The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

“Brother,” Aunt Fanny said, and Mrs. Halloran said, “Essex, take care of her.”

  Essex leaned over Aunt Fanny and said gently, “Fanny? Can you tell us what we should do?”

  “Essex,” said Aunt Fanny, holding out her hand, and Essex, glancing over his shoulder at Mrs. Halloran, took Aunt Fanny’s hand and said, “Fanny, tell us what we must do.”

  “We are absolutely safe here,” Aunt Fanny said firmly. “We must cover the windows and doors lest the screams of the dying reach our ears and touch us with compassion; or the sight of the horror send us running mad into its midst. Wrong is wrong and right is right and Father knows best.” And Aunt Fanny turned her head against Essex’ arm.

  “Well?” Essex said, glancing again at Mrs. Halloran, and Mrs. Halloran said, “Just find out how long; I like to know things well in advance. I detest being hurried.”

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex was saying, “can you tell us when this is going to happen? When? How long do we have?”

  “You ask too many questions,” Mrs. Willow objected. “Even I know that the medium can only answer one question at a time. For heaven’s sake, with you clamoring at her like that—”

  “When, Aunt Fanny?”

  “After the snake,” said Aunt Fanny. “After the dance. After the snake. After the day the night. After the thief the flight.”

  “Poetry,” said Mrs. Willow disgustedly. She threw down her pencil. “When they start saying poetry they’re no good anymore,” she explained. “It takes their mind off it somehow.”

  “Miss Ogilvie,” Mrs. Halloran said, “please take Aunt Fanny upstairs and put her to bed. She is no longer of any use to Mrs. Willow.”

  She had hardly finished speaking when the glass of the great picture window, which filled one short wall of the drawing room, and looked out over the sundial, shattered soundlessly from top to bottom.

  7

  A place of my own, Mrs. Halloran thought, turning restlessly and dreaming in the great rosy bed with silk sheets, a place all my own, a house where I can live alone and put everything I love, a little small house of my own. The woods around are dark, but the fire inside is bright, and dances in moving colors over the painted walls, and the books and the one chair; over the fireplace are the things I put there. I will sit in the one chair or I will lie on the soft rug by the fire, and no one will talk to me, and no one will hear me; there will be only one of everything—one cup, one plate, one spoon, one knife. Deep in the forest I am living in my little house and no one can ever find me.

  “See, sister?”—and Mrs. Halloran dreamed the voice. “I told you we would find some place here in the forest.”

  She turned and saw two children, a boy leading a girl, and the boy wore the face of Essex and the girl was Gloria. For a minute she hesitated, watching from her doorway to see if they were coming toward her and when she saw that they were she fled into her house and shut and locked the door.

  “I am so tired,” said the girl.

  “We can rest here if we want to, in this little house.”

  “Do you suppose anyone lives here?”

  “If they do, they will be glad to give shelter to a lost girl and boy. In such a little house we won’t find much, of course, but it will be good to stop and rest for a while. We can have them give us something to eat, and tell them we will sleep here tonight, and then tomorrow we can find our way home.”

  “Suppose they don’t want us?”

  “Don’t be silly. We’re lost, aren’t we? And besides, we’re only children.”

  “Brother—the house! It’s made of candy!”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Of course I’m sure—come and taste it; look, the roof is sugar, and the walls are gingerbread, and the flowers are all hard and sweet and the dust is sugar dust. And taste the window frame—it’s flavored with cinnamon, and the chimney is chocolate; you must climb up and get me a piece.”

  “And the tree here,” said the boy, nibbling, “the tree is mint.”

  Feeling the roof being eaten away over her head, Mrs. Halloran opened the door carefully and looked out. For a minute, not knowing what to say, she only watched the boy and girl tearing great pieces away from her house and then, frightened, she shouted, “Stop it at once! This is my house!”

  “Don’t be silly, old woman,” said the boy, his mouth full, “it’s made of candy, isn’t it?”

  “I built this little house for myself and not for children to come and destroy; both of you get away at once, do you hear? This is my house where I live all alone.”

