MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
ALDEN DENNIS WEER
THE ELM TREE planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night. I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke--I was sitting up in my bed before the fire--but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow running from the eaves. I remember that my heart pounded and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead. I try to use the candle as little as I can, but I lit it then and sat up with the blankets around me, enjoying the candlelight and listening to the sound of the dripping snow and to the icicles melting, and it seemed to me that the whole house was melting like the candle, going soft and running down into the lawn.
This morning, when I looked out through the windows, I saw the tree. I took the cruiser ax and went out to it and chopped a few broken limbs finer still and put them on the fire, although it was no longer cold. Since my stroke I have been unable to use the big double-bitted Canadian ax, but at least twice a day I read it; "Buntings Best, 4 lb. 6 oz., Hickory Handle" has been burned into the wood. It was, in other words, branded, as thoughit were a steer; the three- or four- or five-hundredth time I read it, it finally came to me that this must be the origin of the phrase "brand new"--tools like my ax (and no doubt other things as well, more when more things were made of wood) were branded with the manufacturer's trademark after passing inspection, or by the inspector as a sign of approval. This would be the last manufacturing operation--they were then ready for sale and were "brand new." It seems a pity that I have only thought of all that now, when there is no one to tell it to, but that may be for the best; there are many questions of that kind, as I have observed, to which people would sooner not know the answers.
While I was still living with my aunt Olivia, her husband bought her a Dresden figure of Napoleon for her mantel. (I suppose it is there yet--it may well be; I should find her room and see.) Visitors often wondered aloud why he kept one hand thrust into his waistcoat. As it happened, I knew the cause, having read it a year or so before--I believe in Ludwig's biography of him. At first I used to tell it in the hope of satisfying curiosity (and so obtaining those real though impalpable satisfactions, sweet at any time, but sweetest at thirteen, which accrue when we appear knowledgeable and thus, at least by implication, effective). Later I continued it as a psychological experiment, having observed that the innocent remark invariably offended.
My little fire is only smoldering now; but, dressed warmly as I am, this room is not uncomfortable. Outside the sky is leaden, and there is a breeze blowing. I have just taken a walk, and the weather feels ready for rain, though the ground is already so sodden by the melting snow. The half-warm wind is fit for spring, but I saw no other sign of it; the roses and all the trees still have hard, tight winter leaf buds; and, indeed, some of the roses still show (like mothers holding up their dead infants) the softly rotten shoots they put forth in the last warm weather of fall.
Sometimes I walk as much as possible, and sometimes as little as I can, but the difference is not great. I do it to comfort myself.If I have decided that walking will bring death closer yet to my left side, I plan each errand with care; first to the woodpile (next to the china elephant whose howdah is a cushion for my feet), then to the fireplace, then to my chair again, before the fire. But if it seems to me that exercise is required, I deliberately include small side trips: first to the fire to warm my hands, then to the woodpile, then back to the fire, and sit down glowing with hygienic virtue. Neither of these regimes seems to improve my condition, and I change physicians regularly. There is this to be said for doctors: they may be consulted though dead, and I consult Doctors Black and Van Ness.
I consult Dr. Black as a boy (though with a stroke), but Dr. Van Ness as a man.
I stand straight and six feet tall, a fine figure of a man, though twenty (Dr. Van Ness will say thirty) pounds underweight. It is important, going to the doctor. Even in some mad way more important than a board meeting. As I dress in the morning, I remind myself that I will be undressing not, as usual, for bed, but in the doctor's office. It is a little like knowing I am going to be with a strange woman, and I shower after shaving and choose new shorts and undershirt and socks. At one-thirty I enter the Cassionsville and Kanakessee Valley Bank Building through bronze doors, more bronze doors to the elevator, and a glass door for the waiting room where five people sit listening to Glinka's A Life for the Czar. They are Margaret Lorn, Ted Singer, Abel Green, and Sherry Gold. And me. We are reading magazines, and the magazines are Life, Look, Today's Health, and Water World. Two of us are reading Life. Different issues, of course, and I am one of these readers, the other being Margaret Lorn. There is (as a matter of fact) a whole pile of Lifes before me, and I play the old game of trying to arrange them chronologically without looking at the dates, and lose. Margaret tosses down her copy and goes in to see the doctor, and I know, somehow, that this is a mark of contempt. I pick it up and find an area of the cover that is still warm (and slightly damp) from herhands. A nurse comes to the window and asks for Mrs. Price, and Sherry, who is sixteen now, tells her that she has already gone in, and the nurse looks aggrieved.
Sherry turns to Ted Singer: "I have ..." Her voice sinks to a whisper. Ted says, "We've all got problems."
I go to the nurse, a woman I do not know, a blond woman who might be Swedish. I say, "Please, I've got to see the doctor. I'm dying."
The nurse: "All these people are ahead of you."
Ted Singer and Sherry Gold are both obviously much younger than I, but there is no use arguing with that kind of thing. I sit down again, and the nurse calls my name--into a cubicle to undress.
Dr. Van Ness is slightly younger than I, very competent-looking in that false way of medical men on television dramas. He asks what seems to be the matter, and I explain that I am living at a time when he and all the rest are dead, and that I have had a stroke and need his help.
"How old are you, Mr. Weer?"
I tell him. (My best guess.)
His mouth makes a tiny noise, and he opens the file folder he carries and tells me my birthday. It is in May, and there is a party, ostensibly for me, in the garden. I am five. The garden is the side yard, behind the big hedge. It is a large yard, I suppose, even for adults, big enough for badminton or croquet, though not for both at once; for five it is enormous. Children come in boxy, tottering cars, as though they were toys being delivered in little trucks, the girls in pink lace dresses, the boys in white shirts and navy shorts. One boy has a cap, which we throw into the blackberries.
Today it is spring, a season that in the Midwest may last less than a week, leaving the jonquils to droop in the heat before they are well opened--but this is spring, true spring, the wind whipping the first dandelions for their birthday, once for this year, once for last, ten to grow on, and a pinch for an inch.Mothers' dresses are a hand's-breadth above their ankles, often of sensible colors; they like wide-brimmed, low-crowned hats, and jet beads. Their skirts flutter and they laugh, bending to gather them, holding the hats with one hand when the brims flap, the wind rattling their beads like the curtains in a Tunisian brothel.
In the wind-shadow of the garage, on the smoothly mown lawn, there is lemonade for them and a pink-frosted pink cake whose five candles blown at a breath grant every wish. Violet-eyed and black-haired, my aunt Olivia takes ice water in a large goblet instead, swirling it in her hand as though she were warming brandy; Cassionsville water from the Kanakessee River, around and down, lonely for its catfish. There is a white Pekinese as big as a spaniel at her feet, and it snarls when anyone comes too near. (Laugh, ladies, but Ming-Sno will bite.)
Mrs. Black and Miss Bold, sisters, sit side by side. They have --together, as though they were the goddesses of nations joined to blast the fields of that foreign power, myself--brought Bobby Black. Barbara Black has chestnut hair, regular features, and long soft lashes; since bearing her child she has--so my grandmother, whose ghost vaguely, pinkly, haunts my party, says--"put on twenty pounds of healthy flesh"; but it has not heightened her color, which remains that soft and only delicately pink-tinted hue which is the heritage of all the Bolds. Her sister is radiantly blond, slender and flexible as a willow--too much so for the other women, for to them a physical pliancy implies moral accommodation, and they suspect Eleanor Bold (assigning her, in their own minds and in sewing-circle, sugar-lending, Methodist-social conversations, the most improbable of lovers: farmhands and railroad firemen, the rumored sons of departed ministers, the sheriff's silent deputy).
This high, white house was my grandmother's and since our mothers on the lawn can see what we do there, we are--largely--in it, clattering up and down the steep and narrow and carpetless stair leading from the second floor to the third that we may starein giggling silence there at the huge picture of my father's dead brother, which leans, unhung, against the wall of the farthest, coolest room.
