Excerpt from A Child of the Sun by Pierce Butler

This excerpt from Pierce's book about Katherine Mansfield originally appeared in Stopinder...

6 December: In the Cowshed.

But it was not at all dark, nor did it have an unpleasant smell, as she had feared. There were large double doors, opening onto the cows in their stalls and letting in a great deal of light, especially in the afternoon. And an opening in the gable—intended for a block and tackle, one of the men told her—that let light into the little railed-off gallery above the cows. Here she was to lie, per his instructions, and breathe the air of the place. It was all prepared for her. A steep narrow staircase ascended to the gallery, wherein had been placed two divans, one for herself and one for her visitors. What thoughtfulness! The divans and the floor of the gallery were covered with Persian carpets. The atmosphere was like that of a church—but what a homely and friendly little church, tucked away from the bustle of the house, open to shafts of pale light yet containing corners of intimate darkness, permeated with the smell of the cows and the hay, with the sudden rustling of their movements, the rhythm of their slow and deliberate chewing, and the silent stately presence of the horse, Belle.

She loved the cows. She was not lonely, even when she had no visitors, because of the cows. There were three of them, real beauties, immense and solid, with rich silky flanks and short curly wool between their horns and great eyes in which you could see your reflection. How she loved them! They were called Mitasha, Bridget, and Equivoquetecka, but everyone referred to them collectively as Mrs. Murry’s cows. How she longed for the day when she would be able to milk them!

In order to get to the stable she had to pass the pen in which Olgivanna’s piglets lay sprawled beside the massive belly of the sow. There were geese in the yard, and sometimes one of them would appear momentarily in the doorway. She felt herself becoming more and more absorbed in the life of the animals, and she wondered why she had always lived so far away from the natural world, even when she thought she was yearning for it. She remembered a line from one of the stories of her beloved Chekhov, about “the mysterious, exquisite life of nature, rich and sacred, from which we sinful mortals are shut out.” There was such a life, going on all the time in spite of us, as it were, and in the quiet of the cowshed, especially in the late afternoon when the light began to fail, she felt herself draw near to it. It was a great comfort.

The cows were usually milked by Madame Ostrowska. She was a little in awe of Madame O, not just because she was his wife, but because of her presence, of the calm authority that she exuded. She was tall and shapely and wore an old-fashioned black dress, tight in the waist and bodice, rich and full in the skirt. About her beautiful dignified head she wore a black scarf, knotted under her chin in the manner of a peasant woman. She spoke no English—indeed she was rarely heard to speak at all—but when she came to see to the cows she never failed to acknowledge the figure lying on the divan in the little gallery above her. She would smile and gesture toward the cows or display the milk pail that she was carrying. Then she would frequently stand for a while in the doorway, as though keeping the woman above company, before she went to work. The gray-blue eyes—in which there was just a touch of apprehension—looked into the distance, but with attention and presence, not dreamily or vacantly. A superior face, bearing the imprint of the experience of generations. Then she would bare graceful arms, fetch the stool from among the straw, and fall to. Her long-fingered hands began to milk, deftly, confidently, in response to an unheard rhythm. By the sounds of the milk in the pail—the thin silvery singing noise followed by the heavier plonk! plonk!—the woman above could tell how fast the operation was proceeding. She could see that Madame O’s head was pressed against Equivoquetecka’s flank, but she could not see whether or not her eyes were open. The cow stood perfectly still. She was certain that Equivoquetecka was in a state of exaltation. Why, the cows must experience a super-cow-sensation when Madame O milked them, if they were at all decent cows!

She knew that one day she would write a long long story about it.

On days when Madame Ostrowska was busy in the house, Adèle came to do the milking and brought her a glass of new milk from the pail per Gurdjieff’s instructions. The invalid felt sure the milk would do her good if he had ordered it, and there was such tenderness in her friend’s solicitude. Adèle decorated the staircase to the gallery with leaves and branches, and she would sit in the gallery for a few minutes before she went back to her work. The invalid felt closer to her. It did not matter whether they spoke or not.

But her little boy did not come to see her. She had allowed herself to think of Patrick as her little boy, the very child who had been her secret companion at the Casetta, the child she had tried to draw on her letter to Jack. She knew it was wrong to think of him like this, but she thought that an invalid might be forgiven such a transparent self-deception. It was too cold to be outside, and so his chair-carrier duties were in abeyance. She was pining for him, but when she caught a glimpse of him in the kitchen or dashing through the corridors on some urgent errand, she was incapable of stopping him to ask if he would come. One day Adèle found her in tears. She quickly sat on the floor beside the couch and touched the ruby cluster lightly with her fingers. The invalid was grateful for her lack of embarrassment.

“You miss your husband, Mrs. Murry.”

“I miss the child we will never have.”

She had blurted it out before she could stop herself.

“When you are well…” Adèle murmured.

