|◄ PART II|| A Death in the Family
written by James Agee
|Prentice-Hall of India 1974 (reprint 1957 The James Agee Trust) (pages 249-339)|
When he woke it was already clear daylight and the sparrows were making a great racket and his first disappointed thought was that he was too late, though he could not yet think what it was he was too late for. But something special was on his mind which made him eager and happy almost as if this were Christmas morning and within a second after waking he remembered what it was and, sitting up, his lungs stretching full with anticipation and pride, he put his hand into the crisp tissue paper with a small smashing noise and took out the cap. There was plenty of light to see the colors well; he quickly turned it around and over, and smelled of the new cloth and of the new leather band. He put it on and yanked the hill down firmly and pelted down the hallway calling “Daddy! Daddy!”, and burst through the open door into their bedroom; then brought up short in dismay, for his father was not there. But his mother lay there, propped up on two pillows as if she were sick. She looked sick, or very tired, and in her eyes she seemed to be afraid of him. Her face was full of little lines he had never seen before; they were as small as the lines in her mended best teacup. She put out her arms towards him and made in odd, kind noise. “Where’s Daddy?” he shouted imperiously ignoring her arms. “Daddy-isn’t here yet,” she told him, in a voice like hot ashes, and her arms sank down along the sheet.
“Where is he, then!” he demanded, in angry disappointment, but she thrust through these words with her own: “Go wake-little Catherine and bring her straight here,” she said in a voice which puzzled him; “there’s something I must tell you both together.”
He was darting his eyes everywhere for clues of his father. clothes? watch? tobacco? nightshirt? “Right away,” she said, in a desperate voice.
Startled by its mysterious rebuke, and uneasy in his stomach because she had said “little Catherine,” he hurried out-and all but collided with his Aunt Hannah. Her mouth was strong and tightly pressed together beneath her glittering spectacles as she stooped, peering forward.
“Hello, Aunt Hannah,” he called with astonishment, as he sped around and past her; he saw her go into the bedroom, her hair sticking out from her thin neck in two twiggy braids; he hurried to Catherine’s crib.
“Wake up, Catherine!” he yelled, “Mama says wake up! Right away!”
“Stobbit,” she bawled, her round, red face glaring.
“Well Mama said so, Mama said so, wake up!”
And a few moments later he hurried back ahead of her and hollered breathlessly, “She’s coming!” and she trailed in, two-thirds asleep, snuffling with anger, her lower lip stuck out.
“Take off that cap!” his Aunt Hannah snapped with frightening sternness, and his hands only just caught it against her snatching. He was appalled by this inexplicable betrayal, and the hardness of her mouth as she struggled with self-astonishment and repentance was even more ominous.
“Oh, Hannah, no, let him,” his mother said in her strange voice, “he was so crazy for Jay to see it,” and even as she said it he was surprised all over again for his aunt, whispering something inaudible, touched his cheek very gently. And now as she had done before, his mother lifted forward her hands and her kind arms. “Children, come close,” she said.
Aunt Hannah went silently out of the room.
“Come close”; and she touched each of them. “I want to tell you about Daddy.” But upon his name her voice shook and her whole dry-looking mouth trembled like the ash of burned paper in a draft. “Can you hear me, Catherine?” she asked, when she had recovered her voice. Catherine peered at her earnestly as if through a thick fog. “Are you waked up enough yet, my darling?” And because of her voice, in sympathy and for her protection, they both came now much nearer, and she put her arms around both of them, and they could smell her breath, a little like sauerkraut but more like a dried-up mouse. And now even more small lines like cracked china branched all over her face. “Daddy,” she said, “your father, children”: and this time she caught control of her mouth more quickly, and a single tear spilled out of her left eye and slid jaggedly down all the jagged lines: “Daddy didn’t come home. He isn’t going to come home ever any more. He’s-gone away to heaven and he isn’t ever coming home again. Do you hear me, Catherine? Are you awake?” Catherine stared at her mother. “Do you understand, Rufus?”
He stared at his mother. “Why not?” he asked.
She looked at him with extraordinary closeness and despair, and said, “Because God wanted him.” They continued to stare at her severely and she went on: “Daddy was on his way home last night-and he was-he-got hurt and- so God let him go to sleep and took him straight away with Him to heaven.” She sank her fingers in Catherine’s springy hair and looked intently from one to the other. “Do you see, children? Do you understand?” They stared at her, and now Catherine was sharply awake.
“Is Daddy dead?” Rufus asked. Her glance at him was as startled as if he had slapped her, and again her mouth and then her whole face began to work, uncontrollably this time, and she did not speak, but only nodded her head once, and then again, and then several times rapidly, while one small squeaky “yes” came out of her as if it had been sneezed out; then suddenly sweeping both of them close against her breasts, she tucked her chin down tightly between the crowns of their heads and they felt her whole body shaken as if by a wind, but she did not cry. Catherine began to sniffle quietly because everything seemed very serious and very sad. Rufus listened to his mother’s shattered breathing and gazed sidelong past her fair shoulder at the sheet, rumpled, and at a rubbed place in the rose-patterned carpet and then at something queer, that he had never seen before, on the bedside table, a tangle of brown beads and a little cross; through her breathing he began once more to hear the quarreling sparrows; he said to himself: dead, dead, but all he could do was see and hear; the streetcar raised and quieted its grim, iron cry; he became aware that his cap was pushed crooked against her and he felt that he ought to take it off but that he ought not to move just now to take it off, and he knew why his Aunt Hannah had been so mad at him. He could no longer hear even a rumor of the streetcar, and his mother’s breathing had become quiet again. With one hand she held Catherine still more closely against her, and Catherine sniffled a little more comfortably; with the other hand she put Rufus quietly away, so that she could look clearly into his eyes; tenderly she took off his cap and laid it beside her, and pushed the hair back from his forehead. “Neither of you will quite understand for a while,” she said. “It’s-very hard to understand. But you will,” she said (I do, he said to himself; he’s dead. That’s what) and she repeated rather dreamily, as if to herself, though she continued to look into his eyes, “You will”; then she was silent, and some kind of energy intensified in her eyes and she said: “When you want to know more-about it” (and her eyes became still more vibrant) “just, just ask me and I’ll tell you because you ought to know.” How did he get hurt, Rufus wanted to ask, but he knew by her eyes that she did not mean at all what she said, not now anyway, not this minute, he must not ask; and now he did not want to ask because he too was afraid; he nodded to let her know he understood her. “Just ask,” she said again, and he nodded again; a strange, cold excitement was rising in him; and in a cold intuition that it would be kind, and gratefully received, he kissed her. “God bless you,” she groaned, and held them passionately against herself; “both of you!” She loosened her arms. “And now you be a good boy,” she said in almost her ordinary voice, wiping Catherine’s nose. “Get little Catherine dressed, can you do that?” He nodded proudly; “and wash and dress yourself, and by then Aunt Hannah will have breakfast ready.”
“Aren’t you getting up, Mama?” he asked, much impressed that he had been deputized to dress his sister.
“Not for a while,” she said, and by her way of saying it, he knew that she wanted them to go out of the room right away.
“Come on, Catherine,” he said, and found, with surprise, that he had taken her hand. Catherine looked up at him, equally surprised, and shook her head.
“Go with Rufus, dear,” her mother said, “he’s going to help you get dressed, and eat your breakfast. Mother will see you soon.”
And Catherine, feeling that for some reason to do with her father, who was not where he ought to be, and her mother too, she must try to be a very good girl, came away with him without further protest. As they turned through the door to go down, Rufus saw that his mother had taken the beads and cross from the bedside table (they were like a regular necklace) and the beads ran among her fingers and twined and drooped from her hands and one wrist while she looked so intently at the upright cross that she did not realize that she had been seen. She’d be mad if she knew, he was sure.
Before he did anything about Catherine he put his cap back in the tissue paper. Then he got her clothes. “Take off your nightie,” he said. “Sopping wet,” he added, as nearly like his mother as possible.
“You’re sopping wet too,” she retorted.
“No, I didn’t either,” he said, “not last night.”
He found that she could do a certain amount of dressing herself; she got on the panties and she nearly got her underwaist on right too, except that it was backwards. “That’s all right,” he told her, as much like his mother as he was able, you do it fine. Just a little bit crooked"; and he fixed it right.
He buttoned her panties to her underwaist. It was much less easy, he found, than buttoning his own clothes. “Stand still,” he said, because to tell her so seemed only a proper part of carrying out his duty.
“I am,” Catherine replied, with such firmness that he said no more.
That was all that either of them said before they went down to breakfast.
Catherine did not like being buttoned up by Rufus or bossed around by him, and breakfast wasn’t like breakfast either. Aunt Hannah didn’t say anything and neither did Rufus and neither did she, and she felt that even if she wanted to say anything she oughtn’t. Everything was queer, it was so still and it seemed dark. Aunt Hannah sliced the banana so thin on the Post Toasties it looked cold and wet and slimy. She gave each of them a little bit of coffee in their milk and she made Rufus’a little bit darker than hers. She didn’t say, “Eat”; “Eat you breakfast, Catherine”; “Don’t dawdle,” like Catherine’s mother; she didn’t say anything. Catherine did not feel hungry, but she felt mildly curious because things tasted so different, and she ate slowly ahead, tasting each mouthful. Everything was so still that it made Catherine feel uneasy and sad. There were little noises when a fork or spoon touched a dish; the only other noise was the very thin dry toast Aunt Hannah kept slowly crunching and the fluttering sipping of the steamy coffee with which she wet each mouthful of dry crumbs enough to swallow it. When Catherine tried to make a similar noise sipping her milk, her Aunt Hannah glanced at her sharply as if she wondered if Catherine was trying to be a smart aleck but she did not say anything. Catherine was not trying to be a smart aleck but she felt she had better not make that noise again. The fried eggs had hardly any pepper and they were so soft the yellow ran out over the white and the white plate and looked so nasty she didn’t want to eat it but she ate it because she didn’t want to be told to and because she felt there was some special reason, still, why she ought to be a good girl. She felt very uneasy, but there was nothing to do but eat, so she always took care to get a good hold on her tumbler and did not take too much on her spoon, and hardly spilled at all, and when she became aware of how little she was spilling it made her feel like a big girl and yet she did not feel any less uneasy, because she knew there was something wrong. She was not as much interested in eating as she was in the way things were, and listening carefully, looking mostly at her plate, every sound she heard and the whole quietness which was so much stronger than the sounds, meant that things were not good. What it was was that he wasn’t here. Her mother wasn’t either, but she was upstairs. He wasn’t even upstairs. He was coming home last night but he didn’t come home and he wasn’t coming home now either, and her mother felt so awful she cried, and Aunt Hannah wasn’t saying anything, just making all that noise with the toast and big loud sips with the coffee and swallowing, grrmmp, and then the same thing over again and over again, and every time she made the noise with the toast it was almost scary, as if she was talking about some awful thing, and every time she sipped it was like crying or like when Granma sucked in air between her teeth when she hurt herself, and every time she swallowed, crrmmp, it meant it was all over and there was nothing to do about it or say or even ask, and then she would take another bite of toast as hard and shivery as gritting your teeth, and start the whole thing all over again. Her mother said he wasn’t coming home ever any more. That was what she said, but why wasn’t he home eating breakfast right this minute? Because he was not with them eating breakfast it wasn’t fun and everything was so queer. Now maybe in just a minute he would walk right in and grin at her and say, “Good morning, merry sunshine,” because her lip was sticking out, and even bend down and rub her cheek with his whiskers and then sit down and eat a big breakfast and then it would be all fun again and she would watch from the window when he went to work and just before he went out of sight he would turn around and she would wave but why wasn’t he right here now where she wanted him to be and why didn’t he come home? Ever any more. He won’t come home again ever any more. Won’t come home again ever. But he will, though, because it’s home. But why’s he not here? He’s up seeing Grampa Follet. Grampa Follet is very, very sick. But Mama didn’t feel awful then, she feels awful now. But why didn’t he come back when she said he would? He went to heaven and now Catherine could remember about heaven; that’s where God lives, way up in the sky. Why’d he do that? God took him there. But why’d he go there and not come home like Mama said? Last night Mama said he was coming home last night. We could even wait up a while and when he didn’t and we had to go to bed she promised he would come if we went to sleep and she promised he’d be here at breakfast time and now it’s breakfast time and she says he won’t come home ever any more. Now her Aunt Hannah folded her napkin, and folded it again more narrowly, and again still more narrowly, and pressed the butt end of it against her mouth, and laid it beside her plate, where it slowly and slightly unfolded, and, looking first at Rufus and then at Catherine and then back at Rufus, said quietly, “I think you ought to know about your father. Whatever I can tell you. Because your mother’s not feeling well.”
Now I’ll know when he is coming home, Catherine thought.
All through breakfast, Rufus had wanted to ask questions, but now he felt so shy and uneasy that he could hardly speak. “Who hurt him?” he finally asked.
“Why nobody hurt him, Rufus,” she said, and she looked shocked. “What on earth made you think so?”
Mama said so, Catherine thought.
“Mama said he got hurt so bad God put him to sleep,” Rufus said.
Like the kitties, Catherine thought; she saw a dim, gigantic old man in white take her tiny father by the skin of the neck and put him in a huge slop jar full of water and sit on the lid, and she heard the tiny scratching and the stifled mewing.
“That’s true he was hurt, but nobody hurt him,” her Aunt Hannah was saying. How could that be, Catherine wondered. “He was driving home by himself. That’s all, all by himself, in the auto last night, and he had an accident.”
Rufus felt his face get warm and he looked warningly at his sister. He knew it could not be that, not with his father, a grown man, besides, God wouldn’t put you to sleep for that, and it didn’t hurt, anyhow. But Catherine might think so. Sure enough, she was looking at her aunt with astonishment and disbelief that she could say such a thing about her father. Not in his pants, you dern fool, Rufus wanted to tell her, but his Aunt Hannah continued “A fatal accident”; and by her voice, as she spoke the strange word, “fatal,” they knew she meant something very bad. “That means that, just as your mother told you, that he was hurt so badly that God put him to sleep right away.”
Like the rabbits, Rufus remembered, all torn white bloody fur and red insides. He could not imagine his father like that. Poor little things, he remembered his mother’s voice comforting his crying, hurt so terribly that God just let them go to sleep.
If it was in the auto, Catherine thought, then he wouldn’t be in the slop jar.
They couldn’t be happy any more if He hadn’t, his mother had said. They could never get well.
Hannah wondered whether they could comprehend it at all and whether she should try to tell them. She doubted it. Deeply uncertain, she tried again.
“He was driving home last night,” she said, “about nine, and apparently something was already wrong with the steering mech-with the wheel you guide the machine with. But your father didn’t know it. Because there wasn’t any way he could know until something went wrong and then it was too late. But one of the wheels struck a loose stone in the road and the wheel turned aside very suddenly, and when…” She paused and went on more quietly and slowly: “You see, when your father tried to make the auto go where it should, stay on the road, he found he couldn’t, he didn’t have any control. Because something was wrong with the steering gear. So, instead of doing as he tried to make it, the auto twisted aside because of the loose stone and ran off the road into a deep ditch.” She paused again. “Do you understand?”
