|◄ PART I|| A Death in the Family
written by James Agee
|PART III ►|
|Prentice-Hall of India 1974 (reprint 1957 The James Agee Trust) (pages 115-246)|
A few minutes before ten, the phone rang. Mary hurried to quiet it. “Hello?”
The voice was a man’s, wiry and faint, a country voice. It was asking a question, but she could not hear it clearly.
“Hello?” she asked again. “Will you please talk a little louder? I can’t hear… I said I can’t hear you! Will you talk a little louder please? Thank you.”
Now, straining and impatient, she could hear, though the voice seemed still to come from a great distance.
“Is this Miz Jay Follet?”
“Yes; what is it?” (for there was a silence); “yes, this is she.”
After further silence the voice said, “There’s been a slight-your husband has been in a accident.”
His head! she told herself.
“Yes,” she said, in a caved-in voice. At the same moment the voice said, “A serious accident.”
“Yes,” Mary said more clearly.
“What I wanted to ask, is there a man in his family, some kin, could come out? We’d appreciate if you could send a man out here, right away.”
“Yes; yes, there’s my brother. Where should he come to?”
“I’m out at Powell Station, at Brannick’s Blacksmith Shop, bout twelve miles out the Ball Camp Pike.”
“B-r-a-n-n-i-c-k. It’s right on the left of the Pike comin out just a little way this side, Knoxvul side of Bell’s Bridge.” She heard muttering, and another muttering voice. “Tell him he can’t miss it. We’ll keep the light on and a lantern out in front.”
“Do you have a doctor?”
“How’s that again, ma’am?”
“A doctor, do you have one? Should I send a doctor?”
“That’s all right, ma’am. Just some man that’s kin.”
“He’ll come right out just as fast as he can.” Walter’s auto, she thought. “Thank you very much for calling.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. I sure do hate to give you bad news.”
She found she was scarcely standing, she was all but hanging from the telephone. She stiffened her knees, leaned against the wall, and rang.
She drew a deep breath.
She drew another deep breath; she felt as if her lungs were not large enough.
Dizzy, seeing gray, trying to control her shaking voice, she said, “Andrew, there’s been an-a man just phoned, from Powell’s Station, about twelve miles out towards LaFollette, and he says-he says Jay-has met with a very serious accident. He wants…”
“Oh, my God, Mary!”
“He said they want some man of his family to come out just as soon as possible and, help bring him in, I guess.”
“I’ll call Walter, he’ll take me out.”
“Yes do, will you, Andrew?”
“Of course I will. Just a minute.”
“May I speak to her when you’re through?”
“Certainly. Where is he hurt, Mary?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, didn’t you-no matter.”
“No I didn’t,” she said, now realizing with surprise that she had not, “I guess because I was so sure. Sure it’s his head, that is.”
“Do they-shall I get Dr. Dekalb?”
“He says no; just you.”
“I guess there’s already a doctor there.”
“I’ll call Wa-wait, here’s Aunt Hannah.”
“Aunt Hannah, Jay is in a serious accident, Andrew has to go out. Would you come up and wait with me and get things ready just in case? Just in case he’s well enough to be brought home and not the hospital?”
“Certainly, Mary. Of course I will.”
“And will you tell Mama and Papa not to worry, not to come out, give them my love. We might as well just be calm as we can, till we know.”
“Of course we must. I’ll be right up.”
“Thank you, Aunt Hannah.”
She went into the kitchen and built a quick fire and put on a large kettle of water and a small kettle, for tea. The phone rang.
“Mary! Where do I go?”
“Why, Powell’s Station, out the Pike towards…”
“I know, but exactly where? Didn’t he say?”
“He said Brannick’s blacksmith shop. B-r-a-n-n-i-c-k. Do you hear?”
“He said they’ll keep the lights on and you can’t miss it. It’s just to the left of the Pike just this side of Bell’s Bridge. Just a little way this side.”
“All right, Mary, Walter will come by here and we’ll bring Aunt Hannah on our way.”
“All right. Thank you, Andrew.”
She put on more kindling and hurried into the downstairs bedroom. How do I know, she thought; he didn’t even say; I didn’t even ask. By the way he talks he may be-she whipped off the coverlet, folded it, and smoothed the pad. I’m just simply not going to think about it until I know more, she told herself. She hurried to the linen closet and brought clean sheets and pillowcases. He didn’t say whether there was a doctor there or not. She spread a sheet, folded it under the foot of the mattress, pulled it smooth, and folded it under all around. Then she spread her palms along it; it was cold and smooth beneath her hands and it brought her great hope. Oh God, let him be well enough to come home where I can take care of him, where I can take good care of him. How good to rest! That’s all right, ma’am. Just some man that’s kin. She spread the top sheet. That’s all right, ma’am. That can mean anything. It can mean there’s a doctor there and although it’s serious he has it in hand, under control, it isn’t so dreadfully bad, although he did say it’s serious or it can… A light blanket, this weather. Two, case it turns cool. She hurried and got them, unaware whether she was making such noise as might wake the children and unaware that even in this swiftness she was moving, by force of habit, almost silently. Just some man that’s kin. That means it’s bad, or he’d ask for me. No, I’d have to stay with the children. But he doesn’t know there are children. My place’d be home anyhow, getting things ready, he knows that. He didn’t suggest getting anything ready. He knew I’d know. He is a man, wouldn’t occur to him. She took the end of a pillow between her teeth and pulled the slip on and plumped it and put it in place. She took the end of the second pillow between her teeth and bit it so hard the roots of her teeth ached, and pulled the slip on and plumped it. Then she set the first pillow up on edge and set the second pillow on edge against it and plumped them both and smoothed them and stood away and looked at them with her head on one side, and for a moment she saw him sitting up in bed with a tray on his knees as he had sat when he strained his back, and he looked at her, almost but not quite smiling, and she could hear his voice, grouchy, pretending to be for the fun of it. If it’s his head, she remembered, perhaps he’ll have to lie very flat.
How do I know? How do I know?
She left the pillows as they were, and turned down the bed on that side, next to the window, and smoothed it. She carefully refolded the second blanket and laid it on the lower foot of the bed, no, it would bother his poor feet. She hung it over the footboard. She stood looking at the carefully made bed, and, for a few seconds, she was not sure where she was or why she was doing this. Then she remembered and said, “oh,” in a small, stupefied, soft voice. She opened the window, top and bottom, and when the curtains billowed she tied them back more tightly. She went to the hall closet and brought out the bedpan and rinsed and dried it and put it under the bed. She went to the medicine chest and took out the thermometer, shook it, washed it in cool water, dried it, and put it beside the bed in a tumbler of water. She saw that the hand towel which covered this table was dusty, and threw it into the dirty-clothes hamper, and replaced it with a fresh one, and replaced that with a dainty linen guest towel upon the border of which pansies and violets were embroidered. She saw that the front pillow had sagged a little, and set it right. She pulled down the shade. She turned out the light and dropped to her knees, facing the bed, and closed her eyes. She touched her forehead, her breastbone, her left shoulder and her right shoulder, and clasped her hands.
“O God, if it be Thy will,” she whispered. She could not think of anything more. She made the sign of the Cross again, slowly, deeply, and widely upon herself, and she felt something of the shape of the Cross; strength and quiet.
Thy will be done. And again she could think of nothing more. She got from her knees and without turning on the light or glancing towards the bed, went into the kitchen. The water for tea had almost boiled away. The water in the large kettle was scarcely tepid. The fire was almost out. While she was putting in more kindling, she heard them on the porch.
Hannah came in with her hands stretched out and Mary extended her own hands and took them and kissed her cheek while at the same instant they said, “Mary” and, “my dear”; then Hannah hurried to put her hat on the rack. Andrew stayed at the open door and did not speak but merely kept looking into her eyes; his own eyes were as hard and bright as those of a bird and they spoke to her of a cold and bitter incredulity, as if he were accusing something or someone (even perhaps his sister) which it was useless beyond words to accuse. She felt that he was saying, “And you can still believe in that idiotic God of yours?” Walter Starr stayed back in the darkness; Mary could just see the large lenses of his glasses, and the darkness of his mustache and of his heavy shoulders.
“Come in, Walter,” she said, and her voice was as overwarm as if she were coaxing a shy child.
“We can’t stop,” Andrew said sharply.
Walter came forward and took her hand, and gently touched her wrist with his other hand. “We shan’t be long,” he said.
“Bless you,” Mary murmured, and so pressed his hand that her arm trembled.
He patted her trembling wrist four times rapidly, turned away saying, “Better be off, Andrew,” and went towards his automobile. She could hear that he had left the engine running, and now she realized all the more clearly how grave matters were.
“Everything’s ready here in case-you know-he’s-well enough to be brought home,” Mary told Andrew.
“Good. I’ll phone, the minute I know. Anything.”
His eyes changed, and abruptly his hand reached out and caught her shoulder. “Mary, I’m so sorry,” he said, almost crying.
“Yes, dear,” she said again, and felt that it was a vacuous reply; but by the time this occurred to her, Andrew was getting into the automobile. She stood and watched until it had vanished and, turning to go in, found that Hannah was at her elbow.
“Let’s have some tea,” she said. “I’ve hot water all ready,” she said over her shoulder as she hurried down the hall.
Let her, Hannah thought, following. By all means. “Goodness no, it’s boiled away! Sit down, Aunt Hannah, it’ll be ready in a jiff.” She hustled to the sink.
“Let me…” Hannah began; then knew better, and hoped that Mary had not heard.
“What?” She was drawing the water.
“Just let me know, if there’s anything I can help with.”
“Not a thing, thank you.” She put the water on the stove. “Goodness, sit down.” Hannah took a chair by the table. “Everything is ready that I can think of,” Mary said. “That we can know about, yet.” She sat at the opposite side of the table. “I’ve made up the downstairs bedroom” (she waved vaguely towards it), “where he stayed when his poor back was sprained, you remember.” (Of course I do, Hannah thought; let her talk.) “It’s better than upstairs. Near the kitchen and bathroom both and no stairs to climb and of course if need be, that is, if he needs a nurse, night nursing, we can put her in the dining room and eat in the kitchen, or even set up a cot right in the room with him; put up a screen; or if she minds that, why she can just sleep on the living-room davenport and keep the door open between. Don’t you think?”
“Certainly,” Hannah said.
“I think I’ll see if I can possibly get Celia, Celia Gunn, if she’s available, or if she’s on a case she can possibly leave, it’ll be so much nicer for everyone to have someone around who is an old friend, really one of the family, rather than just a complete stranger, don’t you think?”
“Even though of course Jay doesn’t specially, of course she’s really an old friend of mine, rather than Jay’s, still, I think it would be more, well, harmonious, don’t you think?”
“But I guess it’s just as well to wait till we hear from Andrew, not-create any needless disturbance, I guess. After all, it’s very possible he’ll have to be taken straight to a hospital. The man did say it was serious, after all.”
“I think you’re wise to wait,” Hannah said.
“How’s that water?” Mary twisted in her chair to see. “Sakes alive, the watched pot.” She got up and stuffed in more kindling, and brought down the box of tea. “I don’t knows I really want any tea, anyway, but I think it’s a good idea to drink something warm while we’re waiting, don’t you?”
“I’d like some,” said Hannah, who wanted nothing.
“Good, then we’ll have some. Just as soon as the water’s ready.” She sat down again. “I thought one light blanket would be enough on a night like this but I’ve another over the foot of the bed in case it should turn cool.”
“That should be sufficient.”
“Goodness knows,” Mary said, vaguely, and became silent. She looked at her hands, which lay loosely clasped on the table. Hannah found that she was watching Mary closely. In shame, she focused her sad eyes a little away from her. She wondered. It was probably better for her not to face it if she could help until it had to be faced. If it had to be. Just quiet, she said to herself. Just be quiet.
“You know,” Mary said slowly, “the queerest thing.” She began slowly to turn and rub her clasped fingers among each other. Hannah waited. “When the man phoned,” she said, gazing quietly upon her moving fingers, “and said Jay had been in a-serious accident”; and now Hannah realized that Mary was looking at her, and met her brilliant gray eyes; “I felt it just as certainly as I’m sitting here now,’It’s his head.’What do you think of that?” she asked, almost proudly.
Hannah looked away. What’s one to say, she wondered. Yet Mary had spoken with such conviction that she herself was half convinced. She looked into an image of still water, clear and very deep, and even though it was dark, and she had not seen so clearly since her girlhood, she could see sand and twigs and dead leaves at the bottom of the water. She drew a deep breath and let it out in a long slow sigh and clucked her tongue once. “We never know,” she murmured.
“Of course we just have to wait,” Mary said, after a long silence.
“Hyesss,” Hannah said softly, sharply inhaling the first of the word, and trailing the sibilant to a hair.
Through their deep silence, at length, they began to be aware of the stumbling crackle of the water. When Mary got up for it, it had boiled half away.
“There’s still plenty for two cups,” she said, and prepared the strainer and poured them, and put on more water. She lifted the lid of the large kettle. Its sides, below the water line, were rich beaded; from the bottom sprang a leisured spiral of bubbles so small they resembled white sand; the surface of the water slowly circled upon itself. She wondered what the water might possibly be good for.
“Just in case,” she murmured.
Hannah decided not to ask her what she had said.
“There’s ZuZus,” Mary said, and got them from the cupboard. “Or would you like bread and butter? Or toast. I could toast some.”
“Just tea, thank you.”
“Help yourself to sugar and milk. Or lemon? Let’s see, do I have le…”
“Milk, thank you.”
“Me too.” Mary sat down again. “My, it’s frightfully hot in here!” She got up and opened the door to the porch, and sat down again.
“I wonder what ti…” She glanced over her shoulder at the kitchen clock. “What time did they leave, do you know?”
“Walter came for us at quarter after ten. About twenty-five after, I should think.”
“Let’s see, Walter drives pretty fast, though not so fast as Jay, but he’d be driving faster than usual tonight, and it’s just over twelve miles. That would be, supposing he goes thirty miles an hour, that’s twelve miles in, let’s see, six times four is twenty-four, six times five’s thirty, twice twelve is twenty-four, sakes alive, I was always dreadful at arithmetic…”
“Say about half an hour, allowing for darkness, and Walter isn’t familiar with those roads.”
“Then we ought to be hearing pretty soon. Ten minutes. Fifteen at the outside.”
“Yes, I should think.”
“Maybe twenty, allowing for the roads, but that is a good road out that far as roads go.”
“Why didn’t he tell me!” Mary burst out.
“What is it?”
“Why didn’t I ask?” She looked at her aunt in furious bewilderment. “I didn’t even ask! How serious! Where is he hurt! Is he living or dead.”
There it is, Hannah said to herself. She looked back steadily into Mary’s eyes.
That we simply have to wait to find out, " she said.
“Of course we have,” Mary cried angrily. “That’s what’s so unbearable!” She drank half her tea at a gulp; it burned her painfully but she scarcely noticed. She continued to glare at her aunt.
Hannah could think of nothing to say.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said. “You’re perfectly right. I’ve just got to hold myself together, that’s all.”
“Never mind,” Hannah said, and they fell silent.
Hannah knew that silence must itself be virtually unbearable for Mary, and that it would bring her face to face with likelihoods still harder to endure. But she has to, she told herself; and the sooner the better. But she found that she herself could not bear to be present, and say nothing which might in some degree protect, and postpone. She was about to speak when Mary burst out: “In heaven’s name, why didn’t I ask him! Why didn’t I? Didn’t I care?”
“It was so sudden.” Hannah said. “It was such a shock.”
“You would think I’d ask, though! Wouldn’t you?”
“You thought you knew. You told me you were sure it was his-in the head.”
“But how bad? What!”
We both know, Hannah said to herself. But it’s better if you bring yourself to say it. “It certainly wasn’t because you didn’t care, anyway,” she said.
“No. No it certainly wasn’t that, but I think I do know what it was. I think, I think I must have been too afraid of what he would have to say.”
Hannah looked into her eyes. Nod, she told herself. Say yes I imagine so. Just say nothing and it’ll be just as terrible for her. She heard herself saying what she had intended to venture a while before, when Mary had interrupted her: “Do you understand why J-your father stayed home, and your mother?”
“Because I asked them not to come.”
“Why did you?”
“Because if all of you came up here in a troop like that, it would be like assuming that-like assuming the very worst before we even know.”
“That’s why they stayed home. Your father said he knew you’d understand.”
“Of course I do.”
“We just must try to keep from making any assumptions-good or bad.”
“I know. I know we must. It’s just, this waiting in the dark like this, it’s just more than I can stand.”
“We ought to hear very soon.”
Mary glanced at the clock. “Almost any minute,” she said.
She took a little tea.
“I just can’t help wondering,” she said, “why he didn’t say more.’A serious accident,’he said. Not a’very’serious one. Just’serious.’Though, goodness knows, that’s serious enough. But why couldn’t he say?”
“As your father says, it’s ten to one he’s just a plain damned fool,” Hannah said.
“But it’s such an important thing to say, and so simple to say, at least to give some general idea about. At least whether he could come home, or go to a hospital, or… He didn’t say anything about an ambulance. An ambulance would mean hospital, almost for sure. And surely if he meant the-the very worst, he’d have just said so straight out and not leave us all on tenterhooks. I know it’s just what we have no earthly business guessing about, good or bad, but really it does seem to me there’s every good reason for hope, Aunt Hannah. It seems to me that if…”
The telephone rang; its sound frightened each of them as deeply as either had experienced in her lifetime. They looked at each other and got up and turned towards the hall. “I…” Mary said, waving her right hand at Hannah as if she would wave her out of existence.
Hannah stopped where she stood, bowed her head, closed her eyes, and made the sign of the Cross.
Mary lifted the receiver from its hook before the second ring, but for a moment she could neither put it to her ear, nor speak. God help me, help me, she whispered. “Andrew?”
“Papa!” Relief and fear were equal in her. “Have you heard anything?”
“No. I said,’Have you heard from Andrew?’”
“No. Thought you might have by now.”
“No. Not yet. Not yet.”
“I must have frightened you.”
“Never mind, Papa. It’s all right.”
“Sony as hell, Poll, I shouldn’t have phoned.”
“Let us know, quick’s you hear anything.”
“Of course I will, Papa. I promise. Of course I will.”
“Shall we come up?”
“No, bless you, Papa, it’s better not, yet. No use getting all worked up till we know, is there?”
“That’s my girl!”
“My love to Mama.”
“Hers to you. Mine, too, needless to say. You let us know.”
“You know how I feel about this.”
“I do, Papa, and thank you. There’s no need to say it.”
“Couldn’t if I tried. Ever. And for Jay as much as you, and your mother too. You understand.”
“I do understand, Papa. Good-bye.”
“It’s only Papa,” she said, and sat down, heavily.
“Thought Andrew had phoned.”
“Yes…” She drank tea. “He scared me half out of my wits.”
“He had no business phoning. He was a perfect fool to phone.”
“I don’t blame him. I think it’s even worse for them, sitting down there, than for us here.”
“I’ve no doubt it is hard.”
“Papa feels things a lot more than he shows.”
“I know. I’m glad you realize it.”
“I realize how very much he really does think of Jay.”
“Great-heavens, I should hope you do!”
“Well, for a long time there was no reason to be sure,” Mary retorted with spirit. “Or Mama either.” She waited a moment. “You and her, Aunt Hannah,” she said. “You know that. You tried not to show it, but I’knew and you knew I did. It’s all right, it has been for a long time, but you do know that.”
Hannah continued to meet her eyes. “Yes, it’s true. Mary. There were all kinds of-terrible misgivings; and not without good reason, as you both came to know.”
“Plenty of good reasons,” Mary said. “But that didn’t make it any easier for us.”
“Not for any of us,” Hannah said. “Particularly you and Jay, but your mother and father too, you know. Anyone who loved you.”
“I know. I do know, Aunt Hannah. I don’t know how I got onto this tack. There’s nothing there to resent any more, or worry over, or be grieved by, for any of us, and hasn’t been for a long time, thank God. Why on earth did I get off on such a tangent! Let’s not say another word about it!”
“Just one word more, because I’m not sure you’ve ever quite known it. Have you ever realized how very highly your father always thought of Jay, right from the very beginning?”
Mary looked at her, sensitively and suspiciously. She thought carefully before she spoke. “I know he’s told me so. But every time he told me he was warning me, too. I know that, as time passed, he came to think a great deal of Jay.”
“He thinks the world of him,” Hannah rapped out.
“But, no, I never quite believed he really liked him, or respected him from the first and I never will. I think it was just some kind of soft soap.”
“Is Jay a man for soft soap?”
“No,” she smiled a little, “he certainly isn’t, ordinarily. But what am I to make of it? Here he was praising Jay to the skies on the one hand and on the other, why practically in the same breath, telling me one reason after another why it would be plain foolhardiness to marry him. What would you think!”
“Can’t you see that both things might be so-or that he might very sincerely have felt that both things were so, rather?”
Mary thought a moment. “I don’t know, Aunt Hannah. No, I don’t see quite how.”
“You learned how yourself, Mary.”
“You learned there was a lot in what your father-in all our misgivings, but learning it never changed your essential opinion of him, did it? You found you could realize both things at once.”
“That’s true. Yes. I did.”
“We had to learn more and more that was good. You had to learn more and more that wasn’t so good.”
Mary looked at her with smiling defiance. “All the same, blind as I began it,” she said, “I was more right than Papa, wasn’t I? It wasn’t a mistake. Papa was right there’d be trouble-more than he’ll ever know or any of you-but it wasn’t a mistake. Was it?”
Don’t ask me, child, tell me, Hannah thought. “Obviously not,” she said.
Mary was quiet a few moments. Then she said, shyly and proudly, “In these past few months, Aunt Hannah, we’ve come to a-kind of harmoniousness that-that,” she began to shake her head. “I’ve no business talking about it.” Her voice trembled. “Least of all right now!” She bit her lips together, shook her head again, and swallowed some tea, noisily. “The way we’ve been talking,” she blurted, her voice full of tea, “it’s just like a post-mortem!” She struck her face into her hands and was shaken by tearless sobbing. Hannah subdued an impulse to go to her side. God help her, she whispered. God keep her. After a little while Mary looked up at her; her eyes were quiet and amazed. “If he dies,” she said, “if he’s dead, Aunt Hannah, I don’t know what I’ll do. I just don’t know what I’ll do.”
“God help you,” Hannah said; she reached across and took her hand. “God keep you.” Mary’s face was working. “You’ll do well. Whatever it is, you’ll do well. Don’t you doubt it. Don’t you fear.” Mary subdued her crying. “It’s well to be ready for the worst,” Hannah continued. “But we mustn’t forget, we don’t know yet.”
