Victoria Wynne-Jones

in certain lights, and not clearly then

ISBN 978-0-473-67133-4

“This winter will have to be my spring.” 1

A column is a body. “The index of a profound humanism.”2

“The columns of a house are sons.” 3 Looking around the buildings of a city, especially its central or sacred spaces, there are columns, columns everywhere. Columns in lines two deep, a quasi-phalanx of soldiers. Columns act as statues of the city’s men, like a standing, symbolic army. 4

An idiosyncratic notion forms, that columns derived from life-size, sculpted stone figures, kouroi, semi-divine heroes and deities. Youth or striplings, young male figures with long hair, broad shoulders, an athletic waist –a suggested spring in the step. 5

I would like to be as open to possibilities as a door left slightly ajar. Its key down by the front steps, beneath a plantain leaf, redundant. 6

The swell of a chest as a fine cabinet, breasts pushing silk as one sways through a crowd. An armoire of sweet secrets, filled with wine, perfumes, liqueurs to derange hearts and minds. 7

“I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store. I remember what a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend,” 8 a familiar monument. “I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce, I could always hop into that chair and be safe.” 9

A familiar monument, a familiar monument, FM FM FM femme femme, woman/wife. “In the kitchen of a house quiet and warm after the heat of the afternoon. We’ll be alright if we just stay here.”10 Columns in pieces float on the surface of the giant’s bath, like pieces of cut celery in minestrone.

Sometimes soup is followed by raspberry instant pudding, wobbly and pink… heaving, rounded, curvy. Or flattened into a pink, flat field. It is there I sit, bunched up like a roast chicken. The grid is a net and I am caught like a fish, bird or butterfly. The steel wire presses into my foam flesh, leaving red marks on my acrylic skin. A current pulses. The floor is for earthing. Tick, tick, tick. “A knocking noise, persisting and growing louder as though someone were trying to open a drawer that had stuck.” 11

“When he brought me there, it took only minutes, seconds, to reach the steep front steps that led up to his heavy door. Seconds for the key to twist in the lock, the hinge to swing in. Minutes, seconds, yet already time had changed for me. It was easy, like in a dream, to go inside. Easy to close my eyes there, to sleep, to stay.” 12

“Some weeks are still and cold and I have to stay in bed most of the time, autumn and winter, then spring comes, and summer. All seasons are the same, in this room so long only the light changes, with the year passing; a finger of sun along the window-sill then an entire wall painted gold.” 13

“I wake, and it is the same room. There is a bed. A table. A vase of flowers. There are no other marks in this room to show someone has been. No curtains at the window, no coverlet for the sheets. The walls are smooth as eggshell and perfectly white, there are no scars on them, or stains. The polished floorboards of this high room are bare. I sweep them every day and no dust is here.” 14

“He leaves me in the morning and I hear the front door shut, away down the stairs at the bottom of the house. He pulls the heavy front door closed behind him, then everything is quiet.” 15

Here it is my empty room. “I am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again. Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do? I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal – having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus…” 16

“We have been here two weeks, and I haven’t felt like writing before, since that first day. I am sitting by the window now, up in this atrocious room and there is nothing to hinder my writing as much as I please, save lack of strength. This wall-paper has a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then.” 17

I have been “cautioned not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me. But I find I get pretty tired when I try. It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. I wish I could get well faster.” 18

“The floor is scratched and gouged and splintered, the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed which is all we found in the room, looks as if it had been through the wars.” 19 “I lie here on this great immovable bed – it is nailed down, I believe.” 20