  “Shan’t,” said the girl and the boy paused in his eating to stare. “Old lady witch,” he said at last.

  “I am not.”

  “You are so, you are so.” The boy shouted with his mouth full and Mrs. Halloran saw with terror that half the roof of her safe little house was gone, and worse, not eaten but crumbled and thrown on the ground where the children had pulled at it wildly. “You’re an old witch,” the boy chanted, and the girl took it up, throwing handfuls of dust, “You’re an ooooooold witch.”

  “This is my house,” Mrs. Halloran said, and the boy threw a piece of chocolate at her; when it struck close to the doorway where she stood he shouted with laughter and came running over to pull away half the doorway with one great tug, and he fell to munching at it while he said, giggling, “Old witch, old witch.”

  Mrs. Halloran thought clearly in her dream: if I could get them to come inside, she thought, where I live all alone, I might shut them up somewhere until they promise to spare my house; I might put them into cages until they promise to go away. “Will you come inside?” she said softly, and then, thinking, “There is even more candy inside.”

  “Did you hear?” said the boy to his sister, “She says there’s more candy inside, come on.”

  They pushed her rudely away, forcing themselves through the broken doorway into the house, and she said, smiling but not turning, “Son, look into that little closet beside the door; you’ll find licorice in there.” Then she almost laughed, and said, “Daughter, go into the kitchen and search the cupboards; there is peppermint, and little cream cakes.”

  As the little house shook and strained with the eager burrowing of the children inside, she turned slowly and with pleasure followed them in; she closed the closet door on the boy and slammed the cupboard shut on the girl, and then came outside again to sit on the grass before her door and enjoy the evening sunlight, hearing them call pitifully to her from inside.

  While she was sitting in the sunlight a woman, frantic, burst through the trees screaming, “My children—what have you done with my boy and my little gel; where are my children?” and when Mrs. Halloran looked up and laughed, the woman brushed her aside and hurried into the house, stopping as she went to break a piece of gingerbread off the roof. In a minute she returned, guarding the boy with one arm and the girl with the other, and the boy was saying “—and she was going to cook us and eat us because she’s a witch, and she offered us pieces of her house and said there was licorice in the closet and there wasn’t because all she wanted to do was get us inside and then she locked us in and she said she was going to cook us and eat us and we could hear her building the fire under the oven to roast us for her dinner.”

  The little girl added, “And she’s a witch because she said there were cream cakes in the cupboard and she made me go inside and she was laughing all the time,” and the little girl snatched away a fragment of the window frame and stuffed it into her mouth. “And I never got any chocolate from the chimney,” she said, sulkily.

  “Witch, witch,” said the woman, turning to scowl viciously, “and don’t you worry—we’ll be back, with the others, and we’ll show you what we do to witches who eat children, don’t you worry.” Shouting, “Witch! Witch!” they hurried off through the forest, and Mrs. Halloran, turning miserably in her sleep, looked hopelessly at her little house where she ha
d lived alone, with one cup and one plate and one spoon, her little house which was not made of candy at all.

  _____

  “There is something on the sundial,” Maryjane said. “I can see it from here.”

  “A bird, most likely.” Arabella, intending to walk slowly down the long lovely lawn, found herself turning toward the sundial in order to follow Maryjane. “I hate that thing,” Arabella said. “The sundial.”

  “It’s not a bird. It’s something. But what is it?” as they came closer.

  “My God.” Arabella shuddered, and drew back. “Don’t touch it.”

  “Of course I’ll touch it; don’t be silly. It’s only one of the dolls from Fancy’s doll house. But how disgusting.”

  “Stuck full of pins,” said Arabella.

  “Disgusting. Someone’s taken one of Fancy’s dolls and put pins all through it. How can people treat a child like that, even around here?”

  “It’s an old lady doll,” said Arabella, peering.

  “Of course, it’s Fancy’s grandmother doll. The last I saw it was safely in the doll house, sitting at the little table. And now someone’s taken it and ruined it.”

