The hours, p.10
The Hours, p.10Michael Cunningham
‘‘We’ve found a bird,’’ Angelica announces. ‘‘It’s sick.’’
‘‘So I understand,’’ Virginia answers.
‘‘It’s alive,’’ Quentin says with scholarly gravity. ‘‘I think we might be able to save it.’’
Vanessa squeezes Virginia’s hand. Oh, thinks Virginia, just before tea, here’s death. What, exactly, does one say to children, or to anybody?
‘‘We can make it comfortable,’’ Vanessa says. ‘‘But this is the bird’s time to die, we can’t change that.’’ Just so, the seamstress cuts the thread. This much, children,
no less but no more. Vanessa does not harm her children but she does not lie to them either, not even for mercy’s sake.
‘‘We should fix a box for it,’’ Quentin says, ‘‘and bring it into the house.’’
‘‘I don’t think so,’’ Vanessa answers. ‘‘It’s a wild thing, it will want to die outdoors.’’
‘‘We shall have a funeral,’’ says Angelica brightly. ‘‘I shall sing.’’
‘‘It’s still alive,’’ Quentin tells her sharply.
Bless you, Quentin, thinks Virginia. Will it be you who one day holds my hand and attends to my actual final breathing while everyone else secretly rehearses the speeches they’ll deliver at the service?
Julian says, ‘‘We should make a bed of grass for it. Angie, will you pick some?’’
‘‘Yes, Julian,’’ Angelica says. She obediently sets about pulling up handfuls of grass.
Julian; ah, Julian. Was there ever more persuasive evidence of nature’s fundamental inequity than Julian, Vanessa’s oldest, at age fifteen? Julian is bluff and sturdy, royal; he possesses a gracefully muscular, equine beauty so natural it suggests that beauty itself is a fundamental human condition and not a mutation in the general design. Quentin (bless him), for all his intellect and irony, could already, at thirteen, be a stout, red-faced colonel in the Royal Cavalry, and Angelica, perfectly formed, evinces even at five a nervously wrought, milky prettiness that almost certainly will not last beyond her youth. Julian, the firstborn, is so clearly and effortlessly the hero of this
family’s story, the repository of its grandest hopes—who can blame Vanessa for favoring him?
‘‘Shall we pick some roses, too?’’ Virginia says to Angelica.
‘‘Yes,’’ Angelica answers, still busy with the grass. ‘‘The yellow ones.’’
Before going with Angelica into the rose garden, Virginia stands another moment, still holding hands with Vanessa, watching Vanessa’s children as if they were a pool of water into which she might or might not dive. This, Virginia thinks, is the true accomplishment; this will live after the tinselly experiments in narrative have been packed off along with the old photographs and fancy dresses, the china plates on which Grandmother painted her wistful, invented landscapes.
She disengages her hand and goes into the garden, where she kneels beside Angelica and helps her create a bed in which the thrush can die. Quentin and Julian stand close by, but Angelica is clearly the most enthusiastic member of the funeral party, the one whose tastes in decoration and decorum must be respected. Angelica is, somehow, the widow here.
‘‘There, now,’’ Virginia says, as she and Angelica arrange grass into a billowy little mound. ‘‘She should be quite comfortable, I think.’’
‘‘Is it a she?’’ Angelica asks.
‘‘Yes. The females are larger and a bit more drab.’’
‘‘Does she have eggs?’’
Virginia hesitates. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ she says. ‘‘We can’t tell, really, can we?’’
‘‘When she’s died, I shall look for her eggs.’’
‘‘If you like. There may be a nest in the eaves somewhere.’’
‘‘I shall find them,’’ Angelica says, ‘‘and hatch them.’’
Quentin laughs. ‘‘Will you sit on them yourself ?’’ he says.
‘‘No, stupid. I shall hatch them.’’
‘‘Ah,’’ says Quentin, and without seeing them Virginia knows he and Julian are laughing, quietly, at Angelica and perhaps, by extension, at her. Even now, in this late age, the males still hold death in their capable hands and laugh affectionately at the females, who arrange funerary beds and who speak of resuscitating the specks of nascent life abandoned in the landscape, by magic or sheer force of will.
