Excerpt from The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Orange Prize for Fiction, 2003Twelve years after Robin's death, no one knew any more about how he had ended up hanged from a tree in his own yard than they had on the day it happened.
People in the town still discussed the death. Usually they referred to it as "the accident," though the facts (as discussed at bridge luncheons, at the barber's, in bait shacks and doctors' wait-ing rooms and in the main dining room of the Country Club) tended to suggest otherwise. Certainly it was difficult to imagine a nine-year-old managing to hang himself through mischance or bad luck. Everyone knew the details, which were the source of much speculation and debate. Robin had been hanged by a type of fiber cable - not common - which electricians sometimes used, and nobody had any idea where it came from or how Robin got hold of it. It was thick, obstinate stuff, and the investigator from Memphis had told the town sheriff (now retired) that in his opin-ion a little boy like Robin couldn't have tied the knots by himself. The cable was fastened to the tree in a slipshod, amateurish fash-ion, but whether this implied inexperience or haste on the killer's part, no one knew. And the marks on the body (so said Robin's pediatrician, who had spoken to the medical examiner from the state, who in turn had examined the county coroner's report) suggested that Robin had died not of a broken neck, but strangulation. Some people believed he'd strangled where he hung; others argued that he'd been strangled on the ground, and strung up in the tree as an afterthought.
In the mind of the town, and of Robin's family, there was little question that Robin had met foul play of some sort. Exactly what sort, or by whom, left everyone at a loss. Twice, since the 1920s, women of prominent family had been murdered by jealous hus-bands, but these were old scandals, the parties concerned long-deceased. And every now and then a black man turned up dead in Alexandria but (as most whites were quick to point out) these killings were generally done by other Negroes, over primarily Negro concerns. A dead child was a different matter - frightening to everyone, rich and poor, black and white-and no one could think who might have done such a thing, or why.
Around the neighborhood there was talk of a Mysterious Prowler, and years after Robin's death people still claimed to see him. He was, by all accounts, a giant of a man, but after this the descriptions diverged. Sometimes he was black, sometimes white; sometimes he bore dramatic distinguishing marks such as a miss-ing finger, a clubfoot, a livid scar across one cheek. He was said to be a rogue hired man who had strangled a Texas senator's child and fed it to the pigs; an ex - rodeo clown, luring little children to their deaths with fancy lariat tricks; a psychopathic half-wit, wanted in eleven states, escaped from the state mental hospital at Whitfield. But though parents in Alexandria warned their children about him, and though his massive form was regularly sighted limping around the vicinity of George Street each Halloween, the Prowler remained an elusive figure. Every tramp and itinerant and window-peeper for a hundred miles had been rounded up and questioned after the little Cleve boy's death, but the investigation had turned up nothing. And while nobody liked to think of a killer walking around free, the fear persisted. The particular fear was that he still prowled the neighborhood: watching children at play from a discreetly parked sedan.
It was the people in the town who talked about this sort of thing. Robin's family never discussed it, ever.
What Robin's family talked about was Robin. They told anec-dotes from baby days and kindergarten and Little League, all the sweet and funny and inconsequential things anyone remembered he'd ever said or done. His old aunts recalled mountains of trivia: toys he'd had, clothes he'd worn, teachers he'd liked or hated, games he'd played, dreams he'd recounted, things he'd disliked, and wished for, and most loved. Some of this was accurate; some of it was not; a good bit of it no one had any way of knowing, but when the Cleves chose to agree on some subjective matter it became - automatically and quite irrevocably - the truth, without any of them being aware of the collective alchemy which had made it so.
The mysterious, conflicted circumstances of Robin's death were not subject to this alchemy. Strong as the Cleves' revisionist instincts were, there was no plot to be imposed on these frag-ments, no logic to be inferred, no lesson in hindsight, no moral to this story. Robin himself, or what they remembered of him, was all they had; and their exquisite delineation of his character - painstakingly ornamented over a number of years - was their greatest masterpiece. Because he had been such an engaging little stray of a boy, and because his whims and peculiarities were precisely why they had all loved him so, in their reconstructions the impulsive quickness of the living Robin came through in places almost painfully clear and then he would practically be dashing down the street on his bicycle past you, leaning forward, hair blown back, stepping hard on the pedals so the bike wobbled slightly - a fitful, capricious, breathing child. But this clarity was deceptive, lending treacherous verisimilitude to what was largely a fabular whole, for in other places the story was worn nearly transparent, radiant but oddly featureless, as the lives of saints sometimes are.
