Logo - Link to Home Page

Short Story Classics




Kay Boyle



by Kay Boyle


ALL THE CHILDREN came into the room and looked at mother lying on the bed. The four of them stood still, just inside the doorway, and looked at her. She might have been dead, so strange she seemed to them, and her mouth never opened to bid or greet them. But father had said they should go up alone to see her, for a grown person might set her to weeping, and it was better that way.

"What is it that makes her weep?" said Bindy.

"It's something to do with her nerves," said father.

"I didn't know people could be sick all summer," Bindy said.

Up they went to her room, and they might have stood so within the door forever had not the wind suddenly sprung to life and flung it closed behind them. There they were, caught in the room with her, and no way to turn. The grass blinds were fanning the sunlight in the windows. Bindy said:


"Hello," said mother softly. And then she called out, as though in fear:

"Oh, Bindy!" He dropped the hands of the others and went running to her side. She lifted her quivering arm from the bed and put it around him. He could almost make out the green night-gown in the dim room, and her rings, and her hair brushed back behind her ears.

"Oh, Bindy," said mother in her soft fearful voice. "Look at mother's fingers! Her rings are all too big for her now!"

"You're not really his mother," said Anne. She spun around on one foot in the room, elated by the burden of disaster on the air. "Only Rolly and Midge belong to you," she said, spinning. Her braids swung out like two accusing fingers as she spun. Anne and Midge began to laugh together, the two of them covering their mouths to muffle their laughter in their hands. The wondrous sense of infliction set them to tittering and wavering in their little skirts in the darkened room. But mother had been ill too long; she had no patience left for them. The stone hearts of little girls belonged, like those of perverts, in a privy world of their own.

Rolly was gone from sight, under the bed on his hands and knees, and no one gave a thought to him. Mother held Bindy's fingers tight. And "what am I going to do, Bindy?" she whispered. "I haven't any friends left. Nobody cares any more."

"I'm your friend," said Bindy. He felt her arm pressing soft around him.

"I'm a good friend of yours," he said.

"But I've got so old," said mother in complaint. "The color's all gone out of my eyes, you know, Bindy. They won't give me a looking-glass. They don't want me to see."

"Do your nerves hurt you very bad?" said Bindy.

"Oh, they hurt awfully, awfully," said mother, and her voice went suddenly blind with tears. The thought of herself so grieving, so gentle, defenseless as no other woman had ever been because of her beauty and her frailties; such thought returned like a specter to her mind and moved unseen from one fount of pity to the next. "It hurts the worst right here, Bindy," she said, and her throat was parched with anguish. "Put your hand right here where mother's heart is and maybe you'll help it to go away."

Bindy put his hand down on her night-dress. He could feel the soft quivering life of her heart in protest, as though he held it captive in his hand.

"There're an awful lot of kinds of sickness, aren't there?" said Bindy.

"This kind has made me so old," said mother, whispering in sorrow to him. "I know what my eyes are like, and my hair coming out in handfuls all over my head, Bindy."

"I bet you'd get a prize anywhere," said Bindy. He could not bear the tears to run down her face. "I'm not fooling. I bet you'd get a prize almost anywhere for being the most beautiful woman."

Mother lifted her head up, strong from the pillow.

"Bindy, honey, do you want to do something for mother?" she said. "Just get me my looking-glass over there, so I can have a little peek at myself."

But the little girls had sped across the room to be the first at the dressingtable. There they stood, touching one thing and then another, puzzled that they could not find it there.

"There isn't any looking-glass any more," said Anne.

"They've taken everything," mother cried out. "They've taken mother's little curved scissors, and even her nail-file, Bindy! They've taken everything that hurts as if they thought I'd hurt myself some more!"

It was then that father came in and took the hands of the little girls.

"You must come away now," he said, and he looked shyly and uncertainly at mother. "Long enough for the first time, children," said father. "Come, Bindy, son," he said. "Mother must have a rest."

Father leaned over to kiss mother's face, but she turned it sharply on the pillow.

"Oh, don't! Oh, don't!" she said in her weak grievous voice. "I'm so tired, so tired."

