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The breakable cup.

Maggie was his friend, not his enemy. He knew that well, and yet he stepped outside into the late-summer afternoon with insults ringing in his small head --insults, admonitions, and recriminations. And whether he deserved them or not, he was hurt, and he was alone.

He had been clumsy and destructive. He had not meant to be destructive. As for the clumsiness, he was too young to plead his own case, even to himself. Standing before a table, even with his chin lifted and his neck stretched, he did not have much of a view of what was on it. The same with Maggie's dresser.

"Put this on my dresser," she had said in her sweetest voice, indicating with her bare elbow the satin-padded box, holding her flour-dusted hands before her, wanting to get on with her baking, not wanting to pause to wash and dry her hands before touching her treasure. The box was covered with blue satin, hand-painted with forget-me-nots and violets and small roses. He admired it, too. He did not stop to reason that Maggie, hasty as usual, had not thought to put the box away herself before coming with the mixing bowl to the kitchen table.

"Are your own hands clean now?" she had thought to inquire, and, because they were, he took the precious box, and, in Maggie's bedroom, which was entered from the kitchen, he placed the box on the dresser top, gave it a gentle but determined push away from the edge, and heard a glass topple upon the marble with a swish of falling leaves and flowers. And then he knew that he had knocked over the vase of posies that Maggie kept before the photograph of her young man.

A trickle of water reached the edge of the marble. He could not see whether it reached the box. Maggie was in the doorway before he could either report the disaster or escape. She lifted her apron and wrapped it about the box, and then, with the water still dripping audibly behind her and the box clasped to her middle, her face flushed, her eyes wide with indignation, she had delivered her insults. Like all grown people, she had everything on her side--reason, power, and great resources of language. He had only his sense of good intention and his small, derided dignity.

A middlewestern summer surrounded the town. Even though he was only five, he was well aware of the town as a town, with a center and with defined edges. It was surrounded by fields, terminated at one side by the St. Charles River. Beyond the river, where backyards sloped down to docks and boathouses, there were fields, patches of oak woods, dirt roads lined by burdock and goldenrod. He had often walked with Maggie to the edge of the town and across the bridge to get buttermilk. The town had always been there. The houses were settled into the earth, with cool cellars and with sloping cellar doors over flights of cool steps leading down into the earth. The prairie grass grew close against the foundations. The oak trees overhung the roofs, the elms swung their branches close to the second-story windows, all as if the trees and the houses had been there together forever. And yet he knew that at one time Indians had lived here. There had been bark lodges on the banks of the river, and he himself had in his possession a flint arrowhead which a grown-up had one day placed in his hand. There were also the trail-marking trees, thick trees bent double to the ground, which had been bent when they were young by Indians. As far as he was concerned, they had always been stout trees, bent to the ground. He would have liked to meet an Indian. He did not know that he had already passed a good many Indians on the main street of the town. They had not carried bows and arrows.

He stood, now, just outside the back door, framed in its beds of golden glow, chiefly aware of his solitude and the assault of his dignity. But the afternoon itself was not to be ignored, the haze, the brooding warmth. The kitchen garden lay before him beyond a short stretch of untended lawn. Rhubarb, its leaves higher than his knees, rose from the crumbling sun-faded earth. The thick, juicy stems would be warm to touch and sour to taste. He went on, avoiding the harsh and hairy leaves of the squash plants. By the tomatoes he stopped and crouched. He had given himself an occupation: He was looking for caterpillars. But his problem with Maggie remained uppermost in his mind. She was not his enemy. She was his friend, and for that reason his disgrace rankled the more.

He had seen the photograph of the young man before whom she had set the flowers. She had lifted it down for him to consider. She was going to be married to him someday; she would go back to Ireland then.

"Sure we could be married the day his old mother would die," she had said. "He has to stay and care for her. She's an old, old woman. Sure she has the right to die. She keeps the young from having any life of their own."

She talked like that, did Maggie, and her voice and words were different from the talk of other people. Her room was different from the other rooms in the house. It had a different smell and different treasures. There was a crucifix hung on the wall by her bed. She talked to him about leprechauns. She had said, even, that she knew an old man who had seen a leprechaun.

