In here I present to you nine short stories. All of them are written by greatest classic writers of all time. After reading them you will think that you have not killed some time, but unknowingly utilized it the best! I promise!
A Haunted House
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . . ” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
Adeline Virginia Woolf (née Stephen; 25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) was an English writer and one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century.
During the interwar period, Woolf was a significant figure in London literary society and a central figure in the influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals. Her best-selling works include the novels Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928), and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (1929), with its dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Shooting an Elephant
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people–the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaar alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee another Burman looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically–and secretly, of course–I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos–all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism–the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.
The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of “Go away, child! Go away this instant!” and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish. The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.
The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant–I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary–and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.
I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant–it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery–and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd–seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing–no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal. Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.
It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.
When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick–one never does when a shot goes home–but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frighfful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time–it might have been five seconds, I dare say–he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.
I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open–I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.
In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.
Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), better known by the pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.
Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and polemical journalism. He is best known for the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). His non-fiction works, including The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), documenting his experience of working class life in the north of England, and Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, are widely acclaimed, as are his essays on politics, literature, language, and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple. Take a breather, do some inner accounting, shed worn skin. The Arctic suits her: there’s something inherently calming in the vast cool sweeps of ice and rock and sea and sky, undisturbed by cities and highways and trees and the other distractions that clutter up the landscape to the south.
Among the clutter she includes other people, and by other people she means men. She’s had enough of men for a while. She’s made an inner memo to renounce flirtations and any consequences that might result from them. She doesn’t need the cash, not anymore. She’s not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her. Surely she has at last achieved this modest goal.
But old habits die hard, and it’s not long before she’s casting an appraising eye over her fleece-clad fellow-travellers dithering with their wheely bags in the lobby of the first-night airport hotel. Passing over the women, she ear-tags the male members of the flock. Some have females attached to them, and she eliminates these on principle: why work harder than you need to? Prying a spouse loose can be arduous, as she discovered via her first husband: discarded wives stick like burrs.
It’s the solitaries who interest her, the lurkers at the fringes. Some of these are too old for her purposes; she avoids eye contact with them. The ones who cherish the belief that there’s life in the old dog yet: these are her game. Not that she’ll do anything about it, she tells herself, but there’s nothing wrong with a little warmup practice, if only to demonstrate to herself that she can still knock one off if she wishes to.
For that evening’s meet-and-greet she chooses her cream-colored pullover, perching the Magnetic Northward nametag just slightly too low on her left breast. Thanks to Aquacize and core strength training, she’s still in excellent shape for her age, or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a bikini—superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts—which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is, and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage: with a little bronzer and pale eyeshadow and mascara and glimmer powder and low lighting, she can finesse ten years.
“Though much is taken, much remains,” she murmurs to her image in the mirror. Her third husband had been a serial quotation freak with a special penchant for Tennyson. “Come into the garden, Maud,” he’d been in the habit of saying just before bedtime. It had driven her mad at the time.
She adds a dab of cologne—an understated scent, floral, nostalgic—then she blots it off, leaving a mere whiff. It’s a mistake to overdo it: though elderly noses aren’t as keen as they may once have been, it’s best to allow for allergies; a sneezing man is not an attentive man.
She makes her entrance slightly late, smiling a detached but cheerful smile—it doesn’t do for an unaccompanied woman to appear too eager—accepts a glass of the passable white wine they’re doling out, and drifts among the assembled nibblers and sippers. The men will be retired professionals: doctors, lawyers, engineers, stockbrokers, interested in Arctic exploration, polar bears, archeology, birds, Inuit crafts, perhaps even Vikings or plant life or geology. Magnetic Northward attracts serious punters, with an earnest bunch of experts laid on to herd them around and lecture to them. She’s investigated the two other outfits that tour the region, but neither appeals. One features excessive hiking and attracts the under-fifties—not her target market—and the other goes in for singsongs and dressing up in silly outfits, so she’s stuck with Magnetic Northward, which offers the comfort of familiarity. She travelled with this company once before, after the death of her third husband, five years ago, so she knows pretty much what to expect.
There’s a lot of sportswear in the room, much beige among the men, many plaid shirts, vests with multiple pockets. She notes the nametags: a Fred, a Dan, a Rick, a Norm, a Bob. Another Bob, then another: there are a lot of Bobs on this trip. Several appear to be flying solo. Bob: a name once of heavy significance to her, though surely she’s rid herself of that load of luggage by now. She selects one of the thinner but still substantial Bobs, glides close to him, raises her eyelids, and lowers them again. He peers down at her chest.
“Verna,” he says. “That’s a lovely name.”
“Old-fashioned,” she says. “From the Latin word for ‘spring.’ When everything springs to life again.” That line, so filled with promises of phallic renewal, had been effective in helping to secure her second husband. To her third husband she’d said that her mother had been influenced by the eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson and his vernal breezes, which was a preposterous but enjoyable lie: she had, in fact, been named after a lumpy, bun-faced dead aunt. As for her mother, she’d been a strict Presbyterian with a mouth like a vise grip, who despised poetry and was unlikely to have been influenced by anything softer than a granite wall.
During the preliminary stages of netting her fourth husband, whom she’d flagged as a kink addict, Verna had gone even further. She’d told him she’d been named for “The Rite of Spring,” a highly sexual ballet that ended with torture and human sacrifice. He’d laughed, but he’d also wriggled: a sure sign of the hook going in.
Now she says, “And you’re . . . Bob.” It’s taken her years to perfect the small breathy intake, a certified knee-melter.
“Yes,” Bob says. “Bob Goreham,” he adds, with a diffidence he surely intends to be charming. Verna smiles widely to disguise her shock. She finds herself flushing with a combination of rage and an almost reckless mirth. She looks him full in the face: yes, underneath the thinning hair and the wrinkles and the obviously whitened and possibly implanted teeth, it’s the same Bob—the Bob of fifty-odd years before. Mr. Heartthrob, Mr. Senior Football Star, Mr. Astounding Catch, from the rich, Cadillac-driving end of town where the mining-company big shots lived. Mr. Shit, with his looming bully’s posture and his lopsided joker’s smile.
How amazing to everyone, back then—not only everyone in school but everyone, for in that armpit of a town they’d known to a millimetre who drank and who didn’t and who was no better than she should be and how much change you kept in your back pocket—how amazing that golden-boy Bob had singled out insignificant Verna for the Snow Queen’s Palace winter formal. Pretty Verna, three years younger; studious, grade-skipping, innocent Verna, tolerated but not included, clawing her way toward a scholarship as her ticket out of town. Gullible Verna, who’d believed she was in love.
Or who was in love. When it came to love, wasn’t believing the same as the real thing? Such beliefs drain your strength and cloud your vision. She’s never allowed herself to be skewered in that tiger trap again.
What had they danced to that night? “Rock Around the Clock.” “Hearts Made of Stone.” “The Great Pretender.” Bob had steered Verna around the edges of the gym, holding her squashed up against his carnation buttonhole, for the unskilled, awkward Verna of those days had never been to a dance before and was no match for Bob’s strenuous and flamboyant moves. For meek Verna, life was church and studies and household chores and her weekend job clerking in the drugstore, with her grim-faced mother regulating every move. No dates; those wouldn’t have been allowed, not that she’d been asked on any. But her mother had permitted her to go to the well-supervised high-school dance with Bob Goreham, for wasn’t he a shining light from a respectable family? She’d even allowed herself a touch of smug gloating, silent though it had been. Holding her head up after the decampment of Verna’s father had been a full-time job, and had given her a very stiff neck. From this distance Verna could understand it.
So out the door went Verna, starry-eyed with hero worship, wobbling on her first high heels. She was courteously inserted into Bob’s shiny red convertible with the treacherous Mickey of rye already lurking in the glove compartment, where she sat bolt upright, almost catatonic with shyness, smelling of Prell shampoo and Jergens lotion, wrapped in her mother’s mothbally out-of-date rabbit stole and an ice-blue tulle-skirted dress that looked as cheap as it was.
Cheap. Cheap and disposable. Use and toss. That was what Bob had thought about her, from the very first.
Now Bob grins a little. He looks pleased with himself: maybe he thinks Verna is blushing with desire. But he doesn’t recognize her! He really doesn’t! How many fucking Vernas can he have met in his life?
Get a grip, she tells herself. She’s not invulnerable after all, it appears. She’s shaking with anger, or is it mortification? To cover herself she takes a gulp of her wine, and immediately chokes on it. Bob springs into action, giving her a few brisk but caressing thumps on the back.
“Excuse me,” she manages to gasp. The crisp, cold scent of carnations envelops her. She needs to get away from him; all of a sudden she feels quite sick. She hurries to the ladies’ room, which is fortunately empty, and throws up her white wine and her cream-cheese-and-olive canapé into a cubicle toilet. She wonders if it’s too late to cancel the trip. But why should she run from Bob again?
Back then she’d had no choice. By the end of that week, the story was all over town. Bob had spread it himself, in a farcical version that was very different from what Verna herself remembered. Slutty, drunken, willing Verna, what a joke. She’d been followed home from school by groups of leering boys, hooting and calling out to her: Easy out! Can I have a ride? Candy’s dandy but liquor’s quicker! Those were some of the milder slogans. She’d been shunned by girls, fearful that the disgrace—the ludicrous, hilarious smuttiness of it all—would rub off on them.
Then there was her mother. It hadn’t taken long for the scandal to hit church circles. What little her mother had to say through her clamp of a mouth was to the point: Verna had made her own bed, and now she would have to lie in it. No, she could not wallow in self-pity—she would just have to face the music, not that she would ever live it down, because one false step and you fell, that’s how life was. When it was evident that the worst had happened, she bought Verna a bus ticket and shipped her off to a church-run Home for Unwed Mothers on the outskirts of Toronto.
There Verna spent the days peeling potatoes and scrubbing floors and scouring toilets along with her fellow-delinquents. They wore gray maternity dresses and gray wool stockings and clunky brown shoes, all paid for by generous donations, they were informed. In addition to their scouring and peeling chores, they were treated to bouts of prayer and self-righteous hectoring. What had happened to them was justly deserved, the speeches went, because of their depraved behavior, but it was never too late to redeem themselves through hard work and self-restraint. They were cautioned against alcohol, tobacco, and gum chewing, and were told that they should consider it a miracle of God if any decent man ever wanted to marry them.
Verna’s labor was long and difficult. The baby was taken away from her immediately so that she would not get attached to it. There was an infection, with complications and scarring, but it was all for the best, she overheard one brisk nurse telling another, because those sorts of girls made unfit mothers anyway. Once she could walk, Verna was given five dollars and a bus ticket and instructed to return to the guardianship of her mother, because she was still a minor.
But she could not face that—that or the town in general—so she headed for downtown Toronto. What was she thinking? No actual thoughts, only feelings: mournfulness, woe, and, finally, a spark of defiant anger. If she was as trashy and worthless as everyone seemed to think, she might as well act that way, and, in between rounds of waitressing and hotel-room cleaning, she did.
It was only by great good luck that she stumbled upon an older married man who took an interest in her. She traded three years of noontime sex with him for the price of her education. A fair exchange, to her mind—she bore him no ill will. She learned a lot from him, how to walk in high heels being the least of it—and pulled herself up and out. Little by little she jettisoned the crushed image of Bob that she still carried like a dried flower—incredibly!—next to her heart.
She pats her face back into place and repairs her mascara, which has bled down her cheeks despite its waterproof claims. Courage, she tells herself. She will not be chased away, not this time. She’ll tough it out; she’s more than a match for five Bobs now. And she has the advantage, because Bob doesn’t have a clue who she is. Does she really look that different? Yes, she does. She looks better. There’s her silver-blond hair, and the various alterations, of course. But the real difference is in the attitude—the confident way she carries herself. It would be hard for Bob to see through that façade to the shy, mousy-haired, snivelling idiot she’d been at fourteen.
After adding a last film of powder, she rejoins the group and lines up at the buffet for roast beef and salmon. She won’t eat much of it, but then she never does, not in public: a piggy, gobbling woman is not a creature of mysterious allure. She refrains from scanning the crowd to pinpoint Bob’s position—he might wave to her, and she needs time to think—and selects a table at the far end of the room. But presto, Bob is sliding in beside her without so much as a may-I-join-you. He assumes he’s already pissed on this fire hydrant, she thinks. Spray-painted this wall. Cut the head off this trophy and got his picture taken with his foot on the body. As he did once before, not that he realizes it. She smiles.
He’s solicitous. Is Verna all right? Oh, yes, she replies. It’s just that something went down the wrong way. Bob launches straight into the preliminaries. What does Verna do? Retired, she says, though she had a rewarding career as a physiotherapist, specializing in the rehabilitation of heart and stroke victims. “That must have been interesting,” Bob says. Oh, yes, Verna says. So fulfilling to help people.
It had been more than interesting. Wealthy men recovering from life-threatening episodes had recognized the worth of an attractive younger woman with deft hands, an encouraging manner, and an intuitive knowledge of when to say nothing. Or, as her third husband put it in his Keatsian mode, heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. There was something about the intimacy of the relationship—so physical—that led to other intimacies, though Verna had always stopped short of sex: it was a religious thing, she’d said. If no marriage proposal was forthcoming, she would extricate herself, citing her duty to patients who needed her more. That had forced the issue twice.
