The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Yet here I am coming to something quite clear, of which I am entirely certain. It happened in my ninth year, and again in that summer house in the little town near the farm, with the yard full of roses and irises and honeysuckle and hackberry trees, and the vegetable garden and the cow barn in back. It was already beginning to seem not so spacious to me; it went on dwindling year by year to the measure of my growing up.
One hot moist day after a great thunderstorm and heavy long rain, I saw a strange horse and buggy standing at the front gate. Neighbors and kin in the whole countryside knew each other’s equipages as well as they did their own, and this outfit was not only strange, but not right; don’t ask me why. It was not a good horse, and the buggy was not good, either. There was something wrong in the whole thing, and I went full of curiosity to see why such strangers as would drive such a horse and buggy would be calling on my grandmother. (At this point say anything you please about the snobbism of children and dogs. It is real. As real as the snobbism of their parents and owners, and much more keen and direct.)
I stood just outside the living-room door, unnoticed for a moment by my grandmother, who was sitting rather stiffly, with an odd expression on her face; a doubtful smiling mouth, brows knitted in painful inquiry. She was a woman called upon for decisions, many decisions every day, wielding justice among her unruly family. Once she struck, justly or unjustly, she dared not retract—the whole pack would have torn her to pieces. They did not want justice in any case, but revenge, each in his own favor. But this situation had nothing to do with her family, and there she sat, worried, undecided. I had never seen her so, and it dismayed me.
Then I saw first a poor sad pale beaten-looking woman in a faded cotton print dress and a wretched little straw hat with a wreath of wilted forgetmenots. She looked as if she had never eaten a good dinner, or slept in a comfortable bed, or felt a gentle touch; the mark of life-starvation was all over her. Her hands were twisted right in her lap and she was looking down at them in shame. Her eyes were covered with dark glasses. While I stared at her, I heard the man sitting near her almost shouting in a coarse, roughened voice: “I swear, it was in self-defense! His life or mine! If you don’t believe me, ask my wife here. She saw it. My wife won’t lie!” Every time he repeated these words, without lifting her head or moving, she would say in a low voice, “Yes, that’s right. I saw it.”
In that moment, or in another moment later as this memory sank in and worked my feelings and understanding, it was quite clear to me, and seems now to have been clear from the first, that he expected her to lie, was indeed forcing her to tell a lie; that she did it unwillingly and unlovingly in bitter resignation to the double disgrace of her husband’s crime and her own sin; and that he, stupid, dishonest, soiled as he was, was imploring her as his only hope, somehow to make his lie a truth.
I used this scene in “Noon Wine,” but the man in real life was not lean and gaunt and blindly, foolishly proud like Mr. Thompson; no, he was just a great loose-faced, blabbing man full of guilt and fear, and he was bawling at my grandmother, his eyes bloodshot with drink and tears, “Lady, if you don’t believe me, ask my wife! She won’t lie!” At this point my grandmother noticed my presence and sent me away with a look we children knew well and never dreamed of disobeying. But I heard part of the story later, when my grandmother said to my father, with an unfamiliar coldness in her voice, for she had made her decision about this affair, too: “I was never asked to condone a murder before. Something new.” My father said, “Yes, and a coldblooded murder too if there ever was one.”
So, there was the dreary tale of violence again, this time with the killer out on bail, going the rounds of the countryside with his wretched wife, telling his side of it—whatever it was; I never knew the end. In the meantime, in one summer or another, certainly before my eleventh year, for that year we left that country for good, I had two memorable glimpses. My father and I were driving from the farm to town, when we met with a tall black-whiskered man on horseback, sitting so straight his chin was level with his Adam’s apple, dressed in clean mended blue denims, shirt open at the throat, a big devil-may-care black felt hat on the side of his head. He gave us a lordly gesture of greeting, caused his fine black horse to curvet and prance a little, and rode on, grandly. I asked my father who that could be, and he said, “That’s Ralph Thomas, the proudest man in seven counties.” I said, “What’s he proud of?” And my father said, “I suppose the horse. It’s a very fine horse,” in a good-humored, joking tone, which made the poor man quite ridiculous, and yet not funny, but sad in some way I could not quite understand.
On another of these journeys I saw a bony, awkward, tired-looking man, tilted in a kitchen chair against the wall of his comfortless shack, set back from the road under the thin shade of hackberry trees, a thatch of bleached-looking hair between his eyebrows, blowing away at a doleful tune on his harmonica, in the hot dull cricket-whirring summer day; the very living image of loneliness. I was struck with pity for this stranger, his eyes closed against the alien scene, consoling himself with such poor music. I was told he was someone’s Swedish hired man.
