The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“And what might ye do by way of a living?” asked Rosaleen.
“I’m an hostler,” he said. “I used to work at the Dublin race tracks, even. No man can tell me about horses,” he said proudly. “And it’s good work if it’s to be found.”
Rosaleen looked attentively at his sharp red nose, frozen it was, and the stung look around his eyes, and the sharp bones sticking out at his wrists, and was surprised at herself for thinking, in the first glance, that he had the look of Kevin. She saw different now, but think if it had been Kevin! Better off to be dead and gone. “I’m perishing of hunger and cold,” she told him, “and if I knew where there was a place to eat, we’d have some lunch, for it’s late.”
His eyes looked like he was drowning. “Would ye? I know a place!” and he leaped up as if he meant to run. They did almost run to the edge of the square and the far corner. It was a Coffee Pot and full of the smell of hot cakes. “We’ll get our fill here,” said Rosaleen, taking off her gloves, “though I’d never call it a grand place.”
The boy ate one thing after another as if he could never stop: roast beef and potatoes and spaghetti and custard pie and coffee, and Rosaleen ordered a package of cigarettes. It was like this with her, she was fond of the smell of tobacco, her husband was a famous smoker, never without his pipe. “It’s no use keeping it in,” said the boy. “I haven’t a penny, yesterday and today I didn’t eat till now, and I’ve been fit to hang myself, or go to jail for a place to lay my head.”
Rosaleen said, “I’m a woman doesn’t have to think of money, I have all my heart desires, and a boy like yourself has a right to think nothing of a little loan will never be missed.” She fumbled in her purse and brought out a ten-dollar bill, crumpled it and pushed it under the rim of his saucer so the man behind the counter wouldn’t notice. “That’s for luck in the new world,” she said, smiling at him. “You might be Kevin or my own brother, or my own little lad alone in the world, and it’ll surely come back to me if ever I need it.”
The boy said, “I never thought to see this day,” and put the money in his pocket.
Rosaleen said, “I don’t even know your name, think of that!”
“I’m a blight on the name of Sullivan,” said he. “Hugh it is—Hugh Sullivan.”
“That’s a good enough name,” said Rosaleen. “I’ve cousins named Sullivan in Dublin, but I never saw one of them. There was a man named Sullivan married my mother’s sister, my aunt Brigid she was, and she went to live in Dublin. You’re not related to the Dublin Sullivans, are ye?”
“I never heard of it, but maybe I am.”
“Ye have the look of a Sullivan to me,” said Rosaleen, “and they’re cousins of mine, some of them.” She ordered more coffee and he lit another cigarette, and she told him how she had come out more than twenty-five years past, a greenhorn like himself, and everything had turned out well for her and all her family here. Then she told about her husband, how he had been head waiter and a moneyed man, but he was old now; about the farm, if there was someone to help her, they could make a good thing of it; and about Kevin and the way he had gone away and died and sent her news of it in a dream; and this led to the dream about Honora, and here she was, the first time ever a dream had gone back on her. She went on to say there was always room for a strong willing boy in the country if he knew about horses, and how it was a shame for him to be tramping the streets with an empty stomach when there was everything to be had if he only knew which way to look for it. She leaned over and took him by the arm very urgently.
“You’ve a right to live in a good Irish house,” she told him. “Why don’t ye come home with me and live there like one of the family in peace and comfort?”
Hugh Sullivan stared at her out of his glazed green eyes down the edge of his sharp nose and a crafty look came over him. “’Twould be dangerous,” he said. “I’d hate to try it.”
“Dangerous, is it?” asked Rosaleen. “What danger is there in the peaceful countryside?”
“It’s not safe at all,” said Hugh. “I was caught at it once in Dublin, and there was a holy row! A fine woman like yourself she was, and her husband peeking through a crack in the wall the whole time. Man, that was a scrape for ye!”
