The Marriage

When he once noticed how the mists of time
were dimming his wife’s eyes and snuffing out their glow,
had worn and marked her face and touched her hair with snow,
he turned away from her and regret gnawed at him.

He was beside himself, he cursed and tore his hair,
measured her with his gaze but could desire no more,
he saw the supreme sin become a hellish chore
as she looked up at him with a dying beast’s despair.

But die she did not, though his mouth with dreadful stealth
sucked the marrow from her bones, which yet still held her straight.
She dared no longer speak, to question or bemoan her fate,
and trembled where she stood, but lived and kept her health.

He thought: I’ll strike her dead and burn the house above her.
I must get my stiffened feet clean of this mould,
run through the fire, splash through the water cold
to find a different country and another lover

But kill he did not; for between dream and deed
are laws that bar the way, and problems stark and plain,
and melancholy too, which no-one can explain,
which comes at evening time when it is sleep you need.

And so the years went by. The children, now full-grown,
would see the man whom they called Father sitting
beside the fire, silent and unmoving,
with a desolate and a dreadful face, alone.

From Yesterday’s Poems (Verzen van vroeger, 1934)
By Willem Elsschot (1882-1960)
Translated by Tanis Guest

First published in The Low Countries, 1995