The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Stories I see in newspapers now remind me constantly of things as they were then, in my childhood, in my little town.
Let me quote from the Washington Post of Monday, October 28, 1974, a report of a certain incident: “A U.S. Army Private, Felix Longoria, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in 1949. Only his family, a representative of President Truman and some Texas Congressmen attended the ceremony. Among the Congressmen was Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who had arranged for the re-interment of Pvt. Longoria who had died while fighting in the Philippines but who was refused burial in his Texas home town of Three Trees because of his heritage.” He was a Mexican-Indian peon. The Post published this story because it had what I suppose we may regard as a happy ending—after twenty-five years and a good deal of agitation on the subject from several equality-loving sources, our hero’s remains were recently accepted for burial in his native town in the white cemetery in Three Trees, Texas.
I remember one of the annual religious “Revivals” in the Methodist church in Kyle. The Mexicans of the Spanish-Indian peon class lived in a colony just outside town; they subsisted by rudimentary farming, selling chickens and eggs and vegetables. They were poor, most humble, never employed in any regularly paid work, such as gardening for the town people; or, for the women, housework of any kind. These jobs were for Negroes strictly, who also occupied a servant place, but privileged. The prejudices against the Mexicans were simple: they were foreigners, they spoke Spanish, they ate strange stuff, they were Catholic in an iron-bound Protestant region. There was no Catholic church nearer than San Marcos, a good two hours’ trip away by family surrey.
Everybody of whatever denomination, all white, of course, attended these Revivals. It was a social occasion, with visiting preachers renowned for dramatic orations. Little by little, the Mexican people began to show up at the meetings, which started in the morning and went on until late in the evening, all singing and shouting and praying, tears and sacred joy. But there was uneasiness among the white congregation as the number of Mexicans increased in attendance. They sat in the back benches, in silence. They knelt or stood or sat as the others did, and their faces were eager and pleasant and very attentive. So one morning (I was there, seven years old) an old deacon named Schwartz rose and made a stern talk which I could not understand, but he turned and gestured in the direction of the Mexicans and poured out hard-voiced words. I remember only the last line: “We must do something in self-defense.” At this point the preacher rose and said, “Let us pray for guidance.” Everybody bowed his head and the prayer ended with a chorus of Amens. The preacher moved near the Mexicans and very politely asked them to leave, saying that the revival was a private occasion, only for church members (a lie, incidentally), he regretted not being able to invite them, and he wished them well. They rose in silence, some of them trying to smile, and they went out in a bowed little huddle, with tears in their eyes—even the old men wept. One old woman whimpered, “Dios, Dios. . .” as if trying to invoke the return of her vanished God.
You can see how bitterly I remember this. I was mystified and unhappy, but I knew something was badly wrong when my father motioned to us. He and my grandmother, Aunt Jane, grandmother’s former slave, my sister and brother rose also in a group and walked out just behind the Mexicans. And I heard what my family thought of the event for a good while. (My grandmother, when she heard that Mr. Lincoln had abolished slavery and the Negroes were free, was heard to say “I hope it works both ways,” and lived to realize that it did not.) We were a mixed company of Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians, and all were equally outraged. It fixed my point of view on that subject unchangeably for life. I had not imagined it still happened, now, at this time.
An earlier memory I have is when I was about two-and-a-half years old. I was still wearing soft shoes, and a white wool crochet cap with a bunch of crochet grapes on top and a large ribbon bow under my chin. I know this because I was on a train, being held up on the lap of my nurse, a smiling Negro girl I was to know for a good number of years. I was romping on my nurse’s lap, and gazing in the looking glass, fascinated by my cap with the soft woolly grapes. My father was facing us, and now and then he would reach over, pull the cap off my head, and fluff up my short, black, curly hair with gentle fingers, and he would try to persuade me to leave it off—“Let’s show the pretty hair,” he would say—but I would hold on to the cap, and put it on again and gaze at myself in the looking glass, something new and exciting. The cap was the magic, not my face.
I remember driving through Texas a good many years ago with my father. We passed through Round Rock and my father remembered that it was here Sam Bass, the train robber, and his Right Bower companion were shot, and I said, “Those poor lugs were big popular heroes, weren’t they?” and my father said, “No, not with my generation. We knew exactly who and what they were. It’s the movies have made them out heroes.” Later, he pointed out in another part of the state a clump of live oak on a small hill and remembered Sam Bass again. He was supposed to have hidden there at one time or another. But the really important memory to my father was that he and his older brother had once been riding together there and had taken refuge in this knoll of trees to let a herd of buffalo go by. They sheltered within on their horses and the buffalo herd divided and went around them. “There were several hundred of them,” my father said.
