Entering Ephesusby Daphne Athas
Winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award: A humorous and unparalleled account of the lives of three young sisters during the Great Depression.
It is 1939 and life has changed drastically for the Bishop family. After losing their money and being forced to abandon their lovely seaside home in Connecticut, they move to the all-black Southern town/b>
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Winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Award: A humorous and unparalleled account of the lives of three young sisters during the Great Depression.
It is 1939 and life has changed drastically for the Bishop family. After losing their money and being forced to abandon their lovely seaside home in Connecticut, they move to the all-black Southern town of Ephesus. Patriarch P. Q. (which might stand for Peculiar) is a dreamer whose failed attempts at various schemes have landed the Bishops in a squalid shack that never stays warm and collects soot like a dustbin. And Mrs. Bishop is having an impossible time adjusting to their less than aristocratic conditions. But adolescent daughters Irene, Urie, and the zany Loco Poco—with their eccentric personalities and clothes made from tablecloths—won’t let anything stop them from taking on the world.
Little Women meets The Grapes of Wrath, Daphne Athas’s award-winning novel has been hailed by critics and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. Entering Ephesus is a glorious and unforgettable story of life during the Great Depression through the eyes of three young, vivacious women.
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Packed in among the blankets, linens, and Loco Poco's dolls, the three girls and their mother sat upright like bankers. Their faces were shaded and dark in contrast to the scorching glare of the sun, but their eyes betrayed a certain eerie wildness. Cars passing in the opposite direction jerked away from the Pontiac, giving it a wide berth. The grilled hood was lined with suitcases. Three mattresses, two bedsprings, and a carton box were roped onto the roof. The valves in the engine were worn, and in the airless heat the pistons pounded monotonously.
"I see no sign saying Ephesus," said Irene, the oldest, a beauty of fourteen known as the family fool.
"We're only at Richmond," answered Urie derisively.
"How far away is home now?" asked the youngest, Loco Poco, in a lonesome voice. She was ten years old and clutched a doll on her knees. Dark curls matted her temples.
No one answered.
"Will the moving van get there before us?" asked Irene.
Again no one answered.
They had left their old home two days ago, at six-fifteen, August 18, 1939. Irene had taken a picture of that moment. Urie, Loco, and Mrs. Bishop lined up before the Pontiac, the great white house behind, the ocean its infinite backdrop. Urie, thirteen years old, had stood like a general with one foot on the running board, her grandeur mitigated by the Grapes of Wrath car. This moment was entitled "The End of Their Oceanic Life." They had gotten in,slammed the four doors, and left.
The Indian's nose pointed south. For two days they had been traveling, passing through New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia. Urie told everyone that the wheels clicked the following words: "Wrong South Wrong South Wrong South Wrong South."
Mrs. Bishop allowed these remarks to pass without comment, but she had to restrain herself. She needed all her energy to nurse this Pontiac to P.Q. at Ephesus.
The girls commented lugubriously on everything.
"Look at that woman sweeping the yard with a broom!"
"Whoever heard of such a thing! Sweeping a yard!"
"She's white trash."
"Mamma, is she white trash?"
"Why does she do it?"
"Because it's a dirt yard. They don't have any grass. See!"
"Who ever heard of dirt yards?"
"What good is sweeping dirt?"
"Look. Negroes with umbrellas. And it's not even raining!"
"Look. Red dirt."
"Who ever heard of red dirt?"
"Dirt is supposed to be brown."
"Red dirt stinks."
"What does red dirt make you think of?"
"Old rusted stoves."
"Red dirt comes from real iron rusting in the ground," Urie informed them.
"It makes me think of the earth having an operation," said Loco.
"Yeah. Trenchmouth!" spat Urie.
"Look at that high grass."
"It looks like upside-down brooms. See how dull and boring it is."
"Will you people keep still!" exploded Mrs. Bishop finally. "We're coming to a town!"
It was Richmond.
At the moment of Mrs. Bishop's words the radiator began to steam. Billows of smoke poured out.
The Pontiac picked up speed on the descent. It wobbled down onto the long James River bridge. Smoke heaved up over the roof of the automobile and down each side of the red-stained railings of the bridge.
"Get the milk bottles out," barked Mrs. Bishop.
"But there must be a gas station!"
The automobile plummeted into a long street of houses.
"Try to make it through town," said Irene. "People are staring."
"Since when does Mamma take your orders?" asked Urie.
"Yes. What does our family care what people think?" parroted Loco.
Blankets, dolls, magazines twitched spasmodically as Urie and Loco fought to unearth the milk bottles.