She’d chosen her acceptances with an eye to the medical condition involved, and once married she’d done her best to provide value for money. Each husband had departed not only happy but grateful, if a little sooner than might have been expected. But each had died of natural causes—a lethal recurrence of the heart attack or stroke that had hit him in the first place. All she’d done was give them tacit permission to satisfy every forbidden desire: to eat artery-clogging foods, to drink as much as they liked, to return to their golf games too soon. She’d refrained from commenting on the fact that, strictly speaking, they were being too zealously medicated. She’d wondered about the dosages, she’d say later, but who was she to set her own opinion up against a doctor’s?
And if a man happened to forget that he’d already taken his pills for that evening and found them neatly laid out in their usual place and took them again, wasn’t that to be expected? Blood thinners could be so hazardous, in excess. You could bleed into your own brain.
Then there was sex: the terminator, the coup de grâce. Verna herself had no interest in sex as such, but she knew what was likely to work. “You only live once,” she’d been in the habit of saying, lifting a champagne glass during a candlelit supper and then setting out the Viagra, a revolutionary breakthrough but so troubling to the blood pressure. It was essential to call the paramedics in promptly, though not too promptly. “He was like this when I woke up” was an acceptable thing to say. So was “I heard a strange sound in the bathroom, and then when I went to look . . .”
She has no regrets. She did those men a favor: surely better a swift exit than a lingering decline.
With two of the husbands, there’d been difficulties with the grownup children over the will. Verna had graciously said that she understood how they must feel, then she’d paid them off, more than was strictly fair considering the effort she’d put in. Her sense of justice has remained Presbyterian: she doesn’t want much more than her due, but she doesn’t want much less, either. She likes balanced accounts.
Bob leans in toward her, sliding his arm along the back of her chair. Is her husband along for the cruise? he asks, closer to her ear than he should be, breathing in. No, she says, she is recently widowed—here she looks down at the table, hoping to convey muted grief—and this is a sort of healing voyage. Bob says he’s very sorry to hear it, but what a coincidence, for his own wife passed away just six months ago. It had been a blow—they’d been really looking forward to the golden years together. She’d been his college sweetheart—it was love at first sight. Does Verna believe in love at first sight? Yes, Verna says, she does.
Bob confides further: they’d waited until after his law degree to get married and then they’d had three kids, and now there are five grandkids—he’s so proud of them all. If he shows me any baby pictures, Verna thinks, I’ll hit him.
“It does leave an empty space, doesn’t it?” Bob says. “A sort of blank.” Verna admits that it does. Would Verna care to join Bob in a bottle of wine?
You crap artist, Verna thinks. So you went on to get married and have children and a normal life, just as if nothing ever happened. Whereas for me . . . She feels queasy.
“I’d love to,” she says. “But let’s wait until we’re on the ship. That would be more leisurely.” She gives him the eyelids again. “Now I’m off to my beauty sleep.” She smiles, wafts upward.
“Oh, surely you don’t need that,” Bob says gallantly. The asshole actually pulls out her chair for her. He hadn’t shown such fine manners back then. Nasty, brutish, and short, as her third husband had said, quoting Hobbes on the subject of natural man. Nowadays a girl would know to call the police. Nowadays Bob would go to jail no matter what lies he might tell, because Verna was underage. But there had been no true words for the act then: rape was what occurred when some maniac jumped on you out of a bush, not when your formal-dance date drove you to a side road in the mangy twice-cut forest surrounding a tin-pot mining town and told you to drink up like a good girl and then took you apart, layer by torn layer. To make it worse, Bob’s best friend, Ken, had turned up in his own car to help out. The two of them had been laughing. They’d kept her panty girdle as a souvenir.
Afterward, Bob had pushed her out of the car halfway back, surly because she was crying. “Shut up or walk home,” he’d said. She has a picture of herself limping along the icy roadside with her bare feet stuck in her dyed-to-match ice-blue heels, dizzy and raw and shivering and—a further ridiculous humiliation—hiccupping. What had concerned her most at that moment was her nylons—where were her nylons? She’d bought them with her own drugstore money. She must have been in shock.
Did she remember correctly? Had Bob stuck her panty girdle upside down on his head and danced about in the snow with the garter tabs flopping around like jesters’ bells?
Panty girdle, she thinks. How prehistoric. It, and all the long-gone archeology that went with it. Now a girl would be on the pill or have an abortion without a backward glance. How Paleolithic to still feel wounded by any of it.
It was Ken—not Bob—who’d come back for her, told her brusquely to get in, driven her home. He, at least, had had the grace to be shamefaced. “Don’t say anything,” he’d muttered. And she hadn’t, but her silence had done her no good.
Why should she be the only one to have suffered for that night? She’d been stupid, granted, but Bob had been vicious. And he’d gone scot-free, without consequences or remorse, whereas her entire life had been distorted. The Verna of the day before had died, and a different Verna had solidified in her place: stunted, twisted, mangled. It was Bob who’d taught her that only the strong can win, that weakness should be mercilessly exploited. It was Bob who’d turned her into—why not say the word?—a murderer.
The next morning, during the chartered flight north to where the ship is floating on the Beaufort Sea, she considers her choices. She could play Bob like a fish right up to the final moment, then leave him cold with his pants around his ankles: a satisfaction, but a minor one. She could avoid him throughout the trip and leave the equation where it’s been for the past fifty-some years: unresolved.
Or she could kill him.
She contemplates this third option with theoretical calm. Just say, for instance, if she were to murder Bob, how might she do it during the cruise without getting caught? Her meds-and-sex formula would be far too slow and might not work anyway, since Bob did not appear to suffer from any ailments. Pushing him off the ship is not a viable option. Bob is too big, the railings are too high, and she knows from her previous trip that there will always be people on deck, enjoying the breathtaking views and taking pictures. A corpse in a cabin would attract police and set off a search for DNA and fabric hairs and so forth, as on television. No, she would have to arrange the death during one of the onshore visits. But how? Where? She consults the itinerary and the map of the proposed route. An Inuit settlement will not do: dogs will bark, children will follow. As for the other stops, the land they’ll be visiting is bare of concealing features. Staff with guns will accompany them to protect against polar bears. Maybe an accident with one of the guns? For that she’d need split-second timing.
Whatever the method, she’d have to do it early in the voyage, before he had time to make any new friends—people who might notice he was missing. Also, the possibility that Bob will suddenly recognize her is ever present. And if that happens it will be game over. Meanwhile, it would be best not to be seen with him too much. Enough to keep his interest up, but not enough to start rumors of, for instance, a budding romance. On a cruise, word of mouth spreads like the flu.
Once on board the ship—it’s the Resolute II, familiar to Verna from her last voyage—the passengers line up to deposit their passports at Reception. Then they assemble in the forward lounge for a talk on procedure given by three of the discouragingly capable staff members. Every time they go ashore, the first one says with a severe Viking frown, they must turn their tags on the tag board from green to red. When they come back to the ship, they must turn their tags back to green. They must always wear life jackets for the Zodiac trips to shore; the life jackets are the new, thin kind that inflate once in water. They must deposit their life jackets on the shore when landing, in the white canvas bags provided, and put them back on when departing. If there are any tags unturned or any life jackets left in the bags, the staff will know that someone is still ashore. They do not want to be left behind, do they? And now a few housekeeping details. They will find laundry bags in their cabins. Bar bills will be charged to their accounts, and tips will be settled at the end. The ship runs on an open-door policy, to facilitate the work of the cleaning staff, but of course they can lock their rooms if they wish. There is a lost-and-found at Reception. All clear? Good.
The second speaker is the archeologist, who, to Verna, looks about twelve. They will be visiting sites of many kinds, she says, including Independence 1, Dorset, and Thule, but they must never, never take anything. No artifacts, and especially no bones. Those bones might be human, and they must be very careful not to disturb them. But even animal bones are an important source of scarce calcium for ravens and lemmings and foxes and, well, the entire food chain, because the Arctic recycles everything. All clear? Good.
Now, says the third speaker, a fashionably bald individual who looks like a personal trainer, a word about the guns. Guns are essential, because polar bears are fearless. But the staff will always fire into the air first, to scare the bear away. Shooting a bear is a last resort, but bears can be dangerous, and the safety of passengers is the first priority. There is no need to fear the guns: the bullets will be taken out during the Zodiac trips to and from shore, and it will not be possible for anyone to get shot. All clear? Good.
Clearly a gun accident won’t do, Verna thinks. No passenger is going to get near those guns.
After lunch, there’s a lecture on walruses. There are rumors of rogue walruses that prey on seals, puncturing them with their tusks, then sucking out the fat with their powerful mouths. The women on either side of Verna are knitting. One of them says, “Liposuction.” The other laughs.
Once the talks are over, Verna goes out on deck. The sky is clear, with a flight of lenticular clouds hovering in it like spaceships; the air is warm; the sea is aqua. There’s a classic iceberg on the port side, with a center so blue it looks dyed, and ahead of them is a mirage—a fata morgana, towering like an ice castle on the horizon, completely real except for the faint shimmering at its edges. Sailors have been lured to their deaths by those; they’ve drawn mountains on maps where no mountains were.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Bob says, materializing at her side. “How about that bottle of wine tonight?”
“Stunning,” Verna says, smiling. “Perhaps not tonight—I promised some of the girls.” True enough—she’s made a date with the knitting women.
“Maybe tomorrow?” Bob grins, and shares the fact that he has a single cabin: “No. 222, like the painkiller,” he quips, and comfortably amidships. “Hardly any rock and roll at all,” he adds. Verna says that she, too, has a single: worth the extra expense, because that way you can really relax. She draws out “relax” until it sounds like a voluptuous writhe on satin sheets.
Glancing at the tag board while strolling around the ship after dinner, Verna notes Bob’s tag—close enough to her own. Then she buys a pair of cheap gloves in the gift shop. She’s read a lot of crime novels.
The next day starts with a talk on geology by an energetic young scientist who has been arousing some interest among the passengers, especially the female ones. By great good fortune, he tells them, and because of a change in itinerary owing to ice pack, they’ll be making an unanticipated stop, where they’ll be able to view a wonder of the geological world, a sight permitted to very few. They’ll be privileged to see the world’s earliest fossilized stromatolites, clocking in at an astonishing 1.9 billion years old—before fish, before dinosaurs, before mammals—the very first preserved form of life on this planet. What is a stromatolite? he asks rhetorically, his eyes gleaming. The word comes from the Greek
stroma, a mattress, coupled with the root word for “stone.” Stone mattress: a fossilized cushion, formed by layer upon layer of blue-green algae building up into a mound or dome. It was this very same blue-green algae that created the oxygen they are now breathing. Isn’t that astonishing?
A wizened, elflike man at Verna’s lunchtime table grumbles that he hopes they’ll be seeing something more exciting than rocks. He’s one of the other Bobs: Verna’s been taking an inventory. An extra Bob may come in handy. “I’m looking forward to them,” she says. “The stone mattresses.” She gives the word “mattress” the tiniest hint of suggestiveness, and gets an approving twinkle out of Bob the Second. Really, they’re never too old to flirt.
Out on deck after coffee, she surveys the approaching land through her binoculars. It’s autumn here: the leaves on the miniature trees that snake along the ground like vines are red and orange and yellow and purple, with rock surging out of them in waves and folds. There’s a ridge, a higher ridge, then a higher one. It’s on the second ridge that the best stromatolites are to be found, the geologist has told them.
Will someone who has slipped behind the third ridge be visible from the second one? Verna doesn’t think so.
Now they’re all stuffed into their waterproof pants and their rubber boots; now they’re being zipped and buckled into their life jackets like outsized kindergarten kids; now they’re turning their tags from green to red; now they’re edging down the gangway and being whisked into the black inflatable Zodiacs. Bob has made it into Verna’s Zodiac. He lifts his camera, snaps her picture.
Verna’s heart is beating more rapidly. If he recognizes me spontaneously, I won’t kill him, she thinks. If I tell him who I am and he recognizes me and then apologizes, I still won’t kill him. That’s two more escape chances than he gave her. It will mean forgoing the advantage of surprise, a move that could be hazardous—Bob is much bigger than she is—but she wishes to be more than fair.
They’ve landed and have shed their life jackets and rubber footwear and are lacing up their hiking boots. Verna strolls closer to Bob, notes that he hasn’t bothered with the rubber boots. He’s wearing a red baseball cap; as she watches, he turns it backward.
Now they’re all scattering. Some stay by the shore; some move up to the first ridge. The geologist is standing there with his hammer, a twittering cluster already gathered around him. He’s in full lecture mode: they will please not take any of the stromatolites, but the ship has a sampling permit, so if anyone finds a particularly choice fragment, especially a cross section, check with him first and they can put it on the rock table he’ll set up on board, where everyone can see it. Here are some examples, for those who may not want to tackle the second ridge. . . .
Heads go down; cameras come out. Perfect, Verna thinks. The more distraction the better. She feels without looking that Bob is close by. Now they’re at the second ridge, which some are climbing more easily than others. Here are the best stromatolites, a whole field of them. There are unbroken ones, like bubbles or boils, small ones, ones as big as half a soccer ball. Some have lost their tops, like eggs in the process of hatching. Still others have been ground down, so that all that’s left of them is a series of raised concentric oblongs, like a cinnamon bun or the growth rings on a tree.
And here’s one shattered into four, like a Dutch cheese sliced into wedges. Verna picks up one of the quarters, examines the layers, each year black, gray, black, gray, black, and at the bottom the featureless core. The piece is heavy, and sharp at the edges. Verna lifts it into her backpack.
