The Rending by James Oppenheim
From The Dial
There is a bitter moment in youth, and this moment had come to Paul.
He had passed his mother's door without entering or even calling out to
her, and had climbed on doggedly to the top floor. Now he was shut in
his sanctuary, his room, sitting at his table. His head rested on a
hand, his dark eyes had an expression of confused anguish, a look of
guilt and sternness mingled.... He could no more have visited his
mother, he told himself, than he could voluntarily have chopped off his
hand. And yet he was amazed at the cruelty in himself, a hard cold
cruelty which prompted the thought: Even if this means her death or my
death, I shall go through with this.
It was because of such a feeling that he couldn't talk to his
mother. Paul was one of those sensitive youths who are delivered over
to their emotionsswept now and then by exaltation, now by despair,
now by anguish or rage, always excessive, never fully under control. He
was moody, and always seemed unable to say the right thing or do the
right thing. Suddenly the emotion used him as a mere instrument and
came forth in a shameful nakedness. But the present situation was by
all odds the most terrible he had faced: for against the cold cruelty,
there throbbed, warm and unutterably sweet, like a bird in a nest of
iron, an intense childish longing and love....
You see, Paul was nineteen, the eldest son in a family of four, and
his mother was a widow. She was not poor; they lived in this large
comfortable house on a side street east of Central Park. But neither
was she well off, and Paul was very magnanimous; he had given up
college and gone to work as a clerk. Perhaps it wasn't only
magnanimity, but also pride. He was proud to be the oldest son, to play
father, to advise with his mother about the children, to be the man of
the house. Yet he was always a mere child, living, as his two sisters
and his brother lived, in delicate response to his mother's feelings
and wishes. And he wanted to be a good son: he thought nothing was more
wonderful than a child who was good to his mother. She had given all
for her children, they in return must give all to her. But against this
spirit of sacrifice there arose a crude, ugly, healthy, monstrous
force, a terrible thing that kept whispering to him: You can't live
your mother's life: you must live your own life.
Once, when he had said something conceited, his mother had flashed
out at him: You're utterly selfish. This stung and humiliated him.
Yet this terrible monster in himself seemed concerned about nothing but
self. It seemed a sort of devil always tempting him to eat of forbidden
fruit. Lovely fruit, too. There was Agnes, for instance: Agnes, a mere
girl, with a pigtail down her back, daughter of the fishman on Third
His mother held Agnes in horror. That her son should be in love with
a fishman's daughter! And all the child in Paul, responding so
sensitively to his mother's feelings, agreed to this. He had contempt
for himself, he struggled against the romantic Thousand and One Nights
glamour, which turned Third Avenue into a Lovers' Lane of sparkling
lights. He struggled, vainly. Poetry was his passion: and he steeped
himself in Romeo and Juliet, and in Keats's St. Agnes' Eve and The Pot
of Basil.... It was then the great struggle with his mother began, and
the large house became a gloomy vault, something dank, damp, sombre,
something out of Poe, where a secret duel to the death was being
fought, mostly in undertones and sometimes with sharp cries and
Now, this evening, with his head in his hand, he knew that the end
had already been reached. To pass his mother's door without a greeting,
especially since he was well aware that she was ill, was so
unprecedented, so violent an act, that it seemed to have the finality
of something criminal. His mother had said two days ago: This can't go
on. It is killing me.
All right, he flashed. It sha'n't. I'll get out.
I suppose you'll marry, she said, on fifteen a week.
He spoke bitterly:
I'll get out of New York altogether. I'll work my way through
She almost sneered at the suggestion. And this sneer rankled. He
telegraphed his friend, at a little freshwater college, and Samuel
telegraphed back: Come. That day he drew his money from the bank, and
got his tickets for the midnight sleeper. And he did all this with
But now the time had come to go, and things were different. An
autumn wind was blowing out of the park, doubtless carrying seeds and
dead leaves, and gusting down the street, blowing about the sparkling
lamps, eddying in the area-ways, rapping in passing on the loose
windows.... The lights in the houses were all warm, because you saw
only the glowing yellow shades: Third Avenue was lit up and down with
shop-windows, and people were doing late marketing. It was a night when
nothing seemed so sweet, or sane, or comfortable, as a soft-lighted
room, and a family sitting together. Soft voices, familiarity, warm
intimacy, the feeling of security and ease, the unspoken welling of
love and understanding: these belonged to such a night, when the whole
world seemed dying and there was only man to keep the fires burning
And so, out of its tomb, the little child in Paul stepped out again,
beautiful and sweet with love and longing. And this little child said
to him: Sacrificesurrenderlet the hard heart melt with pity....
