From where Charles Graves sat, several rows back and to the left among the other fourth year cadets in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hall, Colonel Jefferson Randolph Kean’s uniform, as he walked to the podium, seemed to have been fitted before its owner lost an amount of flesh. His dark hair was tamed across his skull with pomade while his bush of a beard remained long and unkempt. Charles wondered if the cadets, sitting row after row under the dark-beamed roof and hanging blossom-shaped lamps, had any individuality for the speaker at all. Putting himself in Colonel Kean’s shoes, he could not imagine discerning any feature that would have set any one of them apart, so similar did they appear with their identical haircuts and fitted gray jackets. Yet Colonel Kean’s face conveyed a sure sense of personal character while his declarative voice carried through the auditorium without a tremor.
“In undertaking to talk to you this afternoon, in this year of our Lord 1912, on the subject of personal hygiene, which your Superintendent has selected for me, it is with full knowledge of the risk of appearing to you as just another one of those sign posts which appear from time to time in your path with the tedious refrain, ‘Stop! Look! Listen!’”
The wood floor, which Charles suddenly found himself staring at, was damp from snow melting off boots, the eternal winter slush that gave the boards a soft dull sound when trod upon. He was relieved to see that his boots, which he had noticed that morning were beginning to crack, still appeared intact from the present short distance. He raised his head and saw that the scene was a series of grays, the image of winter through which one searched for something of color and warmth, indoors or out, but found only the light of arctic skies, a constant subterranean glow in the long Valley of Virginia. The massive United States and Virginia flags draped behind the podium seemed ashen as if with frost, the high Gothic windows a stern device for framing sky now absent.
Yet in spite of the bleak scene, Charles liked being there, for it gave him a free hour to arrange his thoughts, to apply his usual methodical approach to both the future and the past, the same satisfaction he felt in composing lines and interspaces and conjunctions to form the structure of a building in architectural drawing class. He had been accused by his maiden sister, Adelaide, of putting a grid to nature, a bird crank, Adelaide called him in jesting affection, for he recorded the date of every feather he picked from the ground, every bird’s nest he clambered up a tree for, every clutch of eggs he retrieved from the nest and blew out to set upon his display shelves at home, as well as every bird his father had taught him to stuff and mount. He recorded the arrival dates in spring of each species from the ruby-throated hummingbird to the song sparrow and their departure dates in the fall.
“Personal hygiene,” Colonel Kean said, “is a story of an old and well-trodden path, but withal a difficult one, along which even knowledge herself can make but poor progress unless her older sister, Wisdom, take her by the hand.”
At Charles’s right, Ned McAlister, phlegmatic and long-lashed and sloe-eyed, who had not had a bath for a week, for his turn was coming up on Monday, leaned towards Charles, while his eyes, in pretext, looked straight at the speaker.
“You bet I’ll take her, but not by the hand,” he whispered.
Charles felt a great discrepancy between himself and Ned McAllister, not only in the bath department—for Charles had just had his turn the night before—but in other areas as well, what Adelaide would have referred to as social deportment, a quality she had taught him to raise above all others.
He reckoned there were a number of things he ought to be using the time to think about, though certainly the disposition of the mourning dove—which was difficult to hide—stood out as most immediate. It would be a sore tribulation, indeed, if the bird caused him to be confined to barracks so that he would not able to go to town to pursue his social interests.
“Tennyson is, I think, getting to be an out of fashion poet, but I can recommend to those of you who are not familiar with it, his poem, Oenone. The goddess of discord, you will remember, cast one day upon the banquet table of the gods a golden apple inscribed, To the most fair.” It was at once claimed by the three goddesses, Hera, queen of heaven, Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.”
Willie Swann, to Charles’s left, a constant look of reproach that he often used to place himself above fault, gave a sigh of profound disrespect and indifference. He nudged Charles and formed, in imitation, a circle with his thumb and forefinger the size of a silver dollar. From his face, that reminded Charles of cold porridge, a sober wink escaped. In his usual, pedantic way, he said under his breath,
“Ah, Pallas Athena, of course. I have always preferred the more classical term Cyprian—the place of the goddess’s birth—to the rather unsavory term soiled dove,”
Charles shot him a delaying look.