It was, as I know from some occult source that, beneath the sleepless and probing lenses of the Cassionsville Spiritualist Society now so recently organized by my aunt Arabella, might be found to be Hannah (once my grandmother's cook and now my mother's)--it was, I say, painted almost precisely a year before his death. He appears to be about four, a sad-eyed, dark-haired child standing willingly but without joy to have his portrait done. He wears loose red trousers like a zouave, a white silk shirt, and a black velvet vest, and he smells of apples, from having been stored so long with them, and of quilts (hand-stitched with incredible fineness so that each in its own fabric of being stood a soft, warm monument to the endless labor of Tuesday and Thursday afternoons--just as so many did, in their designs, to the genius of William Morris); and afterward, when I had not seen my father's dead brother--whom he himself had never seen--for years, I came to imagine that he stood wrapped in a quilt (just as I, as a child, had been made to wrap myself in a large towel after a bath) with apples rolling at his feet. I went, I think at about the age of twenty, up into that house again and disabused myself of the notion, and at the same time recognized--with a start of surprise that might almost have been shame--that the dreaming landscape before which he stood as though upon a windowsill, a region I had always associated with the fairy tales of Andrew Lang (particularly those of the Green Fairy Book) and George MacDonald, was in fact a Tuscan garden.
That garden, with its marble faun and fountain, its Lombardy poplars and its beeches, has impressed my mind always far more strongly than poor dead Joe, whom none of us except my grandmother and Hannah had ever seen, and whose little grave in the cemetery on the hill was tended mostly by the ants that had built a city upon his chest. Now, when I sit alone before myfire and look out at the wreck of the elm revealed by the lightning flashes, confused and ruinous as a ship gone aground, it seems to me that the garden--I mean little Joe's garden, basking forever in the sunshine of its Tyrrhenian afternoon--is the core and root of the real world, to which all this America is only a miniature in a locket in a forgotten drawer; and this thought reminds me (and is reinforced by the memory) of Dante's Paradiso, in which (because the wisdom of this world was the folly of the next) the earth stood physically central, surrounded by the limbus of the moon and all the other spheres, greater and greater, and at last by God, but in which this physical reality was, in the end, delusive, God standing central in spiritual truth, and our poor earth cast out--peripheral to the concerns of Heaven save when the memory of it waked, with something not unlike an impure nostalgia, the great saints and the Christ from the contemplation of triune God.
True; all true. Why do we love this forlorn land at the edge of everywhere?
Sitting before my little fire, I know, when the wind blows outside, moaning in the fieldstone chimney I caused to be built for ornament, shrieking in the gutters and the ironwork and the eaves and trim and trellises of the house, that this planet of America, turning round upon itself, stands only at the outside, only at the periphery, only at the edges, of an infinite galaxy, dizzily circling. And that the stars that seem to ride our winds cause them. Sometimes I think to see huge faces bending between those stars to look through my two windows, faces golden and tenuous, touched with pity and wonder; and then I rise from my chair and limp to the flimsy door, and there is nothing; and then I take up the cruiser ax (Buntings Best, 2 lb. head, Hickory Handle) that stands beside the door and go out, and the wind sings and the trees lash themselves like flagellants and the stars show themselves between bars of racing cloud, but the sky between them is empty and blank.
Not so the Tuscan sky: it is of an untroubled blue, once ortwice touched with thin white clouds that cast no shadows on the ground below. The fountain is sparkling in the sun, but Joe does not hear it, nor will it ever damp his clothes or even the flagstones about its own basin. Joe holds a tiny gun with a tin barrel, and a stiff-legged wooden dog, but Bobby Black is coming and will, if he gains this room, throw apples that, striking the walls, will break, spattering picture and floor with crisp, fragrant, tart fragments; and these in turn, eventually, become brown, dirty, and sour, and will be discovered (most probably by Hannah) and I blamed, for it is impossible, unthinkable, that I should clean the floor, like asking a pig to fly or a mouse to play on the mouth-organ--we pigs, we mice, we children do not do such things, our limbs would not obey us. I stand at the top of the stair, inferior in strength and size but superior in position, silent, my eyes nearly closed, my face contorted, ready to cry, and I defy him; he jeers at me, knowing that if he can make me speak his battle is won; the others look over my shoulders and between my legs--my audience, not my allies.
At last we close, grunting, each grasping the other's pudgy body like wrestlers, red-faced and weeping. For a moment we sway.
Outside my aunt Olivia has lit a cigarette in a mammoth-ivory holder (tooth-of-the-devil) as long as her forearm. Mrs. Singer says, looking not at her but at my mother, "Have you the skin?" and my mother: "Yes, it's in on the piano; I'll have Hannah bring it when she comes out again," and Mrs. Green, who is somehow--I am too young to know--something of a slavey to my mother because we own her husband's farm: "I'll get it, Princess White Fawn," and my mother: "Fly swiftly, Princess Little Bird," and everyone laughs, for they are all Indians, and Mrs. Green, who is not little at all but short and big-boned and heavy, has chosen to be Princess Little Bird (when she might have been something suitable like Princess Corngrower, which was what Princess Star-Behind-Sun--my aunt Olivia--suggestedfor her) and has an expression of foolish joy when referring to herself by that name, as she must on ceremonial occasions (standing with her hand over her left breast while my mother places a feather in her hair for baking brownies for the Pow Wow).
"It's a shame, I think," my mother says. "They ought to have taken care of the old one."
Princess Singing Bird, whose husband is a building contractor, says, "They should have put it in a cornerstone," and Princess Happy Medicine, sister to Eleanor Bold, "They wanted the schoolchildren to see it."
Mrs. Green comes back, reverently carrying a soft roll of deer-hide; it is pale brown and almost as soft as chamois. My aunt Olivia, olive-skinned, oval of face, the most attractive woman there if we call Eleanor Bold a girl (which she was: the railroad firemen and traveling salesmen, hardware drummers and hired men are mythical as centaurs), takes it from her and unrolls it, her cigarette holder clenched between her teeth to the dazzlement and scandalization of the others. "There's nothing on it, Della."
My mother says, "I know. That's up to us, isn't it?" And Mrs. Singer asks, "Where did you get the skin?"
"John shot it," says Aunt Olivia. She smiles. "I mean, Chief White Fawn."
"Just having fawn with you," Princess Star-Behind-Sun says, scratching Ming-Sno's ears.
Hannah comes, clearing cake plates, bringing coffee. "Where are the children, Hannah?" "Inside. I don't know. Behind the vegetable garden, I think, some of 'em." Her arms are red, her hair white, her face large and square. She remembers covered wagons, but she will not say so. My mother talks to her husband, Aunt Olivia to her dogs, the Methodist minister's wife to God, and Grandmother talks to Hannah, but Hannah talks to no one but me, and because of this I, in front of my fire in bed, can hearher still when so many others are silent. I go to the old house, to my grandmother's house, to the kitchen where the old blue linoleum is worn to the boards in the center of the floor, and Hannah is washing dishes there, Princess Foaming Water. I sit on the little stool close to the iron stove ... .
"It isn't the same. It's not the same place. I used to be there and now I'm here, and everyone says--would say if I asked 'em --that it's days and nights going, turning around like that electrical clock with the little hole in the face that goes black and then white every second so you get dizzy to watch it, but it's not that. How can everything change just because the sun goes down? That's what I want to know. Everybody knows it doesn't. I remember when I was just a little girl, just a little bit of a thing, and Maud--that he married after my own ma died, and made me to wear a dish-clout around my head so my ears would be flat--got the hired girl, that Irish girl, to telling her stories, and I was afraid, so afraid I wouldn't go out in the night, in the night after dark, and wasn't it dark there on Sugar Creek with nothing but the coal-oil lights and no other house that you could see, and the stars! The stars so bright it was just like they were hanging right over our house, only when I did go out, out on the back stoop, I could feel the corn under my feet that had dropped out of my apron when I'd fed those chickens, so I knew then it was the same place, and I went clear out to the pump and there wasn't anything--it was brighter, even, when I got off the stoop--and I walked back with long steps, holding up my skirt so I could.
