Authors: Alice Munro
She told about Porterfield. Not a dry town like Jubilee, it had two beer parlours facing each other across the main street, one in each of the hotels. Sometimes on a Saturday night or early Sunday morning there would be a terrible street fight. Aunt Moira’s house was only half a block from the main street and close to the side walk. From behind her darkened front windows she had watched men hooting like savages, had seen a car spin sideways and crash into a telephone pole, crushing the steering wheel into the driver’s heart; she had seen two men dragging a girl who was drunk and couldn’t stand up, and the girl was urinating on the street, in her clothes. She had scraped drunks’ vomit off her painted fence. All this was no more than she expected. And it was not only Saturday drunks but grocers and neighbours and delivery boys who cheated, were rude, committed outrages. Aunt Moira’s voice, telling things at leisure, would spread out over the day, over the yard, like black oil, and Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace would sympathize.
“Well, no, you couldn’t be expected to take that!”
“We don’t know how lucky we are, here.”
And they would run in and out with cups of tea, glasses of lemon ade, fresh buttered baking powder biscuits, Martha Washington cake, slices of pound cake with raisins, little confections of candied fruit rolled in coconut, delicious to nibble on.
Mary Agnes sat listening and smiling. She smiled at me. This was not a guileless smile but the smile of the person who arbitrarily, even rather high-handedly, extends to a child all the sociability which cannot, through fear and habit, be extended to anybody else. She wore her black hair bobbed, prickles showing on her thin olive neck; she wore glasses. Aunt Moira dressed her like the high school girl she had never been, in plaid pleated skirts loose at the waist, too-large, long-sleeved, carefully laundered white blouses. She wore no make-up, no powder to tint the soft dark hairs at the corners of her mouth. She spoke to me in the harsh, hectoring, uncertain tones of somebody who is not just teasing but
teasing, imitating the way she had heard certain brash and jovial people, storekeepers maybe, talking to children.
“What do you do that for?” She came and caught me looking through the little panes of coloured glass around the front door. She put her eye to the red one.
“Yard’s on fire!” she said, but laughed at me as if I had said it.
Other times she would hide in the dark hall, and jump out and grab me from behind, closing her hands over my eyes. “Guess who, guess who!” She would squeeze and tickle me till I shrieked. Her hands were hot and dry, her hugs fierce. I fought back as hard as I could but could not call her names as I would somebody at school, could not spit at her and pull her hair out, because of her age—she was nominally a grownup—and her protected status. So I thought her a bully and said—but not at Jenkin’s Bend—that I hated her. At the same time I was curious and not altogether displeased, discovering that I could be so important, in a way I could not even understand, to someone who was not important at all to me. She would roll me over on the hall carpet, tickling my belly ferociously, as if I were a dog, and I was as much overcome by amazement, each time, as by her unpredictable strength and unfair tricks; I was amazed as people must be who are seized and kidnapped, and who realize that in the strange world of their captors they have a value absolutely unconnected with anything they know about themselves.
I knew something, too, that had happened to Mary Agnes. My mother had told me. Years ago she had been out in the front yard of their house in Porterfield while Aunt Moira was washing clothes in the cellar, and some boys had come by, five boys. They persuaded her to go for a walk with them and they took her out to the fairgrounds and took off all her clothes and left her lying on the cold mud, and she caught bronchitis and nearly died. That was why, now, she had to wear warm underwear even in summer.
I supposed that the degradation—for my mother told me the story to warn me that some degradation was possible, if ever you were persuaded to go off with boys—lay in having all her clothes taken off, in being naked. Having to be naked myself, the thought of being naked, stabbed me with shame in the pit of my stomach. Every time I thought of the doctor pulling down my pants and jabbing the needle in my buttocks, for smallpox, I felt outraged, frantic, unbearably, almost exquisitely humiliated. I thought of Mary Agnes’s body lying exposed on the fairgrounds, her prickly cold buttocks sticking out—that did seem to me the most shameful, helpless-looking part of anybody’s body—and I thought that if it had happened to me, to be seen like that, I could not live on afterwards.
“Del, you and Mary Agnes ought to go for a walk.”
