Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  I looked up, forcing an expression of bright cheer onto my face. Unasked I said, “You may each have a piece of candy from the dish on the table.”

  “No, thank you,” said Laurie gloomily.

  “No, thank you,” said Robert.

  “No, thank you,” said Stuart.

  They stood sadly, watching me as I pushed the needle in and out of the cloth.

  “No, thanks,” said Jannie.

  Laurie sighed deeply; so did Stuart and then Robert. I smiled falsely and said, “Would you each like an apple then?”

  Laurie shook his head, so did Stuart and Robert and then, finally, Jannie.

  “Nothing at all,” said Laurie tragically. He paced over and sat down on the couch, and Robert and Stuart followed him. The three of them watched me sewing, and I tried with some embarrassment to hide what I was doing.

  Toby still sat in the middle of the floor, looking with perplexed eyes first at me and then at the boys.

  “Would you like to run down to the store and get some ice cream for all of us?” The boys shook their heads, as one man.

  Jannie sat down solidly on the floor next to Toby and asked me, “Are you fixing Laurie’s overalls?”

  “Why, I certainly am,” I said gaily.

  “For school tomorrow?” Jannie asked.

  There was a long silence. Then Laurie said, “Aaaaaah, keep quiet,” to Jannie.

  “What you talking about it for?” Stuart demanded.

  “Old big-mouth Jannie,” Robert said.

  “Never mind, boys,” I said. “You’ve had a fine summer.”

  “But school,” Laurie said, as one to whom a vast injustice has been done.

  “I know,” I said. “Would you each like a cookie?”

  “Naw,” Laurie said.

  “Why’n earth they want us to go to school anyway?” Stuart demanded.

  “Old first grade,” Robert said.

  “Why,” I said treacherously, “first thing you know you’ll be having a wonderful time in school. You’ve just forgotten what school is like.”

  “No, we haven’t,” Robert said.

  “I used to love school,” I said.

  This was a falsehood so patent that none of them felt it necessary to answer me, even in courtesy. They sat and stared at me instead.

  “Why don’t you do something—play, or something?” I asked. “Then you’d forget all about it.”

  “We could play school,” Jannie suggested. “Why don’t we play school?”

  She was silent as the three faces turned evilly towards her.

  “We could ride our bikes,” Robert said unenthusiastically.

  “Why don’t you?” I said, with great animation. “That would be fun.”

  “We could have a war,” Stuart said.

  “We could play store,” Laurie said.

  “We could play school,” Jannie said.

  “Listen,” Stuart said, “we could be Indians and Jannie could be our prisoner . . .”

  “We could tie her up,” Laurie said, looking at his sister speculatively.

  “I will be your prisoner,” Jannie said cheerfully, “and you must all tie me up and be Indians.”

  “No, listen,” Robert said. Activity came to all three of them at once. Robert rolled off the couch and ran into the hall, and the other two followed. After a minute Jannie hoisted herself off the floor and went along too. Toby, opening one eye, sighed deeply and got up; he had just started across the floor when the three boys and Jannie came hurrying back.

  “Listen,” Laurie said to me excitedly, “we’re going to make a show. You’re going to be the audience, and you got to go out in the kitchen while we get ready.”

  It was the last day of vacation; I put my needle carefully through the hem I was sewing and folded all the overalls and set them aside. Laurie and Robert pushed me out into the kitchen, where I took a handful of cookies and sat down, munching, to wait.

  After about five minutes and much loud consultation they called me back and sat me down on the couch. Then Stuart sat in the chair I had vacated and took up the newspaper.

  “I’m supposed to be reading the paper,” he told me condescendingly.

  Laurie and Robert and Jannie and Toby were in the dining room; I could hear them arguing. Finally there was a knock on the dining room door and Stuart put down his paper and said, “Come in.” Laurie entered, wearing his cowboy hat, his spurs, his gun, his cowboy vest, his neckerchief, his lasso, and his boots. “Hi, pardner,” he said.

  “Hi, pardner,” Stuart said.

