The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“You worry too much, Mammy,” said her son, trying to conceal his impatience.
“I am not worrying,” said Grandmother, shifting her riding skirt to the arm carrying the portmoney. “It will scarcely be any good taking this,” she said; “I might in fact as well throw it away for this summer.”
“Never mind, Mammy, we’ll send to the Black Farm for Pompey, he’s a good easy saddler.”
“You may ride him yourself,” said Grandmother. “I’ll never mount Pompey while Fiddler is alive. Fiddler is my horse, and I hate having his mouth spoiled by a careless rider. Eliza never could ride, and she never will. . . .”
Miranda gave a little skip and ran away. So they were going to Cedar Grove. Miranda never got over being surprised at the way grown-up people simply did not seem able to give anyone a straight answer to any question, unless the answer was “No.” Then it popped out with no trouble at all. At a little distance, she heard her grandmother say, “Harry, have you seen my riding crop lately?” and her father answered, at least maybe he thought it was an answer, “Now, Mammy, for God’s sake let’s get this thing over with.” That was it, exactly.
Another strange way her father had of talking was calling Grandmother “Mammy.” Aunt Jane was Mammy. Sometimes he called Grandmother “Mama,” but she wasn’t Mama either, she was really Grandmother. Mama was dead. Dead meant gone away forever. Dying was something that happened all the time, to people and everything else. Somebody died, and there was a long string of carriages going at a slow walk over the rocky ridge of the hill towards the river while the bell tolled and tolled, and that person was never seen again by anybody. Kittens and chickens and specially little turkeys died much oftener, and sometimes calves, but hardly ever cows or horses. Lizards on rocks turned into shells, with no lizard inside at all. If caterpillars all curled up and furry didn’t move when you poked them with a stick, that meant they were dead—it was a sure sign.
When Miranda found any creature that didn’t move or make a noise, or looked somehow different from the live ones, she always buried it in a little grave with flowers on top and a smooth stone at the head. Even grasshoppers. Everything dead had to be treated this way. “This way and no other!” Grandmother always said when she was laying down the law about all kinds of things. “It must be done this way, and no other!”
Miranda went down the crooked flat-stone walk hopping zigzag between the grass tufts. First there were pomegranate and cape jessamine bushes mixed together; then it got very dark and shady and that was the fig grove. She went to her favorite fig tree where the deep branches bowed down level with her chin, and she could gather figs without having to climb and skin her knees. Grandmother hadn’t remembered to take any figs to the country the last time, she said there were plenty of them at Cedar Grove. But the ones at Cedar Grove were big soft greenish white ones, and these at home were black and sugary. It was strange that Grandmother did not seem to notice the difference. The air was sweet among the fig trees, and chickens were always getting out of the run and rushing there to eat the figs off the ground. One mother hen was scurrying around scratching and clucking. She would scratch around a fig lying there in plain sight and cluck to her children as if it was a worm and she had dug it up for them.
“Old smarty,” said Miranda, “you’re just pretending.”
When the little chickens all ran to their mother under Miranda’s fig tree, one little chicken did not move. He was spread out on his side with his eyes shut and his mouth open. He was yellow fur in spots and pinfeathers in spots, and the rest of him was naked and sunburned. “Lazy,” said Miranda, poking him with her toe. Then she saw that he was dead.
Oh, and in no time at all they’d be setting out for Halifax. Grandmother never went away, she always set out for somewhere. She’d have to hurry like anything to get him buried properly. Back into the house she went on tiptoe hoping not to be seen, for Grandmother always asked: “Where are you going, child? What are you doing? What is that you’re carrying? Where did you get it? Who gave you permission?” and after Miranda had explained all that, even if there turned out not to be anything wrong in it, nothing ever seemed so nice any more. Besides it took forever to get away.
Miranda slid open her bureau drawer, third down, left-hand side where her new shoes were still wrapped in tissue paper in a nice white box the right size for a chicken with pinfeathers. She pushed the rustling white folded things and the lavender bags out of the way and trembled a little. Down in front the carry-all wheels screeched and crunched on the gravel, with Old Uncle Jimbilly yelling like a foghorn, “Hiyi, thar, back up, you steeds! Back up thar, you!” and of course, that meant he was turning Tom and Dick around so they would be pointing towards Halifax. They’d be after her, calling and hurrying her, and she wouldn’t have time for anything and they wouldn’t listen to a word.