"Now it's all gone, and when I went back there with Mary, Sugar Creek itself was gone, just dry rocks where it had been. It was May--no, it wasn't; it was June--the last part of May or the first part of June, it doesn't matter ... . And that house; so small. We never all lived there, we never could have. Falling down, falling to nothing, little narrow doors you couldn't hardly get through. I never in my life been a hundred miles off from that little house, but it's gone now, and I never saw it go."
And I feel just as she does, yet differently. This house has grown larger, not smaller. (Nor is it falling down--not yet.) I wonder now why I asked for all these rooms--and there seem to be more and more each time I go exploring--and why they are so large. This room is wide, and yet much longer than it is wide, with two big windows along the west side looking into the garden, and along the east side a wall that shuts out the dining room, and the kitchen, and my den, where now I never go. At the south end is the fieldstone fireplace (which is why I live here; it is the only fireplace in the house, unless I have forgotten one somewhere). The floor is flagstone, the walls are brick, and there are pictures between the windows. My bed (not a real bed) is before the fireplace where I can keep warm. When summer comes--it is an odd thought--perhaps I will go up and sleep again in my own room.
And then, perhaps, the old days will really come back. I wonder what would have happened if Hannah had slept at Sugar Creek Farm (I will call it that; no doubt the neighbors called it simply "the Mill place")? Would Sugar Creek have flowed again, babbling in the night, wetting all those dry stones?
"Well, what's the matter, what do you want? That little boy, sitting there with his big eyes, what does he know? Work? Why, you never worked a day in your life. Look at that plate. Working for other people. Well, it's not your fault. I ain't got much longer to go, Denny. What does it matter? Want to wash these, and I'll run out and play tag with the others. Wouldn't your ma be surprised--she'd say, 'Who's the new girl?' I was just about to say I remembered her when she was just a little bit of a girl herself, only I don't, she's not from around here; it was another girl, that your dad used to play with when he was small. When it was warm summer sometimes, there was more children around the gaslights out on the street than there was millers around the mantles. It will be warm summer again pretty soon and I guess you'll be out there yourself, and I'll bake gingerbread togo with the root beer; I've lived through another winter, and I've never figured to die in summer."
I don't think I have ever seen anyone wash dishes in our kitchen. There is a dishwasher there--they always used that, scraping the plates first into the sink, to go down the disposer, making the sink a kind of garbage can. I cook my food in the fireplace now, and eat it there, too, and I eat so little anyway.
"You are thin, Mr. Weer. Underweight."
"Yes, you always check me for diabetes."
"Strip to your shorts, please. I'm going to have the nurse come in and weigh you."
I undress, conscious that Sherry Gold is in the next cubicle, probably stripped to her bra and panties. She is a small girl, a little plump ("You seem to be putting on weight, Miss Gold. Strip to your bra and panties, please, and I'll come in and weigh you") pretty, a Jewish face--Jewish faces are not supposed to be pretty, but pretty anyway. If I were to make a hole through the partition with my jackknife, I could see her, and if I were lucky she would not see the bright blade of the leather punch coming through the wall, or the dark hole afterward, with my bright blue middle-aged eye behind it. Knowing that I will not, in fact, do any such thing, I begin to go through my pants pockets looking for the knife; it is not there, and I remember that I have stopped carrying it months ago because I went to the office every day and, because I no longer worked in the lab, never used it; and that it wore the fabric of my trousers where its hard bolsters pressed at the corners of my right hip pocket, so that they wore out first there.
I stand, holding on to the mantel with one hand, and look again: it is not there. The rain patters down outside. It might be good to have it again. "If I did have a stroke, Dr. Van Ness, what should I do?"
"It is quite impossible for me to prescribe treatment for a nonexistent ailment, Mr. Weer."
"Sit down, for God's sake. Why the hell can't you talk to a doctor as if he were a man?"
"There's not a man in my plant I'd talk to the way you talk to every patient you've got."
"But I can't fire my patients, Mr. Weer."
I dress again and seat myself in the chair. The nurse comes in, tells me I ought to be undressed, and leaves; after a few moments, Dr. Van Ness again: "What's the matter, Mr. Weer?"
"I want to talk to you; sit down."
He seats himself on the edge of the examination table, and I wish Dr. Black were alive again, that formidable, heavy man of my childhood, with his dark clothes and gold watch chain. Barbara Bold must have gotten fat just cooking for him; after seeing him eat, she would lose all sense of proportion, since her own meals, however large, would be so much smaller; how could she have realized that a second baked potato, or a bowl of rice pudding with cream, was too much when her husband ate as much as three such women? My mother gives her another slice of pink cake, technically my birthday cake.
"Thank you, Della."
Barbara's sister Eleanor says, "All right, we can write on that, but what do we write, and what with?"
"Oils, I suppose," says my aunt Olivia. "You can use mine."
Someone objects that the Indians had no oil paints, and Mrs. Singer points out that the children won't know.
"But we will know," Mother says. "Won't we."
"Listen," says Mrs. Singer, "I have a fine idea. You know when they met? The settlers and the Indians? Well, they had the Indians do the writing, but what if they had done it? Then it would be ordinary writing and we could do it."
One moment, please. Let me stand and walk to the window; let me put this broken elm branch--shaped as though it were meant to be the antler of a wooden deer, such a deer as mightbe found, possibly, under one of the largest outdoor Christmas trees--upon the fire. Ladies, this was not what I wanted. Ladies, I wish to know only if in my condition I should exercise or remain still; because if the answer is that I must exercise I will go looking for my scout knife.
"Mr. Weer! Mr. Weer!"
"Yes?" I poke my head around the edge of the door.
"Oh, you're dressed; I can see by your sleeve."
"What is it, Sherry?"
"Don't come in, I'm not dressed. Oh!" (Dr. Van Ness is coming back, and Sherry withdraws, slamming the door of her cubicle.)
"Doctor, for a stroke--"
"Mr. Weer, if I answer your questions will you cooperate with me in a little test? A game with mirrors. Then will you look at some pictures for me?"
"If you answer my questions, yes."
"All right, you have had a stroke. I must say you don't look it, but I'm willing to accept it. What are your symptoms?"
"Not now. I haven't had a stroke now; please try to understand."
"You will have a stroke?"
"I have had it in the future, Doctor. And there is no one left to help me, no one at all. I don't know what I should do--I'm reaching back to you."
"How old are you? I mean, when you've had this stroke."
"I'm not sure."
"No, not ninety, not that old."
"Do you still have your own teeth?"
I reach into my mouth, feeling. "Most of them."
"What color is your hair?" Dr. Van Ness leans forward, unconsciously assuming the position of prosecuting attorney.
"I don't know. It's gone, almost all gone."
"Do you have pain in your fingers? Are they knobbed, swollen, stiff, inflamed?"
"And do you still, from time to time, feel sexual desire?"
"Then I think you're about sixty, Mr. Weer. That is to say, that your stroke is only fifteen or twenty years off--does that bother you?"
"No." I have been standing in the door of my cubicle. I withdraw and sit down on the chair; Dr. Van Ness follows me in. "Doctor, the side of my face, the left side, is all drawn over--I have an expression I have never seen, and I have it all the time. My left leg seems always crooked--as though it had been broken and misset--and my left arm is not strong."
"Are you dizzy? Do you frequently feel the urge to vomit?"
"Is your appetite good?"
"Do you find it painful to move about? Very painful?"
"Only emotionally--you know, because of the things I see."
"But not physically."
"Has there been only one stroke?"
"I think so. I woke up like this. It was the morning after Sherry Gold died."
"Miss Gold?" The doctor's head makes an unintentional and almost imperceptible movement toward the partition that separates us. I wonder if the girl is listening; I hope not.
"But it hasn't gotten any worse."
