Mrs. Jones

by Carol Emshwiller


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Cora is a morning person. Her sister, Janice, hardly feels conscious till late afternoon. Janice nibbles fruit and berries and complains of her stomach. Cora eats potatoes with butter and sour cream. She likes being fat. It makes her feel powerful and hides her wrinkles. Janice thinks being thin and willowy makes her look young, though she would admit that — even though Cora spends more time outside doing the yard and farm work — Cora's skin does look smoother. Janice has a slight stutter. Normally she speaks rapidly and in a kind of shorthand so as not to take up anyone's precious time, but with her stutter, she can hold people's attention for a moment longer than she would otherwise dare. Cora, on the other hand, speaks slowly and if she had ever stuttered would have seen to it that she learned not to.

Cora bought a genuine kilim rug to offset, she said, the bad taste of the flowery chintz covers Janice got for the couch and chairs. The rug and chairs look terrible in the same room, but Cora insists that her rug be there. Janice retaliated by pawning Mother's silver candelabras. Cora had never liked them, but she made a fuss anyway, and she left Janice's favorite silver spoon in the mayonnaise jar until, polish as she would, Janice could never get rid of the blackish look. Janice punched a hole in each of Father's rubber boots. Cora wears them anyway. She hasn't said a single word about it, but she hangs her wet socks up conspicuously in the kitchen.

They wish they'd gotten married and moved away from their parent's old farm house. They wish . . . desperately that they'd had children, though they know nothing of children — or husbands for that matter. As girls they worked hard at domestic things: canning, baking bread and pies, sewing . . . waiting to be good wives to almost anybody, but nobody came to claim them.

Janice is the one who worries. She's worried right now because she saw a light out in the far corner of the orchard — a tiny, flickering light. She can just barely make it out through the misty rain. Cora says, "Nonsense." (She's angry because it's just the sort of thing Janice would notice first.) Cora laughs as Janice goes around checking and rechecking all the windows and doors to see that they're securely locked. When Janice has finished, and stands staring out at the rain, she has a change of heart. "Whoever's out there must be cold and wet. Maybe hungry."

"Nonsense," Cora says again. "Besides, whoever's out there probably deserves it."

Later, as Cora watches the light from her bedroom window, she thinks whoever it is who's camping out down there is probably eating her apples and making a mess. Cora likes to sleep with the windows open a crack even in weather like this, and she prides herself on her courage, but, quietly, so that Janice, in the next room, won't hear, she eases her windows shut and locks them.

In the morning the rain has stopped though it's foggy. Cora goes out (with Father's walking stick, and wearing Father's boots and battered canvas hat) to the far end of the orchard. Something has certainly been there. It had pulled down perfectly good, live apple branches to make the nests. Cora doesn't like the way it ate apples, either, one or two bites out of lots of them, and then it looks as if it had made itself sick and threw up not far from the fire. Cora cleans everything so it looks like no one has been there. She doesn't want Janice to have the satisfaction of knowing anything about it.

That afternoon, when Cora has gone off to have their pickup truck greased, Janice goes out to take a look. She, also, takes Father's walking stick, but she wears Mother's floppy, pink hat. She can see where the fire's been by the black smudge, and she can tell somebody's been up in the tree. She notices things Cora hadn't: little claw marks on a branch, a couple of apples that had been bitten into still hanging on the tree near the nesting place. There's a tiny piece of leathery stuff stuck to one sharp twig. It's incredibly soft and downy and has a wet-dog smell. Janice takes it, thinking it might be an important clue. Also she wants to have something to show that she's been down there and seen more than Cora has.

