Authors: Alice Munro
“It’s sex makes them scream,” said Naomi.
“Cats scream,” I said, remembering something from the farm.
“They will scream like anything when a tomcat is doing it to them.”
“Wouldn’t you?” said Naomi.
Then we had to go, because Pork Childs appeared among his peacocks, walking quickly, rocking forward. All his toes had been amputated, we knew, after being frozen when he lay in a ditch long ago, too drunk to get home, before he joined the Baptist Church. “Good evening, Boys!” he hollered at us, his old greeting, his old joke.
Hello, boys! Hello, girls!
yelled from the cab of the garbage truck, yelled down all streets bleak or summery, never getting any answer. We ran.
Mr. Chamberlain’s car was parked in front of our house.
“Let’s go in,” said Naomi. “I want to see what he’s doing to old Fern.” Nothing. In the dining room Fern was trying on the flowered chiffon dress my mother was helping her to make for Donna Carling’s wedding, at which she would be the soloist. My mother was sitting sideways on the chair in front of the sewing machine, while Fern revolved, like a big half-opened parasol, in front of her.
Mr. Chamberlain was drinking a real drink, whisky and water. He drove to Porterfield to buy his whisky, Jubilee being dry. I was both proud and ashamed to have Naomi see the bottle on the sideboard, a thing that would never appear in her house. My mother excused his drinking, because he had been through the war.
“Here come these two lovely young ladies,” said Mr. Chamberlain with great insincerity. “Full of springtime and grace. All fresh from the out-of-doors.”
“Give us a drink,” I said, showing off in front of Naomi. But he laughed and put a hand over his glass.
“Not until you tell us where you’ve been.”
“We went down to Pork Childs’ to look at the peacocks.”
“Down to see the pea-cocks. To see the pretty pea-cocks,” sang
“Give us a drink.”
“Del, behave yourself,” said my mother with a mouth full of pins. “All I want is to find out what it tastes like.”
“Well I can’t give you a drink for nothing. I don’t see you doing any tricks for me. I don’t see you sitting up and begging like a good doggie.”
“I can be a seal. Do you want to see me be a seal?”
This was one thing I loved to do. I never felt worried that it might
not be perfect, that I might not be able to manage it; I was never afraid that anybody would think me a fool. I had even done it at school, for the Junior Red Cross Amateur Hour, and everyone laughed; this marvelling laughter was so comforting, so absolving that I could have gone on being a seal forever.
I went down on my knees and held my elbows at my sides and worked my hands like flippers, meanwhile barking, my wonderful braying bark. I had copied from an old Mary Martin movie where Mary Martin sings a song beside a turquoise pool and the seals bark in a chorus.
Mr. Chamberlain gradually lowered his glass and brought it close to my lips, withdrawing it, however, every time I stopped barking. I was kneeling by his chair. Fern had her back to me, her arms raised; my mother’s head was hidden, as she pinned the material at Fern’s waist. Naomi who had seen the seal often enough before and had an interest in dressmaking was looking at Fern and my mother. Mr. Chamberlain at last allowed my lips to touch the rim of the glass which he held in one hand. Then with the other hand he did something nobody could see. He rubbed against the damp underarm of my blouse and then inside the loose armhole of the jumper I was wearing. He rubbed quick, hard against the cotton over my breast. So hard he pushed the yielding flesh up, flattened it. And at once withdrew. It was like a slap, to leave me stung.
“Well, what does it taste like?” Naomi asked me afterwards.
“You never tasted piss.” She gave me a shrewd baffled look; she could always sense secrets.
I meant to tell her, but I did not, I held it back. If I told her, it would have to be reenacted.
“How? How did he have his hand when he started? How did he get it under your jumper? Did he rub or squeeze, or both? With his fingers of his palm? Like this?”
There was a dentist in town, Dr. Phippen, brother of the deaf Librarian, who was supposed to have put his hand up a girl’s leg while looking at her back teeth. Naomi and I passing under his window would say loudly, “Don’t you wish you had an appointment with Dr. Phippen? Dr. Feely Phippen. He’s a thorough man!” It would be like that with Mr. Chamberlain; we would turn it into a joke, and hope for scandal, and make up schemes to entrap him, and that was not what I wanted.
“It was beautiful,” said Naomi, sounding tired.