At the same instant, both looked at the clock.
“Certainly by very soon now, he should phone,” Mary said. “Unless he’s had an accident!” she laughed sharply.
“Oh soon, I’m sure,” Hannah said. Long before now, she said to herself, if it were anything but the worst. She squeezed Mary’s clasped hands, patted them, and withdrew her own hand, feeling, there’s so little comfort anyone can give, it’d better be saved for when it’s needed most.
Mary did not speak, and Hannah could not think of a word to say. It was absurd, she realized, but along with everything else, she felt almost a kind of social embarrassment about her speechlessness.
But after all, she thought, what is there to say! What earthly help am I, or anyone else?
She felt so heavy, all of a sudden, and so deeply tired, that she wished she might lean her forehead against the edge of the table.
“We’ve simply got to wait,” Mary said.
“Yes,” Hannah sighed.
I’d better drink some tea, she thought, and did so. Lukewarm and rather bitter, somehow it made her feel even more tired.
They sat without speaking for fully two minutes.
“At least we’re given the mercy of a little time,” Mary said slowly, “awful as it is to have to wait. To try to prepare ourselves for whatever it may be.” She was gazing studiously into her empty cup.
Hannah felt unable to say anything.
“Whatever is,” Mary went on, “it’s already over and done with.” She was speaking virtually without emotion; she was absorbed beyond feeling, Hannah became sure, in what she was beginning to find out and to face. Now she looked up at Hannah and they looked steadily into each other’s eyes.
“One of three things,” Mary said slowly. “Either he’s badly hurt but he’ll live, and at best even get thoroughly well, and at worst be a helpless cripple or an invalid or his mind impaired.” Hannah wished that she might look away, but she knew that she must not. “Or he is so terribly hurt that he will die of it, maybe quite soon, maybe after a long, terrible struggle, maybe breathing his last at this very minute and wondering where I am, why I’m not beside him.” She set her teeth for a moment and tightened her lips, and spoke again, evenly: "Or he was gone already when the man called and he couldn’t bear to be the one to tell me, poor thing.
“One, or the other, or the other. And no matter what, there’s not one thing in this world or the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That’s all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That’s all. That’s all that matters. It’s all that matters because it’s all that’s possible. Isn’t that so?”
While she was speaking, she was with her voice, her eyes and with each word opening in Hannah those all but forgotten hours, almost thirty years past, during which the cross of living had first nakedly borne in upon her being, and she had made the first beginnings of learning how to endure and accept it. Your turn now, poor child, she thought; she felt as if a prodigious page were being silently turned, and the breath of its turning touched her heart with cold and tender awe. Her soul is beginning to come of age, she thought; and within those moments she herself became much older, much nearer her own death, and was content to be. Her heart lifted up in a kind of pride in Mary, in every sorrow she could remember, her own or that of others (and the remembrances rushed upon her); in all existence and endurance. She wanted to cry out Yes! Exactly! Yes. Yes. Begin to see. Your turn now. She wanted to hold her niece at arms’length and to turn and admire this blossoming. She wanted to take her in her arms and groan unto God for what it meant to be alive. But chiefly she wanted to keep stillness and to hear the young woman’s voice and to watch her eyes and her round forehead while she spoke, and to accept and experience this repetition of her own younger experience, which bore her high and pierced like music.
“Isn’t that so?” Mary repeated.
“That and much more,” she said.
“You mean God’s mercy?” Mary asked softly.
“Nothing of the kind,” Hannah replied sharply. “What I mean, I’d best not try to say.” (I’ve begun, though, she reflected; and I startled her, I hurt her, almost as if I’d spoken against God.) “Only because it’s better if you learn it for yourself. By yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whatever we hear, learn, Mary, it’s almost certain to be hard. Tragically hard. You’re beginning to know that and to face it: very bravely. What I mean is that this is only the beginning. You’ll learn much more. Beginning very soon now.”
“Whatever it is, I want so much to be worthy of it,” Mary said, her eyes shining.
“Don’t try too hard to be worthy of it, Mary. Don’t think of it that way. Just do your best to endure it and let any question of worthiness take care of itself. That’s more than enough.”
“I feel so utterly unprepared. So little time to prepare in.”
“I don’t think it’s a kind of thing that can be prepared for; it just has to be lived through.”
There was a kind of ambition there, Hannah felt, a kind of pride or poetry, which was very mistaken and very dangerous. But she was not yet quite sure what she meant; and of all the times to become beguiled by such a matter, to try to argue it, or warn about it! She’s so young, she told herself. She’ll learn; poor soul, she’ll learn.
Even while Hannah watched her, Mary’s face became diffuse and humble. Oh, not yet, Hannah whispered desperately to herself. Not yet. But Mary said, shyly, “Aunt Hannah, can we kneel down for a minute?”
Not yet, she wanted to say. For the first time in her life she suspected how mistakenly prayer can be used, but she was unsure why. What can I say, she thought, almost in panic. How can I judge? She was waiting too long; Mary smiled at her, timidly, and in a beginning of bewilderment; and in compassion and self-doubt Hannah came around the table and they knelt side by side. We can be seen, Hannah realized; for the shades were up. Let us, she told herself angrily.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen,” Mary said in a low voice.
“Amen,” Hannah trailed.
They were silent and they could hear the ticking of the clock, the shuffling of fire, and the yammering of the big kettle.
God is not here, Hannah said to herself; and made a small cross upon her breastbone, against her blasphemy.
“O God,” Mary whispered, “strengthen me to accept Thy will, whatever it may be.” Then she stayed silent.
God hear her, Hannah said to herself. God forgive me. God forgive me.
What can I know of the proper time for her, she said to herself. God forgive me.
Yet she could not rid herself: something mistaken, unbearably piteous, infinitely malign was at large within that faithfulness; she was helpless to forfend it or even to know its nature.
Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness.
I believe nothing. Nothing whatever.
“Our Father,” she heard herself say, in a strange voice; and Mary, innocent of her terror, joined in the prayer. And as they continued, and Hannah heard more and more clearly than her own the young, warm, earnest, faithful, heartsick voice, her moment of terrifying unbelief became a remembrance, a temptation successfully resisted through God’s grace.
Deliver us from evil, she repeated silently, several times after their prayer was finished. But the malign was still there, as well as the mercifulness.
They got to their feet.
As it became with every minute and then with every flickering of the clock more and more clear that Andrew had had far more than enough time to get out there, and to telephone, Mary and her aunt talked less and less. For a little while after their prayer, in relief, Mary had talked quite volubly of matters largely irrelevant to the event; she had even made little jokes and had even laughed at them, without more than a small undertone of hysteria; and in all this, Hannah had thought it best (and, for that matter, the only thing possible), to follow suit; but that soon faded away; nor was it to return; now they merely sat in quietness, each on her side of the kitchen table, their eyes cast away from each other, drinking tea for which they had no desire. Mary made a full fresh pot of tea, and they conversed a little about that, and the heated water with which to dilute it, and they discussed that briefly; but such little exchanges wore quickly down into silence. Mary, whispering, “Excuse me,” retired to the bathroom, affronted and humbled that one should have to obey such a call at such a time; she felt for a few moments as stupid and enslaved as a baby on its potty, and far more ungainly and vulgar; then, with her wet hands planted in the basin of cold water she stared incredulously into her numb, reflected face, which seemed hardly real to her, until, with shame, she realized that at this of all moments she was mirror gazing. Hannah, left alone, was grateful that we are animals; it was this silly, strenuous, good, humble cluttering of animal needs which saw us through sane, fully as much as prayer; and towards the end of these moments of solitude, with her mind free from the subtle deceptions of concern, she indulged herself in whispering, aloud, “He’s dead. There’s no longer the slightest doubt of it”; and began to sign herself with the Cross in prayer for the dead, but sharply remembering we do not know, and feeling as if she had been on the verge of exercising malign power against him, deflected the intention of the gesture towards God’s mercy upon him, in whatsoever condition he might now be. When Mary returned, she put more wood on the fire, looked into the big kettle, saw that a third of the water had boiled away, and refilled it. Neither of them said anything about this, but each knew what the other was thinking, and after they had sat again in silence for well over ten minutes, Mary looked at her aunt who, feeling the eyes upon her, looked into them; then Mary said, very quietly, “I only wish we’d hear now, because I am ready.”
Hannah nodded, and felt: you really are. How good it is that you don’t even want to touch my hand. And she felt something shining and majestic stand up within her darkness as if to say before God: Here she is and she is adequate to the worst and she has done it for herself, not through my help or even, particularly, through Yours. See to it that You appreciate her.
Mary went on: “It’s just barely conceivable that the news is so much less bad than we’d expected, that Andrew is simply too overjoyed with relief to bother to phone, and is bringing him straight home instead, for a wonderful surprise. That would be like him. If things were that way. And like Jay, if they were, if he were, conscious enough, to go right along with the surprise and enjoy it, and just laugh at how scared we’ve been.” By her shining eyes, and her almost smiling face, she seemed almost to be believing this while she said it; almost to be sure that within another few minutes it would happen in just that way. But now she went on, “That’s just barely conceivable, just about one chance in a million, and so long as there is that chance, so long as we don’t absolutely know to the contrary, I’m not going to dismiss the possibility entirely from my mind. I’m not going to say he’s dead, Aunt Hannah, till I know he is,” she said as if defiantly.
“But I’m all but certain he is, all the same,” Mary said; and saying so, and meeting Hannah’s eyes, she could not for a few moments remember what more she had intended to say. Then she remembered, and it seemed too paltry to speak of, and she waited until all that she saw in her mind was again clear and full of its own weight; then again she spoke, “I think what’s very much more likely is, that he was already dead when the man just phoned, and that he couldn’t bear to tell me, and I don’t blame him, I’m grateful he didn’t. It ought to come from a man in the family, somebody-close to Jay, and to me. I think Andrew was pretty sure-what was up-when he went out, and had every intention not to leave us in mid-air this way. He meant to phone. But all the time he was hoping against hope, as we all were, and when-when he saw Jay-it was more than he could do to phone, and he knew it was more than I could stand to hear over a phone, even from him, and so he didn’t, and I’m infinitely grateful he didn’t. He must have known that as time kept-wearing on in this terrible way, we’d draw our own conclusions and have time to-time. And that’s best. He wanted to be with me when I heard. And that’s right. So do it. Straight from his lips. I think what he did-what he’s doing, it’s…”
Hannah saw that she was now nearer to breaking than at any time before, and she could scarcely resist her impulse to reach for her hand; she managed, with anguish, to forbid herself. After a moment Mary continued, quietly and in control, “What he’s doing is to come in with Jay’s poor body to the undertaker’s and soon now he’ll come home to us and tell us.”
Hannah continued to look into her gentle and ever more incredulous and shining eyes; she found that she could not speak and that she was nodding, as curtly, and rapidly, almost as if she were palsied. She made herself stop nodding.
“That’s what I think,” Mary said, “and that’s what I’m ready for. But I’m not going to say it, or accept it, or do my husband any such dishonor or danger-not until I know beyond recall that it’s so.”
They continued to gaze into the other’s eyes; Hannah’s eyes were burning because she felt she must not blink; and after some moments a long, crying groan broke from the younger woman and in a low and shaken voice she said, “Oh I do beseech my God that it not be so,” and Hannah whispered, “So do I”; and again they became still, knowing little and seeing nothing except each other’s suffering eyes; and it was thus that they were when they heard footsteps on the front porch. Hannah looked aside and downward; a long, breaking breath came from Mary; they drew back their chairs and started for the door.
She was watching for him anxiously as he came back into the living room; he bent to her ear and said, “Nothing.”
“No word yet?”
“No.” He sat down. He leaned towards her. “Probably too soon to expect to hear,” he said.
“Perhaps.” She did not resume her mending.
Joel tried again to read The New Republic. “Does she seem well?”
Good God, Joel said to himself. He leaned towards her, “Well’s can be expected.”
He went back to The New Republic. “Shouldn’t we go up?”
That’s about all it would need, Joel thought, to have to bellow at us. He leaned towards her and put his hand on her arm. “Better not,” he said, “till we know what’s what. Too much to-do.”
“To much what?”
“To-do. Fuss. Too many people.”
“Oh. Perhaps. It does seem our place to, Joel.”
Rot! he said to himself. “Our place,” he said rather more loudly, “is to stay where she prefers us to be.” He began to realize that she had not meant our place in mere propriety. Goddamn it all, he thought, why can’t she be there! He touched her shoulder. “Try not to mind it, Catherine,” he said. “I asked Poll, and she said, better not. She said, there’s no use our getting all wrought up until we know.”
“Very sensible,” she said, dubiously.
“Damned sensible,” he said with conviction. “She’s just trying her best to hold herself together,” he explained.
Catherine turned her head in courteous inquiry.
She winced. “Don’t-shout at me, Joel. Just speak distinctly and I can hear you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said; he knew she had not heard. He leaned close to her ear. “I’m sorry,” he said again, carefully and not too loudly. “Jumpy, that’s all.”
“No matter,” she said in that level of her voice which was already old.
He watched her a moment, and sighed with sorrow for her, and said, “We’ll know before long.”
“Yes,” she said. “I presume.” She relaxed her hands in her sewing and gazed out across the shadowy room.
It became mere useless torment to watch her; he went back to The New Republic.
“I wonder how it happened,” she said, after a while.
He leaned towards her: “So do I.”
“There must have been others injured, as well.”
Again he leaned towards her. “Maybe. We don’t know.”
“Even killed, perhaps.”
“We don’t-know, Catherine.”
Jay drives like hell broken loose, Joel thought to himself; he decided not to say it. Whatever’s happened, he thought, one thing he doesn’t need is that kind of talk about him. Or even thinking.
He began to realize, with a kind of sardonic amusement, that he was being superstitious as well as merely courteous. Why I don’t want to go up till we hear, too, he said to himself. Hands off. Lap of the gods. Don’t rock the boat.
Particularly not a wrecked boat.
“Of course, it does seem to me, Jay drives rather recklessly,” Catherine said, carefully.
“Everybody does,” he told her. Rather, indeed!
“I remember I was most uneasy when they decided to purchase it.”
Well, you’re vindicated.
“Progress,” he told her.
“Progress. We mustn’t-stand-in the way-of Progress.”
“No,” she said uneasily, “I suppose not.”
“That’s a joke, Catherine, a very-poor-joke.”
“I don’t think it’s a time for levity, Joel.”
“Nor do I.”
She tilted her head courteously. Taking care not to yell, he said, “You’re right. Neither-do-I.”
Working his way through another editorial as through barbed wire, Joel thought: I had no business calling her. Why couldn’t I trust her to let me know, quick’s she heard. Hannah, anyhow.
He pushed ahead with his reading.
A heaviness had begun in him from the moment he had heard of the accident; he had said to himself, uh-huh, and without expecting to, had nodded sharply. It had been as if he had known that this or something like it was bound to happen, sooner or later; and he was hardly more moved than surprised. This heaviness had steadily increased while he sat and waited and by now the air felt like iron and it was almost as if he could taste in his mouth the sour and cold, taciturn taste of iron. Well what else are we to expect, he said to himself. What life is. He braced against it quietly to accept, endure it, relishing not only his exertion but the sullen, obdurate cruelty of the iron, for it was the cruelty which proved and measured his courage. Funny I feel so little about it, he thought. He thought of his son-in-law. He felt respect, affection, deep general sadness. No personal grief whatever. After all that struggle, he thought, all that courage and ambition, he was getting nowhere. Jude the Obscure, he suddenly thought; and then of the steady thirty-years’destruction of all of his own hopes. If it has to be a choice between crippling, invalidism, death, he thought, let’s hope he’s out of it. Even just a choice between that and living on another thirty or forty years; he’s well out of it. In my opinion, damn it; not his. He thought of his daughter: all her spirit, which had resisted them so admirably to marry him, then only to be broken and dissolved on her damned piety; all her intelligence, hardly even born, came to nothing in the marriage, making ends meet and again above all, the Goddamned piety; all her innocent eagerness, which it looked as if nothing could ever kill, still sticking its chin out for more. And again, he could feel very little personal involvement. She made her bed, he thought, and she’s done a damned creditable job of lying in it; not one whine. And if he’s-if that’s-finished now, there’s hell to pay for her, and little if anything I can do. Now he remembered vividly, with enthusiasm and with sadness, the few years in which they had been such good friends, and for a moment he thought perhaps again, and caught himself up in a snort of self-contempt. Bargaining on his death, he thought, as if I were the rejected suitor, primping up for one more try: once more unto the breach. Besides, that had never been the real estrangement; it was the whole stinking morass of churchiness that really separated them, and now that was apt to get worse rather than better. Apt? Dead certain to.
And his wife, while she mended, was thinking: such a tragedy. Such a burden for her. Poor dear Mary. How on earth is she to manage. Of course it’s still entirely possible that he isn’t-passed away. But that could make matters even more-tragic, for both of them. Such an active man, unable to support his family. How dreadful, in any event. Of course, we can help. But not with the hardest of the burden. Poor dear child. And the poor children. And beneath such unspoken words, while with her weak eyes she bent deeply to her mending, her generous and unreflective spirit was more deeply grieved than she could find thought for, and more resolute than any thought for resoluteness could have made it. How very swiftly life goes! she thought. It seems only yesterday that she was my little Mary, or that Jay first came to call. She looked up from her mending into the silent light and shadow, and the kind of long and profound sighing of the heart flowed out of her which, excepting music. was her only way of yielding to sadness.
“We must be very good to them, Joel,” she said.
He was startled, almost frightened, by her sudden voice, and he wanted, in some vengeful reflex of exasperation, to ask her what she had said. But he knew he had heard her and, leaning towards her, replied, “Of course we must.”
“Whatever has happened.”
He began to realize the emotion, and the loneliness, behind the banality of what she had said; he was ashamed of himself to have answered as if it were merely banal. He wished he could think what to say that would make up for it. but he could not think of what to say. He knew of his wife, with tender amusement, that she almost certainly had not realized his unkindness, and that she would be hopelessly puzzled if he tried to explain and apologize. Let it be, he thought.
He feels much more than he says, she comforted herself; but she wished that he might ever say what he felt. She felt his hand on her wrist and his head close to hers. She leaned towards him.
“I understand, Catherine,” he said.
What does he mean that he understands, Catherine wondered. Something I failed to hear, no doubt, she thought, though their words had been so few that she could not imagine what. But she quickly decided not to exasperate him by a question; she was sure of his kind intention, and deeply touched by it.
“Thank you, Joel,” she said, and putting her other hand over his, patted it rapidly, several times. Such endearments, except in their proper place, embarrassed her and, she had always feared, were still more embarrassing to him; and now, though she had been unable to resist caressing him, and take even greater solace from his gentle pressing of her wrist, she took care soon to remove her hand, and soon after, he took his own away. She felt a moment of solemn and angry gratitude to have spent so many years, in such harmony, with a man so good, but that was beyond utterance; and then once more she thought of her daughter and of what she was facing.
Joel, meanwhile, was thinking: she needs that (pressing her wrist), and, as she shyly took her hand away, I wish I could do more; and suddenly, not for her sake but by an impulse of his own, he wanted to take her in his arms. Out of the question. Instead, he watched her dim-sighted, enduring face as she gazed out once more across the room, and felt a moment of incredulous and amused pride in her immense and unbreakable courage, and of proud gratitude, regardless of and including all regret, to have had so many years with such a woman; but that was beyond utterance; and then once more he thought of his daughter and of what she had been through and now must face.
“Sometimes life seems more-cruel-than can be borne,” she said. “Theirs, I’m thinking of. Poor Jay’s, and poor dear Mary’s.”
She felt his hand and waited, but he did not speak. She looked toward him, apprehensively polite, her beg-pardon smile, by habit, on her face; and saw his bearded head, unexpectedly close and huge in the light, nodding deeply and slowly, five times.
Andrew did not bother to knock, but opened the door and closed it quietly behind him and, seeing their moving shadows near the kitchen threshold, walked quickly down the hall. They could not see his face in the dark hallway but by his tight, set way of walking, they were virtually sure. They were all but blocking his way. Instead of going into the hall to meet him, they drew aside to let him into the kitchen. He did not hesitate with their own moment’s hesitation but came straight on, his mouth a straight line and his eyes like splintered glass, and without saying a word he put his arms around his aunt so tightly that she gasped, and lifted her from the floor. “Mary,” Hannah whispered, close to his ear; he looked; there she stood waiting, her eyes, her face, like that of an astounded child which might be pleading, Oh, don’t hit me; and before he could speak he heard her say, thinly and gently, “He’s dead, Andrew, isn’t he?” and he could not speak, but nodded, and he became aware that he was holding his aunt’s feet off the floor and virtually breaking her bones, and his sister said, in the same small and unearthly voice, “He was dead when you got there”; and again he nodded; and then he set Hannah down carefully on her feet and, turning to his sister, took her by her shoulders and said, more loudly than he had expected, “He was instantly killed,” and he kissed her upon the mouth and they embraced, and without tears but with great violence he sobbed twice, his cheek against hers, while he stared downwards through her loose hair at her humbled back and at the changeful blinking of the linoleum; then, feeling her become heavy against him, said, “Here, Mary,” catching her across the shoulders and helping her to a chair, just as she, losing strength in her knees, gasped, “I’ve got to sit down,” and looked timidly towards her aunt, who at the same moment saying, in a broken voice, “Sit down, Mary,” was at her other side, her arm around her waist and her face as bleached and shocking as a skull. She put an arm tightly around each of them and felt gratitude and pleasure, in the firmness and warmth of their moving bodies, and they walked three abreast (like bosom friends, it occurred to her. the three Musketeers) to the nearest chair; and she could see Andrew twist it towards her with his outstretched left hand, and between them, slowly, they let her down into it, and then she could see only her aunt’s face, leaning deep above her, very large and very close, the eyes at once intense and tearful behind their heavy lenses, the strong mouth loose and soft, the whole face terrible in love and grief, naked and undisciplined as she had never seen it before.
“Let Papa know and Mama,” she whispered. “I promised.”
“I will,” Hannah said, starting for the hall.
“Walter’s bringing them straight up,” Andrew said. “They know by now.” He brought another chair. “Sit down, Aunt Hannah.” She sat and took both Mary’s hands in her own, on Mary’s knees, and realized that Mary was squeezing her hands with all her strength, and as strongly as she was able. She replied in kind to this constantly, shifting, almost writhing pressure.
“Sit with us, Andrew,” Mary said, a little more loudly; he was already bringing a third chair and now he sat, and put his hands upon theirs, and, feeling the convulsing of her hands, thought, Christ, it’s as if she were in labor. And she is. Thus they sat in silence a few moments while he thought: now I’ve got to tell them how it happened. In God’s name, how can I begin!