It wasn’t hard work digging a hole with her little spade in the loose dry soil. Miranda wrapped the slimpsy chicken in tissue paper, trying to make it look pretty, laid it in the box carefully, and covered it up with a nice mound, just like people’s. She had hardly got it piled up grave shape, kneeling and leaning to smooth it over, when a strange sound came from somewhere, a very sad little crying sound. It said Weep, weep, weep, three times like that slowly, and it seemed to come from the mound of dirt. “My goodness,” Miranda asked herself aloud, “what’s that?” She pushed her bonnet off her ears and listened hard. “Weep, weep,” said the tiny sad voice. And People began calling and urging her, their voices coming nearer. She began to clamor, too.
“Yes, Aunty, wait a minute, Aunty!”
“You come right on here this minute, we’re goin’!”
“You have to wait, Aunty!”
Her father was coming along the edge of the fig trees. “Hurry up, Baby, you’ll get left!”
Miranda felt she couldn’t bear to be left. She ran all shaking with fright. Her father gave her the annoyed look he always gave her when he said something to upset her and then saw that she was upset. His words were kind but his voice scolded: “Stop getting so excited, Baby, you know we wouldn’t leave you for anything.” Miranda wanted to talk back: “Then why did you say so?” but she was still listening for that tiny sound: “Weep, weep.” She lagged and pulled backward, looking over her shoulder, but her father hurried her towards the carry-all. But things didn’t make sounds if they were dead. They couldn’t. That was one of the signs. Oh, but she had heard it.
Her father sat in front and drove, and old Uncle Jimbilly didn’t do anything but get down and open gates. Grandmother and Aunt Nannie sat in the back seat, with Miranda between them. She loved setting out somewhere, with everybody smiling and settling down and looking up at the weather, with the horses bouncing and pulling on the reins, the springs jolting and swaying with a creaky noise that made you feel sure you were traveling. That evening she would go wading with Maria and Paul and Uncle Jimbilly, and that very night she would lie out on the grass in her nightgown to cool off, and they would all drink lemonade before going to bed. Sister Maria and Brother Paul would already be burned like muffins because they were sent on ahead the minute school was out. Sister Maria had got freckled and Father was furious. “Keep your bonnet on,” he said to Miranda, sternly. “Now remember. I’m not going to have that face ruined, too.” But oh, what had made that funny sound? Miranda’s ears buzzed and she had a dull round pain in her just under her front ribs. She had to go back and let him out. He’d never get out by himself, all tangled up in tissue paper and that shoebox. He’d never get out without her.
“Grandmother, I’ve got to go back. Oh, I’ve got to go back!”
Grandmother turned Miranda’s face around by the chin and looked at her closely, the way grown folks did. Grandmother’s eyes were always the same. They never looked kind or sad or angry or tired or anything. They just looked, blue and still. “What is the matter with you, Miranda, what happened?”
“Oh, I’ve got to go back—I forg-got something important.”
Miranda couldn’t stop. Her father looked very anxious. “Mammy, maybe the Baby’s sick.” He reached out his handkerchief to her face. “What’s the matter with my honey? Did you eat something?”
Miranda had to stand up to cry as hard as she wanted to. The wheels went grinding round in the road, the carry-all wobbled so that Grandmother had to take her by one arm, and her father by the other. They stared at each other over Miranda’s head with a moveless gaze that Miranda had seen often, and their eyes looked exactly alike. Miranda blinked up at them, waiting to see who would win. Then Grandmother’s hand fell away, and Miranda was handed over to her father. He gave the reins to Uncle Jimbilly, and lifted her over the top of the seat. She sprawled against his chest and knees as if he were an armchair and stopped crying at once. “We can’t go back just for notions,” he told her in the reasoning tone he always talked in when Grandmother scolded, and held the muffly handkerchief for her. “Now, blow hard. What did you forget, honey? We’ll find another. Was it your doll?”