They kept looking at her.
“Your father was thrown from the auto,” she said. "Then the auto went on without him up the other side of the ditch. It went up an eight-foot embankment and then it fell down backward, turned over and landed just beside him.
“They’re pretty sure he was dead even before he was thrown out. Because the only mark on his whole body,” and now they began to hear in her voice a troubling intensity and resentment, “was right-here!” She pressed the front of her forefinger to the point of her chin, and looked at them almost as if she were accusing them.
They said nothing.
I suppose I’ve got to finish, Hannah thought; I’ve gone this far.
“They’re pretty sure how it happened,” she said. “The auto gave such a sudden terrible jerk”-she jerked so violently that both children jumped, and startled her; she demonstrated what she saw next more gently: “that your father was thrown forward and struck his chin, very hard, against the wheel, the steering wheel, and from that instant he never knew anything more.”
She looked at Rufus, at Catherine, and again at Rufus. “Do you understand?” They looked at her.
After a while Catherine said, “He hurt his chin.”
“Yes, Catherine. He did,” she replied. “They believe he was instantly killed, with that one single blow, because it happened to strike just exactly where it did. Because if you’re struck very hard in just that place, it jars your whole head, your brain so hard that-sometimes people die in that very instant.” She drew a deep breath and let it out long and shaky. “Concussion of the brain, that is called,” she said with most careful distinctness, and bowed her head for a moment; they saw her thumb make a small cross on her chest.
She looked up. “Now do you understand, children?” she asked earnestly. “I know it’s very hard to understand. You please tell me if there’s anything you want to know and I’ll do my best to expl-tell you better.”
Rufus and Catherine looked at each other and looked away. After a while Rufus said, “Did it hurt him bad?”
“He could never have felt it. That’s the one great mercy” (or is it, she wondered); “the doctor is sure of that.” Catherine wondered whether she could ask one question. She thought she’d better not.
“What’s an eightfoot embackmut?” asked Rufus.
“Em-bankment,” she replied. “Just a bank. A steep little hill, eight feet high. Bout’s high’s the ceiling.”
He and Catherine saw the auto climb it and fall backward rolling and come to rest beside their father. Umbackmut, Catherine thought; em-bankment, Rufus said to himself. “What’s instintly?”
“Instantly is-quick’s that”; she snapped her fingers, more loudly than she had expected to; Catherine flinched and kept her eyes on the fingers. “Like snapping off an electric light,” Rufus nodded. “So you can be very sure, both of you, he never felt a moment’s pain. Not one moment.”
“When’s…” Catherine began.
“What’s…” Rufus began at the same moment; they glared —at each other.
“What is it, Catherine?”
“When’s Daddy coming home?”
“Why good golly, Catherine,” Rufus began. “Hold your tongue!” his Aunt Hannah said fiercely, and he listened, scared, and ashamed of himself.
“Catherine, he can’t come home,” she said very kindly. “That’s just what all this means, child.” She put her hand over Catherine’s hand and Rufus could see that her chin was trembling. “He died, Catherine,” she said. “That’s what your mother means. God put him to sleep and took him, took his soul away with Him. So he can’t come home…” She stopped, and began again. “We’ll see him once more,” she said, “tomorrow or day after; that I promise you,” she said, wishing she was sure of Mary’s views about this. "But he’ll be asleep then. And after that we won’t see him any more in this world. Not until God takes us away too.
“Do you see, child?” Catherine was looking at her very seriously. “Of course you don’t, God bless you”; she squeezed her hand. “Don’t ever try too hard to understand, child. Just try to understand it’s so. He’d come if he could but he simply can’t because God wants him with Him. That’s all.” She kept her hand over Catherine’s a little while more, while Rufus realized much more clearly than before that he really could not and would not come home again: because of God.
“He would if he could but he can’t,” Catherine finally said, remembering a joking phrase of her mother’s.
Hannah, who knew the joking phrase too, was startled, but quickly realized that the child meant it in earnest, “That’s it,” she said gratefully.
But he’ll come once more, anyway, Rufus realized, looking forward to it. Even if he is asleep.
“What was it you wanted to ask, Rufus?” he heard his aunt say.
He tried to remember and remembered. “What’s kuh, kuhkush, kuh…?”
“Con-cus-sion, Rufus. Concus-sion of the brain. That’s the doctor’s name for what happened. It means, it’s as if the brain were hit very hard and suddenly, and joggled loose. The instant that happens, your father was-he…”
“Then it was that, that put him to sleep.”
Catherine looked at him, bewildered.
When breakfast was over he wandered listlessly into the sitting room and looked all around, but he did not see any place where he would like to sit down. He felt deeply idle and empty and at the same time gravely exhilarated, as if this were the morning of his birthday, except that this day seemed even more particularly his own day. There was nothing in the way it looked which was not ordinary, but it was filled with a noiseless and invisible kind of energy. He could see his mother’s face while she told them about it and hear her voice, over and over, and silently, over and over, while he looked around the sitting room and through the window into the street, words repeated themselves, He’s dead. He died last night while I was asleep and now it was already morning. He has already been dead since way last night and I didn’t even know until I woke up. He has been dead all night while I was asleep and now it is morning and I am awake but he is still dead and he will stay right on being dead all afternoon and all night and all tomorrow while I am asleep again and wake up again and go to sleep again and he can’t come back home again ever any more but I will see him once more before he is taken away. Dead now. He died last night while I was asleep and now it is already morning.
A boy went by with his books in a strap.
Two girls went by with their satchels.
He went to the hat rack and took his satchel and his hat and started back down the hall to the kitchen to get his lunch; then he remembered his new cap. But it was upstairs. It would be in Mama’s and Daddy’s room, he could remember when she took it off his head. He did not want to go in for it where she was lying down and now he realized, too, that he did not want to wear it. He would like to tell her good-bye before he went to school, but he did not want to go in and see her lying down and looking like that. He kept on towards the kitchen. He would tell Aunt Hannah good-bye instead.
She was at the sink washing dishes and Catherine sat on a kitchen chair watching her. He looked all around but he could not see any lunch. I guess she doesn’t know about lunch, he reflected. She did not seem to realize that he was there so, after a moment, he said, “Good-bye.”
“What-is-it?” she said and turned her lowered head, peering. “Why, Rufus!” she exclaimed, in such a tone that he wondered what he had done. “You’re not going to school,” she said, and now he realized that she was not mad at him.
“I can stay out of school?”
“Of course you can. You must. Today and tomorrow as well and-for a sufficient time. A few days. Now put up your things, and stay right in this house, child.”
He looked at her and said to himself: but then they can’t see me; but he knew there was no use begging her; already she was busy with the dishes again.
He went back along the hall towards the hat rack. In the first moment he had been only surprised and exhilarated not to have to go to school, and something of this sense of privilege remained, but almost immediately he was also disappointed. He could now see vividly how they would all look up when he came into the schoolroom and how the teacher would say something nice about his father and about him, and he knew that on this day everybody would treat him well, and even look up to him, for something had happened to him today which had not happened to any other boy in school, any other boy in town. They might even give him part of their lunches.
He felt even more profoundly empty and idle than before.
He laid down his satchel on the seat of the hat rack, but he kept his hat on. She’ll spank me, he thought. Even worse, he could foresee her particular, crackling kind of anger. I won’t let her find out, he told himself. Taking great care to be silent, he let himself out the front door.
The air was cool and gray and here and there along the street, shapeless and watery sunlight strayed and vanished. Now that he was in this outdoor air he felt even more listless and powerful; he was alone, and the silent, invisible energy. was everywhere. He stood on the porch and supposed that everyone he saw passing knew of an event so famous. A man was walking quickly up the street and as Rufus watched him, and waited for the man to meet his eyes, he felt a great quiet lifting within him of pride and of shyness, and he felt his face break into a smile, and then an uncontrollable grin, which he knew he must try to make sober again; but the man walked past without looking at him, and so did the next man who walked past in the other direction. Two schoolboys passed whose faces he knew, so he knew that they must know his, but they did not even seem to see him. Arthur and Alvin Tripp came down their front steps and along the far sidewalk and now he was sure, and came down his own front steps and halfway out to the sidewalk, but then he stopped, for now, although both of them looked across into his eyes, and he into theirs, they did not cross the street to him or even say hello, but kept on their way, still looking into his eyes with a kind of shy curiosity, even when their heads were turned almost backwards on their necks, and he turned his own head slowly, watching them go by, but when he saw that they were not going to speak he took care not to speak either.
What’s the matter with them, he wondered, and still watched them; and even now, far down the street, Arthur kept turning his head, and for several steps Alvin walked backwards.
What are they mad about?
Now they no longer looked around, and now he watched them vanish under the hill.
Maybe they don’t know, he thought. Maybe the others don’t know, either.
He came out to the sidewalk.
Maybe everybody knew. Or maybe he knew something of great importance which nobody else knew. The alternatives were not at all distinct in his mind; he was puzzled, but no less proud and expectant than before. My daddy’s dead, he said to himself slowly, and then, shyly, he said it aloud: “My daddy’s dead.” Nobody in sight seemed to have heard; he had said it to nobody in particular. “My daddy’s dead,” he said again, chiefly for his own benefit. It sounded powerful, solid, and entirely creditable, and he knew that if need be he would tell people. He watched a large, slow man come towards him and waited for the man to look at him and acknowledge the fact first, but when the man was just ahead of him, and still did not appear even to have seen him, he told him, “My daddy’s dead,” but the man did not seem to hear him, he just swung on by. He took care to tell the next man sooner and the man’s face looked almost as if he were dodging a blow but he went on by, looking back a few steps later with a worried face; and after a few steps more he turned and came slowly back.
“What was that you said, sonny?” he asked; he was frowning slightly.
“My daddy’s dead,” Rufus said, expectantly.
“You mean that sure enough?” the man asked.
“He died last night when I was asleep and now he can’t come home ever any more.”
The man looked at him as if something hurt him.
“Where do you live, sonny?”
“Right here”; he showed with his eyes.
“Do your folks know you out here wandern round?”
He felt his stomach go empty. He looked frankly into his eyes and nodded quickly.
The man just looked at him and Rufus realized: He doesn’t believe me. How do they always know?
“You better just go on back in the house, son,” he said. “They won’t like you being out here on the street.” He kept looking at him, hard.
Rufus looked into his eyes with reproach and apprehension, and turned in at his walk. The man still stood there. Rufus went on slowly up his steps, and looked around. The man was on his way again but at the moment Rufus looked around, he did too, and now he stopped again.
He shook his head and said, in a friendly voice which made Rufus feel ashamed, “How would your daddy like it, you out here telling strangers how he’s dead?”
Rufus opened the door, taking care not to make a sound, and stepped in and silently closed it, and hurried into the sitting room. Through the curtains he watched the man. He still stood there, lighting a cigarette, but now he started walking again. He looked back once and Rufus felt, with a quailing of shame and fear, he sees me; but the man immediately looked away again and Rufus watched him until he was out of sight.
How would your daddy like it?
He thought of the way they teased him and did things to him, and how mad his father got when he just came home. He thought how different it would be today if he only didn’t have to stay home from school.
He let himself out again and stole back between the houses to the alley, and walked along the alley, listening to the cinders cracking under each step, until he came near the sidewalk. He was not in front of his own home now, or even on Highland Avenue; he was coming into the side street down from his home, and he felt that here nobody would identify him with his home and send him back to it. What he could see from the mouth of the alley was much less familiar to him, and he took the last few steps which brought him out onto the sidewalk with deliberation and shyness. He was doing something he had been told not to do.
He looked up the street and he could see the corner he knew so well, where he always met the others so unhappily, and, farther away, the corner around which his father always disappeared on the way to work, and first appeared on his way home from work. He felt it would be good luck that he would not be meeting them at that corner. Slowly, uneasily, he turned his head, and looked down the side street in the other direction; and there they were: three together, and two along the far side of the street, and one alone, farther off, and another alone, farther off, and, without importance to him, some girls here and there, as well. He knew the faces of all of these boys well, though he was not sure of any of their names. The moment he saw them all he was sure they saw him, and sure that they knew. He stood still and waited for them, looking from one to another of them, into their eyes, and step by step at their several distances, each of them at all times looking into his eyes and knowing, they came silently nearer. Waiting, in silence, during those many seconds before the first of them came really near him, he felt that it was so long to wait, and be watched so closely and silently, and to watch back, that he wanted to go back into the alley and not be seen by them or by anybody else, and yet at the same time he knew that they were all approaching him with the realization that something had happened to him that had not happened to any other boy in town, and that now at last they were bound to think well of him; and the nearer they came but were yet at a distance, the more the gray, sober air was charged with the great energy and with a sense of glory and of danger, and the deeper and more exciting the silence became, and the more tall, proud, shy and exposed he felt; so that as they came still nearer he once again felt his face break into a wide smile, with which he had nothing to do, and, feeling that there was something deeply wrong in such a smile, tried his best to quieten his face and told them, shyly and proudly, “My daddy’s dead.”
Of the first three who came up, two merely looked at him and the third said, “Huh! Betcha he ain’t”; and Rufus, astounded that they did not know and that they should disbelieve him, said, “Why he is so!”
“Where’s your satchel at?” said the boy who had spoken. “You’re just making up a lie so you can lay out of school.”
“I am not laying out,” Rufus replied. “I was going to school and my Aunt Hannah told me I didn’t have to go to school today or tomorrow or not till-not for a few days. She said I mustn’t. So I am not laying out. I’m just staying out.”
And another of the boys said, “That’s right. If his daddy is dead he don’t have to go back to school till after the funerl.”
While Rufus had been speaking two other boys had crossed over to join them and now one of them said, “He don’t have to. He can lay out cause his daddy got killed,” and Rufus looked at the boy gratefully and the boy looked back at him, it seemed to Rufus, with deference.
But the first boy who had spoken said, resentfully, “How do you know?”
And the second boy, while his companion nodded, said, “Cause my daddy seen it in the paper. Can’t your daddy read the paper?”
The paper, Rufus thought; it’s even in the paper! And he looked wisely at the first boy. And the first boy, interested enough to ignore the remark against his father, said, “Well how did he get killed, then?” and Rufus, realizing with respect that it was even more creditable to get killed than just to die, took a deep breath and said, “Why, he was…”; but the boy whose father had seen it in the paper was already talking, so he listened, instead, feeling as if all this were being spoken for him, and on his behalf, and in his praise, and feeling it all the more as he looked from one silent boy to the next and saw that their eyes were constantly on him. And Rufus listened, too, with as much interest as they did, while the boy said with relish, “In his ole Tin Lizzie, that’s how. He was driving along in his ole Tin Lizzie and it hit a rock and throwed him out in the ditch and run up a eight-foot bank and then fell back and turned over and over and landed right on top of him whomph and mashed every bone in his body, that’s all. And somebody come and found him and he was dead already time they got there, that’s how.”
