by EUDORA WELTY
THAT was Mrs. Snowdie MacLain.
She comes after her butter, won’t let me run over with it from next door. Her husband walked out of the house one day and left his hat on the banks of the Big Black River.
We had a little run on doing that, in Battle Hill along in then, five years back. When King did it, the old copycats did it. Some just plain left, and some trimmed it up. King MacLain left a new straw hat on the banks of the Big Black and there are people that consider he headed West.
Snowdie grieved for him, but the way you’d grieve decently for the dead, and nobody liked to think, even, around her, that he had treated her that way. But how long can you keep it up ? I could almost bring myself to talk about it — to a passerby, that will never see her again, or me either. Sure I can churn and talk.
You seen she wasn’t ugly — and the little blinky lines to her eyelids comes from trying to see. She’s an albino but nobody would ever try to call her ugly — with that tender, tender skin like a baby. She’s the only one like her I ever seen, right here. Some said if King figured it out that if the babies started coming, the chances were he was going to have a little nestful of albinos some day, that swayed him. No, I don’t say it. I say he was just willful. He wouldn’t think ahead.
Willful and outrageous, to some people’s minds. Well, he married Snowdie.
Lots of worse men wouldn’t have no better sense, and with King it must have been a kind of showing off. Like, “Look, this is about what I think of Battle Hill and all you all in it — I’ll marry a girl with pink eyes! ” And Snowdie as sweet and gentle as you find them. She couldn’t see very well —
They said it was a good thing she couldn’t, with King for a husband. They said there’s one little girl of his growing up in the orphan asylum out from Vicksburg today. And Deacon Hill said it was another good thing she couldn’t maybe tell the color of their skins, either, other ladies’, but Snowdie didn’t see that in King at all. He was always just as nice as he could be to Snowdie.
Gave her servants. He was never heard to raise his voice to her, he was considerate and courteous as could be. Oh, his nice manners were one of the things about that devil — haven’t you noticed it prevail, in the world in general? Beware of a man with manners. He never said a harsh word to her, but then one day he walked out of the house. Oh, I don’t mean once!
He went away for a long spell before he come back that time. Let me get his trips right. She pretended like it was a nice restful trip he was needing, and she was glad he could take it. She had a little story about the waters, I could tell you now her poor little rigmarole. But next time it was more than a year, it was two years — oh, it was three. I had two children myself, enduring his being gone. Yes and that time he sent her word, and it said, “ Meet me in the woods,” Why? I don’t aim to say why, when I don’t know. A thing like that could be because he enjoyed it in the woods — a plain, everyday reason. And maybe again it was the driving old devil in him. If Snowdie didn’t have to know, but went like he asked her, then we don’t have to. He more invited her than told her to come. And it was for nighttime. Anyway, she said herself that in the woods they met and decided on what would be best.
Best for him, of course. He was to stay away a little, or maybe longer than a little. We could see the writing on the wall.
“The woods” didn’t mean a thing but Cooper’s Fields. We would any of us know the place they would go, without having to find it — I could have gone straight as an arrow to the very oak tree, there to itself in Cooper’s Fields and all spready, a real shady place by day is all I know. Can’t you just see King MacLain leaning up against that tree by the light of the moon as you come walking through the woods and you hadn’t seen him in three years? “Meet me in the woods.” My foot. Oh, I don’t know how poor Snowdie stood it, walking to him.
WELL — they first come here to the Pump House Road bride and groom. I hadn’t been married long myself, and Mr. Rainey’s health was already a little delicate so he’d thought best to quit the heavy work. Snowdie was Mrs. Lollie Hudson’s daughter, and Mrs. Hudson was a lady. Her father was Mr. Eugene Hudson, a storekeeper down at Crossroads, but he was lovely too. Snowdie was their only daughter, and they give her a nice education.
And I guess people more or less expected her to teach school. She couldn’t see very well, was the only thing, but the board would pass that by, knowing the family and Snowdie’s real good way with children. I would trust her with any of mine to bring up, did anything happen to me. Then she got took up all of a sudden by King MacLain, before the school year even got a good start.
