Now I Lay Me

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◄  Banal Story The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
Now I Lay Me
written by Ernest Hemingway
After the Storm  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1966 [1938] (pages 363-371)





THAT NIGHT we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

I had different ways of occupying myself while I lay awake. I would think of a trout stream I had fished along when I was a boy and fish its whole length very carefully in my mind; fishing very carefully under all the logs, all the turns of the bank, the deep holes and the clear shallow stretches, sometimes catching trout and sometimes losing them. I would stop fishing at noon to eat my lunch; sometimes on a log over the stream; sometimes on a high bank under a tree, and I always ate my lunch very slowly and watched the stream below me while I ate. Often I ran out of bait because I would take only ten worms with me in a tobacco tin when I started. When I had used them all I had to find more worms, and sometimes it was very difficult digging in the bank of the stream where the cedar trees kept out the sun and there was no grass but only the bare moist earth and often I could find no worms. Always though I found some kind of bait, but one time in the swamp I could find no bait at all and had to cut up one of the trout I had caught and use him for bait.

Sometimes I found insects in the swamp meadows, in the grass or under ferns, and used them. There were beetles and insects with legs like grass stems, and grubs in old rotten logs; white grubs with brown pinching heads that would not stay on the hook and emptied into nothing in the cold water, and wood ticks under logs where sometimes I found angle-worms that slipped into the ground as soon as the log was raised. Once I used a salamander from under an old log. The salamander was very small and neat and agile and a lovely color. He had tiny feet that tried to hold on to the hook, and after that one time I never used a salamander, although I found them very often. Nor did I use crickets, because of the way they acted about the hook.

Sometimes the stream ran through an open meadow, and in the dry grass I would catch grasshoppers and use them for bait and sometimes I would catch grasshoppers and toss them into the stream and watch them float along swimming on the stream and circling on the surface as the current took them and then disappear as a trout rose. Sometimes I would fish four or five different streams in the night; starting as near as I could get to their source and fishing them down stream. When I had finished too quickly and the time did not go, I would fish the stream over again, starting where it emptied into the lake and fishing back up stream, trying for all the trout I had missed coming down. Some nights too I made up streams, and some of them were very exciting, and it was like being awake and dreaming. Some of those streams I still remember and think that I have fished in them, and they are confused with streams I really know. I gave them all names and went to them on the train and sometimes walked for miles to get to them.

But some nights I could not fish, and on those nights I was cold-awake and said my prayers over and over and tried to pray for all the people I had ever known. That took up a great amount of time, for if you try to remember all the people you have ever known, going back to the earliest thing you remember—which was, with me, the attic of the house where I was born and my mother and father’s wedding-cake in a tin box hanging from one of the rafters, and, in the attic, jars of snakes and other specimens that my father had collected as a boy and preserved in alcohol, the alcohol sunken in the jars so the backs of some of the snakes and specimens were exposed and had turned white—if you thought back that far, you remembered a great many people. If you prayed for all of them, saying a Hail Mary and an Our Father for each one, it took a long time and finally it would be light, and then you could go to sleep, if you were in a place where you could sleep in the daylight.

On those nights I tried to remember everything that had ever happened to me, starting with just before I went to the war and remembering back from one thing to another. I found I could only remember back to that attic in my grandfather’s house. Then I would start there and remember this way again, until I reached the war.

I remember, after my grandfather died we moved away from that house and to a new house designed and built by my mother. Many things that were not to be moved were burned in the back-yard and I remember those jars from the attic being thrown in the fire, and how they popped in the heat and the fire flamed up from the alcohol. I remember the snakes burning in the fire in the back-yard. But there were no people in that, only things. I could not remember who burned the things even, and I would go on until I came to people and then stop and pray for them.

About the new house I remember how my mother was always cleaning things out and making a good clearance. One time when my father was away on a hunting trip she made a good thorough cleaning out in the basement and burned everything that should not have been there. When my father came home and got down from his buggy and hitched the horse, the fire was still burning in the road beside the house. I went out to meet him. He handed me his shotgun and looked at the fire. “What’s this?” he asked.