‘‘All right, then,’’ Virginia says. ‘‘We’re ready for the laying-out.’’
‘‘No,’’ says Angelica. ‘‘There’s still the roses.’’
‘‘Right,’’ Virginia answers. She almost protests that the bird should be laid down first, the roses arranged around its body. That is clearly how it should be done. You would, she thinks, argue with a five-year-old girl about such things. You would, if Vanessa and the boys weren’t watching.
Angelica takes one of the yellow roses they’ve picked and places it, carefully, along the edge of the grass mound. She adds another and another until she has created a rough circle of rosebuds, thorny stems, and leaves.
‘‘That’s nice,’’ she says, and surprisingly, it is. Virginia looks with unanticipated pleasure at this modest circlet of thorns and flowers; this wild deathbed. She would like to lie down on it herself.
‘‘Shall we put her in, then?’’ she says softly to Angelica.
Virginia leans toward Angelica as if they shared a secret. Some force flows between them, a complicity that is neither maternal nor erotic but contains elements of both. There is an understanding here. There is some sort of understanding too large for language. Virginia can feel it, as surely as she feels weather on her skin, but when she looks deeply into Angelica’s face she sees by Angelica’s bright, unfocused eyes that she is already growing impatient with the game. She’s made her arrangement of grass and roses; now she wants to dispatch the bird as quickly as possible and go hunting for its nest.
‘‘Yes,’’ Angelica says. Already, at five, she can feign grave enthusiasm for the task at hand, when all she truly wants is for everyone to admire her work and then set her free. Quentin kneels with the bird and gently, immeasurably gently, lays it on the grass. Oh, if men were the brutes and women the angels—if it were as simple as that. Virginia thinks of Leonard frowning over the proofs, intent on scouring away not only the setting errors but whatever taint of mediocrity errors imply. She thinks of Julian last summer, rowing across the Ouse, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and how it had seemed to be the day, the moment, he became a man and not a child.
When Quentin takes his hands away, Virginia can see that the bird is laid on the grass compactly, its wings folded up against its body. She knows it has died already, in Quentin’s palms. It seems to have wanted to make the smallest possible package of itself. Its eye, a perfect black bead, is open, and its gray feet, larger than you’d expect them to be, are curled in on themselves.
Vanessa comes up behind Virginia. ‘‘Let’s leave her now, everyone,’’ Vanessa says. ‘‘We’ve done what we can.’’
Angelica and Quentin disperse willingly. Angelica starts her circuit of the house, squinting up at the eaves. Quentin wipes his hands on his jersey and goes inside to wash up. (Does he believe the bird has left a residue of death on his hands? Does he believe good English soap and one of Aunt Virginia’s towels will wash it away?) Julian stays with Vanessa and Virginia, still in attendance on the little corpse.
He says, ‘‘Angie got so excited about the nest she forgot to sing her hymn.’’
Vanessa says, ‘‘Should we be denied any tea at all, for coming so early?’’
‘‘No,’’ Virginia answers. ‘‘I’m fully equipped to make tea without assistance from Nelly.’’
‘‘Well, then,’’ Vanessa says, and she and Julian turn and walk back to the house, Julian’s hand slipped into the crook of his mother’s elbow. Before following them, Virginia lingers another moment
She would like to lie down in its place. No denying it, she would like that. Vanessa and Julian can go on about their business, their tea and travels, while she, Virginia, a bird-sized Virginia, lets herself metamorphose from an angular, difficult woman into an ornament on a hat; a foolish, uncaring thing.
Clarissa, she thinks, is not the bride of death after all. Clarissa is the bed in which the bride is laid.
Clarissa fills a vase with a dozen of the yellow roses. She takes it into the living room, puts it on the coffee table, steps back, and tries it several inches to the left. She will give Richard the best party she can manage. She will try to create something temporal, even trivial, but perfect in its way. She will see to it that he is surrounded by people who genuinely respect and admire him (why did she ask Walter Hardy, how could she be so weak?); she will make sure he doesn’t get overtired. It is her tribute, her gift. What more can she offer him?
