Welcome to my house. My name is Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, though everyone calls me Emily, or Em. But forgive me. I’m not accustomed to meeting strangers for you must know I keep to myself. We have a beautiful home, father, mother, my sister and I. Oh and there’s Dorrit the cat. She’s a Sphinx-like creature, well, I suppose that’s where she is much like me; I do feel like we were sisters once, long ago. Dorrit is gray and cool and lofty. She likes her own company. There are times when – all absorbed in some lines of verse as they dance in the sunlight of the open window – I am guilty of petting her the wrong way, and – daggers! – she will look at me most disdainfully, arc her back and jump off the sofa to look for more attuned associates.
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more.
We do sit by the window often; she in the evening hours soon as the peepers start their chorus in the wet patch below the willow and the insects come abuzz. Me in the morning, lest the tattletales on their 3 o’clock constitutional spy me. Late at night is when I write, seeing as the house is full of my family’s clatter and chatter during the day. Lavinia has just received six new ribbons and can’t contain her elation. “Look, Emily, they’re green polka-dots and crimson. Now, this one will go perfectly with my spring hat, the one Aunt Martha gave me, remember?” And on and on Vinnie chirps as she twirls through the parlor. Vinnie? Oh, she’s my younger sister, born two years and five months after I commenced.
Dear Lavinia. She reminds me of the robins I see through my window this month of April – all rosy-breasted and proud and industrious. Their business puts me to shame. Though I did finish two more poems last night. I wonder if Professor Higginson will publish them again. Even my father seemed pleased at the news – of course they were printed anonymously, no-one knows that his daughter…but hush, here he comes. His tread on the stairs like the bells of First Congregational at Easter.
“Good morning, Father! Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, yes. Good morning, Emily! I will be off then. The trustees of the college are meeting, after which I shall stop at the office. Do tell your sister not to prance about so. It is unseemly. Good-bye, Emily, God bless you.”
The door closes behind him. My father is right – he always is, you see – I all but forgot my manners! Do tell me more about yourself! Are you Someone? I am Nobody. A recluse they call me here in Amherst. Where is your house? Ours sits up on a knoll, tall and yellow, it is held by hemlocks and has twice as many windows as doors in it. This new technology of joined windows, you speak of, ’tis a world onto itself, like Columbus looking for untrodden land, and I’m but a virgin in it – oh, but I should not speak so. Though Shakespeare, have you read him? He says all manner of things. All true. The teachers at the Academy had us take our pencils and rulers and cross them all out, those wicked words they called them. How can a word be wicked? The brain – is wider than the sky. It’s their imagination that makes it so. The bees and the birds they merely do what God bid them to in the first place. But I should not bring God into this. He and I don’t see eye to eye all the time.
Oh, we do! The God I know lives in the mossy ferns by the brook that runs along the edge of our fence, he dances in the shade under the tall spruce trees, and at times I get a notion that Dorrit communes with him when she sniffs the air. The proper matrons at the Seminary they know all about God but theirs is a stringent one, sterner than my father by leagues and without his good, warm heart. Their God scorns my scribbling, or when I sighed with pleasure at the way the light hit the corner of the room, smoothing angles into circles, making the whole classroom swing and swirl around me, as if I were drifting on a leave in the river. I only went there for a year, you see. Then father and Austin came to take me back home.
Austin! I have not told you about the dearest, most wonderful friend I have here on earth. He’s my brother. I am lucky indeed. Austin know me through and through. We are the odd ones in the family. I guess I am to blame for that. Always wearing bridal white – it’s just such a lovely color. I know, it’s not really a color. But would you say the daisies and snow bells and lilies are colorless when they flash their velvety skin? Austin is to be married, that is the big news in town. This nosy, gossipy town. Why, pray, shall it be any of their business in whose lap my brother chooses to lay his handsome head at night? Father, says I shouldn’t rage against them so. It’s neighbors we lean on in times of need – like the blight, just two summers past, that wiped out all the wheat harvest. I couldn’t bake my black cake then, which father loves, notwithstanding all the turnips and beets we traded for our neighbor’s eggs. I don’t go out anymore. I can travel much further in the confines, no contours – now there’s a word! – of my own home than on the clean-swept lanes of Amherst.
Back to my brother Austin. September of this year he is to wed Susan Gilbert. I wonder if she will ever write him as many valentines as I have. It must be… 21 by now? I did love someone else once, well, several, if you’d like me to be precise. When I was 15 and still went out to dances and parties and snow rides, there was Thomas Beechum who sat next to me of a time. We conversed, we did. About the weather, the quality of the refreshments, my dress (which I had sewn after a pattern from Palfrey’s Ladies Book). I was just going to inquire about his sister when he stood up, strode across the floor to dance with Elizabeth Hayworth in her lovely yellow dress. Like a canary she looked. Canary, ordinary, binary, tributary…. I love words!
Fair Thomas… Haaahh.
I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.
I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your Vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.
Oh. You’re still looking at me through this window in the Zoom? box. It’s a word I do not know. I was told it’s like the stream that connects Amherst with Hadley, only at the speed of lightning. I do not like lightning much, but I do think I could feel disposed to you looking at me.
A quarantine, you say? Do you mean forty days and forty nights, Jesus in the desert, Moses on the mountain and all that? Longer already, you say? People are dying? Oh. Oh dear. I see a quiver of fear pricking at your face. I wish I could hold your hand.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
I know of loss. That dreadful war between the states, it claimed so many valiant men. The women spared, consumption snatched them one by one. First Aunt B, then sweet Sophia, then cousin Amanda, all followed the Bronte sister’s fate. A chill knocks at my temples’ door…
So we must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
But meet we must! I feel I know you. We are not so different yet and must watch over each other. The moon turns her perfect face / upon the world below, and you and I and you and you are radiant in her glow.
(Poem fragments by Emily Dickinson)