The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Hapsy? George? Lydia? Jimmy? No, Cornelia, and her features were swollen and full of little puddles. “They’re coming, darling, they’ll all be here soon.” Go wash your face, child, you look funny.
Instead of obeying, Cornelia knelt down and put her head on the pillow. She seemed to be talking but there was no sound. “Well, are you tongue-tied? Whose birthday is it? Are you going to give a party?”
Cornelia’s mouth moved urgently in strange shapes. “Don’t do that, you bother me, daughter.”
“Oh, no, Mother. Oh, no. . . .”
Nonsense. It was strange about children. They disputed your every word. “No what, Cornelia?”
“Here’s Doctor Harry.”
“I won’t see that boy again. He just left five minutes ago.”
“That was this morning, Mother. It’s night now. Here’s the nurse.”
“This is Doctor Harry, Mrs. Weatherall. I never saw you look so young and happy!”
“Ah, I’ll never be young again—but I’d be happy if they’d let me lie in peace and get rested.”
She thought she spoke up loudly, but no one answered. A warm weight on her forehead, a warm bracelet on her wrist, and a breeze went on whispering, trying to tell her something. A shuffle of leaves in the everlasting hand of God, He blew on them and they danced and rattled. “Mother, don’t mind, we’re going to give you a little hypodermic.” “Look here, daughter, how do ants get in this bed? I saw sugar ants yesterday.” Did you send for Hapsy too?
It was Hapsy she really wanted. She had to go a long way back through a great many rooms to find Hapsy standing with a baby on her arm. She seemed to herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy’s arm was Hapsy and himself and herself, all at once, and there was no surprise in the meeting. Then Hapsy melted from within and turned flimsy as gray gauze and the baby was a gauzy shadow, and Hapsy came up close and said, “I thought you’d never come,” and looked at her very searchingly and said, “You haven’t changed a bit!” They leaned forward to kiss, when Cornelia began whispering from a long way off, “Oh, is there anything you want to tell me? Is there anything I can do for you?”
Yes, she had changed her mind after sixty years and she would like to see George. I want you to find George. Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, oh, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back. . . . Her breath crowded down under her ribs and grew into a monstrous frightening shape with cutting edges; it bored up into her head, and the agony was unbelievable: Yes, John, get the Doctor now, no more talk, my time has come.
When this one was born it should be the last. The last. It should have been born first, for it was the one she had truly wanted. Everything came in good time. Nothing left out, left over. She was strong, in three days she would be as well as ever. Better. A woman needed milk in her to have her full health.
“Mother, do you hear me?”
“I’ve been telling you—”
“Mother, Father Connolly’s here.”
“I went to Holy Communion only last week. Tell him I’m not so sinful as all that.”
“Father just wants to speak to you.”
He could speak as much as he pleased. It was like him to drop in and inquire about her soul as if it were a teething baby, and then stay on for a cup of tea and a round of cards and gossip. He always had a funny story of some sort, usually about an Irishman who made his little mistakes and confessed them, and the point lay in some absurd thing he would blurt out in the confessional showing his struggles between native piety and original sin. Granny felt easy about her soul. Cornelia, where are your manners? Give Father Connolly a chair. She had her secret comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who cleared a straight road to God for her. All as surely signed and sealed as the papers for the new Forty Acres. Forever. . . heirs and assigns forever. Since the day the wedding cake was not cut, but thrown out and wasted. The whole bottom dropped out of the world, and there she was blind and sweating with nothing under her feet and the walls falling away. His hand had caught her under the breast, she had not fallen, there was the freshly polished floor with the green rug on it, just as before. He had cursed like a sailor’s parrot and said, “I’ll kill him for you.” Don’t lay a hand on him, for my sake leave something to God. “Now, Ellen, you must believe what I tell you. . . .”
So there was nothing, nothing to worry about any more, except sometimes in the night one of the children screamed in a nightmare, and they both hustled out shaking and hunting for the matches and calling, “There, wait a minute, here we are!” John, get the doctor now, Hapsy’s time has come. But there was Hapsy standing by the bed in a white cap. “Cornelia, tell Hapsy to take off her cap. I can’t see her plain.”
Her eyes opened very wide and the room stood out like a picture she had seen somewhere. Dark colors with the shadows rising towards the ceiling in long angles. The tall black dresser gleamed with nothing on it but John’s picture, enlarged from a little one, with John’s eyes very black when they should have been blue. You never saw him, so how do you know how he looked? But the man insisted the copy was perfect, it was very rich and handsome. For a picture, yes, but it’s not my husband. The table by the bed had a linen cover and a candle and a crucifix. The light was blue from Cornelia’s silk lampshades. No sort of light at all, just frippery. You had to live forty years with kerosene lamps to appreciate honest electricity. She felt very strong and she saw Doctor Harry with a rosy nimbus around him.
“You look like a saint, Doctor Harry, and I vow that’s as near as you’ll ever come to it.”