It was no different — no quicker and no slower — than those things happen, so I don’t need to tell you they got married here in the Battle Hill Presbyterian Church before you could shake a stick at it. And when they dressed Snowdie all in white, she was whiter than your dreams. Even while the music was playing, people were saying he did it to spite Mrs. Nell Waincaster, that he was in love with in the Delta — she eloped with a duke or a millionaire, one. I never knew her. King made a big show of a trip — he went I forget where but he took her on that one.
They moved in the old Fewell place here and he traveled for somebody, I’ll tell you in a minute what he sold, and she stayed home and cooked and kept house. There was a big show of changes over at the Fewells’, and they cut down the cedar trees and put a row of flowers, and put up that tall fence between our pasture and the flowers; there it is yet. And she couldn’t see near that good, but more than once she made all new curtains for every room. At first it didn’t look like they would have any children.
So it was the way I told you, him leaving and him being welcomed home, him leaving and him sending word, “ Meet me in the woods,” and him gone again, at last leaving the hat. I told my husband I was going to quit keeping count of King’s comings and goings, and it wasn’t long after that he did leave the hat. So my husband said, Well now let’s have the women to settle down and pay attention to home folks. That was a lot from him and I told him about it.
So, you wouldn’t have had to wait long — there came Snowdie across her yard and mine to bring the news. I seen her coming down my pasture in a different walk, it was the way somebody comes down an aisle. Did you notice her little dainty waist she has still? I declare it’s a mystery to think about her having the strength once. Look at me.
I was in the stall milking, and she come and took a stand there at the head of my best little Jersey, Lady May, that I was milking, and in a quiet, picked-out way, she told me, “Mrs. Rainey —I’m going to have a baby too.”
Me and Lady May both had to just look at her. She looked like more than just the news had come over her. It was like a shower of something had struck her, like she had been caught out in something bright. There with her eyes all crinkled up with always fighting the light, yet looking out bold as a lion that day, gazing into my bucket and into my stall like a visiting somebody. Poor Snowdie.
I remember it was Easter time and how the pasture was all spotty there behind her little blue skirt, in sweet clover. He sold tea and spices, that’s what it was.
It was sure enough nine months to the day the twins come after he went sallying out through those woods and fields and laid his hat down on the bank of the river with “ King MacLain ” on it.
I wish I’d seen him! I don’t guess I’d have stopped him. I can’t tell you why, but I wish I’d seen him! But nobody did.
For Snowdie’s sake — here they come bringing the hat, a hunter and boys, and a hullabaloo raised — they drug the Big Black for nine miles down, or was it only eight, and sent word to Bovina and on, clear to Vicksburg, to watch out for anything to wash up or to catch in the trees in the river. Sure, there never was anything—just the hat. They found everybody else that ever honestly drowned along the Big Black in this neighborhood. Old Man Eckhart, he was a foreigner here, and he drowned and they found him. I think with the hat he ought to have laid his watch down, if he wanted to give it a better look.
Snowdie kept just as bright and brave, she didn’t seem to give in. She must have had her thoughts and they must have been one of two things. One that he was dead — then why did her face have the glow? It had a glow — and the other that he left her and meant it. And like people said, if she smiled then, she was clear out of reach. I didn’t know if I liked the glow. Why didn’t she rage and storm a little — to me, anyway, just Mrs. Rainey? The Hudsons all hold themselves in. But it didn’t seem to me, running in and out the way I was, that Snowdie had ever got a real good look at life, maybe. Maybe from the beginning. Maybe she just doesn’t know the extent. Not the kind of look I got, and away back when I was twelve year old or so. Like something was put to my eye.
She just went on keeping house, and getting fairly big with what I told you already was twins, and she seemed to settle into her content. Like a little white kitty in a basket, making you wonder if she just mightn’t put up her paw and scratch, if anything was, after all, to come near. At her house it was like Sunday even in the mornings, every day, in that cleaned-up way. She was taking a joy in her fresh untracked rooms and that dark, quiet, real quiet hall that runs through her house. And I love Snowdie. I love her.
