AS THE YEARS PASSED THE GIRLS WHO HAD BEEN such intimates as children still remained true to one another.
Ethel by now had married. Maura had married; the one having removed to Harrisburg, the other to New York City. And both began to bring up families. Ethel especially went in for children. Within a very brief period, comparatively speaking, she had three of them, then four, then five and finally six. And through it all, she kept in constant touch with her girlhood friend, dark-eyed Maura, by writing long intimate letters.
At first these had been newsy chit chat, ending always however in continued protestations of that love which the women had enjoyed during their childhood. Maura showed them to her husband and both enjoyed their full newsy quality dealing as they did with people and scenes with which both were familiar.
But after several years, as these letters continued to flow, there came a change in them. First the personal note grew more confidential. Ethel told about her children, how she had had one after the other–to divert her mind, to distract her thoughts from their constant brooding. Each child would raise her hopes of relief, each anticipated delivery brought only renewed disappointment. She confided more and more in Maura. She loved her husband; it was not that. In fact, she didn’t know what it was save that she, Ethel, could never get her old friend Maura out of her mind.
Until at last the secret was out. It is you, Maura, that I want. Nothing but you. Nobody but you can appease my grief. Forgive me if I distress you with this confession. It is the last thing in this world that I desire. But I cannot contain myself longer.
Thicker and faster cane the letters. Full love missives they were now without the least restraint.
Ethel wrote letters now such as Maura wished she might at some time in her life have received from a man. She was told that all these years she had been dreamed of, passionately, without rival, without relief. Now, surely, Maura did not dare show the letters any longer to her husband. He would not understand.
They affected her strangely, they frightened her, but they caused a shrewd look to come into her dark eyes and she packed them carefully away where none should ever come upon them. She herself was occupied otherwise but she felt tenderly toward Ethel, loved her in an old remembered manner—but that was all. She was disturbed by the turn Ethel’s mind had taken and thanked providence her friend and she lived far enough apart to keep them from embarrassing encounters.
But, in spite of the lack of adequate response to her advances, Ethel never wavered, never altered in her passionate appeals. She begged her friend to visit her, to come to her, to live with her. She spoke of her longings, to touch the velvet flesh of her darling’s breasts, her thighs. She longed to kiss her to sleep, to hold her in her arms. Franker and franker became her outspoken lusts. For which she begged indulgences.
Once, she implored Maura to wear a silk chemise which she was sending, to wear it for a week and to return it to her, to Ethel, unwashed, that she might wear it in her turn constantly upon her.
Then, after twenty years, one day Maura received a letter from Ethel asking her to meet her–and her mother, in New York. They were expecting a sister back from Europe on the Mauretania and they wanted Maura to be there–for old times’ sake.
Maura consented. With strange feelings of curiosity and not a little fear, she stood at the gate of the Pennsylvania station waiting for her friend to come out at the wicket on the arrival of the Harrisburg express. Would she be alone? Would her mother be with her really? Was it a hoax? Was the woman crazy after all? And, finally, would she recognize her?
There she was and her mother along with her. After the first stare, the greetings on all sides were quiet, courteous and friendly. The mother dominated the moment. Her keen eyes looked Maura up and down once and then she asked the time, when would the steamer dock, how far was the pier and had they time for lunch first?
There was plenty of time. Yes, let’s lunch. But first Ethel had a small need to satisfy and asked Maura if she would show her the way. Maura led her friend to the Pay Toilets and there, after inserting the coin, Ethel opened the door and, before Maura could find the voice to protest, drew her in with herself and closed the door after her.
What a meeting! What a release! Ethel took her friend into her arms and between tears and kisses, tried in some way, as best she could, to tell her of her happiness. She fondled her old playmate, hugged her, lifted her off her feet in the eager impressment of her desire, whispering into her ear, stroking her hair, her face, touching her lips, her eyes; holding her, holding her about as if she could never again release her.
No one could remain cold to such an appeal, as pathetic to Maura as it was understandable and sincere, she tried her best to modify its fury, to abate it, to control. But, failing that, she did what she could to appease her old friend. She loved Ethel, truly, but all this show was beyond her. She did not understand it, she did not know how to return it. But she was not angry, she found herself in fact in tears, her heart touched, her lips willing.
Time was slipping by and they had to go.
At lunch Ethel kept her foot upon the toe of Maura’s slipper. It was a delirious meal for Maura with thinking of old times, watching the heroic beauty of the old lady and, while keeping up a chatter of small conversation, intermixed with recollections, to respond secretly as best she could to Ethel’s insistent pressures.
At the pier there was a long line waiting to be admitted to the enclosure. It was no use—Ethel from behind constantly pressed her body against her embarrassed friend, embarrassed not from lack of understanding or sympathy, but for fear lest one of the officers and Customs inspectors who were constantly watching them should detect something out of the ordinary.
But the steamer was met, the sister saluted, the day came to an end and the hour of parting found Ethel still keeping close, close to the object of her lifelong adoration.
What shall I do? thought Maura afterward on her way home, on the train alone. Ethel had begged her to visit her, to go to her, to spend a week at least with her, to sleep with her. Why not?
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet, as well as a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine. He claimed that he “worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician,” but by all accounts he excelled at both. Williams wrote “The Knife of the Times” in 1932 while the Great Depression was in full swing. Women’s rights and women’s colleges thrived after World War I, and it wasn’t an uncommon belief that contagious lesbianism pervaded both. According to at least one critic, Williams believed “the knife of the times” was, in fact, lesbianism, and by extension, homosexuality in general. Williams thought lesbianism was killing woman and castrating men. Witness how Maura, the protagonist of “The Knife of the Times,” jeopardizes her family and marriage not because she was a long-suffering, closeted gay woman but because of the passionate pressure from her friend and wooer, Ethel. The final sentence captures a snapshot of the hysteric times in which Williams lived.
Visit poetry.org to learn more about William Carlos Williams.