He knew that his mother paid her $5 a week and was training her. At the end of a year she would leave them for a place with more money. But a year was forever, and meanwhile she had grown into his life. By and by on this same afternoon she would come in search of him. She would give him a hug, and she would doubtless have baked something good to eat. Gingerbread perhaps. He was clumsy; he admitted it. He dropped things. Cups and glasses had a way of tipping over when he was near them.

His eyes searched the vines, the tangled green stems with their faint fur of white, their ragged leaves. He was aware of the strong odor of the plants and of the small green fruit, the larger green fruit turning red, and the amazing round red forms that shone so splendidly in all this dull tangle and confusion, but his profounder attention was struggling with the question of why Maggie, who was so nice, was wishing for an old woman to die. Maggie was not old, of course. She was grown-up. His mother, who was more grown-up than Maggie, was not old either. There was no old person living in his home. He had seen old women in the distance, in other gardens, walking slowly toward back doors, bent and uncertain of their movements, dressed in dark colors. They were to be avoided. And in the post office with his mother, waiting for the mail to be sorted, he had seen an old man with a cane who sat behind the stove with his head on his hands on the crook of the cane. The face was yellowish, the chin and the cheeks covered with grayish stubble. There was moisture on the wrinkled skin about the comers of the eyes, and sometimes the old man wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He was rather afraid of the old man. Perhaps he merely disliked him. In any case, he wished the old man was not there. Sure he has the right to die, he thought. Why does he sit around in the post office, being unpleasant?

His mother had gone off hours ago to the other end of town to have lunch with friends. She ought to come home soon. She would, perhaps, bring him a flat pink peppermint or some other trifle to show that she had not forgotten him. Well, after Labor Day he would go to school, and then he would be independent of them all and have friends of his own. Meanwhile he searched the tomato vines, lifting a leaf now and then, cautiously, and he found what he was looking for. He did not disturb it; he merely looked at it.

It was enormously fat, bulging in regular segments, smooth, pale green, decorated with yellow dots, and with little diagonal white lines. At its rear end it had a horn something like a rose-thorn, curved and reddish, extremely elegant. At the other end it had a mouth, no doubt about that, but he could not see it had any teeth. It was great. It was both terrifying and beautiful, but more beautiful than fearsome. He gloated over it, and his delight was so great that he did not hear Maggie's approach until she was practically upon him.

"You couldn't answer now could you, you leprechaun," she said, "down on your hunkers hiding from Maggie behind a tomato bush. I called you three times. Your mother telephoned. She's not to be home until late. Dust the clods off your knees. Come into the house now." They proceeded toward the house, Maggie behind him as if he might try to run away. "Your mother, she was to take tea this afternoon with the old woman in the big house with the iron railing. So now she can't do that. But she left a jar of jelly on the hall table, and you're to take that, and you're to explain to the old woman that your mother is very sorry but she is unable to keep the engagement. Though why your mother'd trust you with a thing like that is more than I can understand. But one thing I know, you'll have to be cleaner than you are the now."

When he was cleaner, and Maggie had brushed his hair, which had a way of falling almost into his eyes when it was not slicked back with water, he walked down the street toward the house with the iron railings. It was not far, though it seemed so to him. He walked slowly, carrying the jar in both hands, because neither hand alone could have encompassed it, and he walked slowly, because the sidewalk was uneven, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to stub a toe and be thrown off balance. Then he would need both hands to save his neck, and what would become of the jelly! His mother had wrapped it in white tissue paper and tied a pink ribbon about it. It looked for all the world like a birthday present. A conviction grew on him that it was a birthday present.

The street was nearly empty. Once an automobile passed him, holding to the middle of the road where the dirt had been oiled, and once the bright green delivery wagon of Nisson's the Grocer rolled briskly by, the horse stepping along at a lively rate, very different from the horses that pulled the ice wagon or the milk wagon. There were no children. Children with whom he sometimes played had a way of disappearing from his world without warning or explanation. Sometimes they came back and said they had been on a visit. Their mothers had taken them to see an aunt or a grandmother or even just to look at some scenery. Like himself, they moved without individual volition in the wake of their elders, making what observations and friendships they could, hailing each other in a sand pile one afternoon, then never meeting again; visiting with people who had time for them--like Maggie, in her good moments. Like a youngish woman who had been sitting on the steps of her side porch a few houses away, drying her hair one morning. He had had quite a good talk with this woman. He had been picking dandelions up and down the street, and she had been there, shaking her hair in the June sunlight. He had walked by the house, dawdling hopefully, a number of times since. He had not seen her again.