  Laurie sat down in the chair across from Stuart, and he and Stuart regarded one another intently.

  “How are you, pardner?” Laurie enquired at last.

  “Oh, I’m fine, pardner,” Stuart said. They giggled slightly and then Stuart, with a large expansive gesture, said, “Have some candy, pardner.”

  “Thanks, pardner, don’t mind if I do,” Laurie said. He swaggered over to the table, helped himself to a piece of candy, and went back to his chair. He finished the candy, licked his fingers and then, with a loud and dramatic groan, grasped his stomach and rolled off the chair onto the floor, where he lay still groaning. “See,” he said, raising his head to look at me, “the candy was poisoned.”

  “I see,” I said. “Very effective.”

  Laurie subsided, and there was a long pause, during which Stuart began to fidget, looking at the candy dish. Then finally he said, “Robert, come on,” and Robert said from the dining room, “Okay, I’m coming. I got to get my gun on, don’t I?”

  Then there was another knock on the dining room door, and Stuart said “Come in.”

  Robert came in, said “Hi, pardner,” and sat down.

  “Hi, pardner,” Stuart said. “Have a piece of candy.”

  “Don’t care if I do,” said Robert. He took his candy, swallowed it whole, and then fell groaning on top of Laurie.

  “Now me,” Jannie howled from the dining room, and she hurried in, said “Hi, pardner,” over her shoulder to Stuart, and took a piece of candy. “Can I have two?” she asked me, and I shook my head no. She ate her candy, groaned shrilly, and sat on Robert.

  “Guess I’ll have a piece of candy too,” Stuart said. He fell groaning onto the heap on the floor.

  I began to applaud, and Laurie put his head up and said, “That’s not the end.”

  “Sorry,” I said. I started to take a piece of candy, remembered in time that it was poisoned, and drew back my hand.

  Laurie disengaged himself from the pile on the floor. “Now the stagecoach,” he said.

  The others got up and dusted themselves off. Everybody retired to the dining room, and I waited.

  Finally Laurie reappeared, leading Toby by the collar. “I’m the good cowboy,” he explained to me. “I’m Hop-along Cassidy and I—”

  “I’m Hopalong Cassidy,” Robert’s voice rose protestingly from the other room.

  “I’m Roy Rogers,” Laurie continued smoothly, “and this is the stagecoach and I’m riding along with it.”

  “What’s the stagecoach?” I asked, confused.

  “Toby is,” Laurie said. Toby glanced at me in mild apology. “See,” Laurie said, “the gold is in the stagecoach and the bad guys are going to try and get it, but me and my gang, we’re riding close along . . .” He began to hurry Toby across the room, making galloping cowboy noises, while Toby stumbled reluctantly along behind him.

  “Good dog,” I said reassuringly, and Toby put his head down and galloped resolutely. “Good dog,” I said.

  As they passed the dining room door for the second time the horde of bandits fell upon them. Stuart and Robert brandished their guns, shouting fearfully and making simultaneous sounds of horse hooves and gunfire. Jannie, a small stout cowboy in a flapping hat, carrying a water pistol, foll
owed fiercely, saying “Bang,” with outlaw abandon.

  “We got ya covered,” Hopalong Cassidy remarked. Roy Rogers, undaunted, took cover behind a chair, while the stagecoach trotted hastily over to the couch and tried to get into my lap.

  Stuart and Robert had now taken cover also, one in the dining room doorway, the other in the angle of the fireplace. They were shooting across the room, taking careful aim and exposing themselves rashly before leaping back into hiding.

  Jannie sat down in the middle of the floor and began to take off her sandals. “Something in my shoe,” she told me. “Wait a minute, boys, till I get my shoe fixed.”

  “Get into a safe place,” Laurie shouted at her, “you want to get killed, woman?”

  “Bang,” Jannie said, aiming her water pistol at him. “Bang,” she said, at Stuart, and “Bang” at Robert. “I killed you all three,” she said. “Now I can fix my shoe.”