“I will take a nap I guess. I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able. And I know he would think it absurd. But I must say what I feel and think in some way – it is such a relief! But the effort is getting to be greater than the relief. Half the time now I am awfully lazy, and lie down ever so much.” 21 I lie on my side of the bed, and I sense the familiar form placed beside me. Its grainy, stone surface. My fingers trace the edge of its base, follow the gently rising slopes, and at the top a sharp point. I push the pad of my fingers upon it, until my skin is red. When I take my finger away, for a moment there is a white indent from the pressure of the point. I take my finger away and there is the smudge of black printer’s ink. I spread the filmy, oily substance between my fingers and thumb, feeling the first prickles of fear moisten the palms of my hands. I move my hands back and forth along the bed covers, as though treading water. “As my hand touches the rough material I experience a thrill like a bad electric shock. The thing is alive, horribly alive. I stare, fascinated and overwhelmed with despair as the dark folds move and heave and rapidly rise up before me, taking on a fearful shape that menaces me with superhuman power. The very embodiment of anything I had ever known that was mean and cruel and maliciously destructive. Impositions and mockeries and pretences and lies and bad jokes, their accumulated weight suddenly pressed down on me as never before. In a rage of indignation I thought I must choke or give it expression. I shook it and tore it, and flung it against the walls and trampled it till I could do no more.” 22

“No clock ticks, no metal filament waves to make seconds. All I have is light, the way light fills the air, deepens, then thins off later to grey. So many hours and days I cannot remember them.

Some days it is so warm that I have to peel the sheets off and let the moisture from my skin evaporate. Through the thick glass of the closed window the heat from the sun bores a wide passage, filling the white room with still heavy air that hangs like a ship’s sail, waiting.

All time is lying here and waiting… For sun to move across the wall and settle on my bed, for the sheets to change to yellow satin, for day to pass so night will come and the man with black hair will come back to my room again.” 23

“Now I lie in my safe bed, I wait.

I wait and first there is light, dawn’s pale colour. Then heat is in the room, then later dusk, and then at last it is night and then he comes again.

Now everything is inside, the closed-off air, the bed and all I can smell is him – the sweet lime smell he leaves behind him when he’s gone.” 24

“All over my body I can feel the parts of tenderness, beneath the thin sheeting, I can listen to the sounds of each small wound’s pulsing heart. I don’t want to see. There is a beating of blood beneath the surface and the beating goes on, on, but no one can see. The darkness covers, it accepts my shape, the hollow at the back of my neck, the long fishbone of my spine. It comes up around me, gently, gently like capes the soft black, and now I am in covers, in wrappings,”25 slowly constructed, piece by piece in sheets of paper, “and sleep can take me…”

“The house is silent, the house is as velvety dark, everything powdered and dusted and deep in sleep. I won’t hear sounds from outside, through the thick slab of window glass, I won’t hear people. I drift to sleep, in dark I meet sleep, for so long now I sleep, and everything is gentle now, in sleep, and I sleep and sleep.”26 “We’ll be alright if we just stay here.” 27

“Then, something.

In the darkness, I hear it. A splinter. A tiny hole of light in the gorgeous velvet dark. A dot of light, I hear it in the rich fabric, then another, and another. Letting splinters of light in, not in here, not in this room, not inside my own head. Drip, drip. In the dark, pin-pricks of sound but getting bigger. Drip, drip. From somewhere far away, far away from me. Drip, drip. In the bathroom. It’s the slow dripping of a tap I can hear.” 28

“I sluice the dark watery remains from the insides of the bathtub and I take a cloth to the sides where he has been lying. His make-up has left a skim, and I have to rub hard to remove it, and the flecks of skin, and hair strands, and the dirt… But as I wipe down the bath completely, removing the final traces of these stains, the smell of him rises up at me as limes, the scent of his oil that he always wears, on his face, in his hands and hair.

I pick up the cloth and the smell is fresh on it, as if he is there in the room with me, in that moment, the smell of him on my hands.

I place the rubber ring against the plughole, and I can hear my heart beat as I do it. Carefully I press down the plug so it will cover the black scented wad of hair left stranded in the tub, hold it down so it will stay, and the smell is still there, the thin citrus smell that will never go away. I imagine him stroking the lime oil into his face, rubbing it deep into the dry skin, into the creases of his body. I see him combing it through his hair until it is slick, shining like a young man’s shining head.

I turn on both taps and let the water come fill the huge bath, to be away from the smell, to be clean, to be clean. Only to lie in warm water, to turn on all the taps and let the water run so the sound of clean water fills the top floor of the house like rivers falling… I’m afraid it’s another visitation. It has happened before, you know.

