小小说 THE WAITING
The New Yorker published two stories by Agee in 1957, two years after his death. The first, from October of that year, appears here.
A few minutes before ten, the phone rang. Mary hurried to quiet it. “Hello?”
The voice was a man’s, wiry and faint, a country voice. It was asking a question, but she could not hear it clearly.
“Hello?” she asked again. Will you please talk a little louder? I can’t hear. . . . I said I can’t hear you! Will you talk a little louder, please? . . . Thank you.”
Now, straining and impatient, she could hear, though the voice seemed still to come from a great distance.
“Is this Miz Jay Follet?”
“Yes; what is it?” (for there was a silence); “yes, this is she.”
After further silence the voice said, “There’s been a slight—your husband has been in a accident.”
His head! she told herself.
“Yes,” she said, in a caved-in voice.
At the same moment the voice said, “A serious accident.”
“Yes,” Mary said more clearly.
“What I wanted to ask, is there a man in his family, some kin, could come out? We’d appreciate it you could send a man out here, right away.”
“Yes; yes, there’s my brother. Where should he come to?
“I’m out at Powell Station, at Brannick’s blacksmith shop, bout twelve miles out the Ball Camp Pike.”
“B-r-a-n-n-i-c-k. It’s right on the left of the Pike comin out just a little way this side, Knoxvul side of Bell’s Bridge.” She heard muttering, and another muttering voice. “Tell him he can’t miss it. We’ll keep the light on and a lantern out in front.”
“Do you have a doctor?”
“How’s that again, ma’am?”
“A doctor, do you have one? Should I send a doctor?”
“That’s all right, ma’am. Just some man that’s kin.”
“He’ll come right out just as fast as he can.” Walter’s auto, she thought. “Thank you very much for calling.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. I sure do hate to give you bad news.”
She found she was scarcely standing, she was all but hanging from the telephone. She stiffened her knees, leaned against the wall, and rang.
“Mary?” her brother said.
She drew a deep breath.
She drew another deep breath; she felt as if her lungs were not large enough,
Dizzy, seeing gray, trying to control her shaking voice, she said, “Andrew, there’s been an—A man just phoned, from Powell’s Station, about twelve miles out towards La Follette, and he says—he says Jay—has met with a very serious accident. He wants—”
“Oh, my God, Mary!”
“He said they want some man of his family to come out just as soon as possible and—help bring him in, I guess.”
“I’ll call Walter Starr, he’ll take me out.”
“Yes, do, will you, Andrew?”
“Of course I will. Just a minute.”
“May I speak to her when you’re through?”
“Certainly. Where is he hurt, Mary?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, didn’t you—no matter.”
“No I didn’t,” she said, now realizing with surprise that she had not. “I guess because I was so sure. Sure it’s his head, that is.”
“Do they—shall I get Dr. Dekalb?”
”He says no; just you.”
“I guess there’s already a doctor there.”
“I’ll call Wa—wait, here’s Aunt Hannah.”
“Aunt Hannah, Jay is in a serious accident, Andrew has to go out. Would you come up and wait with me and get things ready just in case? Just in case he’s well enough to be brought home and not the hospital?”
“Certainly, Mary. Of course I will.”
“And will you tell Mama and Papa not to worry, not to come out, give them my love. We might as well just be calm as we can, till we know.”
“Of course we must. I’ll be right up.”
“Thank you, Aunt Hannah.”
She went into the kitchen and built a quick fire and put on a large kettle of water and a small kettle, for tea. The phone rang.
“Mary! Where do I go!”
“Why, Powell’s Station, out the Pike towards—”
“I know, but exactly where? Didn’t he say?”
“He said Brannick’s blacksmith shop. B-r-a-n-n-i-c-k. Do you hear?”
“He said they’ll keep the lights on and you can’t miss it. It’s just to the left of the Pike just this side of Bell’s Bridge. Just a little way this side.”
“All right, Mary, Walter will come by here and well bring Aunt Hannah on our way.”
“All right. Thank you, Andrew.”
