The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  He believed, apparently, that she was still more or less in her right mind, for she heard him at the telephone explaining in his deliberate voice. He was back again almost at once, saying, “This seems to be my day for getting mixed up with peevish old maids. The sister said that even if they had a room you couldn’t have it without doctor’s orders. But they didn’t have one, anyway. She was pretty sour about it.”

  “Well,” said Miranda in a thick voice, “I think that’s abominably rude and mean, don’t you?” She sat up with a wild gesture of both arms, and began to retch again, violently.

  “Hold it, as you were,” called Adam, fetching the basin. He held her head, washed her face and hands with ice water, put her head straight on the pillow, and went over and looked out of the window. “Well,” he said at last, sitting beside her again, “they haven’t got a room. They haven’t got a bed. They haven’t even got a baby crib, the way she talked. So I think that’s straight enough, and we may as well dig in.”

  “Isn’t the ambulance coming?”

  “Tomorrow, maybe.”

  He took off his tunic and hung it on the back of a chair. Kneeling before the fireplace, he began carefully to set kindling sticks in the shape of an Indian tepee, with a little paper in the center for them to lean upon. He lighted this and placed other sticks upon them, and larger bits of wood. When they were going nicely he added still heavier wood, and coal a few lumps at a time, until there was a good blaze, and a fire that would not need rekindling. He rose and dusted his hands together, the fire illuminated him from the back and his hair shone.

  “Adam,” said Miranda, “I think you’re very beautiful.” He laughed out at this, and shook his head at her. “What a hell of a word,” he said, “for me.” “It was the first that occurred to me,” she said, drawing up on her elbow to catch the warmth of the blaze. “That’s a good job, that fire.”

  He sat on the bed again, dragging up a chair and putting his feet on the rungs. They smiled at each other for the first time since he had come in that night. “How do you feel now?” he asked.

  “Better, much better,” she told him. “Let’s talk. Let’s tell each other what we meant to do.”

  “You tell me first,” said Adam. “I want to know about you.”

  “You’d get the notion I had a very sad life,” she said, “and perhaps it was, but I’d be glad enough to have it now. If I could have it back, it would be easy to be happy about almost anything at all. That’s not true, but that’s the way I feel now.” After a pause, she said, “There’s nothing to tell, after all, if it ends now, for all this time I was getting ready for something that was going to happen later, when the time came. So now it’s nothing much.”

  “But it must have been worth having until now, wasn’t it?” he asked seriously as if it were something important to know.

  “Not if this is all,” she repeated obstinately.

  “Weren’t you ever—happy?” asked Adam, and he was plainly afraid of the word; he was shy of it as he was of the word love, he seemed never to have spoken it before, and was uncertain of its sound or meaning.

  “I don’t know,” she said, “I just lived and never thought about it. I remember things I liked, though, and things I hoped for.”

  “I was going to be an electrical engineer,” said Adam. He stopped short. “And I shall finish up when I get back,” he added, after a moment.

  “Don’t you love being alive?” asked Miranda. “Don’t you love weather and the colors at different times of the day, and all the sounds and noises like children screaming in the next lot, and automobile horns and little bands playing in the street and the smell of food cooking?”

  “I love to swim, too,” said Adam.

  “So do I,” said Miranda; “we never did swim together.”

  “Do you remember any prayers?” she asked him suddenly. “Did you ever learn anything at Sunday School?”

  “Not much,” confessed Adam without contrition. “Well, the Lord’s Prayer.”

  “Yes, and there’s Hail Mary,” she said, “and the really useful one beginning, I confess to Almighty God and to blessed Mary ever virgin and to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul—”

  “Catholic,” he commented.

  “Prayers just the same, you big Methodist. I’ll bet you are a Methodist.”

  “No, Presbyterian.”

  “Well, what others do you remember?”

  “Now I lay me down to sleep—” said Adam.

  “Yes, that one, and Blessed Jesus meek and mild—you see that my religious education wasn’t neglected either. I even know a prayer beginning O Apollo. Want to hear it?”

