The Eternal Masculine (1)

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The Eternal Masculine[1]

Part One: Childhood

I am fourteen years old. For two years—since my first communion—they have been telling me, “You’re a little woman now.”

I am none the happier for it!

Since they lengthened my skirts and put up my hair the world does not seem the same to me. The faces of people have not changed, but there is a different look deep down in their eyes. Among old friends I sense the same surprise as when I was a child in front of the cage where they had replaced my warbler, who had died at dawn, with a parakeet. Even though the feathers were prettier, I was not happy. I was sick; I was upset; and I ended up breaking down in tears—I would have preferred an empty cage to this strange animal!

I wanted so much for people to look at me like they did before, with faces full of kindness—how my heart used to be filled with confidence.

Yesterday they joked about my calves, saying that they were too firm for a girl; and I laughed along with them. Today when only the tip of my toe peeks out from under my dress, if anyone happens to glance over, quick! I pull my boot back in and hide it on the highest rung of the chair, while I flush with shame all the way up to the top of my head.

I am glad to have gloves—me who never used to wear them—because they hide my hands. I prefer winter to summer because my body is buried under clothes. And I would really like to have a veil, a big one, and thick, with lots of dots sewn close together!

They examine me; they scrutinize me. They compliment my mother on this; they advise her on that—and I am in agony.

“It’s a ridiculous age… the molting!” a visitor said yesterday on seeing my embarrassment. She could do with a bunch of molting herself, the great big guinea fowl who would have a lot to gain from a change in plumage—she was so ugly and unpleasant! And they were all wrong!

It is not because I felt awkward in my new clothes. It is not even because they treat my as a “young lady” that I feel like this, disconcerted, on the threshold of my new state. No, I feel like I am about to enter something sad, that my happy days are gone, and I remember grandma snipping the thorns, one by one, off the roses they had brought before handing them to me and gracing me with one of her sweet, serious smiles, “Here, my little girl. At least you’ve known something that didn’t make you bleed.”

Grandma! She is dead. I think those eyes of hers would have stayed the same, would never have changed—not like the others did, all the others!

In some, like mama’s, behind the due severity, I could see the pity, which frightened me. So, is life so sad that they already feel sorry for me?

In father’s and in my uncle’s—so nice the day before, like friends just last year—a sudden hardness appears, an expression of authority that distances me from them whom I still love so tenderly. They have a way of unhooking my arms from around their necks and saying, “You’re not a child anymore!” which chills me and kills in me all my energy, all my growth.

For the first time I feel closer to my mother than to them, that I am more like her. And a thousand things that I never noticed before bombard me all at once.

If grandma Louise, the dear thing, had had so much trouble in her life, it was because grandfather—who was, however, as those who knew him say, a bon vivant—was also a wastrel. He left her a widow at forty years old in squalor with two children to raise. She was still as beautiful as can be. She refused to give a stepfather to her children. She lived alone, worked like a mercenary, devoted herself and rebuilt the wrecked home, relit the family hearth.

My other grandma, my father’s mother, was married to a school principle in Lorraine, a diehard Jansenist, savage and brutal. She had six children by him—she fed all of them. And to avoid paying for servants in her house that was threatened with ruin by the rival Jesuits, she waxed the floors at dawn before the children got up, did the washing and cooking, bathed the babies, took care of the sick—and found the time to go down into the parlor in her one and only, old silk dress to play the lady of the house and entertain her relatives.

She got a tumor in her knee… from fatigue, the doctors said. They cut off her leg like they did to Napoleon’s soldiers when they were shattered by cannonballs. I can still hear the thud of her wooden leg on the floor, all over the big house where, even when sick, she took care of the household while her husband, my godfather, took care of his business under the green lampshade.

I was five when she passed away. My father lifted me in his arms to show her to me, lying on her bed with the crucifix on her chest. I was not scared—she looked so content!

Mother is happy; papa is good. They only get upset because of me… as if whoever is lucky in marriage should suffer in some other way.

I would prefer not to “marry into money” like they raised me. I would also prefer not to stuff my head with a bunch of things that will make me stupid, not to chase after those famous diplomas without which (my father assures me) you cannot be anything—and which I will never have, I am sure of it!

I would love to get into the theater, to be the mouthpiece of the great poets, make people’s souls vibrate and sprinkle them with laughter or tears… I really think I could, that I would know how. Anyway, that is my goal, my ideal—I think about it during the day and dream about it at night. Oh, if they would only let me try!

I think that verses would soar radiantly out of my lips, like those birds I love to hold in my hands in order to feel their flight toward freedom, their trembling with joy when I let them go.

But my father is the master; his will prevails. “Married or a teacher!” he said the other day. And when my mother insisted, talking about a calling, he said, “I’d rather see her dead!”

The poor woman had nothing else to say. She came to hug me, for a long time, and I lowered my eyes so she would not see me crying.

That night I woke up and walked barefoot to the armoire where my last doll was locked up. I fell on the floor and with my head against the door I cried all night long. It felt like within those oak planks lay the corpse of my childhood. The heavy piece of furniture was like a tomb where the best part of my life was sealed up forever!
I had not felt so sad since the death of grandma Louise. So, it is always the women who cry. The older women because of their husbands; me because of my father. Ah, how much I wanted—since love is for novels—not ever, ever to marry!

I would live alone and have no children, but maybe I would have less grief!

[1] As Jacqueline in Gil Blas, August 26 1892.

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