Set this house on fire, p.36
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       Set This House on Fire, p.36

           William Styron

  “Well, as I say, I lay there for a while, trembling and screaming inwardly. But I felt a little bit better, I guess: I was home, at least, I was in the dark, I was safely back in the womb. Some of the fear went away finally, and so with the cover still up over my head I drifted off to sleep. It’s not a very pretty picture, is it—this newt, this hot caterpillar, wrapped up in woolly slumber?”

  “Quit running yourself down so,” I said with honest irritation. “It’s all over and done with, you know.”

  “You’re right,” he said. “Well, anyway, I went off to sleep. Only it wasn’t sleep. Instead, I was in a car with my uncle and we were driving along a street in Raleigh, and he was taking me to the state prison. Funny, how I can remember the details just as clearly and vividly as if it had really happened. He was taking me to the state prison in his car. I saw the high stone walls up ahead and the guard towers. And I can remember the feeling of despair I had, because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what my crime was, or anything about it, other than that I had done something unspeakably wicked—surpassing rape or murder or kidnaping or treason, some nameless and enormous crime—and that I had been sentenced not to death or to life imprisonment but to this indefinite term which might be several hours or might be decades. Or centuries. And I remember my uncle saying in his calm bland voice not to worry, son, he knew the governor—I remember him calling him Mel, Mel Broughton—and was contacting him, and that I’d be out in no more than a couple of hours. Yet as my uncle stopped and let me out at the gate and said good-by, and as I walked through the gate and heard it clang behind me, I knew that my uncle had already either betrayed or forgotten me and I would rot there in that state prison forever. And it was funny, too—because, when I dreamed this, I was long emancipated (or at least I thought) from that kind of ignorance—how as the gate clanged shut my next thought filled me with a despair that was almost as great as my uncle forgetting me: and that was that just about half and even more of the prisoners were bound to be niggers, and I’d be spending the rest of my life among niggers. But then after that the dream got all switched around, as dreams do, and the real horror commenced: it wasn’t the niggers—though a lot of the prisoners seemed to be black—but my own crime that dogged me and terrified me. Because I was in the prison uniform now, and the prisoners had all gathered around me and were pointing at me, and sneering, and looking at me with hate and loathing and disgust, and calling me filthy names; and I heard one of them say: ‘Any man that’d do that should be gassed!’ Then I heard the others start to hoot and holler and shout: ‘Gas him! Gas the dirty sonofabitch!’ And it seemed that only the guards, who were themselves scornful and mean to me, kept the other prisoners from coming at me. And I kept struggling for speech and trying to say: What have I done? why am I here? what is my terrible sin? But my voice got all lost in the shouts and the cursing of the other prisoners. Then again the dream became confused, and time seemed drawn out into infinity, and the days and months and years passed forwards and backwards, and I seemed to be forever climbing endless steel prison ladderways and going through clashing gates and doors, chased down by a guilt I couldn’t name and burdened with my own undiscoverable crime. And all around me not even the companionate misery, but only the loathing and the hatred, of my fellow-damned. And throughout this the wretched and ridiculous hope: that somehow and at some time my uncle would get the governor to turn me loose. Then the dream got switched around again and once more I heard the other prisoners saying: ‘Gas him! Gas him!’ and then as God is my witness I was suddenly stripped to a pair of black skivvy drawers —that’s the way they gas you in North Carolina—and with the warden at my side, and two frock-coated preachers fore and aft, I was being led off to the lethal chamber. Well, I guess only up to a certain point is a dream like that supportable, even to one like me who was plunged into his own handmade hell. And so then I woke up beneath the blanket half-smothered and howling bloody murder with the vision in my brain of the dream’s last Christ-awful horror: which was my uncle, my kindly good old baldheaded uncle who’d reared me like a daddy, standing with a crucible of cyanide at the chamber door, grinning with the slacklipped grin of Lucifer hisself and black as a crow in his round tight-fitting executioner’s shroud… .”

  He halted, then shivered as if from the cold. And he didn’t say anything more for a long while.

