The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
A House of My Own
NOT long ago, my sister returned to me a bundle of my letters to her, dated from my nineteenth year. My life has been, to say the least, varied: I have lived in five countries and traveled in several more. But at recurring intervals I wrote, in all seriousness: “Next year I shall find a little house in the country and settle there.” Meantime I was looking at little houses in the country, all sorts of houses in all sorts of countries.
I shopped with friends in Bucks County long before that place became the fashion. I chose a perfect old stone house and barn sitting on a hill there, renovated it splendidly, and left it forever, all in one fine June morning. In this snapshot style, I have also possessed beautiful old Texas ranch houses; a lovely little Georgian house in Alexandria, Virginia; an eighteenth-century Spanish-French house in Louisiana.
I have stood in a long daydream over an empty, roofless shell of white coral in Bermuda; in several parts of my native South, I admired and would have been glad to live in one of those little, sloping-roofed, chimneyed houses the Negroes live in, houses quite perfectly proportioned and with such dignity in their desolation. In Mexico, I have walked through empty, red-tiled houses, in their patios, and under their narrow, arched cloisters, living a lifetime there in a few hours. In Switzerland, my house was tall, steep-roofed, the very one I chose was built in 1390. It was still occupied, however, with lace curtains at the window and a cat asleep on the window sill. In France, it was a pleasant house, standing flush to the village street, with a garden in back. Indeed, I have lived for a few hours in any number of the most lovely houses in the world.
There was never, of course, much money, never quite enough; there was never time, either; there was never permanency of any sort, except the permanency of hope.
This hope had led me to collect an unreasonable amount of furniture and books, unreasonable for one who had no house to keep them in. I lugged them all with me from Mexico to Paris to New York to Louisiana and back to New York, then stored them, and accepted an invitation to Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs. Yaddo invites artists with jobs to finish to come, and work quietly in peace and great comfort, during summers. My invitation was for two months. That was a year ago, and I am still here, seemingly having taken root at North Farm on the estate. Several times I went away for a few weeks, and when I returned, as the train left Albany, I began to have a sense of homecoming. One day, hardly knowing when it happened, I knew I was going to live here, for good and all, and I was going to have a house in the country. I began to move my personal equivalent of heaven and earth to make it possible. As travelers in Europe make it a point of good taste to drink the wine of the country, so I had always chosen the house of the country. Here, the house of the country is plain, somewhat prim, not large, late Colonial; perhaps modified Georgian would be a useful enough description.
Some friends recommended to me an honest man who knew every farm within miles around. “You can believe every word he says,” they assured me. On the first of January, in zero weather and deep snow, I explained to him what I was looking for, and we started touring the countryside. My house must be near Saratoga Springs, my favorite small town of all America that I had seen.* It must be handsomely located in a good, but domestic landscape, with generous acres, well-watered and wooded, and it must not cost above a certain modest sum.
Nodding his head understandingly, he drove me at once sixty miles away into Vermont and showed me a nineteen-room house on a rock-bound spot. He showed me, within the next eighteen days, every sort of house from pink brick mansions on a quarter acre to shingle camp bungalows in wild places far from human habitation. We slogged through snow to our knees to inspect Victorian Gothic edifices big enough to house a boarding school. We crept into desolate little shacks where snow and leaves were piled in the corners of the living-room.
Between each wild goose chase, I repeated, patiently and monotonously as a trained crow, my simple wants, my unalterable wishes. At last I reminded him that our friends had told me I could believe every word he said, but until he believed every word I said, too, we could make no progress whatever. And I said good-bye, which seemed to make no impression. Two days later he called again and said perhaps he had a house for me, after all.
That was January 21, 1941. As our car turned into the road, a hen pheasant flew up and struck lightly against the radiator-cap and lost a few breast-feathers. With desperate superstition I got out and picked them up and put them in my handbag, saying they might bring me luck.
We drove for a few miles around Saratoga Lake, turned into an inclined road between a great preserve of spruce and pine, turned again to the right on a small rise, and my honest man pointed into the valley before us. I looked at an old Colonial house, rather small, modified Georgian, with a red roof and several cluttery small porches and sheds clinging to its sides. It sat there in a modest state, surrounded by tall, bare trees, against a small hill of evergreen.
“But that is my house,” I told him. “That’s mine.”
We struggled around it again knee-deep in snowdrifts, peering through windows.
“Let’s not bother,” I said. “I’ll take it.”
“But you must see inside first,” he insisted.
“I know what’s inside,” I said. “Let’s go to see the owner.”
The owner, a woman of perhaps fifty who looked incapable of surprise, had to be told several times, in different phrases, that her house was sold at last, really sold. My honest man had had it on his list for seven long years. Her hopes were about exhausted. I gave him a look meant to be terrible, but he missed it, somehow.
