The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “I don’t, of course, understand just what you mean by failure, or by success either,” I told him at last. “You know, I never could understand.”

  “It is true, you could not,” he said, “that was the great trouble.”

  “As for Carlos,” I said, “you should forgive him. . . .”

  Betancourt said with perfect sincerity, “You know I never blame anyone for anything at all.”

  Carlos came round and shook hands with me as everybody pushed back his chair and began drifting out by the several doorways. He was full of humanity and good humor about Justino and his troubles. “These family love affairs,” he said, “what can you expect?”

  “Oh, no, now,” said Betancourt, uneasily. He laughed his twanging tremulous little laugh.

  “Oh, yes, now,” said Carlos, walking beside me. “I shall make a corrido about Justino and his sister.” He began to sing almost in a whisper, imitating the voice and gestures of a singer peddling broadsides in the market. . . .

  Ah, poor little Rosalita

  Took herself a new lover,

  Thus betraying the heart’s core

  Of her impassioned brother. . .

  Now she lies dead, poor Rosalita,

  With two bullets in her heart. . . .

  Take warning, my young sisters,

  Who would from your brothers part.

  “One bullet,” said Betancourt, wagging a long finger at Carlos. “One bullet!”

  Carlos laughed. “Very well, one bullet! Such a precisionist! Good night,” he said.

  Kennerly and Carlos disappeared early. Don Genaro spent the evening playing billiards with Stepanov, who won always. Don Genaro was very good at billiards, but Stepanov was a champion, with all sorts of trophies to show, so it was no humiliation to be defeated by him.

  In the drafty upper-hall room fitted up as a parlor, Andreyev turned off the mechanical attachment of the piano and sang Russian songs, running his hands over the keys while he waited to remember yet other songs. Doña Julia and I sat listening. He sang for us, but for himself mostly, in the same kind of voluntary forgetfulness of his surroundings, the same self-induced absence of mind that had kept him talking about Russia in the afternoon.

  We sat until very late. Doña Julia smiled steadily every time she caught the glance of Andreyev or myself, yawning now and then under her hand, her Pekinese sprawling and snoring on her lap. “You’re not tired?” I asked her. “You wouldn’t let us stay up too late?”

  “Oh, no, let’s go on with the music. I love sitting up all night. I never go to bed if I can possibly sit up. Don’t go yet.”

  At half-past one Uspensky sent for Andreyev, for Stepanov. He was restless, in a fever, he wished to talk. Andreyev said, “I have already sent for Doctor Volk. It is better not to delay.”

  Doña Julia and I looked on in the billiard room downstairs, where Stepanov and don Genaro were settling the score. Several Indians leaned in at the windows, their vast straw hats tilted forward, watching in silence. Doña Julia asked her husband, “Then you’re not going to Mexico tonight?”

  “Why should I?” he inquired suddenly without looking at her.

  “I thought you might,” said doña Julia. “Good night, Stepanov,” she said, her black eyes shining under her long lids painted silver blue.

  “Good night, Julita,” said Stepanov, his frank Northern smile meaning anything or nothing at all. When he was not smiling, his face was severe, expressive, and intensely alive. His smile was misleadingly simple, like a very young boy’s. He was anything but simple; he smiled now like a merry open book upon the absurd little figure strayed out of a marionette theater. Turning away, Doña Julia slanted at him the glittering eye of a femme fatale in any Hollywood film. He examined the end of his cue as if he looked through a microscope. Don Genaro said violently, “Good night!” and disappeared violently through the door leading to the corral.

  Doña Julia and I passed through her apartment, a long shallow room between the billiard and the vat-room. It was puffy with silk and down, glossy with bright new polished wood and wide mirrors, restless with small ornaments, boxes of sweets, French dolls in ruffled skirts and white wigs. The air was thick with perfume which fought with another heavier smell. From the vat-room came a continual muffled shouting, the rumble of barrels as they rolled down the wooden trestles to the flat mule-car standing on the tracks running past the wide doorway. The smell had not been out of my nostrils since I came, but here it rose in a thick vapor through the heavy drone of flies, sour, stale, like rotting milk and blood; this sound and this smell belonged together, and both belonged to the intermittent rumble of barrels and the long chanting cry of the Indians. On the narrow stairs I glanced back at doña Julia. She was looking up, wrinkling her little nose, her Pekinese with his wrinkled nose of perpetual disgust held close to her face. “Pulque!” she said. “Isn’t it horrid? But I hope the noise will not keep you awake.”

