The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“Hello,” said Dr. Hildesheim, “at least you take it out in shouting. You don’t try to get out of bed and go running around.” Miranda held her eyes open with a terrible effort, saw his rather heavy, patient face clearly even as her mind tottered and slithered again, broke from its foundation and spun like a cast wheel in a ditch. “I didn’t mean it, I never believed it, Dr. Hildesheim, you musn’t remember it—” and was gone again, not being able to wait for an answer.
The wrong she had done followed her and haunted her dream: this wrong took vague shapes of horror she could not recognize or name, though her heart cringed at sight of them. Her mind, split in two, acknowledged and denied what she saw in the one instant, for across an abyss of complaining darkness her reasoning coherent self watched the strange frenzy of the other coldly, reluctant to admit the truth of its visions, its tenacious remorses and despairs.
“I know those are your hands,” she told Miss Tanner, “I know it, but to me they are white tarantulas, don’t touch me.”
“Shut your eyes,” said Miss Tanner.
“Oh, no,” said Miranda, “for then I see worse things,” but her eyes closed in spite of her will, and the midnight of her internal torment closed about her.
Oblivion, thought Miranda, her mind feeling among her memories of words she had been taught to describe the unseen, the unknowable, is a whirlpool of gray water turning upon itself for all eternity. . . eternity is perhaps more than the distance to the farthest star. She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into the pit, thinking, There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all. I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can’t I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent, still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall that was her childhood dream of safety, breathing slowly for fear of squandering breath, saying desperately, Look, don’t be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity.
Granite walls, whirlpools, stars are things. None of them is death, nor the image of it. Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.
At once it grew, flattened, thinned to a fine radiance, spread like a great fan and curved out into a rainbow through which Miranda, enchanted, altogether believing, looked upon a deep clear landscape of sea and sand, of soft meadow and sky, freshly washed and glistening with transparencies of blue. Why, of course, of course, said Miranda, without surprise but with serene rapture as if some promise made to her had been kept long after she had ceased to hope for it. She rose from her narrow ledge and ran lightly through the tall portals of the great bow that arched in its splendor over the burning blue of the sea and the cool green of the meadow on either hand.
The small waves rolled in and over unhurriedly, lapped upon the sand in silence and retreated; the grasses flurried before a breeze that made no sound. Moving towards her leisurely as clouds through the shimmering air came a great company of human beings, and Miranda saw in an amazement of joy that they were all the living she had known. Their faces were transfigured, each in its own beauty, beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled as good weather, and they cast no shadows. They were pure identities and she knew them every one without calling their names or remembering what relation she bore to them. They surrounded her smoothly on silent feet, then turned their entranced faces again towards the sea, and she moved among them easily as a wave among waves. The drifting circle widened, separated, and each figure was alone but not solitary; Miranda, alone too, questioning nothing, desiring nothing, in the quietude of her ecstasy, stayed where she was, eyes fixed on the overwhelming deep sky where it was always morning.
Lying at ease, arms under her head, in the prodigal warmth which flowed evenly from sea and sky and meadow, within touch but not touching the serenely smiling familiar beings about her, Miranda felt without warning a vague tremor of apprehension, some small flick of distrust in her joy; a thin frost touched the edges of this confident tranquillity; something, somebody, was missing, she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country, oh, what could it be? There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright, I have left something unfinished. A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? At once as a curtain had fallen, the bright landscape faded, she was alone in a strange stony place of bitter cold, picking her way along a steep path of slippery snow, calling out, Oh, I must go back! But in what direction? Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils, the sweetish sickening smell of rotting flesh and pus; she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand. The cloth was drawn away; she saw Miss Tanner filling a hypodermic needle in her methodical expert way, and heard Dr. Hildesheim saying, “I think that will do the trick. Try another.” Miss Tanner plucked firmly at Miranda’s arm near the shoulder, and the unbelievable current of agony ran burning through her veins again. She struggled to cry out, saying, Let me go, let me go; but heard only incoherent sounds of animal suffering. She saw doctor and nurse glance at each other with the glance of initiates at a mystery, nodding in silence, their eyes alive with knowledgeable pride. They looked briefly at their handiwork and hurried away.
