent into the city, this time to a different publishing house. It all came to nothing. Jeanie passed away with the first snowfall of winter, her face as white and delicate as the snowflakes blowing outside.

She did not live to be a bride, to have her Christmas wedding. And she did not live to receive the letter that arrived, a week from her death, addressed to her. Her parents opened it, and cried all the more bitterly. The editors at the new publishing house had loved them, and wrote to know if Jeanie would like to publish a volume comprised entirely of her poetry, under her very own name.

Jeanie’s poems, always so full of feeling, had become even more poignant and sweet as she saw her time draw near. There was some purity in them, some knowledge, some realisation that had not been there before. Her soul called out, and it was one’s very soul that answered.

***

Remember

                                                 by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
           Gone far away into the silent land;
           When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
           You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
           Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
           And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
           For if the darkness and corruption leave
           A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
          Than that you should remember and be sad