"You need exercise, Mr. Weer. You need to get out of the house, as well as walking around inside the house, and you need to talk to people. Take a good walk--several blocks--each day,when the weather permits. I believe you have a large garden?"
"Well, work in it. Pull weeds or something."
And that is what I so often do, pull weeds or something. And the something is usually flowers when it is not vegetables; or often I discover later that the weed I pulled was nicer than the blossoms I cultivated. There is one in particular that I have not seen in years, which used to grow just between the fence and the alley at my grandmother's house, a very tall weed with a tender, straight column of green stem and horizontal branches at the most regular intervals, airy and slender, each perfect and each carrying its tiny group of minute leaves to stare happily at the sun. I have sometimes thought that the reason the trees are so quiet in summer is that they are in a sort of ecstasy; it is in winter, when the biologists tell us they sleep, that they are most awake, because the sun is gone and they are addicts without their drug, sleeping restlessly and often waking, walking the dark corridors of forests searching for the sun.
And so will I search now for my knife, thus getting the exercise Dr. Van Ness prescribes. It was large, and stamped with the words "Boy Scout." The scales were of simulated black staghorn, bringing to mind (at least to mine) the image of a simulated stag, his horns held proudly as those of any elm-deer, ranging the forest among the now-waking trees, trees whose leaves are dying with the summer in every color, like bruises, but bruises beautiful as the skins of races unborn, withheld from us because God, or destiny, or the bland chance of the scientists (whose blind, piping ape-god, idiot-god, we have met before; we know you, troubler of Babylon) has denied us the sight of all these scarlet and yellow--truly red, orange, russet-brown--races on our sidewalks, and all the wonderful richness of stereotypes we might have entertained ourselves with if only they had been permitted us: the scarlet people with tight fists and loose women, gobbling dialects, a talent for paintings done with chalk upon thesides of newspaper kiosks, and high abilities in the retail merchandising of hobby supplies such as tiny-toy jet engines, and model garbage trucks whose hungry rumps, trundled about the wooden tops of retired dining-room tables in basements, will devour the dross of train-station quick-eat restaurants; the orange people with their weird religion demanding the worship of sundials (as our own seems to others that of telephone poles), so that in friendly locker-room conversations, when we have at last and at the threat of certain legal pressures admitted them to Pinelawn and are discussing the round now past, they out with strange oaths. What is a wabe?
And all of them, since all the lands of this earth are occupied, must be from strange and farther countries, from Hi Brasil and the Islands of the Sun, from the Continental Islands and the Isles of the Tethys Sea. Only the rarest, the russet browns, belong here, native to St. Brendan's land, and they are dying; the things they are famous for are not strange oaths, or ability at any art, or cunning in a trade, but alcoholism and gonorrhea and dwindling. They make good soldiers and that is fatal, just as is the bravery of the simulated stag, which will bring him to death, answering the call of the simulated war cry to meet bullets in the dry autumn woods and fall, his lungs hemorrhaging substitute blood at the edge of the potato fields. The imitation huntsman shouts and dances for joy, and then, having learned very well to shoot, but never to butcher, and being, in his own opinion, no longer of an age to carry heavy burdens, leaves him to rot and stink, the bait of plastic flies with fishhooks in their bellies. In time his flesh, torn by such fur-like foxes as remain, and by the teeth of curs, falls away, and only his horns and his celluloid bones remain, the prey of the boys'-knife maker.
The bolsters--those hard bolsters which, when my life was over and I had come to my desk, wore out so many gabardines and serges--were of German silver, of Funfcentstucksilber, like the buttons of the SS. It is a metal soft yet tough, and incorruptibly dully shining. Do not confuse us with pewter, which isa thing of plates and platters and drinking vessels.
But these things, the scales and bolsters, were on the exterior; they were the trim, as it were, of the knife. The truth within was prefigured by the plate in its side, which was of steel.
I remember very well the Christmas my knife was given to me; it was the one--the only one--I spent at my grandfather's, my mother's father's. That house stood high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and had many wide windows, though like my grandmother's narrow-windowed house it, too, was of white-painted wood. The Christmas tree stood against certain of these windows, so that, through its branches, among the trumpery dolls and tinsel and brilliant mock-fruit balls of painfully thin glass, one could watch the steamboats. It snowed that Christmas, I am sure, though it was rare to have any snow that far south, and when it came, if it came at all, it was usually later in the year. My mother had brought me; my father had remained behind at home, no doubt to hunt. There were, then, four of us in the house: myself, my mother, my grandfather (a tall old--as I thought then--man who dyed his beard and mustache black), and his housekeeper, a plump blond woman of (I now suppose) about forty. My mother would have been twenty-five, I six. It was the year after Bobby Black was hurt.
We came by train, arriving at a station already lightly powdered with snow, my mother's coat with fox fur around the neck, a black man--who grinned whenever my mother looked at him--to help us with our bags, help us into the wooden-bodied car that would take us, so my mother told me, to Granpa's. "You're cold, aren't you, Den?"
I said that I was not.
"Cold and hungry. We'll get you warmed up there, and into bed, and then it will be Christmas and you'll get your toys."
The driver said, "I guess you're Vant'y's daughter." He had long cheeks like a face seen in the back of a spoon, and blackheads at the corners of his eyes.
Mother said, "Yes, I'm Adelina."
"Well, you'll find he's fine; he's stronger right now than most men ever get to be. Guess you heard he's got Mab Crawford keeping house for him now."
"She wrote me."
"She did? Well, I guess." The man turned away from us, leaning forward, and the wooden-bodied car, which had been shaking and chattering to itself, lunged ahead, stopped almost as abruptly, exploded under the place where Mother and I had our feet, then began to move in a more or less normal manner. "Earl run off from her--you heard?"
Mother said nothing, drawing her coat more tightly about her. The tall windows beside us rattled and let in cold air.
"I guess he's gone to Memphis; but your pa is fine--he's fit as fit, good as any younger man." We were passing among stores with dark windows, down a street that, perhaps only because it was empty, seemed very wide. "That's what he says, and what I believe; that's the way it is. She went to Memphis, too--you heard? Leastwise, that's where she went, and that's what made everybody to think that's where he did. 'Bout three months after he was gone. She stayed till pretty near the Fourth of July; then she come back--well, she has to do something, is what I say, I guess a woman that has had her own house like that isn't ever going to want to be a hired girl to no other woman, not that it was much of a place with Earl."
No doubt the house--my grandfather's house--had exterior architecture, but I do not remember it. It was a wooden house, as I have said, and I believe white, though that may have been the snow. I had been afraid, just before we arrived (or, actually, for some minutes before we arrived, since I thought, as children I suppose usually do, that we were at our destination almost as soon as we had begun the trip), that it would not be a real house--that is, a house of wood--but one of those somehow unnatural brick or stone houses that (like stage sets, but more unreal to me, because I was unfamiliar with the term and even with the concept at the time) served, as I felt, only to wall off themargins of streets from something else; inhabited by people, so far as I could see, but fit homes for trolls (of whose existence I remained convinced for years after this visit, as I remained, for that matter, convinced of the reality of Santa Claus).
But the house was of safe wood, which being nailed together would not tumble down, and would not be heavy if it did. My grandfather and his housekeeper met us on the porch; I am certain of that. Everyone's breath steamed, and while my mother fumbled in her purse my grandfather paid the man who had brought us. Mrs. Crawford, who had not worn a coat outside but only her long dress, hugged me and told me to call her Mab; she smelled of scented powder and sweat, and the laundryday smell of that time: dirty water reheated on a coal stove. All this sounds unpleasant, but actually was not. These--except for the scented powder, since my mother and my aunt Olivia and the other women I knew used different brands--were familiar smells, much less foreign than the odors of the railway coach in which we had come.