  “No,” said Adam, “you’re making fun.”

  “I’m not,” said Miranda, “I’m trying to keep from going to sleep. I’m afraid to go to sleep, I may not wake up. Don’t let me go to sleep, Adam. Do you know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Bless the bed I lie upon?”

  “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Is that it?” asked Adam. “It doesn’t sound right, somehow.”

  “Light me a cigarette, please, and move over and sit near the window. We keep forgetting about fresh air. You must have it.” He lighted the cigarette and held it to her lips. She took it between her fingers and dropped it under the edge of her pillow. He found it and crushed it out in the saucer under the water tumbler. Her head swam in darkness for an instant, cleared, and she sat up in panic, throwing off the covers and breaking into a sweat. Adam leaped up with an alarmed face, and almost at once was holding a cup of hot coffee to her mouth.

  “You must have some too,” she told him, quiet again, and they sat huddled together on the edge of the bed, drinking coffee in silence.

  Adam said, “You must lie down again. You’re awake now.”

  “Let’s sing,” said Miranda. “I know an old spiritual, I can remember some of the words.” She spoke in a natural voice. “I’m fine now.” She began in a hoarse whisper, “‘Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away. . .’ Do you know that song?”

  “Yes,” said Adam, “I heard Negroes in Texas sing it, in an oil field.”

  “I heard them sing it in a cotton field,” she said; “it’s a good song.”

  They sang that line together. “But I can’t remember what comes next,” said Adam. “‘Pale horse, pale rider,’” said Miranda, “(We really need a good banjo) ‘done taken my lover away—’” Her voice cleared and she said, “But we ought to get on with it. What’s the next line?”

  “There’s a lot more to it than that,” said Adam, “about forty verses, the rider done taken away mammy, pappy, brother, sister, the whole family besides the lover—”

  “But not the singer, not yet,” said Miranda. “Death always leaves one singer to mourn. ‘Death,’” she sang, “‘oh, leave one singer to mourn—’”

  “‘Pale horse, pale rider,’” chanted Adam, coming in on the beat, “‘done taken my lover away!’ (I think we’re good, I think we ought to get up an act—)”

  “Go in Hut Service,” said Miranda, “entertain the poor defenseless heroes Over There.”

  “We’ll play banjos,” said Adam; “I always wanted to play the banjo.”

  Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

  “Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

  He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying?. . . What do you think I have been t
rying to tell you all this time?”

  She turned towards him, the cloud cleared and she saw his face for an instant. He pulled the covers about her and held her, and said, “Go to sleep, darling, darling, if you will go to sleep now for one hour I will wake you up and bring you hot coffee and tomorrow we will find somebody to help. I love you, go to sleep—”

  Almost with no warning at all, she floated into the darkness, holding his hand, in sleep that was not sleep but clear evening light in a small green wood, an angry dangerous wood full of inhuman concealed voices singing sharply like the whine of arrows and she saw Adam transfixed by a flight of these singing arrows that struck him in the heart and passed shrilly cutting their path through the leaves. Adam fell straight back before her eyes, and rose again unwounded and alive; another flight of arrows loosed from the invisible bow struck him again and he fell, and yet he was there before her untouched in a perpetual death and resurrection. She herself before him, angrily and selfishly she interposed between him and the track of the arrow, crying, No, no, like a child cheated in a game, It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die? and the arrows struck her cleanly through the heart and through his body and he lay dead, and she still lived, and the wood whistled and sang and shouted, every branch and leaf and blade of grass had its own terrible accusing voice. She ran then, and Adam caught her in the middle of the room, running, and said, “Darling, I must have been asleep too. What happened, you screamed terribly?”

  After he had helped her to settle again, she sat with her knees drawn up under her chin, resting her head on her folded arms and began carefully searching for her words because it was important to explain clearly. “It was a very odd sort of dream, I don’t know why it could have frightened me. There was something about an old-fashioned valentine. There were two hearts carved on a tree, pierced by the same arrow—you know, Adam—”

  “Yes, I know, honey,” he said in the gentlest sort of way, and sat kissing her on the cheek and forehead with a kind of accustomedness, as if he had been kissing her for years, “one of those lace paper things.”

