by Katherine Anne Porter, recommended by the Virginia Quarterly Review
EDITOR’S NOTE by W. Ralph Eubanks
When the Virginia Quarterly Review accepted Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Grave” for publication in February 1935, VQR’s then-managing editor Lambert Davis chose the story from several Porter stories that were submitted for consideration in a collection labeled “Legend and Memory.” At the time, VQR was preparing its tenth-anniversary issue, which would focus on writing from and about the American South. Initially, Porter was reluctant to be included in an issue that focused exclusively on the South. Her letter, typed on now-yellowed paper and posted from Paris on January 10, 1935, noted to Davis, “I have never insisted violently on my Southerness, as a writer, because being a Southerner is for me quite literally as natural as breathing. But just the same if there is going to be an all-Southern number I almost feel like insisting that I must be in it.” Several weeks later, Davis returned Porter’s previous correspondence and told her, “My final decision is to use ‘The Grave.’ It has more movement than the other parts, and a certain symbolism which completes it artistically and allows it to stand on its own feet.”
Davis was right: the symbolism in “The Grave” is important to the art of Porter’s story, as it is to much of her fiction. Although it’s tempting to distill this story to a series of connected symbols — open and empty graves, guns and shooting, or gold rings shining with “serene purity” — examining just the symbolism in “The Grave” is to ignore its straightforward narrative storytelling. Porter deftly sets the stage for her readers and allows them to watch her characters on that stage. She crafts the narrative in a way that clears a path for the reader to visualize the “pits all shaped alike with such purposeful accuracy,” feel the fierce sunlight, and smell the soil as if one is standing in that Texas graveyard beside Miranda and her brother Paul. And it is the narrative as much as the symbolism that makes “The Grave” a story that is hard to forget and that stands the test of time.
Publishing memorable stories based on timeless themes is as important to VQR’s mission as a literary journal today as it was when we published “The Grave” in 1935. What has changed is the way readers consume stories: there are more ways to encounter stories and information than at any time in human history. In this digital age — with vast amounts of narrative fiction and nonfiction available online — well-crafted stories matter more than ever.
Although the publication of Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Grave” is an important part of VQR’s history as a national journal of literature and discussion, I know that today we are publishing stories — both fiction and nonfiction — that will endure. While my successors will not find copies of yellowed, typewritten letters exchanged with writers, there will be other telltale signs of how a story came to be. Then, as now, what is past is prologue.
W. Ralph Eubanks
Editor, Virginia Quarterly Review
Katherine Anne Porter
THE GRANDFATHER, DEAD FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow. She removed his bones first to Louisiana and then to Texas, as if she had set out to find her own burial place, knowing well she would never return to the places she had left. In Texas she set up a small cemetery in a corner of her first farm, and as the family connection grew, and oddments of relations came over from Kentucky to settle, it contained at last about twenty graves. After the grandmother’s death, part of her land was to be sold for the benefit of certain of her children, and the cemetery happened to lie in the part set aside for sale. It was necessary to take up the bodies and bury them again in the family plot in the big new public cemetery, where Grandmother had been recently buried. At long last her husband was to lie beside her for eternity, as she had planned.
The family cemetery had been a pleasant small neglected garden of tangled rose bushes and ragged cedar trees and cypress, the simple flat stones rising out of uncropped sweet-smelling wild grass. The graves were lying open and empty one burning day when Miranda and her brother Paul, who often went together to hunt rabbits and doves, propped their twenty-two Winchester rifles carefully against the rail fence, climbed over and explored among the graves. She was nine years old and he was twelve.
They peered into the pits all shaped alike with such purposeful accuracy, and looking at each other with pleased adventurous eyes, they said in solemn tones: “These were graves!” trying by words to shape a special, suitable emotion in their minds, but they felt nothing except an agreeable thrill of wonder: they were seeing a new sight, doing something they had not done before. In them both there was also a small disappointment at the entire commonplaceness of the actual spectacle. Even if it had once contained a coffin for years upon years, when the coffin was gone a grave was just a hole in the ground. Miranda leaped into the pit that had held her grandfather’s bones. Scratching around aimlessly and pleasurably, as any young animal, she scooped up a lump of earth and weighed it in her palm. It had a pleasantly sweet, corrupt smell, being mixed with cedar needles and small leaves, and as the crumbs fell apart, she saw a silver dove no larger than a hazel nut, with spread wings and a neat fan-shaped tail. The breast had a deep round hollow in it. Turning it up to the fierce sunlight, she saw that the inside of the hollow was cut in little whorls. She scrambled out, over the pile of loose earth that had fallen back into one end of the grave, calling to Paul that she had found something, he must guess what… His head appeared smiling over the rim of another grave. He waved a closed hand at her: “I’ve got something too!” They ran to compare treasures, making a game of it, so many guesses each, all wrong, and a final show-down with opened palms. Paul had found a thin wide gold ring carved with intricate flowers and leaves. Miranda was smitten at the sight of the ring and wished to have it. Paul seemed more impressed by the dove. They made a trade, with some little bickering. After he had got the dove in his hand, Paul said, “Don’t you know what this is? This is a screw head for a coffin! … I’ll bet nobody else in the world has one like this!”
