The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“Raincheck, get your raincheck!” said a very disagreeable looking fellow as they passed. Dicey turned toward him almost in tears herself. “Mister, caint you see I won’t be able to git back? I got this young un to see to. . . What good dat lil piece of paper goin to do me?” All the way home she was cross, and grumbled under her breath: little ole meany. . . little ole scare-cat. . . gret big baby. . . never go nowhere. . . never see nothin. . . come on here now, hurry up—always ruinin everything for othah folks. . . won’t let anybody rest a minute, won’t let anybody have any good times. . . come on here now, you wanted to go home and you’re going there. . . snatching Miranda along, vicious but cautious, careful not to cross the line where Miranda could say outright: “Dicey did this or said this to me. . .” Dicey was allowed a certain freedom up to a point.
The family trooped into the house just before dark and scattered out all over it. From every room came the sound of chatter and laughter. The other children told Miranda what she had missed: wonderful little ponies with plumes and bells on their bridles, ridden by darling little monkeys in velvet jackets and peaked hats. . . trained white goats that danced. . . a baby elephant that crossed his front feet and leaned against his cage and opened his mouth to be fed, such a baby!. . . more clowns, funnier than the first one even. . . beautiful ladies with bright yellow hair, wearing white silk tights with red satin sashes had performed on white trapezes; they also had hung by their toes, but how gracefully, like flying birds! Huge white horses had lolloped around and round the ring with men and women dancing on their backs! One man had swung by his teeth from the top of the tent and another had put his head in a lion’s mouth. Ah, what she had not missed! Everybody had been enjoying themselves while she was missing her first big circus and spoiling the day for Dicey. Poor Dicey. Poor dear Dicey. The other children who hadn’t thought of Dicey until that moment, mourned over her with sad mouths, their malicious eyes watching Miranda squirm. Dicey had been looking forward for weeks to this day! And then Miranda must get scared—“Can you imagine being afraid of that funny old clown?” each one asked the other, and then they smiled pityingly on Miranda. . .
Then too, it had been a very important occasion in another way: it was the first time Grandmother had ever allowed herself to be persuaded to go to the circus. One could not gather, from her rather generalized opinions, whether there had been no circuses when she was young, or there had been and it was not proper to see them. At any rate for her usual sound reasons, Grandmother had never approved of circuses, and though she would not deny she had been amused somewhat, still there had been sights and sounds in this one which she maintained were, to say the least, not particularly edifying to the young. Her son Harry, who came in while the children made an early supper, looked at their illuminated faces, all the brothers and sisters and visiting cousins, and said, “This basket of young doesn’t seem to be much damaged.” His mother said, “The fruits of their present are in a future so far off, neither of us may live to know whether harm has been done or not. That is the trouble,” and she went on ladling out hot milk to pour over their buttered toast. Miranda was sitting silent, her underlip drooping. Her father smiled at her. “You missed it, Baby,” he said softly, “and what good did that do you?”
Miranda burst again into tears: had to be taken away at last, and her supper was brought up to her. Dicey was exasperated and silent. Miranda could not eat. She tried, as if she were really remembering them, to think of the beautiful wild beings in white satin and spangles and red sashes who danced and frolicked on the trapezes; of the sweet little furry ponies and the lovely pet monkeys in their comical clothes. She fell asleep, and her invented memories gave way before her real ones, the bitter terrified face of the man in blowsy white falling to his death—ah, the cruel joke!—and the terrible grimace of the unsmiling dwarf. She screamed in her sleep and sat up crying for deliverance from her torments.
Dicey came, her cross, sleepy eyes half-closed, her big dark mouth pouted, thumping the floor with her thick bare feet. “I swear,” she said, in a violent hoarse whisper. “What the matter with you? You need a good spankin, I swear! Wakin everybody up like this. . .”
Miranda was completely subjugated by her fears. She had a way of answering Dicey back. She would say, “Oh, hush up, Dicey.” Or she would say, “I don’t have to mind you. I don’t have to mind anybody but my grandmother,” which was provokingly true. And she would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” The day just past had changed that. Miranda sincerely did not want anybody, not even Dicey, to be cross with her. Ordinarily she did not care how cross she made the harassed adults around her. Now if Dicey must be cross, she still did not really care, if only Dicey might not turn out the lights and leave her to the fathomless terrors of the darkness where sleep could overtake her once more.
She hugged Dicey with both arms, crying, “Don’t, don’t leave me. Don’t be so angry! I c-c-can’t b-bear it!”
Dicey lay down beside her with a long moaning sigh, which meant that she was collecting her patience and making up her mind to remember that she was a Christian and must bear her cross. “Now you go to sleep,” she said, in her usual warm being-good voice. “Now you jes shut yo eyes and go to sleep. I ain’t going to leave you. Dicey ain’t mad at nobody. . . nobody in the whole worl’. . .”