She put on more kindling and hurried into the downstairs bedroom. How do I know, she thought; he didn’t even say; I didn’t even ask. By the way he talks he may be—She whipped off the coverlet, folded it, and smoothed the pad. I’m just simply not going to think about it until I know more, she told herself. She hurried to the linen closet and brought dean sheets and pillowcases. He didn’t say whether there was a doctor there or not. She spread a sheet, folded it under the foot of the mattress, pulled it smooth, and folded it under all around. Then she spread her palms along it; it was cold and smooth beneath her hands and it brought her great hope. O God, let him be well enough to come home where I can take care of him, where I can take good care of him. How good to rest! That’s all right, ma’am. Just some man that’s kin. She spread the top sheet. That’s all right, ma’am. That can mean anything. It can mean there’s a doctor there, and although it’s serious he has it in hand, under control, it isn’t so dreadfully bad, although he did say it’s serious, or it can . . . A light blanket, this weather. Two, case it turns cool. She hurried and got them, unaware whether she was making such noise as might wake the children and unaware that even in this swiftness she was moving, by force of habit, almost silently. Just some man that’s kin. That means it’s bad, or he’d ask for me. No, I’d have to stay with the children. But he doesn’t know there are children. My place’d be home anyhow, getting things ready, he knows that. He didn’t suggest getting anything ready. He knew I’d know. He is a man, wouldn’t occur to him. She took the end of a pillow between her teeth and pulled the slip on and plumped it and put it in place. She took the end of the second pillow between her teeth and bit it so hard the roots of her teeth ached, and pulled the slip on and plumped it. Then she set the first pillow up on edge and set the second pillow on edge against it and plumped them both and smoothed them and stood away and looked at them with her head on one side, and for a moment she saw him sitting up in bed with a tray on his knees as he had sat when he strained his back, and he looked at her, almost but not quite smiling, and she could hear his voice, grouchy, pretending to he, for the fun of it. If it’s his head, she remembered, perhaps he’ll have to lie very flat.
How do I know? How do I know?
She left the pillows as they were, and turned down the bed on that side, next the window, and smoothed it. She carefully refolded the second blanket and laid it on the lower foot of the bed—no, it would bother his poor feet. She hung it over the footboard. She stood looking at the carefully made bed, and for a few seconds she was not sure where she was or why she was doing this. Then she remembered and said “oh,” in a small, stupefied, soft voice. She opened the window, top and bottom, and when the curtains billowed she tied them back more tightly. She went to the hall closet and brought out the bedpan and rinsed and dried it and put it under the bed. She went to the medicine chest and took out the thermometer, shook it, washed it in cool water, dried it, and put it beside the bed in a tumbler of water. She saw that the hand towel which covered this table was dusty, and threw it into the dirty-clothes hamper, and replaced it with a fresh one, and replaced that with a dainty linen guest towel upon the border of which pansies and violets were embroidered. She saw that the front pillow had sagged a little, and set it right. She pulled down the shade. She turned out the light and dropped to her knees, facing the bed, and dosed her eyes. She touched her forehead, her breastbone, her left shoulder and her right shoulder, and clasped her hands.
“O God, if it be Thy will,” she whispered. She could not think of anything more. She made the sign of the Cross again, slowly, deeply, and widely upon herself, and she felt something of the shape of the Cross: strength and quiet.
“Thy will be done.” And again she could think of nothing more. She got up from her knees and, without turning on the light or glancing towards the bed, went into the kitchen. The water for tea had almost boiled away. The water in the large kettle was scarcely tepid. The fire was almost out. While she was putting in more kindling, she heard them on the porch.
Hannah came in with her hands stretched out and Mary extended her own hands and took them and kissed her cheek while at the same instant they said “Mary” and “my dear;” then Hannah hurried to put her hat on the rack. Andrew stayed at the open door and did not speak but merely kept looking into Mary’s eyes; his own eyes were as hard and bright as those of a bird and they spoke to her of a cold and bitter incredulity, as if he were accusing something or someone (even perhaps his sister) that it was useless beyond words to accuse. She felt that he was saying, “And you can still believe in that idiotic God of yours?” Walter Starr stayed back in the darkness; Mary could just see the large lenses of his glasses, and the darkness of his mustache and of his heavy shoulders.
“Come in, Walter,” she said, and her voice was as overwarm as if she were coaxing a shy child.
“We can’t stop,” Andrew said sharply.
Walter came forward and took her hand, and gently touched her wrist with his other hand. “We shan’t be long,” he said.
“Bless you,” Mary murmured, and so pressed his hand that her arm trembled.
He patted her trembling wrist four times rapidly, turned away saying, “Better be off, Andrew,” and went towards his automobile. She could hear that he had left the engine running, and now she realized all the more clearly how grave matters were.
“Everything’s ready here in case—you know—he’s well enough to be brought home,” Mary told Andrew.
“Good. I’ll phone, the minute I know. Anything.”
His eyes changed, and abruptly his hand reached out and caught her shoulder. “Mary, I’m so sorry,” he said, almost crying.
“Yes, dear,” she said again, and felt that it was a vacuous reply; but by the time this occurred to her, Andrew was getting into the automobile. She stood and watched until it had vanished and, turning to go in, found that Hannah was at her elbow.