There is no freedom except in love, which gives all. For a moment
Paul's vivid imagination, which presented everything to him like works
of dramatic art, pictured himself going down the steps, as once he had
done, creeping to his mother's bed, flinging himself down, sobbing and
moaning, Forgive me. Forgive me.
But just then he heard the stairs creak and thought that his eldest
sister was coming up to question him. His heart began a frightened
throbbing: he shook with a guilty fear, and at once he saved himself
with a bitter resurgence of cruel anger. He hated his sister, he told
himself, with a livid hatred. She always sided with his mother. She was
bossy and smart and high and mighty. He knew what he would do. He
jumped up, went to the door, and locked it. Soshe could beat her head
on the door, for all he cared!
He packed. He got out his valise, and filled it with his
necessaries. He would let the rest go: the books, the old clothes. He
was going to start life all over again He was going to wipe out the
When he was finished, he anxiously opened his pocket-book to see if
the tickets were safe. He looked at them. It was now ten o'clock. Two
hoursand then the long train would pull out, and he would be gone....
To-morrow morning they'd come downstairs. His sister probably would sit
at the foot of the table, instead of himself. The table would seem
small with himself gone. Perhaps the house would seem a little empty.
Automatically they would wait for the click of his key in the front
door lock at seven in the evening. He would not come home at all....
His mother might die. She had told him this was killing her.... It
was so easy for him to go, so hard for her to stay.... She had invested
most of her capital of hopes and dreams and love in him: he was the
son; he was the first man. And now he was shattering the very structure
of her life....
Easy for him to go! He slumped into the chair again, at the
table.... The wind blew strongly, and he knew just how the grey street
looked with its spots of yellow sparkling lamplight; its shadows, its
glowing windows.... He knew the smell of the fish-shop, the strange raw
sea-smell, the sight of glittering iridescent scales, the beauty of
lean curved fishes, the red of broiled lobsters, the pink-cheeked
swarthy fishman, the dark loveliness of Agnes.... He had written to
Agnes. His mother didn't know of it, but he was done with Agnes. Agnes
meant nothing to him. She had only been a way out, something to cling
to, something to fight for in this fight for his life....
Fight for his life! Had he not read of this in books, how the young
must slay the old in order that life might go on, just as the earth
must die in autumn so that the seeds of spring may be planted? Had he
not read Ibsen's Master Builder, where the aging hero hears the dread
doom which youth brings, the younger generation knocking at the door?
He was the younger generation, he was the young hero. And now, at once,
a vivid dramatization took place in his brain: it unwound clear as
hallucination. He forgot everything else, he sat there as a writer
sits, living his fiction, making strange gestures with face and hands,
muttering words under his breath....
In this phantasy, he saw himself rising, appearing a little older, a
little stronger, and on his face a look of divine compassion and
understanding, yet a firmness inexorable as fate. He repeated Hamlet's
words: For I am cruel only to be kind. Blame life, fate, the gods who
decree that a man must live his own life: don't blame me.
He unlocked the door, crossed the big hall, stepped down the stairs.
His mother's door was shut. The younger generation must knock at it. He
knocked. A low, sad voice said: Come. He opened the door.
This was the way it always was: a pin-point of light by the western
window, a newspaper pinned to the glass globe of the gas-jet to shield
his mother's eyes, the wide range of warm shadow, and in the shadow the
two beds. But his sister was not in one of them. His mother was
He went to the bedside....
He took her hand.
Are you feeling better? he asked.
A little more quiet, Paul....
I am very glad....
Now there was silence.... Then he spoke quietly, honestly, candidly.
It was the only way. Why can't human beings be simple with one another,
be sweetly reasonable? Isn't a little understanding worth more than
pride and anger? To understand is to forgive. Surely any one must know
Starting to speak, he sat down on the chair beside the bed, still
holding her hand....
Mother, come let's talk to one another. You think perhaps I have
stopped loving you. It isn't true. I love you deeply. All this is
breaking my heart. But how can I help it? Can't you see that I am
young, and my life all before me? The best of your life is behind you.