  “Yes, and yet they were alive, and were us, you understand—this doesn’t seem to be quite the way it was, but it was something like that. It was in a wood—”

  “Yes,” said Adam. He got up and put on his tunic and gathered up the thermos bottle. “I’m going back to that little stand and get us some ice cream and hot coffee,” he told her, “and I’ll be back in five minutes, and you keep quiet. Good-by for five minutes,” he said, holding her chin in the palm of his hand and trying to catch her eye, “and you be very quiet.”

  “Good-by,” she said. “I’m awake again.” But she was not, and the two alert young internes from the County hospital who had arrived, after frantic urgings from the noisy city editor of the Blue Mountain News, to carry her away in a police ambulance, decided that they had better go down and get the stretcher. Their voices roused her, she sat up, got out of bed at once and stood glancing about brightly. “Why, you’re all right,” said the darker and stouter of the two young men, both extremely fit and competent-looking in their white clothes, each with a flower in his buttonhole. “I’ll just carry you.” He unfolded a white blanket and wrapped it around her. She gathered up the folds and asked, “But where is Adam?” taking hold of the doctor’s arm. He laid a hand on her drenched forehead, shook his head, and gave her a shrewd look. “Adam?”

  “Yes,” Miranda told him, lowering her voice confidentially, “he was here and now he is gone.”

  “Oh, he’ll be back,” the interne told her easily, “he’s just gone round the block to get cigarettes. Don’t worry about Adam. He’s the least of your troubles.”

  “Will he know where to find me?” she asked, still holding back.

  “We’ll leave him a note,” said the interne. “Come now, it’s time we got out of here.”

  He lifted and swung her up to his shoulder. “I feel very badly,” she told him; “I don’t know why.”

  “I’ll bet you do,” said he, stepping out carefully, the other doctor going before them, and feeling for the first step of the stairs. “Put your arms around my neck,” he instructed her. “It won’t do you any harm and it’s a great help to me.”

  “What’s your name?” Miranda asked as the other doctor opened the front door and they stepped out into the frosty sweet air.

  “Hildesheim,” he said, in the tone of one humoring a child.

  “Well, Dr. Hildesheim, aren’t we in a pretty mess?”

  “We certainly are,” said Dr. Hildesheim.

  The second young interne, still quite fresh and dapper in his white coat, though his carnation was withering at the edges, was leaning over listening to her breathing through a stethoscope, whistling thinly, “There’s a Long, Long Trail—” From time to time he tapped her ribs smartly with two fingers, whistling. Miranda observed him for a few moments until she fixed his bright busy hazel eye not four inches from hers. “I’m not unconscious,” she explained, “I know what I want to say.” Then to her horror she heard herself babbling nonsense, knowing it was nonsense though she could not hear what she was saying. The flicker of attention in the eye near her vanished, the second interne went on tapping and listening, hissing softly under his breath.

  “I wish you’d stop whistling,” she said clearly. The sound stopped. “It’s a beastly tune,” she added. Anything, anything at all to keep her small hold on the life of human beings, a clear line of communication, no matter what, between her and the receding world. “Please let me see Dr. Hildesheim,” she said, “I have something important to say to him. I must say it now.” The second interne vanished. He did not walk away, he fled into the air without a sound, and Dr. Hildesheim’s face appeared in his stead.

  “Dr. Hildesheim, I want to ask you about Adam.”

  “That young man? He’s been here, and left you a note, and has gone again,” said Dr. Hildesheim, “and he’ll be back tomorrow and the day after.” His tone was altogether too merry and flippant.

  “I don’t believe you,” said Miranda, bitterly, closing her lips and eyes and hoping she might not weep.

  “Miss Tanner,” called the doctor, “have you got that note?”

  Miss Tanner appeared beside her, handed her an unsealed envelope, took it back, unfolded the note and gave it to her.

  “I can’t see it,” said Miranda, after a pained search of the page full of hasty scratches in black ink.

  “Here, I’ll read it,” said Miss Tanner. “It says, ‘They came and took you while I was away and now they will not let me see you. Maybe tomorrow they will, with my love, Adam,’” read Miss Tanner in a firm dry voice, pronouncing the words distinctly. “Now, do you see?” she asked soothingly.

  Miranda, hearing the words one by one, forgot them one by one. “Oh, read it again, what does it say?” she called out over the silence that pressed upon her, reaching towards the dancing words that just escaped as she almost touched them. “That will do,” said Dr. Hildesheim, calmly authoritarian. “Where is that bed?”

  “There is no bed yet,” said Miss Tanner, as if she said, We are short of oranges. Dr. Hildesheim said, “Well, we’ll manage something,” and Miss Tanner drew the narrow trestle with bright crossed metal supports and small rubbery wheels into a deep jut of the corridor, out of the way of the swift white figures darting about, whirling and skimming like water flies all in silence. The white walls rose sheer as cliffs, a dozen frosted moons followed each other in perfect self-possession down a white lane and dropped mutely one by one into a snowy abyss.

  What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain? Miranda lay lifting the nap of her white blanket softly between eased fingers, watching a dance of tall deliberate shadows moving behind a wide screen of sheets spread upon a frame. It was there, near her, on her side of the wall where she could see it clearly and enjoy it, and it was so beautiful she had no curiosity as to its meaning. Two dark figures nodded, bent, curtsied to each other, retreated and bowed a
gain, lifted long arms and spread great hands against the white shadow of the screen; then with a single round movement, the sheets were folded back, disclosing two speechless men in white, standing, and another speechless man in white, lying on the bare springs of a white iron bed. The man on the springs was swathed smoothly from head to foot in white, with folded bands across the face, and a large stiff bow like merry rabbit ears dangled at the crown of his head.

  The two living men lifted a mattress standing hunched against the wall, spread it tenderly and exactly over the dead man. Wordless and white they vanished down the corridor, pushing the wheeled bed before them. It had been an entrancing and leisurely spectacle but now it was over. A pallid white fog rose in their wake insinuatingly and floated before Miranda’s eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torments. She put up her hands and said, Not yet, not yet, but it was too late. The fog parted and two executioners, white clad, moved towards her pushing between them with marvelously deft and practiced hands the misshapen figure of an old man in filthy rags whose scanty beard waggled under his opened mouth as he bowed his back and braced his feet to resist and delay the fate they had prepared for him. In a high weeping voice he was trying to explain to them that the crime of which he was accused did not merit the punishment he was about to receive; and except for this whining cry there was silence as they advanced. The soiled cracked bowls of the old man’s hands were held before him beseechingly as a beggar’s as he said, “Before God I am not guilty,” but they held his arms and drew him onward, passed, and were gone.

  The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there. Across the field came Dr. Hildesheim, his face a skull beneath his German helmet, carrying a naked infant writhing on the point of his bayonet, and a huge stone pot marked Poison in Gothic letters. He stopped before the well that Miranda remembered in a pasture on her father’s farm, a well once dry but now bubbling with living water, and into its pure depths he threw the child and the poison, and the violated water sank back soundlessly into the earth. Miranda, screaming, ran with her arms above her head; her voice echoed and came back to her like a wolf’s howl, Hildesheim is a Boche, a spy, a Hun, kill him, kill him before he kills you. . . . She woke howling, she heard the foul words accusing Dr. Hildesheim tumbling from her mouth; opened her eyes and knew she was in a bed in a small white room, with Dr. Hildesheim sitting beside her, two firm fingers on her pulse. His hair was brushed sleekly and his buttonhole flower was fresh. Stars gleamed through the window, and Dr. Hildesheim seemed to be gazing at them with no particular expression, his stethoscope dangling around his neck. Miss Tanner stood at the foot of the bed writing something on a chart.

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