The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

This is a house of respectable age merely, not antique. It was built during Emperor Maximilian’s time, and therefore clings to doubtful grandeurs of the Italian type, such as stained glass windows, steps of streaked marble, and other steps painted to resemble marble. The floors are bare and rough from much scrubbing. The furnishings must be wedding presents of several generations, for carved walnut and horse hair share the same rooms with gilt chairs and sofas upholstered in rose brocaded satin, and slab settees in that deplorable style known as Mission. Plaster casts of smiling ladies, effulgent of bust and hair, are set about in corners that would otherwise be happily empty.

  Doña Rosa takes no pleasure in her house, except in that one big overfilled room where she sits, and where her children love to play. She spends part of her afternoons in the shady garden beside the fountain where friends come for long visits. They sit here, gossiping over chocolate thick as soup, sipping slowly with long handled wooden spoons from little lacquered gourds.

  The natural industry of the servants is reason enough for the general air of freshness and dampness that pervades the house. They mop and sweep and dust, talking softly all the time. There is no quarrelling, no dissension. La Cocinera is maybe a trifle brittle of temper at times, but she is an overworked, distracted woman with three children at her skirts. Life is a tragic business for her.

  This morning when she came to my room with ten o’clock chocolate her smallest son came with her, and sat on my bed as we talked, his round grubby face as friendly as a little dog’s. His mother shrieked. Her act of seizing and flinging him out of the room was done in one curving motion. I have never seen anything so finished. Then she examined the spot where he had been. There was the complete outline of his little shape, done neatly in charcoal dust. Her gesture of despair measured calamity. And these people face real calamity with perfect stoicism.

  On the walls of the servants’ quarters is painted a curious landscape: a tall castle in the middle distance, abnormally rotund domestic animals in the immediate foreground, and dying trees along the water’s edge. It is acutely surprising to the eye when one first walks through the gate to see this painting, so utterly removed from anything resembling either life or art, down the hundred foot vista of patio. At its base the servants’ children, Consuelo, her cousins and friends, play amid a confusion of brown cooking pots and baskets and mats. They are contented little people, who rarely weep and who are never punished. I have seen Consuelo busy for an hour, trying to bend a bit of wire into a shape that pleased her. It is a pity she must be a servant when she grows up. She is very beautiful, with finely formed hands and feet. In a decade, she will be like her mother, a seventeen year old girl already haggard, who works with a baby on her arm, wound in her reboso. In two decades she will resemble her grandmother, who cannot be older than forty years. But she has the look of something agelessly old, that was born old, that could never have been young.

  Why not? One may have the complete use of a human being here for eight or ten pesos a month. They carry water in huge jars to the stone washing tubs, where they kneel at their work. They toil up and down endless flights of stairs: to the roof to hang linen, down again for another load, crossing long courts on hundreds of small errands. If I go to sleep at twelve, it is to the sound of their voices on the other side of the wall, still gathering together the ends of the day’s labour. If I wake at six, they are pattering about, their bare feet clumping like pony hoofs.

  My poor Gatito de Oro (Golden Kitten) has passed out attended by every circumstance of tragedy.

  He did not come in for breakfast this morning, nor did he appear for his noon bowl of milk. I had begun to miss him seriously this afternoon, when the small brown child from the patio came up to tell me that poor Gatito was dead, in the garden, with blood on his arms and breast, and dried blood on his mouth.

  I inquired no further into particulars, but she supplied them lavishly. They had found him lying twisted, so, with his head so,—and the ants were at him. His teeth were showing, and he seemed very angry. But he was not angry—of course not, he was only dead. Pobrecito!

  Pobrecito indeed. He was a gentle, childlike beast, living by his affections. He was the first cat I ever saw who required to be loved. He came to my window one morning wailing aloud, his yellow fur standing up; I thought he was sick. But no, he wished only to be petted. When I stroked his head, he purred. When I stopped, he wailed. For weeks after he came, he went back to the patio kitchen for his food, and never for one moment could I accuse him of self interest in the matter of shelter. He was fat and thriving when he took up his abode with me.

  He slept on my pillow at night, and sat on the window sill by day, washing his adolescent person carefully; or he followed me about, talking to himself, answering when I called. He understood my Spanish very well.