“Let’s have some tea,” she said. “I’ve hot water all ready,” she said over her shoulder as she hurried down the hall.
Let her, Hannah thought, following. By all means.
“Goodness no, it’s boiled away! Sit down, Aunt Hannah, it’ll be ready in a jiff.” She hustled to the sink.
“Let me—” Hannah began; then knew better, and hoped that Mary had not heard.
“What?” She was drawing the water.
“Just let me know, if there’s anything I can help with.”
“Not a thing, thank you.” She put the water on the stove.
“Goodness, sit down.” Hannah took a chair by the table.
“Everything is ready that I can think of,” Mary said. “That we can know about, yet.” She sat at the opposite side of the table. “I’ve made up the downstairs bedroom” (she waved vaguely towards it), “where he stayed when his poor back was sprained, you remember.” (Of course I do, Hannah thought; let her talk.) “It’s better than upstairs. Near the kitchen and bathroom both and no stairs to climb, and of course if need be, that is, if he needs a nurse, night nursing, we can put her in the dining room and eat in the kitchen, or even set up a cot right in the room kith him; put up a screen; or if she minds that, why she can just sleep on the living-room davenport and keep the door open between. Don’t you think?”
“Certainly,” Hannah said.
“I think I’ll see if I can possibly get Celia, Celia Gunn, if she’s available, or if she’s on a case she can possibly leave; it’ll be so much nicer for everyone to have someone around who is an old friend, really one of the family, rather than just a complete stranger, don’t you think?”
“Even though of course Jay doesn’t specially—Of course she’s really an old friend of mine, rather than Jay’s. Still, I think it would be more, well, harmonious, don’t you think?”
“But I guess it’s just as well to wait till we hear from Andrew, not—create any needless disturbance, I guess. After all; it’s very possible he’ll have to be taken straight to a hospital. The man did say it was serious, after all.”
“I think you’re wise to wait,” Hannah said.
“How’s that water?” Mary twisted in her chair to see. “Sakes alive, the watched pot.” She got up and stuffed in more kindling, and brought down the box of tea, “I don’t know’s I really want any tea, anyway, but I think it’s a good idea to drink something warm while we’re waiting, don’t you?”
“I’d like some,” said Hannah, who wanted nothing.
“Good, there we’ll have some. Just as soon as the water’s ready.” She sat down again. “I thought one light blanket would be enough on a night like this but I’ve another over the foot of the bed in case it should turn cool.”
“That should be sufficient.”
“Goodness knows,” Mary said vaguely, and became silent. She looked at her hands, which lay loosely clasped on the table. Hannah found that she was watching Mary closely. In shame, she focussed her sad eyes a little away from her. She wondered. It was probably better for her not to face it if she could help until it had to be faced. If it had to be. Just quiet, she said to herself. Just be quiet.
“You know,” Mary said slowly, “the queerest thing.” She began slowly to turn and rub her clasped fingers among each other. Hannah waited. “When the man phoned,” she said, gazing quietly upon her moving fingers, “and said Jay had been in a—serious accident” (and now Hannah realized that Mary was looking at her, and met her brilliant gray eyes), “I felt it just as certainly as I’m sitting here now: ‘It’s his head.’ What do you think of that?” she asked, almost proudly.
Hannah looked away. What’s one to say. she wondered. Yet Mary had spoken with such conviction that she herself was half convinced. She looked into an image of still water, clear and very deep, and even though it was dark, and she had not seen so dearly since her girlhood, she could see sand and twigs and dead leaves at the bottom of the water. She drew a deep breath and let it out in a long slow sigh and clucked her tongue once. “We never know,” she murmured.
“Of course, we just have to wait,” Mary said, after a long silence.
“Hyess,” Hannah said softly, sharply inhaling the first of the word, and trailing the sibilant to a hair.
Through their deep silence, at length, they began to be aware of the stumbling crackle of the water. When Mary got up for it, it had boiled half away. “There’s still plenty for two cups,” she said, and prepared the strainer and poured them, and put on more water. She lifted the lid of the large kettle. Its sides, below the waterline, were richly beaded; from the bottom sprang a leisured spiral of bubbles so small they resembled white sand; the surface of the water slowly circled upon itself. She wondered what the water might possibly be good for.
“Just in case,” she murmured.
Hannah decided not to ask her what she had said.
“There’s Zu-Zus,” Mary said, and got them from the cupboard. “Or would you like bread and butter? Or toast. I could toast some.”
“Just tea, thank you.”
