Old Mrs. Grey
by Virginia Woolf
There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold — it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying hills whose smooth uprise continue that wild flight.
Of all this however only seven foot by four could be seen from Mrs. Grey’s corner. That was the size of her front door which stood wide open, though there was a fire burning in the grate. The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly trying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.
Mrs. Grey sat on a hard chair in the corner looking — but at what? Apparently at nothing. She did not change the focus of her eyes when visitors came in. Her eyes had ceased to focus themselves; it may be that they had lost the power. They were aged eyes, blue, unspectacled. They could see, but without looking. She had never used her eyes on anything minute and difficult; merely upon faces, and dishes and fields. And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand. She flung out a foot, a hand. Then it stopped. She sat still for a moment.
In that pause she saw herself in the past at ten, at twenty, at twenty-five. She was running in and out of a cottage with eleven brothers and sisters. The line jerked. She was thrown forward in her chair.
“All dead. All dead,” she mumbled. “My brothers and sisters. And my husband gone. My daughter too. But I go on. Every morning I pray God to let me pass.”
The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.
“I’m an ignorant old woman. I can’t read or write, and every morning when I crawls down stairs, I say I wish it were night; and every night, when I crawls up to bed, I say, I wish it were day. I’m only an ignorant old woman. But I prays to God: 0 let me pass. I’m an ignorant old woman — I can’t read or write.”
So when the colour went out of the doorway, she could not see the other page which is then lit up; or hear the voices that have argued, sung, talked for hundreds of years.
The jerked limbs were still again.
“The doctor comes every week. The parish doctor now. Since my daughter went, we can’t afford Dr. Nicholls. But he’s a good man. He says he wonders I don’t go. He says my heart’s nothing but wind and water. Yet I don’t seem able to die.”
So we — humanity — insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.
Essay first published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 1942