"They're empty, Mamma," said Loco.
"After I told you to fill them on Grandfather Mountain?" said Mrs. Bishop in a shocked voice. Rusty water began to spit on the windshield. The smell of hot metal threatened.
A red-necked man on the sidewalk dropped a chocolate ice-cream cone in surprise. They passed through Tin Town. Two Negroes backed into their shack-yard.
They turned into a street of brick houses with black wooden porches. People turned their heads. Expressions varied from pleased suspense to the hope that this incipient Mount Vesuvius would erupt farther down the street.
Cords stood out in Urie's neck until she looked like a quivering airplane of the Lindbergh era. Loco clenched her fists together and sucked the mouth of the milk bottle. Only Irene was impassive. She hid her fear under the creamy imperturbability of a sacred cow.
Suddenly Loco Poco screamed, "There's a Sears Roebuck!" The sound, given Biblical authority by its descent into and emanation as echo out of the empty milk bottle, caused Mrs. Bishop to slam on the brakes.
The Pontiac jerked sidewise like a crab. Mrs. Bishop piloted it bumping and stuttering past the row of brick houses to the brand-new yellow Sears Roebuck sitting in a bulldozed red gravel pit.
She swung fully around, holding the wheel and holding the motor in a pronounced idle, facing the back-seat three as if from a pulpit. Clouds, sun, and sky were blotted out by the billows of wet steam.
"Why did you tell me to stop here?" she demanded.
Loco Poco rolled her eyes up into her head.
"She didn't tell you to stop," said Urie, but seeing the expression in her mother's face, improvised rapidly: "There's water in Sears Roebuck."
"Oh," said Mrs. Bishop. She turned off the key.
Outside, people seemed to be running, and a crowd gathered.
A man's face appeared in the steam and said, "The engine ain't got no air to breathe with all them suitcases lined up against it."
"You, Loco and Urie, hurry into Sears Roebuck and fill those bottles," whispered Mrs. Bishop, her hand on the door handle. "You, Irene, get out and help me unload this stuff."
Assuming a brave, gallant, elegant, "so glad you are helping me, how wonderful you are" expression, she opened the door.
Urie and Loco sneaked out of the car and threaded their way through the curious faces, clutching their empty bottles. Just as they stretched out their hands to push, the Sears Roebuck doors swept open to usher them into an automatic embrace. They were welcomed from limbo into a new, hushed, shiny, impersonal world. Lawnmowers, light bulbs, refrigerators glowed in indirect lighting. People were moving up and down the appliance counter, slow and reverent as in church.
"It's air-conditioned," whispered Urie.
They walked down a green carpet. A thousand automobile tires hung above them, some black, some pure velvety, others wrapped modestly in fluted brown paper. Everything smelled unreal. They did not question the unreality. They accepted it naturally, as if they had not lost their home forever, as if they were not eight hundred miles away from their Oceanic Life, on their way to their father P.Q., to a home and life they could not imagine.
Suddenly Loco Poco stood in front of a gigantic suspended trailer-truck tire.
"Look! It's the kitty of the Little Cat's Paw!" she breathed. She drew her finger over the tire tread. Outlined against her fingernail, a small rubber cat was cut to the pattern of the tread. It lay sleeping in a bed, its nose and one paw exposed. "If I ever have a chance to buy a tire, I'm going to buy the Cat's Paw Tire. Isn't it cute!"
"We're supposed to be in here getting water!"
"This little kitty is home in bed. If you put ink on it, it would make a hundred little cats all the way down the highway!"
Searching the labyrinth of the store, Urie suddenly spotted something at the end of Straw Seat Covers. "Look, there are two fountains!"
Forgetting the sleeping cat, Loco darted forward. "One has colored water, Urie!" Pink, she bet.
She had the milk bottle ready, aiming it under the spout. But before she had time to push the handle, a horned finger touched her shoulder. It belonged to a bony middle-aged woman. "You're not supposed to use that fountain," she informed Loco in a low voice.
There was such strangeness in her disapproval that Loco was frightened. She backed away.
Outside, having delivered plain old white water without having spilled a drop, having for fifteen minutes maintained careful, minuscule footsteps like a serving girl's on a Greek vase, Loco paid no heed to the honks and brays of her sisters. She was only faintly pleased at Mrs. Bishop's diatribe: "All right. If you older ones don't know how to behave in a public place, you can just get right in the car and stay there until we get to Ephesus."
In this case the Truth Urie had told was a Lie. Maybe only Negroes were supposed to use the fountain, but Loco had been prevented from ever finding out what color the water was. Was it pink? Was it blue? Was it iridescent? Secretly she still thought it was pink. Forever she would be dedicated, like Ponce de Leon, to looking for the pink water in the magic fountain she saw so clearly in her mind's Garden of Eden.