  On my balcony there was no longer any perfume to disturb the keen fine wind from the mountains, or the smell from the vat-room. “Twenty-one!” sang the Indians in a long, melodious chorus of weariness and excitement, and the twenty-first barrel of fresh pulque rolled down the slide, was seized by two men and loaded on the flat-car under my window.

  From the window next to mine, the three Russian voices murmured along quietly. Pigs grunted and rooted in the soft wallow near the washing fountain, where the women were still kneeling in the darkness, thumping wet cloth on the stones, chattering, laughing. All the women seemed to be laughing that night: long after midnight, the high bright sound sparkled again and again from the long row of peon quarters along the corral. Burros sobbed and mourned to each other, there was everywhere the drowsy wakefulness of creatures, stamping hoofs, breathing and snorting. Below in the vat-room a single voice sang suddenly a dozen notes of some rowdy song; and the women at the washing fountain were silenced for a moment, then tittered among themselves. There occurred a light flurry at the arch of the gate leading into the inner patio: one of the polite, expensive dogs had lost his dignity and was chasing, with snarls of real annoyance, a little fat-bottomed soldier back to his proper place, the barracks by the wall opposite the Indian huts. The soldier scrambled and stumbled silently away, without resistance, his dim lantern agitated violently. At a certain point, as if here was the invisible boundary line, the dog stopped, watched while the soldier ran on, then returned to his post under the archway. The soldiers, sent by the government as a guard against the Agrarians, sprawled in idleness eating their beans at don Genaro’s expense. He tolerated and resented them, and so did the dogs.

  I fell asleep to the long chanting of the Indians, counting their barrels in the vat-room, and woke again at sunrise, summer sunrise, to their long doleful morning song, the clatter of metal and hard leather, and the stamping of mules as they were being harnessed to the flat-cars. . . . The drivers swung their whips and shouted, the loaded cars creaked and slid away in a procession, off to meet the pulque train for Mexico City. The field workers were leaving for the maguey fields, driving their donkeys. They shouted, too, and whacked the donkeys with sticks, but no one was really hurrying, nor really excited. It was just another day’s work, another day’s weariness. A three-year-old man-child ran beside his father; he drove a weanling donkey carrying two miniature casks on its furry back. The two small creatures imitated each in his own kind perfectly the gestures of their elders. The baby whacked and shouted, the donkey trudged and flapped his ears at each blow.

  “My God!” said Kennerly over coffee an hour later. “Do you remember—” he beat off a cloud of flies and filled his cup with a wobbling hand—“I thought of it all night and couldn’t sleep—don’t you remember,” he implored Stepanov, who held one palm over his coffee cup while he finished a cigarette, “those scenes we shot only two weeks ago, when Justino played the part of a boy who killed a girl by accident, tried to escape, and Vicente was one of the men who ran him down on horseback? Well, the same thing has
happened to the same people in reality! And—” he turned to me, “the strangest thing is, we have to make that scene again, it didn’t turn out so well, and look, my God, we had it happening really, and nobody thought of it then! Then was the time. We could have got a close-up of the girl, really dead, and real blood running down Justino’s face where Vicente hit him, and my God! we never even thought of it. That kind of thing,” he said, bitterly, “has been happening ever since we got here. Just happens over and over. . . . Now, what was the matter, I wonder?”

  He stared at Stepanov full of accusation. Stepanov lifted his palm from his cup, and beating off flies, drank. “Light no good, probably,” he said. His eyes flickered open, clicked shut in Kennerly’s direction, as if they had taken a snapshot of something and that episode was finished.

  “If you want to look at it that way,” said Kennerly, with resentment, “but after all, there it was, it had happened, it wasn’t our fault, and we might as well have had it.”

