Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Reward of an Apostate” (1908)

I have sinned: and I am rewarded according to my sin, which was great. There is no forgiveness for me; let no man think there is forgiveness for sin: the gods cannot forgive.

This was my sin, and this is my punishment, that I forsook my god to follow a stranger—only a while, a very brief, brief while—and when I would have returned there was no more returning. I cannot worship any more,—that is my punishment; I cannot worship any more.

Oh, that my god will none of me? That is an old sorrow! My god was Beauty, and I am all unbeautiful, and ever was. There is no grace in these harsh limbs of mine, nor was at any time. I, to whom the glory of a lit eye was as the shining of stars in a deep well, have only dull and faded eyes, and always had; the chiseled lip and chin whereover runs the radiance of life in bubbling gleams, the cup of living wine was never mine to taste or kiss. I am earth-colored, and for my own ugliness sit in the shadow, that the sunlight may not see me, nor the beloved of my god. But, once, in my hidden corner, behind the curtain of shadows, I blinked at the glory of the world, and had such joy of it as only the ugly know, sitting silent and worshiping, forgetting themselves and forgotten. Here in my brain it glowed, the shimmering of the dying sun upon the shore, the long gold line between the sand and sea, where the sliding foam caught fire and burned to death. Here in my brain it shone, the white moon on the wrinkling river, running away, a dancing ghost line in the illimitable night. Here in my brain rose the mountain curves, the great still world of stone, summit upon summit sweeping skyward, lonely and conquering. Here in my brain, my little brain, behind this tiny ugly wall of bone stretched over with its dirty yellow skin, glittered the far high blue desert with its sand of stars, as I have watched it, nights and nights, alone, hid in the shadows of the prairie grass. Here rolled and swelled the seas of corn, and blossoming fields of nodding bloom; and flower-flies on their hovering wings went flickering up and down. And the quick spring of lithe-limbed things went scattering dew across the sun; and singing streams went shining down the rocks, spreading bright veils upon the crags.

Here in my brain, my silent unrevealing brain, were the eyes I loved, the lips I dared not kiss, the sculptured heads and tendriled hair. They were here always in my wonder-house, my house of Beauty, the temple of my god. I shut the door on common life and worshiped here. And no bright, living, flying thing, in whose body Beauty dwells as guest, can guess the ecstatic joy of a brown, silent creature, a toad-thing, squatting on the shadowed ground, self-blotted, motionless, thrilling with the presence of All-Beauty, though it has no part therein.

But the gods are many. And once a strange god came to me. Sharp upon the shadowy ground he stood, and beckoned me with knotted fingers. There was no beauty in his lean figure and sunken cheeks; but up and down the muscles ran like snakes beneath his skin, and his dark eyes had somber fires in them. And as I looked at him, I felt the leap of prisoned forces in myself, in the earth, in the air, in the sun; all throbbed with the pulse of the wild god’s heart. Beauty vanished from my wonder-house; and where his images had been I heard the clang and roar of machinery, the forging of links that stretched to the sun, chains for the tides, chains for the winds; and curious lights went shining through thick walls as through air, and down through the shell of the world itself, to the great furnaces within. Into those seething depths, the god’s eyes peered, smiling and triumphing; then with an up-glance at the sky and a waste-glance at me, he strode off.

This is my great sin, for which there is no pardon: I followed him, the rude god Energy; followed him, and in that abandoned moment swore to be quit of Beauty, which had given me nothing, and to be worshiper of him to whom I was akin, ugly but sinuous, resolute, daring, defiant, maker and breaker of things, remoulder of the world. I followed him, I would have run abreast with him; I loved him, not with that still ecstasy of flooding joy wherewith my own god filled me of old, but with impetuous, eager fires, that burned and beat through all the blood-threads of me. “I love you, love me back,” I cried, and would have flung myself upon his neck. Then he turned on me with a ruthless blow, and fled away over the world, leaving me crippled, stricken, powerless, a fierce pain driving through my veins—gusts of pain!—And I crept back into my old cavern, stumbling, blind and deaf, only for the haunting vision of my shame and the rushing sound of fevered blood.

The pain is gone. I see again; I care no more for the taunt and blow of that fierce god who was never mine. But in my wonder-house it is all still and bare; no image lingers on the blank mirrors any more. No singing bell floats in the echoless dome. Forms rise and pass; but neither mountain curve nor sand nor sea, nor shivering river, nor the faces of the flowers, nor flowering faces of my god’s beloved, touch aught within me now. Not one poor thrill of vague delight for me, who felt the glory of the stars within my finger tips. It slips past me like water. Brown without and clay within! No wonder now behind the ugly wall; an empty temple! I cannot worship, I cannot love, I cannot care. All my life-service is unweighed against that faithless hour of my forswearing.

It is just; it is the Law; I am forsworn, and the gods have given me the Reward of An Apostate.

[Voltairine de Cleyre], “The Reward of an Apostate,” Mother Earth 2 no 11 (January, 1908): 522-524. [published anonymously]

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.