The Woman at the Store

by Katherine Mansfield

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Three travelers have been caravanning for more than a month in a remote region of the North Island of New Zealand, a wild Maori country: Jim (a guide who knows the environs), the female narrator, and her dapper brother Jo. The heat has been awful, and one of their horses has developed an open belly-sore from carrying the pack. All have traveled in silence throughout the day. They anticipate reaching a “store” in this wild land, a “whare,” or home that houses a storehouse of goods to supply wayfarers and that includes a pasture for the horses. Jim has been teasing the two about this stopover; it is run, he promises, by a friend generous with his whiskey, and he also speaks of the man’s blue-eyed, blond wife, who is generous with her favors.

At sundown, they reach the whare, and all is not as cheerful as has been represented. The mistress of the store looks scarcely better than an ugly hag; she is skinny, with red, pulpy hands; her front teeth are missing, her yellow hair is wild and skimpy, and she is dressed in little better than rags. She carries a rifle and is accompanied by a scraggly, undersized, five-year-old daughter and a yellow, mangy dog. She claims that her husband has been gone for the past month “shearin’,” veers wildly in mood, and appears to the visitors to be “a bit off ’er dot,” somewhat unhinged from being too much alone in such a disreputable setting.

After some haggling, the travelers are permitted to stop over. She fetches some liniment for the horse and sends food down to the tent that Jim has set up in the paddock. While Jim is working and the narrator bathes in the stream, Jo, the boisterous singer and ladies’ man, “smartens” himself for a visit to the woman at the store. She had once been a pretty barmaid on the West Coast, Jim tells them, and she bragged at having known “one hundred and twenty-five different ways of kissing.” Despite her moods and her tawdry looks, Jo is determined to flirt and to venture. “Dang it! She’ll look better by night light—at any rate, my buck, she’s female flesh!” He returns to her whare while the others dine.

While Jo is gone, the woman’s child brings some food, and, though very young, reveals that she loves to draw pictures of almost any kind of scene. Jo returns with a whiskey bottle; he has induced the woman to play hostess to the little party, and they all return to the whare. The adults become slightly inebriated, the child threatens to draw forbidden pictures, and Jo and the woman become more brazenly flirtatious. When a violent thunderstorm ensues, the woman suggests that they all sleep at the house—Jim, the narrator, and the daughter in the store, Jo in the living room, and herself in the bedroom, close by. All are drunk and laughing as they retire.

From their uncomfortable place in the storehouse, surrounded by pickles, potatoes, strings of onions, and half-hams dangling from the ceiling, they can hear Jo rather noisily sneaking into the woman’s bedroom. The disgruntled child finally draws for her companions in the store a picture her mother has forbidden her to draft: It reveals the woman shooting her husband with the rifle and then digging a hole in which to bury him. Jim and the narrator are struck speechless. They cannot sleep that night and hasten on their way early the next morning. The narrator laments for her “poor brother.” As they are leaving, Jo appears briefly to motion them on; he will stay a bit and catch up with them later. The meager caravan, now minus its dapper gentleman, moves out of sight.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access