  Laurie began to inch out from behind the chair until he was standing free of it. “Reach,” he said suddenly. “Drop them guns.”

  Obediently, Stuart and Robert dropped their guns and raised their hands. Laurie walked over, gun ready, and frisked them both. Then he shot them. They both fell, dying fearfully. Robert raised himself on one elbow and said, “Joe, Joe.”

  “What, Joe?” Laurie said, turning.

  “Get the guys that did this, Joe,” Robert said.

  “I shore will, Joe,” Laurie said. He turned thoughtfully and shot Jannie, who looked up, surprised. “I said I was fixing my shoe,” she said irritably.

  “Y’got it anyway,” Laurie said.

  “Okay,” said Jannie. She fell obligingly over onto her side and went on putting on her shoe that way.

  “Well,” I said, applauding again, “this has certainly been an exciting—”

  “Listen,” Laurie said earnestly, “this is only our practice. You’re only seeing the practice, so far.”

  “We’re going to do a real play when we finish our practice,” Stuart confirmed.

  “Reach,” Laurie said to him.

  “I won’t,” Stuart said pettishly. “Why do I always have to be the guy that reaches?”

  “Keep them hands up,” Laurie ordered. Robert stole up behind him and put a gun into his back. “You reach,” Robert said.

  Laurie dropped his gun and Stuart picked it up. Robert shot Stuart and Laurie and they both fell groaning.

  “Who’s the good guy,” Stuart asked suddenly. “I forget.”

  “I’m Gene Autry,” Laurie said.

  “I’m Roy Rogers,” Robert said.

  “I’m the good guy, then,” Stuart said with satisfaction. “Reach.”

  Stuart shot Robert and Laurie

  “Listen,” Laurie said from the floor, “we don’t die right. We ought to roll more.”

  “Sometimes we ought to get dragged by our horses,” Robert added.

  “Reach!” Jannie said suddenly. Stunned, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy turned; Jannie had them all covered with her water pistol.

  “It’s a dame,” Stuart said.

  “A cowgirl,” Robert amplified.

  “It’s Jesse James,” Laurie said. “Now you must shoot us all, Jan.”

  “Bang, bang, bang,” Jannie said, and the heroes fell, rolled, groaned, and were even dragged a little by their horses.

  While they were still groaning I stole away, back into the kitchen, where I poured four glasses full of fruit juice and put cookies on a plate. When I came back into the living room the actors were dusting themselves off.

  “That was a great show,” I said.

  “We’ll do a real one tomorrow,” Laurie said. Then his face fell. “I forgot,” he said.

  I thought briefly and comfortably of the quiet mornings, the long lovely afternoons, the early bedtimes. “Well,” I said, with immense heartiness, “it will be summer again before we all know it.”

  • • •

  “A what?” said Jannie.

  “What for?” said Laurie.

  • • •

  Everyone always says the third baby is the easiest one to have, and now I know why. It’s the easiest because it’s the funniest, because you’ve been there twice, and you know. You know, for instance, how you’re going to look in a maternity dress about the seventh month, and you know how to release the footbrake on a baby carriage without fumbling amateurishly, and you know how to tie your shoes before and do knee-chests after, and while you’re not exactly casual, you’re a little bit off-hand about the whole thing. Sentimental people keep insisting that women go on to have a third baby because they love babies, and cynical people seem to maintain that a woman with two healthy, active children around the house will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital; my own position is somewhere between the two, but I acknowledge that it leans toward the latter.

  Because it was my third I was spared a lot of unnecessary discomfort. No one sent us any dainty pink sweaters, for instance. We received only one pair of booties, and those were a pair of rosebud-covered white ones that someone had sent Laurie when he was born and which I had given, still in their original pink tissue paper, to a friend when her first child was born; she had subsequently sent them to her cousin in Texas for a second baby and the cousin sent them back East on the occasion of a mutual friend’s twins; the mutual friend gave them to me, with a card saying “Love to Baby” and the pink tissue paper hardly ruffled. I set them carefully aside, because I knew someone who was having a baby in June.