She wanted to tell the history of her house. It was one of the first built in this part of the country, by first settlers, related to Benedict Arnold. It had been lived in since the day it was finished; her own family had been there for eighty-five years. She was the last of her immediate family. With a difficult tear, she said that she had buried all her nearest and dearest from that house; and living there alone as she had been, there were times in the winter evenings when it seemed they were all in the same room with her.
In no time at all, it seems now, the transaction was complete, and I was well seized of my property. I had always thought that was a mere picturesque phrase. It is simply a statement of fact. I am seized of my property, and my property is well seized of me. It is described as having one hundred and five acres of meadow and woodland, with two brooks, a spring, and an inexhaustible well. Besides all this, there are forty acres of molding sand, of which eighteen are under contract to a sand dealer. However, I should not mind this, as the land to be mined for sand lay far away; the operations would be conducted safely out of sight. Of this more later.
I remembered a remark of Mr. E. M. Forster on taking possession of his woods: the first thing he noticed was that his land made him feel heavy. I had become almost overnight a ton weight of moral, social, and financial responsibility, subject to state and county tax, school tax, and an astonishing variety of insurance. Besides the moral, legal, and financial aspects peculiar to myself, the affair had become a community interest. My new-found friends gave me any amount of advice, all seriously good. They were anxious about me. They told me how pleased they were I was going to live there. Other friends drove out to visit, inspect, and approve. My house was solid as a church, in foundation, beams, walls, and roof, and the cellar was an example to all cellars.
Friends came up in the spring from New York, strolled in the meadows, picked flowers, and advised me to practice virtue and circumspection in every act of my new life. There began arriving presents, such as five incredibly elegant very early Victorian chairs and settles, Bohemian mirror glass lamps with crystal-beaded shades, cranberry glass bowls.
My life began to shape itself to fit a neighborhood, and that neighborhood included everybody who came near my house or knew that I had got it. All this is strange new pleasure.
And almost at once I encountered some strange n
“Naw, it’s all just a lot of nonsense,” said the one who was trying to make it work. They all agreed there was nothing in it, but each of them knew several well-diggers who had seen it work or who could even work it themselves. “There are actually men,” said one of them, “who just walk around holding it like this, and when he comes to where there is water, it turns and twists itself right out of his hands.” But there wasn’t anything to it, just the same, and just the same they never go to look for water without taking one along. They haven’t found a well yet, but I do not let my mind dwell on this.
The sand man, thinking that the place was vacated and nobody would know or care, came and leveled over the entire slope of my east meadow within a few steps of the house, before I got into action and persuaded him he was, to say it mildly, not within his rights. There is a great and dreadful scar four feet deep and seventy-five feet long, where I had meant to plant the rose hedge, which must be filled in with tons of soil.
I have a tenant house, which a Southern friend described as something transplanted from Tobacco Road. Be that as it may. There are broad plans afoot for it, and I am looking for a tenant farmer. With this in view, I bought, of the best and sturdiest, the following implements: one metal rake, one wooden rake, one hoe, one ax (of the kind used by champion wood-cutters in contests), one handsaw, one spading fork, one mattock, one spade, one brush hook, one snath and blade (medium), one wheelbarrow, one long, dangerous-looking scythe blade, one hammer, one ten-inch file, one grindstone, one four-gallon water-pail, and this is the merest beginning. But I have no tenant farmer.
There is a half-ton of old lumber thrown down on a bed of flowers whose name I do not know, but who were just getting ready to bloom. The sand men hacked a road through my pine woods, taking off great branches of fine trees. Contractors came and went in series. Through the years I have collected a small library of architectural magazines, photographs of old houses before and after, plans for remodeling, and a definite point of view of my own. The first man on the ground looked everything over, listened patiently to my plans and hopes, asked me, “Why take all that trouble for an old house?” and disappeared, never to be seen again. The second was magnificently sympathetic and competent, but he was used to building houses for the Whitneys and Vanderbilts and other racing people in Saratoga, and it was impossible to scale down his ideas.
Others went out, pried up the old random-width floors, tore chunks out of the plaster, knocked bricks out of the chimney, pumped out the well, tested beams, ripped slates off the roof, pulled down sheds and porches, and one by one disappeared. . . . I have a contractor, though. He is Swedish, he has been in this country seventeen years, he is an authority on American Colonial houses, and I decided he should do the work when he went through my house, looked around once, nodded his head, and remarked gently, “Ah, yes, I know just what is here.” The house and the furniture are only about ten miles apart now. There remains nothing except to draw them together.
It seems a very long ten miles, perhaps the longest I shall ever travel. I am saving the pheasant feathers to burn, for luck, on the first fire I light in the fine old fireplace with its bake oven and graceful mantelpiece. It will be high time for fires again, no doubt, when I get there.