“I want whiskey,” Mary said, in a small, cold voice, and tried to get up.
“I’ll get it,” Andrew said, standing.
“You don’t know where it is,” she said, continuing to put aside their hands even after they were withdrawn. She got up and they stood as if respectfully aside and she walked between them and went into the hall; they heard her rummaging in the closet, and looked at each other. “She needs it,” Hannah said.
He nodded. He had been surprised, because of Jay, that there was whiskey in the house; and he was sick with self-disgust to have thought of it. “We all do,” he said.
Without looking at them Mary went to the kitchen closet and brought a thick tumbler to the table. The bottle was almost full. She poured the tumbler full while they watched her, feeling they must not interfere, and took a deep gulp and choked on it, and swallowed most of it.
“Dilute it,” Hannah said, slapping her hard between the shoulders and drying her lips and her chin with a dish towel. “It’s much too strong, that way.”
“I will,” Mary croaked, and cleared her throat, “I will,” she said more clearly.
“Just sit down, Mary,” Andrew and Hannah said at the same moment, and Andrew brought her a glass of water and Hannah helped her to her chair.
“I’m going to have some, too,” Andrew said.
“Goodness, do!” said Mary.
“Let me fix us a good strong toddy,” Hannah said. “It’ll help you to sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” Mary said; she sipped at her whiskey and took plenty of the water. “I’ve got to learn how it happened.”
“Aunt Hannah,” Andrew asked quietly, motioning towards the bottle.
While he broke ice and brought glasses and a pitcher of water, none of them spoke; Mary sat in a distorted kind of helplessness at once meek and curiously sullen, waiting. Months later, seeing a horse which had fallen in the street, Andrew was to remember her; and he was to remember it wasn’t drunkenness, either. It was just the flat of the hand of Death.
“Let me pour my own,” Mary said. “Because,” she added with deliberation while she poured, “I want it just as strong as I can stand it.” She tasted the dark drink, added a little more whiskey, tasted again, and put the bottle aside. Hannah watched her with acute concern, thinking, if she gets drunk tonight, and if her mother sees her drunk, she’ll half die of shame, and thinking, nonsense. It’s the most sensible thing she could do.
“Drink it very slowly, Mary,” Andrew said gently. “You aren’t used to it.”
“I’ll take care,” Mary said.
“It’s just the thing for shock,” Hannah said.
Andrew poured two small straight drinks and gave one to his aunt; they drank them off quickly and took water, and he prepared two pale highballs.
“Now, Andrew, I want to hear all about it,” Mary said.
He looked at Hannah.
“Mary,” he said. “Mama and Papa’ll be here any minute. You’d just have to hear it all over again. I’ll tell you, of course, if you prefer, right away but-could you wait?”
But even as he was speaking she was nodding, and Hannah was saying, “Yes, child,” as all three thought of the confusions and repetitions which were, at best, inevitable. Now after a moment Mary said, “Anyway, you say he didn’t have to suffer. Instantly, you said.”
He nodded, and said, “Mary, I saw him-at Roberts’. There was just one mark on his body.”
She looked at him. “His head.”
“Right at the exact point of the chin, a small bruise. A cut so small-they can close it with one stitch. And a little blue bruise on his lower lip. It wasn’t even swollen.”
“That’s all,” she said.
“All.” Hannah said.
“That’s all,” Andrew said. “The doctor said it was concussion of the brain. It was instantaneous.”
She was silent; he felt that she must be doubting it. Christ, he thought furiously, at least she could be spared that!
“He can’t have suffered, Mary, not even for a fraction of a second. Mary, I saw his face. There wasn’t a glimmer of pain in it. Only-a kind of surprise. Startled.”
Still she said nothing. I’ve got to make her sure of it, he thought. How in heaven’s name can I make it clearer? If necessary, I’ll get hold of the doctor and make him tell her hims…
“He never knew he was dying,” she said. “Not a minute, not one moment, to know,’my life is ending.’”
Hannah put a quick hand to her shoulder; Andrew dropped to his knees before her; took her hands and said, most earnestly, “Mary, in God’s name be thankful if he didn’t! That’s a hideous thing for a man in the prime of life to have to know. He wasn’t a Christian, you know,” he blurted it fiercely. “He didn’t have to make his peace with God. He was a man, with a wife and two children, and I’d say that sparing him that horrible knowledge was the one thing we can thank God for!” And he added, in a desperate voice, “I’m so terribly sorry I said that, Mary!”
But Hannah, who had been gently saying, “He’s right, Mary, he’s right, be thankful for that,” now told him quietly, “It’s all right, Andrew”; and Mary, whose eyes fixed upon his, had shown increasing shock and terror, now said tenderly, “Don’t mind, dear. Don’t be sorry. I understand. You’re right.”
“That venomous thing I said about Christians,” Andrew said after a moment. “I can never forgive myself, Mary.”
“Don’t grieve over it, Andrew. Don’t. Please. Look at me, please.” He looked at her. “It’s true I was thinking as I was bound to as a Christian, but I was forgetting we’re human, and you set me right and I’m thankful. You’re right. Jay wasn’t-a religious man, in that sense, and to realize could have only been-as you said for him. Probably as much so, even if he were religious.” She looked at him quietly. “So just please know I’m not hurt or angry. I needed to realize what you told me and I thank God for it.”
There was a noise on the porch; Andrew got from his knees and kissed his sister on the forehead. “Don’t be sorry,” she said. He looked at her, tightened his lips, and hurried to the door.
“Papa,” he said, and stood aside to let him past. His mother fumbled for his arm, and gripped it hard. He put his hand gently across her shoulders and said, next her ear, “They’re back in the kitchen”; she followed her husband. “Come in, Walter.”
“Oh no. Thank you,” Walter Starr said. “These are family matters. But if there’s…”
Andrew took him by the arm. “Come in a minute, anyway,” he said. “I know Mary’ll want to thank you.”
“Well now…” Andrew led him in.
“Papa,” Mary said, and got up and kissed him. He turned with her towards her mother. “Mama?” she said in a pinched, almost crying voice, and they embraced. “There, there, there,” her mother said in a somewhat cracked voice, clapping her loudly on the back. “Mary, dear. There, there, there!”
She saw Walter Starr, looking as if he were sure he was unwelcome. “Why, Walter!” she whispered, and hurried to meet him. He put out his hand, looking frightened, and said, “Mrs. Follet, I just couldn’t ever…”
She threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. “Bless you,” she whispered, crying softly.
“There now,” he said, blushing deeply and trying to embrace and to sustain her without touching her too closely. “There now,” he said again.
“I must stop this,” she said, drawing away from him and looking about wildly for something.
“Here,” said Andrew and her father and Walter Starr, each offering a handkerchief. She took her brother’s, blew her nose, dried her eyes, and sat down. “Sit down, Walter.”
“Oh thank you, no. I don’t think,” Walter said. “Only dropped in a moment; really must be off.”
“Why Walter, what nonsense, you’re one of the family,” Mary said, and those who could hear nodded and murmured “Of course,” although they knew this was embarrassing for. him, and hoped he would go home.
“Now that’s ever so kind,” Walter said, “but I can’t stay. Really must be off. Now if…”
“Walter, I want to thank you,” she said; for now she too had reconsidered.
“So do we all,” Andrew said.
“More than I can say,” Mary finished.
He shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing,” he said. "Now I just want you to know, if there’s anything in the world I can do, be of help in any way, let me please, don’t hesitate to tell me.
“Thank you, Walter. And if there is, we certainly will. Gratefully.”
“Good night then.”
Andrew walked with him to the front door. “Just let me know, Andrew. Anything,” Walter said.
“I will and thank you,” Andrew replied. Their eyes met, and for a moment both were caught in astonishment. He wishes it was me! Andrew thought. He wishes it was himself! Walter thought. Perhaps I do, too, Andrew thought, and once again, as he had felt when he first saw the dead body, he felt absurd, ashamed, guilty almost of cheating, even of murder, in being alive.
“Why Jay, of all people?” Andrew said, in a low voice.
Still watching his splintered eyes, Walter heavily shook his head.
“Good night, Andrew.”
“Good night, Walter.”
He shut the door.
Mary’s father caught her eye; with his chin he beckoned her to a corner of the kitchen. “I want to talk to you alone a minute.” he said in a low voice.
She looked at him thoughtfully, then took her glass from the table, said, “Excuse us a minute,” over her shoulder, and ushered him into the room she had prepared for her husband. She turned on the bedside lamp, quietly closed both doors, and stood looking at him, waiting.
“Sit down, Poll,” he said.
She looked about. One of them would have to sit on the bed. It was neatly laid open, cool and pleasant below the plumped pillows.
“I had it all ready,” she said, “but he never came back.”
“Don’t stay on your feet,” he said. “Let’s sit down.”
“I don’t care to.”
He came over to her and took her hand and looked at her searchingly. Why he’s just my height, she realized again. She saw how much his eyes, in sympathy and pain, were like his sister’s, tired, tender and resolute beneath the tired, frail eyelids. He could not speak at first.
You’re a good man, she said to herself, and her lips moved. A good, good man. My father. In an instant she experienced afresh the whole of their friendship and estrangement. Her eyes filled with tears and her mouth began to tremble. “Papa,” she said. He took her close to him and she cried quietly.
“It’s hell, Poll,” she heard him say. “Just hell. It’s just plain bell.” For a few moments she sobbed so deeply that he said nothing more, but only stroked the edge of her back, over and over, from her shoulder to her waist, and cried out within himself in fury and disgust, Goddamn it! God damn such a life! She’s too young for this. And thinking of that, it occurred to him that it was at just her age that his own life had had its throat twisted, and not by death, but by her own birth and her brother’s.
“But you gotta go through with it,” he said.
Against his shoulder he could feel her vigorous nodding. You will, he thought; you’ve got spunk.
“No way out of it,” he said.
“I think I will sit down.” She broke from him and with an almost vindictive sense of violation sat heavily at the edge of the bed, just where it was turned down, next the plumped pillows. He turned the chair and sat with her knee to knee.
“Something I’ve got to tell you,” he said.
She looked at him and waited.
“You remember what Cousin Patty was like? When she lost George?”
“Not very well. I wasn’t more than five or six.”
“Well, I do. She ran around like a chicken with its head off.’Oh, why does it have to be me? What did I ever do that it happened to me?’Banging her head against the furniture, trying to stab herself with her scissors, yelling like a stuck pig: you could hear her in the next block.”
Her eyes became cold. “You needn’t worry,” she said.
“I don’t, because you’re not a fool. But you’d better, and that’s what I want to warn you about.”
She kept looking at him.
“See here, Poll,” he said. “It’s bad enough right now, but it’s going to take a while to sink in. When it really sinks in it’s going to be any amount worse. It’ll be so much worse you’ll think it’s more than you can bear. Or any other human being. And worse than that, you’ll have to go through it alone, because there isn’t a thing on earth any of us can do to help, beyond blind animal sympathy.”
She was gazing slantwise towards the floor in some kind of coldly patient irony; he felt sick to death of himself.
“Look at me, Poll,” he said. She looked at him. “That’s when you’re going to need every ounce of common sense you’ve got,” he said. “Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption. You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice-except to go to pieces. You’ve got two children to take care of. And regardless of that you owe it to yourself and you owe it to him. You understand me.”
“I know it’s just unmitigated tommyrot to try to say a word about it. To say nothing of brass. All I want is to warn you that a lot worse is yet to come than you can imagine yet, so for God’s sake brace yourself for it and try to hold yourself together.” He said, with sudden eagerness, “It’s a kind of test, Mary. and it’s the only kind that amounts to anything. When something rotten like this happens. Then you have your choice. You start to really be alive, or you start to die. That’s all.” Watching her eyes, he felt fear for her and said, “I imagine you’re thinking about your religion.”
“I am.” she said, with a certain cool pride.
“Well, more power to you,” he said. “I know you’ve got a kind of help I could never have. Only one thing: take the greatest kind of care you don’t just-crawl into it like a hole and hide in it.”
“I’ll take care,” she said.
She means there is nothing I can tell her about that, he thought; and she is right.
“Talk to Hannah about it,” he said.
“I will, Papa.”
“One other thing.”
“There are going to be financial difficulties. We’ll see just what, and just how to settle them, course of time. I just want to take that worry off your hands. Don’t worry. We’ll work that out.”
“Bless you, Papa.”
“Rats. Drink your drink.”
She drank deeply and shuddered.
“Take all you can without getting drunk,” he said. “I wouldn’t give a whoop if you got blind drunk, best thing you could do. But you’ve got tomorrow to reckon with.” And tomorrow and tomorrow.
“It doesn’t seem to have any effect,” she said, her voice still liquid. “The only times I drank before I had a terribly weak head, just one drink was enough to make me absolutely squiffy. But now it doesn’t seem to have any effect in the slightest.” She drank some more.
“Good,” he said. “That can happen. Shock, or strain. I know once when your mother was very sick I…” They both remembered her sickness. “No matter. Take all you want and I’ve more if you want it, but keep an eye on yourself. It can hit you like a ton of bricks.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Time we went back to the others.” He helped her to her feet, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Just bear in mind what I said. It’s just a test, and it’s one that good people come through.”
“I will, Papa, and thank you.”
“I’ve got absolute confidence in you,” he said, wishing that this was entirely true, and that she could entirely care.
“Thank you, Papa,” she said. “That’s going to be a great help to know.”
Her hand on the doorknob, she turned off the light and preceded him into the kitchen.
“Why where…” Mary began, for there was nobody in the kitchen.
“Must be in the living room,” her father said, and took her arm.
“There’s more room here,” Andrew told her, as they came in. Although the night was warm, he was nursing a small fire. All the shades, Mary noticed, were drawn to the window sills.
“Mary,” her mother said loudly, patting a place beside her on the sofa. Mary sat beside her and took her hand. Her mother took Mary’s left hand in both of her hands, drew it into her lap, and pressed it against her thin thighs with all her strength.
Her aunt sat to one side of the fireplace and now her father took a chair at the other side. The Morris chair just stood there empty beside its reading lamp. Even after the fire was going nicely, Andrew squatted before it, making small adjustments. Nobody spoke, and nobody looked at the Morris chair or at another person. The footsteps of a man, walking slowly, became gradually louder along the sidewalk, and passed the house, and diminished into silence; and in the silence of the universe they listened to their little fire.
Finally Andrew stood up straight from the fire and they all looked at his despairing face, and tried not to demand too much of him with their eyes. He looked at each of them in turn, and went over and bent deeply towards his mother.
“Let me tell you, Mama,” he said. “That way, we can all hear. I’m sorry, Mary.”
“Dear,” his mother said gratefully, and fumbled for his hand and patted it. “Of course,” Mary said, and gave him her place beside the “good” ear. They shifted to make room, and she sat at her mother’s deaf side. Again her mother caught her hand into her lap; with the other, she tilted her ear trumpet. Joel leaned toward them, his hand behind his ear; Hannah stared into the wavering hearth.
“He was all alone,” Andrew said, not very loudly but with the most scrupulous distinctness. “Nobody else was hurt, or even in the accident.”
“That’s a mercy,” his mother said. It was, they all realized; yet each of them was shocked. Andrew nodded sharply to silence her.
“So we’ll never know exactly how it happened,” he went on. “But we know enough,” he said, speaking the last word with a terrible and brutal bitterness.
“Mmh,” his father grunted, nodding sharply; Hannah drew in and let out a long breath.
“I talked with the man who found him. He was the man who phoned you, Mary. He waited there for me all that time because he thought it would help if-if the man who first saw Jay was there to tell one of us all he could. He told me all he knew of course,” he said, remembering, with the feeling that he would never forget it, the awed, calm, kind, rural face and the slow, careful, half-literate voice. “He was just as fine as a human being can be.” He felt a kind of angry gratitude that such a man had been there, and had been there first. Jay couldn’t have asked for anyone better, he said to himself. Nobody could.
“He said he was on his way home, about nine o’clock, coming in towards town, and he heard an auto coming up from behind, terrifically fast, and coming nearer and nearer, and he thought. There’s somebody that’s sure got to get some place in a bad hurry” (“He was hurrying home,” Mary said) “or else he’s crazy” (he had said “crazy drunk”).
“He wasn’t crazy,” Mary said. “He was just trying to get home (bless his heart), he was so much later than he’d said.”
Andrew, looked at her with dry, brilliant eyes and nodded.
“He’d told me not to wait supper,” she said, “but he wanted to get home before the children were asleep.”
“What is it?” her mother asked, with nervous politeness.
“Nothing important, Mama,” Andrew said gently. “I’ll explain later.” He drew a deep breath in very sharply, and felt less close to tears.
“All of a sudden, he said, he heard a perfectly terrifying noise, just a second or two, and then dead silence. He knew it must be whoever was in that auto and that they must be in bad trouble, so he turned around and drove back, about a quarter of a mile, he thinks, just the other side of Bell’s Bridge. He told me he almost missed it altogether because there was nothing on the road and even though he’d kind of been expecting that and driving pretty slowly, looking off both sides of the road, he almost missed it because just next the bridge on that side, the side of the road is quite a steep bank.”
“I know,” Mary whispered.
“But just as he came off the far end of the bridge-you come down at a sort of angle, you know…”
“I know,” Mary whispered.
“Something caught in his lights and it was one of the wheels of the automobile.” He looked across his mother and said, “Mary, it was still turning.”
“Beg pardon?” his mother said.
“It was still turning,” he told her. “The wheel he saw.”
“Mercy, Andrew,” she whispered.
“Hahh!” her husband exclaimed, almost inaudibly.
“He got out right away and hurried down there. The auto was upside down and Jay…”
Although he did not feel that he was near weeping he found that for a moment he could not speak. Finally he said, “He was just lying there on the ground beside it, on his back, about a foot away from it. His clothes were hardly even rumpled.”
Again he found that he could not speak. After a moment he managed to force himself to.
“The man said somehow he was sure he was-dead-the minute he saw him. He doesn’t know how. Just some special kind of stillness. He lighted matches though, of course, to try and make sure. Listened for his heartbeat and tried to feel for his pulse. He moved his auto around so he could see by the headlights. He couldn’t find anything wrong except a little cut, exactly on the point of his chin. The windshield of Jay’s car was broken and he even took a piece of it and used it like a mirror, to see if there was any breath. After that he just waited a few minutes until he heard an auto coming and stopped them and told them to get help as soon as possible.”
“Did they get a doctor?” Mary asked.
“Mary says,’Did they get a doctor.’” Andrew said to his mother. “Yes, he told them to and they did. And other people. Including-Brannick, Papa,” he said; “that blacksmith you know. It turns out he lives quite near there.”
“Huh!” said Joel.
“The doctor said the man was right,” Andrew said. "He said he must have been killed instantly. They found who he was, by papers in his pocket, and that was when he phoned you, Mary.
“He asked me if I’d please tell you how dreadful he felt to give you such a message, leaving you uncertain all this time. He just couldn’t stand to be the one to tell you the whole thing-least of all just bang like that, over a phone. He thought it ought to be somebody in the family.”
“That’s what I imagined,” Mary said.
“He was right,” Hannah said; and Joel and Mary nodded and said, “Yes.”
“By the time Walter and I got there, they’d moved him,” Andrew said. “He was at the blacksmith shop. They’d even brought in the auto. You know, they say it ran perfectly. Except for the top, and the windshield, it was hardly even damaged.”
Joel asked, “Do they have any idea what happened?”
Andrew said to his mother, “Papa says,’Do they have any idea how it happened?’” She nodded, and smiled her thanks, and tilted her trumpet nearer his mouth.
“Yes, some idea,” Andrew said. “They showed me. They found that a cotter pin had worked loose-that is, it had fallen all the way out-this cotter pin had fallen out, that held the steering mechanism together.”
“Like this, Mama-look,” he said sharply, thrusting his hands under her nose.
“Oh excuse me,” she said.
“See here,” he said; he had locked a bent knuckle between two bent knuckles of the other hand. “As if it were to hold these knuckles together-see?”
“There would be a hole right through the knuckles and that’s where the cotter pin goes. It’s sort of like a very heavy hairpin. When you have it all the way through, you open the two ends flat-spread them-like this…” he showed her his thumb and forefinger, together, then spread them as wide and flat as he could. “You understand?”
“Let it go, son,” his father said.
“It’s all right, Mama,” Andrew said. “It’s just something that holds two parts together-in this case, his steering gear-what he guided the auto with. Th…”
“I understand,” she said impatiently.
“Good, Mama. Well this cotter pin, that held the steering mechanism together down underneath the auto, where there was no chance of seeing it, had fallen out. They couldn’t find it anywhere, though they looked all over the place where it happened and went over the road for a couple of hundred yards with a fine-tooth comb. So they think it may have worked loose and fallen out quite a distance back-it could be, even miles, though probably not so far. Because they showed me,” again he put his knuckles where she could see, “even without the pin, those two parts might hang together,” he twisted them, “you might even steer with them. and not have the slightest suspicion there was anything wrong, if you were on fairly smooth road, or didn’t have to wrench the wheel, but if you hit a sharp bump or a rut or a loose rock, or had to twist the wheel very hard very suddenly, they’d come apart, and you’d have no control over anything.”
Mary put her hands over her face.
“What they think is that he must have hit a loose rock with one of the front wheels, and that gave everything a jolt and a terrific wrench at the same time. Because they found a rock, oh, half the size of my head, down in the ditch, very badly scraped and with tire marks on it. They showed me. They think it must have wrenched the wheel right out of his hands and thrown him forward very hard so that he struck his chin, just one sharp blow against the steering wheel. And that must have killed him on the spot. Because he was thrown absolutely clear of the car as it ran off the road-they showed me. I never saw anything to equal it. Do you know what happened? That auto threw him out on the ground as it careened down into that sort of flat, wide ditch, about five feet down from the road; then it went straight on up an eight-foot embankment. They showed me the marks where it went, almost to the top, and then toppled backward and fell bottom side up right beside him, without even grazing him!”
“Gracious,” Mary whispered. “Tst,” Hannah clucked.
“How are they so sure it was-instant, Andrew?” Hannah asked.
“Because if he’d been conscious they’re sure he wouldn’t have been thrown out of the auto, for one thing. He’d have grabbed the wheel, or the emergency brake, still trying to control it. There wasn’t time for that. There wasn’t any time at all. At the most there must have been just the tiniest fraction of a second when he felt the jolt and the wheel was twisted out of his hand, and he was thrown forward. The doctor says he probably never even knew what hit him-hardly even felt the impact, it was so hard and quick.”