The problem was whether to let the bird go free now that its leg and wing were mended or keep him sheltered in barracks until the snows had melted. The Blue Book specified that no dogs or horses were to be kept in barracks, but didn’t mention birds. But then, the Blue Book could not always be trusted, for it also specified no waiters in barracks, and every waiter the school had did cooking and cleaning and boot polishing on the side in barracks. A coal-black waiter named Jesse had asked to look in Charles’s ornithology books in order to identify a bird that came to the back door of the kitchen after cracked corn. It was decided that the bird was a willet, catoptrophrus semipalmatus, blown off course, the waiter having described the bird’s distinctive black and white wing pattern and call, pill-will-willet, pill-will-willet, as it flew off. In his white serving jacket, his face polished and oiled from the kitchen, the waiter brought scraps of bread and suet for the mourning dove, and once an unusually knotted wing bone from a snow goose, the result of a healed fracture. He always asked for payment, of course, just something small, but Charles told him the truth, his father was only a pharmacist, not a lawyer or doctor or first family planter, and he didn’t have it.
“Must carried that bird ten thousand mile and now to get shot,” the waiter said. “Just like the Negro. Work his self hell and gone and high water beside to end a server for the white after all. Me and this snow goose done discovered. He in a pot and me with no gratuity.”
Charles thought the analogy far-fetched.
“Why don’t you go with the railroad? They get tips,” he said, but the waiter only looked at him solemnly and left.
On the whole, when he thought about it, items even remotely scientific were almost always accepted in barracks. His collection of eggs and nests, for example. The white-eyed vireo nest in perfect condition, which, on close inspection, revealed not only leaf skeletons and snake skins, but fine grasses, horsehair and scraps of cloth, down, moss, bark fiber and weed stems, spider webs, bits of string and paper. Or the small, compact nest of a hummingbird which had been camouflaged with the same wrinkled gray lichen as its forked branch. As well as a two-headed blacksnake, the greatest nest robber of them all, that Charles had found flat and dry on the road the past summer.
“Paris, the son of Priam, King of Troy,” Colonel Kean said in a voice that lost neither inflection nor syllable as it carried through the auditorium, “was selected to be the arbiter of the dispute. Before him appeared the three disrobed Goddesses, each making offers to win his vote.”
Willie Swann sighed morosely, and said, “Paris was consort to Oenone at the time. He was not entirely innocent. One can trust no one to take the time to get history—let alone literature—right.”
Perhaps the dove would make a fitting gift for Adelaide, who turned back toward home when she reached Pearce Avenue, the western demarcation of her own neighborhood. For when Charles opened its cage, the dove was now able to fly to the ceiling then down the walls and around the table and wash stand and slop bucket, leaving small crusty droppings on the wardrobe and gun rack—but never flying out the window—as if it knew, like Adelaide, exactly how far it was allowed to go. At any rate, the dove had been quite a hit in barracks, a mascot of sorts given the moniker Buff after mathematics professor Dr. Hiram Buff who enjoyed tending chickens behind the officers’ quarters and sometimes came to class wearing a feather or two on the cuffs of his trousers.
“First Hera, queen of heaven, offered him wealth and worldly power. The splendor of her bribe so tempted him that he had already raised his arms to hand her the golden apple when Pallas spoke:
Self reverence, self knowledge, self control,
These three alone lead men to sovereign power.
Yet not to power alone, power of herself
Would come uncalled for, but to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear,
And because right is right to follow right,
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.”
“That’s rich,” whispered Ned McAlister. “It doesn’t make a doodle of sense.”
One more gift to Adelaide, he thought sentimentally, who had been both mother and sister since the day of their mother’s death, for he had never once seen his mother, unless, as he sometimes thought, the veil of birth that covers an infant’s eyes—not a caul but something less physical having to do with the transposition of the spirit—had lifted and he had truly glimpsed his mother’s form lying on her bed at the moment of his birth. Yes, Adelaide had been the best of substitutes. For a moment he wondered if Mary could ever replace her, though he supposed one looked for different qualities in a wife than in a sister or a mother. For one thing, Mary seemed to know nothing of birds or nature. This past Sunday she had worn a hat like a little flat plate tilted over her forehead, a fan of plover feathers fastened onto the brim. He had tried to explain the danger of this, the killing of rare species for the millinery trade, the exportation of game birds simply for the unbridled profit of the Northern markets. She had colored and looked suddenly abashed.