“She’s saying something.”
“I heard you, Cornelia. What’s all this carrying-on?”
“Father Connolly’s saying—”
Cornelia’s voice staggered and bumped like a cart in a bad road. It rounded corners and turned back again and arrived nowhere. Granny stepped up in the cart very lightly and reached for the reins, but a man sat beside her and she knew him by his hands, driving the cart. She did not look in his face, for she knew without seeing, but looked instead down the road where the trees leaned over and bowed to each other and a thousand birds were singing a Mass. She felt like singing too, but she put her hand in the bosom of her dress and pulled out a rosary, and Father Connolly murmured Latin in a very solemn voice and tickled her feet. My God, will you stop that nonsense? I’m a married woman. What if he did run away and leave me to face the priest by myself? I found another a whole world better. I wouldn’t have exchanged my husband for anybody except St. Michael himself, and you may tell him that for me with a thank you in the bargain.
Light flashed on her closed eyelids, and a deep roaring shook her. Cornelia, is that lightning? I hear thunder. There’s going to be a storm. Close all the windows. Call the children in. . . . “Mother, here we are, all of us.” “Is that you, Hapsy?” “Oh, no, I’m Lydia. We drove as fast as we could.” Their faces drifted above her, drifted away. The rosary fell out of her hands and Lydia put it back. Jimmy tried to help, their hands fumbled together, and Granny closed two fingers around Jimmy’s thumb. Beads wouldn’t do, it must be something alive. She was so amazed her thoughts ran round and round. So, my dear Lord, this is my death and I wasn’t even thinking about it. My children have come to see me die. But I can’t, it’s not time. Oh, I always hated surprises. I wanted to give Cornelia the amethyst set—Cornelia, you’re to have the amethyst set, but Hapsy’s to wear it when she wants, and, Doctor Harry, do shut up. Nobody sent for you. Oh, my dear Lord, do wait a minute. I meant to do something about the Forty Acres, Jimmy doesn’t need it and Lydia will later on, with that worthless husband of hers. I meant to finish the altar cloth and send
Cornelia’s voice made short turns and tilted over and crashed. “Oh, Mother, oh, Mother, oh, Mother. . . .”
“I’m not going, Cornelia. I’m taken by surprise. I can’t go.”
You’ll see Hapsy again. What about her? “I thought you’d never come.” Granny made a long journey outward, looking for Hapsy. What if I don’t find her? What then? Her heart sank down and down, there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t come to the end of it. The blue light from Cornelia’s lampshade drew into a tiny point in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered and dwindled. Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up. God, give a sign!
For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this—I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.
BRAGGIONI sits heaped upon the edge of a straight-backed chair much too small for him, and sings to Laura in a furry, mournful voice. Laura has begun to find reasons for avoiding her own house until the latest possible moment, for Braggioni is there almost every night. No matter how late she is, he will be sitting there with a surly, waiting expression, pulling at his kinky yellow hair, thumbing the strings of his guitar, snarling a tune under his breath. Lupe the Indian maid meets Laura at the door, and says with a flicker of a glance towards the upper room, “He waits.”
Laura wishes to lie down, she is tired of her hairpins and the feel of her long tight sleeves, but she says to him, “Have you a new song for me this evening?” If he says yes, she asks him to sing it. If he says no, she remembers his favorite one, and asks him to sing it again. Lupe brings her a cup of chocolate and a plate of rice, and Laura eats at the small table under the lamp, first inviting Braggioni, whose answer is always the same: “I have eaten, and besides, chocolate thickens the voice.”
Laura says, “Sing, then,” and Braggioni heaves himself into song. He scratches the guitar familiarly as though it were a pet animal, and sings passionately off key, taking the high notes in a prolonged painful squeal. Laura, who haunts the markets listening to the ballad singers, and stops every day to hear the blind boy playing his reed-flute in Sixteenth of September Street, listens to Braggioni with pitiless courtesy, because she dares not smile at his miserable performance. Nobody dares to smile at him. Braggioni is cruel to everyone, with a kind of specialized insolence, but he is so vain of his talents, and so sensitive to slights, it would require a cruelty and vanity greater than his own to lay a finger on the vast cureless wound of his self-esteem. It would require courage, too, for it is dangerous to offend him, and nobody has this courage.
Braggioni loves himself with such tenderness and amplitude and eternal charity that his followers—for he is a leader of men, a skilled revolutionist, and his skin has been punctured in honorable warfare—warm themselves in the reflected glow, and say to each other: “He has a real nobility, a love of humanity raised above mere personal affections.” The excess of this self-love has flowed out, inconveniently for her, over Laura, who, with so many others, owes her comfortable situation and her salary to him. When he is in a very good humor, he tells her, “I am tempted to forgive you for being a gringa. Gringita!” and Laura, burning, imagines herself leaning forward suddenly, and with a sound back-handed slap wiping the suety smile from his face. If he notices her eyes at these moments he gives no sign.
