Authors: William Goyen
Tags: #Had I a Hundred Mouths
Had I a Hundred Mouths
5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Copyright Â© 1985 William Goyen
All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.
All of the stories included in this edition have been previously published individually, some of which have appeared in
TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review
The Southwest Review
“An interview with William Goyen” first appeared in
, a publication of Northwestern University and was reprinted in
The Texas Humanist
Â© 1983 by
, reprinted by permission.
eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-941531-14-3
eBook Cover by Awarding Book Covers
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author
For June Arnold
On Good Friday, in the warm afternoon, the two cousins lay huddled against their uncle's bony body, each nestled in the crook of an arm. Often the cousins would be left in their uncle's care, and their habit was to take off their clothes because of the Gulf humidity and lie cool on the bed together and listen to his stories, which were generally about the joys and despairs of desire. It was a murmur they heard, a gruff whisper, a telling voice that the older cousin would hear all his life. The uncle smelled of whiskey, which he drank from time to time from a bottle under the bed. “When you boys going to get you some?” he suddenly asked at each meeting, as though anything had changed since they had met before. “I don't know,” the younger cousin would answer, eight. But the older cousin, eleven, was already bound and not free enough to give any answer to such a question.
The uncle nestled his two nephews against his frail breast (it was said that he had TB). He seemed lonesome, not a part of anything. He had stayed home in the little town all these years, while big cities bloomed up nearby and “offered opportunities,” living on, after his mother and father had died, one after the other, of pneumonia, in the epidemic, and after Louetta had gone, and his brothers and sisters had left, moved to somewhere else or died somewhere else, stayed under the roof and shelter of the old house his father had built, and never saying much, except when his sister and sister-in-law would come from Houston on holidays and bring their sons, his favorites. Then he would come alive and open his mouth and out would come stories. On this Good Friday afternoon it seemed like he might be getting ready to tell another story about a woman and a man. The younger nephew lay like a blank-eyed doll nested in the uncle's embrace; he might even have been dozing; he seemed to be in some peace under his uncle's arm, in some kind of a haven, unthreatened. After all, he was a fatherless child. His mother, the uncle's sister, had run his father off, so all his kinfolks said, because he was lazy and couldn't make a living. She worked in a sewing room at a factory. Did his mother think she was making a living? They had no clothes. He wanted to go find his father in Shreveport. He'd heard them say he was there. When he got old enough he would, too. He told this to his cousin.
But the older nephew was feeling another thing. He was beckoned by some new feeling and he felt powerless before it; and, most of all, he didn't care. He felt that he would go all the way with some feeling, when it would soon come, and not hinder it because it was wrong, and not be afraid of it, not care what happened, overwhelmed. His storyteller uncle had something to do with this feeling, he was not sure what; but surely it was a feeling that had first come to him from his uncle; it seemed to be in the command of the man, it seemed called up in him by the man's very nurturing presence, something like what motherliness had been for him not so long ago but now pushed away forever; and by the seduction of storyteller, the surrender of listener to teller, almost in a kind of love-making, of sensual possession, yet within innocence and purity. A dark new life had started under the command of his uncle and the hot spell of the stories that boiled like steam, tolled like a bell, sang like a solemn singer's song out of his mouth. But he already knew the feelings of lust. And why wouldn't he? Later, in the wrestling with it, he figured that he had already come in lust long ago, born in it, that he had already inherited it in his flesh long before he laid his head on the naked breast of his uncle and heard his tales of barns and gins and woods and under bridges, already had it in his blood, had been waiting only to be brought to it when the time came. Then that would change everything, that coming of something. It had already come, in a dark way, to some men and women of his family: some ran far away in its seizure and never came back, leaving everything; Aunt Blanch, Louetta's mother, did, the uncle had told, with a man, ran away with him from everybodyâmama, papa, husband, childâand he was a young good Mexican that had worked on the place, named Juan Melendrez, the uncle had told, from the Rio Grande Valley, and Blanch's husband, Joe Parrish, then disappeared and never returned, either, leaving Louetta an orphan of fourteen in her grandparents' house; sometimes people just suddenly ran away from everything and never came back. Life seemed dark, and sad beyond any way to tell it: there seemed no mouth that could utter the pain, only eyes to shed tears of it or heartache of it. Where was there any comfort? Where was God? In Sunday School the nephew had been shown the picture of a sweet man gathering under his arms a crowd of little children and the words under the picture said
. Where in this family, thought the nephew, was this comforter? And lying in the cradle of his uncle's naked arm, he felt as close to that man as to his uncle, and as in need of him, on that Good Friday afternoon.
