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THE BLACK MONTH

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

IT is the Black Month—the Month of the Dead, the
Month of those that do not come home, the Season of
widows.

Out upon the furrowed sea the wind swings in gusts
and lifts the waves back into a mist of drifting spray:
on the beaches the sweeping tides eat into the sand
with huge devouring rushes. Sometimes there is driftwood
flung ashore; sometimes, where certain currents meet and run
landwards, it is other than driftwood that is flung up, pallid
and terrible, a wet shapelessness upon the stretching beach, a
horror dropping from the lip of the sea. A great grey bay,
circled with distant cliffs of granite and sandhills cushioned
with the dull green of salty grass; a bay so wide and silent
that one is lost in it, in the largeness of its desolate curve, in
the levels of sand and dune and water, under the vast of over-
hanging sky. And between the long pale land and the
advancing tide there stand the watchers—dwarfed, minus-
cule, inflnitely small and impotent, mere points of blackness
against the grey—waiting, where the currents meet and run
landwards, for those that the sea brings home. For the Black
Month has its harvest and these are its fruits.

Elsewhere there are others that watch and wait also.

Wherever a cross lifts its grey arms up from the bordering
cliflfs and overlooks the sea; wherever a stone face, drooping,
looks sightlessly out upon the blind world below, and the

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water-birds, wheeling and circling, keep voice with the winds;
there are women who at this season come and go, who go and
come again, or linger from long hour to long hour, kneeling
on the stone steps in the pitiful helplessness of waiting. There
are flowers laid humbly about the foot of the cross, there is the
tinkle of chaplets passing between restless fingers; a prayer,
ceaseless, monotonous, that is lost in the voice of the water
and the singing of the winds, and the long dumb trouble of
straining eyes. For it is the Black Month, the month that
makes widows, and out yonder the sea is scarred with crossing
paths, and ploughed by home-coming boats, and secret with
the dim vessels, the soundless feet, that in all the to-morrows
shall not come home.

There is not much speech amongst the watchers; black-clothed
and white coiffed, like huge sea-birds alighted, they cluster
about the foot of the cross, looking not at each other, but west-
ward into the mist of waters. There is nothing to be seen in each
other’s faces but what they know is in their own; there is no word
to be said which can hold the outcry of their speechlessness.
There is only the habitual, mechanical consolations of the ‘Hail,
Mary!’ the endless murmur that is scarcely prayer and yet is
comfort. Sometimes the Curé comes and stands by them a
little while in the wise silence that understanding has taught
him; it will be time enough for him to speak, by and by, when
the terror of suspense has sharpened into certainty. And
sometimes there comes one who has known in her day the
anguish of waiting but now has none left for whom to wait, and
who turns her dim vision on those about her with the cold
regret of age and slackened blood. But always the straining,
burning, furiously-patient eyes peer westward through the mist
of waters, and the restless fingers incessantly roll the tinkling
beads:—
                        Hail Mary! Full of grace . . .’

For the sea is secret and the way of the winds unsure, and
the Black Month has come round again, the season of the

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homeward boats and the making of widows, the Month of the
Dead.
.             .             .             .             .             .             .            .

And this is the Day of the Dead.

The clouds hang low in the sky—pale, tufted, and immovable;
the trees stand on the slope of the cliffs and the landward edge
of the sandhills bend to meet the winds that do not blow. Now
and then a leaf falls with a jarring rustle athwart the stillness,
and settles purposefully on the ground like a bird alighting.
The sea heaves smoothly in its bed, lifting a large grey shoulder
that is round and unrippled; the winds are silent in their
quarters, and the upper air is empty. There are no birds any-
where. There is in all the poising stillness no sound but the
tread of feet that come and go upon the path that climbs down
from the inset village to the sea: the path that borders in its
passing the little grey cemetery where so few have come home
to lie. There is no need of much room there: there is place,
and to spare, outside. . . .

And presently there is a sound of singing that comes nearer, a
grave sweet singing that is small in the large environment of
air; there is a huddle of black and white upon the stretching
beach, the shining of taper, of swinging censer, of uplifted
crucifix, and between the little burying-ground and the wide
grey sea there is a kneeling crowd that prays for those that
lie in either.
The night gathers early into an intolerable blackness: the
wind stirs with a distant whispering, and the air is thick
and wet without rain. There is no moon, no light babble of
water breaking on the shore, no star answering star from sky
and sea ; there is no sound of life in all the small dark village,
only a close unbroken blackness set interminably between earth
and heaven. The people within the little houses have shut
themselves fearfully and with prayers into their great enclosed
beds ; the evening-meal has been eaten in silence, the fire
covered over and the lights put out; but the platters are not
set away, nor the food lifted from the tables. All is left for


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Those that will enter presently by the door which to-night
stands open from dusk to dawn; when in the midst of darkness
and at the unspeakable Hour, there comes the sound of feet,
which are not feet, upon the causeway, and the touch of hands,
which are not hands, upon the latch; when those that wake and
pray and listen will hear about them the pale thin voices that
chant the Song of the Dead.