  “Is it really spoiled?”

  “I don’t care whether it’s spoiled or not, it’s just the idea of the thing. Fancy loves those dolls.”

  “Can you take the pins out?”

  Maryjane pulled, tugging out one pin after another and dropping them into the grass. “Sometimes people make me so mad,” she said.

  “I don’t think it’s hurt the doll. Those little dolls are only made out of wire and padding; that’s how they can bend to sit down, you know, and look like they’re walking.”

  “It seems all right,” Maryjane said. “I’ll take it back and put it in the doll house again and maybe Fancy won’t ever know it’s been gone.”

  “Or if she does notice you can just say you don’t know what happened to it. Because you don’t, after all.”

  _____

  On a very bright clear morning, the gates having been unlocked for the occasion, the first of Aunt Fanny’s preparations arrived, the result of her shopping in the village and her orders sent to the city. Over the next few weeks, more of Aunt Fanny’s orders kept coming, from mail order houses and supply houses in farther cities, in answer to Aunt Fanny’s letters and telegrams.

  The first truck, arriving on that bright clear morning, drove up to the service entrance of the big house, but it was almost immediately clear that there was not going to be room enough in the storage basements for the truck’s contents, let alone for Aunt Fanny’s further orders. In addition, there was some furtive conviction in Aunt Fanny’s mind that the contents of the various cartons, and the exceedingly odd assortments of material she had gathered, ought to be kept as much as possible away from the servants in the big house, perhaps to avoid gossip; Mrs. Halloran, who was content to have the servants and villagers believe, as indeed they did, that Aunt Fanny’s fine aristocratic mind was slipping rapidly into imbecility, directed, with some amusement, that Aunt Fanny’s supplies be stored in the library, where the books lay against the walls, and the great tables and chairs in the center of the room could be pushed back to make space.

  A series of mystified deliverymen carried the boxes and packages, some inadequately wrapped, through the service entrance, down the long hall into the formal portion of the house—the door between propped open by Essex with the bust of Seneca—and into the library, where everything was stored away. It was a scene not unlike the original provisioning of the library by the first Mr. Halloran, and the room of books, well dusted but not catalogued, looked down with an air of unbelieving surprise. Essex did not attempt to catalogue Aunt Fanny’s purchases, but Mrs. Halloran, looking in some surprise on a carton of cans of peaches, asked Aunt Fanny, “Surely we are entering a land of milk and honey? Must we take our own lunch?”

  “Sh,” said Aunt Fanny, as a deliveryman entered, carrying a case of canned spaghetti. “Those cartons will fit into the bookshelves,” she said, “lift some of the books out; it will give us more space for the cartons.” The deliveryman set the carton down, unloaded half a shelf of books onto the floor, and put the carton into the bookshelf. He gave Aunt Fanny a puzzled look and went out. “I don’t really think we’ll need to supply our own food,” Aunt Fanny said, with a trace of embarrassment. “It only seemed that perhaps, at first—while things are growing back, you know, and before we are quite used to the new ways—of course, there will be a period of adjustment. Put it in the bookshelf,” she directed.

  Mrs. Halloran regarded the little bundle of umbrellas the deliveryman was stuffing into the bookshelf.

  “For the sun,” Aunt Fanny explained eagerly. “We will have to build shelters eventually, of course.”

  “But surely . . . the house . . .”

  “Sh,” said Aunt Fanny. “Put it on the bookshelf, please.”

  Before the first truckload was delivered completely, it was quite apparent that the library was not going to hold everything, even though many of the books now sat in untidy piles on the floor and the shelves were filling up. Essex, inspired by some obscure compulsion he did not care to analyse, went to the back of the house where the orchard supplies were kept, and brought back half a dozen bushel baskets, and Aunt Fanny and Miss Ogilvie and Julia and Arabella tumbled the books into the bushel baskets. Aunt Fanny instructed the deliverymen returning to the truck to carry out bushel baskets of books and Mrs. Halloran, perhaps inspired by Essex, directed that the bushel baskets of books be carried to the barbecue pit and dumped there. While Essex industriously arranged cartons of canned milk and canned olives and canned soup on the shelves of the library, the captain and Mrs. Willow soaked the books with kerosene and watched them burn in the barbecue pit. As the first reluctant smoke rose and drifted past the library windows, Essex for a minute hesitated, moved a hand protestingly, and turned to Mrs. Halloran, who said, “They were none of them of any great value, Essex. Not a first edition among them, I should think,” and added, obscurely, “and not made of candy.”