  “We can always do it again,” said Stepanov. “When Justino comes back, and the light is better. The light,” he said to me, “it is always our enemy. Here we have one good day in five, or less.”

  “Imagine,” said Kennerly, pouncing, “just try to imagine that—when that poor boy comes back he’ll have to go through the same scene he has gone through twice before, once in play and once in reality. Reality!” He licked his chops. “Think how he’ll feel. Why, it ought to drive him crazy.”

  “If he comes back,” said Stepanov, “we must think of that.”

  In the patio half a dozen Indian boys, their ragged white clothes exposing their tawny smooth skin, were flinging over the sleek-backed horses great saddles of deerskin encrusted with silver embroidery and mother-of-pearl. The women were returning to the washing fountain. The pigs were out rooting in their favorite wallows, and in the vat-room, silently, the day-workers were already filling the bullhide vats with freshly drawn pulque juice. Carlos Montaña was out early too, enjoying himself in the fresh morning air, watching three dogs chase a long-legged pig from wallow to barn. The pig, screaming steadily, galloped like a rocking horse towards the known safety of his pen, the dogs nipping at his heels just enough to keep him up to his best speed. Carlos roared with joy, holding his ribs, and the Indian boys laughed with him.

  The Spanish overseer, who had been cast for the rôle of villain—one of them—in the film, came out wearing a new pair of tight riding trousers, of deerskin and silver embroidery, like the saddles, and sat slouched on the long bench near the arch, facing the great corral where the Indians and soldiers were. There he sat nearly all day, as he had sat for years and might sit for years more. His long wry North-Spanish face was dead with boredom. He slouched, with his English cap pulled over his close-set eyes, and did not even glance to see what Carlos was laughing at. Andreyev and I waved to Carlos and he came over at once. He was still laughing. It seemed he had forgotten the pig and was laughing at the overseer, who had already forty pairs of fancy charro trousers, but had thought none of them quite good enough for the film and had caused to be made, at great expense, the pair he was now wearing, which were entirely too tight. He hoped by wearing them every day to stretch them. He was miserable, entirely, for his trousers were all he had to live for, anyhow. “All he can do with his life,” said Andreyev, “is to put on a different pair of fancy trousers every day, and sit on that bench hoping that something, anything, may happen.”

  I said I should have thought there had been enough happening for the past few weeks. . . or at any rate the past few days.

  “Oh, no,” said Carlos, “nothing that lasts long enough. I mean real excitement like the last Agrarian raid. . . . There were machine guns on the towers, and every man on the place had a rifle and a pistol. They had the time of their lives. They drove the raiders off, and then they fired the rest of their ammunition in the air by way of celebration; and the next day they were bored. They wanted to have the whole show over again. It was very hard to explain to them that the fiesta was ended.”

  “They do really hate the Agrarians, then?” I asked.

  “No, they love excitement,” said Carlos.

  We walked through the vat-room, picking our way through the puddles of sap sinking into the mud floor, idly stopping to watch, without comment, the flies drowning in the stinking liquor which seeped over the hairy bullhides sagging between the wooden frames. María Santísima stood primly in her blue painted niche in a frame of fly-blown paper flowers, with a perpetual light at her feet. The walls were covered with a faded fresco relating the legend of pulque; how a young Indian girl discovered this divine liquor, and brought it to the emperor, who rewarded her well; and after her death she became a half-goddess. An old legend: maybe the oldest: something to do with man’s confused veneration for, and terror of, the fertility of women and vegetation. . . .

  Betancourt stood in the door sniffing the air bravely. He glanced around the walls with the eye of an expert. “This is a very good example,” he said, smiling at the fresco, “the perfect example, really. . . . The older ones are always the best, of course. It is a fact,” he said, “that the Spaniards found wall paintings in the pre-Conquest pulquerías. . . always telling this legend. So it goes on. Nothing ever ends,” he waved his long beautiful hand, “it goes on being and becomes little by little something else.”

  “I’d call that an end, of a kind,” said Carlos.

