Authors: Alice Munro
DID NOT HAVE TO BE
in the funeral. Nobody was going to make me look at Uncle Craig. I was put in his office, on the leather sofa where he had taken his naps and where couples had sat waiting for their marriage licences. I had a blanket over my knees in spite of the hot day, and a cup of tea beside me. I had been given a slice of pound cake too but had eaten that immediately.
When I bit Mary Agnes I thought I was biting myself off from everything. I thought I was putting myself outside, where no punishment would ever be enough, where nobody would dare ask me to look at a dead man, or anything else, again. I thought they would all hate me, and hate seemed to me so much to be coveted, then, like a gift of wings.
But no; freedom is not so easily come by. Though Aunt Moira, who would always say she had to pull me off Mary Agnes’s arm with blood on my mouth (a lie—I was already off and Mary Agnes, all her demon power deflated, was crouched there amazed and weeping), did clench my shoulders and shake me, holding me so my face was hardly an inch from her armoured breasts, and her body hissed and trembled above me like a monument about to explode.
“Mad dog! Mad dogs bite like that! Your parents ought to have you locked up!”
Aunt Elspeth laid a handkerchief to Mary Agnes’s arm. Auntie Grace and other ladies hugged and patted her.
“I’ll have to get her to the doctor. She’ll have to have stitches. I’ll have to get shots for her. That child could be rabid. There is such a thing as a rabid child.”
“Moira dear. Moira dear. No. She barely broke the skin. It’s the pain of a moment. Just a bit of a wash and a bandage and it’ll be all right.” Both Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace transferred their attention from Mary Agnes to their sister, and held on to her and soothed her from either side as, if they were trying to keep the pieces of her together until the danger of explosion had passed. “No lasting harm, dear, no lasting harm.”
“My mistake, my mistake entirely,” said the clear and dangerous voice of my mother. “I never should have brought that child here today. She’s too highly strung. It’s barbaric to subject a child like that to a funeral.” Unpredictable, unreliable, still at the oddest time someone to be grateful for, she offered understanding, salvation, when it was no longer, strictly speaking, of much use.
But she had an effect—though sometimes, just by using a word like
she could make a pool of silence, of consternation round her. This time she found sympathy, various ladies readily taking up her explanation and enlarging on it.
“She didn’t know what she was doing, likely.”
“She was hysterical from the strain.”
“I passed out at a funeral myself, one time before I was married.”
Ruth McQueen put her arm around me and asked if I would like an aspirin.
So while Mary Agnes was being comforted and washed and bandaged, and Aunt Moira was being calmed down (she was the one who got the aspirin, and also some special pills—
for her heart
—out of her purse) I also was surrounded and taken care of, shepherded into this room and put on the sofa, blanketed, as if I was sick, given the cake and the tea.
My behaviour had not spoiled the funeral. The door was closed, I could not see it, but I could hear the voices singing, raggedly at first and then with greater and greater effort, longing, and conviction.
A thousand ages in thy sight
Are as an evening gone
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
The house was full of people pressed together, melted together like blunt old crayons, warm, acquiescent, singing. And I was in the middle of them, in spite of being shut up here by myself. As long as they lived most of them would remember that I had bitten Mary Agnes Oliphant’s arm at Uncle Craig’s funeral. Remembering that, they would remember that I was highly strung, erratic, or badly brought up, or a
. But they would not put me outside. No. I would be the highly strung, erratic, badly brought up
member of the family,
which is a different thing altogether.
Being forgiven creates a peculiar shame. I felt hot, and not just from the blanket. I felt held close, stifled, as if it was not air I had to move and talk through in this world but something thick as cotton wool. This shame was physical, but went far beyond sexual shame, my former shame of nakedness; now it was as if not the naked body but all the organs inside it—stomach, heart, lungs, liver—were laid bare and helpless. The nearest thing to this that I had ever known before was the feeling I got when I was tickled beyond endurance—horrible, voluptuous feeling of exposure, of impotence, self-betrayal. And shame went spreading out from me all through the house, covered everybody, even Mary Agnes, even Uncle Craig in his present disposable, vacated condition. To be made of flesh was humiliation. I was caught in a vision which was, in a way, the very opposite of the mystic’s incommunicable vision of order and light; a vision, also incommunicable, of confusion and obscenity—of helplessness, which was revealed as the most obscene thing there could be. But like the other kind of vision this could not be supported more than a moment or two, it collapsed of its own intensity and could never be reconstructed or even really believed in, once it was over. By the time they started the last hymn of the funeral I was myself again, only normally weak as anybody would be after biting a human arm, and the Fathers of Confederation across from me had resumed their clothes and believable dignity, and I had drunk the whole cup of, tea, exploring its adult, unfamiliar, important taste.
I got up and slowly opened the door. The front room doors were both open. People were moving, slowly, their hunched worried-looking backs moving away from me.
Jesus call us, o’er the tumult,
Of our life’s tempestuous sea—
I entered the room unnoticed and wedged myself in line, in front of a kind, sweating lady who did not know me, and who bent and whispered encouragingly, “You’re just in time for the Last Look.”