Rosaleen understood in her bones before her mind grasped it. “Whatever—” she began, and the blood boiled up in her face until it was like looking through a red veil. “Ye little whelp,” she said, trying to get her breath, “so it’s that kind ye are, is it? I might know you’re from Dublin! Never in my whole life—” Her rage rose like a bonfire in her, and she stopped. “If I was looking for a man,” she said, “I’d choose a man and not a half-baked little. . .” She took a deep breath and started again. “The cheek of ye,” she said, “insulting a woman could be your mother. God keep me from it! It’s plain you’re just an ignorant greenhorn, doesn’t know the ways of decent people, and now be off—” She stood up and motioned to the man behind the counter. “Out of that door now—”
He stood up too, glancing around fearfully with his narrow green eyes, and put out a hand as if he would try to make it up with her. “Not so loud now, woman alive, it’s what any man might think the way ye’re—”
Rosaleen said, “Hold your tongue or I’ll tear it out of your head!” and her right arm went back in a business-like way.
He ducked and shot past her, then collected himself and lounged out of reach. “Farewell to ye, County Sligo woman,” he said tauntingly. “I’m from County Cork myself!” and darted through the door.
Rosaleen shook so she could hardly find the money for the bill, and she couldn’t see her way before her, but when the cold air struck her, her head cleared, and she could have almost put a curse on Honora for making all this trouble for her. . . .
She took a train the short way home, for the taste of travel had soured on her altogether. She wanted to be home and nowhere else. That shameless boy, whatever was he thinking of? “Boys do be known for having evil minds in them,” she told herself, and the blood fairly crinkled in her veins. But he had said, “A fine woman like yourself,” and maybe he’d met too many bold ones, and thought they were all alike; maybe she had been too free in her ways because he was Irish and looked so sad and poor. But there it was, he was a mean sort, and he would have made love to her if she hadn’t stopped him, maybe. It flashed over her and she saw it clear as day—Kevin had loved her all the time, and she had sent him away to that cheap girl who wasn’t half good enough for him! And Kevin a sweet decent boy would have cut off his right hand rather than give her an improper word. Kevin had loved her and she had loved Kevin and, oh, she hadn’t known it in time! She bowed herself back into the corner with her elbow on the window-sill, her old fur collar pulled up around her face, and wept long and bitterly for Kevin, who would have stayed if she had said the word—and now he was gone and lost and dead. She would hide herself from the world and never speak to a soul again.
“Safe and sound she is, Dennis,” Rosaleen told him. “She’s been dangerous, but it’s past. I left her in health.”
“That’s good enough,” said Dennis, without enthusiasm. He took off his cap with the ear flaps and ran his fingers through his downy white hair and put the cap on again and stood waiting to hear the wonders of the trip; but Rosaleen had no tales to tell and was full of home-coming.
“This kitchen is a disgrace,” she said, putting things to rights. “But not for all the world would I live in the city, Dennis. It’s a wild heartless place, full of criminals in every direction as far as the eye can reach. I was scared for my life the whole time. Light the lamp, will you?”
The native boy sat warming his great feet in the oven, and his teeth were chattering with something more than cold. He burst out: “I seed sumpin’ comin’ up the road whiles ago. Black. Fust it went on all fours like a dawg and then it riz and walked longside of me on its hind legs. I was scairt, I was. I said Shoo! at it, and it went out, like a lamp.”
“Maybe it was a dog,” said Dennis.
“’Twarn’t a dawg, neither,” said the boy.
“Maybe ’twas a cat rising up to climb a fence,” said Rosaleen.
“’Twarn’t a cat, neither,” said the boy. “’Twarn’t nothin’ I ever seed afore, nor you, neither.”
“Never you mind about that,” said Rosaleen. “I have seen it and many times, when I was a girl in Ireland. It’s famous there, the way it comes in a black lump and rolls along the path before you, but if you call on the Holy Name and make the sign of the Cross, it flees away. Eat your supper now, and sleep here the night; ye can’t go out by your lone and the Evil waiting for ye.”
She bedded him down in Kevin’s room, and kept Dennis awake all hours telling him about the ghosts she’d seen in Sligo. The trip to Boston seemed to have gone out of her mind entirely.