"How Robin would have loved this!" the aunts used to say fondly. "How Robin would have laughed!" In truth, Robin had been a giddy, fickle child - somber at odd moments, practically hysterical at others - and, in life, this unpredictability had been a great part of his charm. But his younger sisters, who had never in any proper sense known him at all, nonetheless grew up certain of their dead brother's favorite color (red); his favorite book (The Wind in the Willows) and his favorite character in it (Mr. Toad); his favorite flavor of ice cream (chocolate) and his favorite base-ball team (the Cardinals) and a thousand other things which they - being living children, and preferring chocolate ice cream one week and peach the next - were not even sure they knew about themselves. Consequently their relationship with their dead brother was of the most intimate sort, his strong, bright, immutable character shining changelessly against the vagueness and vacillation of their own characters, and the characters of peo-ple that they knew; and they grew up believing that this was due to some rare, angelic incandescence of nature on Robin's part, and not at all to the fact that he was dead.
Robin's younger sisters had grown up to be very different from Robin, and very different from each other.
Allison was now sixteen. A mousy little girl who bruised and sunburned easily and cried at nearly everything, she had grown up, unexpectedly, to be the pretty one: long legs, fawn-red hair, liquid, fawn-brown eyes. All her grace was in her vagueness. Her voice was soft, her manner languid, her features blurred and dreamy; and to her grandmother Edie - who prized sparkle and high color - she was something of a disappointment. Allison's bloom was delicate and artless, like the flowering grass in June, consisting wholly of a youthful freshness that (no one knew better than Edie) was the first thing to go. She daydreamed; she sighed a lot; her walk was awkward - shuffling, with toes turned in - and so was her speech. Still she was pretty, in her shy, milk-white way, and the boys in her class had started to call her on the telephone. Edie had observed her (eyes downcast, face burning red) with the receiver caught between her shoulder and ear, pushing the toe of her oxford back and forth and stammering with humiliation.
Such a pity, Edie fretted aloud, that such a lovely girl (lovely, the way Edie said it, carrying the plain freight of weak and ane-mic) should hold herself so poorly. Allison should keep her hair from falling in her eyes. Allison should throw her shoulders back, stand tall and confident instead of slumping. Allison should smile, speak up, develop some interests, ask people questions about themselves if she couldn't think of anything interesting to say. Such advice, though well meaning, was often delivered in public and so impatiently that Allison stumbled from the room in tears.
"Well, I don't care," Edie would say, loudly, in the silence fol-lowing these performances. "Somebody needs to teach her how to act. If I didn't stay on top of her like I do, that child wouldn't be in the tenth grade, I can tell you that."
It was true. Though Allison had never failed a grade, she had come perilously near it several times, especially in elementary school. Wool-gathers, noted the Deportment section of Allison s report cards. Untidy. Slow. Does not apply self. "Well, I guess we'll just have to try a little harder," Charlotte would say vaguely when Allison trailed home with yet more C's and D's.
But though neither Allison nor her mother seemed to care about the bad grades, Edie cared, a rather alarming lot. She marched down to the school to demand conferences with the teachers; tortured Allison with reading lists and flash cards and long-division problems; marked up Allison's book reports and sci-ence projects with red pencil even now that she was in high school.
There was no reminding Edie that Robin himself had not always been a very good student. "High spirits," she replied tartly. "He would have settled down to work soon enough." And this was as close as she ever came to acknowledging the real problem, for - as all the Cleves were aware - if Allison had been as lively as her brother Edie would have forgiven her all the C's and D's in the world.
