menu Language Is A Virus

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, Prologue

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son's death because she had decided to have the Mother's Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it. Dissatisfaction had been expressed by the elder Cleves at the new arrangement; and while this mainly had to do with suspicion of innovation, on principle, Charlotte felt that she should have paid attention to the undercurrent of grumbling, that it had been a slight but ominous warning of what was to come; a warning which, though obscure even in hindsight, was perhaps as good as any we can ever hope to receive in this life.

Though the Cleves loved to recount among themselves even the minor events of their family history—repeating word for word, with stylized narrative and rhetorical interruptions, entire deathbed scenes, or marriage proposals that had occurred a hundred years before—the events of this terrible Mother's Day were never discussed. They were not discussed even in covert groups of two, brought together by a long car trip or by insomnia in a late-night kitchen; and this was unusual, because these family discussions were how the Cleves made sense of the world. Even the cruelest and most random disasters—the death, by fire, of one of Charlotte's infant cousins; the hunting accident in which Charlotte's uncle had died while she was still in grammar school—were constantly rehearsed among them, her grandmother's gentle voice and her mother's stern one merging harmoniously with her grandfather's baritone and the babble of her aunts, and certain ornamental bits, improvised by daring soloists, eagerly seized upon and elaborated by the chorus, until finally, by group effort, they arrived together at a single song; a song which was then memorized, and sung by the entire company again and again, which slowly eroded memory and came to take the place of truth: the angry fireman, failing in his efforts to resuscitate the tiny body, transmuted sweetly into a weeping one; the moping bird dog, puzzled for several weeks by her master's death, recast as the grief-stricken Queenie of family legend, who searched relentlessly for her beloved throughout the house and howled, inconsolable, in her pen all night; who barked in joyous welcome whenever the dear ghost approached in the yard, a ghost that only she could perceive. "Dogs can see things that we can't," Charlotte's aunt Tat always intoned, on cue, at the proper moment in the story. She was something of a mystic and the ghost was her innovation.

But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And—since this willful amnesia had kept Robin's death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form—the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirrorshards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.

Sometimes these vivid flashes of memory seemed like pieces of a bad dream, as if none of it had ever happened. Yet in many ways it seemed the only real thing that had happened in Charlotte's life.

The only narrative she could impose upon this jumble of images was the narrative of ritual, changeless since she was a child: the framework of the family gathering. But even this was little help. Procedures had been scorned that year, household rules ignored. Everything, in retrospect, was a signpost pointing to disaster. The dinner had not been at her grandfather's house, as it usually was, but at hers. Corsages of cymbidium orchid instead of the usual rosebuds. Chicken croquettes—which everyone liked, Ida Rhew made them well, the Cleves ate them for birthday suppers and on Christmas Eve—but they'd never had them before on a Mother's Day; had never had anything, as far as anyone could remember, except snap peas, corn pudding, and ham.

Stormy, luminous spring evening; low, smudged clouds and golden light, dandelions and onion-flowers spangling the lawn. The air smelled fresh and tight, like rain. Laughter and talk within the house, the querulous voice of Charlotte's old aunt Libby rising high and plaintive for a moment: "Why, I never did any such thing, Adelaide, I never did any such thing in the world!" All the Cleves loved to tease Aunt Libby. She was a spinster, afraid of everything, of dogs and thunderstorms and fruitcakes made with rum, of bees, Negro men, the police. A fast wind jangled the clothesline and blew the tall weeds flat in the empty lot across the street. The screen door slammed shut. Robin ran outside, shrieking with laughter at a joke his grandmother had told him (Why was the letter damp? Because it had postage due), jumping down the steps two at a time.

There should have been, at the very least, someone outside watching the baby. Harriet was less than a year old then, a heavy, somber infant with a headful of black hair who never cried. She was on the front walk, strapped in her portable swing that went back and forth if you wound it up. Her sister Allison, who was four, played quietly with Robin's cat, Weenie, on the steps. Unlike Robin—who, at that age, had talked incessantly and hilariously in a gravelly little voice, tumbling to the ground with merriment at his own jokes—Allison was shy and skittish, and cried when anyone tried to teach her the ABCs; and the children's grandmother (who had no patience for such behavior) paid little attention to her.

