The hours, p.13
The Hours, p.13Michael Cunningham
Here is Nelly with the tea and ginger and here, forever, is Virginia, unaccountably happy, better than happy, alive, sitting with Vanessa in the kitchen on an ordinary spring day as Nelly, the subjugated Amazon queen, Nelly the ever indignant, displays what she’s been compelled to bring.
Nelly turns away and, although it is not at all their custom, Virginia leans forward and kisses Vanessa on the mouth. It is an innocent kiss, innocent enough, but just now, in this kitchen, behind Nelly’s back, it feels like the most delicious and forbidden of pleasures. Vanessa returns the kiss.
Mrs . Dall ow ay
Julia sighs with a surprisingly elderly mixture of rue and exhausted patience, and she seems, briefly, like a figure of ancient maternal remonstrance; part of a centuries-long line of women who have sighed with rue and exhausted patience over the strange passions of men. Briefly, Clarissa can imagine her daughter at fifty: she will be what people refer to as an ample woman, large of body and spirit, inscrutably capable, decisive, undramatic, an early riser. Clarissa wants, at that moment, to be Louis; not to be with him (that can be so thorny, so difficult) but to be him, an unhappy person, a strange person, faithless, unscrupulous, loose on the streets.
‘‘Yes,’’ she says. ‘‘Poor Louis.’’
Will Louis spoil the party for Richard? Why did she ask Walter Hardy?
‘‘Such a strange man,’’ Julia says.
‘‘Could you stand it if I gave you a hug?’’
Julia laughs, and is nineteen again. She is impossibly beautiful. She goes to movies Clarissa’s never heard of, suffers fits of sullenness and elation. She wears six rings on her left hand, none of them the one Clarissa gave her for her eighteenth birthday. She wears a silver ring in her nose.
‘‘Of course,’’ she says.
Clarissa holds Julia, and quickly releases her. ‘‘How are you?’’ she asks again, then instantly regrets it. She worries that it’s one of her tics; one of those innocent little habits that inspire thoughts of homicide in an offspring. Her own mother compulsively cleared her throat. Her mother prefaced all contrary opinions by saying, ‘‘I hate to be a wet blanket, but—’’ Those things survive in Clarissa’s memory, still capable of inspiring rage, after her mother’s kindness and modesty, her philanthropies, have faded. Clarissa says too often to Julia, ‘‘How are you?’’ She does it partly out of nervousness (how can she help being formal with Julia, feeling a little anxious, after all that’s happened?), and she does it partly because she wants, simply, to know.
Her party, she thinks, will fail. Richard will be bored and offended, and rightly so. She is superficial; she cares too much about such things. Her daughter must make jokes about it to her friends.
But to have friends like Mary Krull!
‘‘I’m all right,’’ Julia says.
‘‘You look wonderful,’’ Clarissa says in cheerful desperation. At least she’s been generous. She’s been a mother who com
pliments her child, gives her confidence, doesn’t carp about her own worries. ‘‘Thank you,’’ Julia says. ‘‘Did I leave my backpack here yesterday?’’
‘‘You did. It’s right there on the peg by the door.’’
‘‘Good. Mary and I are going shopping.’’
‘‘Where are you meeting her?’’
‘‘Actually, she’s here. She’s outside.’’
‘‘She’s smoking a cigarette.’’
‘‘Well, maybe when she’s finished with her cigarette, she’d like to come in and say hello.’’
Julia’s face darkens with contrition and something else—is her old fury returning? Or is it just ordinary guilt? A silence passes. It seems that some force of conventionality exerts itself, potent as the gravitational pull. Even if you’ve been defiant all your life; if you’ve raised a daughter as honorably as you knew how, in a house of women (the father no more than a numbered vial, sorry, Julia, no way of finding him)—even with all that, it seems you find yourself standing one day on a Persian rug, full of motherly disapproval and sour, wounded feelings, facing a girl who despises you (she still must, mustn’t she?) for depriving her of a father. Maybe when she’s finished with her cigarette, she’d like to come in and say hello.