Cora comes back while Janice is upstairs taking her nap. She sits down in the front room and reads an article in the Reader's Digest about how to help your husband communicate. When she hears Janice come down the stairs, Cora goes up for her nap. While Cora naps, Janice sets out grapes and a tangerine, and scrambles one egg. As she eats her early supper, she reads the same article Cora has just read. She feels sorry for Cora who seems to have nothing more exciting than this sort of thing to read (along with her one hundred great books) whereas Janice has been reading: HOW FAMOUS COUPLES GET THE MOST OUT OF THEIR SEX LIVES. Just one of many such books that she keeps locked in her bedside cabinet. When she finishes eating, she cleans up the kitchen so it looks as if she hadn't been there.

Cora comes down when Janice is in the front parlor (sliding doors shut) listening to music. She has it turned so low Cora can hardly make it out. Might be Vivaldi. It's as if Janice doesn't want Cora to hear it in case she might enjoy it. At least that's how Cora takes it. Cora opens a can of spaghetti. For dessert she takes a couple of apples from the "special" tree. She eats on the closed-in porch, watching the clouds. It looks as if it'll rain again tonight.

About eight-thirty they each look out their different windows and see that the flickering light is there again. Cora says, "Damn it to hell," so loud that Janice hears from two rooms away. At that moment Janice begins to like the little light. Thinks it looks inviting. Homey. She forgets that she found that funny piece of leather and those claw marks. Thinks most likely there's a young couple in love out there. Their parents disapprove and they have no place else to go but her orchard. Or perhaps it's a young person. Teenager, maybe, cold and wet. She has a hard time sleeping, worrying and wondering about whoever it is, though she's still glad she locked the house up tight.

The next day begins almost exactly like the one before, with Cora going out to the orchard first and cleaning up — or trying to — all the signs of anything having been there, and with Janice coming out later to pick up the clues that are left. Janice finds that the same branch is scratched up even more than it was before, and this time Cora had left the vomit (full of bits of apple peel) behind the tree. Perhaps she hadn't noticed it. Apples — or at least so many apples — aren't agreeing with the lovers. (In spite of the clues, Janice prefers to think that it's lovers.) She feels sorry about the all-night rain. There's no sign that they had a tent or shelter of any kind, poor things.

By the third night, though, the weather finally clears. Stars are out and a tiny moon. Cora and Janice stand in the front room, each at a different window, looking out towards where the light had been. An old seventy-eight record is on, Fritz Kreisler playing a Bach Chaconne. Janice says, "You'd think, especially since it's not raining . . ."

Cora says, "Good riddance," though she, too, feels a sense of regret. At least something unusual had been happening. "Don't forget," Cora says, "the state prison's only ninety miles away."

Little light or no little light, they both check the windows and doors and then recheck the ones the other had already checked, or at least Cora rechecks all the ones Janice had seen to. Janice sees her do it and Cora sees her noticing, so Cora says, "With what they're doing in genetic engineering, it could be anything at all out there. They make mistakes and peculiar things escape. You don't hear about it because it's classified. People disapprove so they don't let the news get out." Ever since she was six years old, Cora has been trying to scare her younger sister, though, as usual, she ends up scaring herself.

But then, just as they are about to give up and go off to bed, there's the light again. "Ah." Janice breathes out as though she had been holding her breath. "There it is, finally."

"You've got a lot to learn," Cora says. She'd heard the relief in Janice's big sigh. "Anyway, I'm off to bed, and you'd better come soon, too, if you know what's good for you."

"I know what's good for me," Janice says. She would have stayed up too late just for spite, but now she has another, secret reason for doing it. She sits reading an article in Cosmopolitan about how to be more sexually attractive to your husband. Around midnight, even downstairs, she can hear Cora snoring. Janice goes out to the kitchen. Moves around it like a little mouse. She's good at that. Gets out Mother's teakwood tray, takes big slices of rye bread from Cora's stash, takes a can of Cora's tunafish. (Janice knows she'll notice. Cora has them all counted up.) Takes butter and mayonnaise from Cora's side of the refrigerator. Makes three tunafish sandwiches. Places them on three of Mother's gold-rimmed plates along with some of her own celery, radishes, and grapes. Then she sits down and eats one plateful herself. She hasn't let herself have a tunafish sandwich, especially not one with mayonnaise and butter and rye bread, in quite some time.

