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Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts
Esther was stiff upstairs when Rose called in at the back door. "Yoohoo, Esther, you ready?" Rose lived with her retired husband Cecil in the topmost of the two cottages in the lane leading up to Esther's house--a large, thatched manor farm with its own cobbled court. The cobbles were not ordinary street cobbles, but pitch cobbles, their narrow, oblong sides forming a mosaic melted to gentleness by centuries of boots and hooves. The cobbles extended under the stout, nail-studded oak door into the dark hall between the kitchen and scullery, and in old Lady Bromehead's day had formed the floor of the kitchen and scullery as well. But after old Lady Bromehead fell and broke her hip at the age of ninety and was removed to a home, a series of servantless tenants had persuaded her son to lay linoleum in those rooms.
The oak door was the back door; everybody but the random stranger used it. The front door, yellow-painted and flanked by two pungent bushes of box, faced across an acre of stinging nettles to where the church indicated a gray heaven above its scallop of surrounding headstones. The front gate opened just under the comer of the graveyard.
Esther tugged her red turban down around her ears, then adjusted the folds of her cashmere coat loosely so that she might, to the casual eye, seem simply tall, stately and fat, rather than eight months pregnant. Rose had not rung the bell before calling in. Esther imagined Rose, curious, avid Rose, eyeing the bare floorboards of the front hall and the untidy strewing of the baby'stoys from front room to kitchen. Esther couldn't get used to people opening the door and calling in without ringing first. The postman did it, and the baker, and the grocer's boy, and now Rose, who was a Londoner and should have known better.
Once when Esther was arguing loudly and freely with Tom over breakfast, the back door had popped open and a handful of letters and magazines clapped onto the hall cobbles. The postman's cry of "Morning!" faded. Esther felt spied on. For some time after that, she bolted the back door from the inside, but the sound of tradesmen trying the door and finding it bolted in broad day, and then ringing the bell and waiting until she came and noisily undid the bolt, embarrassed her even more than their former calling in. So she left the bolt alone again, and took care not to argue so much, or at least not so loudly.
When Esther came down, Rose was waiting just outside the door, smartly dressed in a satiny lavender hat and checked tweed coat. At her side stood a blond, bony-faced woman with bright blue eyelids and no eyebrows. This was Mrs. Nolan, the wife of the pub-keeper at the White Hart. Mrs. Nolan, Rose said, never came to the Mothers' Union meetings because she had no one to go with, so Rose was bringing her to this month's meeting, together with Esther.
"Do you mind waiting just another minute, Rose, while I tell Tom I'm off?" Esther could feel Rose's shrewd eyes checking over her hat, her gloves, her patent leather heels, as she tamed and picked her gingerly way up the cobbles to the back garden. Tom was planting roller berries in the newly spaded square behind the empty stables. The baby sat in the path on a pile of red earth, ladling dirt into her lap with a battered spoon.
Esther felt her little grievances about Tom's not shaving and his letting the baby play in the dirt fade at the sight of the two of them, quiet and in perfect accord. "Tom!",She rested her white glove, without thinking, on the earth-crusted wooden gate. "I'm off now. If I'm late getting back will you boil the baby an egg?"
Tom straightened and shouted some word of encouragement that foundered between them in the dense November air, and the baby turned in the direction of Esther's voice, her mouth black as if she had been eating dirt. But Esther slipped away, before the baby could heave up and toddle after her, to where Rose and Mrs. Nolan were waiting at the bottom of the court.
Esther let them through the seven-foot-high, stockade-like gate and latched it behind them. Then Rose crooked out her two elbows, and Mrs. Nolan took one, and Esther took the other, and the three women teetered in their best shoes down the stony lane past Rose's cottage, and the cottage of the old blind man and his spinster sister at the bottom, and into the road.
"We're meeting in the church today." Rose tongued a peppermint drop into her cheek and passed the twist of tinfoil round. Both Esther and Mrs. Nolan refused politely. "We don't always meet in church, though. Only when there's new members joining UP. )I
Mrs. Nolan rolled her pale eyes skyward, whether in general consternation or simply at the prospect of church, Esther couldn't tell. "Are you new in town, too? " she asked Mrs. Nolan across Rose's front, leaning forward a little.
Mrs. Nolan gave a short, joyless laugh. "I've been here six years."
"Why, you must know everybody by now!"
"Hardly a soul," Mrs. Nolan intoned, causing misgivings, like a flock of chilly-toed birds, to clutter at Esther's heart. If Mrs. Nolan, an Englishwoman by her looks and accent, and a pub-keeper's wife as well, felt herself a stranger in Devon after six years, what hope had Esther, an American, of infiltrating that rooted society ever at all?
The three women proceeded, arm in arm, along the road under the high, holly-hedged boundary of Esther's acre, past her front gate and on under the red cob wall of the churchyard.Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts. Copyright © by Sylvia Plath. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.