I remember the fruits of my childhood, the orchards, red grapefruit, oranges, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupes, figs, pecans, wild grapes. I remember the barrels of grape juice under the trees on the farm, with long tubes from the vent bubbling into great pails of water, red foam running down the sides, the chickens sitting on the barrels or clustering under them, staggering, flopping, wobbling drunk, and glad of it. They were seen leaning against tree trunks, or seated in open space as if on nests, but there were no fatalities or terminal alcoholics among them. Hens, as with all domestic creatures and most human females in that region, led fairly laborious, monotonous country lives. As I grew up a little, I began to see this melancholy state of affairs, and thought it only just and right that they should have an occasional spree. But it was really only the chickens who enjoyed the wine-making. The roosters went fairly mad and spent their time trying to seduce any hen in sight, who for once ignored their advances. We, the children, thought we knew exactly what the wild flurry among the chicken flock meant: a rooster chasing a hen meant they were making eggs, which we took pleasure in looking for all over the place, because no number of carefully prepared nests ever lured the hens into settling down to leaving their eggs where we could pick them up tidily. It seems curious to me now that all this nonchalant, casual knowledge of what went on in the chicken society never taught us anything about sex generally speaking. Their antics had no relation to the way calves, pigs, ponies (colts), or children came into the world.
From earliest days I remember a dollop of wine in my glass of water making it a pleasantly perfumed pink tint, and I remember Governor Hogg and my grandmother in her parlor in the little house in Kyle, Texas, drinking a stirrup cup of cold buttermilk. They were good friends. I remember the doctors, the ministers, the professors, gentlemen of her generation who visited her in all seasons, dressed always in the vestments of their callings and condition of life: black broadcloth, long-tailed coat known as Prince Albert, waistcoat white in summer, black in winter, stiff starched while shirt, a collar like white cardboard, a black silk or satin or white lawn tie. The doctors and professors wore wide-brimmed black hats, very becoming and rather gallant in style; the ministers and politicians wore solemn top hats. These were not articles of formal dress: just everyday uniform of the calling. For some reason I remember best Governor Hogg and Dr. White; Governor Hogg because it was said his children were named Harry Hogg, Ura Hogg, and Ima Hogg, which seemed to me carrying a joke too far; but his daughter, Miss Ima Hogg, lived to a great age in dignity, and in the joyful pastime of turning bare acres into a fine wood filled with flowers. Dr. White was hand
I remember a train trip with my grandmother. It was the slowest train; they had no streamliners, just little rickety trains, and it was a long trip. We went two days and a night to get to Marfa, a little town in the Pecos country. Here was the famous and beautiful Pecos Bridge, then supposed to be, I don’t know the figures, the highest and one of the longest bridges in the world. I don’t know its history, when it was built, who built it, or what. I only know that in my time it had been condemned for quite a while, but when my grandmother and I went from San Antonio to Marfa and then to El Paso to visit Uncle Asbury and Uncle Bill, we crossed this bridge. It was much this way: the train stopped at the edge of the bridge and we looked down into this great chasm and wondered at the long slender spidery legs that held up this bridge that we were going to cross. Everybody got out except the engineer and fireman. All of us, carrying our light luggage and our suitcases, walked across the bridge. All of us arrived on the other side and waited as the train came after us and we stood watching—I don’t remember any particular wonder or excitement at all, but I remember watching this train cross this shambling bridge; you could see it shaking and the train wobbling from side to side. Nothing happened. The train arrived, and after the last wheel was on firm ground, we all climbed back and proceeded with our journey. Grandmother and I did this three times. I wonder what became of that bridge. I never heard of it being torn down or another being put up in its place. I haven’t kept up with the history of my part of this country as I should have.
Just across the Pecos Bridge on the other side was the famous man who set himself up as Law west of the Pecos. His name was Roy Bean and he used to chase bandits in that part of the country. He took it upon himself to judge and actually to have desperadoes hanged. He was going full tilt when I was there. I don’t know how long he lasted, either. These are memories of my childhood and I left Texas and the South almost for good and forever when I was nineteen years old. I haven’t gone back except once for fifty-five years.
Near the railroad track there was in those days a little clear circle that had no particular marking; except that it was a circle; it had no fence, no row of stones. There was a painted stick in the middle and it was known that here was Roy Bean, Law west of the Pecos. The circle with the painted stick marked where Lily Langtry had stood while Roy Bean drew a ring around her as a memento of her unbelievable Presence.
Lily Langtry, the famous English actress and beauty, was not much of an actress but she was a great beauty, and her fame rested mostly on the fact that she was the mistress of the Prince of Wales who later became King of England, Edward VII. She was making a tour of the United States and in those days all of the stars traveled in special trains or at least special cars gaily decorated, painted with their names on them. They traveled all over the country and they stopped at the smaller towns. I remember in my childhood I saw all the greatest actors and actresses, heard all the great pianists and violinists and singers in the world who came to the United States, because sooner or later they landed in San Antonio and El Paso and other small cities and they took them in, every season. There was no reason why all of us shouldn’t hear or see them, and we did; that is something that has changed greatly.