You have lived, I haven't. You have tasted the sweet mysteries of love,
the agonies of death and birth, the terrors of lonely struggle. And I
must have these, too. I am hungry for them. I can't help myself. I am
like a leaf in the wind, like a rain-drop in the storm.... How can you
keep me here? If you compel me, I'll become a shadow, all twisted and
broken. I won't be a man, but a helpless child. Perhaps I shall go out
of my mind. And what good will that do you? You will suffer more if I
stay, than if I go. Oh, understand me, mother, understand me!
His mother began to cry. She spoke at first as she always spoke, and
then more like a mother in a poem.
Understand? What do you understand? You know nothing about life.
Oh, I only wish you had children and your children turned against you!
That's the only way that you will ever learn.... I worked for you so
hard. I gave up everything for my children. And your father died, and I
went on alone, a woman with a great burden.... What sort of life have I
had? Sacrifice, toil, tears.... I skimped along. I wore the same dress
year after year, for five, six years.... I hung over your sickbeds, I
taught you at my knees. I have known the bitterness of child-bearing,
and the bitter cry of children.... I have fought alone for my little
ones.... And you, Paul! You who were the darling of my heart, my little
man, you who said you would take your father's place and take care of
me and of your sisters and brother! You who were to repay me for
everything; to give me a future, to comfort my old age, the staff I
leaned on, my comfort, my son! I was proud of you as you grew up: so
proud to see your pride, and your ambition. I knew you would succeed,
that you would have fame and power and wealth, and I should be the
proudest mother in the world! This was my dream.... Now I see you a
failure, one who cares for nothing but self-indulgence and pleasure, a
rolling stone, a flitter from place to place, and II am an old woman,
deserted, left alone to wither in bitterness.... I gave everything to
youand youyou give back despair, loneliness, anguish. I gave you
life: you turn on me and destroy me for the gift.... Oh, mother-love!
What man will understand itthe piercing anguish, the roots that
clutch the deep heart?... I feel the chill of death creeping over
The tears rolled down Paul's cheeks. He pressed her hand now with
both of his.
Oh, mother, but I do understand! I have understood always, I have
tried so hard to help you. I have tried so hard to be a good son. But
this is something greater than I. We are in the hands of God, mother,
and it is the law that the young must leave the old. Why do parents
expect the impossible of their children? Does not the Bible say, 'You
must leave father and mother, and cleave to me'? Didn't you leave
grandmother and grandpa, to go to your husband? Can't you remember when
you were young, and your whole soul carried you away to your own life
and your own future? Mother, let us part with understanding, let us
part with love.
But when are you going, Paul?
His mother flung her arms about him desperately and clung to him....
I can't let you go, Paul, she moaned.
Oh, mother, he sobbed. This is breaking my heart....
It is Agnes you are going to, she whispered.
No, mother, he cried. It is not Agnes. I am going to college. I
shall never marry. I shall still take care of you. Thinkevery
vacation I will be back here....
She relaxed, lay back, and his inventions failed. He had a confused
sense of soothing her, of gentleness and reconciliation, of a last
And now he sat, head on hand, slowly realizing again the little
gas-lit room, the shaking window, the autumn wind. A throb of fear
pulsed through his heart. He had passed his mother's door without
greeting her. And there was his valise, and here his tickets. And the
time? It was nearly eleven.... A great heaviness of futility and
despair weighed him down. He felt incapable of action. He felt that he
had done some terrible deedlike striking his mother in the
facesomething unforgivable, unreversible, struck through and through
with finality.... He felt more and more cold and brutal, with the
sullenness of the criminal who can't undo his crime and won't admit his
Was it all over, then? Was he really leaving? Fear, and a prophetic
breath of the devastating loneliness he should yet know, came upon him,
paralyzed his mind, made him weak and aghast. He was going out into the
night of death, launching on his frail raft into the barren boundless
ocean of darkness, leaving the last landmarks, drifting out in utter
nakedness and loneliness.... All the future grew black and
impenetrable; but he knew shapes of terror, demons of longing and grief
and guilt loomed there, waiting for him. He knew that he was about to
understand a little of life in a very ancient and commonplace way: the
way of experience and of reality: that at first hand he was to have the
taste against his palate of that bitterness and desolation, that terror
and helplessness, which make the songs and fictions of man one endless
tragedy.... Destiny was taking him, as the jailer who comes to the
condemned man's cell on the morning of the execution. There was no
escape. No end, but death....
