The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “Greenwood” is the typical Southern mansion of too many songs, too many stories—with the extravagant height of massive, round pillar, the too-high ceiling, the gleaming sweep of central hall, all in the 1830 Greek, gilded somewhat, but lightly. There is bareness; space dwarfing the human stature and breathing a faint bleakness. Yet the gentle groves and small hills are framed with overwhelming effect between those columns; effect grandiose beyond what the measuring eye knows is actually there.

  It seems now that the builders should have known that this house was the end, never the beginning. It is quite improbable that anyone should again build a house like “Greenwood” to live in. But there it is, with the huge beams of the gallery being replaced, oil prospectors roaming about, and the hostess sitting in her drawing-room with the green-and-gold chairs, the lace curtains fine as bride veils drifting a little; the young girls in jodhpurs are going out to ride. Here, as everywhere else, there were no radios or gramophones going, no telephones visible or ringing; and it seemed to me suddenly that this silence, the silence of a house in order, of people at home, the silence of leisure, is the most desirable of all things we have lost.

  At “Highland,” descendants in the fourth generation stand in the shade of the oaks planted, as the old House Book records, in January, 1832. The house is older. It has its share of drum tables, fiddle-backed chairs, carved door-frames and wainscoting, but its real beauty lies in the fall of light into the ample, square rooms, the rise of the stair tread, the energy and firmness of its structure. The paneled doors swing on their hand-forged hinges as they did the day they were hung there; the edge of the first doorstep—an immense log of cypress square-hewn—is as sharp as though feet had not stepped back and forth over it for one hundred and forty years.

  “Rosedown” is more formal, with its fish pool and eighteenth-century statuary set along the allée, and in a semicircle before the conventionally planted garden. The office still stands there, and the “slave bell” in its low wooden frame. The “slave bell” was the dinner-bell for the whole plantation. Above all, at “Rosedown,” the Ancestors still rule, still lend their unquenchable life to a little world of fabulous old ladies and a strange overgrowth of knickknacks sprouting like small, harmless fungi on a tree-trunk. Their portraits—Sully seems to have been the preferred painter—smile at you, or turn their attentive heads toward one another; as handsome and as gallant and elegantly dressed a set of young men and women as you would be apt to find blood-kin under one roof. “My great-greatgrandfather,” said the old, old lady, smiling back again at the high-headed, smooth-cheeked young beau in the frilled shirt-bosom and deep blue, sloping-shouldered coat. His eyes are the same bright hazel as her own. This was the only house in which the past lay like a fine dust in the air.

  Steamboats brought wealth and change to St. Francisville once, and oil may do it again. In that case, we are to suppose that new grand pianos would replace the old, square, black Steinways of 1840, as they had in turn replaced the harpsichords. There would be a great deal of shoring up, replacement, planting, pruning, and adding. There would be travel again, and humanistic education. The young people who went away cannot, alas, come back young, but the young there now would not have to go away.

  And what else would happen to this place, so occupied, so self-sufficient, so reassuringly solid and breathing? St. Francisville is not a monument, nor a decor, nor a wailing-wall for mourners for the past. It is a living town, moving at its own pace in a familiar world. But it was comforting to take a last glance backward as we turned into the main highway, at Audubon’s Happy Land, reflecting that, for the present, in the whole place, if you except the fruits of the earth and the picture postcards at “Rosedown,” there was nothing, really nothing, for sale.


  The Flower of Flowers

  Rose, O pure contradiction, bliss

  To be the sleep of no one under so many eyelids.


  ITS beginnings were obscure, like that of the human race whose history it was destined to adorn. The first rose was small as the palm of a small child’s hand, with five flat petals in full bloom, curling in a little at the tips, the color red or white, perhaps even pink, and maybe sometimes streaked. It was a simple disk or wheel around a cup of perfume, a most intoxicating perfume, like that of no other flower. This perfume has been compared to that of many fruits: apricot, peach, melon; to animal substance: musk, ambergris; to honey (which has also many perfumes), to other flowers, to crushed leaves of the tea plant—this from China, naturally—and perhaps this is the secret of its appeal: it offers to the individual sense of smell whatever delights it most. For me, a rose smells like a rose, no one exactly like another, but still a rose and it reminds me of nothing else.