Aunt Tat had been outside early on, playing with the baby. Charlotte herself, running back and forth between kitchen and dining room, had stuck her head out a couple of times—but she hadn't kept a very close watch because Ida Rhew, the housekeeper (who had decided to go ahead and get a start on her Monday washing) was in and out of the house, hanging clothes on the line. Charlotte had been falsely soothed by this, for on normal washday, Monday, Ida was within constant earshot—whether in the yard or at the washing machine on the back porch—so that it was perfectly safe to leave even the littlest ones outside. But Ida was harried that day, fatally harried, with company to tend to and a stove to watch as well as the baby; and she was in a foul temper because usually she got to go home at one o'clock on Sundays and not only was her husband, Charley T., having to get his own dinner, but she, Ida Rhew, was missing church. She had insisted on bringing the radio into the kitchen so she could at least listen to the gospel show from Clarksdale. Sullenly she moved around the kitchen in her black dress uniform with the white apron, the volume of the gospel program turned obstinately loud, pouring iced tea into tall glasses as the clean shirts out on the clothesline flailed and twisted and threw up their arms in despair at the coming rain.

Robin's grandmother had been out on the porch too, at some point; that much was certain, because she had taken a snapshot. There were not many men in the Cleve family and headstrong, masculine activities such as tree pruning, household repair, chauffeuring the elderly to grocery and church, had for the most part fallen to her. She did this cheerfully, with a brisk confidence that was the wonder of her timid sisters. None of them could even drive a car; and poor Aunt Libby was so afraid of appliances and mechanical apparatus of all sorts that she wept at the prospect of lighting a gas heater or changing a light bulb. Though they were intrigued by the camera, they were also wary of it, and they admired their sister's breezy daring in handling this manly contraption that had to be loaded and aimed and shot like a gun. "Look at Edith," they would say, watching her wind the film or adjust the focus with swift professionalism. "There's nothing Edith can't do."

Family wisdom had it that Edith, despite her dazzling and varied fields of competence, enjoyed no great gift with children. She was proud and impatient, and her manner did not encourage warmth; Charlotte, her only child, always ran to her aunts (Libby, particularly) for comfort, affection, reassurance. And though Harriet, the baby, had yet to show little in the way of preference for anyone, Allison was terrified by her grandmother's brisk efforts to prod her out of silence, and cried when she was taken to her house to stay. But, oh, how Charlotte's mother had loved Robin, and how he had loved her right back. She—a dignified, middle-aged lady—played catch with him in the front yard, and caught him snakes and spiders in her garden to play with; taught him funny songs she'd learned from the soldiers when she was a nurse in World War II: I knew a girl named Peg

Who had a wooden leg
which he sang right along with her in his hoarse, sweet little voice.

EdieEdieEdieEdieEdie! Even her father and her sisters called her Edith, but Edie was the name he'd given her when he was barely old enough to talk, running madcap across the lawn, screaming with delight. Once, when Robin was about four, he had called her, in all seriousness, old girl. "Poor old girl," he'd said, grave as an owl, patting her forehead with his small, freckled hand. Charlotte would never have dreamed of being so familiar with her sharp, businesslike mother, certainly not when she was lying down in her bedroom with a headache, but the incident amused Edie greatly and now it had become one of her favorite stories. Her hair was gray by the time he was born, but when she was young it had been as bright-penny red as Robin's own: For Robin Redbreast or My Own Red Robin, she wrote on the tags to his birthday and Christmas gifts. With love from your poor old girl.

EdieEdieEdieEdieEdie! He was nine years old, but it was a family joke now, his traditional greeting, his love song to her; and he sang it out across the yard just as he always did, as she stepped out upon the porch on that last afternoon she ever saw him.