In time—when? how?—Pink Hodges, whom I never knew except in the sound of his death-cry, merged with my glimpse of the Swedish hired man to become the eternal Victim; the fat bullying whining man in my grandmother’s living room became the Killer. But nothing can remain so simple as that, this was only a beginning. Helton too, the Victim in my story, is also a murderer, with the dubious innocence of the madman; but no less a shedder of blood. Everyone in this story contributes, one way or another directly or indirectly, to murder, or death by violence; even the two young sons of Mr. Thompson who turn on him in their fright and ignorance and side with their mother, who does not need them; they are guiltless, for they meant no harm, and they do not know what they have contributed to; indeed in their innocence they believe they are doing, not only right, but the only thing they could possibly do in the situation as they understand it: they must defend their mother. . . .
Let me give you a glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, not as they were in their real lives, for I never knew them, but as they have become in my story. Mr. Thompson is a member of the plain people who has, by a hair’s breadth, outmarried himself. Mrs. Thompson’s superiority is shown in her better speech, her care for the proprieties, her social sense; even her physical fragility has some quality of the “genteel” in it; but in the long run, her strength is in the unyielding chastity of her morals, at once her yoke and her crown, and the prime condition of her right to the respect of her society. Her great power is that, while both she and her husband believe that the moral law, once broken, is irreparable, she will still stand by her principles no matter what; and in the end he stands by too. They are both doomed by this belief in their own way: Mr. Thompson from the moment he swung the ax on Mr. Hatch; Mrs. Thompson from the moment she acted the lie which meant criminal collusion. That both law and society expect this collusion of women with their husbands, so that safeguards for and against it are provided both by custom and statute, means nothing to Mrs. Thompson. When Mr. Burleigh planned for her to sit in court, he was not being cynical, but only showing himself a lawyer who knew his business.
This Mrs. Thompson of “Noon Wine” I understand much better, of course, than I do that woman I saw once for five minutes when I was nine years old. She is a benign, tender, ignorant woman, in whom the desire for truthfulness is a habit of her whole being; she is the dupe of her misunderstanding of what virtue really is; a woman not meant for large emergencies. Confronted with pure disaster she responds with pure suffering, and yet will not consent to be merely the passive Victim, or as she thinks, the criminal instrument of her husband’s self-justification. Mr. Thompson, of course, has not been able to explain anything to himself, nor to justify himself in the least. By his own standards of morality, he is a murderer, a fact he cannot face: he needs someone to tell him this is not so, not so by some law of higher truth he is incapable of grasping. A
Mr. Thompson, having invented his account of the event out of his own hallucinations, would now like to believe in it: he cannot. The next best thing would be for his wife to believe it: she does not believe, and he knows it. As they drive about the countryside in that series of agonizing visits, she tells her lie again and again, steadfastly. But privately she withholds the last lie that would redeem him, or so he feels. He wants her to turn to him when they are alone sometime, maybe just driving along together, and say, “Of course, Mr. Thompson, it’s as clear as day. I remember it now. It was all just as you said!”
This she will never say, and so he must accept his final self-condemnation. There is of course a good deal more to it than this, but this must do for the present—it is only meant to show how that unknown woman, sitting in my grandmother’s parlor twisting her hands in shame all those years ago, got up one day from her chair and started her long journey through my remembering and transmuting mind, and brought her world with her.
And here I am brought to a pause, for almost without knowing it, I have begun to write about these characters in a story of mine as though they were real persons exactly as I have shown them. And these fragments of memory on which the story is based now seem to have a random look; they nowhere contain in themselves, together or separately, the story I finally wrote out of them; a story of the most painful moral and emotional confusions, in which everyone concerned, yes, in his crooked way, even Mr. Hatch, is trying to do right.
It is only in the varying levels of quality in the individual nature that we are able finally more or less to measure the degree of virtue in each man. Mr. Thompson’s motives are most certainly mixed, yet not ignoble; not the highest but the highest he is capable of, he helps someone who helps him in turn; while acting in defense of what he sees as the good in his own life, the thing worth trying to save at almost any cost, he is trying at the same time to defend another life—and the life of Mr. Helton, who has proved himself the bringer of good, the present help, the true friend. Mr. Helton would have done as much for me, Mr. Thompson says, and he is right. Yet he hated Mr. Hatch on sight, wished to injure him before he had a reason: could it not be a sign of virtue in Mr. Thompson that he surmised and resisted at first glance the evil in Mr. Hatch? The whole countryside, let us remember (for this is most important, the relations of a man to his society), agrees with Mr. Burleigh the lawyer, and the jury and the judge, that Mr. Thompson’s deed was justifiable homicide: but this did not, as his neighbors confirmed, make it any less a murder. Mr. Thompson was not an evil man, he was only a poor sinner doing his best according to his lights, lights somewhat dimmed by his natural aptitude for Pride and Sloth. He still had his virtues, even if he did not quite know what they were, and so gave himself credit for some few that he had not.