But why shouldn’t Mary be held to a few of the fundamental human decencies? You don’t wait outside somebody’s apartment, no matter how brilliant and furious you are. You enter, and say hello. You get through it.
‘‘I’ll get her,’’ Julia says.
‘‘It’s all right.’’
‘‘No, really. She’s just out there smoking. You know how she is. There’s cigarettes, and then there’s everything else.’’
‘‘Don’t haul her in here. Honestly. Go, I set you free.’’
‘‘No. I want you two to know each other better.’’
‘‘We know each other perfectly well.’’
‘‘Don’t be afraid, Mother. Mary is a sweetheart. Mary is utterly, utterly harmless.’’
‘‘I’m not afraid of her. For god’s sake.’’
Julia produces an infuriatingly knowing smile, shakes her head, and leaves. Clarissa bends over the coffee table, moves the vase an inch to the left. She has an urge to hide the roses. If only it were someone other than Mary Krull. If it were anyone else.
Julia returns, with Mary in her wake. Here, then, once again, is Mary—Mary the stern and rigorous, Mary the righteous, shaved head beginning to show dark stubble, wearing rat-colored slacks, breasts dangling (she must be past forty) under a ragged white tank top. Here is her heavy tread; here are her knowing, suspicious eyes. Seeing Julia and Mary together, Clarissa thinks of a little girl dragging home a stray dog, all ribs and discolored teeth; a pathetic and ultimately dangerous creature who ostensibly needs a good home but whose hunger in fact runs so deep it cannot be touched by any display of love or bounty. The dog will just keep eating and eating. It will never be satisfied; it will never be tame.
‘‘Hello, Mary,’’ Clarissa says.
‘‘Hey, Clarissa.’’ She strides across the room and pumps Clarissa’s hand. Mary’s hand is small, strong, surprisingly soft.
‘‘How are you?’’ Mary asks.
‘‘Fine, thanks. You?’’
She shrugs. How should I be, how should anyone be, in a world like this? Clarissa has fallen so easily for the trick question. She thinks of her roses. Are children forced to pick them? Do families arrive in fields before dawn and spend their days bent over the bushes, backs aching, fingers bleeding from the thorns?
‘‘Going shopping?’’ she says, and does not try to hide the contempt in her voice.
Julia says, ‘‘New boots. Mary’s are about to fall off her feet.’’
‘‘I hate to shop,’’ Mary says. She offers a hint of an apologetic smile. ‘‘It’s such a waste of time.’’
‘‘We’re buying boots today,’’ Julia says. ‘‘Period.’’
Clarissa’s daughter, this marvelous, intelligent girl, could be some cheerful wife, shepherding her husband through a day of errands. She could be a figure from the fifties, if you made a few relatively minor alterations.
Mary says to Clarissa, ‘‘I couldn’t do it without help. I can face a cop with tear gas, but don’t come near me if you’re a sales clerk.’’
Clarissa realizes, with a shock, that Mary is making an effort. She is trying, in her way, to charm.
‘‘Oh, they can’t be that frightening,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s stores, it’s the whole thing, all that shit everywhere, ’scuse me, that merchandise, all those goods, and ads screaming at you from all over the place, buy buy buy buy buy, and when somebody comes up to me with big hair and gobs of makeup on and says, ‘Can I help you,’ it’s all I can do not to scream, ‘Bitch, you can’t even help yourself.’ ’’
‘‘Mm,’’ Clarissa says. ‘‘That sounds serious.’’
Julia says, ‘‘Mary, let’s go.’’
Clarissa says to Julia, ‘‘Take good care of her.’’
Fool, Mary Krull thinks. Smug, self-satisfied witch.
She corrects herself. Clarissa Vaughan is not the enemy. Clarissa Vaughan is only deluded, neither more nor less than that. She believes that by obeying the rules she can have what men have. She’s bought the ticket. It isn’t her fault. Still, Mary would like to grab Clarissa’s shirtfront and cry out, You honestly believe that if they come to round up the deviants, they won’t stop at your door, don’t you? You really are that foolish.
‘‘Bye, Mother,’’ Julia says.
