“A Mother’s Tale”

Houghton Mifflin Company, The Collected Short Prose of James Agee

edited by Robert Fitzgerald, copyright 1968, 1969

by The James Agee Trust.

The calf ran up the hill as fast as he could and stopped sharp. “Mama!” he cried, all out of breath. “What is it! What are they doing! Where are they going!”

Other spring calves came galloping too.

They all were looking up at her and awaiting her explanation, but she looked out over their excited eyes. As she watched the mysterious and majestic thing they had never seen before, her own eyes became even more than ordinarily still, and during the considerable moment before she answered, she scarcely heard their urgent questioning.

Far out along the autumn plain, beneath the sloping light, an immense drove of cattle moved eastward. They went at a walk, not very fast, but faster than they could imaginably enjoy. Those in front were compelled by those behind; those at the rear, with few exceptions, did their best to keep up; those who were locked within the herd could no more help moving than the particles inside a falling rock. Men on horses rode ahead, and alongside, and behind, or spurred their horses intensely back and forth, keeping the pace steady, and the herd in shape; and from man to man a dog sped back and forth incessantly as a shuttle, barking, incessantly, in a hysterical voice. Now and then one of the men shouted fiercely, and this like the shrieking of the dog was tinily audible above a low and awesome sound which seemed to come not from the multitude of hooves but from the center of the world, and above the sporadic bawlings and bellowings of the herd.

From the hillside this tumult was so distant that it only made more delicate the prodigious silence in which the earth and sky were held; and, from the hill, the sight was as modest as its sound. The herd was virtually hidden in the dust it raised, and could be known, in general, only by the horns which pricked this flat sunlit dust like little briars. In one place a twist of the air revealed the trembling fabric of many backs; but it was only along the near edge of the mass that individual animals were discernible, small in a driven frieze, walking fast, stumbling and recovering, tossing their armed heads, or opening their skulls heavenward in one of those cries which reached the hillside long after the jaws were shut.

From where she watched, the mother could not be sure whether there were any she recognized. She knew that among them there must be a son of hers; she had not seen him since some previous spring, and she would not be seeing him again. Then the cries of the young ones impinged on her bemusement:

“Where are they going?”

She looked into their ignorant eyes.

“Away,” she said.

“Where?” they cried. “Where? Where?” her own son cried again.

She wondered what to say.

“On a long journey.”

“But where to?” they shouted. “Yes, where to?” her son exclaimed, and she could see that he was losing his patience with her, as he always did when he felt she was evasive.

“I’m not sure,” she said.

Their silence was so cold that she was unable to avoid their eyes for long.

“Well, not really sure. Because, you see,” she said in her most reasonable tone, “I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, and that’s the only way to be sure; isn’t it.”

They just kept looking at her. She could see no way out.

“But I’ve heard about it,” she said with shallow cheerfulness, “from those who have seen it, and I don’t suppose there’s any good reason to doubt them.”

She looked away over them again, and for all their interest in what she was about to tell them, her eyes so changed that they turned and looked, too.

The herd, which had been moving broadside to them, was being turned away, so slowly that like the turning of stars it could not quite be seen from one moment to the next; yet soon it was moving directly away from them, and even during the little while she spoke and they all watched after it, it steadily and very noticeably diminished, and the sounds of it as well.

“It happens always about this time of year,” she said quietly while they watched. “Nearly all the men and horses leave, and go into the North and the West.”

“Out on the range,” her son said, and by his voice she knew what enchantment the idea already held for him.

“Yes,” she said, “out on the range.” And trying, impossibly, to imagine the range, they were touched by the breath of grandeur.

“And then before long,” she continued, “everyone has been found, and brought into one place; and then . . . what you see, happens. All of them.

“Sometimes when the wind is right,” she said more quietly, “you can hear them coming long before you can see them. It isn’t even like a sound, at first. It’s more as if something were moving far under the ground. It makes you uneasy. You wonder, why, what in the world can that be! Then you remember what it is and then you can really hear it. And then finally, there they all are.”

She could see this did not interest them at all.

“But where are they going?” one asked, a little impatiently.

“I’m coming to that,” she said; and she let them wait. Then she spoke slowly but casually.

“They are on their way to a railroad.”

There, she thought; that’s for the look you all gave me when I said I wasn’t sure. She waited for them to ask; they waited for her to explain.

“A railroad,” she told them, “is great hard bars of metal lying side by side, or so they tell me, and they go on and on over the ground as far as the eye can see. And great wagons run on the metal bars on wheels, like wagon wheels but smaller, and these wheels are made of solid metal too. The wagons are much bigger than any wagon you’ve ever seen, as big as, big as sheds, they say, and they are pulled along on the iron bars by a terrible huge dark machine, with a loud scream.”

“Big as sheds?” one of the calves said skeptically.

“Big enough, anyway,” the mother said. “I told you I’ve never seen it myself. But those wagons are so big that several of us can get inside at once. And that’s exactly what happens.”

Suddenly she became very quiet, for she felt that somehow, she could not imagine just how, she had said altogether too much.

“Well, what happens,” her son wanted to know. “What do you mean, happens.”

She always tried hard to be a reasonably modern mother. It was probably better, she felt, to go on, than to leave them all full of imaginings and mystification. Besides, there was really nothing at all awful about what happened . . . if only one could know why.

“Well,” she said, “it’s nothing much, really. They just–why, when they all finally get there, why there are all the great cars waiting in a long line, and the big dark machine is up ahead . . . smoke comes out of it, they say . . . and . . . well, then, they just put us into the wagons, just as many as will fit in each wagon, and when everybody is in, why . . .” She hesitated, for again, though she couldn’t be sure why, she was uneasy.

“Why then,” her son said, “the train takes them away.”