“He was instantly killed,” Rufus began, and expected to go ahead and correct some of the details of the account, but nobody seemed to hear him, for two other boys had come up and just as he began to speak one of them said, “Your daddy got his name in the paper didn he, and you too,” and he saw that now all the boys looked at him with new respect.
“He’s dead,” he told them. “He got killed.”
“That’s what my daddy says,” one of them said, and the other said, “What you get for driving a auto when you’re drunk, that’s what my dad says,” and the two of them looked gravely at the other boys, nodding, and at Rufus.
“What’s drunk?” Rufus asked.
“What’s drunk?” one of the boys mocked incredulously: “Drunk is fulla good ole whiskey”; and he began to stagger about in circles with his knees weak and his head lolling. “At’s what drunk is.”
“Then he wasn’t,” Rufus said.
“How do you know?”
“He wasn’t drunk because that wasn’t how he died. The wheel hit a rock and the other wheel, the one you steer with, just hit him on the chin, but it hit him so hard it killed him. He was instantly killed.”
“What’s instantly killed?” one of them asked.
“What do you care?” another said.
“Right off like that,” an older boy explained, snapping his fingers. Another boy joined the group. Thinking of what instantly meant, and how his father’s name was in the paper and his own too, and how he had got killed, not just died, he was not listening to them very clearly for a few moments, and then, all of a sudden, he began to realize that he was the center of everything and that they all knew it and that they waited to hear him tell the true account of it.
“I don’t know nothing about no chin,” the boy whose father saw it in the paper was saying. “Way I heard it he was a-drivin along in his ole Tin Lizzie and he hit a rock and ole Tin Lizzie run off the road and showed him out and run up a eight-foot bank and turned over and over and fell back down on top of him whomp.”
“How do you know?” an older boy was saying. “You wasn’t there. Anybody here knows it’s him.” And he pointed at Rufus and Rufus was startled from his revery.
“Why?” asked the boy who had just come up.
“Cause it’s his daddy,” one of them explained.
“It’s my daddy,” Rufus said.
“What happened?” asked still another boy, at the fringe of the group.
“My daddy got killed,” Rufus said.
“His daddy got killed,” several of the others explained.
“My daddy says he bets he was drunk.”
“Good ole whiskey!”
“Shut up, what’s your daddy know about it.”
“Was he drunk?”
“No,” Rufus said.
“No,” two others said.
“Let him tell it.”
“Yeah, you tell it.”
“Anybody here ought to know, it’s him.”
“Come on and tell us.”
“Good ole whiskey.”
“Shut your mouth.”
“Well come on and tell us, then.”
They became silent and all of them looked at him. Rufus looked back into their eyes in the sudden deep stillness. A man walked by, stepping into the gutter to skirt them.
Rufus said, quietly, “He was coming home from Grampa’s last night, Grampa Follet. He’s very sick and Daddy had to go up way in the middle of the night to see him, and he was hurrying as fast as he could to get back home because he was so late. And there was a cotter pin worked loose.”
“What’s a cotter pin?”
“A cotter pin is what holds things together underneath, that you steer with. It worked loose and fell out so that when one of the front wheels hit a loose rock it wrenched the wheel and he couldn’t steer and the auto ran down off the road with an awful bump and they saw where the wheel you steer with hit him right on the chin and he was instantly killed. He was thrown all the way out of the auto and it ran up an eight-foot emb-embackment and then it rolled back down and it was upside down beside him when they found him. There was not a mark on his body. Only a little tiny blue mark right on the end of the chin and another on his lip.”
In the silence he could see the auto upside down with its wheels in the air and his father lying beside it with the little blue marks on his chin and on his lip.
“Heck,” one of them said, “how can that kill anybody?”
He felt a kind of sullen stirring among the others, and he felt that he was not believed, or that they did not think very well of his father for being killed so easily.
“It was just exactly the way it just happened to hit him, Uncle Andrew says. He says it was just a chance in a million. It gave him a concush, con, concush-it did something to his brain that killed him.”
“Just a chance in a million,” one of the older boys said gravely, and another gravely nodded.
“A million trillion,” another said.
“Knocked him crazy as a loon,” another cried, and with a waggling forefinger he made a rapid blubbery noise against his loose lower lip.
“Shut yer Goddamn mouth,” an older boy said coldly. “Ain’t you got no sense at all?”
“Way I heard it, ole Tin Lizzie just rolled right back on top of him whomp.”
This account of it was false, Rufus was sure, but it seemed to him more exciting than his own, and more creditable to his father and to him, and nobody could question, scornfully, whether that could kill, as they could of just a blow on the chin; so he didn’t try to contradict. He felt that he was lying, and in some way being disloyal as well, but he said only, “He was instantly killed. He didn’t have to feel any pain.”
“Never even knowed what hit him,” a boy said quietly. “That’s what my dad says.”
“No,” Rufus said. It had not occurred to him that way. “I guess he didn’t.” Never even knowed what hit him. Knew.
“Reckon that ole Tin Lizzie is done for now. Huh?”
He wondered if there was some meanness behind calling it an old Tin Lizzie. “I guess so,” he said.
“Good ole waggin, but she done broke down.”
His father sang that.
“No more joy rides in that ole Tin Lizzie, huh Rufus?”
“I guess not,” Rufus replied shyly.
He began to realize that for some moments now a bell, the school bell, had been weltering on the dark gray air; he realized it because at this moment the last of its reverberations were fading.
“Last bell,” one of the boys said in sudden alarm.
“Come on, we’re goana git hell,” another said; and within another second Rufus was watching them all run dwindling away up the street, and around the corner into Highland Avenue, as fast as they could go, and all round him the morning was empty and still. He stood still and watched the corner for almost half a minute after the fattest of them, and then the smallest, had disappeared; then he walked slowly back along the alley, hearing once more the sober crumbling of the cinders under each step, and up through the narrow side yard between the houses, and up the steps of the front porch.
In the paper! He looked for it beside the door, but it was not there. He listened carefully, but he could not bear anything. He let himself quietly through the front door, at the moment his Aunt Hannah came from the sitting room into the front hall. She wore a cloth over her hair and in her hands she was carrying the smoking stand. She did not see him at first and he saw how fierce and lonely her face looked. He tried to make himself small but just then she wheeled on him, her lenses flashing, and exclaimed, “Rufus Follet, where on earth have you been!” His stomach quailed, for her voice was so angry it was as if it were crackling with sparks.
“Where, outdoors! I’ve been looking for you all over the place.”
“Just out. Back in the alley.”
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
He shook his head.
“I shouted until my voice was hoarse.”
He kept shaking his head. “Honest,” he said.
“Now listen to me carefully. You mustn’t go outdoors today. Stay right here inside this house, do you understand?”
He nodded. He felt suddenly that he had done an awful thing.
“I know it’s hard to,” she said more gently, “but you’ve got to. Help Catherine with her coloring. Read a book. You promise?”
“And don’t do anything to disturb your mother.”
She went on down the hall and he watched her. What was she doing with the pipes and the ash trays, he wondered. He considered sneaking behind her, for he knew that she could not see at all well, yet he would be sure to get caught, for her hearing was very sharp. All the same, he sneaked along to the back of the hall and watched her empty the ashes into the garbage pail and rap out the pipes against its rim. Then she stood with the pipes in her hand, looking around uncertainly; finally she put the pipes and the ash tray on the cupboard shelf, and set the smoking stand in the corner of the kitchen behind the stove. He went back along the hall on tiptoe and into the sitting room.
Catherine sat in the little chair by the side window with a picture book on her knees. Her crayons were all over the window sill and she was working intently with an orange crayon. She looked up when he came in and looked down again and kept on working.
He did not want to help her, be wanted to be my himself and see if he could find the paper with the names in it, but he felt that he ought to try to be good, for by now he felt a dark uneasiness about something, he was not quite sure what, that he had done. He walked over to her. “I’ll help you,” he said.
“No,” Catherine said, without even looking up. It was the Mother Goose book and with her orange crayon she was scrawling all over the cow which jumped over the moon, inside and outside the lines of the cow.
“Aunt Hannah says to,” he said, disgusted to see what she was doing to the cow.
“No,” Catherine said, and again she did not look up or stop scrawling for a second.
“That ain’t no color for a cow,” he said. “Whoever saw an orange cow?” She made no reply, but he could see that her face was getting red. “Besides, you’re not even coloring inside the cow,” he said. “Just look at that. You’re just running that crayon around all over the place and it isn’t even the right color.” She bore down even harder and harder with the crayon and pushed it in a wider and wider tangle of lines and all of a sudden it snapped and the long part rolled to the floor. “See now, you busted it,” Rufus said.
“Leave me alone!” She tried to draw with the stub of the crayon but it was too short, and the paper got in the way. She looked along the window sill and selected a brown crayon.
“What you goana do with that brown one?” Rufus said. “You already got all that orange all over everything, what you goana do with that brown one?” Catherine took the brown crayon and made a brutal tangle of dark lines all over the orange lines. “Now all you did is just spoil it,” Rufus said. “You don’t know how to draw!”
“Quit it!” Catherine yelled, and all of a sudden she was crying. He heard his Aunt Hannah’s sharp voice from the kitchen: “Rufus?”
He was furious with Catherine. “Crybaby,” he whispered with cold hatred: “Tattletale!”
And there was Aunt Hannah at the door, just as mad as a hornet. “Now, what’s the matter? What have you done to her!” She walked straight at him.
It wasn’t fair. How did she know he was doing anything? With a feeling of real righteousness he talked back: “I didn’t do one single thing to her. She was just messing everything up on her picture and I tried to help her like you told me to and all of a sudden she started to cry.”
“What did he do, Catherine?”
“He wouldn’t let me alone.”
“Why good night, I never even touched you and you’re a liar if you say I did!”
All of a sudden he felt himself gripped by the shoulders and shaken and he turned his rattling head from his sister to look into his Aunt Hannah’s freezing glare.
“Now you just listen to me,” she said. “Are you listening?” she sputtered. “Are you listening?” she said still more intensely.
“Yes,” he managed to get out, though the word was all shaken up.
“I don’t want to spank you on this day of all days, but if I hear you say one more rough thing like that to your sister I’ll give you a spanking you’ll remember to your dying day, do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
“And if you tease her or make her cry just one more time I’ll-I’ll turn the whole matter over to your Uncle Andrew and we’ll see what he’ll do about it. Do you want me to call him? He’s upstairs this minute! Shall I call him?” She stopped shaking him and looked at him. “Shall I?” He shook his head; he was terrified. “All right, but this is my last warning. Do you understand?”
“Now if you can’t play with Catherine in peace like a decent boy just-stay by yourself. Look at some pictures. Read a book. But you be quiet. And good. Do you hear me?”
“Very well.” She stood up and her joints snapped. “Come with me, Catherine,” she said. “Let’s bring your crayons.” And she helped Catherine gather up the crayons and the stubs from the window sill and from the carpet. Catherine’s face was still red but she was not crying any more. As she passed Rufus she gave him a glance filled with satisfaction, and he answered it with a glance of helpless malevolence.
He listened towards upstairs. If his Uncle Andrew had overheard this, there would really be trouble. But there was no evidence that he had. Rufus felt weak in the knees and in the stomach. He went over to the chair beside the fireplace and sat down.
It was mean to pester Catherine like that but he hadn’t wanted to do anything for her anyway. And why did she have to holler like that and bring Aunt Hannah running? He remembered the way her face got red and he knew that he had really been mean to her and he was sorry. But what did she holler for, like a regular crybaby? He would be very careful today, but sooner or later he sure would get back on her. Darn crybaby. Tattletale.
The others really did pay him some attention, though. Anybody here ought to know, it’s him. His daddy got killed. Yeah you tell it. Come on and tell us. Just a chance in a million. A million trillion. Never even knowed, knew, what hit him. Shut yer Goddamn mouth. Ain’t you got no sense at all?
Concussion, that was it. Concussion of the brain.
Knocked him crazy as a loon, bibblibblebble.
Shut yer Goddam mouth.
But there was something that made him feel wrong.
Ole Tin Lizzie.
What you get for driving a auto when you’re drunk, that’s what my dad says.
Good ole whiskey.
Something he did.
Ole Tin Lizzie just rolled back down on top of him whomp.
He didn’t say it didn’t. Not clear enough.
Heck, how can that kill anybody?
Did, though. Just a chance in a million. Million trillion.
Worse than that, he did.
How would your daddy like it?
He would like me to be with them without them teasing; looking up to me.
How would your daddy li ke it?
Going out in the street like that when he is dead.
Out in the street like what?
Showing off to people because he is dead.
He wants me to get along with them.
So I tell them he is dead and they look up to me, they don’t tease me.
Showing off because he’s dead, that’s all you can show off about. Any other thing they’d tease me and I wouldn’t fight back.
How would your daddy like it?
But he likes me to get along with them. That’s why I-went out-showed off.
He felt so uneasy, deep inside his stomach, that he could not think about it any more. He wished he hadn’t done it. He wished he could go back and not do anything of the kind. He wished his father could know about it and tell him that yes he was bad but it was all right he didn’t mean to be bad. He was glad his father didn’t know because if his father knew he would think even worse of him than ever. But if his father’s soul was around, always, watching over them, then he knew. And that was worst of anything because there was no way to hide from a soul, and no way to talk to it, either. He just knows, and it couldn’t say anything to him, and he couldn’t say anything to it. It couldn’t whip him either, but it could sit and look at him and be ashamed of him.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said aloud. “I didn’t mean to do bad.”
I wanted to show you my cap, he added, silently.
He looked at his father’s morsechair.
Not a mark on his body.
He still looked at the chair. With a sense of deep stealth and secrecy he finally went over and stood beside it. After a few moments, and after listening most intently, to be sure that nobody was near, he smelled of the chair, its deeply hollowed seat, the arms, the back. There was only a cold smell of tobacco and, high along the back, a faint smell of hair. He thought of the ash tray on its weighted strap on the arm; it was empty. He ran his finger inside it; there was only a dim smudge of ash. There was nothing like enough to keep in his pocket or wrap up in a paper. He looked at his finger for a moment and licked it; his tongue tasted of darkness.
They were told they could eat, that morning, in their nightgowns and wrappers. Their mother still wasn’t there, and Aunt Hannah talked even less than at any meal before. They too were very quiet. They felt that this was an even more special day than day before yesterday. All the noises of their eating and from the street were especially clear, but seemed to come from a distance. They looked steadily at their plates and ate very carefully.