As Robin's death, and the years following it, had served to turn Edie somewhat sour, Charlotte had wafted into an indiffer-ence which numbed and discolored every area of life; and if she tried to take up for Allison it was in an ineffectual and half-hearted way. In this she had come to resemble her husband, Dixon, who though a decent provider financially had never shown his daughters much encouragement or concern. His carelessness was nothing personal; he was a man of many opinions, and his low opinion of girl children he expressed unashamedly and with a casual, conversational good humor. (No daughter of his, he was fond of repeating, would inherit a dime.)
Dix had never spent much time at home, and now he was hardly there at all. He was from what Edie considered a social-upstart family (his father had run a plumbing-supply house) and when he'd married Charlotte - lured by her family, her name - he'd believed she had money. The marriage had never been happy (late nights at the bank, late nights at poker, hunting and fishing and football and golf, any excuse for a weekend away) but his cheer wore particularly thin after Robin's death. He wanted to get the mourning over with; he could not bear the silent rooms, the atmosphere of neglect, lassitude, sadness, and he turned up the television as loud as it would go and strode around the house in a continual state of frustration, clapping his hands, pulling up win-dow shades and saying things like: "Snap out of it!" and "Let's get back on our feet here!" and "We're a team!" That his efforts were not appreciated astonished him. Eventually, when his remarks failed to chase the tragedy from his home, he lost all interest in it, and - after restless and ever-increasing weeks away, at his hunt-ing camp - he impulsively accepted a high-paying bank job in a different town. This he made out to be a great and selfless sacri-fice. But everyone who knew Dix knew that he hadn't moved to Tennessee for the good of his family. Dix wanted a showy life, with Cadillacs and card parties and football games, nightclubs in New Orleans, vacations in Florida; he wanted cocktails and laughter, a wife who always had her hair fixed and the house spotless, ready to pull out the hors d'oeuvres tray at a moment's notice.
But Dix's family was not upbeat or showy. His wife and daughters were reclusive, eccentric, melancholy. Worse: because of what had happened, people saw them all, even Dix himself, as somehow tainted. Friends avoided them. Couples didn't invite them places; acquaintances stopped calling. It couldn't be helped. People didn't like to be reminded of death or bad things. And for all these reasons, Dix had felt compelled to exchange his family for a wood-paneled office and a jazzy social life in Nashville with-out feeling guilty in the slightest.
Though Allison irritated Edie, the aunts adored her, consider-ing tranquil and even poetic many of the qualities that Edie found so frustrating. In their opinion, Allison was not only The Pretty One but The Sweet One - patient, uncomplaining, gentle with animals and old people and children - virtues which, as far as the aunts were concerned, far outshone any amount of good grades or smart talk.
Loyally, the aunts defended her. After all that child's been through, Tat once said fiercely to Edie. It was enough to shut Edie up, at least temporarily. For no one could forget that Allison and the baby had been the only ones out in the yard on that terrible day; and though Allison was only four, there was little doubt that she'd seen something, something most likely so horrific that it had slightly unhinged her.
Immediately after, she had been questioned rigorously by both family and police. Was somebody in the yard, a grown-up, a man, maybe? But Allison - though she had begun, inexplicably, to wet her bed, and to wake screaming in the night with ferocious terrors - refused to say yes or no. She sucked her thumb, and hugged her stuffed dog close, and would not say even her name or how old she was. Nobody - not even Libby, the gentlest and most patient of her old aunts - could coax a word from her.
Allison didn't remember her brother, and she had never recalled anything about his death. When she was little, she had lain awake sometimes after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep, staring at the jungle of shadows on the bedroom ceiling and casting her mind back as far as she was able, but searching was useless, there was nothing to find. The sweet dailiness of her early life was always there-front porch, fish pond, kitty-cat, flower-beds, seamless, incandescent, immutable-but if she cast her mind back far enough she invariably reached a strange point where the yard was empty, the house echoing and abandoned, signs of a recent departure evident (clothes hanging on the line, the dishes from lunch not yet cleared away) but her whole family gone, vanished, she didn't know where, and Robin's orange cat - -still a kitten then, not yet the languid, heavy-jowled tomcat he would become - gone strange, empty-eyed, wild, skittering across the lawn to dart up a tree, as frightened of her as of a stranger. She wasn't quite herself in these memories, not when they went this far back. Though she recognized very well the physical set-ting in which they took place - George Street, number 363, the house she'd lived in all her life - she, Allison, was not recogniza-ble, not even to herself: she was not a toddler nor yet a baby but only a gaze, a pair of eyes that lingered in familiar surroundings and reflected upon them without personality, or body, or age, or past, as if she was remembering things that had happened before she was born.
