Coit-Essay Nadine Gordimer
Once upon a Time
Someone has written to ask me to contribute to an anthology of stories for children. I
reply that I don't write children's stories; and he writes back that at a recent congress/book
fair/seminar a certain novelist said every writer ought to write at least one story for
children. I think of sending a postcard saying I don't accept that I "ought" to write anything.
And then last night I woke upor rather was awakened without knowing what had
A voice in the echo-chamber of the subconscious?
A creaking of the kind made by the weight carried by one foot after another along a
wooden floor. I listened. I felt the apertures of my ears distend with concentration. Again:
the creaking. I was waiting for it; waiting to hear if it indicated that feet were moving from
room to room, coming up the passageto my door. I have no burglar bars, no gun under the
pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take these precautions, and my
windowpanes are thin as rime, could shatter like a wineglass. A woman was murdered (how
do they put it) in broad daylight in a house two blocks away, last year, and the fierce dogs
who guarded an old widower and his collection of antique clocks were strangled before he
was knifed by a casual laborer he had dismissed without pay.
I was staring at the door, making it out in my mind rather than seeing it, in the dark. I lay quite
stilla victim alreadythe arrhythmia of my heart was fleeing, knocking this way and that
against its body-cage. How finely tuned the senses are, just out of rest, sleep! I could never listen
intently as that in the distractions of the day, I was reading every faintest sound, identifying and
classifying its possible threat.
But I learned that I was to be neither threatened nor spared. There was no human weight
pressing on the boards, the creaking was a buckling, an epicenter of stress. I was in it. The house
that surrounds me while I sleep is built on undermined ground; far beneath my bed, the floor, the
house's foundations, the stopes and passages of gold mines have hollowed the rock, and when some
face trembles, detaches and falls, three thousand feet below, the whole house shifts slightly,
bringing uneasy strain to the balance and counterbalance of brick, cement, wood and glass that hold it
as a structure around me. The misbeats of my heart tailed off like the last muffled flourishes on one
of the wooden xylophones made by the Chopi and Tsonga1 migrant miners who might have been
down there, under me in the earth at that moment. The stope where the fall was could have been
disused, dripping water from its ruptured veins; or men might now be interred there in the most
profound of tombs.
I couldn't find a position in which my mind would let go of my bodyrelease me to sleep
again. So I began to tell myself a story, a bedtime story.
In a house, in a suburb, in a city, there were a man and his wife who loved each other very m...