Sylvia Plath's Lost Story: 'Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’' — An Excerpt

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jserraglio
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Sylvia Plath's Lost Story: 'Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom’' — An Excerpt

Post by jserraglio » Sat Dec 29, 2018 9:02 am

from the Wall Street Journal
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In a previously unpublished work of fiction from 1952, a young woman realizes she has boarded an unusual train bound for a mysterious destination.

The train shot into another subway tunnel, then. Dark rocks bulked silent and swift past the window, and the wheels clocked away like the cogs of a gigantic clock.

A vendor opened the door at the front of the car and came swinging slowly along the aisle, crying “Candy, pop-corn, cash-you nuts…get your candy, pop-corn, cash-you nuts…

“Here,” said the woman, opening her brown satchel and taking out a worn purse. “I’ll get us both a chocolate bar…”

“Oh, no,” Mary protested. “Please, I’ll pay for it.”

“Nonsense, dear,” the woman said. “This is my treat. The chocolate will be good for your sweet tooth. Besides, you’ll have enough to pay for by the end of the trip.”

The vendor stopped at their seat and pushed his red cap back on his forehead, sticking his thumbs in his red-and-white striped silk vest.

“What’ll it be?” he began in a routine, bored voice. “We have…” He paused, looked closely at the woman, and burst into raucous laughter.

“You making this trip again?” His voice dropped to a low, confidential tone. “There’s nothing for you in this load, you know. The whole deal is signed, sealed, and delivered. Signed, sealed, and delivered.”

“Don’t be too sure, Bert,” the woman smiled amiably. “Even bookkeepers can go wrong, now and then.”

“Bookkeepers, maybe, but not the boss.” Bert jingled his black change purse with a sly grin. “The boss has got his all sewed up. Personally, this time, personally.”

The woman broke into rich laughter. “Yes, I should think so, after the mistake he made on the last trip, getting the trains crossed on the higher level. Why, he couldn’t get those people out of the lower gardens now if he tried. They took to the gardens like children, happy as larks. You think they’d obey him and go back on the lower subway where they belong? Not on your life.”

Bert screwed his face up like a monkey. “Yeah,” he said, subdued. “Yeah, I suppose you gotta get some percentage some of the time.”

“That’s why I’m here,” the woman said. “I’ll take a chocolate bar.”

“Large or small.”

“Large,” the woman replied, and handed him a quarter.

“Well, bye now,” Bert said, touching his cap. “Happy hunting,” and he swung off down the aisle, calling in a bored singsong, “Candy, pop-corn, cash-you nuts…”

“Poor Bert,” the woman remarked to Mary, unwrapping the chocolate bar without tearing the fragile silver foil. “He gets so lonely for someone to talk to on this run. It’s such a long trip that hardly anybody makes it twice.” She broke a section from the chocolate bar and handed a large piece of the flat brown candy to Mary. The smell of the chocolate rose rich and fragrant.

“Mmm,” said Mary. “It smells good.” She took a bite and let the candy dissolve on her tongue, sucking at the sweetness and letting the syrup run down her throat.

“You seem to know a lot about this trip,” Mary said to the woman. “Do you travel a great deal?”

“Goodness, yes. I’ve been traveling here and there as long as I can remember. But I make this trip most often.”

“I shouldn’t wonder. It is a comfortable ride, really. They do so many nice extra little things, like the refreshments every hour, and the drinks in the card room, and the lounges in the dining car. It’s almost as good as a hotel.”

The woman flashed her a sharp look. “Yes, my dear,” she said dryly, “but remember you pay for it. You pay for it all in the end. It’s their business to make the trip attractive. The train company has more than a pure friendly interest in the passengers.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Mary admitted with a laugh. “I hadn’t thought about it that way. But tell me, what will it be like when we get off the train? I can’t imagine. The travel folders don’t say anything about the climate, or the people in the north country, nothing at all.”

The woman bent over her knitting, suddenly intent. There was a knot in the thread. Swiftly, she straightened out the wool and went on stitching.

“You’re going to the end of the line, I take it,” she said.

“That’s right, the end of the line. Father said I didn’t have to worry about connections or anything, and that the conductor would tell me where to go from there.”

“The last station,” the woman murmured. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. At least that’s what it says on my ticket. It is such a strange ticket that I remembered the number, red on black. The ninth kingdom, it said. That’s a funny way to label railroad stations.”

“One gets used to it after a while,” the woman said, as if talking to herself. “And to all the absurd little divisions and subdivisions and classifications. Arbitrary, that’s what it is. Arbitrary. But nobody seems to realize that nowadays. One little motion, one positive gesture, and the whole structure would collapse, fall quite apart.”

“I don’t quite see what you mean,” said Mary.

“Of course not, of course not, my dear. I quite forgot myself. I was talking in circles. But tell me, have you noticed, just as you sit here, anything at all unusual about the people on this train?”

“Why no,” Mary said slowly, looking around. “Why no,” she repeated, puzzled. “They look all right to me.”

The woman sighed. “I guess I’m just oversensitive,” she said.

Red neon blinked outside the window, and the train slowed, shouldering into the station of the sixth kingdom. The car door swung open, and the tread of the conductor came down the aisle to the blond woman up ahead with the red painted mouth, who paled, drew her furs about her and shrank back.

“Not yet,” she said. “Please, not yet. This is not my stop. Give me a little longer.”

“Let me see your ticket,” the conductor said, and the woman wet her lips, the color of blood.

“I mislaid it. I can’t find it,” she said.

“It is in the second finger of your right glove,” the conductor said tonelessly, “where you hid it as I came in.”

Angrily the woman jerked the glove off her right hand, scooped out the stub of red cardboard and thrust it at the conductor. With his punch he clipped the ticket, tore it across and handed her the smaller part.

“Your transfer for the river crossing,” he said. “I think you had better leave now.”

The woman did not move to go. The conductor put out his hand and gripped her arm. “I am sorry,” he said, “but you must go now. We can’t have any dallying around on this train. We have a schedule to keep. We have a quota of passengers.”

“I’m coming,” the woman pouted sullenly. “But let go my arm. It hurts. It burns.”

She got up and walked down the aisle, her crimson wool skirt balancing and swaying about her legs, her head held proud and defiant. Outside the door of the car, on the platform, there were two station guards waiting for her. In the red glare of neon light that fell full upon them, they took the woman away, one on either side of her, through the barred exit gate.

The conductor came back down the car, wiping his forehead with a large red silk handkerchief. He paused at Mary’s seat and grinned at the woman. His eyes were black, bottomless, but flecked now with cold spots of laughter.

“We don’t usually have that much trouble with the passengers when their stop comes,” he said to the woman.

She smiled back at him, but her voice was tender, regretful. “No, they generally don’t protest at all. They just accept it when the time comes.”

“Accept what?” Mary stared curiously at the two of them, remembering the frightened face of the blond woman, her mouth wet, the bright color of blood.

The conductor winked at the woman and walked away down the aisle, with the lights burning in the sockets of the walls like candles and the metal vault of the car arching overhead. The red light of the station slanted through the car windows and briefly stained the faces of the passengers scarlet. Then the train started up again.

“Accept what?” Mary pursued. She gave an involuntary shiver as if struck by sudden chill draft of air.

“Are you cold, dear?”

“No,” said Mary. “Accept what?”

“The destination,” the woman replied, picking up the knitting from her lap and beginning to add to the mesh of leaf-green wool.

From the book “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom: A Story by Sylvia Plath.” Copyright The Estate of Sylvia Plath, 2019. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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