THE POINTS SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY
Commentary © James A. Harrod, Copyright Protected; All Rights Reserved
Sindbad Vail noted in his introduction to POINTS 20 that he had prepaid a vendor for the paper stock required to produce the short story anthology, and that the paper had not been delivered. In Sindbad’s own words:
“By the time this issue is out the POINTS SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY ought to be out too. The book should have appeared many months ago. I could write a long story on the difficulties that occurred during its compiling and the bigger troubles I had with the printers. It languished for over a month, all set for the actual printing for lack of paper. I made the mistake of paying a paper dealer in advance and that paper wasnever delivered. I could not go ahead until I recuperated the money to order the paper elsewhere. Now that it’s out I hope everyone will order a copy. The book contains fifteen short stories taken from the seventy five printed in nineteen issues of POINTS.”
This financial set back no doubt contributed to Vail’s decision to end the publication of POINTS with issue number 20. Vail had been producing a thousand copies of each issue as related in his history of his publishing venture in POINTS 18. We do not know how many copies of the short story anthology were ordered from the printer, but the size of the volume at 260 pages would equal several issues of POINTS and in all probability the burden of producing the anthology ended Vail’s life in publishing.
This first entry examining THE POINTS SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY presents the first two stories in the anthology. Future posts will add additional stories.
© The Estate of Harold Brav
(contents, page two)
INTRODUCTION by SindbadVAIL
THE END BEGINS IN ABOUT FIVE MINUTES by Roy BONGARTZ
AND SAT DOWN BESIDE HER by Herbert GOLD
THE MATHEMATICIAN by John SYMONDS
AFTER THE WAKE by BrendanBEHAN
THE WOMAN WHO HAD CRUSHES by Howard GRIFFIN
THE CROSS ON THE MOUNTAIN by Tom FURLONG
I DO, SIRO by Elliot STEIN
ASYLUM FOR THE BLIND by DomhnallO’CONAILL
RATS by Harold BRAV
THE HOLY MAN by Alexander TROCCHI
THE DIARIST by SelwynKITTREDCE
LOVE by Austryn WAINHOUSE
THE GENTLEMAN AND HIS COMPANION by Arlette ANNEVILLE
THE BATHROOM IN BUDAPEST by John GOODWIN
THE FROG LADY by H. E. FRANCIS
It is probably inevitable that after publishinga little magazine in Paris, or for that matter anywhere, the editor should bring out, (if hecan raise the money) an anthology of the most “valid and representative work” he has published.
Well I have been publishing POINTS now in Paris for over five years with varying misfortunes. The idea of thisbook came to me over a year ago and it has been nearly a year in preparation. At first I wanted to print a larger book, but after goinginto the production costs, and failing also to collect a big sum through voluntary subscriptions,I contented myself with what you are going to read. Originally I wanted to collect under one cover not only the best short stories, but also the best poems, articles, essays and book reviews. One by one I threw all but the former. This was going to be mybook, and I have never really chosen the poetry for POINTS. Various editors or advisors have handled that part,or quite frankly some poems were inserted to fill up space. I decided too that most of the articles would not be topical anymore; and a book review is just that, a book review. In the end I was left with what I always wanted POINTS to be, that is fundamentally a short story magazine, by comparatively young and unknown writers. I have always chosen all the stories (that appeared in English) in themagazine. Some were lousy and some excellent. I know that I once thought that all the stories published in this anthology were very good. Now I think I’m bored with all of them; I’ve proof read them too often.
To be quite frank, this book was not edited 100 % by myself. In all I chose twenty-five short stories that I preferred and then asked my father Laurence Vail which he thought were the best or worst. I wanted fifteen stories and by good chance or excellent taste he removed the same ten I would have.
In over five years and nineteen issues of POINTS, Seventy–three short stories in English have been published. Perhaps not the best ones were chosen for this work; (I fear many of the authors will think that) but it must be Remembered that those chosen are among the twenty-five I preferred and that together, they make a complete book and give a good idea of the variety of work published in the review. In between these covers one will find every type of short story, from the straight narrative right through to the love, homosexual, fantasy and whimsical types. Irish, American, English, French, expatriates and stay–at–homes writers are here.
The stories are printed in chronological order of appearencein POINTS. Readers can judge for themselves whether or not the standard of writing has improved. Seven of the fifteen stories appeared in the last four issues of the magazine,which is an indication at least of what I think. Many numbers of the magazine are not represented in the book.
All in all I believe the short stories republished in the POINTS SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY are truly representative of not only what has been done in the magazine;but are also a sort of barometer or indicator of what the better younger fiction writers are doing today on both sides of the Atlantic.
Paris, Autumn 1954
Born Providence, R.I., 1924. First published in POINTS and subsequently HORIZON, NEUEAUSLESE (Germany), and QUIXOTE. Now teaching United States Air Force students in England and an AssociateEditor of QUIXOTE.
“The End Begins in about Five Minutes“ was published in POINTS 1 in Feb. 1949. One month later HORIZON reprinted this story. “Vit ! Vit ! Szabadsag (A Trip To Budapest)” was published in POINTS 4. “Several Beers in the American Zone [A trip to Germany] was published in POINTS 5. Bongartz’s last appearance in POINTS was in POINTS 15 where his story “Watch My Angel” was featured. Bongartz was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker in the 1960s.
THE END BEGINS
Angry Shiah led the slow, blackly dressed funeral procession toward the graveyard. He thought of his old mother, seventy years old, who hardly knew what life was all about. “Not even the first thing about it,” he mused, feeling more excited every minute. It had been fifteen years since his own funeral, at which he had really begun to live, and since he had never seen his mother, he was rather anxious about it.
The pall bearers began a slow chant:
“Roll out your rubber tired carriage,
Roll out your rubber tired back
There’s eleven men goin’to the graveyard,
And twelve are comin*back…”
Arriving at the cemetery, the grave diggers began their work after the short ceremony, and soon had lifted the musty coffin from the hole and placed it in the hearse.
Angry could hardly wait until the funeral was over to take his mother home. “She’ll be a beaut by the time she’s twenty,” he thought, looking at her lined face as she rested in the box. The doctors came, pronounced her dead, and put her to bed. “Don’t excite her too much at first,” they warned him.
It was about six in the evening, just as a warm summer afternoon was dawning with promise of a beautiful day, when she first opened her eyes. “What time is it?” she asked.
“Six o’clock, mother/’replied her son, choked with emotion. “You’re looking fine.”
“Oh, this ain’t nothing. Just wait ‘til I grow out of these old rags—say when I’m about forty or thirty-five. How old am I now, by the way—or do you know?” –
“Just seventy, according to the records down at the court-house.”
“Seventy years. Hmm. A long, long time, eh son? Uh,I didn’t quite catch the name.”
“Angry, mother. Angry Shiah. And you’re Effie Shiah.”
“Where‘s your father? Out carousing, I suppose.”
“No, no, mother. He died when he was fifty, about twenty years from now.”
“Twenty years. I would pick someone who’d leave me high and dry in my old age. I guess I‘ll have to rely on you, son, until he comes along. Here, help me out of bed, will you?” Angry pulled her to a sitting position on the side of the bed. “Unh!” she exclaimed. “These old bones aren’t what they will be.”
The seasons passed:summer faded away into spring, spring into winter, and then autumn. One day a man with a briefcase came to the house. “Mother,” called Angry. “It’s the social security man come to collect this month’s pension. You must have forgot to send it in.”
“How much is it?” called Effie from upstairs, where she sat reading the paper.
“Tell him to come back tomorrow.”
The little man looked up. “You realize that if these payments aren’t made, there will be nothing we can do about her receiving the extra two per cent of her pay when she’s sixty-five and under..”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said Angry, paying the man from his billfold. “Makes it hard on a person, this bureaucracy.”
“You’ll never regret it,” the man assured him. “Why, she’ll only be paying the pension five years, and then all the rest of her life, as long as she draws some kind of pay, she’ll be getting that extra money.”
He turned to leave, and passed the paper boy coming up the walk.
“Hello, Mr. Shiah. Here’s your twenty-eight cents for this week. Have you got your paper handy?”
“Just a minute, Bobby.” Angry went upstairs and took the paper away from his mother.
“Wait ‘til I finish this crossword.Angry. What’s a fourletter word for…”
“Now, be reasonable, mother. Bobby has a whole route to collect, and he can’t wait for just one customer.”
“I don’t see what he’s in such a rush about.”
“He has a deadline to meet. After he’s got all the papers from the porches, he has to get them down to the press so they can run them through and make pulp out of them. They ship all the pulp to Canada for forest fertilizer.”
“Oh, all right. I wish we had a paper boy who wasn’t so damned prompt.”
Angry took care of the paper boy, and then went out to back the green hydra-matic Oldsmobile from the garage. “I’ve got to be getting back to the office,” he told his mother.
“Angry,” she called. “I’m not going to have that car around here. I’ve told you before, and I’m not going to go on like this. Mr. Prouef has some lovely new model A Fords in, so get right down there now! You can get at least half the value on a trade-in.”
“Oh, all right, mother. I’ll go down to see Mr. Prouef. Wouldn’t a new Essex do just as well,
“Angry, boy, must you always be behind the times? And get rid of that car radio, too.” She turned and stamped irritably into the house. “Car radios in this day and age,” she fumed.
As the years went by Angry and his mother got used to their simple life together. Effie passed sixtyfive, and was getting her extra two per cent from her picture-frame washing business. She even had a neon sign outside the house:
“EFFIE’S FRAME LAUNDRY”
“Mother, that sign outside—well, I don’t like to say anything, but don’t you think it’s rather old hat?”
“I like it all right. What’s the matter with it?”
“Down East they’ve already replaced almost all the electric bulbs with gas light. And here we are still using neon.”
“But that red glow is pretty,” protested Effie. “It isn’t as if I still hung onto those old fluorescents in the living-room. We’ve got the latest in horsehair filament bulbs now, you know”
“But right out under everybody’s nose, mother. People will begin to laugh at us. Remember when I traded in the Oldsmobile, just to please you?
“Oh, you win, you win. Old things are never good enough for this modem generation. I’ll have it replaced by an old shingle tomorrow.”
“You’re a good sport, ma,” smiled Angry. “Just for that I’ll throw you to a show down at the Rialto. This is the last week for silent pictures, you know. Getting a magic lantern in next Monday.” Arriving at the theater.Angry asked the girl in the box-office, “Is the show on now?”
“The end begins in about five minutes.”
“Good. We’ll wait. I hate to come in just as the beginning is ending. Spoils the whole picture for me.”
“Me too,” remarked his mother, watching the people coming out of the theater hand in their tickets at the box-office to get their twenty–five cents.
Several years later, as Effie became younger and her face less lined, another funeral took place in the Shiah family, and after a few days the event they had been waiting for finally happened.
“Come in here, son,” called Effie from the bedroom. “I want you to meet your father.”
“Hello, Dad,” said Angry, looking at a heavy, grey–haired man of fifty.
“Well, well. So you’re my son, eh? How .old are you, boy?”
“Thirty, Dad. Be twenty-nine in just three weeks.”
“Thirty years old, eh? Never guess it to look at you.” He stretched and yawned deeply. “Let’s have a look round the place, Effie. Might’s well get used to things right off.”
So Mr. Cole Shiah joined the household, caught on to his doornail business, and followed time down its awkward, uneventful path. Finally, on Angry’s eighteenth birthday a decision had to be made.
“Son,” said Cole, “it’s high time you were off to school. You missed out on college, but no son of mine is going to lack a high school education, at least.”
“But mother thinks I should work a few more years down at the foundry. I got plenty time yet for school.”
“Nope, Angry, you’re going to school. Effie! Oh, Effie!” He paused, and getting no reply, bellowed, “WIFE!”
“What isit!” called Effie, coming into the room.
“Angry tells me you think he should keep working instead of going to school. I won’t hear of it!”
“Now honey-bun, let’stalk it over. There’s no hurry about his going to school right away. He’s got eighteen years yet, “Effie argued.
“Don’t ‘honey-bun* me!” he roared. “You might as well make up your mind to it; he‘s going! Somebody‘s got to think of his future. Why, in five years, what will his friends think of a boy of thirteen who talks like an eighteen-year-old?”
And Angry went to school, too. Coming home after his first day in the twelfth grade, his father asked him what had happened.
“I like it all right,dad, but it’s not going to be easy. I have to forget two whole chapters in calculus for tomorrow, and Monday we have to be ready for biology lab. We’re going to put together a dissected frog and make it live or something.”
“I don’t see anything so difficult about the forgetting part.”
“It’s not so easy, though. Little things just stick in my mind, and I can’t get rid of them. Like the date the Boer war ended.”
“When was that?”
“Uh. I forget.”
“You see? Nothing to it. You’re making me proud of you, son. Why I’ll bet you’ll be at the foot of your class in no time… What’s that you have there?”
“Oh, this? An apple from the teacher.”
Days went by; night faded into afternoon, afternoon into noon, and then morning. Angry completed school, skipping the fourth grade on his way to the third, he forgot so well.
Several years later, Effie, a beautiful pale girl of twenty, lay in bed with her infant son. She looked at him querulously. He was one day old.
© The Estate Of Roy Bongartz
Bom in Cleveland, Ohio, 1924. He has published essays, stories, poetry and articles in NEWWORLD WRITING, HARPER’S BAZAAR, HUDSON REVIEW, THE AMERICAN MERCURY, STORY, THE YALE REVIEW, COLLIERS,THE ATLANTIC, FURIOSO, DISCOVERY, NEW DIRECTIONS ANNUAL, BOTTECHEOSCURE and other magazines and anthologies. One of his stories is to be reprinted in a forthcoming issue of PERSPECTIVES, USA, another in the O’HENRY PRIZE STORIES of 1954. He has published two novels, “Birth of a Hero “ and “The Prospect Before Us.”
“ And Sat Down Beside Her ” which appeared in POINTS 4 in October, 1949, was his first published story. This story won the only short story contest POINTS ever organized.
AND SAT DOWN
Through the stifling air of afternoon in a Florida resort city—a day so hot that even the querulous Northern women fell silent, rocking on their porches—a man made his way aimlessly up the street, from one patch of shade to another. Almost drunk with heat, he paused and gazed in the full angry glare of the sun. There was no answer for him in any of the stucco houses of the street, erected by dead husbands to give style to their widows, who waited to die; he found no question and no answer, neither within himself nor outside. Despair and crusted sweat stung against the weariness; he could hardly see. An old truth from the war, itself so hard to remember now, stirred in his mind—there is a point when you are too tired even to focus on a thing outside. He braced himself by bending his knees slightly, and forced his squinting eyes toward the only other human being visible on the suburban side-street.
It was a child, a girl of perhaps seven. Rocking listlessly on the seat of a tricycle, she hummed to herself and considered profoundly matters beyond her own recall; in years to come she would remember the thinking, but never the thoughts. A bath had left her childish puffed cheeks scrubbed and pink; a tendency to droop in the heat was checked by the stiff, faultlessly white dress which recalled her mother’s injunctions : Be good! Play nice! Stay clean! This, the man decided, was her task until suppertime.
He marvelled at the delicacy and purity of the child’s solemn attempt to fulfill two contrary commands, to remain clean and to amuse herself. Abstracted, she traced invisible lines in the grass with the toe of her sandal, pattern and signs judged only by her guiltless dreaming eye. The man felt caked sweat and soiled underclothes suddenly move like vermin on his body. The child raised her voice slightly, chanting.
Little Miss Moffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey—
With his hand the man brushed the dry, thick, uncut hair back from his forehead. The child was wondering: What are curds? What is whey?
The man approached.
“Hello, little girl,” he said.
“Hello, big man.”
“My name is Roy.”
She nodded her head yes.
“What’s your name, little girl?”
“Cecily Elizabeth Davis—what are curds? Everyone calls me Cissy.” “I think ifs some kind of cereal. Cissy.”
She made a small face, letting the tongue slide decorously between her pouting lips. “I hate cereal.” she announced. “Especially hot cereal. Mommy makes me eat it.”
The man, tired and hungry, felt the stiff lines of his face yield to a smile. Such a pink little tip of a tongue! It was her wet little tongue, the tongue of the first creature who had dealt with him in entire innocence, without calculation, without scheming, since—how long had it been? He forgot. Well, well, memory is no good. If there were ever any friends to help him live past the solitary tick of his watch, he had forgotten them. Anyway, the watch had gone to some friend someplace, maybe in South Carolina, maybe as far back as Maryland. That was a good joke he thought. He imagined returning to the hospital, or going home, where there would be Veterans Administration checks awaiting him. Then he would find friends—hospital friends, pension friends… He smiled again: but no one for his loneliness. “You look so nice and cool. Cissy. How can you keep so cool?”
She laughed, her lips damply parted, a light and easy childish laugh. “I’m not really cool. It just seems,that way,” she said with a curiously adult and precise enunciation, yet lisping slightly on the pedantic word seems.Round as navels, her eyes shone with delight at his foolishness. She lifted her face to him. “I’ll show you,” she said. “Look. Touch me.”