First thing after breakfast Aunt Hannah said, “Now come with me, children,” and they followed her into the bathroom. There she washed their faces and hands and arms, and behind the ears, and their necks, and up each nostril, carefully and gently with soap and warm water; she did not get soap in the eyes of either of them, or hurt their skins with the washcloth. Then she took them into the bedroom and opened the bureaus and took out everything bran clean, from the skin out, and told Rufus to get his clothes on and to ask for help if he wanted it, and started dressing Catherine. Rufus began to see the connection between all this and the bath, the night before. When he had on his underclothes she brought out new black stockings and his Sunday serge. While she was helping Catherine on with her stockings, which were also new but white, the phone rang and she said, “Now sit still and be good. I’ll be straight back,” and hustled from the room. They heard her say, rather loudly and distinctly, up the hall, “I’m getting it, Mary,” then her feet, fast on the stairs. They sat very still, looking at the open door, and tried to hear. They found they could hear quite distinctly, for Hannah spoke to the telephone as she did to her deaf brother and sister-in-law. They heard: “Hello… Hello… Yes… Father?”, and when they heard the word “Father” they looked at each other with curiosity and with an uneasy premonition. They heard “Yes… yes… yes… yes… yes… yes, Father… yes… yes, as well as could be expected… yes… yes… Thank you. I’ll tell her… yes… yes… very well… yes… The Highland Avenue… yes… yes… any… yes… any car to the corner of Church and Gay, then transfer to the Highland-yes-very well… yes… Thank you… we’ll be waiting… yes… no… yes, Father… yes F-… good b… yes, Father… Thank you… goo-… yes… Thank you… good-bye… good-bye.”
They heard her let out a long, tired, angry breath and they could hear her joints snapping as she sprinted up the stairs. They were sitting exactly where she had left them. Rufus thought, Maybe she will say we were good children, but without a word she finished with Catherine’s stockings. She gave Rufus a new white shirt from which he slowly and with fascination drew the pins, running them between his teeth as he watched Aunt Hannah help Catherine into her new dress, which was white, speckled with small dark blue flowers. Catherine stood holding the hem and looking at the skirt and at her white-stockinged feet, which she could see through the skirt. “And now your necktie,” Aunt Hannah said. She took his dark blue tie and made expert motions beneath his chin while alternately he tried to watch her hands and looked into her intent eyes behind their heavy lenses. Her eyes looked stern and sad and exhausted.
Then she cleaned their nails and combed and brushed their hair, and put a clean handkerchief in Rufus’breast pocket and blacked their shoes. “Now wait a moment,” she said, leaving the room. They heard her rap softly on their mother’s door.
“Mary?” she said.
“Yes,” they heard dimly.
“The children are ready. Shall I bring them in?”
“Yes do, Hannah; thank you.”
“Come in now and see your mother,” she told them from the door.
They followed her in.
“Oh, they look very nice;” she exclaimed, in a voice so odd that it seemed to the children that she must be sorry that they did. Yet by her face they could see that she was not sorry. “Hannah, thank you so much, I don’t know what I’d have…”
But Hannah had left the room and closed the door.
They stood and looked at her with curiosity. Her eyes seemed larger and brighter than usual; her hair was done up as carefully as if she were going to a party. She wore her wrapper and where it opened in front they could see that she had on something dull and black underneath. Her face was like folded gray cloths.
She watched them look at her; they did not move. Her face altered as if a very low light had gone on behind it.
“Come here, my darlings,” she said, and smiled, and squatted with her hands out towards them.
Rufus came shyly; Catherine ran. She took one of them in each arm.
“There, my darlings,” she said above them, “there, there, my dear ones. Mother’s here. Mother’s here. Mother has wanted to see you more, these last days; a lot more: she just-couldn’t, Rufus and Catherine. Just couldn’t do it.” When she said “couldn’t” she held them very tightly and they knew they were loved. “Little Catherine”-and she held Catherine’s head still more tightly to her-“bless her soul! and Rufus”-she held him away and looked into his eyes-“you both know how much Mother loves you, with all her heart and soul, all her life-you know, don’t you? Don’t you?” Rufus, puzzled but moved, nodded politely, and again she caught him to her. “Of course you do,” she said, as if she were not speaking to them. "Of course you do.
“Now,” she said, after a moment. She stood up and drew them by their hands to the bed. They sat down and she sat in a chair and looked at them for a few seconds without speaking.
“Now,” she said again. “I want to tell you about Daddy, because this morning, soon now, we’re all going down to Grampa’s and Grandma’s, and see him once more, and tell him good-bye.” Catherine’s face brightened; her mother shook her head and placed a quieting hand on Catherine’s knees, saying, “No, Catherine, it won’t be like you think, that’s what I must tell you about him. So listen very carefully, you too, Rufus.”
She waited until she was sure they were listening carefully.
“You both understand what has happened to Daddy, don’t you. That something happened in the auto, and God took him from us, very quickly, without any pain, and took him away to heaven. You understand that, don’t you?”
“And you understand, that when God takes you away to heaven you can never come back?”
“Never come back?” Catherine asked.
She stroked Catherine’s hair away from her face. “No, Catherine, not ever, in any way we can see and talk to. Daddy’s soul will always be thinking of us, just as we will always think of him, but we will never see him again, after today.” Catherine looked at her very intently; her face began to redden. “You must learn to believe that and know it, darling Catherine. It’s so.”
She seemed to be about to cry; she swallowed; and Catherine seemed to accept it as true.
“We’ll always remember him,” she told both of them. “Always. And he’ll be thinking of us. Every day. He’s waiting for us in heaven. And someday, if we’re good, when God comes for us, He’ll take us to heaven too and we’ll see Daddy there, and all be together again, forever and ever.”
Amen, Rufus almost said; then realized that this was not a prayer.
“But when we see Daddy today, children, his soul won’t be there. It’ll just be Daddy’s body. Very much as you’ve always seen him. But because his soul has been taken away, he will be lying down, and he will lie very still. It will be just as if he were asleep, so you must both be just as quiet as if he were asleep and you didn’t want to wake him. Quieter.”
“But I do,” said Catherine.
“But Catherine, you can’t, dear, you mustn’t even think of trying. Because Daddy is dead now, and when you are dead that means you go to sleep and you never wake up-until God wakes you.”
“Well when will He?”
“We don’t know, Rufus, but probably a long, long time from now. Long after we are all dead.”
Rufus wondered what was the good of that, then, but he was sure he should not ask.
“So I don’t want you to wonder about it, children. Daddy may seem very queer to you, because he’s so still, but that’s-just simply the way he’s got to look.”
Suddenly she pressed her lips tightly together and they trembled violently. She clenched her cheekbone against her left shoulder, squeezing their hands with her trembling hands, and tears slipped from her tightly shut eyes. Rufus watched her with awe, Catherine with forlorn worry. She suddenly hissed out, “Just-a-minute,” with her eyes still closed, startling and shocking Catherine, so that she looked as if she were ready to cry. But before Catherine could commit herself to crying, her hands relaxed, pressing them gently, and she raised her head and opened her clear eyes, saying, "Now Mother must get dressed, and I want you to take Catherine downstairs, Rufus, and both of you be very quiet and good till I come down. And don’t make any bother for Aunt Hannah, because she’s been wonderful to all of us and she’s worn out.
“You be good,” she said, smiling and looking at them in turn. “I’ll be down in a little while.”
“Come on, Catherine,” Rufus said.
“I’m coming,” Catherine replied, looking at him as if he had spoken of her unjustly.
“Mama”; Rufus stopped near the door. Catherine hesitated, bewildered.
“Are we orphans, now?”
“Like the Belgians,” he informed her. “French. When you haven’t got any daddy or mamma because they’re killed in the war you’re an orphan and other children send you things and write you letters.”
She must have been unfamiliar with the word, for she seemed to have to think very hard before she answered. Then she said, “Of course you’re not orphans, Rufus, and I don’t want you going around saying that you are. Do you hear me? Because it isn’t so. Orphans haven’t got either a father or a mother, you see, and nobody to take care of them or love them. You see? That’s why other children send things. But you both have your mother. So you aren’t orphans. Do you see? Do you?” He nodded; Catherine nodded because he did. “And Rufus.” She looked at him very searchingly; without quite knowing why, he felt he had been discovered in a discreditable secret. “Don’t be sorry you’re not an orphan. You be thankful. Orphans sound lucky to you because they’re far away and everyone talks about them now. But they’re very, very unhappy little children. Because nobody loves them. Do you understand?”
He nodded, ashamed of himself and secretly disappointed.
“Now run along,” she said. They left the room. Aunt Hannah met them on the stairs. “Go into the liv-sitting room for a while like good children,” she said. “I’ll be right down.” And as they reached the bottom of the stairs they heard their mother’s door open and close. They sat, looking at their father’s chair, thinking.
Catherine felt more virtuous and less troubled than she had for some time, for she had watched Rufus being scolded, all to himself, and it more than wiped out her unhappiness at his telling her to come along when of course she was coming and he had no right even if she wasn’t. But she couldn’t see how anyone could look as if they were asleep and not wake up, and something else her mother had said-she tried hard to remember what it was-troubled her more deeply than that. And what was a norphan?
Rufus felt that his mother was seriously displeased with him. It was the wrong time to ask her. Maybe he ought not to have asked her at all. But he did want to know. He had not been sure whether or not he was an orphan, or the right kind of orphans. If he claimed he was an orphan in school and it turned out that he was not, people would all laugh at him. But if he really was an orphan he wanted to know, so he would be able to say he was, and get the benefit. What was the good of being an orphan if nobody else knew it? Well, so he was not an orphan. Yet his father was dead. Not his mother, too, though. Only his father. But one was dead. One and one makes two. One-half of two equals one. He was half an orphan, no matter what his mother said. And he had a sister who was half an orphan too. Half and half equals a whole. Together they made a whole orphan. He felt that it was not worth mentioning, that he was half an orphan, although he privately considered it a good deal better than nothing; and that also, he would not volunteer the fact that he and his sister together made a whole orphan. But if anyone teased either of them about not being an orphan at all, then he would certainly speak of that. He decided that Catherine should be warned of this, so that if they were teased, they could back each other up.
“Both of us together is a whole orphan,” he said.
“Don’t say’huh,’say,’What is it, Rufus?’”
“I will not!”
“You will so. Mama says to.”
“She does not.”
“She does so. When I say’huh’she says,’Don’t say”huh, “ say”What is it, Mother?’“ When you say’huh’she tells you the same thing. So don’t say’huh.’Say,’What is it, Rufus?’”
“I won’t say it to you.”
“Yes, you will.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will, because Mama said for us to be good. If you don’t I’ll tell her on you.”
“You tell her and I’ll tell on you.”
“Tell on me for what?”
“Listening at the door.”
“No you won’t.”
“I will so.”
“You will not.”
“I will so.”
He thought it over.
“All right, don’t say it, and I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me.”
“I will if you tell on me.”
“I said I won’t, didn’t I? Not if you don’t tell on me.”
“I won’t if you don’t tell on me.”
They glared at each other.
They heard loud feet on the porch, and the doorbell rang. Upstairs they heard their mother cry “Oh, goodness!” They ran to the door. He blocked Catherine away from the knob and opened it.
A man stood there, almost as tall as Daddy. He had a black glaring collar like Dr. Whittaker but wore a purple vest. He wore a long shallow hat and he had a long, sharp, bluish chin almost like a plow. He carried a small, shining black suitcase. He seemed to be as disconcerted and displeased as they were. He said, “Oh, good morning,” in a voice that had echoes in it and, frowning, glanced once again at the number along the side of the door. “Of course,” he said, with a smile they did not understand. “You’re Rufus and Catherine. May I come in?” And without waiting for their assent or withdrawal (for they were blocking the door) he strode forward, parting them with firm hands and saying “Isn’t Miss L…”
They heard Aunt Hannah’s voice behind them on the stairs, and turned. “Father?” she said, peering against the door’s light. “Come right in.” And she came up as he quickly removed his oddly shaped hat, and they shook hands. “This is Father Jackson, Rufus and Catherine,” she said. “He has come specially from Chattanooga. Father, this is Rufus, and this is Catherine.”
“Yes, we’ve already introduced ourselves,” said Father Jackson, as if he thought it was funny. That’s a lie, Rufus reflected. Father Jackson left one hand at rest for a moment on Catherine, then removed it as if he had forgotten her. “And where is Mrs. Follet?” he asked, almost whispering “Mrs. Follet.”
“If you’ll just wait a moment, Father, she isn’t quite ready.”
“Of course.” He leaned towards Aunt Hannah and said, in a grinding, scarcely audible voice, “Is she-chuff-chuff-chuff?”
“Oh yes,” Hannah replied.
“But does she Whehf-wheff-whehf-whef-tized?”
“I’m afraid not, Father,” said Hannah, gravely. “I wasn’t quite sure enough, myself, to tell her. I’m sorry to burden you with it but I felt I should leave that to you.”
“You were right, Miss Lynch. Absolutely.” He looked around, his head gliding, his hat in his hand. “Now little man,” he said, “if you’ll kindly relieve me of my hat.”
“Rufus,” said Hannah. “Take Father’s hat to the hat rack.”
Bewildered, he did so. The hat rack was in plain sight.
“Now Father, if you won’t mind waiting just a moment,” Hannah said, showing him in to the sitting room. “Rufus: Catherine: sit here with Father. Excuse me,” she added, and she hastened upstairs.
Father Jackson strode efficiently across the room, sat in their father’s chair, crossed his knees narrowly, and looked, frowning, at the carefully polished toe of his right shoe. They watched him, and Rufus wondered whether to tell him whose chair it was. Father Jackson held his long, heavily veined right hand palm outward, at arm’s length, and, frowning, examined his nails. He certainly wouldn’t have sat in it, Rufus felt, if he had known whose chair it was, so it would be mean not to tell him. But if he was told now, it would make him feel bad, Rufus thought. Catherine noticed, with interest, that outside the purple vest he wore a thin gold chain; on the chain was a small gold crucifix. Father Jackson changed knees and, frowning, examined the carefully polished toe of his left shoe. Better not tell him, Rufus thought; it would be mean. How do you get such a blue face, Catherine wondered; I wish my face was blue, not red. Father Jackson, frowning, looked all around the room and smiled, faintly, as his gaze came to rest on some point above and beyond the heads of the children. Both turned to see what he was smiling at, but there was nothing there except the picture of Jesus when Jesus was a little boy, staying up late in his nightgown and talking to all the wise men in the temple. “Oh,” Rufus realized; “that’s why.”
When they turned Father Jackson was frowning again and looking at them just as he had looked at his nails. He quickly smiled, though not as nicely as he had smiled at Jesus, and changed his way of looking so that it did not seem that he was curious whether they were really clean. But he still looked as if he were displeased about something. They both looked back, wondering what he was displeased about. Was Catherine wetting her panties, Rufus wondered; he looked at her but she looked all right to him. What was Rufus doing that the man looked so unpleasant, Catherine wondered. She looked at him, but all he was doing was looking at the man. They both looked at him, wishing that if he was displeased with them he would tell them why instead of looking like that, and wishing that he would sit in some other chair. He looked at both of them, feeling that their rude staring was undermining his gaze and his silence, by which he had intended to impress them into a sufficiently solemn and receptive state for the things he intended to say to them; and wondering whether or no he should reprimand them. Surely, he decided, if they lack manners even at such a time as this, this is the time to speak of it.
“Children must not stare at their elders,” he said. “That is ill-bred.”
“Huh?” both of them asked. What’s “stare,” they wondered; “elders”; “ill-bred”?
“Say,’Sir,’or’I beg your pardon, Father.’”
“Sir?” Rufus said.
“You,” Father Jackson said to Catherine.