“Help yourself to sugar and milk. Or lemon? Let’s see, do I have le—”
“Milk, thank you.”
“Me, too.” Mary sat down again. “My, it’s frightfully hot in here!” She got up and opened the door to the porch, and sat down again.
“I wonder what ti—” She glanced over her shoulder at the kitchen clock. “What time did they leave, do you know? ”
“Walter came for us at quarter after ten. About twenty-five after, I should think.”
“Let’s see, Walter drives pretty fast, though not so fast as Jay, but he’d be driving faster than usual tonight, and it’s just over twelve miles. That would be, supposing he goes thirty miles an hour, that’s twelve miles in, let’s see, six times four is twenty-tour, six times five’s thirty, twice twelve is twenty-four. Sakes alive, I was always dreadful at arithmetic . . . .”
“Say about half an hour, allowing for darkness, and Walter isn’t familiar with those roads.”
“Then we ought to be hearing pretty soon. Ten minutes. Fifteen at the outside.”
“Yes, I should think.”
“Maybe twenty, allowing for the roads, but that is a good road out that far, as roads go.”
“Why didn’t he tell me!” Mary burst out.
“What is it?”
“Why didn’t I ask?” She looked at her aunt in furious bewilderment. “I didn’t even ask! How serious! Where is he hurt! Is he living or dead!”
There it is, Hannah said to herself. She looked back steadily into Mary’s eyes.
“That we simply have to wait to find out,” she said.
“Of course we have,” Mary cried angrily. “That’s what’s so unbearable!”
She drank half her tea at a gulp; it burned her painfully but she scarcely noticed. She continued to glare at her aunt.
Hannah could think of nothing to say.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said. “You’re perfectly right, I’ve just got to hold myself together, that’s all.”
“Never mind,” Hannah said, and they fell silent.
Hannah knew that silence must itself be virtually unbearable for Mary, and that it would bring her face to face with likelihoods still harder to endure. But she has to, she told herself; and the sooner the better. But she found that she herself could not bear to be present and say nothing which might in some degree protect, and postpone. She was about to speak when Mary burst out: “In heaven’s name, why didn’t I ask him! Why didn’t I? Didn’t I care?”
“It was so sudden,” Hannah said. “It was such a shock.”
“You would think I’d ask, though! Wouldn’t you?”
“You thought you knew. You told me you were sure it was his—in the head.”
“But how bad? What!”
We both know, Hannah said to herself. But it’s better if you bring yourself to say it. “It certainly wasn’t because you didn’t care, anyway,” she said.
“No. No, it certainly wasn’t that, but I think I do know what it was. I think, I think I must have been too afraid of what he would have to say.”
Hannah looked into her eyes. Nod, she told herself. Say yes I imagine so. Just say nothing and it’ll he just as terrible for her. She heard herself saying what she had intended to venture a while before, when Mary had interrupted her: “Do you understand why your father stayed home, and your mother?”
“Because I asked them not to come.”
“Why did you?”
“Because if all of you come up here in a troop like that, it would be like assuming that—like assuming the very worst before we even know.”
“That’s why they stayed home. Your father said he knew you’d understand.”
“Of course I do.”
Neither of them spoke of another reason—her mother’s deafness, which required them to bellow into an ear trumpet anything that they wanted to say to her.
“We just must try to keep from making any assumptions—good or bad,” Hannah said.
“I know. I know we must. It’s just, this waiting in the dark like this, it’s just more than I can stand.”
“We ought to hear very soon.”
Mary glanced at the clock. “Almost any minute,” she said.
She took a little tea.
“I just can’t help wondering,” she said, “why he didn’t say more. ‘A serious accident,’ he said. Not a ‘very’ serious one. Just ‘serious.’ Though, goodness knows, that’s serious enough. But why couldn’t he say?”
“As your father says, it’s ten to one he’s just a plain damned fool,” Hannah said.
“But it’s such an important thing to say, and so simple to say, at least to give some general idea about. At least whether he could come home, or go to a hospital, or . . . He didn’t say anything about an ambulance. An ambulance would mean hospital, almost for sure. And surely if he meant the—the very worst, he’d have just said so straight out and not leave us all on tenterhooks. I know it’s just what we have no earthly business guessing about, good or bad, but really it does seem to me there’s every good reason for hope, Aunt Hannah. It seems to me that if—”
The telephone rang; its sound frightened each of them as deeply as either had experienced in her lifetime. They looked at each other and got up and turned towards the hall. “I . . . ” Mary said, waving her right hand at Hannah as if she would wave her out of existence.
Hannah stopped where she stood, bowed her head, closed her eyes, and made the sign of the Cross.
