Tell it and tell it out loud.
In a poor part of a poor town in a poor country there lived a man who had a wife and seven children.
Imagine how busy that house must have been. Full of life and full of sounds. The husband and his wife were poor. They were not so poor that they couldn't feed or clothe their children, but they were not wealthy enough to be able to enjoy their lives as much as most people could. The husband worked very hard at his work. He was a carpenter and he would spend the whole day in a dusty wood shop, working for a man who made furniture for the rich houses in the town. He was there from early in the morning until late in the afternoon. Then he would go to the tea house for a while to sit with his friends before going home to his very large and very loud family.
Of the children, the eldest was old enough to be out working while the youngest was young enough to still be at home. All the others went to the school.
But this tale is not about the husband. Or the seven children.
It is about the woman.
For many years she had looked after and raised her family. She had fed them and clothed them. She had comforted them when they where sad and tended them when they were ill. She had wiped snotty noses and brushed their messy hair, kept them warm and clean and cleared up after them. She had done all of this, and more, everyday for many years without asking for, or receiving, any thanks. She had nobody to help her. Her sons, who were not expected to doing anything in the house, had their own interests and her daughters, at her insistence, were sent to school to learn things that would help them to have better lives. Better chances. So the woman, with her family all under one roof did all the work that had to be done to support and raise them all.
Day and night she tended the cooking fire and every morning, when the family awoke, they would find enough food to eat on the table before leaving the house for school, work or just to play.
She had the same routines and did the same chores. She scrubbed the same pots and the same pans and she would stare out of the same window when she sat down to take the weight from her feet and ease the aching in her legs.
But she didn’t mind.
She was used to it. As a child she too had grown up in such a house, with many brothers and sisters and it all seemed normal to her. She didn't know anything else. Besides, to her, watching her children grow was a reward in itself and so she didn't complain.
Even though it seemed to her that her whole life was spent cooking!
As soon as she had prepared the breakfast and it had been eaten, in a melee of hands and arms fighting for the best bits she would have to clear away what was left and begin to get ready to feed them all again in the evening. The table was always laden with food. There were vegetables to cut, there was grain to clean or bread dough to roll out and cook on the open fire. She was forever fetching wood and removing ash, brushing the hearth or brushing the floors. There was always something to get done and hardly any time in which to do it.
She didn’t mind.
When her husband returned he would expect some attention. He would sit and complain about things. And there were so many things to complain about. The boss was hard on him, his hands were hurting or his friend was behaving like an idiot again. He would sit drinking his corn beer telling his wife all about his sorrows and woes until the children would in from playing or school. Then the house became a riot of noise. They would squabble and scream. Arguments would break out, accusations fly then one would sulk while another would cry and it would be time to sit at the table again and eat supper. Which she had spent the whole day preparing. She served them the food. Rushing around to make sure that no child got more or less than another. All the time they were talking and shouting, laughing and crying. She had no time to sit down with them. There was little enough space as it was so she would squat down by the fire and eat her supper directly from the from the pots. She would dip her bread into to them and soak up what remained at the bottom.
Still, she didn’t mind.
And then, after more fighting the family would settle down for the evening, in relative peace and after she had cleared the food away and cleaned the pots she would clear the ash from the fire and help the smaller ones into their beds. One by one they would all fall asleep and then she would go to her bed. Tomorrow would be another day.
And still she didn’t mind.
She always did her best and served the family as best and in any way that she could.
Often, at meal times, she would listen to them telling tales of what they had done or were about to do. Or things that they had seen or heard and she wanted to join in with them. After spending so much time on her own and having nobody to talk all day long she had plenty of things to say. But she never did. Even if she tried to speak she was always interrupted by a cry or a shout or someone demanding something. A pot would be about to boil over, a plate about to fall. She would open her mouth but nothing would seem to come out. After she had rescued the pot or the plate she would forget what it was she wanted to say. Rarely anyone asked what she had wanted to say and if they did she would always answer.
In the evenings, when they were alone, she tried to talk to her husband about her day, her worries. But he never really listened to her. Her would interrupt her and tell her not to be silly.
“Woman, concern yourself with important things and not those silly ideas in your silly head”
Now that she did mind.
So, over the years she grew more and more timid. A quiet old woman, with nothing to say, who lived in the corners of the house and served the family. Her body had aged and she had grown weary and bent and, in her eyes, ugly. After all her husband had no interest even in talking to her any more.
When she was younger she had been an attractive woman. All the boys would call after her as she went to fetch the water from the village pump. She had enjoyed that but had never encouraged them. She was happy to have their attention, from a distance, but nothing more. Now, after so many years of carrying those water jars, grinding the corn and preparing the fires she looked far older than she was. She had lost her slim waist long ago after having had so many children and had grown quite fat. When she removed her head scarf to wash her face at the well she saw her reflection in the water she no longer saw shiny hair. Her eyes no longer sparkled. When she walked through the village nobody even noticed her. It was as if she invisible, was no longer there, a nobody….
