by Djuna Barnes
A feeble light flickered in the pawn shop at Twenty-nine. Usually, in the back of this shop, reading by this light - a rickety lamp with a common green cover - sat Lydia Passova, the mistress.
Her long heavy head was divided by straight bound hair. Her high firm bust was made still higher and still firmer by German corsets. She was excessively tall, due to extraordinarily long legs. Her eyes were small, and not well focused. The left was slightly distended from the long use of a magnifying glass.
She was middle-aged, and very slow in movement, though well balanced. She wore coral in her ears, a coral necklace, and many coral finger rings.
There was about her jewelry some of the tragedy of all articles that find themselves in pawn, and she moved among the trays like the guardians of cemetery grounds, who carry about with them some of the lugubrious stillness of the earth on which they have been standing.
She dealt, in most part, in cameos, garnets, and a great many inlaid bracelets and cuff-links. There were a few watches however, and silver vessels and fishing tackle and faded slippers - and when, at night, she lit the lamp, these and the trays of precious and semi-precious stones, and the little ivory crucifixes, one on either side of the window, seemed to be leading a swift furtive life of their own, conscious of the slow pacing woman who was known to the street as Lydia Passova.
No one knew her, not even her lover - a little nervous fellow, an Englishman quick in speech with a marked accent, a round-faced youth with a deep soft cleft in his chin, on which grew two separate tufts of yellow hair. His eyes were wide and pale, and his eyeteeth prominent.
He dressed in tweeds, walked with the toes in, seemed sorrowful when not talking, laughed a great deal and was nearly always to be found in the cafe about four of an afternoon.
When he spoke it was quick and jerky. He had spent a great deal of his time in Europe, especially the watering places - and had managed to get himself in trouble in St. Moritz, it was said, with a well-connected family.
He liked to seem a little eccentric and managed it simply enough while in America. He wore no hat, and liked to be found reading the London Times, under a park lamp at three in the morning.
Lydia Passova was never seen with him. She seldom left her shop, however, she was always pleased when he wanted to go anywhere: "Go," she would say, kissing his hand, "and when you are tired come back."
Sometimes she would make him cry. Turning around she would look at him a little surprised, with lowered lids, and a light tightening of the mouth.
"Yes," he would say, "I know I'm trivial - well then, here I go, I will leave you, not disturb you any longer!" and darting for the door he would somehow end by weeping with his head buried in her lap.
She would say, "There, there - why are you so nervous?"
And he would laugh again: "My father was a nervous man, and my mother was high-strung, and as for me - - " He would not finish.
Sometimes he would talk to her for long hours, she seldom answering, occupied with her magnifying glass and her rings, but in the end she was sure to send him out with: "That's all very true, I have no doubt; now go out by yourself and think it over" - and he would go, with something like relief, embracing her large hips with his small strong arms.
They had known each other a very short time, three or four months. He had gone in to pawn his little gold ring, he was always in financial straits, though his mother sent him five pounds a week; and examining the ring, Lydia Passova had been so quiet, inevitable, necessary, that it seemed as if he must have known her forever - "at some time," as he said.
Yet they had never grown together. They remained detached, and on her part, quiet, preoccupied.
He never knew how much she liked him. She never told him; if he asked she would look at him in that surprised manner, drawing her mouth together.
In the beginning he had asked her a great many times, clinging to her, and she moved about arranging her trays with a slight smile, and in the end lowered her hand and stroked him gently.
He immediately became excited. "Let us dance," he cried, "I have a great capacity for happiness."
"Yes, you are very happy," she said.
"You understand, don't you?" he asked abruptly.
"That my tears are nothing, have no significance, they are just a protective fluid - when I see anything happening that is about to affect my happiness I cry, that's all."
"Yes," Lydia Passova said, "I understand." She turned around reaching up to some shelves, and over her shoulder she asked, "Does it hurt?"
"No, it only frightens me. You never cry, do you?"
"No, I never cry."
That was all. He never knew where she had come from, what her life had been, if she had or had not been married, if she had or had not known lovers; all that she would say was, "Well, you are with me, does that tell you nothing?" and he had to answer, "No, it tells me nothing."
When he was sitting in the cafe he often thought to himself, "There's a great woman" - and he was a little puzzled why he thought this because his need of her was so entirely different from any need he seemed to remember having possessed before.
There was no swagger in him about her, the swagger he had always felt for his conquests with women. Yet there was not a trace of shame - he was neither proud nor shy about Lydia Passova, he was something entirely different. He could not have said himself what his feeling was - but it was in no way disturbing.
People had, it is true, begun to tease him:
"You're a devil with the ladies."
Where this had made him proud, now it made him uneasy.
"Now, there's a certain Lydia Passova for instance, who would ever have thought - - "
Furious he would rise.
"So, you do feel - - "
He would walk away, stumbling a little among the chairs, putting his hand on the back of every one on the way to the door.
Yet he could see that, in her time, Lydia Passova had been a "perverse" woman - there was, about everything she did, an economy that must once have been a very sensitive and a very sensuous impatience, and because of this everyone who saw her felt a personal loss.
Sometimes, tormented, he would come running to her, stopping abruptly, putting it to her this way:
"Somebody has said something to me."
"When - where?"
"Now, in the cafe."
"I don't know, a reproach - - "
She would say:
"We are all, unfortunately, only what we are."
She had a large and beautiful angora cat, it used to sit in the tray of amethysts and opals and stare at her from very bright cold eyes. One day it died, and calling her lover to her she said:
"Take her out and bury her." And when he had buried her he came back, his lips twitching.
"You loved that cat - this will be a great loss."
"Have I a memory?" she inquired.
"Yes," he answered.
"Well," she said quietly, fixing her magnifying glass firmly in her eye. "We have looked at each other, that is enough."
And then one day she died.
The caretaker of the furnace came to him, where he was sipping his liqueur as he talked to his cousin, a pretty little blond girl, who had a boring and comfortably provincial life, and who was beginning to chafe.
He got up, trembling, pale, and hurried out.
The police were there, and said they thought it had been heart failure.
She lay on the couch in the inner room. She was fully dressed, even to her coral ornaments; her shoes were neatly tied - large bows of a ribbed silk.
He looked down. Her small eyes were slightly open, the left, that had used the magnifying glass, was slightly wider than the other. For a minute she seemed quite natural. She had the look of one who is about to say: "Sit beside me."
Then he felt the change. It was in the peculiar heaviness of the head - sensed through despair and not touch. The high breasts looked very still, the hands were half closed, a little helpless, as in life - hands that were too proud to "hold." The drawn-up limb exposed a black petticoat and a yellow stocking. It seemed that she had become hard - set, as in a mould - that she rejected everything now, but in rejecting had bruised him with a last terrible pressure. He moved and knelt down. He shivered. He put his closed hands to his eyes. He could not weep.
She was an old woman, he could see that. The ceasing of that one thing that she could still have for anyone made it simple and direct.
Something oppressed him, weighed him down, bent his shoulders, closed his throat. He felt as one feels who has become conscious of passion for the first time, in the presence of a relative.
He flung himself on his face, like a child.
That night, however, he wept, lying in bed, his knees drawn up.
End of Mother by Djuna Barnes