“He may have just been unconscious,” Mary groaned through her hands. “Or conscious and-paralyzed; unable to speak or even seem to breathe. If only there’d been a doctor, right there, mayb…”
Andrew reached across his mother and touched her knees. “No, Mary,” he said. “I have the doctor’s word for that. He says the only thing that could have caused death was concussion of the brain. He says that when that-happens to kill, it-does so instantly, or else takes days or weeks. I asked him about it very particularly because-I knew you’d want to be sure just how it was. Of course I wondered the same thing. He said it couldn’t have been even a few seconds of unconsciousness, and then death, because nothing more happened, after that one blow, that could have added to what it did. He said it’s even more sudden than electrocution. Just an enormous shock to the brain. The quickest death there is.” He returned to his mother. “I’m sorry, Mama,” he said. “Mary was saying, perhaps he was only unconscious. That maybe if the doctor had been there right on the spot, he could have been saved. I was telling her, no. Because I asked the doctor everything I could think to, about that. And he said no. He says that when a concussion of the brain-is fatal-it’s the quickest death there is.”
He looked at each of them in turn. In a light, vindictive voice he told them, “He says it was just a chance in a million.”
“Good God, Andrew,” his father said.
“Just that one tiny area, at just a certain angle, and just a certain sharpness of impact. If it had been even a half an inch to one side, he’d be alive this minute.”
“Shut up, Andrew,” his father said harshly; for with the last few words that Andrew spoke, a sort of dilation had seized Mary, so that she had almost risen from her place, seeming larger than herself, and then had collapsed into a shattering of tears.
“Oh Mary,” Andrew groaned, and hurried to her, while her mother took her head against her breast. “I’m so sorry. God, what possessed me! I must be out of my mind!” And Hannah and Joel had gotten from their chairs and stood nearby, unable to speak.
“Just-have a little mercy,” she sobbed. “A little mercy.”
Andrew could say only, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mary,” and then he could say nothing.
“Let her cry,” Joel said quietly to his sister, and she nodded. As if anything on earth could stop her, he said to himself.
“O God, forgive me,” Mary moaned. “Forgive me! Forgive me! It’s just more than I can bear! Just more than I can bear! Forgive me!” And Joel, with his mouth fallen open, wheeled upon his sister and stared at her; and she avoided his eyes, saying to herself, No, No, and protect her, O God, protect Thy poor child and give her strength; and Andrew, his face locked in a murderer’s grimace, continued the furious and annihilating words which were bursting within him to be spoken, groaned within himself, God, if You exist, come here and let me spit in Your face. Forgive her, indeed!
Then Hannah moved him aside and stooped before Mary, taking her wrists and talking earnestly into her streaming hands: “Mary, listen to me. Mary. There’s nothing to ask forgiveness for. There’s nothing to ask forgiveness for, Mary. Do you hear me? Do you hear me, Mary?” Mary nodded within her hands. “God would never ask of you not to grieve, not to cry. Do you hear? What you’re doing is absolutely natural, absolutely right. Do you hear! You wouldn’t be human if you did otherwise. Do you hear me, Mary? You’re not human to ask His forgiveness. You’re wrong. You’re terribly mistaken. Do you hear me, my dear? Do you hear me?”
While she was speaking, Mary, within her hands, now nodded and now shook her head, always in contradiction of what her aunt was saying, and now she said, “It isn’t what you think. I spoke to Him as if He had no mercy!”
“Andrew? Andrew was ju…”
“No: to God. As if He were trying to rub it in. Torment me. That’s what I asked forgiveness for.”
“There, Mary,” her mother said; she could hear virtually nothing of what was said, but she could feel that the extremity of the crying had passed.
“Listen, Mary,” Hannah said, and she bent so close to her that she could have whispered. “Our Lord on the Cross,” she said, in a voice so low that only Mary and Andrew could hear, “do you remember?”
“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
“Yes. And then did He ask forgiveness?”
“He was God. He didn’t have to.”
“He was human, too. And He didn’t ask it. Nor was it asked of Him to ask it, no more are you. And no more should you. What was it He said, instead? The very next thing He said.”
“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” she said, taking her hands from her face and looking meekly at her aunt.
“Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” her aunt said.
“There, dear,” her mother said, and Mary sat upright and looked straight ahead.
“Please don’t feel sorry, Andrew,” she said. “You’re right to tell me every last bit you know. I want to know-all of it. It was just-it just overwhelmed me for a minute.”
“I shouldn’t tell you so much all in a heap.”
“No, that’s better. Than to keep hearing-horrible little new things, just when you think you’ve heard the worst and are beginning to get used to it.”
“That’s right, Poll,” her father said.
“Now just go straight on telling me. Everything there is to tell. And if I do break down, why don’t reproach yourself. Remember I asked you. But I’ll try to not. I think I’ll be all right.”
“All right, Mary.”
“Good, Poll,” her father said. They all sat down again.
“And Andrew, if you’ll get it for me, I think I’d like some more whiskey.”
“Of course I will.” He had brought the bottle in; he took her glass to the table.
“Not quite so strong as last time, please. Pretty strong, but not so strong as that.”
“This all right?”
“A little more whiskey, please.”
“That looks all right.”
“You all right, Poll?” her father asked. “Isn’t going to your head too much?”
“It isn’t going anywhere so far as I can tell.”
“I think perhaps it would be best if we didn’t-prolong the discussion any further tonight,” Catherine said, in her most genteel manner; and she patted Mary’s knee.
They looked at her with astonishment and suddenly Mary and then Andrew began to laugh, and then Hannah began to laugh, and Joel said, “What’s up? What’s all the hee-hawing about?”
“It’s Mama,” Andrew shouted joyfully, and he and Hannah explained how she had suggested, in her most ladylike way, that they adjourn the discussion for the evening when all they were discussing was how much whiskey Mary could stand, and it was as if she meant that Mary was much too thirsty to wait out any more of it; and Joel gave a snort of amusement and then was caught into the contagion of this somewhat hysterical laughter, and they all roared, laughing their heads off, while Catherine sat there watching them, disapproving such levity at such a time, and unhappily suspecting that for some reason they were laughing at her; but in courtesy and reproof, and an expectation of hearing the joke, smiling and lifting her trumpet. But they paid no attention to her; they scarcely seemed to know she was there. They would quiet down now and then and moan and breathe deeply, and dry their eyes; then Mary would remember, and mimic, precisely the way her mother had patted her knee with her ringed hand, or Andrew would mimic her precise intonation as she said “prolong,” or any of the four of them would roll over silently upon the tongue of the mind some particularly ticklish blend of the absurdity and horror and cruelty and relief, or would merely glance at Catherine with her smile and her trumpet, and would suddenly begin to bubble and then to spout with laughter, and another would be caught into the machinery, and then they would start all over again. Some of the time they deliberately strained for more laughter, or to prolong it, or to revive it if it had died; some of the time they tried just as hard to stop laughing or, having stopped, not to laugh any more. They found that on the whole they laughed even harder if they tried hard not to, so they came to favor that technique. They laughed until they were weak and their bellies ached. Then they were able to realize a little more clearly what a poor joke they had all been laughing at, and the very feebleness of the material and outrageous disproportion of their laughter started them whooping again; but finally they quieted down, because they had no strength for any more, and into this nervous and somewhat aborted silence Catherine spoke, “Well, I have never in my life been so thoroughly shocked and astonished,” and it began all over again.
But by now they were really worn out with laughter; moreover, images of the dead body beside the capsized automobile began to dart in their minds, and then to become cold, immense, and immovable; and they began fully to realize, as well, how shamefully they had treated the deaf woman.
“Oh, Mama,” Andrew and Mary cried out together, and Mary embraced her and Andrew kissed her on the forehead and on the mouth. “It was awful of us,” he said. “You’ve just got to try to forgive us. We’re all just a little bit hysterical, that’s all.”
“Better tell her, Andrew,” his father said.
“Yes, poor thing,” Hannah said; and he tried as gently as he could to explain it to her, and that they weren’t really laughing at her expense, or even really at the joke, such as it was, because it wasn’t really very funny, he must admit, but it had simply been a Godsend to have something to laugh about.
“I see,” she said (“I see, said the blindman,” Andrew said), and gave her polite, tinkling, baffled little laugh. “But of course it wasn’t the-question of spirits that I meant. I just felt that perhaps for poor dear Mary’s sake we’d better…”
“Of course,” Andrew shouted. “We understand, Mama. But Mary’d rather hear now. She’d already said so.”
“Yes, Mama,” Mary screamed, leaning across towards her “good” ear.
“Well in that case,” Catherine said primly, “I think it would have been kind so to inform me.”
“I’m awfully sorry, Mama,” Andrew said. “We would have. We really would have. In about another minute.”
“Well,” Catherine said; “no matter.”
“Really we would, Mama,” Mary said.
“Very well,” Catherine said. “It was just a misfortune, that’s all. I know I make it-very difficult, I try not to.”
“Oh, Mama, no.”
“No, I’m not hurt. I just suggest that you ignore me now, for everybody’s convenience. Joel will tell me, later.”
“She means it,” Joel said. “She’s not hurt any more.”
“I know she does,” Andrew said. “That’s why I’m Goddamned if I’ll leave her out. Honestly, Mama,” he told her, “just let me tell you. Then we can all hear. Don’t you see?”
“Well, if you’re sure; of course I’d be most grateful. Thank you.” She bowed, smiled, and tilted her trumpet.
It required immediate speech. That trumpet’s like a pelican’s mouth, he thought. Toss in a fish. “I’m sorry, Mama,” he said. “I’ve got to try to collect my wits.”
“That’s perfectly all right,” his mother said.
What was I-oh. Doctor. Yes.
“I was telling you what the doctor said.”
“Yes,” Catherine replied in her clear voice. “You were saying that it was only by merest chance, where the blow was struck, a chance in a million, that…”
“Yes, Mama. It’s just unbelievable. But there it is.”
“Hyesss,” Hannah sighed.
“It does-beat-all-hell,” Joel said. He thought of Thomas Hardy. There’s a man, he thought, who knows what it’s about. (And she asks God to forgive her!) He snorted.
“What is it, Papa?” Mary asked quietly.
“Nothing,” he said, “just the way things go. As flies to wanton boys. That’s all.”
“What do you mean?”
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”
“No,” Mary said; she shook her head. “No, Papa. It’s not that way.”
He felt within him a surge of boiling acid; he contained himself. If she tries to tell me it’s God’s inscrutable mercy, he said to himself, I’ll have to leave the room. “Ignore it, Poll,” he said. “None of us knows one damned thing about it. Myself least of all. So I’ll keep my trap shut.”
“But I can’t bear to have you even think such things, Papa.”
Andrew tightened his lips and looked away.
“Mary,” Hannah said.
“I’m afraid that’s something none of us can ask-or change,” her father said.
“Yes, Mary,” Hannah said.
“But I can assure you of this, Poll. I have very few thoughts indeed and none of’em are worth your minding about.”
“Is there something perhaps I should be hearing?” Catherine asked.
They were silent a moment. “Nothing, Mama,” Andrew said. “Just a digression. I’d tell you if it was important.”
“You were about to continue, with what the doctor told you.”
“Yes I was. I will. He told me a number of other things and I can-assure-everybody-that such as they are, at least they’re some kind of cold comfort.”
Mary met his eyes.
“He said that if there had to be such an accident, this was pretty certainly the best way. That with such a thing, a concussion, he might quite possibly have been left a hopeless imbecile.”
“Oh, Andrew,” Mary burst out.
“The rest of his life, and that could have been another forty years as easily as not. Or maybe only a semi-invalid, laid up just now and then, with terrific recurrent headaches, or spells of amnesia, of feeble-mindedness. Those are the things that didn’t happen, Mary,” he told her desperately. “I think I’d just better get them over and done with right now.”
“Yes,” she said through her hands. “Yes, you had. Go on, Andrew. Get it over.”
“He pointed out what would have happened if he’d stayed conscious, if he hadn’t been thrown clear of the auto. Going fast, hopelessly out of control, up that eight-foot embankment and then down. He’d have been crushed, Mary. Horribly mangled. If he’d died it would have been slowly and agonizingly. If he’d lived, he’d have probably been a hopeless cripple.”
“Dreadful,” Catherine cried loudly.
“An idiot, or a cripple, or a paralytic,” Andrew said. “Because another thing a concussion can do, Mary, is paralyze. Incurably. Those aren’t fates you can prefer for anyone to dying. Least of all a man like Jay, with all his vigor, of body and mind too, his independence, his loathing for being laid up even one day. You remember how impossible it was to keep him quiet enough when his back was strained.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I do.” Her hands were still to her face and she was pressing her fingers tightly against her eyeballs.
“Instead…” Andrew began; and he remembered his face in death and he remembered him as he lay on the table under the glare. “Instead of that, Mary, he died the quickest and most painless death there is. One instant he was fully alive. Maybe more alive than ever before for that matter, for something had suddenly gone wrong and everything in him was roused up and mad at it and ready to beat it-because you know that of Jay, Mary, probably better than anyone else on earth. He didn’t know what fear was. Danger only made him furious-and tremendously alert. It made him every inch of the man he was. And the next instant it was all over. Not even time to know it was hopeless, Mary. Not even one instant of pain, because that kind of blow is much too violent to give pain. Immediate pain. Just an instant of surprise and every faculty at its absolute height, and then just a tremendous blinding shock, and then nothing. You see, Mary?”
“I saw his face, Mary. It just looked startled, and resolute, and mad as hell. Not one trace of fear or pain.”
“There wouldn’t have been any fear, anyway,” she said.
“I saw him-stripped-at the undertaker’s,” Andrew said. “Mary, there wasn’t a mark on his body. Just that little cut on the chin. One little bruise on his lower lip. Not another mark on his body. He had the most magnificent physique I’ve ever seen in a human being.”
Nobody spoke for a long while; then Andrew said, “All I can say is, when my time comes, I only hope I die half as well.”
His father nodded; Hannah closed her eyes and bowed her head. Catherine waited, patiently.
“In his strength,” Mary said; and took her hands from her face. Her eyes were still closed. “That’s how he was taken,” she said very tenderly; “in his strength. Singing, probably”-her voice broke on the word-“happy, all alone, racing home because he loved so to go fast and couldn’t except when he was alone, and because he didn’t want to disappoint his children. And then just as you said, Andrew. Just one moment of trouble, of something that might be danger-and was; it was death itself-and everything in his nature springing to its full height to fight it, to get it under control, not in fear. Just in bravery and nobility and anger and perfect confidence he could. It’s how he’d look Death itself in the face. It’s how he did! In his strength. Those are the words that are going to be on his gravestone, Andrew.”
That’s what they’re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. So you can feel you’ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened. And trying to imagine it as Mary was. Andrew, too. Any poor subterfuge’ll do; and welcome to’em.
“Don’t you think?” Mary asked shyly; for Andrew had not replied.
“Yes I do,” he said, and Hannah said, “Yes, Mary,” and Joel nodded.
Hannah: I want to know when I die, and not just for religious reasons.
“Mama,” Mary called, drawing at her arm. Her mother turned eagerly, thankfully, with her trumpet. “I was telling Andrew,” Mary told her, “I think I know the words, the epitaph, that ought to go on Jay’s-on the headstone.” Her mother tilted her head politely. “In his strength,” Mary said. Her mother looked still more polite. “In-his-strength,” Mary said, more loudly. Christ, I don’t think I can stand this, Andrew thought. “Because that was the way it happened. Mama. Just so suddenly, without any warning, or suffering, or weakness, or illness. Just-instantly. In the very prime of his life. Do you see?”
Her mother patted her knee and took her hand. “Very appropriate, dear,” she said.
“I think so,” Mary said; she wished she had not spoken of it.
“It is, Mary,” Andrew assured her.
“Why didn’t you answer when I asked you?”
“I was just thinking about him.”
There was a silence; Catherine who had still held her trumpet hopefully extended, turned away.
“He was thirty-six,” Mary said. “Just exactly a month and a day ago.”
“And last night-great goodness it was only last night! Just think of that. Less than twenty-four hours ago, that awful phone ringing and we sat in the kitchen together-thinking of his father! We both thought it was his father who was at death’s door. That’s why he went up there. That’s why it happened! And that miserable Ralph was so drunk he couldn’t even be sure of the need. He just had to go in case. Oh, it’s just beyond words!”
She finished her drink and stood up to get more.
“I’ll get it,” Andrew said quickly, and took her glass.
“Not quite so strong,” she said. “Thank you.”
“It’s like a checkerboard,” her father said.
“What you were saying. You think everything bears on one person’s dying, and b’God it’s another who does. One instant you see the black squares against the red and the next you see the red against the black.”
“Yes,” Mary said, somewhat in her mother’s uncertain tone.
“None of us know what we’re doing, any given moment.”
How you manage not to have religious faith, Hannah wanted to tell him, is beyond me. She held her tongue.
“A tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing.”
“Signifying something,” Andrew said, “but we don’t know what.”
“Just as likely. Choice between rattlesnake and skunk.”
“Jay knows what; now,” Mary said.
“I certainly won’t swear he doesn’t,” her father said.
“He does, Mary,” her aunt said.
“Of course he does,” Mary said.
Child, you’d better believe it, her aunt thought, disturbed by the “of course.”
“I wonder,” Catherine said; everyone turned towards her. “Mary’s suggestion-for-an epitaph-is very lovely and appropriate, but I wonder, whether people will quite-understand it.”
“Agh,” Joel growled.
“What if they don’t?” Andrew said.
Mary leaned across her. “Yes, Mama! What if they don’t! We understand it. Jay understands it. What do we care if they don’t!”
She was surprised and somewhat hurt by the violence of this attack. “It was merely something to be considered,” she said with dignity. “After all, it will be in a public place. Many people will see it besides ourselves. I’ve always supposed, it was the business of words-to communicate-clearly.”
“Oh Mama, don’t be mad,” Mary cried. “I understand. I appreciate the suggestion. I just can’t see that in a-that in this particular case, it’s anything to be seriously concerned about. It’s Jay we’re thinking of. Not other people.”
“I see; perhaps you’re right. Praps I shouldn’t have me…”
“We’re very glad you mentioned it, Mama. We appreciate you mentioning it. It hadn’t even occurred to me and it ought to. Only now that it does, now that you’ve told me, why, well, I just still think it’s all right as it is. That’s all.”
“Let it go, Catherine, for God’s sake let it go!” Joel was saying in a low voice; but now she nodded and became quiet.
“I hate to hurt Mama’s feelings,” Mary said, “but really!”
“It’s all right, Mary,” Andrew said.
“Let it go, Poll,” her father said.
“I am,” Mary said; she took a drink.
“We’ve got to let them know,” she said. “His mother. We’ll have to phone Ralph. Andrew, will you do that?”
“Of course I will.” He got up.
“Just tell them I’m sorry, I couldn’t come to the phone. Will you, Andrew? I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“Of course they will.”
“Just tell them-how it happened. Tell Ralph I send his mother all my love.” He nodded. “And Andrew. Be sure and ask how Jay’s father is.” He nodded. “And let them know when-why; why we don’t even know, do we? When the-what day he’ll-be-the funeral, Andrew!”
“Not for sure. I told them I’d see them in the morning about all that.”
“Well you’ll just have to tell them we’ll let them know as soon as we do. In plenty of time. To get here I mean.”
“What’s the number, Mary?”
“What is Ralph’s telephone number?”
“I-can’t remember. I guess I don’t know for sure. You’ll have to ask Central. It’s always Jay who called.”
“It’s LaFollette,” she called, as he went into the hall.
“All right, Mary.” He went out.
“Yes, Mary?” He put his head in.
“Talk as quietly as you can. We don’t want to wake the children.”
“It’s queer I don’t know,” she told the others. “But it was always Jay who called.”
“Tell your mother what’s up,” her father advised, for she was looking inquiring. Mary leaned across her.
“Bathroom?” her mother whispered discreetly.
“No, Mama. He’s gone to telephone Jay’s brother.”
Her mother nodded, and still extended her trumpet, but Mary had nothing to say.
“I hope he will extend all our most-heartfelt-sympathies,” her mother said.
Mary nodded conspicuously. “I specially asked him to,” she lied.
After a few moments Catherine gave up, and relaxed her trumpet between her withered hands into her lap.
Andrew had shut the door but they could hear him, trying to talk quietly. He was talking, indeed, very quietly, close to the mouthpiece with his hand around it; even so, Mary and Hannah could hear most of what he said. They did not want to listen, but they couldn’t help it.
He said, “I want to make a long-distance call, please,” and the quietness of his voice made them listen the more carefully. It was full of covered danger.
“Hello? Hello, is this long distance? Long distance I want to call Ralph Follet, Ralph, Follet, F, O, L, L, E, T, no, Central, F, as in father-F, O, -have you got that?-L, L, ET. FOLLET. At LaFollette, Tennessee. No, I haven’t. Thank you. I said, thank you.”
“I don’t see how his mother’s going to bear it,” Mary said, in a subdued voice. “I said I just don’t see how Jay’s mother is going to bear it,” she told her mother.
“Her own husband right at death’s door,” she said to Hannah, “and now this. He was just the apple of her eye, that’s all.”
“She has a world of grit,” Hannah said.
“Ralph? Is this Ralph Follet?”
“If she hadn’t she wouldn’t be alive today,” Mary said.
“Ralph, this is Andrew Lynch.” They sat very still and made no pretense of not listening.
“Yes. Andrew. Ralph, I have to tell you about Jay.” Hannah and Mary looked at each other. With everything that Andrew said, from then on, they realized in a sense which they had failed to before, that it had really happened and that it was final.
"Jay died tonight, Ralph.
“He died in an auto accident, on the way home, out near Powell’s Station. He was instantly killed.”
Mary looked down into the whiskey and began to tremble.
"Instantly. I have a doctor’s word for it. He couldn’t even have known what hit him.
“It was concussion of the brain, Ralph. Concussion-of the brain. Just so hard a shock to the brain that it killed him instantly.”
“They mustn’t tell his father,” Mary said suddenly. “It’ll just kill his father.”
“I don’t see how they can avoid it,” Hannah said. “Mary says they mustn’t tell his, Jay’s, father,” Hannah told her brother. “In his condition the news might kill him. I told her I simply don’t see how they can avoid it. They’ll have to account for coming away to the funeral, after all.”
“Just tell him he’s hurt,” Joel said.
Mary hurried into the hall. “Andrew,” she whispered loudly. With a contortion of the face which terrified her he slapped his hand through the air at her as if she had been a mosquito. “Just that one place, on the point of the chin,” he was saying. He turned to Mary, but the voice held him and he turned away. “He may have driven for miles that way. They don’t know. They looked all around and quite a distance up the road-yes, of course with flashlights-and they couldn’t find it.” Again she heard the voice, squirming like a wire. “No, they haven’t any idea. Except that there are some very rough stretches in those roads and Jay was driving very fast. Just a minute, Ralph.” He covered the mouthpiece. “What is it, Mary?”