She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention. During these long evenings which have spoiled a long month for her, she sits in her deep chair with an open book on her knees, resting her eyes on the consoling rigidity of the printed page when the sight and sound of Braggioni singing threaten to identify themselves with all her remembered afflictions and to add their weight to her uneasy premonitions of the future. The gluttonous bulk of Braggioni has become a symbol of her many disillusions, for a revolutionist should be lean, animated by heroic faith, a vessel of abstract virtues. This is nonsense, she knows it now and is ashamed of it. Revolution must have leaders, and leadership is a career for energetic men. She is, her comrades tell her, full of romantic error, for what she defines as cynicism in them is merely “a developed sense of reality.” She is almost too willing to say, “I am wrong, I suppose I don’t really understand the principles,” and afterward she makes a secret truce with herself, determined not to surrender her will to such expedient logic. But she cannot help feeling that she has been betrayed irreparably by the disunion between her way of living and her feeling of what life should be, and at times she is almost contented to rest in this sense of grievance as a private store of consolation. Sometimes she wishes to run away, but she stays. Now she longs to fly out of this room, down the narrow stairs, and into the street where the houses lean together like conspirators under a single mottled lamp, and leave Braggioni singing to himself.
Instead she looks at Braggioni, frankly and clearly, like a good child who understands the rules of behavior. Her knees cling together under sound blue serge, and her round white collar is not purposely nun-like. She wears the uniform of an idea, and has renounced vanities. She was born Roman Catholic, and in spite of her fear of being seen by someone who might make a scandal of it, she slips now and again into some crumbling little church, kneels on the chilly stone, and says a Hail Mary on the gold rosary she bought in Tehuantepec. It is no good and she ends by examining the altar with its tinsel flowers and ragged brocades, and feels tender about the battered doll-shape of some male saint whose white, lace-trimmed drawers hang limply around his ankles below the hieratic dignity of his velvet robe. She has encased herself in a set of principles derived from her early training, leaving no detail of gesture or of personal taste untouched, and for this reason she will not wear lace made on machines. This is her private heresy, for in her special group the machine is sacred, and will be the salvation of the workers. She loves fine lace, and there is a tiny edge of fluted cobweb on this collar, which is one of twenty precisely alike, folded in blue tissue paper in the upper drawer of her clothes chest.
Braggioni catches her glance solidly as if he had been waiting for it, leans forward, balancing his paunch between his spread knees, and sings with tremendous emphasis, weighing his words. He has, the song relates, no father and no mother, nor even a friend to console him; lonely as a wave of the sea he comes and goes, lonely as a wave. His mouth opens round and yearns sideways, his balloon cheeks grow oily with the labor of song. He bulges marvelously in his expensive garments. Over his lavender collar, crushed upon a purple necktie, held by a diamond hoop: over his ammunition belt of tooled leather worked in silver, buckled cruelly around his gasping middle: over the tops of his glossy yellow shoes Braggioni swells with ominous ripeness, his mauve silk hose stretched taut, his ankles bound with the stout leather thongs of his shoes.
When he stretches his eyelids at Laura she notes again that his eyes are the true tawny yellow cat’s eyes. He is rich, not in money, he tells her, but in power, and this power brings with it the blameless ownership of things, and the right to indulge his love of small luxuries. “I have a taste for the elegant refinements,” he said once, flourishing a yellow silk handkerchief before her nose. “Smell that? It is Jockey Club, imported from New York.” Nonetheless he is wounded by life. He will say so presently. “It is true everything turns to dust in the hand, to gall on the tongue.” He sighs and his leather belt creaks like a saddle girth. “I am disappointed in everything as it comes.
Laura feels a slow chill, a purely physical sense of danger, a warning in her blood that violence, mutilation, a shocking death, wait for her with lessening patience. She has translated this fear into something homely, immediate, and sometimes hesitates before crossing the street. “My personal fate is nothing, except as the testimony of a mental attitude,” she reminds herself, quoting from some forgotten philosophic primer, and is sensible enough to add, “Anyhow, I shall not be killed by an automobile if I can help it.”
“It may be true I am as corrupt, in another way, as Braggioni,” she thinks in spite of herself, “as callous, as incomplete,” and if this is so, any kind of death seems preferable. Still she sits quietly, she does not run. Where could she go? Uninvited she has promised herself to this place; she can no longer imagine herself as living in another country, and there is no pleasure in remembering her life before she came here.
Precisely what is the nature of this devotion, its true motives, and what are its obligations? Laura cannot say. She spends part of her days in Xochimilco, near by, teaching Indian children to say in English, “The cat is on the mat.” When she appears in the classroom they crowd about her with smiles on their wise, innocent, clay-colored faces, crying, “Good morning, my titcher!” in immaculate voices, and they make of her desk a fresh garden of flowers every day.