Here comes Bob as if on cue, lumbering slowly as a zombie up the hill toward her. He’s taken off his outer jacket, tucked it under his backpack straps. He’s out of breath. She has a moment of compunction: he’s over the hill; frailty is gaining on him. Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormone puppets at that age? Why should any human being be judged by something that was done in another time, so long ago it might be centuries?
A raven flies overhead, circles around. Can it tell? Is it waiting? She looks down through its eyes, sees an old woman—because, face it, she is an old woman now—on the verge of murdering an even older man because of an anger already fading into the distance of used-up time. It’s paltry. It’s vicious. It’s normal. It’s what happens in life.
“Great day,” Bob says. “It’s good to have a chance to stretch your legs.”
“Isn’t it?” Verna says. She moves toward the far side of the second ridge. “Maybe there’s something better over there. But weren’t we told not to go that far? Out of sight?”
Bob gives a rules-are-for-peasants laugh. “We’re paying for this,” he says. He actually takes the lead, not up the third ridge but around behind it. Out of sight is where he wants to be.
The gun bearer on the second ridge is yelling at some people straying off to the left. He has his back turned. A few more steps and Verna glances over her shoulder: she can’t see anyone, which means that no one can see her. They squelch over a patch of boggy ground. She takes her thin gloves out of her pocket, slips them on. Now they’re at the far side of the third ridge, at the sloping base.
“Come over here,” Bob says, patting the rock. His backpack is beside him. “I brought us a few drinks.” All around him is a tattered gauze of black lichen.
“Terrific,” Verna says. She sits down, unzips her backpack. “Look,” she says. “I found a perfect specimen.” She turns, positioning the stromatolite between them, supporting it with both hands. She takes a breath. “I think we’ve known each other before,” she says. “I’m Verna Pritchard. From high school.”
Bob doesn’t miss a beat. “I thought there was something familiar about you,” he says. He’s actually smirking.
She remembers that smirk. She has a vivid picture of Bob capering triumphantly in the snow, sniggering like a ten-year-old. Herself wrecked and crumpled.
She knows better than to swing widely. She brings the stromatolite up hard, a short sharp jab right underneath Bob’s lower jaw. There’s a crunch, the only sound. His head snaps back. Now he’s sprawled on the rock. She holds the stromatolite over his forehead, lets it drop. Again. Once again. There. That seems to have done it.
Bob looks ridiculous, with his eyes open and fixed and his forehead mashed in and blood running down both sides of his face. “You’re a mess,” she says. He looks laughable, so she laughs. As she suspected, the front teeth are implants.
She takes a moment to steady her breathing. Then she retrieves the stromatolite, being careful not to let any of the blood touch her or even her gloves, and slides it into a pool of bog water. Bob’s baseball cap has fallen off; she stuffs it into her pack, along with his jacket. She empties out his backpack: nothing in there but the camera, a pair of woollen mitts, a scarf, and six miniature bottles of Scotch—how pathetically hopeful of him. She rolls the pack up, stuffs it inside her own, adds the camera, which she’ll toss into the sea later. Then she dries the stromatolite off on the scarf, checking to make sure there’s no visible blood, and stows it in her pack. She leaves Bob to the ravens and the lemmings and the rest of the food chain. Then she hikes back around the base of the third ridge, adjusting her jacket. Anyone looking will assume she’s just been having a pee. People do sneak off like that, on shore visits. But no one is looking.
She finds the young geologist—he’s still on the second ridge, along with his coterie of admirers—and produces the stromatolite.
“May I take it back to the ship?” she asks sweetly. “For the rock table?”
“Fantastic sample!” he says.
Travellers are making their way shoreward, back to the Zodiacs. When she reaches the bags with the life jackets, Verna fumbles with her shoelaces until all eyes are elsewhere and she can cram an extra life jacket into her backpack. The pack is a lot bulkier than it was when she left the ship, but it would be odd if anyone noticed that.
Once up the gangway, she diddles around with her pack until everyone else has moved past the tag board, then flips Bob’s tag from red to green. And her own tag, too, of course.
On the way to her cabin she waits till the corridor is clear, then slips through Bob’s unlocked door. The room key is on the dresser; she leaves it there. She hangs up the life jacket and Bob’s waterproof and baseball cap, runs some water in the sink, messes up a towel. Then she goes to her own cabin along the still-empty corridor, takes off her gloves, washes them, and hangs them up to dry. She’s broken a nail, worse luck, but she can repair that. She checks her face: a touch of sunburn, but nothing serious. For dinner, she dresses in pink and makes an effort to flirt with Bob the Second, who gamely returns her serves but is surely too decrepit to be a serious prospect. Just as well—her adrenaline level is plummeting. If there are northern lights, they’ve been told, there will be an announcement, but Verna doesn’t intend to get up for them.
So far she’s in the clear. All she has to do now is maintain the mirage of Bob, faithfully turning his tag from green to red, from red to green. He’ll move objects around in his cabin, wear different items from his beige-and-plaid wardrobe, sleep in his bed, take showers, leaving the towels on the floor. He will receive a first-name-only invitation to have dinner at a staff table, which will then quietly appear under the door of one of the other Bobs, and no one will spot the substitution. He will brush his teeth. He will adjust his alarm clock. He will send in laundry, without, however, filling out the slip: that would be too risky. The cleaning staff won’t care—a lot of older people forget to fill out their laundry slips.
Meanwhile, the stromatolite will sit on the geological samples table and will be picked up and examined and discussed, acquiring many fingerprints. At the end of the trip it will be jettisoned. The Resolute II will travel for fourteen days; it will stop for shore visits eighteen times. It will sail past ice caps and sheer cliffs, and mountains of gold and copper and ebony black and silver gray; it will glide through pack ice; it will anchor off long, implacable beaches and explore fjords gouged by glaciers over millions of years. In the midst of such rigorous and demanding splendor, who will remember Bob?
There will be a moment of truth at the end of the voyage, when Bob will not appear to pay his bill and pick up his passport; nor will he pack his bags. There will be a flurry of concern, followed by a staff meeting—behind closed doors, so as not to alarm the passengers. Ultimately, there will be a news item: Bob, tragically, must have fallen off the ship on the last night of the voyage while leaning over to get a better camera angle on the northern lights. No other explanation is possible.
Meanwhile, the passengers will have scattered to the winds, Verna among them. If, that is, she pulls it off. Will she or won’t she? She ought to care more about that—she ought to find it an exciting challenge—but right now she just feels tired and somewhat empty.
Though at peace, though safe. Calm of mind all passion spent, as her third husband used to say so annoyingly after his Viagra sessions. Those Victorians always coupled sex with death. Who was that poet anyway? Keats? Tennyson? Her memory isn’t what it was. But the details will come back to her later.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC OOnt FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice. In 2001, she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. She is also a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada’s writing community. Among innumerable contributions to Canadian literature, she was a founding trustee of the Griffin Poetry Prize.
The Laughing Man
J. D. Salinger
IN 1928, when I was nine, I belonged, with maximum esprit de corps, to an organization known as the Comanche Club. Every schoolday afternoon at three o’clock, twenty-five of us Comanches were picked up by our Chief outside the boys’ exit of P. S. 165, on 109th Street near Amsterdam Avenue. We then pushed and punched our way into the Chief’s reconverted commercial bus, and he drove us (according to his financial arrangement with our parents) over to Central Park. The rest of the afternoon, weather permitting, we played football or soccer or baseball, depending (very loosely) on the season. Rainy afternoons, the Chief invariably took us either to the Museum of Natural History or to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Saturdays and most national holidays, the Chief picked us up early in the morning at our various apartment houses and, in his condemned-looking bus, drove us out of Manhattan into the comparatively wide open spaces of Van Cortlandt Park or the Palisades. If we had straight athletics on our minds, we went to Van Cortlandt, where the playing fields were regulation size and where the opposing team didn’t include a baby carriage or an irate old lady with a cane. If our Comanche hearts were set on camping, we went over to the Palisades and roughed it. (I remember getting lost one Saturday somewhere on that tricky stretch of terrain between the Linit sign and the site of the western end of the George Washington Bridge. I kept my head, though. I just sat down in the majestic shadow of a giant billboard and, however tearfully, opened my lunchbox for business, semi-confident that the Chief would find me. The Chief always found us.)
In his hours of liberation from the Comanches, the Chief was John Gedsudski, of Staten Island. He was an extremely shy, gentle young man of twenty-two or -three, a law student at N.Y.U., and altogether a very memorable person. I won’t attempt to assemble his many achievements and virtues here. Just in passing, he was an Eagle Scout, an almost-All-America tackle of 1926, and it was known that he had been most cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants’ baseball team. He was an impartial and unexcitable umpire at all our bedlam sporting events, a master fire builder and extinguisher, and an expert, uncontemptuous first-aid man. Every one of us, from the smallest hoodlum to the biggest, loved and respected him.
The Chief’s physical appearance in 1928 is still clear in my mind. If wishes were inches, all of us Comanches would have had him a giant in no time. The way things go, though, he was a stocky five three or four–no more than that. His hair was blue-black, his hair-line extremely low, his nose was large and fleshy, and his torso was just about as long as his legs were. In his leather windbreaker, his shoulders were powerful, but narrow and sloping. At the time, however, it seemed to me that in the Chief all the most photogenic features of Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, and Tom Mix had been smoothly amalgamated.
Every afternoon, when it got dark enough for a losing team to have an excuse for missing a number of infield popups or end-zone passes, we Comanches relied heavily and selfishly on the Chief’s talent for storytelling. By that hour, we were usually an overheated, irritable bunch, and we fought each other–either with our fists or our shrill voices–for the seats in the bus nearest the Chief. (The bus had two parallel rows of straw seats. The left row had three extra seats–the best in the bus–that extended as far forward as the driver’s profile.) The Chief climbed into the bus only after we had settled down. Then he straddled his driver’s seat backward and, in his reedy but modulated tenor voice, gave us the new installment of “The Laughing Man.” Once he started narrating, our interest never flagged. “The Laughing Man” was just the right story for a Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub.
The only son of a wealthy missionary couple, the Laughing Man was kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits. When the wealthy missionary couple refused (from a religious conviction) to pay the ransom for their son, the bandits, signally piqued, placed the little fellow’s head in a carpenter’s vise and gave the appropriate lever several turns to the right. The subject of this unique experience grew into manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose. The nose itself consisted of two flesh-sealed nostrils. In consequence, when the Laughing Man breathed, the hideous, mirthless gap below his nose dilated and contracted like (as I see it) some sort of monstrous vacuole. (The Chief demonstrated, rather than explained, the Laughing Man’s respiration method.)
Strangers fainted dead away at the sight of the Laughing Man’s horrible face.
Acquaintances shunned him. Curiously enough, though, the bandits let him hang around their headquarters–as long as he kept his face covered with a pale-red gossamer mask made out of poppy petals. The mask not only spared the bandits the sight of their foster son’s face, it also kept them sensible of his whereabouts; under the circumstances, he reeked of opium.
Every morning, in his extreme loneliness, the Laughing Man stole off (he was as graceful on his feet as a cat) to the dense forest surrounding the bandits’ hideout. There he befriended any number and species of animals: dogs, white mice, eagles, lions, boa constrictors, wolves. Moreover, he removed his mask and spoke to them, softly, melodiously, in their own tongues. They did not think him ugly.
(It took the Chief a couple of months to get that far into the story. From there on in, he got more and more high-handed with his installments, entirely to the satisfaction of the Comanches.)
The Laughing Man was one for keeping an ear to the ground, and in no time at all he had picked up the bandits’ most valuable trade secrets. He didn’t think much of them, though, and briskly set up his own, more effective system. On a rather small scale at first, he began to free-lance around the Chinese countryside, robbing, highjacking, murdering when absolutely necessary. Soon his ingenious criminal methods, coupled with his singular love of fair play, found him a warm place in the nation’s heart.
Strangely enough, his foster parents (the bandits who had originally turned his head toward crime) were about the last to get wind of his achievements. When they did, they were insanely jealous. They all single-filed past the Laughing Man’s bed one night, thinking they had successfully doped him into a deep sleep, and stabbed at the figure under the covers with their machetes. The victim turned out to be the bandit chief’s mother–an unpleasant, haggling sort of person. The event only whetted the bandits’ taste for the Laughing Man’s blood, and finally he was obliged to lock up the whole bunch of them in a deep but pleasantly decorated mausoleum. They escaped from time to time and gave him a certain amount of annoyance, but he refused to kill them. (There was a compassionate side to the Laughing Man’s character that just about drove me crazy.)
Soon the Laughing Man was regularly crossing the Chinese border into Paris, France, where he enjoyed flaunting his high but modest genius in the face of Marcel Dufarge, the internationally famous detective and witty consumptive. Dufarge and his daughter (an exquisite girl, though something of a transvestite) became the Laughing Man’s bitterest enemies. Time and again, they tried leading the Laughing Man up the garden path. For sheer sport, the Laughing Man usually went halfway with them, then vanished, often leaving no even faintly credible indication of his escape method. Just now and then he posted an incisive little farewell note in the Paris sewerage system, and it was delivered promptly to Dufarge’s boot. The Dufarges spent an enormous amount of time sloshing around in the Paris sewers.