It was more than an hourrestarting the motor, pouring endless milk bottles of water inbefore they could repack the suitcases and wobble onward again, halting and starting out of Richmond, out of sight of the crowd of waving helpers.
Hours passed. Everything descended into monotone. The family's personalities became dissolved until they became a Pontiacal zoom upon the universe.
Toward evening they saw a sign pointing to Ephesus.
They stirred. Their faces were dusty, and they became slightly scared. It was like awakening. At once they thought of the ocean. They could not believe it was lost. And they thought of P.Q. They had not seen him for more than a year. Mrs. Bishop had the address of the house he had taken for them on a piece of paper.
It was dusk when they entered the town. Mrs. Bishop squinted over the steering wheel and went slowly. The stores were flat. The gravel sidewalks were gullied by erosion. Trees clutched their hands over the automobile. The lights of the town came on. They passed a gas station in front of which there was a large magnolia tree which stuck out its blossoms through vulgar, shiny patent-leather leaves, like tongues. They turned right, passing the post office and the Ephesus Inn. Then, following the directions carefully, they entered an area of houses. Lights from the windows twinkled obscenely through large padded leaves. Bushes were overgrown in the yards. The fruitfulness of the Judas, quince, dogwood, honeysuckle was a disguise, and the fragrance that permeated everything was overpowering.
Suddenly a bell from a bell tower rang: "O Love That Will Not Let Me Go." The F-sharp was flat. Urie made a face at Loco. Behind this ritual their hearts were sinking.
The houses became closer and closer together. Mrs. Bishop veered toward the curb. "Nineteen Ransome Street," she said.
It was a squatting bungalow set in a gully. Bushes hid everything except the light inside and two fat orange columns which held up the porch.
Mrs. Bishop looked at her paper again to make sure.
"It can't be!" said Irene in a shocked voice. "This is a residential district!"
Their old house had been splendid, private and white, with fourteen rooms and forty-nine windows, fronting on the harbor, its back toward the ocean. P.Q. named it Thalassia. It stood on Eastern Point, an area of estates. The green blinds opened from white clapboard above the breakwater and Rafe's Chasm. Sea gulls cried in the morning, pure and merciless. Through the spring leaves of their cherry tree on a clear evening they could see Minot's Light and the Portland steamer heading on its weekly way to Maine.
At first they were summer people. The moon rose over the Atlantic, a shattering glister on choppy waves. Mrs. Bishop played Brahms and Chopin and the music drifted up to the girls' bedrooms at night. The wind sang through long grasses. The leaves of silver poplars sighed in the sun. The milkweeds wept tears of milk when their stems were broken. Sudden lightning storms erupted and broke bolts over the ocean.
After the Depression they became winter people too. One winter a storm came. The wind ripped the eaves. Warning bells lashed by fifteen-foot waves called from the ocean. The Leggetts' bathhouse, green and lonely above the empty swimming pool, was torn off its rock and tossed away to sea. The girls laughed.
Blizzards piled up ten-foot snowdrifts on the hills. Brace's Rock became encrusted with salt-water ice. The harbor froze, and ice cutters had to come in so that the gill-netters could make their way out to the Grand Banks. They put on their skates in the house and walked out to the pond which separated their house from the ocean. Holding burlap bags between them, they sailed at fifty miles an hour. They played hide-and-seek in the winter-deserted estates, hiding behind snow-covered naked Roman statues of gods and goddesses imported from Italy. They walked the winter beach. They followed the leader.
Urie was the leader. She made them go over cliffs and through woods. Ghosts of snow pretending to be trees watched them. They learned purity in the winter. They had to be strong to enter into eternal, merciless freedom. They tramped all the millionaires' estates, fake Tudor castles, Norman turrets, Italian rococo mansions, glass piazzas gleaming in the snow, and one carved French palace, its windowpanes etched white upon the vicious ocean.
They broke and entered with the confidence of kings. Forgotten locks and rusty hinges were a challenge. They gazed with rapturous awe at the acres of deserted rooms, furniture shrouded by sheets as if in spectral imitation of the snow. White congealed in hypostasis the powerful absent owners. Who had stood where? What had they said, these dead rulers of the universe? Everything was haunted. Once Loco discovered some leftover cheese-cracker crumbs in a great dark kitchen at Maynards'. They ate them, all three, thrilling to this actual evidence of the absent owners. They were like mice taking Communion and becoming lords. Their kingdom was endless and undisputed. Trespass made them gods.