I remember a great deal of moving about, of circling each other on the creaking porch boards, while all this hugging and paying, baggage unloading and greeting took place, the white plumes of breath, the blown snow clinging to the dirty screen door still in place in front of the real door, which stood a quarter open. There was a potbellied stove inside, and when we got to it the blond woman, Mab, tried to help me off with my galoshes, but could not get them over the heel, so that my mother had to come in the end, leaving my grandfather, for the moment, to take them off. The ceilings in all the rooms were very high, and there was a big Christmas tree, with toys and balls and candles that had never been lit to decorate it, and cookies painted with egg white colored with beet juice and dotted with small candies.
At dinner I noticed (that is to say, in all of this, I think, I believe in some sense much akin to the belief of faith, that I noticed, felt, or underwent what I describe--but it may be that the only reason childhood memories act on us so strongly isthat, being the most remote we possess, they are the worst remembered and so offer the least resistance to that process by which we mold them nearer and nearer to an ideal which is fundamentally artistic, or at least nonfactual; so it may be that some of these events I describe never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavors--for example, of jealousy or antiquity or shame--that I have later unconsciously chosen to give them) that though my grandfather called Mrs. Crawford Mab, which I felt sure was what he always called her, she called him Mr. Elliot; and that this was new between them, that she valued herself on using it and felt herself to be humbling herself in a noble cause--an emotion that in those days, when it was discussed among adults, always evoked the phrase "Bible Christian." My grandfather, I think, was embarrassed by this new deference; knowing it to be false, he felt my mother knew it to be false as well (as she surely must before the meal was over) and was shamed and angered by it. He insulted Mrs. Crawford in the rough country style both of them understood, telling my mother (as he wolfed down dumplings) that he had not had a tolerable meal since her mother "passed over," that some people had little enough to do, with only one other to take care of, unlike herself "with that little scamp to keep you on your feet all day and all night, Della, and a church husband to look out for, too." This of course ignored the existence of Hannah, about whom he must have known, who did all the cooking and heavy housework at home. The walls of the dining room were hung with sepia photographs of trotting horses, the only exception being that part of the wall which was directly behind my grandfather's head, and thus completely out of his view when he sat at the table: this held a large picture of a woman in the majestic and complex costume of the eighteen-eighties--my other grandmother, Evadne.
When the meal was over, I was undressed and put into bed by the combined efforts of my mother and Mab, who had come with. us carrying a lamp--not, as she said, to show the way,which she avowed my mother would know far better than herself, but because "it isn't right you should go up without no one to take you when you've just come, it wouldn't seem right, and I couldn't sleep if I did that; I couldn't sleep a wink, Mrs. Weer." My mother said, "Call me Della," and this so flustered Mrs. Crawford that she nearly dropped the lamp.
When she had gone, my mother began an inspection of the room, which she told me she had occupied as a child. "That was my bed," she said, indicating the one she had been sitting on a moment before, "and that other was your aunt Arabella's." I asked if I had to sleep in it, and she said I could sleep with her if I preferred. I trotted over, across a cold floor not much mitigated by a rag rug, and sat in the middle of the bed watching her. "We had a dollhouse here," she said, "between the dormers."
"Will I get a dollhouse for Christmas, Mama?"
"No, silly, dollhouses are for girls. You'll get toys for boys."
I regretted this; a playmate (a girl, though I had never before realized that this was other than incidental to her possession of it) owned a large and beautifully painted dollhouse with removable walls. I had assisted her several times with it, and because I had seen it so often I could visualize it quite well--now never to be found at the base of any Christmas tree of mine, floating away, just when I had thought it so near, into the misted realm of the impossible. I had planned to put my toy soldiers in it, firing from the windows.
"A book," my mother said after a long silence, during which she had been examining the interiors of cabinets. "Santa might bring you a book, Den."
I liked books, but I was far from sure that Santa Claus visited any house but ours--or at least any house outside Cassionsville. Surely not this strange, silent house, with its smells of old clothing hanging in closets year upon year. I asked my mother, and she said she had told Santa we were coming.
"Will Santa bring stuff for Granpa?"
"If he's been a good boy. Turn around, Den. Look at the wall. Mama wants to undress."
When the lamp went out, the whole house was plunged in quiet. Even with my eyes closed in the dark, I was aware of the snow sifting down outside; aware, too, that we were the only people on this floor, until at last, very late as it seemed to me, I heard Mab come wearily up the stairs to sleep in the room that --so my mother told me much later--had been Grandmother Vant'y's mother's when she was a girl. I was warm where my back pressed against my mother's, dreadfully cold everywhere else despite the crushing weight of quilts and feather beds; this partly, no doubt, because I was so tired, partly because the Southern house was unaccustomed to the cold that fell on it now, an airy, drafty house that even in the depth of winter dreamed of still, hot evenings, of rocking on the porch and the hum of mosquitoes. My mother slept, but I did not. There was a chamber pot beneath the bed; I used it and returned to the warmth of the covers again, unrelieved.
At last, quite certain in my own mind that I had lain awake almost all the night and that the dawn must even now be graying the windows (though my "dawn" was nothing more than the moon on the new-fallen snow outside), I crept down to warm myself at the parlor stove and to look at the Christmas tree, though I think I still expected my gifts--if I received any at all that year--to be at home, in the place where our tree would have been had we had one, or piled beneath our stockingless mantel. I had only a vague idea, I suppose, of the plan of the house; I know I blundered several times into the wrong rooms--the big kitchen, the dining room with horses trotting all around its walls, the museum-like front parlor with some large bird beneath a glass bell jar on the center table, as though the company (if company ever came again, if there could be company grand enough to merit that parlor, with its cut-glass bowls and wax fruit, its horsehair furniture and morning-glory trompe-l'oeil phonograph horn) would be expected to sit studying its dust-freemolt, as though this were the simurg, the last bird of its kind in all the world, as though my grandfather were expecting a company of naturalists, and perhaps it was, and perhaps, indeed, he did.
The door to the correct room, the "everyday parlor," was shut; but even before I opened it I saw, yellow as butter, the line of light at the base of the door. Whether I thought it was light from the isinglass window of the stove, or that someone had left a lamp burning, or that it was the sun in an east window--for I was firmly convinced, remember, that it was morning--I am no longer sure; probably I did not stop to speculate. I opened the door (not with a knob that turned, as we had at home--as we had also gaslights and only used kerosene when a light had to be carried about, so that I thought, when I first came, that my grandfather's house was in a constant state of emergency--but with a strange latch that lifted to the downward pressure of my thumb) and as I did so the soft yellow light, as soft as a two-day-old chick, as soft as the blossom of a dandelion and more radiant, came pouring out, and I saw to my astonishment that the Christmas-tree candles were all lit, each standing erect as its own flame near the tip of a limb, a white specter crowned with fire. I walked toward the tree--halfway, I believe, from the door--and stood rooted. It shone against the dark glass of the window; behind it, far away, shone the stars, and the river below with the stars reflected in its water; a steamboat, blazing with lights, but now, at this remove, tinier and brighter than a toy, passed among the branches. There were presents under the tree, and more thrust into the lower boughs, but I hardly saw them.
"Well, I guess you're late," my grandfather said. "Old Nick, he's already been here." His "well" was wa-ul.
I said nothing, unable at first to see him in the corner in which he sat in a huge old oak rocker with a mask carved in the towering headrest.
"Come, left his stuff, lit all these here candles, and gone on outthe chimney. Look at that clock yonder--past twelve. He 'most always comes here at twelve, and goes then, too. I just come down myself to have a look at these here candles before I puts them out and goes up to bed. I used to do that, years ago, after he was gone. Can you tell time, young Weer?"
My name was not Young, but I knew he meant me and shook my head.
"I guess it won't hurt you to look, too. Then you can go back up to your bed. Got your eyes full yet?"
I said, "We don't have candles on our tree at home."
"Your pa, I guess, is afeared it will burn his house. Well, that might be. I come pretty quick after Nick and blow 'em out, and I cut that tree myself not two days gone. When your ma was little, her 'n' her sister would come down to see it. I guess she's forgot now--or maybe she sent you."
"You want to see what Nick brought?"