“That peacock. In the tree.”
I was surprised, and a little annoyed, to hear her use the word
about something like that, and to have her remember it, because I was used to have her act in a certain way, be aware of certain things, nothing else. I had already thought, running home, that I would write a poem about the peacock. To have her thinking about it too was almost like trespassing; I never let her or anyone in that part of my mind.
I did start writing my poem when I went upstairs to bed.
What in the trees is crying these veiled nights? The peacocks crying or the winter’s ghost?
That was the best part of it.
I also thought about Mr. Chamberlain, his hand which was different from anything he had previously shown about himself, in his eyes, his voice, his laugh, his stories. It was like a signal, given where it will be understood. Impertinent violation, so perfectly sure of itself, so authoritative, clean of sentiment.
Next time he came I made it easy for him to do something again, standing near him while he was getting his rubbers on in the dark hall. Every time, then, I waited for the signal, and got it. He did not bother with a pinch on the arm or a pat on the arm or a hug around the shoulders, fatherly or comradely. He went straight for the breasts, the buttocks, the upper thighs, brutal as lightening. And this was what I expected sexual communication to be—a flash of insanity, a dreamlike, ruthless, contemptuous breakthrough in a world of decent appearances. I had discarded those ideas of love, consolation and tenderness, nourished by my feelings for Frank Wales; all that now seemed pale and extraordinarily childish. In the secret violence of sex would be recognition, going away beyond kindness, beyond good will of persons.
Not that I was planning on sex. One stroke of lightning does not have to lead anywhere, but to the next stroke of lightning.
Nevertheless my knees weakened, when Mr. Chamberlain honked the horn at me. He was waiting half a block from the school. Naomi was not with me; she had tonsillitis.
“Where’s your girl friend?”
“That’s a shame. Want a lift home?”
In the car I trembled. My tongue was dry, my whole mouth was dry so I could hardly speak. Was this what desire was? Wish to know, fear to know, amounting to anguish? Being alone with him, no protection of people or circumstances, made a difference. What could he want to do here, in broad daylight, on the seat of his car?
He did not make a move towards me. But he did not head for River Street; he drove sedately along various side streets, avoiding winter-made pot-holes.
“You think you’re the girl to do me a favour, if I asked you?”
“What do you think it might be?”
“I don’t know.”
He parked the car behind the creamery, under the chestnut trees with the leaves just out, bitter yellowy green. Here?
“You get into Fern’s room? You could get into her room when everybody was out of the house?”
I brought my mind back, slowly, from expectations of rape.
“You could get in her room and do a little investigation for me on what she’s got there. Something that might interest me. What do you think it would be, eh? What do you think interests me?”
“Letters,” said Mr. Chamberlain with a sudden drop in tone, becoming matter-of-fact, depressed by some reality he could look into and I couldn’t. “See if she has got any old letters. They might be in her drawers. Might be in her closet. Probably keeps them in an old box of some kind. Tied up in bundles, that’s what women do.”
“Letters from who?”
“From me. Who do you think? You don’t need to read them, just look at the signature. Written some time ago, the paper might be showing age. I don’t know. Written in pen I recall so they’re probably still legible. Here. I’ll give you a sample of my handwriting, that’ll help you out.” He took an envelope out of the glove compartment and wrote on it:
Del is a bad girl
I put it in my Latin book.
“Don’t let Fern see that, she’d recognize the writing. And not your
Mama. She might wonder about what I wrote. Be a surprise to her, wouldn’t it?”
He drove me home. I wanted to get out at the corner of River Street but he said no. “That just looks as if we’ve got something to hide. Now, how are you going to let me know? How about Sunday night, when I come around for supper, I’ll ask you whether you’ve got your homework done! If you’ve found them, you’ll say yes. If you’ve looked and you haven’t found them, you’ll say no. If for some reason you never got a chance to take a look, you say you forget whether you had any.”
He made me repeat, “Yes means found them, no means didn’t find them, forget means didn’t get a chance to look.” This drill insulted me; I was famous for my memory.
“All right. Cheers.” Below the level that anybody could see, looking at the car, he bounced his fist off my leg, hard enough to hurt.
I hauled myself and my books out, and once I was alone, my thigh still tingling, I took out the envelope and read what he had written.
