Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960

   

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in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

 • Home •  • Preface • • Introduction •  • Chronology •  • Index •  • About the Author •

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

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Katherine Ann Porter, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, 1929

 

Death of Granny Weatherall

Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1936

 

Miranda’s Death Nightmare, Adam’s Death

Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools, 1945

 

Death of the Basque,
Echegaray

Katherine Ann Porter, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, 1929

Death of Granny Weatherall:

Cornelia’s voice staggered and bumped like a cart in a bad road. It rounded corners and turned back again and arrived nowhere. Granny stepped up in the cart very lightly and reached for the reins, but a man sat beside her and she knew him by his hands, driving the cart. She did not look in his face, for she knew without seeing, but looked instead down the road where the trees leaned over and bowed to each other and a thousand birds were singing a Mass. She felt like singing too, but she put her hand in the bosom of her dress and pulled out a rosary, and Father Connolly murmured Latin in a very solemn voice and tickled her feet. My God, will you stop that nonsense? I’m a married woman. What if he did run away and leave me to face the priest by myself? I found another a whole world better. I wouldn’t have exchanged my husband for anybody except St. Michael himself, and you may tell him that for me with a thank you in the bargain.

Light flashed on her closed eyelids, and a deep roaring shook her. Cornelia, is that lightening? I hear thunder. There’s going to be a storm. Close all the windows. Call the children in. . . . "Mother, here we are, all of us." "Is that you Hapsy?" "Oh, no, I’m Lydia. We drove as fast as we could." Their faces drifted above her. The rosary fell out of her hands, and Lydia put it back. Jimmy tried to help, their hands fumbled together, and Granny closed two fingers around Jimmy’s thumb. Beads wouldn’t do, it must be something alive. She was so amazed her thought ran round and round. So, my dear Lord, this is my death and I wasn’t even thinking about it. My children have come to see me die. But I can’t, it’s not time. Oh, I always hated surprises. I wanted to give Cornelia the amethyst set — Cornelia, you’re to have the amethyst set, but Hapsy’s to wear it when she wants, and, Doctor Harry, do shut up. Nobody sent for you. Oh, my dear Lord, do wait a minute. I mean to do something about the Forty Acres, Jimmy doesn’t need it and Lydia will later on, with that worthless husband of hers. I meant to finish the altar cloth and send six bottles of wine to Sister Borgia, Father Connolly, now don’t let me forget.

Cornelia’s voice made short turns and tilted over and crashed. "Oh, Mother, oh, Mother, oh, Mother…."

"I’m not going, Cornelia, I’m taken by surprise, I can’t go."

You’ll see Hapsy again. What about her? "I thought you’d never come." Granny made a long journey outward, looking for Hapsy. What if I don’t find her? What then? Her heart sank down and down, there was no bottom to death, she couldn’t come to the end of it. The blue light form Cornelia’s lampshade drew into a tiny point in the center of her brain, it flickered and winked like an eye, quietly it fluttered and dwindled. Granny lay curled down within herself, amazed and watchful, staring at the point of light that was herself; her body was now only a deep mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up. God, give a sign!

For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this — I’ll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.


Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, 1936

Miranda’s Death Nightmare, Adam’s Death

The two living men lifted a mattress standing hunched against the wall, spread it tenderly and exactly over the dead man. Wordless and white they vanished down the corridor, pushing the wheeled bed before them. It had been an entrancing and leisurely spectacle, but now it was over. A pallid white fog rose in the wake insinuatingly and floated before Miranda’s eyes, a fog in which was concealed all terror and all weariness, all the wrung faces and twisted backs and broken feet of abused, outraged living things, all the shapes of their confused pain and their estranged hearts; the fog might part at any moment and loose the horde of human torments. She put up her hands and said, not yet, not yet, but it was too late. The fog parted and two executioners, white clad, moved towards her pushing between them with marvelously deft and practiced hands the misshapen figure of an old man in filthy rags whose scanty beard waggled under his open mouth as he bowed his back and braced his feet to resist and delay the fate they had prepared for him. In a high weeping voice he was trying to explain to them that the crime of which he was accused did not merit the punishment he was about to receive; and except for this whining cry there was silence as they advanced. The soiled cracked bowls of the old man’s hands were held before him beseechingly as a beggar’s as he said, "Before God I am not guilty," but they held his arms and drew him onward, passed, and were gone.

