The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Though Kuno’s mother was said to be a Baroness in Germany, in Texas she was the wife of a prosperous merchant, a furniture dealer. The Kentuckians, who were gradually starving on the land, thought the land the only honorable means to a living, unless one entered a profession; and Charles, whose family made their living, such as it was, from a blackland farm, wondered at the pride with which Kuno would lead him past his father’s shop windows to show him the latest display of fashionable, highly polished and stuffed furniture. Looking through the broad clear window into the depths of the shop, Mr. Hillentafel, Kuno’s father, could be seen dimly, pencil behind his ear, in his black alpaca coat, his head inclined attentively before a customer. Charles, used to seeing his father on horseback, or standing about the barns with the Negroes, looking at the animals, or walking the fields in his big boots, or riding on the cast iron seat of a plow or harrow, felt he would have been ashamed to see his father in a store, following someone about trying to sell him something. The only time he had ever felt like fighting with Kuno was after Kuno had returned from the second visit to Germany, when they were both about eight years old. Kuno one day spoke contemptuously of farmers, calling them a name in German which Charles did not understand. “They’re as good as storekeepers,” Charles said in a fury. “Your papa’s just a storekeeper.” Kuno had shouted back, “My mother is a Baroness, and we were all born in Germany, so we would be Germans. In Germany only low-down people work on farms.”

  “Well, if you are German, why don’t you go and live there?” Charles had shouted back, and Kuno had said very proudly, “There is a big war there, and they wanted to keep my mama and my papa and all of us there, but we had to come back.” Kuno then began to explain in a mystified way how they almost hadn’t got back; they had almost got locked up in a prison somewhere, but some big important people came and got them out, and in the exciting but confused tale which followed, Charles forgot his quarrel with Kuno. “It was because my mother is a Baroness,” Kuno said. “That is why we got away.”

  But after the war, Mr. Hillentafel took his family back to Germany for a few months every two years, and Kuno’s postcards, with their foreign stamps, coming from far-off places like Bremen and Wiesbaden and Mannheim and Heidelberg and Berlin, had brought the great world across the sea, the blue silent deep world of Europe, straight to Charles’ door. When he returned, Kuno always had new, odd but serious-looking clothes. He brought fascinating mechanical toys; and later, neckties of strange rich material, coats with stitched pockets, and blunt-toed thick shoes of light brown leather, all made by hand, he said. Kuno would say in the little accent he always brought back and which took several weeks to wear off, “No, but if you don’t go to Berlin, you miss everything. We waste time always in those horrid little places, Mannheim and so on, we have to visit with our dull relatives, of course, they are stuck to the necks there, but in Berlin. . .” and he would talk for hours about Berlin until Charles in his imagination saw it as a great shimmering city of castles towering in misty light. How had he got such an image? Kuno had said only, “The streets are polished like a table top and they are as wide as—” he would measure with his eye the street they were walking in, a very narrow crooked dirty little street in an old colonial Spanish city—“oh, five times as wide as this. And the buildings—” he would glance up, disgust in his face for the flat roofs lowering over them—“they are all of stone and marble and are carved, carved all over, with pillars and statues everywhere and staircases wider than a house, winding. . .”

  “My father says,” Charles said once, trying to keep abreast of all this knowledge of grandeur, “in Mexico the horses have silver bridles.”

  “I don’t believe it,” said Kuno, “and if they do, it’s nonsense. Who would be so silly as to bridle a horse with silver? But in Berlin, there are marble houses carved all over with roses, loops of roses. . .”

  “That sounds silly too,” said Charles, but feebly, because it did not sound silly at all, any more than did the silver bridles on the horses of Mexico. Those things were what he would like, what he most longed to see, and he said, easily, “I’ll go there too, some day.”

