The Winning of Her, part one of two
IT WAS early spring. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and went and stood in the doorway. I leaned an arm against the post, resting for a moment, and breathed deeply the smells of the town street.
The sun was baking the ground. It intensified the smell of sweet dirt, stewed trees, manure, and the aromatic scent of my house of cedar and sawdust. I exhaled. A dog barked, and I saw a group of children run by, laughing. It was midday. “Well, I'll get my water,” I thought.
I walked to the well. There was a young girl already there. Her hair was discretely tucked under a rough cloth. It was dyed golden from onion skins. She was modest and looked down as I approached. She was alone; I was a man, and usually women and children went to the well.
She was beautiful, and I suddenly felt inexplicably shy myself. Despite our careful lack of eye contact and speech, as I approached with my bowl, I could not help noticing she was having trouble lifting the slab that covered the well from flies and debris. Her sweetness and slender arms made something chivalrous surge in me, and, drawn out of myself, I said, “Let me,” and I was embarrassed because my voice sounded eager. But she said, “Thank you, sir,” without reticence or coolness.
And I moved that slab as easily as a board of the lightest pine. I wanted to do more - surely I could do more. I said, “Here, here -” and took her jugs from her to fill them myself. Now I truly felt stupid. She probably had drawn water every day of her life since she was five. I smiled at her as I gave them back, and her eyes flicked up to mine as she said, “Thank you,” again, and I noticed that her eyes were chocolate brown, and warm. And then I saw that they were laughing at me. She seemed to want to say something more, but she put whatever she wanted to say into her short, “Thank you,” and “Peace, sir.” She then bowed and turned, most lamb-like in her submission to hurry back to her mother.
She bewitched me. I didn’t heed my own warning, but rushed after her. “I - I filled those up too much. All the way to the n-neck,” I stuttered. I actually stuttered. I have never stuttered in my whole life. “I don't - I don’t want you to carry them all the way back. Might I? And - you can have my bowl.”
She had stopped and turned when I had first spoken, and was looking at me gently. As I finished, she dropped her jars to the ground and we traded, heavy for light. Then I plodded along behind her, trying not to watch her headdress adoringly.
I looked away up at the doves perched on roofs as we walked through the village. We did not talk.
The doves shuddered their heads and ruffled their feathers. I laughed. I had never been so imprudent in all my life, I thought. I, a bachelor! I had fallen in love! I had fallen in love! And how could I by only exchanging several words? You do not believe me. You are shocked and unconvinced, and think it inauthentic. So did I. But I realized sometimes what takes years in one person takes a few seconds in another. And I was magnetized. I knew when I knew.
She was luminous. By simply walking beside her, I could feel the goodness in her that was as tangible and open as the sun lying in the dust. She had a comfortable way of being; that is a rare thing to find at such a young age. She had an easy way of walking, and a softness that emanated from her, that was making her presence a comfort to me. And such a warmth and kindness: being next to her felt like a treat; a holiday.
Her soul was crystal-clear and a person could see straight through it! Or maybe not everyone could see it . . . Maybe I was special, came the gasping thought. Maybe not everyone adores this little girl . . . sees the beauty in her. I, instead, felt like I had found a soul. . . a soul I understood. And I felt like I had uncaved a mine of gold. A mine that I did not even know existed or had a name, up until this point! I wondered if she would feel the same. I felt a lot bigger than her. A lumbering giant shadowing her: and following like a puppy!
She took me to her house, simple and unadorned and a little on the small side. Her mother then came out, an angular woman. She looked like a real crow. But when a smile cracked across her sandstone face, her features softened.
She was standing in the doorway. Her daughter slipped by her, into the darkness of the house, in subservience, but I heard her whisper, “He helped me carry the full jars back.”
“Here, ma’am,” I said, handing the jars to the mother. “Good day.” We bowed to each other and left. I had no parting word with the girl. But I had to go back, forgetting the bowl, and I saw that it was put out on the doorstep.
It had a cake of figs next to it.
I went home with a spring to my step. I heard doves cooing more distinctly. No sound was mushed into the background; the baker called and the children screamed: it was all a symphony. Oh, how colorful those vegetables looked! When I got home, I saw an old friend standing in my doorway. He looked at me amusedly and wordlessly, his beard broadened in a smug grin.