  “Oh, well, you,” said Betancourt, smiling with immense indulgence upon his old friend, who was becoming gradually something else.

  At ten o’clock don Genaro emerged on his way to visit the village judge once more. Doña Julia, Andreyev, Stepanov, Carlos, and I were walking on the roofs in the intermittent sun-and-cloud light, looking out over the immense landscape of patterned field and mountain. Stepanov carried his small camera and took snapshots of us, with the dogs. We had already had our pictures taken on the steps with a nursling burro, with Indian babies; at the fountain on the long upper terrace to the south, where the grandfather lived; before the closed chapel door (with Carlos being a fat pious priest); in the patio still farther back with the ruins of the old monastery stone bath; and in the pulquería.

  So we were tired of snapshots, and leaned in a row over the roof to watch don Genaro take his leave. . . . He leaped down the shallow steps with half a dozen Indian boys standing back for him to pass, hurled himself at the saddle of his Arab mare, his man let go the bridle instantly and leaped to his own horse, and don Genaro rode hell-for-leather out of the corral with his mounted man pounding twenty feet behind him. Dogs, pigs, burros, women, babies, boys, chickens, scattered and fled before him, little soldiers hurled back the great outer gates at his approach, and the two went through at a dead run, disappearing into the hollow of the road. . . .

  “That judge will never let Justino go without the money, I know that, and everybody knows it. Genaro knows it. Yet he will still go and fight and fight,” said doña Julia in her toneless soft voice, without rebuke.

  “Oh, it is barely possible he may,” said Carlos. “If Velarde sends word, you’ll see—Justino will pop out! like that!” He shot an imaginary pea between forefinger and thumb.

  “Yes, but think how Genaro will have to pay Velarde!” said doña Julia. “It’s too tiresome, just when the film was going so well.” She looked at Stepanov.

  He said, “Stay just that way one little second,” raised his camera and pressed the lever; then turned, gazed through the lens at a figure standing in the lower patio. Foreshortened, dirty gray-white against dirty yellow-gray wall, hat pulled down over his eyes, arms folded, Vicente stood without moving. He had been standing there for some time, staring. At last he did move; walked away suddenly with some decision, almost to the gate; then stood again staring, framed in the archway. Stepanov took another picture of him.

  I said, to Andreyev, walking a little apart, “I wonder why he did not let his friend Justino escape, or at least give him his chance to try. . . . Why did he go after him, I

  “Revenge,” said Andreyev. “Imagine a man’s friend betraying him so, and with a woman, and a sister! He was furious. He did not know what he was doing, maybe. . . . Now I imagine he is regretting it.”

  In two hours don Genaro and his servant were back; they approached the hacienda at a reasonable pace, but once fairly in sight they whipped up their horses and charged into the corral in the same style as when they left it. The servants, suddenly awake, ran back and forth, up and down steps, round and round; the animals scurried for refuge as before. Three Indian boys flew to the mare’s bridle, but Vicente was first. He leaped and danced as the mare plunged and fought for her head, his eyes fixed on don Genaro, who flung himself to the ground, landed lightly as an acrobat, and strode away with a perfectly expressionless face.

  Nothing had happened. The judge still wanted two thousand pesos to let Justino go. This may have been the answer Vicente expected. He sat against the wall all afternoon, knees drawn up to his chin, hat over his eyes, his feet in their ragged sandals fallen limp on their sides. In half an hour the evil news was known even to the farthest man in the maguey fields. At the table, don Genaro ate and drank in silent haste, like a man who must catch the last train for a journey on which his life depends. “No, I won’t have this,” he broke out, hammering the table beside his plate. “Do you know what that imbecile judge said to me? He asked me why I worried so much over one peon. I told him it was my business what I chose to worry about. He said he had heard we were making a picture over here with men shooting each other in it. He said he had a jailful of men waiting to be shot, and he’d be glad to send them over for us to shoot in the picture. He couldn’t see why, he said, we were pretending to kill people when we could have all we needed to kill really. He thinks Justino should be shot, too. Let him try it! But never in this world will I give him two thousand pesos!”

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