She could hear the distraught and squirming voice. Like a worm on a hook, she thought. Poor nasty fat thing! “Tell Ralph not to tell his father,” she whispered. “In his condition it might kill him. If they have to say anything, about-coming down-tell him he’s hurt.” Andrew nodded.
“Ralph,” he said. “Go away,” he whispered, for she was lingering. “We just want to remind you, it might be very dangerous to your father” (by now Mary heard him through the door; she took her seat) "if he heard this now. Of course you and your mother’ll know best but in case you have to explain, when you come away to the funeral, it might be better just to say that Jay’s been hurt; not in danger. Don’t you think?
"What did you say?
“Why no, we…”He’s at Roberts’. I came in with him tonight.
“Why I’d suppose that…”
“Oh heavens!” Mary said, loudly enough that her father jumped. “Ralph’s an undertaker!”
"Of course, I see your point, Ralph.
"No. Not yet.
"Well the saving of money is not a question in this…
"Look here, Ralph, will you just…
"Will you just hold the phone a minute, please? I really think we should leave this up to Mary, don’t you?
"Of course she does. You too. I…
"I don’t doubt it at all.
“No, I appreciate it very deeply, Ralph, and I know Mary will, but just let me consult her wishes on it, please. Just wait.”
They heard his rapid walk and he thrust his infuriated face into the room.
“Ralph,” he announced, “is an undertaker. I imagine you know what he wants. I told him it was up to you to decide.”
“Good-God!” Joel exclaimed.
“Andrew, you’ll have to tell him-I-just simply can’t.”
“He’s blaming himself for Jay’s… He wants to try to make up for it.”
“How on earth can he blame himself!”
“For phoning Jay in the first place.”
“What nonsense,” Hannah said.
“But Jay’s already at Ro…”
“Ralph says that’s easily arranged. He can come down first thing tomorrow.”
“Well, then we just can’t. We just won’t, no matter what. Tell him how very very much I appreciate it and thank him, but I just can’t. Tell him I’m prostrated. I don’t care what you tell him, you handle it, Andrew.”
“I’ll handle it.” He went back to the phone. “Seems downright incestuous,” Joel said.
His sister laughed harshly.
“Nothing important, Mama,” Mary said. “Just-arrangements about the funeral.”
Nothing important! Joel thought. People can only get through these things by being blind at least half the time. No: she was just cutting a corner for Catherine.
“When will the ceremony be held?”
Hannah stifled a laugh and Joel did not. Mary’s face worked curiously with a smile as she told her mother, “We don’t know yet. This was a question of where. Here or LaFollette?”
“I would have supposed that his home was Knoxville.”
“We think so, too. That’s how it’s settled.”
“That seems as it should be.”
Andrew came in. “Well,” he said, “it was either Ralph or you and I chose you.”
“Oh, Andrew, you must have hurt him.”
“There wasn’t any way out He just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“He’s going to make an awful case of it to his mother.”
“Well he’ll just have to, then.”
“She’s got sense, Mary,” Hannah said.
“I’m going to have a drink,” Andrew said. “God!” he groaned. “Talking to that fool is like trying to put socks on an octopus!”
“Why, Andrew,” Mary laughed; she had never heard the expression. “I’m very grateful to you, dear,” she said. “You must be worn to a frazzle.”
“We all are,” Hannah said. “You most of all, Mary. We better think about getting some sleep.”
“I suppose we must, but I really don’t feel as if I could sleep. You-all better though.”
“We’re all right,” Andrew said. “Except maybe Mama. And Papa, you’d b…”
“Never sleep before two in the morning,” Joel said. “You know that.”
“Let me fix you a good stiff hot toddy,” Hannah said. “It’ll help you sleep.”
“It all just seems to wake me up.”
“Maybe just some hot milk. No I won’t, either,” she cried out, with sudden tears; they looked at her and looked away; she soon had control of herself.
“One of the last things Jay did for me,” she explained, “way early in the morning before he-went away. He fixed me some hot milk to help me sleep.” She began to cry again. “Bless his heart,” she said. “Bless his dear heart.”
"You know almost the last thing he said to me?
"He asked me to think what I wanted for my birthday.
"’Within reason,’he said. He was just joking.
“And he said not to wait supper, but he’d-he’d try to be back before the children were asleep, for sure.”
She’d feel better later on if she’d kept a few of these things to herself, Joel thought.
Or would she. I would. But I’m not Poll.
“Rufus just-wouldn’t give up. He just wouldn’t go to sleep. He was so proud of that cap, Aunt Hannah. He wanted so much to show it to his father.”
Hannah came over to her and leaned to her, an arm around her shoulder.
“Talk if you want to, Mary,” she said. “If you think it does you good. But try not to harp on these things.”
“And I was so mad at him, only a few hours ago, for not phoning all day, and because of Rufus. I had such a good supper ready, and I did wait it, and…”
“It wasn’t his fault it was good,” Hannah said.
“Of course it isn’t his fault and I had no business waiting it but I did, and I was so angry with him-why I even-I even…”
But this she found she would not tell them. I even thought he was drunk, she said to herself. And if he was, why what in the world of it. Let’s hope if he was he really loved being, God bless him always. Always.
And then a terrifying thought occurred to her, and she looked at Andrew. No, she thought, he wouldn’t lie to me if it were so. No, I won’t even ask it. I won’t even imagine it. I just don’t see how I could bear to live if that were so.
But there he was, all that day, with Ralph. He must have. Well he probably did. That was no part of the promise. But not really drunk. Not so he couldn’t-navigate. Drive well.
No I won’t even dishonor his dear memory by asking. Not even Andrew in secret. No, I won’t.
And she thought with such exactness and with such love of her husband’s face, and of his voice, and of his hands, and of his way of smiling so warmly even though his eyes almost never lost their sadness, that she succeeded in driving the other thought from her mind.
“Hark!” Hannah whispered.
“What is it?”
“What’s up?” Joel asked.
“Be quiet, Joel, please. There’s something.”
They listened most intently.
“I can’t hear anything,” Andrew whispered.
“Well I do,” Hannah said, in a low voice. “Hear it or feel it. There’s something.”
And again in silence they listened.
It began to seem to Mary, as to Hannah, that there was someone in the house other than themselves. She thought of the children; they might have waked up. Yet listening as intently as she could, she was not at all sure that there was any sound; and whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness, which were no part of any child.
“There is something,” Andrew whispered Whatever it might be, it was never for an instant at rest in one place. It was in the next room; it was in the kitchen; it was in the dining room.
“I’m going out to see,” Andrew said; he got up.
“Wait, Andrew, don’t, not yet,” Mary whispered “No; no”; now it’s going upstairs, she thought; it’s along the-it’s in the children’s room. It’s in our room.
“Has somebody come into the house?” Catherine inquired in her clear voice.
Andrew felt the flesh go cold along his spine. He bent near her. “What made you think so, Mama?” he asked quietly.
“It’s right here in the room with us,” Mary said in a cold voice.
“Why, how very stupid of me, I thought I heard. Footsteps.” She gave her short, tinkling laugh. “I must be getting old and dippy.” She laughed again.
“It’s Jay,” Mary whispered. "I know it now. I was so wrapped up in wondering what on earth… Jay. Darling. Dear heart, can you hear me?
"Can you tell me if you hear me, dearest?
"Oh try your best, my dear. Try your very hardest to let me know.
"You can’t, can you? You can’t, no matter how hard.
"But O, do hear me, Jay. I do pray God with all my heart you can hear me, I want so to assure you.
“Don’t be troubled, dear one. Don’t you worry. Stay near us if you can. All you can. But let not your heart be troubled. They’re all right, my sweetheart, my husband. I’m going to be all right. Don’t you worry. We’ll make out. Rest, my dear. Just rest. Just rest, my heart. Don’t ever be troubled again. Never again, darling. Never, never again.”
“May the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest in peace,” Hannah whispered. “Blessed are the dead.”
“Mary!” her brother whispered. He was crying.
“He’s not here any more now,” she said. “We can talk.”
“Mary, in God’s name what was it?”
“It was Jay, Andrew.”
“It was something. I haven’t any doubt of that, but-good God, Mary.”
“It was Jay, all right. I know! Who else would be coming here tonight, so terribly worried, so terribly concerned for us, and restless! Besides, Andrew, it-it simply felt like Jay.”
“I just mean it felt like his presence.”
“To me, too,” Hannah said.
“I don’t like to interrupt,” Joel said, “but would you mind telling me, please, what’s going on here?”
“You felt it too, Papa?” Mary asked eagerly.
“You remember when Aunt Hannah said there was something around, someone or something in the house?”
“Yes, and she told me to shut up, so I did.”
“I simply asked you please to be quiet, Joel, because we were trying to hear.”
“Well, what did you hear?”
“I don’t know’s I heard anything, Joel. I’m not a bit sure. I don’t think I did. But I felt something, very distinctly. So did Andrew.”
“Yes I did, Papa.”
“Oh, very much so.”
“What do you mean you felt something?”
“Then you didn’t, Papa?”
“I got a feeling there was some kind of a strain in the room, something or other was up among you; Mary looking as if she’d seen a ghost; all of you…”
“She did,” Andrew said. “That is, she didn’t actually see anything, but she felt it. She knew something was there. She says it was Jay.”
“Jay. Aunt Hannah thinks so too.”
“Yes I do, Joel. I’m not as sure as Mary, but it did seem like him.”
“The thing, Papa, whatever it was. The thing we all felt.”
“What did it feel like?”
“You think it was Jay?”
“No, I had no idea what it was. But I know it was something. Mama felt it too.”
“Yes. And it couldn’t have been through us because she didn’t even know what we were doing. All of a sudden she said,’Has somebody come into the house?’and when I asked her why she thought so she said she thought she’d heard footsteps.”
“Could be thought transference.”
“None of the rest of us thought we heard footsteps.”
“All the same. It can’t be what you think.”
“I don’t know what it was, Papa, but there are four of us here independently who are sure there was something.”
“Joel, I know that God in a wheelbarrow wouldn’t convince you,” his sister said. “We aren’t even trying to convince you. But while you’re being so rational, why at least please be rational enough to realize that we experienced what we experienced.”
“The least I can do is accept the fact that three people had a hallucination, and honor their belief in it. That I can do, too, I guess. I believe you, for yourself, Hannah. All of you. I’d have to have the same hallucination myself to be convinced. And even then I’d have my doubts.”
“What on earth do you mean, doubts, Papa, if you had it yourself?”
“I’d suspect it was just a hallucination.”
“Oh, good Lord! You’ve got it going and coming, haven’t you!”
“Is this a dagger that I see before me? Wasn’t, you know. But you could never convince Macbeth it wasn’t.”
“Andrew,” Mary broke in, “tell Mama. She’s just dying to know what we’re…” she trailed off. I must be out of my mind, she said to herself. Dying! And she began to think with astonishment and disgust of the way they had all been talking-herself most of all. How can we bear to chatter along in normal tones of voice! she thought; how can we even use ordinary words, or say words at all! And now, picking his poor troubled soul to pieces, like so many hens squabbling over-she thought of a worm, and covered her face in sickness. She heard her mother say, “Why, Andrew, how perfectly extraordinary!” and then she heard Andrew question her, had she had any special feeling about what kind of a person or thing it was, that is, was it quiet or active, or young or old, or disturbed or calm, or was it anything: and her mother answered that she had had no particular impression except that there was someone in the house besides themselves, not the children either, somebody mature, some sort of intruder; but that when nobody had troubled to investigate, she had decided that it must be an hallucination-all the more so because, as she’d said, she thought she’d actually heard someone, whereas with her poor old ears (she laughed gracefully) that was simply out of the question, of course. Oh, I do wish they’d leave him in peace, she said to herself. A thing so wonderful. Such a proof! Why can’t we just keep a reverent silence! But Andrew was asking his mother, had she, a little later than that, still felt even so that there was somebody? or not. And she said that indeed she had had such an impression. Where? Why she couldn’t say where, except that the impression was even stronger than before, but, of course, by then she realized it was an hallucination. But they felt it too! Why how perfectly uncanny!
“Mary thinks it was Jay,” Andrew told her.
“So does Aunt Hannah.”
“Why how-how perfectly extraordinary, Andrew!”
“She thinks he was worried about…”
“Oh, Andrew!” Mary cried. “Andrew Please let’s don’t talk about it any more! Do you mind?”
He looked at her as if he had been slapped. “Why, Mary, of course not!” He explained to his mother: “Mary’d rather we didn’t discuss it any more.”
“Oh, it’s not that, Andrew. It just-means so much more than anything we can say about it or even think about it. I’d give anything just to sit quiet and think about it a little while! Don’t you see? It’s as if we were driving him away when he wants so much to be here among us, with us, and can’t.”
“I’m awfully sorry, Mary. Just awfully sorry. Yes, of course I do see. It’s a kind of sacrilege.”
So they sat quietly and in the silence they began to listen again. At first there was nothing, but after a few minutes Hannah whispered, “He’s there,” and Andrew whispered, “Where?” and Mary said quietly, “With the children,” and quietly and quickly left the room.
When she came through the door of the children’s room she could feel his presence as strongly throughout the room as if she had opened a furnace door: the presence of his strength, of virility, of helplessness, and of pure calm. She fell down on her knees in the middle of the floor and whispered, “Jay. My dear. My dear one. You’re all right now, darling. You’re not troubled any more, are you, my darling? Not any more. Not ever any more, dearest. I can feel how it is with you. I know, my dearest. It’s terrible to go. You don’t want to. Of course you don’t. But you’ve got to. And you know they’re going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right, my darling. God take you. God keep you, my own beloved. God make His light shine upon you.” And even while she whispered, his presence became faint, and in a moment of terrible dread she cried out “Jay!” and hurried to her daughter’s crib. “Stay with me one minute,” she whispered, “just one minute, my dearest”; and in some force he did return; she felt him with her, watching his child. Catherine was sleeping with all her might and her thumb was deep in her mouth; she was scowling fiercely. “Mercy, child,” Mary whispered, smiling, and touched her hot forehead to smooth it, and she growled. “God bless you, God keep you,” her mother whispered, and came silently to her son’s bed. There was the cap in its tissue paper, beside him on the floor; he slept less deeply than his sister, with his chin lifted, and his forehead flung back; he looked grave, serene and expectant.
“Be with us all you can,” she whispered. “This is good-bye.” And again she went to her knees. Good-bye, she said again, within herself; but she was unable to feel much of anything. “God help me to realize it,” she whispered, and clasped her hands before her face: but she could realize only that he was fading, and that it was indeed good-bye, and that she was at that moment unable to be particularly sensitive to the fact.
And now he was gone entirely from the room, from the house, and from this world.
“Soon, Jay. Soon, dear,” she whispered; but she knew that it would not be soon. She knew that a long life lay ahead of her, for the children were to be brought up, and God alone could know what change and chance might work upon them all, before they met once more. She felt at once calm and annihilating emptiness, and a cold and overwhelming fullness.
“God help us all,” she whispered. “May God in His loving mercy keep us all.”
She signed herself with the Cross and left the room.
She looks as she does when she has just received, Hannah thought as she came in and took her old place on the sofa; for Mary was trying, successfully, to hide her desolation; and as she sat among them in their quietness it was somewhat diminished. After all, she told herself, he was there. More strongly even than when he was here in the room with me. Anyhow. And she was grateful for their silence.
Finally Andrew said, “Aunt Hannah has an idea about it, Mary.„”Maybe you’d prefer not to talk about it, " Hannah said.
“No; it’s all right; I guess I’d rather.” And with mild surprise she found that this was true.
“Well, it’s simply that I thought of all the old tales and beliefs about the souls of people who die sudden deaths, or violent deaths. Or as Joel would prefer it, not souls. Just their life force. Their consciousness. Their life itself.”
“Can’t get around that,” Joel said. “Hannah was saying that everything of any importance leaves the body then. I certainly have to agree with that.”
“And that even whether you believe or not in life after death,” Mary said, “in the soul, as a living, immortal thing, creature, why it’s certainly very believable that for a little while afterwards, this force, this life, stays on. Hovers around.”
“Sounds highly unlikely to me, but I suppose it’s conceivable.”
“Like looking at a light and then shutting your eyes. No, not like that but-but it does stay on. Specially when it’s someone very strong, very vital, who hasn’t been worn down by old age, or a long illness or something.”
“That’s exactly it,” Andrew said. “Something that comes out whole, because it’s so quick.”
“Why they’re as old as the hills, those old beliefs.”
“I should imagine they’re as old as life and death,” Andrew said.
“The thing I mean is, they aren’t taken straight to God,” Hannah said. “They’ve had such violence done them, such a shock, it takes a while to get their wits together.”
“That’s why it took him so long to come,” Mary said. “As if his very soul had been struck unconscious.”
“I should think maybe.”
“And above all with someone like Jay, young, and with children and a wife, and not even dreaming of such a thing coming on him, no time to adjust his mind and feelings, or prepare for it.”
“That’s just it,” Andrew said; Hannah nodded.
"Why he’d feel,’I'm worried. This came too fast without warning. There are all kinds of things I’ve got to tend to. I can’t just leave them like this.’Wouldn’t he! And that’s just how he was, how we felt he was. So anxious. So awfully concerned, and disturbed. Why yes, it’s just exactly the way it was!
“And only when they feel convinced you know they care, and everything’s going to be taken good care of, just the very best possible, it’s only then they can stop being anxious and begin to rest.”
They nodded and for a minute they were all quiet.
Then Mary said tenderly, "How awful, pitiful, beyond words it must be, to be so terribly anxious for others, for others’good, and not be able to do anything, even to say so. Not even to help. Poor things.
“Oh, they do need reassuring. They do need rest. I’m so grateful I could assure him. It’s so good he can rest at last. I’m so glad.” And her heart was restored from its desolation, into warmth and love and almost into wholeness.
Again they were all thoughtfully silent, and into this silence Joel spoke quietly and slowly, "I don’t-know. I just-don’t-know. Every bit of gumption I’ve got tells me it’s impossible, but if this kind of thing is so, it isn’t with gumption that you see it is. I just-don’t-know.
"If you’re right, and I’m wrong, then chances are you’re right about the whole business, God, and the whole crew. And in that case I’m just a plain damned fool.
"But if I can’t trust my common sense-I know it’s nothing much, Poll, but it’s all I’ve got. If I can’t trust that, what in hell can I trust!
“God, you’n Hannah’d say. Far’s I’m concerned, it’s out of the question.”
“It doesn’t seem to embarrass your idea of common sense, or Poll’s, and for that matter I’m making no reflections. You’ve got plenty of gumption. But how you can reconcile the two, I can’t see.”
“It takes faith, Papa,” Mary said gently.
"That’s the word. That’s the one makes a mess of everything, far’s I’m concerned. Bounces up like a jack-in-the-box. Solves everything.
"Well it doesn’t solve anything for me, for I haven’t got any.
"Wouldn’t hurt it if I had. Don’t believe in it.
"Not for me.
"For you, for anyone that can manage it, all right. More power to you. Might be glad if I could myself. But I can’t.
“I’m not exactly an atheist, you know. Least I don’t suppose I am. Seems as unfounded to me to say there isn’t a God as to say there is. You can’t prove it either way. But that’s it: I’ve got to have proof. And on anything can’t be proved, be damned if I’ll jump either way. All I can say is, I hope you’re wrong but I just don’t know.”
“I don’t, either,” Andrew said. “But I hope it’s so.”
He saw Mary and Hannah look at him hopefully.
“I don’t mean the whole business,” he said. “I don’t know anything about that. I just mean tonight.”
Can’t eat your cake and have it, his father thought.
Like slapping a child in the face, Andrew thought; he had been rougher than he had intended.
“But, Andrew dear,” Mary was about to say, but she caught herself. What a thing to argue about, she thought; and what a time to be wrangling about it!
Each of them realized that the others felt something of this; for a little while none of them had anything to say. Finally Andrew said, “I’m sorry.”
“Never mind,” his sister said. “It’s all right, Andrew.”
“We just each believe what we’re able,” Hannah said, after a moment.
“Even you, Joel. You have faith in your mind. Your reason.”
“Not very much: all I’ve got, that’s all. All I can be sure of.”
“That’s all I mean.”
“Let’s not talk about it any more,” Mary said. “Tonight,” she added, trying to make her request seem less peremptory.
The word was a reproach upon them all, much more grave, they were sure, than Mary had intended, so that to spare her regret they all hastened to say, kindly and as if somewhat callously, “No, let’s not.”
In the embarrassment of having spoken all at once they sat helpless and sad, sure only that silence, however painful to them all and to Mary, was less mistaken than trying to speak. Mary wished that she might ease them; her continued silence, she was sure, intensified their self-reproach; but she felt, as they did, that an attempt to speak would be worse than quietness.
In this quietness their mother sat, and smiled nervously and politely, and tilted her trumpet in a generalized way towards all of them. She realized that nobody was speaking and it was at such times, ordinarily, that she felt sure that she could speak without interrupting anyone, but she feared that anything that she might say might brutally or even absurdly disrupt a weaving of thought and feeling whose motions within the room she could most faintly apprehend.
After a little while it occurred to her that even to hold out her trumpet might seem to require something of them; she held it in her lap. But lest any of them should feel that this was in any sense a reproach, or should in the least feel sorry for her, she kept her little smile, thinking, how foolish, how very foolish, to smile.
Smiling at grief, Joel thought. He wondered whether his sister and his son and his daughter, if they were thinking of it at all, understood the smile as he was sure he did. He wished that he could pat her hand. By God, they’d better, he thought.