Miranda glanced at it without covetousness. She had the gold ring on her thumb; it fitted perfectly. “Maybe we ought to go now,” she said, “maybe one of the n****rs’ll see us and tell somebody.” They knew the land had been sold, the cemetery was no longer theirs, and they felt like trespassers. They climbed back over the fence, slung their rifles loosely under their arms — they had been shooting at targets with various kinds of firearms since they were seven years old-and set out to look for the rabbits and doves or whatever small game might happen along,
On these expeditions Miranda always followed at Paul’s heels along the path, obeying instructions about handling her gun when going through fences; learning how to stand it up properly so it would not slip and fire unexpectedly; how to wait her time for a shot and not just bang away in the air without looking, spoiling shots for Paul, who really could hit things if given a chance. Now and then, in her excitement at seeing birds whizz up suddenly before her face, or a rabbit leap across her very toes, she lost her head, and almost without sighting she flung her rifle up and pulled the trigger. She hardly ever hit any sort of mark. She had no proper sense of hunting at all. Her brother would be often completely disgusted with her. “You don’t care whether you get your bird or not,” he said. “That’s no way to hunt.” Miranda could not understand his indignation. She had seen him smash his hat and yell with fury when he had missed his aim. “What I like about shooting,” said Miranda, with exasperating inconsequence, “is pulling the trigger and hearing the noise.”
“Then, by golly,” said Paul, “whyn’t you go back to the range and shoot at tin cans!”
“I’d just as soon,” said Miranda, “only like this, we walk around more.”
“Well, you just stay behind and stop spoiling my shots,” said Paul, who, when he made a kill, wanted to be certain he had made it. Miranda, who alone brought down a bird once in twenty rounds, always claimed as her own any game they got when they fired at the same moment. It was tiresome and unfair and her brother was sick of it.
“Now, the first dove we see, or the first rabbit, is mine,” he told her, “And the next will be yours. Remember that and don’t get smarty.”
“What about snakes?” asked Miranda idly. “Can I have the first snake?”
Waving her thumb gently and watching her gold ring glitter, Miranda lost interest in shooting. She was wearing her summer roughing outfit: dark blue overalls, a light blue shirt, a hired-man’s straw hat, and rough brown sandals. Her brother had the same outfit except his was a sober hickory-nut color. Ordinarily Miranda preferred her overalls to any other dress, though it was making rather a scandal in the countryside, for the year was 1903, and in the back country the law of female decorum had teeth in it. Her father had been criticized for letting his girls dress like boys and go careering around astride barebacked horses. It was said the motherless family was running down, with the grandmother no longer there to hold it together. Miranda knew this, though she could not say how. She had met along the road old women of the kind who smoked corncob pipes, who had treated her grandmother with most sincere respect. They slanted their gummy old eyes side-ways at the granddaughter and said, “Ain’t you ashamed of yo’self, Missy? It’s aginst the Scriptures to dress like that. Whut yo’ Pappy thinkin’ about?” Miranda, with her powerful social sense, which was like a fine set of antennae radiating from every pore of her skin, would feel ashamed because she knew well it was rude and ill-bred to shock anybody, even bad-tempered old crones; though she had faith in her father’s judgment and was perfectly comfortable in the clothes. Her father had said, “They’re just what you need, and they’ll save your dresses for school…” This sounded quite simple and natural to her. She had been brought up in rigorous economy. Wastefulness was vulgar. It was also a sin. These were truths; she had heard them repeated many times and never once disputed.
Now the ring, shining with the serene purity of fine gold on her rather grubby thumb, turned her feelings against her overalls and sockless feet, toes sticking through the thick brown leather straps. She wanted to go back to the farm house, take a good cold bath, dust herself with plenty of her sister’s violet talcum powder — provided she was not present to object, of course — put on the thinnest, most becoming dress she owned, with a big sash, and sit in a wicker chair under the trees… These things were not all she wanted, of course; she had vague stirrings of desire for luxury and a grand way of living which could not take precise form in her imagination, being founded on a family legend of past wealth and leisure. But these immediate comforts were what she could have, and she wanted them at once. She lagged rather far behind Paul, and once she thought of just turning back without a word and going home. She stopped, thinking that Paul would never do that to her, and so she would have to tell him. When a rabbit leaped, she let Paul have it without dispute. He killed it with one shot.
