The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “Go on with your reading, dear children. I heard every word. Violeta, don’t fidget, please, sweet little daughter. Carlos, what is the hour?”

  Mamacita liked being chaperon to Blanca. Violeta wondered why Mamacita considered Blanca so very attractive, but she did. She was always saying to Papacito, “Blanquita blooms like a lily!” And Papacito would say, “It is better if she conducts herself like one!” And Mamacita said once to Carlos, “Even if you are my nephew, still you must go home at a reasonable hour!”

  “The hour is early, Doña Paz.” St. Anthony himself could not have exceeded in respect the pose of Carlos’ head toward his aunt. She smiled and relapsed into a shallow nap, as a cat rises from the rug, turns and lies down again.

  Violeta did not move, or answer Mamacita. She had the silence and watchfulness of a young wild animal, but no native wisdom. She was at home from the convent in Tacubaya for the first time in almost a year. There they taught her modesty, chastity, silence, obedience, with a little French and music and some arithmetic. She did as she was told, but it was all very confusing, because she could not understand why the things that happen outside of people were so different from what she felt inside of her. Everybody went about doing the same things every day, precisely as if there were nothing else going to happen, ever; and all the time she was certain there was something simply tremendously exciting waiting for her outside the convent. Life was going to unroll itself like a long, gay carpet for her to walk upon. She saw herself wearing a long veil, and it would trail and flutter over this carpet as she came out of church. There would be six flower girls and two pages, the way there had been at Cousin Sancha’s wedding.

  Of course she didn’t mean a wedding. Silly! Cousin Sancha had been quite old, almost twenty-four, and Violeta meant for life to begin at once—next year, anyway. It would be more like a festival. She wanted to wear red poppies in her hair and dance. Life would always be very gay, with no one about telling you that almost everything you said and did was wrong. She would be free to read poetry, too, and stories about love, without having to hide them in her copybooks. Even Carlos did not know that she had learned nearly all his poems by heart. She had for a year been cutting them from magazines, keeping them in the pages of her books, in order to read them during study hours.

  Several shorter ones were concealed in her missal, and the thrilling music of strange words drowned the chorus of bell and choir. There was one about the ghosts of nuns returning to the old square before their ruined convent, dancing in the moonlight with the shades of lovers forbidden them in life, treading with bared feet on broken glass as a penance for their loves. Violeta would shake all over when she read this, and lift swimming eyes to the delicate spears of candlelight on the altar.

  She was certain she would be like those nuns someday. She would dance for joy over shards of broken glass. But where begin? She had sat here in this room, on this very hassock, comfortingly near Mamacita, through the summer evenings of vacation, ever since she could remember. Sometimes it was a happiness to be assured that nothing was expected of her but to follow Mamacita about and be a good girl. It gave her time to dream about life—that is, the future. For of course everything beautiful and unexpected would happen later on, when she grew as tall as Blanca and was allowed to come home from the convent for good and all. She would then be miraculously lovely—Blanca would look perfectly dull beside her—and she would dance with fascinating young men like those who rode by on Sunday mornings, making their horses prance in the bright, shallow street on their way to the paseo in Chapultepec Park. She would appear on the balcony above, wearing a blue dress, and everyone would ask who that enchanting girl could be. And Carlos, Carlos! He would understand at last that she had read and loved his poems always.

  “The nuns are dancing with bare feet

  On broken glass in the cobbled street.”

  That one above all the rest. She felt it had been written for her. She was even one of the nuns, the youngest and best-loved one, ghostly silent, dancing forever and ever under the moonlight to the shivering tune of old violins.

  Mamacita moved her knee uneasily, so that Violeta’s head slipped from it, and she almost lost her balance. She sat up, prickling all over with shyness for fear the others would know why she had hidden her face on Mamacita’s lap. But no one saw. Mamacita was always lecturing her about things. At such moments it was hard to believe that Blanca was not the favorite child. “You must not run through the house so.” “You must brush your hair more smoothly.” “And what is this I hear about your using your sister’s face powder?”

