The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
She sat in the front seat with Skid, the Negro boy. “Come back with us, Miranda,” said Cousin Eva, with the sharp little note of elderly command, “there is plenty of room.”
“No, thank you,” said Miranda, in a firm cold voice. “I’m quite comfortable. Don’t disturb yourself.”
Neither of them noticed her voice or her manner. They sat back and went on talking steadily in their friendly family voices, talking about their dead, their living, their affairs, their prospects, their common memories, interrupting each other, catching each other up on small points of dispute, with a gaiety and freshness which Miranda had not known they were capable of, going over old memories and finding new points of interest in them.
Miranda could not hear the stories above the noisy motor, but she felt she knew them well, or stories like them. She knew too many stories like them, she wanted something new of her own. The language was familiar to them, but not to her, not any more. The house, her father had said, was full. It would be full of cousins, many of them strangers. Would there be any young cousins there, to whom she could talk about things they both knew? She felt a vague distaste for seeing cousins. There were too many of them and her blood rebelled against the ties of blood. She was sick to death of cousins. She did not want any more ties with this house, she was going to leave it, and she was not going back to her husband’s family either. She would have no more bonds that smothered her in love and hatred. She knew now why she had run away to marriage, and she knew that she was going to run away from marriage, and she was not going to stay in any place, with anyone, that threatened to forbid her making her own discoveries, that said “No” to her. She hoped no one had taken her old room, she would like to sleep there once more, she would say good-by there where she had loved sleeping once, sleeping and waking and waiting to be grown, to begin to live. Oh, what is life, she asked herself in desperate seriousness, in those childish unanswerable words, and what shall I do with it? It is something of my own, she thought in a fury of jealous possessiveness, what shall I make of it? She did not know that she asked herself this because all her earliest training had argued that life was a substance, a material to be used, it took shape and direction and meaning only as the possessor guided and worked it; living was a progress of continuous and varied acts of the will directed towards a definite end. She had been assured that there were good and evil ends, one must make a choice. But what was good, and what was evil? I hate love, she thought, as if this were the answer, I hate loving and being loved, I hate it. And her disturbed and seething mind received a shock of comfort from this sudden collapse of an old painful structure of distorted images and misconceptions. “You don’t know anything about it,” said Miranda to herself, with extraordinary clearness as if she were an elder admonishing some younger misguided creature. “You have to find out about it.” But nothing in her prompted her to decide, “I will now do this, I will be that, I will go yonder, I will take a certain road to a certain end.” There are questions to be asked first, she thought, but who will answer them? No one, or there will be too many answers, none of them right. What is the truth, she asked herself as intently as if the question had never been asked, the truth, even about the smallest, the least important of all the things I must find out? and where shall I begin to look for it? Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past but the legend of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic-lantern show. Ah, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.
PLACE: Small South Texas Farm
THE two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, “Hello,” when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate. He did not pause at the gate; it had swung back, conveniently half open, long ago, and was now sunk so firmly on its broken hinges no one thought of trying to close it. He did not even glance at the small boys, much less give them good-day. He just clumped down his big square dusty shoes one after the other steadily, like a man following a plow, as if he knew the place well and knew where he was going and what he would find there. Rounding the right-hand corner of the house under the row of chinaberry trees, he walked up to the side porch where Mr. Thompson was pushing a big swing churn back and forth.
Mr. Thompson was a tough weather-beaten man with stiff black hair and a week’s growth of black whiskers. He was a noisy proud man who held his neck so straight his whole face stood level with his Adam’s apple, and the whiskers continued down his neck and disappeared into a black thatch under his open collar. The churn rumbled and swished like the belly of a trotting horse, and Mr. Thompson seemed somehow to be driving a horse with one hand, reining it in and urging it forward; and every now and then he turned halfway around and squirted a tremendous spit of tobacco juice out over the steps. The door stones were brown and gleaming with fresh tobacco juice. Mr. Thompson had been churning quite a while and he was tired of it. He was just fetching a mouthful of juice to squirt again when the stranger came around the corner and stopped. Mr. Thompson saw a narrow-chested man with blue eyes so pale they were almost white, looking and not looking at him from a long gaunt face, under white eyebrows. Mr. Thompson judged him to be another of these Irishmen, by his long upper lip.
“Howdy do, sir,” said Mr. Thompson politely, swinging his churn.
“I need work,” said the man, clearly enough but with some kind of foreign accent Mr. Thompson couldn’t place. It wasn’t Cajun and it wasn’t Nigger and it wasn’t Dutch, so it had him stumped. “You need a man here?”