At that moment something happened to his day. He could breathe, he could stand, he could see. He was aware of the slickness of his body in his clothes. Somehow the heat became almost luxurious, like that of hot bread, and the rigid weariness of the past melted to a soft human fatigue. He could remember naptimes, bed times; it was as if the face of the child brought back his own distant face, brought back in its trust a child as innocent as this one. The blood tasted in his mouth; he had bit his tongue. How sweet it was! His muscles might obey him again–—perhaps even his mind… He tightened a fist until he felt the nails cruel against his palm; then, as slowly as he could manage, he loosened the hand and reached out to brush just the fleshy ends of his fingers against her forehead.
“You’re right,” he said, “very cool… very cool…”
“That’s funny!” she cried out gleefully. “You’re not talking. Why don’t you talk? You’re only whispering.”
He put his fingers to his lips and elaborately darted his eyes from side to side. “ Shh, let’s not wake everyone up.”
She lowered her voice. “You mean everyone’s asleep—everyone except us?”
Her eyes widened with pleasure and excitement, taking the game at once, and she turned a long slow gaze about her, for the first time reaching toward the mystery of a sleeping world. He joined her in this initial adult perception; he tried to give her his own childhood as fuel, in exchange for her quick kindling. They turned and looked together. The silent sun prodded in gardens and struggled intimately with the damp places at roots and corners; attacking the street, it was thrown hack with equal silence by glazed brick. The day abandoned itself to the sun—40 us, he thought. At that moment, in fact, not another being could be seen on the street; no dog yelped, no bird cawed, and even the wind was mute in the trees. “This is a wonderful game,” the child breathed. “Why are we awake?”
“We’re asleep too, only we’re dreaming.”
Just as he pronounced the long magic word, dreaming, a motor stirred angrily and an automobile backed from a driveway over the curb; it lay oafishly across the street, coughed, and headed down toward the boulevard. “Oh, we’re not asleep,” she said, cheated. “The game’s spoiled… That’s Mr. Randolph. He’s retired. He has a Buick fluid-drive.”
“We’re still asleep.Cissy. Mr. Randolph and his automobile are part of our dream.”
“What about you and me?”
“We’re dreaming each other.”
Solemn, attentive, she studied his face a moment, and then the unashamed little-girl smile caught her mouth and eyes. “You’re nice,” she decided. “I have a playhouse. Would you like to see it?” He nodded. “If we go slow together we won’t wake up—isn’t that right?”
“Exactly right,” he said.
She took his hand; he let it hang limp as she held to a finger. Strolling up the long driveway, soft with the old weariness, perhaps cowardly before him what he already suspected ahead of them, his legs refused him firm support; his toea felt crowded and swollen in his shoes; his steps were not straight, and once, when an ankle turned on a loose stone, he almost tripped. He fumbled against her for support. His hand licked fleetingly across the tender flesh of her shoulder. “Be careful how you walk,” she said. “It’s easy to fall when you run, you know—I always skin my knee. Then I like to pick the scab and make it bleed all over.” Her dress appeared starched and white, but it was a soft clean fabric, cool against her skin. Her knees moved plumply below the short skirt. If we go slow together, he thought, we won’t wake up.
She stopped at the instant that he did, already knowing his movements, like a woman or a child, before he knew them himself. “See,” she said, and then waited. The yard had banished the prosperous, rectangular, cement-and-stucco world of the street. Two giant eucalyptus trees, preserved by some rare circumstance of design or whim, rose gleaming from the wet earth and transformed the suburban lot to a swamp. The sun expelled, a hint of petulant city heat survived in the dampness sucked almost visibly from the trees and earth and moss. “See?” she repeated.
“What? No, no,” he said, moving to examine the gnarled resinous trunks and extravagant blue-green vegetation. “I don’t believe it.” She took his finger again as they walked. Between the two trees a small playhouse had been constructed, lattice-work sides and a solid roof against drippings from the branches.
“It really is a dream.Cissy, isn’t it?”
“I can build things. My daddy built me this house. I save leaves. Do you have a house like my house?”
“I’ll give it to you,” she said carelessly. “You can have it.”
“Then what will you do?”
“Well, I can come and visit you.” Pausing, she considered this. “It would be very nice,” she said.
“Thank you very much.Cissy, but why don’t you just give me half? Then we can live in it together.”
“Like Mommy and Daddy…”—stopping abruptly. She flushed, pink once more spreading across her cheek, her inquisitive eyes first gazing hard into his, then half-closed and lowered toward the plank floor; gome wriggling wordless knowledge of what this suggestion meant had sprung the clear surface of her childish innocence. The man wondered if this were another delirium, another nightmare—this dream, of release from the hospital, of fleeing in panic from his family, of falling upon a miraculous girl with courage and purity enough to love him. Over their heads an insect buzzed mournfully, carrying home its laden belly. The child stood waiting on the threshold next to him. Can a wound like mine, he asked himself, be cleansed at last by a child? She waited, idle, toying with a sticky eucalyptus twig. Perhaps this isthe final nightmare before madness, he thought—peace now because waking will bring loneliness, terror, and death. Peace or terror, dream and death—words… One way only can end the loneliness: to touch her, to touch her truly, will make it real.
“Yes, like your mother and father. Let’s be married.”
“Well, come inside,” she said simply.
To pass through the doorway into the playhouse he was forced to crouch and lower his head. She took his hand boldly now, possessively, the third time that she had reached for his hand. Inside it was already dusk; the roof and the trees obscured the metallic glitter of the sky. From what light remained the lattice-work distilled out the darkness and distributed it in jagged patterns on the floor. The child hopped about delightedly, chirping with excitement. He followed her with his eyes, turning slightly as, with sweet pedantry, she expounded the use of each corner of their house. “This is where I keep my dolls. And here’s the kitchen. Mother gives me Graham crackers to feed the dolls, we can eat them. And here‘s the bedroom. And here’s where I sit and think.”—A ritual of introduction. The miniature dimensions of the hut bound him, contracted the warming no longer alert within him, compressed and tightened the breathing of desire. Finally she stopped and paused to look at him. “I like showing you things,” she said.
“Do you remember my name?”
“Of course. Roy… Why did you say my name before we came in, Roy?”
“Because you said you would be my wife.”
“Would you like to see our children? Sit here and I’ll bring them to you.” There was a low bench, but he stood, stooping, until she returned. Even in the instant she was gone, gathering up the dolls from the box at the other end of the hut, the tiredness devoured him, flowed like a snake back through his body. He examined the crooked blue veins, caught, writhing on the back of his hand. She returned and plumped herself down on the bench; in imitation of a grown-up girl, she smoothed out the skirt which flared over her little-child belly. “Sit down!“ she commanded with vehement hospitality. He forced a long breath into his lungs—sometimes he had wondered if, out of some unforgivable negligence, he might forget to breathe, as often, stricken, he had forgotten his age or his name. It was difficult to remember… so many things… She sat the dolls in her lap with solicitous maternal noises. “Oh, yes indeed, nice children, be good, that‘s right. See what good babies we have, Roy?”
He sat down beside her. “Do you like being my wife.Cissy?”
“What’s whey, Roy?” She reached across to scratch her elbow. “You told me about curds, but what’s whey?”
He meditated on this, obedient to her high seriousness. “I think I was wrong about curds. They’re both kinds of milk—only curds is the thick part and whey is the thin part.”
“I like my milk medium,” she said, tossing her braids with a quick movement.
“What do your dollslike?”
“Nice, nice babies,” she crooned. “Do you want me to recite something?” She began softly, swaying against him with the rhythm:
Little Miss Moffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey
Along came a spider—
“Wife,” the words issued imperiously,—“I’m hungry. What’s there to eat?”
“Graham crackers. Let’s see,“ she said, “what ‘would you like?”
“That’s fine, husband,”—pompously. “I just happen to have some nice fresh Graham crackers today. How do you want to eat them?”
“What do you have to serve with them, wife?”
“I’ll take my graham crackers plain, please.”
“Call me wife,Roy.”
As she ran to bring the box of broken crackers, softened with dampness, he recalled his hunger in the past—the incredible silent longing of youth, the physical need which flashed like a knife while he was a soldier, the slow hopeless ache of the sick years. And today is the day, he thought, the finish for all that. In his dream of the end of loneliness there had never been a little girl, a Graham cracker; therefore it was she that he needed. Submissively, she offered him the box. They sat munching quietly, side by side. The sweetish mass crumbled on histongue; he licked his lips and swallowed greedily. Somehow her gesture of giving food—offering up her childhood to him—brought him the strength he needed in order to begin what it was necessary to finish. The hospital failed, he thought; the child will succeed… He smiled at an echo in memory, vague but insistent —ask ye a child? be as little children? He had forgotten. It was long ago.
The afternoon sun had turned from the hut, so that even the muted light which had penetrated the mass of foliage and lattice–work began to fade. Certain now, waiting for the moment, he watched over the little girl who wanted to be his wife. She sat contentedly beside him, chewing a cracker and swinging her legs. They did not quite reach the floor. Occasionally she stretched down with an abstracted gesture to scratch about the dull red scab ,on her knee. He wondered how such a wound could be made—with a knife, or broken glass, or teeth. Then be remembered. “You fell on the driveway.Cissy, didn’t you?”
This would be no crime, he reasoned. She loved him; she called him husband. Her perfect innocence could find a perfect end… The weight of guilt and illness—the long burden of his solitary fear—sagged, hung, pulled like a rupture within him. It was hot. The thick late afternoon air, unmoving, insulated both sound and thought. They were together now; never again could he be alone. It would be a gesture of love and sacrifice like that told of the saints—beautiful, beautiful… With her he could enter the world; he might be whole again. And there was no other way.—
“Cecily, wife,” he said. Her eyes, round, attentive, trustful,looked into his. Gently, with longing and sorrow, he turned her to him. “Touch me.”
Suddenly a shout split the air. “Cissy! Cissy!”
“That‘s Mommy,” she whispered.
“Cis-sy! Come inside! Time for supper!”
“Ihave to go now,” she said.
“Will you come back?”
The shrill voice cried out again: “Cecily! This very minute!”
“If Mommy lets me,” she said softly, smiling. “I’ll ask her.”
“You really want to?”
“After supper, if I can.”
“I promise, husband.”
She glanced at him once, curious, and then leapt up and ran toward the house without looking back. He knew she would not return, and by morning she would forget him. The tropical heat moved in, wet and silent.
He was alone.
© The Estate of Herbert Gold
Born London in 1914. He is the author of one novel “William, Waste,” two children’s books published in the USA. “The Magic Currant Bun” and “Travelers Three,” and a best selling biography of Aleister Crowley, “ The Great Beast.” He also was on the staff of LILLIPUT.
His story “The Mathematician” appeared in POINTS 7 in July 1950.
Everyone was helping with the harvest including the daughter of the lieutenant–colonel who owned the estate, and a pale-faced youth from London who happened to be passing by and asked if he could sleep the night in the barn. After the corn had been cut, the young man from London stayed on to help pick the fruit.
He was a slow worker, but everyone can be of use at this time of the year; besides there was something sad in his face which made it difficult for Colonel Young to refuse him. He was given a little, bare room with a bed in it, his meals in the kitchen with the four workers regularly employed on the farm, and the usual rates of pay. He never said anything, and when spokn to, he would often not reply. But he was by no means stupid and he had the air of a cultured person. After the evening meal, he would continue sitting on the end of the bench, huddled up as if in a dream, or bent over the table with a book before his eyes. No one took any notice of him till the harvest was over and then the colonel decided to dispense with his services.
He took the news of his dismissal as if he couldn‘t care less, bowed his head before Colonel Young like a man repaying an insult with dignity. The colonel was disconcerted and for a moment thought of offering the youth a permanent job, but commonsense prevailed over sentiment and he turned on his heel and walked away.
”There is something queer about that fellow Hoyle,” the colonel said to his wife. “I went to his room with the unpleasant task of telling him that there was now no longer any work for him here and I saw piled up in the middle of the floor all his wage packets—they were unopened, untouched.”
His wife didn’t think this unusual: “Perhaps he‘s saving up,” she said.
“Can’t he save it up in his pocket?” he replied. “Why leave it about like that? He doesn’t even know how much he’s earned.”
The colonel’s daughter, a plump, over–painted arid rather stupid woman of about twenty–five, looked up and said:
“I wonder if he’s married?” a remark which neither her father nor her mother bothered to comment upon. “He was reading a book,” she went on to say, “and I asked him if it was a novel but he didn’t reply. So I put my hand over the page.”
“What?” said her father looking at her darkly.
“And do you know what he did?”
“What did he do, dear?” Mrs. Young asked full of eagerness.
“He grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard.”
“For God‘s sake,” said Colonel Young angrily.
“It was only a book of sums anyhow.”
“Book of sums? What do you mean? People don’t read books of sums.”
“Well the pages were covered with figures.”
“Oh why give him the sack?” said Mrs. Young.
“If he’s good at sums, he can help keep your accounts. You’ve earned a lot of money with this harvest,” she added as an additional argument.
“No, I don’t want him around; he’s too peculiar.”
“I think he’s rather amusing,” said his daughter.
In the end the mother and daughter’s view prevailed and the colonel left it to one of them to tell Hoyle in the morning that he could, if he wished, stay on for a few weeks longer.
The colonel’s daughter, who was called Pauline, felt that she couldn’t wait until the morning to break the good news to the man who read sums. She made her way to the servants’ wing of the house, climbed the stairs and tapped on the door of the room she knew to be his.
There was no reply. She opened the door and found the room empty. Before she could decide whether he had already left the farm, she saw him through the window walking across the fields. She ran after him.
“Mr. Hoyle,” she called, “Oh Mr. Hoyle!” but she was still too far away for him to hear; or, if he had heard, he wasn’t bothering to stop.
When she caught up with him, she noticed that he had a coil of rope under his arm and around his shoulder.
He halted and looked at her. She was going to say, “I’ve get some good news for you,” but said, instead, “What are you going to do with that rope?” And then added in a hurt tone of voice, “You might have stopped for me.”
“Why don’t you leave me alone?” he asked her in a quiet voice. And he walked on.
She was taken back. What a brute the fellow was! Why, he should touch his cap and call her “miss” as the other men do, except that he hadn’t a cap and she couldn’t imagine servility from him.
The colonel’s daughter stared uncomfortably at the grass at her feet. When she looked up again, she saw him approaching a barn in the distance. “Why was he so rude to her?” she wondered, and decided to go after him and bluntly ask him. And she began following him slowly in the rays of the setting sun, rehearsing her sentence as she went: “Why are you so rude to me?”
The barn was huge, dark and cool. As she entered some sparrows flew out from the rafters. A cart, encrusted with mud, stood like an ancient monument to one side; behind it was a haystack, part of which had been cut for fodder.
“Where is he?” she wondered. The place was so still. Through a hole in the roof a ray of light penetrated to the floor of the barn. Suddenly she saw him, erect, his head buried in his upraised arms.
She forgot about asking him the question she had carefully prepared and said instead. “What is the matter?” Her voice was hushed. She stepped nearer.
He had always had so little to say for himself, but now at last, and suddenly, he found his voice. He did not condemn her for disturbing him; on the contrary, he apologised to her.
“I am sorry,” he said, “for being rude to you. To speak frankly, I hated you: I don’t any longer. There is no need to.”
He looked at her keenly. “Do you like life?” he continued. “Do you wake up in the morning and feel that it is right and proper that you should wake up and that life asks nothing from you? To put it in a banal way: are you happy?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. “I cannot tell you how terrible I find everything. I used to find life boring, but now I find it only painful.”
For some time he carried on in this vein while she listened to him in amazement. Only mathematics, he said, interested him, and that, apparently, wasn’t enough. Then he began to expatiate upon the beauty and serenity of pare mathematics and for a moment his face lit up with a ghastly joy.
She forgot about giving him the message from her fattier; it had, anyhow, sunk into insignificance before the drama that was being unrolled in this barn.
He was only glad to depart from this sorrowful earth, and may he never return to it in some other incarnation!
So powerful were his emotions, if not his arguments, that she was entirely, convinced of the solution he had found for himself and the purpose for which he intended to use the rope.
After a final outburst on the agony of living, he fell silent. A bat flew in from outside and fluttered above their heads.
“Will you do me a favour?” he asked suddenly.
“Of course,” she said.
He looked at her intently and then turned his gaze away in a kind of misery and through trembling lips made his request. It was absurd, grotesque, mad even. He apologised in advance for asking her.
“Don’t be afraid,” she whispered.
“Will you…” He grew confused and silent.
She thought it the most ridiculous request she had ever heard. He wanted to borrow her corsets!
“What for?” she asked.
“I want to wear them.”
He wanted to hang himself in her corsets.
“All right,” she said, and began to pull her dress over her head. “How did you know I was wearing corsets?” she asked him as she undid them and handed them over to him.
“I thought all women wore corsets,” he replied. He began to take his shirt off.