  “Well, I jumped up out of bed sucking for air and clawing at space, and I stood in the middle of the room, shaking in every bone. I don’t know how long I’d laid there but outside it was night. Through the cracks in the blinds I could make out a glow of lights over the Gare Montparnasse and far off a couple of red beacons shining on the Eiffel Tower. And there was a radio blaring somewhere down on the street, I can still hear it: the applause and the laughter and the whistles and the voice booming: ‘Vous avez gagné soixante-dix mille francs!’ And there I was in the middle of the room, shaking and clattering as if I had St. Vitus dance. And trying to get something said—a half-assed prayer or a word —but unable to move my lips, as if every voluntary impulse inside me were frozen and paralyzed with horror. And thinking over and over: If I had a drink, if I just had a drink, if I only had a drink—but knowing I’d left the bottle along with my sketch pad in the Luxembourg Gardens. And then not knowing what to do … suffocating again with anxiety and dread, and hopelessly burdened, as if the weight of all this air-filled void around me were pressing me down with invisible hands. Then I called out for Poppy, but still no one was home, and I saw them all dead and drowned, lying beneath the streaming Seine where I had told them to throw themselves. Then for the first time in my life, I guess, I honestly, passionately yearned to die—I mean in a way that was almost like lust—and I think I would have willingly done myself in in an instant if it hadn’t been that the same dream which pushed me toward the edge also pulled me back in a sudden gasp of crazy, stark, riven torture: there wouldn’t be any oblivion in death, I knew, but only some eternal penitentiary where I’d tramp endlessly up gray steel ladderways and by my brother-felons be taunted with my own unnameable crime and where at the end there would be waiting the crucible of cyanide and the stink of peach blossoms and the strangled gasp for life and then the delivery, not into merciful darkness, but into a hot room at night, with the blinds drawn down, where I would stand again, as now, in mortal fear and trembling. And so on in endless cycles, like a barbershop mirror reflecting the countless faces of my own guilt, straight into infinity. And so, lacking a way out, lacking anything, I went over to the bed and crawled back under the covers and hid myself from the night.

  “And then, some time later, came that abominable old dream that I’ve had over and over again all my life—waterspouts and storms and volcanoes boiling.

  “This time I didn’t panic. There was no crying out, no shaking, no sweat, no fear. It was late. It must have been past midnight, and still Poppy and the children hadn’t come. Well, I knew they would come, sooner or later, and I’d be waiting for them. Outside it was as quiet as a graveyard, and the glow had disappeared from over the station. After a while I heard footsteps on the street below and someone whistling “La Vie en rose” then a rustle of laughter, and a girl’s voice, then the footsteps got softer and softer and disappeared up the street, and all was quiet as before. And I got myself ready. I didn’t have any more muscles than a jellyfish, and my ulcer was acting up, but I didn’t care, and I was as sober as a Knoxville parson. And it’s funny, as I went about my business I kept thinking of the headlines I’d read, things like: Farmer hacks, slays family, kills self, and how I’d always visualized the man—some mad, sweaty, hairy ox with foam on his mouth and eyes balled-out like pigeon eggs, laying about him with a hatchet and shouting, Whores of Sodom! Satan’s offspring! and cutting down his own flesh and seed like so many saplings and then with one last shriek at Jesus and all the saints to bear witness to his affliction taking a twelve-gauge loaded with buckshot and blowing off the roof of his head. And I kept thinking that maybe that was the t
rue picture but more likely my own was closer to the truth. That a man bent on annihilating his own and dearest and best might be a lunatic but he might too be someone else and contain within him the cool clean logic of eternity: a man just like me, maybe, who had dreamed wild Manichean dreams, dreams that told him that God was not even a lie, but worse, that He was weaker even than the evil He created and allowed to reside in the soul of man, that God Himself was doomed, and the landscape of heaven was not gold and singing but a space of terror which stretched in darkness from horizon to horizon. Such a man knew the truth and, knowing it, would take the best way out. Which was to remove from this earth all mark and sign and stain of himself, his love and his vain hope and his pathetic creations and his guilt, and be duped by life no longer. And he’d be cool about it, and collected, because it wouldn’t pay to bungle.

