Reading of "The Waifs"
DATE: 30 April 1957
OCCASION: The Jefferson Society
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And one more thing. One morning—it was summer again
now, July—the northbound train from New Orleans stopped and the first
man off was usually the Negro porter—not the Pullman porters, they were
always back down the track at the end; we hardly ever saw them, but the
one from the day coaches at the front end—to get down and strut a little
while he talked to the section hands and the other Negroes that were
always around to meet the passenger trains. But this time it was the
conductor himself, almost jumping down before the train stopped, with
the white flagman at his heels, almost stepping on them; the porter
himself didn't get off at all: he—just his head sticking out a window
about half way down the car.
Then four things got off. I mean, they were children. The tallest was a girl though we never did know whether she was the oldest or just the tallest, then two boys, all three in overalls, and then a little one in a single garment down to its heels like a man's shirt and made out of a flour- or meal-sack or maybe a scrap of an old tent. Wired to the front of each one of them was a shipping tag written in pencil:
FROM: BYRON SNOPES, EL PASO, TEXAS
TO: MR. FLEM SNOPES, JEFFERSON, MISSISSIPPI
Though Mr Snopes wasn't there. He was busy being a banker now and a deacon in the Baptist church, living in solitary widowerhood in the old De Spain house which he had remodeled into an ante-bellum Southern mansion; he wasn't there to meet them. It was Dink Quistenberry. He had married one of Mr Snopes's sisters or nieces or something out at Frenchman's Bend and when Mr Snopes sent I.O. Snopes back to the country the Quistenberrys came in to buy or rent or anyway to run the Snopes Hotel, which wasn't the Snopes Hotel any more now but the Jefferson Hotel though the people that stayed there were still the stock traders and juries locked up by the Circuit Court. I mean, Dink was old enough to be Mr Snopes's brother-in-law or whatever it was but he was the kind of man it just didn't occur to you to say Mister to.
He was there; I reckon Mr Snopes sent him. And when he saw them I reckon he felt just like we did when we saw them, and like the conductor and the flagman and the porter all looked like they had been feeling ever since the train left New Orleans, which was evidently where they got on it. Because they didn't look like people. They looked like snakes. Or maybe that's too strong too. Anyway, they didn't look like children; if there was one thing in the world they didn't look like it was children, with kind of dark pasty faces and black hair that looked like somebody had put a bowl on top of their heads and then cut their hair up to the rim of the bowl with a dull knife, and perfectly black perfectly still eyes that nobody in Jefferson (Yoknapatawpha County either) ever afterward claimed they saw blink.
I dont know how Dink talked to them because the conductor had already told everybody listening (there was a good crowd by that time) that they didn't talk any language or anything else that he had ever heard of—heard of and that to watch them because one of them had a switch knife with a six-inch blade, he didn't know which one and he himself wasn't going to try to find out. But anyway Dink got them into his car and the train went on.
Maybe it was the same thing they used in drugstores or at least with Skeets McGowan in Christian's because it wasn't a week before they could go into Christian's, all four of them (it was always all four of them, as if when the medicine man or whoever it was separated each succeeding one from the mother, he just attached the severed cord to the next senior child. Because by that time we knew who they were: Byron Snopes's children out of a—a Jicarilla Apache squaw in Old Mexico), and come out two minutes later all eating ice-cream cones.
They were always together and anywhere in town or near it at any time of day, until we found out it was any time of night too; one night at two oclock in the morning when Otis Harker caught them coming in single file from behind the Coca-Cola bottling plant; Otis said he didn't know how in the world they got into it because no door was open nor window broken, but he could smell warm Coca-Cola syrup spilled down the front of the little one's nightshirt or dressing-sacque or whatever it was from five or six feet away. Because that was as close as he got; he said he hollered at them to go on home to the Snopeses, I mean the Jefferson Hotel but they just stood there looking at him and he said he never intended anything: just to get them moving since maybe they didn't understand what he meant yet. So he sort of flung his arms out and was just kind of jumping at them, hollering again, when he stopped himself just in time, the knife already in one of their hands with the blade open at least six inches long; so fast that he never even saw where it came from and in the next minute gone so fast he still didn't even know which one of the three in over-alls—the girl or the two boys—had it; that was when Mr Connors went to Dink Quistenberry the next morning and told him he would have to keep them off the streets at night.