Hearing that word, she felt a flinching of the heart. Where had he picked it up, she wondered, and she gave him a shy and curious glance. Oh dear, she thought. I should never have even begun to explain. “Yes,” she said, “when everybody is safely in, they slide the doors shut.”

They were all silent for a little while. Then one of them asked thoughtfully, “Are they taking them somewhere they don’t want to go?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the mother said. “I imagine it’s very nice.”

“I want to go,” she heard her son say with ardor. “I want to go right now,” he cried. “Can I, Mama? Can I? Please?” And looking into his eyes, she was overwhelmed by sadness.

“Silly thing,” she said, “there’ll be time enough for that when you’re grown up. But what I very much hope,” she went on, “is that instead of being chosen to go out on the range and to make the long journey, you will grow up to be very strong and bright so they will decide that you may stay here at home with Mother. And you, too,” she added, speaking to the other little males; but she could not honestly wish this for any but her own, least of all for the eldest, strongest and most proud, for she knew how few are chosen.

She could see that what she said was not received with enthusiasm.

“But I want to go,” her son said.

“Why?” she asked. “I don’t think any of you realize that it’s a great honor to be chosen to stay. A great privilege. Why, it’s just the most ordinary ones are taken out onto the range. But only the very pick are chosen to stay here at home. If you want to go out on the range,” she said in hurried and happy inspiration, “all you have to do is be ordinary and careless and silly. If you want to have even a chance to be chosen to stay, you have to try to be stronger and bigger and braver and brighter than anyone else, and that takeshard work. Every day. Do you see?” And she looked happily and hopefully from one to another. “Besides,” she added, aware that they were not won over, “I’m told it’s a very rough life out there, and the men are unkind.”

“Don’t you see,” she said again; and she pretended to speak to all of them, but it was only to her son. But he only looked at her. “Why do you want me to stay home?” he asked flatly; in their silence she knew the others were asking the same question.

“Because it’s safe here,” she said before she knew better; and realized she had put it in the most unfortunate way possible. “Not safe, not just that,” she fumbled. “I mean . . . because here we know what happens, and what’s going to happen, and there’s never any doubt about it, never any reason to wonder, to worry. Don’t you see? It’s just Home,” and she put a smile on the word, “where we all know each other and are happy and well.”

They were so merely quiet, looking back at her, that she felt they were neither won over nor alienated. Then she knew of her son that he, anyhow, was most certainly not persuaded, for he asked the question she most dreaded: “Where do they go on the train?” And hearing him, she knew that she would stop at nothing to bring that curiosity and eagerness, and that tendency toward skepticism, within safe bounds.

“Nobody knows,” she said, and she added, in just the tone she knew would most sharply engage them, “Not for sure, anyway.”

“What do you mean, not for sure,” her son cried. And the oldest, biggest calf repeated the question, his voice cracking.

The mother deliberately kept silence as she gazed out over the plain, and while she was silent they all heard the last they would ever hear of all those who were going away: one last great cry, as faint almost as a breath; the infinitesimal jabbing vituperation of the dog; the solemn muttering of the earth.

“Well,” she said, after even this sound was entirely lost, “there was one who came back.” Their instant, trustful eyes were too much for her. She added, “Or so they say.”

They gathered a little more closely around her, for now she spoke very quietly.

“It was my great-grandmother who told me,” she said. “She was told it by her great-grandmother, who claimed she saw it with her own eyes, though of course I can’t vouch for that. Because of course I wasn’t even dreamed of then; and Great-grandmother was so very, very old, you see, that you couldn’t always be sure she knew quite what she was saying.”

Now that she began to remember it more clearly, she was sorry she had committed herself to telling it. “Yes,” she said, “the story is, there was one, just one, who ever came back, and he told what happened on the train, and where the train went and what happened after. He told it all in a rush, they say, the last things first and every which way, but as it was finally sorted out and gotten into order by those who heard it and those they told it to, this is more or less what happened:

“He said that after the men had gotten just as many of us as they could into the car he was in, so that their sides pressed tightly together and nobody could lie down, they slid the door shut with a startling rattle and a bang, and then there was a sudden jerk, so strong they might have fallen except that they were packed so closely together, and the car began to move. But after it had moved only a little way, it stopped as suddenly as it had started, so that they all nearly fell down again. You see, they were just moving up the next car that was joined on behind, to put more of us into it. He could see it all between the boards of the car, because the boards were built a little apart from each other, to let in air.”

Car, her son said again to himself, Now he would never forget the word.

“He said that then, for the first time in his life, he became very badly frightened, he didn’t know why. But he was sure, at that moment, that there was something dreadfully to be afraid of. The others felt this same great fear. They called out loudly to those who were being put into the car behind, and the others called back, but it was no use; those who were getting aboard were between narrow white fences and then were walking up a narrow slope and the men kept jabbing them as they do when they are in an unkind humor, and there was no way to go but on into the car. There was no way to get out of the car, either: he tried, with all his might, and he was the one nearest the door.

“After the next car behind was full, and the door was shut, the train jerked forward again, and stopped again, and they put more of us into still another car, and so on, and on, until all the starting and stopping no longer frightened anybody; it was just something uncomfortable that was never going to stop, and they began instead to realize how hungry and thirsty they were. But there was no food and no water, so they just had to put up with this; and about the time they became resigned to going without their suppers (for now it was almost dark), they heard a sudden and terrible scream which frightened them even more deeply than anything had frightened them before, and the train began to move again, and they braced their legs once more for the jolt when it would stop, but this time, instead of stopping, it began to go fast, and then even faster, so fast that the ground nearby slid past like a flooded creek and the whole country, he claimed, began to move too, turning slowly around a far mountain as if it were all one great wheel. And then there was a strange kind of disturbance inside the car, he said, or even inside his very bones. He felt as if everything in him was falling, as if he had been filled full of a heavy liquid that all wanted to flow one way, and all the others were leaning as he was leaning, away from this queer heaviness that was trying to pull them over, and then just as suddenly this leaning heaviness was gone and they nearly fell again before they could stop leaning against it. He could never understand what this was, but it too happened so many times that they all got used to it, just as they got used to seeing the country turn like a slow wheel, and just as they got used to the long cruel screams of the engine, and the steady iron noise beneath them which made the cold darkness so fearsome, and the hunger and the thirst and the continual standing up, and the moving on and on and on as if they would never stop.”