  “So what I did was, I went over and checked the gas range—the oven and the four burners—and turned them on full blast for a moment, then turned them off again. There was plenty there. They would do, I knew, they would suffice. Then I went back to the bed and sat on the edge of it, waiting. I was as calm as I could be and I had it all fixed in my mind: playing possum when they came in, I’d allow them all to go to sleep, then sometime toward morning I’d get up and do the job. And finish myself off after. Then I thought: Suppose it don’t work, suppose they wake up in the strangling gas? Christ love us, what mortal fear! They had to go easily and swiftly, just like sleep. So I got up again and rummaged around in the dark in the pantry and found a claw hammer and brought it back with me to bed. Then I just lay there on my back with my eyes wide-open, waiting for them to come, thinking of nothing but sort of rocked by great soft silent waves of emptiness and loneliness, as if I were the last man left in all creation. Then, before I knew it, something strange seemed to come to me: it seemed as if I were reliving that nightmare again, only it was not the part that was so soul-ruining—the waterspouts and the storm and volcanoes and the perishing shore —but the other part, the good part, the heart-breaking and lovely part that had been hidden to me before, and it all seemed to be beckoning me toward it. And I saw some southern land with olive trees and orange blossoms, and girls with merry black eyes, and parasols, and the blue shining water. There were majestic cliffs, too, and gulls floating about, and there seemed to be a carnival or a fair: I heard the strumming music of a carrousel, which wound through it all like a single thread of rapture, and I heard a liquid babble of tongues and I saw white teeth flashing in laughter and, Lord love me, I could even smell it—this smell of perfume and pines and orange blossoms and girls, all mixed up in one sweet blissful fragrance of peace and repose and joy. And over all of it, somehow, vague and indistinct but possessing the whole scene: a girl’s sweet voice calling, some southern Lorelei calling me and beckoning me on. And as I lay there, sometimes it was as if I saw the whole thing entire, and a voice in my mind told me this was Andalusia, and another voice the slopes of the Apennines and another Greece. Then I’d see it in small joyful fragments, like magic lantern slides in color, and my eyes would pick out the cliffs, or the gulls, or the clear and shining sea, or the girls with flowers in their hair. Then there’d be a spell of darkness and I wouldn’t see anything at all, but suddenly it would return in a great blossoming flood of color—magentas and blues and cherry reds and limpid greens—and I’d hear the voice of the girl again, calling, and after a time I was groaning in my sleep with delight, and I knew I had to go there. And then finally somewhere in the midst of it all I heard this chattering sound. I woke up again. I opened my eyes and outside it was broad daylight. The blinds were drawn up and there were great green blotches of sunshine all over the walls from the elephant vines. I could smell bread baking and down below someone had set a parrot out into the courtyard and he was chattering his head off.

  “Well, I didn’t have any more strength than a newborn mouse. And hungry! I could have eaten a slab of asphalt. I sort of rolled slowly out of bed, and stood up and blinked and walked softly into the other room where Poppy was sleeping with Timothy and Felicia and the baby. They were sound asleep. I went into the bathroom and there was Peggy, sitting on the can in her nightgown and reading a funny-book. She looked up and grinned at me and said, ‘Hi, Daddy,’ and I tried to say something, but my tongue got caught between my teeth, and I couldn’t say anything. So I turned around and went back into the bedroom. I knelt down beside the bed and very gently drew Poppy next to me. Her little face was moist and soft and warm and—well, fabulous. She woke up slowly and opened her eyes and blinked at me, then closed them, then opened them and blinked again, and yawned, and finally she said: ‘Cass Kinsolving, if you don’t get a haircut I’m going to buy you a dog license!’ I didn’t say anything, just knelt there beside her with my head against the pillow and my eyes closed. Then she said, drowsily and gently and without bitterness: I hope you feel better today, darling. You certainly were cranky yesterday. I do hope you feel better.’ I still didn’t say anything, just biting my lip and softly stroking her and feeling her ribs small and frail beneath the sheet. Then I felt her stir as she sat part-way up in bed and said: I do hope you weren’t worried last night because we were so late. What time is it? I’ve got to take Peggy to mass.’ Then, ‘Oh, Cass!’ she said. ‘Guess where we went? We went to the bird market and guess what we did? We bought a parrot! A wonderful little parrot with green and blue wings and all he can talk in is Flemish! He’s just a daisy of a parrot, Cass! Can you talk any Flemish?’ I couldn’t say anything for a moment, then finally I made my mouth work and said: ‘Poppy, sweetheart, I think we’re going to leave this town. I think we might just move on down south.’ But she hadn’t heard me, and in her wonderland world of birds and parrots jabbered on in the morning, and I lay my head against her shoulder and I thought of the day before, and the long night, and even Vernelle Satterfield and what she said about the divine spirit, which had indeed flowed right on out of me, and which to save my very life I knew I had to recapture.”