Bells screamed all off key, wrangling together as they collided in mid air, horns and whistles mingled shrilly with cries of human distress; sulphur colored light exploded through the black window pane and flashed away in darkness. Miranda waking from a dreamless sleep asked without expecting an answer, “What is happening?” for there was a bustle of voices and footsteps in the corridor, and a sharpness in the air; the far clamor went on, a furious exasperated shrieking like a mob in revolt.
The light came on, and Miss Tanner said in a furry voice, “Hear that? They’re celebrating. It’s the Armistice. The war is over, my dear.” Her hands trembled. She rattled a spoon in a cup, stopped to listen, held the cup out to Miranda. From the ward for old bedridden women down the hall floated a ragged chorus of cracked voices singing, “My country, ’tis of thee. . .”
Sweet land. . . oh, terrible land of this bitter world where the sound of rejoicing was a clamor of pain, where ragged tuneless old women, sitting up waiting for their evening bowl of cocoa, were singing, “Sweet land of Liberty—”
“Oh, say, can you see?” their hopeless voices were asking next, the hammer strokes of metal tongues drowning them out. “The war is over,” said Miss Tanner, her underlip held firmly, her eyes blurred. Miranda said, “Please open the window, please, I smell death in here.”
Now if real daylight such as I remember having seen in this world
Sitting in a long chair, near a window, it was in itself a melancholy wonder to see the colorless sunlight slanting on the snow, under a sky drained of its blue. “Can this be my face?” Miranda asked her mirror. “Are these my own hands?” she asked Miss Tanner, holding them up to show the yellow tint like melted wax glimmering between the closed fingers. The body is a curious monster, no place to live in, how could anyone feel at home there? Is it possible I can ever accustom myself to this place? she asked herself. The human faces around her seemed dulled and tired, with no radiance of skin and eyes as Miranda remembered radiance; the once white walls of her room were now a soiled gray. Breathing slowly, falling asleep and waking again, feeling the splash of water on her flesh, taking food, talking in bare phrases with Dr. Hildesheim and Miss Tanner, Miranda looked about her with the covertly hostile eyes of an alien who does not like the country in which he finds himself, does not understand the language nor wish to learn it, does not mean to live there and yet is helpless, unable to leave it at his will.
“It is morning,” Miss Tanner would say, with a sigh, for she had grown old and weary once for all in the past month, “morning again, my dear,” showing Miranda the same monotonous landscape of dulled evergreens and leaden snow. She would rustle about in her starched skirts, her face bravely powdered, her spirit unbreakable as good steel, saying, “Look, my dear, what a heavenly morning, like a crystal,” for she had an affection for the salvaged creature before her, the silent ungrateful human being whom she, Cornelia Tanner, a nurse who knew her business, had snatched back from death with her own hands. “Nursing is nine-tenths, just the same,” Miss Tanner would tell the other nurses; “keep that in mind.” Even the sunshine was Miss Tanner’s own prescription for the further recovery of Miranda, this patient the doctors had given up for lost, and who yet sat here, visible proof of Miss Tanner’s theory. She said, “Look at the sunshine, now,” as she might be saying, “I ordered this for you, my dear, do sit up and take it.”
“It’s beautiful,” Miranda would answer, even turning her head to look, thanking Miss Tanner for her goodness, most of all her goodness about the weather, “beautiful, I always loved it.” And I might love it again if I saw it, she thought, but truth was, she could not see it. There was no light, there might never be light again, compared as it must always be with the light she had seen beside the blue sea that lay so tranquilly along the shore of her paradise. That was a child’s dream of the heavenly meadow, the vision of repose that comes to a tired body in sleep, she thought, but I have seen it when I did not know it was a dream. Closing her eyes she would rest for a moment remembering that bliss which had repaid all the pain of the journey to reach it; opening them again she saw with a new anguish the dull world to which she was condemned, where the light seemed filmed over with cobwebs, all the bright surfaces corroded, the sharp planes melted and formless, all objects and beings meaningless, ah, dead and withered things that believed themselves alive!