Andrew could not get out of his mind the image of his brother-in-law as he had first seen him that night. By the mere shy, inactive way the men stood who, as he and Walter first came up, stood between them and Jay, he had realized, instantly, before anyone spoke, “He’s dead.” Somebody had murmured something embarrassed about identification and he had answered sharply that they’d managed to phone the family, hadn’t they?, and again they had murmured embarrassedly, and ashamed of his sharpness he had assented, and there in the light of the one bulb one of the men had gently turned down the sheet (for he gathered a little later that the blacksmith’s wife, finding him covered with a reeking horse blanket, had hurried to bring this sheet); and there he was; and Andrew nodded, and made himself say, “Yes,” and he heard Walter’s deep, quiet breathing at his shoulder and heard him say, “Yes,” and he stood a little aside in order that Walter might have room, and together they stood silent and looked at the uncovered head. The strong frown was still in the forehead but, even as they watched, it seemed to be fading very slowly; already the flesh had settled somewhat along the bones of the prostrate skull; the temples, the forehead and the sockets of the eyes were more subtly molded than they had been in life and the nose was more finely arched; the chin was thrust upward as if proudly and impatiently, and the small cut at its point was as neat and bloodless as if it had been made by a chisel in soft wood. They watched him with the wonder which is felt in the presence of anything which is great and new, and, for a little while, in any place where violence has recently occurred; they were aware, as they gazed at the still head, of a prodigious kind of energy in the air. Without turning his head, Andrew became aware that tears were running down Walter’s cheeks; he himself was cold, awed, embittered beyond tears. After perhaps a half minute he said coldly, “Yes, that’s he,” and covered the face himself and turned quickly away; Walter was drying his face and his glasses; aware of some obstacle, Andrew glanced quickly down upon a horned, bruised anvil; and laid his hand flat against the cold, wheemed iron; and it was as if its forehead gave his hand the stunning shadow of every blow it had ever received.
Now these images manifolded upon each other with great rapidity, at their constant center, the proud, cut chin, and could be driven from his mind’s eye only by two others, Jay as he felt he had seen him, the contact after the accident, lying, they had told him, so straight and unblemished beside the car, the dead eyes shining with starlight and the hand still as if ready to seize and wrestle; and as he had last actually seen him, naked on the naked table, a block beneath his nape.
Somebody sighed, from the heart; he looked up; it was Hannah. They were all looking downward and sidelong. His sister’s face had altered strangely among this silence; it had become thin, shy and somehow almost bridal. He remembered her wedding in Panama; yes, it was much the same face. He looked away.
“Aunt Hannah, will you please stay with me here tonight?” Mary asked.
Mama, Andrew thought, and his heart went out to her as he looked at her deaf, set smile.
“Why certainly, Mary.”
Joel decided not to look at his watch. Andrew covertly glanced at the mantel clock. It was…
“I hope Mama won’t mind too much. I hope she’ll understand. Poor thing. Mama,” she suddenly called, and put her hand on her mother’s hand and on the trumpet. Her mother eagerly tilted it. “I think it’s about time we all tried to get some sleep.” Her mother nodded, and seemed to be about to speak; Mary pressed her hand for silence and continued, “Mama, I’ve asked Aunt Hannah if she’ll stay here tonight with me.” Her mother nodded and again seemed to be about to speak. Again Mary pressed her hand: “I’d love it if you could, but I know how it would disrupt things at eleven-fifteen,”-“Hahh,” her father exclaimed-“and I just…”
“Tell her, Poll!”
“Also, Mama. Also it’s just-I hope you’ll understand and not mind, Mama dear-it’s just it would be so very hard for us to talk, quietly, and with the children and all, why I just sort of think…”
“Why certainly, Mary,” her mother interrupted, in her somewhat ringing voice. “I absolutely agree with you. I think it’s so nice that Hannah can stay!” she added, almost as if Mary and Hannah were little girls.
“I hope you know, Mama, how very much!-I hope you don’t mind. I just appreciate it so much, I…”
Her mother patted her hand rapidly. “It’s perfectly all right, Mary. It’s very sensible.” She smiled.
Mary put an arm around her and hugged her; she turned her aging face and smiled very brightly and Mary could see the tears in her eyes. She was speechless and her head was shaking in her effort to convey her love and the entirety of her feeling. “Anything I can do, dear child,” she said after a few moments. “Anything!”
“Bless you, Mama!”
“I said bless you, dear!”
Catherine patted her hand on the back and smiled even more tightly.
I love you so much! Mary exclaimed within herself.
“Praps the children,” Catherine said. “I could take care, if-it would be more, convenient…”
“Oh, I don’t think we should wake them up!” Mary said.
“She doesn’t mean…” Andrew began.
“Tomorrow,” her mother said. “Just, perhaps, during the-interim…”
“That’s wonderful, Mama, that may turn out to be just the thing and if it is I most certainly will. Most gratefully. It’s just, I’m in such a spin it’s just too soon to quite know yet, make any plans. Anything. Tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
“Not at all.”
“Thank you all the same.”
Her mother smiled and shook her head.
Joel and his sister stood up.
“Mary, before we go,” Andrew said.
“It’s much to late, Mary, you’re much too tired.”
“Not if it’s important, Andrew.”
“Let’s let it go till morning.”
“What is it, Andrew?”
“Just-various things we’ll have to discuss pretty soon.” He took a deep breath and said in a loud voice. “Getting a plot, making arrangements about the funeral; seeing about a headstone. Let’s wait till morning.”
Earth, stone, a coffin. The ugly craft of undertakers became real and tangible to her, but as if she touched them with frozen hands. She looked at him with glazed eyes.
“That’ll be plenty of time, Mary,” she heard her aunt say.
“Of course it will,” Andrew said. “It was foolish of me to even speak of it tonight.”
“Well if there’s time,” she said vaguely. “Yes if there’s time, Andrew,” she said more distinctly. “Yes, then I’d rather, if you don’t mind. Tomorrow in the morning.” She glanced at the clock. “Goodness this morning,” she exclaimed.
“Of course not,” Andrew said. He turned to his aunt and said in a low voice, as one speaks before an invalid, “Let her sleep if she can. You phone me.”
“Must’ve…” Joel said, and went into the hall.
“What’s…” Hannah began.
“Hat I guess. Mine too.” Andrew left the room; in the hall he met his father, carrying his own hat, his wife’s, and Andrew’s.
“Left them in the kitchen,” his father said.
“Thank you, Papa,” Andrew took his hat.
Catherine was standing uneasily in the middle of the room, holding her trumpet and her purse and looking towards the hall door. “Thank you, Joel,” she said. She settled and pinned her hat by touch, a little crooked, and looked at Hannah inquiringly.
It’s all right, Catherine, " her husband said.
Andrew was watching his sister. It seemed to him that these preparations for departure put her into some kind of silent panic. Maybe we should stay, he thought. All night. I could. But Mary was chiefly watching her mother’s difficulties with the hat. No, it’s the slowness, he corrected himself. Sooner the better.
“Well, Mary,” he said, and stepped to her and put his arms around her. He saw that her eyes were speckled; it was as if the irises had been crushed into many small fragments; and in her eyes and her presence he felt something of the shock and energy which had radiated so strongly from the dead body. She was new; changed. Nothing I can do, he thought.
“Thank you for everything,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had it to do.”
He could not answer or continue to look into her eyes; he embraced her more closely. “Mary,” he said finally.
“I’m all right, Andrew,” she said quietly. “I’ve got to be.”
He nodded sharply.
“You come up in the morning. We’ll-make our plans.”
“Sleep if you can.”
“Just come up first thing because I know there’s an awful lot to do and not much time.”
“Good night, Andrew.”
“Good night, Mary.”
“Bless you,” her mother exploded, almost as if she were cursing; deaf, near-sighted, she caught her daughter in her arms with all her strength and patted her back with both hands, thinking: how young and good she smells!
She wants so to help, Mary realized. To stay! Under her caress she felt the hard, round shoulders, sharp backbone, already hunching with age. Leaning back in her mother’s embrace, she straightened the hat, looked into the trembling face, and kissed her hard on the mouth. Her mother twice returned the kiss, then stood aside, gathering her long skirt for the porch steps.
“Poll,” her father said; she felt the beard against her cheek and heard his whisper: “Good girl. Keep it up.”
“Good night,” Hannah said.
“Good night, Aunt Hannah,” Andrew replied.
“Night, Hannah,” her brother said. He steered Catherine by one elbow, Andrew by the other; they went onto the porch.
“Light!” Mary exclaimed.
“What?” Andrew and Hannah asked, startled.
Mary switched on the porch light. “Tsall right,” her father said in mild annoyance. “Thank you,” her mother chimed, politely. Mary and Hannah stood at the door while they carefully descended the porch steps, and they watched them until they reached the corner and then until they had safely crossed the street. Under the corner lamp, Andrew turned his head and lifted and let fall his hand in something less than a wave. The others did not turn; and now Andrew also had turned away, and they went carefully away along the sidewalk, and Mary switched off the light, and still watched. Hannah could no longer see them now, and after a few moments, gave up pretending to watch them and watched Mary as she looked after them, as intently, Hannah felt, as if it were of more importance than anything else, to see them until the last possible instant. And still Mary could see them, somewhat darker against the darkness and of uneven heights, growing smaller, so that it was not finally the darkness which made them impossible to see, but the corner of the Biddles’house.
When they were gone she continued to look up and down the street as far as she could see. There was the strong carbon light at the corner, and there was the glow of an unseen light at a more distant corner to the west; and of another, still more distant, to the east. There was no sound, and there were no lights on in any of the houses. The air moved mildly on her forehead. She turned, and saw that her aunt was watching her, and looked into her eyes.
“Time to sleep,” she said.
She closed the door; they continued to look at each other.
“It was just about this time last night,” she said.
Hannah sighed, very low; after a moment she touched Mary’s hand. Still they stood and looked at each other.
“Yes, just about,” Mary whispered strangely.
Through the silence they began to hear the kitchen clock.
“Let’s not even try to talk now,” Mary said. “We’re both worn out.”
“Let me fix you a good hot toddy,” Hannah said, as they turned towards the living room. “Help you sleep.”
“I honestly don’t think I’ll need it, Aunt Hannah.”
I’ll make one and you take it or not as you like, Hannah wanted to say; suddenly she realized: I’m only trying to think I’m useful. She said nothing.
There was an odd kind of shyness or constraint between them, which neither could understand. They stood still again, just inside the living room; the silence was somewhat painful for both of them, each on the other’s account. Does she really want me to stay, Hannah wondered; what earthly use am I! Does she think I don’t want her to stay, Mary wondered, just because I can’t talk? No, she’s no talker.
“I just can’t talk just now,” she said.
“Of course you can’t, child.”
Hannah felt that she probably ought to take charge of everything, but she felt still more acutely that she should be at the service of Mary’s wishes, or lack of them for that matter, she told herself.
I can’t stand to send her to bed, Mary thought.
“It’s all ready,” she said abruptly and, she feared, rather ruthlessly, and walked quickly across to the downstairs bedroom door and opened it. “See?” She walked in and turned on the light and faced her aunt. “I got it ready in case Jay,” she said, and absently smoothed the pillow. “Just as well I did.”
“You go straight to bed, Mary,” Hannah said. “Let me help if I…”
Mary went into the kitchen; then Hannah could hear her in the hall; after a moment she came back. “Here’s a clean nightgown,” she said, “and a wrapper,” putting them across her aunt’s embarrassed hands. “It’ll be big, I’m afraid, the wrapper, it’s-was-it’s Jay’s, but if you’ll turn up the sleeves it’ll do in a pinch, I guess.” She went past Hannah into the living room.
“I’ll see to that, Mary,” Hannah hurried after her; she was already gathering tumblers towards the tray.
“Great-goodness!” Mary exclaimed. She lifted the bottle. “Do you mean to say I drank all that?” It was three-quarters empty.
“No. Andrew had some, so did I, so did J-your father.”
“But-just one apiece, Aunt Hannah. I must have. Nearly all of it.”
“It hasn’t had any effect.”
“How on earth!” She held the low whiskey close to her eyes and looked at it as if she were threading a needle. “Well I most certainly don’t need a hot toddy,” she said.
“I never heard of such a thing!” she exclaimed quietly.
“You might wake up with a headache.”
“It must just, Papa, Papa says, he said it sometimes doesn’t, in a state of shock or things… Aunt Hannah?” She called more loudly. “Aunt Hannah?” Mustn’t wake them, she remembered. She waited. Her aunt came in from the hall with a glass of water and two aspirins.
“Here,” she said, “you take these.”
“Just swallow them. You don’t want to wake up with a headache and they’ll help you sleep, too.”
She took them docilely; Hannah loaded and lifted the tray.
Along Laurel, it was much darker; heavy leaves obscured the one near street lamp. Andrew could hear only their footsteps; his father and mother, he realized, could hear nothing even of that. How still we see thee lie. Yes, and between the treetops; the pale scrolls and porches and dark windows of the homes drifting past their slow walking, and not a light in any home, and so for miles, in every street of home and of business; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
He helped his mother from the curb; this slow and irregular rattling of their little feet.
The stars are tired by now. Night’s nearly over.
He helped her to the opposite curb.
Upon their faces the air was so marvelously pure, aloof and tender; and the silence of the late night in the city, and the stars, were secret and majestic beyond the wonder of the deepest country. Little houses, bigger ones, scrolled and capacious porches, dark windows, leaves of trees already rich with May, homes of rooms which chambered sleep as honey is cherished, drifted past their slow walking and were left behind, and not a light in any home. Along Laurel Avenue it was still darker. The lamp behind them no longer cast their shadows; in the light of the lamp ahead, a small and distant bit of pavement looked scalded with emptiness, a few leaves were touched to acid flame, the spindles and turned posts of one porch were rigidly white. Helping his mother along through the darkness, Andrew was walking much more slowly than he was used to walking, and all these things entered him calmly and thoroughly. Full as his heart was, he found that he was involved at least as deeply in the loveliness and unconcern of the spring night, as in the death. It’s as if I didn’t even care, he reflected, but he didn’t mind. He knew he cared; he felt gratitude towards the night and towards the city he ordinarily cared little for. How still we see thee lie, he heard his mind say. He said the words over, drily within himself, and heard the melody; a child’s voice, his own, sang it in his mind.
He tried to remember when he had last walked in the open night at such an hour. He wasn’t sure he even… God, years. Seven-about sixteen, when he still thought he was Shelley, watching the river. Leaning on the bridge rail and literally praying with gratitude for being alive.
Instinctively, he turned his head so that his parents could not see his face.
I don’t want to see it, either, he thought.
By that time, Jay was trying to teach himself law.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
The words had always touched him; every year they still brought back Christmas to him, for some reason, as not hing else could. Now they seemed to him as beautiful as any poetry he had ever known.
He said them over to himself very slowly and calmly: just a statement.
They do indeed, he thought, looking up. They do indeed. And God, how tired they look!
It’s the time of night.
The silent stars go by, he said aloud, not whispering, but so quietly he was sure they would not hear.
His eyes sprang full of tears; his throat, his chest knotted into a deep sob which he subdued, and the tears itched on his cheeks.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, he sang loudly, almost in fury, within himself: the everlasting light! and upon these words a sob leapt up through him which he could not subdue but could only hope to conceal.
They did not notice.
This is crazy, he told himself incredulously. No sense in this at all!
The hopes and fears, a calm and implacable voice continued within him; he spoke quietly: Of all the years.
Are met in thee tonight, he whispered: and in the middle of a wide plain, the middle of the dark and silent city, slabbed beneath shadowless light, he saw the dead man, and struck his thigh with his fists with all his strength.
All he could hear in this world was only their footsteps; his father and mother, he realized, could hear nothing even of that.
He helped her from the curb; this slow and irregular rattling of their little feet: and across the space of bitter light.
He helped her to the opposite curb; they followed their absurd shadows until all was once more one shadow.
None of the three of them spoke, throughout their walk; when they came to the corner at which they would turn for home, it was as if all three spoke, accepting the fact: for each man tightened his hand gently at the woman’s elbows and, bowing her head, she pressed their hands against her sides. They turned down the steep hill, walking still more slowly and tightening their knees, and saw the one light which had been left burning, and entered their home, quietly as burglars, by the back way.
They stopped at the foot of the stairs.
“Mary,” Hannah asked, “is there anything I can do?”
You want to come up with me, Mary realized. “I think I just better be alone,” she said. “But thank you. Thank you, Aunt Hannah.”
“Just call if you want me. You know how lightly I sleep.”
“I’ll be all right, I really will.”
“You rest in the morning. I’ll take care of the children.”
Mary looked at her with brightened eyes, and said, “Aunt Hannah, I’ll have to tell them.”
Hannah nodded, and sighed: “Yesss. Good night then,” she said, and kissed her niece. “God bless you,” she said, in a broken voice.
Mary looked at her carefully and said, “God help us all.”
She turned and went up the stairs, and leaned, smiling, just before she disappeared, and whispered, “Good night.”
“Good night, Mary,” Hannah whispered.
She turned off the hall light and the light in the living room and went into the lighted bedroom and pulled down the shade and shut the doors to the kitchen and the living room. She took off her dress and laid it over the back of a chair and sat on the edge of the bed to unlace her shoes, and hesitated, until she was certain that she remembered, clearly, putting out the lights in the kitchen and bathroom. She put on the nightgown except for the sleeves and finished undressing under the nightgown; it was rather large for her and she gathered and lifted it about her. She knelt beside the bed and said an Our Father and a Hail Mary, and found that her heart and mind were empty of further prayer or even of feeling. May the souls of the faithful, she tried; she clamped her teeth and, after a moment, prayed angrily: May the souls of everyone who has ever had to live and die, in the Faith or outside it, rest in peace. And especially his!
Strike me down, she thought. Visit upon me Thy lightnings. I don’t care. I can’t care.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, she thought. If You can. If You will. But that’s how I feel, and that’s all there is to it.
Again her heart and mind were empty; even now, feeling the breath of the abyss, she could not feel otherwise, or even care of fear.
Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief.
But I don’t really knows I do.
I can’t pray, God. Not now. Try to forgive me. I’m just too tired and too appalled.
Thirty-six years old.
Well, why not? Why one time worse than another? God knows it’s no picnic or ever was intended as such.
Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.
She made the sign of the Cross, raised the shade, opened the window, and got into bed. As her bare feet slid along the cold, clean linen and she felt its cold, clean blandness beneath her and above her, she was taken briefly by trembling and by loneliness, and remembered touching her dead mother’s cheek.
Oh, why am I alive!
She took off her glasses and laid them carefully in reach at the foot of the lamp, and turned out the light. She straightened formally on her back, folded her hands upon her breast, and shut her eyes.
I can’t worry any more about anything tonight, she said to herself. He’ll just have to take care of it.
Mary did not bother to turn on the light; she could see well enough by the windows. She put on her nightgown and undressed beneath it, and saw to it that the door was left ajar for the children, and climbed into bed before she realized that these were the same sheets and before it occurred to her that she had not said her prayers; and for such a while now she had felt that if only she could be alone, only for that!
It’s all right, she whispered to herself; it’s all right, she whispered aloud. She had meant that she was sure that God would understand and forgive her inability to pray, but she found that she meant too that it really was all right, everything, the whole thing, really all right. Thy will be done. All right. Truly all right. She lay straight on her back with her hands open, upward at her sides and could just make out, in the subtly diminished darkness, a familiar stain which at various times had seemed to resemble a crag, a galleon, a fish, a brooding head. Tonight it was just itself, with one meaningless eye. It seemed to her that she was falling backward and downward, prostrate, through eternity; she felt no concern. Without concern she heard a voice speak within her: Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice, she joined in. O let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. And now the first voice said no more and, aware of its silent presence, Mary continued, whispering aloud: If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss O Lord, who may abide it? And with these last words she began to cry freely and quietly, her hands turned downward and moved wide on the bed.
Oh, Jay! Jay!
Under the lid of the large kettle the low water was lukewarm; one by one, along the curved firmament, the last of the bubbles broke and vanished.
Hannah lay straight on her back with her hands folded: in their deep sockets, beneath lids as frail as membranes, her eyeballs were true spheres. No lines were left in her face; she might have been a young woman. Her lips were parted, and each breath was a light sigh.
Mary lay watching the ceiling: Who may abide it, she whispered.
One by one, million by million, in the prescience of dawn, every leaf in that part of the world was moved.
Rufus’house was on the way to school for a considerable neighborhood, and within a few minutes after his father had waved for the last time and disappeared, the walks were filled with another exciting thing to look at as the boys and girls who were old enough for school came by. At first he was content to watch them through the front window; they were creatures of an all but unimaginable world; he personally knew nobody who was big enough even for kindergarten. Later he felt more kinship with them, more curiosity, great envy, and considerable awe. It did not yet occur to him that he could ever grow up to be one of them, but he began to feel that in any case they were somehow of the same race. He wandered out into the yard, even to the sidewalk, even, at length, to the corner, where he could see them coming from three ways at once. He was fascinated by the way they looked, the boys so powerfully dressed and the girls almost as prettily as if they were going to a party. Nearly all of them walked in two’s and three’s, and members of these groups often called to others of the groups. You could see how well they all knew each other; any number of people; a whole world. And they all carried books of different colors and thicknesses, and lunches done up in packages or boxes, and pencils in still other boxes; or carried all these things together in a satchel. He loved the way they carried these things, it seemed to give them wonderful dignity and purpose, to be the mark that set them apart in their privileged world. He particularly admired and envied the way the boys who carried their books in brown canvas straps could swing them, except when they swung them at his head. Then he was at the same time frightened and very much surprised, and the boy who had pretended he meant to hit him, and anyone else who saw, would laugh to see that look of fear and surprise on his face, and he felt puzzled and unhappy because they laughed.
But that did not happen often enough to discourage him, and going to the corner at the time they went to school, and at the time they could be expected back again, became quite a habit with him, almost as happy and exciting, in its way, as watching for the first glimpse of his father, late in the afternoon. Sometimes when he caught an eye he would even say, “Hello,” as much out of embarrassment as eagerness to communicate. Of course he was very seldom answered; the boys would merely stare at him for a second or so, with the stare turning hot or more often cold, and the girls, depending on age or disposition, either giggled in a way that made him look quickly away, or pretended that they had not even seen or heard him. But since he did not, after all, expect any answer, it was wonderfully pleasant when, occasionally, a much older boy would smile and say, “Hello there”; a few times they even reached out and mussed up his hair. Once, too, when he had said hello to some much older girls, one of them cried out in the strange, sticky voice he had heard grown women use, “Ooh, just look at the darlin little boy!”
He had felt embarrassed but pleasantly flattered for a moment; then he heard several boys squealing the same words, but insincerely, in fact with a hatred and scorn which appalled him, and he had wished that he could not be seen.
He never learned the names of more than two or three of these boys, for most of them lived several blocks away; but quite a few of them, in time, knew him very well. They would come up, nearly always, with the same question: “What’s your name?” It seemed strange to him that they could not remember his name from one day to the next, for he always told it to them perfectly clearly, but he felt that if they forgot, and asked again, he ought to tell them again, and when he told them, politely, they all laughed. After a while he began to realize that they only asked him, day after day, not because they had really forgotten, but only to tease him. So he became more careful. When they asked, “What’s your name?” he would feel embarrassed and say, “Oh, you know my name, you’re only trying to tease me.”
And some of them would snicker, but invariably the boy who had asked it this time would say very seriously and politely, “No, I don’t know your name, you never told me your name,” and he would begin to wonder; had he or hadn’t he.