Presently, to one side of the walk, appeared the stone foundation for the iron fence. The gate, fortunately, was easy to unlatch. He did it with his right hand, holding the jar firmly against his stomach with the other, and he went up one stone step and then another to the smooth stone walk to the house, feeling elated. In spite of Maggie's gibes about the probable fate of the jelly, he was doing very well. He was entrusted with a mission, after all. His mother knew he was dependable. And it was an adventure to pass beyond the iron railing into a yard that he had entered only once before and about which he had many speculations. He had never been inside the house. He had stood at the doorstep once with his mother while she had delivered a bunch of flowers and made some inquiries. Someone must have been sick. Yes, that was it. Someone had been sick, and you did not enter a house where someone was sick unless you were a doctor or a nurse.

The steps to the porch were a shade less high than he had remembered. But the bell was not easy to reach. It was set in the middle of the door, and you turned it as if you were winding up a toy. He heard it ring in a remote distance.

While he waited for the footsteps that followed on the ring, he looked back down the stone walk and across the smooth lawn to the street. There were enormous bushes on either side of the doorstep. They were extraordinarily alike, with little fine dark-green leaves presenting a surface like plush. The lawn looked as if someone had brushed it. It swept around the house, sloping slightly, and away under the trees and past masses of shrubbery, as if it were not in town at all, but in the park and might end only at the river. It would be great if, his errand accomplished, he need not return to the street but could follow the dip of the land into all that space and mystery. He held the jelly firmly in both hands and waited.

"My mother will be disappointed," said the woman to whom he handed the jelly and gave his message, when the door was opened.

He nodded gravely, as if he understood everything, which was far from the truth, and he turned to step down. The thought that he might ask permission to explore the yard occurred to him and was dismissed, very rapidly, as he stood poised. He would prefer to explore, if at all, without permission. To ask permission would be too much like exposing a secret. But as he stood, about to leave, the woman said firmly, "You must just stay and be a guest in place of your mother," and he found himself almost immediately in the entrance hall, the door closing behind him. Instinctively, he lifted his short little nose and sniffed the air. What had he got into? The air was confined--not stuffy, but an indoors air--unmoving and weighted with unfamiliar scents. Wax, spice, dried flowers? He could not unravel it. He took a good look now at his hostess. She was definitely old, according to his ideas, but by no means unpleasant. Gray hair, a shortish figure, a plain dress that might have been blue or gray in the half-light of the hall. Her mother must be very old. He hazarded an inquiry.

"Is it your mother's birthday?"

"No. No one's birthday. Though I may say she has had a great many birthdays, first and last. Would you come to her next birthday party? She will be 90. We should have a party. Thank you for reminding me of it. She's my husband's mother, really, not mine, except by courtesy."

"I see," he said politely, not understanding much except that word 90, which was as good as 100. Was the mother of Maggie's young man 100 years old? he wondered. Then he said with formality, as he had observed people speaking at church, "I suppose she's really your grandmother."

"No," said his hostess. "She's my husband's mother. He has been gone a long time--dear me, a very long time. And, of course, his father died even longer ago. We live here together. Two old women in a big house. So you see, it is a disappointment that your mother could not come. But my mother will be very pleased to see you. She likes young people. Wait here a moment. No, wait in the sun porch."

She guided him down the hallway, past a cabinet of dark wood with mirrors and many ornaments. The wood shone with little glints, the mirrors reflected shadows. He had a sense of a stairway going up into further shadows and of large rooms passed by. Then he found himself in a small, bright room full of plants and wicker furniture.

"Sit here," said his hostess, indicating a chair, and left him.

He was painfully obedient, yet buoyed by curiosity and a sense of responsibility. He felt that it would be frightening to meet a person who was 90 years old. On the other hand, he already felt a distinct liking for the old woman who was his hostess, and he must not let his mother down, his own mother, who, from where he sat in this house of old women, appeared most delightfully young.