Except none of us felt very close to her all the while. I’ll tell you what it was, what made her different. It was the not waiting any more, except where the babies waited, and that’s not but one story. We were mad at her and protecting her all at once, when we couldn’t be close to her.
And she come out in her pretty clean shirtwaists to water the ferns, and she had remarkable flowers — she had her mother’s way with flowers, of course. And give just as many away, except it wasn’t like I or you give. She was by her own self. Oh, her mother was dead by then, and Mr. Hudson fourteen miles down the road away, crippled up, running his store in a cane chair. We was every bit she had. Everybody tried to stay with her as much as they could spare, not let a day go by without one of us to run in and speak to her and say a word about an ordinary thing. Mrs. Willie Stark let her be in charge of raising money for the poor country people at Christmas that year, and like that. Of course we made all her little things for her, stitches like that were way beyond her. It was a good thing she got such a big stack.
THE twins come the first day of January. Mrs. Willie Stark — she hates all men, and is real important: yonder’s her chimney — made her nigger hitch up and drive to Vicksburg to bring back the doctor in her own buggy the night before, and stuck him in a cold room to sleep at her house; she said trust the doctor’s buggy to break down. Mrs. Stark stayed right by Snowdie, and of course we stayed too, but Mrs. Stark was right by the bed without budging and took charge when the pains began. Snowdie had the two little boys and neither one albino. They were both King alt over again, if you want to know it. She clapped the names on them of Lucius Randall MacLain and Eugene Hudson MacLain, after her own father and her mother’s father.
It was the only sign she ever give that maybe she didn’t think the name King MacLain had stayed beautiful. But not much of a sign, because, you know, some women are going to name their sons after any other men in their family first, before they get to their husbands; some women are just that way, one of their peculiarities at times like that. I don’t think with Snowdie even two other names meant she had changed yet — not towards King, that devil.
Time goes like a dream no matter how hard you run, and all the time we heard things from out in the world that still didn’t mean we believed them. You know the kind of things. King MacLain had been seen in Memphis. King MacLain was seen getting a haircut in Laredo, Texas. King MacLain passed somebody right on the street in New Orleans in bright day, and never blinked an eye. Those things you will hear forever when people go off. Like a few last shots in the hunter’s woods. They might mean something — might not.
Till the most foolish was the time my husband saw a man that was the spit-image of King no further away than Jackson. He was in a parade, my husband told me in his good time, marching along with all the Shriners, and up front.
When I asked the way he looked, I couldn’t get a thing out of my husband, except he would just march silly across the kitchen. I knew, though. If it was King, he looked like “Hasn’t everybody been wondering, though, been out of their minds, to know where I’ve been keeping myself!” I told my husband it reasoned to me like it was up to the Shriners to get hold of King and bring something out of him, and see what it would be, but my husband said maybe they thought it was his own business and besides, a parade was going on. Men! I said if I’d been a Shriner or any man, and marching along and spied King MacLain next to me insufferable like that, parade or no, if I’d been so sure, I’d have had the whole thing brought to a halt, and called him by name. “Well, what good would it have done you?” my husband said. “A plenty,” I said. I was excited at the time it happened, “That was just as good a place to show him forth as any, right in front of the Governor’s mansion on Capitol Street in Jackson, with the band playing ‘Dixie’.”
Well, yes — men like that need to be shown up before the world, I guess — not that any of us would be surprised. “Did you go and find him after the parade got safely where it was going, then?” I asked my husband. But he said no, that wasn’t what he went to Jackson for. He went for me a new bucket, and brought me the wrong size. But he said that was King or his twin. What twin! Well, through the years, somebody comes home from a summer trip and says, “You know who I saw when I got there? King MacLain!” And if it was ever to speak to, nobody has ever breathed a word.
I believe he’s been to California. Don’t ask me why. But I picture him there. I see King in the West, out where it’s gold and everything. Everybody to their own opinions.