  “I suppose I should be pleased that my cataloguing days are at an end,” Essex said, and turned to set a carton of paper cups on the bookshelf.

  The work of unloading the truck and loading the library shelves, carrying out and burning the books, went on swiftly. It was only noon when the enormous van backed heavily away from the service door, and the library had an odd air of not having been changed in any very fundamental manner; half the shelves were packed with cartons, but they were neat, and when Essex brought back the bust of Seneca he remarked, “A library is really a very good place to store things. I had never realized it before.”

  “There is room for a good deal more,” Aunt Fanny said, looking with anticipation at the two sides of the room still holding books. “I think we shall do very nicely. Larger items, such as the bicycles, for instance, can go into the cellar.”

  “I am still not clear,” Mrs. Halloran said, “on these quantities of supplies. Surely it was expressly stated that a world of plenty—”

  “Even in a world of plenty,” Aunt Fanny said sharply, “you could hardly imagine that we would process our own olives, Orianna. Certain small luxuries . . .”

  “What has happened to the old-fashioned silkworm?” Mrs. Halloran asked, fingering a bolt of scarlet synthetic fabric. “Do you expect us to dress like madwomen, Fanny?”

  “I hope,” said Aunt Fanny stiffly, “that even in a better world I shall still continue a lady.”

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, “you understand that my belief in you is in no way failing?”

  “Well?” said Aunt Fanny; she sat down in one of the great library armchairs and fanned herself lightly.

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, “it is not possible that you might be wrong?”

  “Wrong about what, Essex?”

  Essex fumbled. “Wrong . . . abou
t your father?”

  “How could I be wrong about my father? He was a man of complete integrity. Tall, and with a good presence. Bred well,” and Aunt Fanny glanced, fleetingly, at Mrs. Halloran.

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, “I am not doubting your father’s word.”

  “Hardly, Essex.”

  “But please do not laugh at me, because I am actually very much frightened. All these things you have brought here—”

  “Acting under my father’s instructions, I need hardly explain.”

  “It seems so remote,” Essex said wildly.

  “Not remote, I assure you; not remote at all. I should try to understand, if I were you, that when my father takes the trouble to come so far, the business must be very serious indeed. And I am persuaded that the end may come sooner than we realize, although of course my father has engaged to let us know in enough time.”

  “And you believe him?”

  “Believe my father, Essex? My father?”

  “Aunt Fanny,” Essex said, “tell us about it again. What will it be like, afterwards?”

  “Much as it is now, I expect. I foresee a period of adjustment; it will take some time, for instance, for the earth to recommence its cycle of reproduction, and such things as trees may take a while to grow to the point where they produce fruit. And we will have to find food somewhere. I can only suppose that we will come out, that first morning, into a world wiped clean and bare, with no sign that it has ever harbored anything living except ourselves. It will be lovely, with the loveliness of all fresh beginnings, but I cannot see how, those first few days, we can expect to live off the land. Soon it will be quite a Garden of Eden, of course. Although as I recall the Garden of Eden, it was not so well managed; I mean,” said Aunt Fanny, blushing, “for all we know, there may have been hundreds of prohibitions. Not only just that one tree, for instance.”

  “But no prohibitions for us?” Essex asked tensely.

  “None, I should think. We will of course learn a good deal more about it as time goes on. But not, I should think about things we may not do; I would really believe that, humanity being for all practical purposes at an end, the kind of moral disapproval which has been so necessary up until now will be wholly unnecessary; we, after all, will not need to learn to behave ourselves.”

 
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