On a table quite near him, spread with a white cloth, there were things for tea--a teapot, very tall, and a teakettle, an enormous sugar bowl with a lid, flowers in a vase, dishes with little cakes, and three cups, each on a saucer. Such cups he had never seen before. His spirits continued to rise. He forgot that he was the most clumsy rascal of them all, although he never forgot that Maggie would not have let him within shouting distance of such a table. Upon this table also stood his mother's jar of jelly.

The old women did not keep him waiting long. This was one more thing in favor of his hostess. Being made to wait was something he was inured to but did not like. It was to be expected from grown-ups, toward a child. But, obviously, the very old woman who came leaning on the arm of her daughter-in-law and carrying a cane in her free hand, had herself been waiting for her guest. She stopped short in front of him and gave him a long, smiling look, without a word, as a contemporary might have done. Then she said, "If he sits with his back to the light, I won't be able to see his face. Put him there."

While she was being seated, with a difficult lowering of the limbs to a thick cushion, he changed his place. She propped her cane against the arm of the chair and turned to consider him again. He, as frankly, looked at her.

She was old, so old that the bones seemed to push through the skin of her face. The skin, wrinkled, bleached and spotted, was colored as a winter leaf, and yet soft. The lips were pale, tending to a tone of purple--nothing so strong as purple, in truth, but his honest eyes reported to him the faint tinge of blue. He knew so little of illness and old age that he did not think it unpleasant. The mouth was a nice mouth, gentle and smiling. And if a strange sour smell had very faintly entered the room with her, it was overlaid by another scent, something associated in his mind with clean sheets and embroidered pillowcases.

Her hair, surprisingly darker than that of her daughter-in-law, was frizzed over her forehead. Stiff little disorderly strands escaped at the back of her neck, above her high, ruche collar. She wore a great many strings of beads, very interesting in their shapes and colors. She wore rings on the fingers of both hands. The sleeves of her white underwear--long underwear in late August!--showed at the wrists of her long sleeves. She kept her mouth closed when she smiled at him. When she spoke, he observed that she had all her teeth and that they were very strong and even. Indeed, for teeth, she seemed better off than he was himself at that time, being then in the process of exchanging what his mother called his "milk teeth" for some new, permanent ones. All in all, he found nothing fearsome in her presence, unless there was a something behind her eyes, something to do with the knowledge of being almost 90 years old.

The daughter-in-law moved behind the tea table and placed her hand inquiringly on the bright copper teakettle.

"It's tepid," she said. "Rachel brought it too soon."

"That Rachel!" exclaimed the very old woman.

"We've never been able to convince her," said the daughter-in-law, "that tea ought to be made in the kitchen. She likes to put everything on the table at once. I'll take it all to the kitchen, Mother, and make it myself. But," she said, addressing the little boy, "you'd probably rather have a glass of milk, wouldn't you?"

"I have tea with my mother," he said. "Cambric tea."

"Good," she said. "I used to have muslin tea, when I was a child." "Is it very different?" he asked.

"I should say that cambric was a cut above muslin," she replied, and went off, carrying the teapot in one hand, the copper kettle in the other.

The very old woman turned to the boy. "That Rachel doesn't understand tea," she said, "but she makes very good cakes. Do you like cakes? So do I, and I like jelly. In fact, I'm very fond of jelly. Your mother knows that. Let's unwrap it."

He brought her the jar and set it on her knees and watched intently while she untied the pink ribbon with her small, bony fingers. She pushed the tissue paper away and admired the gift.

"Quince," she said, with satisfaction. "She knows I'm especially fond of quince. It's very good of her to remember that. Now put it on the table again."

He did as he was told and returned to his chair. The sunlight glowing through the jelly was exactly the color of the sky at bedtime when he looked out through the branches of the elm tree to the west. He leaned back in the settee, beginning to feel at ease with this very old woman, but his back could not reach the back of the settee while he sat with his knees bent at the edge. He did not feel quite enough at his ease to slide back with his legs straight before him, so he sat up straight again. His feet did not reach the floor.

"You wouldn't know," said the very old woman, "that my husband planted the first quince tree in this town." "We have a quince tree," he offered. "My husband planted it. My husband built the house where you live. I am very old, you know. I came to this house as a bride. I can remember when there were only three houses on this street, and this was one of them. Yes, I am very old. And you are very young. We have that in COmmOn."