“Well I never intended to hurt any one of God’s creatures,” she said.
“No, no of course not,” he had answered, “but they’re disappearing so fast what with forest fires that no one can seem to put out and the game laws that are never enforced. Then there’s the Negro problem. They won’t do a lick of work, but they’re never to lazy to hunt no matter what time of day or season. And they don’t give a hoot whether they’ve trespassed or not with their sickly, half-starved dogs—I tell you the lower the Negro, the more dogs he owns, you can be sure of it—scouring the fields and woods breaking up nests, destroying the young.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said with feeling. “I simply had no idea. Is there anything I can do?”
He had to admit her concern seemed genuine enough and she could certainly be taught. Add to that a streak of impropriety that did not disturb him in the least. When they danced, she shot him cunning, fragile looks. When she held his hand walking home under the stiff black locusts in the dark, she held it tightly as if she might suddenly float up and away from the earth. He kissed her goodnight, and it seemed to him that she herself had instigated and was in charge of the kiss, so prolonged did she insist its duration be, so cunningly did she hold his head between her two gloved hands. Yet it had not occurred to him to want more, for he was taken care of elsewhere.
Colonel Kean continued to quote Tennyson.
“Yet indeed, if gazing on divinity disrobed,
Thy mortal eyes are frail to judge of fair
Unbiased by self profit, oh, rest thee sure
That I shall love thee well and cleave to thee
So that my vigor wedded to thy blood
Shall strike within thy pulses like a God’s.”
He had been offered a teaching job at the manual high school in Staunton which would allow him to marry as well as repay his father for his tuition. And why wouldn’t Mary make a fine wife? He could not think of one reason why she wouldn’t be the most dutiful and reverent and organized queen of any man’s castle. And she would not refuse him, he was certain. After all, he was liked by everyone, an expression of esteem usually reserved for the deceased, he suddenly realized thinking of his mother’s headstone. He was serious, studied hard, and did not mind discipline, the formations in barracks always indicated by the time on the tower clock. Life came to him by instinct in the same way that he knew without thinking that the signal for full dress was three taps on the drum after the first call, that for overcoats it was a roll, for raincoats a roll followed by two taps, and fatigue coats a single. But he was not without a sense of fun, he told himself. If there was ice on the river, he was always the first to suggest a skate; if the spring thaws had come and cracked the ice into thin, melting sheets, he was the first to suggest a naked dip. Yet he was never blamed when ladies of the town complained of the nudity in a letter to both Superintendent Nichols as well as the editor of the Lexington Gazette. In short, he was as accomplished and as well liked as any cadet could be who played neither football nor baseball.
“Again the decision trembled in the balance, when Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love, stepped forward.
She wore a subtle smile in her mild eyes,
The herald of her triumph drawing nigh
Half-whispered in his ear, I promise thee
The fairest and most loving wife in Greece.”
His appraisal of Mary’s abilities was, in part, based on the discerning and competent behavior of her mother, the gleaming floors and unworn carpets, the shining brass knocker on the door, the small pecan cakes that flaked apart in his hand, the older woman’s look of utter calm and magnificence when she saw Charles and her daughter together. And yes, he felt for certain that Mary was strong enough to withstand the discomforts of love and dangers of childbirth.
“Her beauty and her promise together won her the prize. Under her guidance, Paris sailed away to Greece, where, in violation of the law of hospitality, he seduced and carried off Helen, the wife of Menaleus, King of Sparta. The result of this crime was the Trojan war and the destruction of Paris, his family, and his native city.”
Charles received two hard pokes in his back, and a “Psssst!” under the breath. His hand moved from his lap and slid behind his chair, then made as if to flick the voice away when he felt a crisp new bill placed in his palm. His fingers closed around it, then his hand slid back to his side as he raised one hip in order to slip the bill into his pocket.