“You ought to chase around the barn and see if you can find
I rose obediently, and around the corner of the verandah beat a stick on the latticework, in savage dejection. I didn’t want to go with Mary Agnes. I wanted to stay and eat things, and hear more about Porterfield, that depraved sullen town, filled with untrustworthy, gangsterish people. I heard Mary Agnes coming after me, with her heavy tripping run.
“Mary Agnes, stay out of the sun where you can. Don’t go paddling in the river. You can catch cold any time of the year!”
We went down the road and along the river bank. In the heat of dry stubble-fields, cracked creek-beds, white dusty roads, the Wawanash river made a cool trough. The shade was of thin willow leaves, which held the sunlight like a sieve. The mud along the banks was dry but not dried to dust; it was like cake icing, delicately crusted on top but moist and cool underneath, lovely to walk on. I took off my shoes and walked barefoot. Mary Agnes hooted, “I’m telling on you!”
“Tell if you like.” I called her bugger under my breath.
Cows had been down to the river and had left their hoof-prints in the mud. They left cowpats too, nicely rounded, looking when they dried like artifacts, like handmade lids of day. Along the edge of the water, on both sides, were carpets of lily leaves spread out, and here and there a yellow water lily, looking so pale, tranquil and desirable, that I had to tuck my dress into my pants and wade in among the sucking roots, in black mud that oozed up between my toes and clouded the water, silting the leaves and lily petals.
“You’re going to drown, you’re going to drown,” cried Mary Agnes in cross excitement, though I was hardly past my knees. Brought to shore, the flowers seemed coarse and rank and began to die immediately. I walked on forgetting about them, mashing the petals in my fist.
We came upon a dead cow, lying with its hind feet in the water. Black flies were crawling and clustering on its brown and white hide, sparkling where the sun caught them like beaded embroidery.
I took a stick and tapped the hide. The flies rose, circled, dropped back. I could see that the cow’s hide was a map. The brown could be the ocean, the white the floating continents. With my stick I traced their strange shapes, their curving coasts, trying to keep the point of the stick exactly between the white and the brown. Then I guided the stick up the neck, following a taut rope of muscle—the cow had died with its neck stretched out, as if reaching for water, but it was lying the wrong way for that—and I tapped the face. I was shyer about touching the face. I was shy about looking at its eye.
The eye was wide open, dark, a smooth sightless bulge, with a sheen like silk and a reddish gleam in it, a reflection of light. An orange stuffed in a black silk stocking. Flies nestled in one corner, bunched together beautifully in an iridescent brooch. I had a great desire to poke the eye with my stick, to see if it would collapse, if it would quiver and break like a jelly, showing itself to be the same composition all the way through, or if the skin over the surface would break and let loose all sorts of putrid mess, to flow down the face. I traced the stick all the way round the eye, I drew it back—but I was not able, I could not poke it in.
Mary Agnes did not come close. “Leave it alone,” she warned. “That old dead cow. It’s dirty. You get yourself dirty.”
“Day-ud cow,” I said, expanding the word lusciously. “Day-ud cow, day-ud cow.”
“You come on,” Mary Agnes bossed me, but was afraid, I thought, to come nearer.
Being dead, it invited desecration. I wanted to poke it, trample it, pee on it, anything to punish it, to show what contempt I had for its being dead. Beat it up, break it up, spit on it, tear it, throw it away! But still it had power, lying with a gleaming strange map on its back, its straining neck, the smooth eye. I had never once looked at a cow alive and thought what I thought now: why should there be a cow? Why should the white spots be shaped just the way they were, and never again, not on any cow or creature, shaped in exactly the same way? Tracing the outline of a continent again, digging the stick in, trying to make a definite line, I paid attention to its shape as I would sometimes pay attention to the shape of real continents or islands on real maps, as if the shape itself were a revelation beyond words, and I would be able to make sense of it, If I tried hard enough, and had time.
“I dare you touch it,” I said scornfully to Mary Agnes. “Touch a dead cow.”
Mary Agnes came up slowly, and to my astonishment she bent down, grunting, looking at the eye as if she knew I had been wondering about it, and she laid her hand—she laid
the palm of her hand
— over it, over the eye. She did this seriously, shrinkingly, yet with a tender composure that was not like her. But as soon as she had done it she stood up, and held her hand in front of her face, palm towards me, fingers spread, so that it looked like a huge hand, bigger than her whole face, and dark. She laughed right at me.