“Didn’t they ever stop?” one asked.

“Once in a great while,” she replied. “Each time they did,” she said, “he thought, ‘Oh, now at last! At last we can get out and stretch our tired legs and lie down! At last we’ll be given food and water!’ But they never let them out. And they never gave them food or water. They never even cleaned up under them. They had to stand in their manure and in the water they made.”

“Why did the train stop?” her son asked; and with somber gratification she saw that he was taking all this very much to heart.

“He could never understand why,” she said. “Sometimes men would walk up and down alongside the cars, and the more nervous and the more trustful of us would call out; but they were only looking around, they never seemed to do anything. Sometimes he could see many houses and bigger buildings together where people lived. Sometimes it was far out in the country and after they had stood still for a long time they would hear a little noise which quickly became louder, and then became suddenly a noise so loud it stopped their breathing, and during this noise something black would go by, very close, and so fast it couldn’t be seen. And then it was gone as suddenly as it had appeared, and the noise became small, and then in the silence their train would start up again.

“Once, he tells us, something very strange happened. They were standing still, and cars of a very different kind began to move slowly past. These cars were not red, but black, with many glass windows like those in a house; and he says they were as full of human beings as the car he was in was full of our kind. And one of these people looked into his eyes and smiled, as if he liked him, or as if he knew only too well how hard the journey was.

“So by his account it happens to them, too,” she said, with a certain pleased vindictiveness. “Only they were sitting down at their ease, not standing. And the one who smiled was eating.”

She was still, trying to think of something; she couldn’t quite grasp the thought.

“But didn’t they ever let them out?” her son asked.

The oldest calf jeered. “Of course they did. He came back, didn’t he? How would he ever come back if he didn’t get out?”

“They didn’t let them out,” she said, “for a long, long time.”

“How long?”

“So long, and he was so tired, he could never quite be sure. But he said that it turned from night to day and from day to night and back again several times over, with the train moving nearly all of this time, and that when it finally stopped, early one morning, they were all so tired and so discouraged that they hardly even noticed any longer, let alone felt any hope that anything would change for them, ever again; and then all of a sudden men came up and put up a wide walk and unbarred the door and slid it open, and it was the most wonderful and happy moment of his life when he saw the door open, and walked into the open air with all his joints trembling, and drank the water and ate the delicious food they had ready for him; it was worth the whole terrible journey.”

Now that these scenes came clear before her, there was a faraway shining in her eyes, and her voice, too, had something in it of the faraway.

“When they had eaten and drunk all they could hold they lifted up their heads and looked around, and everything they saw made them happy. Even the trains made them cheerful now, for now they were no longer afraid of them. And though these trains were forever breaking to pieces and joining again with other broken pieces, with shufflings and clashings and rude cries, they hardly paid them attention any more, they were so pleased to be in their new home, and so surprised and delighted to find they were among thousands upon thousands of strangers of their own kind, all lifting up their voices in peacefulness and thanksgiving, and they were so wonderstruck by all they could see, it was so beautiful and so grand.

“For he has told us that now they lived among fences as white as bone, so many, and so spiderishly complicated, and shining so pure, that there’s no use trying even to hint at the beauty and the splendor of it to anyone who knows only the pitiful little outfittings of a ranch. Beyond these mazy fences, through the dark and bright smoke which continually turned along the sunlight, dark buildings stood shoulder to shoulder in a wall as huge and proud as mountains. All through the air, all the time, there was an iron humming like the humming of the iron bar after it has been struck to tell the men it is time to eat, and in all the air, all the time, there was that same strange kind of iron strength which makes the silence before lightning so different from all other silence.

“Once for a little while the wind shifted and blew over them straight from the great buildings, and it brought a strange and very powerful smell which confused and disturbed them. He could never quite describe this smell, but he has told us it was unlike anything he had ever known before. It smelled like old fire, he said, and old blood and fear and darkness and sorrow and most terrible and brutal force and something else, something in it that made him want to run away. This sudden uneasiness and this wish to run away swept through every one of them, he tells us, so that they were all moved at once as restlessly as so many leaves in a wind, and there was great worry in their voices. But soon the leaders among them concluded that it was simply the way men must smell when there are a great many of them living together. Those dark buildings must be crowded very full of men, they decided, probably as many thousands of them, indoors, as there were of us, outdoors; so it was no wonder their smell was so strong and, to our kind, so unpleasant. Besides, it was so clear now in every other way that men were not as we had always supposed, but were doing everything they knew how to make us comfortable and happy, that we ought to just put up with their smell, which after all they couldn’t help, any more than we could help our own. Very likely men didn’t like the way we smelled, any more than we liked theirs. They passed along these ideas to the others, and soon everyone felt more calm, and then the wind changed again, and the fierce smell no longer came to them, and the smell of their own kind was back again, very strong of course, in such a crowd, but ever so homey and comforting, and everyone felt easy again.

“They were fed and watered so generously, and treated so well, and the majesty and the loveliness of this place where they had all come to rest was so far beyond anything they had ever known or dreamed of, that many of the simple and ignorant, whose memories were short, began to wonder whether that whole difficult journey, or even their whole lives up to now, had ever really been. Hadn’t it all been just shadows, they murmured, just a bad dream?