Mary lifted the receiver from its hook before the second ring, but for a moment she could neither put it to her ear, nor speak. “God, help me, help me,” she whispered.
“Papa!” Relief and fear were equal in her, “Have you heard anything?”
“No,” she said. “Have you heard from Andrew?”
“No. Thought you might have by now.”
“No. Not yet. Not yet.”
“I must have frightened you.”
“Never mind, Papa. It’s all right.”
“Sorry as hell, Poll. I shouldn’t have phoned.”
‘Let us know, quick’s you hear anything.”
“Of course I will, Papa. I promise. Of course I will.”
“Shall we come up?”
“No, bless you, Papa, you better not, yet. No use getting all worked up till we know, is there?”
“That’s my girl!”
“My love to Mama.”
“Hers to you. Mine, too, needless to say. You let us know.”
“You know how I feel about this.”
“I do, Papa, and thank you. There’s no need to say it.”
“Couldn’t if I tried. Ever. And for Jay as much as you, and your mother, too. You understand.”
“I do understand, Papa. Goodbye.”
“It’s only Papa,” she said, and sat down, heavily.
“Thought Andrew had phoned.”
“Yes . . . ” She drank tea. “He scared me half out of my wits.”
“He had no business phoning. He was a perfect fool to phone.”
“I don’t blame him. I think it’s even worse for them, sitting down there, than for us here.”
“I’ve no doubt it is hard.”
“Papa feels things a lot more than he shows.”
“I know. I’m glad you realize it.”
“I realize how very much he really does think of Jay.”
“Great—heavens, I should hope you do!”
“Well, for a long time there was no reason to be sure,” Mary retorted with spirit. “Or Mama either.” She waited a moment. “You and her, Aunt Hannah,” she said. “You know that. You tried not to show it, but I knew and you knew I did. It’s all right, it has been for a long time, but you do know that.”
Hannah continued to meet her eyes. “Yes, it’s true, Mary. There were all kinds of—terrible misgivings; and not without good reason, as you both came to know.”
“Plenty of good reasons,” Mary said. “But that didn’t make it any easier for us.”
“Not for any of us,” Hannah said. “Particularly you and Jay, but your mother and father, too, you know. Anyone who loved you.”
“I know. I do know, Aunt Hannah. I don’t know how I got onto this track. There’s nothing there to resent any more, or worry over, or be grieved by, for any of us, and hasn’t been for a long time, thank God. Why on earth did I get off on such a tangent! Let’s not say another word about it!”
“Just one word more, because I’m not sure you’ve ever quite known it. Have you ever realized how very highly your father always thought of Jay, right from the very beginning?”
Mary looked at her, sensitively and suspiciously. She thought carefully before she spoke. “I know he’s told me so. But every time he told me, he was warning me, too. I know that, as time passed, he came to think a great deal of Jay.”
“He thinks the world of him,” Hannah rapped out.
“But, no, I never quite believed he really liked him, or respected him, from the first, and I never will. I think was just some kind of soft soap.”
“Is your father a man for soft soap?”
“No”—she smiled a little—“he certainly isn’t, ordinarily. But what am I to make of it? Here he was praising Jay to the skies on the one hand and on the other, why practically in the same breath, telling me one reason after another why it would be plain foolhardiness to marry him. What would you think!”
“Can’t you see that both things might be so—or that he might very sincerely have felt that both things were so, rather? “
Mary thought a moment. “I don’t know, Aunt Hannah. No, I don’t see quite how.”
“You learned how yourself, Mary.”
“You learned there was a lot in what your father—in all our misgivings, but learning it never changed your essential opinion of him, did it? You found you could realize both things at once.”
“That’s true. Yes. I did.”
“We had to learn more and more that was good. You had to learn more and more that wasn’t so good.”
Mary looked at her with smiling defiance. “All the same, blind as I began it,” she said, “I was more right than Papa, wasn’t I? It wasn’t a mistake. Papa was right there’d he trouble—more than he’ll ever know or any of you—but it wasn’t a mistake. Was it?”
Don’t ask me, child, tell me, Hannah thought. “Obviously not,” she said.
Mary was quiet a few moments. Then she said, shyly and proudly, “In these past few months, Aunt Hannah, we’ve come to a—kind of harmoniousness that—that . . . ” She began to shake her head. “I’ve no business talking about it.” Her voice trembled. “Least of all right now!” She bit her lips together, shook her head again, and swallowed some tea noisily. “The way we’ve been talking,” she blurted, her voice full of tea, “it’s just like a post-mortem!” She struck her face into her hands and was shaken by tearless sobbing. Hannah subdued an impulse to go to her side. “God help her,” she whispered. “God keep her.” After a little while Mary looked up at her; her eyes were quiet and amazed. “If he dies,” she said, “if he’s dead, Aunt Hannah, I don’t know what I’ll do. I just don’t know what I’ll do.”