  The next day Poppy made Cass go to a doctor. The office was in an expensive-looking house far over on the Right Bank, and the doctor himself, an Austrian, was a stolid, wrinkle-browed, officious man who listened to Cass’ heartbeat and took his blood pressure and peered into his ears and then, after x-raying his stomach and examining him up and down and hearing a somewhat abridged version of all his recent debauchery, came bluntly to the point. In an amazing French heavily accented with gargled r’s and g’s, he told Cass that, except possibly for his ulcer, he was as healthy as a plowhorse, but the fact remained that even a horse might kill himself if instead of eating oats he drank nothing but bad cognac for a long enough period of time. No wonder he had spells of anxiety (Cass had only been able to hint at how bad the “anxiety” was); the mind, after all, was not an entity distinct and separate from the body. Waste away your substance while you’re young and you’ll live only to regret it. Stop trinking! he said in English. And he prescribed two months of therapeutic vitamins, and a week on a mild barbiturate, for sleep, and a new drug, Pro-Banthine, for the restless ulcer, which didn’t seem to be in too bad shape. Then, as Cass was on his way out, the doctor sort of loosened up and dropped his stodgy guard, putting his hand on Cass’ arm and saying gently, Don’t be a fool, you’re young yet. And he charged him five thousand francs, which was more than he would have paid on Park Avenue; it made him feel unconscionably old.

  All the rest of the month of May and on into the months of summer, Cass embarked upon a regime which he was later to call his period of “dull reasonableness.” It wasn’t easy; it took a lot more will power than he thought he possessed, but he managed it—or at least the better part of it—and he began to feel more relaxed and composed than he had in a long time. He obeyed the doctor’s instructions almost, but not quite, to the letter. He took exactly four vitamin pills, and then forgot the rest, which finally melted and ran together like gumdrops on the bathroom shelf. He was conscientious, however, about the ulcer balm
, which after a while seemed to put an end to the gnawing pain in his belly; then, most importantly of all, he swore off the murderous brandy. He drank wine instead. To be sure, this was not just what the doctor ordered, but it was far easier to handle than cognac, and he was still able to see Paris in a pink romantic glow. He began to eat food again. He began to work—not precisely with gusto perhaps, because whatever blocked him still blocked him, but at least when he picked up a brush or a pencil his fingers no longer trembled with the old enmity and dread. Like something not only intolerable to the mind, but now utterly implausible, he put out of his thoughts that night of Gehenna; he could not countenance it, and didn’t, save for the mild reflection, which would sometimes steal over him, that maybe in order to think straight a man just needed to be dragged, every now and then, to the edge of the abyss.

  His entire posture and stance in the midst of life seemed infinitely more graceful. He no longer staggered, but walked—with his brow up to catch the sun. His sense of taste improved—a notable reaction of the restored lush—as did his eyesight: his children, who had for so long been dim blond blurs, emerged upon his vision as bright and beautiful as a sudden handful of daffodils. And he found himself inordinately and embarrassingly nuzzling their sticky faces. Even his hair had taken on a surprising luster. And though his mood fell somewhat short of ecstasy (“I’ve always been wary of these bastards who are all the time embracing the world,” he said once, “and that includes me.") he felt composed and restful: sitting in the cafe in the morning light with a crouton and a carafe of wine (gentle eye-opener), gazing cleareyed and alert at the sparrows in the sycamores or the old men passing or the skirts (the skirts, always the rounded frisky skirts, retreating!), he would sometimes feel so liberated, so alive, that he might only be aware in the dimmest way that part of a cloud had effaced the edge of the sun, and the air had become faintly chill, and that his eye, catching the suddenly shadowed wall of the cemetery of Montparnasse, had communicated to some inner part of him a vague fidgety restlessness and a breath—just the merest breath—of the old fear. And he would begin to wonder how long all this peace could last.

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