When she came up with him, he was already kneeling, examining the wound, the rabbit trailing from his hands. “Right through the head,” he said complacently, as if he had aimed for it. He took out his sharp, competent Bowie knife and started to skin the body. He did it very cleanly and quickly. Uncle Jimbilly knew how to prepare the skins so that Miranda always had fur coats for her dolls, for though she never cared much for her dolls, she liked seeing them in fur coats. The children knelt facing each other over the dead animal. Miranda watched admiringly while her brother stripped the skin away as if he were taking off a glove. The flayed flesh emerged dark scarlet, sleek, firm; Miranda with thumb and finger felt the long fine muscles with the silvery flat strips binding them to the joints. Brother lifted the oddly bloated belly. “Look,” he said, in a low, amazed voice. “It was going to have young ones.”
Very carefully he slit the thin flesh from the center ribs to the flanks, and a scarlet bag appeared. He slit again and pulled the bag open, and there lay a bundle of tiny rabbits, each wrapped in a thin scarlet veil. The brother pulled these off and there they were, dark grey, their sleek wet down lying in minute even ripples, over pink skin, like a baby’s head just washed; their unbelievably small delicate ears folded close, their little blind faces almost featureless.
Miranda said, “Oh, I want to see,” under her breath. She looked and looked — excited but not frightened, for she was accustomed to the sight of animals killed in hunting — filled with pity and astonishment and a kind of shocked delight in the wonderful little creatures for their own sakes, they were so pretty. She touched one of them ever so carefully. “Ah, there’s blood running over them,” she said, and began to tremble without knowing why. Yet she wanted most deeply to see and to know. Having seen, she felt at once as if she had known all along. The very memory of her former ignorance faded, she had always known just this. No one had ever told her anything outright, she had been rather unobservant of the animal life around her because she was so accustomed to animals. They seemed simply disorderly and unaccountably rude in their habits, but altogether natural and not very interesting. Her brother had spoken as if he had known about everything all along. He may have seen all this before. He had never said a word to her, but she knew now a part at least of what he knew. She understood a little of the secret, formless intuitions in her own mind and body, which had been clearing up, taking form, so gradually and so steadily she had not realized that she was learning what she had to know. Paul said cautiously, as if he were talking about something forbidden: “They were just about ready to be born.” His voice dropped on the last word. “I know,” said Miranda, “like kittens. I know, like babies.” She was quietly and terribly agitated, standing again with her rifle under her arm, looking down at the bloody heap. “I don’t want the skin,” she said. “I won’t have it.” Paul buried the young rabbits again in their mother’s body, wrapped the skin around her, carried her to a clump of sage bushes, and hid her away. He came out again at once and said to Miranda, with an eager friendliness, a confidential tone quite unusual in him, as if he were taking her into an important secret on equal terms: “Listen now. Now you listen to me, and don’t ever forget. Don’t you ever tell a living soul that you saw this. Don’t tell a soul. Don’t tell Dad because I’ll get into trouble. He’ll say I’m leading you into things you ought not to do. He’s always saying that. So now don’t you go and forget and blab out sometime the way you’re always doing… Now, that’s a secret. Don’t you tell.”
Miranda never told, she did not even wish to tell anybody. She thought about the whole worrisome affair with confused unhappiness for a few days. Then it sank quietly into her mind and was heaped over by accumulated thousands of impressions, for nearly twenty years. One day she was picking her path among the puddles and crushed refuse of a market street in a strange city of a strange country, when, without warning, in totality, plain and clear in its true colors as if she looked through a frame upon a scene that had not stirred nor changed since the moment it happened, the episode of the far-off day leaped from its burial place before her mind’s eye. She was so reasonlessly horrified she halted suddenly staring, the scene before her eyes dimmed by the vision back of them. An Indian vendor had held up before her a tray of dyed-sugar sweets, shaped like all kinds of small creatures: birds, baby chicks, baby rabbits, lambs, baby pigs. They were in gay colors and smelled of vanilla, maybe… It was a very hot day and the smell in the market, with its piles of raw flesh and wilting flowers, was like the mingled sweetness and corruption she had smelled that other day in the empty cemetery at home: the day she had remembered vaguely always until now as the time she and her brother had found treasure in the opened graves. Instantly upon this thought the dreadful vision faded, and she saw clearly her brother, whose childhood face she had forgotten, standing again in the blazing sunshine, again twelve years old, a pleased sober smile in his eyes, turning the silver dove over and over in his hands.