“See Now Then,” by Jamaica Kincaid

Regarding now and then, Mrs. Sweet was thinking, as she stood at the window, regarding now and then, seeing it as it presented itself, a series of tableaux. The house in which she stood sat on a knoll and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake also named Paran; and, looking up, she could see surrounding her the mountains named Green and Anthony. The mountains Green and Anthony, the lake, the river, the valley that lay spread out before her, all serene in their seeming permanence, all created by forces that answered to no known existence, were a refuge from that tormented landscape that made up Mrs. Sweet’s fifty-two-year-old inner life. No morning arrived in all its freshness, its newness, bearing no trace of all the billions of mornings that had come before, that Mrs. Sweet didn’t think, first thing, of the turbulent waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. She thought of that landscape before she opened her eyes and the thoughts surrounding that landscape made her open her eyes. Her eyes, dark, impenetrable, Mr. Sweet would say, as he looked into them, at first he said the word impenetrable with delight, for the thought of discovering something not yet known to him, something that lay in Mrs. Sweet’s eyes and it would make him free, free, free from all that bound him, delighted him, and then he cursed her dark eyes, for they offered him nothing; in any case his own eyes were blue and Mrs. Sweet was indifferent to that particular feature of his. And if Mrs. Sweet’s eyes were not impenetrable, everyone she met would have wished them so; for behind her eyes lay scenes of turbulence, upheavals, murders, betrayals, on foot on land and on the seas transporting themselves or being transported to places on the earth’s surface that they had never heard of or even imagined, and murderer and murdered, betrayer and betrayed, the source of the turbulence, the instigator of the upheavals, were all mixed up, and the sorting out of the true, true truth, and the rendering of judgments, or the acceptance of wrongs, and accepting that to accept and lay still with being wronged will wear you down to nothing so that eventually you are not more than the substance that makes up the Imperial Sand Dunes in the Imperial Valley in California, or the pink beaches surrounding the rising shelf of land mass that is now, just now, the island of Barbuda, or the lawn of a house in Montclair, New Jersey. But those eyes of hers were not a veil to her soul, someone so substantial, so vivid, so full of the thing called life, did not need a veil for she was her soul and her soul was herself; and her childhood and her youth and middle age, all of her was intact and complete; all of her, all of her, was not exempt from Imperial Sand Dunes or beaches on emerging land mass or lawns in New Jersey, not so, not so, but all the same when she opened her eyes each morning that seemed not to know of the mornings that had come before, her now and her then was seen in the human light and she saw herself with tenderness and sympathy and even love, yes love, and turning herself, she saw next to her, Mr. Sweet: his hair vanishing, each strand forever lost one day at a time, a thin layer of dandruff covering his scalp and trapped in the thread-straight locks of the remaining hair, his breath perfumed by a properly digested dinner he had enjoyed the night before, but she did not see his disappointments. Mrs. Sweet’s eyes could see Mrs. Sweet very well in the little room off to the side of the kitchen and in that place she came alive in all her tenses, then, now, then again, and she entered the little room off the kitchen and sat at the desk that Donald had made for her and placed her hands on the desk and began: “it is true that my mother loved me very much, so much that I thought love was the only emotion and even the only thing that existed; I only knew love then and I was an infant up to the age of seven and could not know that love itself, though true and a stable standard, is more varied and unstable than any element or substance that rises up from the earth’s core; my mother loved me and I did not know that I should love her in return; it never occurred to me that she would grow angry at me for not returning the love she gave to me; I accepted the love she gave me without a thought to her and took it for my own right to live in just the way that would please me; and then my mother became angry at me because I did not love her in return and then she became even more angry that I did not love her at all because i would not become her, i had an idea that i should become myself; it made her angry that i should have a self, a separate being that could never be known to her; she taught me to read and she was very pleased at how naturally I took to it, for she thought of reading as a climate and not everyone adapts to it; she did not know that before she taught me to read I knew how to write, she did not know that she herself was writing and that once I knew how to read I would then write about her; she wished me dead but not into eternity, she wished me dead at the end of day and in the morning she would give birth to me again; in a small room of the Public Library of St. John’s, Antigua, she showed me books about the making of the earth, the workings of the human digestive system, the causes of some known diseases, the lives of some European composers of Classical music, the meaning of pasteurization; I cannot remember that i was taught the alphabet, the letters A B and C one after the other in sequence with all the others ending in the letter Z, I can only see now that those letters formed into words and that the words themselves leapt up to meet my eyes and that my eyes then fed them to my lips and so between the darkness of my impenetrable eyes and my lips that are the shape of chaos before the tyranny of order and eternal happiness, is where I find my self, my true self, and from that I write; but I knew how to write before I could read for all that I would write about had existed before