Allison thought about none of this consciously except in the most vague and half-formed way. When she was small, it did not occur to her to wonder what these disembodied impressions meant and it occurred to her still less now that she was older. She scarcely thought about the past at all, and in this she differed sig-nificantly from her family, who thought of little else.
No one in her family understood this. They could not have understood even had she tried to tell them. For minds like theirs, besieged constantly by recollection, for whom present and future existed solely as schemes of recurrence, such a view of the world was beyond imagining. Memory - fragile, hazy-bright, miraculous - was to them the spark of life itself, and nearly every sentence of theirs began with some appeal to it: "You remember that green-sprigged batiste, don't you?" her mother and her aunts would insist. "That pink floribunda? Those lemon teacakes? Remember that beautiful cold Easter, when Harriet was just a lit-tle thing, when you hunted eggs in the snow and built a big snow Easter rabbit in Adelaide's front yard?"
"Yes, yes," Allison would lie. "I remember." In a way, she did. She'd heard the stories so often that she knew them by heart, could repeat them if she wanted, sometimes even dash in a detail or two neglected in the retelling: how (for instance) she and Har-riet had used pink blossoms fallen from the frost-bitten crabap-ples for the snow bunny's nose and ears. The stories were familiar much as stories from her mother's girlhood were familiar, or sto-ries from books. But none of them seemed connected with her in any fundamental way.
The truth was - and this was something she had never admit-ted to anyone - there were an awful lot of things Allison did not remember. She had no clear memories of being in kindergarten, or the first grade, or of anything at all that she could definitely place as happening before she was eight. This was a matter of great shame, and something she tried (successfully for the most part) to conceal. Her baby sister Harriet claimed to recall things that hap-pened before she was a year old.
Though she'd been less than six months old when Robin died, Harriet said she could remember him; and Allison and the rest of the Cleves believed that this was probably the truth. Every now and then Harriet came out with some obscure but shockingly accurate bit of information - details of weather or dress, menus from birthday parties attended before she was two - that made everyone's jaw drop.
But Allison could not remember Robin at all. This was inex-cusable. She had been nearly five years old when he died. Nor could she remember the period following his death. She knew about the whole interlude, in detail - about the tears, the stuffed dog, her silences; how the Memphis detective - a big, camel-faced man with prematurely white hair named Snowy Olivet - had shown her pictures of his own daughter, named Celia, and given her Almond Joy candy bars from a wholesale box he kept in his car; how he'd shown her other pictures, too, of colored men, white men with crewcuts and heavy-lidded eyes, and how Allison had sat on Tattycorum's blue velveteen loveseat - she had been stay-ing with Aunt Tat then, she and the baby, too, their mother was still in bed - with the tears rolling down her face, picking the chocolate off the Almond Joy bars and refusing to say a word. She knew all this not because she remembered it but because Aunt Tat had told her about it, many times, sitting in her chair pulled up close to the gas heater when Allison went to see her after school on winter afternoons, her weak old sherry-brown eyes fixed on a point across the room and her voice fond, garrulous, reminiscent, as if she were relating a story about a third party not present.
Sharp-eyed Edie was neither as fond nor as tolerant. The sto-ries she chose to tell Allison often had a peculiar allegorical tone.
"My mother's sister," Edie would begin as she was driving Allison home from piano lessons, her eyes never leaving the road and her strong, elegant falcon's beak of a nose high in the air, "my mother's sister knew a little boy named Randall Scofield whose family was killed in a tornado. He came home from school and what do you think he saw? His house was blown to pieces and the Negroes that worked on the place had pulled the bodies of his father and his mother and his three baby brothers out of the wreck and there they all lay, bloody as could be with not even a sheet over them, stretched out breast to breast beside each other like a xylophone. One of the brothers was missing an arm and his mother had an iron doorstop embedded in her temple. Well, do you know what happened to that little boy? He was struck dumb. And he never said another word for the next seven years. My father said he used to always carry around a stack of shirt card-boards and a grease pencil wherever he went and he had to write down every single word he said to anybody. The man who ran the dry cleaner's in town gave him the shirt cardboards for free."