My nephews and nieces who are now in young middle age (past fifty years) were twenty and twenty-one years old before they had ever ridden in a train or heard a live orchestra or seen a living actress because they had it on radio and later on television. They didn’t travel in anything but their own automobiles, they had never seen a live ballet, and I will tell you it was a strange thing. I was horrified at the terrible lack in their education; I can’t exaggerate their excitement when they did first see living people and heard voices coming from living chests. It was like a new life and new world opened up to them; they found it hard to believe that I managed to hear Paderewski when I was eight or nine years old. But he came to Texas as all the rest did. I heard him in San Antonio, because he had a special car and his accompanist, his chef, and waiters, and make-up man—everything. His wife and he traveled with their entire family in this one big car. He went all over the United States and people used to go to those big, splendid, Wide-Worldly shows. You can’t make the young understand how much music and theater we saw and knew because you go to Texas now and people of middling means don’t know anything except what they learn from TV. Since the oil came, of course, there are the ones who ramble, who go everywhere and see everything, but I am talking about the people anywhere you go, most of them just see TV—they hear and see quite a lot but it isn’t as good. You have nobody to say what he thinks and feels about what he sees and hears. In those days you went to the theater with hundreds of others and sat together and had this experience together and it meant something to you. This has disappeared. They used to travel, even the families of the very poor who would come in the same wagons they took the cotton to the gin in; they would travel in all kinds of weather to see a great actor or hear a great pianist or singer. It is hard for people to understand now, but it is true.
When I’m asked if I remember bandits and cowboy songs, I confess I don’t know any bandit ballads except “Sam Bass” and “Jesse James.” But I miss “There was blood on the saddle, and blood on the ground” from the collections I have seen; and I am wondering if “My Love is a Rider,” the dashing romantic ditty, should really be ascribed to Belle Starr, the woman outlaw of the slashing, shooting 1880s. For those who remember another era, it is instructive to compare this delicate, rosy view of a cowboy with Mae West’s song, so hot it had to be muted down and mumbled in her picture, Diamond Lil—“Oh tell me, where is my easy rider gone?” At least that is the way my eager ears snagged it at the time, and it wasn’t easy. Miss West was a highly conventional type of fancy lady with a real respect for the law, and when the Hollywood censors said “mumble that line,” she mumbled it and let her shape and her eyebrows do the work instead.
Belle Starr had no such problems. She just sang it right out—
The first time I met him was early one spring,
He was riding a bronco, a high-headed thing.
He tipped me a wink as he gaily did go,
For he wished me to look at his bucking bronco.
How blushing and guileless can a lady bandit be? She goes on: “The next time I saw him. . .”—but it doesn’t matter. That occasion was as innocuous as the first, and so it went on, with the traditional warning at last to maidens to beware of sprightly young cowboys who will court you and leave you and finally “go up the trail in the spring on his bucking bronco.” The knight on horseback playing fast and loose with the shepherdess as they did in the twelfth century, judging by their songs. Isn’t there anything new to be said on this subject, even by a lady bandit in late nineteenth-century Texas? Or was she just the Nut-Brown Maid in another dress? The only differences are she did have a six-shooter and ride a horse. Her photograph shows a face that would scare a crow; it also scared quite a few of her colleagues.
The bandits themselves didn’t seem to do much singing, and their admirers were not much on the musical side, either. The really grand and horrible outlaws were not at all those poor shock-headed Wild West cutups, but the Natchez Trace, Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee ones—their stories can make your blood run cold even now. They were not much given to song, either.
I am now speaking of the old-timers in the days of Audubon and the Mississippi River gamblers and pirates.
Not long ago, I saw a photograph of a whole row of dead bandits of that era, all laid out orderly in their working clothes, looking very helpless and unkempt and homeless in a barn or kind of shed and with a touchingly indifferent stare in their open eyes; this is what I remember from just a quick glimpse, turning the page in a hurry, but the impression has stayed by me of something pitiable, mysteriously innocent, somehow wronged and wasted—all the soft-h
Ah dear—space is up. I must stop, and I have hardly begun. Memory for me is a tidal wave. I have lived for so long and so many lives, I hardly dare to begin with even the smallest, most trivial-seeming recollection. Nothing is trivial, not for a moment, if you really delve into the past. It can stop your heart for a beat or two.
Portrait: Old South
I AM the grandchild of a lost War, and I have blood-knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation. The older people in my family used to tell such amusing little stories about it. One time, several years after the War ended, two small brothers (one of them was my father) set out by themselves on foot from their new home in south Texas, and when neighbors picked them up three miles from home, hundreds of miles from their goal, and asked them where they thought they were going, they answered confidently, “To Louisiana, to eat sugar cane,” for they hadn’t tasted sugar for months and remembered the happy times in my grandmother’s cane fields there.