"Well, I can't show you your own, but I guess you could see what other folks is getting. Now look here." He got up from his chair, a tall figure in dark clothing, his chin whiskers as stiff and black as the end of a fence post dipped in creosote. Assisted by his cane, he knelt with me at the foot of the tree. "This here," he said, "is yours." He showed me a heavy, square package with its ribbons and trimmings somewhat crushed and flattened. "And so is this'n here." A small box that rattled. "You'll like that'n. I fancy."
"Can I open it now?"
My grandfather shook his head. "Not till breakfast. Now you look here." He held up a large and heavy box, which gurgled when he tilted it. "That's toilet water for Mab. And look here" --a smaller box, held shut with a single loop of red ribbon. "You look here a minute." Painstakingly he removed the ribbon, slipping it down until the box could be opened like a blue leatherclamshell. "These are for your ma. Know what they are? Pearls." He held up the string for me to admire by candlelight. "Matched, every one. And a little silver catch with diamonds in it at the back." I nodded, impressed, having already been made aware by my mother of the importance of her jewelry box and the wisdom of leaving this sacred treasury strictly alone. "You think these here are bright?" my grandfather said. "You wait till she sees them and look at her eyes. When Vant'y passed on, I took everything we didn't send down with her and shared it out between Bella and Della. So I saw it all, but there wasn't anything half so fine as this, not anything I got her or anything she brought from her ma. Now you go up to bed."
And as if by magic--and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamioe the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor--it seemed to me that I found myself in bed again, the old house swaying in silence as though it were moored to the universe by only the thread of smoke from the stove.
The next morning I woke with my mother's arm about me, my face cold but the rest of me warm. We carried our clothes to the kitchen and dressed there, finding Mab already up and cooking, and heating the water my grandfather would use when he trimmed the stubble around his beard with his big razor, for today was Christmas, a great day, and though he seldom shaved thus once a week he would do it today. She gave me a sugar cookie with an enormous raisin in the middle to stay my appetite before the grits and ham and eggs, the icy milk from the "larder"abutting the back porch, the coffee--for me, too, for by custom I got coffee here, I discovered, though never at home--and the biscuits and the homemade doughnuts were ready. I wanted, indeed, not breakfast, but to see what was under the tree; but this--by the rule of the house, as my mother explained--was out of the question. Breakfast first. This her own mother, the dead and by me unremembered Vant'y, had imposed upon her and her sister throughout their childhood; and this she and her father were determined to impose upon me, though I strongly suspected there would be oranges (which I have always loved) and nuts in my stocking that would make a more satisfactory collation than any sugar cookie. Even my mother, who made several journeys of inspection to the parlor between her brief bouts of assisting Mab (in the same vague way she assisted Hannah at home) with the preparation of the meal, swore that she went no farther than the parlor door, and I was not even permitted to leave the kitchen. My grandfather came down and shaved around his beard in a corner where a mirror hung--for the first time I noticed that he was smaller than my father. He ignored the women until he had finished, then seated himself at the head of the table, where my mother at once poured him coffee.
"Coldest Christmas I can remember," Mab said. "Snow out on the stoop's that deep." She made an exaggerated gesture, her hands three or four feet apart. "I suppose we're going to be snowed in."
"You're a fool, Mab," my grandfather said. This made her smile, her plump face dimpling, made her push her fingers, slightly damp from the eggs she had broken, into her butter-colored hair. "Why, Mr. Elliot!"
"This will be gone by noon," my mother said. "I think it's a shame. It's so pretty."
My grandfather said, "You wouldn't talk like that if you had to go out tramping through it to fork down hay for them horses."
Mab jostled my mother with her elbow. "I bet you wish that Miss Bella was here! Wouldn't you and her throw snowballs at him!"
"I might anyway," my mother said. "I'll get Den to help me if you won't."
"Oh, I couldn't do that," Mab said, and giggled.
My grandfather snorted and said to me obscurely, "Runnin' around without any stays on."
We breakfasted, the adults with a deadly slowness, then trooped into the parlor. There were oranges and nuts, as I had envisioned. Candy. A pair of suspenders for my grandfather, and a box of (three) bandannas. For me a weighty book, bound in green buckram with a highly colored picture--an art-nouveau mermaid, more graceful and more sea-born than any wet girl I have seen since, signaling with languid gesture to a ship of the late Middle Ages manned by Vikings--sunk in the front board, and a multitude of other, similar pictures, the equal--and in some cases the superior--of the first, scattered throughout a text black-printed and often confusing, but to me utterly fascinating; and a knife. Just such a knife, I feel sure, as my grandfather would have selected for himself, a man's knife, though it bore the words "Boy Scout" on that plate let into its side. Closed, it was longer then than my hand, and in addition to a huge spear blade that, once opened (I could not open it without his assistance), was held so by a leaf spring of brass, it had a corkscrew and a screwdriver, a bottle opener, a smaller blade which my grandfather warned me was very sharp, a leather punch, and an instrument for removing pebbles from the hooves of horses--this last, I think, is called a stonehook. Unlike the blades of boys' knives to come, all these were of high-carbon steel and rusted if they were not kept oiled; but they would take and hold a good edge, as the bright and showy blades will not.
For my mother a large bottle of toilet water, and for Mab a small string of pearls, which made her first dance with joy, then weep, then kiss my grandfather several times, and at last rushfrom the room, upstairs to her own room (we could hear her feet pounding on the steps, so rapid and unsteady that she might have been a drunken roisterer fleeing the police), where she stayed for nearly half the day.
As a child I believed that my mother, from that unquestioned generosity children so readily assume in a good parent, had exchanged gifts with Mab. At some time before I entered college, I realized (as I thought) that my grandfather himself must have made the exchange--not when I had spoken to him the night before, but later in payment for some sexual favor, or in the hope of securing one imagined as late that night he lay alone in the big first-floor bedroom.
And now that I am older--myself as old now, I suppose, as he was then--I have returned to the opinion of my childhood. Old men, I think, do not make such gifts; and I wonder what the town thought, and if he allowed her to keep them; if she was buried in them.
"They ought to have put it in a cornerstone."
And Barbara Black, mother of Bobby: "They wanted the children to see it."
But they cannot see them now at least, not on her; she is dead now, that florid Rubens woman. When my mother died, I found a picture of Mab, standing beside my seated grandfather, among her things. She had something then of the appearance of a nurse, very much a nurse chosen to please an old man, a nurse who could giggle and pout until he had taken his medicine, a sort of walking regret. I cannot imagine her last illness, or someone taking care of her.
I remember that when my mother died she seemed to me to be still rather young for death. Now, in retrospect, I feel that she lived on and on through whole ages of the world, as though she might have lived on forever. (As perhaps elsewhere she has.) It is too late for it now, but it sometimes seems to me that we ought to have kept records, by the new generations, of our remotenessfrom events of high significance. When the last man to have seen some occurrence or personality of importance died; and then when the last person who knew him died; and so on. But first we would have the first man describe this event, this thing that he had seen, and when each of them was gone we would read the description publicly to see if it still meant anything to us--and if it did not, the series, the chain of linked lives, would be at an end. Tell us about going to see the Indians, Princess Foaming Water.
"Oh, you don't want that old story. You've had that old story a hundred times."
Please, Hannah, tell me about the time your poppa took you to see the Indians.
"Lord, you make it sound like it was a show. It wasn't no show. He just had to go there to trade, and he was afraid somebody' d come; I was too small to leave alone, anyway. It was just after Ma passed away, before Mary was born. Before the hired girl, that Irish girl, come; before he even married that other one at all.
"I suppose it's a terrible thing to say, Denny, but looking back on it now I would have to say I think I like that time the best of all--I don't mean I didn't pine for my mother. But it was terrible toward the end, with her so sick and all and me so worried about her and what could I do, just a little bit of a child. Then she was gone. He slept alongside of her so he could help her if she needed anything, and she must have gone in the night, and he didn't wake me up. He'd pegged up a box for her--we didn't use nails much, they were made by the blacksmith then and cost a lot. But he had his drill and he bored the holes in the wood and whittled pegs for them and drove them in with a big hammer that he had made for himself. The head of it was wood, too. He told her he was building a house for chickens, and she said that was good, she'd be glad to see eggs. He said he'd get some chickens when the house was finished.
