An extract from “Tomorrow will be different” (Paroles pour demain)
The Can of Peas
It had been brewing for months.
The situation was so bad
that he could no longer endure the humiliation
of not having a job, of the hunger,
of their home turned upside down.
One day, he took off and stayed away for three weeks.
“With another woman,” said the neighbors.
“Maybe not,” answered his wife.
That evening, he came back to fetch his things.
The neighbors had alerted me, so I came too
and stood in the middle of the cluttered room.
No one was speaking.
The children were climbing all over the sagging couch, scuffling,
falling head over heels on the floor and starting over again.
Their father was piling his clothes any which way
into two open suitcases on the table.
It all seemed ridiculous–the sofa, the children,
their father, the table, the suitcases, the clothes.
To match the depth of his shame and their unhappiness,
I could find no words to offer him.
I knew he did not really want to leave again.
I was sure he was waiting
for his wife and children to tell him to stay.
But, like me, they didn’t dare say anything to him.
Having been born into poverty, we sensed intuitively
that words nearly always distort, diminish, damage
the intensity of our feelings.
Finally, I held him in my arms
and hugged him with all my might
so that he would feel just how much we all loved him.
Then his wife, who had been hovering in the shadows,
ventured out of the back room
where, like a wounded animal, she had taken refuge
to hide her sorrow, her loneliness, her misery.
Her face was on fire, swollen, deformed, yet so beautiful,
as if in sadness the faces of the utterly forgotten
held onto a kind of pride,
a determination to live and to love.
Pointing toward the children, she said simply,
“The cupboard’s been empty for three days…
I haven’t asked for anything from anyone.”
Her words were short and to the point
as she wrestled with the facts and the pain:
“He’s come to fetch his things. He’s leaving.
What will become of us?”
She wasn’t really talking to me, but to him indirectly.
I was still squeezing his arm.
The seven children were still keeping busy in their corner.
Around this table,
where the future of a family was being played out,
anything could touch off a tragic ending:
the wife’s complaint, the children’s indifference,
the humiliated husband’s silence…
“He’ll stay,” I told her,
“Otherwise, he wouldn’t have come back.”
I led them into the kitchen where not one bit of food,
nor any smell of cooking, remained.
During the past days,
the children had scraped up every last crumb
and scratched the cupboard walls bare
until there was really nothing left at all.
They had started to eat at the neighbors’ instead.
One after another had taken them in,
and complaining all the while about their father’s leaving home.
Some blamed him; others blamed her,
as if there were no unemployment,
as if hunger had not twisted their stomachs,
as if they had not known shame.
Now the silence was broken.
There we all were. He was sitting; she was standing.
“I’ve suffered a lot too,” he said.
“What about us?” she asked.
“I worked,” he said.
“So you’ve got some money?” He didn’t answer.
Instantly, she understood that if he left again
she would stay there penniless,
that she would have to plead poverty despite her pride,
that she would have no choice but to beg
so that the children could eat.
Then with a sob, she burst out,
“Do you realize I sold a can of peas to write to you? ”
This can symbolized a cry of despair,
a sign of support from the neighbors
who had given it to her.
Selling it was a revelation of unfathomable love,
pushing hunger, suffering, and shame into the background.
We relapsed into silence.
It had all been said.
More words would have been useless.
When I left them, I knew he would not leave again.
From now on, he would find the strength
to overcome their neighbors’ mockeries,
because they had both renewed their commitment of love.
At the front door,
their seven-year-old daughter reached for my hand,
gently squeezing it again and again as if to say, “Thank you.”
I thought about the can of peas,
sold for the price of a stamp
so a letter could be written to a man fleeing his family
to tell him to come back because he was still loved.
Did the children take in this declaration of love?
I think so.
Besides, they needed no proof.
They knew all along that their parents loved each other.
What unexpected secret
hides itself in the hearts of the poor?
What love binds them so closely together?