She is on her way back to the kitchen when the intercom buzzes. Who would this be? A delivery she’s forgotten about, probably, or the caterer dropping something off. She presses the button for the speaker.
‘‘Who is it?’’ she says.
‘‘Louis. It’s Louis.’’
Clarissa buzzes him in. Of course it’s Louis. No one else, certainly no New Yorker, would just ring the bell without calling first. No one does that. She opens the door and goes out into the hall with a great and almost dizzying sense of anticipation, a feeling so strong and so peculiar, so unknown under any other circumstances, that she decided some time ago to simply name it after Louis. It’s that Louis feeling, and through it run traces of devotion and guilt, attraction, a distinct element of stage fright, and a pure untarnished hope, as if every time Louis appears he might, finally, be bringing a piece of news so good it’s impossible to anticipate its extent or even its precise nature.
Then, a moment later, coming around the bend in the hallway, is Louis himself. It has been, what, over five years now, but he’s exactly the same. Same electric bristle of white hair, same avid and quirky walk, same careless clothes that somehow look right. His old beauty, his heft and leonine poise, vanished with such surprising suddenness almost two decades ago, and this Louis—white-haired, sinewy, full of furtive, chastened emotions—emerged in much the way a small, unimposing man might jump from the turret of a tank to announce that it was he, not the machine, who flattened your village. Louis, the old object of desire, has always, as it turns out, been this: a drama teacher, a harmless person.
‘‘Well, now,’’ he says. He and Clarissa embrace. When Clarissa pulls back she sees that Louis’s myopic gray eyes are moist. He has always been
prone to tears. Clarissa, the more sentimental one, the more indignant, never seems to cry at all, though she often wants to.
‘‘When did you get into town?’’ she asks.
‘‘Day before yesterday. I was out walking, and I realized I was on your street.’’ ‘‘I’m so happy to see you.’’ ‘‘I’m happy to see you, too,’’ Louis says, and his eyes fill again.
‘‘Your timing is incredible. We’re having a party for Richard tonight.’’ ‘‘Really? What’s the occasion?’’ ‘‘He won the Carrouthers. Didn’t you hear?’’ ‘‘The what?’’ ‘‘It’s a prize for poets. It’s a very big deal. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it.’’
‘‘Well. Congratulations Richard.’’
‘‘I hope you’ll come. He’d be thrilled to see you.’’
‘‘Yes. Of course. Why are we standing here, practically in the hallway? Come in.’’
She looks older, Louis thinks as he follows Clarissa into the apartment (eight steps, turn, then another three steps). She looks older, Louis thinks in astonishment. It’s finally happening. What a remarkable thing, these genetic trip wires, the way a body can sail along essentially unaltered, decade after decade, and then in a few years capitulate to age. Louis is surprised at how sad he feels, how little satisfied, by the relatively abrupt departure of Clarissa’s unnaturally prolonged prime. How many
times has he fantasized about it? It’s his revenge, the only possible settling of the score. All those years with Richard, all that love and effort, and Richard spends the last years of his life writing about a woman with a town house on West Tenth Street. Richard produces a novel that meditates exhaustively on a woman (a fifty-plus-page chapter on shopping for nail polish, which she decides against!) and old Louis W. is relegated to the chorus. Louis W. has one scene, a relatively short one, in which he whines about the paucity of love in the world. That’s what there is; that’s the reward, after more than a dozen years; after living with Richard in six different apartments, holding him, fucking him senseless; after thousands of meals together; after the trip to Italy and that hour under the tree. After all that, Louis appears, and will be remembered, as a sad man complaining about love.
‘‘Where are you staying?’’ Clarissa asks.
‘‘With James, at the roach motel.’’
‘‘He’s still there?’’
‘‘Some of his groceries are still there. I saw a box of farfalle I remember picking up at the store for him five years ago. He tried to deny that it was the same box, but it has a dent in one corner I remember perfectly.’’