“Yes I did, too,” he would say, “I remember. It was only day before yesterday.”
And again there would be snickering, but the questioner looked even more serious and kind, and one or two of the boys next to him looked equally serious, and he would say, “No, honest. Honest, it couldn’t have been me. I don’t know your name.”
And one of the other boys would say, very reasonably, “ Gee, he wouldn’t ast you if he knowed it already, would he?”
And Rufus would say, “Aw, you’re just trying to tease me. You all know my name.”
And one of the other boys would say, “I’ve forgot it. I knew it but I’ve plumb forgot it. I’d tell him if I could but I just can’t remember it.”
And he too would look very sincere. And the first questioner would say, almost pleading, and very kind-looking, “Come on, tell us your name. Maybe you told it to him but he don’t remember. If he could remember he’d tell me, now wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t you tell me?”
“Sure I’d tell you if I could remember it. Wisht you’d tell it to me again.”
And two or three other boys, in similar tones of kindness, respect and concern, would chime in, “Aw come on, tell us your name.”
And he was taken aback by all this kindness and concern, for they did not seem to act in that way towards him at any other time, and yet it did seem real. And after thinking a moment he would say, looking cautiously and earnestly, at the boy who had forgotten, “Do you promise you really honestly forgot?”
And looking back just as earnestly the boy said, “Cross my heart and body,” and did so.
Then there was a snicker again from somebody, and Rufus realized that some of them were undoubtedly teasing; but he felt that he did not much mind, if these central boys were not. So he paid no attention to the snickering and said to every one of the kind-looking, serious boys, “You promise you honestly aren’t teasing this time?” and they promised. Then he said, “If I tell you this time will you promise to do your very best to remember, and not ask me again?” and they said that they sure would, they crossed their hearts and bodies. At the last moment, just as he was beginning to tell them, he always felt such sudden, profound doubt of their sincerity that he did not want to go ahead, but he always felt, too, Maybe they mean it. I f they do, it would be mean not to tell them. So he always told them. “Well,” he always said rather doubtfully, and brought out his name in a peculiarly muffled and shy way (he had come almost to feel that the name itself was being physically hurt, and he did not want it to be hurt again) “Well, it’s Rufus.”
And the instant it was out of his mouth he knew that he had been mistaken once again, that not a single soul of them had meant one thing that he had said, for with that instant every one of them screamed as loudly as he could with a ferocious kind of joy, and it was as if the whole knot exploded and sent its fragments tearing all over the neighborhood, screaming his name with amusement and apparently with some kind of contempt; and many of them screamed, as well, a verse which they seemed to think very funny, though Rufus could not understand why.
Uh-Rufus, Uh-Rastus, Uh-Johnson, Uh-Brown, uh-What ya gonna do when the rent comes roun? and others yelled, “Nigger’s name, nigger’s name,” and chanted a verse that he had often heard them yell after the backs of colored children and even grown-up colored people, Nigger, nigger, black as tar, Tried to ride a lectric car, Car broke down and broke his back Poor nigger wanted his nickel back.
Three or four, instead of running, stood screaming his name and these verses at him, and the word, “nigger,” jumping up and down and shoving their fingers at his chest and stomach and face while he stood in abashment, and followed by these, he would walk unhappily home.
It puzzled him very deeply. If they knew his name all the time, as apparently they did, then why did they keep on asking as if they had never heard it, or as if they couldn’t remember it? It was just to tease. But why did they want to tease? Why did they get such fun out of it? Why was it so much fun, to pretend to be so nice and so really interested, to pretend it so well that somebody else believed you in spite of himself, just so that he would show that he was deceived once again, because if you honestly did mean it, this time, he didn’t want to not tell you when you honestly seemed to want so much to know. Why was it that when some of them were asking him, and others were backing them up or just looking on, there was some kind of a strange, tight force in the air all around them that made them all seem very much together and that made him feel very much alone and very eager to be liked by them, together with them? Why did he keep on believing them? It happened over and over and he could not think of a single time that they had looked so interested, and friendly, and kind, but what it had turned out that they didn’t really mean one bit of it. The ones who were really nice, the ones who never deceived him or teased him, were a few of the much bigger boys, who were never so attentive or kind as this, but just said, “Hello, there,” and smiled as they went by, or maybe mussed up his hair or gave him a little punch, not to hurt or scare him, but only in play. They were very different from these, they never paid him such close attention or looked so affectionate, but they were the nice ones and these were mean to him, every time. But every time, it was the same. When they started he was always absolutely sure they were teasing, and he was always absolutely sure that this time, he would not give in to them; but every time, as they kept talking, he became less sure. At the same time that he became less sure, he became more sure, but that confused and troubled him, and the more sure he was that all this apparent kindness was merely deception and meanness, the more eagerly he studied their faces in the hope that this time they really meant it. The less he believed them, the more he was led to believe them, and the easier it was for him to believe them. The more alone he felt, the more he wanted to feel that he was not alone, but one of them. And every time he finally gave in, he became a little more sure, just before he gave in, that he would not take this chance again. And every time he finally spoke his name, he spoke it a little more shyly, a little more in shame, until he began to feel some kind of shame about the name itself. The way they all screamed it at him, and screamed that rhyme they all laughed at, the more he came to feel that there must be something wrong with the name itself, so that even at home sometimes, even when Mama said it, if he heard it without expecting it, he felt some kind of obscure, wincing shock and shame. But when he asked her if Rufus was really a nigger’s name, and why that made everybody laugh at it, she turned to him sharply and said to him in a sharp voice, as if she were accusing him of something, “Who told you that?”, and he had answered, in fear, that he did not know who, and she had said, “Don’t you just pay any attention to them. It’s a very fine old name. Some colored people take it too, but that is perfectly all right and nothing for them to be ashamed of or for white people to be ashamed of who take it. You were given that name because it was your great-grandfather Lynch’s name, and it’s a name to be proud of. And Rufus: don’t ever speak that word’nigger’.”
But he had felt that although maybe she was proud of the name, he was not. How could you be proud of a name that everybody laughed at? Once when they were less noisy, and one of them said to him, quietly, “That’s a nigger’s name,” he had tried to feel proud and had said, “It is not either, it’s a very fine old name and I got it from my Great-granpa Lynch,” they yelled, “Then your granpa’s a nigger too,” and ran off down the street yelling, “Rufus is a nigger, Rufus’granpa’s a nigger, he’s a ning-ger, he’s a nin-ger,” and he had yelled after them, “He is not, either, it’s my great-granpa and he is not!”; but after that they sometimes opened a conversation by asking, “How’s your nigger grandpaw?” and he had to try to explain all over again that it was his great-grandpa and he was not colored, but they never seemed to pay any attention.
He could not understand what amused them so much about this game, or why they should pretend to be all kindness and interest for the sake of deceiving him into doing something still again that he knew they knew better than to do, but it gradually became clear to him that no matter how much they pretended good, they always meant meanness, and that the only way to guard against this was never to believe them, and never to do what they asked him to. And so in time he found that no matter how nice they asked, he was not deceived by them and would not tell them his name, and this made him feel much better, except that now they seemed to have much less interest in him. He did not want them to go by without even looking at him, or just saying something mean or sneering as they passed, pretending so successfully that they meant to hit him with their books, that he had to duck; he only wanted them not to tease and fool him; he only wanted them to be nice to him and like him. And so he remained very ready to do whatever seemed necessary to be liked, except that one thing, telling his name, which was clearly not ever a good thing to do. And so, as long as they didn’t ask him his name (and they soon knew that this joke was no good any more), he continued to hope against hope that in every other way, they were not trying to tease or fool him. Now they would come up to him looking quite serious, the older boys, and say, as if it were a very serious question, Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown What you gonna do when the rent comes roun?
He always felt that they were still teasing him about his name, when they said that; there was something about the word “Rastus” that they said in such a tone that he knew they disliked both names and held both in contempt, and he could not understand why they gave him so many names when only one was really his and his last name was really Follet. But at least they knew what his name was now, even if most of them pronounced it “Roofeass”; at least they weren’t pretending they didn’t know; it wasn’t as bad as that. Besides, what they were really doing was asking him a question, “What you gonna do when the rent comes roun?” Though they asked it every time and it seemed a nonsensical question. They seemed to really want to know, and if he could answer them, then he could really tell them something they really didn’t know and then maybe they would really like him and not tease him. Yet he realized that this too must be teasing. They did not really want to know. How could they, when the question had no meaning? What was the rent? What did it look like when it came roun? It probably looked very mean or maybe it looked nice but was mean when you got to know it. And what would you do when it came roun? What could you do if you didn’t even know what it was? Or if it was just something they made up, that wasn’t really alive, just a story? He wanted to ask what the rent was, but he suspected that that was exactly what they wanted him to ask, and that if or when he asked it, it would turn out that the whole thing was a trap of some kind, a joke, and that he had done something shameful or ridiculous in asking. So that was one thing he was now wise enough never to do: he never asked what the rent was, and this was one of the things he felt sure that somehow he had better not ask his mother or his father, either. So when they came up to him now, he always knew they were going to ask this foolish question, and when they asked it he felt stubborn and shy, determined not to ask what the rent was; and once they had asked it, and stood looking at him with a curious, cold look as if they were hungry, he looked back at them until he felt too embarrassed, and saw them start to smile in a way that might be mean or might possibly be friendly, and on the possibility that they were friendly, smiled unsurely too, and looked down at the pavement, and muttered, “I don’t know”; which seemed to amuse them almost as much as when he had told what his name was, though not so loudly; and then sometimes he would walk away from them, and after a while he learned that he should not answer this question any more than he should answer the question about his name.
When he walked away, or when he refused to answer, he always realized that in some way he had defeated them, but he also always felt disconsolate and lonely, and sometimes because of this he would turn around after he had gone a little way, and look and they would come up and go round him again, and other times, when he kept on walking away, he felt even more lonely and unhappy, so much so that he went down between the houses into the back yard and stayed for a while because he felt uneasy about being seen, yet, by his mother. He began to anticipate going out to the corner with as much unhappiness as hope, and sometimes he did not go at all; but when he went again, after not going at all, he was asked where he had been and why he had not been there the day before, and he had not known what to answer, and had been much encouraged because they spoke in such a way that they really seemed to care where he had been. And within the next days things did seem to change. The older and more perceptive of the boys realized that the shape of the game had shifted and that if they were to count on him to be there, and to be such a fool as always before, they had to act much more friendly; and the more stupid boys, seeing how well this worked, imitated them as well as they could. Rufus quickly came to suspect the more flagrant exaggerations of friendliness, but the subtler boys found, to their intense delight, that if only they varied the surface, the bait, from time to time, they would almost always deceive him. He was ever so ready to oblige. How it got started none of them remembered or cared, but they all knew that if they kept at him enough he would sing them his song, and be fool enough to think they actually liked it. They would say, “Sing us a song, Roofeass,” and he would look as if he knew they were teasing him and say, “Oh, you don’t want to hear it.”
And they would say that they sure did want to hear it, it was a real pretty song, better than they could sing, and they liked the way he danced when he sang it, too. And since they had very early learned to take pains to listen to the song with apparent respect and friendliness, he was very soon and easily persuaded. And so, feeling odd and foolish not because he felt they were really deceiving him or laughing at him, but only because with each public repetition of it he felt more silly, and less sure that it was really as pretty and enjoyable as he liked to think it was, he would give them one last anxious look, which always particularly tickled them, and would then raise his arms and turn round and round, singing, I’m a little busy bee, busy bee, busy bee, I’m a little busy bee, singing in the clover.
As he sang and danced he could hear through his own verses a few obscure, incredulous cackles, but nearly all of the faces which whirled past him, those of the older boys, were restrained, attentive and smiling, and this made up for the contempt he saw on the faces of the middle-sized boys; and when he had finished, and was catching his breath, these older boys would clap their hands in real approval, and say, “That’s an awful pretty song, Rufus, where did you learn that song?”
And again he would suspect some meanness behind it and so would refuse to say until they had coaxed him sufficiently and then out it came, “My mama”; and at that point some of the smaller boys were liable to spoil everything by yelling and laughing, but often even if they did, the older boys could save it all by sternly crying, “You shut up! Don’t you know a pretty song when you hear it?” and by turning to him, with faces which shut out those boys and included him among the big boys, and saying, “Don’t you care about them, Rufus, they’re just ignorant and don’t know nothing. You sing your song.” And another would chime in, “Yeah, Rufus, sing it again. Gee, that’s a pretty song”; and a third would say, “And don’t forget to dance”; and for this reduced but select audience he would do the whole thing over again.
At that point someone usually said, abruptly, “Come on, we got to go,” and as suddenly as if a chair had been pulled from under him, he would be left by himself; they hardly even clapped their hands before they walked away. But some of the boys with the nicest faces always took care, before they left, to tell him, “Gee, thanks, Rufus, that was mighty pretty,” and to say, Don’t you forget, you be here tomorrow“; and this more than made up for the thing which never failed to perplex him. Why did they walk off, so suddenly as all that? Why did they all keep looking back and laughing in that queer way; subdued talk, their heads close together, and then those sudden whoops of laughter? It almost seemed as if they were laughing at him. And once when one of the bigger boys suddenly flung up his arms and whirled into the street, piping in a high, squeaky voice,”I’m a little busy bee, “ he was quite sure that they had not really liked the song, or him for singing it. But if they didn’t, then why did they ask him to sing it? And then once he heard one of them, far down the block, squeak,”My mama, " and he felt as if something went straight through his stomach, and they all laughed, and he was practically certain that to those boys at least, the whole thing was just some kind of mean joke. But then he remembered how nice the boys he liked best and trusted most had been, and he knew that anyway the boys he liked best were not in any way trying to tease him.
After a while, however, he began to wonder even about them. Maybe their being so extra nice just their way of getting him to do things he would never do if they were only nice part of the time and then laughed at him. Yet if they were nice all the time, it must be because they honestly meant it. And yet the way some of the others laughed, what he was doing must be wrong or silly somehow. He would be much more careful. He would be careful not to do anything or say anything anybody asked him to, unless he was sure they were really nice and really meant it. He now watched even the boys – he liked best with very particular caution, and they saw that unless they were much more shrewd the game was likely to be spoiled again. They began to promise him rewards, a stick of chewing gum, the stub of a pencil, chalk, a piece of candy, and this seemed to convince him. The less shrewd of the boys often did not give him the promised reward, and this of course was more fun, but the smarter ones were always consistent, so that he never refused them. It was all so easy, in fact, that it began to bore them. They began to appreciate the tricks the more stupid boys played, one getting down behind him while he danced and another pushing him over backwards, but they were intelligent enough never to take part in this, always to pretend thorough disapproval, always to help him to his feet and brush him off and console him if he had struck his head hard and was crying, and always to conceal their astonished delight at his utter bewilderment and gullibility and their astonished contempt at his complete lack of spirit to strike out against his tormentors, his lack of ability, even, for real solid anger. And because they were always there, and always seemed to be on his side, they could always keep him sufficiently deceived to come back for more than anyone in his right senses would come back for.
The oldest of them began to be obscurely ashamed, as well as bored. They were all much older and smarter than he was; even the youngest of the boys who went to school were enough older than he was that it seemed no wonder that he was continually fooled, and that he never fought back. They felt that this little song, for instance, was too sissy to be fun for much longer. They felt that more violent things should be done. But they themselves could not do such things. If they showed him they were not on his side, the fun would all be over. And even if it were not, they knew that it would be unfair of them to do the really violent things, which absolutely required violence in return, to anyone so much younger and smaller, no matter how big a fool he was. Besides, they had received more than enough hints that even if he were driven to fight, he would not have the nerve to, probably wouldn’t even know he had to. They were curious to see what would happen. They left the game wider and wider open to the smaller, crueler and more simple boys. But it was no good. He would just look at them with surprise, pain and reproach, and get up and walk away; and if any of these older, normally friendly boys consoled him too closely, he would burst into sobs which disgusted as well as delighted them.
At length they found the right formula. They would put some boys as small as he was, up to some trick which nobody bigger would have any right to do.
After dinner the babies and all the children except Rufus were laid out on the beds to take their naps, and his mother thought he ought to lie down too, but his father said no, why did he need to, so he was allowed to stay up. He stayed out on the porch with the men. They were so full up and sleepy they hardly even tried to talk, and he was so full up and sleepy that he could hardly see or hear, but half dozing between his father’s knees in the thin shade, trying to keep his eyes open, he could just hear the mild, lazy rumbling of their voices, and the more talkative voices of the women back in the kitchen, talking more easily, but keeping their voices low, not to wake the children, and the rattling of the dishes they were doing, and now and then their walking here or there along the floor; and mused with half-closed eyes which went in and out of focus with sleepiness, upon the slow twinkling of the millions of heavy leaves on the trees and the slow flashing of the blades of the corn, and nearer at hand, the hens dabbing in the pocked dirt yard and the ragged edge of the porch floor, and everything hung dreaming in a shining silver haze, and a long, low hill of blue silver shut off everything against a blue-white sky, and he leaned back against his father’s chest and he could hear his heart pumping and his stomach growling and he could feel the hard knees against his sides, and the next thing he knew his eyes opened and he was looking up into his mother’s face and he was lying on a bed and she was saying it was time to wake up because they were going on a call and see his great-great-grandmother and she would most specially want to see him because he was her oldest great-great-grandchild. And he and his father and mother and Catherine got in the front seat and his Granpa Follet and Aunt Jessie and her baby and Jim-Wilson and Ettie Lou and Aunt Sadie and her baby got in the back seat and Uncle Ralph stood on the running board because he was sure he could remember the way and that was all there was room for, and they started off very carefully down the lane, so nobody would be jolted, and even before they got out to the road his mother asked his father to stop a minute, and she insisted on taking Ettie Lou with them in front, to make a little more room in back, and after she insisted for a while, they gave in, and then they all got started again, and his father guided the auto so very carefully across the deep ruts into the road, the other way four LaFollette as Ralph told him to (“Yeah, I know,” his father said, “I remember that much anyhow.”), that they were hardly joggled at all, and his mother commented on how very nicely and carefully his father always drove when he didn’t just forget and go too fast, and his father blushed, and after a few minutes his mother began to look uneasy, as if she had to go to the bathroom but didn’t want to say anything about it, and after a few minutes more she said, “Jay, I’m awfully sorry but now I really think you are forgetting.”
“Forgetting what?” he said.
“I mean a little too fast, dear,” she said.
“Good road along here,” he said. “Got to make time while the road’s good.” He slowed down a little. “Way I remember it,” he said, “there’s some stretches you can’t hardly ever get a mule through, we’re coming to, ain’t they Ralph?”
“Oh mercy,” his mother said.
“We are just raggin you,” he said. “They’re not all that bad. But all the same we better make time while we can.” And he sped up a little.
After another two or three miles Uncle Ralph said, “Now around this bend you run through a branch and you turn up sharp to the right,” and they ran through the branch and turned into a sandy woods road and his father went a little slower and a cool breeze flowed through them and his mother said how lovely this shade was after that terrible hot sun, wasn’t it, and all the older people murmured that it sure was, and almost immediately they broke out of the woods and ran through two miles of burned country with stumps and sometimes whole tree trunks sticking up out of it sharp and cruel, and blackberry and honeysuckle all over the place, and a hill and its shadow ahead. And when they came within the shadow of the hill, Uncle Ralph said in a low voice, “Now you get to the hill, start along the base of it to your left till you see your second right and then you take that,” but when they got there, there was only the road to the left and none to the right and his father took it and nobody said anything, and after a minute Uncle Ralph said, “Reckon they wasn’t much to choose from there, was they?” and laughed unhappily.
“That’s right,” his father said, and smiled.
“Reckon my memory ain’t so sharp as I bragged,” Ralph said.
“You’re doin fine,” his father said, and his mother said so too.
“I could a swore they was a road both ways there,” Ralph said, “but it was nigh on twenty years since I was out here.” Why for goodness sake, his mother said, then she certainly thought he had a wonderful memory.
“How long since you were here, Jay?” He did not say anything. “Jay?”
“I’m a-studyin it,” he said.
“There’s your turn,” Ralph said suddenly, and they had to back the auto to turn into it.
They began a long, slow, winding climb, and Rufus half heard and scarcely understood their disjointed talking. His father had not been there in nearly thirteen years; the last time was just before he came to Knoxville. He was always her favorite, Ralph said. Yes, his grandfather said, he reckoned that was a fact, she always seemed to take a shine to Jay. His father said quietly that he always did take a shine to her. It turned out he was the last of those in the auto who had seen her. They asked how she was, as if it had been within a month or two. He said she was failing lots of ways, specially getting around, her rheumatism was pretty bad, but in the mind she was bright as a dollar, course that wasn’t saying how they might find her by now, poor old soul; no use saying. Nope, Uncle Ralph said, that was a fact; time sure did fly, didn’t it; seemed like before you knew it, this year was last year. She had never yet seen Jay’s children, or Ralph’s, or Jessie’s or Sadie’s, it was sure going to be a treat for her. A treat and a surprise. Yes it sure would be that, his father said, always supposing she could still recognize them. Mightn’t she even have died? his mother wanted to know. Oh no, all the Follets said, they’d have heard for sure if she’d died. Matter of fact they had heard she had failed a good bit. Sometimes her memory slipped up and she got confused, poor old soul. His mother said well she should think so, poor old lady. She asked, carefully, if she was taken good care of. Oh, yes, they said. That she was. Sadie’s practically giving her life to her. That was Grandpa Follet’s oldest sister and young Sadie was named for her. Lived right with her tending to her wants, day and night. Well, isn’t that just wonderful, his mother said. Wasn’t anybody else could do it, they agreed with each other. All married and gone, and she wouldn’t come live with any of them, they all offered, over and over, but she wouldn’t leave her home. I raised my family here, she said, I lived here all my life from fourteen years on and I aim to die here, that must be a good thirty-five, most, a good near forty year ago, Grampaw died. Goodness sake, his mother said, and she was an old old woman then! His father said soberly, “She’s a hundred and three years old. Hundred and three or hundred and four. She never could remember for sure which. But she knows she wasn’t born later than eighteen-twelve. And she always reckoned it might of been eighteen-eleven.”
“Great heavens, Jay! Do you mean that?” He just nodded, and kept his eyes on the road. “Just imagine that, Rufus, she said.”Just think of that!"
“She’s an old, old lady,” his father said gravely; and Ralph gravely and proudly concurred.
“The things she must have seen!” Mary said, quietly. “Indians. Wild animals.” Jay laughed. “I mean man-eaters, Jay. Bears, and wildcats-terrible things.”
“There were cats back in these mountains, Mary-we called em painters, that’s the same as a panther-they were around here still when I was a boy. And there is still bear, they claim.”