WELL, what happened turned out to happen on Halloween. Only last week — and seems already like something that couldn’t happen at all. My baby girl, Virgie, swallowed a button that same day — later on — and that happened, and seemed likely, but not this. And not a word’s been spoke out loud, for Snowdie’s sake, so I trust the rest of the world will be as careful.
You can talk about a baby swallowing a button off a shirt and having to be upended and her behind pounded, and it sounds reasonable, but get talking about something that’s only a kind of near thing — and hold your horses.
Well, Halloween, about three o’clock, I was over at Snowdie’s helping her cut out patterns — she’s kept on sewing for those boys. Me, I have a little girl to sew for — she was right there, asleep on the bed in the next room — and it hurts my conscience being that lucky over Snowdie too. And the twins wouldn’t play out in the yard that day but had hold of the scraps and the scissors and the paper of pins and all, and there underfoot they were dressing up and playing ghost and what all. Uppermost in their little minds was Halloween.
They had on their Kress’s masks, of course, tied on over their Buster Brown bobs and pressing a rim around the back. I was used to how they looked by then — but I don’t like masks. One was the Chinese kind, all yellow and mean with slant eyes and a dreadful thin mustache of black horsy hair. The other one was a lady, with an almost scary-sweet smile on her lips. I never did take to that smile, with all day for it. Eugene Hudson wanted to be the Chinaman and so Lucius Randall had to be the lady.
So they were making tails and do-lollies and all kinds of foolishness, and sticking them onto their little middles and behinds, snatching every scrap from the shirts and flannels me and Snowdie was cutting out on the dining-room table. Sometimes we could grab a little boy and baste something up on him whether or no, but we didn’t really pay them much mind, we was talking about the prices of things for winter, and the funeral of an old maid.
So we never heard the step creak or the porch give, at all. That was the blessing. And if it wasn’t for something that come from outside us all to tell about it, I wouldn’t have the faith I have that it come about.
But happening along our road — like he does every day — was a real trustworthy nigger. He’s one of Mrs. Willie Stark’s husband’s mother’s niggers, Old Plez Stark everybody calls him. Lives down beyond me. The real old kind, that knows everybody since time was. He knows more folks than I do, who they are, and all the fine people. If you wanted anybody in Battle Hill that wouldn’t be likely to make a mistake in who a person is, you would ask for Old Plez Stark.
So he was making his way down the road, by stages. He still has to do a few people’s yards that the ladies won’t let him go, like Mrs. Stark, because he don’t pull up things. He’s no telling how old, and starts early and takes his time coming home in the evening — always stopping to speak to people to ask after their health and tell them good evening all the way. Only that day, he said he didn’t see a soul else
— besides you’ll hear who in a minute — on the way, not on porches or in the yards. I can’t tell you why, unless it was those little gusts of the north wind that had started blowing. Nobody likes that.
But yonder ahead of him was walking a man. Plez said it was a white man’s walk and a walk he knew — but it struck him it was from away in another year, another time. It wasn’t just the walk of anybody supposed to be going along the Pump House Road right at that time — and yet it was, too
— and if it was, he still couldn’t think what business that somebody would be up to. That was the careful way Plez was putting it to his mind.
If you saw Plez, you’d know it was him. He had some roses stuck in his hat that day, I saw him right after it happened. Some of Miss Willie’s fall roses, big as a man’s fist and red as blood — they were nodding side to side out of the band of his old black hat, and some other little scraps out of the garden laid around the brim, throwed away by Mrs. Stark; he’d been cleaning out her beds that day, it was fixing to rain.
He said later he wasn’t in any great hurry, or he would have maybe caught up and passed the man. Up yonder ahead he went, going the same way Plez was going, and not much more interested in racing. And a real familiar stranger.
So Plez says presently the familiar stranger paused. It was in front of the Fewell gate — “now it’s the MacLain gate,” and so on, Plez explaining
— and sunk his weight on one leg and just stood there, posey as the statue in the square, head sideways! Ha! Old Plez said. So he just leaned against him a tree where he was and — in a word — waited.