"Sure," Dink said. "You try it. You keep them off the streets or off anywhere else. You got my full permission. You're welcome to it!"
So when the dog business happened, even Mr Hub Hampton himself didn't get any closer to them than that. This was the dog business. We were getting paved streets in Jefferson now and so more new families, engineers and contractors and such like the little Riddell boys' papa—the little Riddell boys that gave us that holiday two years ago, had moved to Jefferson. One of them didn't—them didn't have any children but they had a Cadillac and his wife had a dog that they said cost five hundred dollars, the only dog higher than fifty dollars except a field-trial pointer or setter (and a part Airedale bear dog named Lion that Major de Spain, Mr de Spain's father, owned once that hunting people in north Mississippi still talked about) that Jefferson ever heard of, let alone saw—a Pekinese with a gold name-plate on its collar that probably didn't even know it was a dog, that rode in the Cadillac and sneered through the windows not just at other dogs but at people too, and even ate special meat that Mr Wall Snopes's butcher ordered special from Kansas City because it cost too much for just people to buy and eat.
One day it disappeared. Nobody knew how, since the only time it wasn't sneering out through the Cadillac window, it was sneering out through a window in the house where it—they—lived. But it was gone and I dont think anywhere else ever saw a woman take on over anything like Mrs Widrington did, with rewards in all the Memphis and north Mississippi and west Tennessee and east Arkansas papers and Mr Hampton and Mr Connors neither able to sleep at night for Mrs Widrington ringing their telephone, and the man from the insurance company (its life was insured too so maybe there were more people insured in Jefferson than there were dogs but then there was more of them not insured in Jefferson than there was dogs too) [audience laughter] and Mrs Widrington herself likely at almost any time of day or night to be in your back yard calling what Aleck Sander and I thought was Yow! Yow! Yow! until Uncle Gavin told us it was named Lao T'se for a Chinese poet. Until one day the four Snopes Indians came out of the Christian's drugstore and somebody passing on the street pointed his finger and hollered "Look!"
It was the collar with the gold name-plate. The little one was wearing it around its neck above the nightshirt. Mr Connors—Connors came quick and sent about as quick for Mr Hampton. And that was when Mr Hampton didn't come any closer either and I reckon we all were thinking about what he was: what a mess that big gut of his would make on the sidewalk if he got too close to that knife before he knew it. [audience laughter] And the four Snopes Indians or Indian Snopeses, whichever is right, standing in a row watching him, not looking dangerous, not looking anything; not innocent especially—especially and nobody would have called it affectionate, but not dangerous in the same sense that four shut pocket knives dont look threatening. They look like four shut pocket knives but they dont look lethal. Until Mr Hampton said:
"What do they do when they aint eating ice cream up here or breaking in or out of that bottling plant at two oclock in the morning?"
"They got a kind of camp or reservation or whatever you might call it in a cave they dug in the big di—big ditch behind the school house," Mr Connors said.
"Did you look there?" Mr Hampton said.
"Sure," Mr Connors said. "Nothing there but just some trash and bones and stuff they play with."
"Bones?" Mr Hampton said. "What bones?"
"Just bones," Mr Connors said. "Chicken bones, spare rib, stuff like that they been eating I reckon."
So Mr Hampton went and got in his car and Mr Connors went to his that had the red light and the sireen on it and a few others got in while there was still room, and the two cars went to the school house, the rest of us walking because we wanted to see if Mr Hampton with his belly really would try to climb down into that ditch and if he did know how he was going to get out again. But he did it, with Mr Connors showing him where the cave was but letting him go first since he was the sheriff, on to where the little pile of bones was behind the fireplace and turned them over with his toe and then raked a few of them to one side. Because he was a hunter, a woods man, a good one before his belly got too big to go through a thicket. "There's your dog," he said.