Illuminated by a consciousness of what this experience meant, Urie became a preacher as well as a leader. She waited until they were at the farthest extremity from home, in the bleakest room of the Ramparts, or at the last stone of the Point, looking at the figure of Mother Ann, a granite, bosomy stone facing the sea. Then she turned to them, her breath supernatural with enthusiastic steam, her eyes very blue.
"You see, there is no boundary to us. We are completely limitless. We are just like the ocean and the sky. We own everything in the world!"
"I want to go home, Urie," said Loco in a scared voice.
"Where do you think you are?"
"At the lighthouse."
"No, you are not at the lighthouse."
It was because Loco was the smallest against the endless waste of snow that she was scared. Once she had got stuck for four hours in a snowbank at the Ramparts. Irene and Urie had not been able to pull her out. They had had to leave her and go for help. March lay upon February's back and the sea stretched away to infinity. The wind was tugging at the sky. All Loco could see was endless miles of granite, mansion and maze overwhelming her.
"Where am I, then?" she asked.
"You are at home!" crescendoed Urie, stretching out her arms to embrace all power.
"No. I'm at the lighthouse!" said Loco, beginning to cry. "I want to go home, Urie!"
"Go home, then!"petulantly turning away, knowing none of them would go alone.
"Make her go home, Irene!" Loco held her mittens pleadingly before her chin, her tears beginning to freeze on her cheeks.
"Oh, lily-livered cowards," scorned Urie. She led the tramp back, etching her mittens into the sky into huge gestures of espousal. "Home. Home. Everything is home!"
All through the years of losing the house Mrs. Bishop called the family "aristocrats of the soul." They did not take this as compensation for losing paradise, for they were not aware of losing it. The banks closed. The Bishops lost their money. Four of the millionaires whose mansions the girls explored jumped off skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. But the girls did not notice that Mrs. Bishop no longer brought them toys. They were surprised when she talked about it. They went to school. They did not associate with other children. They were too far from the school. They were the only ones who rode to it in an automobile. The townschildren spoke with bad grammar. The Bishops spoke with good grammar and made top grades. The bank did not believe the Bishops would never pay off the mortgage. So they were allowed to stay in hope. For five years they stayed, owning their house, the millionaires' estates, the Point, the ocean, and the sky. And then the bank made the first steps toward foreclosure.
They got out of the car. They fanned through the shrubbery, creeping toward the bungalow with the repulsion and curiosity of wary soldiers ordered to capture a hill. Through the screen door they saw P.Q.
He was sitting in an empty living room in the glare of a naked 150-watt light bulb. The only stick of furniture was the camp chair upon which he sat. His left leg was perched on his right knee. He was reading Plutarch. He looked like a marooned tyrant ruling fathoms of polished floor. The only articles in his emptiness were a string rug, upon which his foot was carefully placed, and books, neatly lined along the wall from one end of the floor to the other.
He sensed the forces outside and stepped out the screen door to look, the book in his right hand, his forefinger marking his place. His cheeks had acquired squint lines from sun. His face had grown sharper and hollower. His nose had grown longer and more sarcastic. His bald head was more imposing than ever, giving a new, total authority to the uniqueness that made him unable to get along in the world.
He saw them. "Ah! So you got here at last!"
Such gladness spilled through these words, punctuating his old dashing knife-smile in the darkness and his foreign accent, so strange, yet so familiar, that suddenly they felt as if it were yesterday.
Loco Poco, squealing with delight, ran up the wooden steps and half tripped. He caught her in his arms.
The others came more slowly and shyly.
All this time they had not even missed him because his dominance, in abeyance, was always felt. But now his presence was overpowering.
"This is a crazy place, P.Q."
"You bet your life it is."
They walked around the empty room to inspect. To talk about anything was irrelevant.
"We saw white trash sweeping dirt yards."
"We saw Negroes with umbrellas and it was ninety-eight degrees and the sun was out."
The repetition of what had been flotsam to their mother was suddenly recognizable as the coin of Bishopry. Bishopry against the world, Bishopry dancing in enlightened ecstasy upon the wet spots of ignorance, stupidity, craziness, and dumbness. Bishopry, wise as owls witnessing the wonders and absurdities of the world.
"The moving van didn't come," said Irene.
"There's nothing here but floors."
"What a funny house, P.Q. It's so small I feel like I'm a doll in it."