“I will never be well enough to bear a child,” she said. “But when I am stronger I would like to adopt one. A little boy. Like Patrick.”

Their eyes met. A smile of comprehension spread slowly on her companion’s youthful features.

“It would be wonderful for him. But how—?”

“I will find a way.”

Adèle snatched up the invalid’s hand and pressed it to her lips. She was trembling with excitement.

“Hush,” the invalid said. “No one must know. It will be our secret.”

When the sound of Adèle’s joyful steps had ceased, she fell back on her pillows. She was tired, as though after physical exertion. But she had made up her mind.

There were more good days than bad in the cowshed. And she must not forget the most marvelous thing of all! The white-washed walls and the ceiling above her couch had been decorated in the most extraordinary way by Mr. Salzmann, a tall, haggard, shabbily dressed man, for all the world like a brigand with his cropped gray hair and fierce expression, who was the friend of Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper. She had been almost afraid of him until one day he sat down beside her during a scurry party and they had had a great talk about Shakespeare. He was a painter by profession, and he had created a kind of Persian pattern of yellow, red, and blue, with flowers, little birds, butterflies, and a spreading tree with all kinds of animals peering through the branches. Was it her imagination or did she discern a resemblance between these animals and certain of the students? The elephant reminded her of Orage’s loyal and stolid appearance. And the ape—she could not breathe a word to anyone, not even to Olgivanna—but the ape had a comic grimace that recalled an expression of Jimmy Young’s. The hippopotamus! Was it not Frank Pinder in a suit of armor? And an engaged couple whom everyone teased because they were inseparable had been depicted as a pair of turtle doves. But it was all done lightly, playfully, and yet with real art: a little masterpiece. When she was alone and lay back to contemplate it, she felt herself surrounded by summer grasses and the kind of flowers that smell like milk. Was it possible that the loneliness and isolation of the Chalet des Sapins, where she lay waiting for her husband to come in, painfully aware that he knew she was waiting, was it possible that such a life had given place to this?

Then one afternoon a bulky shadow fell across the doorway, and he was standing there. She felt a little catch at her heart. He came stamping heavily up the stairway and seated himself on the other divan, leaning toward her in the most companionable way, as though it were a long-established custom for them to sit together in the quiet dusk of the cowshed, without speaking. After a while he began to talk about the cows, their individual personalities, their merits and their idiosyncrasies, with the most elaborate seriousness, and all the time his eyes sparkled and he watched her carefully as though to see if she appreciated his drollery. He had bought a little monkey that was to be trained to clean the cows. It seemed to her an improbable sort of idea, but he spoke about it in such a matter-of-fact way that she had no doubt that it would come to pass. Then suddenly he asked her how she was and without waiting for an answer said she looked better. Immediately she felt that she was better. “Now,” he said. “You have two doctors you must obey. Doctor Cowshed and Doctor New Milk. Have traveled much. Now rest. This your task: to rest. Not to think. Not to write. Live in the body again.”

Two goats were installed in the cowshed. They were very lovely as they lay below her in the straw or delicately danced around each other, butting gently with their heads. They were Nubian goats, and she was fascinated by the strange square pupil of the eye; it seemed somehow a violation of the natural order of things.

When he came again, it was with Adèle, and he proceeded to show her how to milk the goats. He sat on the stool, seized one of the goats, and swung its hind legs across his knees, so that it was supported only on its front legs and was therefore quite helpless. She knew that this was the way Arabs milked, and he looked very like one, squatting on the stool, with his shaved head and powerful thighs and shoulders. Adèle stood behind him and cast a look of consternation into the gallery; she was not accustomed to manual labor, and she was away from home for the first time. Then it was her turn. The goat escaped from her, and he had to retrieve it. Finally she got the knack of it. He watched her for a while and professed himself satisfied.

When Adèle had left with her half-filled pail, he came up the stairs and sat on the divan. Philos followed him and flopped down at his feet. He tugged at its ears, and it tried halfheartedly to bite his hand. Grinning he watched it for a while until it began to whine. Then he hushed it and turned to her.

“You like the stable? Is better than the Ritz?”

“I love it here,” she said, grateful for the opportunity to show her appreciation. “I feel that it is better for me to breathe the air of this cowshed than to have the attentions of all the doctors in the world! And I love to be close to the animals.”

It was a long speech for her, and her excitement made her a little breathless. He continued to look down at the dog, which was now resting its muzzle on his boot.

“Dog and horse are special animals,” he said. “Sometimes true of cow also. Is necessary to treat animals with kindness, especially dog. Hey, Philos?”

He looked up at her.

“With kindness,” he repeated. “Comes from kin, family, the same kind. Means to treat like self.”

He tilted back his head until he was looking at Mr. Salzmann’s bestiary and remained in this attitude for at least a minute.