So next thing, the stranger — oh it was King! By then Plez was calling him Mr. King to his mind
— went through the gate and up the path and then sideways — skirted around the porch. King went low around the house — he went from bush to bush, low as a skunk, and under the big wistaria vine back there and under the wash (he didn’t count it!), and edged around to the back. He went back of the cistern and come close to the house again, sniffy like, and Plez said he couldn’t exactly see from his tree exactly what Mr. King was doing, but he knows, as good as seeing it, that he took a good peep in through the blinds in the back windows, and looked in the pantry, and he would have looked in the dining room — have mercy. We’d shut the south light out of Snowdie’s eyes of course.
Pretty soon here he come a-creeping round to the front again, the snake, around the rose trellis under the front room. Then he drew himself together. Then he started up the front steps.
Plez says Mr. King had on tennis shoes and they didn’t make any but the thinnest sound — and then the middle step sort of sings when it’s stepped on. So King was up on the front porch and across it with one more little giving sound, and what do you think he does but fix to knock on the door?
On his own door. He makes a little shadow knock, like trying to see how it would look, and then puts his hands behind his coat, flirting like with himself, and stands with one leg out, considering. And I bet a smirk on his pretty face! Oh, don’t ask me to go on.
Suppose Snowdie had glanced down the hall — the dining room is at the end of the front hall, and the folding doors were pushed back — and seen him, all “Come-kiss-me!” like that. I don’t know if she could have seen that good — but I could. I was a fool and didn’t look.
IT WAS the twins seen him. Through those littlebitty holes, those eagle eyes! There ain’t going to be no stopping those twins.
And he didn’t get to knock on the door, but he had his hand raised the second time and his knuckles sticking up, and out come the children on him, hollering “Boo!” and waving their arms up and down the way it would scare you to death, or it ought to, if you weren’t ready for them.
We heard them charge out, but we thought it was just a nigger that was going by for them to scare, if we thought anything.
Plez says — allowing for all human mistakes — he seen on one side of King come rolling out Lucius Randall all dressed up, and on the other side, Eugene Hudson all dressed up. Could I have forgotten to speak of their being on skates? Oh, that was all afternoon. They’re real good skaters, the little rascals, not to have a sidewalk. They sailed out the door and circled around their father, flying their arms and making their fingers go scary, and those little Buster Brown bobs going in a circle.
Lucius Randall, Plez said, had on something pink, and he did, the basted flannelette teddy-bears we had tried on on top of his clothes and he got away. And said Eugene was the Chinaman, and that was what he was. It would be hard to tell which would come at you the more outrageous of the two, but to me it would be Lucius Randall with the girl’s face and the big white cotton gloves falling off his fingers, and oh! he had on my hat. This one I milk in.
And they made a tremendous uproar with their skates, Plez said, and that was no mistake, because I remember what a hard time Snowdie and me had hearing what each other had to say all afternoon.
Plez said King stood it a minute — he got to turning around too. They were skating around him and saying in high birdie voices, “How do you do, Mister Booger?” You know if children can be monkeys, they’re going to be them. (Without the masks, though, those two children would have been more polite about it — there’s enough Hudson in them.) Skating around and around their papa, and just as ignorant! Poor little fellows. After all they’d had nobody to scare all day for Halloween, away out here, except one or two niggers that went by, and the train whistling through at two-fifteen, they scared that.
But monkeys — ! Skating around their papa. Plez said if those children had been black, he wouldn’t hesitate to say they would remind a soul of little nigger cannibals in the jungle. When they got their papa in their ring-around-a-rosy and he couldn’t get out, Plez said it was enough to make an onlooker a little uneasy, and he called once or twice on the Lord. And after they went around high, they crouched down and went around low, about his knees.
The minute come when King just couldn’t get out quick enough. Only he had a hard time, and took him more than one try. He gathered himself together and King is a man of six foot height and weighs like a horse, but he was confused, I take it. But he got aloose and up and out like the devil was after him — finally. Right up over the banister and the ferns, and down the yard and over the gate and gone. He plowed into Cooper’s Fields, and the willows waved behind him, and where he run then, Plez don’t know and I don’t and don’t nobody.