He was leaving everything that was comfort in a bleak world,
everything that was safe and tried and known in a world of unthinkable
perils and mysteries. Only this he knew, still a child, still on the
inside of his mother's house.... He knew now how terrible, how deep,
how human were the cords that bound him to his mother, how fierce the
love, by the fear and deadly helplessness he felt.... What could he
have been about all these months of darkening the house, of paining his
mother and the children, of bringing matters to such inexorable
finalities? Was he sane? Was he now possessed of some demon, some beast
of low desire? Freedom? What was freedom? Could there be freedom
And now, as he sat there, there came slow deliberate footsteps on
the stairs. There was no mistaking the sounds. It was Cora, his older
sister.... His heart palpitated wildly, he shook with fear, the colour
left his cheeks, and he tried to set his face and his throat like flint
not to betray himself. She came straight on. She knocked.
Paul, she said in a peremptory tone, clothed with all the
authority of his mother....
He grew cold all over, his eyelids narrowed; he felt brutal....
What is it? he asked hard.
Mother wants you to come right down.
I will come, he said.
Her footsteps departed.... He rose slowly, heavily, like the man who
must now face the executioner.... He stuck his pocketbook back in his
coat and picked up his valise. Mechanically he looked about the room.
Then he unlocked and opened the door, shut off the gas, and went into
the lighted hall.
And as he descended the steps he felt ever smaller before the
growing terror of the world. Never had he been more of a child than at
this moment: never had he longed more fiercely to sob and cry out and
give over everything.... How had this guilt descended upon him? What
had he done? Why was all this necessary? Who was forcing him through
this strange and frightful experience? He went on, lower and lower....
The door of his mother's room was a little open. It was all as it
had always beenthe pin-point of light, the shading newspaper, the
sick-room silence, the warm shadow.... He paused a second to summon up
strength, to combat the monster of fear and guilt in his heart. He
tried with all his little boyish might to smooth out his face, to set
it straight and firm. He pushed the door, set down the valise, entered:
pale, large-eyed, looking hard and desperate.
He did not see his sister at all, though she sat under the light.
His mother he hardly saw: had the sense of a towel binding her head,
and the dim form under the bedclothes. He stepped clumsilyhe was
trembling soto the foot of her bed, and grasped the brass rail for
His mother's voice was low and thick; a terrible voice. Her throat
was swollen, and she could speak only with difficulty. The voice
accused him. It said plainly: It was you did this.
She said: Paul, this has got to end.
His tongue seemed the fork of a snake, his words came with such
It will end to-night.
How ... to-night?
I'm leaving.... I'm going west....
Oh, said his mother....
There was a long cruel silence. He shut his eyes, overcome with a
sort of horror.... Then she turned her face a little away, and he heard
the faintly breathed words....
This is the end of me....
Still he said nothing. She turned toward him, with a groan.
Have you nothing to say?
Again he spoke with deadly coldness....
She waited a moment: then she spoke....
You have no feelings. When you set out to do a thing, you will
trample over every one. I have never been able to do anything with you.
You may become a great man, Paul: but I pity any one who loves you, any
one who gets in your path. You will kill whatever holds youalways....
I was a fool to give birth to you: a great fool to count on you....
Well, it's over.... You have your way....
He was amazed: he trembling there, guilty, afraid, horrified, his
whole soul beseeching the comfort of her arms! He a cold trampler?
He stood, with all the feeling of one who is falsely condemned, and
yet with all the guilt of one who has sinned....
And then, suddenly, a wild animal cry came from his mother's
Oh, she cried, how terrible it is to have children!
His heart echoed her cry.... The executioner's knife seemed to
strike his throat....
He stood a long while in the silence.... Then his mother turned in
the bed, sideways, and covered her face with the counterpane.... His
sister rose up stiffly, whispering:
She's going to sleep.
He stood, dead.... He turned like a wound-up mechanism, went to the
door, picked up his valise, and fumbled his way through the house....
The outer door he shut very softly....
He must take the Lexington Avenue car. Yes; that was the quickest
way. He faced west. The great wind of autumn came with a glorious
gusto, doubtless with flying seeds and flying leaves, chanting the song
of the generations, and of them that die and of them that are born.
Copyright, 1920, by The Dial Publishing Company. Copyright,
1921, by James Oppenheim.