Yet even as the water runs, scalding and ice cold, even as water pools over the rusty stain at the base of the bath that reminds me of blood, as inch by inch the water rises, dark in the dark air, rising, still the smell of limes is strong. In the water, in the steaming air. Stronger every minute, and sweeter, and the country where he came from seems close, in the dark scented air… The country where old men with painted faces were born, where they were made, with their red lips, with their bright black eyes.” 29

“Now darkness gathers in the dark room, with heat and steam, and as the water rises and his smell, with the sweet and filthy odour in the cloth, in my nose, at the back of my throat to taste… I feel him too close for it to be day. The shuttered room lets in only thin rods of light, darkest gold, like bronze and the bronze rods are deepening into twilight now, it gets darker.

I lower myself into his huge rusted tub, into his water… and his smell is everywhere. In the mirror, as I let myself go gently down, I see my white face, burnt fever eyes, my body bright as a piece of paper underwater. It is me here, in the stink of piss and blood and citrus on the tile, against the porcelain side of the tub, in the mirror, in the water, me.” 30 “I wouldn’t go if I were you, she said quietly.” 31

“The moon shines in all around just as the sun does. I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another. He was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wall-paper until I felt creepy. The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.” 32

“By moonlight – the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper. At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be.

I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman. By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.” 33

“I’m feeling ever so much better! I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime.”34 “I really have discovered something at last. Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it! The commotion is so great the house feels as though it were being moved from its very foundations. Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard” like a runaway horse. “And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern – it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white! If those heads were covered or taken off it would not be so bad.”35 “My anger (an old shield and better than nothing) had all been squandered in shouting at echoes outside empty rooms.” 36

“I think that woman gets out in the daytime! And I’ll tell you why – privately – I’ve seen her! I can see her out of every one of my windows. It is the same woman, I know, for she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight. I often wonder if I could see her out of all the windows at once. But, turn as fast as I can, I can only see out of one at one time. And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn! I have watched her sometimes away off in the open country, creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind.” 37

“This bed will not move! I tried to lift it and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner – but it hurt my teeth.” 38

“He lights a match. For a second, she sees his face illuminated by the flame, for a second there’s the face. Then it’s gone. It’s black again, and the woman is cold again, like before.

She is kneeling somewhere on the hard floor. There is a man in the room with her, the man with the tiny flame in some corner, by the door, or at her back. She can hear his breathing in the dark, she can smell the scorch of his little matches that he loves to use in the dark.

“I’m here…”
He lights another.

“And here…”
Now he’s somewhere else.

“And here…”

And somewhere else, moving around the room unseen while she remains in place on the floor, weighted there, and her hands are kept together as he has wrapped them, with oiled chains. If it was light, she would see how they have marked her.

Sometimes in this position she seems to wait for hours. It is not hours but all time is swallowed by the blackness in the room. It is so late at night no one in the world could be awake.” 39

“That is the method used with her by this man: Keep her in, where no one can see. Keep her in a room all day, keep her sleeping, leave her on her own all day in a bed, lying there, not moving much so her bones get softer, like milk. Leave her in a big house all day where no one visits and watch how she comes to love you, just like the others. Waiting for you to come home at night, her skinny arms wrapping around your neck like string, and like with string you have to cut her down.”40 “The thin blade of domesticity will turn or snap against any obstacle it meets.” 41

“He knows what the body needs before the body knows. The sponge of water to press against the mouth… He knows when this is to be done, just as he knew when autumn was over and he no longer dressed the body to take her out, when the winter came and he knew to bring the body inside for the last time, lay her in the quiet room at the top of the house. He knew she would lie there in the white room, on the bed, he always planned it that way. That she would be very still. Then she would hear the turn of the key in the front door and a smile would form on the body’s face…” 42

“Without talking, like before when he brought her up the stairs, onto the dark landing, and up beyond it, he pushed her, gently, so now he brings her up onto the table, and like before, when the air seemed to grow colder with every floor she ascended, and darker, and more close at her face, so now she is cold, no warmth in her.” 43

“And his face is above her where she lies on the table…”44 “The door thrown violently back on its hinges. A dark blur… We must keep it shut. Together we managed to hold that door, although there was no catch, let alone a lock, through sheer strength of purpose. The noise had stopped and the unseen force on the other side of the door had given out.” 45

