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THE DAY THEY BURNED THE BOOKS by Jean Rhys - Dominica

Source: Tigers Are Better-Looking (1960s, collection of stories).

My friend Eddie was a small, thin boy. You could see the blue veins in his wrists and temples. People said that he had consumption and wasn't long for this world. I loved, but sometimes despised him.
His father, Mr Sawyer, was a strange man. Nobody could make out what he was doing in our part of the world at all. He was not a planter or a doctor or a lawyer or a banker. He didn't keep a store. He wasn't a schoolmaster or a government official. He wasn't — that was the point — a gentleman. We had several resident romantics who had fallen in love with the moon on the Caribees — they were all gentlemen and quite unlike Mr Sawyer who hadn't an 'h' in his composition. Besides, he detested the moon and everything else about the Caribbean and he didn't mind telling you so.
He was agent for a small steamship line which in those days linked up Venezuela and Trinidad with the smaller islands, but he couldn't make much out of that. He must have a private income, people decided, but they never decided why he had chosen to settle in a place he didn't like and to marry a coloured woman. Though a decent, respectable, nicely educated coloured woman, mind you.
Mrs Sawyer must have been very pretty once but, what with one thing and another, that was in days gone by.
When Mr Sawyer was drunk — this often happened — he used to be very rude to her. She never answered him.
'Look at the nigger showing off,' he would say; and she would smile as if she knew she ought to see the joke but couldn't. 'You damned, long-eyed, gloomy half-caste, you don't smell right,' he would say; and she never answered, not even to whisper, 'You don't smell right to me, either.'
The story went that once they had ventured to give a dinner party and that when the servant, Mildred, was bringing in coffee, he had pulled Mrs Sawyer's hair. 'Not a wig, you see,' he bawled. Even then, if you can believe it, Mrs Sawyer had laughed and tried to pretend that it was all part of the joke, this mysterious, obscure, sacred English joke.
But Mildred told the other servants in the town that her eyes had gone wicked, like a soucriant’s eyes, and that afterwards she had picked up some of the hair he pulled out and put it in an envelope, and that Mr Sawyer ought to look out (hair is obeah as well as hands).
Of course, Mrs Sawyer had her compensations. They lived in a very pleasant house in Hill St. The garden was large and they had a fine mango tree, which bore prolifically. The fruit was small, round, very sweet and juicy — a lovely, red-and-yellow colour when it was ripe. Perhaps it was one of the compensations, I used to think.
Mr Sawyer built a room on to the back of this house. It was unpainted inside and the wood smelt very sweet. Bookshelves lined the walls. Every time the Royal Mail steamer came in, it brought a package for him, and gradually the empty shelves filled.
Once I went there with Eddie to borrow The Arabian Nights. That was on a Saturday' afternoon, one of those hot, still afternoons when you felt that everything had gone to sleep, even the water in the gutters. But Mrs Sawyer was not asleep. She put her head in at the door and looked at us, and I knew that she hated the room and hated the books.
It was Eddie with the pale blue eyes and straw-coloured hair — the living image of his father, though often as silent as his mother — who first infected me with doubts about 'home', meaning England. He would be so quiet when others who had never seen it — none of us had ever seen it — were talking about its delights, gesticulating freely as we talked — London, the beautiful, rosy-cheeked ladies, the theatres, the shops, the fog, the blazing coal fires in winter, the exotic food (whitebait eaten to the sound of violins), strawberries and cream — the word 'strawberries' always spoken with a guttural and throaty sound which we imagined to be the proper English pronunciation.
'I don't like strawberries,' Eddie said on one occasion. 'You don't like strawberries?'
'No, and I don't like daffodils either. Dad's always going on about them. He says they lick the flowers here into a cocked hat and I bet that's a lie.'
We were all too shocked, to say, 'You don't know a thing about it.' We were so shocked that nobody spoke to him for the rest of the day. But I for one admired him. I also was tired of learning and reciting poems in praise of daffodils, and my relations with the few 'real' English boys and girls I had met were awkward. I had discovered that if I called myself English they would snub me haughtily: 'You're not English; you're a horrid colonial.' 'Well, I don't much want to be English,' I would say. 'It's much more fun to be French or Spanish or something like that — and, as a matter of fact, I am a bit.' Then I was too killingly funny, quite ridiculous. Not only a horrid colonial, but also ridiculous. Heads I win, tails you lose — that was the English. I had thought about all this, and thought hard, but I had never dared to tell anybody what I thought and I realized that Eddie had been very bold.
But he was bold, and stronger than you would think. For one thing, he never felt the heat; some coldness in his fair skin resisted it. He didn't burn red or brown, he didn't freckle much.
Hot days seemed to make him feel especially energetic. 'Now we'll run twice round the lawn and then you can pretend you're dying of thirst in the desert and that I'm an Arab chieftain bringing you water.'
'You must drink slowly,' he would say, 'for if you're very thirsty and you drink quickly you die.'
So I learnt the voluptuousness of drinking slowly when you are very thirsty — small mouthful by small mouthful, until the glass of pink, iced Coca-Cola was empty.
Just after my twelfth birthday Mr Sawyer died suddenly, and as Eddie's special friend I went to the funeral, wearing a new white dress. My straight hair was damped with sugar and water the night before and plaited into tight little plaits, so that it should be fluffy for the occasion.