“God help you,” Hannah said; she reached across and took her hand. “God keep you,” Mary’s face was working. “You’ll do well. Whatever it is, you’ll do well. Don’t you doubt it. Don’t you fear.” Mary subdued her crying. “It’s well to be ready for the worst,” Hannah continued. “But we mustn’t forget, we don’t know yet.”
At the same instant, both looked at the clock.
“Certainly by very soon now, he should phone,” Mary said. “Unless he’s had an accident!” She laughed sharply.
“Oh soon, I’m sure,” Hannah said. Long before now, she said to herself, if it were anything but the worst. She squeezed Mary’s clasped hands, patted them, and withdrew her own hand, feeling there’s so little comfort anyone can give, it’d better be saved for when it’s needed most.
Mary did not speak, and Hannah could not think of a word to say. It was absurd, she realized, but along with everything else she felt almost a kind of social embarrassment about her speechlessness.
But after all, she thought, what is there to say! What earthly help am I, or anyone else?
She felt so heavy, all of a sudden, and so deeply tired that she wished she might lean her forehead against the edge of the table.
“We’ve simply got to wait,” Mary said.
“Yes,” Hannah sighed.
I’d better drink some tea, she thought, and did so. Lukewarm and rather bitter, somehow it made her feel even more tired.
They sat without speaking for fully two minutes.
“At least we’re given the mercy of a little time,” Mary said slowly, “awful as it is to have to wait. To try to prepare ourselves for whatever it may be.” She was gazing studiously into her empty cup.
Hannah felt unable to say anything.
“Whatever it is,” Mary went on, “it’s already over and done with.” She was speaking virtually without emotion; she was absorbed beyond feeling, Hannah became sure, in what she was beginning to find out and to face. Now she looked up at Hannah and they looked steadily into each other’s eyes.
“One of three things,” Mary said slowly. “Either he’s badly hurt but hell live, and at best even get thoroughly well, and at worst be a helpless cripple or an invalid or his mind impaired.” Hannah wished that she might look away, but she knew that she must not. “Or he is so terribly hurt that he will die of it, maybe quite soon, maybe after a long, terrible struggle, maybe breathing his last at this very minute and wondering where I am, why I’m not beside him.” She set her teeth for a moment and tightened her lips, and spoke again, evenly: “Or he was gone already when the man called and he couldn’t bear to be the one to tell me, poor thing.
“One, or the other, or the other. And no matter what, there’s not one thing in this world or the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That’s all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That’s all. That’s all that matters. It’s all that matters because it’s all that’s possible. Isn’t that so? “
While she was speaking, she was with her voice, her eyes, and with each word opening in Hannah those all but forgotten hours, almost thirty years past, during which the cross of living had first nakedly borne in upon her being, and she had made the first beginnings of learning how to endure and accept it. Your turn now, poor child, she thought; she felt as if a prodigious page were being silently turned, and the breath of its turning touched her heart with cold and tender awe. Her soul is beginning to come of age, she thought; and within those moments she herself became much older, much nearer her own death, and was content to be. Her heart lifted up in a kind of pride in Mary, in every sorrow she could remember, her own or that of others (and the remembrances rushed upon her); in all existence and endurance. She wanted to cry out Yes! Exactly! Yes. Yes. Begin to see. Your turn now. She wanted to hold her niece at arm’s length and to turn and admire this blossoming. She wanted to take her in her arms and groan unto God for what it meant to be alive. But chiefly she wanted to keep stillness and to hear the young woman’s voice and to watch her eyes and her round forehead while she spoke, and to accept and experience this repetition of her own younger experience, which bore her high, and pierced like music.
“Isn’t that so?” Mary repeated,
“That and much more,” she said.
“You mean God’s mercy?” Mary asked softly.
“Nothing of the kind,” Hannah replied sharply. “What I mean, I’d best not try to say.” (I’ve begun, though, she reflected; and I startled her, I hurt her, almost as if I’d spoken against God.) “Only because it’s better if you learn it for yourself. By yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whatever we hear, learn, Mary, it’s almost certain to be hard. Tragically hard. You’re beginning to know that and to face it, very bravely. What I mean is that this is only the beginning. You’ll learn much more. Beginning very soon now.”
“Whatever it is, I want so much to be worthy of it,” Mary said, her eyes shining.