Del is a bad girl
. Mr. Chamberlain assumed without any trouble at all that there was treachery in me, as well as criminal sensuality, waiting to be used. He had known I would not cry out when he flattened my breast, he had known I would not mention it to my mother; he knew now I would not report this conversation to Fern, but would spy on her as he had asked. Could he have hit upon my true self? It was true that in the dullness of school I had worked with my protractor and compass, I had written out Latin sentences
[having pitched camp and slaughtered the horses of the enemy by means of stealth, Vercingetorix prepared to give battle on the following day]
and all the time been conscious of my depravity vigorous as spring wheat, my body flowering with invisible bruises in those places where it had been touched. Wearing blue rompers, washing with soap that would nearly take your skin off, after a volleyball game, I had looked in the mirror of the girls’ washroom and smiled secretly at my ruddy face, to think what lewdness I had been invited to, what deceits I was capable of.
I got into Fern’s room on Saturday morning, when my mother had gone out to do some cleaning at the farm. I looked around at leisure, at the koala bear sitting on her pillow, powder spilled on the dresser, jars with a little bit of dried up deodorant, salve, night-cream, old lipstick and nailpolish with the top stuck on. A picture of a lady in a dress of many dripping layers, like an arrangement of scarves, probably Fern’s mother, holding a fat woollied baby, probably Fern. Fern for sure in soft focus with butterfly sleeves, holding a sheaf of roses, curls laid in layers on her head. And snapshops stuck around the mirror, their edges curling. Mr. Chamberlain in a sharp straw hat, white pants, looking at the camera as if he knew more than it did. Fern not so plump as now, but plump, wearing shorts, sitting on a log in some vacation-time woods. Mr. Chamberlain and Fern dressed up—she with a corsage—snapped by a street photographer in a strange city, walking under the marquee of a movie-house where
was showing. The Post Office employees picnic in the park at Tupperton, a cloudy day, and Fern jolly in slacks holding a baseball bat.
I did not find any letters. I looked through her drawers, on her closet shelves, under her bed, even inside her suitcases. I did find three separate saved bundles of paper, with elastic bands around them.
One bundle contained a chain letter and a great many copies of the same verse, in pencil or ink, different handwritings, some type-written or mimeographed.
This prayer has already been around the world six times. It was originated in the Isle of Wight by a clairvoyant seer who saw it in a dream. Copy this letter out six times and mail it to six friends, then copy the attached prayer out and mail it to six names at the top of the attached list. Six days from the time you receive this letter you will begin to get copies of this prayer from all corners of the earth and they will bring you blessings and good luck IF YOU DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN. If you break the chain you may expect something sad and unpleasant to happen to you six months to the day from the day when you receive this letter. DO NOT BREAK THE CHAIN. DO NOT OMIT THE SECRET WORD AT THE END. BY MEANS OF THIS PRAYER HAPPINESS AND GOOD LUCK ARE BEING SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE WORLD.
Peace and love, O Lord I pray
Shower on this friend today.
Heal his(her) troubles, bless his(her) heart,
From the source of strength and love may he(she) never have to part.
Another bundle was made up of several sheets of smudgy printing broken by blurred grey illustrations of what I thought at first were enema bags with tangled tubes, but which on reading the text I discovered to be cross sections of the male and female anatomy, with such things as pessaries, tampons, condoms (these proper terms were all new to me) being inserted or fitted on. I could not look at these illustrations without feeling alarm and a strong local discomfort, so I started reading. I read about a poor farmer’s wife in North Carolina throwing herself under a wagon when she discovered she was going to have her ninth child, about women dying in tenements from complications of pregnancy or childbirth or terrible failed abortions which they performed with hatpins, knitting needles, bubbles of air. I read, or skipped, statistics about the increase in population, laws which had been passed in various countries for and against birth control, women who had gone to jail for advocating it. Then there were the instructions on using different devices. Naomi’s mother’s book had had a chapter about this too, but we never got around to reading it, being bogged down in Case Histories and Varieties of Intercourse. All I read now about foam and jelly, even the use of the word “vagina” made the whole business seem laborious and domesticated, somehow connected with ointments and bandages and hospitals, and it gave me the same feeling of disgusted, ridiculous helplessness I had when it was necessary to undress at the doctor’s.