Mr. Thompson gave the churn a great shove and it swung back and forth several times on its own momentum. He sat on the steps, shot his quid into the grass, and said, “Set down. Maybe we can make a deal. I been kinda lookin’ round for somebody. I had two niggers but they got into a cutting scrape up the creek last week, one of ’em dead now and the other in the hoosegow at Cold Springs. Neither one of ’em worth killing, come right down to it. So it looks like I’d better get somebody. Where’d you work last?”
“North Dakota,” said the man, folding himself down on the other end of the steps, but not as if he were tired. He folded up and settled down as if it would be a long time before he got up again. He never had looked at Mr. Thompson, but there wasn’t anything sneaking in his eye, either. He didn’t seem to be looking anywhere else. His eyes sat in his head and let things pass by them. They didn’t seem to be expecting to see anything worth looking at. Mr. Thompson waited a long time for the man to say something more, but he had gone into a brown study.
“North Dakota,” said Mr. Thompson, trying to remember where that was. “That’s a right smart distance off, seems to me.”
“I can do everything on farm,” said the man; “cheap. I need work.”
Mr. Thompson settled himself to get down to business. “My name’s Thompson, Mr. Royal Earle Thompson,” he said.
“I’m Mr. Helton,” said the man, “Mr. Olaf Helton.” He did not move.
“Well, now,” said Mr. Thompson in his most carrying voice, “I guess we’d better talk turkey.”
When Mr. Thompson expected to drive a bargain he always grew very hearty and jovial. There was nothing wrong with him except that he hated like the devil to pay wages. He said so himself. “You furnish grub and a shack,” he said, “and then you got to pay ’em besides. It ain’t right. Besides the wear and tear on your implements,” he said, “they just let everything go to rack and
“Now, what I want to know is, how much you fixing to gouge outa me?” he brayed, slapping his knee. After he had kept it up as long as he could, he quieted down, feeling a little sheepish, and cut himself a chew. Mr. Helton was staring out somewhere between the barn and the orchard, and seemed to be sleeping with his eyes open.
“I’m good worker,” said Mr. Helton as from the tomb. “I get dollar a day.”
Mr. Thompson was so shocked he forgot to start laughing again at the top of his voice until it was nearly too late to do any good. “Haw, haw,” he bawled. “Why, for a dollar a day I’d hire out myself. What kinda work is it where they pay you a dollar a day?”
“Wheatfields, North Dakota,” said Mr. Helton, not even smiling.
Mr. Thompson stopped laughing. “Well, this ain’t any wheatfield by a long shot. This is more of a dairy farm,” he said, feeling apologetic. “My wife, she was set on a dairy, she seemed to like working around with cows and calves, so I humored her. But it was a mistake,” he said. “I got nearly everything to do, anyhow. My wife ain’t very strong. She’s sick today, that’s a fact. She’s been porely for the last few days. We plant a little feed, and a corn patch, and there’s the orchard, and a few pigs and chickens, but our main hold is the cows. Now just speakin’ as one man to another, there ain’t any money in it. Now I can’t give you no dollar a day because ackshally I don’t make that much out of it. No, sir, we get along on a lot less than a dollar a day, I’d say, if we figger up everything in the long run. Now, I paid seven dollars a month to the two niggers, three-fifty each, and grub, but what I say is, one middlin’-good white man ekals a whole passel of niggers any day in the week, so I’ll give you seven dollars and you eat at the table with us, and you’ll be treated like a white man, as the feller says—”
“That’s all right,” said Mr. Helton. “I take it.”
“Well, now I guess we’ll call it a deal, hey?” Mr. Thompson jumped up as if he had remembered important business. “Now, you just take hold of that churn and give it a few swings, will you, while I ride to town on a coupla little errands. I ain’t been able to leave the place all week. I guess you know what to do with butter after you get it, don’t you?”
“I know,” said Mr. Helton without turning his head. “I know butter business.” He had a strange drawling voice, and even when he spoke only two words his voice waved slowly up and down and the emphasis was in the wrong place. Mr. Thompson wondered what kind of foreigner Mr. Helton could be.
“Now just where did you say you worked last?” he asked, as if he expected Mr. Helton to contradict himself.
“North Dakota,” said Mr. Helton.
“Well, one place is good as another once you get used to it,” said Mr. Thompson, amply. “You’re a forriner, ain’t you?”
“I’m a Swede,” said Mr. Helton, beginning to swing the churn.
Mr. Thompson let forth a booming laugh, as if this was the best joke on somebody he’d ever heard. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said at the top of his voice. “A Swede: well, now, I’m afraid you’ll get pretty lonesome around here. I never seen any Swedes in this neck of the woods.”
“That’s all right,” said Mr. Helton. He went on swinging the churn as if he had been working on the place for years.
“In fact, I might as well tell you, you’re practically the first Swede I ever laid eyes on.”
“That’s all right,” said Mr. Helton.