In the morning, the boy’s starveling black dog rose up at the opened kitchen door and stared sorrowfully at his master. The cats streamed out in a body, and silently, intently they chased him far up the road. The boy stood on the doorstep and began to tremble again. “The old woman told me to git back fer supper,” he said blankly. “Howma ever gointa git back fer supper now? The ole man’ll skin me alive.”
Rosaleen wrapped her green wool shawl around her head and shoulders. “I’ll go along with ye and tell what happened,” she said. “They’ll never harm ye when they know the straight of it.” For he was shaking with fright until his knees buckled under him. “He’s away in his mind,” she thought, with pity. “Why can’t they see it and let him be in peace?”
The steady slope of the lane ran on for nearly a mile, then turned into a bumpy trail leading to a forlorn house with broken-down steps and a litter of rubbish around them. The boy hung back more and more, and stopped short when the haggard, long-toothed woman in the gray dress came out carrying a stick of stove wood. The woman stopped short too when she recognized Rosaleen, and a sly cold look came on her face.
“Good day,” said Rosaleen. “Your boy saw a ghost last night, and I didn’t have the heart to send him out in the darkness. He slept safe in my house.”
The woman gave a sharp dry bark, like a fox. “Ghosts!” she said. “From all I hear, there’s more than ghosts around your house nights, Missis O’Toole.” She wagged her head and her faded tan hair flew in strings. “A pretty specimen you are, Missis O’Toole, with your old husband and the young boys in your house and the traveling salesmen and the drunkards lolling on your doorstep all hours—”
“Hold your tongue before your lad here,” said Rosaleen, the back of her neck beginning to crinkle. She was so taken by surprise she couldn’t find a ready answer, but stood in her tracks listening.
“A pretty sight you are, Missis O’Toole,” said the woman, raising her thin voice somewhat, but speaking with deadly cold slowness. “With your trips away from your husband and your loud-colored dresses and your dyed hair—”
“May God strike you dead,” said Rosaleen, raising her own voice suddenly, “if you say that of my hair! And for the rest may your evil tongue rot in your head with your teeth! I’ll not waste words on ye! Here’s your poor lad and may God pity him in your house, a blight on it! And if my own house is burnt over my head I’ll know who did it!” She turned away and whirled back to call out, “May ye be ten years dying!”
“You can curse and swear, Missis O’Toole, but the whole countryside knows about you!” cried the other, brandishing her stick like a spear.
“Much good they’ll get of it!” shouted Rosaleen, striding away in a roaring fury. “Dyed, is it?” She raised her clenched fist and shook it at the world. “Oh, the liar!” and her rage was like a drum beating time for her marching legs. What was happening these days that everybody she met had dirty minds and dirty tongues in their heads? Oh, why wasn’t she strong enough to strangle them all at once? Her eyes were so hot she couldn’t close her lids over them. She went on staring and walking, until almost before she knew it she came in sight of her own house, sitting like a hen quietly in a nest of snow. She slowed down, her thumping heart eased a little, and she sat on a stone by the roadside to catch her breath and gather her wits before she must see Dennis. As she sat, it came to her that the Evil walking the roads at night in this place was the bitter lies people had been telling about her, who had been a good woman all this time when many another would have gone astray. It was no comfort now to remember all the times she might have done wrong and hadn’t. What was the good if she was being scandalized all the same? That lad in Boston now—the little whelp. She spat on the frozen earth and wiped her mouth. Then she put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, and thought, “So that’s the way it is here, is it? That’s what my life has come to, I’m a woman of bad fame with the neighbors.”
Dwelling on this strange thought, little by little she began to feel better. Jealousy, of course, that was it. “Ah, what wouldn’t that poor thing give to have my hair?” and she patted it tenderly. From the beginning it had been so, the women were jealous, because the men were everywhere after her, as if it was her fault! Well, let them talk. Let them. She knew in her heart what she was, and Dennis knew, and that was enough.
“Life is a dream,” she said aloud, in a soft easy melancholy. “It’s a mere dream.” The thought and the words pleased her, and she gazed with pleasure at the loosened stones of the wall across the road, dark brown, with the thin shining coat of ice on them, in a comfortable daze until her feet began to feel chilled.