THE LAST LEAF
Old Nannie sat hunched upon herself expecting her own death momentarily. The Grandmother had said to her at parting, with the easy prophecy of the aged, that this might be their last farewell on earth; they embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks, and once more promised to meet each other in heaven. Nannie was prepared to start her journey at once. The children gathered around her: “Aunt Nannie, never you mind! We love you!” She paid no attention; she did not care whether they loved her or not. Years afterward, Maria, the elder girl, thought with a pang, they had not really been so very nice to Aunt Nannie. They went on depending upon her as they always had, letting her assume more burdens and more, allowing her to work harder than she should have. The old woman grew silent, hunched over more deeply—she was thin and tall also, with a nobly modeled Negro face, worn to the bone and a thick fine sooty black, no mixed blood in Nannie—and her spine seemed suddenly to have given way. They could hear her groaning at night on her knees beside her bed, asking God to let her rest.
When a black family moved out of a little cabin across the narrow creek, the first cabin empty for years, Nannie went down to look at it. She came back and asked Mister Harry, “Whut you aim to do wid dat cabin?” Mister Harry said, “Nothing,” he supposed; and Nannie asked for it. She wanted a house of her own, she said; in her whole life she never had a place of her very own. Mister Harry said, of course she could have it. But the whole family was surprised, a little wounded. “Lemme go there and pass my last days in peace, chil’ren,” she said. They had the place scrubbed and whitewashed, shelves put in and the chimney cleaned, they fixed Nannie up with a good bed and a fairly good carpet and allowed her to take all sorts of odds and ends from the house. It was astonishing to discover that Nannie had always liked and hoped to own certain things, she had seemed so contented and wantless. She moved away, and as the children said afterwards to each other, it was almost funny and certainly very sweet to see how she tried not to be too happy the day she left, but they felt rather put upon, just the same.
Thereafter she sat in the serene idleness of making patchwork and braiding woolen rugs. Her grandchildren and her white family visited her, and all kinds of white persons who had never owned a soul related to Nannie, went to see her, to buy her rugs or leave little presents with her.
She had always worn black wool dresses, or black and white figured calico with starchy white aprons and a white ruffled mobcap, or a black taffety cap for Sundays. She had been finicking precise and neat in her ways, and she still was. But she was no more the faithful old servant Nannie, a freed slave: she was an aged Bantu woman of independent means, sitting on the steps, breathing
The children, brought up in an out-of-date sentimental way of thinking, had always complacently believed that Nannie was a real member of the family, perfectly happy with them, and this rebuke, so quietly and firmly administered, chastened them somewhat. The lesson sank in as the years went on and Nannie continued to sit on the doorstep of her cabin. They were growing up, times were changing, the old world was sliding from under their feet, they had not yet laid hold of the new one. They missed Nannie every day. As their fortunes went down, and they had very few servants, they needed her terribly. They realized how much the old woman had done for them, simply by seeing how, almost immediately after she went, everything slackened, lost tone, went off edge. Work did not accomplish itself as it once had. They had not learned how to work for themselves, they were all lazy and incapable of sustained effort or planning. They had not been taught and they had not yet educated themselves. Now and then Nannie would come back up the hill for a visit. She worked then almost as she had before, with a kind of satisfaction in proving to them that she had been almost indispensable. They would miss her more than ever when she went away. To show their gratitude, and their hope that she would come again, they would heap upon her baskets and bales of the precious rubbish she loved, and one of her great grandsons Skid or Hasty would push them away beside her on a wheelbarrow. She would again for a moment be the amiable, dependent, like-one-of-the-family old servant: “I know my chil’ren won’t let me go away empty-handed.”
Uncle Jimbilly still pottered around, mending harness, currying horses, patching fences, now and then setting out a few plants or loosening the earth around shrubs in the spring. He muttered perpetually to himself, his blue mouth always moving in an endless disjointed comment on things past and present, and even to come, no doubt, though there was nothing about him that suggested any connection with even the nearest future. . . Maria had not realized until after her grandmother’s death that Uncle Jimbilly and Aunt Nannie were husband and wife. . . That marriage of convenience, in which they had been mated with truly royal policy, with an eye to the blood and family stability, had dissolved of itself between them when the reasons for its being had likewise dissolved. . . They took no notice whatever of each other’s existence, they seemed to forget they had children together (each spoke of “my children”), they had stored up no common memories that either wished to keep. Aunt Nannie moved away into her own house without even a glance or thought for Uncle Jimbilly, and he did not seem to notice that she was gone. . . He slept in a little attic over the smoke-house, and ate in the kitchen at odd hours, and did as he pleased, lonely as a wandering spirit and almost as invisible. . . But one day he passed by the little house and saw Aunt Nannie sitting on her steps with her pipe. He sat down awhile, groaning a little as he bent himself into angles, and sunned himself like a weary old dog. He would have stayed on from that minute, but Nannie would not have him. “Whut you doin with all this big house to yoself?” he wanted to know. “’Tain’t no more than just enough fo’ me,” she told him pointedly; “I don’ aim to pass my las’ days waitin on no man,” she added, “I’ve served my time, I’ve done my do, and dat’s all.” So Uncle Jimbilly crept back up the hill and into his smoke-house attic, and never went near her again. . .