Miranda hated dolls. She never played with them. She always pulled the wigs off and tied them on the kittens, like hats. The kittens pulled them off instantly. It was fun. She put the doll clothes on the kittens and it took any one of them just half a minute to get them all off again. Kittens had sense. Miranda wailed suddenly, “Oh, I want my doll!” and cried again, trying to drown out the strange little sound, “Weep, weep”—
“Well now, if that’s all,” said her father comfortably, “there’s a raft of dolls at Cedar Grove, and about forty fresh kittens. How’d you like that?”
“Forty?” asked Miranda.
“About,” said Father.
Old Aunt Nannie leaned and held out her hand. “Look, honey, I toted you some nice black figs.”
Her face was wrinkled and black and it looked like a fig upside down with a white ruffled cap. Miranda clenched her eyes tight and shook her head.
“Is that a pretty way to behave when Aunt Nannie offers you something nice?” asked Grandmother in her gentle reminding tone of voice.
“No, ma’am,” said Miranda meekly. “Thank you, Aunt Nannie.” But she did not accept the figs.
Great-Aunt Eliza, half way up a stepladder pitched against the flat-roofed chicken house, was telling Hinry just how to set up her telescope. “For a fellow who never saw or heard of a telescope,” Great-Aunt Eliza said to Grandmother, who was really her sister Sophia Jane, “he doesn’t do so badly so long as I tell him.”
“I do wish you’d stop clambering up stepladders, Eliza,” said Grandmother, “at your time of life.”
“You’re nothing but a nervous wreck, Sophia, I declare. When did you ever know me to get hurt?”
“Even so,” said Grandmother tartly, “there is such a thing as appropriate behavior at your time of. . .”
Great-Aunt Eliza seized a fold of her heavy brown pleated skirt with one hand, with the other she grasped the ladder one rung higher and ascended another step. “Now Hinry,” she called, “just swing it around facing west and leave it level. I’ll fix it the way I want when I’m ready. You can come on down now.” She came down then herself, and said to her sister: “So long as you can go bouncing off on that horse of yours, Sophia Jane, I s’pose I can climb ladders. I’m three years younger than you, and at your time of life that makes all the difference!”
Grandmother turned pink as the inside of a seashell, the one on her sewing table that had the sound of the sea in it; Miranda knew that she had always been the pretty one, and she was pretty still, but Great-Aunt Eliza was not pretty now and never had been. Miranda, watching and listening—for everything in the world was strange to her and something she had to know about—saw two old women, who were proud of being grandmothers, who spoke to children always as if they knew best about everything and children knew nothing, and they told children all day long to come here, go there, do this, do not do that, and they were always right and children never were except when they did anything they were told right away without a word. And here they were bickering like two little girls at school, or even the way Miranda and her sister Maria bickered and nagged and picked on each other and said things on purpose to hurt each other’s feelings. Miranda felt sad and strange and a little frightened. She began edging away.
“Where are you going, Miranda?” asked Grandmother in her everyday voice.
“Just to the house,” said Miranda, her heart sinking.
“Wait and walk with us,” said Grandmother. She was very thin and pale and had white hair. Beside her, Great-Aunt Eliza loomed like a mountain with her grizzled iron-colored hair like a curly wig, her steel-rimmed spectacles over her snuff-colored eyes, and snuff-colored woollen skirts billowing about her, and her smell of snuff. When she came through the door she quite filled it up. When she sat down the chair disappeared under her, and she seemed to be sitting solidly on herself from her waistband to the floor.
Now with Grandmother sitting across the room rummaging in her work basket and pretending not to see anything, Great-Aunt Eliza took a small brown bottle out of her pocket, opened it, took a pinch of snuff in each nostril, sneezed loudly, wiped her nose with a big white starchy-looking handkerchief, pushed her spectacles up on her forehead, took a little twig chewed into a brush at one end, dipped and twisted it around in the little bottle, and placed it firmly between her teeth. Miranda had heard of this shameful habit in women of the lower classes, but no lady had been known to “dip snuff,” and surely not in the family. Yet here was Great-Aunt Eliza, a lady even if not a very pretty one, dipping snuff. Miranda knew how her grandmother felt about it; she stared fascinated at Great-Aunt Eliza until her eyes watered. Great-Aunt Eliza stared back in turn.