  Pobrecito! The night before he died, the wind rattled the window latches, as though a hand was trying to unfasten them. Gatito de Oro stared at the window and listened, his eyes blackened with uneasiness. He growled in his throat forebodingly, like a little dog. Now he is not afraid of anything. It is too bad.

  Five Indian men, their women and six children are on the roof of my neighbor’s house this morning. They have come from Xochimilco to build her a thatched hut, which she means to use for a tea house. The men are setting up roughly hewn sapling trunks, and the women are tying the thatch together with thick strands of twisted maguey fibre. They have their food baskets, a collection of beautiful brown decorated pottery, and many blankets and mats. One of the women is building a charcoal fire on the cement paved roof. They will eat, sleep and build the hut up there for two days.

  The babies roll about almost naked. One of them, a large child, is hanging at his mother’s breast nursing, arms and legs clutching monkey-like, as she walks about unconcernedly with both hands free, arranging her household. The women are quite nice. Their blouses are embroidered in red and green, they wear very wide skirts wrapped about them, plain and smooth across their hips, pleated amply in front and bound with a woven girdle in many colours.

  The hut is finished. It stands solemnly, the thatch droops around the edges like the brim of a dilapidated hat. It seems strangely different from those we saw in Xochimilco. But my neighbor, an American, regards it affectionately, and promises us tea in it. Her husband explains to the Indians that he means to call it the Hula Hula Hall because of the grass skirt. They smile politely.

  I encounter at dinner today the young married couple. She is fat, with the fresh and blooming fatness of the happily married bride who apparently is living by the twin delights of food and love. If a thought ever ruffled that sleek brow, or darkened those full thick-lidded eyes, it left no trace. Wearing a pink silk pleated jacket, and thin green slippers on her white stockinged feet, she comes to dine with her husband, leaning on his arm. He is a portly, rather too-knowing young man, who scolds her and reproves her and slaps her resoundingly on the back, to the amazement of every one. She reacts like a devoted, slightly bewildered dog: she snaps when he scolds and fawns when he pats. Either response seems equally to amuse him.

  When she dresses to go out, her hat is enormous, of fluffy black lace, strapped under her full chin. Her complexion is a chemical marvel of whiteness and smoothness, her lips a bleeding bow. Her light blue silk dress strains over her round high bosom, and she tilts forward perilously in her tight French slippers. Her husband admires her immensely at these times, and cannot take his eyes from the sight of all that magnificent femaleness.

  He tells me his wife is clever, and does not wish to be idle merely because she is married. “A very modern girl,” he pronounces in English. He allows her to have her voice trained. Ah, so it is she I have heard for the past four days, singing the Musetta Waltz, a half tone off key.

  I will have dinner in my room this evening. It is brought to me by the sweet sentimental-eyed Dolores, who often helps in small ways, though she is cousin to Doña Rosa. The tray resembles the food-dream of a delirious person. There is a huge
plate of rice, deliciously cooked with peppers and spices, very dry and rich. A dish of ground meat mingled with peppers and garlic, flooded with red sauce. Coarse spinach with onions. A croquette of frijoles. Two very red apples, a dish of zapote, the suave delicately flavoured black fruit pulp I like, and coffee. I eat heroically, because a failure to do so will bring the household about my ears, inquiring if I am sick.

  Dolores seats herself with the air of one come for a visit, and sews on a dress which hung over her arm while she carried the tray. She is accompanied by Duquesa her little copper-coloured collie dog, who folds her paws and watches her mistress prayerfully.

  Dolores applies the diminutive to everything. “Un momentito,” she says, bringing her thumb and forefinger almost together, measuring the smallest possible fraction of time. “Pobrecita,” she calls the prosperous Duquesa, everybody’s pet. “Yo solita,” she calls herself, her appealing black eyes floating suddenly in inexplicable tears. She sews as she talks, stitching lace on a dress that has even now too much lace. A blue reboso over her head, a black muslin dress with red ribbons showing in her embroidered chemise top, a hiatus of four inches of white cotton stockings between her skirts and her yellow topped shoes, she talks and smiles, her brown hands vague and groping among the folds of her material. When I see the sadness of her down drooping face, I know she is beginning to think of love. “Yo solita,” she calls herself.