Soon the Laughing Man had amassed the largest personal fortune in the world. Most of it he contributed anonymously to the monks of a local monastery–humble ascetics who had dedicated their lives to raising German police dogs. What was left of his fortune, the Laughing Man converted into diamonds, which he lowered casually, in emerald vaults, into the Black Sea. His personal wants were few. He subsisted exclusively on rice and eagles’ blood, in a tiny cottage with an underground gymnasium and shooting range, on the stormy coast of Tibet. Four blindly loyal confederates lived with him: a glib timber wolf named Black Wing, a lovable dwarf named Omba, a giant Mongolian named Hong, whose tongue had been burned out by white men, and a gorgeous Eurasian girl, who, out of unrequited love for the Laughing Man and deep concern for his personal safety, sometimes had a pretty sticky attitude toward crime.
The Laughing Man issued his orders to the crew through a black silk screen. Not even Omba, the lovable dwarf, was permitted to see his face.
I’m not saying I will, but I could go on for hours escorting the reader–forcibly, if necessary–back and forth across the Paris-Chinese border. I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine–a sort of Robert E. Lee, say, with the ascribed virtues held under water or blood. And this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in 1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man’s direct descendant but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my parents’ son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in–preferably without violence, but not necessarily–to assert my true identity. As a precaution against breaking my bogus mother’s heart, I planned to take her into my underworld employ in some undefined but appropriately regal capacity. But the main thing I had to do in 1928 was watch my step.
Play along with the farce. Brush my teeth. Comb my hair. At all costs, stifle my natural hideous laughter.
Actually, I was not the only legitimate living descendant of the Laughing Man. There were twenty-five Comanches in the Club, or twenty-five legitimate living descendants of the Laughing Man–all of us circulating ominously, and incognito, throughout the city, sizing up elevator operators as potential archenemies, whispering side-of-the-mouth but fluent orders into the ears of cocker spaniels, drawing beads, with index fingers, on the foreheads of arithmetic teachers. And always waiting, waiting for a decent chance to strike terror and admiration in the nearest mediocre heart.
One afternoon in February, just after Comanche baseball season had opened, I observed a new fixture in the Chief’s bus. Above the rear-view mirror over the windshield, there was a small, framed photograph of a girl dressed in academic cap and gown. It seemed to me that a girl’s picture clashed with the general men-only decor of the bus, and I bluntly asked the Chief who she was. He hedged at first, but finally admitted that she was a girl. I asked him what her name was. He answered unforthrightly, “Mary Hudson.” I asked him if she was in the movies or something. He said no, that she used to go to Wellesley College. He added, on some slow-processed afterthought, that Wellesley College was a very high class college. I asked him what he had her picture in the bus for, though. He shrugged slightly, as much as to imply, it seemed to me, that the picture had more or less been planted on him.
During the next couple of weeks, the picture–however forcibly or accidentally it had been planted on the Chief–was not removed from the bus. It didn’t go out with the Baby Ruth wrappers and the fallen licorice whips. However, we Comanches got used to it. It gradually took on the unarresting personality of a speedometer.
But one day as we were on our way to the Park, the Chief pulled the bus over to a curb on Fifth Avenue in the Sixties, a good half mile past our baseball field. Some twenty back-seat drivers at once demanded an explanation, but the Chief gave none.
Instead, he simply got into his story-telling position and swung prematurely into a fresh installment of “The Laughing Man.” He had scarcely begun, however, when someone tapped on the bus door. The Chief’s reflexes were geared high that day. He literally flung himself around in his seat, yanked the operating handle of the door, and a girl in a beaver coat climbed into the bus.
Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936.
The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.
“Am I very late?” she asked the Chief, smiling at him.
She might just as well have asked if she was ugly.
“No!” the Chief said. A trifle wildly, he looked at the Comanches near his seat and signalled the row to give way. Mary Hudson sat down between me and a boy named Edgar something, whose uncle’s best friend was a bootlegger. We gave her all the room in the world. Then the bus started off with a peculiar, amateur-like lurch. The Comanches, to the last man, were silent.
On the way back to our regular parking place, Mary Hudson leaned forward in her seat and gave the Chief an enthusiastic account of the trains she had missed and the train she hadn’t missed; she lived in Douglaston, Long Island. The Chief was very nervous. He didn’t just fail to contribute any talk of his own; he could hardly listen to hers. The gearshift knob came off in his hand, I remember.
When we got out of the bus, Mary Hudson stuck right with us. I’m sure that by the time we reached the baseball field there was on every Comanche’s face a some-girlsjust-don’t-know-when-to-go-home look. And to really top things off, when another Comanche and I were flipping a coin to decide which team would take the field first, Mary Hudson wistfully expressed a desire to join the game. The response to this couldn’t have been more clean-cut. Where before we Comanches had simply stared at her femaleness, we now glared at it. She smiled back at us. It was a shade disconcerting. Then the Chief took over, revealing what had formerly been a wellconcealed flair for incompetence. He took Mary Hudson aside, just out of earshot of the Comanches, and seemed to address her solemnly, rationally. At length, Mary Hudson interrupted him, and her voice was perfectly audible to the Comanches. “But I do,” she said. “I do, too, want to play!” The Chief nodded and tried again. He pointed in the direction of the infield, which was soggy and pitted. He picked up regulation bat and demonstrated its weight. “I don’t care,” Mary Hudson said distinctly, “I came all the way to New York–to the dentist and everything–and I’m gonna play.” The Chief nodded again but gave up. He walked cautiously over to home plate, where the Braves and the Warriors, the two Comanche teams, were waiting, and looked at me. I was captain of the Warriors. He mentioned the name of my regular center fielder, who was home sick, and suggested that Mary Hudson take his place. I said I didn’t need a center fielder. The Chief asked me what the hell did I mean I didn’t need a center fielder. I was shocked. It was the first time I had heard the Chief swear. What’s more, I could feel Mary Hudson smiling at me. For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.
We took the field first. No business went out to center field the first inning. From my position on first base, I glanced behind me now and then. Each time I did, Mary Hudson waved gaily to me. She was wearing a catcher’s mitt, her own adamant choice.
It was a horrible sight.
Mary Hudson batted ninth on the Warriors’ lineup. When I informed her of this arrangement, she made a little face and said, “Well, hurry up, then.” And as a matter of fact we did seem to hurry up. She got to bat in the first inning. She took off her beaver coat–and her catcher’s mitt–for the occasion and advanced to the plate in a darkbrown dress. When I gave her a bat, she asked me why it was so heavy. The Chief left his umpire’s position behind the pitcher and came forward anxiously. He told Mary Hudson to rest the end of her bat on her right shouder. “I am,” she said. He told her not to choke the bat too tightly. “I’m not,” she said. He told her to keep her eye right on the ball. “I will,” she said. “Get outa the way.” She swung mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit it over the left fielder’s head. It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it–standing up.
When my astonishment had worn off, and then my awe, and then my delight, I looked over at the Chief. He didn’t so much seem to be standing behind the pitcher as floating over him. He was a completely happy man. Over on third base, Mary Hudson waved to me. I waved back. I couldn’t have stopped myself, even if I’d wanted to. Her stickwork aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base.
The rest of the game, she got on base every time she came to bat. For some reason, she seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her there. At least three times, she stole second.
Her fielding couldn’t have been worse, but we were piling up too many runs to take serious notice of it. I think it would have improved if she’d gone after flies with almost anything except a catcher’s mitt. She wouldn’t take it off, though. She said it was cute.
The next month or so, she played baseball with the Comanches a couple of times a week (whenever she had an appointment with her dentist, apparently). Some afternoons she met the bus on time, some afternoons she was late. Sometimes she talked a blue streak in the bus, sometimes she just sat and smoked her Herbert Tareyton cigarettes (cork-tipped). When you sat next to her in the bus, she smelled of a wonderful perfume.
One wintry day in April, after making his usual three o’clock pickup at 109th and Amsterdam, the Chief turned the loaded bus east at 110th Street and cruised routinely down Fifth Avenue. But his hair was combed wet, he had on his overcoat instead of his leather windbreaker, and I reasonably surmised that Mary Hudson was scheduled to join us. When we zipped past our usual entrance to the Park, I was sure of it. The Chief parked the bus on the comer in the Sixties appropriate to the occasion. Then, to kill time painlessly for the Comanches, he straddled his seat backward and released a new installment of “The Laughing Man.” I remember the installment to the last detail, and I must outline it briefly.
A flux of circumstances delivered the Laughing Man’s best friend, his timber wolf, Black Wing, into a physical and intellectual trap set by the Dufarges. The Dufarges, aware of the Laughing Man’s high sense of loyalty, offered him Black Wing’s freedom in exchange for his own. In the best faith in the world, the Laughing Man agreed to these terms. (Some of the minor mechanics of his genius were often subject to mysterious little breakdowns.) It was arranged for the Laughing Man to meet the Dufarges at midnight in a designated section of the dense forest surrounding Paris, and there, by moonlight, Black Wing would be set free. However, the Dufarges had no intention of liberating Black Wing, whom they feared and loathed. On the night of the transaction, they leashed a stand-in timber wolf for Black Wing, first dyeing its left hind foot snow white, to look like Black Wing’s.
But there were two things the Dufarges hadn’t counted on: the Laughing Man’s sentimentality and his command of the timber-wolf language. As soon as he had allowed Dufarge’s daughter to tie him with barbed wire to a tree, the Laughing Man felt called upon to raise his beautiful, melodious voice in a few words of farewell to his supposed old friend. The stand-in, a few moonlit yards away, was impressed by the stranger’s command of the language and listened politely for a moment to the last minute advice, personal and professional, that the Laughing Man was giving out. At length, though, the stand-in grew impatient and began shifting his weight from paw to paw. Abruptly, and rather unpleasantly, he interrupted the Laughing Man with the information that, in the first place, his name wasn’t Dark Wing or Black Wing or Gray Legs or any of that business, it was Armand, and, in the second place, he’d never been to China in his life and hadn’t the slightest intention of going there.
Properly infuriated, the Laughing Man pushed off his mask with his tongue and confronted the Dufarges with his naked face by moonlight. Mlle. Dufarge responded by passing out cold. Her father was luckier. By chance, he was having one of his coughing spells at the moment and thereby missed the lethal unveiling. When his coughing spell was over and he saw his daughter stretched out supine on the moonlit ground, Dufarge put two and two together. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he fired the full clip in his automatic toward the sound of the Laughing Man’s heavy, sibilant breathing.
The installment ended there.
The Chief took his dollar Ingersoll out of his watch pocket, looked at it, then swung around in his seat and started up the motor. I checked my own watch. It was almost four-thirty. As the bus moved forward, I asked the Chief if he wasn’t going to wait for Mary Hudson. He didn’t answer me, and before I could repeat my question, he tilted back his head and addressed all of us: “Let’s have a little quiet in this damn bus.”
Whatever else it may have been, the order was basically unsensible. The bus had been, and was, very quiet. Almost everybody was thinking about the spot the Laughing Man had been left in. We were long past worrying about him–we had too much confidence in him for that–but we were never past accepting his most perilous moments quietly.
In the third or fourth inning of our ball game that afternoon, I spotted Mary Hudson from first base. She was sitting on a bench about a hundred yards to my left, sandwiched between two nursemaids with baby carriages. She had on her beaver coat, she was smoking a cigarette, and she seemed to be looking in the direction of our game.
I got excited about my discovery and yelled the information over to the Chief, behind the pitcher. He hurried over to me, not quite running. “Where?” he asked me. I pointed again. He stared for a moment in the right direction, then said he’d be back in a minute and left the field. He left it slowly, opening his overcoat and putting his hands in the hip pockets of his trousers. I sat down on first base and watched. By the time the Chief reached Mary Hudson, his overcoat was buttoned again and his hands were down at his sides.
He stood over her for about five minutes, apparently talking to her. Then Mary Hudson stood up, and the two of them walked toward the baseball field. They didn’t talk as they walked, or look at each other. When they reached the field, the Chief took his position behind the pitcher. I yelled over to him. “Isn’t she gonna play?” He told me to cover my sack. I covered my sack and watched Mary Hudson. She walked slowly behind the plate, with her hands in the pockets of her beaver coat, and finally sat down on a misplaced players’ bench just beyond third base. She lit another cigarette and crossed her legs.
When the Warriors were at bat, I went over to her bench and asked her if she felt like playing left field. She shook her head. I asked her if she had a cold. She shook her head again. I told her I didn’t have anybody in left field. I told her I had a guy playing center field and left field. There was no response at all to this information. I tossed my firstbaseman’s mitt up in the air and tried to have it land on my head, but it fell in a mud puddle. I wiped it off on my trousers and asked Mary Hudson if she wanted to come up to my house for dinner sometime. I told her the Chief came up a lot. “Leave me alone,” she said. “Just please leave me alone.” I stared at her, then walked off in the direction of the Warriors’ bench, taking a tangerine out of my pocket and tossing it up in the air.
About midway along the third-base foul line, I turned around and started to walk backwards, looking at Mary Hudson and holding on to my tangerine. I had no idea what was going on between the Chief and Mary Hudson (and still haven’t, in any but a fairly low, intuitive sense), but nonetheless, I couldn’t have been more certain that Mary Hudson had permanently dropped out of the Comanche lineup. It was the kind of whole certainty, however independent of the sum of its facts, that can make walking backwards more than normally hazardous, and I bumped smack into a baby carriage.
After another inning, the light got bad for fielding. The game was called, and we started picking up all the equipment. The last good look I had at Mary Hudson, she was over near third base crying. The Chief had hold of the sleeve of her beaver coat, but she got away from him. She ran off the field onto the cement path and kept running till I couldn’t see her any more.
The Chief didn’t go after her. He just stood watching her disappear. Then he turned around and walked down to home plate and picked up our two bats; we always left the bats for him to carry. I went over to him and asked if he and Mary Hudson had had a fight. He told me to tuck my shirt in.