  Blanca, listening, would eye her with superior calm and say nothing. It was really very hard, knowing that Blanca was nicer only because she was allowed to powder and perfume herself and still gave herself such airs about it. Carlos, who used to bring her sugared limes and long strips of dried membrillo from the markets, calling her his dear, amusing, modest Violeta, now simply did not know she was present. There were times when Violeta wished to cry, passionately, so everyone could hear her. But what about? And how explain to Mamacita? She would say, “What have you to cry for? And besides, consider the feelings of others in this house and control your moods.”

  Papacito would say, “What you need is a good renovating.” That was his word for a spanking. He would say sternly to Mamacita, “I think her moral nature needs repairment.” He and Mamacita seemed to have some mysterious understanding about things. Mamacita’s eyes were always perfectly clear when she looked at Papacito, and she would answer: “You are right. I will look after this.” Then she would be very severe with Violeta. Papacito always said to the girls: “It is your fault without exception when Mamacita is annoyed with you. So be careful.”

  But Mamacita never stayed annoyed for long, and afterward it was beautiful to curl up near her, snuggling into her shoulder, and smell the nice, crinkled, perfumed hair at the nape of her neck. But when she was angry her eyes had a considering expression, as if one were a stranger, and she would say, “You are the greatest of my problems.” Violeta had often been a problem and it was very humiliating.

  ¡Ay de mi! Violeta gave a sharp sigh and sat up straight. She wanted to stretch her arms up and yawn, not because she was sleepy but because something inside her felt as if it were enclosed in a cage too small for it, and she could not breathe. Like those poor parrots in the markets, stuffed into tiny wicker cages so that they bulged through the withes, gasping and panting, waiting for someone to come and rescue them.

  Church was a terrible, huge cage, but it seemed too small. “Oh, my, I always laugh, to keep from crying!” A silly verse Carlos used to say. Through her eyelashes his face looked suddenly pale and soft, as if he might have tears on his cheeks. Oh, Carlos! But of course he would never cry for anything. She was frightened to find that her own eyes were steeped in tears; they were going to run down her face; she couldn’t stop them. Her head bowed over and her chin seemed to be curling up. Where on earth was her handkerchief? A huge, clean, white linen one, almost like a boy’s handkerchief. How horrid! The folded corner scratched her eyelids. Sometimes she cried in church when the music wailed terribly and the girls sat in veiled rows, all silent except for the clinking of their beads slipping through their fingers. They were all strangers to her then; what if they knew her thoughts? Suppose she should say aloud, “I love Carlos!” The idea made her blush all over, until her forehead perspired and her hands turned red. She would begin praying frantically, “Oh, Mary! Oh, Mary! Queen Mother of mercy!” while deep underneath her words her thoughts were rushing along in a kind of trance: Oh, dear God, that’s my secret; that’s a secret between You and me. I should die if anybody knew!

  She turned her eyes again to the pair at the long table just in time to see once more the shawl beginning to slip, ever so little, from Blanca’s shoulder. A tight shudder of drawn threads played along Violeta’s skin, and grew quite intolerable when Carlos reached out to take the fringe in his long fingers. His wrist turned with a
delicate toss, the shawl settled into place, Blanca smiled and stammered and bit her lip.

  Violeta could not bear to see it. No, no. She wanted to hold her hands over her heart tightly, to quell the slow, burning ache. It felt like a little jar filled with flames, which she could not smother down. It was cruel of Blanca and Carlos to sit there and read and be so pleased with each other without once thinking of her! Yet what could she say if they noticed her? They never did notice.

  Blanca rose.

  “I am tired of the old poetry. It is all too sad. What else shall we read?”

  “Let’s have a great deal of gay, modern poetry,” suggested Carlos, whose own verses were considered extremely gay and modern. Violeta was always shocked when he called them amusing. He couldn’t mean it. It was only his way of pretending he wasn’t sad when he wrote them.