Plez said King passed right by him, that time, but didn’t seem to know him, and the opportunity had gone by then to speak. And where he run then, nobody knows.
He should have wrote another note, instead.
Well then, the children I reckon just held openmouth behind him, and then something got to mounting up and scaring them, after it was all over. So they come back in the dining room, to the innocent ladies, scowling and dragging over the carpet on their skates, and tried to do a ring around us, following their mother and me around the table where we was cutting out Eugene Hudson’s underbody, and pulling on our skirts. “Well, speak,” said their mother, and they told her a booger had come up on the front porch and when they went out to see him he said, “God help an honest man!”, so they chased him down the steps and run him off. “But he looked back like this!” Lucius Randall said, lifting off his mask and showing us on his little naked face with the round blue eyes. And Eugene Hudson said the booger took an apple before he got through the gate.
And Snowdie dropped her scissors on the mahogany, and her hand just stayed in the air as still, and she looked at me, a look a minute long. And first she caught her apron to her and then started shedding it in the hall while she run to the door — so as not to be caught in it, I suppose, if anybody was still there. She run and the little glass prisms shook in the hall — I don’t remember another time, from her. She didn’t stop at the door but run on through it and out on the porch, and she looked both ways and was running down the steps. And she run out in the yard and stood there holding to the gate, looking towards the country, but I could tell by the way her head held there wasn’t nobody.
When I got to the steps — I didn’t like to follow right away — there was nobody at all but Old Plez, who was coming by raising his hat.
“Plez, did you see a gentleman come up on my porch just now?” I heard Snowdie call, and there was Plez, just ambling by with his hat raised, like he was just that minute passing, like we thought. And Plez, of course, he said, “No’m, mistis, I don’t recollect one soul pass me, whole way from town.”
The little fellows held on to me, I could feel them tugging. And my little girl slept through it all, inside, and then woke up to swallow that button.
Outdoors the leaves was rustling, different from when I’d went in. It was coming on a rain. The day had a two-way look, like a day will at change of the year — clouds dark and the gold air still in the road, and the apple trees lighter than the sky was. And the oak leaves scuttling and scattering, blowing against Old Plez and brushing on him, the old man.
“You’re real positive, I guess, Plez?” asks Snowdie, and he answers comforting-like to her, “ You wasn’t looking for nobody to come today, was you? ”
It was later on that Mrs. Willie Stark got hold of Plez and got the truth out of him, and I heard it after a while, through her church ladies. But of course he wasn’t going to let Mrs. Snowdie MacLain get hurt now, after we’d all watched her so long. So he fabricated.
After he’d gone by, Snowdie just stood there in the cool without a coat, with her face turned towards the country and her fingers pulling at little threads on her skirt and turning them loose in the wind, making little kind deeds of it, till I went and got her. She didn’t cry.
“Course, could have been a ghost,” Plez told Mrs. Stark, “but a ghost — I believe — if he had come to see the lady of the house, would have waited to have a word with her.”
And he said he had nary doubt in his mind that it was King MacLain, starting home once more and thinking better of it. Mrs. Willie said to the church ladies, “I, for one, trust the nigger. I trust him the way you trust me. Old Plez’s mind has remained clear as a bell. I trust his story implicitly,” she says, “because that’s just what I know King MacLain’d do —run.” And that’s one time I feel in agreement about something with Mrs. Willie Stark, though she don’t know about it, I guess.
And I live and hope he hit a stone and fell down running, before he got far off from here, and took the skin off his handsome nose, the devil.
And so that’s why Snowdie comes to get her butter now, and won’t let me bring it to her any longer. I think she kind of holds it against me, because I was there that day when he come; and she don’t like my baby any more.
And you know, now and then I get to thinking, maybe King did know it was Halloween. Do you think he’d go that far for a prank?
With men like him, your thoughts are bottomless. The fine, golden-haired Greek god! He was going like the wind, Plez swore to Mrs. Willie Stark, though he couldn’t swear to the direction; so he said.
But I bet you my little Jersey cow King tarried long enough to get him a child somewhere.
What makes me say a thing like that? You mind you forget it.