To his surprise his melancholy had suddenly, and mysteriously lifted, and his thoughts had become involved with her magnificent breasts. He closed his eyes and held his forehead in his hand. His knees felt weak and he sat down upon a pile of hay.
She watched him silently. “Oh by the way,” she said, “my father asked me to tell you that you could stay on for a few weeks more. if you like.”
She repeated the message, but it left him unmoved. The plump young woman before him filled his thoughts entirely: everything else seemed unimportant and trivial.
“Do you think,” he said in a matter–of–fact tone of voice, “I might make love to you? I have never done that with any woman, and although it is not a categorical imperative that a man should, it is my last wish.”
“All right,” she said.
Afterwards she snatched back her corsets, put them on hurriedly and left him with tears in her eyes. The whole thing had been a trick… She didn’t believe that he had ever intended to hang himself with that rope.
They didn’t speak to each other for days, but they couldn’t keep each other out of their waking or dreaming thoughts. At the end of a week they made up their quarrel and grew fond of each other, which was rather fortunate for, in time, she found she was going to have a baby.
© The Estate of John Symonds
Born in 1923 in Dublin. Born and raised in the Northside Dubiin slums, is one of the few living Gaelic poets to have been translated into English; has contributed to Republican and Communist Journals and to ENVOY, THE BELL, COMHAR and FEASTA. Has been arrested several times for activities in the Irish Republican Army, which he joined in 1937, and in-all has been sentenced to 17 yews in gaol, has in fact served about 7 years in Borstal and Parkhurst Prison.
His story “After the Wake” appeared in POINTS 8, in December 1950.
AFTER THE WAKE
When he sent to tell me she was dead, I thought that if the dead live on—which I don’t believe they do—and know the minds of the living, she’d feel angry, not so much jealous as disgusted, certainly surprised.
For one thing she told me, quoting unconsciously from a book I’d lent him, “A woman can always tell them—you kind of smell it on a man—like knowing when a cat is in the room.”
We often discussed things like that—he, always a little cultured—happy, and proud to be so broadminded—she, with adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and her husband’s friend.
I genuinely liked them both. If I went a week without calling up to see them, he was down the stairs to our rooms, asking what they’d done on me, and I can’t resist being liked. When I’d go in she’d stick a fag in my mouth and set to making tea for me.
I’d complimented them, individually and together, on their being married to each other—and I meant it.
They were both twenty-one, tall and blonde, with a sort of English blondness.
He, as I said, had pretentions to culture and was genuinely intelligent, but that was not the height of his attraction for me.
Once we went out to swim to a weir below the Dublin mountains.
It was evening time and the last crowd of kids—too shrimpish, small, neutral cold to take my interest—just finishing their bathe.
When they went off, we stripped and watching him I thought of Marlowe’s lines—which I can’t remember properly:
“Youth with gold wet head, thru’ water gleaming, gliding, and crowns of pearlets on his naked arms.”
I haven’t remembered it at all, but only the sense of a Gaelic translation I’ve read.
When we came out we sat on his towel, our bare thighs touching, smoking and talking.
We talked of the inconveniences of tenement living. He said he’d hated most of all, sleeping with his brothers—so had I, I’d felt their touch incestuous—but most of all he hated sleeping with a man older than himself.
He’d refused to sleep with his father, which hurt the old man very much, and when a seizure took him in the night, it left him remorseful.
“I don’t mind sleeping with a little child,” he said, “the snug way they round themselves into you—and I don’t mind a fellow my own age.”
“The like of myself,” and I laughed as if it meant nothing. It didn’t apparently, to him.
“No, I wouldn’t mind you, and it’d be company for me, if she went into hospital or anything”, he said.
Then he told me what she herself had told me sometimes before—that there was something the matter with her—something left unattended since she was fourteen or so and that soon she’d have to go into hospital for an operation.
From that night forward, I opened the campaign in jovial earnest.
The first step—to make him think it manly—ordinary for manly men—the British Navy—“Porthole Duff,” “Navy Cake” stories of the Hitler Youth in captivity, told me by Irish soldiers on leave from guarding them.
To remove the taint of “cissiness,” effeminacy, how the German Army had encouraged it in Cadet Schools, to harden the boy-officers, making their love a muscular clasp of friendship, independent of women—the British Public Schools, young Boxers I’d known, (most of it about the Boxers was true) that Lord Alfred Douglas was son to the Marquess of Queensbury and a good man to use his dukes himself. Oscar Wilde throwing old “Q” down the stairs and after him his Ballyboy attendant.
On the other front, appealing to the hope of culture—Socrates, Shakespeare—Marlowe—lies, truth and half-truth.
I worked cautiously but steadily. Sometimes, (on the head of a local scandal) in conversation with them both.
After I’d lent him a book about an English Schoolmaster, she’d made the remark about women knowing, scenting them as she would a cat in a dark, otherwise empty room.
Quite undeliberately, I helped tangle her scents.
One night we’d been drinking together, he and I, fairly heavily up in their rooms.
I remember when he’d entered and spoken to her, he said to me.
“Your face lights up when you she her” —and why wouldn’t it? Isn’t a kindly welcome a warming to both faith and features.
I went over and told her what he’d said.
“And my face lights up when I see yours,” she said, smiling up at me in the charming way our women have with half drunk men.
The following morning I was late for work with a sick head.
I thought I’d go upstairs to their rooms and see if there was a bottle of stout left, that would cure me.
There wasn’t, and tho’ she was in, he was out.
I stopped a while and she gave me a cup of tea, tho’ I’d just finished my own down below in our place.
As I was going she asked me had I fags for the day. I said I had—so as not to steal her open store, as the saying has it— and went off to work.
She or someone told him I’d been in and he warned me about it the next time we were together.
He didn’t mind (and I believed him) but people talked etc.
From that day forward I was cast as her unfortunate admirer, my jealousy of him, sweetened by my friendship for them both.
She told me again about her operation and asked me to prasy for her—when I protested my unsuitability as a pleader with God—she quoted the kindly, highly heretical Irish Catholicism about the prayers of the sinner being first heard.
The night before she went into hospital we had a good few drinks—the three of us together.
We were in a singing house on the Northside and got very sob-gargled between drinking whiskey and thinking of the operation.
I sang “My Mary of the Curling Hair” and when we came to the Gaelic chorus, “suil a grandh” — “walk my love” —she broke down in sobbing and said how he knew as well as she that it was to her I was singing, but that he didn’t mind. He said that indeed he did not, and she said how fearful she was of this operation, that maybe she’d never come out of it. She was not sorry for herself, but for him, if anything happened her and she died on him, aye, and sorry for me too, maybe, more sorry, “Because, God help you,” she said to me, “that never knew anything better than going down town half-drunk and dirty rotten bitches taking your last farthing.”
Next day was Monday, and at four o’clock she went into the hospital—she was operated on Thursday morning and died the same evening at about nine o’clock.
When the doctor talked about cancer, he felt consoled a little. He stopped his dry-eyed sobbing and came with me into a public-house where we met his mother and and hers and made arrangements to have her brought home and waked in her own place.
She was laid out in the front room on their spare single bed which was covered in linen for the purpose.
Her habit was of blue satin and we heard afterwards that some old ones considered the colour wrong—her having been neither a virgin nor a member of the Children of Mary Sodality.
The priest, a hearty man who read Chesterton and drank pints, disposed of the objection by saying that we were all Children of Mary since Christ introduced St. John to our Lady at the foot of the Cross—Son, Behold thy Mother; Mother, behold Thy Son.
It is a horrible thing how quickly death and disease can work on a body.
She didn’t look like herself anymore than the brown parchment thin shell of a mummy looks like an Egyptian warrior.
Worse than the mummy, for he at least is dry and clean as dust. Her poor nostrils were plugged with cotton-wool and her mouth hadn’t closed properly, but showed two front teeth, like a rabbit’s.
All in all, she looked no better than the corpse of her granny, or any other corpse for that matter.
There was a big crowd at the wake—thewy shook hands with him and told him they were sorry for his trouble, then they shook hands with his and her other relatives, and with me, giving me an understanding smile and licence to mourn my pure unhappy love.
Indeed, one old one, far gone in Jameson, said she was looking down on the two of us, expecting me to help him bear up.
Another old one, drunker still, got lost in the complications of what might have happened had he died instead of her, and only brought herself up at the tableau—I marrying her and he blessing the union from on high.
At about midnight, they began drifting away to their different rooms and houses and by three o’clock there was only his mother left with us, steadily drinking.
At last she got up a little shakily on her feet and proceeding to knock her people, said that they’d left bloody early, for blood relatives, but seeing as they’d given her bloody little in life it was the three of us were best entitled to sit waking—she included me and all.
When his mother went, he told me he felt very sore and very drunk and very much in need of sleep. He felt hardly able to undress himself.
I had to almost carry him to the big double bed in the inner room.
I first loosened his collar to relieve the flush on his smooth cheeks, took off his shoes and socks and pants and shirt, from the supply muscled thighs, the stomach flat as an altar boy’s and noted the golden smoothness of the blond hair on every part of his firm white flesh.
I went to the front room and sat by the fire till he called me.
“You must be nearly gone yourself,” he said, “you might as well come in and get a bit of rest.”
I sat on the bed, undressing myself by the faint flickering of the candles from the front room.
I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin, on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.
© The Estate of Brendan Behan
Born. Long Island, New York, in 1918. Published a book of poems, “Cry Cadence” in 1947. Is now working on a series of Dialogues in collaboration with W.H. Auden. They have appeared in PARTISAN REVIEW, ACCENT, HUDSON REVIEW and MODERN WRITING. Some of his poetry appeared in an ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN POETRY, published by Faber & Faber.
His story, “The Woman Who Had Crushes,” appeared in a different version from the one published in this anthology in POINTS 11-12, December 1951.
If you’ve traveled around this country, you know what it means to come to a strange town at twilight. You’ll understand that I felt a bit lost when I saw this huddle of adobe houses called Espinola, where I knew no one. Ahead of me, a neon light flashed cafe. Red paper roses and a Clabber Girl sign decorated the window. A fat waitress stood behind the counter slicing onions, talking to a man in a city suit with a snap brim hat. I sat down two seats away and looked around. Opposite me hung a large notice: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE ANYONE. The pale fat girl came over to take my order. When she returned with my coffee, she did not go away.
“You look as if you’ve been travelin'”
“On my way to Taos,” I said.
“Oh,” she smiled. “Got friends there ?”
The man at the other end turned to watch me.
I shook my head. She reminded me of a panda, fat and soft. I turned to her. “Say, do you have any cake ? “
She told me they were out of cake. The doughnuts and pastry looked stale. Maybe she saw that hungriness in my face for after a while she came out of the back room carrying a four layer chocolate cake. It was rich looking and had just been made.
“You can have a piecea this,” she said. She paid no attention now to the man in the snap brim hat.
A thin yellow dog wandered into the cafe and went from person to person, wagging his tail. No one noticed him; sometimes he moaned a little.
When I went to pay my check I told her she’d forgotten to mark down the cake.
“No sirree,” she smiled broadly. “You know that was my birthday cake,” she said with pride, “and you just can’t charge for birthday cake, can you? This gentleman’s goin’ to Taos, too,” she said in a clear bright voice. “I think he’ll give you a lift.”
I took a look at the other man. He had a sharply lined face, and his suit somehow gave the impression of a uniform but when he saw the tiredness in my face and my dusty shoes he Said, “Come on; come on. It’s against the Laws here and I oughtn’t to do it.”
We got into the black sedan ; the waitress waved and smiled from the window, then went on slicing onions. The yellow dog stood in the road, wagging its tail.
My companion said the waitress was all right. I wondered how old she was and thought: When you travel, you run into good people now and then.
The speedometer read 60, then 65. The white-lined ribbon of road stretched ahead, on either side the desert dotted with sagebrush. I looked at the hard profile of the man beside me and wondered what his life had been. Jake Blochman was, he told me, a radio salesman and he mentioned that, since he sold radios, he never listened to them. From the car pocket he took a flask of Three Feathers and drank some, then offered it to me. When I returned the bottle to him, he thrust it between his legs. He held it there to steady it as we drove on. Now the car climbed up into mountains. Sometimes we saw a little tent with Indians squatting in the wilderness selling cups and saucers.
“Dirty old savages,” Jake said.
My whole body ached with the walking I’d done. Would we ever reach Taos? Scarcely slackening our speed, we shot through several towns. I had an impression of Spanish kids and lean dogs dashing aside. Occasionally a woman came to an old porch and watched us pass, as if we were a meteor. There would be no expression on her face. Objects seemed to run up to us, be snatched away — a boy on a brown horse, a man stretched under a disabled car, the word TARZAN outside a movie-house. If you took these fragments and put them together, I suppose you’d have a town. The speed and the liquor made me feel warm inside. When I thrust my hand out the window, the currents of cold air fled past.
“Women are big operators,” Jake Blochman said. “It’s all right to go with them for a while, but don’t stay with them. Give a woman a line and you can get anything you want. Never trust them. Never give them anything that matters.”
To stay with them… How long had he stayed with them?—How long had I stayed anywhere? Not long. When I thought about it, I couldn’t decide why I’d come out here. For a long time I’d gone from town to town. Sometimes I came to a town in the afternoon and got bored with the people and the dusty streets and left in the evening. A strange thing happened at Albuquerque. When I felt dead and lost, I went to a movie (I always knew when I needed a little illusion.) The air was thick; you smelled the sickening scent Spanish people put on their hair. I watched the flashing images, and then was about to leave when the heroine, a tall pale girl appeared on the screen. She looked like Dolores del Rio. There was a young man who wore a dark seaman’s cap opposite her and they were in love but there was some difficulty, I do not remember what, but the togetherness of this pale girl and the man with the cap on the side of his head made the film worthwhile. I remained there listening to the warm, jagged, Spanish dialogue I couldn’t understand. She pushed aside the beaded curtain and entered the whitewashed bedroom with the brass bed and the saint’s picture on the wall. It was love then; it was love.
Far below us in its stony channel, the Rio Grande wound into the distance.
“I don’t know how old you are,” Jake said, ” you don’t look more than twenty-two. Anyway I’m a helluva lot older than you. I’ve been knockin’ around this country twenty-five years and let me tell you, women are all after the same thing.”
The engine purred and we raced onward. Then we came to a broad plateau. For miles the extent of land spread out before us like a newborn to a roll of blue mountains in the west. One saw the white peaks of the Rockies; it all looked fresh, undiscovered. Toward the east the Truchas range caught the alpenglow. It seemed as if a pink scarf were being drawn toward the top of the mountain, then whisked away. The gullies became dark-blue, then black.
“Taos is a bad town to starve in,” Jake said.
“What makes you think I’m going to stay ?”
“Do you have any money, kid?”
“Must you know everything?”
“O. K. Don’t get… Say, who’s doing who a favor. I may be a salesman but I’m not stupid. You know salesmen are intellectual. They get to judge people. I picked you up. There’s a reason I picked you up; there’s always a reason. Salesmen get lonely. Even when I’m with a girl sometimes I’m lonely; that’s funny. We’re going to be in the same car so you might as well be nice,” then, after a pause, he remarked, “I’ve been married four times.”
The narrow road tilted up. I saw the fragment of a cross on a morada; a few steps; an arch. To the left a metallic pond surrounded by willows. I noticed a wooden portale. Three Indians crouched there in- J. C. Penney striped blankets. In the square stood a team of buckskin horses. We followed a road past an adobe inn and an avenue of cottonwoods that looked very old, and then in a few minutes we struck the open country again. At this height the air became thin and aromatic, one felt the trace of burning pinon.
Jake pushed his foot down on the accelerator. The car raced onward so fast I could not make out the towns on a signboard. I was debating whether I should ask to be let out when it happened. A dark shape loomed before the headlights; Jake yelled “Christ” and slammed his foot on the brake. The car hit the flank of an Indian pony that went wild and tried to buck in the air on his hindlegs. Foolish Jake swerved the wheel in a split second. I could see the blue-white glare of an oncoming car, growing brighter and brighter. There was a deafening crash, the sound of broken glass. I hugged myself and realized I was not hurt. Then I jumped from the car, ran over to the wreck on the side of the road. Jake had already reached it, and he did not seem hurt, though his face was scratched and bleeding. At that moment I remember staring, for no reason, at a black and white veined stone which I saw by the side of the road and it seemed curiously beautiful. Then I looked at the rail fence, the straggly cottonwood and the gap in the fence through which the Indian pony had broken and it all seemed to shine. I thought: there is a great secret in things; they know something. It is only at moments like this that we break through to them. By now Jake had opened the door of the smashed roadster. That man is hurt, I thought, and I’m unhurt. We could not see what was wrong. Jake and I got the man out from the wheel. He was unconscious; splashes of blood stained his hands and shirtfront. It was a matter of a few minutes to get both cars off the road and, after I’d done that, Jake and I half-carried the man in the direction of some lights shining on a nearby knoll. But when we started out, curiously the lights seemed to recede. I suppose it was an optical illusion. We came to the white box of an old nightclub with shuttered windows. In a hollow there was an empty Indian summer house roofed with rotten vigas. At last we reached the loop of drive and followed this till we came to the great house. On the terrace stood a chaise lounge and two or three paintings. To one side of the steel-edged door hung an American flag and a small pad. There was also an iron cow bell, which Jake rang. It let out a great din. A long interval followed; the door did not budge. During that interval a feeling of impatience and obstruction came over me. As I waited for the great door to open, I thought of the confused nature of my afternoon; I remembered the markings on the stone I had seen in the road. Then Jake threw his whole body on the door and pounded it with his fists.