“I’ve been cleaning out the basement, dear,” my mother said from the porch. She was standing there smiling, to meet him. My father looked at the fire and kicked at something. Then he leaned over and picked something out of the ashes. “Get a rake, Nick,” he said to me. I went to the basement and brought a rake and my father raked very carefully in the ashes. He raked out stone axes and stone skinning knives and tools for making arrow-heads and pieces of pottery and many arrow-heads. They had all been blackened and chipped by the fire. My father raked them all out very carefully and spread them on the grass by the road. His shotgun in its leather case and his game-bags were on the grass where he had left them when he stepped down from the buggy.

“Take the gun and the bags in the house, Nick, and bring me a paper,” he said. My mother had gone inside the house. I took the shotgun, which was heavy to carry and banged against my legs, and the two game-bags and started toward the house. “Take them one at a time,” my father said. “Don’t try and carry too much at once.” I put down the game-bags and took in the shotgun and brought out a newspaper from the pile in my father’s office. My father spread all the blackened, chipped stone implements on the paper and then wrapped them up. “The best arrow-heads went all to pieces,” he said. He walked into the house with the paper package and I stayed outside on the grass with the two game-bags. After a while I took them in. In remembering that, there were only two people, so I would pray for them both.

Some nights, though, I could not remember my prayers even. I could only get as far as “On earth as it is in heaven” and then have to start all over and be absolutely unable to get past that. Then I would have to recognize that I could not remember and give up saying my prayers that night and try something else. So on some nights I would try to remember all the animals in the world by name and then the birds and then fishes and then countries and cities and then kinds of food and the names of all the streets I could remember in Chicago, and when I could not remember anything at all any more I would just listen. And I do not remember a night on which you could not hear things. If I could have a light I was not afraid to sleep, because I knew my soul would only go out of me if it were dark. So, of course, many nights I was where I could have a light and then I slept because I was nearly always tired and often very sleepy. And I am sure many times too that I slept without knowing it—but I never slept knowing it, and on this night I listened to the silk-worms. You can hear silk-worms eating very clearly in the night and I lay with my eyes open and listened to them.

There was only one other person in the room and he was awake too. I listened to him being awake, for a long time. He could not lie as quietly as I could because, perhaps, he had not had as much practice being awake. We were lying on blankets spread over straw and when he moved the straw was noisy, but the silk-worms were not frightened by any noise we made and ate on steadily. There were the noises of night seven kilometres behind the lines outside but they were different from the small noises inside the room in the dark. The other man in the room tried lying quietly. Then he moved again. I moved too, so he would know I was awake. He had lived ten years in Chicago. They had taken him for a soldier in nineteen fourteen when he had come back to visit his family, and they had given him me for an orderly because he spoke English. I heard him listening, so I moved again in the blankets.

“Can’t you sleep, Signor Tenente?” he asked.

“No.”

“I can’t sleep, either.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I can’t sleep.”

“You feel all right?”

“Sure. I feel good. I just can’t sleep.”

“You want to talk a while?” I asked.

“Sure. What can you talk about in this damn place.”

“This place is pretty good,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “It’s all right.”

“Tell me about out in Chicago,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, “I told you all that once.”

“Tell me about how you got married.”

“I told you that.”

“Was the letter you got Monday—from her?”

“Sure. She writes me all the time. She’s making good money with the place.”

“You’ll have a nice place when you go back.”

“Sure. She runs it fine. She’s making a lot of money.”

“Don’t you think we’ll wake them up, talking?” I asked.

“No. They can’t hear. Anyway, they sleep like pigs. I’m different,” he said. “I’m nervous.”

“Talk quiet,” I said. “Want a smoke?”

We smoked skilfully in the dark.

“You don’t smoke much. Signor Tenente.”

“No. I’ve just about cut it out.”

“Well,” he said, “it don’t do you any good and I suppose you get so you don’t miss it. Did you ever hear a blind man won’t smoke because he can’t see the smoke come out?”

“I don’t believe it.”

“I think it’s all bull, myself,” he said. “I just heard it somewhere. You know how you hear things.”