Mr. Thompson went into the front room where Mrs. Thompson was lying down, with the green shades drawn. She had a bowl of water by her on the table and a wet cloth over her eyes. She took the cloth off at the sound of Mr. Thompson’s boots and said, “What’s all the noise out there? Who is it?”
“Got a feller out there says he’s a Swede, Ellie,” said Mr. Thompson; “says he knows how to make butter.”
“I hope it turns out to be the truth,” said Mrs. Thompson. “Looks like my head never will get any better.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Mr. Thompson. “You fret too much. Now I’m gointa ride into town and get a little order of groceries.”
“Don’t you linger, now, Mr. Thompson,” said Mrs. Thompson. “Don’t go to the hotel.” She meant the saloon; the proprietor also had rooms for rent upstairs.
“Just a coupla little toddies,” said Mr. Thompson, laughing loudly, “never hurt anybody.”
“I never took a dram in my life,” said Mrs. Thompson, “and what’s more I never will.”
“I wasn’t talking about the womenfolks,” said Mr. Thompson.
The sound of the swinging churn rocked Mrs. Thompson first into a gentle doze, then a deep drowse from which she waked suddenly knowing that the swinging had stopped a good while ago. She sat up shading her weak eyes from the flat strips of late summer sunlight between the sill and the lowered shades. There she was, thank God, still alive, with supper to cook but no churning on hand, and her head still bewildered, but easy. Slowly she realized she had been hearing a new sound even in her sleep. Somebody was playing a tune on the harmonica, not merely shrilling up and down making a sickening noise, but really playing a pretty tune, merry and sad.
She went out through the kitchen, stepped off the porch, and stood facing the east, shading her eyes. When her vision cleared and settled, she saw a long, pale-haired man in blue jeans sitting in the doorway of the hired man’s shack, tilted back in a kitchen chair, blowing away at the harmonica with his eyes shut. Mrs. Thompson’s heart fluttered and sank. Heavens, he looked lazy and worthless, he did, now. First a lot of no-count fiddling darkies and then a no-count white man. It was just like Mr. Thompson to take on that kind. She did wish he would be more considerate, and take a little trouble with his business. She wanted to believe in her husband, and there were too many times when she couldn’t. She wanted to believe that tomorrow, or at least the day after, life, such a battle at best, was going to be better.
She walked past the shack without glancing aside, stepping carefully, bent at the waist because of the nagging pain in her side, and went to the springhouse, trying to harden her mind to speak very plainly to that new hired man if he had not done his work.
The milk house was only another shack of weather-beaten boards nailed together hastily years before because they needed a milk house; it was meant to be temporary, and it was; already shapeless, leaning this way and that over a perpetual cool trickle of water that fell from a little grot, almost choked with pallid ferns. No one else in the whole countryside had such a spring on his land. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson felt they had a fortune in that spring, if ever they get around to doing anything with it.
Rickety wooden shelves clung at hazard in the square around the small pool where the larger pails of milk and butter stood, fresh and sweet in the cold water. One hand supporting her flat, pained side, the other shading her eyes, Mrs. Thompson leaned over and peered into the pails. The cream had been skimmed and set aside, there was a rich roll of butter, the wooden molds and shallow pans had been scrubbed and scalded for the first time in who knows when, the barrel was full of buttermilk ready for the pigs and the weanling calves, the hard packed-dirt floor had been swept smooth. Mrs. Thompson straightened up again, smiling tenderly. She had been ready to scold him, a poor man who needed a job, who had just come there and who might not have been expected to do things properly at first. There was nothing she could do to make up for the injustice she had done him in her thoughts but to tell him how she appreciated his good clean work, finished already, in no time at all. She ventured near the door of the shack with her careful steps; Mr. Helton opened his eyes, stopped playing, and brought his chair down straight, but did not look at her, or get up. She was a little frail woman with long thick brown hair in a braid, a suffering patient mouth and diseased eyes which cried easily. She wove her fingers into an eyeshade, thumbs on temples, and, winking her tearful lids, said with a polite little manner, “Howdy do, sir. I’m Miz Thompson, and I wanted to tell
He said, “That’s all right,” in a slow voice, without moving.
Mrs. Thompson waited a moment. “That’s a pretty tune you’re playing. Most folks don’t seem to get much music out of a harmonica.”
Mr. Helton sat humped over, long legs sprawling, his spine in a bow, running his thumb over the square mouth-stops; except for his moving hand he might have been asleep. The harmonica was a big shiny new one, and Mrs. Thompson, her gaze wandering about, counted five others, all good and expensive, standing in a row on the shelf beside his cot. “He must carry them around in his jumper pocket,” she thought, and noted there was not a sign of any other possession lying about. “I see you’re mighty fond of music,” she said. “We used to have an old accordion, and Mr. Thompson could play it right smart, but the little boys broke it up.”