Quite suddenly, quite smoothly, the door opened so that Jake almost fell across the threshold. Before us we saw a tall woman in cowhide boots and trousers, she wore a pair of earphones. Her sharp eyes examined us curiously.
“There was an accident” I began. “He’s bleeding,” Jake said.
“I know,” the woman said removing her earphones. She made an authoritative gesture. “Bring him in. Mind you handle him gently. Here.” She indicated the bed of an inside room. “Cloudy. Cloudy. Come here.”
In the door appeared a mild-eyed Indian who wore a red stocking skull-cap.
Jake began to explain to the woman what had happened.
“Don’t talk to me,” she cried out. “It’s no use. I haven’t got my ears.” A moment later she added:
“Help me find my ears.”
Mechanically Jake talked about the circumstances of the accident, excusing himself.
“It’s no good. It’s absolutely no good, I can’t hear a thing you say. I don’t know what I did with
I had no idea what her hearing-aid might look like but pretended to look around.
“Here they are. Now wait till I hook me up.” She did something to ear-drum and bosom. “All right,”
she turned to Jake as if for the first time seeing him as a human being, “Now tell me.”
Jake began a long story. But I cut him short and suggested we call a doctor. This the woman did with great dispatch and she also notified the Police Department.
“I was lucky to get the doctor right away,” she said. “This is a party line. Usually when you lift the receiver, one of the Martinezes are talking; they talk for hours. You have to shoo them off… I know,” she said, “it’s terrible. There’s nothing harder to see than a black pony at night. You’ve got to be careful.” Then she extended her small hand. “I’m Beatrice Kent.”
We introduced ourselves.
I found myself in a huge. high-ceilinged room that looked as much like a machinist’s workroom as a studio. Along one side hung racks of tools and precision instruments. In one corner stood a Spanish ecclesiastical desk covered with sketches and letters. The tables and chairs (some of which bore old storage tags) were littered with odd objects, kachina dolls, cotton leaves, airplane models and clock-wheels.
Suddenly Cloudy burst into the room. The deep lines of his face were creased with excitement. “He now speaks,” he cried.
We went into the little room. Muttered words came from the direction of the bed. It was difficult to make out the sense. We saw the well-made figure of a young man who looked either Italian or Spanish. Cloudy had taken off his black shirt and placed it by the bed. The man had a powerful chest that rose and fell with great painful breaths. His eyebrows were black, like thick black feathers. For a moment Beatrice Kent leaned closely over the bed. She touched him as if to give her strength to his. Then the ringing of the bell sounded through the house. We returned to the studio and Beatrice Kent opened the massive door.
There stood the doctor, a spry man in his sixties. He made a quick examination. The young man had only superficial contusions on arms and legs, but he suffered from shock. The doctor advised that he be kept where he was for a while, and left some pills. Suddenly I turned to speak to Jake. He was not in the studio. During the mix-up he’d disappeared.
Later Beatrice Kent drove me to the scene of the accident. We had chosen a lonely part of the road for our collision; it was lit now by the police headlights. The police captain, a Spaniard, asked many questions. Of course, Jake’s car was gone. On our way back in the battered station wagon Kent said,
“I’m not surprised Jake disappeared.”
“No, neither am I.”
“Salesmen are the lords of this world; they go where they want.”
There was a pause. Then Kent gave me a sharp look. “When you described Jake’s car, did you tell the policeman the truth ?”
“I’m not surprised. That’s quite all right. I get along with the Taos policemen.”
“I notice you treat them with a certain humor.”
“Quite. It’s all right to joke and tease them. But you must always remember,” she gazed at me with childlike seriousness, “a policeman can never be your friend.”
We found Cloudy sitting by the young man’s bed.
Beatrice Kent piled my arms full of pinon. In a little room that adjoined the studio I found a triangular fireplace molded of adobe and soon had a good fire going that made the whole room come alive.
So much had happened it seemed late, but it was only nine-thirty.
I did not feel sleepy. The thin cold air of the night and the action of events had excited me. Involuntarily I thought. What will happen next? I will let the future go clean through me.
The old walls of this room were covered with sicks and abrasions. A shelf contained splicing, cutting and soldering tools together with many books. I saw side by side The Life of George Sand, Plato, Eat and Grow Slim, Esoteric Buddhism.
Her eyes glittering, Beatrice Kent entered the room with the coffee pot. Her flying white hair made an aureole about her face. We sat close to the crackling fire. Now we could hear the rising wind outside; we could hear, too, the troubled breathing of the sick man.
Sitting very erect in her chair and looking like a great bird, Beatrice Kent said:
“We have the night before us. We might as well get to know each other.”
With a man’s brusqueness she poured the coffee.
I smiled but said nothing. She did not want me to speak. The linkage of events had moved her. She knew that the shadow of death that evening had flown close to the El Prado road, this had exalted her, made her anxious to clarify her life.
“Everyone at Taos calls me Kent,” she said. “My name is Beatrice Appolonia Kent, I am the daughter of Viscount Seyton, a close friend of Edward VII. Of course, I remember my father very well. He was charming in a worldly way. He knew Greek; women could not resist him. We children learned a thing or two, let me tell you. He taught us not to fill our lunch baskets too full, not to economize on telegrams and how to get off a horse. If my father were only living. He was a fascinating man. He used to give us Christmas presents so beautifully tied-up. How I loved them! It did not matter what was in them. But my brothers I did not get along with. They pulled my hair. I hated them. I thought all men were like that; I thought all men were blighters. My brothers made fun of me. They’d scare me like billyho. In our family sex was tabu; not mentioned. Years later, I stumbled on a copy of Havelock Ellis; I read about those things. It was too late.
“Finally I escaped. An eccentric uncle saw my drawings and arranged with my father to send me to art-school. At the Slade School I met the spirits of my time. One day I met a young novelist called Chester Armeit; he had no money but he had that fire, that spirit I can always appreciate right away. He wanted to go to America and found a colony. I was twenty-six and young enough to be Utopian. When I followed him out here, I didn’t expect to stay more than a few months but things have a way of happening and dragging one along. I also had a deep love for him I could not express; he was already married. At first the colony consisted of a student of Chelcicky, an English pacifist, Rhoda Abbott and myself. The student of Chelcicky finally went to Hollywood to work on bad pictures. The English c. o. built himself a solar house and almost froze to death one night. I began to paint the Indians. When I came here in 1923 the Indians were different. They dashed past on horseback in white sheets flying in the wind. They were better off when the white women left them alone. Now they’re dying away in drink; they’re losing their refinement.
Part of the trouble is that the pueblo is too close to the town. The movies have ‘discovered’ them; the Indians bribe the whites to get them liquor. But when I came out here, they were quiet, they were beautiful. They were heros. I met Cloudy and Grayfire. The next day they asked me to a peyote party. I was a bit afraid but they said peyote would cure my deafness. It might’ve; I never found out. The nights are lonely, but I’ve never wanted to go back. My brothers in England have married and they have their own lives. I am an embarrassment to my family, an embarrassment. Cloudy stays in the room over the garage. He poses for me in the patterns of the dance. In the Taos streets you’ll see the Indians at their worst. They lope along in their dirty blankets, their pigtails flying. They have a loose-jointed sort of walk. When you look at them, they almost never look back. Their eyes turn inward. That’s the way they’ll seem to you. But it’s not the way they seem to me. To me they are still the braves in their regalia. Even when they’re forlorn, they’re romantic. I hope you decide to stay. I have tried to paint the life behind the life of the Indians. But it’s late. In the morning I’ll show you my work but now, now we have talked enough. Cloudy built a fire in your little ranch house. I think you’ll be happy here, won’t you?”
“Well, yes, I know I will.”
She adjusted her ear-plug as if fixing a black jewel in her ear.
‘’Have you always lived alone ?” She looked up, alert and shy.
When I pushed open the door of the ranch-house I found a fire burning, dimly now, fallen into white ash. There were rats, too, that night, and I did not sleep much. Before dropping off I thought how terrible it was that Jake had just gone away. It was the sort of thing a salesman would do; he came into your life; he quickly left it. The moon shone on my face like a spotlight. He probably thought of himself as Jake Blochman against the world. Would I ever see him, again ? I felt that I would. The accident had happened so swiftly I didn’t think of it as his or anyone’s fault, as you don’t blame the pitcher of a ball, if during a game it hits you.
The morning broke clear. A rout of white, the whitest cloud in the world retreated toward the top of the mountains. Here and there a wisp of cloud clung, like smoke from a mining explosion. Overnight the light rain brought out the scent of the sage, as if cones of incense were crushed over the world. From the next field I could hear the monotonous crop-cropping of the ponies as they munched the yellow stubble. I found myself in an adobe room with windows on all sides framing the snow-ranges. There was a dim santos in the wall-niche; many books. Above the mantel hung a crucifix and the skeleton of a rattlesnake. For a moment I fiddled with the stove; then fixed coffee. In the days that followed that small tin stove was to give me great trouble. In the great altitude the oil oxygenated too quickly;, it roared, bubbled, blazed away, burning up my fuel. And it was through Rhoda Abbott that I found a new gas–stove that better suited me.
As I said, I did not expect to stay in Taos. But day merged into day, week into week. I do not want to sound irresponsible. In its positive way the life of Taos began to attract me. For a long time Beatrice Kent had lived alone but she’d never gotten used to it. Cloudy often left for long periods and I think she was glad to have somebody in the nearby ranch-house. Then, of course, I did all sorts of errands for her, delivered her paintings to La Fonda, fetched sable brushes from the Kiva, fed her cats when she was away. Of course I had very little money, but Kent got me a job working on a Social Survey for Mr. Seabright.
By November in Taos the trees lost their leaves; the air stayed sunny and warm. Now if you found a few branches of cottonwood, cut them and brought them indoors, the tooth-edged leaves would linger through the winter. This is what Rhoda Abbott did. She carried the branches indoors and hung them from her iron chandelier, immortalized the dry dead leaves. There was a dim goldenness about her, too.
In the twenties she had known everyone. She came from a small New England town, Rapatey, where her father owned the mills. About thirty years ago she had arrived in Taos, with her husband, a painter who’d fallen in love with the landscape. In a few weeks Rhoda fell in love with an Indian councillor, Grayfire, a man of huge bulk and great dignity. As soon as she could, she divorced her husband and married Grayfire and dressed in the long skirts and conchas of the Pueblo women. Everyone called it a real love-match. She built a large adobe house on the outskirts of Taos called “The Tower Beyond Tragedy.” Rhoda told Kent that her Indian was the first man she’d loved and would be the last. Because Grayfire married this white woman he was ostracized from the Pueblo; in a few years he turned Catholic. If you asked him about his religion, Grayfire always said, “I pray for God, for Mary, for you, for me… for everybody.” Before he met Rhoda, he had had an intense desire to be a detective or an antelope patrolman. In the early twenties Rhoda Abbott had, besides her New York place, a villa at Fiesole, an apartment in Rome. She loved to gather around her people already famous or about to be, and she did have, then, a certain magnetizing charm. She must have had, or someone like Chester Armeit would not have been interested in her. She loved to give large parties because parties mixed people up and started new combinations. She felt she had her finger on the artery of the literary world. She wrote and told stories profusely; they flowed from her as if from the lips of a fountain. But she was not a creative person. She had founded her reputation on other people; she was a collector of memorabilia. Out of her contacts, she had fabricated five enormous volumes of memoirs. The key-relationship of her life was probably that with Chester Armeit, a young English poet–novelist. Three Taos women — Kent, Rhoda and Mrs. Armeit — had battled for the affections of this difficult man. Out of this rivalry many feuds had arisen, outlasting the death of the central figure. For, after all, Armeit was the central figure and Taos people still talked about him as if he were a saint. His old ranch had become a place of pilgrimage; his grave, a shrine. Quite freely Kent and Mrs Armeit would examine the intricacies of his life. Through the publication of many books the labyrinth of his love-life had become a well known pattern. But to go back to Rhoda Abbott. Now she and Kent shared a fearful respect for each other. Fate had bound them together; they both realized this. And yet they fought over visiting celebrities and attractive Indians. The Pueblo priest, not above reproach himself, sometimes sided with Rhoda, sometimes with Kent. The latter spread the rumor that Rhoda hated Mexicans and poisoned the town dogs. To retaliate, Rhoda ridiculed Kent’s deafness.
That Kent was deaf to a degree no one doubted, but it was also certain that she used her handicap to her advantage. You see, she could tune up the hearing-aid and catch things lost to normal receptivity. At parties, if she stood in the center of the room and tuned up her hearing-aid, she heard bits of conversation not meant for her. When bored, she would switch the device off and, though surrounded by people, rest her personality, withdraw into herself as if into a garden. Although! I thought it unforgivable of Rhoda to make fun of Kent, I understood how irritating it was that Kent, despite her affliction, always heard the town-gossip first. Her deafness had helped to make her into a numero; a famous character.
The weather stayed bright and warm to the end of November. Toward dusk the whole valley became a floor of gold. It was on one of those gold evenings that I walked to Kent’s house to get the mail. Clear the other side of the great valley you could see an intermittently flashing window like a code of gold. The sun gone, the sky shone full of color. With a kind of cosmic tact, Kent waited till the end of the sunset before turning on her house lights.
I found her at her desk, scraping paint from a palette with a rusty razor blade. She almost cut herself.
Ever since the night of the accident the young man in the black shirt had stayed at Kent’s place. Although he’d quite recovered from his injuries, he seemed in no hurry to leave. Kent said she was doing the man’s portrait. His name was Rupert Francisco; everyone called him Frankie. Both his parents had had died early. He had grown up in competition with brothers and sisters. It had been a large strict Catholic family; but the money had run out and the father drank. There had not been much affection in his life. Kent told her friends she was “training” Frankie. Though he’d never finished high school, he certainly had a weather-eye for his own interest. For hours they sat in the sun room and she told him the plots of novels, or they sang old songs. She taught him numerology and how to draw up a horoscope. She explained the secret of mixing colors.
Now on this evening Kent was alone. When she saw me at the door, she got up. “Wait a minute,” she cried.
She plugged in her hearing-aid then turned, “Are you there ?” — (It was as if I’d been gone, invisible, till my voice scratched its way to her consciousness.)
“I’m having fish; fish and greengages,” she said. “Stay for dinner.”
Not a good cook, she had thrown some finnan haddie in milk and baked it. I was not tempted, but I sensed her loneliness. We sat around the work-table in the sun room, sipping coffee. Finally, she said,
“He’s at Rhoda’s tonight,” her voice seemed sad. “She’s showing him the Mexican photographs.”
Several weeks passed.
In Taos there were two hotels. La Fonda, built in 1929 with dark oak paneling, and The Therma Inn, a large sprawling structure, very solid, arranged around a patio. The Therma Inn, which depended on the tourist trade, had a feeling of fortress-like security about it. In the lobby Indian-made articles, belts and silver jewelry, were sold at exorbitant prices. The manager was a Texan, Mr. Norton, who was (I’d heard) something of a Big Time Operator.
One snowy afternoon Kent came to La Fonda, a new painting in her hand. She felt the sound of music crossing through the air. For a few seconds she did not move. I was sitting in a corner of the Gallery, reading an old copy of Life. She did not see me. She wore her red Chimayo coat with the torn lining that trailed behind her, sadly, royally. (For deaf people it is often easier to hear music than to make out voices.) She went straight to the cornet of the Gallery where the electric organ stood. Frankie was seated at the keys playing in a self-absorbed way. Bemused, Kent sank in a chair and removed her leopardskin ear–muffs. Closely she watched his legs and feet, as they performed the rhythmic work on the pedals. She leaned forward, all her batteries tuned up. Then she swayed her head a bit, like a cobra. With great intentness Frankie played, moving his feet happily back and forth in synchrony with his moving hands. She watched his large hands, they wrought a curve of sound that held her in its powers as if it were a cradle rocking her. He reached the end; he closed the keyboard and drew across the shining dark top of the instrument a soft fabric. He sighed a little as if the pleasure had exhausted him; she seemed full of renewed confidence. Only then Frankie turned and said hello and glanced abstractedly at the painting she still clutched in her mittened hand.
It was Saturday night. How still the house was. Outside the ponies neighed gently, coldly. They were all in a huddle in a comer of the white field trying to keep warm. Sometimes (I knew) they froze to death and the birds came to finish them off. The lamps had just lit up along the highway. The remoteness of my house disturbed me; I walked out into the darkness where the stars were beginning to shine through the gray air. Toward the east corner of the house, someone had marked out a square with shiny stones; here they had tried to grow a little cacti and I looked at this bare garden plot, the white stones shining in the moonlight.