“Sir?” Catherine said.
“You must not stare at people-look at them, as you are looking at me.”
“Oh,” Rufus said. Catherine’s face turned red.
“Say,’Excuse me, Father.’”
“Excuse me, Father.”
“You,” Father Jackson said to Catherine.
Catherine became still redder.
“Excuse me, Father,” Rufus whispered.
“No prompting, please,” Father Jackson broke in, in a voice pitched for a large class. “Come now, little girl, it is never too soon to learn to be little ladies and little gentlemen, is it?”
Catherine said nothing.
“Is it?” Father Jackson asked Rufus.
“I don’t know,” Rufus replied.
“I consider that a thoroughly uncivil answer to a civil question,” said Father Jackson.
“Yes,” Rufus said, beginning to turn cold in the pit of his stomach. What was “uncivil”?
“You agree,” Father Jackson said. “Say,’yes, Father.’”
“Yes, Father,” Rufus said.
“Then you are aware of your incivility. It is deliberate and calculated,” Father Jackson said.
“No,” Rufus said. He could not understand the words but clearly he was being accused.
Father Jackson leaned back in their father’s chair and closed his eyes and folded his hands. After a moment he opened his eyes and said, “Little boy, little sister” (he nudged his long blue chin towards Catherine), “this is neither the time nor place for reprimands.” His hands unfolded; he leaned forward, tapping his right kneecap with his right forefinger, and frowning fiercely, said in a voice which sounded very gentle but was not, “But I just want to tell…” They heard Hannah on the stairs. “Children,” he said, rising, “this must wait another time.” He pointed his jaw at Hannah, raising his eyebrows.
“Will you come up, Father?” she asked in a shut voice.
Without looking again at the children, he followed her upstairs.
They looked each other in the eyes; their mouths hung open; they listened. It was as they had begun to expect it would be: the steps of two along the upper hallway, the opening of their mother’s door, their mother’s strangely shrouded voice, the closing of the door: silence.
Taking great care not to creak, they stole up to the middle of the stairs. They could hear no words, only the tilt and shape of voices: their mother’s, still so curiously shrouded, so submissive, so gentle; it seemed to ask questions and to accept answers. The man’s voice was subdued and gentle but rang very strongly with the knowledge that it was right and that no other voice could be quite as right; it seemed to say unpleasant things as if it felt they were kind things to say, or again, as if it did not care whether or not they were kind because in any case they were right, it seemed to make statements, to give information, to counter questions with replies which were beyond argument or even discussion, and to try to give comfort whether what it was saying could give comfort or not. Now and again their mother’s way of questioning sounded to the children as if she wondered whether something could be fair, could possibly be true, could be so cruel, but whenever such tones came into their mother’s voice the man’s voice became still more ringing and overbearing, or still more desirous to comfort, or both; and their mother’s next voice was always very soft. Aunt Hannah’s voice was almost as clear and light as always, but there was now in it also a kind of sweetness and of sorrow they had not heard in it before. Mainly she seemed only to agree with Father Jackson, to add her voice to his, though much more kindly, in this overpowering of their mother. But now and again it seemed to explain more fully, and more gently, something which he had just explained, and twice it questioned almost as their mother questioned, but with more spirit, with an edge almost of bitterness or temper. And on these two occasions Father Jackson’s voice shifted and lost a bit of its vibrancy, and for a moment he talked as rapidly in a circle, seeming to assure them that of course he did not at all mean what they had thought he meant, but only, that (and then the voice would begin to gather assurance); they must realize (and now it had almost its old drive); in fact, of course-and now he was back again, and seemed to be saying precisely what he had said before, only with still more authority and still less possibility of disagreement. And then their Aunt Hannah murmured agreement in an oddly cool, remote tone, and their mother’s voice of acceptance was scarcely audible at all.
Once in a while when these voices came to crises in their subdued turmoil Rufus and Catherine looked into each other’s cold, bright eyes which brightened and chilled the more with every intensification of the man’s voice, and every softening and defeat of their mother’s voice. But most of the time they only stared at the knob on their mother’s door, shifting delicately on the stairs whenever they became cramped. They could not conceive of what was being done to their mother, but in his own way each was sure that it was something evil, to which she was submitting almost without a struggle, and by which she was deceived. Rufus repeatedly saw himself flinging open the door and striding in, a big stone in his hand, and saying, “You stop hurting my mother.” Catherine knew only that a tall stranger in black, with a frightening jaw and a queer hat, a man whom she hated and feared, had broken into their house, had been welcomed first by Aunt Hannah and then by her mother herself, had sat in her father’s chair as if he thought he belonged there, talked meanly to her in words she could not understand, and was now doing secret and cruel things to her mother while Aunt Hannah looked on. If Daddy was here he would kill him. She wished Daddy would hurry up and come and kill him and she wanted to see it. But Rufus realized that his Aunt Hannah and even his mother were on Father Jackson’s side and against him, and that they would just put him out of the room and punish him terribly and go right on with whatever awful thing it was they were doing. And Catherine remembered, with a jolt, that Daddy would not come back because he was down at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s and now they would see him again and then they would never see him any more until heaven.
But suddenly there was a kind of creaking and soft thumping and the voices changed. Father Jackson’s voice was even more strongly in charge, now, than before, although it did not seem that he was arguing, or informing, or trying to bring comfort, or even that he was speaking to either of the two women. Most of its theatrical resonance had left it, and all of its dominance. He seemed to be speaking as if to someone at least as much more assured and strong than he was, as he was more assured and strong than their mother was, and his voice had something of their mother’s humbleness. Yet it was a very confident voice, as if it were sure that the person who was being addressed would approve what was said and what was asked, and would not rebuff him as he had rebuffed their mother. And in some way the voice was even more authoritative than before, as if Father Jackson were speaking not for himself but for, as well as to, the person he addressed, and were speaking with the power of that person as well as in manly humility before that person. Clearly, also, the voice loved its own sound, inseparably from its love of the sound and contour of the words it spoke, as naturally as a fine singer delights inseparably in his voice and in the melody he is singing. And clearly, although not one word was audible to the children, the voice was not mistaken in this love. Not a word was distinct from where they stood, but the shapes and rhythms and the inflections were as lovely and as bemusing as any songs they had ever heard. In general rhythm, Rufus began to realize, it was not unlike the prayers that Dr. Whittaker said; and he realized, then, that Father Jackson also was praying. But where Dr. Whittaker gave his words and phrases special emphasis and personal coloring, as though they were matters which required argument and persuasion, Father Jackson spoke almost wholly without emphasis and with only the subtlest coloring, as if the personal emotion, the coloring, were cast against the words from a distance, like echoes. He spoke as if all that he said were in every idea and in every syllable final, finished, perfected beyond disquisition long before he was born; and truth and eternity dwelt like clearest water in the rhythms of his language and in the contours of his voice; his voice accepted and bore this language like the bed of a brook. They looked at each other once more; Rufus could see that Catherine did not understand. “He’s saying his prayers,” he whispered.
She neither understood him nor believed him but she realized. with puzzlement, that now the man was being nice, though she did not even want him to be nice to her mother, she did not want him to be anything, to anybody, anywhere. But it was clear to both of them that things were better now than they had been before; they could hear it in his voice, which at once enchanted and obscurely disturbed them, and they could hear it in the voices of the two women, which now and again, when he seemed to pause for breath, chimed in with a short word or two, a few times with whole sentences. Both their voices were more tender, more alive, and more inhuman, than they had ever heard them before; and this remoteness from humanity troubled them. They realized that there was something to which their mother and their great-aunt were devoted, something which gave their voices peculiar vitality and charm, which was beyond and outside any love that was felt for them; and they felt that this meant even more to their mother and their great-aunt than they did, or than anyone else in the world did. They realized, fairly clearly, that the object of this devotion was not this man whom they mistrusted, but they felt that he was altogether too deeply involved in it. And they felt that although everything was better for their mother than it had been a few minutes before, it was far worse in one way. For before, she had at least been questioning, however gently. But now she was wholly defeated and entranced, and the transition to prayer was the moment and mark of her surrender. They stared so long and so gloomily at the doorknob, turning over such unhappy and uncertain intuitions in their souls, that the staring, round white knot became all that they saw in the universe except a subtly beating haze pervaded with magnificent quiet sound; so that when the doorbell rang they were so frightened that their hearts contracted.
Then, with almost equal terror, they realized that they would be caught on the stairs. They started down, in haste as desperate as their efforts to be silent. The door burst open above them. She can’t see, they realized (for it was Hannah who came out), and in the same instant they realized: but she can hear better than anybody. A stair creaked loudly; terror struck them; against it, they continued. “Yes,” Hannah called sharply; she was already on the stairs. The doorbell rang again. On the last stair, they were hideously noisy; they wanted only to disappear in time. They ducked through the sitting-room door and watched her pass; they were as insane with excitement as if they could still dare hope they had not been discovered, and solemnly paralyzed in the inevitability of dreadful reprimand and of physical pain.
Hannah didn’t even glance back at them: she went straight to the door.
It was Mr. Starr. Usually he wore suits as brown and hairy as his mustache, but this morning he wore a dark blue suit and a black tie. In his hand he carried a black derby.
“Walter,” Aunt Hannah said, “you know what all you’re doing means to us.”
“Aw now,” Walter said.
“Come in,” she said. “Mary’ll be right down. Children, you know Mr. Starr…”
“Course we do,” Mr. Starr said, smiling at them with his warm brown eyes through the lenses. He put the hand holding the derby on Rufus’shoulder and the other on Catherine’s cheek. “You come on in and sit with me, will you, till your mother’s ready.”
He walked straight for their father’s chair, veered unhappily, and sat on a chair next the wall.
“Well, so you’re coming down and visit us,” he said.
“Coming down,” Walter said. “Or ma-did your mama say anything about maybe you were coming down sometime, and pay us a visit?”
“Oh, well, there’s lots of time. Did you ever hear a gramophone?”
“She can’t hardly hear when she does.”
“Eigh?” He seemed extremely puzzled.
“Uncle Andrew says she’s crazy even to try.”
“Why, Granma.” Mr. Starr had never before seemed stupid, but now Rufus began to think his memory was as bad as those of the boys at the corner. Could he be teasing? It would be very queer if Mr. Starr would tease. He decided he should trust him. “You know, when she phones, like you said.”
Mr. Starr thought that over for a moment and then he seemed to understand. But almost the moment he understood he started to laugh, so he must have been teasing, after all. Rufus was deeply hurt. Then almost immediately he stopped laughing as if he were shocked at himself.
“Well now,” he said. “I begin to see how we both got a bit in a muddle. You’d never heard of the thing I was talking about, and it sounds mighty like grandma phone, did you ever hear grandmaphone. Of course. Naturally. But what I was talking about was a nice box that music comes out of. Did you ever hear music come out of a box?”
“Well down home, believe it or not, we got a box that music comes out of. Would you like to hear it sometime?”
“Good. We’ll see if that can’t be arranged. Soon. Now would you like to know what they call this box?”
“A gram-o-phone. See? It sounds very much like grandma phone, but it’s just a little different. Gram-o-phone. Can you say it?”
“That’s right. Can Baby Sister say it, I wonder?”
“Catherine? He means you.”
“That’s fine. You’re a mighty smart little girl to say a big word like that.”
“I can say some ever so big words,” Rufus said. “Want to hear? The Dominant Primordrial Beast.”
“Well now, that’s mighty smart. But of course I don’t mean smarter than Sister. You’re a lot bigger boy.”
“Yes, but I could say that when I was four years old. She’s almost four and I bet she can’t say it. Can you, Catherine? Can you?”
“Well, now, some people learn a little quicker than others. It’s nice to learn fast but it’s nice to take your time, too.” He walked over and picked Catherine up and sat down with her in his lap. He smelled almost as good as her father, although he was soft in front, and she looked happy. “Now what does that word’primordrial’mean?”
“I dunno, but it’s nice and scary.”
“Is it scary? Yes? Yes, spose it does have a sort of a scary sound. Now you can say it, you ought to find out what it means, sometime.”
“What does it mean?”
“Not sure myself, but then I don’t say it. Don’t have occasion.” He opened out one arm and Rufus walked across to him without realizing he was doing so. The arm felt strong and kind around him. “You’re a fine little boy,” Mr. Starr, said. “But it isn’t nice of you to lord it over your sister.”
“Brag about things you can do, that she can’t do yet. That isn’t nice.”
“So you watch, and don’t do it.”
“Because Catherine’s a fine little girl, too.”
“Aren’t you, Catherine?” He smiled at her and she blushed with delight. Rufus liked Catherine so well, all of a sudden, that he smiled at her, and when she smiled back they were both happy and suddenly he was very much ashamed to have treated her so.
“I want to tell you two something,” they heard Mr. Starr’s quieted voice. They looked up at him. “Not because you’ll understand it now, but I have to, my heart’s full, and it’s you I want to tell. Maybe you’ll remember it later on. It is about your daddy. Because you never got a real chance to know him. Can I tell you?”
"Some people have a hard, hard time. No money, no good schooling. Scarcely enough food. Nothing that you children have, but good people to love them. Your daddy started like that. He didn’t have one thing. He had to work till it practicly killed him, for every little thing he ever got.
“Well, some of the greatest men start with nothing. Like Abraham Lincoln. You know who he was?”
“He was born in a log cabin,” Rufus said.
“That’s right, and he became the greatest man we’ve ever had.”
He said nothing for a moment and they wondered what he was going to tell them about their father.
“Somehow I never got a chance to know Jay-your father-well as I wish. I don’t think he ever knew how much I thought of him. Well I thought the world of him, Rufus and Catherine. My own wife and son couldn’t mean more to me I think.” He waited again. “I’m a pretty ordinary man myself,” he went on. “Not a bad one. Just ordinary. But I always thought your father was a lot like Lincoln. I don’t mean getting ahead in the world. I mean a man. Some people get where they hope to in this world. Most of us don’t. But there never was a man up against harder odds than your father. And there was never a man who tried harder, or hoped for more. I don’t mean getting ahead. I mean the right things. He wanted a good life, and good understanding, for himself, for everybody. There never was a braver man than your father, or a man that was kinder, or more generous. They don’t make them. All I wanted to tell you is, your father was one of the finest men that ever lived.”
He suddenly closed his eyes tightly behind his glasses, and swallowed; a long sobbing sigh fell from him. Deeply and solemnly touched, they moved closer to him, whether to comfort him or themselves they did not know. “There, there,” he said, his eyes still closed. “There, there now. There, there.”
Upstairs, they heard the door open.
When grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal. Throughout these days Mary had, during these breathing spells, drawn a kind of solace from the recurrent thought: at least I am enduring it. I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought. She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race; bearing children, which had seemed so much, was just so much apprenticeship. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the might, grimness and tenderness of God. She thought that now for the first time she began to know herself, and she gained extraordinary hope in this beginning of knowledge. She thought that she had grown up almost overnight. She thought that she had realized all that was in her soul to realize in the event, and when at length the time came to put on her veil, leave the bedroom she had shared with her husband, leave their home, and go down to see him for the first time since his death and to see the long day through, which would cover him out of sight for the duration of this world, she thought that she was firm and ready. She had refused to “try on” her veil; the mere thought of approving or disapproving it before a mirror was obscene; so now when she came to the mirror and drew it down across her face to go, she saw herself for the first time since her husband’s death. Without either desiring to see her face, or caring how it looked, she saw that it had changed; through the deep, clear veil her gray eyes watched her gray eyes watch her through the deep, clear veil. I must have fever, she thought, startled by their brightness; and turned away. It was when she came to the door, to walk through it, to leave this room and to leave this shape of existence forever, that realization poured upon and overwhelmed her through which, in retrospect, she would one day know that all that had gone before, all that she had thought she experienced and knew-true, more or less, though it all was-was nothing to this. The realization came without shape or definability, save as it was focused in the pure physical act of leaving the room, but came with such force, such monstrous piercing weight, in all her heart and soul and mind and body but above all in the womb, where it arrived and dwelt like a cold and prodigious, spreading stone, that she groaned almost inaudibly, almost a mere silent breath, an Ohhhhhhh, and doubled deeply over, hands to her belly, and her knee joints melted.
Hannah, smaller than she, caught her, and rapped out, “Close that door!” It would be a long time before either of the women realized their resentment of the priest and their contempt for him, and their compassion, for staying in the room. Now they did not even know that he was there. Hannah helped her to the edge of the bed and sat beside her exclaiming over and over, in a heartbroken voice, “Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. Oh Mary, Mary, Mary,” resting one already translucent, spinster’s hand lightly upon the back of her veiled head, and with the other, so clenching one of Mary’s wrists that she left a bracelet of bruise.
Mary meanwhile rocked quietly backward and forward, and from side to side, groaning, quietly, from the depths of her body, not like a human creature but a fatally hurt animal; sounds low, almost crooned, not strident, but shapeless and orderless, the sisters, except in their quietude, to those transcendent, idiot, bellowing screams which deliver children. And as she rocked and groaned, the realization gradually lost its fullest, most impaling concentration: there took shape, from its utter darkness, like the slow emergence of the countryside into first daylight, all those separate realizations which could be resolved into images, emotions, thought, words, obligations: so that after not more than a couple of minutes, during which Hannah never ceased to say to her, “Mary, Mary,” and Father Jackson, his eyes closed, prayed, she sat still for a moment, then got quietly onto her knees, was silent for not more than a moment more, made the sign of the Cross, stood up, and said, “I’m ready now.”
But she swayed; Hannah said, “Rest, Mary. There’s no hurry,” and Father Jackson said, “Perhaps you should lie down a little while”; but she said, “No; thank you; I want to go now,” and walked unsteadily to the door, and opened it, and walked through.
Father Jackson took her arm, in the top hallway. Although she tried not to, she leaned on him very heavily.
“Come, now,” their mother whispered, and, taking them each by the hand, led them through the Green Room and into the living room.
There it was, against the fireplace, and there seemed to be scarcely anything else in the room except the sunny light on the floor.
It was very long and dark; smooth like a boat; with bright handles. Half the top was open. There was a strange, sweet smell, so faint that it could scarcely be realized.
Rufus had never known such stillness. Their little sounds, as they approached his father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water.
There was his head, his arms; suit: there he was.
Rufus had never seen him so indifferent; and the instant he saw him, he knew that he would never see him otherwise. He had his look of faint impatience, the chin strained a little upward, as if he were concealing his objection to a collar which was too tight and too formal. And in this slight urgency of the chin; in the small trendings of a frown which stayed in the skin; in the arch of the nose; and in the still, strong mouth, there was a look of pride. But most of all, there was indifference; and through this indifference which held him in every particle of his being-an indifference which would have rejected them; have sent them away, except that it was too indifferent even to care whether they went or stayed-in this self-completedness which nothing could touch, there was something else, some other feeling which he gave, which there was no identifying even by feeling, for Rufus had never experienced this feeling before; there was perfected beauty. The head, the hand, dwelt in completion, immutable, indestructible motionless. They moved upon existence quietly as stones which withdraw through water for which there is no floor.
The arm was bent. Out of the dark suit, the starched cuff, sprang the hairy wrist.
The wrist was angled; the hand was arched; none of the fingers touched each other.
The hand was so composed that it seemed at once casual and majestic. It stood exactly above the center of his body.
The fingers looked unusually clean and dry, as if they had been scrubbed with great care.
The hand looked very strong, and the veins were strong in it.
The nostrils were very dark, yet he thought he could see in one of them, something which looked like cotton.
On the lower lip, a trifle to the left of its middle, there was a small blue line which ran also a little below the lip.
At the exact point of the chin, there was another small blue mark, as straight and neat as might be drawn with a pencil, and scarcely wider.
The lines which formed the wings of the nose and the mouth were almost gone.
The hair was most carefully brushed.
The eyes were casually and quietly closed, the eyelids were like silk on the balls, and when Rufus glanced quickly from the eyes to the mouth it seemed as if his father were almost about to smile. Yet the mouth carried no suggestion either of smiling or of gravity; only strength, silence, manhood, and indifferent contentment.
He saw him much more clearly than he had ever seen him before; yet his face looked unreal, as if he had just been shaved by a barber. The whole head was waxen, and the hand, too, was as if perfectly made of wax.
The head was lifted on a small white satin pillow.
There was the subtle, curious odor, like fresh hay, and like a hospital, but not quite like either, and so faint that it was scarcely possible to be sure that it existed.
Rufus saw these things within a few seconds, and became aware that his mother was picking Catherine up in order that she might see more clearly; he drew a little aside. Out of the end of his eye he was faintly aware of his sister’s rosy face and he could hear her gentle breathing as he continued to stare at his father, at his stillness, and his power, and his beauty.
He could see the tiny dark point of every shaven hair of the beard.
He watched the way the flesh was chiseled in a widening trough from the root of the nose to the white edge of the lip.
He watched the still more delicate dent beneath the lower lip.
It became strange, and restive, that it was possible for anyone to lie so still for so long; yet he knew that his father would never move again; yet this knowledge made his motionlessness no less strange.
Within him, and outside him, everything except his father was dry, light, unreal, and touched with a kind of warmth and impulse and a kind of sweetness which felt like the beating of a heart. But borne within this strange and unreal sweetness, its center yet alien in nature from all the rest, and as nothing else was actual, his father lay graven, whose noble hand he longed, in shyness, to touch.
“Now, Rufus,” his mother whispered; they knelt. He could just see over the edge of the coffin. He gazed at the perfect hand.
His mother’s arm came round him; he felt her hand on the crest of his shoulder. He slid his arm around her and felt her hand become alive on his shoulder and felt his sister’s arm. He touched her bare arm tenderly, and felt her hand grapple for and take his arm. He put his hand around her arm and felt how little it was. He could feel a vein beating against the bone, just below her armpit.
“Our Father,” she said.
They joined her, Catherine waiting for those words of which she was sure, Rufus lowering his voice almost to silence while she hesitated, trying to give her the words distinctly. Their mother spoke very gently.
“Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy-”
“Thy will be d…” Rufus went on, alone; then waited, disconcerted.
“Thy will be done,” his mother said. “On earth,” she continued, with some strange shading of the word which touched him with awe and sadness; “as it is in heaven.”
“Give us this d…”
Rufus was more careful this time.
“Daily bread,” Catherine said confidently.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” and in those words still more, he felt that his mother meant something quite otherwise, "And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
“And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil,” and here their mother left her hands where they dwelt with her children, but bowed her head: “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,” she said with almost vindictive certitude, “forever and ever. Amen.”
She was silent for some moments, and still he stared at the hand.
“God, bless us and help us all,” she said. "God, help us to understand Thee. God, help us to know Thy will. God, help us to put all our trust in Thee, whether we can understand or not.
"God, help these little children to remember their father in all his goodness and strength and kindness and dearness, and in all of his tremendous love for them. God, help them ever to be all that was good and fine and brave in him, all that he would most have loved to see them grow up to be, if Thou in Thy great wisdom had thought best to spare him. God, let us be able to feel, to know, he can still see us as we grow, as we live, that he is still with us; that he is not deprived of his children and all he had hoped for them and loved them for; nor they of him. Nor they of him.
“God, make us to know he is still with us, still loves us, cares what comes to us, what we do, what we are; so much. O, God…”
She spoke these words sharply, and said no more; and Rufus felt that she was looking at his father, but he did not move his eyes, and felt that he should not know what he was sure of. After a few moments he heard the motions of her lips as softly again as that falling silence in which the whole world snowed, and he turned his eyes from the hand and looked towards his father’s face and, seeing the blue-dented chin thrust upward, and the way the flesh was sunken behind the bones of the jaw, first recognized in its specific weight the word, dead. He looked quickly away, and solemn wonder tolled in him like the shuddering of a prodigious bell, and he heard his mother’s snowy lips with wonder and with a desire that she should never suffer sorrow, and gazed once again at the hand, whose casual majesty was unaltered. He wished more sharply even than before that he might touch it, but whereas before he had wondered whether he might, if he could find a way to be alone, with no one to see or ever know, now he was sure that he must not. He therefore watched it all the more studiously, trying to bring all of his touch into all that he could see; but he could not bring much. He realized that his mother’s hand was without feeling or meaning on his shoulder. He felt how sweaty his hand, and his sister’s arm, had become, and changed his hand, and clasped her gently but without sympathy, and felt her hand tighten, and felt gentle towards her because she was too little to understand. The hand became, for a few moments, a mere object, and he could just hear his mother’s breath repeating, “Good-bye, Jay, good-bye. Goodbye. Good-bye. Good-bye, my Jay, my husband. Oh, Goodbye. Good-bye.”
Then he heard nothing and was aware of nothing except the hand, which was an object; and felt a strong downward clasping pressure upon his skull, and heard a quiet but rich voice.
His mother was not-yes, he could see her skirts, out behind to the side; and Catherine, and a great hand on her head too, and her silent and astounded face. And between them, a little behind them, black polished shoes and black, sharply pressed trouser legs, without cuffs.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” the voice said; and his mother joined; "the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death. Amen.”
“Our Father, Who art in heaven,” the voice said; and the children joined; “hallowed be Thy name,” but in their mother’s uncertainty, they stopped, and the voice went on: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” said the voice, with particular warmth, “on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Everything had been taken off the mantelpiece. “And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil,” and with this his hand left Rufus’head and he crossed himself, immediately restoring the hand, “for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
He was silent for a moment. Twisting a little under the hard hand, Rufus glanced upward. The priest’s jaw was hard, his face was earnest, his eyes were tightly shut.
“O Lord, cherish and protect these innocent, orphaned children,” he said, his eyes shut. Then we are! Rufus thought, and knew that he was very bad. “Guard them in all temptations which life may bring. That when they come to understand this thing which in Thy inscrutable wisdom Thou hast brought to pass, they may know and reverence Thy will. God, we beseech Thee that they may ever be the children, the boy and girl, the man and woman, which this good man would have desired them to be. Let them never discredit his memory, O Lord. And Lord, by Thy mercy may they come quickly and soon to know the true and all-loving Father Whom they have in Thee. Let them seek Thee out the more, in their troubles and in their joys, as they would have sought their good earthly father, had he been spared them. Let them ever be, by Thy great mercy, true Christian Catholic children. Amen.”
Some of the tiles of the hearth which peeped from beneath the coffin stand, those at the border, were a grayish blue. All the others were streaked and angry, reddish yellow.
The voice altered, and said delicately: “The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”: His hand again lifted from Rufus’head, and he drew a great cross above each of them as he said, “And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always.”
“Amen,” their mother said.
The priest touched his shoulder, and Rufus stood up. Catherine stood up. Their father had not, of course not, Rufus thought, he had not moved, but he looked to have changed. Although he lay in such calm and beauty, and grandeur, it looked to Rufus as if he had been flung down and left on the street, and as if he were a very successfully disguised stranger. He felt a pang of distress and of disbelief and was about to lean to look more closely, when he felt a light hand on his head, his mother’s, he knew, and heard her say, “Now children”; and they were conveyed to the hall door.
The piano, he saw, was shut.
“Now Mother wants to stay just a minute or two,” she told them. “She’ll be with you directly. So you go straight into the East Room, with Aunt Hannah, and wait for me.”
She touched their faces, and noiselessly closed the door.
Crossing to the East Room they became aware that they were not alone in the dark hall. Andrew stood by the hat rack, holding to the banister, and his rigid, weeping eyes, shining with fury, struck to the roots of their souls like ice, so that they hastened into the room where their great-aunt sat in an unmoving rocking chair with her hands in her lap, the sunless light glazing her lenses, frostlike upon her hair.
They heard feet on the front stairs, and knew it was their grandfather. They heard him turn to go down the hall and then they heard his subdued, surprised voice: “Andrew? Where’s Poll?”
And their uncle’s voice, cold, close to his ear: “In-there-with-Father-Jackson.”
“Unh!” they heard their grandfather growl. Their Aunt Hannah hurried towards the door.
“Unh!” he growled again.
Their Aunt Hannah quickly closed the door, and hurried back to her chair.
But much as she had hurried, all that she did after she got back to her chair was to sit with her hands in her lap and stare straight ahead of her through her heavy lenses, and all that they could do was to sit quietly too, and look at the clean lace curtains at the window, and at the magnolia tree and the locust tree in the yard, and at the wall of the next house, and at a heavy robin which fed along the lawn, until he flew away, and at the people who now and then moved past along the sunny sidewalk, and at the buggies and automobiles which now and then moved along the sunny street. They felt mysteriously immaculate, strange and careful in their clean clothes, and it seemed as if the house were in shadow and were walking on tiptoe in the middle of an easy, sunny world. When they tired of looking at these things, they looked at their Aunt Hannah, but she did not appear to realize that they were looking at her; and when there was no response from their Aunt Hannah they looked at each other. But it had never given them any pleasure or interest to look at each other and it gave them none today. Each could only see that the other was much too clean, and each realized, through that the more acutely, that he himself was much too clean, and that something was wrong which required of each of them such careful conduct, and particularly good manners, that there was really nothing imaginable that might be proper to do except to sit still. But though sitting so still, with nothing to fix their attention upon except each other, they saw each other perhaps more clearly than at any time before; and each felt uneasiness and shyness over what he saw. Rufus saw a much littler child than he was, with a puzzled, round, red face which looked angry, and he was somewhat sorry for her in the bewilderment and loneliness he felt she was lost in, but more, he was annoyed by this look of shut-in anger and this look of incomprehension and he thought over and over: “Dead. He’s dead. That’s what he is; he’s dead”; and the room where his father lay felt like a boundless hollowness in the house and in his own being, as if he stood in the dark near the edge of an abyss and could feel that droop of space in the darkness; and watching his sister’s face he could see his father’s almost as clearly, as he had just seen it, and said to himself, over and over: “Dead. Dead”; and looked with uneasiness and displeasure at his sister’s face, which was so different, so flushed and busy, so angry, and so uncomprehending. And Catherine saw him stuck down there in the long box like a huge mute doll, who would not smile or stir, and smelled sweet and frightening, and because of whom she sat alone and stiffly and too clean, and nobody was kind or attentive, and everything went on tiptoe, and with her mother’s willingness a man she feared and hated put his great hand on her head and spoke incomprehensibly. Something very wrong was being done, and nobody seemed to care or to tell her what or to help her or love her or protect her from it and there was her too-clean brother, who always thought he was so smart, looking at her with dislike and contempt.