“Let me not sit here and take my death at my early time of life,” she cautioned herself, getting up and wrapping her shawl carefully around her. She was thinking how this sad countryside needed some young hearts in it, and how she wished Kevin would come back to laugh with her at that woman up the hill; with him, she could just laugh in their faces! That dream about Honora now, it hadn’t come true at all. Maybe the dream about Kevin wasn’t true either. If one dream failed on you it would be foolish to think another mightn’t fail you too: wouldn’t it, wouldn’t it? She smiled at Dennis sitting by the stove.
“What did the native people have to say this morning?” he asked, trying to pretend it was nothing much to him what they said.
“Oh, we exchanged the compliments of the season,” said Rosaleen. “There was no call for more.” She went about singing; her heart felt light as a leaf and she couldn’t have told why if she died for it. But she was a good woman and she’d show them she was going to be one to her last day. Ah, she’d show them, the low-minded things.
In the evening they settled down by the stove, Dennis cleaning and greasing his boots, Rosaleen with the long tablecloth she’d been working on for fifteen years. Dennis kept wondering what had happened in Boston, or where ever she had been. He knew he would never hear the straight of it, but he wanted Rosaleen’s story about it. And there she sat mum, putting a lot of useless stitches in something she would never use, even if she ever finished it, which she would not.
“Dennis,” she said after a while, “I don’t put the respect on dreams I once did.”
“That’s maybe a good thing,” said Dennis, cautiously. “And why don’t you?”
“All day long I’ve been thinking Kevin isn’t dead at all, and we shall see him in this very house before long.”
Dennis growled in his throat a little. “That’s no sign at all,” he said. And to show that he had a grudge against her he laid down his meerschaum pipe, stuffed his old briar and lit it instead. Rosaleen took no notice at all. Her embroidery had fallen on her knees and she was listening to the rattle and clatter of a buggy coming down the road, with Richards’s voice roaring a song, “I’ve been working on the railroad, ALL the live-long day!” She stood up, taking hairpins out and putting them back, her hands trembling. Then she ran to the looking-glass and saw her face there, leaping into shapes fit to scare you. “Oh, Dennis,” she cried out as if it was that thought had driven her out of her chair. “I forgot to buy a looking-glass, I forgot it altogether!”
“It’s a good enough gl
The buggy clattered at the gate, the song halted. Ah, he was coming in, surely! It flashed through her mind a woman would have a ruined life with such a man, it was courting death and danger to let him set foot over the threshold.
She stopped herself from running to the door, hand on the knob even before his knock should sound. Then the wheels creaked and ground again, the song started up; if he thought of stopping he changed his mind and went on, off on his career to the Saturday night dance in Winston, with his rapscallion cronies.
Rosaleen didn’t know what to expect, then, and then: surely he couldn’t be stopping? Ah, surely he couldn’t be going on? She sat down again with her heart just nowhere, and took up the tablecloth, but for a long time she couldn’t see the stitches. She was wondering what had become of her life; every day she had thought something great was going to happen, and it was all just straying from one terrible disappointment to another. Here in the lamplight sat Dennis and the cats, beyond in the darkness and snow lay Winston and New York and Boston, and beyond that were far off places full of life and gayety she’d never seen nor even heard of, and beyond everything like a green field with morning sun on it lay youth and Ireland as if they were something she had dreamed, or made up in a story. Ah, what was there to remember, or to look forward to now? Without thinking at all, she leaned over and put her head on Dennis’s knee. “Whyever,” she asked him, in an ordinary voice, “did ye marry a woman like me?”
“Mind you don’t tip over in that chair now,” said Dennis. “I knew well I could never do better.” His bosom began to thaw and simmer. It was going to be all right with everything, he could see that.
She sat up and felt his sleeves carefully. “I want you to wrap up warm this bitter weather, Dennis,” she told him. “With two pairs of socks and the chest protector, for if anything happened to you, whatever would become of me in this world?”
“Let’s not think of it,” said Dennis, shuffling his feet.