At night, after the long effort of lying in her chair, in her extremity of grief for what she had so briefly won, she folded her painful body together and wept silently, shamelessly, in pity for herself and her lost rapture. There was no escape. Dr. Hildesheim, Miss Tanner, the nurses in the diet kitchen, the chemist, the surgeon, the precise machine of the hospital, the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and wasted flesh to its feet, to put in order her disordered mind, and to set her once more safely in the road that would lead her again to death.
Chuck Rouncivale and Mary Townsend came to see her, bringing her a bundle of letters they had guarded for her. They brought a basket of delicate small hothouse flowers, lilies of the valley with sweet peas and feathery fern, and above these blooms their faces were merry and haggard.
Mary said, “You have had a tussle, haven’t you?” and Chuck said, “Well, you made it back, didn’t you?” Then after an uneasy pause, they told her that everybody was waiting to see her again at her desk. “They’ve put me back on sports already, Miranda,” said Chuck. For ten minutes Miranda smiled and told them how gay and what a pleasant surprise it was to find herself alive. For it will not do to betray the conspiracy and tamper with the courage of the living; there is nothing better than to be alive, everyone has agreed on that; it is past argument, and who attempts to deny it is justly outlawed. “I’ll be back in no time at all,” she said; “this is almost over.”
Her letters lay in a heap in her lap and beside her chair. Now and then she turned one over to read the inscription, recognized this handwriting or that, examined the blotted stamps and the postmarks, and let them drop again. For two or three days they lay upon the table beside her, and she continued to shrink from them. “They will all be telling me again how good it is to be alive, they will say again they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to that?” and her hardened, indifferent heart shuddered in despair at itself, because before it had been tender and capable of love.
Dr. Hildesheim said, “What, all these letters not opened yet?” and Miss Tanner said, “Read your letters, my dear, I’ll open them for you.” Standing beside the bed, she slit them cleanly with a paper knife. Miranda, cornered, picked and chose until she found a thin one in an unfamiliar handwriting. “Oh, no, now,” said Miss Tanner, “take them as they come. Here, I’ll hand them to you.” She sat down, prepared to be helpful to the end.
What a victory, what triumph, what happiness to be alive, sang the letters in a chorus. The names were signed with flour ishes like the circles in air of bugle notes, and they were the names of those she had loved best; some of those she had known well and pleasantly; and a few who meant nothing to her, then or now. The thin letter in the unfamiliar handwriting was from a strange man at the camp where Adam had been, telling her that Adam had died of influenza in the camp hospital. Adam had asked him, in case anything happened, to be sure to let her know.
If anything happened. To be sure to let her know. If anything happened. “Your friend, Adam Barclay,” wrote the strange man. It had happened—she looked at the date—more than a month ago.
“I’ve been here a long time, haven’t I?” she asked Miss Tanner, who was folding letters and putting them back in their proper envelopes.
“Oh, quite a while,” said Miss Tanner, “but you’ll be ready to go soon now. But you must be careful of yourself and not overdo, and you should come back now and then and let us look at you, because sometimes the aftereffects are very—”
Miranda, sitting up before the mirror, wrote carefully: “One lipstick, medium, one ounce flask Bois d’Hiver perfume, one pair of gray suède gauntlets without straps, two pairs gray sheer stockings without clocks—”
Towney, reading after her, said, “Everything without something so that it will be almost impossible to get?”
“Try it, though,” said Miranda, “they’re nicer without. One walking stick of silvery wood with a silver knob.”
“That’s going to be expensive,” warned Towney. “Walking is hardly worth it.”
“You’re right,” said Miranda, and wrote in the margin, “a nice one to match my other things. Ask Chuck to look for this, Mary. Good looking and not too heavy.” Lazarus, come forth. Not unless you bring me my top hat and stick. Stay where you are then, you snob. Not at all. I’m coming forth. “A jar of cold cream,” wrote Miranda, “a box of apricot powder—and, Mary, I don’t need eye shadow, do I?” She glanced at her face in the mirror and away again. “Still, no one need pity this corpse if we look properly to the art of the thing.”
Mary Townsend said, “You won’t recognize yourself in a week.”
“Do you suppose, Mary,” asked Miranda, “I could have my old room back again?”