“What?” I said, avoiding eye contact.
“I saw you,” he said. His teeth broke through his brown beard.
"What?" I asked. “Let me through!”
“I saw you walking with that girl.”
“Following her,” I corrected.
“Carrying her water -”
“Helping her,” I interposed dejectedly.
“Smiling like the larks had come into your eyes! Ooh-la-roo! If I didn’t know better, I would think you had feelings for her. But not this man, not this confirmed bachelor!”
“You know, you old - goatherd - maybe I just never found the right one,” I said. “Did you ever consider that?”
“I think you’ve found her!” he teased.
“I’ve helped lots of women carry water before!” I squawked. I looked around, feeling exposed on the streets. I did not like the idea that my feelings were so evident. I wanted the security of my own rooms; it was dark and secluded in there.
“Not like this, you haven’t! Not with those lovelorn eyes!” He batted his hand against me. “Come now, old friend. Don’t get your hackles raised up at me. It is a good thing to love a good girl. I want to see you happily settled! Don't you be ashamed of love. Besides," he looked disdainfully around at my small house. "You cannot really love this life.” He made me feel with his look what he didn’t say in words: that my rooms were undecorated and my table undernourished with cooked meals.
“A man ought to marry! Why, old friend, we’re the same age, and I’ve been with Deborah for ten years now! Get the wheels turning, man.” He punched my shoulder again. I always got bruised with him. “I am here only to approve of your choice. And to encourage you.”
I laughed. “I hope I ought to know to go after something good,” I said, affably enough. He was a good fellow, after all, meaning well. . . Even with his bluster and barbs and rosy cheeks. But I did doubt myself. How did one get a girl, anyway? Did a person just go and ask her parents to be espoused to her, or were there more complicated in-between steps? Oh, complicated in-between steps I was not looking forward to. I am not a coward, but I can’t help shrinking from romance and feeling unsure of myself.
“I just want to see an old friend happy,” explained Brown Beard, and he bit into the proffered bread hunk so eagerly that one would think he was neither happy . . . nor had a wife . . . nor nourishment.
I have to admit I lay in bed last night and all I could think about was her. I ran through my entire memory bank to pick one out of her . . . of seeing her playing, or maybe dancing at a celebration, or with her mother in the market. But I could extract not a single memory of her from all the years I had lived in this town. But that was not a surprise. As a bachelor it is true I did not acquaint myself with many people. And this maid seemed years younger than me, too. I turned over on my pillow. Would that be a problem? She seemed so mature, though. I fell asleep.
Four days later, an older man came into my shop. He had gray hair and deep, kind eyes. They were brown as cocoa.
“I need some things in my house repaired,” he said. “Will you come to look at it?”
“Right away,” I said.
That man led me straight to the girl’s house. I might have known by those eyes of his. Whether this was a miracle of God to be in the house again - though it was empty with no womenfolk around at the time - I don’t know. What I do know is that old friend Brown Beard met me on the way back in an alley way and punched me in the forearm. Rather hard.
“Did well, didn’t I?” he bellowed.
“You did not,” I said.
“No, it was I,” he crowed. “I overheard the old fellow talking about the state of his table and door, and he was going to go to the other carpenter in town, but I spoke up, by his leave, and said I knew one who charged less and did finer work, in my opinion. Said he did my bed: you, of course.”
Before sensations of joy, my sense of justice was moved.
“You shouldn’t have; that man needs the work as much, or more, than I do.”
“Don’t get scrupulous now. It’s on my head, remember? So the other tradesman loses a few coins. You get a wife. I'm actually proud of myself.”
I unfortunately took little convincing. And I laughed a full-bodied laugh. “You sly Brown Beard! What am I going to do with you? You might as well be my father and go arrange the match yourself, for all you’re interested in the case. Leave a little action to me, or I will feel less involved than you are, and might consider the maid more your work of winning than my own.”
“Never fear; I swear to withdraw from this point on,” he put his hand soberly on his breast. “Unless,” he said, “Unless, of course, I see a really, really, really good opportunity; and then I will not let it go by, for the sake of your own soul.”