Impulsively I knocked on Kent’s door; the knocking had no effect. She was pottering around the kitchen, and heard nothing. I went to the window and thumped again and again. These echoes pierced to her; she looked up, smiled, nodded brightly. Seeing her like this through the thick glass, moving about inside, made her isolation real to me. My clattering and gestures outside the window scarcely wakened her. Had I, I wondered, met a person lonelier than myself ?
Together we went into the sun room. Kent wore red myrick pants and a checked shirt with a stylograph clipped in the pocket. Spread out on the table lay her unfinished mosaic-work. Above us shone a high-voltage lamp. Night after night she toiled over this inlay, glueing one bit of nacre to another. The figures of three angels had been sketched out; the outlines would be filled in with bits of copper wire and abalone shell from the dump heap.
“Where’s Frankie ?”
“Oh,” Kent said, “he’s gone to the Square Dance at the Funatorium.”
I changed the subject. Idly we chatted, we talked of the Cardiff Sea Serpent, of the man in the iron mask, of Gandhi. Of all sorts of things. Kent thought of Gandhi as a saint. At one time, she told me, she had an idea of going to India and living in an ashram but was afraid of getting in the way.
“What really worries me,” Kent said, “is that they’re playing martial music on the radio again.”
“Yes, I know. That’s the first sign.”
We talked in the way people do when they are waiting for something else.
“Has Rhoda Abbott got some sort of hold over Frankie?” I asked, finally.
For a while Kent stared at the half-made angels on the celotex.
“Yes.” She removed her glasses, as if surrendering something. Her blue, piercing eyes looked at roe very directly, stripping away all pretense. She decided to trust me. “I dreamed about Frankie the other night.”
“What was the dream, Kent ?”
“We were together in a small room. On the walls hung paintings in gold frames. We were naked. I remember a stairway in the back of the room; a stairway twisting up like the inside of a shell. Frankie stood near a table. He took some moist clay and began to mold an ear. He kneaded the clay back and forth with his hands; and then he stuck the ear very easily on my head. At that moment I began to hear music, the most wonderful music. I can’t explain it. Then I saw myself going toward him. I drew his eyelids upward as if they were scales. Frankie winced as if it were hurting. He shouted in a harsh voice ‘I can see.’ Then a funny thing happened. The paintings in their frames started to come alive. There were pictures of great fields, of cities and clouds. We could see figures and they started into motion, they waved to us, they smiled. We waved back and started to run. Frankie took my hand and we ran into the road in the painting; we ran straight to the edge of the world. It seemed as if we’d fall off.”
She drummed with her turquoise-ringed hand on the table. I did not speak. She looked up at me then with her pale, racked face, her eyes full of surprise and irony. I felt the challenge in that glance. I pretended to be interested in her work. The broken Christmas tree balls, the bits of mother of pearl and copper flashed hypnotically in the glare of the lamp.
“You’re looking at my sparkles. They’re fascinating, aren’t they? I am so amused by my work.”
A week went by. Now it was Saturday again, the Saturday we’d all been invited to Rhoda’s “Tower Beyond Tragedy.” It turned out to be one of the strangest evenings of my life. Rhoda Abbott wanted her parties to unsettle people. To go to one of her evenings was to be shaken up.
Ice tinkled in the crystal glasses. Francisquita had set the table in a corner of the large room. There were Florentine chairs and quattrocento antiques. Mexican gums burned near the hearth and scented the whole house.
We sat down to a steaming dark red soup; then curried chicken, biscuits and wine. At the table Kent took out her jewelled receiving-set and propped it against the water glass. Despite this precaution she seemed to have unusual difficulty in following the conversation. She made a nuisance of herself by making the man at her right repeat his remarks. Through long experience Kent had learned to put many subtle shades of emphasis into the word “What ?” Mr. Seabright, the bank president, talked to her about early Franciscan architecture. She looked at him and went through a series of nods and smiles, but it was clear that she could not make out his words. Then the conversation turned to the Kinsey report of which Rhoda spoke disparagingly. She had a tendency always to deprecate, to point out flaws. Grayfire showed no interest in all this talk about sex. He went on eating, stolidly, impassively. With evident enjoyment he drank his soup in great gulps.
During the dessert course, Rhoda Abbott began to tell her famous story about how the chicken flew into the soup at Taormina. Kent interrupted her and ruined the the anecdote. Rhoda pretended to smile. She turned her cold green eyes back to her plate. I was glad when the fruit compote was finished and everyone got up from the table.
What was Rhoda Abbott like, I wondered. When I saw her turn her ice-cold eyes away, I knew that she‘d even up the score.
With dignity Grayfire excused himself and went into another room. Here stood a console radio which the Indian listened to every night. At such times Rhoda never bothered him. With quiet passion he followed certain radio programs, particularly the soap operas. His face never betrayed the slightest expression. He himself seemed like a great idol, adoring another idol of wood.
Now Rhoda Abbott went over and took Frankie’s drink and refilled it. Frankie looked up and smiled and thanked her. His face glowed, and he seemed very happy. When he leaned across the room to speak to Kent, she desperately took out her hearing–aid and held it before him, as if she were taking out her heart. Rather brutally he shouted in her direction but she could not catch the words.
“What’s the matter ?” he yelled. “Turn it up.”
“It is up,” she cried. “All the way up.”
“Then your batteries have worn out,” he remarked indifferently.
Kent looked wretched. With her stained, taped-up fingers she seized the receiving-set and began to tinker with it, like a child playing with a faulty toy. From the recesses of her person she took out a screwdriver and began dismantling the receiving-set. Everyone pretended not to notice. She unplugged the end of her wire from her ear.
In his Boston voice Mr. Seabright began to talk about abstract art.
I felt a desire to laugh. Kent had the thing apart now, its wheels and cogs spread out in a tangle on her lap. I could not laugh. Something dark and naked in her face sobered me.
From the other side of the room, Mr. Seabright’s chatter floated to me. Something about “biomorphic construction” and “plastic geometry.”
By this time Kent had reassembled her instrument and was plugging in the antenna. She tried to adjust the volume-control. One could not tell by her expression whether she could hear our conversation or not. In a corner, Frankie and Rhoda Abbott were getting along famously. Frankie’s cheeks shone dark red; he sat very close to Rhoda on the couch. Every time he half-finished his drink, Rhoda said, “How about another, Frankie ?” or “Let me freshen your glass a little, Frankie dearie.” The quart of Canadian Club on the piecrust table was almost empty.
Now Kent found an ancient “National Geographic” and pretended to be absorbed in it. The forest ranger stuck out his legs toward the fire; he reminisced about an old mining town where he had lived. I sat midway between the group around the fire, and the alcove where Frankie and Rhoda were.
In a while the food and warmth began to have their effect on Kent. She slouched down in the Renaissance chair; her eyes closed; her mouth gaped.
Like eddies around a stone, the conversation went on around her. Kent’s head nodded, she breathed heavily. She seemed serene, distant. Slowly she caved in, slumping over the chair-arm — ribbons, receptivity and wires slipping over the edge like a medium absorbed in another world. I envied her this power of self-abandonment, this childlike gift of surrender. Then I began to fear she might topple over and fall on the hearth in a heap. She seemed lost to everyone in the room; her breath came in deep even blasts.
Aware that she was gone, Rhoda and Frankie now began openly discussing her.
“Isn’t it amusing,” Rhoda said, batting her eyelashes, “the way Kent dresses? She looks like a tintype of Billy the Kid. I suppose I’m Kent’s best friend but I must say she’ll take advantage of you. I let her stay at my ranch-house for a while, but she just settled down. Finally I had to get the sherriff run her off; we’ve been friends ever since. But there are, of course, periods when we don’t speak. During one summer we kept running into each other at the Plaza but never Spoke. All this time, she wrote me letters. Lola Landacre brought our letters back and forth. Kent is waspish, and the most unreliable person, you know. The only time she doesn’t contradict you is when you flatter her. Her feelings toward people change from day to day. She’s never had a love affair and so she gets these absurd crushes for people.. Ready for another drink, Frankie? Give me your glass.
“She attaches herself to people and they get tired of her. She has been through a whole series. She adopted a boy who drew chalk drawings on the sidewalks of Santa Fe. Then she fastened on to Kurt Metz, an anarchist. He was a short man with a beard who never acknowledged introductions, which was all right as Kent never introduced anybody. Then she went through a love-friendship with Gwen Hawkspur. They set up a shop that sold belts and arty jewelry and bows and arrows. But Gwen quickly tired of Kent’s devotion. You see, everyone does. Oh Francisquita, please bring us another bottle of Canadian Club.”
I was appalled. I looked over at the relaxed figure of Kent. Suddenly as I watched her an stonishing thing happened. Her slouched position did not change but in the half-darkness of the room a single eye observed me. Could it be that Kent was awake ? I looked again. Yes, there was no doubt. In her pale face one greenblue, unflinching eye was open, observing me. It scornfully watched me like an eye on a mummy-case. I lost all track of Rhoda Abbott’s gossip.
A moment later both eyes quietly opened. With a self-controlled movement, Kent got up from her chair, holding her leather bag in one hand. She went over to the alcove stood beside Frankie.
“We’re going,” she announced.
Confused, Frankie looked up. He did not seem to recognize her. He muttered something. Kent’s eyes took in everything: Frankie, the empty bottles, Rhoda Abbott’s smile. For a moment she seemed baffled, and a frightened look entered Kent’s eyes, She had once had a bad time with three peyote-crazed Indians. Then her manner became clear, decisive.
She stretched out her hand. “Give me the keys,”
Frankie tried to stagger to his feet. I had not realized he was so tall, so lean. He towered above her now, dark and glowering. His strong animal throat flexed as if it could not accustom itself to speech. A crazy vein beat in the side of his skull. His white open shirt made his skin seem all the more bronze. He dug his hand in his trousers, reaching around for the keys. He stood there swaying a little; he did not seem to hurry. As if hypnotized, Rhoda Abbott watched him, smiling from the side of her mouth. He dug his great fist in the other pocket and groped around. Then he stumbled forward, his long legs arched, and I thought he would fall. The breath seemed to break through his chest, painfully. He held out his hand then. In his palm were the keys tied to an old rabbit’s foot and some beads. Without meeting his eyes, Kent leaned closer to take them. Clumsily Frankie upset his glass and it crashed to the floor. Kent bent down to pick it up. At the same time her hearing-aid fell, the wires torn from her knitted bosom like the stuffing from a doll. Suddenly she lost her authority; she tried to pick up the pieces of broken glass.
“Go ahead,” Frankie said in a harsh voice.
“Oh, Kent, Kent,” Rhoda cried.
Suddenly Kent burst into tears. It was terrible to see her cry. I had not imagined she could. As if for the first time in her life she bent over, her arms hugging her sides. I went over and held her. It was as if a great deal of the trash and dark parts of her life went out with the tears. When she cried herself out and looked up again, her eyes seemed purer, brighter than they’d been. Rhoda Abbott put her hearing-aid in her hands and gently took her elbow. In a few minutes we were in the station-wagon on our way home. Above us the moon shone brightly, a greenish-white disc in the sky.
The next day Frankie did not show up. I don’t know exactly what happened. He got into some trouble at La Fonda and vanished. Kent never had a letter from him. But much later she received a square package in the mail. It bore Frankie’s large flamboyant badly–formed hand writing. Inside Kent found many wads of tissue paper and a cheap, lace frilled, orange pillow, the sort of thing sailors buy their sweet-hearts. On one side was a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other a large blue ribbon and two clasped hands and the word LOVE in a great scroll.
One morning, early, I heard loud yelping and yapping from the direction of Kent’s house. When I got over there, I saw that the sounds came from a strange rough-coated dog.
“Where did you get him, Kent?” I asked.
“Isn’t he wonderful? Cloudy’s uncle gave him to me. He’s the most beautiful hound in the world.”
“What make of animal is he ?” I asked.
“Part airedale part just dog,” Kent said sharply.
“He’ll be a good watch dog for you, Kent.”
“Yes. I’ve got to tie him up. I’m afraid he’ll get on the highway and get in trouble.”
For his meals Kent brought him liver, ground meat and kidneys. At breakfast she fed him cereal over which bouillon cubes had been melted. Very soon the creature grew fat.
Jo-jo, (as the great shaggy animal was called) was gentle, would not hurt anyone. But he had green eyes that shone weirdly in the dark. He became part of the household. Kent claimed that the dog “complicated everything” and “ate like a hyena”; it was clear, though, that she loved him.
© The Estate of Howard Griffin
Born West Ireland, 1927. Has been published in the Dublin University magazine THE NATIONAL STUDENT, ENVOY, published portions of his short novel, “The Angry Ones”. By profession a dentist. .
His story “The Cross on the Mountain” was published in POINTS 11-12, December 1951.
It was well known that the mountain was like the hill of Calvary, or rather like the pictures that were hanging in the alcove of the church and in the two class-rooms of the school. Even the visitors noticed it. So much so that on the summer evenings when the fishing was over for the day, the boatmen spoke about it in the public-house.
“We were rowin’ back across the lake,” one would say. “An’ if ye noticed it there was a wisp a cloud down on the mountain. We were watchin’ it for awhile then he said he’d near swear he was back in Jerusalem. An‘ it’s a pity ta God he wasn’t.”
“If all the people as say they was were in Jerusalem, ya wouldn’t see a hill for all the people would be on it.”
Some visitors spoke of hills in India that were even more like Calvary and one man long ago told of a hill somewhere in South America that had a rock in the shape of a cross standing against the sky and the wind on the hump of the slope.
In the mornings, even when the sky was clean and high, there was a low ring of white cloud like a halo above the summit and as the colour of the day changed, the colour of the cloud changed, dark-grey in the morning, blue-white at mid-day, red or yellow at sunset. And on a clear night, the mountain and its halo were very black against the sky. The people spoke about the mountain as they would about the weather.
“The mountain was too clear so I knew I hadn’t much time before the rain—”or “I didn’t think it was so late, then I looked over an’ I saw the top a the mountain was gone red an’ I had all the way back the lake ta come an’ himself in a blue sweat in case we’d run up on a rock.”
The children learned geography and read to the old people that the mountain was one of the biggest in the country, that it had been formed due to some movement of the earth millions of years ago.
“But they don’t say anythin’ about what it looks like,” they would say.
“Because they never even bloody-well saw it,” the old men would answer. And on Sundays, in the good weather, people came to the lake to sit on the rocks or to walk in the woods. Many of them went to the public-house at the end of the day, the hotel was at the other side of the lake nearly ten miles away.
“What d’ye think of our mountain?” the publican would say to them.
“All that’s needed is a cross.”
“Somewan might put wan there sometime,” the publican would say.
And at night before going to bed the publican and his wife talked about the pity it was that a cross had not been put on the hill.
“It’d pay ya ta put wan up yerself,” the wife would say. “Some a the young lads would do it for a quid apiece.”
“I told ya often enough that it wouldn’t seem right.”
“There’s no right or wrong in it an’ yed have crowds comin’ from everywhere.”
“The priest wouldn’t like it.”
“How d’ya know that when ya never asked him.”
“I don’t need ta ask him. An’ anyway the people wouldn’t like it.”
So each year when the good weather came the publican told the people who came into his shop after the Masses on Sunday mornings:
“All an’ every wan a them said it was a wonder nowan ever thought a puttin’ a cross up on the
And his wife said; “An’ I agree with them. If I was a man or half a man I’d put wan up meself.”
And the men nodded and said that sometime they must make a cross and stand it somewhere on the mountain where the wind would not come strong enough to knock it down.
One Easter, the missioner who was giving the retreat in the village said that it would be a good thing to build a shrine on the mountain, that the people who came to the village would look at the shrine in the sky and envy the faith of the people who built it.
“If I were a man in this village,” he said, “I would make a cross and carry it up the slope on my back and stand it against the wind at the top.”
He was a big man, as big as any man in the district. They believed in his words and many of them were ashamed when they left the church.
“There’s many a ye could do it.” The publican said to those who went from the church to his stop.
“An’ there’s many couldn’t,” one man said angrily, “An’ you’re wan a them. Not that ya would if
“I’d be the first, if I could do it,” the publican said.
“Cos it’d pay ya well ta have people drinkin’ in yer back room an’ lookin at a cross through yer back
“Not everywan is in your light that they’d sell their souls for a half-acre,” the publican said.
No-one listened. They were silent for a time.
“Well, no matter what, we’ll have ta do it now,” one man said at last.
“It’s about time we did anyways,” an old man said.
“But who’s goin’ ta do it? We can’t all go, can we?”
On the next Sunday, they held a meeting in the hall. The priest said that three men should carry the cross and that they should pick the three men by drawing lots.
“Any man who is not willing to go, put up his hand now so that he will not be included in the draw,” he said.