Edie liked to tell this story. There were variations, children who had gone temporarily blind or bitten their tongues off or lost their senses when confronted with sundry horrific sights. They had a slightly accusatory note that Allison could never quite put her finger on.
Allison spent most of her time by herself. She listened to records. She made collages of pictures cut from magazines and messy candles out of melted crayons. She drew pictures of balleri-nas and horses and baby mice in the margins of her geometry notebook. At lunch she sat at a table with a group of fairly popular girls, though she seldom saw them outside school. In surface ways she was one of them: she had good clothes, clear skin, lived in a big house on a nice street; and if she was not bright or vivacious, neither was there anything about her to dislike.
"You could be so popular if you wanted," said Edie, who missed not a trick when it came to social dynamics, even on the tenth-grade scale. "The most popular girl in your class, if you felt like trying.
Allison didn't want to try. She didn't want kids to be mean to her, or make fun of her, but as long as nobody bothered her she was happy. And - except for Edie - nobody did bother her much. She slept a lot. She walked to school by herself. She stopped to play with dogs she saw on the way. At night she had dreams with a yellow sky and a white thing like a sheet billowing out against it, and these distressed her greatly, but she forgot all about them as soon as she woke up.
Allison spent a lot of time with her great-aunts, on the week-ends and after school. She threaded needles for them and read to them when their eyes gave out, climbed stepladders to fetch things on high dusty shelves, listened to them talk about dead schoolmates and piano recitals sixty years before. Sometimes, after school, she made candy - fudge, seafoam, divinity - for them to take to their church bazaars. She used chilled marble, a ther-mometer, meticulous as a chemist, following the recipe step by step, scraping the ingredients level in the measuring cup with a butter knife. The aunts - girlish themselves, rouged cheeks, curled hair, full of fun - pattered back and forth and out and through, delighted with the activity in the kitchen, calling each other by their childhood nicknames.
What a good little cook, the aunts all sang. How pretty you are. You're an angel to come see us. What a good girl. How pretty. How sweet.
About The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Harriet Cleve Dufresnes was only six months old when her nine-year-old brother, Robin, was found hanging from the black-tupelo tree in the family's backyard. Twelve years later, the still-unexplained tragedy holds the Cleve-Dufresnes clan in an inescapable grip. Overcome by guilt and grief, Harriet's mother, Charlotte, has drifted into numbness, indifferent
to keeping up appearances and uninterested in her daughters—Allison, a fragile, dreamy sixteen-year-old, and the sturdy, smart seventh-grader Harriet. Dixon Dufresnes, always a disengaged husband and father, has moved from the family's home in Alexandria, Mississippi, to begin a new job and a flashy new social life in Nashville. Harriet's grandmother, Edie Cleve, and three great aunts bring a well-intentioned, if eccentric, structure and gentility to Harriet's life, and Ida Rhew, the family's housekeeper, cares for Harriet and Allison with unstinting, unacknowledged devotion.
Harriet spends her time poring over family pictures for glimpses of the fabled happy times before Robin's death, reading adventure stories and grisly accounts of real-life ill-fated adventurers and doomed civilizations, and devising daring excursions with her awed and admiring best friend, Hely. When the two decide to solve the mystery of Robin's death, their plan—a pastiche of Harriet's book-fed fantasies and misinterpreted family lore—leads them into the bizarre, dangerous world of Danny Ratliff, a childhood acquaintance of Robin's and now Harriet's prime suspect.
Donna Tartt brilliantly captures the tangle of loneliness, arrogance, inquisitiveness, and stubborn certainty that propels Harriet's quest for justice and her determination to free her family—and herself—from haunting memories and self-inflicted wounds. In telling the story of Harriet's coming of age, Tartt presents a heroine whose resourcefulness and intelligence expose her to the contradictions and paradoxes of the adult world and bring her face to face with the complexities of her own needs and desires.
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