The CleftA Novel
978-0-06-083486-9Copyright © 2007 Doris Lessing
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-06-083486-9
I saw this today.
When the carts come in from the estate farm as the summer ends, bringing the wine, the olives, the fruits, there is a festive air in the house, and I share in it. I watch from my windows like the house slaves, for the arrival of the oxen as they turn from the road, listen for the creak of the cart. Today the oxen were wild-eyed and anxious, because of the noisy overfull road to the west. Their whiteness was reddened, just like the slave Marcus's tunic, and his hair was full of dust. The watching girls ran out to the cart, not only because of all the delicious produce they would now put away into the storerooms, but because of Marcus, who had in the last year become a handsome youth. His throat was too full of dust to let him return their greetings, and he ran to the pump, snatched up the pitcher there, drank-and drank-poured water over his head, which emerged from this libation a mass of black curls-and dropped the pitcher, through haste, on the tile surround, where it shattered. At this, Lolla, whose mother my father had bought during a trip to Sicily, an excitable explosive girl, rushed at Marcus screaming reproaches and accusations. He shouted back, defending himself. The other servants were already lifting down the jars of wine and oil, and the grape harvest, black and gold, and it was a busy, loud scene. The oxen began lowing and now, and with an ostentatiously impatient air, Lolla took up a second pitcher, dipped it in the water and ran with it to the oxen, where she filled their troughs, which were nearly empty. It was Marcus's responsibility to make sure the oxen got their water as soon as they arrived. They lowered their great heads and drank, while Lolla again turned on Marcus, scolding and apparently angry. Marcus was the son of a house slave in the estate house and these two had known each other all their lives. Sometimes he had worked here in our town house, sometimes she had gone for the summer to the estate. Lolla was known for her quick temper, and if Marcus had not been hot and dusty after the long slow journey he would probably have laughed at her, teased her out of her fit of impatience. But these two were no longer children: it was enough only to see them together to know her crossness, his sullenness, were not the result only of a very hot afternoon.
He went to the oxen, avoiding their great tossing horns, and began soothing them. He freed them from their traces, and led them to the shade of the big fig tree, where he slipped the traces over a branch. For some reason Marcus's tenderness with the oxen annoyed Lolla even more. She stood, watching, while the other girls were carrying past her the produce from the cart, and her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes reproached and accused the boy. He took no notice of her. He walked past her as if she were not there, to the veranda, where he pulled out another tunic from his bundle and, stripping off the dusty tunic, he again sluiced himself with water, and without drying himself-the heat would do that in a moment-he slipped on the fresh one. Lolla seemed calmer. She stood with her hand on the veranda wall, and now she was penitent, or ready to be. Again he took no notice of her, but stood at the end of the veranda, staring at the oxen, his charges. She said, 'Marcus ...' in her normal voice, and he shrugged, repudiating her. By now the last of the jars and the fruit had gone inside. The two were alone on the veranda. 'Marcus,' said Lolla again, and this time coaxingly. He turned his head to look at her, and I would not have liked to earn that look. Contemptuous, angry-and very far from the complaisance she was hoping for. He went to the gate to shut it, and turned from it, and from her. The slaves' quarters were at the end of the garden. He took up his bundle and began walking-fast, to where he would lodge that night. 'Marcus,' she pleaded. She seemed ready to cry. He was about to go into the men's quarters and she ran across and reached him as he disappeared into the door.
I did not need to watch any longer. I knew she would find an excuse to hang about the courtyard-perhaps petting and patting the oxen, giving them figs, or pretend the well needed attention. She would be waiting for him. I knew that he would want to go off into the streets with the other boys, for an evening's fun-he was not often here in this house in Rome itself. But I knew too that these two would spend tonight together, no matter what he would have preferred.
This little scene seems to me to sum up a truth in the relations between men and women.
Often seeing something as revealing, when observing the life of the house, I was impelled to go into the room where it was kept, the great pack of material which I was supposed to be working on. I had had it now for years. Others before me had said they would try to make something of it.
What was it? A mass of material accumulated over ages, originating as oral history, some of it the same but written down later, all purporting to deal with the earliest record of us, the peoples of our earth.
It was a cumbersome, unwieldy mass and more than one hopeful historian had been defeated by it, and not only because of its difficulty, but because of its nature. Anyone working on it ...