Death Of DanaŘs
A novella from:

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     Death of DanaŘs


     Overhead was a four-leaf wooden fan that was long in each leaf. It moved so slowly it was like the day.
     And there was young May LeGrange Choate, called Mayann; she sat below the shadowy air just outside the furthest reach of the fan and her hair was not disturbed by it. She sat the way she usually sat: centered in the wicker seat and quietly, straight, her own back straighter than any chair but not stiff. Into the damp dark (it had rained the day before) some shadow came without a sigh through two open windows--fading in the dark of the room.
     Beyond the hospital the hard sun pulled up the wet that had settled; it baked at the ground. Heat, the bottomless orange light of late afternoon, wetted and choked the air in that time of day and you had to suck in to breathe.
     But a thick oak (decades thick, older than the building) grew now to keep the sun from the waiting-room windows.
     Mrs. Rhale's married daughter was the leader of a social circle back in New Orleans. Mrs. Rhale said: "I doubt I smell mildew in a place like this."
     "It's mildew," Aunt Sarah said. "Oh, it's mildew."
     "Dear," Mrs. Rhale said, "maybe if you didn't carry on exactly like that, it would be easier on everybody and you would be doing a more constructive thing by not crying than by crying while we’re waiting here.
     Aunt Sarah's lower eyelids had sagged loose and doubled over years before: two curved scarlet gashes like the gills of a fish. They looked as if she were about to bleed from the eyes. She said: "My eyes always appear to be crying."
     "Yes, dear," Mrs. Rhale said. "That wasn't my point. You are crying now. Not your eyes, I wouldn't likely pass such a remark; anyway they could have operated on your eyes years back when the doctor told you."
     "Doctors," Aunt Sarah said. Then she said: "I wish I could help it. No I don't," she said, "what's the use of wishing? A thing happens. You are crying too," she said.
     Mrs. Rhale lifted off her rimless glasses and held them away from her face in one hand. She said: "With me it isn't hardly noticeable, dear."
     The two old ladies sat to the right of Mayann so that the three of them were corners of a triangle. Two in high white and black; Mayann dressed in pale solid blue that was paler and clearer than water. Gulf water a mile out around something silver and you might have thought of Mayann sitting there. There was no one else in the room.
     "Edmund," Aunt Sarah said. "What a way to have to die in your lifetime."
     "No," Mrs. Rhale said. "No. No, I would not say such a thing. The doctor doesn't know yet. I keep telling you, they don't know yet."
     Aunt Sarah bent low over her fidgeting fingers and then sat back. "I do," she said.
     Mrs. Rhale frowned till her forehead got under her glasses. She dropped her left hand to where Mayann couldn't see and fluttered it.
     Aunt Sarah watched the hand. "No," she said, "how gross of you."
     Mayann did not look. She sat, ankles and wrists crossed, palms lying up.
     "Stupid," Aunt Sarah said. She laughed. Then she looked at Mayann. "She knows it too," she said. "Don't be stupid. Of course she knows."
     Mrs. Rhale's hand was a butterfly stuck.
     Aunt Sarah said again: "How gross." She said it more like a wail or a sob sung.
     Through the stillness, without removing her eyes from a private spot in the floor where they had taken root, Mayann reached to the right and stroked her great-aunt's bloodless leathery elbow.
     "Of course," Aunt Sarah said.
     Mayann drew her hand back and laid it where it had been before. She did not move again for a long time.