“Don’t try too hard to be worthy of it, Mary. Don’t think of it that way. Just do your best to endure it and let any question of worthiness take care of itself. That’s more than enough.”
“I feel so utterly unprepared. So little time to prepare in.”
“I don’t think it’s a kind of thing that can be prepared for; it just has to be lived through.”
There was a kind of ambition there, Hannah felt, a kind of pride or poetry, which was very mistaken and very dangerous. But she was not yet quite sure what she meant; and of all the times to become beguiled by such a matter, to try to argue it, or warn about it! She’s so young, she told herself. She’ll learn; poor soul, she’ll learn.
Even while Hannah watched her, Mary’s face became diffuse and humble. “Oh, not yet,” Hannah whispered desperately to herself. “Not yet.” But Mary said, shyly, “Aunt Hannah, can we kneel down for a minute? “
Not yet, she wanted to say. For the first time in her life she suspected how mistakenly prayer can be used, but she was unsure why. What can I say, she thought, almost in panic. How can I judge? She was waiting too long; Mary smiled at her, timidly, and in a beginning of bewilderment; and in compassion and self-doubt Hannah came around the table and they knelt side by side. We can be seen, Hannah realized; for the shades were up. Let us, she told herself angrily.
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen,” Mary said in a low voice.
“Amen,” Hannah trailed.
They were silent and they could hear the ticking of the clock, the shuffling of the fire, and the yammering of the big kettle.
God is not here, Hannah said to herself; and made a small cross upon her breastbone, against her blasphemy.
“O God,” Mary whispered, “strengthen me to accept Thy will, whatever it may be.” Then she stayed silent.
God hear her, Hannah said to herself. God forgive me. God forgive me.
What can I know of the proper time for her, she said to herself. God forgive me.
Yet she could not rid herself: Something mistaken, unbearably piteous, infinitely malign was at large within that faithfulness; she was helpless to forfend it or even to know its nature.
Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness.
I believe nothing. Nothing whatever.
“Our Father,” she heard herself say, in a strange voice; and Mary, innocent of her terror, joined in the prayer. And as they continued, and Hannah heard more and more clearly than her own the young, warm, earnest, faithful, heartsick voice, her moment of terrifying unbelief became a remembrance, a temptation successfully resisted through God’s grace.
Deliver us from evil, she repeated silently several times after their prayer was finished. But the malign was still there, as well as the mercifulness.
They got to their feet.
As it became with every minute and then with every flickering of the dock more and more dear that Andrew had had far more than enough time to get out there, and to telephone, Mary and her aunt talked less and less. For a little white after their prayer, in relief, Mary had talked quite volubly of matters largely irrelevant to the event; she had even made little jokes and had even laughed at them, without more than a small undertone of hysteria; and in all this Hannah had thought it best (and, for that matter, the only thing possible) to follow suit; but that soon faded away; nor was it to return; now they merely sat in quietness, each on her side of the kitchen table, their eyes cast away from each other, drinking tea for which they had no desire. Mary made a full fresh pot of tea, and they conversed a little about that, and she heated water with which to dilute it, and they discussed that briefly; but such little exchanges wore quickly down into silence. Mary, whispering “Excuse me,” retired to the bathroom, affronted and humbled that one should have to obey such a call at such a time; she felt for a few moments as stupid and enslaved as a baby on its potty, and far more ungainly and vulgar; then with her wet hands planted in the basin of cold water she stared incredulously into her numb, reflected face, which seemed hardly real to her, until, with shame, she realized that at this of all moments she was mirror gazing.
Hannah, left alone, was grateful that we are animals; it was this silly, strenuous, good, humble cluttering of animal needs which saw us through sane, fully as much as prayer; and towards the end of these moments of solitude, with her mind free from the subtle deceptions of concern, she indulged herself in whispering, aloud, “He’s dead. There’s no longer the slightest doubt of it;” and began to sign herself with the Cross in prayer for the dead, but, sharply remembering we do not know, and feeling as if she had been on the verge of exercising malign power against turn, deflected the intention of the gesture towards God’s mercy upon him, in whatsoever condition he might now be.
When Mary returned, she put more wood on the fire, looked into the big kettle, saw that a third of the water had boiled away, and refilled it. Neither of them said anything about this, but each knew what the other was thinking, and after they had sat again in silence for well over ten minutes, Mary looked at her aunt, who, feeling the eyes upon her, looked into them; then Mary said, very quietly, “I only wish we’d hear now, because I am ready.”
