Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  “Why don’t we get a new outside?” Sally asked. “This morning, it was raining and raining.” She thought. “And there was a lion on the front porch,” she said.

  “Really?” said Jannie. “Really, was there a lion on the front porch?”

  “Cernly,” Sally said.

  Laurie put down his fork and turned to his father. “What is long and hard and wears shoes?” he asked. “Bet you a dime you can’t guess it.”

  His father said tentatively, “A horse?”

  Laurie guffawed. “Make it twenty cents,” he said.

  “Surely there was a lion on the front porch,” Sally said to Jannie, “and I saw him and he was walking around very softerly and he ate all the cats and part of the fence.”

  Jannie addressed me. “I was sick in bed, you know,” she said. “Was there really a lion out there?”

  “A horseshoe stake?” my husband said desperately.

  “That,” Laurie said with relish, “will be twenty cents.”

  “But a horseshoe stake is long and hard and it wears—” my husband said. “Look, don’t the shoes go around it?”

  “A sidewalk,” Laurie said. “It wears shoes, see? Now, for another dime, what goes under the water, over the water, and doesn’t get wet?”

  “I left my rubbers somewhere,” my husband said to me.

  “You must ask me what’s my name,” Sally said to Laurie.

  “What’s your name?”

  “Tiger,” Sally said. “You snick,” she told him.

  Laurie said triumphantly to his father, who was scowling doggedly at his empty dessert dish, “An old woman crossing a bridge with a pail of water on her head, and counting yesterday and the money you lost to me on the checkers game that’s two-seventy-five, and counting my allowance tomorrow that makes two-eighty-five, and the dime you bet me you could eat your bread and butter without using your hands.”

  “And when you dropped the book and the feather down the stairs,” Jannie said.

  “Galileo,” Laurie told her approvingly, “I forgot. You had a dollar,” he said to his father, “that the heavy object and the light object would . . .” he hesitated, looking at me.

  “Fall at the same rate of speed,” I said helpfully. “It looked like a sure thing.”

  “Damn it,” my husband said, goaded, “I can show you in the book—”

  “And twelve cents,” Laurie went on inexorably, “for swatting twelve hundred flies.”

  “That wasn’t twelve hundred flies,” my husband said, “Mother counted them.”

  “You gave them to me to count,” I said, “but—”

  “I can count to twelve hundred,” Jannie said. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .”

  “Showing off,” I said vengefully, “is vulgar.”

  “What?” Jannie said.

  “Where do you live?”

  “Down the lane,” said my husband sadly.

  “Four ninety-seven,” said Laurie, who had been figuring silently.

  “Mother will give it to you,” my husband said.

  • • •

  Diabolically, both Sally and Laurie refused to catch measles after I had gone out and purchased a new thermometer and a large bottle of calamine lotion. My husband and I agreed that it was time that Laurie’s natural curiosity about things which did not belong to him should be channelized into a healthy pattern, and that he should be encouraged to give up spending nickels for packs of gum and begin, instead, a coin collection. I did not, at that time—in fact, it seemed like a good idea—perceive any of the parallels which have occurred to me since; the similarity, for instance, between coin collecting and a grasping curiosity about things which do not belong to you, the unfortunate similarity between coins and money; I remember agreeing with my husband that coins were preferable as a collection to, say, stamps, because they wouldn’t blow away, or match folders because coins, at least, had some intrinsic value. I remember even saying laughingly that if anything were to be collected, for heaven’s sake it might as well be money.

  My husband and Laurie began on a small scale. I went to the bank and got a roll of nickels and a roll of dimes and a roll of pennies, and they spent an evening examining mint marks and dates and relative condition, and I sat peacefully over my book smiling at them occasionally and thinking how good it was that they should be interested together in such a grown-up fashion. They sent for some little books, named dime books and penny books and nickel books, and each book had a series of little holes large enough for the proper coins, and all coin collectors have to do is find the right coin for the right little hole and put it in. After a while my husband was going to the bank himself with a briefcase. He would get all the money we had changed into coins and then he and Laurie would take all the coins they needed for their books and give me the rest, and I would go out and pay for my groceries in the nickels and dimes which were not needed for the books.

  I have never objected to money, as such. But after a while it became necessary to get a huge metal box to keep the coins in, and every mail began to bring heavy little packages of coins from Ruritania and Atlantis and it was suddenly abruptly clear to Jannie and Sally and me that their father and Laurie were planning to get hold of all the money in the world and put it away in their metal box, and a consequent strong bitterness began to show itself around the house. I began to make pointed comments about the last time I had seen a five-dollar bill, and I repeated several times at dinner what the grocer had said to me about people holding up a line at the counter because they had to count out seventeen dollars and thirty-six cents in dimes and nickels and pennies. Jannie took to sleeping with her penny bank under her pillow, and Sally, with a pretty wit, fell to bringing her father small stones and pieces of glass and play money which she embezzled at nursery school. I spent a bag of silver to buy my husband a Piece of Eight for a Christmas present, and had trouble hiding it, since Christmas was still quite a while off, until I thought of keeping it in my pocketbook. Even Sally learned to say “numismatist”; Laurie learned the Greek alphabet from Greek coins and one day turned in his spelling homework done entirely in Greek letters, confounding his schoolmates and thoroughly annoying his teacher.

  One Saturday morning an intensely awaited package of coins arrived, and I had to pay thirty-one cents duty charges on it; while I was irritably counting out the money for the postman, Sally took the mail into the study where Laurie and his father were rearranging their classifications, and when I came stamping into the study shouting “Don’t we pay enough for this money without—” I found Laurie and his father sitting one on either side of the coffee table, Laurie rocking back and forth and moaning, and his father holding his head in his hands and saying “Oh, no,” over and over, and Jannie and Sally regarding them with unwilling sympathy.

  “Something wrong?” I asked brightly.

  “Something wrong?” Jannie repeated.

  “Wrong?” Sally asked.

  “Yes,” said my husband.

  “Look at these darned old coins,” Laurie said, almost in tears. We looked at the heap of coins on the table, Jannie and Sally and I.

  “They’re mixed,” Laurie said.

  “Well, my goodness,” I told him, “it certainly wouldn’t be much fun collecting coins if all you did was just put them in the little books and put them in the cabinet. My goodness, half the fun in collecting coins—”

  My husband raised his head and looked at me. “Listen,” he said wanly, “what we ordered was two lots of coins from the same place. One of them was a lot of a hundred and fifty assorted coins of the world.”

  “Splendid,” I said. “I suppose they cost—”

  “The other,” my husband said, raising his voice, “was a lot of a hundred assorted counterfeit coins of the world. And the boxes,” he said, “the boxes . . .” He put his head back in his hands.

 
“They broke,” Laurie said. “We got two hundred and fifty coins. Assorted. Mixed.”

  “Splendid,” I said again. “Then all you have to do is sort the counterfeit coins into one pile and the real coins into another—”

  “Yeah,” Laurie said. “Daddy doesn’t feel very well.”

  This did not seem like the time to enforce my rightful claims to thirty-one cents, so I collected the rest of the mail and left the study with the girls. We sat down on the couch in the living room and opened a letter from the electric company and bills from three department stores and an announcement of the annual fund drive of the Boy Scouts and a pamphlet from a toy company. This last caught the attention of the girls, and we opened it to read. It turned out to be one of those maddening documents in which the desire of children to play with toys is explained and justified, and the desire of parents to buy toys for their children is made painless by a sugar-coating of sound educational advice; “The child’s natural impulses are harmlessly directed—” I read, under a picture of a hammering set, and, with a block set, “Little fingers learn busily sense of balance . . .” “Ar,” I said, through my teeth.

  “What does it say?” Jannie asked. “Read it to us.”

  The center of the pamphlet was occupied by an article entitled “Healthy Children are Happy Children” or else “Happy Children are Healthy Children,” and there was a picture of a sweet-faced mother bending earnestly over her child, guiding his little fingers as they learned a busy sense of balance with a set of blocks. “Who’s that?” Jannie asked, leaning over to see, “who’s that lady? What’s she doing?”

  I consulted the article. “Children are naturally cooperative and reasonable,” I read at random.

  “What?”

  “That means that little girls like you and Sally and boys like Laurie like to do things right. That you want to learn the best and nicest ways to act.”

  “I do?”

  “I don’t,” said Sally emphatically.

  “That’s not reasonal,” Jannie said critically. “Like eating with my fingers; I want to eat with my fingers.”

  “I think the people who wrote this would let you eat with your fingers,” I said. “Constructive something-or-other.”

  “Hah,” said Jannie.

  “Only snicks,” Sally opined. “Only snicks.”

  “Children are happier and better adjusted,” I read grimly, “when given responsibility. The feeling of participating—”

  “I know,” Jannie said. “Pick up your room, set the table, hang up your jacket, brush your teeth, wash—”

  “No good,” Sally said. “Not washing.”

  “—your hands, put away your toys, fold your napkin—”

  “And it means that when I ask you to run upstairs to get me a handkerchief you should go cheerfully,” I said, patting her on the head.

  “You just read more of that,” Jannie said. “I don’t think it’s sensal at all, except about eating with my fingers.”

  “Parents should never show anger before the child,” I read. “Parents should never show anger before the child. Parents—”

  “Hah,” Jannie said again.

  “Run in the study, dear,” I said. “Ask Dad how he’s coming with his coins.”

  “Not me,” Sally said. “Not me.”

  “But you—” Jannie said.

  “I do not,” I said. “I never show anger at all, except that you and your sister and your brother can be far and away the most irritating, the most infuriating, the most maddening—”

  “Snicks.”

  “Snicks,” I said. I took a deep breath. “Anyway,” I went on, “it says here that Sixes enjoy helping around the house.”

  “What’s a Six?” Jannie scowled. “Am I a Six?”

  “You’re a snicks,” Sally said, leaning forward to look around me at her sister, “an old snicks.”

  “And Sally is a Three and Laurie is a Nine.”

  “Then are you a Thirty-Four?”

  “Thirty-Two.”

  “I will tell Laurie he is a Nine,” Sally said, sliding in one movement off the couch and landing walking. Jannie and I watched her open the study door. “You are both snicks,” she announced.

  “—Thaler,” my husband’s voice said. “See if there ever was such a country as Thaler.” He sounded a little shrill. Sally closed the door. “I told them,” she said, coming back and climbing onto the couch.

  “Mother is of course,” I read, “interested in her own activities, such as Parent-Teachers meetings, cooking for the Girl Scouts, sewing costumes for—” I stopped. “Now what?” I inquired vaguely.

  “Brownies,” Jannie said. “You promised you would make brownies for the school party.”

  “I must have been crazy,” I said. I leaned back comfortably. “My own activities, it says here,” I said. “Taking a nap, for instance.”

  Jannie laughed shortly. “That is the silliest thing I ever did hear,” she said. “What does it ever say in there about mommies sleeping?”

  “It says I should be relaxed.” I ran my finger hopefully down the lines. “It says naturally Mother is not going to handicap her children by teaching them insecure patterns of behavior; what would we think, for instance, of a mother who believed herself fond of her children, who nevertheless allowed them to see her in a temper? Or who told them obviously untruthful stories, broke promises, or showed malice?”

  “You better make those brownies,” Jannie said acutely. “What does show mals mean?”

  “You remember?” I asked, “when you told Daddy about my running the car into a telephone pole?”

  Jannie grinned. “You said I was a tattletale. You said I—”

  “Yes,” I said. “Well, that was foursquare, honest-to-goodness malice, right off the boat, and according to the lady who wrote this I should never have said it.”

  “Well, I’m not a—”

  “You are so. And every time I think of your babbling to Daddy about that telephone pole I want to—”

  “I didn’t,” Sally said. “I didn’t tell Daddy anything. I will tell him now,” and I grabbed for her too late as she slid off the couch again and went to the study door. “Go away,” her father said, as she opened it.

  “Mommy hit a pole,” Sally said.

  “Again?” My husband’s voice rose.

  “No, no, no, no, no,” I said, coming after Sally. “Sally was just chattering.”

  “Tattletale,” Jannie said promptly.

  I stepped in front of her and asked gracefully, “How are the new coins coming along?”

  Laurie smiled at me weakly. “So far,” he said, “we have a hundred and seventy-five counterfeits.”

  “Oh, splendid,” I said. “I thought there were only a hundred to start with. How does it happen that—”

  “Will you please close that door?” my husband said.

  The girls skittering ahead of me, I closed the door sharply and went through the living room and into the kitchen, where I brought up sharply before the sink and the breakfast dishes. “Well,” I said brightly, “time to get to work.”

  “Did Daddy show mals?” Jannie asked. “Who was the lady who wrote all those things?”

  “A lady who works with children,” I said absent-mindedly, wondering at a sound which came from the study as of many coins crashing against the wall, and calculating with another part of my mind whether there was enough chocolate for brownies, or whether I would have to run out and get some, and hearing with still another part of my mind Jannie’s wise voice saying, “Not like mommies, then. Ladies work with children, and mommies play with them.”

  “And you’re a snick,” Sally said.

  Dreamily, rinsing glasses, I had wandered on to cheerful reflections on our holiday season, which included, besides Christmas and Thanksgiving, five birthdays and an anniversary,
and which seemed to be racing on with its usual neckbreaking speed, although it seemed at the same time that the days would never pass. It seemed, too, increasingly clear that our hopes for a sixth birthday in our family during the holiday season might be optimistic; the suitcase which Jannie and I share was sitting, packed, in the corner of the bedroom, contemplated lovingly by me the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning—although, as it turned out, what I was contemplating lovingly this time was a suitcase containing Jannie’s yellow sundress and a jigsaw puzzle, with which she had secretly replaced my blue satin bed-jacket and a dozen mystery stories and a rough draft of an informative letter beginning “Dear . . . Well, we have a new son/daughter, and so this makes two pair/three of a kind . . .” Since I did not find out, as it happened, that Jannie had repacked the suitcase until I reached the hospital, my fond regard was not in any way tarnished, although secret fears about last-minute Christmas shopping had touched the back of my mind. The same old baby clothes, much the worse for Sally’s vigorous infancy, were in the bottom dresser drawer, and there was half a can of Dextro-Maltose 1 in the kitchen cabinet. “It’s the home stretch again,” my doctor told me affably, apparently relying upon some medical doctrine about any metaphor suiting—by now—the mother of four, “out of the trenches by Christmas.” He used to laugh every time he said this.

  Oddly enough, the children were able to continue their theoretically normal lives. Laurie pursued his project, for which he vaguely believed he would have a silver arrow from the Cub Scouts, of writing down all the numbers in sequence until he reached infinity; he was at this time well up into the millions, with infinity nowhere in sight. Sally was comfortably settled in nursery school, from which she brought home daily bulletins about a Mr. Grassable (who had as friends Mr. Dirtable and Mr. Sandable) and a gentleman named David who brought gum with him every morning. Jannie followed her own social life, which was only nominally affected by our family holiday season, and which required a good deal of backing and filling on my part. I became reconciled to the last-minute race to town to pick up a book or a toy or a paint set for Jannie to take to a party; invitations arrived by mail and by phone, and it was at last necessary to invest in three extra pair of white socks, to take care of Jannie’s social obligations. The afternoon of Rita’s party we climbed into the car, Jannie and I, at three o’clock, thanking heaven that Sally had chosen to sleep until now, and making a final check before we started. Jannie was wearing her green party dress, which she had of course chosen herself; it had a tiny white collar and rows of smocking. She had on the official white socks and her school shoes neatly shined, by me. Her best coat still fit her—although it had begun to look like Sally in another month or so—and she was wearing her green beret. She was carrying a small package with a carefully chosen doll inside; the package was wrapped in green tissue paper and the card enclosed was signed, typically, “ennaoJ.” There were green bows on her pigtails, and she was wearing, as a special favor, her coral necklace. She looked very grown-up, and unbelievably pretty.

 
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