“Look here, young one, d’ye s’pose if I gave you a gumdrop you’d get out from underfoot?”
She reached in the other pocket and took out a roundish, rather crushed-looking pink gumdrop with the sugar coating pretty badly crackled. “Now take this, and don’t let me lay eyes on you any more today.”
Miranda hurried away, clenching the gumdrop in her palm. When she reached the kitchen it was oozing through her fingers. She went to the tap and held her hand under the water and tried to wash off the snuffy smell. After this crime she did not really dare go near Great-Aunt Eliza again soon. “What did you do with that gumdrop so quickly, child?” she could almost hear her asking.
Yet Miranda almost forgot her usual interests, such as kittens and other little animals on the place, pigs, chickens, rabbits, anything at all so it was a baby and would let her pet and feed it, for Great-Aunt Eliza’s ways and habits kept Miranda following her about, gazing, or sitting across the dining-table, gazing, for when Great-Aunt Eliza was not on the roof before her telescope, always just before daylight or just after dark, she was walking about with a microscope and a burning glass, peering closely at something she saw on a tree trunk, something she found in the grass; now and then she collected fragments that looked like dried leaves or bits of bark, brought them in the house, spread them out on a sheet of white paper, and sat there, poring, as still as if she were saying her prayers. At table she would dissect a scrap of potato peeling or anything else she might be eating, and sit there, bowed over, saying, “Hum,” from time to time. Grandmother, who did not allow the children to bring anything to the table to play with and who forbade them to do anything but eat while they were there, ignored her sister’s manners as long as she could, then remarked one day, when Great-Aunt Eliza was humming like a bee to herself over what her microscope had found in a raisin, “Eliza, if it is interesting save it for me to look at after dinner. Or tell me what it is.”
“You wouldn’t know if I told you,” said Great-Aunt Eliza, coolly, putting her microscope away and finishing off her pudding.
When at last, just before they were all going back to town again, Great-Aunt Eliza invited the children to climb the ladder with her and see the stars through her telescope, they were s
“Why, of course, child,” said Great-Aunt Eliza, in her growling voice, but kindly, “other worlds, a million other worlds.”
“Like this one?” asked Miranda, timidly.
“Nobody knows, child. . . .”
“Nobody knows, nobody knows,” Miranda sang to a tune in her head, and when the others walked on, she was so dazzled with joy she fell back by herself, walking a little distance behind Great-Aunt Eliza’s swinging lantern and her wideswinging skirts. They took the dewy path through the fig grove, much like the one in town, with the early dew bringing out the sweet smell of the milky leaves. They passed a fig tree with low hanging branches, and Miranda reached up by habit and touched it with her fingers for luck. From the earth beneath her feet came a terrible, faint troubled sound. “Weep weep, weep weep. . .” murmured a little crying voice from the smothering earth, the grave.
Miranda bounded like a startled pony against the back of Great-Aunt Eliza’s knees, crying out, “Oh, oh, oh, wait. . .”
“What on earth’s the matter, child?”
Miranda seized the warm snuffy hand held out to her and hung on hard. “Oh, there’s something saying ‘weep weep’ out of the ground!”
Great-Aunt Eliza stooped, put her arm around Miranda and listened carefully, for a moment. “Hear them?” she said. “They’re not in the ground at all. They are the first tree frogs, means it’s going to rain,” she said, “weep weep—hear them?”
Miranda took a deep trembling breath and heard them. They were in the trees. They walked on again, Miranda holding Great-Aunt Eliza’s hand.
“Just think,” said Great-Aunt Eliza, in her most scientific voice, “when tree frogs shed their skins, they pull them off over their heads like little shirts, and they eat them. Can you imagine? They have the prettiest little shapes you ever saw—I’ll show you one some time under the microscope.”