Hannah nodded, and felt: you really are. How good it is that you don’t even want to touch my hand. And she felt something shining and majestic stand up within her darkness as if to say before God: Here she is and she is adequate to the worst and she has done it for herself, not through my help or even, particularly, through Yours. See to it that You appreciate her.
Mary went on, “It’s just barely conceivable that the news is so much less bad than we’d expected that Andrew is simply too overjoyed with relief to bother to phone, and is bringing him straight home instead, for a wonderful surprise. That would be like him. If things were that way. And like Jay, if they were, if he were conscious enough to go right along with the surprise and enjoy it, and just laugh at how scared we’ve been.” By her shining eyes, and her almost smiling face, she seemed almost to be believing this while she said it; almost to be sure that within another few minutes it would happen in just that way. But now she went on, “That’s just barely conceivable, just about one chance in a million, and so long as there if that chance, so long as we don’t absolutely know to the contrary, I’m not going to dismiss the possibility entirely from my mind. I’m not going to say he’s dead, Aunt Hannah, till I know he is,” she said as if defiantly.
“But I’m all but certain he is, all the same,” Mary said; and saying so, and meeting Hannah’s eyes, she could not for a few moments remember what more she had intended to say. Then she remembered, and it seemed too paltry to speak of, and she waited until all that she saw in her mind was again clear and full of its own weight; then again she spoke. “I think what’s very much more likely is that he was already dead when the man just phoned, and that he couldn’t bear to tell me, and I don’t blame him, I’m grateful he didn’t. It ought to come from a man in the family, somebody—close to Jay, and to me. I think Andrew was pretty sure what was up when he went out, and had every intention not to leave us in midair this way. He meant to phone. But all the time he was hoping against hope, as we all were, and when—when he saw Jay—it was more than he could do to phone, and he knew it was more than I could stand to hear over a phone, even from him, and so he didn’t, and I’m infinitely grateful he didn’t. He must have known that as time kept wearing on in this terrible way, we’d draw our own conclusions and have time to—time. And that’s best. He wanted to be with me when I heard. And that’s right. So do I, Straight from his lips. I think what he did—what he’s doing, it’s . . . ”
Hannah saw that she was now nearer to breaking than at any time before, and she could scarcely resist her impulse to reach for her hand; she managed, with anguish, to forbid. After a moment Mary continued, quietly and in control, “What he’s doing is to come in with Jay’s poor body to the undertaker’s, and soon now he’ll come home to us and tell us.”
Hannah continued to look into her gentle and ever more incredulous and shining eyes; she found that she could not speak and that she was nodding, as curtly, and rapidly, almost, as if she were palsied. She made herself stop nodding.
“That’s what I think,” Mary said, “and that’s what I’m ready for. But I’m not going to say it, or accept it, or do my husband any such dishonor or danger—not until I know beyond recall that it’s so.”
They continued to gaze into each other’s eyes—Hannah’s eyes were burning because she felt she must not blink; and after some moments a long, crying groan broke from the younger woman and in a low and shaken voice she said, “Oh I do beseech my God that it not be so,” and Hannah whispered, “So do I;” and again they became still, knowing little and seeing nothing except each other’s suffering eyes; and it was thus that they were when they heard footsteps on the front porch. Hannah looked aside and downward; a long, breaking breath came from Mary; they drew back their chairs and started for the door.
Andrew did not bother to knock, but opened the door and closed it quietly behind him and, seeing their moving shadows near the kitchen threshold, walked quickly down the hall. They could not see his face in the dark hallway but by his tight, set way of walking they were virtually sure. They ware all but blocking his way. Instead of going into the hall to meet him, they drew aside to let him into the kitchen. He did not hesitate with their own moment’s hesitation but came straight on, his mouth a straight line and his eyes like splintered glass, and without saying a word he put his arms around his aunt so tightly that she gasped, and lifted her from the floor. “Mary,” Hannah whispered, close to his ear; he looked; there she stood waiting, her eyes, her face, like that of an astounded child which might be pleading, Oh, don’t hit me; and before he could speak he heard her say, thinly and gently, “He’s dead, Andrew, isn’t he?” and he could not speak, but nodded, and he became aware that he was holding his aunt’s feet off the floor and virtually breaking her bones, and his sister said, in the same small and unearthly voice, “He was dead when you got there;” and again he nodded; and then he set Hannah down carefully on tier feet and, turning to his sister, took her by her shoulders and said, more loudly than he had expected, “He was instantly killed,” and he kissed her upon the mouth and they embraced, and without tears but with great violence he sobbed twice, his cheek against hers, while he stared downwards through her loose hair at her humbled back and at the changeful blinking of the linoleum.