  In the early evening, fragments of life quite different from those of the hurrying day drift through our street. I like to stand in my balcony and watch them. A wide hatted man drives a two wheeled cart, cumbrous and full of groans, the shafts too high for the struggling little mule, who wavers from side to side, his hoofs knocking against the wheels. An Indian boy carries a bundle of long handled feather dusters, used for sweeping the ceilings. He walks steadily, balancing the wicker poles, setting one foot exactly before the other. The feathers nod in time, and his vending cry shatters the silence. A very old woman with scanty grey hair drives a burdened burro; a tiny girl trots beside her, bent under a sack of corn. They are country Indians leaving town until another day. They all carry lighted candles set in deep cups of paper, and the pointed flames flutter delicately as birds’ wings.

  Others are also watching life pass by; I count the young girl heads at this moment nodding under high coiffures, discreetly visible at upper windows. There are two in my house, one on either side, and three in houses across the narrow street.

  The girl in the balcony at my left hand is Dolores, only fifteen years old. Her hair is not yet pinned up, but falls in two thick braids to her knees. Darkness is here, and the heads in the windows are lost. Here and there a pale face glimmers for a moment in the framing blackness, and floats away. The girl on the right hand balcony is gone.

  Dolores leans forward, her chin on the rail, and stares at a blotch, humanly shaped, defined against the fog grey of the wall of the opposite house. The flare of a match lights the face of a man whose eyes peer upward. His lighted cigarette moves and traces lines before him. The spark spins gently, in long curves, sudden down-jutting lines, circles. I read: “Yo te amo, Cielito Lindo. . .” and then three times over, “Dolores, Dolores, Dolores!”

  Observing this, I ponder the finished technique of ardency required to form those burning words with so fragile a torch. How practised are those fingers, turning delicately on a steady wrist, scrivening in ash veiled flame upon a wall of air!

  Dolores rises and leans over the wall. She kisses her fingers many times toward the spot of light. Her outstretched bared arm shudders to the shoulder with the agitation of her shaking hand.

  Tonight, hurrying through the patio, with the moon not yet risen over the massed tree tops, I saw a man leaning against a pillar on the narrow driveway. A wide black hat blurred his face, a spectral black cloak swathed him. . . . In such a moment, one’s conscious mind contracts, and cancels all engagements for this world. . . . But the nervous centers know better. They gather themselves and spring for safety, remembering for your helpless mind that tomorrow also will be sweet. From the top step I glanced back. He was gone. In the lower hall, I collided with Heraclia, wearing a white lace veil over her hair, and carrying a lighted candle. I leaned on her arm, shaking, my breath gone. “Don’t go in the patio,” I said. “Something is there.”

  Heraclia was very calm. She held the candle above her head, so it shone on both our faces, and smiled gently. “It is probably the ghost of the house,” she explained in a low whisper. “He comes often. But he is harmless. Do not be afraid. I will go with you up the stairway.” She followed me to my door. “Buenas noches,” she said, her grave eyes shining a little. “I assure you, you need not fear ghosts.”

  I listened to her footsteps down the stairs, across the hall, and from the patio her candle glimmered an instant, and was snuffed out. There were happy, confused little noises—a whisper, a rush of skirts, smothered laughter, feet running on tip toe. I am very much amused. She is two years older than poor little sister Dolores, and has managed to learn a great deal, it seems. Doña Rosa would take it out of the skin of Josefina the portera if she knew; but I am pleased that Heraclia will have her love messages by another medium than lighted cigarettes writing in cold air.

  Josefina is not usually so hospitable, to ghosts or other shape of folk. Lying awake listening to noises, I hear insistently now near, now far, up and down the little Eliseo, the rat-tat-tat and thump-thump of late returning persons knocking at their barred gates. Getting into the house after ten o’clock is an achievement of no mean order.

  Josefina sleeps soundly, without sympathy for those owlish ones who love the world by starlight. Two nights since a pilgrim entertained himself with rhythms for the better part of an hour, playing upon the knocker in waltz time, both slow and fast. He changed to the jota, and jingled away cheerfully. Then he experimented with the two-step, and not doing so well, he ended with a marvelous flourish, a soft shoe dance finale. At last he settled down for the night in doleful marching time, a steady processional knock-knock-knock. In the midst of this, Josefina opened the door arguing shrilly. He replied with laughter, keeping a high good humour. . . to have got in was enough.

