She's still the big question from my own early past. Who was Frances Bullock Vaiden? Besides my son, she's the one human being I hope still to know. It will have to be in whatever life comes next. What I knew till I tracked down Swift last week was little more than what I've told here above, with these additions. Her parents died when she was eight years old. Her father got what was then called galloping consumption. All her brothers and sisters were grown and gone; so her mother had to nurse him through to the end, then caught it herself. It took her like dry brush; in six weeks she was gone.
Frances's oldest sister Caroline lived thirty miles east with her husband Holt and three sons not much younger than Frances. Holt would make a nice profit in timber once a year and then not work. They all moved to Macon to watch the mother die, then stayed on to raise Frances. In those days either your family took you in or you went to the orphanage -- brown smocks and soupbowl haircuts -- or you tied your red bandanna to a stick and tramped on the road.
Years later I more or less chose to tramp. But young as she was, Frances sat there in her parents' cool rambling house under wide old oaks and watched her place be taken by others, even if they were kin. In her mind she knew Caroline was goodhearted, and she welcomed the boys for company (though loud). It was Caroline's husband that poisoned things. Holt Porter had his mysterious job, occasional deals in huge stands of timber that would give him just enough money to rest for two or three months; then trouble would start. As with most men then, trouble came in glass bottles. He would drink and turn mean and, as we said, "Kick the dog" -- take his miseries out on whoever came to hand, mostly a child. In time, it did him in -- liver trouble and arthritis -- but by the time I knew him, they had seasoned him some. Or softened him at least, and I got to like him. He was good to me. The tragedy of Frances and Dan seemed to finish some process of breaking him; then his kindness could flow. But when Frances was a girl, he bore down on her steady and hard -- more than once with a strap. It gave her that wild claw of hunger that would seize her.Somethinggave it to her anyhow. It struck from outside her. Her own heart believed it was satisfied with Dan.
The June I was eleven and in the fifth grade, Aunt Caroline's middle son Taswell was killed in a motorcycle wreck. He had been my favorite member of the family since I'd started going to Macon every summer and spending a month. He had tight brown curls and had already gone through a wife and two babies, still grinning white as daylight. Anyhow that Thursday we were eating supper in the kitchen; the dining-room ceiling had fallen in the night a week before for no known cause. The phone rang and it was Uncle Holt with the sad news; the funeral would be on Saturday morning. Frances had answered. I saw her go pale and just seek Dan's face in the air like a port. She only said "Holt, tell Caroline I'll be there" and "How is Swift?" Then she hung up and sat down, ate a bite of ham, and told us dry-eyed.
Dan watched but never touched her hand that was near him on the table. Finally he said "I promised to work late Friday night. You and Kate drive on. I'll stay here and have waffles for you Sunday night." (Frances had learned to drive as a child, and Dan cooked hash and waffles every Sunday night.)
Frances knew he had little use for her people, the men anyhow. But this was the first death she'd faced since her parents'. She took back the hand that had staved near Dan.
I knew what that meant, plain as any inscription. By then my eyes had filled up for Taswell.
She watched me awhile; then said "Thank you, Kate" and raked one finger deep through my eyebrows. I used to remember that as her last words, but sadly they were not. She didn't speak another word to Dan, at least till I'd gone to sleep. She stood up silent and cleared the table, food still on our plates, and began to fill the sink.
Dan asked me did I want to take a walk with him?
Any other night, before or after in my life, I'd have said yes fast. But my mother's straight back at the sink kept me home.
He went on his own -- went somewhere far enough to keep him out late, though he went and came back entirely on foot.
Frances moved through the time like the air was stiff. She said just the few words to get me started packing. She packed in her room and ironed a few clothes, but she never stepped over to my room again.
When I'd shut my bag (that had been Dan's father's, a worn country-satchel), I was too excited to play or sleep, much less do homework. I sat on my bed and silently named all the friends of my whole life, my age or grown; there were dozens then or so I believed. That put me to sleep, fully dressed, propped up. A hundred other nights I'd done the same thing and waked up next morning undressed and carefully tucked in by Frances. But that night I woke to my own bed lamp. My hair was soaked and I heard raised voices, strange as thieves. I was terrified a way I'd never been before, in absolute earnest, sure this was real. I couldn't move to hunt my parents though.