And I remember that time, five years ago now, when we were all at the table and Matt Levitt's cut-out passing in the street and Father says [now] Uncle Gavin: "What's that sound I smell?" Except that Mr Snopes's brass business at the power-plant was before I was even born: Uncle Gavin's office that morning and Mrs Widrington and the insurance man because the dog's life had been insured only against disease or accident or acts of God, and the insurance man's contention (I reckon he had been in Jefferson long enough to have talked with Ratliff; any stranger in town for just half a day, let alone a week, would find himself doing that) was that four half-Snopeses and half-Jicarilla Apache Indians were none of them and so Jefferson him—itself was liable and vulnerable to suit. So I had only heard about Mr Snopes and the missing brass from Uncle Gavin, but I thought about what Father said that day because I had been there then: "What's that sound I smell?" when Mr Snopes came in, removing his hat and saying "Morning" to everybody without saying it to anybody; then to the insurance man: "How much on that dog?"
"Full pedigree value, Mr Snopes. Five hundred dollars," the insurance man said and Mr Snopes (the insurance man himself got up and turned his chair around to the desk for him) sat down and took out a blank check from his pocket and filled in the amount and pushed it across the desk in front of Uncle Gavin and got up and said "Morning" without saying it to anybody and put on his hat and went out.
Except that he didn't stop there. Because the next day Byron Snopes's Indians were gone. Ratliff came in and told us.
"Sho," he said. "Flem sent them out to the Bend. Neither of—neither of their grandmaws, I mean I.O.'s wives, would have them but finally Dee-wit Binford"—Dewitt Binford had married another of the Snopes girls. They lived near Varner's store—"taken them in. On a contract, the Snopeses all clubbing together pro rata and paying Dee-wit a dollar a head a week on them, providing of course he can last a week. Though naturally the first four dollars was in advance, what you might call a retainer you might say."
It was. I mean, just about a week. Ratliff came in again; it was in the morning. "We jest finished using up Frenchman's Bend at noon yesterday, and that jest about cleans up the county. We're down at the dee-po now, all tagged and the waybill paid, waiting for Number Twenty-three southbound or any other train that will connect more or less or thereabouts for El Paso, Texas"—telling about that too: "A combination you might say of scientific interest and what's that word?" until Uncle Gavin told him anthropological "anthropological coincidence; them four vanishing Americans coming durn nigh taking one white man with them if Clarence Snopes's maw and a few neighbors hadn't got there in time."
He told it: how when Dewitt Binford got them home he discovered they wouldn't stay in bed at all, dragging a quilt off onto the floor and lying in a row on it and the next morning he and his wife found the bedstead itself dismantled and leaned against the wall in a corner out of the way; and they hadn't heard a sound during the process. He—Dewitt—said that's what got on his mind even before he begun to worry about the little one: you couldn't hear them; you didn't even know they were in the house or not, when they had entered it or left it; for all you knew, they might be right there in your bedroom in the dark, looking at you.
"So he tried it," Ratliff said. "He went over to Tull's and borrowed Vernon's flashlight and waited until about midnight and he said he never moved quieter in his life, across the hall to the door of the room, trying to not even breathe if he could help it; he had done already cut out [three] sighting notches in the door-frame so that when he laid the flashlight into them by feel it would be aimed straight at where—where the middle two heads would be on the pallet; and held his breath again, listening until he was sho there wasn't a sound, and snapped on the light. And them four faces and them eight black eyes already laying there wide open looking straight at him.
"And Dee-wit said he would like to have give up then. But by that time that least un wouldn't give him no rest a-tall. Only he didn't know what to do because he had done been warned about that knife even if he hadn't never seen it. Then he remembered them pills, that bottle of knock-out opium pills that Doc Peabody had give Miz Dee-wit that time the brooder lamp blowed up and burnt most of her front hair off, so he taken eight of them and bought four bottles of sody pop at the store and put two capsules into each bottle and druv the caps back on and hid the bottles jest exactly where he figgered they would have to hunt jest exactly hard enough to find them. And by dark the four bottles was gone and he waited again to be sho it had had plenty of time to work and taken Vernon's flashlight and went across the hall and got on his hands and knees and crawled across to the pallet—he knowed by practice now exactly where on the pallet that least un slept or anyway lay—and reached out easy and found the hem of that nightshirt with one hand and the flashlight ready to snap on in the other.