So after gazing coldly at each other for a little while, they once more looked into the side yard and down into the street and tried to interest themselves in what they saw, and to forget the thing which so powerfully pervaded their thoughts, and to subdue their physical restiveness in order that they should not be disapproved; and tiring of these, would look over once more at their aunt, who was as— aloof almost as their father; and uneased by that, would look once more into each other’s eyes; and so again to the yard and the street, upon which the sunlight moved slowly. And there they saw an automobile draw up and Mr. Starr got quickly out of it and walked slowly up towards the house.
As they came back with Mr. Starr, Rufus noticed that a man who went past along the sidewalk looked back at his grandfather’s house, then quickly away, then back once more, and again quickly away.
He saw that there were several buggies and automobiles, idle and empty, along the opposite side of the street, but that the space in front of the house was empty. The house seemed at once especially bare, and changed, and silent, and its corners seemed particularly hard and distinct; and beside the front door there hung a great knotted bloom and streamer of black cloth. The front door was opened before it was touched and there stood their Uncle Andrew and their mother and behind them the dark hallway, and they were all but overwhelmed by a dizzying, sickening fragrance, and by a surging outward upon them likewise of multitudinous vitality. Almost immediately they were drawn within the darkness of the hallway and the fragrance became recognizable as the fragrance of flowers, and the vitality which poured upon them was that of the people with whom the house was crowded. Rufus experienced an intuition as of great force and possible danger on his right, and glancing quickly into the East Room, saw that every window shade was drawn except one and that against the cold light which came through that window the room was filled with dark figures which crouched disconsolately at the edge of chairs, heavy and primordial as bears in a pit; and even as he looked he heard the rising of a great, low groan, which was joined by a higher groan, which was surmounted by a low wailing and by a higher wailing, and he could see that a woman stood up suddenly and with a wailing and bellowing sob caught the hair at her temples and pulled, then flung her hands upward and outward: but upon this moment Andrew rushed and with desperate and brutal speed and silence, pulled the door shut, and Rufus was aware in the same instant that their own footstep and the wailing had caused a commotion on his left and, glancing as sharply into the sunlit room where his father lay, saw an incredibly dense crowd of soberly dressed people on weak, complaining chairs, catching his eye, looking past him, looking quickly away, trying to look as if they had not looked around.
“It’s all right, Andrew,” his mother whispered. “Open the door. Tell them we’ll be in, in just a minute.” And she drew the children more deeply into the hallway, where they could not be seen through either door, and whispered to Walter Starr, “Papa is in the Green Room, and Mama. Thank you, Walter.”
“Don’t you think of it,” Walter said, as he passed her; and his hand hovered near her shoulder, and he went quietly through the door into the dining room.
“Now, children,” their mother said, lowering her face above them. “We’re all going in to see Daddy, just once more. But we won’t be able to stay, we can just look for a moment. And then you’ll see your Grandma Follet, just for a minute. And then Mr. Starr will take you down again to his house and Mother will see you again later this afternoon.”
Andrew came toward her and nodded sharply.
“All right, Andrew,” she said. “All right, children.” Reaching suddenly behind the crest of her skull she lowered her veil and they saw her face and her eyes through its darkness. She took their hands. “Now come with Mother,” she whispered.
There was Uncle Hubert in a dark suit; he was very clean and pink and his face was full of little lines. He looked quickly at them and quickly away. There was old Miss Storrs and there were Miss Amy Field and Miss Nettie Field and Doctor Dekalb and Mrs. Dekalb and Uncle Gordon Dekalb and Aunt Celia Gunn and Mrs. Gunn and Dan Gunn and Aunt Sarah Eldridge and Aunt Ann Taylor, and ever so many others, as well, whom the children were not sure they had seen before, and all of them looked as if they were trying not to look and as if they shared a secret they were offended to have been asked to tell; and there was the most enormous heap of flowers of all kinds that the children had ever seen, tall and extravagantly fresh and red and yellow, tall and starchy white, dark roses and white roses, ferns, carnations, great leaves of varnished-looking palm, all wreathed and wired and running with ribbons of black and silver and bright gold and dark gold, and almost suffocating in their fragrance; and there, almost hidden among these flowers, was the coffin, and beside it, two last strangers who, now that they had entered the room, turned away and quickly took chairs; and now a stranger man in a long, dark coat stepped towards their mother with silent alacrity, his eyes shining like dark jelly, and with a courtly gesture ushered her forward and stood proudly and humbly to one side; and there was Daddy again.
He had not stirred one inch; yet he had changed. His face looked more remote than before and much more ordinary and it was as if he were tired, or bored. He did not look as big as he really was, and the fragrance of the flowers was so strong and the vitality of the mourners was so many-souled and so pervasive, and so permeated and compounded by propriety and restraint, and they felt so urgently the force of all the eyes upon them, that they saw their father almost as idly as if he had been a picture, or a substituted image, and felt little realization of his presence and little interest. And while they were still looking, bemused with this empty curiosity, they felt themselves drawn away, and walked with their mother past the closed piano into the Green Room. And there were Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Andrew and Aunt Amelia and Aunt Hannah; and Grandma got up quickly and took their mother in her arms and patted her several times emphatically across the shoulders, and Grandpa stood up too; and while Grandma stooped and embraced and kissed each of the children, saying, “Darlings, darlings,” in a somewhat loud and ill-controlled voice, they could see their grandfather’s graceful and cynical head as he embraced their mother, and realized that he was not quite as tall as she was; and their Aunt Amelia stood up shyly with her elbows out. As their mother led them from the room they looked back through the door and saw that the man in the long coat and another strange man had closed the coffin and were silently and quickly screwing it shut.
Walter Starr stood back in the middle of the hall, looking as if he did not know what to do. Their mother went straight up to him.
“Now we’re all ready, Walter,” she said. He nodded very shyly and stepped a little to one side as she spoke to the children.
“Now it’s time to go,” she told them. “Back to Mr. Starr’s, as he told you this morning. And have a nice time and be very good and quiet and Mr. Starr will bring you back to Mother later this afternoon.” She straightened Catherine’s little collar, which was wilting. “Now good-bye,” she said. “Mother will see you before long.” She kissed them lightly.
Before long, now; before long.
They went so quietly past the living-room door and along the hushed porch and down the steps that Rufus felt that they were moving as stealthily as burglars.
When they had driven almost all the way to Mr. Starr’s home Mr. Starr surprisingly turned a wrong corner, and then an other, and then said to the children, “I think you’ll want to see. Maybe not, but I think you’ll be glad later on I took you back.” And he drove somewhat more rapidly up the silent, empty, back street, then once again turned a corner, moved very slowly and quietly, and came to a stop.
They were in the side street, just across from Dr. Dekalb’s house, and across the street corner and the wide lawn. They could see their grandfather’s house and everything that went on, and they knew that they were not seen. Six men, their Uncle Andrew, their Uncle Ralph, their Uncle Hubert Kane, their Uncle George Bailey, and Mr. Drake, and a man whom they had never seen before, were carrying a long, gray, shining box by handles very carefully and slowly down the curved brick walk from the house to the street, and they realized that this was the box in which their father lay, and that it must be very heavy. The men were of different heights so that Uncle Andrew, who was tall, and Uncle George Bailey, who was even taller, had to squat slightly at the knees, whereas Uncle Hubert, who was shortest, was leaning outward and lifting upward. Just behind, seeming to walk even more slowly, came their grandfather, and a tall woman all veiled in black whom by her tallness and humbled grace they knew was their mother; and just behind her, with Aunt Jessie on one side and Father Jackson on the other, came a second woman, all veiled in black, who by her shortness and lameness they knew was their Grandmother Follet. And just behind them came Granma and Aunt Hannah, and Aunt Sally and Aunt Amelia, and Aunt Celia Gunn and Mrs. Gunn and Miss Bess Gunn, and old Mr. Kane, and Miss Amy Field and Miss Nettie Field and Doctor Dekalb and Mrs. Dekalb and Uncle Gordon Dekalb, and the porch and the porch steps were still full of darkly dressed people whose faces and bearing they could unsurely recognize but whose names they did not know, and of people whom they could not be sure whether they had ever seen before, and more were still shuffling slowly out through the front door onto the porch. And up the hill alongside the house, behind it, stood a shining black automobile, and two, small, quick men dressed in black sped constantly between the house and the wagon, bringing from the house great armsful of bright flowers, and stowing them in the automobile. And down in front of the front steps the man in the long coat who had ushered them to the coffin now made an imperious gesture and, drawn by three shining black horses and one horse of a shining red-brown, a long, tall, narrow box of whorled and glittering black and of black glass was pulled forward a few feet, and then a foot more, so that its black and glittering rear end was just beyond the opening of the steps; and the men who carried their father’s coffin now hesitated at the head of the steps, and the man in the long coat nodded courteously as he turned and opened the shining back doors of the tall, blind-looking wagon, so that they carefully and uneasily made their way down the narrow steps, squeezing gingerly together, and he stood aside from the open doors and seemed to speak and to instruct them with his hands; and while their mother and her father hesitated at the head of the steps and behind them, all the dark column of mourners hesitated likewise, the men who carried their heavy father lifted him as if he were hard to lift and they were careful but unwilling, and studiously, with reverent nudgings and hitchings, shoved the coffin so deeply into the dark wagon that only its hard end showed, and they could hear a streetcar coming. And the man in the long coat closed one of the doors, and they could see only a corner of the box, and then he closed the other door and they could not see it at all, and he tightened even the shining silver handle which held the doors locked, and one of the horses twitched his ears, and the streetcar, which had paused, was now louder. And the long, dark wagon was drawn forward a few paces, and paused again, and a closed and shining black buggy moved forward and took its place, and the streetcar moved past and they could see heads turning through its windows and a man took off his hat, and their mother and their grandfather came down the steps and their grandfather helped their mother to climb in, and their Grandmother Follett and their Aunt Jessie and Father Jackson came down the steps and their Grandfather and Father Jackson helped their Grandmother Follet to climb in, and they helped Aunt Jessie in, and the noise of the streetcar was fading, and Uncle Ralph stood aside so that their grandfather might get in, and then they both stood aside so that their Grandmother Lynch might get in, and after some hesitation, their grandmother was helped in and then Uncle Ralph stepped in after her, and the curtains of the windows were drawn and the long, dark wagon and the dark buggy moved forward, and a second buggy took its place, and a long line of buggies and automobiles, after a moment’s hesitancy, advanced a few feet, and now a man who had stood in the empty sidewalk across from the house walked westward and crossed the street in front of the children, putting on his hat as he reached the farther curb, and they heard the last of the streetcar, but now they heard the hard chipping of two sparrows, worrying a bit of debris in the street, and Mr. Starr said, “Better go now,” and they realized that he had never shut off his engine, for as soon as he said this he began to back the car, as silently as he could and with great care; and he twisted it backward around the corner, and they slowly descended the same quiet back street up which he had brought them.
When he had stopped the car in front of his home, he said, before he moved to get out, “Maybe you’d better not say anything about this.” He still did not move to get out, so they too sat still. After a little he said, “No, you do as you think best.” He did not look at them; he had not looked at them during all of this time. They watched the shadows work, and the leaves waving.
He got out of the car, and opened the door on their side, and held out his hands to Catherine.
“Up she goes,” he said.
The house echoed, and there was still an extraordinary fragrance of carnations.
Their mother was in the East Room.
“My darlings,” she said; she looked as if she had traveled a great distance, and now they knew that everything had changed. They put their heads against her, still knowing that nothing would ever be the same again, and she caught them so close they could smell her, and they loved her, but it made no difference.
She could not say anything, and neither could they; they began to realize that she was silently praying, and now instead of love for her they felt sadness, and politely waited for her to finish.
“Now we’ll stay here at Granma’s,” she finally said. “Tonight, anyway.” And again there was nothing further that she could say.
Her hands on them began to feel merely heavy. Rufus moved nearer, trying to recover the lost tenderness; at the same moment Catherine pulled away.
He understands, their mother thought; and tried not to feel hurt by Catherine’s restiveness. Catherine, aware at this absolute moment that her brother was preferred, was hurt so bitterly that her mother felt it in her body, and lightened her hold, at just the moment when Catherine most desired to be taken close in to her kindness. By the way she held him Rufus realized, she thinks I’m better than I am; he felt as if he had been believed in a lie, but this time it was not a good feeling.
“God bless my children,” she whispered. “God bless and keep us all.”
“Amen,” Rufus whispered courteously; he tried to lose his uneasiness by holding her still more closely, and felt her still more passionate hand; while Catherine, in an enchantment of pain and loneliness, stayed like a stone.
There they stayed quiet, the deceived mother, the false son, the fatally wounded daughter; it was thus that Andrew found them and, with a glimpse of the noble painting it could be, said to himself, crying within himself, “It beats the Holy Family.”
“Come for a walk with me,” Andrew said; from the front porch Catherine watched them until she could no longer see them. Then she pulled one of the chairs away from the wall and sat in it and rocked. She had a feeling that it would be all right to rock if she could rock without making any noise, and it interested her to try. But no matter how carefully and quietly she moved, the rockers gave out a cobbling noise on the boards of the porch, and the chair squeaked gently. She stopped rocking, less because she felt that the noise was wrong, than because she felt that she did not want to be heard. She sat with her arms and hands high and straight along the arms of the chair and looked through the railing at the lawn and down into the street. A robin hopped heavily along the grass. He gave her a short, hard look, then a second, short and hard as the jab of a needle, then paid her no further attention, but hopped, heavily, and jabbed and jabbed in the short grass with jabs which were much like his short, hard way of looking.
Down across the street she saw Dr. Dekalb come along the sidewalk towards home; he was still in his dark clothes. Remembering how her father always saw her from a distance and waved, she waited for the moment when he would look over and wave, but he did not wave, or even look over; he went straight into his house.
Deep in the side yard among her flowers she saw Mrs. Dekalb in a long, white dress and long, white gloves, wearing a paper bag on her head. She bent deeply above the flowers, rather than squatting, and whenever she moved to another place, she straightened, tall and very thin, and gathered her skirt in one hand and delicately lifted it, as Grandma did when she stepped up or down from a curb. Then she would bend deeply over again, as if she were leaning over a crib to say good night.
There were quite a few people along the sidewalks, and most of them were walking in one direction, away from downtown.
On the sage-orange tree beside the porch the leaves lay along the air as lazily as if they were almost asleep, and ever so quietly moved, and lay still again.