  Kuno played the violin, and went twice a week to a stern old German teacher who cracked him over the head with a bow when he made mistakes; and his parents forced him to practice three hours every day. Charles wanted to paint and draw, but his parents thought he wasted time at it when he could have been doing something useful, like studying, so he merely scratched around with charcoal on odd sheets of paper, or dabbled for hours in some retired spot with brushes that shed hairs in his poorly equipped paint boxes. On the fourth or fifth voyage to Germany, when Kuno was about fifteen, he died there and was buried in Wiesbaden. His parents, bringing back, beside the elder brother and sister, a new baby, the second within Charles’ memory, were very silent on the subject. They were all fair, tall, lightboned, rather lifeless people, and Charles, who had no friendship with any of them but Kuno, hardly saw them or thought of them any more.

  Charles, sitting in the café, trying to put his mind on the necessity for beginning a search for a cheaper room, thought, If it hadn’t been for Kuno I should never have come here. I would have gone to Paris, or to Madrid. Maybe I should have gone to Mexico. That’s a good place for painters. . . . This is not right. There is something wrong with the shapes, or the light, or something. . . .

  His father had been to Mexico when he was young and had told Charles long stories, but Charles had never listened to him as he had to Kuno. So here he was, trying to be a painter, even believing by now that he was really going to be a good one, and he had come, as he believed, on a reasoned decision strictly his own. In his new, vague, almost shapeless misgivings, his half-acknowledged disappointment in the place—what was it?—he began to understand that he had come to Berlin because Kuno had made it seem the one desirable place to be. He hardly ever thought of Kuno any more, or had not for a long time, except simply as dead, though that went on being hard to believe; still it was just those colored postcards of Kuno’s and those stories, and the way Kuno had felt then, and had made him feel, that had brought him here. Soberly facing facts, he decided that wasn’t enough reason, not half enough. But still he decided also to stay, if he possibly could.

  It would be four days until New Year’s, and Charles began to think seriously about money. The next boat would bring him a check from his father, who had decided, in a kind of mixed despair and pride in his son’s talent, to help him. Charles, keeping accounts in a book, had resolved it should all be repaid. The editor of a small art magazine was publishing a series of his drawings, and was going to pay for them. If these failed, he saw clearly that even beer for his New Year’s celebration would be out of the question. Still, at one time or another, the sooner the better, there would be a boat coming from America, and it would bring him money, not much, but enough to keep him going. Meantime, he thought of his expensive camera, which a Kentucky aunt had given him, and decided instantly to pawn it. He also had his grandfather’s big gold watch. Why, he was rich. This settled, the question went out of his mind, except for a faint uneasiness as to where his money had gone. In the days before Christmas he had dropped, rather carelessly, without counting, small change into the hats and outspread handkerchiefs of the men along the streets, who were making the most of their holiday licenses to beg. Some of them begged in orderly groups, singing carols familiar to him from the days when his parents took him to the German Singing Society at home: “Heilige Nacht,” “O Tannenbaum,” Martin Luther’s “Cradle Song,” in the familiar singing society voices, even, full, melodious. They had stood there with their ragged shoes sunk in the slushy snow, starving and blue-nosed, singing in their mourning voices, accepting coins with grave nods, keeping their eyes fixed on each other as they beat time softly with their hands.

  Others stood alone, and these the most miserable, each man isolated in his incurable misfortune. Those blinded or otherwise mutilated in the war wore a certain band on their sl
eeves to prove that they had more than any others earned the right to beg, and merited special charity. Charles, with his almost empty pockets, nothing in them except the future, which he felt he owned, saw a tall young man so emaciated his teeth stood out in ridges under the mottled tight skin of his cheeks, standing at the curb with a placard around his neck which read: “I will take any work you can offer.” Almost furtively, Charles slipped a mark into the limp hollowed palm, then stepped into the doorway near by, and sheltered by fir trees piled before a shop, their sweet odor in his nostrils, with cold fingers he sketched hastily the stiff figure in its abject garments, surmounted by that skull of famine.