When it was all over everybody said how nice Mrs Sawyer had looked, walking like a queen behind the coffin and crying her eyeballs out at the right moment, and wasn't Eddie a funny boy? He hadn't cried at all.
After this Eddie and I took possession of the room with the books. No one else ever entered it, except Mildred to sweep and dust in the mornings, and gradually the ghost of Mr Sawyer pulling Mrs Sawyer's hair faded, though this took a little time. The blinds were always halfway down and going in out of the sun was like stepping into a pool of brown-green water. It was empty except for the bookshelves, a desk with a green baize top and a wicker rocking-chair.
'My room,' Eddie called it. 'My books,' he would say, 'my books.'
I don't know how long this lasted. I don't know whether it was weeks after Mr Sawyer's death or months after, that I see myself and Eddie in the room. But there we are and there, unexpectedly, are Mrs Sawyer and Mildred. Mrs Sawyer's mouth tight, her eyes pleased. She is pulling all the books out of the shelves and piling them into two heaps. The big, fat glossy ones — the good-looking ones, Mildred explains in a whisper — lie in one heap. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, British Flowers, Birds and Beasts, various histories, books with maps, Froude's English in the West Indies and so on — they are going to be sold. The unimportant books, with paper covers or damaged covers or torn pages, lie in another heap. They are going to be burnt — yes, burnt.
Mildred's expression was extraordinary as she said that — half hugely delighted, half shocked, even frightened. And as for Mrs Sawyer — well, I knew bad temper (I had often seen it), I knew rage, but this was hate. I recognized the difference at once and stared at her curiously. I edged closer to her so that I could see the titles of the books she was handling.
It was the poetry shelf. Poems, Lord Byron, Poetical Works, Milton, and so on. Vlung, vlung, vlung — all thrown into the heap that were to be sold. But a book by Christina Rossetti, though also bound in leather, went into the heap that was to be burnt, and by a flicker in Mrs Sawyer's eyes I knew that worse than men who wrote books were women who wrote books — infinitely worse. Men could be mercifully shot; women must be tortured.
Mrs Sawyer did not seem to notice that we were there, but she was breathing free and easy and her hands had got the rhythm of tearing and pitching. She looked beautiful, too — beautiful as the sky outside which was a very dark blue, or the mango tree, long sprays of brown and gold.
When Eddie said 'No', she did not even glance at him. 'No,' he said again in a high voice. 'Not that one. I was reading that one.'
She laughed and he rushed at her, his eyes starting out of his head, shrieking, 'Now I've got to hate you too. Now I hate you too.'
He snatched the book out of her hand and gave her a violent push. She fell into the rocking-chair.
Well, I wasn't going to be left out of all this, so I grabbed a book from the condemned pile and dived under Mildred's outstretched arm.
Then we were both in the garden. We ran along the path, bordered with crotons. We pelted down the path, though they did not follow us and we could hear Mildred laughing — kyah, kyah, kyah, kyah. As I ran I put the book I had taken into the loose front of my brown holland dress. It felt warm and alive.
When we got into the street we walked sedately, for we feared the black children's ridicule. I felt very happy, because I had saved this book and it was my book and I would read it from the beginning to the triumphant words 'The End'. But I was uneasy when I thought of Mrs Sawyer.
'What will she do?' I said.
'Nothing,' Eddie said. 'Not to me.'
He was white as a ghost in his sailor suit, a blue-white even in the setting sun, and his father's sneer was clamped on his face.
'But she'll tell your mother all sorts of lies about you,' he said. 'She's an awful liar. She can't make up a story to save her life, but she makes up lies about people all right.'
'My mother won't take any notice of her,' I said. Though I was not at all sure.
'Why not? Because she's... because she isn't white?'
Well, I knew the answer to that one. Whenever the subject was brought up — people's relations and whether they had a drop of coloured blood or whether they hadn't — my father would grow impatient and interrupt. 'Who's white?' he would say. 'Damned few.’
So I said, 'Who's white? Damned few.’
'You can go to the devil,' Eddie said. 'She's prettier than your mother. When she's asleep her mouth smiles and she has your curling eyelashes and quantities and quantities and quantities of hair.’
'Yes,' I said truthfully. 'She's prettier than my mother.' It was a red sunset that evening, a huge, sad, frightening sunset.
'Look, let's go back,' I said. 'If you're sure she won't be vexed with you, let's go back. It'll be dark soon.'
At his gate he asked me not to go. 'Don't go yet, don't go yet.'
We sat under the mango tree and I was holding his hand when he began to cry. Drops fell on my hand like the water from the dripstone in the filter in our yard. Then I began to cry too and when I felt my own tears on my hand I thought, ‘Now perhaps we're married.'
'Yes, certainly, now we're married,' I thought. But I didn't say anything. I didn't say a thing until I was sure he had stopped. Then I asked, 'What's your book?'
'It's Kim,' he said. 'But it got torn. It starts at page twenty now. What's the one you took?'
‘I don't know, it's too dark to see,' I said.
When I got home I rushed into my bedroom and locked the door because I knew that this book was the most important thing that had ever happened to me and I did not want anybody to be there when I looked at it.
But I was very disappointed, because it was in French and seemed dull. Fort Comme La Mort, it was called....

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