  This rose grew everywhere in Africa and Asia, and it may have had many names, but they are lost.

  This shall be a mere glimpse at some aspects of the life of the rose; it keeps the best company in the world, and the worst, and also the utterly mediocre: all with the same serenity, knowing one from the other; and all by name, but making, in the natural world, no difference between individuals, like any saint: which perhaps is a sign of its true greatness. In working miracles, as we shall see, it exercises the most scrupulous discrimination between one thing and another.

  It was, and is, thorny by nature, for it detests the proximity of any other kind of plant, and serious botanists have deduced seriously that the rose was given its thorns as a weapon against other crowding vegetation. With such a perfume as it has, it needs more than thorns for its protection. It has no honey, yet even the bees and wasps who rob its generous pollen for food, get silly-drunk on the perfume, and may sometimes be seen swooping hilariously away at random, buzzing wildly and colliding with each other in air. For the sake of this perfume other great follies of extravagance have been committed. The Romans with their genius for gluttony devoured the roses of Egypt by the shipload, covering their beds and floors and banquet tables with petals; rose leaves dropped in their wine helped to prevent, or at least delay, drunkenness; heroes were crowned with them; and they were at last forced to bloom out of season by being grown in a network of hot water pipes.

  The debasement of the rose may be said to have begun with this Roman invention of the hot house. After a long period in Europe when the rose fell into neglect, there came a gradual slow return in its popularity; and for the past century or so, in Europe and America, the rose has been cultivated extravagantly, crossbred almost out of recognition, growing all the time larger, showier. The American Beauty Rose—in the 1900’s the rose of courtship, an expensive florist’s item, hardly ever grown in good private gardens—in its hugeness, its coarse texture and vulgar color, its inordinate length of cane, still stands I believe as the dreariest example of what botanical experiment without wisdom or taste can do even to the rose. In other varieties it has been deprived of its thorns, one of its great beauties, and—surely this can never have been intended—its very perfume, the true meaning of the rose, has almost vanished. Yet they are all children of that precious first five-petaled rose which we call the Damask, the first recorded name of a rose.

  It has been popularly supposed that the Crusaders brought the rose and the name back with them to Europe from Damascus, where they saw it for the first time. Rosarians argue back and forth, saying, not so, the Damask Rose was known in France and by that name many centuries before the Crusades. It is very likely, for the Christian penitential pilgrimages to Rome, to the tombs and shrines of saints, and to the Holy Sepulchre, had begun certainly as early as the eighth century. The most difficult and dangerous and meritorious of these pilgrimages was, of course, to the Holy Land, and the rose may very well have been among the dear loot in the returning pilgrim’s scrip, along with water from the Jordan, bits of stone from the Sepulchre, fragments of the True Cross, Sacred Nails, and a few Thorns; and, judging by medieval European music, he had got a strange tune or two fixed in his head, also. We know
that more than this came into Europe through long traffic and negotiation with the East, the great threatening power which encroached steadily upon the New World and above all, upon the new religion.

  By the time of the troubadours, the rose was a familiar delight. In Richard Lion-heart’s day, Raoul, Sire de Coucy, a famous poet, singer, soldier, nobleman, was writing poems full of nightingales, morning dew, roses, lilies, and love to his lady, the Dame de Fayel. He went with Richard on the Third Crusade, and was killed by the Saracens at the battle of St. Jean d’Acres, in 1191. The whole tone of his glittering little songs, their offhand ease of reference, makes it clear that roses and all those other charming things had long been the peculiar property of European poets. De Coucy names no species. “When the rose and lily are born,” he sings blithely, knowing and caring nothing about Rosa Indica, Rosa Gallica, Rosa Centifolia, Eglantina; no, for the troubadour a rose was a rose. It was beautiful to look at, especially with morning dew on it, a lily nearby and a nightingale lurking in the shrubbery, all ready to impale his bosom on the thorn; it smelled sweet and reminded him of his lady, as well as of the Blessed Virgin, though never, of course, at the same moment. That would have been sacrilege, and the knight was nothing if not pious. Sacred and profane love in the Western World had by then taken their places at opposite poles, where they have remained to this day; the rose was the favorite symbol of them both.