  He walked on thinking it would be a relief when the necessity for appearing to celebrate something was over, remembering with the present smell of freshly cut fir the smell of apples along the curbs of New York streets, while he was roaming about the picture galleries waiting for his boat. Men stood shivering by the fruit, or patrolled the sidewalks, saying, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” The saying had become famous, a catchword, at once. Then almost overnight the whole thing had become simply a picturesque aspect of the times, a piece of local color, a current fad. Even if the plight of the men was real, it was not going to last; the breadlines were only temporary, the newspapers insisted, and gave strange wonderful far-fetched reasons for the situation, as if it had been a phenomenon of nature, like an earthquake, or a cloudburst.

  Here, Charles could see, the misery was acknowledged as real and the sufferers seemed to know they had no reason for hope. There was none of the raffish manner of the apple-sellers, but just complete hopelessness and utter endurance. . . . Yet back of them the windows along Kurfürstendamm and Unter den Linden were filled with fine wools and furs and overcoats and great shining motor cars. Charles, walking and gazing, compared them with the New York windows back of the apple sellers and the beggars. They were by no means so fine, but where were the buyers? In New York the buyers streamed gaily in and out of shops, dropping dimes into extended hands. Here, a few dully dressed persons stood and stared, but when he glanced in, the shops were almost empty. The streets were full of young people, lean and tough, boys and girls alike dressed in leather jackets or a kind of uniform blue ski suit, who whizzed about the streets on bicycles without a glance at the windows. Charles saw them carrying skis on their shoulders, shouting and laughing in groups, getting away to the mountains over the weekend. He watched them enviously; maybe if he stayed on long enough he would know some of them, he would be riding a bicycle and going away for the skiing, too. It seemed unlikely, though.

  He would wander on, and the thicker the crowd in which he found himself, the more alien he felt himself to be. He had watched a group of middle-aged men and women who were gathered in silence before two adjoining windows, gazing silently at displays of toy pigs and sugar pigs. These persons were all strangely of a kind, and strangely the most prevalent type. The streets were full of them—enormous waddling women with short legs and ill-humored faces and roundheaded men with great rolls of fat across the backs of their necks, who seemed to support their swollen bellies with an effort that drew their shoulders forward. Nearly all of them were leading their slender, overbred, short-legged dogs in pairs on fancy leashes. The dogs wore their winter clothes: wool sweaters, fur ruffs, and fleece-lined rubber boots. The creatures whined and complained and shivered, and their owners lifted them up tenderly to show them the pigs.

  In one window there were sausages, hams, bacon, small pink chops; all pig, real pig, fresh, smoked, salted, baked, roasted, pickled, spiced, and jellied. In the other were dainty artificial pigs, almond paste pigs, pink sugar chops, chocolate sausages, tiny hams and bacons of melting cream streaked and colored to the very life. Among the tinsel and lace paper, at the back were still other kinds of pigs: plush pigs, black velvet pigs, spotted cotton pigs, metal and wooden mechanical pigs, all with frolicsome curled tails and appealing infant faces.

  With their nervous dogs wailing in their arms, the people, shameless mounds of fat, stood in a trance of pig worship, gazing with eyes damp with admiration and appetite. They resembled the most unkind caricatures of themselves, but they were the very kind of people that Holbein and Dürer and Urs Graf had drawn, too: not vaguely, but positively like, their latemedieval faces full of hallucinated malice and a kind of sluggish but intense cruelty that worked its way up from their depths slowly through the layers of helpless gluttonous fat.