I thought these voices had already killed them. It was maybe three minutes before I knew the words were theirs. I've said Dan would suddenly fly out furious when no one had touched him -- but mostly at things, the car or a wheel -- and that Frances was subject to blues and craving. But this was the worst discovery I'd made in a life that naturally seemed long to me. I'll be writing down other conversations later that I couldn't swear a Bible oath are word-faithful, but here I feel responsible only to what I'm reasonably sure I heard.
Dan said "I left my home for you and broke my father like a dry stick."
Frances said "I never asked that from you."
He said "You're a lie. Youbeggedit every day. And when I gave in and Kate landed on us, you made her love your people -- turned her against my few last kin."
Frances said "You hate your aunts and they well know it. But take her there tonight if you're so hot to have her love them -- good luck."
Dan said "Everybody that's ever known me knows all I feel, one minute to the next. I've never been sure of you for one clear second."
Frances waited a long time. Then she told him "That's the saddest thing I ever heard."
Dan said "That is not the same as saying I'm wrong."
Beyond that, I don't remember the night. They may have said or done more that I've mislaid. Just lately I've wondered if Ididsee things, that night and before, that I buried too deep. I'm told that children can forget the worst -- with what I recall though, what could have been worse? What happened surely is that, young as I was, the fear eventually put me to sleep.
What I know next is, Frances woke me early and said to dress quick; we were catching the train. I asked her "Where to?" and she said I knew. I did. I saw it as the rest of my life, and I saw it as hard. But most children see that several times a month. Someone had stripped me to my underwear; so I washed my eyes, dressed, and went to the front room. No trace of Dan and the place quiet as rocks. Frances sat in the awful straight chair by the door, and a Negro taxi was waiting at the curb. I'd never been in any car but ours. The newness and the bright day -- and skipping Friday school -- had me half cheered-up by the time we were moving. I never asked a question and Frances looked calm.
She said almost nothing till we were on the train. Then she said "This is going to end very soon. Dan'll see he's wrong before the day's out."
What I recall from the rest of the trip is buying a small glass bear full of candy (of which I never ate one piece) and then deciding to pretend I was a boy. My neighbor David Sumner and I had swapped clothes one day when we were five, but I knew we were playing. I hadn't ever tried to be a boy before. Dan had always told me that, if you kissed your elbow, you turned into your opposite -- boy or girl. It had taken me a few tries to know he was joking.
And now I didn't pull any silly contortions. I sat stock-still on the seat by Frances and slowly turned into a boy named Marcus. He was red-headed, taller than me but thin; and he had elaborate braces on his teeth (I'd always wanted braces, though my teeth were straight as walls -- braces seemed like a complicated hobby you could run). He owned a gray pony, wanted no friends, but was envied by all for eyes so pale blue they barely appeared. Nobody on earth had ever hurt his feelings, though many had tried. And he often took long thirsty hikes in the hills with only dry rations, never writing to his parents who were forced to wait and pray. My body was nearly a boy's in any case. I didn't have even the nubs of bosoms but was finished smooth and lean as the back of a good country-fiddle from neck to groin. There I was split of course but also still smooth. Yet my whole body now was Marcus in the ways I'd seen boys were different. I had their bitter smell on the skin of my arms. Dan had walked past me naked hundreds of times, but I didn't think of my sexual parts. It was nearly sufficient to catch quick whiffs of my new odor in the train's loud fan and imagine my patience.
Frances gave no sign of noticing, even when I spoke in a voice like Marcus to tell her we were there.
* * *
Swift met us at the depot. He was Caroline and Holt's youngest boy, two years younger than Frances but her nephew. He'd always had a face so alive you couldn't watch it long -- slanted green eyes and cinnamon hair that looked warm as bricks in the August road. Any fool, any age, could see straight off he was shaking you down for all you'd give from heart, liver, lights, purse -- anything you owned. Most people refused himbecausehe was so hungry (Holt had been hard on him in his early childhood, long sessions with a strap). But my young mother was built to understand;Nowas a thought she'd seldom had, much less expressed.
And he met us in tears. The first thing he said, once he got us in the car, was straight to Frances. "I never cried a drop till I heard your train, Fan."