"By the time I woke that morning, he had the lid down--that's what woke me, his pounding in of the lid pegs. You know, Denny, all the times I told you this before I never remembered it, but that's right, that's what woke me, his pounding in those pegs. I guess I never thought of it, not even then, because by the time I got woke up and I set up to look at him, he was finished and was just standing there with that wooden hammer in his hand. He told me later that he used cherry pegs for it everywhere, but the boards were pine. We had a cherry tree in back of the house--not the kind you could make pies out of, but a wild tree: what they called a bird cherry or bear cherry. My ma wouldn't never let him chop it down because it looked so pretty when it bloomed, and he never did, not even after she died. But he'd cut pegs off it because the little branches grew round and straight and the wood was hard. He made pipes out of them, too; he made all his own pipes, and he grew his own tobacco. Made the bowls out of corncob and left them soft on the outside."
Hannah, I can make you say a Indian word.
"How? Oh, I see. Aren't you the scamp. I know a story like that--I bet you'd like to hear it. This is the story that that Irish hired girl we got when they was married used to tell. It was better, though, when she told it; we didn't have any neighbors, you know, or any telephone--none of what they have now. There was a road past our farm, down at the bottom of the hill, but sometimes it would be a week before anybody'd come ... ."
"Well, once upon a time there was a poor boy named Jack, and he loved a girl named Molly; but Molly's father didn't want the two to marry, because Jack had nothing to bring to the wedding but his own two hands and a smile; but he was a fine, strong boy, not afraid of anything, and everyone in the neighborhood liked him. Well, Molly's father he plotted and schemed how he could get rid of him, but he was afeared to throw him down the well, for he was too strong, and besides he thought they might hang him. Now, this farm he had was so big it had every sort of land on it."
Katie, is this a really true story?
"As I breathe, darlin'. And--"
Was this in Ireland, Kate?
"Oh, not a bit of it, Miz Mill. It was in Massy-chusetts, where me father worked makin' shoes.
"There was medders and woods, fields for plowin' and fields for hay--much of everythin' and the richest you ever saw, but rocky bits, too, and dells among the woods where never a bit of sun shone from one year to another. So big it took a man all day to walk across it, and ten would be hired at wages to plant, and forty to harvest.
"Now, away back in the wood where nobody saw, there was a stone barn; and you'd think they'd be using it for this or for that, wouldn't you? But they did not, and it stood empty as a churn on Sunday from one year to another. And the reason of it was that it was haunted, and the haunt was a banshee, and that's as bad a ghost as there is of any sort, and I've often heard it said, when they talked of driving out ghosts, that you could away with most any sort but that. And them you burn the house--or whatever it might be--down around their ears and they'd haunt the ashes; and you could bring the holiest man that ever lived, or even the bishop, but they'd be back; and you'd quicker get rid of the landlord than a banshee. Ugly old women they are, with long fingers to scratch you and teeth like thorns on a bush, and they're the spirits of midwives that have killed the baby because someone gave gold to them to do it that it might not inherit, and never a day can they rest until whatever land it was is under the sea.
"Now, every night as soon as the moon shined in at the window, the banshee would come. And if there were cows in the barn she'd milk them and pour out the milk on the ground; and if there were horses she'd gallop them all night, or drink their blood so they'd be too weak even to stand in the morning. And if a man tried to stay in that barn all night she'd grab him and choke him until he named somebody, and then that person thathe named--whoever it was--they'd die that same night, and him she'd tear the clothes off of, and beat him with a wagon tongue till he was black all over so everybody'd know who done it."
Anybody he said would die, Katie?
Why didn't the bad man just go to the barn, and when she
"That was just the way of it. Well--" came he could say the boy's name?
"He feared her too much. No, but he plotted and planned and cast his mind forward and back until at last he thought of a way to get free of Jack, that was always botherin' him about his daughter Molly, while he sat safe as could be beside his own fire. You've guessed it yourselves, sure as I stand here. Even little Mary in the cradle knows. He told Jack he'd have to spend the whole night in the barn and never be throwed out, and if he did he could have Molly and half the farm.
"So the first time Jack went and he sat with his back to the wall where he could watch for the moon in at the window, and never a wink did he sleep. Betimes the moonlight came--just a little spot, it was, movin' across the noor--and no sooner was it there than somebody knocked at the door. Knock ... knock ... knock."
I don't think you have to hit the table like that, Kate; you'll wake the baby.
"Well, Jack he was never afeared and he called out bold as you please, 'Come in with you, but shut the door after, for there's draft enough now.' And that door, it opened ever so slow, and the banshee come in. Her gown was all windin' sheets from graves, and she walked like this. She said, 'I'll be leavin it open if it's all the same with you, Jack, for you'll be needing' it shortly.' Then it was on Jack's tongue to say something about Molly and how he'd stay there no matter what until the sun shone for he loved her so, but devil a word of it could he get out before the banshee had him by the neck, yellin', 'A name! A name!' For they're hungry all the time for the souls of the livin' but they can't get them till they know their true names, and theyforgets everyone they know when they die. Jack wasn't going to name anybody, not if she choked him to death, but she kept hitting him against the wall, and the way she had his neck his tongue was slappin' at his belt buckle, and he thinks what if he was to say Molly, all dizzy as he was with the chokin' and the bangin'; and then he thinks to say Molly's father, but that was to be his own father-in-law if they were ever wed, and he couldn't turn on his relations like that, so to be rid of her he says the name of the meanest man he can think of, a man that robbed everybody and never gave poor folk a penny, and then she let him go; but she tore a board out of a stall that was there and gave him such a beating with it he couldn't walk, and then she threw him out the door, and there they found him in the morning, and Molly's father he brought him a bottle of witch hazel, but he told him he didn't ever want to see him again.
"Well, you think that's the end, but it isn't. By and by, Jack got better and he still loved Molly and he said could he do it again; well, her father didn't want to, but she cried and everything and finally he said all right, and then she cried some more because she thought Jack would be killed for certain this time. Well, he waited like before, and she came, and this time he said the name of a real old lady that was goin' to die anyway and she beat him so bad he like to died.
"Well, you think that's the end, but it isn't. The next time, he promised Molly's father that if he didn't stay in that barn till sunup, banshee or none, he'd go to Texas; so her father said yes. Well, she come in just like before, but uglier and bigger. Her fingernails was as long as knittin' needles and he thought she was going to scratch out his eyes with them, so he raised up his arm like this so she couldn't scratch him blind, and when he did she got him by the neck. Well, he struggled and fought ever so--just like Kilkenny cats, I was about to say, but it was really more like St. Brandon and the Devil. Well, finally he knew he was going to have to say somebody, so he said Molly's father, and you'd think that would be the end of the mean old man, butJack had noticed before that after he said somebody there was always just a little bit of a holdup while she looked about for something to beat him with. So this time when she let him go he grabbed her by the neck straight off. 'Now,' says Jack, 'I've got you good. Spit up that name I give you or I'll mash that ugly gizzard till 'tis no bigger through than a broom straw.' And she did. She coughed a couple of times and out came Molly's father's name, and lay there on the floor of the barn, but mighty sick and dirty it looked for having been in her. 'Let me go now,' says she to Jack, 'for I've given back what I got from you tonight, and the dead, they never rise.' 'No,' says Jack, 'but there's others to come, and a babe in the cradle and a old man in the chimney corner forever. I've heard it said banshees have the second sight.' 'Well, that's so,' says the banshee, 'an' if you'll be lettin' up on me poor neck a trifle I'll be tellin' you about it.' 'Never mind that,' says Jack, and he beat the wall with her like a man beatin' a carpet, 'I've a question for you. Thrice you've asked me who's to die--once I'll ask you, who's to be born.' 'Tis the Antichrist,' says the banshee, quick as a snake, 'an' you to be the father of it."'