Just as always, we Comanches ran the last few hundred feet to the place where the bus was parked, yelling, shoving, trying out strangleholds on each other, but all of us alive to the fact that it was again time for “The Laughing Man.” Racing across Fifth Avenue, somebody dropped his extra or discarded sweater, and I tripped over it and went sprawling. I finished the charge to the bus; but the best seats were taken by that time and I had to sit down in the middle of the bus. Annoyed at the arrangement, I gave the boy sitting on my right a poke in the ribs with my elbow, then faced around and watched the Chief cross over Fifth. It was not yet dark out, but a five-fifteen dimness had set in. The Chief crossed the street with his coat collar up, the bats under his left arm, and his concentration on the street. His black hair, which had been combed wet earlier in the day, was dry now and blowing. I remember wishing the Chief had gloves.
The bus, as usual, was quiet when he climbed in–as proportionately quiet, at any rate, as a theatre with dimming house lights. Conversations were finished in a hurried whisper or shut off completely. Nonetheless, the first thing the Chief said to us was “All right, let’s cut out the noise, or no story.” In an instant, an unconditional silence filled the bus, cutting off from the Chief any alternative but to take up his narrating position.
When he had done so, he took out a handkerchief and methodically blew his nose, one nostril at a time. We watched him with patience and even a certain amount of spectator’s interest. When he had finished with his handkerchief, he folded it neatly in quarters and replaced it in his pocket. He then gave us the new installment of “The Laughing Man.” From start to finish, it lasted no longer than five minutes.
Four of Dufarge’s bullets struck the Laughing Man, two of them through the heart.
When Dufarge, who was still shielding his eyes against the sight of the Laughing Man’s face, heard a queer exhalation of agony from the direction of the target, he was overjoyed. His black heart beating wildly, he rushed over to his unconscious daughter and brought her to. The pair of them, beside themselves with delight and coward’s courage, now dared to look up at the Laughing Man. His head was bowed as in death, his chin resting on his bloody chest. Slowly, greedily, father and daughter came forward to inspect their spoils. Quite a surprise was in store for them. The Laughing Man, far from dead, was busy contracting his stomach muscles in a secret manner. As the Dufarges came into range, he suddenly raised his face, gave a terrible laugh, and neatly, even fastidiously, regurgitated all four bullets. The impact of this feat on the Dufarges was so acute that their hearts literally burst, and they dropped dead at the Laughing Man’s feet. (If the installment was going to be a short one anyway, it could have ended there; the Comanches could have managed to rationalize the sudden death of the Dufarges. But it didn’t end there.) Day after day, the Laughing Man continued to stand lashed to the tree with barbed wire, the Dufarges decomposing at his feet.
Bleeding profusely and cut off from his supply of eagles’ blood, he had never been closer to death. One day, however, in a hoarse but eloquent voice, he appealed for help to the animals of the forest. He summoned them to fetch Omba, the lovable dwarf. And they did. But it was a long trip back and forth across the Paris-Chinese border, and by the time Omba arrived on the scene with a medical kit and a fresh supply of eagles’ blood, the Laughing Man was in a coma. Omba’s very first act of mercy was to retrieve his master’s mask, which had blown up against Mlle. Dufarge’s vermin-infested torso. He placed it respectfully over the hideous features, then proceeded to dress the wounds.
When the Laughing Man’s small eyes finally opened, Omba eagerly raised the vial of eagles’ blood up to the mask. But the Laughing Man didn’t drink from it. Instead, he weakly pronounced his beloved Black Wing’s name. Omba bowed his own slightly distorted head and revealed to his master that the Dufarges had killed Black Wing. A peculiar and heart-rending gasp of final sorrow came from the Laughing Man. He reached out wanly for the vial of eagles’ blood and crushed it in his hand. What little blood he had left trickled thinly down his wrist. He ordered Omba to look away, and, sobbing, Omba obeyed him. The Laughing Man’s last act, before turning his face to the bloodstained ground, was to pull off his mask.
The story ended there, of course. (Never to be revived.) The Chief started up the bus.
Across the aisle from me, Billy Walsh, who was the youngest of all the Comanches, burst into tears. None of us told him to shut up. As for me, I remember my knees were shaking.
A few minutes later, when I stepped out of the Chief’s bus, the first thing I chanced to see was a piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against the base of a lamppost.
It looked like someone’s poppy-petal mask. I arrived home with my teeth chattering uncontrollably and was told to go right straight to bed.
Jerome David “J.D.” Salinger (/ˈsælᵻndʒər/; January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010) was an American writer who is known for his widely-read novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Following his early success publishing short stories and Catcher in the Rye, Salinger led a very private life for more than a half-century. He published his final original work in 1965 and gave his last interview in 1980.
Salinger was raised in Manhattan and began writing short stories while in secondary school. Several were published in Story magazine in the early 1940s before he began serving in World War II. In 1948, his critically acclaimed story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” appeared in The New Yorker magazine, which became home to much of his later work.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
THE MARVELLOUS THING IS THAT IT’S painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
“Is it really?”
“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”
“Don’t! Please don’t.”
“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”
The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.
“They’ve been there since the day the truck broke down,” he said. “Today’s the first time any have lit on the ground. I watched the way they sailed very carefully at first in case I ever wanted to use them in a story. That’s funny now.””I wish you wouldn’t,” she said.
“I’m only talking,” he said. “It’s much easier if I talk. But I don’t want to bother you.”
“You know it doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s that I’ve gotten so very nervous not being able to do anything. I think we might make it as easy as we can until the plane comes.”
“Or until the plane doesn’t come.”
“Please tell me what I can do. There must be something I can do.
“You can take the leg off and that might stop it, though I doubt it. Or you can shoot me. You’re a good shot now. I taught you to shoot, didn’t I?”
“Please don’t talk that way. Couldn’t I read to you?”
“Anything in the book that we haven’t read.”
“I can’t listen to it,” he said.” Talking is the easiest. We quarrel and that makes the time pass.”
“I don’t quarrel. I never want to quarrel. Let’s not quarrel any more. No matter how nervous we get. Maybe they will be back with another truck today. Maybe the plane will come.”
“I don’t want to move,” the man said. “There is no sense in moving now except to make it easier for you.”
“Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names? What’s the use of clanging me?”
“You’re not going to die.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m dying now. Ask those bastards.” He looked over to where the huge, filthy birds sat, their naked heads sunk in the hunched feathers. A fourth planed down, to run quick-legged and then waddle slowly toward the others.
“They are around every camp. You never notice them. You can’t die if you don’t give up.”
“Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool.”
“You might think about some one else.”
“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “that’s been my trade.”
He lay then and was quiet for a while and looked across the heat shimmer of the plain to the edge of the bush. There were a few Tommies that showed minute and white against the yellow and, far off, he saw a herd of zebra, white against the green of the bush. This was a pleasant camp under big trees against a hill, with good water, and close by, a nearly dry water hole where sand grouse flighted in the mornings.
“Wouldn’t you like me to read?” she asked. She was sitting on a canvas chair beside his cot. “There’s a breeze coming up.
“Maybe the truck will come.”
“I don’t give a damn about the truck.”
“You give a damn about so many things that I don’t.”
“Not so many, Harry.”
“What about a drink?”
“It’s supposed to be bad for you. It said in Black’s to avoid all alcohol.
You shouldn’t drink.”
“Molo!” he shouted.
“You shouldn’t,” she said. “That’s what I mean by giving up. It says it’s
bad for you. I know it’s bad for you.”
“No,” he said. “It’s good for me.”
So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance
to finish it. So this was the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since
the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the
horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity.
For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was
strange how easy being tired enough made it.
Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.
“I wish we’d never come,” the woman said. She was looking at him holding the glass and biting her lip. “You never would have gotten anything like this in Paris. You always said you loved Paris. We could have stayed in Paris or gone anywhere. I’d have gone anywhere. I said I’d go anywhere you wanted. If you wanted to shoot we could have gone shooting in Hungary and been comfortable.”
“Your bloody money,” he said.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “It was always yours as much as mine. I left everything and I went wherever you wanted to go and I’ve done what you wanted to do But I wish we’d never come here.”
“You said you loved it.”
“I did when you were all right. But now I hate it. I don’t see why that had to happen to your leg. What have we done to have that happen to us?”
“I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it. Then I didn’t pay any attention to it because I never infect. Then, later, when it got bad, it was probably using that weak carbolic solution when the other antiseptics ran out that paralyzed the minute blood vessels and started the gangrene.” He looked at her, “What else'”
“I don’t mean that.”
“If we would have hired a good mechanic instead of a half-baked Kikuyu driver, he would have checked the oil and never burned out that bearing in the truck.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“If you hadn’t left your own people, your goddamned Old Westbury Saratoga, Palm Beach people to take me on ” *’Why, I loved you. That’s not fair. I love you now. I’ll always love you Don’t you love me?”
“No,” said the man. “I don’t think so. I never have.”
“Harry, what are you saying? You’re out of your head.”
“No. I haven’t any head to go out of.”
“Don’t drink that,” she said. “Darling, please don’t drink that. We have to do everything we can.”
“You do it,” he said. “I’m tired.”
Now in his mind he saw a railway station at Karagatch and he was standing with his pack and that was the headlight of the Simplon-Offent cutting the dark now and he was leaving Thrace then after the retreat. That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaffa and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No, you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.
It was snow too that fell all Christmas week that year up in the Gauertal, that year they lived in the woodcutter’s house with the big square porcelain stove that filled half the room, and they slept on mattresses filled with beech leaves, the time the deserter came with his feet bloody in the snow. He said the police were right behind him and they gave him woolen socks and held the gendarmes talking until the tracks had drifted over.
In Schrunz, on Christmas day, the snow was so bright it hurt your eyes when you looked out from the Weinstube and saw every one coming home from church. That was where they walked up the sleigh-smoothed urine-yellowed road along the river with the steep pine hills, skis heavy on the shoulder, and where they ran down the glacier above the Madlenerhaus, the snow as smooth to see as cake frosting and as light as powder and he remembered the noiseless rush the speed made as you dropped down like a bird.
They were snow-bound a week in the Madlenerhaus that time in the blizzard playing cards in the smoke by the lantern light and the stakes were higher all the time as Herr Lent lost more. Finally he lost it all. Everything, the Skischule money and all the season’s profit and then his capital. He could see him with his long nose, picking up the cards and then opening, “Sans Voir.” There was always gambling then. When there was no snow you gambled and when there was too much you gambled. He thought of all the time in his life he had spent gambling.
But he had never written a line of that, nor of that cold, bright Christmas day with the mountains showing across the plain that Barker had flown across the lines to bomb the Austrian officers’ leave train, machine-gunning them as they scattered and ran. He remembered Barker afterwards coming into the mess and starting to tell about it. And how quiet it got and then somebody saying, ”You bloody murderous bastard.”
Those were the same Austrians they killed then that he skied with later. No not the same. Hans, that he skied with all that year, had been in the Kaiser Jagers and when they went hunting hares together up the little valley above the saw-mill they had talked of the fighting on Pasubio and of the attack on Perticara and Asalone and he had never written a word of that. Nor of Monte Corona, nor the Sette Communi, nor of Arsiero.
How many winters had he lived in the Vorarlberg and the Arlberg? It was four and then he remembered the man who had the fox to sell when they had walked into Bludenz, that time to buy presents, and the cherry-pit taste of good kirsch, the fast-slipping rush of running powder-snow on crust, singing ”Hi! Ho! said Rolly!’ ‘ as you ran down the last stretch to the steep drop, taking it straight, then running the orchard in three turns and out across the ditch and onto the icy road behind the inn. Knocking your bindings loose, kicking the skis free and leaning them up against the wooden wall of the inn, the lamplight coming from the window, where inside, in the smoky, new-wine smelling warmth, they were playing the accordion.
“Where did we stay in Paris?” he asked the woman who was sitting by him in a canvas chair, now, in Africa.
“At the Crillon. You know that.”
“Why do I know that?”
“That’s where we always stayed.”
“No. Not always.”
“There and at the Pavillion Henri-Quatre in St. Germain. You said you loved it there.”
“Love is a dunghill,” said Harry. “And I’m the cock that gets on it to crow.”
“If you have to go away,” she said, “is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?”
“Yes,” he said. “Your damned money was my armour. My Sword and my Armour.”
“All right. I’ll stop that. I don’t want to hurt you.’
“It’s a little bit late now.”
“All right then. I’ll go on hurting you. It’s more amusing. The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can’t do now.”
“No, that’s not true. You liked to do many things and everything you wanted to do I did.”
“Oh, for Christ sake stop bragging, will you?”
He looked at her and saw her crying.
“Listen,” he said. “Do you think that it is fun to do this? I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s trying to kill to keep yourself alive, I imagine. I was all right when we started talking. I didn’t mean to start this, and now I’m crazy as a coot and being as cruel to you as I can be. Don’t pay any attention, darling, to what I say. I love you, really. You know I love you. I’ve never loved any one else the way I love you.”
He slipped into the familiar lie he made his bread and butter by.
“You’re sweet to me.”
“You bitch,” he said. “You rich bitch. That’s poetry. I’m full of poetry now. Rot and poetry. Rotten poetry.”
“Stop it. Harry, why do you have to turn into a devil now?”
“I don’t like to leave anything,” the man said. “I don’t like to leave things behind.”