“Don’t!" I begged, and then laughed a little at my own panic. "You are too powerful; you’ve shown that already.”
“Alright. But I only work for your joy.”
“And a good friend you are for that,” I said. “I hardly helped any with you and Deborah!"
“Me? I didn’t need any help. I was practiced. Ah, she was a bright peacock, that she was. Am I glad I snapped her up! All arrayed in colors,” he remembered fondly. “And jangling with little . . . what do they call 'em things? Banglies." He sighed sentimentally. “But you, my sir, are out of practice. Nay, I don’t believe you ever were in practice in the first place.”
No. I never practiced playing with hearts to get better at playing with hearts.
But I said farewell to my friend, and did not disagree with him on the subject of romance tonight; it was touchy. I went in, amused at him, and I could not help being grateful that he had opened the door to my winning of her.
I spent as much time on the job, and charged as little as I could. I did better work at that old man’s house than I ever have before, or probably ever will. I made the family a new table. I took a file and smoothed it over the surface. Not once, not twice . . . not even thrice: the customary sanding number I gave to furniture for the rich people. I sanded it again - and again - and again.
The mother had no knowledge of this sort of art, but she did walk by, and eyed my ardor, while toweling her hands.
“Don’t bother, boy,” she said. “It’ll only get nicked with knives anyway.”
This sounds sardonic, but she really was kind, and I'm not saying that just because I wanted her to be my future mother-in-law. Well . . . maybe I am. But the lady fed me bread and white cheese every midday I was there. In fact, I was welcomed to sit down with their family.
There I had more of a chance to observe their daughter - the only child. She would jump up to help, and harkened to her mother's every beck and call; she was always gentle, and never raised her voice. She never got petty, or insulted, or took offense at anything - though her mother gave her chance to take offense regularly. If she spilled milk and was unjustly reprimanded, she apologized and cheerfully cleaned it up. She knew just how to soothe her parents, and every day put new lilies and wild roses in a cracked pot in the window. She was their sunshine.
See, I had the golden opportunity to do work right in the middle of their house . . . My first project was to fix their door: and that I certainly could not take home to my shop. And because the frame of their house was small, the second project of a fully constructed table would not fit through a thin door opening. I was informed (to my delirious joy) that I might as well construct it inside the house. And they simply stepped over my piles of shavings as they went about their day.
The father would sometimes sit in a corner and talk to me. We always wound up talking about philosophy and religion. He was wiser than I, and baffled me at times and made me realize how little I knew. Yet still he enjoyed talking with me, I think I can say.
Being there was the secret fulfillment of every person who has ever wished to be "a fly on the wall", who ever wanted to observe another life, another family. It was a thrilling dream that sometimes made my skin tingle when I thought of it. I could watch the simple goings-on of the two women: the baking of the bread, the making of the soft white cheese, the weaving of the fluffy wool. The strands ran through their fingers deftly. The girl and I did not talk much, though I was always consciously aware of when she was present and I was talking with her father, and I felt extra self-conscious about what I was saying. And while I was there, she not only consistently impressed me with her virtue: she also captured me with her heart. Her purity was before me constantly. I was fathoms deep in love.
What I had felt instinctively at the well was being confirmed daily, not only in my emotions, but in my reason as well. I had found my other half. My heart had first leapt up and cried out in joy when it had first come in contact with her at the well. I had always known part of me was in someone else, somewhere, lost. I knew she was my twin soul.
I dragged out the work as long as I could, but beyond a week my stalling was starting to look a little ridiculous, so I miserably gathered up my tools into my box and told the old man my work was over. I was much depressed in heart at having to leave my love's house.
The old man noticed little; he ran his thumb along the satin edge of the table. “You do good work, my son,” he said. “Though I must say you linger long. As a word from an old man to a young one: you will make more money working half as well in half the time. You deserve success. Farewell, son.” He clasped my hand (and it was soft and gentle, like a kitten) and put a few coins in my palm. But that was not what I wanted. The coins felt rigid and hard, and inexpressibly cold, compared to what I wanted and desired.