‘‘Don’t forget the backpack,’’ Clarissa says.
‘‘Oh, yes.’’ Julia laughs, and takes her backpack from the peg. It is bright orange canvas, not at all the kind of thing you’d expect her to own.
What, exactly, was wrong with the ring?
Briefly, while Julia’s back is turned, Clarissa and Mary face each other. Fool, Mary thinks, though she struggles to remain charitable or, at least, serene. No, screw charity. Anything’s better than queers of the old school, dressed to pass, bourgeois to the bone, living like husband and wife. Better to be a frank and open asshole, better to be John fucking Wayne, than a well-dressed dyke with a respectable job.
Fraud, Clarissa thinks. You’ve fooled my daughter, but you don’t fool me. I know a conquistador when I see one. I know all about making a splash. It isn’t hard. If you shout loud enough, for long enough, a crowd will gather to see what all
the noise is about. It’s the nature of crowds. They don’t stay long, unless you give them reason. You’re just as bad as most men, just that aggressive, just that self-aggrandizing, and your hour will come and go.
‘‘All right,’’ Julia says. ‘‘Let’s go.’’
Clarissa says, ‘‘Remember the party. At five.’’
‘‘Sure,’’ Julia answers. She hoists her bright orange backpack over her shoulder, causing Clarissa and Mary to suffer through a moment of identical feeling. Each adores with particular force Julia’s brisk and kindly self-assurance, the limitless days that lie ahead.
‘‘See you,’’ Clarissa says.
She is trivial. She is someone who thinks too much about parties. If only Julia can someday forgive her . . .
‘‘Bye,’’ says Mary, and she strides, in Julia’s wake, out the door.
But why Mary Krull, of all people? Why should a straight girl like Julia make herself an acolyte? Is she still this anxious for a father?
Mary lingers a moment behind Julia, allowing herself a view of Julia’s broad, graceful back, the twin moons of her ass. Mary is almost overwhelmed by desire and by something else, a subtler and more exquisitely painful nerve that branches through her desire. Julia inspires in her an erotic patriotism, as if Julia were the distant country in which Mary was born and from which she has been expelled.
‘‘Come on,’’ Julia calls cheerfully over her shoulder, over the synthetic orange brilliance of her backpack.
Mary stands for a moment, watching. She believes she has never seen anything so beautiful. If you could love me, she thinks, I’d do anything. Do you understand? Anything.
‘‘Come on,’’ Julia calls again, and Mary hurries after her, hopelessly, in agony ( Julia does not love her, not like that, and never will), on her way to buy new boots.
Mrs . Wo olf
Vanessa and the children are gone, back to Charleston. Nelly is downstairs preparing dinner, mysteriously cheerful, more so than she’s been in days—is it possible that she appreciates having been ordered out on a foolish errand, that she so savors the injustice of it she’s inspired to sing in the kitchen? Leonard is writing in his study, and the thrush lies on its bed of grass and roses in the garden. Virginia stands at a parlor window, watching the dark descend on Richmond.
It is the close of an ordinary day. On her writing stand in an unlit room lie the pages of the new novel, about which she cherishes extravagant hopes and which, at this moment, she fears (she believes she knows) will prove arid and weak, devoid of true feeling; a dead end. It has been only a few hours, and yet what she felt in the kitchen with Vanessa—that potent satisfaction, that blessedness—has so utterly evaporated it might
never have occurred. There is only this: the smell of Nelly’s beef boiling (revolting, and Leonard will watch as she struggles to eat it), all the clocks in the house about to strike the half hour, her own face becoming more and more strongly reflected in the window glass as the streetlamps—pale lemon against an ink-blue sky—light up all over Richmond. It is enough, she tells herself. She strives to believe that. It is enough to be in this house, delivered from the war, with a night’s reading ahead of her, and then sleep, and then work again in the morning. It is enough that the streetlamps throw yellow shadows into the trees.
She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck. She stiffens. No, it’s the memory of the headache, it’s her fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at least briefly indistinguishable from an onset of the headache itself. She stands erect, waiting. It’s all right. It’s all right. The walls of the room do not waver; nothing murmurs from within the plaster. She is herself, standing here, with a husband at home, with servants and rugs and pillows and lamps. She is herself.