* * *
It was evening now and he had been asleep. The sun was gone behind the hill and there was a shadow all across the plain and the small animals were feeding close to camp; quick dropping heads and switching tails, he watched them keeping well out away from the bush now. The birds no longer waited on the ground. They were all perched heavily in a tree. There were many more of them. His personal boy was sitting by the bed.
“Memsahib’s gone to shoot,” the boy said. “Does Bwana want?”
She had gone to kill a piece of meat and, knowing how he liked to watch the game, she had gone well away so she would not disturb this little pocket of the plain that he could see. She was always thoughtful, he thought. On anything she knew about, or had read, or that she had ever heard.
It was not her fault that when he went to her he was already over. How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth.
It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.
You kept from thinking and it was all marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it. But, in yourself, you said that you would write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you would leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of. But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all. The people he knew now were all much more comfortable when he did not work. Africa was where he had been happiest in the good time of his life, so he had come out here to start again. They had made this safari with the minimum of comfort. There was no hardship; but there was no luxury and he had thought that he could get back into training that way. That in some way he could work the fat off his soul the way a fighter went into the mountains to work and train in order to burn it out of his body.
She had liked it. She said she loved it. She loved anything that was exciting, that involved a change of scene, where there were new people and where things were pleasant. And he had felt the illusion of returning strength of will to work. Now if this was how it ended, and he knew it was, he must not turn like some snake biting itself because its back was broken. It wasn’t this woman’s fault. If it had not been she it would have been another. If he lived by a lie he should try to die by it. He heard a shot beyond the hill.
She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself. Why should he blame this woman because she kept him well? He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook. What was this? A catalogue of old books? What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do. And he had chosen to make his living with something else instead of a pen or a pencil. It was strange, too, wasn’t it, that when he fell in love with another woman, that woman should always have more money than the last one? But when he no longer was in love, when he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all, who had all the money there was, who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession; it was strange that when he did not love her at all and was lying, that he should be able to give her more for her money than when he had really loved.
We must all be cut out for what we do, he thought. However you make your living is where your talent lies. He had sold vitality, in one form or another, all his life and when your affections are not too involved you give much better value for the money. He had found that out but he would never write that, now, either. No, he would not write that, although it was well worth writing.
Now she came in sight, walking across the open toward the camp. She was wearing jodphurs and carrying her rifle. The two boys had a Tommie slung and they were coming along behind her. She was still a good-looking woman, he thought, and she had a pleasant body. She had a great talent and appreciation for the bed, she was not pretty, but he liked her face, she read enormously, liked to ride and shoot and, certainly, she drank too much. Her husband had died when she was still a comparatively young woman and for a while she had devoted herself to her two just-grown children, who did not need her and were embarrassed at having her about, to her stable of horses, to books, and to bottles. She liked to read in the evening before dinner and she drank Scotch and soda while she read. By dinner she was fairly drunk and after a bottle of wine at dinner she was usually drunk enough to sleep.
That was before the lovers. After she had the lovers she did not drink so much because she did not have to be drunk to sleep. But the lovers bored her. She had been married to a man who had never bored her and these people bored her very much.
Then one of her two children was killed in a plane crash and after that was over she did not want the lovers, and drink being no anaesthetic she had to make another life. Suddenly, she had been acutely frightened of being alone. But she wanted some one that she respected with her.
It had begun very simply. She liked what he wrote and she had always envied the life he led. She thought he did exactly what he wanted to. The steps by which she had acquired him and the way in which she had finally fallen in love with him were all part of a regular progression in which she had built herself a new life and he had traded away what remained of his old life.
He had traded it for security, for comfort too, there was no denying that, and for what else? He did not know. She would have bought him anything he wanted. He knew that. She was a damned nice woman too. He would as soon be in bed with her as any one; rather with her, because she was richer, because she was very pleasant and appreciative and because she never made scenes. And now this life that she had built again was coming to a term because he had not used iodine two weeks ago when a thorn had scratched his knee as they moved forward trying to photograph a herd of waterbuck standing, their heads up, peering while their nostrils searched the air, their ears spread wide to hear the first noise that would send them rushing into the bush. They had bolted, too, before he got the picture.
Here she came now. He turned his head on the cot to look toward her. “Hello,” he said.
“I shot a Tommy ram,” she told him. “He’ll make you good broth and I’ll have them mash some potatoes with the Klim. How do you feel?”
“Isn’t that lovely? You know I thought perhaps you would. You were sleeping when I left.”
“I had a good sleep. Did you walk far?”
“No. Just around behind the hill. I made quite a good shot on the Tommy.”
“You shoot marvellously, you know.”
“I love it. I’ve loved Africa. Really. If you’re all right it’s the most fun that I’ve ever had. You don’t know the fun it’s been to shoot with you. I’ve loved the country.”
“I love it too.”
“Darling, you don’t know how marvellous it is to see you feeling better. I couldn’t stand it when you felt that way. You won’t talk to me like that again, will you? Promise me?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t remember what I said.”
“You don’t have to destroy me. Do you? I’m only a middle-aged woman who loves you and wants to do what you want to do. I’ve been destroyed two or three times already. You wouldn’t want to destroy me again, would you?”
“I’d like to destroy you a few times in bed,” he said.
“Yes. That’s the good destruction. That’s the way we’re made to be destroyed. The plane will be here tomorrow.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m sure. It’s bound to come. The boys have the wood all ready and the grass to make the smudge. I went down and looked at it again today. There’s plenty of room to land and we have the smudges ready at both ends.”
“What makes you think it will come tomorrow?”
“I’m sure it will. It’s overdue now. Then, in town, they will fix up your leg and then we will have some good destruction. Not that dreadful talking kind.”
“Should we have a drink? The sun is down.”
“Do you think you should?”
“I’m having one.”
“We’ll have one together. Molo, letti dui whiskey-soda!” she called.
“You’d better put on your mosquito boots,” he told her.
“I’ll wait till I bathe . . .”
While it grew dark they drank and just before it was dark and there was no longer enough light to shoot, a hyena crossed the open on his way around the hill.
“That bastard crosses there every night,” the man said. “Every night for two weeks.”
“He’s the one makes the noise at night. I don’t mind it. They’re a filthy animal though.”
Drinking together, with no pain now except the discomfort of lying in the one position, the boys lighting a fire, its shadow jumping on the tents, he could feel the return of acquiescence in this life of pleasant surrender. She was very good to him. He had been cruel and unjust in the afternoon. She was a fine woman, marvellous really. And just then it occurred to him that he was going to die.
It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.
“What is it, Harry?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said. “You had better move over to the other side. To windward.”
“Did Molo change the dressing?”
“Yes. I’m just using the boric now.”
“How do you feel?”
“A little wobbly.”
“I’m going in to bathe,” she said. “I’ll be right out. I’ll eat with you and then we’ll put the cot in.”
So, he said to himself, we did well to stop the quarrelling. He had never quarrelled much with this woman, while with the women that he loved he had quarrelled so much they had finally, always, with the corrosion of the quarrelling, killed what they had together. He had loved too much, demanded too much, and he wore it all out.
He thought about alone in Constantinople that time, having quarrelled in Paris before he had gone out. He had whored the whole time and then, when that was over, and he had failed to kill his loneliness, but only made it worse, he had written her, the first one, the one who left him, a letter telling her how he had never been able to kill it … How when he thought he saw her outside the Regence one time it made him go all faint and sick inside, and that he would follow a woman who looked like her in some way, along the Boulevard, afraid to see it was not she, afraid to lose the feeling it gave him. How every one he had slept with had only made him miss her more. How what she had done could never matter since he knew he could not cure himself of loving her. He wrote this letter at the Club, cold sober, and mailed it to New York asking her to write him at the of fice in Paris. That seemed safe. And that night missing her so much it made him feel hollow sick inside, he wandered up past Maxim’s, picked a girl up and took her out to supper. He had gone to a place to dance with her afterward, she danced badly, and left her for a hot Armenian slut, that swung her belly against him so it almost scalded. He took her away from a British gunner subaltern after a row. The gunner asked him outside and they fought in the street on the cobbles in the dark. He’d hit him twice, hard, on the side of the jaw and when he didn’t go down he knew he was in for a fight. The gunner hit him in the body, then beside his eye. He swung with his left again and landed and the gunner fell on him and grabbed his coat and tore the sleeve off and he clubbed him twice behind the ear and then smashed him with his right as he pushed him away. When the gunner went down his head hit first and he ran with the girl because they heard the M.P. ‘s coming. They got into a taxi and drove out to Rimmily Hissa along the Bosphorus, and around, and back in the cool night and went to bed and she felt as over-ripe as she looked but smooth, rose-petal, syrupy, smooth-bellied, big-breasted and needed no pillow under her buttocks, and he left her before she was awake looking blousy enough in the first daylight and turned up at the Pera Palace with a black eye, carrying his coat because one sleeve was missing.
That same night he left for Anatolia and he remembered, later on that trip, riding all day through fields of the poppies that they raised for opium and how strange it made you feel, finally, and all the distances seemed wrong, to where they had made the attack with the newly arrived Constantine officers, that did not know a god-damned thing, and the artillery had fired into the troops and the British observer had cried like a child.
That was the day he’d first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the of ficers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever. Later he had seen the things that he could never think of and later still he had seen much worse. So when he got back to Paris that time he could not talk about it or stand to have it mentioned. And there in the cafe as he passed was that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement with a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara, who always wore a monocle and had a headache, and, back at the apartment with his wife that now he loved again, the quarrel all over, the madness all over, glad to be home, the office sent his mail up to the flat. So then the letter in answer to the one he’d written came in on a platter one morning and when he saw the hand writing he went cold all over and tried to slip the letter underneath another. But his wife said, ”Who is that letter from, dear?” and that was the end of the beginning of that.
He remembered the good times with them all, and the quarrels. They always picked the finest places to have the quarrels. And why had they always quarrelled when he was feeling best? He had never written any of that because, at first, he never wanted to hurt any one and then it seemed as though there was enough to write without it. But he had always thought that he would write it finally. There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.
“How do you feel?” she said. She had come out from the tent now after her bath.
“Could you eat now?” He saw Molo behind her with the folding table and the other boy with the dishes.
“I want to write,” he said.
“You ought to take some broth to keep your strength up.”
“I’m going to die tonight,” he said. “I don’t need my strength up.”
“Don’t be melodramatic, Harry, please,” she said.
“Why don’t you use your nose? I’m rotted half way up my thigh now. What the hell should I fool with broth for? Molo bring whiskey-soda.”
“Please take the broth,” she said gently.
The broth was too hot. He had to hold it in the cup until it cooled enough to take it and then he just got it down without gagging.
“You’re a fine woman,” he said. “Don’t pay any attention to me.”
She looked at him with her well-known, well-loved face from Spur and Town & Country, only a little the worse for drink, only a little the worse for bed, but Town & Country never showed those good breasts and those useful thighs and those lightly small-of-back-caressing hands, and as he looked and saw her well-known pleasant smile, he felt death come again.
This time there was no rush. It was a puff, as of a wind that makes a candle flicker and the flame go tall.
“They can bring my net out later and hang it from the tree and build the fire up. I’m not going in the tent tonight. It’s not worth moving. It’s a clear night. There won’t be any rain.”
So this was how you died, in whispers that you did not hear. Well, there would be no more quarrelling. He could promise that. The one experience that he had never had he was not going to spoil now. He probably would. You spoiled everything. But perhaps he wouldn’t.
“You can’t take dictation, can you?”
“I never learned,” she told him.
“That’s all right.”
There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right.
There was a log house, chinked white with mortar, on a hill above the lake. There was a bell on a pole by the door to call the people in to meals. Behind the house were fields and behind the fields was the timber. A line of lombardy poplars ran from the house to the dock. Other poplars ran along the point. A road went up to the hills along the edge of the timber and along that road he picked blackberries. Then that log house was burned down and all the guns that had been on deer foot racks above the open fire place were burned and afterwards their barrels, with the lead melted in the magazines, and the stocks burned away, lay out on the heap of ashes that were used to make lye for the big iron soap kettles, and you asked Grandfather if you could have them to play with, and he said, no. You see they were his guns still and he never bought any others. Nor did he hunt any more. The house was rebuilt in the same place out of lumber now and painted white and from its porch you saw the poplars and the lake beyond; but there were never any more guns. The barrels of the guns that had hung on the deer feet on the wall of the log house lay out there on the heap of ashes and no one ever touched them.
In the Black Forest, after the war, we rented a trout stream and there were two ways to walk to it. One was down the valley from Triberg and around the valley road in the shade of the trees that bordered the white road, and then up a side road that went up through the hills past many small farms, with the big Schwarzwald houses, until that road crossed the stream. That was where our fishing began.
The other way was to climb steeply up to the edge of the woods and then go across the top of the hills through the pine woods, and then out to the edge of a meadow and down across this meadow to the bridge. There were birches along the stream and it was not big, but narrow, clear and fast, with pools where it had cut under the roots of the birches. At the Hotel in Triberg the proprietor had a fine season. It was very pleasant and we were all great friends. The next year came the inflation and the money he had made the year before was not enough to buy supplies to open the hotel and he hanged himself. You could dictate that, but you could not dictate the Place Contrescarpe where the flower sellers dyed their flowers in the street and the dye ran over the paving where the autobus started and the old men and the women, always drunk on wine and bad mare; and the children with their noses running in the cold; the smell of dirty sweat and poverty and drunkenness at the Cafe’ des Amateurs and the whores at the Bal Musette they lived above. The concierge who entertained the trooper of the Garde Republicaine in her loge, his horse-hair-plumed helmet on a chair. The locataire across the hall whose husband was a bicycle racer and her joy that morning at the cremerie when she had opened L’Auto and seen where he placed third in Paris-Tours, his first big race. She had blushed and laughed and then gone upstairs crying with the yellow sporting paper in her hand. The husband of the woman who ran the Bal Musette drove a taxi and when he, Harry, had to take an early plane the husband knocked upon the door to wake him and they each drank a glass of white wine at the zinc of the bar before they started. He knew his neighbors in that quarter then because they all were poor.
Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.
From the apartment you could only see the wood and coal man’s place. He sold wine too, bad wine. The golden horse’s head outside the Boucherie Chevaline where the carcasses hung yellow gold and red in the open window, and the green painted co-operative where they bought their wine; good wine and cheap. The rest was plaster walls and the windows of the neighbors. The neighbors who, at night, when some one lay drunk in the street, moaning and groaning in that typical French ivresse that you were propaganded to believe did not exist, would open their windows and then the murmur of talk.
”Where is the policeman? When you don’t want him the bugger is always there. He’s sleeping with some concierge. Get the Agent. ” Till some one threw a bucket of water from a window and the moaning stopped. ”What’s that? Water. Ah, that’s intelligent.” And the windows shutting. Marie, his femme de menage, protesting against the eight-hour day saying, ”If a husband works until six he gets only a riffle drunk on the way home and does not waste too much. If he works only until five he is drunk every night and one has no money. It is the wife of the working man who suffers from this shortening of hours. ‘
“Wouldn’t you like some more broth?” the woman asked him now.
“No, thank you very much. It is awfully good.”
“Try just a little.”
“I would like a whiskey-soda.”
“It’s not good for you.”
“No. It’s bad for me. Cole Porter wrote the words and the music. This knowledge that you’re going mad for me.”
“You know I like you to drink.”
“Oh yes. Only it’s bad for me.”
When she goes, he thought, I’ll have all I want. Not all I want but all there is. Ayee he was tired. Too tired. He was going to sleep a little while. He lay still and death was not there. It must have gone around another street. It went in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.
No, he had never written about Paris. Not the Paris that he cared about. But what about the rest that he had never written?
What about the ranch and the silvered gray of the sage brush, the quick, clear water in the irrigation ditches, and the heavy green of the alfalfa. The trail went up into the hills and the cattle in the summer were shy as deer. The bawling and the steady noise and slow moving mass raising a dust as you brought them down in the fall. And behind the mountains, the clear sharpness of the peak in the evening light and, riding down along the trail in the moonlight, bright across the valley. Now he remembered coming down through the timber in the dark holding the horse’s tail when you could not see and all the stories that he meant to write.
About the half-wit chore boy who was left at the ranch that time and told not to let any one get any hay, and that old bastard from the Forks who had beaten the boy when he had worked for him stopping to get some feed. The boy refusing and the old man saying he would beat him again. The boy got the rifle from the kitchen and shot him when he tried to come into the barn and when they came back to the ranch he’d been dead a week, frozen in the corral, and the dogs had eaten part of him. But what was left you packed on a sled wrapped in a blanket and roped on and you got the boy to help you haul it, and the two of you took it out over the road on skis, and sixty miles down to town to turn the boy over. He having no idea that he would be arrested. Thinking he had done his duty and that you were his friend and he would be rewarded. He’d helped to haul the old man in so everybody could know how bad the old man had been and how he’d tried to steal some feed that didn’t belong to him, and when the sheriff put the handcuffs on the boy he couldn’t believe it. Then he’d started to cry. That was one story he had saved to write. He knew at least twenty good stories from out there and he had never written one. Why?
“You tell them why,” he said.
“Why what, dear?”
She didn’t drink so much, now, since she had him. But if he lived he would never write about her, he knew that now. Nor about any of them. The rich were dull and they drank too much, or they played too much backgammon. They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamourous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.
He had been contemptuous of those who wrecked. You did not have to like it because you understood it. He could beat anything, he thought, because no thing could hurt him if he did not care.
All right. Now he would not care for death. One thing he had always dreaded was the pain. He could stand pain as well as any man, until it went on too long, and wore him out, but here he had something that had hurt frightfully and just when he had felt it breaking him, the pain had stopped.
He remembered long ago when Williamson, the bombing officer, had been hit by a stick bomb some one in a German patrol had thrown as he was coming in through the wire that night and, screaming, had begged every one to kill him. He was a fat man, very brave, and a good officer, although addicted to fantastic shows. But that night he was caught in the wire, with a flare lighting him up and his bowels spilled out into the wire, so when they brought him in, alive, they had to cut him loose. Shoot me, Harry. For Christ sake shoot me. They had had an argument one time about our Lord never sending you anything you could not bear and some one’s theory had been that meant that at a certain time the pain passed you out automatically. But he had always remembered Williamson, that night. Nothing passed out Williamson until he gave him all his morphine tablets that he had always saved to use himself and then they did not work right away.
Still this now, that he had, was very easy; and if it was no worse as it went on there was nothing to worry about. Except that he would rather be in better company.
He thought a little about the company that he would like to have.
No, he thought, when everything you do, you do too long, and do too late, you can’t expect to find the people still there. The people all are gone. The party’s over and you are with your hostess now.
I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought.
“It’s a bore,” he said out loud.
“What is, my dear?”
“Anything you do too bloody long.”
He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire.
“I’ve been writing,” he said. “But I got tired.”
“Do you think you will be able to sleep?”
“Pretty sure. Why don’t you turn in?”
“I like to sit here with you.”
“Do you feel anything strange?” he asked her.
“No. Just a little sleepy.”
“I do,” he said.
He had just felt death come by again.
“You know the only thing I’ve never lost is curiosity,” he said to her.
“You’ve never lost anything. You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known.”
“Christ,” he said. “How little a woman knows. What is that? Your intuition?”
Because, just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.
“Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull,” he told her. “It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena.”
It had moved up on him now, but it had no shape any more. It simply occupied space.
“Tell it to go away.”
It did not go away but moved a little closer.
“You’ve got a hell of a breath,” he told it. “You stinking bastard.”
It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move or speak, he heard the woman say, “Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent.”
He could not speak to tell her to make it go away and it crouched now, heavier, so he could not breathe. And then, while they lifted the cot, suddenly it was all right and the weight went from his chest.
It was morning and had been morning for some time and he heard the plane. It showed very tiny and then made a wide circle and the boys ran out and lit the fires, using kerosene, and piled on grass so there were two big smudges at each end of the level place and the morning breeze blew them toward the camp and the plane circled twice more, low this time, and then glided down and levelled off and landed smoothly and, coming walking toward him, was old Compton in slacks, a tweed jacket and a brown felt hat.
“What’s the matter, old cock?” Compton said.
“Bad leg,” he told him. “Will you have some breakfast?”
“Thanks. I’ll just have some tea. It’s the Puss Moth you know. I won’t be able to take the Memsahib. There’s only room for one. Your lorry is on the way.”
Helen had taken Compton aside and was speaking to him. Compton came back more cheery than ever.
“We’ll get you right in,” he said. “I’ll be back for the Mem. Now I’m afraid I’ll have to stop at Arusha to refuel. We’d better get going.”
“What about the tea?”
“I don’t really care about it, you know.”
The boys had picked up the cot and carried it around the green tents and down along the rock and out onto the plain and along past the smudges that were burning brightly now, the grass all consumed, and the wind fanning the fire, to the little plane. It was difficult getting him in, but once in he lay back in the leather seat, and the leg was stuck straight out to one side of the seat where Compton sat. Compton started the motor and got in. He waved to Helen and to the boys and, as the clatter moved into the old familiar roar, they swung around with Compie watching for warthog holes and roared, bumping, along the stretch between the fires and with the last bump rose and he saw them all standing below, waving, and the camp beside the hill, flattening now, and the plain spreading, clumps of trees, and the bush flattening, while the game trails ran now smoothly to the dry waterholes, and there was a new water that he had never known of. The zebra, small rounded backs now, and the wildebeeste, big-headed dots seeming to climb as they moved in long fingers across the plain, now scattering as the shadow came toward them, they were tiny now, and the movement had no gallop, and the plain as far as you could see, gray-yellow now and ahead old Compie’s tweed back and the brown felt hat. Then they were over the first hills and the wildebeeste were trailing up them, and then they were over mountains with sudden depths of green-rising forest and the solid bamboo slopes, and then the heavy forest again, sculptured into peaks and hollows until they crossed, and hills sloped down and then another plain, hot now, and purple brown, bumpy with heat and Compie looking back to see how he was riding. Then there were other mountains dark ahead.
And then instead of going on to Arusha they turned left, he evidently figured that they had the gas, and looking down he saw a pink sifting cloud, moving over the ground, and in the air, like the first snow in at ii blizzard, that comes from nowhere, and he knew the locusts were coming, up from the South. Then they began to climb and they were going to the East it seemed, and then it darkened and they were in a storm, the rain so thick it seemed like flying through a waterfall, and then they were out and Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.
Just then the hyena stopped whimpering in the night and started to make a strange, human, almost crying sound. The woman heard it and, stirred uneasily. She did not wake. In her dream she was at the house on Long Island and it was the night before her daughter’s debut. Somehow her father was there and he had been very rude. Then the noise the hyena made was so loud she woke and for a moment she did not know where she was and she was very afraid. Then she took the flashlight and shone it on the other cot that they had carried in after Harry had gone to sleep. She could see his bulk under the mosquito bar but somehow he had gotten his leg out and it hung down alongside the cot. The dressings had all come down and she could not look at it.
“Molo,” she called, “Molo! Molo!”
Then she said, “Harry, Harry!” Then her voice rising, “Harry! Please. Oh Harry!”
There was no answer and she could not hear him breathing.
Outside the tent the hyena made the same strange noise that had awakened her. But she did not hear him for the beating of her heart.
Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961) was an American novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works. Additional works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature.
Hemingway was raised in Oak Park, Illinois. After high school, he reported for a few months for The Kansas City Star, before leaving for the Italian front to enlist with the World War I ambulance drivers. In 1918, he was seriously wounded and returned home. His wartime experiences formed the basis for his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929).
It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.
And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.
In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time.
Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.
But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.
Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.
To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science.
Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.
All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.
The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard behind, went on alone.
When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging.
The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.
The King went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest?
And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”
The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.
“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”
“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.
When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:
“Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”
But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees,
and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:
“I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”
“Here comes some one running,” said the hermit, “let us see who it is.”
The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound.
When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.
“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.
“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the King.
“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had
you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”
The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.
Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.
The King approached him, and said:
“For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”
“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.
“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the King.
“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were
attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one
else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (/ˈtoʊlstɔɪ, ˈtɒl-/; Russian: Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й, Lev Nikolajevič Tolstoj, pronounced [lʲɛf nʲɪkɐˈlaɪvʲɪtɕ tɐlˈstoj] ; 9 September [O.S. 28 August] 1828 – 20 November [O.S. 7 November] 1910), usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer who is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time.
Born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), often cited as pinnacles of realist fiction. He first achieved literary acclaim in his twenties with his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based upon his experiences in the Crimean War. Tolstoy’s fiction includes dozens of short stories and several novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend’s friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and I hereunto append the result. I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth; that my friend never knew such a personage; and that he only conjectured that, if I asked old Wheeler about him, it would remind him of his infamous Jim Smiley, and he would go to work and bore me nearly to death with some infernal reminiscence of him as long and tedious as it should be useless to me. If that was the design, it certainly succeeded.
I found Simon Wheeler dozing comfortably by the bar-room stove of the old, dilapidated tavern in the ancient mining camp of Angel’s, and I noticed that he was fat and bald-headed, and had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity upon his tranquil countenance. He roused up and gave me good-day. I told him a friend of mine had commissioned me to make some inquiries about a cherished companion of his boyhood named Leonidas W. Smiley Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley a young minister of the Gospel, who he had heard was at one time a resident of Angel’s Camp. I added that, if Mr. Wheeler could tell me any thing about this Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, I would feel under many obligations to him.
Simon Wheeler backed me into a corner and blockaded me there with his chair, and then sat me down and reeled off the monotonous narrative which follows this paragraph. He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm; but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse. To me, the spectacle of a man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever smiling, was exquisitely absurd. As I said before, I asked him to tell me what he knew of Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and he replied as follows. I let him go on in his own way, and never interrupted him once:
There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or may be it was the spring of ’50 I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides. Any way that suited the other man would suit him any way just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied. But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner. He was always ready and laying for a chance; there couldn’t be no solittry thing mentioned but that feller’d offer to bet on it, and -take any side you please, as I was just telling you. If there was a horse-race, you’d find him flush, or you’d find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why, if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first; or if there was a camp-meeting, he would be there reg’lar, to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and so he was, too, and a good man. If he even seen a straddle-bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get wherever he was going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle-bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road. Lots of the boys here has seen that Smiley, and can tell you about him. Why, it never made no difference to him he would bet on any thing the dangdest feller. Parson Walker’s wife laid very sick once, for a good while, and it seemed as if they warn’s going to save her; but one morning he come in, and Smiley asked how she was, and he said she was considerable better thank the Lord for his inftnit mercy and coming on so smart that, with the blessing of Providence, she’d get well yet; and Smiley, before he thought, says, “Well, I’ll risk two- and-a-half that she don’t, any way.”
Thish-yer Smiley had a mare the boys called her the fifteen- minute nag, but that was only in fun, you know, because, of course, she was faster than that and he used to win money on that horse, for all she was so slow and always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something of that kind. They used to give her two or three hundred yards start, and then pass her under way; but always at the fag-end of the race she’d get excited and desperate- like, and come cavorting and straddling up, and scattering her legs around limber, sometimes in the air, and sometimes out to one side amongst the fences, and kicking up m-o-r-e dust, and raising m-o-r-e racket with her coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose and always fetch up at the stand just about a neck ahead, as near as you could cipher it down.
And he had a little small bull pup, that to look at him you’d think he wan’s worth a cent, but to set around and look ornery, and lay for a chance to steal something. But as soon as money was up on him, he was a different dog; his underjaw’d begin to stick out like the fo’castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces. And a dog might tackle him, and bully- rag him, and bite him, and throw him over his shoulder two or three times, and Andrew Jackson which was the name of the pup Andrew Jackson would never let on but what he was satisfied, and hadn’t expected nothing else and the bets being doubled and doubled on the other side all the time, till the money was all up; and then all of a sudden he would grab that other dog jest by the j’int of his hind leg and freeze on it not chew, you understand, but only jest grip and hang on till they thronged up the sponge, if it was a year. Smiley always come out winner on that pup, till he harnessed a dog once that didn’t have no hind legs, because they’d been sawed off by a circular saw, and when the thing had gone along far enough, and the money was all up, and he come to make a snatch for his pet bolt, he saw in a minute how he’d been imposed on, and how the other dog had him in the door, so to speak, and he ‘peered sur- prised, and then he looked sorter discouraged-like, and didn’t try no more to win the fight, and so he got shucked out bad. He give Smiley a look, as much as to say his heart was broke, and it was his fault, for putting up a dog that hadn’t no hind legs for him to take bolt of, which was his main dependence in a fight, and then he limped off a piece and laid down and died. It was a good pup, was that Andrew Jackson, and would have made a name for hisself if he’d lived, for the stuff was in him, and he had genius I know it, because he hadn’t had no opportunities to speak of, and it don’t stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as he could under them circumstances, if he hadn’t no talent. It always makes me feel sorry when I think of that last fight of his’n, and the way it turned out.
Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom- cats, and all of them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut see him turn one summerset, or may be a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of catching flies, and kept him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as far as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most any thing and I believe him. Why, I’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog and sing out, “Flies, Dan’l, flies!” and quicker’n you could wink, he’d spring straight up, and snake a fly off’n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn’t no idea he’d been doin’ any more’n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightforward as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and been everywheres, all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.
Well, Smiley kept the beast in a little lattice box, and he used to fetch him down town sometimes and lay for a bet. One day a feller a stranger in the camp, he was come across him with his box, and says:
“What might it be that you’ve got in the box?”
And Smiley says, sorter indifferent like, “It might be a parrot, or it might be a canary, may be, but it an’t it’s only just a frog.”
And the feller took it, and looked at it careful, and turned it round this way and that, and says, “H’m so ’tis. Well, what’s he good for?”
“Well,” Smiley says, easy and careless, “He’s good enough for one thing, I should judge he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county.”
The feller took the box again, and took another long, particular look, and give it back to Smiley, and says, very deliberate, “Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”
“May be you don’t,” Smiley says. “May be you understand frogs, and may be you don’t understand ’em; may be you’ve had experience, and may be you an’t only a amature, as it were. Anyways, I’ve got my opinion, and I’ll risk forty dollars that he can outjump any frog in Calaveras county.”
And the feller studied a minute, and then says, kinder sad like, “Well, I’m only a stranger here, and I an’t got no frog; but if I had a frog, I’d bet you.”
And then Smiley says, “That’s all right that’s all right if you’ll hold my box a minute, I’ll go and get you a frog.” And so the feller took the box, and put up his forty dollars along with Smiley’s, and set down to wait.
So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a tea- spoon and filled him full of quail shot filled him pretty near up to his chin and set him on the floor. Smiley he went to the swamp and slopped around in the mud for a long time, and finally he ketched a frog, and fetched him in, and give him to this feller, and says:
“Now, if you’re ready, set him alongside of Dan’l, with his fore- paws just even with Dan’l, and I’ll give the word.” Then he says, “One two three jump!” and him and the feller touched up the frogs from behind, and the new frog hopped off, but Dan’l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders so like a Frenchman, but it wan’s no use he couldn’t budge; he was planted as solid as an anvil, and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out. Smiley was a good deal surprised, and he was disgusted too, but he didn’t have no idea what the matter was, of course.
The feller took the money and started away; and when he was going out at the door, he sorter jerked his thumb over his shoulders this way at Dan’l, and says again, very deliberate, “Well, I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”
Smiley he stood scratching his head and looking down at Dan’l a long time, and at last he says, “I do wonder what in the nation that frog throw’d off for I wonder if there an’t something the matter with him he ‘pears to look mighty baggy, somehow.” And he ketched Dan’l by the nap of the neck, and lifted him up and says, “Why, blame my cats, if he don’t weigh five pound!” and turned him upside down, and he belched out a double handful of shot. And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketchd him. And-
[Here Simon Wheeler heard his name called from the front yard, and got up to see what was wanted.] And turning to me as he moved away, he said: “Just set where you are, stranger, and rest easy I an’t going to be gone a second.”
But, by your leave, I did not think that a continuation of the history of the enterprising vagabond Jim Smiley would be likely to afford me much information concerning the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley, and so I started away.
At the door I met the sociable Wheeler returning, and he button- holed me and recommenced:
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yeller one-eyed cow that didn’t have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner, and “
“Oh! hang Smiley and his afflicted cow!” I muttered, good-naturedly, and bidding the old gentleman good-day, I departed.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. Among his novels are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called “The Great American Novel”.
Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which later provided the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. After an apprenticeship with a printer, Twain worked as a typesetter and contributed articles to the newspaper of his older brother, Orion Clemens. He later became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before heading west to join Orion in Nevada. He referred humorously to his lack of success at mining, turning to journalism for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In 1865, his humorous story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published, based on a story he heard at Angels Hotel in Angels Camp, California, where he had spent some time as a miner. The short story brought international attention and was even translated into classic Greek. His wit and satire, in prose and in speech, earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.
SHE sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses. One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it — not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field — the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters. Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming. Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from. Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided. And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. O course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married — she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And no she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages — seven shillings — and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad on Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions. She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to hr charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work — a hard life — but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.
She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her. How well she remembered the first time she had seen him; he was lodging in a house on the main road where she used to visit. It seemed a few weeks ago. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze. Then they had come to know each other. He used to meet her outside the Stores every evening and see her home. He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries. He had started as a deck boy at a pound a month on a ship of the Allan Line going out to Canada. He told her the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians. He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
One day he had quarrelled with Frank and after that she had to meet her lover secretly.
The evening deepened in the avenue. The white of two letters in her lap grew indistinct. One was to Harry; the other was to her father. Ernest had been her favourite but she liked Harry too. Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mothers bonnet to make the children laugh.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne. Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being — that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.
A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century.
Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in an array of contrasting literary styles, perhaps most prominent among these the stream of consciousness technique he utilised. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, occasional journalism and his published letters.
SYMBOLS AND SIGNS
For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
At the time of his birth, they had already been married for a long time; a score of years had elapsed, and now they were quite old. Her drab gray hair was pinned up carelessly. She wore cheap black dresses. Unlike other women of her age (such as Mrs. Sol, their next-door neighbor, whose face was all pink and mauve with paint and whose hat was a cluster of brookside flowers), she presented a naked white countenance to the faultfinding light of spring. Her husband, who in the old country had been a fairly successful businessman, was now, in New York, wholly dependent on his brother Isaac, a real American of almost forty years’ standing. They seldom saw Isaac and had nicknamed him the Prince.
That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.
Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.
During the long ride to the subway station, she and her husband did not exchange a word, and every time she glanced at his old hands, clasped and twitching upon the handle of his umbrella, and saw their swollen veins and brown-spotted skin, she felt the mounting pressure of tears. As she looked around, trying to hook her mind onto something, it gave her a kind of soft shock, a mixture of compassion and wonder, to notice that one of the passengers—a girl with dark hair and grubby red toenails—was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman. Whom did that woman resemble? She resembled Rebecca Borisovna, whose daughter had married one of the Soloveichiks—in Minsk, years ago.
The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, which the doctor at the sanitarium had given to them to read. But long before that, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not! With distance, the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther away, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up, in terms of granite and groaning firs, the ultimate truth of his being.
When they emerged from the thunder and foul air of the subway, the last dregs of the day were mixed with the street lights. She wanted to buy some fish for supper, so she handed him the basket of jelly jars, telling him to go home. Accordingly, he returned to their tenement house, walked up to the third landing, and then remembered he had given her his keys earlier in the day.
In silence he sat down on the steps and in silence rose when, some ten minutes later, she came trudging heavily up the stairs, smiling wanly and shaking her head in deprecation of her silliness. They entered their two-room flat and he at once went to the mirror. Straining the corners of his mouth apart by means of his thumbs, with a horrible, mask-like grimace, he removed his new, hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate. He read his Russian-language newspaper while she laid the table. Still reading, he ate the pale victuals that needed no teeth. She knew his moods and was also silent.
When he had gone to bed, she remained in the living room with her pack of soiled playing cards and her old photograph albums. Across the narrow courtyard, where the rain tinkled in the dark against some ash cans, windows were blandly alight, and in one of them a black-trousered man, with his hands clasped under his head and his elbows raised, could he seen lying supine on an untidy bed. She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about. The boy, aged six—that was when he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet, and suffered from insomnia like a grown-up man. His cousin, now a famous chess player. The boy again, aged about eight, already hard to understand, afraid of the wallpaper in the passage, afraid of a certain picture in a book, which merely showed an idyllic landscape with rocks on a hillside and an old cart wheel hanging from the one branch of a leafless tree. Here he was at ten—the year they left Europe. She remembered the shame, the pity, the humiliating difficulties of the journey, and the ugly, vicious, backward children he was with in the special school where he had been placed after they arrived in America. And then came a time in his life, coinciding with a long convalescence after pneumonia, when those little phobias of his, which his parents had stubbornly regarded as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child, hardened, as it were, into a dense tangle of logically interacting illusions, making them totally inaccessible to normal minds.
All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the in visible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.
It was nearly midnight when, from the living room, she heard her husband moan, and presently he staggered in, wearing over his nightgown the old overcoat with the astrakhan collar that he much preferred to his nice blue bathrobe.
“I can’t sleep!” he cried.
“Why can’t you sleep?” she asked. “You were so tired.”
“I can’t sleep because I am dying,” he said, and lay down on the couch.
“Is it your stomach? Do you want me to call Dr. Solov?”
“No doctors, no doctors,” he moaned. “To the devil with doctors! We must get him out of there quick. Otherwise, we’ll be responsible…. Responsible!” He hurled himself into a sitting position, both feet on the floor, thumping his forehead with his clenched fist.
“All right,” she said quietly. “We will bring him home tomorrow morning.”
“I would like some tea,” said her husband and went out to the bathroom.
Bending with difficulty, she retrieved some playing cards and a photograph or two that had slipped to the floor—the knave of hearts, the nine of spades, the ace of spades, the maid Elsa and her bestial beau. He returned in high spirits, saying in a loud voice, “I have it all figured out. We will give him the bedroom. Each of us will spend part of the night near him and the other part on this couch. We will have the doctor see him at least twice a week. It does not matter what the Prince says. He won’t have much to say anyway, because it will come out cheaper.”
The telephone rang. It was an unusual hour for it to ring. He stood in the middle of the room, groping with his foot for one slipper that had come off, and childishly, toothlessly, gaped at his wife. Since she knew more English than he, she always attended to the calls.
”Can I speak to Charlie?” a girl’s dull little voice said to her now.
“What number do you want? . . . No. You have the wrong number.”
She put the receiver down gently and her hand went to her heart. “It frightened me,” she said.
He smiled a quick smile and immediately resumed his excited monologue. They would fetch him as soon as it was day. For his own protection, they would keep all the knives in a locked drawer. Even at his worst, he presented no danger to other people.
The telephone rang a second time.
The same toneless, anxious young voice asked for Charlie.
“You have the incorrect number. I will tell you what you are doing. You are turning the letter ‘o’ instead of the zero.” She hung up again.
They sat down to their unexpected, festive midnight tea. He sipped noisily; his face was flushed; every now and then he raised his glass with a circular motion, so as to make the sugar dissolve more thoroughly. The vein on the side of his bald head stood out conspicuously, and silvery bristles showed on his chin. The birthday present stood on the table. While she poured him another glass of tea, he put on his spectacles and reëxamined with pleasure the luminous yellow, green, and red little jars. His clumsy, moist lips spelled out their eloquent labels—apricot, grape, beach plum, quince. He had got to crab apple when the telephone rang again.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (/nəˈbɔːkəf, ˈnæbəˌkɔːf, -ˌkɒf/; Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков, pronounced [vlɐˈdʲimʲɪr nɐˈbokəf] ( listen), also known by the pen name Vladimir Sirin; 22 April [O.S. 10 April] 1899c – 2 July 1977) was a Russian-American novelist and entomologist. His first nine novels were in Russian, and he achieved international prominence after he began writing English prose.
Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), his most noted novel in English, was ranked fourth in the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels; Pale Fire (1962) was ranked 53rd on the same list, and his memoir, Speak, Memory (1951), was listed eighth on the publisher’s list of the 20th century’s greatest nonfiction. He was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction seven times.