But Hatch was the doomed man, evil by nature, a lover and doer of evil, who did no good thing for anyone, not even, in the long run, for himself. He was evil in the most dangerous irremediable way: one who works safely within the law, and has reasoned himself into believing his motives, if not good, are at least no worse than anyone else’s: for he believes quite simply and naturally that the motives of others are no better than his own; and putting aside all nonsense about good, he will always be found on the side of custom and common sense and the letter of the law. When challenged he has his defense pat and ready, and there is nothing much wrong with it—it only lacks human decency, of which he has no conception beyond a faint hearsay. Mr. Helton is, by his madness, beyond good and evil, his own victim as well as the victim of others. Mrs. Thompson is a woman of the sort produced in numbers in that time, that class, that place, that code: so trained to the practice of her prescribed womanly vocation of virtue as such—manifest, unrelenting, sacrificial, stupefying—she has almost lost her human qualities, and her spiritual courage and insight, to boot. She commits the, to her, dreadful unforgivable sin of lying; moreover, lying to shield a criminal, even if that criminal is her own husband. Having done this, to the infinite damage, as she sees it, of her own soul (as well as her self-respect which is founded on her feeling of irreproachability), she lacks the courage and the love to see her sin through to its final good purpose; to commit it with her whole heart and with perfect acceptance of her guilt to say to her husband the words that might have saved them both, soul and body—might have, I say only. I do not know and shall never know. Mrs. Thompson was not that robust a character, and his story, given all, must end as it does end. . . . There is nothing in any of these beings tough enough to work the miracle of redemption in them.
Suppose I imagine now that I really saw all of these persons in the flesh at one time or another? I saw what I have told you, a few mere flashes of a glimpse here and there, one time or another; but I do know why I remembered them, and why in my memory they slowly took on their separate lives in a story. It is because there radiated from each one of those glimpses of strangers some element, some quality that arrested my attention at a vital moment of my own growth, and caused me, a child, to stop short and look outward, away from myself; to look at another human being with that attention and wonder and speculation which ordinarily, and very naturally, I think, a child lavishes only on himself. Is it not almost the sole end of civilized education of all sorts to teach us to be more and more highly, sensitively conscious of the reality of the existence, the essential being, of others, those around us so very like us and yet so bafflingly, so mysteriously different? I do not know whether my impressions were on the instant, as I now believe, or did they draw to their magnet gradually with time and confirming experience? That man on the fine horse, with his straight back, straight neck, shabby and unshaven, riding like a cavalry officer, “the proudest man in seven counties”—I saw him no doubt as my father saw him, absurd, fatuous, but with some final undeniable human claim on respect and not to be laughed at, except in passing, for all his simple vanity.
The woman I have called Mrs. Thompson—I never knew her name—showed me for the first time, I am certain, the face of pure shame; humiliation so nearly absolute it could not have been more frightening if she had groveled on the floor; and I knew that whatever the cause, it was mortal and beyond help. In that bawling sweating man with the loose mouth and staring eyes, I saw the fear that is moral cowardice and I knew he was lying. In that yellow-haired, long-legged man playing his harmonica I felt almost the first glimmer of understanding and sympathy for any suffering not physical. Most certainly I had already done my share of weeping over lost or dying pets, or beside someone I loved who was very sick, or my own pains and accidents; but this was a spiritual enlightenment, some tenderness, some first awakening of charity in my self-centered heart. I am using here some very old-fashioned noble words in their prime sense. They have perfect freshness and reality to me, they are the irreplaceable names of Realities. I know well what they mean, and I need them here to describe as well as I am able what happens to a child when the bodily senses and the moral sense and the sense of charity are unfolding, and are touched once for all in that first time when the soul is prepared for them; and I know that the all-important things in that way have all taken place long and long before we know the words for them.
Notes on the Texas I Remember
NOT long ago there appeared in a weekly news magazine the snapshot of a lady in advanced years, of solid weight and vitality, and a smiling face full of comic humor. She wore large blue jeans, a country-style shirt, and a floppy straw hat much like the ten-cent peanut straw hat I wore on the farm every summer from more or less 1893 to 1901. The lady was armed with a rake, and was raking up the leaves and trash from the courthouse square of a small town of which she is the mayor. The town is Kyle, Texas, and our lady is Mayor M
My grandmother lived on a corner of the stony, crooked little road called Main Street, in a six-room house of a style known as Queen Anne, who knows why? It had no features at all except for two long galleries, front and back galleries—mind you, not porches or verandas, and I shall stick without further translation to whatever other word of my native dialect occurs here—and these galleries were shuttered in green lattice and then covered again with honeysuckle and roses, adding two delightful long summer rooms to the house, the front a dining room, the back furnished with swings and chairs for conversation and repose, iced tea, limeade, sangaree—well, have it your way: sangria—and always, tall frosted beakers of mint julep, for the gentlemen, of course.