“Even the sharp ones, who knew very well it had all really happened, began to figure that everything up to now had been made so full of pain only so that all they had come to now might seem all the sweeter and the more glorious. Some of the oldest and deepest were even of a mind that all the puzzle and tribulation of the journey had been sent us as a kind of harsh trying or proving of our worthiness; and that it was entirely fitting and proper that we could earn our way through to such rewards as these, only through suffering, and through being patient under pain which was beyond our understanding; and that now at the last, to those who had borne all things well, all things were made known: for the mystery of suffering stood revealed in joy. And now as they looked back over all that was past, all their sorrows and bewilderments seemed so little and so fleeting that, from the simplest among them even to the most wise, they could feel only the kind of amused pity we feel toward the very young when, with the first thing that hurts them or they are forbidden, they are sure there is nothing kind or fair in all creation, and carry on accordingly, raving and grieving as if their hearts would break.”

She glanced among them with an indulgent smile, hoping the little lesson would sink home. They seemed interested but somewhat dazed. I’m talking way over their heads, she realized. But by now she herself was too deeply absorbed in her story to modify it much. Let it be, she thought, a little impatient; it’s over my head, for that matter.

“They had hardly before this even wondered that they were alive,” she went on, “and now all of a sudden they felt they understood why they were. This made them very happy, but they were still only beginning to enjoy this new wisdom when quite a new and different kind of restiveness ran among them. Before they quite knew it they were all moving once again, and now they realized that they were being moved, once more, by men, toward still some other place and purpose they could not know. But during these last hours they had been so well that now they felt no uneasiness, but all moved forward calm and sure toward better things still to come; he has told us that he no longer felt as if he were being driven, even as it became clear that they were going toward the shade of those great buildings; but guided.

“He was guided between fences which stood ever more and more narrowly near each other, among companions who were pressed ever more and more closely against one another; and now as he felt their warmth against him it was not uncomfortable, and his pleasure in it was not through any need to be close among others through anxiousness, but was a new kind of strong and gentle delight, at being so very close, so deeply of his own kind, that it seemed as if the very breath and heartbeat of each one were being exchanged through all that multitude, and each was another, and others were each, and each was a multitude, and the multitude was one. And quieted and made mild within this melting, they now entered the cold shadow cast by the buildings, and now with every step the smell of the buildings grew stronger, and in the darkening air the glittering of the fences was ever more queer.

“And now as they were pressed ever more intimately together he could see ahead of him a narrow gate, and he was strongly pressed upon from either side and from behind, and went in eagerly, and now he was between two fences so narrowly set that he brushed either fence with either flank, and walked alone, seeing just one other ahead of him, and knowing of just one other behind him, and for a moment the strange thought came to him, that the one ahead was his father, and that the one behind was the son he had never begotten.

“And now the light was so changed that he knew he must have come inside one of the gloomy and enormous buildings, and the smell was so much stronger that it seemed almost to burn his nostrils, and the swell and the somber new light blended together and became some other thing again, beyond his describing to us except to say that the whole air beat with it like one immense heart and it was as if the beating of this heart were pure violence infinitely manifolded upon violence: so that the uneasy feeling stirred in him again that it would be wise to turn around and run out of this place just as fast and as far as ever he could go. This he heard, as if he were telling it to himself at the top of his voice, but it came from somewhere so deep and so dark inside him that he could only hear the shouting of it as less than a whisper, as just a hot and chilling breath, and he scarcely heeded it, there was so much else to attend to.

“For as he walked along in this sudden and complete loneliness, he tells us, this wonderful knowledge of being one with all his race meant less and less to him, and in its place came something still more wonderful: he knew what it was to be himself alone, a creature separate and different from any other, who had never been before, and would never be again. He could feel this in his whole weight as he walked, and in each foot as he put it down and gave his weight to it and moved above it, and in every muscle as he moved, and it was a pride which lifted him up and made him feel large, and a pleasure which pierced him through. And as he began with such wondering delight to be aware of his own exact singleness in this world, he also began to understand (or so he thought) just why these fences were set so very narrow, and just why he was walking all by himself. It stole over him, he tells us, like the feeling of a slow cool wind, that he was being guided toward some still more wonderful reward or revealing, up ahead, which he could not of course imagine, but he was sure it was being held in store for him alone.

“Just then the one ahead of him fell down with a great sigh, and was so quickly taken out of the way that he did not even have to shift the order of his hooves as he walked on. The sudden fall and the sound of that sigh dismayed him, though, and something within him told him that it would be wise to look up: and there he saw Him.

“A little bridge ran crosswise above the fences. He stood on this bridge with His feet as wide apart as He could set them. He wore spattered trousers but from the belt up He was naked and as wet as rain. Both arms were raised high above His head and in both hands He held an enormous Hammer. With a grunt which was hardly like the voice of a human being, and with all His strength, He brought this Hammer down into the forehead of our friend: who, in a blinding blazing, heard from his own mouth the beginning of a gasping sigh; then there was only darkness.”

Oh, this is enough! it’s enough! she cried out within herself, seeing their terrible young eyes. How could she have been so foolish as to tell so much!

“What happened then?” she heard, in the voice of the oldest calf, and she was horrified. This shining in their eyes: was it only excitement? no pity? no fear?

“What happened?” two others asked.

Very well, she said to herself. I’ve gone so far; now I’ll go the rest of the way. She decided not to soften it, either. She’d teach them a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

“Very well,” she was surprised to hear herself say aloud.