They came into possession of hysterical euphoria, laughing insanely. They walked like goslings about P.Q. They went from one room into another. Their footsteps echoed on the plaster walls. Echoes pursued them from room to room. They repeated rooms as if to make the place bigger. Unreality became total reality. Their Bishopry thwacked over the echoes of themselves, over the emptiness, over the meaninglessness of their footsteps, into the very workings of their leg muscles.
"No furniture! Insane!"
"Where are we going to sleep?"
"Where do you sleep, P.Q.?"
He opened a last door. He was poker-faced.
In the empty room on the empty floor lay a mattress. It was dressed in sheets. A pillow was its head. It wore a blue blanket. An alarm clock sat next to it, pointing to nine-five.
"You sleep on the floor?"
"We can sleep on the floor too, can't we, P.Q.?" asked Loco Poco.
"You bet your life. That's the way I slept in nineteen-oh-eight on my first day at the University of Illinois."
"Come on," said P.Q. from the hallway, after they had unloaded everything. "Let's go for a walk. We'll get some ice cream. I want to show you the university."
"At this time of night? It's eleven o'clock," said Mrs. Bishop.
"Mamma!" breathed Loco.
"You only live once," said P.Q.
P.Q. Bishop, born in Khartoum and originally named Pavlos Episcopoulos, had dropped the name of Paul because of Saint Paul, whom he hated. He was Greek but had never been in Greece. Sometimes he claimed to be a Jew, but no one in the family knew whether to believe it because he told lies and truths with the same straight face. He laughed at Christianity but literally translated his name into English as Bishop. He had come to America at the age of sixteen, though he told some people it was at twelve.
He was a combination of opportunist and utopian. When he was young he worked as bellhop, shoeshine boy, and grocery clerk to put himself through college. The mythology of America opened his eyes. If a man was smart in this country, he could make money.
But education was the guide light. Ignorance kept people down. As a student P.Q. tried to organize the Greeks of New England, to make them learn English and read American history to get them out of the mills of Lawrence and Lowell, out of the ghettos and raise them up. He did not believe in work. Horatio Alger was folderol, the Puritan ethic nonsense. Understanding operated through enlightened self-interest (business) with technology and relieved man for higher spheres of service. This was the lesson of America.
Before the First World War he tried to enlist in the Canadian Air Force but was rejected for being underweight. He entered law school. There he met Clara Parsons, the daughter of Hector J. Parsons, sugar broker and owner of real estate. The Parsons family went back to the Mayflower. P.Q., always separated from the rest of the Greeks by his slow-burning egotism and the arrogance of messianic idealism, began to straddle the bridge between immigrancy and the cream of Yankee society. Hector J. Parsons took a fancy to him. The irascible old man liked to pit P.Q. against his relatives who had never made a bean themselves. He liked to watch him drop neatly turned bombs in society and reveled in his wicked, young delight at flustering men and women. P.Q.'s flair turned strong-willed, generous Clara Parsons' head, and winning over her divinity-student suitors, egged on by her doting old father, he married her. He never finished law school, for he was drafted and spent the war teaching English to immigrants. Hector J. Parsons died, and P.Q. went into the banking business with Clara's money. His new affluence proved his ideas. Outward circumstances mattered little to him, and he fitted himself to the life of golf clubs, roadster, club memberships, and the summer house on Eastern Point as easily as he had once lived in boarding houses.
The first child, a boy, died. When Irene was born, P.Q. was disappointed. A second girl changed his disappointment into transcendence. He began to conceive of women as potential Athenas, superior to men. He began to teach his daughters manners, ideas, and philosophies as if they were not children but the leaders of future generations. At three years old, Urie was taught to repeat after him man's progress from the animal: "Man has progressed from being an animal. First he was a savage. Then he was a barbarian. And at last he became a social man."
By the time Loco was born, P.Q. had sated his desires for inculcation, so she became his favorite and looked to him just like a little Clara.
When the Depression came, he could not believe it. Clara came to the fore. She buoyed him up. He raised himself out of a paralysis of inaction, cutting down on their way of life, moving into the Eastern Point house. He started a business making radio casings. The NRA closed it up. None of his former associates had anything to do with him. He began a new business in wool. It failed. Years passed. He started two new ventures. The more he failed, the more he became convinced of his belief in free enterprise as panacea. He preached. He became more stubborn and more enthusiastic. But bitterness began to turn the edges of his enthusiasms brown. He grew hard in his preachings.
Excerpted from ENTERING EPHESUS by Daphne Athas. Copyright © 1971 by Daphne Athas. Excerpted by permission.
Meet the Author
Daphne Athas has published five books, countless articles, stories, poems, and plays, and has won a dozen literary awards and honors over the past 30 years. She currently teaches writing and literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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