  “Read me all your new ones again.” Blanca was always appreciating Carlos. You could hear it in her voice underneath, like a little trickle of sugar. And Carlos let her do it. He seemed always to be condescending to Blanca a little. But Blanca could never see it, because she really didn’t think of anything but the way she had her hair fixed or whether people thought she was pretty. Violeta longed to make a naughty face at Blanca, who posed ridiculously, leaning over the table.

  Above the red silk lamp shade her face was not sallow as usual. The thin nose and small lips cast shadows on her cheek. She hated being pale, and had the habit, while reading, of smoothing her cheeks round and round with two fingers, first one cheek and then the other, until deep red spots would burn in them for a long while. Violeta wished to shriek after watching Blanca do this for hours at a time. Why did not Mamacita speak to her about it? It was the worst sort of fidgeting.

  “I haven’t the new ones with me,” said Carlos.

  “Then let it be the old ones,” agreed Blanca gaily.

  She moved to the bookshelves, Carlos beside her. They could not find his book. Their hands touched as fingers sought titles. Something in the intimate murmur of their voices wounded Violeta acutely. Sharing some delightful secret, they were purposely shutting her out. She spoke.

  “If you want your book, Carlos, I can find it.” At the sound of her own voice she felt calm and firm and equal to anything. By her tone she tried to shut Blanca out.

  They turned and regarded her without interest.

  “And where may it be, infant?” Carlos’ voice always had that chilling edge on it when he was not reading aloud, and his eyes explored. With a glance he seemed to see all one’s faults. Violeta remembered her feet and drew down her skirts. The sight of Blanca’s narrow, gray satin slippers was hateful.

  “I have it. I have had it for a whole week.” She eyed the tip of Blanca’s nose, hoping they would understand she wished to say, “You see, I have treasured it!”

  She got up, feeling a little clumsy, and walked away with a curious imitation of Blanca’s grown-up gait. It made her dreadfully aware of her long, straight legs in their ribbed stockings.

  “I will help you search,” called Carlos, as if he had thought of something interesting, and he followed. Over his suddenly near shoulder she saw Blanca’s face. It looked very vague and faraway, like a distressed doll’s. Carlos’ eyes were enormous, and he smiled steadily. She wished to run away. He said something in a low voice. She could not understand him at all, and it was impossible to find the lamp cord in the narrow, dark hallway. She was frightened at the soft pad-pad of his rubber heels so close behind her as they went without speaking through the chill dining room, full of the odor of fruit that has been all day in a closed place. When they entered the small, open sunroom over the entrance of the patio, the moonlight seemed almost warm, it was so radiant after the shadows of the house. Violeta turned over a huddle of books on the small table, but she did not see them clearly; and her hand shook so, she could not take hold of anything.

  Carlos’ hand came up in a curve, settled upon hers and held fast. His roundish, smooth cheek and blond eyebrows hovered, swooped. His mouth touched hers and made a tiny smacking sound. She felt herself wrench and twist away as if a hand pushed her violently. And in that second his hand was over her mouth, soft and warm, and his eyes were staring at her, fearfully close. Violeta opened her eyes wide also and peered up at him. She expected to sink into a look warm and gentle, like the touch of his palm. Instead, she felt suddenly, sharply hurt, as if she had collided with a chair in the dark. His eyes were bright and shallow, almost like the eyes of Pepe, the macaw. His pale, fluffy eyebrows were arched; his mouth smiled tightly. A sick thumping began in the pit of her stomach, as it always did when she was called up to explain things to Mother Superior. Something was terribly wrong. Her heart pounded until she seemed about to smother. She was angry with all her might, and turned her head aside in a hard jerk.

  “Keep your hand off my mouth!”

  “Then be quiet, you silly child!” The words were astounding, but the way he said them was more astounding still, as if they were allies in some shameful secret. Her teeth rattled with chill.

  “I will tell my mother! Shame on you for kissing me!”

  “I did not kiss you except a little brotherly kiss, Violeta, precisely as I kiss Blanca. Don’t be absurd!”

  “You do not kiss Blanca. I heard her tell my mother she has never been kissed by a man!”

  “But I do kiss her—as a cousin, nothing more. It does not count. We are relatives just the same. What did you think?”