"Come give the old girl a kiss," she called to him. But though he usually liked having his picture made, sometimes he was skittish about it—came out a red-headed blur, sharp elbows and kneecaps scrambling to get away—and when he saw the camera around Edie's neck he was off and hiccuping with laughter.

"Come back to me, you scamp!" she called, and then, on impulse, she'd raised the camera and snapped it at him anyway. It was the last picture that they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him—almost visible—in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.

Days later, lying in the shuttered room, a thought had flickered across Charlotte's mind beneath a mist of pills. Whenever Robin was going anywhere—to school, to a friend's house, to spend the afternoon with Edie—it had always been important to him to say goodbye, in tender and frequently quite prolonged and ceremonious ways. She had a thousand memories of little notes he'd written, kisses blown from windows, his small hand chattering up and down at her from the backseats of departing cars: goodbye! goodbye! When he was a baby, he'd learned bye-bye long before hello; it was his way of greeting people as well as leaving them. It seemed particularly cruel to Charlotte that there had been no goodbye this time. She had been so distracted that she had no very clear recollection of the last words she'd exchanged with Robin, or even of the last time she'd seen him, when what she needed was something concrete, some small final memory to slip its hand in hers and accompany her—sightless now, stumbling—through this sudden desert of existence which stretched before her from the present moment until the end of life. Half-mad with pain and sleeplessness, she'd babbled on and on to Libby (it was Aunt Libby who had got her through that time, Libby with her cool cloths and her aspics, Libby who had stayed awake with her all night for nights and nights, Libby who had never left her side, Libby who had saved her); for neither her husband nor anyone else was able to offer her the flimsiest solace; and though her own mother (who to outsiders appeared to be "taking things well") was unchanged in her habits and her appearance, still going bravely about the business of the day, Edie would never be the same again. Grief had turned her into stone. It was a terrible thing to see. "Get out of that bed, Charlotte!" she would bark, throwing open the shutters; "here, have some coffee, brush your hair, you can't lie around forever like this"; and even innocent old Libby shuddered sometimes at the brilliant coldness of Edie's gaze as she turned from the window to regard her daughter lying still in the dark bedroom: ferocious, pitiless as Arcturus.

"Life goes on." It was one of Edie's favorite sayings. It was a lie. These were the days when Charlotte still woke in a drugged delirium to get her dead son up for school, when she started from bed five and six times a night calling his name. And sometimes, for a moment or two, she believed that Robin was upstairs and it was all a bad dream. But when her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the hideous despairing litter (tissues, pill bottles, dead flower petals) strewn across the bed table, she began to sob again—though she had sobbed until her ribcage ached—because Robin wasn't upstairs or any place he'd ever come back from again.

He'd stuck cards in the spokes of his bicycle. Though she hadn't realized it when he was alive, it was by their rattle that she'd kept track of his comings and goings. Some child in the neighborhood had a bicycle that sounded exactly like it and every time she heard it in the distance her heart vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment.

Had he called for her? To think about his last moments was soul-destroying and yet she could think of nothing else. How long? Had he suffered? All day long she stared at the bedroom ceiling until the shadows slid across it, and then she lay awake and stared at the glow of the luminescent clock-dial in the darkness.

"You're not doing anybody in the world any good lying in the bed crying all day," said Edie briskly. "You'd feel a lot better if you put on some clothes and went and had your hair fixed."

In dreams he was evasive and distant, withholding something. She longed for some word from him but he never met her eyes, never spoke. Libby, in the worst days, had murmured something to her over and over again, something

that she hadn't understood. We were never meant to have him, darling. He wasn't ours to keep. We were lucky he was with us for as long as he was.

And this was the thought that came to Charlotte, through a narcotic fog, that hot morning in the shuttered room. That what Libby had told her was the truth. And that, in some strange way or other, ever since he was just a baby, Robin had been trying to say goodbye to her all his life.