They went out the door with him, the two little girls and Bindy. Father closed it softly behind, and they all went soundlessly down the stairs. In a moment mother began to cry; she lay crying senselessly, weakly into her pillow. After a while, with the tears still wet on her face, she fell asleep.

A wonderful fresh darkness had come into every part of the room while she lay sleeping. When she opened her eyes, it was deep behind the chairs in the room, and hanging like a cloth flung over the table. The high-boy in the corner had a row of light brass smiles, and somewhere within the shadows was a presence. There was no sound, but she could feel its breath and its being.

"Who's in this room with me?" she said. A dew of terror had sprung out on her brow, but she spoke the words sharp and loud across the room. She could not move, but she watched the little man stand up beside her. He put out his hand to her on the bed.

"Rolly," he said, with his head cocked.

"Oh, Rolly, Rolly," breathed mother. "Oh, Rolly." But her bare limbs were shaking with cold in the sheets. "How ever did mother's baby . . ." she said, and her teeth were shaking together. It must be the heart of winter, and she would never be warm again. "Does little Rolly want to help mother?" she said softly. "Come here, Rolly, darling," she said, "and mother will tell you what to do."

The little man came close in the darkness and she seized his hand in her fingers. He seemed like a dwarf to her, twisted and weird, with his face unseen in the gloom. "Rolly," she whispered, "now Rolly only needs to walk over to mother's bureau. You see mother's big bureau? Now just walk sweetly over to mother's big bureau and open the drawer wide." She gave him a little push with her fingers, and he sat down suddenly on the floor. "Rolly," said mother. "Rolly, dear, get up." She could not lift herself from the pillows to see. "Rolly," she said, "you don't want to make mother sad, do you? You want to do what mother tells you to do." She felt the hand of ice on her heart, and she could not shake it from her. The little man stood up in the dark, and what time of life does sense begin to come to them, she thought wildly. Is it at two years of age or three that they run and do as they are bid? "Rolly," she said, "now you want to help mother, don't you? Now run quick, quick to mother's big bureau and do just as she tells you."

Suddenly Rolly drew away in the darkness, and set off towards the window. She reared up her head on her neck, like an adder watching, peering helpless, cold, into the room that the night was blotting away. She heard Rolly strike a chair in the dark, and his voice cry out in pain.

"Oh, Rolly," said mother. "Aren't you mother's big Rolly? It didn't hurt so very much, did it now, Rolly? You're not going to cry over a silly thing like that. You must be mother's big brave boy and pick yourself up and do what she tells you."

She heard him sniff and move on the floor.

"Rolly," she whispered, with her head raised, seeking. "Rolly, where are you now?"

His hand slapped the smooth side of a wooden body.

"Here," said Rolly's small voice out of the dark.

"Yes, yes," said mother softly. "Now, pull the drawer open, Rolly." Her breath went whistling through her teeth as they chattered. She could hear the bureau drawer slowly easing wide,

"Rolly dear," said mother, "just put your little hand right down inside it, fight down inside, right there next to the window where you are."

She could hear Rolly grunt as he groped in the darkness, and suddenly the door opened and the nurse walked straight into the room. Mother lay still on the bed and watched the nurse switch on the small blue light in the corner. Her apron hung down from her waist, as blank as paper. When she turned around she saw the baby staring at the light.

"So this is where Rolly's been all the time!" she said.

"I've been asleep," said mother in her soft weary voice. "I didn't even know."

The nurse took him up in her arms and he did not speak nor turn his head towards the deep wide bed. She bore him out the door and left it standing wide. Mother could hear her going down the hall, down, down, down the three little steps to the nursery. In a moment she would hear the water spilling warm into the bath.

The children came up the front stairs, quietly, on their toes, as father had told them they must walk now: Bindy, and Midge, and Anne passing down the hall. Mother knew the sound of each footfall as though it were a separate hammer striking. Single and blind the blows fell on her flesh, summoning her anguish from repose, striking row upon row of brass-eyed nails into the lid that closed upon exhaustion.

"Bindy," she cried out from her room. "Just Bindy. Come and see mother."

She turned her head to watch his slight, muted body come in from the hallway. Midge and Anne went whispering away.

"Bindy," she said, borrowing case from some other time and place.

"Bindy, will you get mother something out of her bureau-drawer."