Although there were many who did not want to go, there was no man who was not afraid to raise his hand.
“Well then, the old men and the boys and of course the women will not be included,” the priest said.
Bill Clancy was the first man whose name was drawn from the hat. He was a big man, never done fighting. It was easy to see that he was glad to hear his name, his face was red with pleasure, his chest expanded.
“Let’s hope I don’t get two sticks with me,” he whispered to his wife. “I wouldn’t want ta have ta carry cross an’ them all the way.”
Bob Kennedy was not as big a man as Bill but he was twice as strong. He did not care much whether he was picked or not.
“If I have ta, I have ta,” he said to Clancy when they shook hands. But Mick Casey was a surprise. He was a small middle-aged man with a thin eager face and a small wheezing voice. His chest had been weak all his life and he did little heavy work. He had been nervous all through the draw and his face was pale when he went over to shake hands with the others. Bill Clancy was angry.
“We couldn’t a got worse if we knew who we were pickin’,” he said, as if to his wife but loud enough for Mick Casey to hear.
“It’s the luck a the draw,” Mick said. “I wasn’t too keen to hear me name mentioned.”
“Ya weren’t expected ta give in yer name, Mick,” Bob Kennedy said.
“Yer chest’ll never stick the damp on the mountain.”
“With a few whiskies I’d carry cross an’ the two a ye an all,” Mick said, trying to smile.
“Well, anyway he’ll be useful,” someone said, “Wan a ye at each end an’ Mick’ll fit under the centre
90’s it won’t bend.”
Even Bill Clancy laughed.
The cross was of oak and was made by the coffin-maker in the town. They had decided to build it in the wood by the lake and carry it along the main road to the base of the mountain but the publican had said that a cross of soft wood would warp in the winter. He said that a crooked cross would be the laugh of the country, that they would have to take it down. The publican paid the coffin-maker to build the cross.
“It’s cheap at any price,” he said to his wife. And one of the men brought it on his cart to the village. The people were in the street when he came.
“It looks fine an’ big,” Bill Clancy said.
“Well it’s big anyways,” someone said.
“Take the wrappings off it till we see it.”
It did not seem half so big when the sack-cloth was taken away.
“It looks like oak all right,” one man said.
“More likely to be plain deal,” Bob Kennedy said.
“Like many the oak coffin I’ve seen.”
“An’ it didn’t cost ya what ya said,” the man who had brought the cross said to the publican.
“Every bloody penny,” the publican said. “Ye wouldn’t believe a coffin-maker.”
“Nor a publican.”
They put the cross in the church-yard and waited until the priest had blessed it then they went back to the village to stand in the street or to sit in the public-house until the night caroe, they were agreed that it was better to plant the cross in the night.
“It’ll be better not to see it bein’ put up,” the publican had said.
“Then we can see it for the first time when the sun comes up.”
“But how about them that’s puttin’ it up?” one man had said.
“Let them decide then.”
“It’s better right enough,” Bill Clancy had said.
“An’ you Bob?”
Bob Kennedy nodded.
“The night air won’t do you any good, Mick,” the publican had said to Mick Casey.
They would not be seen in the dark and they could rest as often as they liked. If they made the climb in the day-light, the people would stand at the base of the hill and Bill Clancy would climb until he fell down dead rather than let the people see that he was tired.
The rain was slow to come. The wind was strong in their faces as they walked from the village and the few drops of rain it carried were light as snow.
“It’ll hardly be much.”
They watched the sky. It was coming down dark and heavy with cloud along the slope of the mountain.
“If it does, we’ll be up above it be the looks of it,” Mick Casey said.
“We’d be wet anyways, rain or not,” Bill Clancy said.
It was raining heavily by the time they reached the slope and the people shook hands quickly and went quickly back towards the village. The three men stood for a time looking up the slope.
“Better have a swig before we start,” Mick Casey said.
He passed the bottle of whiskey to Bill Clancy.
“We coulda picked a better night,” Bill said.
“It’ll be like tryin’ ta walk up a mountain of ice.”
“Well we didn’t,” Bob Kennedy said, “So there’s no use talkin’ about it. Why didn’t ya start yer grousin’ weeks ago an’ not hoid it for us.”
They were silent, watching the night. Mick’s cough came suddenly. He had been trying to hold his breath. It lasted a long time and the others watched in silence until it had passed. When he was standing straight again,his hand pressed hard against his chest, he turned to them and smiled.
“We’d better get started,” he said.
“You’re sure you’ll manage it?”
Mick nodded and at the same time patted the whiskey bottle. They lifted the cross. It seemed heavier than it had been before. Bill Clancy walked in front. Bob Kennedy behind while Mick walked between them to steady the arms.
“I’ll change with Bob, later,” he said.
They went slowly up the slope. The ground was soft under their feet and their shoes gripped easily so that within an hour they had climbed more than half-way up the mountain to the rocky ground which formed the summit. They sat down to rest.
“That’s aisy enough,” Bill said. “Now for the tough part.”
They drank again. The lights of the village seemed as far away as the stars. They could see nothing but the tiny lights of the houses, the villages and the towns away out towards the sea. And now there was no sound other than their own movements and the shout of the million little streams of rain water that came down the mountain towards them.
“Ya wouldn’t want ta slip, yed break yer neck,” Bill said.
“We don’t need ta be told,” Bob said, angry.
They had reached the clouds and the cold, thin mist was wet in their throats. Mick was coughing almost continually now. The others waited sullenly for him to complain.
“We’ll be lucky if we don’t all die a pneumonia,” Bill said.
“Jeez, will ya shut yer trap,” Bob said.
Mick rose slowly. They had not noticed that he was tired,
“There’s no use fightin’.” he said.
They went on up the slope, more slowly now, picking the soft patches that were scattered here and there on the rock. Bill slipped once and fell heavily on his knees. The jerk of the cross almost knocked the others.
“Can’t ya hold yer bloody feet?” Bob Kennedy shouted at him. “D’ya want ta kill the lot of us.
Later, Mick changed places with Bob and walked with the end of the cross on his shoulder. One hand held the cross, the other was tight against his chest. His breathing was fast and noisy and sometimes his coughing came so badly that he had to stop, stand with the cross shaking up and down with the movements of his shoulders. The others cursed aloud at him now.
“Yer only tryin* ta make yerself out a bloody martyr,” Bill Clancy said often.
“I’ll be all right in a minute.”
“We’d a been up an’ down twice only for ya.”
The ground was hard near the summit. They moved very slowly, sometimes on hands and knees. They did not talk, each man watched the ground in front carefully, ready to let the cross fall if either of the others slipped. Suddenly, Mick Casey fell forward under the cross. He did not bring his hands down and there was a dull sound when his face hit the rock. The cross lay in a slant across his back and held him down against the slope.
“Don’t move,” Bob said to him.
Bob came slowly back to him and caught his arm.
“Move up a bit now,” he called to Bill.
Bill moved the cross on up the slope.
“Let him go ta hell an’ save us carryin’ him down,” he said.
“I’m sorry, boys,” Mick said. His voice was almost gone. “I’ll be all right though.”
He tried to rise.
“D’ya want ta kill yerself?”
They brought him carefully across the slope an laid him on a flat rock that was above the flood of rain water.
“Leave him there,” Bill said. He’ll be all right till we get back.”
“We’ll be gone about an hour,” Bob said. “Just lie where ya are an’ for God’s sake don’t start movin’ around.”
They went slowly on up the rock. When they reached the summit, they heard Mick’s voice below them. It seemed loud and strong as the wind.
“Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
“Shut up for God’s sake, there’s nowan go in’ ta leave ya,” Bill called.
“Don’t leave me an’ I’ll give ya anythin’ I have.”
“It’s no use shoutin’ at him,” Bob said. “He’s half-crazy.”
The voice was loud below them all the time. They carried the cross over the flat ground on the summit and planted it in a large crack between two rocks, then they brought loose stones and small pieces of rock to press down into the crack around it When they were finished. Bill pushed against it with all his weight. It remained steady.
“That’ll take some shiftin’,” he said.
“Till it rots.”
“That’s not our concern.”
They were satisfied.
“Listen ta that little bastard below.”
“Better go back ta him.”
They went carefully down the slope. The lights were gone from the houses and the darkness below them seemed as if it would never end. Mick was lying on his face, crying aloud, his shoulders moving slowly up and down. He did not hear them until Bob spoke.
“Don’t leave me here, lads. I’d be dead by mornin.”
“Nowan’ll leave ya, Mick. Can ya walk?”
They could see his face. There was a long, red cut along the line of his jaw. The blood was dark on his shirt.
“I hurt me leg.”
“We’ll carry ya.”
“Maybe drop me an’ kill me.”
“Either that or ya stay here an’ die for certain.”
“Put him up on me back,” Bob said to Bill.
Bill caught him under the arms and lifted him on to Bob’s back.
“I’m sure to get killed,” Mick shouted.
He began to kick his legs. Bill turned Mick’s head with his hand and hit him high on the side of his face.
“It was the only thin’,” he said.
Bob nodded. They went slowly down into the darkness.
The rain was gone in the morning and the sky was high and cold. The cross was very black against the blue.
“Well, there it is,” the publican said to his wife. “It’s in a good place, they couldn’t a picked better.”
“Pity there’s not a statue on it.”
“Yer never satisfied. Who’d see whether there was a statue or not?”
“They shoulda put it in such a way that ya could only see it from this side in the mountain.”
“I never thought a that.”
“Well, ya can’t have it every way. It’s good enough as it is.”
They spent the rest of die morning looking up at the cross. The people came into the village in the evening to watch the mountain when the sun went down but the wind rose early and cloud came down along the slope. It was raining long before sunset.
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it never stopped raining now that we want it to,” Bob Kennedy said.
He was drunk early in the night, everyone wanted to buy him a drink.
“The other two’re in bed,” the publican said to him.
“Poor Mick is half-crocked.”
“He should never a gone up,” one man said.
“Could a killed the lot a ye from what I hear,” the publican said.
“He did better than most men,” Bob said.
“Bill Clancy said he was only a nuisance.”
“Bill Clancy is all blow.”
“Still, Mick was a great little bastard even ta try it,” another man said.
The good weather came. Mick Casey was almost better now, the limp was almost gone from his walk and his chest was easier with the sun. When he walked along the road by the lake, the people called to him from the houses.
“Come up Mick an’ have a drink a tea.”
Or they would sit with him for awhile in the fields where the spring sowing was almost completed and give him stout to drink from the cans.
“He’s lookin’ much better,” they would say when he was gone on along the road.
“Ya couldn’t kill him, not after that.”
The women spoke to him in the church-yard after Mass on Sundays. This was a thing they had not done before for Mick had for many years been the symbol of laziness in the district. The children walked with him on the road, called him Mr. Casey and listened while he told them about the cross.
“I thought they were goin’ ta leave me,” he would say. “As if they would.”
He did not boast about carrying the cross, but by now the people had almost forgotten about the other two men.
“They were well able,” they said. “They could do it ten times any night an’ do a good day’s work in the morning.”
“There’s many a two men would a left me up there,” Mick would say. “Nor would I blame them. Bob Kennedy coulda broken his neck carryin’ me down.”
“He’d a taken the same trouble over a sack a potatas.”
“A sack a potatas woulda been more value than I was that night.”
The people would not listen.
“He’s only tryin’ ta make little of it,” they said.
They pointed him out to the visitors when they came and the boatmen told the fishermen that he had brought the cross to the top of the mountain on his own.
“He has strength yed never think he had,” they would say.
By the time the winter had come again, the cross was called ‘Mick Casey’s Cross’. Mick did not protest about it, he had long since stopped arguing with the people. He would sit with the visitors in the public house and tell them about the night he had climbed the mountain. No longer did he tell them that he had cried when the others left him on the flat rock. He had fallen under the cross and had broken his leg, he would say. Then he would limp around the shop to show them that his leg had never really healed. It pained him a good deal in the wet weather, he would say. Later, he told them that he had crawled down the mountain, that Bob Kennedy had been afraid to carry him down the slope.
“It’s bloody dacent of him that he told lies before,” the people would say. “An’ the other two wouldn’t even talk ta him an’ him makin’ them out great bloody men.”
But Mick’s boasting became so great that before long only the visitors would listen to him. Even the children did not want to stand talking with him. They moved to the other side of the road when they saw him coming, said Good–day and hurried on past him as quickly as they could. The people did not blame him or dislike him however. They spoke of him as before.
“He’s doin’ too much free drinkin’ though,” they said. “That always makes a man talk about himself.”
Bob Kennedy and Bill Clancy spoke more together than they had done before. They walked together in the evenings, drank together in the hotel where they could be away from the people of the village. They went to Mass together and stood away from the men in the churchyard. Mick Casey was very much afraid to meet them and after Mass, he went straight to the public house. He did not limp when he walked away from the church. They would watch him as he walked hurriedly along the road.
“Pity we didn’t leave him,” Bill would say.
“Or put him up on the cross when we got him above.”
Then they would go down to the lake and look up at the mountain. They would stand for a long while staring at the cross, watching the clouds move above it or the rain slant across it, then they would turn and walk alone the shore of the lake to the village.
“If I got it for wan minute,” Bill would say. “I’d make match-sticks of it.”
They hated the cross almost as much as they did Mick Casey.
“Mick Casey’s Cross,” Bill would say and he would spit at the mountain and at the sky.
© The Estate of Tom Furlong
Born Brooklyn, 1929. Founded, with the French poet and playwright, Daniel Mauroc, the bilingual poetry magazine, JANUS in Paris, 1949. Has published stories in THE NEW DIRECTIONS ANTHOLOGIES 12 and 14, PARTISAN REVIEW, and THE NEW WRITING Pocket Book Anthology. Is the author of the libretto of “A Childhood Miracle”, an opera with music by Ned Rorem which had its world premier on Canadian television.
His story, “I Do, Siro,” was published in POINTS 13, May 1952.
I DO, SIRO
It is good to be fourteen but there must be someone to talk to. He read detective stories in bed when it was cold. His mother washed other people’s dirty clothes and his father did something in a power plant, his sister was away and there was absolutely no one to talk to.
The movies were all right, but they put the lights up after the first half and at the end and after the news and after the publicity, and you could see all the faces chewing and smiling and changing seats and nobody you could talk to.
There was a pine forest with wild ducks where it was forbidden to hunt, and the afternoon Siro went to lie down and look up at the trees falling back into the sky and sometimes he made believe there was a friend to talk to, and they talked and rolled in the needles, and all the time the sound of the hunters would sound on top of them, but they kept on rolling because you could never tell space by sound in the forest and someone who was miles away would sound on top of you.
One day before the movies he went in the little round place by the town square to pee and just as he was closing his pants he saw two white messages. One message said Long Live Figs and the other said Death To The Rich.
He thought they were strange but he went to the movies and forgot. A few days later he passed having to pee so he went in. Underneath Death To The Rich someone had written Long Live Figs twice more. He was buttoning up when he saw there was another message, tiny-written all the way up the wall in chalk and a little smeared, but he could make out: Who Wants a Friend? Sign Here.
He was halfway home before he noticed that his pants were still open. He closed them and ran back and looked again. He went home and thought about the message most of the night. He got up before dawn and took a piece of chalk and ran to the center of town just as people on bicycles were coming in from the country, and went to the spot and wrote beneath Sign Here: I do. Siro.
Then he went to the pine forest and lay down and waited. He stayed all day and nothing happened. He went back to town early evening and looked at the spot but nothing had changed. He went home and ate and came back the next day and the next and the next day and the next and nothing happened. Ten days later he showed up and found the spot had been whitewashed. There were no new messages about friends, only someone had started writing Long Live Figs again, very large.
He decided he had not been specific enough, so he wrote very small: would like a friend, am fourteen, have bike.
He went away and came back and added; anyone like to be my friend come to fish market Sunday morning seven thirty with newspaper.
Sunday was in three days. The first day he was very excited because he thought maybe someone would come, and the second day he was very depressed because he knew no one would.
Sunday morning he got up at six and put on his best pants and a clean shirt and cleaned his shoes and ran through the empty streets.
As he turned the corner into the fish market he saw two hundred men in the center of the square. They were of all ages and all had newspapers and were waving them and shouting fiercely at each other. Groups were fighting, and the more angry had dropped their newspapers and picked up stones. As Siro came into the market place, a few men noticed him, then more and more noticed him and the fighting quieted. All the men stared at once with peaceful expressions through their bloody faces. Then they looked at each other again fiercely. Those who had dropped their papers to pick up stones, dropped the stones and picked up papers. Then all two hundred stretched out their arms and papers and rushed at Siro.
He turned and ran as fast as he could. He stumbled and fell and got up and ran some more. He ran for miles across the waking town and out of town until he lost the screaming mob. He had to stop for breath and fell down on the ground just outside of the pine forest.
© The Estate of Elliot Stein
Unfortunately we have lost all contact with Mr. O’Conaill and cannot supply any information on him. All we know is that he is a young Irishman of about 30 years who has been published in ENVOY and several other Irish literary reviews.
