Robert Frost. "Paul's Wife."
Century Magazine November 1921: 83-89.
Illustrated by James Chapin
The lumberjacks of our logging-camps have created, by the grace of primitive imagination, a mythical hero-Paul. Sometimes he is called Paul Bunyon, sometimes by other names; but he is always Paul.
The Paul legend is authentic American folk-lore still in the making. Just when and where the stories originated no one knows. We know only that in Maine, in Canada, in Michigan, and in Oregon tales of Paul's valor are told around bunk-house stoves on winter nights, and that with the telling the legend grows.
The Paul of lumberjack fancy is a hero of unlimited strength, unequaled daring, and a facility for accomplishing the seemingly impossible by clever and highly original methods. Nothing is too difficult for Paul. Say that anything is impossible, and the lumberjack replies, "Paul could do it-easy."
In the following pages Robert Frost tells the story of how Paul found a wife and lost her.
To drive Paul out of any lumber-camp
All that was needed was to say to him,
"How is the wife, Paul?" and he 'd disappear.
Some said it was because he had no wife
And hated to be twitted on the subject.
Others because he 'd come within a day
Or so of having one and then been jilted.
Others because he 'd had one once, a good one,
Who 'd run away with some one else and left him.
And others still because he had one now
He only had to be reminded of;
He was all duty to her in a minute;
He had to run right off to look her up,
As if to say: "That 's so, how is my wife?
I hope she is n't getting into mischief."
No one was anxious to get rid of Paul.
He 'd been the hero of the mountain camps
Ever since, just to show them, he had slipped
The bark of a whole tamarack off whole,
As clean as boys do off a willow twig
To make a willow whistle on a Sunday
In April by subsiding meadow brooks.
They seemed to ask him just to see him go,
"How is the wife, Paul?" and he always went.
He never stopped to murder any one
Who asked the question. He just disappeared,
Nobody knew in what direction,
Although it was n't usually long
Before they heard of him in some new camp
The same Paul at the same old feats of logging.
The question everywhere was, Why should Paul
Object to being asked a civil question-
A man you could say almost anything to
Short of a fighting word? You have the answers.
And there was one more not so fair to Paul:
That Paul had married a wife not his equal.
Paul was ashamed of her. To match a hero,
She would have had to be a heroine;
Instead of which she was some half-breed squaw.
But if the story Murphy told was true,
She was n't any one to be ashamed of.
You know, Paul could do wonders. Every one 's
Heard how he thrashed the horses on a load
That would n't budge until they simply stretched
Their rawhide harness from the load to camp.
Paul told the boss the load would be all right.
"The sun will bring your load in," and it did-
By shrinking the rawhide to natural length.
That 's what is called a stretcher. But I guess
The one about his jumping so 's to land
With both his feet at once against the ceiling,
And then land safely, right side up again,
Back on the floor is fact or pretty near fact.
Well, this is such a yarn. Paul sawed his wife
Out of a white-pine log. Murphy was there,
And, as you might say, saw the lady born.
Paul worked at anything in lumbering.
He 'd been hard at it taking boards away
For I forget-the last ambitious sawyer
To want to find out if he could n't pile
The lumber on Paul till Paul begged for mercy.
They 'd sliced the first slab off a big butt log,
And the sawyer had slammed the carriage back
To slam end on again against the saw-teeth.
To judge them by the way they caught themselves
When they saw what had happened to the log,
They must have had a guilty expectation
Something was going to go with their slam-banging.
Something had left a long black streak of grease
On the new wood the whole length of the log
Except perhaps a foot at either end.
But when Paul put his finger in the grease,
It was n't grease at all, but a long slot.
The log was hollow. They were sawing pine.
"First time I ever saw a hollow pine.
That comes of having Paul around the place.
Take it to hell for me," the sawyer said.
Every one had to have a look at it,
And tell Paul what he ought to do about it.
(They treated it as his.) "You take a jack-knife
And spread the opening, and you 've got a dugout
All dug to go a-fishing in." To Paul
The hollow looked too sound and clean and empty
Ever to have housed birds or beasts or bees.
There was no entrance for them to get in by.
It looked to him like some new kind of hollow
He thought he 'd better take his jack-knife to.
So after work that evening he came back
And let enough light into it by cutting
To see if it was empty. He made out in there
A slender length of pith-or was it pith?
It might have been the skin a snake had cast
And left stood up on end inside the tree
The hundred years the tree must have been growing.
More cutting, and he had this in both hands,
And looking from it to the pond near by,
Paul wondered how it would respond to water.
Not a breeze stirred, but just the breath of air
He made in walking slowly to the beach
Blew it once off his hands and almost broke it.
He laid it at the edge, where it could drink.
At the first drink it rustled and grew limp;
At the next drink it grew invisible.
Paul dragged the shadows for it with his fingers,
And thought it must have melted. It was gone.
And then beyond the open water, dim with midges
Where the log drive lay pressed against the boom,
It slowly rose a person, rose a girl,
Her wet hair heavy on her like a helmet,
Who, leaning on a log, looked back at Paul.
And that made Paul in turn look back
To see if it was any one behind him
That she was looking at instead of him.
(Murphy had been there watching all the time,
(But from a shed where neither of them could see him.)
There was a moment of suspense in birth,
When the girl seemed too water-logged to live,
Before she caught her first breath with a gasp
And laughed. Then she climbed slowly to her feet
And walked off, talking to herself or Paul,
Across the logs like backs of alligators,
Paul taking after her around the pond.
Next evening Murphy and some other fellows
Got drunk and tracked the pair up Catamount,
From the bare top of which there is a view
To other hills across a kettle valley.
And there, well after dark, let Murphy tell it,
They saw Paul and his creature keeping house.
It was the only glimpse that any one
Has had of Paul and her since Murphy saw them
Falling in love across the wilderness
They sat together half-way up a cliff
In a small niche let into it, the girl
Brightly, as if a star played on the place,
Paul darkly, like her shadow. All the light
Was from the girl herself, though not a star,
As was apparent from what happened next.
All those great ruffians put their throats together
And let out a loud yell, and threw a bottle
As a brute tribute of respect to beauty.
Of course the bottle fell short by a mile.
But the shout reached the girl and put her light out.
She went out like a fire-fly, and that was all.
So there were witnesses that Paul was married,
And not to any one to be ashamed of.
Every one had been wrong in judging Paul.
Murphy told me Paul put on all those airs
About his wife to keep her to himself.
Paul was what 's called a terrible possessor:
Owning a wife with him meant owning her.
She was n't anybody else's business
Either to praise her or so much as name her,
And he 'd thank people not to think of her.
Murphy's idea was that a man like Paul
Would n't be spoken to about a wife
In any way the world knew how to speak in.
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