The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, or the sight of crimes committed there. Across the field came Dr. Hildesheim, his face a skull beneath his German helmet, carrying a naked infant writhing on the point of his bayonet, and a huge stone pot marked Poison in Gothic letter. He stopped before the well that Miranda remembered in a pasture on her father’s farm, a well once dry but now bubbling with living water, and into its pure depths he threw the child and the poison, and the violated water sank back soundlessly into the earth. Miranda, screaming, ran with her arms above her head; her voice echoed and came back to her like a wolf’s howl, Hildesheim is a Boche, a spy, a Hun, kill him, kill him before he kills you…She woke howling, she heard foul words accusing Dr. Hildesheim tumbling from her mouth; opened her eyes and knew she was in a bed in a small white room, with Dr. Hildesheim sitting beside her, two firm fingers on her pulse.


Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools, 1945

Death of the Basque, Echegaray:

Frau Hutten looked down and saw the boat being drawn up with Bebe (her dog) sprawled in the bottom. She gave a shriek, fell back against her husband’s chest so violently he almost toppled, then fell forward as he seized her waist; he could feel by the surge of her body that if he had not been holding her, she would have gone forward full length upon her face.

The sailors lifted the long narrow body of the man over the side, limp as seaweed, his bare feet with crooked toes dangling, the shabby black wool scarf still knotted around his neck; the water streamed from his clothes as they carried him carefully back down to the steerage deck. Two sailors hoisted Bebe into Frau Hutten’s opened arms. She tottered under his nerveless weight, let him down on the deck, and kneeling beside him, wept aloud like a mother at the graveside of her only child.

"How really revolting," said David Scott to Wilhelm Freytag, who happened to be near. Herr Baumgartner heard and could not refrain from protest.

"But grief is grief, pain is pain, Herr Scott, no matter what the cause," he said, his mouth wan and drooping.

"Ah, the drooling German soul," said Freytag in pure disgust, moving away, remembering with an unpleasant start that this was a phrase of his wife’s, and one he had always resented from her. Herr Professor Hutten, in a heavy sweat of humiliation, finally got his wife to her feet, a sailor came forward to help his carry Bebe, and the mournful little group disappeared. At this point it occurred to Herr Lutz to suggest to one of the young officers that perhaps Dr. Schumann should be sent for to attend to the nearly drowned man. "They are already giving him resuscitation exercises," said the officer, as a rebuff to officiousness. But he did send for Dr. Schumann as, to be sure, he had intended to do without advise from a passenger.

… Father Garza, surrounded by weeping women and gloomy men huddled on the floor in the stinking cabin beside the bunk where the drowned man lay, rose from his knees and turned when Dr. Schumann stood in the doorway. A weak naked light hung from the ceiling, and a single candle burned on the small collapsible table the priest had brought with him for the Viaticum ceremony. He blew out the candle and assembled the sacred objects, and shook his head.

"Too late, I’m afraid," he said, smiling rather cheerfully, "for material medica."

"Still," said Dr. Schumann, "there is something to be done," and he advanced his stethoscope and sat on the edge of the grimly dirty bunk where the dead man, naked to the waist, washed and purified by the salt sea, lay at perfect ease in the state of dignity of his death.

Dr. Schumann in his long experience as unwilling witness of death in nearly all its aspects had never lost his awe and tenderness for that Presence. He felt it now, again, an almost visible shade hovering over them. He knew by all the signs and all his senses that the man was dead, yet he continued for some time to listen intently through his instrument for some flutter or whisper of life in the gaunt rib cage and the sunken famished belly of the long body with its great knotted shoulder joints, the skeleton arms, the big warped hands, now curled inward like a child’s. Nothing. He rose and took a last glimpse at the dark melancholy exhausted face now closed in a secretive faint smile. The women, huddled together near the dead man’s feet, began praying aloud, their rosaries clicking, and one of the men came forward and crossed the limp hands on the breast, and tenderly covered him up.

 
   
 

Adrienne Nater, 2008

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