The logic of her remark escaped him, but the smile she gave him united them. They sat without speaking for a few minutes while he considered asking her whether she had ever seen an Indian. Perhaps she would not like to be thought as old as that. He rejected the idea. Then she said, "I'm a great trial to my daughter-in-law, but she's very good to me. Ah, here she comes. Now we shall have our tea."

"The first cup for you, Mother?" asked the daughter-in-law.

"No, the first cup for our guest--the cambric tea. I want mine strong today. Very strong."

"You know what the doctor said."

"A fig for what he said. If I'm not old enough now to have my tea as I like it, when shall I ever be?"

"Goodness only knows," said the other woman. To the boy she said, "There, now. Plenty of cream and plenty of sugar. No, stay where you are--I'll bring it to you. And a napkin on your knee. So. And there's a spoon. And remember it's hot."

The room was so full of sunlight that it fell upon his lap as well as on the tea table and, caught in the bowl of the spoon, was reflected upward through the thin china. Even through the cloud of cream in the pale amber fluid it shone, and, when he touched the spoon, it danced in the cloud.

He was content merely to hold this beautiful cup and saucer. He knew that the drink would be delicious. He waited politely while the old woman prepared a cup for the very old woman and carried it to her, as she had carried his cup to him. But as she turned back toward the table, the hands of the very old woman somehow lost control of cup and saucer. The cup tipped over in the saucer, the saucer tilted, and a great splash of hot tea fell upon her lap and spread down over her skirt. She gave a little cry of dismay. The daughter-in-law, seeing the accident, also cried out.

"Oh, Mother! On your best peau de soie! What a pity!"

The cry seemed to the child sharper than perhaps it was. There merged with it, in his inward ear, the voice of Maggie, as she had said to him, "There's not a thing you touch that's safe!" And while the daughter-in-law knelt beside the older woman, sopping up the tea with a napkin, the voice went on in his head, relentless. "Sure, she's got the right to die. She's that old; there's not a drink she doesn't spill on herself. There's not a good cup in the house any longer. She couldn't be trusted with a good cup, did one remain."

He dared not move. He could not possibly have gotten out of the settee unassisted without capsizing his own cup of tea. He watched in misery, panic, and sympathy while the mopping up took place. The daughter-inlaw got up from her knees with difficulty. The very old woman murmured, over and over, "I'm so ashamed. I'm so ashamed."

Then the child summoned his courage and stood up to Maggie. "I often spill things, too," he said.

The daughter-in-law looked at him in surprise, as if she had forgotten his presence, and then at the soggy linen in her hand. She sighed.

"Well, so do I," she said, and laid the napkin on a corner of the tea tray. "Let me give you some more tea, Mother."

"I break things, too," said the boy, firmly.

"Yes, yes, so do I," said the daughter-in-law.

The terror of Maggie's voice was silenced. Panic ebbed from the air. He took a long draught of warm, sweetened milk, and comfort pervaded his small body, spreading from his stomach outward. He had a cake. The very old woman had a cake, too, and licked her fingers afterward. The daughter presiding over the tea table also ate and drank and appeared happy. A breeze had sprung up outdoors in the stillness of the afternoon, for an elm branch, swaying, made the sunlight flicker throughout the room. He was marvelously contented, and the more so because of the touch of peril earlier. He hooked a forefinger lovingly through the handle of his cup--smooth gold it was and curving out below his finger in a little tail. It reminded him of something-the horn on the rear end of the caterpillar on the tomatoes; that was it-- the same curve, exactly.

He thought about the caterpillar, remembering it minutely, the porcelain glossiness, its bulging segments, the yellow dots becoming gold in his recollection. It had more than a little in common with the cup, for it was beautiful; but it was also ugly. The cup was truly beautiful, and it was more. It was a thing of civilization. It bestowed dignity upon him. To drink from it was an honor as well as a pleas-ure. The caterpillar was a funny little animal, with its own life to lead, eating leaves, and crawling up and down in the dusk of the tomato vines. To the woman at the table, he said gravely, "This is a breakable cup, isn't it?"

"It could hardly be more so," she replied.

"Maggie wouldn't let me touch it," he said. "But my mother says tea always tastes better from a breakable CUp."

"Your mother is a woman after my own heart," said the daughter-in-law.

"Yes," said the very old woman, happily. "My daughter would never serve me tea in anything but a breakable cup."
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Lewis, Janet
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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