One night the oldest sister set out for the city, the sea -- vast things. At that time we still lived by candlelight, so she felt her way out, touching our hands, the hems of our aprons, the lintel of the open door -- we held it for her, crying -- then the branches of the fir-trees outside the door, then their feathery tips, and then she was gone.
We never had a letter; we never heard news. Later we had to tell the younger ones the color of her eyes.
Do you remember Virginia Woolf's fantasy of Shakespeare's sister from A Room of One's Own? Woolf imagines the sister starved at home in the country, desperate for freedom and intellectual adventure. She runs away to London only to find herself shut out of the life she needs:
Could she even seek dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways.
Woolf finishes the story in the only way she can imagine: pregnant, the sister "killed herself one winter's night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle."
When I first read this, at eighteen or nineteen, I was terrified, because of course I thought I was Shakespeare's sister. "The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was" -- I thought that applied to me, and I did not see beyond music, beauty, and talent, how those gifts might rule a life. I didn't question Woolf's romantic formula: "the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body."
The second sister was unlucky. She was taken away. Later we caught her words, distorted in the wind. Impossible to tell what she meant; we didn't see who she was talking to, where she was standing. She lived a short life. Some cold tumbled her into a distant grave, the letter she was writing -- the next, the newest and most truthful one -- burned with her shorn-off hair.
Phillis Wheatley, writing "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land," speaks easily to no one now. Too hard to hold her dilemmas in mind for long -- slave prodigy, exhibit A of the goodness of white others, yet determined to use her little stand to say her piece, to gain what she could. What she gained -- the idea she and hers might have souls, might be, on the inside, the same; a voice in the language of the new world -- must have made her proud, but it couldn't keep her warm. A second collection of poems, unpublished, was lost at her death; she and her last child were buried in a potter's grave. The words on the page record a brief high tide.
The third sister stayed home. By then we had some light through the windows with their blown glass that always looked like rain; she kept far back from it. Pale as paper, she lived on paper, her pockets full of letters, little books, envelopes, scraps. When she went out -- we knew she did by the pressed flowers we found later -- she went invisibly; her footsteps never showed.
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News that Nature told -
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me
Read this out loud: it's hard not to cry. Here I am, in that wider world, and reading her, my countrywoman, and judging tenderly because I must -- and Emily Dickinson knew, she was right, whatever that means. This poem is about what it is to write, which makes it sweet -- and haunting. Because by saying this Dickinson casts a spell; she makes it true. She is a witch and she exerts her power at a distance, as if she had cast a web, invisible in her life, across the land.
The fourth sister didn't talk. The fifth cut her hair short, went out early, went crazy. She proved to the rest of us our mother was right: a girl must be careful. So the sixth sister measured the gardens on her hands and knees. The seventh decided to make us a better table; when the work hurt her shoulder, she didn't cry, or stop. The eighth sister made a map of the stars, and the ninth used it to sail away. The tenth climbed to the moon on a ladder of chicken bones; she put her pinkie down for the last rung. The eleventh sister -- because there are always more sisters -- learned to tell fortunes for a few pennies, which paid for her red petticoats, which made our parents cry and our brothers curse. The twelfth sister walked off singing. The thirteenth...
Back when I read A Room of One's Own for the first time, I didn't foresee this moment: didn't imagine there would come a time -- in my life and in our history -- when no one would try to claim me, when it would be worth no one's while to imagine or limit what I might know or see or do. You come into your own, and though some people might dimly disapprove, you are no one's business: no one's virgin daughter, no one's property, no one's blushing bride. You are a woman with a window seat and a glass of red wine, gazing out at dusk on the shortest day of the year. Music, beauty, talent, all fall or fly away, and there is no path in the fresh snow, and that makes you happy.