  I danced the other night with a group of young Mexican boys and girls in an old square garden, paved with tiles and lined with rose bushes and palms. Jasmine and violets were sweet in shallow bowls. Two Indians from the country made melancholy music with fiddle and flute, and our feet followed the sad, gay pattern of rhythm. Now and then someone clicked his heels ringingly on the glassy tiles. There was no light except a late-rising moon, swung between stars like a plaque of white-gold beaten thin.

  A man draws his thumb lightly across all the strings of his guitar. . . a sighing breeze of sound. He sings, mournfully, with a jolly face. . . . “What does he say?”

  “He is singing about love, how it is cruel, because life devours us, a day at a time, and a dream at a time, until we are ended utterly. . . .”

  He wails on and on, ecstatically.

  We danced until the moon went down, and by candle light we danced until the morning. When we went home, the sky was grey and our faces were grey. . . . Sancha had drunk a little too much wine. She looked at us, as we silently stepped into motor cars and huddled silently together. She touched her own face. . . . “I am a ghost too!” she cried out in a high shocked voice. Her mouth became a turned down crescent moon. She began to cry. “I am a ghost, a ghost! I can never dance again!”

  A woman in this house plays Chopin at two o’clock in the morning. I know it is a woman, because she plays very softly, with many mistakes, and for her, you understand plainly, the music takes the place of tears. Women always corrupt the music of Chopin with tears. It is like listening to one who weeps in a dream. In the sunlight one may laugh, and sniff the winds, but the night is crowded with thoughts darker than the sunless world.

  Now I lean on my window ledge, wrapped in a shawl, shivering. The sky is empty, the patio is like a well. I listen to the Mexic
an woman who weeps Chopin through her sleepless nights. It is a group of Preludes. . . why be so stubborn, so intent on composure? I love them. I am thankful for her tears.


  Leaving the Petate

  THE petate is a woven straw mat, in shape an oblong square, full of variations in color and texture, and very sweet smelling when it is new. In its ordinary form, natural colored, thick and loosely contrived, it is the Mexican Indian bed, an ancient sort of sleeping mat such as all Oriental peoples use. There is a proverb full of vulgar contempt which used to be much quoted here in Mexico: “Whoever was born on a petate will always smell of the straw.” Since 1910, I shall say simply to fix a date on changes which have been so gradual it is impossible to say when the transition actually was made, this attitude has disappeared officially. The petate, an object full of charm for the eye, and immensely useful around any house, is no longer a symbol of racial and economic degradation from which there is no probable hope of rising. On the contrary, many of the best 1920 revolutionists insisted on smelling of the straw whether they were born on the petate or not. It was a mark of the true revolutionary to acknowledge Indian blood, the more the better, to profess Indian points of view, to make, in short, an Indian revolution. All the interlocking advances of the mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) revolution since Benito Juárez have been made for the Indian, and only secondarily by him—much as the recent famous renascence of Indian sculpture and painting was the work of European-trained mestizos. No matter: this article is not going to deal with grand generalities. I am interested in a few individual human beings I have met here lately, whose lives make me believe that the Indian, when he gets a chance, is leaving the petate.

  And no wonder. He wraps himself in his serape, a pure-wool blanket woven on a hand loom and colored sometimes with vegetable dyes, and lies down to rest on his petate. The blankets are very beautiful, but they are always a little short, and in this table-land of Mexico at least, where the nights are always cold, one blanket is not enough. The petate, beautiful as it is, is also a little short, so the man curls down on his side, draws his knees up and tucks his head down in a prenatal posture, and sleeps like that. He can sleep like that anywhere: on street corners, by the roadside, in caves, in doorways, in his own hut, if he has one. Sometimes he sleeps sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin and his hat over his eyes, forming a kind of pyramid with his blanket wound about him. He makes such an attractive design as he sits thus: no wonder people go around painting pictures of him. But I think he sleeps there because he is numbed with tiredness and has no other place to go, and not in the least because he is a public decoration. Toughened as he may be to hardship, you can never convince me he is really comfortable, or likes this way of sleeping. So the first moment he gets a chance, a job, a little piece of land, he leaves his petate and takes as naturally as any other human or brute being to the delights of kinder living. At first he makes two wooden stands, and puts boards across them, and lays his petate on a platform that lifts him from the chill of the earth. From this there is only a step to thin cotton mattresses, and pillows made of lumps of rags tied up in a square of muslin, and thence. . . .

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