It's only when Janice is halfway out in the orchard that she remembers what Cora said about the prison and thinks maybe there's some sort of escaped criminal out there — a rapist or a murderer, and here she is, wearing only her bathrobe and nightgown, in her slippers, and without even Father's walking stick. (Though the walking stick would probably just have been a handy thing for the criminal to attack her with.) She stops, puts the tray down, then moves forward. She's had a lot of practice creeping — creeping up on Cora ever since they were little. Used to yell, "Boo," but now shouts out anything to make her jump. Or not even shouting. Creeping up and standing very close and suddenly whispering right by her ear can make Cora jump as much as a loud noise. Janice sneaks along slowly. Has to step over where whoever it is has already thrown up. Something is huddling in front of the fire wrapped in what at first seems to be an army blanket. Why it is a child. Poor thing. She'd known it all the time. But then the creature moves, stretches, makes a squeaky sound, and she sees it's either the largest bat, or the smallest little old man she's ever seen. She's wondering if this is what Cora meant by genetic engineering.

Then the creature stands up and Janice is shocked. He has such a large penis that Janice thinks back to the horses and bulls they used to have. It's a Pan-type penis, more or less permanently erect and hooked up tight against his stomach, though Janice doesn't know this about a Pan's penis, and, anyway, this is definitely not some sort of Pan.

The article in Cosmopolitan comes instantly to her mind, plus the other, sexier books that she has locked in her bedside cabinet. Isn't there, in all this, some way to permanently outdo Cora? Whether she ever finds out about it or not? Slowly Janice backs up, turns, goes right past her tray (the gleam of silverware helps her know where it is), goes to the house and down into the basement.

They'd always had dogs. Big ones. For safety. But Mr. Jones (called Jonesy) had only died a few months ago and Cora is still grieving, or so she keeps saying. Since the dog had become blind, diabetic, and incontinent in his last years, Janice is relieved that he's gone. Besides, she has her heart set on something small and more tractable, some sort of terrier, but now she's glad Jonesy was large and difficult to manage. His metal choke collar and chain leash are still in the cellar. She wraps them in a cloth bag to keep them from making any clanking noises and heads back out, picking up the tray of food on the way.

As she comes close to the fire, she begins to hum. This time she wants him to know she's coming. The creature sits in the tree now and watches her with red glinting eyes. She puts the tray down and begins to talk softly as though she were trying to calm old Jonesy. She even calls the thing Mr. Jones. At first by mistake and then on purpose. He watches. Moves nothing but his eyes and big ears. His wings, folded up along his arms and dangling, are army-olive drab like that piece she found, but his body is a little lighter. She can tell that even in this moonlight.

Now that she's closer and less startled than before, she can see that there's something terribly wrong. One leathery wing is torn and twisted. He's helpless. Or almost. Probably in pain. Janice feels a rush of joy.

She breaks off a bit of tunafish sandwich and slowly, talking softly all the time, she holds it towards his little, clawed hand. Equally slowly, he reaches out to take it. She keeps this up until almost all of one plateful is eaten. But suddenly the creature jumps out of the tree, turns around and throws up.

Janice knows a vulnerable moment when she sees one. As he leans back on his heels between spasms, she fastens the choke collar around his neck, and twists the other end of the chain leash around her wrist.

He only makes two attempts to escape: tries to flap himself into the air, but it's obviously painful for him; then he tries to run. His legs are bowed, his gait rocking and clumsy. After these two attempts at getting away, he seems to realize it's hopeless. Janice can see in his eyes that he's given up — too sick and tired to care. Probably happy to be captured and looked after at last.

She leads him back to the house and down into the basement. Her own quiet creeping makes him quiet, too. He seems to sense that he's to be a secret and that perhaps his life depends on it. It was hard for him to walk all the way across the orchard. He doesn't seem to be built for anything but flying.

