Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson


  Your devoted,

  Dad

  Saturday

  Dear Sir Knight,

  It was not you, then, caroling lustily under my window these three nights past? Nor one of your emissaries? I fear me that the enchantment surrounding my tower is too strong for you, and that my rescue will not be effected for a thousand years—by which time, I wot, I shall be somewhat older and grayer than I am now. At any rate, if it is not a dragon guarding me, it is something very like, something called a Maiden Lady (and, her name being Miss Nicholas, she is of course also yclept Old Nick) which, breathing fire, stamps around at the end of its own chain restraining more adventurous damsels from the straying.

  I mean, I can’t come home for a while yet. If there is any enchanter it is Arthur Langdon, who confidently expects that I will write him a thousand words about Milton by next Wednesday. What is there to say about Milton? I thought of comparing him with King Lear but it looked too hard.

  There is a very strange character around here who would interest you very much. She is always off by herself somewhere, and when I asked someone about her they laughed and said, “Oh, that’s that girl Tony Something.” I keep seeing her around and I think I would like to meet her.

  Tell Mother I got the dress and it’s beautiful. Don’t tell her I have no place to wear it. I didn’t get invited to the Tech Dance, which is Friday night, but then neither did most of the girls I’ve met around here. Apparently you have to know people here before you come, so that you don’t start out fresh making friends. Anyway, I feel sort of crestfallen about it, but when I watch the other girls who were not invited, and listen to them talking, I feel better because at least I haven’t managed to think of an excuse. They all say things like well, they didn’t want to go anyway, and they were asked, of course, but the boy was such an awful dancer they turned him down . . . and so on. I don’t have any excuse except I wasn’t asked. Anyway, tell Mother thanks very very much for the dress; I tried it on and it was lovely. Everyone said it was very becoming to me.

  Speaking of magic, I figure that now I have once mentioned that I would like to meet that girl Tony, I will certainly meet her soon. I have discovered that all you have to do is notice a thing like that concretely enough to say it, as in a letter like this, for it to happen. I suppose once I meet her I will be disappointed.

  As soon as I can write a thousand words of counter-enchantment, I will come home for a day or so. The sorcerer has a way of casting further spells on young women who ignore his simple ones. And I don’t really like Milton—do you? Write and tell me what is good about him.

  Lots of love to you and Mother,

  Natalie

  It had the feeling of middle-of-the-night when Natalie was awakened, and she thought for a minute, not coherently, that perhaps she was never to get a full night’s sleep again, and wasn’t it fine that she didn’t mind being awakened if it was exciting, and then she opened her eyes into actuality and heard the urgent soft voice in her ear. “Wake up,” it said, “oh, please, wake up.” It was a whisper and without personality and, saying over and over again, “Please, please wake up,” it was terrifying.

  “What?” said Natalie, hearing her own voice loud in the room.

  “Wake up, please, and be quiet—and hurry.”

  “I’m awake,” Natalie said. It was unusually dark and the figure beside her bed was unidentifiable; this then is the time, Natalie thought, the time is upon us, this is the occasion I have been living until, when crisis and danger and terror are upon us all, and we are awakened in fear and run for safety; who has been thoughtful enough to remember me in the general flight? Fire? she wondered as she had before, and, War?

  “What is it?” she whispered.

  “Hurry.”

  “I’m hurrying,” Natalie said, reaching in the darkness for her bathrobe, feeling with her feet for slippers; then, suddenly, she heard through the darkness the soft giggle and with it felt the first cold actual fear. War, at least, and fire, were possibilities. This, the giggle, was here in her own room.

  “What is it?” Natalie said again.

  “Come on. And hurry.” Again the giggle. “You don’t need your bathrobe, come any old way. I’m naked—but hurry.”

  “Listen,” Natalie said, fumbling her hand for the light cord, but her hand was taken in another hand and she was pulled firmly, and the vague figure and the faint enduring giggle led her to the door. Natalie was without her slippers and without her bathrobe and in the cotton pajamas her mother had chosen for her, and on the pajamas was a pattern of black-and-red scotty dogs, and the door into the hall showed further darkness instead of the usual night lights from the stairways and the bathrooms.

  “I turned them out, the lights,” said the voice ahead. “But hurry.”

  “What for?” said Natalie, following down the dark hall.

  Again the quiet giggle. “You needn’t think you’re the only one,” she said. “Wait till I show you what I’ve got.” They were passing rooms in the darkness, Natalie knew, where girls slept peacefully, with their eyes closed and their hands relaxed against the pillows; why, she thought almost hysterically, why don’t I just scream? and knew with humor that she did not know how; screaming was in itself an act perfected by few, a sort of coloratura not given to the many; screaming was not something the Natalies might do unprepared. If I were really very frightened, Natalie thought, following barefoot the naked figure ahead, I might yell, or shout, but never deliver a telling scream; then I am not really very frightened, she thought, since I am not able to make any kind of a sound at all, but only follow blind and dry through these black spaces and of course I am dreaming, of course, of course; how profoundly interested I am in all this, she thought. “And,” the voice was going on ahead, “you can lie very still and not move and not say anything and you can hear everything and even though they think you’re there they don’t know who you are and they go right ahead. And even when they come right into my room I just look at them and I say, ‘Go ahead with what you were saying because I certainly don’t care,’ and then they go away because of course when they are right in my room they certainly can’t, can they? And there’s this little girl and she came into my room and she said, ‘May I please sleep with you tonight?’ and I said, ‘Of course you may only I have to get up early in the morning but it’s four hours before I have to get up so you go right to sleep,’ and she got into my bed and she fell right asleep and she had these lovely little animals with her, like birds, or squirrels, only they had no tails, and she set them in a row at the foot of the bed and there were six of them all in a row and she made the most beautiful pictures on the wall, this little girl, and wait till you see them and when you hear them you’ll know what I mean.” Down the stairs, in the darkness, feeling barefoot for one step after another, and the voice ahead continuing, “And of course her mother and father are leaning up against the window and they’re listening too and they can’t hear a thing because we talk so softly and they try and try to listen and we only whisper and you know this is the same little girl who came before and who comes all the time and she sleeps in my bed.”

  After they had gone down the stairs and turned, a door ahead of them showed light in the small space of its opening; it was very late, because there was no other light from any room along the hall, and the hall and bathroom lights were turned out down here as well as upstairs. Natalie thought without wishing to at all of the cautious giggling thing that had gone soundlessly from one light to another, turning off each, for whatever dark reason, before coming unerringly in the dark to Natalie’s bed. “Here now,” the voice said, still with that flat giggling undertone, “now we can all listen together, and sit tight next to the wall and then we can hear what they are saying, only be very careful when you laugh to put your hands over your mouth. Little girl? Little girl?” It was a loving call and Natalie, waiting and held outside the lighted doorway, wanted to call too, ??
?Little girl?” Then, “She’s fallen asleep again, they’re always like that. Leave them for a minute and they’re gone asleep. Little girl? Come on, we’ve got to hurry.”

  She pulled Natalie violently in through the open doorway into the lighted room, and then closed the door very carefully behind them. “Little girl?” she said lovingly. The bed was rumpled and she went over, still calling, “Little girl?” and giggling, and turned the blankets back, lifted the pillow and looked under it, and then, giggling, looked under the bed. “Little girl?” she asked. “Little girl?” Then, saying, “Come on, please hurry, we’ll never be able to hear a thing,” she looked quickly into the closet and then into the dresser drawers, pulling out the angora sweater, the real lace slip, and cartons of cigarettes and unassorted shoes, the money carelessly thrown inside. “Little girl?” She turned to Natalie and said helplessly, “She was here a minute ago. I can’t imagine where she went—I told her to wait for me. Look, she left her coat.” Natalie, staring at the jacket that had been reported stolen a week or so before, was still not able to speak. “Little girl? Where do you suppose she went? Little girl.”

  Natalie opened her mouth, still not knowing what she was going to say.

  “Well, come on, then, anyway, it will serve her right if we start without her, only remember they’re listening and don’t make a sound. Hold your hands over your mouth when you laugh and don’t run around the floor because they’re right outside, and they hear everything. Little girl? Come on over here, right down on the floor next to the wall and do what I do—anyone could tell you’ve never been here before but we’ll excuse you this time and whatever you hear don’t make a sound because then they’ll hear you. Listen to her . . . she’s singing.”

  Very quietly, in acute fear, Natalie was backing to the door. When she felt the panels behind her back, she opened it without a perceptible sound, her hand behind her, and opening it still behind her, backed farther into the hall and closed the door in front of her face, shutting out all the light in the hall but feeling more at ease in the darkness; she was on the first floor of the house, she knew, and up two flights of stairs—oh, interminable!—was her own room again and a safe light she might turn on.

  Backing away from the doorway, she stumbled over nothing and almost fell against the opposite wall. I must be very calm, she told herself; it is only, after all, a question of finding my own room in the dark, and if on the way I can find a light switch for anywhere, the halls, the stairs, the bathrooms, so much the better, and if I do not get frightened and try to run I will not fall on the stairs, and if I do not fall on the stairs she will never hear that I have gone, and why doesn’t anyone wake up and come and help me?

  Then, of course, she heard again, “Little girl?” and the door opened and the light came out into the hall, and Natalie, turning to run in any direction, realized too late that she had come the wrong way and in the darkness was pursued by sly brushing footsteps not on the way to the stairs and her own room but on the way to the front door. In the darkness, the light from the room left far behind her, she heard the soft giggle and felt almost the seeking hand brush her face and heard very close, and softly, “Little girl?”

  And then mercifully she found the latch to the front door and it opened more easily than she had even prayed it would, and as it swung before her she thought, This will set off the burglar alarm, and almost laughed as she slammed it tight behind her.

  It was incredible and of course still a dream to be running freely and in her pajamas with the shameful black-and-red scotties on them, barefoot first over the gravel of the walk, and then primitively over the wet grass, and to be under the trees with everything dark around her. She thought then, I will go back when the sun is out and they are all awake and I can tell them about it, and then she thought she heard wailing from the house behind her, “Little girl?” and knew a sudden horrible shock when, going across the grass under the trees she saw in the moonlight a figure coming toward her.

  Standing helplessly, thinking, Now, I cannot run, this is the time, she said, “Who?”

  “Is there something wrong?” asked the girl Tony.

  Wednesday

  Madam:

  Unless you comply with the following conditions, and without fail, I shall have a black vengeance to wreak upon you:

  1. Enclosed find check for twenty-five dollars. (That is a condition I deem it not overdifficult to meet.)

  2. Cash this check. (Any rich acquaintance will do.)

  3. With the money thus secured, buy yourself a round-trip ticket to this place. (Try the bus station for this.)

  4. Pack a toothbrush, whatever books you need, a pencil and paper, and two chocolate bars in a small valise, put on your coat and hat, and go directly to the place where buses congregate. (This is the most complicated of all, but if you do these things one after another, in the order in which I have stated them, you should have little or no trouble; I recommend, however, that you do them in strict order; it would be most unorthodox for you to go first to the place of buses, for instance, and then try to pack your bag.)

  5. Get on the first bus that will bring you here. (Ask the driver, if you are puzzled, or, better still, pin a label on the lapel of your coat and he will see that you are delivered.)

  Meet these small conditions, sign my book in blood, and I shall turn over to you my key to all the treasures of this world, including, very possibly, some small amount of information of John Milton (1608–74) and a cordial invitation to escort you, in person, to any and all future dances. Fail, as I say, to meet these my conditions, and upon you shall fall the wrath of one who has never yet feared to make his presence known. Did I remember to put in the check? Yes. Good.

  Dad

  Sir:

  I hear and obey. Arrive Saturday afternoon 2:30. Thanks for the check.

  Love,

  Natalie

  Tomorrow morning was Friday and biology lab, and it was past eleven now; anyone desiring to get up at seven and yet have eight hours’ sleep should be at least ready for bed: teeth brushed, hair done, clothes for the morrow set out. And, leaning forward, her face terribly bright and alert and terribly terribly interested in what Arthur Langdon was saying, Natalie sought hopefully for a state of frozen unconsciousness, perhaps drunken, perhaps only the little swift precious moment that slipped her from a dull world into a bright one; she nodded intelligently at what Arthur was saying, and thought, People have had heart attacks and died without realizing anything more than what is probably that brightly flashing second of knowing you are dead. People have managed to do it.

  “I’m not at all sure what I really do believe,” Arthur was saying, and, “When you consider that art itself is a process of . . .”

  “Dearest,” said Elizabeth Langdon, who had almost overnight, it seemed, adopted a dogged persistence of displayed affection, and a hearty, throaty-voiced sort of intelligence, in order, it seemed, to give the impression that she and Arthur were still newlyweds and insanely in love, “dearest, couldn’t it be said, actually, that with reference to—oh dear, I sound so stupid—but anyway . . .”

  I could slip right away, Natalie thought. I could die here, with my eyes wide open and my mouth parted admiringly, and my glass poised in stunned admiration halfway to the chair arm; I could die right here. Or I could pretend I was going to be sick and sneak off home to bed. Or I could even speak, say something so very unkind that they would all listen, and nod at me the way I nod at them.

  “Although, actually . . .” Arthur said. He frowned, weighing his glass as well as his words, while his wife leaned forward breathlessly, and Natalie, embarrassed at having been thinking while other people were talking, closed her eyes briefly and said, “Someday someday someday,” to herself.

  “I have never been able to come round to the way of thinking that would . . .”

  Is something going to happen? Natalie wondered. Has he gone too far,
and will someone be witty at his expense? Oh dear, she thought, I wish I’d been listening and watching, instead of closing my eyes; something has led to something else, and I’ve missed the beginning and shall have to smile vacantly; is something going to happen?

  She thought sadly of how empty lives must be where something was not going to happen. No one seemed to be particularly witty at Arthur’s expense, and so whatever was going to happen was apparently still on its way, choosing its own moment, building for its own effect, so that it should be neither too soon nor too late, neither an anticlimax nor a cause.

  Is it just that something is going to happen to me? Natalie wondered. She closed her eyes again experimentally; was she falling asleep while Arthur Langdon was talking and while the Langdons’ guests, students and faculty members sitting together as though in social pleasure, listened with civility? I shall walk out onto the porch, Natalie thought. As a penance for closing my eyes twice, I have been directed to stand up in my chair, dislodging the ashtray that sits on the arm, I have been directed to move, trying to be unobtrusive but watched with gratitude by everyone in the room, I shall go to the door and someone will say, “Natalie?” and I will turn around and smile vaguely and pass quietly through the doorway and out onto the porch. Later I shall find that I have to come back, and again, the only large movement in the room, I shall find everyone watching me while Arthur pauses in his sentence, regarding me thoughtfully and testing, in a fraction of a second, ways of using me as an example. “Take Natalie, now; she has been gone, and come back, and did anyone . . . ?” “If Natalie had not entered the room at that minute, then, would the thought of her . . . ?” “Natalie is wearing light blue; now, if we assume that the color we believe to be light blue . . .”

 
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