  Woman has been symbolized almost out of existence. To man, the myth maker, her true nature appears unfathomable, a dubious mystery at best. It was thought proper to becloud the riddle still further by referring to her in terms of something else vaguely, monstrously, or attractively resembling her, or at least her more important and obvious features. Therefore she was the earth, the moon, the sea, the planet Venus, certain stars, wells, lakes, mines, caves; besides such other works of nature as the fig, the pear, the pomegranate, the shell, the lily, wheat or any grain, Night or any kind of darkness, any seed pod at all; above all, once for all, the Rose.

  The Rose. What could be more flattering? But wait. It was the flower of Venus, of Aurora, a talisman against witchcraft, and the emblem, when white, and suspended over a banquet table, of friendly confidence: one spoke and acted freely under the rose, for all present were bound to silence afterward. It was the flower of the Blessed Virgin, herself the Mystical Rose; symbol of the female genitals, and the Gothic disk of celestial color set in the brows of great cathedrals. For Christian mystics the five red petals stood for the five wounds of Christ; for the pagans, the blood of Venus who stepped on a thorn while hurrying to the aid of Narcissus. It is the most subtle and aristocratic of flowers, yet the most varied of all within its breed, most easily corruptible in form, most susceptible to the changes of soil and climate. It is the badge of kings, and the wreath to crown every year the French girl chosen by her village as the most virtuous: La Rosière. Le Spectre de la Rose: a perverted image. No young girl ever dreamed of her lover in the form of a rose. She is herself the rose. . . .

  The rose gives its name to the prayer-beads themselves slipped millions of times a day all over the world between prayerful fingers: these beads are still sometimes made of the dried hardened paste of rose petals. The simple flower is beloved of kings and peasants, children, saints, artists, and prisoners, and then all those numberless devoted beings who grow them so faithfully in little plots of gardens everywhere. It is a fragile flower that can survive for seventy-five years draped over a rail fence in a deserted farm otherwise gone to jungle; it blooms by the natural exaltation of pure being in a tin, with its roots strangling it to death; yet it is by nature the grossest feeder among flowers. With very few exceptions among wild roses, they thrive best, any good gardener will tell you, in deep trenches bedded with aged cow manure. One famous grower of Old Roses (Francis E. Lester, My Friend the Rose, 1942) advises one to bury a big beef bone, cooked or raw, deep under the new plant, so that its growing roots may in time descend, embrace and feed slowly upon this decayed animal stuff in the private darkness. Above, meanwhile, it brings to light its young pure buds, opening shyly as the breasts of virgins. (See: Lyric Poetry: Through the Ages.) Aside from the bloom, out of this tranced absorption with the rot and heat and moisture of the earth, there is distilled the perfume of perfumes from this flower of flowers.

  (The nose is surely one of the most impressionable, if not positively erotic, of all our unruly members. I remember a kind old nun, rebuking me for my delight in the spectacle of this world saying, “Beware of the concupiscence of the eye!” I had never heard the word, but I knew what she meant. Then what about the ear? The pores of the skin, the tips of the fingers? We are getting on quicksand. Back, back to the rose, that tempts every mortal sense except the ear, lends itself to every pleasure, and helps by its presence or even its memory, to assuage every mortal grief.)

  The rose: its perfume. It is—ten to one—the odor of sanctity that rises from the corpses of holy women, and the oil with which Laïs the Corinthian anoints herself after her bath. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is shown holding a sheaf of roses, promising her faithful to shower them with roses—that is to say, blessings. The women in Minsky’s old Burlesque Theater on the Bowery pinned large red cotton velvet roses over their abused breasts and public thighs, forming a triangle. They then waggled themselves as obscenely as they knew how; they did know how, and it was obscene; and the helpless caricatures of roses would waggle too: the symbol being brought to the final depths of aesthetic and moral imbecility.

  “A rose said, ‘I am the marvel of the universe. Can it be that a perfume maker shall have the courage to cause me suffering?’” Yes, it is possible. “A nightingale answered, ‘One day of joy prepares a year of tears.’” (Note: My translation of a stanza of Omar Khayyam’s from the French version.)