          The night comes up weeping from the East, and her
          cheeks are wet and dark; her shut eyes weep and her
          breath whistles between her lips; the blackness of the
          night is very black.

          It is the night when the Dead walk, and there is no light
          anywhere.

          The Dead have rent their tombs and have come out from
          them like breath from between the lips; they have come
          without sound, without shape, they are but a Blackness
          within the blackness of the night.

          A Blackness within the blackness are the Dead; cover
          over the ashes on the hearth lest a flame burst out from
          them; cover them over and let the houses be dark as
          the encompassing night. O let no light wander, for the
          Dead are abroad; let no light stray, lest in it they should
          see themselves!

          It is surely a very fearful thing that the Dead should be
          set loose, dumb and shapeless, an element within the
          elements; not even as a sigh in the whispering wind, not
          even as a tear in the weeping rain, but as a nothing at
          large in the midst of the world. O what a strait gate is
          the flesh when it is shut upon the spirit; and what a
          large thing beyond all largeness, is the Desire of God !

          For the Dead are without sound and without shape and
          yet there is that which must be spoken, and who will say
          the words? They are voiceless, and yet they bear a
          message; oh! who will deliver it?


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          Let us gird ourselves and go forth, we, who are the poor
          and maim, we the poor and desolate; let us go out into
          the night to meet the Dead, that they may creep into us
           by our mouths and share the breath of our nostrils. Let
          us lend these miserable bodies, that by them the Dead
          may speak.

          For years and for generations without number, our
          fathers have done this thing and the night hath not
          swallowed them up; for years and for generations with-
          out number, the Dead have spoken by them and they have
          not been consumed. Hervé the Saint went out with them
          in the days that once were and sang the Song of the
          Souls: and Hervé the Saint is not consumed, but is en-
          tirely blessed. Therefore be not afraid. . . .

          The night is dark, surely the night is very dark, and our
          feet seek in trouble for their accustomed ways; where is
          the track of my footsteps that I may walk in it? And
          where are ye, my brothers, that I may hold your hands?

          The wind is cold, oh! verily the wind is cold as the hand
          that gives no alms; there is a weight as of ice that lies
          about my heart. And what is this that meets me, that is
          blacker than the night, and colder than the north wind,
          and wetter than the sea? What is this that wraps me
          about with a smell as of the grave and a sickness like the
          coming of Death? Oh! what is this that breathes with
          my breath, and speaks with my voice, and makes of me
          a trumpet?

          It is not we, the poor and maim, we the aged and deso-
          late, who go from door to door in the midst of the night,
          but the Dead; it is not we who cry unto you, but the
          Dead. For the Dead are come into us and we are the
          Dead; O ye within the houses, wake and pray, for the
          Dead are at your doors!


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          The night is black, surely the night is very black, and
          the wind sings about the keyholes ; the night is full of
          fingers that touch and feet that come and go, and of
          voices crying upon the thresholds. Blackness within
          the blackness, and the graves rent open. O ye within the
          houses, wake and pray, and hear the Song of the Souls.
               .             .             .             .             .             .            .
          It is the night, and the hour of the night, when the Dead
          walk ; and there is no light anywhere.
.             .             .             .             .             .             .            .

And to-morrow the watchers will stand again upon the beach,
in the great bay where the currents meet and run landwards,
waiting for those that the sea brings home; and about the
cross the women will gather and pray, peering westward into
the mist of waters in the dumb suspense which is only less
sharp than certainty. But there will be some who stay at home
weeping, beside the empty chair that has been set back
in the corner all the long Summer; weeping, because, in the
black of the night, when the graves are rent open and the
depths of the sea laid bare, there was one who came home that
should come no more, and the word of the Dead was spoken.
For this is the Black Month, the season of widows, the Month
of the Dead.

NOTA.—In parts of Brittany it is the belief that on the Eve of All Souls, the Dead are
permitted to return to the world; but that, being shapeless and voiceless, they enter
into the bodies of the beggars who are called by the people the ‘Children of God,’ and
in their form go from house to house, leaving on each a blessing. In the canticle of
St. Hervé it is said that as a child he went out with such as these to ‘Sing the song of
the souls’: and one or more versions of these songs yet linger. As All Souls is the
day of the Dead, so November is the Black Month, the Month of the Dead: more
especially upon the coasts where the fall of the year brings home the fishermen who
have been away at Iceland or the Bank, and of whom, all the long Summer, there has
been no news. Day after day through the early Autumn, the ‘goëlttes’ come in with
   every tide; but as the time passes, the waiting for those that delay grows more
      anxious and the home-coming less sure. And as every season there are many
           who do not come home, it is indeed true that ‘November makes more
                                 widows than all the rest of the year.

                                    M. C. BALFOUR.

MLA citation:

Balfour, M. Clothilde. “The Black Month.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4 Winter 1896-7, pp. 132-137. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv4_balfour_month/