Voltairine de Cleyre, “She Died for Me” (1895)

THE Doctor was a lean dark man, with sad eyes. They looked up, wide and singularly deep, as his visitor said: “I don’t understand you half-way freethinkers in the least. I am out and out. I have no patience with wishy-washiness. I just tell them straight that I haven’t any use for their musty old frauds, nor their whole outfit of priests, that live by them. But you-you know religion is all superstition, yet you go on talking to those people as if you accepted their belief in God and immortality and the vicarious atonement and the whole programme! “

The voice was loud and disagreeably disputative; just such a voice as one might expect from the hard mouth above the close-shaven chin.

“Perhaps I do, in a way,” answered the doctor, slowly and a little wearily.

“Perhaps you do,” was the testy echo; “oh, yes, perhaps you do, in a way! That’s your fine-spun agnosticism. Perhaps the moon is green cheese, too, in a way, to a set of senses that have never existed! “

The Doctor shook his head and smiled a little denying smile. Just then the door opened, and an odd red-lipped, round-eyed, fuzzy-haired· little thing looked in curiously. The Doctor held out his hand: “Come, Sonya.” The queer small figure, almost grotesquely dressed, came hopping to his side, stretching up her fat little confident hands.

“Your little girl, I presume?” said the visitor, with that air of polite boredom with which your born disputant bears an interruption of his favorite pastime.

“Yes,–mine,” with a loving stroke upon the fuzzy head, “only mine-her mother is dead:” The visitor was silent. “And that, you see,” went on the Doctor, with a little catch in his voice, “is one of the reasons I believe-in a way. Sonya’s mother was a very strong woman, strong every way. I was weak, not so much in my body as–“

He pressed the fuzzy head against his cheek and went on in an unnaturally dry voice: “In fact, I am so yet, too much. She was a midwife over there in Russia, and when we came here she urged me to study. We were poor, of course. It was in the days of the persecution and we had had to sacrifice everything. My Sonya was not born then, and her father was sent to Siberia. To us they gave forty-eight hours to sell all and go. So we had nothing. Only my sister had ever her courageous heart,–the heart I think of all our old forefathers in the wilderness. She always saw a Promised Land before her, always made a way through the desert to it. She kept us up; she never complained; she worked, she said, to rest–to rest from the thought of the lonely figure, or may be only a grave, there in the ice-blasts and the white desert.”

The deep eyes looked far away to the eastward. There was a silence and ,a sigh, and then:

“Yes, she kept us up, and paid my way at college. I didn’t wish it at first, but she would have it so, and, as I told you, she was stronger than I. And then the love of study came upon me, which is greater than all other loves; and I did not think of her part any more, the heavy, patient burden-bearing. I did not see how she grew wan and weak; and she-she never said, ‘Look at me.’

“It was just a week before I graduated that I knew it first, when I came in and found her dead upon the bed. Just a week before! And she died and never knew she had not worked in vain. She would not let them send for me; she would not tell them where to find me; she said: ‘Don’t bother him. I shall be better.’

“It was black to me after that. I passed the examinations. I don’t know how,-somehow. I fancied I had to, for her sake. Somewhere in those dark, numb days the explanation worked itself out to me, (at least, I believe it is an explanation,) that she is not dead, not really dead. I am not so weak and selfish as I was; that is because some of her strength was impressed on me. The better part of me is she; even the little knowledge I have to soften pain, surely she bought it–it is hers. I do not know whether Jesus of Galilee died for others’ sins or not, but I know surely that she died for me. And I should not be able to bear it, if I could not think she still lived,-if I did not know that her great unselfish spirit was not lost, only broken through the frail ego-bubble, and mixing, not in me alone, though truly much in me, but in everyone she helped in her helpful life. And for that sake I love all determined ones, all patient, all devoted, all uncomplaining ones, whether they be what you would call enlightened or not, seeing her in them.”

“Truly now,” murmured the visitor, “I shouldn’t.”

“That is because, in spite of your freethought, you are orthodox and place reality in shadows,” answered the other, looking very steadily at the falling snow and cradling Sonya’s head beneath his chin.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “She Died for Me,” The Open Court 9 no. 52 (December 26, 1895): 4756-4757.  

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.