  Oh, she had made a hideous mistake. She knew she was blushing until her forehead throbbed. Her breath was gone, but she must explain. “I thought—a kiss—meant—meant—” She could not finish.

  “Ah, you’re so young, like a little newborn calf,” said Carlos. His voice trembled in a strange way. “You smell like a nice baby, freshly washed with white soap! Imagine such a baby being angry at a kiss from her cousin! Shame on you, Violeta!”

  He was loathsome. She saw herself before him, almost as if his face were a mirror. Her mouth was too large; her face was simply a moon; her hair was ugly in the tight convent braids.

  “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she whispered.

  “For what?” His voice had the cutting edge again. “Come, where is the book?”

  “I don’t know,” she said, trying not to cry.

  “Well, then, let us go back, or Mamacita will scold you.”

  “Oh, no, no. I can’t go in there. Blanca will see—Mamacita will ask questions. I want to stay here. I want to run away—to kill myself!”

  “Nonsense!” said Carlos. “Come with me this minute. What did you expect when you came out here alone with me?”

  He turned and started away. She was shamefully, incredibly in the wrong. She had behaved like an immodest girl. It was all bitterly real and unbelievable, like a nightmare that went on and on and no one heard you calling to be waked up. She followed, trying to hold up her head.

  Mamacita nodded, shining, crinkled hair stiffly arranged, chin on white collar. Blanca sat like a stone in her deep chair, holding a small gray-and-gold book in her lap. Her angry eyes threw out a look that coiled back upon itself like a whiplash, and the pupils became suddenly blank and bright as Carlos’ had.

  Violeta folded down on her hassock and gathered up her knees. She stared at the carpet to hide her reddened eyes, for it terrified her to see the way eyes could give away such cruel stories about people.

  “I found the book here, where it belonged,” said Blanca. “I am tired now. It is very late. We shall not read.”

  Violeta wished to cry in real earnest now. It was the last blow that Blanca should have found the book. A kiss meant nothing at all, and Carlos had walked away as if he had forgotten her. It was all mixed up with the white rivers of moonlight and the smell of warm fruit and a cold dampness on her lips that made a tiny, smacking sound. She trembled and leaned over until her forehead touched Mamacita’s lap. She could not look up, ever, ever again.

  The low voices sounded contentious; thin metal wires twanged in the a
ir around them.

  “But I do not care to read any more, I tell you.”

  “Very well, I shall go at once. But I am leaving for Paris on Wednesday, and shall not see you again until the fall.”

  “It would be like you to go without even stopping in to say good-by.”

  Even when they were angry they still talked to each other like two grown-up people wrapped together in a secret. The sound of his soft, padding rubber heels came near.

  “Good night, my dearest Doña Paz. I have had an enchanting evening.”

  Mamacita’s knees moved; she meant to rise.

  “What—asleep, Violeta? Well, let us hear often from you, my dear nephew. Your little cousins and I will miss you greatly.”

  Mamacita was wide-awake and smiling, holding Carlos’ hands. They kissed. Carlos turned to Blanca and bent to kiss her. She swept him into the folds of the gray shawl, but turned her cheek for his salute. Violeta rose, her knees trembling. She turned her head from side to side to close out the sight of the macaw eyes coming closer and closer, the tight, smiling mouth ready to swoop. When he touched her, she wavered for a moment, then slid up and back against the wall. She heard herself screaming uncontrollably.

  Mamacita sat upon the side of the bed and patted Violeta’s cheek. Her curved hand was warm and gentle and so were her eyes. Violeta choked a little and turned her face away.

  “I have explained to Papacito that you quarreled with your cousin Carlos and were very rude to him. Papacito says you need a good renovating.” Mamacita’s voice was soft and reassuring. Violeta lay without a pillow, the ruffled collar of her nightgown standing up about her chin. She did not answer. Even to whisper hurt her.

  “We are going to the country this week and you shall live in the garden all summer. Then you won’t be so nervous. You are quite a young lady now, and you must learn to control your nerves.”

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