All the blinds were down, to keep out the afternoon sun; the room was hot and gloomy, pierced with stray shafts of light, like a haymow on a blazing afternoon. It smelled of lilies, waxy, pure-white lilies, and also like a root cellar. I was moved forward with the other people till I reached the corner of the casket, which was sitting in front of the fireplace—the never-used, beautiful fireplace with its tiles waxed like emeralds. Inside the casket was all white satin, gathered and pleated like the most gorgeous dress. The bottom half of Uncle Craig was covered with a polished lid; the top half—from shoulders to waist— was hidden by lilies. Against all that white his face was copper-coloured, disdainful. He did not look asleep; he did not look anything like he looked when I went into the office to wake him up on a Sunday afternoon. The eyelids lay too lightly on his eyes, the grooves and creases on his face had grown too shallow. He himself was wiped out; this face was like a delicate mask of skin, varnished, and laid over the real face—or over nothing at all, ready to crack when you poked a finger into it. I did have this impulse, but at a level far, far removed from possibility, just as you might have an impulse to touch a live wire. Uncle Craig was like that under his lilies, on his satin pillow, he was the terrible, silent, indifferent conductor of forces that could flare up, in an instant, and burn through this room, all reality, leave us dark. I turned away with humming in my ears, but was relieved, glad that I had done it after all, and survived, and was making my way through the crowded, singing room to my mother, who was sitting alone by the window—my father being with the other pallbearers— not singing, biting her lips, and looking preposterously hopeful.
FTER THIS AUNT ELSPETH
and Auntie Grace sold the house at Jenkin’s Bend, and the land and the cows, and moved to Jubilee. They said they had chosen Jubilee, rather than Blue River, where they knew more people, or Porterfield where Aunt Moira was, because they wanted to be what use they could to my father and his family. And they did sit in their house on a hill at the north end of town like amazed and injured but dutiful guardians, thoughtful for our welfare, dubious about our lives. They darned my father’s socks, which he got into the habit of bringing them; they kept a garden still, and did preserving for us; they mended and knitted and baked for us. I would go to see them once or twice a week, at first willingly enough, though it was partly because of the food; when I was going to high school I visited them more and more reluctantly. Every time I came they said, “What kept you away so long? You’re quite the stranger here!” They would be sitting waiting for me as if they had waited the whole week, on their little dark screened porch if the weather was nice; they could see out but nobody going by could see in.
What could I ever say? Their house became like a tiny sealed-off country, with its own ornate customs and elegantly, ridiculously complicated language, where true news of the outside world was not exactly forbidden, but became more and more impossible to deliver.
In the bathroom, over the toilet, hung their old reproof, done in cross-stitch—
Freshen the air before you leave
A courtesy others will perceive
A container with fresh matches hung beneath it. I always felt ashamed, caught out, reading that, but I always lit a match.
They told their same stories, they played their same jokes, which now seemed dried out, brittle with use; in time every word, every expression of the face, every flutter of the hands came to seem something learned long ago, perfectly remembered, and each of their two selves was seen to be something constructed with terrible care; the older they got the more frail and admirable and inhuman this construction appeared. This was what became of them when they no longer had a man with them, to nourish and admire, and when they were removed from the place where their artificiality bloomed naturally. Aunt Elspeth was gradually going deaf and Auntie Grace was troubled with arthritis in her hands, so that eventually she would have to give up all but the coarser kind of sewing, but they were not radically exposed or damaged or changed; with so much effort, with a final sense of obligation, they kept their outlines intact.
They had Uncle Craig’s manuscript with them and from time to time spoke of showing it to somebody, maybe to Mr. Buchanan the history teacher at the high school or to Mr. Fouks at the
. But they didn’t want to look as if they were asking a favour. And who could you trust? Some people might get hold of it and bring it out as if it was their own.
One afternoon they brought the red and gold tin with the picture of Queen Alexandra, filled with round oatmeal cookies put together with stewed dates, and also a large black tin box, fireproof and padlocked.
“Uncle Craig’s History.”
“Nearly a thousand pages.”
“More pages than
Gone With the Wind!
“He typed it so beautifully, no mistakes.”
“He typed the last page the afternoon of the day he died.”
“Take it out,” they urged me. “Look at it.” Just the way they offered cookies.
I leafed through quickly to the last page.
“Read a bit,” they said. “You’ll be interested. Didn’t you always get good marks in History?”
During the spring, summer, and early fall of that year a large amount of building went forward in Fairmile, Morris, and Grantly townships. On the corner of Concession Five and the River Sideroad, in Fairmile, a Methodist Church was erected to serve a large and growing congregation in that area. This was known as the White Brick Church and unfortunately it was only to stand until 1924 when it was destroyed by fire of unknown origins. The drive-shed, though built of wood, was spared. On the opposite corner Mr. Alex Hedley built and opened a General Store but died within two months of the opening of a stroke and the operation was continued by his sons Edward and Thomas. There was also a blacksmith shop in operation further along the Fifth Concession, O’Donnell being the name of the people that had it. This corner was known either as Hedley’s Corners or Church Corners. There is nothing in that location at the present time but the building of the store, which a family rents and lives in.
While I was reading this they were telling me, with a nice hesitation for the surprise, that the manuscript was mine.
“And all his old files and newspapers will go to you, when we— pass on, or before, no need to wait for that!—if you’re ready for them.”
“Because we hope—we hope someday that you’ll be able to finish it.”
“We used to think about giving it to Owen, because he’s the boy—” “But you’re the one has the knack for writing compositions.”
It would be a hard job, they said, and it was asking a lot of me but they thought I would find it easier if I took the manuscript home with me now and kept it, reading it over from time to time, to get the feel of Uncle Craig’s way of writing.
“He had the gift. He could get everything in and still make it read smooth.”
“Maybe you could learn to copy his way.”
They were talking to somebody who believed that the only duty of a writer is to produce a masterpiece.
When I left I carried the box with me, awkwardly under my arm. Aunt Elspeth and Auntie Grace stood in their doorway, ceremoniously, to watch me go, and I felt as if I were a ship with their hopes on it, dropping down over the horizon. I put the box under my bed at home; I was not up to discussing it with my mother. A few days later I thought that it would be a good place to keep those few poems and bits of a novel I had written; I would like to have them locked away where nobody could find them and where they would be safe in case of fire. I lifted the mattress and got them out. That was where I had kept them up to now, folded inside a large flat copy of