Saturday, July 8, 2017

"Known but unto God"

The Atlantic has a "series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature." In the most recent entry Scott Spencer writes about a Kipling short story, "The Gardner." (The complete short story can be found here.) Spencer:
.... Helen, an upstanding woman, [raises] her own child out of wedlock, pretending to her English village that he, Michael, is her dead brother’s son. Throughout his life, the boy calls Helen “Auntie,” though he pleads with her, out of love and a sense of emotional, if not actual, truth, to let him call her “Mother.” Being an honest and pragmatic woman, she allows this only occasionally, and in private.

On his 18th birthday, Michael enlists in the British Army, and is slaughtered shortly after, his body covered over by debris and unable to be located. Much, much later Michael’s body is discovered and finally Helen is able to travel to his grave in a military cemetery in France to pay her last respects. The story, which is not very long, moves with the efficiency of a fable—years go by in a half sentence. The tone is almost matter-of-fact, but we are being set up by a master craftsman for the story’s devastating climactic scene. Helen wanders through a vast expanse of graves, all of them marked with a number, not a name, each individual soldier located only through a painstaking process of record-keeping. (It was Kipling who lifted the phrase “known unto God,” out of the Bible and into the cemeteries and the monuments for unknown soldiers.) Then, while searching the endless sea of crosses, helpless, Helen comes upon a gardener. Kipling describes the exchange this way:
[The gardener] rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: "Who are you looking for?"

"Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.

The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

"Come with me,” he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."
That’s a shocking—I would say incandescent—moment in a story that is steeped in irony and filled with lies, a world of conventions ruthlessly enforced and feelings buried or swallowed. But when the gardener lifts his eyes the story is swiftly brought to a sudden spiritual climax that is beautiful and satisfying.

In my reading of “The Gardener,” Helen is a character who has held onto her secret, to her one great love affair, for her entire life. Though she has called this boy her nephew for 18 years, the man in the cemetery, who looks at her for only one moment, says he’ll take Helen to her son. “When Helen left the cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.”

The story ends, at least in my edition, with an asterisk in the text that links to a line from the Bible, John 20:15: “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, why weepest thou; whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, ‘Sir, if thou has borne him hence, tell me where thou has laid him.’”