“Gracious Jay, did you ever see one? A panther?”
“Saw one’d been shot.”
“Goodness,” Mary said.
“A mean-lookin varmint.”
“I know,” she said. “I mean, I bet he was. I just can’t get over-why she’s almost as old as the country, Jay.”
“Oh, no,” he laughed. “Ain’t nobody that old. Why I read somewhere, that just these mountains here are the oldest…”
“Dear, I meant the nation,” she said. “The United States, I mean. Why let me see, why it was hardly as old as I am when she was born.” They all calculated for a moment. “Not even as old,” she said triumphantly.
“By golly,” his father said. “I never thought of it like that.” He shook his head. “By golly,” he said, “that’s a fact.”
“Abraham Lincoln was just two years old,” she murmured. “Maybe three,” she said grudgingly. “Just try to imagine that, Rufus,” she said after a moment. “Over a hundred years.” But she could see that he couldn’t comprehend it. “You know what she is?” she said, “she’s Granpa Follet’s grandmother!”
“That’s a fact, Rufus,” his grandfather said from the back seat, and Rufus looked around, able to believe it but not to imagine it, and the old man smiled and winked. “Woulda never believed you’d hear me call nobody’Granmaw,’now would you?”
“No sir,” Rufus said.
“Well, yer goana,” his grandfather said, “quick’s I see her.”
Ralph was beginning to mutter and to look worried and finally his brother said, “What’s eaten ye, Ralph? Lost the way?” And Ralph said he didn’t know for sure as he had lost it exactly, no, he wouldn’t swear to that yet, but by golly he was damned if he was sure this was hit anymore, all the same.
“Oh dear, Ralph, how too bad,” Mary said, “but don’t you mind. Maybe we’ll find it. I mean maybe soon you’ll recognize landmarks and set us all straight again.”
But his father, looking dark and painfully patient, just slowed the auto down and then came to a stop in a shady place. “Maybe we better figure it out right now,” he said.
“Nothin round hyer I know,” Ralph said, miserably. “What I mean, maybe we ought to start back while we still know the way back. Try it another Sunday.”
“I hate to but we got to get back in town tonight, don’t forget. We could try it another Sunday. Make an early start.” But the upshot of it was that they decided to keep on ahead awhile, anyway. They descended into a long, narrow valley through the woods of which they could only occasionally see the dark ridges and the road kept bearing in a direction Ralph was almost sure was wrong, and they found a cabin, barely even cut out of the woods, they commented later, hardly even a corn patch, big as an ordinary barnyard, but the people there, very glum and watchful, said they had never even heard of her; and after a long while the valley opened out a little and Ralph began to think that perhaps he recognized it, only it sure didn’t look like itself if it was it, and all of a sudden a curve opened into half-forested meadow and there were glimpses of a gray house through swinging vistas of saplings and Ralph said, “By golly,” and again, “By golly, that is hit. That’s hit all right. Only we come on it from behind!” And his father began to be sure too, and the house grew larger, and they swung around where they could see the front of it, and his father and his Uncle Ralph and his Grandfather all said, “Why sure enough,” and sure enough it was: and, “There she is,” and there she was: it was a great, square-logged gray cabin closed by a breezeway, with a frame second floor, and an enormous oak plunging from the packed dirt in front of it, and a great iron ring, the rim of a wagon wheel, hung by a chain from a branch of the oak which had drunk the chains into itself, and in the shade of the oak, which was as big as the whole corn patch they had seen, an old woman was standing up from a kitchen chair as they swung slowly in onto the dirt and under the edge of the shade, and another old woman continued to sit very still in her chair.
The younger of the two old women was Great Aunt Sadie, and she knew them the minute she laid eyes on them and came right on up to the side of the auto before they could even get out. “Lord God,” she said in a low, hard voice, and she put her hands on the edge of the auto and just looked from one to the other of them. Her hands were long and narrow and as big as a man’s and every knuckle was swollen and split. She had hard black eyes, and there was a dim purple splash all over the left side of her face. She looked at them so sharply and silently from one to another that Rufus thought she must be mad at them, and then she began to shake her head back and forth. “Lord God,” she said again. “Howdy, John Henry,” she said.
“Howdy, Sadie,” his grandfather said.
“Howdy, Aunt Sadie,” his father and his Aunt Sadie said.
“Howdy, Jay,” she said, looking sternly at his father, “howdy, Ralph,” and she looked sternly at Ralph. “Reckon you must be Jess, and yore Sadie. Howdy, Sadie.”
“This is Mary, Aunt Sadie,” his father said. “Mary, this is Aunt Sadie.”
“I’m proud to know you,” the old woman said, looking very hard at his mother. “I figured it must be you,” she said, just as his mother said, “I’m awfully glad to know you too.”
“And this is Rufus and Catherine and Ralph’s Jim-Wilson and Ettie Lou and Jessie’s Charlie after his daddy and Sadie’s Jessie after her Granma and her Aunt Jessie,” his father said.
“Well, Lord God,” the old woman said. “Well, file on out.”
“How’s Granmaw?” his father asked, in a low voice, without moving yet to get out.
“Good as we got any right to expect,” she said, “but don’t feel put out if she don’t know none-a-yews. She mought and she mought not. Half the time she don’t even know me.”
Ralph shook his head and clucked his tongue. “Pore old soul,” he said, looking at the ground. His father let out a slow breath, puffing his cheeks.
“So if I was you-all I’d come up on her kind of easy,” the old woman said. “Bin a coon’s age since she seen so many folks at onct. Me either. Mought skeer her if ye all come a whoopin up at her in a flock.”
“Sure,” his father said.
“Ayy,” his mother whispered.
His father turned and looked back. “Whyn’t you go see her the first, Paw?” he said very low. “Yore the eldest.”
“Tain’t me she wants to see,” Grandfather Follet said. “Hit’s the younguns ud tickle her most.”
“Reckon that’s the truth, if she can take notice,” the old woman said. “She shore like to cracked her heels when she heared yore boy was born,” she said to Jay, “Mary or no Mary. Proud as Lucifer. Cause that was the first,” she told Mary.
“Yes, I know,” Mary said. “Fifth generation, that made.”
“Did you get her postcard, Jay?”
“Why no,” Mary said.
“She tole me what to write on one a them postcards and put hit in the mail to both a yews so I done it. Didn’t ye never get it?”
Jay shook his head. “First I ever heard tell of it,” he said.
“Well I shore done give hit to the mail. Ought to remember. Cause I went all the way into Polly to buy it and all the way in again to put it in the mail.”
“We never did get it,” Jay said.
“What street did you send it, Aunt Sadie?” Mary asked. "Because we moved not long be…
“Never sent it to no street,” the old woman said. “Never knowed I needed to, Jay working for the post office.”
“Why, I quit working for the post office a long time back, Aunt Sadie. Even before that.”
“Well I reckon that’s how come then. Cause I just sent hit to’Post Office, Cristobal, Canal Zone, Panama,’and I spelt hit right, too. C-r-i…”
“Oh,” Mary said.
“Aw,” Jay said. “Why, Aunt Sadie, I thought you’d a known. We been living in Knoxvul since pert near two years before Rufus was born.”
She looked at him keenly and angrily, raising her hands slowly from the edge of the auto, and brought them down so hard that Rufus jumped. Then she nodded, several times, and still she did not say anything. At last she spoke, coldly, “Well, they might as well just put me out to grass,” she said. “Lay me down and give me both barls threw the head.”
“Why, Aunt Sadie,” Mary said gently, but nobody paid any attention.
After a moment the old woman went on solemnly, staring hard into Jay’s eyes: “I knowed that like I know my own name and it plumb slipped my mind.”
“Oh what a shame,” Mary said sympathetically.
“Hit ain’t shame I feel,” the old woman said, “hit’s sick in the stummick.”
“Oh I didn’t m…”
“Right hyer!” and she slapped her hand hard against her stomach and laid her hand back on the edge of the auto. “If I git like that too,” she said to Jay, “then who’s agonna look out fer her?”
“Aw, tain’t so bad, Aunt Sadie,” Jay said. “Everybody slips up nown then. Do it myself an I ain’t half yer age. And you just ought see Mary.”
“Gracious, yes,” Mary said. “I’m just a perfect scatterbrain.”
The old woman looked briefly at Mary and then looked back at Jay. “Hit ain’t the only time,” she said, “not by a long chalk. Twarn’t three days ago I…” she stopped. “Takin on about yer troubles ain’t never holp nobody,” she said. “You just set hyer a minute.”
She turned and walked over to the older woman and leaned deep over against her ear and said, quite loudly, but not quite shouting, “Granmaw, ye got company.” And they watched the old woman’s pale eyes, which had been on them all this time in the light shadow of the sunbonnet, not changing, rarely ever blinking, to see whether they would change now, and they did not change at all, she didn’t even move her head or her mouth. “Ye hear me, Granmaw?” The old woman opened and shut her sunken mouth, but not as if she were saying anything. “Hit’s Jay and his wife and younguns, come up from Knoxvul to see you,” she called, and they saw the hands crawl in her lap and the face turned towards the younger woman and they could hear a thin, dry crackling, no words.
“She can’t talk any more,” Jay said, almost in a whisper.
“Oh no,” Mary said.
But Sadie turned to them and her hard eyes were bright. “She knows ye,” she said quietly. “Come on over.” And they climbed slowly and shyly out onto the swept ground. “I’ll tell her about the rest a yuns in a minute,” Sadie said.
“Don’t want to mix her up,” Ralph explained, and they all nodded.
It seemed to Rufus like a long walk over to the old woman because they were all moving so carefully and shyly; it was almost like church. “Don’t holler,” Aunt Sadie was advising his parents, “hit only skeers her. Just talk loud and plain right up next her ear.”
“I know,” his mother said. “My mother is very deaf, too.”
“Yeah,” his father said. And he bent down close against her ear. “Granmaw?” he called, and he drew a little away, where she could see him, while his wife and his children looked on, each holding one of the mother’s hands. She looked straight into his eyes and her eyes and her face never changed, a look as if she were gazing at some small point at a great distance, with complete but idle intensity, as if what she was watching was no concern of hers. His father leaned forward again and gently kissed her on the mouth, and drew back again where she could see him well, and smiled a little, anxiously. Her face restored itself from his kiss like grass that has been lightly stepped on; her eyes did not alter. Her skin looked like brown-marbled stone over which water has worked for so long that it is as smooth and blind as soap. He leaned to her ear again. “I’m Jay,” he said. “John Henry’s boy.” Her hands crawled in her skirt: every white bone and black vein showed through the brown-splotched skin; the wrinkled knuckles were like pouches; she wore a red rubber guard ahead of her wedding ring. Her mouth opened and shut and they heard her low, dry croaking, but her eyes did not change. They were bright in their thin shadow, but they were as impersonally bright as two perfectly shaped eyes of glass.
“I figure she know you,” Sadie said quietly.
“She can’t talk, can she?” Jay said, and now that he was not looking at her, it was as if they were talking over a stump.
“Times she can,” Sadie said. “Times she can’t. Ain’t only so seldom call for talk, reckon she loses the hang of it. But I figger she knows ye and I am tickled she does.”
His father looked all around him in the shade and he looked sad, and unsure, and then he looked at him. “Come here, Rufus,” he said.
“Go to him,” his mother whispered for some reason, and she pushed his hand gently as she let it go.
“Just call her Granmaw,” his father said quietly. “Get right up by her ear like you do to Granmaw Lynch and say,’Granmaw, I’m Rufus.’”
He walked over to her as quietly as if she were asleep, feeling strange to be by himself, and stood on tiptoe beside her and looked down into her sunbonnet towards her ear. Her temple was deeply sunken as if a hammer had struck it and frail as a fledgling’s belly. Her skin was crosshatched with the razor-fine slashes of innumerable square wrinkles and yet every slash was like smooth stone; her ear was just a fallen intricate flap with a small gold ring in it, her smell was faint yet very powerful, and she smelled like new mushrooms and old spices and sweat, like his fingernail when it was coming off. “Granmaw, I’m Rufus,” he said carefully, and yellow-white hair stirred beside her ear. He could feel coldness breathing from her cheek.
“Come out where she can see you,” his father said, and he drew back and stood still further on tiptoe and leaned across her, where she could see. “I’m Rufus,” he said, smiling, and suddenly her eyes darted a little and looked straight into his, but they did not in any way change their expression. They were just color: seen close as this, there was color through a dot at the middle, dim as blue-black oil, and then a circle of blue so pale it was almost white, that looked like glass, smashed into a thousand dimly sparkling pieces, smashed and infinitely old and patient, and then a ring of dark blue, so fine and sharp no needle could have drawn it, and then a clotted yellow full of tiny squiggles of blood, and then a wrong-side furl of red-bronze, and little black lashes. Vague light sparkled in the crackled blue of the eye like some kind of remote ancestor’s anger, and the sadness of time dwelt in the blue-breathing, oily center, lost and alone and far away, deeper than the deepest well. His father was saying something, but he did not hear and now he spoke again, careful to be patient, and Rufus heard, “Tell her’I'm Jay’s boy.’Say,’I'm Jay’s boy Rufus.’”
And again he leaned into the cold fragrant cavern next her ear and said, “I’m Jay’s boy Rufus,” and he could feel her face turn towards him.
“Now kiss her,” his father said, and he drew out of the shadow of her bonnet and leaned far over and again entered the shadow and kissed her paper mouth, and the mouth opened, and the cold sweet breath of rotting and of spice broke from her with the dry croaking, and he felt the hands take him by the shoulders like knives and forks of ice through his clothes. She drew him closer and looked at him almost glaring, she was so filled with grave intensity. She seemed to be sucking on her lower lip and her eyes filled with light, and then, as abruptly as if the two different faces had been joined without transition in a strip of moving-picture film, she was not serious any more but smiling so hard that her chin and her nose almost touched and her deep little eyes giggled for joy. And again the croaking gurgle came, making shapes which were surely words but incomprehensible words, and she held him even more tightly by the shoulders, and looked at him even more keenly and incredulously with her giggling, all but hidden eyes, and smiled and smiled, and cocked her head to one side, and with sudden love he kissed her again. And he could hear his mother’s voice say, “Jay,” almost whispering, and his father say, “Let her be,” in a quick, soft, angry voice, and when at length they gently disengaged her hands, and he was at a little distance, he could see that there was water crawling along the dust from under her chair, and his father and his Aunt Sadie looked gentle and sad and dignified, and his mother was trying not to show that she was crying, and the old lady sat there aware only that something had been taken from her, but growing quickly calm, and nobody said anything about it.
Late one afternoon Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate came, all the way from Michigan. Aunt Kate had red hair. Uncle Ted had glasses and he could make faces. They brought him a book and what he liked best was a picture of a fat man with a cloth around his head, sitting on a tasseled cushion with a long snakey tube in his mouth, and it said: There was a fat man of Bombay Who was smoking his pipe one fine day When a bird called a snipe Flew away with his pipe, Which vexed that fat man of Bombay.
But there wasn’t any bird in the picture. His father said he reckoned it was still out snipe-hunting.
They weren’t really his uncle and aunt, it was like Aunt Celia. Just a friend. But Aunt Kate was a kind of cousin. She was Aunt Carrie’s daughter and Aunt Carrie was Granma’s half-sister. You were a half-sister if you had the same father or mother but not the same other one, and they had the same mother.
They slept on the brand-new davenport in the sitting room. Next morning before daylight they all got up and went to the L amp;N depot. A man came for them in an auto because there was no streetcar to the L amp;N. They had so much to carry that even he was given a box to carry. They sat in the big room and it was full of people. His mother told his Uncle Ted she liked it better than the Southern depot because there were so many country folks and his father said he did too. It smelled like chewing tobacco and pee, and like a barn. Some of the ladies wore sunbonnets and lots of the men wore old straw hats, not the flat kind. One lady was nursing her baby. They had a long time to wait for their train; his father said, “Count on Mary and you won’t never miss a train, but you may get the one the day before you aimed to,” and his mother said, “Jay,” and Uncle Ted laughed; so he heard the man call several trains in his fine, echoing voice, and finally he started calling out a string of stations and his father got up saying, “That’s us,” and they got everything together and as soon as the man called the track they hurried fast, so they got two seats and turned them to face each other, and afterwhile the train pulled out and it was already broad daylight. The older people were all kind of sleepy and didn’t talk much, though they pretended to, and afterwhile Aunt Kate dropped off to sleep and leaned her head against his mother’s shoulder and the men laughed and his mother smiled and said, “Let her, the dear.”
The news butcher came through and in spite of his mother, Uncle Ted bought him a glass locomotive with little bright-colored pieces of candy inside and Catherine a glass telephone with the same kind of candy inside, which his father had never done. His father and Uncle Ted spent a good deal of time in the smoking car, to smoke, and to make more room. It got hot and dull. But after quite a while his father came hurrying back down the aisle and told his mother to look out the window and she did and said, “Well what?” and he said, “No-up ahead,” and they all three looked up ahead and there on the sky above the scrubby hill, there was a grand great lift of grayish blue that looked as if you could see the light through it, and then the train took a long curve and these liftings of gray blue opened out like a fan and filled the whole country ahead, shouldering above each other high and calm and full of shadowy light, so that he heard his mother say, “Ohhh! How perfectly glorious!”, and his father say shyly, a little as if he owned them and was giving them to her, “That’s them. That’s the Smokies all right,” and sure enough they did look smoky, and as they came nearer, smoke and great shadows seemed to be sailing around on them, but he knew that must be clouds. After a while he could begin to see the shapes of them clearly, great bronzy bulges that looked as if they were blown up tight like balloons, and solemn deep scoops of shady blue that ran from the tops on down below the tops of the near hills, deeper than he could see. “They’re just like huge waves, Jay,” his mother said with awe. “That’s right,” he said; “you remember?”
“Sure I do,” he said; “just like seeing sunlight striking through waves, just before they topple.”
“Yeah,” his father said.
“Kate mustn’t miss this,” his mother said; “Kate!” and she took Aunt Kate by the shoulder.
“Sssh!” his father hissed, and he frowned. “Let her alone!” But Aunt Kate was already waked up, though she was still very sleepy, wondering what it was all about.
“Just look, Kate,” his mother said. “Out there!” Aunt Kate looked. “See?” his mother said.
“Yes,” Aunt Kate said.
“That’s where we’re going,” his mother said.
“Yes,” Aunt Kate said.
“Aren’t they grand?” his mother said.
“Yes,” Aunt Kate said.
“Well I think they’re absolutely breathtaking,” his mother said.
“So do I,” Aunt Kate said, and went back to sleep.
His mother made one of the funniest faces he had ever seen, looking at his father all bewildered and surprised and holding in her laughter, and his father laughed out loud but Aunt Kate didn’t wake up. “Just like Catherine,” his mother whispered, laughing, and they all looked at Catherine, who was staring out at the mountains and looking very heavy and earnest; and they laughed and Catherine looked at them and began to realize they were laughing at her, and that made her face get red and that made them laugh some more, and even Rufus joined in, and they only stopped when Catherine began to stick out her lower lip and her mother said, “Mercy, child, you’ve got to learn to take a joke.”
But her father said, “Doesn’t anybody like to be laughed at,” and took her on his lap, and she pulled her lip in and looked out the window again. Now they could even see the separate trees all over the sides of the mountains like rice, all shades of green and some almost black, and before much longer they were climbing more slowly past the feathery tops of trees and the high shoulders of the mountains and the great deep scoops were turning past them and beneath them as if they were very slowly and seriously dancing in sunlight and in cloud and in shadows almost of night, and now and then they could see a tiny cabin and a corn patch far off on the side of a mountain, and twice they even saw a tinier mule and a man with it, one of the men waved; and high above them in the changing sunlight, slowest of all, the tops of the mountains twisted and changed places. And after quite a while his father said he reckoned they better start getting their stuff together, and before much longer they got off.
That night at supper when Rufus asked for more cheese Uncle Ted said, “Whistle to it and it’ll jump off the table into your lap.”
“Ted!” his mother said.
But Rufus was delighted. He did not know very well how to whistle yet, but he did his best, watching the cheese very carefully: it didn’t jump of the table into his lap; it didn’t even move.
“Try some more,” Uncle Ted said. “Try harder.”
“Ted!” his mother said.
He tried his very best and several times he managed to make a real whistle, but the cheese didn’t even move, and he began to realize that Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate were shaking with laughter they were trying to hold in, though he couldn’t see what there was to laugh about in a cheese that wouldn’t even move when you whistled even when Uncle Ted said it would and he was really whistling, not just trying to whistle.
“Why won’t it jump to me, Daddy?” he asked, almost crying with embarrassment and impatience, and at that Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate burst out laughing out loud, but his father didn’t laugh, he looked all mixed up, and mad, and embarrassed, and his mother was very mad and she said, “That’s just about enough of that, Ted. I think it’s just a perfect shame, deceiving a little child like that who’s been brought up to trust people, and laughing right in his face!”
“Mary,” his father said, and Uncle Ted looked very much surprised and Aunt Kate looked worried, though they were still laughing a little, as if they couldn’t stop yet.
“Now, Mary,” his father said again, and she turned on him and said angrily, “I don’t care, lay! I just don’t care a hoot, and if you won’t stand up for him, I will, I can promise you that!”
“Ted didn’t mean any harm,” his father said.
“Course I didn’t, Mary,” Uncle Ted said.
“Of course not,” Aunt Kate said.
“It was just a joke,” his father said.
“That’s all it was, Mary,” Uncle Ted said.
“He just meant it for a joke,” his father and Aunt Kate said together.
“Well, its a pretty poor kind of a joke, if you ask me,” his mother said, “violating a little boy’s trust.”
“Why, Mary, he’s got to learn what to believe and what not to,” Uncle Ted said, and Aunt Kate nodded and put her hand on Uncle Ted’s knee. “Gotta learn common sense.”
“He’s got plenty of comon sense,” his mother flashed. “He’s a very bright child indeed, if you must know. But he’s been brought up to trust older people when they tell him something. Not be suspicious of everybody. And so he trusted you. Because he likes you, Ted. Doesn’t that make you ashamed?”
“Come on, Mary, cut it out,” his father said.
“But Mary, you wouldn’t think anybody’d believe what I said about the cheese,” Uncle Ted said.
“Well you certainly expected him to believe it,” she said, with fury, “otherwise why’d you ever say it?”
Uncle Ted looked puzzled, and his father said, trying to laugh, “Reckon she cornered you there, Ted,” and Uncle Ted smiled uncomfortably and said, “I guess that’s so.”
“Of course it’s so,” his mother blazed, though his father frowned at her and said “Ssh!”