One day, as she was fetching wood for the cooking fires, she noticed an old very small house at the edge of the forest. The mud covered brick walls were overgrown with Ivy and weeds and the door was falling off, half hanging on a hinge. The glass in windows were broken or cracked. What was left of the roof was lying on the floor inside. She wondered who owned it.
As ruined as it was she assumed it to be abandoned. She got up the courage to go to the broken, half open door. She pushed it further and stepped inside. It was definitely a ruin for there was rubbish on the floor, tin cans and old shoes. Above the walls she saw the branches of a tree which had dripped rain onto the floor inside and grass had started to grow there. She was curious and, at the same time, delighted. A house that nobody owned. It was very quiet, still and peaceful. She sat down on a broken box all alone with just her thoughts for company. She looked up and saw her own reflection in the cracked glass of the window. She saw the lines of age carved across her face and the locks of lifeless hair that hung from under her scarf. Then she saw her belly. How it had grown big and loose. She saw how much she had changed and it made her feel old.
But yet, the house excited her. She was alone and in a strange place which gave her a strange feeling of intoxication. She took of her head scarf and went to a window which was not broken.
‘This house belongs to nobody’. She said out loud, half frightening herself. ‘Well, I am nobody. No one sees my any more. People don't listen to me, my husband does not let me speak. How can I be anybody if I can’t speak? This house belongs to nobody and I am nobody. This house belongs to me!
She began to talk of her memories. Her childhood, the love she had had for her father. She remembered the sheep that she would watch with him. She even recalled her favourite, a small animal, black nosed and tousled, always getting caught in the bushes. Her reflection in the window glass didn't interrupt her. It let her tell of her memories. So she spoke. At first quietly, almost whispering, but as she began to enjoy the sensation of not being interrupted, she spoke louder. She told her reflection of the things she had seen and what it had made her think. She began to recall her dreams and even her ideas. As she did she grew in confidence her voiced grew louder, more forceful. Anger welled up inside her and she began to think of all the things that she could never say in her own home. She began to shout.
Staring at the reflection of her own face she spoke about everything that she had never been able to say at home.
Then something very strange began to happen.
At first she noticed the lines on her face begin to fade. The corners of her mouth were no longer drooping down but were quivering. In the reflection of her face she could read something new, more than a smile. She saw exhilaration!
Her eyes sparkled and flashed as she spoke, now even louder, almost shouting, she told of her deepest feelings, not about her family or her husband, but herself. Who she was, what she was. Who she wanted, still, to be.
She saw her hair regain its colour. Her body was less bent. Her stomach had thinned. Soon she realised that she was standing proud and straight.
Then, suddenly, the glass crashed out of its frame onto the floor. She was shocked, frightened at her own power but that just caused her to become even louder. She turned to one of the walls. That too began to shake as she talked until it cracked and crumbled in front of her. She was no longer willing or able to stop. She had her power now and she moved to faced to the other walls. The mud cracked and then brick by brick they fell.
When the whole house had collapsed around her she stepped out of the rubble to see many villagers staring at her in stunned silence.
“Good day to you all”. She said, picked up her bundle of fire wood and walked home. She heard one or two whistles of admiration behind her.
In her kitchen she caught sight of herself in a mirror and saw that her eyes were alight with a fire she had long thought extinguished. She stood tall, her shoulders wide and proud. The roundness of her belly was gone.
She began to cook.
The children burst into the house, squabbling as usual, pushing and shoving their way to the table, without even glancing at her. They were hungry. When her husband came in, he hardly noticed her either. She put the bread on the table with the rest of the food. She stood back and listened to the chatter and the babble of the family as they ate. They talked about the day, continuously interrupting each other. She stood by the table and listened. She didn't fade away into the corner this time. She stood there and waited for a break in the conversation which did not come. So she banged her hand on the table with a force that shut each of them up.
“This morning”. She began. “I went and fetched water. For the soup you are eating needed water.”
They all stared at her.
“Last week I went to the town and bought some cheese, on the way back I saw the neighbour sitting in her garden crying. I comforted her and she told me that her son was not doing very well at school. Shame, he's a good boy. Tomorrow I am going to go and see her again and you can all look after yourselves”
She spoke so clearly and so loudly that they all stopped, not only talking but eating as well.
They watched, still in silence, as she turned her back to them, went to fire and continued cooking.
From then on, whenever she spoke they listened to her aware that from somewhere she had a power that none of them had ever noticed before.
A power that comes from being heard.
Christian Rogers 21.03.2017