  I borrowed back my baby carriage from my next-door neighbor, took the crib down out of the attic, washed my way through the chest of baby shirts and woolen shawls, briefed the incumbent children far enough ahead of time, and spent a loving and painstaking month packing my suitcase. This time I knew exactly what I was taking with me to the hospital, but assembling it took time and eventually required an emergency trip to the nearest metropolis. I packed it, though, finally: a yellow nightgown trimmed with lace, a white nightgown that tied at the throat with a blue bow, two of the fanciest bed-jackets I could find—that was what I went to the city for——and then, two pounds of homemade fudge, as many mystery stories as I could cram in, and a bag of apples. Almost at the last minute I added a box of pralines, a bottle of expensive cologne, and my toothbrush. I have heard of people who take their own satin sheets to the hospital, but that has always seemed to me a waste of good suitcase space.

  My doctor was very pleasant and my friends were very thoughtful; for the last two weeks before I went to the hospital almost everyone I know called me almost once a day and said “Haven’t you gone yet?” My mother- and father-in-law settled on a weekend to visit us when, according to the best astronomical figuring, I should have had a two-week-old baby ready to show them; they arrived, were entertained with some restraint on my part, and left, eyeing me with disfavor and some suspicion. My mother sent me a telegram from California saying “Is everything all right? Shall I come? Where is baby?” My children were sullen, my husband was embarrassed.

  Everything was, as I say, perfectly normal, up to and including the frightful moment when I leaped out of bed at two in the morning as though there had been a pea under the mattress; when I turned on the light my husband said sleepily, “Having baby?”

  “I really don’t know,” I said nervously. I was looking for the clock, which I hide at night so that in the morning when the alarm rings I will have to wake up looking for it. It was hard to find without the alarm ringing.

  “Shall I wake up?” my husband asked without any sign of pleased anticipation.

  “I can’t find the clock,” I said.

  “Clock?” my husband said. “Clock. Wake me five minutes apart.”

  I unlocked the suitcase, took out a mystery story, and sat down in the armchair with a blanket over me. After a few minutes, Ninki, who usually sleeps on the foot of Laurie’s bed,
wandered in and settled down on a corner of the blanket by my feet. She slept as peacefully as my husband did most of the night, except that now and then she raised her head to regard me with a look of silent contempt.

  Because the hospital is five miles from our house I had an uneasy feeling that I ought to allow plenty of time, particularly since neither of us had ever learned to drive and consequently I had to call our local taxi to take me to the hospital. At seven-thirty I called my doctor and we chatted agreeably for a few minutes, and I said I would just give the children their breakfast and wash up the dishes and then run over to the hospital, and he said that would be just fine and he’d plan to meet me later, then; the unspoken conviction between us was that I ought to be back in the fields before sundown.

  I went into the kitchen and proceeded methodically to work, humming cheerfully and stopping occasionally to grab the back of a chair and hold my breath. My husband told me later that he found his cup and saucer (the one with “Father” written on it) in the oven, but I am inclined to believe that he was too upset to be a completely reliable informant. My own recollection is of doing everything the way I have a thousand times before—school-morning short cuts so familiar that I am hardly aware, usually, of doing them at all. The frying pan, for instance. My single immediate objective was a cup of coffee, and I decided to heat up the coffee left from the night before, rather than taking the time to make fresh; it seemed brilliantly logical to heat it in the frying pan because anyone knows that a broad shallow container will heat liquid faster than a tall narrow one like the coffeepot. I will not try to deny, however, that it looked funny.

  By the time the children came down everything seemed to be moving along handsomely; Laurie grimly got two glasses and filled them with fruit juice for Jannie and himself. He offered me one, but I had no desire to eat, or in fact to do anything which might upset my precarious balance between two and three children, or to interrupt my morning’s work for more than coffee, which I was still doggedly making in the frying pan. My husband came downstairs, sat in his usual place, said good-morning to the children, accepted the glass of fruit juice Laurie poured for him, and asked me brightly, “How do you feel?”

 
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