“Sir,” I began, clearing my throat. “Sir, I - never mind. Thank you.”
He watched me leave, and I heard him say to his wife, “A just young man; but very slow.”
Luckily for me, his wife saw deeper than her husband . . . for only a week later - though that week seemed an eternity to me, and I dragged through it, despondent, without my jewel’s light - the angular, old woman found me - even sought me out, I joyously noted - in the market, and asked me to dinner.
“It does not seem right that you should break bread with us for a week and then never again," she said, with a little bit of a hard face. "I suppose your presence is missed.” She shifted, uncomfortable at a display of sentimentality. “My husband, that is. He aches for company. Tomorrow, at five. Don’t expect Saturday lamb like some families; but I make an invigorating lentil soup.”
I bowed my thanks deeply and went home, walking as if on clouds. (They wanted me; her family wanted me!) My feet barely touched the earth. . . I sailed. There was a red sunset over the tan and golden rooftops as I walked down the street, and I dare say you've never seen a more glorious or beautiful sunset - in any four corners of the world.
Thus started the tradition of eating at that blessed house once every week. I will not express my heart-poundings, or how my mind was crowded all the other six days of the week. I could not concentrate. I was so distracted, I would slip and put irreversible scratches in high-paying jobs. . . gouges, really. And I cracked a poor man’s staff right in half because I kept carving it and carving it mindlessly until it thinned out in the middle and snapped. I jumped up and made him a new one right away, and at no charge. (I would not have charge him anyway, because he was an invalid.) The only food that had taste for me were the meals eaten in my princess' presence - and no food ever tasted as savory as it did during those heavenly dinners. I thought I must be in love.
Not long later, in the middle of the summer, I asked for her hand in marriage. Her father was only too glad, he said, and he gave his permission the next week joyfully. “I have gotten to know you personally, and have asked around about your character,” he informed me, clasping my hand. “I have only found you to be a respected man, gentle-tempered, with one of the highest and purest reputations. And I have had the opportunity to watch firsthand hard work.” He touched the pebble-smooth table top. “I give you permission to marry my daughter.”
Nervous energy started running through me. “I am poor,” I gulped.
“You will be kind to her,” he said, and his cocoa-brown eyes crinkled. “That is all I want; someone to be very good to my daughter. That is all I ever have wanted. And I do not look down upon a tradesman. You will provide.”
“I will,” I gasped. I don’t know why I couldn’t seem to talk respectably or properly. I felt giddy. The realization of my hopes had gone straight to my head. I could only seem to talk in gulps, nodding my head up and down, with my heart beating like a rabbit’s. There goes the stuttering again. “I will provide. I will c-care for - I will take care of her. I will protect her, sir.”
“I know. Now go find her. She is in the garden. Go and ask her, for you know I love my daughter too much to give her to somebody without her giving the man assent. Ask her yourself.”
I looked at him, doubtful. He waved his hand, laughing. “It is proprietous. Go, go. I have talked with her about your request. Now ask her yourself. Garden: go, go!” He frowned, but I saw the old man’s eyes twinkling, and I threw all my hopes on that twinkle, though he did not tell me the outcome of his daughter’s decision, and I ran off, while he laughed.
Behind the house was a garden enclosed by a mud wall. It contained the vegetable garden, a miniature courtyard, jugs and vases, a small loom, and a tree, and some decorative flowers. (I am a man, and know little, but they were white and star-like.)
She stood, in the orange sun on the edge of the terrace, looking east. It seems as though she had been washing out one of the pots and had been stopped in a reverie. The setting rays were all over her head, still discretely covered with a mantle. I called out her name. She turned. I softly crept up to her, holding out my hands. “I love you so much. Will you marry me?” I said. I don’t know where I got the strength to say this, noting my nervousness before her father, but now I felt strong as if a golden lion were inside me. She took my hands, and her hands felt little and smooth and soft. She looked up with eyes trusting and innocent.
“I will,” she said soberly, and the gold and orange light playing over her face could not make her more glorious. We stood thus for a very, very long time, staring at each other, and I will not try to explain our stare, because only lovers know. But this is it: we gave our souls to each other in that moment.