We were both quiet and I listened to the silk-worms.

“You hear those damn silk-worms?” he asked. “You can hear them chew.”

“It’s funny,” I said.

“Say, Signor Tenente, is there something really the matter that you can’t sleep? I never see you sleep. You haven’t slept nights ever since I been with you.”

“I don’t know, John,” I said. “I got in pretty bad shape along early last spring and at night it bothers me.”

“Just like I am,” he said. “I shouldn’t have ever got in this war. I’m too nervous.”

“Maybe it will get better.”

“Say, Signor Tenente, what did you get in this war for, anyway?”

“I don’t know, John. I wanted to, then.”

“Wanted to,” he said. “That’s a hell of a reason.”

“We oughtn’t to talk out loud,” I said.

“They sleep just like pigs,” he said. “They can’t understand the English language, anyway. They don’t know a damn thing. What are you going to do when it’s over and we go back to the States?”

“I’ll get a job on a paper.”

“In Chicago?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you ever read what this fellow Brisbane writes? My wife cuts it out for me and sends it to me.”

“Sure.”

“Did you ever meet him?”

“No, but I’ve seen him.”

“I’d like to meet that fellow. He’s a fine writer. My wife don’t read English but she takes the paper just like when I was home and she cuts out the editorials and the sport page and sends them to me.”

“How are your kids?”

“They’re fine. One of the girls is in the fourth grade now. You know, Signor Tenente, if I didn’t have the kids I wouldn’t be your orderly now. They’d have made me stay in the line all the time.”

“I’m glad you’ve got them.”

“So am I. They’re fine kids but I want a boy. Three girls and no boy. That’s a hell of a note.”

“Why don’t you try and go to sleep?”

“No, I can’t sleep now. I’m wide awake now, Signor Tenente. Say, I’m worried about you not sleeping though.”

“It’ll be all right, John.”

“Imagine a young fellow like you not to sleep.”

“I’ll get all right. It just takes a while.”

“You got to get all right. A man can’t get along that don’t sleep. Do you worry about anything? You got anything on your mind?”

“No, John, I don’t think so.”

“You ought to get married, Signor Tenente. Then you wouldn’t worry.”

“I don’t know.”

“You ought to get married. Why don’t you pick out some nice Italian girl with plenty of money? You could get any one you want. You’re young and you got good decorations and you look nice. You been wounded a couple of times.”

“I can’t talk the language well enough.”

“You talk it fine. To hell with talking the language. You don’t have to talk to them. Marry them.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You know some girls, don’t you?”

“Sure.”

“Well, you marry the one with the most money. Over here, the way they’re brought up, they’ll all make you a good wife.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think about it, Signor Tenente. Do it.”

“All right.”

“A man ought to be married. You’ll never regret it. Every man ought to be married.”

“All right,” I said. “Let’s try and sleep a while.”

“All right, Signor Tenente. I’ll try it again. But you remember what I said.”

“I’ll remember it,” I said. “Now let’s sleep a while, John.”

“All right,” he said. “I hope you sleep, Signor Tenente.”

I heard him roll in his blankets on the straw and then he was very quiet and I listened to him breathing regularly. Then he started to snore. I listened to him snore for a long time and then I stopped listening to him snore and listened to the silk-worms eating. They ate steadily, making a dropping in the leaves. I had a new thing to think about and I lay in the dark with my eyes open and thought of all the girls I had ever known and what kind of wives they would make. It was a very interesting thing to think about and for a while it killed off trout-fishing and interfered with my prayers. Finally, though, I went back to trout-fishing, because I found that I could remember all the streams and there was always something new about them, while the girls, after I had thought about them a few times, blurred and I could not call them into my mind and finally they all blurred and all became rather the same and I gave up thinking about them almost altogether. But I kept on with my prayers and I prayed very often for John in the nights and his class was removed from active service before the October offensive. I was glad he was not there, because he would have been a great worry to me. He came to the hospital in Milan to see me several months after and was very disappointed that I had not yet married, and I know he would feel very badly if he knew that, so far, I have never married. He was going back to America and he was very certain about marriage and knew it would fix up everything.

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