The Smiles
That Come in
The Night
It was soon after this that my sister Frances died. She was a beautiful, fragile, dark-curled child, and my Mother's only daughter. Though only four she used to watch me like a nurse, sitting all day beside my cot and talking softly in a special language. Nobody noticed that she was dying herself; they were too much concerned with me. She died suddenly, silently, without complaint, in a chair in the corner of the room. An ignorant death which need never have happened --- and I believe that she gave me her life.

But at least she was mourned. Not a day passed afterwards but that Mother shed some tears for her. Mother also grew jealous for the rest of us, more careful that we should survive. So I grew to be, not a pale wasting boy, but sickly in another way, switching regularly from a swaggering plumpness --- a tough equality with other boys --- to a monotonous return of grey-ghosted illness, hot and cold, ugly-featured and savage. When I was well I could hold my own; no one spared me, because I didn't look delicate. But when I was ill, I just disappeared from the scene and remained out of sight for weeks.

If it were summer when the fever caught me I lay and sweated in my usual bed, never quite sure which of us was ill, me or the steaming weather. But in winter a fire was lit in the bedroom, and then I knew I was ill indeed. Washbasins could freeze, icicles bang from the ornaments, our bedrooms remained normally unheated; but the lighting of a fire, especially in Mother's room, meant that serious illness had come.

As soon as I recognized the returning face of my sickness --- my hands light as feathers, a swaying in the head and lungs full of pulsing thorns --- the first thing I did was to recall my delusions and send messages to the anxious world. As I woke to the fever I thought of my subjects, and their concern always gave me comfort. Signals in Morse, tapped out on the bed rail, conveyed brief and austere intelligences. "He is ill." (I imagined the first alarm.) "He has told his Mother." (Some relief.) "He is fighting hard." (Massed prayers in the churches.) "He is worse." (Cries of doom in the streets.) There were times when I was almost moved to tears at the thought of my anxious people, the invisible multitudes up and down the land joined in grief at this threat to their king. How piteously they awaited each sombre bulletin, and how brave I was meanwhile. Certainly I took pains to give them something to be anxious about, but I also bid them be strong. "He wishes no special arrangements made. Only bands and tanks. A parade or two. And perhaps a three minutes' silence."

This would occupy my first morning, with the fever still fresh; but by nightfall I was usually raving. My limbs went first, splintering like logs, so that I seemed to grow dozens of arms. Then the bed no longer had limits to it and became a desert of hot, wet sand. I began to talk to a second head laid on the pillow, my own head once removed; it never talked back but just lay there, grinning very coldly into my eyes.

The walls of the bedroom were the next to go; they began to bulge and ripple and roar, to flap like pastry, melt like sugar, and run bleeding with hideous hues. Then out of the walls, and down from the ceiling, advanced a row of intangible smiles; easy, relaxed, in no way threatening at first, but going on far too long. Even a maniac's smile will finally waver, but these just continued in silence, growing brighter, colder, and ever more humourless till the sick blood roared in my veins. They were Cheshire-cat smiles, with no face or outlines, and I could see the room clearly through them. But they hung above me like a stain on the air, a register of smiles in space, smiles without pity, smiles without love, smiling smiles of unsmiling smileness; not even smiles of strangers but smiles of no one, expanding in brilliant silence, persistent, knowing, going on and on ... till I was screaming and beating the bed rails.

At my scream all the walls shook down like a thunderclap and everything was normal again. The kitchen door opened, feet thumped up the stairs and the girls bustled into the room. "He's been seeing them faces again," they whispered. "It's all right!" they bawled. "There, there! You won't see any more. Have a nice jug of lemon." And they mopped me, and picked up the bedclothes. I lay back quietly while they fussed around; but what could I say to them? That I hadn't seen faces --- that I'd only seen smiles? I tried that, but it got me nowhere.

Later, as the red night closed upon me, I was only barely conscious. I heard myself singing, groaning, talking, and the sounds were like hands on my body. Blood boiled, flesh crept, teeth chattered and clenched, my knees came up to my mouth; I lay in an evil swamp of sweat which alternately steamed and froze me. My shirt was a kind of enveloping sky wetly wrapping my goosey skin, and across which, at intervals, hot winds from Africa and Arctic blizzards blew. All objects in the room became molten again, and the pictures repainted themselves; things ran about, changed shape, grew monstrous, or trailed off into limitless distances. The flame of the candle threw shadows like cloaks which made everything vanish in turn, or it drew itself up like an ivory saint, or giggled and collapsed in a ball. I heard voices that couldn't control themselves, that either whispered just out of sound, or suddenly boomed some great echoing word, like "Shovel!" or "Old-men's-ears!" Such a shout would rouse me with terrible echoes, as though a piano had just been kicked by a horse.

It was myself, no doubt, who spoke these words, and the monologue went on for hours. Sometimes I deliberately answered back, but mostly I lay and listened, watching while the room's dark crevices began to smoke their ash-white nightmares.... Such a night of fever slowed everything down as though hot rugs had been stuffed in a clock. I went gliding away under the surface of sleep, like a porpoise in tropic seas, heard the dry house echoing through caves of water, followed caverns through acres of dreams, then emerged after fathoms and years of experience, of complex lives and deaths, to find that the moon on the window had not moved an inch, that the world was not a minute older.

Between this sleeping and waking I lived ten generations and grew weak on my long careers; but when I surfaced at last from its endless delirium the real world seemed suddenly dear. While I slept it had been washed of fever and sweetened, and now wrapped me like a bell of glass. For a while, refreshed, I heard its faintest sounds: streams running, trees stirring, birds folding their wings, a hill-sheep's cough, a far gate swinging, the breath of a horse in a field. Below me the kitchen made cozy murmurs, footsteps went up the road, a voice said good night, a door creaked and closed --- or a boy suddenly hollered, animal-clear in the dark, and was answered far off by another.

I lay moved to stupidity by these precious sounds as though I'd just got back from the dead. Then the fever returned as it always did, the room began its whisper and dance, the burnt-down candle spat once and shuddered, and I saw its wick fold and go out.... Then darkness bit me, a corroding darkness, a darkness packed like a box, and a row of black lanterns swung down from the ceiling and floated towards me, smiling. And once more I was hammering the bed rails in terror, screaming loudly for sisters and light.

--- From Cider with Rosie
Laurie Lee
©1958 William Morrow & Co.
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH