She flicked her wrist neatly out of Doctor Harry’s pudgy careful fingers and pulled the sheet up to her chin. The brat ought to be in knee breeches. Doctoring around the country with spectacles on his nose! “Get along now, take your schoolbooks and go. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Doctor Harry spread a warm paw like a cushion on her forehead where the forked green vein danced and made her eyelids twitch. “Now, now, be a good girl, and we’ll have you up in no time.”
“That’s no way to speak to a woman nearly eighty years old just because she’s down. I’d have you respect your elders, young man.”
“Well, Missy, excuse me.” Doctor Harry patted her cheek. “But I’ve got to warm you, haven’t I? You’re a marvel, but you must be careful or you’re going to be good and sorry.”
“Don’t tell me what I’m going to be. I’m on my feet now, morally speaking. It’s Cornelia. I had to go to bed to get rid of her.”
Her bones felt loose, and floated around in her skin, and Doctor Harry floated like a balloon around the foot of the bed. He floated and pulled down his waistcoat and swung his glasses on a cord. “Well, stay where you are, it certainly can’t hurt you.”
“Get along and doctor your sick,” said Granny Weatherall. “Leave a well woman alone. I’ll call for you when I want you… Where were you forty years ago when I pulled through milk-leg and double pneumonia? You weren’t even born. Don’t let Cornelia lead you on,” she shouted, because Doctor Harry appeared to float up to the ceiling and out. “I pay my own bills, and I don’t throw my money away on nonsense!”
She meant to wave good-by, but it was too much trouble. Her eyes closed of themselves, it was like a dark curtain drawn around the bed. The pillow rose and floated under her, pleasant as a hammock in a light wind. She listened to the leaves rustling outside the window. No, somebody was swishing newspapers: no, Cornelia and Doctor Harry were whispering together. She leaped broad awake, thinking they whispered in her ear.
“She was never like this, never like this!” “Well, what can we expect?” “Yes, eighty years old….”
Well, and what if she was? She still had ears. It was like Cornelia to whisper around doors. She always kept things secret in such a public way. She was always being tactful and kind. Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: “So good and dutiful,” said Granny, “that I’d like to spank her.” She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.
“What’d you say, Mother?”
Granny felt her face tying up in hard knots.
“Can’t a body think, I’d like to know?”
“I thought you might want something.”
“I do. I want a lot of things. First off, go away and don’t whisper.”
She lay and drowsed, hoping in her sleep that the children would keep out and let her rest a minute. It had been a long day. Not that she was tired. It was always pleasant to snatch a minute now and then. There was always so much to be done, let me see: tomorrow.
Tomorrow was far away and there was nothing to trouble about. Things were finished somehow when the time came; thank God there was always a little margin over for peace: then a person could spread out the plan of life and tuck in the edges orderly. It was good to have everything clean and folded away, with the hair brushes and tonic bottles sitting straight on the white embroidered linen: the day started without fuss and the pantry shelves laid out with rows of jelly glasses and brown jugs and white stone-china jars with blue whirligigs and words painted on them: coffee, tea, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, allspice: and the bronze clock with the lion on top nicely dusted off. The dust that lion could collect in twenty-four hours! The box in the attic with all those letters tied up, well she’d have to go through that tomorrow. All those letters – George’s letters and John’s letters and her letters to them both – lying around for the children to find afterwards made her uneasy. Yes, that would be tomorrow’s business. No use to let them know how silly she had been once.
While she was rummaging around she found death in her mind and it felt clammy and unfamiliar. She had spent so much time preparing for death there was no need for bringing it up again. Let it take care of itself now. When she was sixty she had felt very old, finished, and went around making farewell trips to see her children and grandchildren! Then she made her will and came down with a long fever. That was all just a notion like a lot of other things, but it was lucky too, for she had once for all got over the idea of dying for a long time. Now she couldn’t be worried. She hoped she had better sense now. Her father had lived to be one hundred and two years old and had drunk a noggin of strong hot toddy on his last birthday. He told the reporters it was his daily habit, and he owed his long life to that. He had made quite a scandal and was very pleased about it. She believed she’d just plague Cornelia a little.
“Cornelia! Cornelia!” No footsteps, but a sudden hand on her cheek. “Bless you, where have you been?”
“Well, Cornelia, I want a noggin of hot toddy.”
“Are you cold, darling?”
“I’m chilly, Cornelia. Lying in bed stops the circulation. I must have told you that a thousand times.”
Well, she could just hear Cornelia telling her husband that Mother was getting childish and they’d have to humor her. The thing that most annoyed her was that Cornelia thought she was deaf, dumb, and blind. Little hasty glances and tiny gestures tossed around her and over her head saying, “Don’t cross her, let her have her way, she’s eighty years old,” and sitting there as if she lived in a thin glass cage. Sometimes Granny almost made up her mind to pack up and move back to her own house where nobody could remind her every minute that she was old. Wait, wait, Cornelia, till your own children whisper behind your back!
In her day she had kept a better house and had got more work done. She wasn’t too old yet for Lydia to be driving eighty miles for advice when one of the children jumped the track, and Jimmy still dropped in and talked things over: “Now, Mammy, you’ve a good business head, I want to know what you think of this?…” Old Cornelia couldn’t change the furniture around without asking. Little things, little things! They had been so sweet when they were little. Granny wished the old days were back again with the children young and everything to be done over. It had been a hard pull, but not too much for her. When she thought of all the food she had cooked, and all the clothes she had cut and sewed, and all the gardens she had made – well, the children showed it. There they were, made out of her, and they couldn’t get away from that. Sometimes she wanted to see John again and point to them and say, Well, I didn’t do so badly, did I? But that would have to wait. That was for tomorrow. She used to think of him as a man, but now all the children were older than their father, and he would be a child beside her if she saw him now. It seemed strange and there was something wrong in the idea. Why, he couldn’t possibly recognize her. She had fenced in a hundred acres once, digging the post holes herself and clamping the wires with just a Negro boy to help. That changed a woman. John would be looking for a young woman with the peaked Spanish comb in her hair and the painted fan. Digging post holes changed a woman. Riding country roads in the winter when women had their babies was another thing: sitting up nights with sick horses and sick Negroes and sick children and hardly ever losing one. John, I hardly ever lost one of them! John would see that in a minute, that would be something he could understand, she wouldn’t have to explain anything!
It made her feel like rolling up her sleeves and putting the whole place to rights again. No matter if Cornelia was determined to be everywhere at once, there were a great many things left undone on this place. She would start tomorrow and do them. It was good to be strong enough for everything, even if all you made melted and changed and slipped under your hands, so that by the time you finished you almost forgot what you were working for. What was it I set out to do? She asked herself intently, but she could not remember. A fog rose over the valley, she saw it marching across the creek swallowing the trees and moving up the hill like an army of ghosts. Soon it would be at the near edge of the orchard, and then it was time to go in and light the lamps. Come in, children, don’t stay out in the night air.
Lighting the lamps had been beautiful. The children huddled up to her and breathed like little calves waiting at the bars in the twilight. Their eyes followed the match and watched the flame rise and settle in a blue curve, then they moved away from her. The lamp was lit, they didn’t have to be scared and hang on to mother any more. Never, never, never more. God, for all my life I thank Thee. Without Thee, my God, I could never have done it. Hail, Mary, full of grace.
I want you to pick all the fruit this year and see that nothing is wasted. There’s always someone who can use it. Don’t let good things rot for want of using. You waste life when you waste good food. Don’t let things get lost. It’s bitter to lose things. Now, don’t let me get to thinking, not when I am tired and taking a little nap before supper…
The pillow rose about her shoulders and pressed against her heart and the memory was being squeezed out of it: oh, push down the pillow, somebody: it would smother her if she tried to hold it. Such a fresh breeze blowing and such a green day with no threats in it. But he had not come, just the same. What does a woman do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and he doesn’t come? She tried to remember. No, I swear he never harmed me but in that. He never harmed me but in that… and what if he did? There was the day, the day, but a whirl of dark smoke rose and covered it, crept up and over into the bright field where everything was planted so carefully in orderly rows. That was hell, she knew hell when she saw it. For sixty years she had prayed against remembering him and against losing her soul in the deep pit of hell, and now the two things were mingled in one and the thought of him was a smoking cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head when she had just got rid of Doctor Harry and was trying to rest a minute: Wounded vanity, Ellen, said a sharp voice in the top of her mind. Don’t let your wounded vanity get the upper hand of you. Plenty of girls get jilted. You were jilted, weren’t you? Then stand up to it. Her eyelids wavered and let in streamers of blue-gray light like tissue paper over her eyes. She must get up and pull the shades down or she’d never sleep. She was in bed again and the shades were not down. How could that happen? Better turn over, hide from the light, sleeping in the light gave you nightmares. “Mother, how do you feel now?” and a stinging wetness on her forehead. But I don’t like having my face washed in cold water!
Hapsy? George? Lydia? Jimmy? No, Cornelia, and her features were swollen and full of little puddles. “They’re coming, darling, they’ll all be here soon.” Go wash your face, child, you look funny.
Instead of obeying, Cornelia knelt down and put her head on the pillow. She seemed to be talking but there was no sound. “Well, are you tongue-tied? Whose birthday is it? Are you going to give a party?”
Cornelia’s mouth moved urgently in strange shapes. “Don’t do that, you bother me, daughter.”
“Oh, no, Mother, Oh, no…”
Nonsense. It was strange about children. They disputed your every word. “No what, Cornelia?”
“Here’s Doctor Harry.”
“I won’t see that boy again. He just left five minutes ago.”
“That was this morning, Mother. It’s night now. Here’s the nurse.”
“This is Doctor Harry, Mrs. Weatherall. I never saw you look so young and happy!”
“Ah, I’ll never be young again – but I’d be happy if they’d let me be in peace and get rested.”
She thought she spoke up loudly, but no one answered. A warm weight on her forehead, a warm bracelet on her wrist, and a breeze went on whispering, trying to tell her something. A shuffle of leaves in the everlasting hand of God. He blew on them and they danced and rattled. “Mother, don’t mind, we’re going to give you a little hypodermic.” “Look here, daughter, how do ants get in this bed? I saw sugar ants yesterday.” Did you send for Hapsy too?
It was Hapsy she really wanted. She had to go a long way back through a great many rooms to find Hapsy standing with a baby on her arm. She seemed to herself to be Hapsy also, and the baby on Hapsy’s arm was Hapsy and himself and herself, all at once, and there was no surprise in the meeting. Then Hapsy melted from within and turned flimsy as gray gauze and baby was a gauzy shadow, and Hapsy came up close and said, “I thought you’d never come,” and looked at her very searchingly and said, “You haven’t changed a bit!” They leaned forward to kiss, when Cornelia began whispering from a long way off, “Oh, is there anything you want to tell me? Is there anything I can do for you?”
Yes, she had changed her mind after sixty years and she would like to see George. I want you to find George. Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, on, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back… Her breath crowded down under her ribs and grew into a monstrous frightening shape with cutting edges; it bored up into her head, and the agony was unbelievable: Yes, John, get the doctor now, no more talk, my time has come.
When this one was born it should be the last. The last. It should have been born first, for it was the one she had truly wanted. Everything came in good time. Nothing left out, left over. She was strong, in three days she would be as well as ever. Better. A woman needed milk in her to have her full health.
“Mother, do you hear me?”
“I’ve been telling you –“
“Mother, Father Connolly’s here.”
“I went to Holy Communion only last week. Tell him I’m not so sinful as all that.”
“Father just wants to speak to you.”
He could speak as much as he pleased. It was like him to drop in and inquire about her soul as if it were a teething baby, and then stay on for a cup of tea and a round of cards and gossip. He always had a funny story of some sort, usually about an Irishman who made his little mistakes and confessed them, and the point lay in some absurd thing he would blurt out in the confessional showing his struggles between native piety and original sin. Granny felt easy about her soul. Cornelia, where are your manners? Give Father Connolly a chair. She had her secret, comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who cleared a straight road to God for her. All as surely signed and sealed as the papers for the new Forty Acres. Forever… heirs and assigns forever. Since the day the wedding cake was not cut, but thrown out and wasted. The whole bottom dropped out of the world, and there she was blind and sweating with nothing under her feet and the walls falling away. His hand caught her under the breast, she had not fallen, there was the freshly polished floor with the green rug on it, just as before. He had cursed like a sailor’s parrot and said, “I’ll kill him for you.” Don’t lay a hand on him, for my sake leave something to God. “Now, Ellen, you must believe what I tell you…”
So there was nothing, nothing to worry about any more, except sometimes in the night one of the children screamed in a nightmare, and they both hustled out shaking and hunting for the matches and calling, “There, wait a minute, here we are!” John, get the doctor now. Hapsy’s time has come. But there was Hapsy standing by the bed in a white cap. “Cornelia, tell Hapsy to take off her cap. I can’t see her plain.”
Her eyes opened very wide and the room stood out like a picture she had seen somewhere. Dark colors with the shadows rising towards the ceiling in long angles. The tall black dresser gleamed with nothing on it but John’s picture, enlarged from a little one, with John’s eyes very black when they should have been blue. You never saw him, so how do you know how he looked? But the man insisted the copy was perfect, it was very rich and handsome. For a picture, yes, but it’s not my husband. The table by the bed had a linen cover and a candle and a crucifix. The light was blue from Cornelia’s silk lampshades. No sort of light at all, just frippery. You had to live forty years with kerosene lamps to appreciate honest electricity. She felt very strong and she saw Doctor Harry with a rosy nimbus around him.
“You look like a saint, Doctor Harry, and I vow that’s as near as you’ll ever dome to it.”
“She’s saying something.”
“I heard you, Cornelia. What’s all this carrying-on?”
“Father Connolly’s saying –“
Cornelia’s voice staggered and bumped like a cart in a bad road. It rounded corners and turned back again and arrived nowhere. Granny stepped up in the cart very lightly and reached for the reins, but a man sat beside her and she knew him by his hands, driving the cart. She did not look in his face, for she knew without seeing, but looked instead down the road where the trees leaned over and bowed to each other and a thousand birds were singing a Mass. She felt like singing too, but she put her hand in the bosom of her dress and pulled out a rosary, and Father Connolly murmured Latin in a very solemn voice and tickled her feet. My God, will you stop that nonsense? I’m a married woman. What if he did run away and leave me to face the priest by myself? I found another a whole world better. I wouldn’t have exchanged my husband for anybody except St. Michael himself, and you may tell him that for me with a thank you in the bargain.
Light flashed on her closed eyelids, and a deep roaring shook her. Cornelia, is that lightning? I hear thunder. There’s going to be a storm. Close all the windows. Call the children in… “Mother, where we are, all of us.” “Is that you, Hapsy?” “Oh, no, I’m Lydia. We drove as fast as we could.” Their faces drifted above her, drifted away. The rosary fell out of her hands and Lydia put it back. Jimmy tried to help, their hands fumbled together, and Granny closed two fingers around Jimmy’s thumb. Beads wouldn’t do it, it must be something alive. She was so amazed her thoughts ran round and round. So, my dear Lord, this is my death and I wasn’t even thinking about it. My children have come to see me die. But I can’t, it’s not time. Oh, I always hated surprises. I wanted to give Cornelia the amethyst set – Cornelia, you’re to have the amethyst set, but Hapsy’ to wear it when she wants, and, Doctor Harry, do shut up. Nobody sent for you. Oh, my dear Lord, do wait a minute. I meant to do something about the Forty Acres, Jimmy doesn’t need it and Lydia will later on, with that worthless husband of hers. I meant to finish the altar cloth and send six bottles of wine to Sister Borgia for her dyspepsia. I want to send six bottles of wine to Sister Borgia, Father Connolly, now don’t let me forget.
Cornelia’s voice made short turns and tilted over and crashed. “Oh, Mother, oh, Mother, oh, Mother…”
“I’m not going Cornelia. I’m taken by surprise. I can’t go.”
You’ll see Hapsy again. What about her? “I thought you’d never come.” Granny made a long journey outward, looking for Hapsy. What if I don’t find her? What then? Her heart sank down and down, there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t come to the end of it. The blue light from Cornelia’s lampshade drew into a tiny point in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered and dwindled. Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up. God, give me a sign!
For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this – I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.