His story, “Asylum for the Blind” appeared in POINTS 13, May 1952.
ASYLUM FOR THE BLIND
Like white flowers on the sand, a flock of seagulls stood watching a smooth stretch of the Atlantic. The sunlight warmed everything to silence. Beyond the sand, seagrass and sand dunes straggled towards a granite wall. There was a look of dark finality about that wall. Above it, cold and distant as an unkissed mouth, towered a gothic building. And as if suddenly the sun had called to them, the gulls flew screeching into the air, biting at the sunlight with passion.
At a window, high in the gothic building, a nun’s face frowned disapproval at the sunny world outside. Her cold clean fingers twitched nervously at the window catch. Then she pushed the window open and her head bent out to look at the chapel clock. But her attention was distracted by the sight of a man on the path in the garden below. He carried a can of paint in one hand and brushes in the other. The tightness of the overall trousers he wore emphasised the strength of his thighs. Watching him, the expression on the nun’s lips and eyes softened with pleasure. Suddenly she snapped the window shut, and her hands sought the safety of her rosary.
Her dark shape moved slowly along the corridor in the direction of the staircase, the only sound she made was:
“Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee..” and two blind girls passed her at the head of the stairs. She didn’t see them… “blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”
“Twas Sister Josephine passed us,” said one of the blind girls. The nun, hearing her name, instinctively turned to watch them. Then beginning another Hail Mary, went to the chapel.
About twenty other nuns were there, some with their faces hidden in their hands, others with eyelids closed and faces turned towards the altar, while one old nun with mannish hands stared distractedly at the big sunbeam that lay on the empty bench in front of her, making the wood a nicer colour than all the other benches. She noticed Sister Josephine moving towards it, and said quietly to herself.
“Please God, don’t let her come and pray there.”
Sister Josephine went over to a dark corner close to the altar and knelt down, staring at the tabernacle. “Merciful Jesus,” she began, “help me. Help me in my hours of temptation. Holy Mother of God protect and intercede for me with thy Son.”
And the man in the overalls was walking through her heart. She closed her eyes; but still he was there. When she opened them she was aware of a dark shadow like a cross moving over the big window at the side of the altar. It disappeared, and the sound of a man’s voice came from outside. Once more the shadow returned, and she recognised it as a ladder, and said to herself, “He must be one of the painters.”
She remained calmly praying, until she was aware of the nuns behind her whispering. Curious, she stopped praying, and above the sound of the whispering, came distant laughter and screams. She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around and saw the angry face of the Mother Superior.
“Sister Josephine, go and tell the girls in the playroom that they’re making too much noise and disturbing us at our prayers.”
The playroom was a big stone floored hall with benches all around the base of the walls. Here, about fifty of the blind girls played. Their ages ranged from seven to seventy. Some sat on the benches gossiping and knitting, while most of them ran hither and thither trying to escape from one girl who was trying to touch them. That was the game, to escape being touched. Those who were free huddled together for safety from the girl who tried to find them. As they ran, they stumbled, and laughter and tears intermingled, until their excitement burst into hysterical screaming, especially if one oi them was nearly touched and thought she had lost her freedom. And when she did, she would go running and falling trying to find a victim.
They had grown so excited that when Sister Josephine came into the room and rang the bell, they didn’t hear it. She rang it harder, her face growing whiter with temper.
“Girls… girls…” she called, and the noise shrank into a guilty silence. She was about to speak when someone let a tin fall on the floor. Sister Josephine clanged the bell again shouting, “Quiet… quiet. Quiet” Then, changing her tone to one of hurt sincerity she announced.
“Mother Superior sent me to tell you that it’s impossible for us to offer up a few prayers to God with the noise you’re making.”
No sound. No movement. Silence which ushered the nun out of the playroom and back to her prayers.
Alone in the garden with the sunshine around her, the blind woman they called Mad Kate walked, wondering if she would meet the devil. All afternoon she had been praying and blessing herself to keep him away. Yesterday he had gone too far. What would the holy nuns think if they had seen him lifting her dress. Of course she hadn’t told the girls about it, they only laughed, and the nuns said it was nonsense. But would the nuns laugh if she told them that a week ago our Blessed Lord had given her back her sight for a second, and in that second she had seen the devil walking into the toilet with Sister Maria?
The smell from the rosebush made her happy. June was the month of roses. She thought of the rose she had brought to the mission to have blessed, just before she came to the blind asylum. It was lying with the photographs of her father and mother, (Lord rest their souls) in her locker. Often, she would hold the photographs knowing by their size which was her father, and which her mother. In future, she would carry the blessed rose with her for protection.
By the sudden coolness, she could tell that she was now walking in the shady walk that led to the Grotto. Coolness had a different smell from heat. It was more holy, more like the feeling you had when one of the holy nuns was near you. Then saying over and over, “Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus protect me,” she walked toward the Grotto.
On the further side of the grounds, two other blind women were walking. Bridie was twenty nine and Maura was forty. Bridie was musical they said, because she played the fiddle in the convent orchestra. Maura was romantic and always talked of the day some rich man, a Catholic, would come to the convent looking for a wife. The girls said that it had happened once. And Maura dreamed of the day one would come again and ohoose her. Both of them were completely blind and although their eyes were open, they were dead. The rims of their eyes were red and sore looking. They wore long dark blue dresses which had no shape, and hid all trace of their figures. Sometimes when the nuns weren’t around they tied a bit of string around their waists to give them style, but they always got into trouble for it. There was nothing they could do to alter the black shoes and cotton stockings. Linked arm in arm, they walked, talking of the convent excitements.
“Did you see the way Mary Jennings went on?”
“Yes, I saw her. I’ll give her a kick next time she calls me names.”
“Didn’t you hear Sister Monica about the collection…”
“The collection for the Missions was it?”
“No, the one for the present we were to send Our Holy Father the Pope.”
“No. I didn’t hear a word.”
“Well, she said, if we didn’t make more sacrifices, we’d have Communism here in Ireland.”
“And she’s right. Did you hear MeldaMulligan’s brother’s one?”
“Who said that?”
“I’m not to tell, but it’s the truth. Didn’t he go off to England with a married woman…”
The thought of this made them silent. An awareness of something unanswered in their thoughts and bodies made them say a prayer to God, for they saw Him, as someone who could hear the words “I love you” without danger of sin.
And Mad Kate had almost reached the Grotto when she felt the devil clutch her around the waist and whisper.
“Come on let’s have a bit of sport on the grass, you’ll be too old soon.” She ran as quickly as she could, and called out, “Jesus… Jesus save me”. But the devil held on to her. She felt her knees weaken ready to yield to temptation, when by the grace of God she reached the rail by the Grotto and sank down. Sudrenly, her eyes were blinded with light, and out of the light stepped a living statue of the Blessed Virgin dressed in blue robes, with her golden hair shining with grace and purity. But the devil’s mouth came close to hers and she screamed. Her tongue was paralysed. And in a second, standing on it dressed in silver with big white wings was the Arch Angel Gabriel holding a sword. The devil disappeared. The Blessed Virgin smiled, and everything was dark again.
Her heart beat so wildly that she couldn’t pray. She felt safe though, as if Our Blessed Lord’s sacred blood was beating through her, and slowly into her breath came the taste of roses, their beautiful perfume flooding her soul with peace and grace.
The painters working alongside the chapel wall were unaware of this miracle.
“Rockabye My Baby…”
“Christ, is he still singin’ that.”
“Never mind, that’s not got nothing to do with it. He’s singing.”
“You know the one that does be always in McNeils.”
“Yer mean the one who sings ‘Jealous Heart’?”
“No, she’s married to that boss-eyed balls. No, the one I mean is the blondie with the fine pair of bumpers.”
“Her that wears a blue jumper.”
“Yes, that’s the one. Now she was there on Saturday. (I wouldn’t have went, but it was too wet to go into the Scotch House.) Now when Bubbles was singin’goodoh, and she leans over to me and whispers…”
“Shut up Bill, here’s two of the blind tartscomin.”
Bill, who had dark curly hair and good teeth began to sing.
“You’re breakin my heart,
‘Cause you’re leavin,
I’m sorry it had to be so.
“What do them ones do all day with their time?” asked Joe, who shook back the fair lock of hair that fell over his eyes. He lit a cigarette butt and laughed at his thoughts.
Maura and Bridie stopped talking and listened to the sound of the painter singing. They moved silently towards the mansound. And when they were quite near the men they stopped, and linked together waited unsure of what they wanted, yet content to wait.
“Here’s another of them comin’,” whispered Bill to Joe.
Mad Kate was excited, and before she reached Maura and Bridie they knew it was she, for they could hear her praying aloud.
“Oh God,” said Bridie, “she’ll spoil everything for us.”
And hearing the voice Mad Kate shouted.
“I’ve just escaped him girls. The Blessed Virgin came to protect me.”
The painters looked at one another and laughed.
“Who’s that laughing?” called Kate.
“We don’t know,” said Maura, “ask them.”
“Who’s there?” and there was terror in Kate’s voice.
Bill smiled and said,
“A couple of artists painting up the convent for youse.”
“Did you see him?” asked Kate.
“See who?” and Joe, winked at Bill.
“The divil, of course, wasn’t he after chasin’ me by the Grotto.”
“Ah yes, ‘course we saw him. Didn’t he pass this way and dip his tail in the paint. I let fly at him. and he ran like hell.”
Quickly, Maura said.
“Sister Josephine wants you Kate.”
“Glory be to God, I must hurry then and tell her about me vision.”
And when she had left them, the painters laughed, and Bill asked the blind girls,
“Is she all right in the head?”
“No, she’s a bit gone” said Bridie. Then she paused and asked. “What are your names?”
“I’m Bill, and he’s Joe. What are yours?”
The four of them stood there, the painters making jokes, and the girls laughing, more with excitement, than from any sense of humour. But soon there wasn’t anything left for the painters to joke about.
“Which of you is the singer?” asked Maura.
‘”Him,” said Joe, “he’s a smashin’ voice.”
“Sing ‘You’re Breaking my Heart All over Again’.”
“I don’t know the words proper.”
“Never mind, sing what you know.”
“Okay, get ready to drop…”
He had just sung the first line when he stopped. The sight of the nun standing cold and black in the sunlight took his breath away.
“Maura Corrigan, Bridie Mulvany, come here.”
They turned and walked to Sister Josephine’s voice. Before they reached her, she had turned, and said, “Follow me.” And they trailed after her. When they were a respectable distance away from the painters, Sister Josephine stopped and asked,
“Which of you told the lie?”
They didn’t understand what she was talking about.
“Come on, which of you told Kate that I was looking for her?”
“Oh,” said Maura,”T’was I.”
“And why? Why?”
“She was talkin’ nonsense about the divil.”
“Ah,” said Sister Josephine, laughing without a trace of happiness, “so the devil is all nonsense. You’re both too clever to think that there is such a person, eh?”
“No sister, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that she talks such nonsense.”
“I suppose you wanted to be alone with the men, didn’t you.”
“Yes, we only wanted to talk and to…”
“Well come on, and to what? I’m waiting.”
“Just to hear them singing.”
“Oh, so you’re interested in singing then. Couldn’t you come to the chapel and hear our girls singing? Haven’t they beautiful pure voices, singing hymns of praise to our Lord! But? no, I’m forgetting, you want to hear the cheap wicked trash they sing about love. Love… LOVE…” she screamed out at them. Then quickly, ashamed, she avoided their blind gaze. The girls were silent. Sister Josephine imagined that the new pity and softness in her voice was for them.
“My poor children, you don’t know the world. You don’t know the wickedness of men.”
“But they weren’t like that. They were nice to us.”
“Now I ask you! How would you know? What could you see of their wicked lustful glances? But you’re right. They wouldn’t be bothered with the likes of you or me. No, they want style. They want women who paint their faces and make a mockery of the features God gave them. They couldn’t see anything to love in a pure face.” She stopped, as though she were listening to herself. “Now, girls, let that be an end of it.”
She walked away slowly, as though her feet were following some unknown thought in her mind. Bridie and Maura walked towards the playroom, not daring to speak. Their clasped hands exchanged messages without words.
By nine o’clock all the girls were in bed. The gardens were deserted and the daylight lay dying alone. From beyond the convent wall, a dog barked and dragged at its chain.
Beneath the white sheets, the thoughts of the blind girls strayed freely to other places, other beds, and other rooms. Maura lay thinking of the day when a man would come and pick her from all the others in the convent and she would escape to a home of her own. She wondered if either of the painters would ask for her. Bridie thought of the man singing. The melody of “You’re Breaking my Heart All over Again” was in her body, and it went right down to her toes making her whole body ache for a man’s hands to come and soothe it into sleep. And away from them all, up in the far corner of the dormitory in the huge curtained bed, that didn’t even trust a glance from the blind girls. Sister Josephine lay saying her prayers.
Following breakfast, (which came after seven o’clock mass) Maura and Bridie went out for a walk. It was a bright morning which gave the taste of a hot day to come. They both tried not to talk of the painters, but when they sat on the bench on the Grotto walk, Maura said.
“After all, if they wanted to marry us, the nuns couldn’t stop them.”
“I’ve got something here,” said Bridie, and fumbled in the little pocket of her dress. “I’ve had it in my purse for a long time.”
“Show me, show me,” said Maura, holding out her hand.
Bridie took out a little tube from her purse, unscrewed one end of it, and handed it into the other girl’s eager hand saying,
“Guess what is it?”
“Let me see, let me see,” and her fingers felt it questioningly, then they laughed excitedly and she said, “I know, I know. It’s a lipstick.”
“Right,” said, Bridie, “now we can do ourselves up and go and talk to the men.”
“Oh yes, let’s put it on now.”
“No, for God’s sake not here. We’ll go on to the Grotto. No one can see us there, and we can hear anyone comin’ on the gravel path.”
At the Grotto they carefully listened. Sure that no one was around, Bridie opened the lipstick and nibbed it on her mouth. Maura did the same. Then when Bridie had it back again, she said, “I’ll just put a bit more on.”
“Me too,” said Maura.
The two men saw them coming along the path. Their dark dresses appeared drabber in contrast with the bright fields and the rich green of the trees, and made even their bodies look blind.
“Don’tthe nuns put them in terrible clothes,” said Bill.
“Well, who’s to see them out here.”
“I dunno, it’s depressin’lookin all the same.”
As the girls got nearer. Bill noticed their mouths.
“What,” and Joe turned to look at them.
It looked as though their lips had burst and blood was flowing from their mouths. And when the girls were closer, the men realised that it was only lipstick, and Bill shouted, “Hello girls. My word, but you’re trying to do us out of our jobs.” Then he whispered to Joe, “They’d make bloody bad painters,” and both men laughed louder, while the girls waited for them to say something nice, to hear those words that always happen in love stories. But the men said nothing like that.
Bill took out a grubby handkerchief and said,
“Keep your mouth shut tight.”
Maura held her lips together waiting. The smell of turpentine and the feel of breathing, came closer and closer. She knew that it was going to happen. Knew that his lips would come close against hers, and they would kiss. And his voice so gentle when he said, “Turn your mouth this way,” made her raise her head. Her whole body felt that it was part of her mouth and that it too would feel eased when the kiss came. But, she must have misjudged his mouth, for she felt her lips touch cloth, and she knew that she must be pressing her mouth against his overalls. Ashamed and conscious of her blindness, she raised her mouth higher, and felt his hand against her cheek. Then, she knew that he was rubbing her mouth with a cloth, and she kept still, knowing that he was only doing this so that when he kissed her, he wouldn‘t get the lipstick over his mouth. But suddenly the cloth moved away from her, and she heard his voice say.
“Holy smoke, the nun.”
And there, a black statue gazing at them all was Sister Josephine, not speaking. Suddenly she roared out, “So this is where you are again.” And her hands like two claws clutched the girls away from the men. Then seeing the lipstick on their faces, she raised her hand and slapped it across Bridie’s cheek. Bill stepped forward, but Joe held his arm.
“No Bill. Respect her clothes. She’s a nun.”
“Come along. Come along. Mother Superior will hear of this.”
The Mother Superior stood up from her desk as the nun and the two girls entered her room. When she saw their faces she blessed herself. Sister Josephine told her story and waited. The Mother Superior sat down amazed. There was silence while punishments ranged the old nun’s mind.
Unable to understand, Bridie began, “But we didn’t do…”
“Silence,” said the Mother Superior, angry that her thoughts were interrupted. She raised her hand to strike the stupid lipstickedmouth, but her eyes caught sight of the picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall behind the girls, and calming herself, she said,
“Yes… yes… now let me see. Ah yes, silence, that’s how I’ll punish you. You mustn’t speak or be heard speaking for a week, nor must you ever be seen together. And now, off with you both to bed, but first. First. Wash that filthy paint off your faces.”
Sister Josephine led them to the bathroom. The only sound was the gushing of the tap. Then they were led to the dormitory and made to undress and kneel down.