“How long he lay in this darkness he couldn’t know, but when he began to come out of it, all he knew was the most unspeakably dreadful pain. He was upside down and very slowly swinging and turning, for he was hanging by the tendons of his heels from great frightful hooks, and he has told us that the feeling was as if his hide were being torn from him inch by inch, in one piece. And then as he became more clearly aware he found that this was exactly what was happening. Knives would sliver and slice along both flanks, between the hide and the living flesh; then there was a moment of most precious relief; then red hands seized his hide and there was a jerking of the hide and a tearing of tissue which it was almost as terrible to hear as to feel, turning his whole body and the poor head at the bottom of it; and then the knives again.

“It was so far beyond anything he had ever known unnatural and amazing that he hung there through several more such slicings and jerkings and tearings before he was fully able to take it all in: then, with a scream, and a supreme straining of all his strength, he tore himself from the hooks and collapsed sprawling to the floor and, scrambling right to his feet, charged the men with the knives. For just a moment they were so astonished and so terrified they could not move. Then they moved faster than he had ever known men could – and so did all the other men who chanced to be in his way. He ran down a glowing floor of blood and down endless corridors which were hung with the bleeding carcasses of our kind and with bleeding fragments of carcasses, among blood-clothed men who carried bleeding weapons, and out of that vast room into the open, and over and through one fence after another, shoving aside many an astounded stranger and shouting out warnings as he ran, and away up the railroad toward the West.

“How he ever managed to get away, and how he ever found his way home, we can only try to guess. It’s told that he scarcely knew, himself, by the time he came to this part of his story. He was impatient with those who interrupted him to ask about that, he had so much more important things to tell them, and by then he was so exhausted and so far gone that he could say nothing very clear about the little he did know. But we can realize that he must have had really tremendous strength, otherwise he couldn’t have outlived the Hammer; and that strength such as his–which we simply don’t see these days, it’s of the olden time–is capable of things our own strongest and bravest would sicken to dream of. But there was something even stronger than his strength. There was his righteous fury, which nothing could stand up against, which brought him out of that fearful place. And there was his high and burning and heroic purpose, to keep him safe along the way, and to guide him home, and to keep the breath of life in him until he could warn us. He did manage to tell us that he just followed the railroad, but how he chose one among the many which branched out from that place, he couldn’t say. He told us, too, that from time to time he recognized shapes of mountains and other landmarks, from his journey by train, all reappearing backward and with a changed look and hard to see, too (for he was shrewd enough to travel mostly at night), but still recognizable. But that isn’t enough to account for it. For he has told us, too, that he simply knew the way; that he didn’t hesitate one moment in choosing the right line of railroad, or even think of it as choosing; and that the landmarks didn’t really guide him, but just made him the more sure of what he was already sure of; and that whenever he did encounter human beings – and during the later stages of his journey, when he began to doubt he would live to tell us, he traveled day and night–they never so much as moved to make him trouble, but stopped dead in their tracks, and their jaws fell open.

“And surely we can’t wonder that their jaws fell open. I’m sure yours would, if you had seen him as he arrived, and I’m very glad I wasn’t there to see it, either, even though it is said to be the greatest and most momentous day of all the days that ever were or shall be. For we have the testimony of eyewitnesses, how he looked, and it is only too vivid, even to hear of. He came up out of the East as much staggering as galloping (for by now he was so worn out by pain and exertion and loss of blood that he could hardly stay upright), and his heels were so piteously torn by the hooks that his hooves doubled under more often than not, and in his broken forehead the mark of the Hammer was like the socket for a third eye.

“He came to the meadow where the great trees made shade over the water. ‘Bring them all together!’ he cried out, as soon as he could find breath. ‘All!’ Then he drank; and then he began to speak to those who were already there: for as soon as he saw himself in the water it was as clear to him as it was to those who watched him that there was no time left to send for the others. His hide was all gone from his head and his neck and his forelegs and his chest and most of one side and a part of the other side. It was flung backward from his naked muscles by the wind of his running and now it lay around him in the dust like a ragged garment. They say there is no imagining how terrible and in some way how grand the eyeball is when the skin has been taken entirely from around it: his eyes, which were bare in this way, also burned with pain, and with the final energies of his life, and with his desperate concern to warn us while he could; and he rolled his eyes wildly while he talked, or looked piercingly from one to another of the listeners, interrupting himself to cry out, ‘Believe me! Oh, believe me!’ For it had evidently never occurred to him that he might not be believed, and must make this last great effort, in addition to all he had gone through for us, to make himself believed; so that he groaned with sorrow and with rage and railed at them without tact or mercy for their slowness to believe.

“He had scarcely what you could call a voice left, but with this relic of a voice he shouted and bellowed and bullied us and insulted us, in the agony of his concern. While he talked he bled from the mouth, and the mingled blood and saliva hung from his chin like the beard of a goat.

“Some say that with his naked face, and his savage eyes, and that beard and the hide lying off his bare shoulders like shabby clothing, he looked almost human. But others feel this is an irreverence even to think; and others, that it is a poor compliment to pay the one who told us, at such cost to himself, the true ultimate purpose of Man. Some did not believe he had ever come from our ranch in the first place, and of course he was so different from us in appearance and even in his voice, and so changed from what he might ever have looked or sounded like before, that nobody could recognize him for sure, though some were sure they did. Others suspected that he had been sent among us with his story for some mischievous and cruel purpose, and the fact that they could not imagine what this purpose might be, made them, naturally, all the more suspicious. Some believed he was actually a man, trying – and none too successfully, they said – to disguise himself as one of us; and again the fact that they could not imagine why a man would do this, made them all the more uneasy. There were quite a few who doubted that anyone who could get into such bad condition as he was in, was fit even to give reliable information, let alone advice, to those in good health. And some whispered, even while he spoke, that he had turned lunatic; and many came to believe this. It wasn’t only that his story was so fantastic; there was good reason to wonder, many felt, whether anybody in his right mind would go to such trouble for others. But even those who did not believe him listened intently, out of curiosity to hear so wild a tale, and out of the respect it is only proper to show any creature who is in the last agony.

“What he told, was what I have just told you. But his purpose was away beyond just the telling. When they asked questions, no matter how curious or suspicious or idle or foolish, he learned, toward the last, to answer them with all the patience he could and in all the detail he could remember. He even invited them to examine his wounded heels and the pulsing wound in his head as closely as they pleased. He even begged them to, for he knew that before everything else, he must be believed. For unless we could believe him, wherever could we find any reason, or enough courage, to do the hard and dreadful things he told us we must do!

“It was only these things he cared about. Only for these, he came back.”

Now clearly remembering what these things were, she felt her whole being quail. She looked at the young ones quickly and as quickly looked away.

“While he talked,” she went on, “and our ancestors listened, men came quietly among us; one of them shot him. Whether he was shot in kindness or to silence him is an endlessly disputed question which will probably never be settled. Whether, even, he died of the shot, or through his own great pain and weariness (for his eyes, they say, were glazing for some time before the men came), we will never be sure. Some suppose even that he may have died of his sorrow and his concern for us. Others feel that he had quite enough to die of, without that. All these things are tangled and lost in the disputes of those who love to theorize and to argue. There is no arguing about his dying words, though; they were very clearly remembered:

“‘Tell them! Believe!’”

After a while her son asked, “What did he tell them to do?”

She avoided his eyes. “There’s a great deal of disagreement about that, too,” she said after a moment. “You see, he was so very tired.”

They were silent.

“So tired,” she said, “some think that toward the end, he really must have been out of his mind.”

“Why?” asked her son.

“Because he was so tired out and so badly hurt.”

They looked at her mistrustfully.

“And because of what he told us to do.”

“What did he tell us to do?” her son asked again.

Her throat felt dry. “Just.. . things you can hardly bear even to think of. That’s all.”

They waited.

“Well, what?” her son asked in a cold, accusing voice.

“‘Each one is himself,’” she said shyly. “‘Not of the herd. Himself alone.’ That’s one.”

“What else?”

“‘Obey nobody. Depend on none.’”

“What else?”

She found that she was moved. “‘Break down the fences,’” she said less shyly. “‘Tell everybody, everywhere.’”


“Everywhere. You see, he thought there must be ever so many more of us than we had ever known.”

They were silent. “What else?” her son asked.

“‘For if even a few do not hear me, or disbelieve me, we are all betrayed.’”


“He meant, doing as men want us to. Not for ourselves, or the good of each other.”

They were puzzled.

“Because, you see, he felt there was no other way.” Again her voice altered: “‘All who are put on the range are put onto trains. All who are put onto trains meet the Man With The Hammer. All who stay home are kept there to breed others to go onto the range, and so betray themselves and their kind and their children forever.

“‘We are brought into this life only to be victims; and there is no other way for us unless we save ourselves.’

“Do you understand?”

Still they were puzzled, she saw; and no wonder, poor things. But now the ancient lines rang in her memory, terrible and brave. They made her somehow proud. She began actually to want to say them.

“‘Never be taken,’” she said. “‘Never be driven. Let those who can, kill Man. Let those who cannot, avoid him.’”

She looked around at them.

“What else?” her son asked, and in his voice there was a rising valor.

She looked straight into his eyes. “‘Kill the yearlings,’” she said very gently. “‘Kill the calves.’”

She saw the valor leave his eyes.

“Kill us?”

She nodded, “‘So long as Man holds dominion over us,’” she said. And in dread and amazement she heard herself add, “‘Bear no young.’”

With this they all looked at her at once in such a way that she loved her child, and all these others, as never before; and there dilated within her such a sorrowful and marveling grandeur that for a moment she was nothing except her own inward whisper, “Why, I am one alone. And of the herd, too. Both at once. All one.”

Her son’s voice brought her back: “Did they do what he told them to?”

The oldest one scoffed, “Would we be here, if they had?”

“They say some did,” the mother replied. “Some tried. Not all.”

“What did the men do to them?” another asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It was such a very long time ago.”

“Do you believe it?” asked the oldest calf.

“There are some who believe it,” she said.

“Do you?”

“I’m told that far back in the wildest corners of the range there are some of us, mostly very, very old ones, who have never been taken. It’s said that they meet, every so often, to talk and just to think together about the heroism and the terror of two sublime Beings, The One Who Came Back, and The Man With The Hammer. Even here at home, some of the old ones, and some of us who are just old-fashioned, believe it, or parts of it anyway. I know there are some who say that a hollow at the center of the forehead – a sort of shadow of the Hammer’s blow – is a sign of very special ability. And I remember how Great-grandmother used to sing an old, pious song, let’s see now, yes, ‘Be not like dumb-driven cattle, be a hero in the strife.’ But there aren’t many. Not any more.”

“Do you believe it?” the oldest calf insisted; and now she was touched to realize that every one of them, from the oldest to the youngest, needed very badly to be sure about that.

“Of course not, silly,” she said; and all at once she was overcome by a most curious shyness, for it occurred to her that in the course of time, this young thing might be bred to her. “It’s just an old, old legend.” With a tender little laugh she added, lightly, “We use it to frighten children with.”

By now the light was long on the plain and the herd was only a fume of gold near the horizon. Behind it, dung steamed, and dust sank gently to the shattered ground. She looked far away for a moment, wondering. Something – it was like a forgotten word on the tip of the tongue. She felt the sudden chill of the late afternoon and she wondered what she had been wondering about. “Come, children,” she said briskly, “it’s high time for supper.” And she turned away; they followed.

The trouble was, her son was thinking, you could never trust her. If she said a thing was so, she was probably just trying to get her way with you. If she said a thing wasn’t so, it probably was so. But you never could be sure. Not without seeing for yourself. I’m going to go, he told himself; I don’t care what she wants. And if it isn’t so, why then I’ll live on the range and make the great journey and find out what is so. And if what she told was true, why then I’ll know ahead of time and the one I will charge is The Man With The Hammer. I’ll put Him and His Hammer out of the way forever, and that will make me an even better hero than The One Who Came Back.

So, when his mother glanced at him in concern, not quite daring to ask her question, he gave her his most docile smile, and snuggled his head against her, and she was comforted.

The littlest and youngest of them was doing double skips in his efforts to keep up with her. Now that he wouldn’t be interrupting her, and none of the big ones would hear and make fun of him, he shyly whispered his question, so warmly moistly ticklish that she felt as if he were licking her ear.

“What is it, darling?” she asked, bending down.

“What’s a train?”

“Una muerte en la familia”


Voy a hablar ahora de las tardes de verano en Knoxville, Tennesse, durante la época de mi niñez en que tan feliz viví allí. Era como una especie de caserío habitado por gente de la clase media. Las casas, construidas entre los últimos años del siglo pasado y los primeros del actual, eran de madera, de medianas dimensiones, de bonito aspecto, con porches, con uno o dos resaltos a cada lado, patios delantero y laterales pequeños, un patio interior más espacioso que éstos, y árboles en todos ellos. Los árboles eran de madera blanda, álamos y tuliperos. Un par de casas tenían cerca, pero los patios estaban separados, a trechos, sólo por setos de poca altura. Eran contados los buenos amigos entre las personas mayores, y no eran éstas lo bastante modestas para tener un trato más íntimo; pero todos saludaban con una inclinación de cabeza y conversaban, hasta llegaban a charlar un rato de cosas triviales, y los habitantes de las casas contiguas sostenían conversaciones más largas cuando se veían. Nunca se visitaban. Los hombres eran casi todos pequeños comerciantes, dos de ellos desempeñaban cargos de poca responsabilidad, otro par ejercía oficios manuales y algunos eran empleados de escritorio; y en gran parte hallábanse entre los treinta y los cuarenta y cinco años de edad.

Pero yo hablo de aquellas tardes.

Se cenaba a las seis y se acababa ésta hacia las seis y media. Había aún luz del día, empañada, que brillaba suavemente como el interior de una concha marina. Las lámparas de carbón, en lo alto de las esquinas, estaban ya encendidas. Cantaban las cigarras, se mostraban las luciérnagas y unas cuantas ranas saltaban a la hierba llena de rocío al tiempo que salían los padres con sus niños. Los chiquillos echaban a correr como locos, llamándose a voces por sus nombres. Los padres se sentaban despacio, sujetos los pantalones con tirantes cruzados, y sus propios cuellos parecían más largos por haberse quitado el de la camisa. Las madres seguían en la cocina, lavando y secando, poniendo las cosas en su sitio, iban y venían sin dejar huella de sus pisadas, como los viajes que hacen toda su vida las abejas, midiendo el coco seco para el desayuno; cuando salían, ya sin delantal, mostraban las faldas mojadas, y se sentaban en mecedoras en los porches, en silencio.

No quiero referirme ahora a los juegos con que se divertían los niños por la tarde, sino a un ambiente contemporáneo que tenía poco que ver con ellos: el de los padres de familia, cada uno en su jardín, con la camisa que se les decoloraba a la luz artificial y el rostro gris, regando las plantas. Las mangueras eran de muy diversas formas; pero, generalmente, lanzaban un bonito chorro de espuma. La lanza yacía mojada en la mano que la sostenía, y había gotas de agua en el antebrazo derecho y el agua trazaba un cono largo y estrecho, curvado, produciendo un grato sonido. Al principio, el ruido de la lanza era violento; luego irregular, de ajuste, y después íbase suavizando hasta convertirse en un tono constante y perfectamente acordado con el volumen y el estilo del chorro, como un violín. ¡Cuántos tonos de sonido salen de una manguera! ¡Cuántas diferencias corales en aquellas mangueras que estaban al alcance del oído! Fuera de cada manguera, el silencio casi absoluto de la suelta, y el suave y corto arco de las gotas grandes desprendidas, silente como el aliento contenido, y el único ruido el grato son en las hojas y el césped al caer sobre ellos cada una de aquellas grandes gotas. Eso y el fuerte silbo con el impetuoso chorro; eso, y aquella impetuosidad haciéndose, no menor, sino más apacible y dulce al ser movida la lanza, hasta aquel murmullo extremadamente tierno cuando el agua no era más que una campana lejana que daba un toque para anunciar que podía romperse el silencio.

Aunque, mayormente, las mangueras estaban colocadas de manera muy parecida, con arreglo a un convenio entre la distancia y la suavidad de la espuma -había seguramente un sentido del arte detrás de ese convenio, y un gozo profundo y sereno demasiado real para reconocerse-, los sones estaban, por tanto, graduados de un modo muy parecido, señalados por el bufido que daba otra manguera al empezar a soltar el agua, adornados por algún hombre que jugueteaba con la lanza, dando una súbita sensación de vacío cuando uno de ellos desistía; y, aun siendo todos muy semejantes, el tono era distinto en esa unisonancia. Aquellos chorros, bellos y pálidos bajo la luz, elevaban sus palideces y sus voces todos juntos; las madres mandaban a sus hijos que se callaran y estuviesen quietos, con interjecciones forzadamente prolongadas; los hombres, benévolos y callados, se encerraban cada uno, como el caracol, en el sosiego de lo que estaban realizando. Los chicos grandullones orinaban en una pared invisible, y sus micciones formaban como un ala. Y se sentían tranquilos y felices, saboreando la mezquina bondad de la vida que llevaban como la boca saboreaba la última cena que habían hecho. Entretanto, las cigarras sostenían también el ruido de las mangueras con su más alto y agudo tono. El sonido que emite la cigarra es áspero; no parece estridente ni vibrado, sino como si saliera del insecto a través de un pequeño orificio, empujado por un aliento que nunca puede agotarse. Además, nunca parece que haya una sola cigarra, sino mil, al menos. El ruido de cada cigarra está graduado con arreglo a alguna gama clásica, obra de cigarra, de la que ninguna de ellas varía más de dos tonos puros. Y sin embargo, a uno parécele oír que cada cigarra es distinta de las demás, que hay una larga y lenta vibración en su ruido, como el no bien definido arco de un puente largo y alto, y todas encuéntranse por ambos lados de los árboles, por lo que el ruido parece provenir de ninguna y de todas partes, de la amplia bóveda celeste, y tiembla en nuestra carne y atormenta nuestros tímpanos, porque es el más audaz de todos los ruidos de la noche. Y, sin embargo, es el habitual de las noches de verano; pertenece a la gran orden de los ruidos, como los del mar y los de la precoz nieta de éste, la sangre; y uno cree oírlos cuando tiene conciencia de que está escuchando. Mientras tanto, desde abajo, en la oscuridad, fuera de los bamboleantes horizontes de las mangueras, comunicando siempre a la hierba húmeda de rocío su fuerte olor de tizne pardo negruzco, emergen los regulares y espaciados ruidos de los grillos, cada uno un casto y dulce son argentino de tres notas, como el que produce una cadenita cuando saltamos tres eslabones que se habían pegado.

Pero los hombres ya han hecho callar a las mangueras, las han secado y enrollado. Ahora quedan dos, luego sólo uno, y no se distingue sino la camisa, con lo cual parece un fantasma, con las gomas para sujetar las mangas, y el grave misterio de su agradable rostro, como la cara del ganado que se pregunta el porqué de nuestra presencia en una pradera oscura como boca de loco. Y él también se ha ido, y ha llegado la hora de la tarde en que la gente se sienta en los porches de sus casas, se mece despacio, habla bajito y mira hacia la calle y a las cosas que posee -árboles, aves, cobertizos-. La gente discurre, las cosas pasan; un caballo, hueco sobre el asfalto; un automóvil corriendo ruidosamente, y otro sin ruido; parejas caminando sin prisa, arrastrando los pies, desviando el peso de su cuerpo estival, hablando de cuando en cuando, despidiendo olor que sabe a vainilla, fresa, catón y a leche almidonada, llevando encima la imagen de amantes y jinetes, concordándose con payasos vestidos de color ámbar sin matiz. Un tranvía eleva su férreo lamento; se para, toca la campana y arranca; despierta y de nuevo alza su cada vez más fuerte férreo lamento, estertoroso; sus ventanillas doradas y sus asientos de paja van dejando atrás las cosas…, atrás, atrás, atrás; la fría chispa crepita y echa maldiciones sobre él como un pequeño espíritu maligno dispuesto a seguir sus pasos; la vía, el férreo lamento asciende al aumentar la velocidad, sigue subiendo, baja, enmudece; la campana suena poco fuerte, más fuerte ahora, menos, más, más, van apagándose sus sones. Olvidamos esto. Ahora es el rocío azul de la noche.

Ahora es el rocío azul de la noche. Mi padre ha secado y enrollado la manguera.

Sobre la extensión de los prados, las llamas bajas, alienta aún una hoguera que se va extinguiendo.

Contento, plateado, como atisbadero luminoso, cada grillo hace su comentario una y otra vez en el anegado césped.

Un sapo, indiferente, tropieza y se da un porrazo.

Dentro de las esquinas de sombras húmedas de los patios laterales hay chiquillos casi locos de alegría miedosa que vigilan para ver cuando se marcha el guardián de los postes telefónicos.

Junto a las blancas lámparas de carbón que están en las esquinas, las sabandijas de todos los tamaños son elevadas a sistemas solares elípticos. Las más fuertes luchan entre sí y se causan lesiones. Una de ellas ha caído de espaldas y mueve las patas.

Los padres están en los porches, se mueven sin parar. Los dondiegos del día cuelgan de cuerdecitas, mojadas sus caras de viejo.

Recrea mis oídos el áspero y alegre ruido de las cigarras.

Mis padres han extendido colchas sobre la húmeda hierba del patio interior. Todos nos tendemos allí, mi padre, mi madre, mi tío y yo también. Primero estuvimos sentados, luego uno de nosotros se tendió y después hicimos lo propio todos los demás, quién en posición lateral, quién supina o ventral. Y prosiguieron conversando. No hablaban mucho, y la conversación era en voz baja. No se decían nada de particular, nada, absolutamente nada. Las estrellas están lejos y encendidas; cada una parece una sonrisa dulcísima, y podría decirse que se hallan muy cerca. Todos los míos son más corpulentos que yo, reposados, con voces agradables e inexpresivas, como las de las aves cuando están durmiendo. Uno de ellos es artista y vive en nuestra tierra. Uno es músico y vive en la tierra que nos vio nacer. Otro es mi madre, que es buena para mí. Otro es mi padre, que es bueno conmigo. Por casualidad, todos están en esta tierra, ¡y quién pudiera decir la pesadumbre de encontrarse en ella, tendidos sobre colchones, en la hierba, en un anochecer de verano, entre los ruidos nocturnos! ¡Dios bendiga a los míos, a mi tío, mi tía, mi madre, mi buen padre! ¡Acuérdate de ellos, misericordioso Señor, en sus horas de tribulación y en la hora de la muerte!

Al poco rato me llevan a la casa y me acuestan. El sueño, benigno, sonriente, me acerca a ella y a los que me quieren bien en esta tierra; pero, ¡nadie, ninguno me dirá, jamás, nunca me dirán quién soy yo!