“Man is a three-centered being,” he said finally, “with body, mind, and heart. Animals have only two centers, cannot acquire a third brain and become like man. But for this reason, is necessary always to treat animals, especially old dog, with kindness. Because even though he knows that he cannot become like man, in his heart a dog—and horse and sometimes cow—who associates with man wishes to become like man. Is very sad thing to wish for the impossible. You look at a dog and you always see in his eyes this sadness—because he knows is not possible for him, but still he wishes. And all because of man. Man has corrupted such animals by trying to make them human. For this reason,” (he paused to look in her eyes), “always be kind.”

She felt the tears come because he had articulated something she had always sensed, the sadness in the eyes of the so-called dumb animal, and the embarrassment she had felt in the presence of some of her friends’ pets, the feeling that here was a creature degraded by its contact with humans.

“I have two cats,” she whispered. “Wingley and Athenaeum. But I have never felt—”

He waved his hand dismissively.

“Cat is different, has respect for self. If you try to mistreat, cat will bite or scratch or run away. Is proper for cat to be like that. Cannot be spoiled by man. But cannot wish either, like old dog.”

He got to his feet with a sigh and padded away over the carpets, Philos at his heels.

But sometimes she was depressed, even in the company of the cows. It was intensely cold in the mornings in her bare little servant’s room, and although she hardly noticed the disorder of the house and the coming and going outside her door, she was longing for some real change—and for beauty. She had almost decided to ask him to let her go away until the weather got warmer. She had not confided to anyone what she was thinking, not even to Olgivanna, certainly not to Jack. She knew in advance what Olgivanna would say: to reveal her lack of faith to Olgivanna would be to vanquish the idea of leaving. But it would be an empty victory, since she would not have come to it of herself. What was to be done? She could summon Ida to her: Ida would come. But where would they go and under what conditions? How would they live with each other? It was impossible. And how could she bear a separation from Patrick? She would stay because she had no choice. It was the only course open to her, and therefore no credit was due to her for having chosen it.

His appearance in the doorway only made her feel the more miserable, as though he might be able to guess at the traitorous thoughts that were going through her mind. He took his seat on the divan as usual.

“You have a question?”

She became terribly agitated, and her mind was a complete blank. She needed help—but what kind of help? How could she know? She could not think what to say to him.

“You wish for something?” he murmured.

What did she wish for? She had to think. No, that was not it. She had to allow the answer to come to her from her whole being. For she did wish, of that she was sure, with some deeper, surer part of herself that was below or beyond all the coming and going, all the petty traffic of her mind.

“Imagine God can hear. What you ask for?”

“If I were to be allowed one single prayer to God,” she said deliberately, “that prayer would be, I want to be real.”

He gave a little grunt and shifted in his seat. Was it the right answer? No matter. It was the one that had come to her. It was what she wished for above all things now, to know that her impulses came from that deeper, surer part of herself, from Katherine True rather than Katherine False. But how could that be attained?

“Must learn to pray,” he said, “just as with everything. We think is only one kind of prayer: we ask God, and He grants our prayer—or He does not grant. But real prayers have nothing to do with asking; real prayers are recapitulations. By repeating aloud or to self, we try to experience with the whole of mind and feeling and even body. Only in this way can you benefit from prayer.”

She felt herself relax. She was sure that he was about to help her.

“You say, ‘I want to be real’ or ‘I want to remember myself.’ Is a prayer. But how do you say? If you say even ten thousand times and are thinking of your mother or how soon you will finish and what will be for dinner, then is not prayer but merely self-deception. Must say like this: ‘I’. And at the same time try to think what you know about ‘I’. Does not exist, is no single ‘I’, is a multitude of small ‘I’s that cannot agree. But you want to be one ‘I’, to be master. ‘Want’: what means to want? Are you able to want? With you ‘it wants’ or ‘it does not want’ all the time. Always ‘it,’ never ‘I’. Must oppose ‘it’ with your own ‘I want,’ which is connected to aim of your work, to your reason for being here. ‘To remember’. Must think about memory. How little we remember. How often we forget what we have decided, what we have seen, what we know! Life would be different if we could remember. All ills come because we do not remember. ‘Myself.’ Come back to self. But which self? Which self do you wish to remember? How can you distinguish between them? Which self can help you to work?”

He ceased, sighed, hunched over his knees, as though preparing to rise. She felt that something tangible had passed from him to her. He had given her a prayer. He had said a prayer for her.

“You will remember to say sometimes?”

She nodded eagerly, smiling her gratitude upon him.

“Oh, yes! Thank you. I have so much time, and I do not do anything, except lie around.”

“You pray to God,” he said. “But what is God? Where is He now? How will he know you are praying? How will he ever think of you, take notice of you?”

She had a moment of consternation. But he went on:

“I wish to remember myself. Is necessary to think when saying each word. And then—if you think—is precisely your thoughts can do for you what you ask God to do.”

He got up and went to the head of the stairs.

“Return to Ritz tomorrow,” he said. “Tell Olgivanna.”