“One pack,” a voice behind him whispered. “You hear me? One pack of five.”
Charles nodded once.
Another immediate problem was his inability to finish the concluding paragraph of an essay entitled Nature that he had promised to write for The Cadet, the school’s monthly magazine of science, literature, and art. He’d put his mind to it the evening before with no results.
Gazing in thought toward the nearest high Gothic window, he saw a mockingbird flit beyond the glass, and his mind went blank. What had he been thinking of, he wondered? Ah yes, his essay for The Cadet. But the mockingbird brought up another question that he’d often pondered. Why did some species winter over, while others left? Why did some birds of the same species, such as the kingfisher, decide to stay while his fellows migrated south? It would be plain impossible to suffer a winter without birds, he thought, impossible to march from one bleak crenulated building to the next without hearing the occasional whistle of partridge, not seeing the ring-necked pheasant foraging in the hedgerows, the red-winged black-bird, song sparrow or meadowlark waiting for spring. Pine creeper or wood robin. And bluebird.
His company had been the first to disturb the white snow of the parade ground as they marched towards Jackson Hall. The sun had come out for a brief interval of time and he had seen the shadows of buzzards, gliding diffuse and listless as shades across the wide and unblemished expanse of snow.
Now, sitting in Jackson Hall, he extricated a small notebook from his pocket and wrote with a slow, cumbersome hand upon his knee. If it were not for the sun delivering her light, the atmosphere of the earth would quickly become infected with poisonous matters which would spread disease and death to all parts of the earth. He thought a moment and added, The earth would abhor these impurities caused by the breath of the animal kingdom, and refuse to purify the air for their use. In order not to waste another page, he turned the notebook ninety degrees and wrote along the edge of the paper, Indeed, everything that grows would lose its green color, become limp, then withered and yellow, no longer impart fragrance, refuse to bud and flower, and finally perish. He looked up from the paper and noticed that Harper Stringfellow, sitting in front of him, had a fiery boil on the back of his neck half-hidden by the black braid on his collar.
“To each of you, when you go out into the world, will come the three goddesses. One with promises of worldly success and the power of money, another promising intellectual excellence and moral force, and the third with allurements of sensual pleasure. It is my intention to speak of the decision of Paris and the wide-spread ruin that comes to those who, like him, turn their backs on the good things and the noble things of life for the gratification of the lusts of the flesh.”
Someone made a softly lewd and liquid sound, and Ned McAlister whispered, “The old goat. He condemns it because he’s not up to it, I’ll bet.”
“The training and cultivation of the body so as to bring it to its highest perfection of vigor and beauty was to the Greek a duty both to himself and to the state, and was on an equal footing with the education of the mind.”
“Oh, educate me, please,” Ned McAlister whispered.
“The Greeks well understood the athletic value of temperance and chastity. They had learned that the sexual impulse is a dynamic force which if controlled and turned into other channels of wholesome activity carries men far.”
“Oh darling girl, carry me far to heaven,” came from Ned McAlister.
“At the same time, they knew the precious value of physical exercise in subduing and controlling these desires which nature, in her care for the preservation of the race, has made the most imperious of brute and human passions.”
From down the row, a small folded paper was passed. It reached Charles and he read, I, Harold G. Jenkins, do promise to remit to Charles H. Graves the sum of $10 dollars on receipt of two packages of ladies household stockings. Charles retrieved his pencil and wrote across the note which he had spread upon his knee, All goods paid at time of order. No exceptions. Sorry, Harold. I can not afford it.
“A recent editorial,” Colonel Kean said, “in the Journal of the American Medical Association states: “For a long time the outwardly predominating factor of asceticism has conspired with a host of shadowy, undefined motives to keep all enlightenment of the subject from the young with the same fearful zeal that guards a powder magazine from sparks. The ban of silence has been lifted, and organized effort has set unflinchingly about the task of revealing the consequences, frightful or loathsome though they may be, of transgressions against the hygiene and ethics of sex. Not all the organs of the body require constant use, and the reproductive organs can go for long periods of disuse without atrophy just as a man can go years without weeping and not lose the capacity to shed tears. The natural secretion of the testicles where it accumulates, is discharged either during sleep or little by little with the urine. This is normal and is no cause for uneasiness unless it should become unduly frequent in which case there is usually some undue stimulation, either by thought or local irritation, which should be removed.”“
“Oh mother, mother bring that irritation on!” Ned McAlister whispered.
“A good doctor should be consulted without shame or hesitation for any apparent disorder of these important organs, and one should avoid the quacks who make their living by preying upon the ignorance and fears of men. You may be sure that any doctor who advertises to cure impotence, gleet, venereal diseases and lost manhood is a fraud and a robber.”
The gray interior of the auditorium was suddenly stilled, as if each of them had been reminded of Hiram Stokes, a third year cadet sent to the infirmary, then finally sent home to Culpeper. It was said—but how the information was originally obtained no one knew, because Hiram had not been allowed visitors—that his legs had turned to boils and pus, that a wooden frame had been made to support the sheet and blanket, that a specialist from Washington had come to photograph his legs and chest and arms and face and returned to Washington shaking his head, that Doctor Meadows had sprinkled morphine powder into the boils, but it had not helped, that chloride of zinc had been injected into his arteries and veins. Charles looked at the neck in front of him, the boil he had assumed was due to acne, and wondered if it were not something else.
“It used to be a common saying among men about town that a clap was no worse than a bad cold, and many cases do apparently recover without serious consequences. It was not then known that the infection is apt to linger for months and years in tissues to reappear after marriage and doom the pure and innocent bride to a life of suffering invalidism and sterility.”
Charles remembered Hiram Stokes’s bravado as a “rat” or first year cadet, his unwillingness to get up at reveille and shut the light off at taps, his procrastination when it came to going to the dentist, his refusal to protect himself from the ailments of Venus. Charles had gone out of his way to caution Ned more than once. He hoped to serve as an example of safety and discipline, to instill in his friends his own form of higher ground.
“I won’t have anything to do with the skins of an animal,” Hiram had said. “They’re not clean, and besides, they reduce the experience by half.”
“I tell you,” Charles had said, “they’re constructed of the finest India rubber. My father gets them straight from New York.”
How many lives have I saved, he asked himself with pleasure as he sat in Jackson Hall, thinking of those who had not refused his offer. How many Cyprians, the lowest form of our race, have my endeavors afforded a meal, or a blanket, a bottle of cod liver oil for the woman’s sick child.
“One-fourth of all the blindness in this country,” Colonel Kean said, “is caused by the injection of the eyes of the infant during birth. The ravages of syphilis are not confined to the dissolute and depraved, but fall heavily upon infants and wives. Among the saddest tragedies of life is to see mature men of high standing and ability, respected fathers of happy families suddenly smitten with the insanity of paresis or the helplessness of syphilis, and to know that this is the long deferred penalty of some forgotten sin of heedless youth. These diseases are not reported in the vital statistics and usually appear under the cloak of other diagnoses in the death certificates.”
If he could have looked into the mind of every cadet sitting there, now so reserved and still, Charles was certain that each would be searching for remembrance of those who had died by natural causes, those whose symptoms might be recognizable. He turned his head to glance down the row, and was suddenly not sure of this at all, not certain of the thoughts of any of them. Perhaps they had decided long ago, generations ago—when one thought of it —that the subject, as presented, had nothing to do with their own lives or motives. Yet every month before his father and Adelaide came to visit, he took many orders. Perhaps men can be of two minds, he thought. Perhaps men can accept and resist at the same time. Perhaps it is right and natural for them to do so. A soft, deep blue, a depth of dusk and falling snow, reflected through the high arched windows.
“In the United States Army, soldiers who expose themselves to the risk of contracting these diseases are required, before returning to their barracks, to report to the hospital where they are made to thoroughly wash themselves and use certain disinfectant preparations which have been demonstrated to be protective. Those who fail to take these simple precautions and develop a venereal disease are punished for failure to obey orders.”
His uncle James had developed a nervous palsy in his later years. His aunt had been sickly, after his uncle James returned from the war, with arthritis in her knees which were always sore. How was one to know? It seemed to him that life was like a women’s garments, always one more layer under which the truth of things was said to repose. He could remove them all, every skirt and blouse and slip and chemise, the bustier, stockings, and underdrawers. One entered and what was found? What was found that lasted more than a few minutes at the most? What was found that might satisfy longer? Longer than those few moments that seemed, at the moment of climax, to hold all truth and beauty in their midst. And the mystery of a woman’s sex? But that was just darkness. No different than the mystery of the speckled egret’s egg that rested on his bookshelf.
“Temptation can be conquered by keeping a pure mind and a trained and vigorous body, by exercise, cold baths, a hard bed and, above all, the avoidance of alcohol.”
But alcohol was simply a question of economy. He couldn’t afford to take Mary to hops and sleigh rides and minstrels, buy pipe tobacco, visit Mrs. Bristow, and then on top of it buy liquor.
“If I have brought to any of you a new and broader point of view, so that when the goddesses make their appeal to you, you will choose Pallas, it will be a pleasure even above that of visiting this beautiful town and this historic institution rich in glorious memories.”
Colonel Jefferson Randolph Kean stepped back from the podium and looked about him as if he wasn’t quite sure where he was. The cadets rose and clapped as he removed his wire-rimmed spectacles and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. His spectacles slipped from his hand and fell to the floor. He took a step back attempting to find them, and a cadet quickly came to his rescue, but not before Colonel Kean had stepped on the spectacles and they had shattered. He took the broken spectacles from the cadet, shook his head, then stared with perfect blind confidence over the heads of the clapping audience and bowed.
As he filed out of the building with the others, Charles tallied in his mind how many men had placed orders, how many sheaths his father would have to bring when he and Adelaide came to visit. Over the last two weeks, he had received requests from 23 men which was a total of 165 dollars.
His boots sank into the soft ground, his hands, though gloved, were stiff and cold. When they had first left the auditorium, the flakes had melted on his eyelashes, now they stayed on his face, not melting at all. Those marching in front of him carried large white flakes on their shoulders and caps. Falling snow hid the crenellated buildings, the black limbs of trees, the bronze statue of Virginia mourning her dead surrounded by cannon, the roofs and steeples of the town in the distance below Institute Hill. The weather seemed given by authority. Yet surely, he thought, even this snow drifting softly down, surely even this snow was a layer of sorts hiding something else. And she too, was probably diseased, he thought. He heard the squawk of a cranky in the distance and said,
“They ought to be gone south, bitter cold as it is.”
The image of the heron was clear in his mind, the yellow bill pointed as a dirk, the long, curving neck, the massive gray wings in flight. He felt a sense of happy satisfaction imagining it. Life, as it had been given to him, was remarkably suited to his needs, remarkably sufficient, he decided. He was going to give the dove to Adelaide, he had finished his essay for The Cadet, and he had collected the last of the payments to give his father. There was to be a hop that night and he was to be at Mary’s at eight o’clock. Perhaps he would even broach the subject of marriage. He looked up at the clock tower and saw that it was almost five. Three hours before he had to pick Mary up. He knew that in this snow her father would insist he borrow the carriage. As his company broke formation, he calculated that he could dress and shave in half an hour. True to form, 25 minutes later he walked through Limit Gates.
A wagon became visible in the falling snow, the horse walking with some difficulty in the soft road, the driver huddled under a blanket thrown over his coat, the sound of the wagon, muffled. The streets, the intersections, the frame houses and ragged picket fences, the yards and sheds and bare trees were barely visible. Yet his sense of the distance was innately remembered. No one passed to nod hello to, no one would have known him if they had. Occasionally, as he walked, he saw a rectangle of vague lamplight held in place by curtains in a vague window, a dusky hidden glow. He imagined her opening the door and then imagined the act. As he thought about it, the intricacies of it enlarged in his mind so that he began to feel its pleasure even there in the snow two blocks from her house. Yet there was always the problem of appointments, for she hardly kept track. Ned McAlister, for one, would visit on the spur of the moment. Once Charles had been upstairs with her and just beginning when Ned had come pounding on the front door. Her child had opened it and the little girl’s voice had carried through the walls thin as paper.
“Please to tell you, mother is occupied with a gentleman upstairs.”
Charles had heard Ned say, “Well then, I’ll wait my turn.”
“I don’t know how long they will be,” the child had said.
And Ned had apparently placed something on the table, for the child had asked,
“Oh Ned, what’s in it, Ned? Tell me what it is. Is it a present for me?”
And Ned answered, “It’s candy for your beautiful mother, but if you’re a good girl you can have some too.”
“My mother is not beautiful,” the child said. “None of us Bristows is beautiful.”
“That’s what you think,” Ned said.
Charles and Mrs. Bristow had dressed and gone downstairs, and discovered Ned playing marbles with the child. He had even gone so far as to bring in a stack of wood. He had stoked the stove, washed the plates and glasses in the sink, and placed them in a pile on the table.
Now lost in snow, Charles barely discerned the ramshackle house and its chimney, black with soot, the chinks between the rocks where mortar had fallen out. The door shook gently with each knock, but no one answered, though he was certain he could hear the sound of her footsteps. He knocked again, he stamped the snow off his boots. He took a glove off so that the sound of his knock would be louder, then blew on his bare hand cupped against his mouth. He suddenly became concerned that he might be late picking Mary up.
“Mrs. Bristow? Are you at home?” he said loudly, though his voice seemed lost.
Then the knob turned, the latch clicked, the door scraped open, and there she was. She had put on her coat for warmth, though it hardly protected her from the cold, for her nose and eyes were flaming red. The child looked eagerly from behind her mother’s skirts.
“Have you brought me something, Charlie?” the child asked, and he saw that she too was wearing a coat.
“Katie? Don’t you move away from that stove while Mamma and her gentleman are upstairs. You hear me?” the mother asked.
“I’ve brought you a jaybird feather. Don’t you see?” he said to the child.
The child took the gray-blue feather with its slight black markings.
“I can wear it in my hair,” she said.
“It’s for your collection,” Charles answered. “You must put it up with the others and add it to your list.” You must write in the little book I gave you, “Jaybird, cyanocitta cristata, January 21, 1912. I’ll help you to do it when I come back downstairs with your mother.”
“You hear me, Missy?” her mother said. “You are not to come bothering us.”
The child settled down to play with her rag doll, teaching it to spell by the hot stove. He didn’t mind her being there. She was part of what warmth there was. Neither did he mind the sloping floor, the narrow, worn stairs as he followed the woman, the one room at the top with its damp wallpaper that she always led him into, the spavined iron bedstead. These were all things now connected in his mind with the feeling and the act.
Mrs. Bristow closed the bedroom door and began to unbutton her skirts.
“Here, let me do that,” he said.
Her expression did not change, placid and immovable as if she had heard the words a thousand times before, her dark hair, beginning to show gray, was pinned tightly against her neck, the skin of her face was soft and sallow, her eyes as deep and black as the snow falling softly outside the window.
He lowered himself to his knees and his fingers went for the buttons of her skirts. He could feel her hands on the top of his head, as if to say that she was present, as if to say that she remembered what he was about. Her dank wool skirts smelled of wood smoke and bacon fat as they fell to the floor. She shivered in the cold and he remembered the weather, then he forgot about it. He felt her waist, then stood up and put his hands under her chemise and felt her breasts, soft and slack.
It was she who took the envelope from him after he had undressed and stretched out upon the cold bed. It was she who removed the sheath from the envelope, put it perfectly in place, then unrolled it upon him. She said nothing, made not a whimper of pleasure, only stood shivering as she dressed when it was over, then hurried down to tend the fire. It was the child, Katie, who waved goodbye after he had paid and stepped out into the cold.
The air was clear and vigorous. He looked up into the sky and saw the stars, brittle and distinct, each in their expected place. This is a moment of perfection, he thought. Nothing can harm it. This moment of perfect release, this interval of time, this moment just after the snow has fallen and before its first blemish appears. He sighed deeply, then inhaled a confident breath of air and set off toward Mary’s house.