The robin had hold of a worm; he braced his heels, walked backward, and pulled hard. It stretched like a rubber band and snapped in two; Catherine felt the snapping in her stomach. He quickly gobbled what he had and, darting his beak even more quickly, took hold of the rest and pulled again. It stretched but did not break, and then all came loose from the ground; she could see it twisting as he flew away with it. He flung himself upward in a great curve among the branches of a tree in the side yard, and Catherine could just hear the thin hissing cries of the little robins.
Now Dr. Dekalb stood beside his wife and they were looking at each other and talking. She was taller than he was, but he was thicker through. He had taken off his coat, and pale blue suspenders crossed on his back. Above his white shirt his neck was dark red.
All the way down the block where the next street crossed she could see that there were still other people along the walks, looking tired yet walking fast, tiny at this distance, and nearly all of these people, too, were walking away from downtown.
Uncle Gordon Dekalb came towards his house. He was still wearing his dark suit and he carried his hat in one hand. His bottom was fat and he walked like a duck. Even from here Catherine could see how choked-up and thick he looked in the face and neck, Uncle Andrew said, as if his mouth was stuffed full of hot mashed potato. He looked up and across at the house and Catherine raised her hand, but he looked quickly away again, and cut across the lawn to join his father and mother. They all three talked.
A small, sudden noise frightened Catherine; then she realized it came from the living room. There was no more sound. She got from the chair in perfect silence and stole to the window in the angle of the porch. Grandma was sitting at the piano and she had opened it; Catherine could see the keys. She sat for a long while without lifting her hands from her lap. Then she stood up and shut the piano and went into the Green Room; she was wearing her apron. But before Catherine could move from the window she came in again (she can’t see this far, Catherine quickly reassured herself), looked carefully about with her near-sighted, peering look, pursed her lips, and sat down again at the piano. Now she opened the keyboard once more and curved her hands powerfully above the keys and moved her fingers, but there was no sound. Grandma can’t hear very well, Catherine remembered; talk very loud. So she can’t hear very well when she plays music, either. She was bent way over, with her good ear close to the keys, the way she always was when she played, and her feet were working the pedals, yet she couldn’t hear a sound.
But why can’t I hear? Catherine suddenly thought. I always do. She watched and listened much more sharply: not one sound.
With sudden pleasure, Catherine thought of listening through a large black ear trumpet, then she realized that she was still hearing the shuffling street and the murmurous city, and knew why she could hear no music. Grandma was just making the notes go down without making any noise.
Then, close beside Catherine, her grandfather came through the door, and stopped abruptly. He was looking at Grandma. He couldn’t hear very well either, but he could hear better than Grandma could; he always sat at this far end of the room when there was music. So he knew too. After he had stood a few moments he walked quickly down almost to where she sat with her back to him and both of his hands lifted above her as if he were going to touch her humped-over shoulders or her hair. Then after standing for a moment again, he turned away and walked even more quickly and quietly out by the way he had come in, and his face was so tucked down that Catherine was sure she had not been seen.
Now Grandma finished and left her hands quiet among the keys, moving them only to stroke the black keys and the white ones between. Then she took her hands away and folded them in her lap. Then she stood up, closed the piano, and went into the Green Room.
Dr. Dekalb and Mrs. Dekalb and Uncle Gordon were no longer in the garden.
All of a sudden she felt that she could not bear to be alone. She went into the hall and into the East Room, but her mother was no longer in the East Room. She went down the hall towards the dining room and she could hear her grandmother busy in the pantry, but she knew that she did not want to see her or be found by her. She hurried on tiptoe across the corner of the dining room, hiding behind the table, and into the Green Room, but there was nobody there. She looked out and saw her grandfather standing in the middle of the garden, gazing down into the strong spikes of the century plant. She hurried through the dizzying fragrance of the living room and climbed the front stairs as quickly and quietly as she was able; Aunt Amelia’s door was closed.
By now her face felt very hot and she was crying. She hurried along the hallway; shut. Aunt Hannah’s door was shut. Behind it there was a coldly tender waning of a voice; Aunt Hannah’s voice; her mother’s. She set her ear close to the door and listened.
O GOD, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them, according to their several necessities; giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
Her mother’s voice choked. Aunt Hannah’s, with great quietness, spoke what she had been speaking from the beginning, and continued it and brought it to a close. Then, even more quietly, she said, “Mary, my dear, let’s stop.”
And after a moment Catherine could hear her mother’s voice, shaken and almost squeaking, “No, no; no, no; I asked you to, Aunt Hannah. I-I…”
And again, Aunt Hannah’s voice: “Let’s just stop it.”
And her mother’s: “Without this I don’t think I could bear it at all.”
And Aunt Hannah’s: “There, dear. God bless and keep you. There. There.”
And her mother’s: “Just a minute and I’ll be all right.”
And a silence.
And then Aunt Hannah’s voice coldly tender:-and her mother’s:— In intense quietness, Catherine stole through the open door opposite Aunt Hannah’s door, and hid herself beneath her grandparents’bed. She was no longer crying. She only wanted never to be seen by anybody again. She lay on her side and stared down into the grim grain of the carpet. When Aunt Hannah’s door opened she felt such terror that she gasped, and drew her knees up tight against her chest. When the voices began calling her, downstairs, she made herself even smaller, and when she heard their feet on the stairs and the rising concern in their voices she began to tremble all over. But by the time she heard them along the hallway she was out from under the bed and sitting on its edge, her back to them as they came in, her heart knocking her breath to pieces.
“Why there you are,” her mother cried, and turning, Catherine was frightened by the fright and the tears on her face. “Didn’t you hear us?”
She shook her head, no.
“Why how could you help but-were you asleep?”
She nodded, yes.
“I thought she was with you, Amelia.”
“I thought she was with you or Mama.”
“Why, where on earth were you, darling? Heavens and earth, have you been all alone?”
Catherine nodded yes; her lower lip thrust out farther and farther and she felt her chin trembling and hated everybody.
“Why, bless your little heart, come to Mother”; her mother came toward her stooping with her arms stretched out and Catherine ran to her as fast as she could run, and plunged her head into her, and cried as if she were made only of tears; and it was only when her mother said, just as kindly, “Just look at your panties, why they’re sopping wet,” that she realized that indeed they were.
Andrew had never invited him to take a walk with him before, and he felt honored, and worked hard to keep up with him. He realized that now, maybe, he would hear about it, but he knew it would not be a good thing to ask. When they got well into the next block beyond his grandfather’s, and the houses and trees were unfamiliar, he took Andrew’s hand and Andrew took his primly, but did not press it or look down at him. Pretty soon maybe he’ll tell me, Rufus thought. Or anyway say something. But his uncle did not say anything. Looking up at him, from a half step behind him, Rufus could see that he looked mad about something. He looked ahead so fixedly that Rufus suspected he was not really looking at anything, even when they stepped from the curb, and stepped up for the curb across from it, his eyes did not change. He was frowning, and the corners of his nose were curled as if he smelled something bad. Did I do something? Rufus wondered. No, he wouldn’t ask me for a walk if I did. Yes, he would too if he was real mad and wanted to give me a talking-to and not raise a fuss about it there. But he won’t say anything, so I guess he doesn’t want to give me a talking-to. Maybe he’s thinking. Maybe about Daddy. The funeral. (He saw the sunlight on the hearse as it began to move.) What all did they do out there? They put him down in the ground and then they put all the flowers on top. Then they say their prayers and then they all come home again. In Greenwood Cemetery. He saw in his mind a clear image of Greenwood Cemetery; it was on a low hill and among many white stones there were many green trees through which the wind blew in the sunlight, and in the middle there was a heap of flowers and beneath the flowers, in his closed coffin, looking exactly as he had looked this morning, lay his father. Only it was dark, so he could not be seen. It would always be dark there. Dark as the inside of a cow.
The sun’s agonna shine, and the wind’s agonna blow.
The charcoal scraping of the needle against the record was in his ears and he saw the many sharp, grinning teeth in Buster Brown’s dog.
“If anything ever makes me believe in God,” his uncle said.
Rufus looked up at him quickly. He was still looking straight ahead, and he still looked angry but his voice was not angry. “Or life after death,” his uncle said.
They were working and breathing rather hard, for they were walking westward up the steep hill towards Fort Sanders. The sky ahead of them was bright and they walked among the bright, moving shadows of trees.
“It’ll be what happened this afternoon.”
Rufus looked up at him carefully.
“There were a lot of clouds,” his uncle said, and continued to look straight before him, “but they were blowing fast, so there was a lot of sunshine too. Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the-coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart.”
Andrew stopped and for the first time looked at Rufus. His eyes were desperate. “He stayed there all the way down, Rufus,” he said. “He never stirred, except just to move his wings that way, until it grated against the bottom like a-rowboat. And just when it did the sun came out just dazzling bright and he flew up out of that-hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn’t even see him any more.” He began to climb the hill again, and Rufus worked hard again to stay abreast of him. “Don’t you think that’s wonderful, Rufus?” he said, again looking straight and despairingly before him.
“Yes,” Rufus said, now that his uncle really was asking him. “Yes,” he was sure was not enough, but it was all he could say.
“If there are any such things as miracles,” his uncle said, as if someone were arguing with him, “then that’s surely miraculous.”
Miraculous. Magnificent. He was sure he had better not ask what they were. He saw a giant butterfly clearly, and how he moved his wings so quietly and grandly, and the colors of the wings, and how he sprang straight up into the sky and how the colors all took fire in the sunshine, and he felt that he probably had a fair idea what “magnificent” meant. But “miraculous.” He still saw the butterfly, which was resting there again, waving his great wings. Maybe “miraculous” was the way the colors were streaks and spots in patterns on the wings, or the bright flickering way they worked in the light when he flew fast, straight upwards. Miraculous. Magnificent.
He could see it very clearly, because his uncle saw it so clearly when he told about it, and what he saw made him feel that a special and good thing was happening. He felt that it was good for his father and that lying there in the darkness did not matter so much. He did not know what this good thing was, but because his uncle felt that it was good, and felt so strongly about it, it must be even more of a good thing than he himself could comprehend. His uncle even spoke of believing in God, or anyway, if anything could ever make him believe in God, and he had never before heard his uncle speak of God except as if he disliked Him, or anyway, disliked people who believed in Him. So it must be about as good a thing as a thing could be. And suddenly he began to realize that his uncle told it to him, out of everyone he might have told it to, and he breathed in a deep breath of pride and of love. He would not admit it to those who did believe in God, and he would not tell it to those who didn’t, because he cared so much about it and they might swear at it, but he had to tell somebody, so he told it to him. And it made it much better than it had been, about his father, and about his not being let to be there at just that time he most needed to be there; it was all right now, almost. It was not all right about his father because his father could never come back again, but it was better than it had been, anyway, and it was all right about his not being let be there, because now it was almost as if he had been there and seen it with his own eyes, and seen the butterfly, which showed that even for his father, it was all right. It was all right and he felt as his uncle did. There was nobody else, not even his mother, not even his father if he could, that he even wanted to tell, or talk about it to. Not even his uncle, now that it was told.
“And that son of a bitch!” Andrew said.
He was not quite sure what it meant but he knew it was the worst thing you could call anybody; call anybody that, they had to fight, they had a right to kill you. He felt as if he had been hit in the stomach.
“That Jackson,” Andrew said; and now he looked so really angry that Rufus realized that he had not been at all angry before. “’Father’Jackson,” Andrew said, "as he insists on being called.
“Do you know what he did?”
He glared at him so, that Rufus was frightened. “What?” he asked.
“He said he couldn’t read the complete, the complete burial service over your father because your father had never been baptized.” He kept glaring at Rufus; he seemed to he waiting for him to answer. Rufus looked up at him, feeling scared and stupid. He was glad his uncle did not like Father Jackson, but that did not seem exactly the point, and he could not think of anything to say.
“He said he was deeply sorry,” Andrew savagely caricatured the inflection, “but it was simply a rule of the Church.”
“Some church,” he snarled. "And they call themselves Christians. Bury a man who’s a hundred times the man he’ll ever be, in his stinking, swishing black petticoats, and a hundred times as good a man too, and’No, there are certain requests and recommendations I cannot make Almighty God for the repose of this soul, for he never stuck his head under a holy-water tap.’Genuflecting, and ducking and bowing and scraping, and basting themselves with signs of the Cross, and all that disgusting hocus-pocus, and you come to one simple, single act of Christian charity and what happens? The rules of the Church forbid it. He’s not a member of our little club.
"I tell you, Rufus, it’s enough to make a man puke up his soul.
"That-that butterfly has got more of God in him than Jackson will ever see for the rest of eternity.
“Priggish, mealy-mouthed son of a bitch.”
They were standing at the edge of Fort Sanders and looking out across the waste of briers and of embanked clay, and Rufus was trying to hold his feelings intact. Everything had seemed so nearly all right, up to a minute ago, and now it was changed and confused. It was still all right, everything which had been, still was, he did not see how it could stop being, yet it was hard to remember it clearly and to remember how he had felt and why it had seemed all right. for since then his uncle had said so much. He was glad he did not like Father Jackson and he wished his mother did not like him either, but that was not all. His uncle had talked about God, and Christians, and faith. with as much hatred as he had seemed, a minute before, to talk with reverence or even with love. But it was worse than that. It was when he was talking about everybody bowing and scraping and hocus-pocus and things like that, that Rufus began to realize that he was talking not just about Father Jackson but about all of them and that he hated all of them. He hates Mother, he said to himself. He really honestly does hate her. Aunt Hannah, too. He hates them. They don’t hate him at all, they love him, but he hates them. But he doesn’t hate them, really, he thought. He could remember how many ways he had shown how fond he was of both of them, all kinds of ways, and most of all by how easy he was with them when nothing was wrong and everybody was having a good time, and by how he had been with them in this time too. He doesn’t hate them, he thought, he loves them, just as much as they love him. But he hates them, too. He talked about them as if he’d like to spit in their faces. When he’s with them he’s nice to them, he even likes them, loves them. When he’s away from them and thinks about them saying their prayers and things, he hates them. When he’s with them he just acts as if he likes them but this is how he really feels, all the time. He told me about the butterfly and he wouldn’t tell them because he hates them, but I don’t hate them, I love them, and when he told me he told me a secret he wouldn’t tell them as if I hated them too.
But they saw it too. They sure saw it too. So he didn’t, he wouldn’t tell them, there wouldn’t be anything to tell. That’s it. He told me because I wasn’t there and he wanted to tell somebody and thought I would want to know and I do. But not if he hates them. And he does. He hates them just like opening a furnace door but he doesn’t want them to know it. He doesn’t want them to know it because he doesn’t want to hurt their feelings. He doesn’t want them to know it because he knows they love him and think he loves them. He doesn’t want them to know it because he loves them. But how can he love them if he hates them so? How can he hate them if he loves them? Is he mad at them because they can say their prayers and he doesn’t? He could if he wanted to, why doesn’t he? Because he hates prayers. And them too for saying them.
He wished he could ask his uncle, “Why do you hate Mama?” but he was afraid to. While he thought he looked now across the devastated Fort, and again into his uncle’s face, and wished that he could ask. But he did not ask, and his uncle did not speak except to say, after a few minutes, “It’s time to go home,” and all the way home they walked in silence.