“You’d be scared to let me catch you now,” she said, and I was, but walked away from her insolently as I could manage.
It often seemed then that nobody else knew what really went on, or what a person was, but me. For instance people said “poor Mary Agnes” or implied it, by a drop in pitch, a subdued protective tone of voice, as if she had no secrets, no place of her own, and that was not true.
OUR UNCLE CRAIG DIED
My mother’s voice, telling this, was almost shy.
I was eating my favourite, surreptitious breakfast—puffed wheat drowned in black molasses—and sitting on the cement slab outside our door, in the morning sun. It was two days since I had returned from Jenkin’s Bend and when she said
I thought of him as I had seen him, standing in the doorway, in his vest and shirt-sleeves, benignly perhaps impatiently waving me off.
The active verb confused me. He
. It sounded like something he willed to do, chose to do. As if he said, “Now I’ll die.” In that case it could not be so final. Yet I knew it was.
“In the Orange Hall, at Blue River. He was playing cards.”
The card table, the bright Orange Hall. (Though I knew it was really the Orange
Hall, the name had nothing to do with the colour, any more than Blue River meant the river there was blue.)
Uncle Craig was dealing out cards, his heavy-lidded, serious way. He wore his sateen-backed vest, with pens and pencils clipped in the pocket.
“He had a heart attack.”
. It sounded like an explosion, like fireworks going off, shooting sticks of light in all directions, shooting a little ball of light—that was Uncle Craig’s heart, or his soul—high into the air, where it tumbled and went out. Did he jump up, throw his arms out, yell? How long did it take, did his eyes close, did he know what was happening? My mother’s usual positiveness seemed clouded over; my cold appetite for details irritated her. I followed her around the house, scowling, persistent, repeating my questions. I wanted to know. There is no protection, unless it is in knowing. I wanted death pinned down and isolated behind a wall of particular facts and circumstances, not floating around loose, ignored but powerful, waiting to get in anywhere.
But by the day of the funeral things had changed. My mother had regained confidence; I had quieted down. I did not want to hear anything more about Uncle Craig, or about death. My mother had got my Black Watch plaid dress out of mothballs, brushed it, aired it on the line.
“It’s all right for summer, cooler than cotton, that light wool. Anyway its the only dark thing you own. I don’t care. If it was up to me you could wear scarlet. If they really believed in Christianity that’s what they’d all wear, it’d be all dancing and rejoicing, after all, they spend their whole life singing and praying about getting out of this world and on their way to Heaven. Yes. But I know your aunts, they’ll expect dark clothes, conventional to the last hair!”
She was not surprised to hear that I did not want to go.
“Nobody does,” she said frankly. “Nobody ever does. You have to, though. You have to learn to face things sometime.”
I did not like the way she said this. Her briskness and zeal seemed false and vulgar. I did not trust her. Always when people tell you you will have to face this sometime, when they hurry you matter-of-factly towards whatever pain or obscenity or unwelcome revelation is laid out for you, there is this edge of betrayal, this cold, masked, imperfectly hidden jubilation in their voices, something greedy for your hurt. Yes, in parents too; in parents particularly.
“What is Death?” continued my mother with ominous cheerfulness. “What is being dead?”
“Well, first off, what is a person? A large percent water. Just plain water. Nothing in a person is that remarkable. Carbon. The simplest elements. What is it they say? Ninety-eight cents worth? That’s all. It’s the way its put together that’s remarkable. The way it’s put together, we have the heart and the lungs. We have the liver. Pancreas. Stomach. Brain. All these things, what are they? Combinations of elements! Combine them—combine the combinations—and you’ve got a person! We call it Uncle Craig, or your father, or me. But its just these
these parts put together and running in a certain particular way, for the time being. Then what happens is that one of the parts gives out, breaks down. In Uncle Craig’s case, the heart. So we say, Uncle Craig is dead. The person is dead. But that’s just our way of looking at it. That’s just our human way. If we weren’t thinking all the time in terms of persons, if we were thinking of Nature, all Nature going on and on, parts of it dying—well not dying, changing,
is the word I want, changing into something else, all those elements that made the person changing and going back into Nature again and reappearing over and over in birds and animals and flowers—Uncle Craig doesn’t have to be Uncle Craig! Uncle Craig is flowers!”