my knowing how to read and transport it into words and put it down on paper, and all of the world had existed before I even knew how to speak of it, had existed before I even knew how to understand it, and in looking at it even more closely, I don’t really know how to write because there is so much before me that I cannot yet read; i cannot write why I did not love my mother then when she loved me so completely; what i felt for her has no name that I can now find; i thought her love for me and her own self was one thing and that one thing was my own, completely my own, so much so that i was part of what was my own and i and my own were inseparable and so to love my mother was known to me and so her anger directed toward me was incomprehensible to us both; my mother taught me to read, she and i at first could read together and then she and i could read separately but not be in conflict, but then, to see it now, only I would write; after she taught me to read, I caused such disruption in my mother’s everyday life: i asked her for more books and she had none to give me and so she sent me to a school that i would only be allowed in and admitted to if i was five years old; i was already taller than was expected for someone my age, three and a half years old, and my mother said to me, now remember when they ask you how old you are say you are five, over and over again, she made me repeat that i was five and when the teacher asked me how old i was i said that i was five years of age and she believed me; it is perhaps then that  I became familiar with the idea that knowing how to read could alter my circumstances, then that I came to know that the truth could be unstable while a lie is hard and dark, for it was not a lie to say that i was five when i was three and a half years old, for three and a half years old then was now, and my five-year-old self then would soon be in my now;  that teacher’s name was Mrs. Tanner and she was a very large woman, so large that she could not turn around quickly and we would take turns pinching her bottom and by the time she looked to see which of us had done so, we would assume a pose of innocence and she never knew which one of us had been so rude and mischievous; and it was while in Mrs. Tanner’s presence that  i/I came to develop fully my two selves, then and now, united only through seeing, and it happened in this way: Mrs. Tanner was teaching us to read from a book with simple words and pictures but since I already knew how to read, I could see things within the book that I was not meant to see; the story in the book was about a man who was a farmer and his name was Mr. Joe and he had a dog named Mr. Dan and a cat named Miss Tibbs and a cow who did not have a name, the cow was only called the cow, and he had a hen and her name was Mother Hen and she had twelve chicks, eleven of them were ordinary, golden chicks, but the twelfth one was bigger than the others and had black feathers and he had a name, it was Percy; Percy caused his mother a great deal of worry, for he always would provoke the anger in Miss Tibbs and Mr. Dan by attempting to eat their food; but his mother’s greatest worry came when she saw him try to fly up and sit on the uppermost bar of the farm’s fence; he tried and tried and failed and then one day succeeded but only for a moment and then he fell down and broke one of his wings and one of his legs; it was Mr. Joe who said, “Percy the chick had a fall.” I/i liked that sentence then and I like that sentence now but then I had  no way of making any sense of it, i could only keep it in my mind’s eye, where it rested and grew in the embryo that would become my imagination; a good three and a half years later, i met Percy again but in another form; as a punishment for misbehaving in class, i was made to copy Books One and Two of Paradise Lost by John Milton and i fell in love with Satan, especially as he was portrayed in the illustration, standing victoriously on one foot on a charred globe, the other foot aloft, his arms flung out in that way of the victor, brandishing a sword in one of them, his head of hair thick and alive for his hair was all snakes poised to strike; i then remembered Percy, the lone chick bigger than the rest of his mother’s chicks and covered in black feathers and always wanting to do something that he was not allowed to do and doing it anyway and failing and then he was ridiculed by his mother and the rest of the animals on the farm and then also by Mr. Joe. But in what beautiful light I stood then that made me align the transgressions of the black-feathered chick and the young Satan, for even then I knew, was certain, that these two figures I encountered in a book, two figures of an imagination not known to me, could inform my destiny: I am ignorant of the reality of my surroundings, I love my own will and not another’s, I see and hear nothing at all that stands outside of my own understanding of what is to be seen and heard, I know and believe in everything but only if it passes through me, my own self.” But all this, all this was a bundle of threads, threads meant to sew on a button, fix the hem of a dress, darn a frayed collar, threads meant to be part of the fixed arrangement of life as it was lived in her little house on an island that was an asterisk in the history of an Empire; all this, all this, memory is what it is, are the threads tangled in the sewing basket of the most annoying and incompetent seamstress’s apprentice, all this was in Mrs. Sweet’s mind, and Mrs. Sweet herself: for she had been a seamstress’s apprentice and she had been so incompetent at it, that she had been dismissed and it deposited in her the feeling of shame and this was everlasting.

“See Now Then” is Kincaid’s first new fiction in a decade. Read more in Little Star #3, out this month, and Little Star #2 (2011).

Jamaica Kincaid is the author of Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, Mr. Potter, My BrotherAutobiography of My Mother, Lucy, A Small PlaceAnnie John, and At the Bottom of the River. She lives in Vermont and teaches in California.