There is an old coal room, not used since they got oil heat. Janice makes a nest for him there, first chaining him to one of the pipes. She gets him blankets, water, an empty pail with lid. She makes him put on a pair of her underpants. She has to use a cord around his waist to make them stay up. She wonders what she should leave him to eat that would stay down? Then brings him chamomile tea, dry toast, one very small potato. That's all. She doesn't want to be cleaning up a lot of vomit.

He's so tractable through all this that she loses all fear of him. Pats his head as if he were old Jonesy. Strokes the wonderful softness of his wings. Thinks: If those were cut off, he'd look like a small old man with long, hard fingernails. Misshapen, but not much more so than other people. And clothes can hide things. Without the dark wings, he'd look lighter. His body is that color that's always described as café au lait. She would have preferred it if he'd been clearly a white person, but, who knows, maybe a little while in the cellar will make him paler.

After a last rubbing of his head behind his too-large ears, Janice padlocks the coal room and goes up to her bedroom, but she's too excited to sleep. She reads a chapter in ARE YOU HAPPY WITH YOUR SEX LIFE?, the one on "How to Turn Your Man into a Lusting Animal." ("The feet of both sexes are exquisitely sensitive," and, "Let your eyes speak, but first make sure he's looking at you." "Surrender. When he thinks he's leading, your man feels strong in every way.") Janice thinks she will have to be the one to take the initiative, though she'll try to make him feel that he's the boss — even though he'll be wearing the choke collar.

For a change, Janice wakes up just as early as Cora does. Earlier, in fact, and she lies in bed making plans until it is late enough to get up. She gets a lot of good ideas. She comes downstairs whistling Vivaldi — off key, as usual, but she's not doing it to make Cora angry this time. She really can't whistle on key. Cora knows that Janice knows Cora hates the way she whistles. Cora thinks that if Janice really tried, she could be just as in tune as Cora always is. Cora thinks Janice got up early just so she could spoil Cora's breakfast by sitting across from her and looking just like Mother used to look when she disapproved of Father's table manners. And Cora notices, even before she makes her omelet, that one can of tunafish is missing, and that her loaf of rye bread has gone down by several slices. She takes a quart of strawberries from Janice's side of the refrigerator and eats them all, not even bothering to wash them.

Janice doesn't say a word, or even do anything. She doesn't care, except that Jonesy might have wanted some. Janice is feeling magnanimous and powerful. She feels so good she even offers Cora some of her herb tea. Cora takes the offer as ironic, especially since she knows that Janice knows she never drinks herb tea. She retaliates by saying that, since they're both up so early, they should take advantage of it and go out to the beach to get more lakeweed for the garden.

Janice knows that Cora decided this just to make her pay for the tunafish and mayonnaise and such, but she still feels magnanimous — kindly to the whole world. She doesn't even say that they'd already done that twice in the spring, and that what they needed now were hay bales to put around the foundations of the house for the winter. All she says is, "No."

It's never been their way to shirk their duties no matter how angry they might be with each other. When it comes to work, they've always made a good team. But now Janice is adamant. She says she has something important to do. She's not ever said this before, nor has she ever had something important to do. Cora has always been the one who did important things. This time Cora can't persuade Janice to change her mind, nor can she persuade her that there's nothing important to be done — or nothing more important than lakeweed.

Finally Cora gives up and goes off alone. She hadn't meant to go. She's never gone off to get lakeweed by herself, but she goes anyway, hoping to make Janice feel guilty. Except Cora knows something is going on. She's not sure what, but she's going to be on her guard.

As soon as Janice hears the old pickup crunch away on the gravel drive, she goes down in the basement, bringing along Father's old straight razor (freshly sharpened), rubbing alcohol and bandages. Also, to make it easier on him, a bottle of sherry.


This story copyright © 1993 by Carol Emshwiller. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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