     When she came back at twenty, it was Mr. Spewack the grocer who claimed that Mayann could cut through the center of a shooting battlefield and nothing would happen: the bullets would not hit her. He said not even a bullet would hit Mayann, not if she walked, not when she looked with those soft eyes. It was true that when the measles epidemic clipped through town and took Gerville by the river where the colored poor live, Mayann went and collected Dr. Shepard in a taxicab and she got three carton boxes of drugs from Eddie Reese's drugstore and off they went and stayed in Gerville for the whole day. No white doctor had ever been in Gerville, let alone a white woman; no policeman ever went down there. But the way Dr. Shepard told it Mayann walked ahead of him and where she went the doors opened of themselves. He wouldn't have stayed two minutes if it hadn't been for Mayann. Edmund, her father, only grinned when he heard about it; and afterwards he was proud. Everybody who knew her was proud excepting Aunt Sarah.
     Aunt Sarah said if Mayann wanted to be a nurse, she should have been a nurse.
     It was the way she walked that most people could not help but admire. Mayann walked and you were afraid her feet might chip on the pavement and you wanted to protect her, even though you knew she did not need you; Mayann's strength grew out of a kind of delicacy and one was as apparent in her as the other. It was hard to understand.
     Ever since her return two years back people had talked about the young lady called Mayann. She was sometimes called Princess. She was born out of her century, Edmund said; he said she was like a porcelain doll born to an age of violence. What Edmund said was what everybody else said.
     When Mayann moved there was a thin crystalline breeze that moved with her all year. She was cool-looking even in August; and in January her breath came out visibly in a tiny cloud to touch you like the crisp invisible puff of warm toast when you lift the glass bell. She carried her own air. She barely perspired in summer but if she did the drops held clear on her skin. The way Edmund said it, when the Princess trembled in the winter wind, the tremblings were like heat waves from her heart.
     From the talk that went around you might think that Mayann would go out with any young man who asked her. It might even be a fact that she would. But she could: she was not in danger ever anywhere in the city. She could go where she liked, alone or with whom she liked. She could go out on the streets at four o'clock in the morning in the red-light district; she didn't but she could. She was made like that.
     And the sense you got if you saw Mayann often enough was that she was waiting for something. Lydell Wainscott and two of the Thomas brothers all wanted to marry her; they said she was waiting to make a choice. But then Richard Barren came to town to set up a shipping office and he fell in love with her; and Mayann went out with him sometimes. Which is when people took to saying that any proper young man could get her to go out just so he met her father properly first. She never stayed out late and she was never seen to look in a different way at one young man or at one thing than she looked at everything else. She seemed to have enough love for everyone.

     Aunt Sarah said: "Just let me not have this heat." She said: "Actually, I have a bearance for troubles, I had it all my life and I wouldn't be feeling faint or sickly inside right now if the air wasn't just gluing me in on myself. God damn the heat."
     "Dear," Mrs. Rhale said, "hush up the edge to your tone of voice. You are not going to faint."
     "... I might."
     "Did you ever before?"
     "No. But I might now."
     "No," Mrs. Rhale said.
     Aunt Sarah looked up at the fan. She moved the trunk of her body and moaned more with breath than sound and then settled back down in her chair. "Why build a big fan," she said, "if it's going to act like nothing at all? Why did we come here to Biloxi?"
     "Summer, the best people come here," Mrs. Rhale said. "The best. Nothing to be ashamed of, look at the people are here already and it's only June. Must be ten of us already."
     "If we hadn't come here," Aunt Sarah said, "it wouldn't have happened. Yes it would," she said, "things happen. Why should I want to pretend? It could have happened anyplace. It just didn't, that's all; till now." She lifted one hand and blotted her handkerchief hard against her lips. They opened and she pressed it over the two rows of perfect false teeth.
     The dark air in the waiting room did not seem to be coming from outside. Only the shadow of the oak and its moss broke through the open gaping hospital windows. Air in the building was heavy and it was wet and clinging and dead and its death had taken place in a sort of sterile stagnancy. There was a tinge of ether in the dead air. The stillness was all around.
     On the floor by the windows were four small splats of sunlight like bright blisters in the linoleum. If you watched them and then looked away, you still saw the shapes---first in orange, then purple, then deep violet. Filtered through the window screens, their exact edges were thick.
     The fan's center was a light shaped like the wider end of any coconut on the trees that grew along Gulf Boulevard. The light was not on. Below it hung a six-inch beaded metal chain, copper-colored, with a small lily bell at the end. The slow hum from the turning fan was more like a part of the stillness than a noise. The light, the eye of the fan, was dead; and the chain was still.
     "Ah-hah," Aunt Sarah said; "when the wheel hit him."
     "Honey," Mrs. Rhale said, "just shut up."
     "... Why?"
     "Just do," Mrs. Rhale said.
     Aunt Sarah licked her teeth. She said: "You are an innocent, Gwendolyn Rhale. You think Mayann cares what I say? You think we're not all wide awake dreaming about it? Maybe you know me; you don't know Mayann at all. Nobody does. Not even me, not completely." She swayed to the left. "Do we?" she whispered. "Say."
     But the young lady was fixed as she was without movement. She might not have heard; she never answered.
     Somebody in town once said to Eddie Reese that Mayann was dignity.
     Edmund Choate came from one of the richest families in New Orleans. He was wild when he was young and among the places he went was Italy and one of the things he did was marry a well-known Italian prostitute of that time. He brought her back with him to live in the east wing of the Choate home. They lived there steaming for five years; Edmund said she was the daughter of a count. She was very lovely and she charmed people long before she learned to speak English so gossip was late in getting started. Anne LeGrange started it, because Anne was supposed to have married Edmund herself. Then a letter was being passed around--an answer to a letter that Anne's mother had written to a friend in Rome. Things weren't positively stated in that letter but there was more than enough to build on.
     Then, in twenty-eight months, the Italian was once pregnant, miscarried at the last moment, contracted pneumonia twelve weeks later and died before she could produce another child; and Edmund grieved and then he married Anne LeGrange; and the Italian (buried in our cemetery because nobody wanted her in Italy) was forgotten.
     Anne changed Edmund quicker and more than anyone thought was possible. She taught him how to live properly: how always to live in the middle of the road. She took the last of the wildness out of him, or she pushed it far enough in for it never to show again, and she made him learn all of the values of money she knew about and some of them were values money did not have. In seven years she taught Edmund all she might have wanted to teach for the rest of her natural life and then she had a little girl for him--a pale girl with straight dark hair and black eyes. That was a kind of accomplishment because Anne was tawny and Edmund was ruddy and brown; but Anne had a French grandfather. Before her baby was born she told some friends how she had called on that ancestor to help her give Edmund a child who would be white enough and black enough to make him forget the other baby, the one he had lost. Anne was in labor over eight hours and it was in childbirth that she died.
     And there was Edmund, womanless again, with a little girl who was transparent-looking she was so white; but he was a new Edmund. People understood and accepted that he had suffered for his mistakes. People in New Orleans can forgive and some of them can love. Anne herself had said: "Any good man can make a few big mistakes while he is still young."
     But people knew too much about him and Edmund was not comfortable. They knew how much money he had and how much he spent to live. They knew almost everything.
     So Edmund took his daughter and his daughter's great-aunt (Anne's mother's sister) and moved up north to New York. He lived with them up north for two decades. He never wrote his friends a postcard. He was gone.
     The winters and the summers settled over the Choate place and like a layer of playing cards over Edmund's remembrance. Time dragged or did not but it was full of what was going on in the world: children grew up and had children. There were a couple of wars. Grass grew in the cemetery and some of it had to be mowed. Rains flooded the river once and the earth and the sky had new business.
     Then they came back. In the midst of the heat and the blowing dry dust of an early summer two years ago, they came to live again in the city; Aunt Sarah was old and the girl was almost a woman and Edmund looked older than he was. They lived in the Hotel Roosevelt until the big house of the Choates could be fixed and repainted and refurnished.
     Many reasons were conjectured for their return. Some friends wondered if the girl might not have made an unpleasant choice in men-maybe as unpleasant as Edmund's first choice had been. Those that remembered said there might be a wildness to her like her father sometimes showed before his second marriage; but that kind of rumor did not last long. The girl was too quiet and seemly. She was too gracious and much too much of a lady. She was often with her father and Edmund was respected, respectful, admired--only not approachable. No one had any closeness to him except his daughter May. It was said that only one word was never uttered between those two (the word no) and Mayann's quiet was compared to the calm of queens and people were amused to think they had ever concocted, let alone believed silly tales about the young lady Choate. They laughed and wove other stories through the warp of loose threads they picked up from old Aunt Sarah who talked overmuch: stories better suited to quality like this finest young lady from New Orleans who came back to the love of her own kind. The stories had lost everything but admiration by the start of that first winter; they turned as sweet and regal as the smooth crystal smile that always gleamed, sharper than silver--for anyone to see--over the softness of those black eyes.
     After the winter was over, the three went out west to California and lived by a beach till our heat bubble had burst. But the second summer they decided to go down to our own beach resort where many of our rich vacation on the Gulf Coast. The Choates and Aunt Sarah were three people to be proud of now; they were one of our millionaire families passing the summer near Biloxi.

     A door opened and closed down a passage; twice the double cluck of a woman's shoe sounded, echoed; repeated from the beginning; continued; got louder, on the black linoleum. Then the shoes stopped and there were whispers and another door closed. After that they started again, the same shoes. Neither shoe hit the linoleum a healthy knock but rather gripped and settled into it each time; and after each time there was the echo as each shoe was lifted and the unhealthy echo had a sickening suck of separation like adhesive being unstuck.
     The nurse came into the waiting room. She was all white, even her stockings, and she was all wilted from the heat.
     Aunt Sarah said: "You have nothing to say. Not you."
     "That's right," the nurse said. "I'm maternity."
     "You look to be," Aunt Sarah said.
     "I knew you were," Mrs. Rhale said, "I was here last year when Millicent Page was premature and dilated. I was here. You wouldn't remember me . . . but I remember you."
     "Oh, yes," the nurse said.
     "There's no reason you should," Mrs. Rhale said, "but I certainly remember you. I have such a memory."
     Aunt Sarah looked down at the nurse's thick wide shoes.