And then as the shadows grew long and the sky darkened blue, we walked around the garden, as lovers do, and mine was so gentle she did not even mind her mother who sat, a little predatorily, as only mothers can be, working with confused hands, in agitated and perplexed joy, on the loom in the light of the doorway, with tears in her eyes.
“I am not an angel," I whispered.
She took my hand with her own little one. “But you are a good man.”
“I am going to love you my whole time on earth. And - and after that." Love had laid the path to the highest mountains at my feet. I felt strong.
“Aye, I promise,” I said.
The evening stars came out, and I took leave of my beloved dove. Her mother also went in, telling her daughter to come to bed soon. I left her to wander alone in the garden. I watched as I went away, and she seemed to me as deeply pure as the crystal-clear river bed, her soul sparkling like diamonds. But before I lost sight of my child, I thought I saw her, through the open gate, drop to her knees in a corner of the garden and look up and a shadow fall over her.
It was only out of sheer happiness, I thought smiling, that she fell on her knees. She is overcome with joy. And the dark movement I saw was a tree, or a branch waving and casting a shadow. It is windy out. I pulled my wool coat closer. I grinned positively as I walked away.
If I walked on clouds before, now I walked on the stars. On planets! I puttered, getting ready for bed, planning my life. I would compose a song about her, I thought; yes, though my use of words was as poor as a donkey’s. I would try to see her as much as moderation allowed. I would treat her very gently. I would bring her flowers and birds. We would grow closer during our engagement, and we would talk more. I would take her on walks down the green vineyards if her parents allowed it. I would get to see more of her interaction between people outside of the house, now that we were espoused and could walk in the street without scandal. And I was sure I would find her to be even more modest outside the house. And she was going to be mine! I could not believe I had gotten this precious diamond. You cannot understand how unworthy I was of her.
When my friends heard I was espoused, there was a riot. Brown Beard threw a feast the next day, with a great deal of wine. There were more than a dozen men there, some that I have not visited with since we were boys roving the town. They all cheered for me and thumped my back and sloshed their cups and raised their arms in jocose shouts. I got clapped all around, and well-pounded and pushed and sloshed on and my ears roared into, until I was nearly intoxicated with the mere activity of it, and very red in the face, and very happy.
“A bride at last, dear sir,” said Deborah, pouring me another cup. “And isn’t she a lucky one.” She smiled with her bright lips and broad cheeks, and went away.
I put in a hard day’s work the next day: I really tried. I was a principled man and believed in industry and honest labor. But there was such an afterglow from that party. I finally threw my awl down and went to drift in the streets. I loved the afternoon shadows; today they were purple. My heart was rosy. I had been engaged for 48 hours. I hadn’t seen my bride since then!
Suddenly, like an apparition, I saw my queen walking down the street with her mother, towards me! They must have come from the well. Her mother, strangely, though my mother-in-law, did not make eye contact with me. She greeted me with, “Good evening,” briefly and turned her head from me and rushed herself and her daughter past. This interchange shocked me, and pierced my heart like an arrow.
But it was my dove’s eyes lifted to me as she was rushed past that sent shivers all over me, gave me most pain - made me go cold. She looked like she had been crying, and her eyes were large and lifted to me. I knew my beloved, and she knew me, and she spoke to me with no words, saying: “Please understand me. I have done no wrong. Believe me, I beg.”
I turned and watched the two figures, one taller, the other so much smaller and younger, and almost being pulled along - I could not figure out if it was in a maternal protective way - or if it was in chastisement - and the two, my favorite women in the world - the only favorite, having no sisters or mother myself - disappeared into the purple shadows the buildings made. I wanted to cry. “I did not understand. What did you want me to understand? Dear!” I stood there, covered in pain and confused sorrow.
“Didja hear? Didja hear?” A slimy man threw open a window with a bang, making me jump. But his next words could not even compare, for disturbance. He was oily and disheveled, his hook nose dripping, and his gray hair ever this way and that, but nothing could be as disgusting as his tone.
“Didja hear? While you were at the party last night, that girl - your girl - was seen with a soldier. When the fox is away, the white rabbit will play!”