Edie was the last person to see him. No one was too clear after that. As her family talked in the living room—longer silences now, everyone glancing around pleasantly, waiting for the call to go to table—Charlotte was on her hands and knees rummaging through the dining-room buffet for her good linen napkins (she'd come in to find the table set with everyday cotton; Ida—typically—claimed never to have heard of the others, said the checked picnic napkins were the only ones she could find). Charlotte had just found the good napkins, and was about to call out to Ida (see? right where I said they were) when she was struck by the conviction that something was wrong.

The baby. It was her first instinct. She jumped up, letting the napkins fall on the rug, and ran out onto the porch.

But Harriet was fine. Still strapped in her swing, she stared at her mother with big grave eyes. Allison sat on the sidewalk, thumb in mouth. She was rocking back and forth, making a wasplike, humming sound—unharmed, apparently, but Charlotte saw that she'd been crying.

What's the matter? said Charlotte. Did you hurt yourself?

But Allison, thumb still in mouth, shook her head no.

From the corner of her eye, Charlotte saw a flash of movement at the yard's edge—Robin? But when she looked up, nobody was there.

Are you sure? she said to Allison. Did the kitty scratch you?

Allison shook her head no. Charlotte knelt and checked her over quickly; no bumps, no bruises. The cat had disappeared.

Still uneasy, Charlotte kissed Allison on the forehead and led her into the house ("Why don't you go see what Ida's doing in the kitchen, honey?") and then went back out for the baby. She had felt these dreamlike flashes of panic before, usually in the middle of the night and always when a child was less than six months old, bolting upright from a sound sleep to rush to the crib. But Allison wasn't hurt, and the baby was fine.... She went into the living room and deposited Harriet with her aunt Adelaide, picked up the napkins on the dining-room rug, and—still half-sleepwalking, she didn't know why—trailed into the kitchen to get the baby's jar of apricots.

Her husband, Dix, had said not to wait supper. He was out duck-hunting. That was fine. When Dix wasn't at the bank, he was usually out hunting or over at his mother's house. She pushed open the kitchen doors and dragged a stool over to get the baby's apricots from the cabinet. Ida Rhew was bending low, pulling a pan of rolls from the oven. God, sang a cracking Negro voice from the transistor radio. God don't never change.

That gospel program. It was something that haunted Charlotte, though she'd never mentioned it to anyone. If Ida hadn't had that racket turned up so loud they might have heard what was going on in the yard, might have known that something was wrong. But then (tossing in her bed at night, trying restlessly to trace events to a possible First Cause) it was she who had made pious Ida work on Sunday in the first place. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Jehovah in the Old Testament was always smiting people down for far less.

These rolls is nearly done, Ida Rhew said, stooping to the oven again.

Ida, I'll get those. I think it's about to rain. Why don't you bring the clothes in and call Robin to supper.

When Ida—grouchy and stiff—creaked back in with an armload of white shirts, she said: He won't come.

You tell him to get in here this minute.

I don't know where he is. I done called half a dozen times.

Maybe he's across the street.

Ida dropped the shirts in the ironing basket. The screen door banged shut. Robin, Charlotte heard her yell. You come on, or I'll switch your legs.

And then, again: Robin!

But Robin didn't come.

Oh, for Heaven's sake, said Charlotte, drying her hands on a kitchen towel, and went out into the yard.

Once she was there she realized, with a slight unease that was more irritation than anything else, that she had no idea where to look. His bicycle was leaning against the porch. He knew not to wander off so close to dinnertime, especially when they had company.

Robin! she called. Was he hiding? No children his age lived in the neighborhood, and though every now and then unkempt children—black and white—wandered up from the river to the wide, oak-shaded sidewalks of George Street, she didn't see any of them now. Ida forbade him to play with them, though sometimes he did anyway. The smallest ones were pitiful, with their scabbed knees and dirty feet; though Ida Rhew shooed them roughly from the yard, Charlotte, in tender-hearted moods, sometimes gave them quarters or glasses of lemonade. But when they grew older—thirteen or fourteen—she was glad to retreat into the house and allow Ida to be as fierce as she liked in chasing them away. They shot BB guns at dogs, stole things from people's porches, used bad language, and ran the streets till all hours of the night.

