The Ancestor of Hearts
The fur coat she was wearing hung as heavy as a child on her shoulders, and she looked stunned, arrived somehow by taxi, livery cab? Fleeced? Mrs. DePour’s large alligator bag was open.
She wouldn’t take off her coat at first, but leaned against the door, dripping in the hallway. The bag she handed over was surprisingly light—empty.
Once shed of her fur, she looked skinned as a rabbit. “I don’t know how I got across the country.”
“Maybe you swam?”
“Possible,” she said.
“What would warm you up?”
Shivering was her response.
They sat together on the couch and the antique woman, who had been sent to teach her daughter a lesson, displayed what had happened to her fingers over the years. They were crooked and to make a fist was near impossible. The young woman took her mother’s hand and petted.
Later, before bed, the mother begged the daughter for forgiveness. She opened her robe and walked up and down in the room—showing off her lack of fitness and relevance.
Oh!—and the playing cards they used for their game of Reversis, the ancestor of Hearts—they were hand-painted. All the kings, knaves and queens wore crowns, hoods and stalked round caps.
“It was awful in Thailand, let me tell you,” her mother said, “and that green slick that passed for a river in Cambodia—the men who spat like llamas. The only pleasure was in the liquor, although the weather suited me. The food was intolerable—nothing but it was wrapped in a seaweed-colored leaf.”
“Tea-time? I can’t bathe the baby?” her mother said.
“Not until she learns how to swim. If you were to bathe the baby, we’d first have to take a trip into town and find the shop that sells very small life preservers and we’d have to drive it back, put it on the baby, much to her discomfort, and by now the baby would be hungry and bathing her would be beside the point.”
“You’re a rude girl.”
“I’m a rude girl? I suppose I am, but I can’t bear overweening, dangerous pride. If you have to prove yourself to me, we should rearrange
the library in alphabetical order or swim in the quarry or pay to pick strawberries at Haskell’s Farm. Those are things you used to do. Can you remember anything else?
“I’m going home.”
“That sounds so sad. Aren’t we all headed that way?”
The old woman took the baby out of its jolly jumper and walked fairly steadily toward a mirrored bathroom with a miniature sink. The baby’s sleep shirt caught on the faucet and its head fell toward the cold temperature knob, or maybe the sleep shirt didn’t catch on the faucet and the old woman’s hand gave out. What was certain was that the baby’s head hit the porcelain sink rim hard—but being a baby, she bounced right back, just as the old lady knew she would. That was the thing about babies—their forgiveness, their lack of understanding, their submission to their doom.
The old lady saw the child’s DePour family resemblance in the mirror and with relief saw that it had agreed to take its time to teach its clumsy grandmere how to die.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections and three novels. Her most recent novel, Prosperous Friends, is now available in paperback,Diane Williams
Diane Williams's most recent book of fiction is Vicky Swanky is a Beauty. She is also the editor of the literary annual NOON.