On summer evenings she sat by herself long after dark, smoking to keep away the mosquitoes, until she was ready to sleep. She said she wasn’t afraid of anything: never had been, never expected to be. She had long ago got in the way of thinking that night was a blessing, it brought the time when she didn’t have to work any more until tomorrow. Even after she stopped working for good and all, she still looked forward with longing to the night, as if all the accumulated fatigues of her life, lying now embedded in her bones, still begged for easement. But when night came, she remembered that she didn’t have to get up in the morning until she was ready. So she would sit in the luxury of having at her disposal all of God’s good time there was in this world.
When Mister Harry, in the old days, had stood out against her word in some petty dispute, she could always get the better of him by slapping her slatty old chest with the flat of her long hand and crying out: “Why, Mister Harry, you, ain’t you shamed to talk lak dat to me? I nuhsed you at dis bosom!”
Harry knew this was not literally true. She had nursed three of his elder brothers; but he always said at once, “All right, Mammy, all right, for God’s sake!”—precisely as he said it to his own mother, exploding in his natural irascibility as if he hoped to clear the air somewhat of the smothering matriarchal tyranny to which he had been delivered by the death of his father. Still he submitted, being of that latest generation of sons who acknowledged, however reluctantly, however bitterly, their mystical never to be forgiven debt to the womb that bore them, and the breast that suckled them.
THE FIG TREE
Old Aunt Nannie had a habit of gripping with her knees to hold Miranda while she brushed her hair or buttoned her dress down the back. When Miranda wriggled, Aunt Nannie squeezed still harder, and Miranda wriggled more, but never enough to get away. Aunt Nannie gathered up Miranda’s scalp lock firmly, snapped a rubber band around it, jammed a freshly starched white chambray bonnet over her ears and forehead, fastened the crown to the lock with a large safety pin, and said: “Got to hold you still someways. Here now, don’t you take this off your head till the sun go down.”
“I didn’t want a bonnet, it’s too hot, I wanted a hat,” said Miranda.
“You not goin’ to get a hat, you goin’ to get just what you got,” said Aunt Nannie in the bossy voice she used for washing and dressing time, “and mo’over some of these days I’m goin’ to sew this bonnet to your topknot. Your daddy says if you get freckles he blame me. Now, you’re all ready to set out.”
“Where are we going, Aunty?” Miranda could never find out about anything until the last minute. She was always being surprised. Once she went to sleep in her bed with her kitten curled on the pillow purring, and woke up in a stuffy tight bed in a train, hugging a hot-water bottle; and there was Grandmother stretched out beside her in her McLeod tartan dressing-gown, her eyes wide open. Miranda thought something wonderful had happened. “My goodness, Grandmother, where are we going?” And it was only for another trip to El Paso to see Uncle Bill.
Now Tom and Dick were hitched to the carry-all standing outside the gate with boxes and baskets tied on everywhere. Grandmother was walking alone through the house very slowly, taking a last look at everything. Now and then she put something else in the big leather portmoney on her arm until it was pretty bulgy. She carried a long black mohair skirt on her other arm, the one she put on over her other skirt when she rode horseback. Her son Harry, Miranda’s father, followed her saying: “I can’t see the sense in rushing off to Halifax on five minutes’ notice.”
Grandmother said, walking on: “It’s five hours exactly.” Halifax wasn’t the name of Grandmother’s farm at all, it was Cedar Grove, but Father always called it Halifax. “Hot as Halifax,” he would say when he wanted to describe something very hot. Cedar Grove was very hot, but they went there every summer because Grandmother loved it. “I went to Cedar Grove for fifty summers before you were born,” she told Miranda, who remembered last summer very well, and the summer before a little. Miranda liked it for watermelons and grasshoppers and the long rows of blooming chinaberry trees where the hounds flattened themselves out and slept. They whined and winked their eyelids and worked their feet and barked faintly in their sleep, and Uncle Jimbilly said it was because dogs always dreamed they were chasing something. In the middle of the day when Miranda looked down over the thick green fields towards the spring she could s
“Are we going to Halifax, Aunty?”
“Now just ask your dad if you wanta know so much.”
“Are we going to Halifax, Dad?”
Her father twitched her bonnet straight and pulled her hair forward so it would show. “You mustn’t get sunburned. No, let it alone. Show the pretty curls. You’ll be wading in Whirlypool before supper this evening.”
Grandmother said, “Don’t say Halifax, child, say Cedar Grove. Call things by their right names.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Miranda. Grandmother said again, to her son, “It’s five hours, exactly, and your Aunt Eliza has had plenty of time to pack up her telescope, and take my saddle horse. She’s been there three hours by now. I imagine she’s got the telescope already set up on the hen-house roof. I hope nothing happens.”