Ida said: Some of them trashy little boys was running down the street a while ago.

When Ida said trashy, she meant white. Ida hated the poor white children and blamed them with unilateral ferocity for all yard mishaps, even those with which Charlotte was certain they could have had nothing possibly to do.

Was Robin with them? said Charlotte.


Where are they now?

I run them off.

Which way?

Yunder towards the depot.

Old Mrs. Fountain from next door, in her white cardigan and harlequin glasses, had come out into her yard to see what was happening. Close behind was her decrepit poodle, Mickey, with whom she shared a comical resemblance: sharp nose, stiff gray curls, suspicious thrust of chin.

Well, she called gaily. Yall having a big party over there?

Just the family, Charlotte called back, scanning the darkening horizon behind Natchez Street where the train tracks stretched flat in the distance. She should have invited Mrs. Fountain to dinner. Mrs. Fountain was a widow, and her only child had died in the Korean War, but she was a complainer and a vicious busybody.Mr. Fountain, who ran a dry-cleaning business, had died fairly young, and people joked that she had talked him into the ground.

What's wrong? Mrs. Fountain said.

You haven't seen Robin, have you?

No. I've been upstairs cleaning out this attic all afternoon. I know I look like a great big mess. See all this trash I hauled out? I know the garbage man doesn't come until Tuesday and I hate to just leave it out on the street like this but I dont know what else to do. Where'd Robin run off to? Can't you find him?

I'm sure he didn't go far, said Charlotte, stepping out on the sidewalk to peer down the street. But it's suppertime.

It's fixin to thunder, said Ida Rhew, gazing up at the sky.

You don't reckon he fell in the fishpond, do you? Mrs. Fountain said anxiously. I always was afraid that one of those babies was going to fall in there.

That fishpond isn't a foot deep, Charlotte said, but all the same she turned and headed toward the back yard.

Edie had come out onto the porch. Anything the matter? she said.

He's not in the back, yelled Ida Rhew. I looked already.

As Charlotte went past the open kitchen window on the side of the house, she could still hear Ida's gospel program:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling Calling for you and for me See, by the portals he's waiting and watching...

The back yard was deserted. The door of the tool shed stood ajar: empty. A mucid sheet of green scum floated undisturbed over the goldfish pool. As Charlotte glanced up, a ravelled wire of lightning flashed in the black clouds.

It was Mrs. Fountain who saw him first. The scream froze Charlotte in her tracks. She turned and ran back, quick, quick, not quick enough—dry thunder rumbling in the distance, everything strangely lit beneath the stormy sky and the ground pitching up at her as the heels of her shoes sank in the muddy earth, as the choir still sang somewhere and a strong sudden wind, cool with the coming rain, swept through the oaks overhead with a sound like giant wings and the lawn rearing up all green and bilious and heaving about her like the sea, as she stumbled blind and terrified toward what she knew—for it was all there, everything, in Mrs. Fountain's cry—would be the very worst.

Where had Ida been when she got there? Where was Edie? All she remembered was Mrs. Fountain, a hand with a crumpled Kleenex pressed tight to her mouth and her eyes rolling and wild behind the pearly glasses; Mrs. Fountain, and the poodle barking, and—ringing from nowhere, and somewhere, and everywhere at once—the rich, unearthly vibrato of Edie's screams.

