As writers, we all have that book, play, screenplay, short story, etc. that made us want to write. You read it and your soul connects. The words call you out of darkness and on the path to living a creative life. For some, it may be all the works of a single author. For me, it was a single page.
Yes, I can tell you the moment I knew that Val and I would be together forever and I can tell you the moment I knew that writing was the endeavor that completed my sentence, literally and spiritually.
Here it is, from Graham Greene’s, The Heart of the Matter, 1948:
Mrs. Bowles said, “Don’t be absurd. Are you qualified to dispense? I’ll only be away a few minutes. If the child shows signs of going, call me.”
If she had given him time, he would have thought of some excuse, but she was already out of the room and he sat heavily down in the only chair. When he looked at the child, he saw a white communion veil over her head: it was a trick of the light on the pillow and a trick of his own mind. He put his head in his hands and wouldn’t look. He had been in Africa when his own child died. He had always thanked God that he had missed that. It seemed after all that one never really missed a thing. To be a human being one had to drink the cup. If one were lucky on one day, or cowardly on another, it was presented on a third occasion.
He prayed silently into his hands, “O God, don’t let anything happen before Mrs. Bowles comes back.”
He could hear the breathing of the child. It was as if she were carrying a weight with great effort up a long hill: it was an inhuman situation not to be able to carry it for her. He thought: This is what parents feel year in and year out, and I am shrinking from a few minutes of it. They see their children dying slowly every hour they live.
He prayed again, “Father, look after her. Give her peace.” The breathing broke, choked, began again with terrible effort. Looking between his fingers he could see the six-year-old face convulsed like a navvy’s with labor. “Father,” he prayed, “give her peace. Take away my peace forever, but give her peace.” The sweat broke out on his hands. “Father . . .”
He heard a small scraping voice repeat, “Father,” and looking up he saw the blue and bloodshot eyes watching him. He thought with horror: this is what I thought I’d missed. He would have called Mrs. Bowles, only he hadn’t the voice to call with.
He could see the breast of the child struggling for breath to repeat the heavy word; he came over to the bed and said, “Yes, dear. Don’t speak, I’m here.”
The nightlight cast the shadow of his clenched fist on the sheet and it caught the child’s eye. An effort to laugh convulsed her, and he moved his hand away. “Sleep, dear,” he said, “you are sleepy. Sleep.”A memory that he had carefully buried returned, and taking out his handkerchief he made the shadow of a rabbit’s head fall on the pillow beside her. “There’s your rabbit,” he said, “to go to sleep with. It will stay until you sleep. Sleep.”
The sweat poured down his face and tasted in his mouth as salt as tears.
He moved the rabbit’s ears up and down, up and down. Then he heard Mrs. Bowles’ voice, speaking low just behind him. “Stop that,” she said harshly, “the child’s dead.”
The main character, Major Scobie, is stationed in colonial Africa during WWII. The girl he’s with washed up outside his settlement, part of a group of shipwreck survivors. He visits the medical ward and Mrs. Bowles tells him she must go get medicine. He begs her not to leave and she says, basically, to man up and sit with the girl.
Greene accomplishes so much in these lines that you could teach an entire writing class about them. Scobie’s character mentions the death of his own child. He’s praying, bargaining with God as to not have to witness the death of the girl while thinking about the nature of suffering. His nerves kick in. The girl starts to repeat his prayer and Greene hits you with the image of the “blue and bloodshot eyes.”
Poetic and powerful
He makes the rabbit shadow and we can feel his heart breaking as he tries to provide some level of comfort. The end, where Bowles returns, slams the door on the moment. Death, at this settlement, was a facet of everyday life. You could argue that Scobie does, and does not get his wish. Bowles returns too late for the death that Scobie does not recognize.
The first time I read those lines, I had to put the book down and absorb it. Greene became my literary destination and guide. If only I could capture a fraction of that ability, I thought, I could make this journey work.
So what was your moment of epiphany, where you knew you were a slave to the story? It is a point you never forget.
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