She knows she will leave almost before she decides to leave. A walk; she will simply take a walk. She will be back in half an hour, or less. Quickly she puts on her cloak and hat, her scarf. She goes quietly to the back door, steps out, shuts it carefully behind her. She would prefer that no one ask where she’s going, or when she can be expected back.
Outside, in the garden, is the shadowy mound of the thrush on its bier, sheltered by the hedges. A strong wind has blown in from the east, and Virginia shudders. It seems that she has left the house (where beef is boiling, where lamps are lit) and
entered the realm of the dead bird. She thinks of how the newly buried remain all night in their graves, after the mourners have recited prayers, laid down wreaths, and returned to the village. After the wheels have rolled away over the dried mud of the road, after the suppers have been eaten and the bedcovers drawn down; after all that has happened the grave remains, its flowers tossed lightly by the wind. It is frightening but not entirely disagreeable, this cemetery feeling. It is real; it is all but overwhelmingly real. It is, in its way, more bearable, nobler, right now, than the beef and the lamps. She descends the stairs, walks out onto the grass.
The body of the thrush is still there (odd, how the neighborhood cats and dogs are not interested), tiny even for a bird, so utterly unalive, here in the dark, like a lost glove, this little empty handful of death. Virginia stands over it. It’s rubbish now; it has shed the beauty of the afternoon just as Virginia has shed her tea-table wonder over cups and coats; just as the day is shedding its warmth. In the morning Leonard will scoop bird and grass and roses up with a shovel, and throw them all out. She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest. Hadn’t her own mother seemed to have been removed surreptitiously and replaced by a littler version made of pale iron? Hadn’t she, Virginia, felt in herself an empty space, surprisingly small, where it seemed strong feeling ought to reside?
Here, then, is the world (house, sky, a first tentative star)
and here is its opposite, this small dark shape in a circle of roses. It’s trash, that’s all. Beauty and dignity were illusions fostered by the company of children, sustained for the benefit of children.
She turns and walks away. It seems possible, at this moment, that there is somewhere else—a place having to do neither with boiled beef nor with the circle of roses. She passes through the garden ga
As she crosses Princes Street and goes down Waterloo Place (toward what?) she passes others: a plump, stately man with a satchel, two women who must be servants returning from an afternoon off, chattering, white legs flashing from under thin coats, the cheap glint of a bracelet. Virginia gathers the collar of her cloak around her neck, though it isn’t cold. It is merely darkening, with a wind. She believes she will walk into town, yes, but what will she do there? The shops, even now, are being swept and readied for closing. She passes a couple, a man and woman younger than herself, walking together, leisurely, bent toward each other in the soft lemon-colored glow of a streetlamp, talking (she hears the man say, ‘‘told me something something something in this establishment, something something, harrumph, indeed’’); both man and woman wearing stylish hats, the fringed end of a mustard scarf (whose?) rippling behind like a flag; both of them bent slightly forward as well as toward each other, mounting the hill, holding their hats against the wind, avid but unhurried, coming home (most likely) from a day in London, he saying now, ‘‘And so I must ask you,’’ after which he lowers his voice—Virginia can’t make out the words at all—and the woman emits a gleeful little shriek, showing a
quick white flash of tooth, and the man laughs, striding forward, setting down with perfect confidence the toe of one and then another perfectly polished brown shoe.
I am alone, Virginia thinks, as the man and woman continue up the hill and she continues down. She is, of course, not alone, not in a way anyone else would recognize, and yet at this moment, walking through wind toward the lights of the Quadrant, she can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?), and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again. The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a fin breaking through dark waves. The devil is the brief, twittering nothing that was a thrush’s life. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead—joyless, suffocating. Virginia feels, right now, a certain tragic grandeur, for the devil is many things but he is not petty, not sentimental; he seethes with a lethal, intolerable truth. Right now, walking, free of her headache, free of the voices, she can face the devil, but she must keep walking, she must not turn back.
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