Frances said "Well, I'm here" and cupped her left palm to the back of his neck.
I noticed nobody had mentioned me. But that was all right, the way I felt. Something had told me during the trip "You are grown from now on. Start acting brave." In my later life I never tried turning back into Marcus; but he may have told me that, which is why I recall him.
The Second World War was still a year off, and nobody close to my family had died since I could remember; so Taswell's funeral was the first I attended. We got there Friday afternoon at four-thirty, and the rest of the evening and Saturday morning were normal for funerals. The only difference was a kind of steady silent whistle in the air like the cry of bats. I felt it from the moment I entered the room where Taswell lay, and it wasn't till my own mother's funeral on the Monday that I guessed the sound was a natural companion to early wasteful death. The years since have proved me right.
The men in the house were the ones that seemed crushed. Caroline was back in the kitchen when we came in, helping black Adelaide cook supper. The whole town of course had brought in food enough for starving Armenia, but Caroline wanted us to haveherfood.
Frances went straight over to the stove and hugged her. That was the first time Frances cried.
But Caroline stepped back politely, faced me, and said "Where's your daddy?"
I said "At home" and pointed wherever I thought Greensboro was. She smiled -- I remember thinking "Look, she can smile" -- and said "Thisis home," pointing toward her own floor.
I didn't know how right she was, and I couldn't stop thinking of Dan's hot words to Frances last night -- that she had kept me from knowing his people. So I took his side. I said "I live in Greensboro on South Elm Street."
Caroline made a frown but then smiled again.
Frances said "Dan's boss couldn't let him go. He sent you much love."
Caroline still spoke to me. "That's always welcome."
Swift was behind my mother and me. He hooked a finger in the back of her belt and said "See Taswell."
Frances turned to go with him.
Caroline said to me "You stay here, Kate."
I looked to Frances but she wasn't watching me, so I disobeyed Caroline's order and followed Frances and Swift. They were magnets. Or Frances was. Up to that minute I'd never understood her pull on others. It was hid all in her short kind good-smelling body, strong as a riptide.
Taswell and the coffin were in the dining room. When Swift led us in, I saw right away that the place was nothing but men. Uncle Holt was sitting beside the bank of flowers, and four or five others were standing round him. Even I knew every face from my visits; they'd been the main features of my mother's life here before she met Dan. Some hugged her; some nodded and fired off short smiles. But every set of eyes tried to sweep her body without Frances knowing. She seemed not to; I caught every one. Uncle Holt strained to rise, but she rushed to press him down and bent to kiss his scalp. I knew what that cost her. She looked to a boy at Holt's side and asked "Did Walter come yet?" I'd never heard her voice so clear and deep. The boy went blank and froze.
Holt shook his head and the biggest tears I'd seen dragged down his cheeks like white corn-syrup. I'd liked him till then. (Walter was his oldest boy, my first cousin. He'd fought with Holt some years before and left home for Norfolk, not looking back except to send his mother nice checks at Christmas. Frances also got money from him every birthday; but I'd never seen him, just a cheerful picture.)
Swift said "Walter sent the pall. Come on and see it." He took my mother's shoulders in his big hands and kissed her neck.
She leaned back against him. Then she reached for me -- first time she'd touched me since we left the train.
I let her steer me to the coffin. Swift lifted me. Most people I've met speak of the shock when they first saw a corpse. The first thing I felt there, tight in Swift's arms, was "Why can't all statues be this real?" I'd only seen a few streaky green ones, old stout men and soldiers. I wondered why they didn't have him up in a chair -- anything that neat and carefully colored.
Swift said "You can touch him" and jogged me once.
Frances said "No, darling."
But I did anyhow, on the back of his hand. There'd been a birthmark there that I'd always liked, a tan map of Spain. They'd tried to paint over it, but I knew where to touch. It was tender and cool like he'd always been. Then I suddenly knew I was still a child. A wave of tiredness swept up in me, and before Swift had hardly set me down I was asleep. Why of all things in childhood is that the one blessing invariably lost, that chance of dropping down a hole with no warning into sleep black as closets till a kind friend wakes you? So I slept from five on Friday afternoon, not a bite to eat, till six the next morning.
Copyright © 1986 by Reynolds Price
Excerpted from Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.