Don't be blasphemous, Kate.
"And the last word hadn't left her lips but what she exploded like a barrel of gunpowder and threw poor Jack head after heels. When he picked himself up, she was gone, and never a man saw her after, and when they came in the morning they found Jack sittin' on a grindstone and pickin' at his teeth with a splinter. Only it wasn't Molly's father that come, because after the banshee swallowed his name he never raised from his bed again, and he died the next year. Well, Jack took Molly for his bride in church, but he had himself a little house built beside her big one, and there he lives, and now they're both old, and no children."
Did the banshee ever come back, Katie?
"Never to show her face, but the cattle do poorly in that barn, and Jack just stores a bit of hay in it mostly, and most yearsthat's sour. Molly's a old woman now, and they say she resembles the banshee more than is common."
That's enough, Kate. In fact, it's too much. Get Hannah ready for bed now. I'll see to Mary myself.
"Here, darlin', and off with your gown, an' come out back where there's a clout for your darlin' face, for there's half your supper on it."
Not so hard, Katie.
"I've been wantin' a word with you, darlin'. Who's that I see behind you?"
It's just little Den, Katie. He's been there before.
"Yes, but there's another, dimmer yet, behind him."
I can only see the one behind me, Katie. "And that's the story the Irish girl used to tell, Denny. Or one of 'em. You see, it's not always well to make someone say what they don't want to."
I know another one, Hannah. See, I say: I one dirt, and you say: I two dirt--like that.
"You ate dirt yourself, you dirty child."
You never finished telling me about the Indians.
"Well, it isn't as if I was Buffalo Bill, Denny. Those were the only Indians I ever saw in my life, except when I was a grownup woman and the circus come. They were the last Indians around here."
"They had a little house. It wasn't one of them pointed tents like you see in books, but a little house made all of sticks, with bark on the outside. It was so small a grown person would have to get down on hands and knees to get in, and my father never went inside it at all, but I did while he was bargaining with the Indian man, and the Indian woman was inside there, with a tiny little bit of a fire that went up through the roof where a piece of the bark had been taken down, and she had a little Indian baby on her lap--it was laid on a piece of real soft leather, and it didn't have nothing on. There was a Bible pushed over against the wall that I guess some missionary gave them, and a littlebundle of feathers, and some wood for the fire, and that was everything that was in the whole house. The man had a gun and a knife, but he was outside talking to Pa. The Indian woman wouldn't even look at me, just kept rocking back and forth, with the baby on her lap there; that baby never moved and I think maybe it was dead--just a little baby. I told Pa about the woman afterward and he said probably she was drunk."
Doubtless she was, but meantime the Indian has his knife, but I do not have mine--and Dr. Van Ness says I could use more exercise. There was never a time when I could feel sure of drawing the floor plans of this house correctly; that is the fault of building late, of moving into a new home at a time when the various old ones have settled into the brain and become a part of its landscape, their walls like those old romantic walls in nineteenth-century paintings, with bushes and even cedar trees sprouting from the crumbling stone. I remember Eleanor Bold once told me that the rose called Belle Amour was found growing from a wall in a ruined convent in Switzerland; the walls of those old houses in my mind are like that, rotting and falling, yet at the same time armed with thorns and gay with strange flowers, and bound tighter with the roots of all the living things that have grown there than they ever were with mortar and plaster.
Furthermore I made the mistake, when the company at last came into my hands and I had funds enough to build, of duplicating, or nearly duplicating, certain well-remembered rooms whose furnishings had fallen to me by inheritance. It would have been better--and I could well have afforded to do so--to have restored the houses themselves, buying up the lots on which they had stood (in those cases, too frequent, in which they had been demolished to provide space for third-rate apartments and parking lots) and building them anew. Old photographs by the thousands might have been found to guide the builders, and surely I might have discovered many tenants, childless couples of orderlyhabits, who would have been happy to maintain and cherish these possessions in return for a reduced rent.
Instead I made the error of interspersing among the functional rooms of my home certain "museum rooms"; but when I try to recall where they lie--or, for that matter, where the stairs are--or the closet in which I once kept an umbrella, I find myself lost in a maze of pictures without names and doors that open to nowhere. "The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud, and the quaint mazes of the wanton green for lack of tread are undistinguishable." (I remember the architect unrolling his blue plans on the table in the dining nook of my little apartment, and indeed he unrolled them many times there, for there were changes and consultations--as it seemed then--without end. I remember the squares and rectangles that were to be rooms, and his telling me over and over that those that were to be windowless would be dark, despite the windows we had arranged for them in appropriate places, windows that would be curtained always, with diffused light behind the shades; or blocked--for my aunt Olivia had arranged some of hers so, in imitation, I think, of Elizabeth Barrett--with painted screens; or which would open on illusions like those of a puppet theater. But I do not remember their positions with reference to this long, walled porch in which I live, or even upon what floor they were. I should, I suppose, begin by going out, and walking all around the house, if I can, peering in through windows like a burglar while I note the damage winter has done. But it seems too much, too elaborate, for a man who only wishes to walk about in his own home, behaving as though it were the fun house at a carnival, a place in which all the walls not glass are mirrors.)
"You promised me, Mr. Weer, that if I would prescribe for your stroke you would cooperate with me--take certain tests."
"I had forgotten all about you. I thought you were gone."
"Wait a moment, I have to move this aside. There. It's a mirror, see? With little wheels on the side."
"Like a fun-house mirror."
"Exactly. Stand in front, please. See, as I move the wheel, the area of the mirror adjacent to it becomes more or less distorting; do you understand what I mean?"
"It's metal, isn't it? It couldn't be glass."
"I believe it is actually plastic, with a flash coating of silver. You understand how it works?"
"Very good. Now I want you to stand right there and adjust the wheels until your reflection appears just as it should."
I spin the magic wheels, giving myself first a suggestive immensity in the region of my sex organs, then the corporate gut expected of a major industrialist, then the narrow waist and exaggerated shoulders of a working cowboy, and at last setting everything to rights. Lips pursed, Dr. Van Ness notes the numbers on each dial (there are five) and compares them with numbers on a slip of paper he takes from his desk.
"How did I do?"
"Very well, Mr. Weer. Perhaps too well. Your image of each of the psychosomic body areas is perfect; in other words your I.D.R. is zero. I would say this indicates a very high level of self-concern."
"You mean that's how I look?"
"Yes, that's exactly how you look. Frightening, isn't it?"
"No, I don't find it so. I hadn't thought I was quite that tall --I mean, on reflection; when I adjusted the thing, of course I did the best I could."
"You aren't a particularly tall man, Mr. Weer."
"No, but I'm taller than I thought. I find that comforting."
"You used the word 'reflection,' a moment ago, in a rather ambiguous sense. Were you aware of it?"
"I meant to make a joke. For myself. I'm afraid I do that often--I don't expect the people I'm talking to to understand them, and they seldom do."
"I see." Dr. Van Ness writes something on his pad.
"You know, all I really wanted from you was advice about the effect of exercise on my stroke. I've got that, and now I really should wipe you out."
"Do you really think that you could do that, Mr. Weer?"
"Of course. All I have to do is turn my mind toward something else--naturally I can't prove that to you, because you wouldn't be there to see the proof."
"Do you feel you can control the whole world--just with your mind?"
"Not the real world--but this world, yes. In the real world I am an elderly man, sick and alone, and I can't do anything about that. But this world--your only world now, Van Ness--I have conjured from my imagination and my memories. This interview between us never took place, but I wanted advice about my stroke."
"Could you make me stand on my head? Or turn blue?"
"I prefer to have you remain yourself."
"So do I. You may recall, Mr. Weer, that when I advised you --about this future stroke--you promised to look at some cards for me. Here they are."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"Turn over the first card. Tell me who the people are and what they are doing."
Copyright © 1975 by Gene Wolfe