There Was Once a Woman
THERE was once a woman who lived in a large house, but it was built for others, and she had no home in it. So she said to herself one day, “ I will take a little room here and make a happy place for myself, and thither I will bring those who love me, that they may know me as I am.”
Whereupon she clothed the four walls of the room with tapestry, that shaded duskily in the morning sunlight, but gleamed redly golden where the flames of the flickering firelight danced over it; and in between the tapestry she inlaid mirrors, that the light and shade might play across them, and weave the whole room full of wavering fancies.
And in the centre of the room she placed for herself a chair of ebony with a golden covering that shone redly like the tapestry, and everywhere were great jars in which grew red and yellow lilies that filled the air with perfume. And between the dusk and the dark the woman came into the little room and sat in the ebony chair, and the firelight wove in and out of the golden tapestry through the mirrors into her soft yellow trailing gown, and in and out again, and the red and yellow lilies leaned toward her, and their subtle perfume kissed her dusky hair, and she said : —
“ I am myself at last; this is my home. When one comes in here I may look into his eyes, and not fear, for he will know that it is I, and I shall be happy.”
And even as she thought, a hand lifted the tapestry, and a man came in, and he smiled eagerly when he saw the woman, and went and knelt beside her, and he said : —
“ I perceive that you are a very fair woman, and plainly made for love. Let me kiss you, first on your hand, then on your lips, then on your white throat, — for this is happiness, that I should love you.”
So she held out her white hand, saying doubtfully, “ It may be true.” But when his hot lips touched her soft palm it was as if a coal had burned into her heart, and she drew away her hand, and fled from the room, crying very bitterly, “ You do not know me, oh, you do not know me ! ”
And it happened thus again when another came on the morrow, and yet again ; so that at last she tore down the golden drapery, and threw out the red and yellow lilies, all but one jar (and that she hid), and went around the house in homely garments and with drooping head.
But there came a time when she hoped again, for one must either hope (or love) to be able to live. So she hoped, and she went into the little room and clothed its walls with books, and pictures, and instruments that had made music in times long gone, and in one corner she placed the pot of red and yellow lilies. And each person who came in could find the instrument he loved best to play on, and the book he loved best to read, or the picture his eyes most loved to rest upon, for the woman was very wise, and changed these things for each one who entered. For she said to herself, 舠 If I show each man himself, surely some one will see me, for in blessing I shall be blessed.” But each was glad only that he himself was satisfied.
So when many days had passed she wept over the lilies, and said, “ My soul, I am alone.” Then she took from the room all that had filled it (save only the jar of lilies), and she put within it homely things, — low couches with soft cushions for weary bodies to rest on, balm for aching wounds, and playthings for little children before bedtime. And she kissed those who were tired, and comforted those who sorrowed, and played softly with the children, and sung to them until their little eyelids closed contentedly, and one lay asleep in her white arms, and she said peacefully, “ I am a woman.” But then she smelled the perfume of the red and yellow lilies, and she laid the child down tenderly that she might not wake it, and she stretched her arms upward and cried : “ My God, I am more ! Where can I find a place for my soul ? ”
And later she whispered, “ Do I dare ? ” and she answered herself, “ I will dare anything! ” and she plucked a branch of the lilies and thrust them into the belt of her gown, so that they rested against her heart, and she left the little room, and went out into the night, and the shades of strange beings flitted past her in the moonlight, and cast their darkness over her, but she heeded them not. Always her arms reached upward, although her feet stumbled, and the shades said, “ She is dark, like us,” not knowing that it was their own gloom that shadowed her under the moon ; but she heeded them not. And when she had walked all night she stood upon a mountain top, and called upon God. And she waited for the dawn, and there was a great silence, for the mountain top was too high for the singing of birds ; and slowly, as the light traveled upward, she saw coming toward her as it might be an angel, strong and beautiful, with eyes that dwelt upon her, and he said, —
“ Is it thou ? ”
And she answered, “ Yes, it is I.”
And suddenly the soul within her body shone as a living flame, and transfigured her, and a flame ran through the red and yellow lilies in her bosom, and they blossomed into little waves of fire. And the angel shaded his eyes, for even an angel may not behold the naked soul of a woman.
But he said : “ I have a message to thee. Thou shalt walk alone among men all the days of thy life; yet sorrow not, for the best has been given to thee, and it is this : Wherever thou goest, the undying flame within thee shall meet the undying flame of God. And I have another message to thee : ‘ The Lord hath set thy feet in a large room.’ ”
Then the woman bowed her head, and the angel listened for her voice replying, but he heard nothing, for even an angel may not hear the inmost prayer of a woman.
Then she raised herself and said: “ I have the best; what further need is there ? ” And she smiled, and her face had the beauty of those whom God has answered.
And the angel went from her, and she lay in the clouds and in the sunshine on the mountain top until night, and then she journeyed back to the house from which she had come, and slipped into her place with the dawning (and everywhere the red and yellow lilies were blossoming), and no one knew that she had been away. But she leaned from the barred window, and cried to herself in an ecstasy : —
“ It is the same dawn here as on the mountain top, — it is the same dawn! Lord, ‘ Thou hast set my feet in a large room ! ’ ”
And the flame within her touched the flame of God.
Once there was a woman who loved a man, and he died, and she sought some way to reach him where he was, and could not. And One came to her, and said : “ I have been sent to help thee, for thy crying has been heard. What is thy need ? ”
And she answered, “ That I may find the soul of my husband, who is dead.”
And the Shining One said to her, “ That may be done only if there is a bond between you that Death could not break.”
And she said :“ Surely there is a bond ! I have lain in his bosom, I have kissed his dear hands over and over for love of him, and my lips still tremble with the passion of his kisses.”
But the angel shook his head, and said, “ There is no bond.”
Then she raised her head proudly, and said : “ Surely there is a bond ! i have held his children in my arms ; with their innocence have they bound us together. By the sorrow in which I bore them, there is an enduring bond.”
But the angel said very sadly, “ Even this will not suffice.”
Then the woman paled, but she said : “ My spirit and that of my husband were one ; in naught were we separate. Each answered each without speech. We were one. Does not that bond hold ? ”
But the angel answered very low : “ It does not hold. In the domain of Death all these bonds of which thou speakest crumble to nothing, — the very shape of them has departed so that they are as if they never were. Think yet once more before I leave thee if there is one thread to bind thee to him whom thou lovest, for if not he has passed from thee forever.”
And the woman was silent, but she cried to herself desperately, “ He shall not go from me ! ” And the angel withdrew a little way. And the woman thought and thought, with deep inward communing, and after a space she raised her pale, drawn face, and gazed with timid eyes at the pitying angel, and she said, though her voice was as the last whisper of the dying waves upon the shore, “Once — but it was long ago — he and I thought of God together.”
And the angel gave a loud cry, and his shining wings smote the earth. And he said, “ Thou hast found the bond, thou hast found the bond ! ”
And the woman looked, and lo! there lay in her hand a tiny thread, faintly golden, as if woven from the strands of the sunlight, and it led into the darkness.
Mary Stewart Cutting.