He stood still for a moment, slim and shy, looking at her.

"You're getting better, aren't you?" he said.

"I'm trying hard to get better," she said, curbing the wild speed of her blood. "Oh, so hard!" If he did not make haste, the nurse might come back to the room. "Bindy, dear, just put your hand down in the corner of the drawer that's open." Bindy set down his net of shining glassy marble eyes and crossed the soft dim room.

"There's a little bottle in there, Bindy darling," said mother. "Do you find it, darling, underneath the handkerchiefs and things?"

"Yes," said Bindy. He took it out of the drawer and held it up. "It's a pretty big bottle," he said.

"That's the one, Bindy, that's it," said mother. Her hand was shaking out before her. "Now give it to me, darling." He brought it across the room to

her, treading soft and careful on the matting. She reached out her own stricken hand. "It's just between you and me, isn't it, Bindy? You and I will have a secret, you see, and we won't tell nurse or daddy or anyone at all."

"All right," said Bindy. He picked up his marbles. "Maybe if you're getting better I could play marbles here?" he said.

"But your bath must be ready now," said mother. "You'd better go now, Bindy. You'd better go and see."

She held up her head, listening to his fading steps and the hop and the skip at the nursery steps, going down. Then she set her teeth hard into the cork, and out it eased with a slow sucking gasp. Her arm was quaking in the shaded light, but she tilted the bottle up and the dark rich whiskey ran scalding down. At the first taste of it, the cold went off; she could feel it floating off, like veils from her limbs, as the cold had always done. A queer heathen laughter was beginning to shake within; the stuff ran thin against the bottle's glass and burned its way deeper and deeper into her swooning flesh.

When the nursery door opened, she flashed the bottle under the cover. But the nurse's step went past the open door and halted at the linen-closet in the hall. Mother heard her taking the towels out for the children's bath. Everything was soft and safe; the terror had been struck away, like shackles, from her wrists. Outside in the summery evening she could hear father pacing the walk below. Up and down went his steps, as if there were some distress in his soul. Up and down, walking his unrest to sleep, as if to ease its storming. What does he fear, what does he fear, thought mother, and she was shaken all over with laughter. What does he fear now that the winter has given over to spring?

After a while the little girls came down the hall, borne gently on an odorous warm wave from the bath. She could remember the smell of the powder on their flesh, and their hair brushed shining. She lay still in the swinging circles of the bed, seeking the high-boy's smile, or flower in curtain for anchor, and listening, whether she would or no, to the little girls' soft voices. This was the place allotted the grown, she thought: to eavesdrop, to watch, to spy.

"You're not my real sister," Anne's voice was saying. Spy on their actions, their hands, and the drop of their skirts; spy on their talk together. The warmth of the night was beating softly, softly now onto the dark shoals of the room.

"Who am I?" said Midge, hushed in wonder. "Who am I?"

The rising sea of warmth was lapping close to the bed now.

"Bindy's not your real brother," said Anne. "Father was married two times. Father's not your father. Bindy and father belong all to me."

"Who am I?" said Midge, lifting her voice in wonder to wisdom. Maybe these words were the words they spoke every day to each other, in worship of the mystery, or maybe they had never spoken them before.

"I don't know who you are," said the wise voice over the open sea of darkness. "Father's not your father."

The dark tide was full now, had risen; mother could no longer stir for the weight of it creeping warm upon her flesh. She was rocked close, cradled and quiet in it.

"Where's my father?" said Midge, stopped still for ever in wonder.

"Your father's dead," Anne's voice said. There was a wondrous murmur of sound now as though Bindy and Rolly too had set sail on the creeping waters.

"Did they kill him with a knife?" said Midge. Mother could hear the paddling of the oars come close, and the keels approaching. In a moment the prows would be on her, but still she did not stir. She lay floating, her arms out, her head back, drifting.

"Give me your hand, Rolly," said Bindy. He spoke in a hard whisper across the waters.

"I don't know," said Anne. "Maybe they cut his head off." The little girls tittered with laughter. "Or maybe he was sick and died in bed like everybody."

"Maybe mother will die," said Midge.

"You fools!" whispered Bindy. "Rolly, give me your hand going downstairs."



Last updated:
June 20, 2009
| Home |