He was hanging by the neck from a piece of rope, slung over a low branch of the black-tupelo that stood near the overgrown privet hedge between Charlotte's house and Mrs. Fountain's; and he was dead. The toes of his limp tennis shoes dangled six inches above the grass. The cat, Weenie, was sprawled barrel-legged on his stomach atop a branch, batting, with a deft, feinting paw, at Robin's copper-red hair, which ruffled and glinted in the breeze and which was the only thing about him that was the right color any more.Come home, sang the radio choir, melodiously:

Come home...
Ye who are weary come home

Black smoke pouring out the kitchen window. The chicken croquettes had gone up on the stove. They had been a family favorite but after that day no one was ever able to touch them again. Harriet, the baby, was neither pretty nor sweet. Harriet was smart. From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a slightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie and checked out library books about Genghis Khan and gave her mother headaches. She was twelve years old and in the seventh grade. Though she was an A student, the teachers had never known how to handle her. Sometimes they telephoned her mother, or Edie—who, as anyone who knew anything about the Cleves was aware, was the one you wanted to talk to; she was both field marshal and autocrat, the person of greatest power in the family and the person most likely to act. But Edie herself was uncertain how to deal with Harriet. Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came in contact. Harriet had none of her sister's dreamy fragility. She was sturdily built, like a small badger, with round cheeks, a sharp nose, black hair bobbed short, a thin, determined little mouth. She spoke briskly, in a reedy, high-pitched voice that for a Mississippi child was oddly clipped, so that strangers often asked where on earth she had picked up that Yankee accent. Her gaze was pale, penetrating, and not unlike Edie's. The resemblance between her and her grandmother was pointed, and did not go unremarked; but the grandmother's quick, fierce-eyed beauty was in the grandchild merely fierce, and a trifle unsettling. Chester, the yard man, likened them in private to hawk and baby chickenhawk. To Chester, and to Ida Rhew, Harriet was a source of exasperation and amusement. From the time she had first learned to talk, she had tagged along behind them as they went about their work, interrogating them at every step. How much money did Ida make? Did Chester know how to say the Lord's Prayer? Would he say it for her? She also amused them by stirring up trouble among the generally peaceful Cleves. More than once, she had been the cause of rifts very nearly grievous: telling Adelaide that neither Edie nor Tat ever kept the pillowcases she embroidered for them, but wrapped them up to give to other people; informing Libby that her dill pickles—far from being the culinary favorite she believed them—were inedible, and that the demand for them from neighbors and family was due to their strange efficacy as a herbicide. "Do you know that bald spot in the yard?" Harriet said. "Out by the back porch? Tatty threw some of your pickles there six years ago, and nothing has grown there since." Harriet was all for the idea of bottling the pickles and selling them as weed killer. Libby would become a millionaire.

Though the aunts loved Harriet, she was not as affectionate a child as her sister, and her pridefulness troubled them. She was too forthright. She did not at all understand reticence or diplomacy, and in this she resembled Edie more than Edie realized. In vain, the aunts tried to teach her to be polite. "But don't you understand, darling," said Tat, "that if you don't like fruitcake, it's better to eat it anyway instead of hurting your hostess's feelings?"

"But I don't like fruitcake."

"I know you don't, Harriet. That's why I used that example."

"But fruitcake is horrible. I don't know anybody that likes it. And if I tell her I like it she's just going to keep on giving it to me."

"Yes, dear, but that's not the point. The point is, if somebody has gone to the trouble to cook you something, it's good manners to eat it even if you don't want it."

"The Bible says not to lie."

"That's different. This is a white lie. The Bible's talking about another kind of lie."

"The Bible doesn't say black or white lies. It just says lies."

"Believe me, Harriet. It's true, Jesus tells us not to lie, but that doesn't mean we have to be rude to our hostess."

"Jesus doesn't say anything about our hostess. He says that lying is a sin. He says that the Devil is a liar and the prince of lies."

"But Jesus says Love Thy Neighbor, doesn't He?" said Libby, inspired, taking over for the now speechless Tat. "Doesn't that mean your hostess? Your hostess is your neighbor, too."

"That's right," said Tat gladly. "Not," she hastened, "that anybody is trying to say your hostess necessarily lives next door to you. All Love Thy Neighbor means is that you should eat what you're offered and be gracious about it."

"I don't see why loving my neighbor means telling him I love fruitcake. When I don't."

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