  The thin snow continued to fall and whiten rounded shoulders and lumpy hat brims. Charles, feeling the flakes inside his collar, had walked on with intention to get away from the spectacle which struck him as revolting. He had walked on into Friedrichstrasse, where, in the early evening, the thin streetwalkers came out and moved rather swiftly in the middle of the pavement, and though they all appeared to be going somewhere, they never left each one her own certain fixed station. They seemed quite unapproachable to Charles in their black lace skirts and high gilded heels, their feathered hats and grease paint. On his first evening in Berlin a young unsmiling one had spoken to him, inviting him without enthusiasm to come with her. He had stammered a phrase which he hoped meant, “I haven’t time now,” fearing that she would insist. She had given him a serious, appraising glance, saw, to his shame, that the market was no good, and had turned away with an indifferent, “Well, good evening.” At home, his adventures had all been with girls he knew, and the element of chance had always been present. Any given occasion might go off very well, and it might not; he felt he had learned a lot from what he described to himself as the block and tackle, balance and check, trial and error method. These reserved-looking professional women, almost as regimented as soldiers in uniform, roused in him uneasy curiosity and distrust. He hoped quite constantly he was going to meet some gay young girls, students perhaps; there seemed to be plenty of them about, but not one had given him the eye yet. He had stopped in a doorway and hastily jotted a few broad-bottomed figures, sagging faces, and dressed pigs, in his notebook. He sketched a specially haggard and frustrated looking streetwalker with a preposterous tilt to her feathered hat. He tried at first not to be seen at his occupation, but discovered soon that he need not worry, for, in fact, nobody noticed him.

  These rather scattered impressions were in his mind and he was very dissatisfied with all of them as he folded up his map and pamphlet and set out walking to find a room in Berlin. In the first dozen squares he counted five more of those rather sick-looking young men with fresh wounds in their cheeks, long heavy slashes badly mended with tape and cotton, and thought again that nobody had told him to expect that.

  Two days later he was still tramping the snowy streets, ringing doorbells and crawling back to the little hotel in the evenings pretty well dead on his feet. On the morning of the third day, when his search brought him finally to the third floor of a solid looking apartment house in Bambergerstrasse, he took pains to observe very attentively the face of the woman who opened the door. In such a short time he had learned a wholesome terror of landladies in that city. They were smiling foxes, famished wolves, slovenly house cats, mere tigers, hyenas, furies, harpies: and sometimes worst of all they were sodden melancholy human beings who carried the history of their disasters in their faces, who all but wept when they saw him escape, as if he carried their last hope with him. Except for four winters in a minor southern university, Charles had lived at home. He had never looked for a lodging before, and he felt guilty, as if he had been peeping through cracks and keyholes, spying upon human inadequacy, its kitchen smells and airless bedrooms, the staleness of its poverty and the stuffiness of its prosperity. He had been shown spare cubbyholes back of kitchens where the baby’s wash was drying on a string while the desolate room waited for a tenant. He had been ushered into regions of gilded carving and worn plush, full of the smell of yesterday’s cabbage. He had ventured into bare expanses of glass brick and chrome-steel sparsely set out with white leather couches and mirror-topped tables, where, it always turned out, he would
be expected to stay for a year at least, at frightening expense. He peered into a sodden little den fit, he felt, only for the scene of a murder; and into another where a sullen young woman was packing up, and the whole room reeked of some nasty perfume from her underwear piled upon the bed. She had given him a deliberately dirty smile, and the landlady had said something in a very brutal tone to her. But mostly, there was a stuffy tidiness, a depressing air of constant and unremitting housewifery, a kind of repellent gentility in room after room after room, varying only in the depth of feather bed and lavishness of draperies, and out of them all in turn he fled back to the street and the comparative freedom of the air.

  The woman who opened the door presently, he saw, was a fairly agreeable looking person of perhaps fifty years or more—above a certain age they all looked alike to Charles—with a pinkish face, white hair and very lively light blue eyes. She gave the impression of being dressed up, she had a little high-faluting manner which seemed harmless and she was evidently very pleased to see him. He noticed that the hall was almost empty but highly polished, perhaps here was the perfect compromise between overstuffed plush and a rat trap.

  The landlady showed him her best room, the only one unoccupied, she explained. He might be glad to know she had only young gentlemen in the house, three in fact, she hoped he might make a fourth. “I have here,” she said with pride, “a young student from the University of Berlin, a young pianist, and a young student from Heidelberg on leave, so you see the company will not be so bad. May I ask your profession?”

  “I am a kind of painter,” said Charles, hopefully.

  “Charming,” said the landlady. “We lacked only an artist.”

  “I hope you will excuse my poor German,” said Charles, a little overwhelmed by all the high manner.

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