Louis touches his nose with a fingertip (left side, right side). Clarissa turns to face him. ‘‘Look at you,’’ Clarissa says, and they embrace again. They hold each other for almost a full minute (his lips brush her left shoulder, and he shifts to brush his lips against her right shoulder, too). It is Clarissa who disengages.
‘‘Do you want something to drink?’’ she asks.
‘‘No. Yes. A glass of water?’’
Clarissa goes into the kitchen. How impenetrable she still is, how infuriatingly well behaved. Clarissa has been right here, Louis thinks, all this time. She’s been here in these rooms with her girlfriend (or partner, or whatever they call themselves), going to work and coming home again. She’s been having a day and then another, going to plays, going to parties.
There is, he thinks, so little love in the world.
Louis takes four steps into the living room. Here he is again, in the big cool room with the garden, the deep sofa, and good rugs. He blames Sally for the apartment. It’s Sally’s influence, Sally’s taste. Sally and Clarissa live in a perfect replica of an upper-class West Village apartment; you imagine somebody’s assistant striding through with a clipboard: French leather armchairs, check; Stickley table, check; linen-colored walls hung with botanical prints, check; bookshelves studded with small treasures acquired abroad, check. Even the eccentricities—the flea-market mirror frame covered in seashells, the scaly old South American chest painted with leering mermaids—feel calculated, as if the art director had looked it all over and said, ‘‘It isn’t convincing enough yet, we need more things to tell us who these people really are.’’
Clarissa returns with two glasses of water (carbonated, with ice and lemon), and at the sight of her Louis smells the air— pine and grass, slightly brackish water—of Wellfleet more than thirty years ago. His heart rises. She is older but—no point in denying it—she still has that rigorous glamour; that slightly
butch, aristocratic sexiness. She is still slim. She still exudes, somehow, an aspect of thwarted romance, and looking at her now, past fifty, in this dim and prosperous room, Louis thinks of photographs of young soldiers, firm-featured boys serene in their uniforms; boys who died before the age of twenty and who live on as the embodiment of wasted promise, in photo albums or on side tables, beautiful and confident, unfazed by their doom, as the living survive jobs and errands, disappointing holidays. At this moment C
She gives Louis a glass of water. ‘‘You look good,’’ she says. Louis’s middle-aged face has always been incipient in his younger face: the beaky nose and pale, astonished eyes; the wiry brows; the neck powerfully veined under a broad, bony chin. He was meant to be a farmer, strong as a weed, ravaged by weather, and age has done in fifty years what plowing and harvesting would have in half the time.
‘‘Thanks,’’ Louis says.
‘‘It feels as if you’ve been so far away.’’
‘‘I have been. It’s good to be back.’’
‘‘Five years,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘I can’t believe you didn’t visit New York even once.’’
Louis takes three swallows of water. He’s come back to New York several times over the past five years, but did not call. Although he’d never resolved specifically not to see Clarissa or Richard he did in fact fail to call. It seemed simpler that way.
‘‘I’m coming back for good,’’ Louis says. ‘‘I’m fed up with these teaching gigs, I’m too old and too mean. I’m too poor. I’m thinking of getting some kind of honest job.’’
‘‘Oh, I don’t know. Don’t worry, I’m not going back to school for my MBA, or anything.’’
‘‘I thought you’d fall in love with San Francisco. I thought we’d never see you again.’’
‘‘Everybody expects you to fall in love with San Francisco. It’s depressing.’’
‘‘Louis, Richard is very different than he was.’’
‘‘Is it pretty awful?’’
‘‘I just want you to be prepared.’’
‘‘You’ve stayed close to him, all these years,’’ Louis says.
‘‘Yes. I have.’’
She is, Louis decides, a handsome, ordinary woman. She is exactly that, neither more nor less. Clarissa sits down on the sofa and, after a moment’s hesitation, Louis takes five steps and sits beside her.
‘‘Of course, I’ve read the book,’’ he says.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes