Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

  * * *

  The garden belonged exclusively to Natalie; the rest of the family used it, of course, but only Natalie regarded it as a functioning part of her personality, and she felt that she was refreshed by ten minutes in the garden between the arbitrary pleasures assigned her by other people. If she sat on the grass at the foot of the lawn, her back against a tree, she could look out over fields that seemed soft at this distance, into mountains far away, since her father had sensibly enough chosen a picturesque location in preference to her mother’s choice of something that might grow something; thus, at the back of the house, there was a kitchen garden ineffectually tended by Mrs. Waite, which yielded a regular crop of dubious radishes and pallid carrots, and the rest of the land about the house—some three acres of it—was allowed to run to meadow, or vacant-lot, standards. Natalie’s garden was in front of the house, and was tended by a gardener who refused to touch the kitchen garden, and this part of the property ended uncertainly in a sort of cliff—if you looked at it from far enough back—below which ran the south road. Behind the house, behind even the kitchen garden, Mr. Waite had graciously permitted trees to grow unmolested, and when Natalie was younger, before the garden and the view from the cliff had taken such a hold of her, she had delighted in playing pirate and cowboy and knight in armor among the trees. Now, however, for some reason only remotely connected with knights in armor, the tree on the grass belonged to her, and she ignored the trees below as dark and silent and unprovocative.

  The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so perfectly comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it—she was, of course, adequately hidden from the windows of the house—or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal to set up against the defiantly real-and-unreal batterings of her family. There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realized by herself, and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities. Sometimes, with a vast aching heartbreak, the great, badly contained intentions of creation, the poignant searching longings of adolescence overwhelmed her, and shocked by her own capacity for creation, she held herself tight and unyielding, crying out silently something that might only be phrased as, “Let me take, let me create.”

  If such a feeling had any meaning to her, it was as the poetic impulse which led her into such embarrassing compositions as were hidden in her desk; the gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable.

  Lying on the grass on Sunday afternoon, while her mother and father debated over their guests for the day, she rested her cheek on her arm and lost herself in contemplation of the fields and mountains below her; the sun behind the mountains was, to a Natalie not quite used yet to the triteness of miracle, a calendar gesture, the overdone and typical scene of a grown-up world; she had seen so many bad pictures of suns behind mountains that she allowed herself to find the sun itself ludicrous and unnecessary. But the mountains, relieved of the pressure of the sun, were dark and shadowy, and the fields, still lighted by the sun, were clear and green, and Natalie, lying with her cheek on her arm, felt herself running, lighter than anything she had ever known, running with great soft steps across the world. Her feet brushed the ground—she could feel it, she could feel it—her hair fell soundlessly behind, her long legs arched, and the breath came cold in her throat. The first to awaken, the first to come, misty, into the world, moving through an unpeopled country without a footstep, going up the mountains, touching the still-wet grass with her hands.

  The mountains, full-bosomed and rich, extended themselves to her in a surge of emotion, turning silently as she came, receiving her, and Natalie, her mouth against the grass and her eyes tearful from looking into the sun, took the mountains to herself and whispered, “Sister, sister.” “Sister, sister,” she said, and the mountains stirred, and answered.

  * * *

  She saw her brother coming from the house and into the garden, and spent a brief moment of wonder at his presence; from his sudden great resemblance to herself, she thought that perhaps he did not know she was there and was coming to sit and look at the mountains, but he was looking for her, she knew then; he called, “Nat? Nat?”

  “Here,” she said, and saw him turn his head toward her, but the trees hid her and he came on, saying, “Where are you?”

  When he found her and sat down beside her she saw with satisfaction that he had not been here before, because he took a minute to look out over the cliff before he said, “Mother said you were to come in and get dressed.”

  “You going swimming?” she asked him.

  She could see him making up his mind to say something, and knew from the way his face took on a new expression that it was something he had long ago determined to say when he got an opportunity; it was never possible for her to tell whether his face was so familiar because it strongly resembled her own, or because she saw it three times a day across the table. “Listen,” he said finally, and pulled irritably at the grass. “You want to go to this thing this afternoon?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t mind.”

  “Because, listen,” he said. Any kind of positive statement was so much an invasion of his own privacy that he almost stammered, and turned red. “I’d take you swimming,” he said.

  There was nothing to say except “No,” and yet it was impossible to say that. Natalie tried not to look at him, and yet his face was—so much like her own, she was sure—so unhappy at the thought of taking her swimming, that she stared at him and he turned and frowned. “Well?” he said. “You want to go or don’t you?”

  “Golly,” Natalie said. She pulled at the grass in her turn. “No, I guess,” she said. “Dad wants me to stay,” she added hastily.

  “Sure,” he said, relieved. “Dad wants you to stay.”

  I wonder what he ever thinks about, Natalie thought. “Anyway,” she said defensively, “these are very important people, some of them.”

  “What are they good for?” he demanded contemptuously. “Poetry?”

  They were quiet for a minute while the sun removed its last light from them and a cold wind came up over the cliff from the fields below. Then Bud twisted himself to his feet and said, “Mother says for you to come get dressed,” and started off back toward the house. “Better hurry,” he called back over his shoulder. “They’ll be here pretty soon.”

  * * *

  “Well,” Mr. Waite said genially. It was four o’clock and the casserole was in the oven, the Sunday liquor was set out in the pantry, the ice was freezing dutifully in the refrigerator, the long living room was in order, with ashtrays located at approximately the points at which Mr. Waite’s friends were most apt to drop cigarettes, and chairs readied for the brief, inconclusive sittings of Mr. Waite’s friends. The books they were likely to want to consult during discussion (Ulysses, C.S. Lewis, The Function of the Orgasm, the newest English homosexual novel, Hot Discography, an abridged Golden Bough, and an unabridged dictionary) were set in the small bookscase near the windows; Mr. Waite’s own books—the one he had written and the ones he had articles in, as opposed to the ones he referred to—were hidden modestly, bound in green leather, upon the mantelpiece. “Well,” Mr. Waite said, with the satisfaction of a country squire surveying his horses and his dogs and his shooting preserve, and he added, as though to his gamekeeper, “Looks fine, all of it.”

  “Everything seems to be ready,” Mrs. Waite answered nervously. She had inherited, probably from that indefatigable hostess, her mother, the hostess’s conviction that some vital factor has somehow been f
orgotten (perhaps because no one wanted company in the first place?), so that it would turn out suddenly that there were no cigarettes in the cigarette boxes, or that the magazines would all prove to be an issue old, or that the dust on the table had been overlooked after all, or that, suddenly at dinner, Mrs. Waite would have to turn her stricken face to her dumfounded husband as it occurred to them both simultaneously that the dinner wine had been forgotten and lay, unpurchased and unchilled, on the shelf at the store.

  “Casserole, salad,” Mrs. Waite said, flexing her fingers as though she were counting, or perhaps as though with remembered motions her fingers would recall all that they had done, and by neglected motions point out the forgotten fact, “coffee, pie. Rolls. Cigarettes, candy, pretzels. Please don’t let them drop cigarettes on the carpet, it’s bad enough as it is. Natalie, are you dressed?”

  Natalie moved into the range of her mother’s blinded eyes, and said, “I have on my blue dress.”

  “Good,” said her mother. “Did you comb your hair?”

  As though I could forget to comb my hair, Natalie thought happily. I am seventeen, after all, and a party is a party even if it is all grown-ups. And anyway I spend so much time looking into my mirror . . .

  “Are you dressed?” Mrs. Waite said, in so many years she had not found a usable name for her husband.

  “Of course,” he said, and he might have added, A party is a party . . . He had chosen to dress himself in a fuzzy tweed jacket and he looked very literary indeed; no amount of poise could forsake him in this jacket. It was almost equivalent to a brace of pistols and a pair of jackboots; Mr. Waite was arrayed for his own interpretation of a street brawl.

  The doorbell rang.

  “Oh my God,” said Mrs. Waite. “Casserole, rolls, coffee . . . will you get it or shall I?”

  “I’ll get it,” said Mr. Waite, in a tone which implied very strongly that he did not believe that Mrs. Waite could find the door by herself. As he disappeared into the hall, Mrs. Waite said to Natalie, “I’ll just look at the kitchen,” and ran the other way.

  Natalie stood in the doorway between the hall and the living room, thinking, This is a party and I’m here already and I must remember that my name is Natalie.

  The first guests were a disappointment; they turned out to be an enormously fat person named Verna Hansen, and her brother Arthur; Mr. Waite had invited them, not believing they would come, in a spirit of neighborly conviviality, since their house was nearest the Waites’, and their estate considerably larger. Partly because they were not proper guests—having been invited, as it were, on the wrong side of the blanket—and partly because he sincerely did not feel that any chair in the living room would hold Verna, Mr. Waite seated these guests on the lawn in wrought-iron chairs which were stronger than the living room chairs and substantially less expensive. He brought Natalie out to entertain them while he went off to fetch them drinks, and Natalie, introduced as, “My daughter and our assistant hostess,” found herself, before she was really quite ready for a party, seated on the lawn in an iron chair, facing Verna. Arthur, with a brief and confusing remark about garden sprays, had wandered away, and Natalie, calling herself together, folded her hands and said brightly to Verna, “Isn’t it a lovely time of day?”

  Verna looked at her for a minute, glanced briefly at the doorway within which Mr. Waite had disappeared to find her a drink, and sighed. “Fine,” she said shortly. “So you’re Natalie?”

  “Yes,” said Natalie.

  “Your father has mentioned you,” said Verna, implying with her tone many clandestine meetings with Mr. Waite, during which he very likely called upon his daughter’s name in remorse. . . . “We shall be friends, little Natalie,” she added. She looked fatter sitting down, but the wide lawn around her was becoming, and she wore it with dignity. Natalie, who with one part of her mind was reserving judgment on anyone who called her “little Natalie,” was, with another part of her mind, vastly impressed by the extreme comfort and ease of Verna’s manner; it seemed that all the effort of Verna’s life had been spent and all the problems solved, so that Verna, having succeeded, had now to do nothing except sit fatly in the middle of other people’s smooth lawns and call people, less fortunate, “little Natalie.”

  “I can help you get over the preliminaries,” Verna said. She half-closed her eyes and thought. “I dislike all the beginnings of conversations where people ask one another as subtly as possible how old they are, and what their names are, and how they are feeling these days.” She added all this suddenly, opening her eyes as though recalled from her preliminaries by the unexpected realization that little Natalie needed an explanation, being, as indeed she was, unused to Verna’s ways. “I like people,” Verna said, and she made it sound as though she ate them for dessert. “First of all I shall tell you everything I can think of about myself, and then you will tell me about yourself.” She opened her eyes again, and smiled, and Natalie began feverishly searching her mind for trivial secret thoughts with which to pay for this condescension. “I am older than you are, little Natalie. I am perhaps fifteen years older—a great deal, counted in experience. I have known many people, known them well, known their hearts and their sins.”

  Irreverently, Natalie thought of saying, “That must have been very interesting,” but refrained.

  Verna sighed heavily. “My name used to be Edith,” she confided abruptly.

  Natalie blinked.

  “Arthur wouldn’t change his name,” Verna said. “Little beast.”

  “I’ve often wanted to change my name,” Natalie said untruthfully.

  Verna shifted heavily, in a gesture which might have been leaning foward. “Do so, my dear,” she said. “Do so, by all means, if you need to. You will be amazed at the difference a new name will make for you. Take Edith, for instance. Now, when I was Edith, I was coarse, and ugly, and thoughtless. I used to laugh very loudly. I used to accept people at their face value; when someone said to me, ‘Edith, you ought to take more of an interest in yourself,’ I was ready to believe them. It sounds incredible to you, doesn’t it? But that was Edith, not Verna.”

  “Why didn’t Arthur want to change his name?”

  Verna shrugged violently. “Little beast,” she said. “He likes being the same as he always was. Now he doesn’t dare, but he thinks the same all right.” She laughed softly, what was clearly her Verna laugh. “Little Natalie, never rest until you have uncovered your essential self. Remember that. Somewhere, deep inside you, hidden by all sorts of fears and worries and petty little thoughts, is a clean pure being made of radiant colors.”

  This was so much like the things that Natalie sometimes suspected about herself that she turned to Verna, swept by a rush of warm feeling, and said incoherently, “Verna, how do you ever know?”

  Verna smiled sadly. “I know, little one,” she said. Her eyes fixed somewhere over Natalie’s head, she said softly, “From too much love of living. From hope and fear set free, We thank with brief thanksgiving . . .”

  “There you are,” said Mr. Waite heartily. He handed Verna her drink, and Verna was unexpectedly quiet as she drank.

  “My dear,” said Mr. Waite to Natalie, “I didn’t bring you a drink.”

  Natalie was surprised. Although her father had made a great point of her being allowed to drink and smoke when she was sixteen, in the year since he had never before offered her a drink. She had learned to smoke, with some amused assistance from her mother, who gave her a cigarette case, but the furtive terrors hidden in alcohol were as yet only vaguely glimpsed by Natalie; she thought now with some shame of a secret passage in her most secret diary (It began: “I hardly think that the taking of cocktails and such is a vice which I shall ever indulge in more than very mildly, since it seems to me that any woman interested in an artistic career dulls the fine, keen edge of her understanding by an indulgence in any stimulant other than her work.” This diary was written for
ultimate publication, but Natalie of course intended to go over it very carefully first.), and said shyly to her father, “I’d like to try, sometime.”

  “Help yourself,” he said genially.

  “Wine is a splendid thing,” said Verna encouragingly. “Little Natalie and I,” she said to Mr. Waite, “were discussing our souls when you came.”

  “Indeed?” said Mr. Waite. He turned and looked at his daughter. “Natalie?” he said.

  “This is a child of great talent,” Verna said, putting her hand on his arm to attract his attention. “This is a chosen child.” She handed him her empty glass and said, “I am going to think a great deal of this little Natalie.”

  * * *

  “Do you suppose she’ll ever go?” Mrs. Waite whispered to Natalie; they were standing together in the doorway. Mr. Waite and Verna were conversing politely on the lawn, and far away, at the end of the garden, they could see Arthur, lost in earnest contemplation of what seemed at this distance to be a dandelion. “I really think she’s crazy,” Mrs. Waite said.

  Natalie was pretending to be a young girl standing in the doorway of her own house next to her mother. If she tried to look as much as possible as though she were seventeen, innocent, protected by her parents, beloved, sheltered here in this house, then perhaps . . .

  There was a slight movement in the hall behind her; Natalie, her eyes fixed on Arthur, stood, seemingly unconcerned.

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