May Morning

JOSEPHINE JOHNSON is a native of Missouri whose first short story appeared in theAtlantic and who won the Pulitzer Prize with her beautifully descriptive novel, Now in November. Four years ago, she and her husband bought three acres on the outskirts of Cincinnati and a majestic house a hundred and thirty years old. There were bats in the atticuncounted thousands who did not wish to be dislodged; and that struggle Miss Johnson described in her memorable article,Tenants of the House” (August, 1952). In the essay that follows she depicts the explorations which beckon on a May morning in Ohio.


WHEN the morning fog lifts, it leaves the sea of bluegrass on the lawn covered with mist, the illusion of living in an aquatic world. The water drips from the leaves onto this foam, and the sound of the birds is liquid. The delicate floating balls of the campion flowers with their white petals are suspended on such frail stems they seem to swim like sea urchins in the watery air. Even the sky is still white-silver with fog, and a few wet ghosts of the dandelion seeds hang dispiritedly on their hollow stems. Between the watery grass and misty sky the birds move like flying fish.

This damp silver interval is the hour of the snail. It. moves its wet grayness along the vines more slowly than the vines themselves grow under its sliding stomach.

The snail, the Illustrated Natural History of the Animal Kingdom tells us, is a gastropod or bellywalker, and lays eggs the size of peas. “The reproduction of snails is most curious,”writes Mr. S. G. Goodrich in the History. “At a certain time of the year, they meet in pairs, and, stationing themselves an inch or two apart, they launch at each other several little darts, not quite half an inch long. These are of a horny substance and sharply pointed at one end. The animals, during the breeding season, are furnished with a reservoir of them, situated in the neck. After the discharge of the first dart, the wounded snail immediately retaliates on its aggressor by ejecting at it a similar one; the other renews the battle, and in turn is wounded. Thus are the darts of Cupid, metaphorical with all the rest of creation, completely realized in snails. After the combat they embrace each other and both lay eggs!”

Mr. Goodrich also mentions the edible snail, which the Romans fattened with meal and wine in the cochlearia by the thousands, and whose shells were reputed to have held ten quarts — of wine or snail he does not say.

I have eaten snails but once. The kind that come in two containers, shells in one, snails — or something — in the other. One opens both and stuffs the interior bits back into the shells and douses them with butter. Then one pulls the little walking-stomachs out of the shells again and eats them. It is not to be found surprising if one’s own stomach takes a walk.

The vines which climb faster than the snails are Chinese yams, and their ropy stems support a lightseeking head —a head which is a cross between an asparagus and a python, and moves with an ceric snakelike motion toward the windowpane. Alongside of these vines grow the young elms and indestructible wiry, tough hornbeams, so close to this ancient house their roots reach down into the cellar and their fresh arrogant branches tap against the screens. They plan to reach the upper windows in time, and their roots go about a separate and seditious business underground.

Observing their tough will to live, it struck me, one day, that we might find the whole great house tipped up on end some morning, listing to port like a giant ship, and carelessly poised on the roots of the elms and hornbeams — sun streaming into the cellar, gilding the cobwebs and the dusty mice. Deeply disturbed, I tried to think of some way to avert this hour (all ways except the logical one of cutting trees down); and then, as I circled the house like a watchman making his rounds, it came to me that Nature herself was, as always, concerned with keeping the balance. And, since not only the eastern side of the house had its hornbeams and elms, but also the western, northern, and southern sides, we were in a fair way of having ourselves lifted neatly up in the air on perfect symmetrical lines, and of having the somewhat unusual distinction of being the largest tree house in Ohio.

Long before noon the water world has vanished. The sky is a dry white-blue. The green and silver grass is warm and polished by the wind. The ancient pine higher than the house is fruiting, bearing soft red cones that dangle like squirrel tails. These and the frosty green new growth give it the strange festive look of a Christmas tree, trimmed in red and silver, heavily weighted, but calm and majestic in its unseasonable ornament.

The cats begin to look moth-eaten and thinner in this month. They spend much time lying around sleeping and sprawled out on their shedding sides, feet over the edge of things. Nothing alert but a clump of whiskers. As one scrambles about, working, waiting, doing, listening, talking out of each sideof one’s mouth, the effrontery of these limp furry rags draped over tables and porch chairs, lying in the sun and shadow shifting of the maple leaves, begins to work on one’s harried soul. And so, although it is not quite clear what one has in mind the cats should do, since they cannot be continually on a dead run after mice, we think of them with contempt, and of ourselves with pride because we have clumped back and forth around the house some twenty dozen times ourselves already and are exhausted by midmorning, and they have only raised one paw, and flopped it down again. And thus because of our envywe begin to pass moral judgments upon them — the origin of many a moral judgment on the world — and find virtue in our inability to drape ourselves limply over a bench and feel the passing of the maple shadows back and forth across our faces, and listen to the far, faint sound of bees.

Were one to take the cat’s-soul view of things, one might delight in all the gorgeous messiness of this May world. The (lowering seeding bluegrass so thick there scarcely seems more room for its falling seed. Bird shells, sparrow nests, the willow blowing its cottony snow like white dust-kittens, each tuft floating and following the air currents, finally resting in the grass, hardly distinguished from the white ghosts of the dandelions. And in this feline frame of reference one might see even the plantain — the bane of the tidy soul — as actually quite beautiful, and think of its silky leaves and ribs as of a water plant, a tropical hyacinth. “Ah,” one might find oneself saying, “how well the plantain is doing this year, dear. Has it not truly repaid our tremendous lack of effort! And how lovely the lacy chickweed in between!” And, “By George, I think we’ve nearly done for that bloody bluegrass after all this time!”