"And when he told about it, he was downright crying not jest skeer so much as pure and simple unbelief. 'I wasn't doing nothing' he says. 'I wasn't going to hurt it. All in the world I wanted was jest to see which it was—'"
"Which is it?" Uncle Gavin said.
"That's what I'm telling you," Ratliff said. "He never even got to snap on the flashlight. He jest felt them two thin quick streaks of fire, one down either cheek of his face; he said that all that time he was already running backward on his hands and knees toward the door he knowed there wouldn't even be time to turn around, let alone get on his feet to run, not to mention shutting the door behind him; and when he run back into his and Miz Deewit's room there wasn't—there wouldn't be no time to shut that one neither except he had to, banging it shut and hollering for Miz Dee-wit now, dragging the bureau against it while Miz Dee-wit lit the lamp and then come and holp him until he hollered at her to shut the windows first; almost crying with them two slashes running from each ear, jest missing his eye on one side, right down to the corners of his mouth like a great big grin that would bust scab and all if he ever let his face go, telling how they would decide that the best thing would be to put out the lamp too and set in the dark until he remembered how they had managed somehow to get inside that locked-up Coca-Cola plant without even touching the patented burglar alarm.
"So they jest shut and locked the windows and left the lamp burning, sitting there in that air-tight room on that hot summer night, until it come daylight enough for Miz Dee-wit to at least jump and dodge on the way back to the kitchen to start the fire in the stove and cook breakfast. Though the house was empty then. Not safe of course: jest empty except for themselves while they tried to decide whether to try to get word in to Flem or Hub Hampton to come out and get them, or jest pack up themselves without even waiting to wash up the breakfast dishes, and move over to Tull's. Anyhow Dee-wit said him and Miz Dee-wit was through and they knowed it, four dollars a week or no four dollars a week; and so, it was about nine oclock, he was on his way to the store to use the telephone to call Jefferson, when Miz I.O. Snopes, I mean the number-two one that got superseded back before she ever had a chance to move to town, saved him the trouble."
We knew Clarence Snopes ourselves. He would be in town every Saturday or every other time he could ge a ride in according to Ratliff—a big hulking man now eighteen or nineteen who was all a gray color: a grayish tinge already to his tow-colored hair, a grayish pasty look to his flesh, which looked as if it would not flow blood from a wound but instead a pallid fluid like thin oatmeal; he was the only Snopes or resident of Frenchman's Bend or Yoknapatawpha County either, for that matter, who made his Texas cousins welcome. "You might say he adopted them," Ratliff said. "Right from that first day. He even claimed he could talk to them and that he was going to train them to hunt in a pack; they would be better than any jest pack of dogs because sooner or later dogs always quit and went home, while it didn't matter to them where they was.
"So he trained them. The first way he done it was to set a bottle of sody pop on a stump in front of the store with a string running from it to where he would be setting on the gallery, until they would maneuver around and finally bushwack up to where one of them could reach for it, then he would snatch it off the stump with the string and drag it out of their reach. Only that never worked but once so then he would have to drink the bottles empty and fill them again with muddy water or some such, or another good training with muddy water or some such, or another good training method was to gather up a few throwed-away candy-bar papers and wrap them up again with mud inside or maybe jest not nothing a-tall because it taken them a good while to give up then, especially if now and then he had a sho enough candy bar or a sho enough bottle of strawberry or orange shuffled into the other ones.
"Anyhow he was always with them, hollering at them and waving his arms to go this way or that way when folks was watching, like dogs; they even had some kind of a play house or cave or something in another ditch about half a mile up the road. That's right. What you think you are laughing at is the notion of a big almost growed man like Clarence, playing, all of a sudden—that's right. What you think you are laughing at is the notion of a big almost growed man like Clarence, playing until all of a sudden you find out that what you're laughing at is calling anything playing that them four things would be interested in.
"So Dee-wit had jest reached the store when here come Clarence's maw, down the road hollering 'Them Indians! Them Indians!' jest like that: a pure and simple case of mother love and mother instinct. Because likely she didn't know anything yet and even if she had, in that state she couldn't a told nobody: jest standing there in the road in front of the store wringing her hands and hollering Them Indians until the men squatting along the gallery begun to get up and then to run because about that time Dee-wit come up. Because he knowed what Miz Snopes was trying to say. Maybe he never had no mother love and mother instinct but then neither did Miz Snopes have a last-night's knife-slash down both cheeks.
"'Them Indians?' he says. 'Fore God, men, run. It may already be too late.'
"But it wasn't. They was in time. Pretty soon they could hear Clarence bellowing and screaming and then they could line him out and the fastest ones run on ahead and down into the ditch to where Clarence was tied to a blackjack sapling with something less than a cord of wood stacked around him jest beginning to burn good. [audience laughter]
"So they was in time. Jody telephoned Flem right away and in fact all this would a formally took place yesterday evening except that Clarence's hunting pack never reappeared in sight until this morning when Dee-wit lifted the shade enough to see them waiting on the front gallery for breakfast. But then his house was barred in time because he hadn't never unbarred it from last night. And Jody's car was already standing by on emergency alert as they say and it wasn't much trouble to toll them into it since like Clarence said one place was jest like another to them. "So they're down at the dee-po now. Would either of you gentlemen like to go down with me and watch what—what they call the end of a erea, if that's what they call what I'm trying to say? The last and final end of Snopes out-and-out unvarnished behavior in Jefferson, if that's what I'm trying to say."
So Ratliff and I went to the station while he told me the rest of it. It was Miss Emily Habersham; she had done the telephoning herself: to the Travellers' Aid in New Orleans to meet the Jefferson train and put them on the one for El Paso, and to the El Paso Aid to get them across the border and turn them over to the Mexican police to send them back home, to Byron Snopes or the reservation or wherever it was. Then I noticed the package and said, "What's that?" but he didn't answer. He just parked the pickup and took the cardboard carton and we went around onto the platform where they were: the three in the overalls and what Ratliff called the least un in the nightshirt, each with a new shipping tag wired to the front of its garment, but printed in big block capitals this time, like shouting this time:
There was a considerable crowd around them, at a safe distance, when we come up and Ratliff opened the carton; it contained four of everything: four oranges and apples and candy bars and bags of peanuts and packages of chewing gum. "Watch out, now," Ratliff said. "Maybe we better set it on the ground and shove it up with a stick or something." But he didn't mean that. Anyway, he didn't do it. He just said to me, "Come on; you aint quite growed so may—they may not snap at you," and moved near and held out one of the oranges, the eight eyes not once looking at it nor at us nor at anything that we could see; until the girl, the tallest one, said something, something quick and brittle that sounded quite strange in the treble of a child; whereupon the first hand came out and took the orange, then the next and the next, orderly, not furtive: just quick, while Ratliff and I dealt out the fruit and bars and paper bags, the empty hand already extended again, the objects vanishing somewhere faster than we could follow, except the little one in the nightshirt which apparently had no pockets: until the girl herself leaned and relieved the overflow.
Then the train came in and stopped; the day coach vestibule clanged and clashed open, the narrow steps hanging downward from the orifice like a narrow dropped jaw. Evidently, obviously, Miss Habersham had telephoned a trainmaster or a superintendent (maybe a vice president) somewhere too because the conductor and the porter both got down and the conductor looked rapidly at the four tags and motioned, and we—all of us; we represented Jefferson—watched them mount and vanish one by one into that iron impatient maw: the girl and the two boys in overalls and Ratliff's least un in ankle-length single garment like a man's discarded shirt made out of flour- or meal-sacking or perhaps the remnant of an old tent. We never did know which it was.
[end of recording]