Waking, Child, While You Slept

Ethel Anderson
1883 – 1958


Waking, child, while you slept, your mother took
Down from its wooden peg her reaping-hook,
Rustless with use, to cut (her task when dawn
With nervous light would bead the dusky leaves)
From the cold wheat-paddock’s shivering fringe, two sheaves;
Against a block she’d thrash, the golden grain,
Then winnow corn and husk, and toss again…
With bustling care, in genial haste, not late
Her cows she’d milk, her butter churn, and set
Fresh cream in scalded pans. Her hens she’d feed
With hot scraps, stirred in pollard from the bin;
Then give her dribbling calves what drink they need;
Or drive with flowery staff
Meek stragglers through the gate;
Or on her youngest-born
Impose the fret,
The letter’d tyranny, of the alphabet.

To dig, to delve, to drive wild cattle in,
(“Ester, ley thou thy meekness al a-doun”)
To scour, to sweep, to wash and iron, to spin;
(Penelopee and Marcia Catoun
Make of your wifehood no comparisoun,”)
To sew, to darn, to cook; to bake, to brew,
To bear, to rear, to burse her children, too;
(“And Cleopatre, with al thy passioun
Hyde ye your trouthe of love and your renoun.”)

Though, child, your mother, trembling, smiled at fear,
Fears had she; the blackfellow’s cruel spear,
White desperadoes. When to the open well
She crept at nightfall, being all alone,
For comfort, then, she’d watch her frugal rush,
The only gleam in all that virgin bush,
Cheer the unshutter’d, distant window-pane;
Then hoist her twirling bucket yet again.

When in a drought the waterholes ran dry
And of “dry-bible” half the herds would die,
And others in their agony creep to lie
About the homestead, moaning piteously,
Or, famished, on the deadly purple weed,
Or poisonous variegated thistle, feed,
The men being absent, then, to give release,
She brought to every suffering brute death’s peace;
Who never heard the rain
Fall, but she heard again
The cattle in their pain.

But in a lucky year your mother’s care
Was all to save the wealth her orchard bore;
Apples and plums, peach, apricot and pear,
Mandarins, nectarines, tangerines, a score
Of rosy berries, currants and their kind;
Drying these last, through muslin she would squeeze
Damson or apple cheese;
Quinces, conserve; bottle black mulberries…

She for her cellar with a cheerful mind
Would brew in tubs peach-beer,
Sparkling and clear,
Rub pears and trinities of apples bruise
To perry and cider in a wooden cruse.
Of keeving and pomace then grossip ran,
One Servant assigned her being a Devon man,
Whose convict clothes and homely face—so kind—Smiling, you may remember, music on The knight, his grandson and the judge, his son.

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