Now is the season of the salesman, who sniffs the country air and brings his wares out of the winter junk shop, to lay before the country housewife — who, because she is surrounded by the beautiful precision, the infinite variety, the incomparable coloring of the natural world, is supposed to have no aesthetic taste whatsoever. For her are saved the warehouse remnant clock with brass golliwogs in torment and the bronze horse bookends, the cheap china bowls with fat magenta roses in full blowze and the worst of the chartreuse philodendron planters.

Comes also to her the magazine salesman, hot and tired and pungent, from his trudging in the sun, with various reasons for buying his magazines, few of which have anything to do with the enjoyment of reading. The last young man was, according to his story, working his way out of a heart hospital somewhere in the East. Apparently the idea was that if he sold enough magazines and did not die of a heart attack in the process, he would be released.

This salesman was persuasive to the point of menacing, but could not compare with a later caller who roused me by a furious honking of the horn. I looked out cautiously to see a fat, soiled man in a rust-colored car staring out of its window at the house. I waited within until the honking stopped, but when it appeared he was going to drive up on the lawn, I opened the door a crack and stuck my head outside.

The fat man glared. “You got any kids?” he barked. He sounded carnivorous and hungry.

Taken unawares, I acknowledged that I did. “I have three children,” I said in some alarm.

“You wan me to take their pitchers?” he asked threateningly. “I take pitchers.”

“Oh, no. No, I think not,” I said. “My husband takes their pictures.”

Without a word this Cecil Beaton grabbed the wheel of his car, and with a roar it leaped on the fresh green grass, grazed the weeping willow tree, and rumbled angrily away. I had an afterimage of this monster in some remote and rural spot, holding a helpless moppet by the forelock while he clicked a giant Brownie in its face — and then probably ate up the child.

The worst are women, though. Women with Onevolume Encyclopedias who back you into a corner of your own porch, get their knees up against yours — “So, you can really see how marvelous this book is” — and breathe their sales talk in your face.

“I do not want the book,’ I said to one of these plump pilgrims. “It is too expensive for what it is.”

“Your neighbors ordered one,”she chided. “Don’t you want to know the answers to your children’s questions? You do have children, don’t you?”

Since ten children were screaming in the yard I said I did.

“Suppose they ask you what the meaning of a word is? A date? A character in history, say? What will you do? Now, with this book . . .” She flapped the pages hastily. “The answers are all here. You need not be ashamed.”

“But I’m not ashamed,” I blurted out. “And besides, it‘s too expensive. My husband — my husband,” I said cunningly, “told me it was. He said we couldn’t buy it!”

She took this clairvoyant knowledge in her stride and hitched herself up even closer, so that I was niched within the wall. “Well, then I tell you what you do!” Her eyes got bright. With joy or madness, it was hard to say. “Yon buy him one for a birthday present! Now, won’t that be a nice surprise!”

At six, the late May shadows are long and clear and move across the soft blurry green of the lawn. The peony clumps are covered with enormous flowers, shaggy and spicy — some like the ruffs of white Chinese chows, or pink and blowzy, like overblown roses. The evening breeze lifts the warm aromatic scent from the soft hot flowers and sends it in waves across the lawn. The swallows begin to swoop in the long low light. The great matriarchal house broods quietly, its once great acres shrunken to this little skirt of three.

Later, the fireflies rise and sink on the uncut lawn. The children pursue the wandering lights and catch them as they rise upward, or pounce on the little lantern in the grass, Annie’s hand sweeping softly downward like a kitten’s paw, and then cupping the small cold light in both her palms. She is always fearful of hurting the firefly, and leaves too big a hole at the top of her hands, so that the dry tickling feet march up their cage and the lightning bug zooms away. A few bats glide and swoop in silence along the porch, under and over the trees. They streak strange patterns between the house and the scattered stars. The fragrance of the peonies is cool and spicy now, without warmth. “Bedtime, children,” the parent voices begin to say. Brightly, hopefully. The voices have a calm honeyed sound which will not last, which cannot, and never has, and yet is part of that piteous parent hope— perhaps, this time. Perchance, this time the ancient dream comes true whose roots lie God knows where — perhaps, in the Girl’s Own Annual, where, in dark engraving line, the nightgowned children mount the stairs, and with clean sleepy faces place themselves between the sheets murmuring, “Good night, Mother dear, good night, dear Papa. God bless you one and all, and thank you for this lovely day” — and go to sleep.

But at last there is silence. A ghostly tree toad climbs quietly up the pane and presses his little face against the glass. He devours the white moths that flutter their powdery wings in the light, and his little hands pluck out the inedible portions and cast them aside.

The weary people beyond the vision of his bright wet eyes sigh a little, stretch, light cigarettes, and blink their eyes. They would like to discuss deep matters with great brilliance, with insight, and penetration probe the nature of Universal Truth, or with flashes of wit and wisdom light the history of mankind in its long journey through the spiritual night under the everlasting stars. But they are too tired from the journey itself.

The fireflies dance and the bats swoop and swing above the white mist, and the only sound is the faint murmuring of the night itself.