The Necessary Enemy
SHE is a frank, charming, fresh-hearted young woman who married for love. She and her husband are one of those gay, good-looking young pairs who ornament this modern scene rather more in profusion perhaps than ever before in our history. They are handsome, with a talent for finding their way in their world, they work at things that interest them, their tastes agree and their hopes. They intend in all good faith to spend their lives together, to have children and do well by them and each other—to be happy, in fact, which for them is the whole point of their marriage. And all in stride, keeping their wits about them. Nothing romantic, mind you; their feet are on the ground.
Unless they were this sort of person, there would be not much point to what I wish to say; for they would seem to be an example of the high-spirited, right-minded young whom the critics are always invoking to come forth and do their duty and practice all those sterling old-fashioned virtues which in every generation seem to be falling into disrepair. As for virtues, these young people are more or less on their own, like most of their kind; they get very little moral or other aid from their society; but after three years of marriage this very contemporary young woman finds herself facing the oldest and ugliest dilemma of marriage.
She is dismayed, horrified, full of guilt and forebodings because she is finding out little by little that she is capable of hating her husband, whom she loves faithfully. She can hate him at times as fiercely and mysteriously, indeed in terribly much the same way, as often she hated her parents, her brothers and sisters, whom she loves, when she was a child. Even then it had seemed to her a kind of black treacherousness in her, her private wickedness that, just the same, gave her her only private life. That was one thing her parents never knew about her, never seemed to suspect. For it was never given a name. They did and said hateful things to her and to each other as if by right, as if in them it was a kind of virtue. But when they said to her, “Control your feelings,” it was never when she was amiable and obedient, only in the black times of her hate. So it was her secret, a shameful one. When they punished her, sometimes for the strangest reasons, it was, they said, only because they loved her—it was for her good. She did not believe this, but she thought herself guilty of something worse than ever they had punished her for. None of this really frightened her: the real fright came when she discovered that at times her father and mother hated each other; this was like standing on the doorsill of a familiar room and seeing in a lightning flash that the floor was gone, you were on the edge of a bottomless pit. Sometimes she felt that both of them hated her, but that passed, it was simply not a thing to be thought of, much less believed. She thought she had outgrown all this, but here it was again, an element in her own nature she could not control, or feared she could not. She would have to hide from her husband, if she could, the same spot in her feelings she had hidden from her parents, and for the same no doubt disreputable, selfish reason: she wants to keep his love.
Above all, she wants him to be absolutely confident that she loves him, for that is the real truth, no matter how unreasonable it sounds, and no matter how her own feelings betray them both at times. She depends recklessly on his love; yet while she is hating him, he might very well be hating her as much or even more, and it would serve her right. But she does not want to be served right, she wants to be loved and forgiven—that is, to be sure he would forgive her anything, if he had any notion of what she had done. But best of all she would like not to have anything in her love that should ask for forgiveness. She doesn’t mean about their quarrels—they are not so bad. Her feelings are out of proportion, perhaps. She knows it is perfectly natural for people to disagree, have fits of temper, fight it out; they learn quite a lot about each other that way, and not all of it disappointing either. When it passes, her hatred seems quite unreal. It always did.
Love. We are early taught to say it. I love you. We are trained to the thought of it as if there were nothing else, or nothing else worth having without it, or nothing worth having which it could not bring with it. Love is taught, always by precept, sometimes
Say I love you a thousand times to that person afterward and mean it every time, and still it does not change the fact that once we said I hate you, and meant that too. It leaves a mark on that surface love had worn so smooth with its eternal caresses. Love must be learned, and learned again and again; there is no end to it. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked. . . hate, the unspoken word, the unacknowledged presence in the house, that faint smell of brimstone among the roses, that invisible tongue-tripper, that unkempt finger in every pie, that sudden oh-so-curiously chilling look—could it be boredom?—on your dear one’s features, making them quite ugly. Be careful: love, perfect love, is in danger.
If it is not perfect, it is not love, and if it is not love, it is bound to be hate sooner or later. This is perhaps a not too exaggerated statement of the extreme position of Romantic Love, more especially in America, where we are all brought up on it, whether we know it or not. Romantic Love is changeless, faithful, passionate, and its sole end is to render the two lovers happy. It has no obstacles save those provided by the hazards of fate (that is to say, society), and such sufferings as the lovers may cause each other are only another word for delight: exciting jealousies, thrilling uncertainties, the ritual dance of courtship within the charmed closed circle of their secret alliance; all real troubles come from without, they face them unitedly in perfect confidence. Marriage is not the end but only the beginning of true happiness, cloudless, changeless to the end. That the candidates for this blissful condition have never seen an example of it, nor ever knew anyone who had, makes no difference. That is the ideal and they will achieve it.