John Dollar

A Novel

by Marianne Wiggins

Paperback, 214 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $14 | purchase

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John Dollar
A Novel
Marianne Wiggins

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Book Summary

Young widowed Charlotte Lewes leaves World War I England for Burma, falls in love with sailor John Dollar, and becomes marooned with him—and eight children—on a remote island.

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Excerpt: John Dollar

Chapter One: Last Act Of The Apostle

They appeared with the sun at their backs on the crest of the hill after daybreak, black figures, threading their way toward the sea through the gray rocks and heather into the town of St. Ives.

The old Indian descended first, leading the donkey on a tether; Charlotte rode across the donkey's back. Charlotte's hair had gone from gold to white when she was rescued from the island years ago, and it fell around her now, wild and full and loose, because the Indian had thought it looked its best that way. The Indian had rinsed the long white hair in tea she brewed from flowers of the English chamomile, then she had anointed it with almond oil, but hadn't found the courage nor the faith to bind it up. Neither had she closed the eyes, folded the arms, entwined the fingers, nor wrapped the body with cloths soaked in linseed oil to stanch its putrefaction. She had known her mistress to have died before so this time she sat vigil, not daring for a full day to disturb the body from what she thought could be a deep but only temporary sleep. She had waited, watching, holding a makeshift wake to discover if this death was going to be irrevocable in the way that some deaths are, or if this death was going to be a sleight of hand like Christ's or like the seasons. This was not the first time she had watched a person die and this was not the only time this person, in particular, had died; so she was not bereft so much as she was chary in the several hours of severe and awful silence that descended over Charlotte's body. Finally three things happened — not so much occurred as seemingly accumulated — which proved that death this time was lasting and irrevocable. The first proof surfaced on the corpse's skin: Charlotte was an old woman, two decades older than the Indian, and for the last ten years her skin and her aroma had been those of dry old age, two powdery sensations, like the wings of lepidoptera. But after she had fallen silent in the night her skin had started to turn waxy. The second proof was soon to follow with the daylight. Charlotte's eyes — one blue, one green: the independent signs of her two natures — had always signaled youth, but with the light of the next day they grew murrhine and clotted, vitelline as yolks and lastly, thirdly, she began to stink.

The Indian had been alone but once in life and so, exploring that condition, she began to sing. While cleansing Charlotte's hair in chamomile, the Indian surprised herself in song. It was not a pleasant noise at first, arising as it did from grief, but after several sounds of pure lament, the Indian found music, half-remembered, from her childhood and she sang, nonstop, as she groomed the corpse and set out on her journey with it into town. A tin miner's daughter, on her way to school that morning near St. Ives, was frightened by the sound and ran to town to warn her friends a witch was walking down the hill, but sightlines over Cornwall ravel. The land buckles and it troughs and although the children of St. Anselm's school in St. Ives strained at the window, they couldn't catch sight of the demon. The witch and its victim had vanished.

The Indian wove 'round the valley, avoiding its roads, cutting through pastures where lambs for the slaughter ran, innocent. She saw several men in succession, wearing caps and rough jackets. She gave them wide berth. She was unused to men. She was unused to people. Charlotte and she had lived for six decades on high land where rock was the backbone just under the earth. They had done nothing. They looked at the sea. The Indian knitted and planted her gourds and potatoes. Of all of God's fruits she best loved potatoes, loved holding them, planting their eyes. The Indian cooked: unleavened bread, thick soup, thin stews. They never ate at a table. On a mat on the floor, side by side, back to back, they took single meals never breathing a prayer of thanksgiving. At night before going to bed they drank bowls of goat's milk and looked at the sea. When they spoke, if they spoke, they were careful of saying not much. Birthdays were always forgotten. The seasons were never rejoiced. The summers in Cornwall were never too hot to remind them of where they had come from, or Hell. They lost their religion to silence, they lost their forbearance to fear. Year after year they refused to forget, to look forward, look inward, look anywhere, but to sea. The Indian loved the blind eyes of potatoes. She rubbed them. She set them eyesdown in the rock-riddled earth. Each year she grew the same number. Nothing progressed. Nothing changed. Except Charlotte was dead and soon, the Indian knew, she herself would die, too.

Only first she had come into town to make peace with the englishman's devil.

The man in the black dress had spoken.

Madam, he said, Madam, he thought, was the best he could do. "Madam, he said, "I must ask you most kindly to see my position."

"I will see it, yes. Ask."

"You must see that it's not every day."

"Very good. Yes, it's not."

"It's not every day one is called on to deal with a matter like this."

"Yes, it is not."

"You do speak, you are fluent, conversant in English?"

"I am a Subject."

"Of course, well, the rules are quite clear. The rules are quite strict on the subject."

"She is One. A Subject."

"On this matter, I mean. Holy ground. There's a question of Rites. Holy unction. A question of — do you know — was she — baptized?"