“Repeat after me,” said Sister Josephine, “Oh my God, I return Thee thanks for all the benefits which I have ever received from Thee, and particularly this day.” They repeated the words, while Sister Josephine took in a deep breath and went on, “Give me light to see,” and they mumbled after her, “what sins I have committed this day, and grant me grace to be truly sorry for them.”
She left them to their bedsides and their silence. As they prayed they felt aware of how wicked they had been, and how far they had strayed from God’s Holy Gaze. They promised Him sincerely that never again would they let the devil lead them astray. And long after they had forgotten the words and the meanings of their prayers, in their hearts they cried at their sin and asked God to forgive them. Never again would they think of men, but only of God’s goodness and love for them.
From the grounds outside, they both heard Mad Kate screaming out, “Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus, protect me.” And they knew that the devil was tormenting her again.
In the cool shade of the Grotto, Sister Josephine knelt and gazed at the statue of the Blessed Virgin. She had knelt there for a long time saying countless Hail Marys, and gradually the fatal words insisted on her listening to their meaning… Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb… womb… rumbled deep in her heart, making a hollow pain in her stomach and her eyes fill with tears. But no, no she said to herself, it can’t be. That wasn’t religion to mention womb… it was lust. No, in the Hail Mary it didn’t mean womb.
She said the prayer again slowly, and then saw quite reasonably that Jesus was the fruit of Mary’s womb. But why have it mentioned? And she knelt there forgetting to pray, trying to imagine what a womb looked like. But all she could make out of her imagination was a shape like a man, lying imprisoned inside her.
© The Estate of Domhnall O’Conaill
Born Detroit, 1924. HAROLD BRAV : 27, American. Born in Detroit and at present studying History at the Sorbonne on the Gl Bill, already has a B.A. in French History at Wayne University. Has worked as a taxi driver in America. Sex, (the) Pure and (the) Simple was published in POINTS 10, Fall 1951. His story, “Rats” was published in POINTS 16, May 1953.
© The Estate of Harold Brav
Born Glasgow, 1925. Published in BOTTECHE OSCURE, THE SCOTS‘ REVIEW, TOMORROW, and NEW WORLD WRITING. Has been editing for the past two years in Paris, the quarterly magazine, MERLIN.
His story, “The Holy Man” was published in POINTS 17, September, 1953, and subsequently reprinted in the PARIS AMERICAN KIOSK.
THE HOLY MAN
THE hotel was located in a short impasse near the Bal des Anglais. The street face bulged outwards and upwards from street level, receding again after the first storey like a long narrow forehead until it was cut short by the skyline. Back from the ridge of the roof, out of view from the street, there was a single attic window and above it an uneven row of dilapidated chimneypots, yellow and black, and tilted in oblique postures. There was no break in the tenement structure of the street, and the hotel was distinguishable from the building on either side only by its more pronounced bulge and by the peeling yellow paint which covered its outside wall.
It was not a light street. The sun seldom percolated downwards beyond the second storeys and, except for a month or so during the summer, the street at ground level was in shadow. There was life in the street, and an occasional outraged cat; but more than anything else it was a street to die in.
The groundfloor of the hotel had at one time been a bar, frequented by North Africans and by the prostitutes of the quarter, and it remained shop-fronted. Above, the windows, tilting at various angles from the perpendicular, looked out through absence of sun and through grime like mucous eyes of some of the blind or half-blind men who in latter days came to stay there. Access to the passage which led to the staircase was by a single narrow door. A man entering from the sunless street into a darker corridor which smelt of dampness and urine and decaying ordure was in a passage twenty feet long; on his left immediately was the yellow slit of light which came from under the door, the former back door, of what used to be the bar. Through that door, often, and especially at night, came female laughter. The room was inhabited by three German women who had come to France with the victorious army and who, like other odds, ends and chevrons of the defeated army, had been ambiguously left there. Their names were Liza, Greta and Lili.
The staircase at the end of the corridor was a wooden one. Its steps, worn smooth and concave by centuries of climbing feet, had absorbed grease, dust, sputum and spilt water until their surface was like soft graphite. What fell soaked in and remained. Halfway between landings at the turn of flights the water spouts dripped into iron bowls inadequately gridded against garbage which sank to the drains and caused each bowl to overflow its contents on to the stairs below. The rooms were small. Except for those which gave on to the street, their windows opened on to an airwell which was their only source of light. One of the rooms on the second storey was inhabited by a thin Hungarian. All night he stood near his uncurtained window, old and stark naked, and a candle flame ranged across the skin and hairs of his little abdomen as he picked over and examined the rags he had collected the previous day. His room was full of old clothes, but except when going abroad into the streets he did not use them. Sometimes he spat through a broken pane and his spittle descended down the airshaft to its bottom below street level where broken boxes, discarded bed-springs and other debris were piled. When he did so, he leaned forward slightly, with an air of attention, as he listened for the sound of its break…
Opposite him on the second storey, with a window that gave directly on to his, lived a one-legged woman nearly as old as himself, a native of the city. Her muffled curses rose to the other inhabitants up the airwell. Sometimes the Hungarian paused in his task of inspection and gazed with his one good eye—the other had receded into what was now a pink rim of hair—across to the lightless window where she cursed. Each morning before seven she hobbled downstairs with her crutch close at her left armpit and the thong of her amputated leg in a grey woollen stole just visible below the hem of her skirt. Her face was twisted in a fixed red sneer and her free hand against the wall prised her torso into balance as it descended. In the roadway she looked this way and -that before she set off, like a bent hinge, always in the same direction.
Apart from the German women, and they were all over thirty, no young people lived there, and as the old died off, or moved to the almshouse, or to the sanatorium, or to prison for, petty theft or chronic alcoholism, no young people presented themselves to occupy the rooms. Always another old man or another old woman, younger or older than the previous tenant, but old, and often emaciated. Already there lived in the rabbitwarren of live storeys one hunchback, one dwarf too old for the circus, one strong man too weak to break chains, two blind men whose white probes brushed walls and stairs to the side or in front of them like the antennae of insects, one dumb man, and the woman already mentioned with the amputated foot. For the rest, they came and they went, on foot and sometimes on a stretcher. And not long ago a man died on the stairs.
But above all. and of a power that was intact because it was undivined, there was the holy man.
Why this man was holy or what holy was none of the other tenants was quite clear. That they were one and all willing to concede his holiness was quite clear from the fact that all referred to him and without a trace of humour as the holy man.
He was above all the others not only in the sense that he suffered from no physical disability—at least if he did no one knew about it—nor because he neither had, nor appeared to require, means of subsistence, nor even because he was admittedly holy, but also in the sense that he was above them in space, for it was he who inhabited the tiny attic room at the apex of the house, a room which, were it not for the fact that he had shuttered the dormer window with boards painted black, alone of the rooms in the hotel commanded an uninterrupted view of the sun and of the blue heavens.
The holy man had shut out the sun and the blue heavens from his room. He came years before, almost beyond living memory, clad in a dark mantle against recognition. Accepting the key from Mme Kronis, the proprietrix, he had mounted the stairs for the first and for the last time. He had carried with him a black blind of wood of the exact dimensions of the attic window, and with a hammer and nails he had boarded himself into darkness like a vegetable. From that day onwards he had never set foot on stairs, nor for all they knew on ground or floor, but had lain in a prone position beneath a grey blanket on a narrow bed like a long cocoon.
It was known, or if not known suspected, that he had occupied this horizontal position for more than ten years in his black box at the apex of the hotel.
Now, none of the tenants loved the sun, unless it was the German women who, during the short period of the year when the sun struck down to street level, sprawled untidily on their doorstep (that of what had once been the bar) and scratched the pendulous deathly-white flesh of their thighs which, in their reclining position with knees up, called out like jaws at the sun. But evidently no one hated the sun as much as the holy man, not the thin Hungarian nor any of the tenants who went abroad daily to beg in those parts of the city frequented by tourists during the summer. For a beggar in summer must sweat, and those who laid down their truncated limbs near the bridges where the tourists congregated did so in full sunlight, that the sweat might aggravate the emaciation, and the horror the charity.
And so at the beginning this strange hibernation, in spite of its occurrence in the twilit catacomb where all flesh was white from lack of sun, caused a great of comment, and various theories were advanced throughout the years to make it less foreign to the general comprehension.
The first was the obvious one: the man was dead.
Such an explanation would have occasioned less dismay than any other. To live, to grow old, and to die: the process excited little interest. Those acquaintances who were not already dead were dying, or were preparing to die in the near future or in the winter, for most of them felt that they could hold out at least until the winter and the frost. It was true that few died in the hotel. The man who died on the stairs, a vast man from Lille with a mountain of weight to carry up five flights of stairs, had been taken by a spasm during his climb. That had been unexpected, the sudden thump around midnight as his body toppled backwards down the narrow staircase, but he had been drinking heavily and he had a bad heart—usually he had climbed very slowly, taking a few steps at a time. For the most part they went away to die, to the almshouse or to the sanatorium, and if somebody came round to enquire about a vacant room Mme Kronis would say she was expecting a key in a few days’ time. For each dead man, a key; it was usually returned to her by a policeman who climbed up the stairs behind her to make an inventory of the effects of the deceased. Later she would say if questioned: His key came back today. There’s a key if you want it,
But it was not unnatural for a man who was about to die to make a crypt of his room. The sun was an irrelevance. If the holy man had died it was as well he had died in darkness. A man wanted to die with a little dignity. Dark made that easier. It shut out the world.
Yes, it would have been easy to believe that the holy man was dead had it not been for the stubborn recurrence of the symptoms of life. An hundred little facts combined to make the theory untenable.
In the first place, and perhaps most significantly of all, there was no key. Secondly, there was the direct evidence of the German women. For a number of years past, Liza, Greta, and Lili, in strict rotation and in complete submission to some unknown authority, had borne his food and later removed his excrement. It was true, or so they averred, that they had never seen the holy man. The room was in total darkness. Sometimes they had tried to make conversation, but the mass on the bed—their only experience of that mass was the sound of heavy breathing—remained inert and voiceless; nevertheless, they were aware of him. There was something there, they said, you could feel it on your skin, and the fetor of the place was suffocating. All the air that got in must have been with their exits and entrances, so the stench was understandable. But that a man could live in such a stench aroused neither disgust nor disbelief in the other tenants. It was interesting but not important.
Of course, the German women might have been lying. But that they should lie over a number of years, climbing daily to the attic with food for a dead man (or a non-existent! man) to relieve themselves up there in order to be able to return with the chamberpot, seemed unlikely. It was laughable—unless they had murdered him and were trying to cover up for themselves. That theory was suggested and caused so much indignation among the tenants that a few of them got together and without consulting Mme Kronia brought a policeman to the hotel. In spite of her protests, the policeman insisted on going to the room to see for himself. She allowed him to do so only on the condition that the rest of the tenants would remain below and they heard her bicker about interference and lying thieves as she climbed slowly and painfully upwards ahead of the policeman.
It did not take long. A few moments later, the policeman descended and without a word went off into the night. A short while afterwards Mme Kronis herself came down, still muttering under her breath, and disappeared into her room, locking the door behind her.
The procession of days continued uninterrupted during which, as usual, Liza, Greta and Lili bore food and carried refuse to and from the holy man. Some said Mme Kronis had bribed the policeman. That was quite possible. Mme Kronis was rich and policeman were human. Was it not so? But, generally speaking, the tenants were convinced. The holy man was alive, even if his life was not what one would expect of a man—it was more like the life of a slug or of a bedbug—what did it matter? Perhaps he had gone up there to die and had not died after all or was dying but was taking a long time over it. That would have been commendable. They were all of the–opinion that a man should take a long time over his dying.
And perhaps that was what it was:he was merely taking a long time over his dying. He had boxed himself into his death-chamber in anticipation of his immediate death, and then, finding each time he woke up that he still lived, he had concluded he would die on the morrow and therefore had not troubled to take down the shutter that shut him off from the sun and from the blue sky. That would have been proper. After having outlived for so long his expectations it would have been a shame to be caught napping with the shutter down. He might even have had a stroke if he had made the great effort that would have been required to tear down a shutter so firmly fixed with long nails. He was presumably no jackass or halfwit who wanted to die before it was strictly necessary to do so.
On the other hand—it was the thin Hungarian who suggested this—it was quite possible that the holy man thought he was dead. That would have accounted too for his passivity. If he thought he was dead he would also think, and logically, that there was no need to act, neither to act nor to decide to act, for he would most certainly be of the opinion that the will—the personal will as distinct from the all-embracing will of God—ceased to be effective after death. And the fact that he had existed in darkness over a period of so many years would naturally conduce to the belief that he was suspended in Purgatory to await God’s final judgement. That, the thin Hungarian thought, would explain everything, including the deaf ear he turned to the husky-voiced conversation of the German women which, as he was now dead and beyond the failings of the flesh, he would most certainly interpret as the hallucinatory temptation of that part of his soul on whose account he was condemned to Limbo. He would be afraid to be taken in by his hallucinations because if he were so taken in it would prove his basic carnality beyond a doubt, and that proven beyond the grave even, he would feel himself in imminent danger of being toppled right out of Limbo into something much worse. The holy man, the thin Hungarian concluded, was wise as well as holy.
The theory of the woman who had her foot amputated was less subtle, and, on those rare occasions when she ventured beyond her monotonous blasphemies to express an opinion, hers was expressed with hard and brittle conviction. The holy man was no more or less than the Devil himself, right on top of us. God knew; the German women all three of them were witches as well as Germans and should have been burned.
The German women, indeed, were not popular, never had been since ambiguously they had come to be there. In relation to the holy man, they were suspected of witholding information. That itself was exasperating and grounds enough for dislike. But that was not all. Their full bodies and their thick loud laughter was out of place. It was the laughter of the living against the condemned; it seemed highly unlikely that they would be dying soon and probable that they would outlive the rest for half a century. A female tenant could not be expected to forgive that insult. A male tenant might and, when alone, did more often than not, for was he not a man before he was old?
The summers passed, and after the autumns, the winters and the springs. No one again sent tor the police on the holy man’s behalf. Indeed, in the course of the years he was seldom referred to. During the winters more keys became available. The percentage was always higher during the winters. Amongst others were the keys of the hunchback, of the dwarf too old for the circus, of the strong man too weak to break chains, and of one of the blind men who, crossing a boulevard, got accidentally run over by a bus. Tenants came, tenants went, some to die, others to linger on. During the summers, Liza, Greta and Lili lounged on their doorstep, their fat thighs exposed and their broad haunches warm from the warm stone under them. They joked with the North Africans, winked or guffawed at a stray tourist, and amused themselves by scratching and comparing their knees. At one point each day, one of them did the chores for the holy man, Liza or Greta or Lili, climbing up stairs which, in former days and with a strange man’s eyes following the slow swing of her haunches, she had climbed for other purposes. All the year round, discreetly, they received visitors in their room which used to be the bar or, alternatively, went with them to the hotel round the corner, for some men, some times, prefer privacy in lovemaking. The thin Hungarian continued to exhibit his nakedness to those who faced him across the airwell, to pick at his rags, to spit and wait as a bird might, and to elaborate his theory of the holy man. Daily he pushed a small tub–like pram around the neighbourhood and beyond, in search of rags. The female citizen continued to mingle curses with the dank odours of the airwell and to break startlingly out of the hotel at dawn into the quiet street. The rest of the tenants prostrated themselves before their old habits, or, if they were new tenants, brought new or old habits to the hotel. And then, quite abruptly, it was the early spring of a certain year.
The end came quickly. One day all was as usual. And on the next day it happened.
Lili, in the midst of her chore, had the sudden ungovernable impression that the holy man was dead. The atmosphere in his little black box contained a new and frightening element. She sniffed and her skin prickled. Taking the chamberpot to a light part of the staircase, she found that it was empty. She returned at once to the room and spoke quietly and urgently at what she believed to be the holy man. It had apparently stopped breathing. There was, as usual, no response. But this time, with an irrepressible sense that something had changed, she put her hand forward and touched. She drew it back quickly. What she had touched she did not understand. With trembling hands she lit a match. At this point she uttered one long blood-curdling scream and hurtled downstairs as fast as her short fat legs would carry her. She reached the room which used to be the bar before anyone had time to intercept her. Locked fast there, and in spite of the loud knocking that came sporadically to her from the outside, she was able to slip out of the hotel at dusk, having spoken to no-one of her experience.
Liza ran off that same night with a sailor from Marseilles, and Greta, the biggest but most buxomly beautiful of the three, moved up to Pigalle where (in nights that followed) under myriad coruscations of colour her flesh gleamed whitely and naked in a darkened nightclub. She left barely an hour after Liza.
Mme Kronis had taken control of the tenants. There, was an uncanny power in the woman. None of the other tenants was allowed to see the attic where, according to Mme Kronis, the holy man, poor soul, lay dead.
The following day there was the funeral. Mme Kronis, the thin Hungarian, one blind man, and the woman with one foot missing, turned out to follow the coffin.
Mme Kronis, now that the German women were gone, decided to reopen the bar. Meanwhile, she let it be known that there was one key available.
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