“So now the servants are gone, and the things are gone, and there is nothing left but that great bedstead nailed down, with the canvas mattress we found on it. I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again. I am once more an ordinary person in an ordinary house on a quiet summer evening.”46 “Just be quiet, and I promise you everything will be all right.”47

“We never spoke, but would frequently pass one another in silence, each of us walking either into, or against the strong coastal wind along the esplanade. You moved with a silent intensity and the mindful effort of age, and your image is still now easy to recall. The manner of your hands as you moved, sweeping past the slight frame of your body, your face stilled by an apparent gravity of thought. I can’t imagine what you will have observed at our crossings. Perhaps it was a way of life that was passing.” 48

“Just be quiet, she whispered, and I promise you everything will be all right.” 49

Come and get me! “The key is down by the front steps, under a plantain leaf…” 50

  • This text was commissioned by Artspace Aoteraroa on the occasion of the exhibition Door, window, world: Maree Horner, J.C. Sturm. 11 February – 4 April, 2023 and was launched via a reading in the gallery in on 16 February before becoming available online.

A note from the author: Upon reading J. C. Sturm’s 1954 short story “The Old Coat” I was struck by its depiction of a woman bravely combatting an unknowable repressive force in her home environment. This sense of writing against a constraints, both internal and external reminded me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 novella The Yellow Wallpaper, and moments of Kirsty Gunn’s 1997 novel The Keepsake.

Haunted by multiple voices, this text is an embroidery of quotations, incised, re-arranged and placed together so that, read aloud they might provide a particular felt space in which to encounter artworks by Horner and Sturm. All of the sources are legible through the full footnotes that are part of this text.

  1. Kirsty Gunn, The Keepsake. London: Granta Books, 1997, 57. 

  2. Nigel Spivey, Greek Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1997. 193. 

  3. Euripides quoted in Spivey, ibid. 

  4. Spivey, ibid. 

  5. Spivey, 116. 

  6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. London: Virago, 1973, 35. 

  7. Loose translation of “Le Beau Navire” from Charles Baudelaire, Les fleurs du mal. Place of publication not identified: Ligaran, 2015. 

  8. Perkins Gilman, ibid., 16-17. 

  9. Ibid., 17. 

  10. J.C. Sturm, “The Old Coat,” Numbers 1, July 1954, 22. 

  11. Sturm, ibid. 

  12. Gunn, 53. 

  13. Gunn, 60. 

  14. Gunn, 61. 

  15. Gunn, 62. 

  16. Perkins Gilman, 10. 

  17. Perkins Gilman, 13,18. 

  18. Perkins Gilman, 16. 

  19. Perkins Gilman, 17 

  20. Perkins Gilman, 19. 

  21. Perkins, Gilman, 21. 

  22. Sturm, 23. 

  23. Gunn, 62-63. 

  24. Gunn, 69-70. 

  25. Gunn, 70-71. 

  26. Gunn, 71. 

  27. Sturm, 22. 

  28. Gunn, 71. 

  29. Gunn, 74-75. 

  30. Gunn, 78. 

  31. Sturm, 22. 

  32. Perkins Gilman, 23. 

  33. Perkins Gilman, 26. 

  34. Perkins Gilman, 28. 

  35. Perkins Gilman, 30. 

  36. Sturm, 24. 

  37. Perkins Gilman, 30-31. 

  38. Perkins Gilman, 34.  

  39. Gunn, 129-130. 

  40. Gunn, 132. 

  41. Sturm, 24.  

  42. Gunn, 142. 

  43. Gunn, 158-159. 

  44. Gunn, 159. 

  45. Sturm, 22. 

  46. Perkins Gilman, 33. 

  47. Sturm, 22. 

  48. Elle Loui August, “Rose/Miriam/Irihapeti/Elle” in Louise Menzies and Allan Smith (eds.) Time to Think Like a Mountain. Auckland: split/fountain, 2018, 74. 

  49. Sturm, 22. 

  50. Perkins, Gilman, 35. 


Related to the exhibition Door, window, world: Maree Horner, J.C. Sturm
Published February 2023