"She was — properly baptized?"


"When and where?"

"A long time ago. In a church."

"But I mean, before we consider, we need the baptismal certificate."

"Yes, very good, I will pay."

"You don't understand. There has to be proof that she's Church of England...."

"Yes, very good. She is English."


"The proof. She is English. The Church of England. Same-same."

The man in the black dress waved the back of his hand toward the donkey. "Look," he said. He was not meeting her eyes. She looked where he looked. "Go over there," he instructed. A sign read, "Police." "They can help you."



"For Heaven?"


"Properly buried?"

"I'm sor-ry — ?"

"You won't make the business?"

"Look — "

"You won't say the prayers?"

"I am sor-ry...."

"You won't put her down in this ground?"

"It's out of the question."

"The 'question'?"



"Verboten. Défendu. Non licet, interdit. Vetitum est."

Was he mad? Was this hokus?

The Indian took two steps backwards and put up her hand. She showed her palm to his eyes to signify she, too, could translate. The english makes laws. He makes one law for men. He makes one law for women, a law for his children. Laws for his dogs. A law for bats. This law, exclusive, ecclesiastic, for keeping the dead from the dead, under ground. Very good, she translated. The english would never fill rivers with corpses, he hides them instead in the ground. He eats with sharp knives. He chews with a knife and a fork. He buries his dead so the other white castes will not cook them and eat them. Worms and the maggots are better than teeth of one's enemies, that's why the white caste is always at table. He eats and he eats. He eats mountains and ore. He eats diamonds and rubles, blue sky. He eats cities, chews names. He eats people. Her name was something a long time ago that the english had chewed from its whole state of "Menaka" into a word they said "Monica" into the status of "Monkey", for short. He translated her person, he chewed and he chewed. The Indian knew a translation, though, too. She translated his laws into liquid, into the likely suspicion of outlawry, floating face-up on her being, pretending a surface, a sea: she could bury, o yes. She had buried before. She could translate while smiling, bow down and back up, take the donkey with Charlotte across it to wait by the gate of the high wall till darkness, till he and his brothers all slept. It would be pocus, a bother, the words, but she'd have to remember. She'd said them once, many times, many ages ago. Blessed be the root of our desiring, no, no. May that come upon him which comes upon a drum at times of feasting, yes. A beating. No one would deny her right to mourn. No one would prevent her doing right by Charlotte's soul.

She sat down on her haunches in front of the wall. The donkey slept, standing. She sang, while she sat and watched Charlotte. She held Charlotte's hand. Charlotte's hair moved in the wind, as if living.

After dark they stole in. There was a moon and the graves were all light. Some spirits assembled. Diggery dig, Monkey said. In her heart she felt slight as a girl. Against the wall, by a shed, there was a shovel, a bucket, a single-wheeled handcart. Monkey tethered the donkey. How many years ago, Charlotte, did they do what they did on that shore by the light of this moon? Dig here, you crazy old woman, the Indian ordered herself.

She dug.

She threw her weight into the breaking of ground. Sixty years, or a lifetime, Just digging, she judged. She and Charlotte had killed them, not Monkey so much, although Monkey had beaten their heads with a stone, after their hands had stopped moving. Then Charlotte and she had dragged their two bodies down to the sea for the vultures and sharks. Then Charlotte had said, 'I want you to bury him.' Charlotte was crazy by then.

Monkey had dug a big hole, digging alone in the sand with her hands. Charlotte had stood by, just watching. 'Is it ready? she'd said. Monkey was blinded by tears. How big must it be? she had wondered. When should I stop?

Charlotte had picked up his bones. The arms and the legs and the head. Then she and Monkey had puzzled them out in the earth till they looked like a man. Place his head facing Hell, Charlotte said. Monkey twisted the skull. 'Place him eyes-down in the earth.'

Then Charlotte had wept and Monkey covered the bones. Night had come fast. Charlotte tamped the earth with her feet and the moon had come out. Under the moon she kept tamping and tamping, stamping his grave as if tamping a fire, stamping and stamping, a march going nowhere. When she came to a halt she fell to her knees and said, 'Say it with me. Man that is born of a woman is full of misery Amen.'

— Misery, amen, Monkey said. She got down on her knees next to Charlotte.

He's cut down like a flower he fleeth as shadow and never continues one stay Amen.

— In one stay, amen, Monkey said.

Thou knowest Lord secrets of our hearts but spare us O God most mighty O holy and merciful savior Thou worthy judge Suffer us not at last Amen.

— Yes, Monkey said.

Say after me: Earth to earth ashes to ashes.

— Ashes. Two ashes, Monkey had said.

Dust to dust.

— A Dust. Two dusts.

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end.

'Without end,' Monkey said.

Copyright © 1989 by Marianne Wiggins