  This divine perfume from the bone-devouring rose is sometimes got by distilling, a process of purification. The petals are mixed with the proper amount of water, put in the alembic, and the sweetness is sweated out, drop by drop, with death and resurrection for the rose in every drop. Or, and this must be a very old way of doing, one takes the sweet petals, picked tenderly in the morning unbruised, with the dew on them, and lays them gently on a thick bed of fat, beef fat, pork fat, or perhaps oil, just so it is pure, and fat. The perfume seeps from the veins of the rose into the fat, which in turn is mingled with alcohol which takes the fragrance to itself, and there you are. . . . Thinking it over, I am certain there is a great deal more to the art of extracting perfume from petals than this. I got my information from a small French household book, published in 1830, which gives receipts for making all sorts of fascinating messes: liqueurs, bleaching pastes for the complexion, waters of beauty—invariably based on rosewater or rose oil, hair dyes, lip salves, infusions of herbs and flowers, perfumes, heaven knows what. They look plausible on the page, while reading I trust them implicitly, and have never dared to try one of them. One important point the perfume receipt omitted: it did not say you must begin with Damask Roses. In India, in the Balkans, in the south of France, wherever the art of making rosewater and attar of rose is still practiced, as in ancient Cyrenaica whose rose perfume was “the sweetest in the world,” there is one only rose used: Rosa Damascena, five-petaled in the Balkans and in India, thirty-petaled in Grasse, and called the Provence Rose. In this Rose of Provence there is perhaps a mixture with Rosa Centifolia, native of the Caucasus—Cabbage Rose to us, to those of us who ever saw it, and smelled it—next to the Damask, the most deeply, warmly perfumed. Once in California, in a nursery, lost in a jungle of strange roses, I asked an old gardener, no doubt a shade too wistfully, “Haven’t you a Cabbage Rose, or a Damask, or a Moss Rose?” He straightened up and looked at me wonderingly and said, “Why, my God, I haven’t even heard those names for thirty years! Do you actually know those roses?” I told him yes, I did, I had been brought up with them. Slowly, slowly, slowly like moisture being squeezed out of an oak, his eyes filled with tears. “So was I,” he said, and the tears dried back
to their source without falling. We walked then among the roses, some of them very fine, very beautiful, of honorable breed and proved courage, but the roses which for me are the very heart of the rose were not there, nor had ever been.

  They have as many pests as sheep, or bees, two notoriously afflicted races. Aphis, mildew, rust, caterpillars, saw-flies, leafcutting bees, thrips, canker worms, beetles, and so on. Spraying has become the bane of rose growers, for the new sorts of roses seem to be more susceptible than the old. I remember my grandmother occasionally out among her roses with a little bowl of soapy water and a small rag. She would wash the backs of a few leaves and dry them tenderly as if they were children’s fingers. That was all I ever saw her do in that way, and her roses were celebrated.

  Mankind early learned that the rose, except for its thorns, is a benevolent useful flower. It was good to eat, to drink, to smell, to wear, to cure many ailments, to wash and perfume with, to look at, to meditate upon, to offer in homage, piety, or love; in religion it has always been a practical assistant in the working of miracles. It was good to write poetry about, to paint, to draw, to carve in wood, stone, marble; to work in tapestry, plaster, clay, jewels, and precious metals. Besides roseleaf jam, still made in England, one may enjoy candied rose leaves, rose honey, rose oil—good for the bath or for flavoring cakes and pastries; infusion of roses, a delicious tea once prescribed for many ills; above all, rose-hip syrup, an old valuable remedy in medieval pharmacies, manufactured by monks and housewives. The Spanish Mission fathers brought the Damask Rose—which they called the Rose of Castile—to America and planted it in their dispensary gardens. Rose-hip syrup was one of their great remedies. It was known to cure aches and pains, collywobbles in the midriff, a pallid condition, general distemper, or ill-assortedness. And why not? Modern medical science has in this instance proved once more that ancient herbalists were not just old grannies out pulling weeds and pronouncing charms over them. Rose-hip syrup, say British medical men, contains something like four hundred times more of vitamin C, measure for measure, than oranges or black currants, and whoever drinks freely of it will be largely benefited, if he needs vitamin C, as most of us do, no doubt. They needed it in medieval times, too, and it is pleasant to think that quite large numbers of them got it.

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