But did the younger nephew need anybody? Who knew? He did not seem to hear. Or did he hear and just not care? Who knew? All the older nephew knew was that the stories fell upon the ripe ground of his brain, as in the Bible, and were ripening there and one day might come, bountiful fruit, from his own mouth. Then, in that rich time it would seem that he had not enough mouths to tellâor to retellâthe stories of his uncle, and his own, now, there would be so many and they would come so richly and so fast. But the younger nephew seemed deaf. Wasn't that peculiar? Why was that, the older nephew asked himself, asked God, others, for all his life. Some heard and some did not, though the same news fell on the ears of each. And he also asked himself which one had peace, the teller-onâthe mouthedâor the silent one in whom the story stopped. But did telling-on make any difference, help anything? The older nephew already had little peace. At home, more was expected of him than he could fulfill. But he would never let them know of his inadequacy. He carried the world, boy Atlas. His father, his uncle's brother, could not make enough money from his job to give his family what they “deserved,” whatever that was; but that was his father's cry, and especially when he was drinking, “I can't give you all what you deserve. I'm not good enough for you.” The older nephew's mother reminded him of his mission, charged him to be the one who would give them their deserving. That was what he would have to look for, those apples of gold such as Hercules soughtâas in the story in schoolâand temporarily took the world upon his shoulders so that Atlas, who knew where the golden treasures were, could go get them and bring them back. Who would relieve the older nephew of his weight so that he could go? Well it would surely be his uncle who would bring him this ease. It was with these feelings that he heard the uncle's suddenly solemn voice. What was this voice, this tone? What story?
It was in the dark afternoon on a November day of sleet, told the uncle. We waited and we waited for Louetta to get home from her trip into town. The darker it got the scareder we got. More sleet fell and sleet was all in the frozen grass and in the trees. At four o'clock it was getting like night, it was so dark. Ben, they said, you better go on to the woods and look for her, Louetta's bound to be lost. I'll take the big lantern, I said. And so I started out alone. It was freezing cold, and dark fallen, just about. The sleet cut at me. I got to the haunted woods of the old sawmill. They was so lonesome and you couldn't hear nothing but the dropping of the stinging rain, sleeting. Nobody ever went back there in the ruined sawmill woods, back in there where the ruined kiln was, and the old log pond. Black people said it was haunted and that bad spirits lived there in the deep pineland because of a terrible thing that happened once, back in the days when the sawmill was flourishing. A white foreman and his strawboss caught three niggers fucking a Cushata Indian squaw back in there and they cut off their nuts and roasted them in the kiln and made the Cushata woman eat em. But the white men had been fucking the Cushata squaws as long as there'd been a sawmill. Squaws come over from the reservation at Moscow to give the white men some pussy for some salt pork from the Commissary, or for some coffee. Cushata's supposed to have put a bad spell over the sawmill, one day a man'd fall under the logs in the log pond and his head'd be crushed between the logs; next a man would lose a whole hand in the planing saw; and there was some bad fires. Course the Cushatas was thieves and come in and stole at the Commissary and from people's houses, couldn't trust one of em, black niggers hated red Indians, red Indians despised the black niggers, the white man didn't trust either one of em, black
red, soâthe best thing to do was drink a little whiskey and stay away from all of em; âs” what your grandaddy did and what I did. When the sawmill finally died out, some folks said that was why, that the Cushata curse had finally got its vengeance. I don't know much about those days and glad they're gone, by the time I was old enough to sneak out to the old sawmill was a wild grown-over thicket man or boy could hardly stand up in, said was snakes in there big as a man, and the mill fallen down and the Cushatas just about all died out, starved to death mostly, or had TB.
Anyway, I was walking over the frozen leaves on the old sawmill road and calling for Louetta. It scared me to hear my call in the woods. Louetta! No Louetta. I went towards the old kiln where there was a cave made under the fallen trees that were hit a long time ago by the tornado come on us out of Oklahoma and made a cave out of brambling together the great clumps of tree roots; time had made walls and the living trees, living on with leaves and vines, made a sheltering cave, dark and coolâthe kind of a thing you will sometimes see nature make better than any man could, twas something of nature, a beaver could have made it, or wind of a big storm could've, and natural roots and earth wrapped over and bound together, could last a hundred years of time. I started towards that, when I heard a soft wailing, and on top of that a man's low voice, agrowling. I went quiet as I could towards the cave and I heard more and more the growling and the wailing. And then I heard the words of the man growling low how good it was, and the soft wailing. I laid in the bush until it was over and quiet and then I saw the man, a big red nigger, seemed aglow with redness all around himâever seen that in a nigger? I don't know why it tisâI saw him come out of the cave and go on off. I was so scared. I waited until his foot steps was gone and then I shone my light ontoâ¦ Louetta, lying in the cave. I thought she was dead. Louetta! I said. When she saw my face in the lantern light she wailed and whispered, Ben, Ben, please don't look! Please go away, please don't tell anybody, just let me alone. What happened? I said. The Nigra ran out at me in the woods, Louetta whispered, and I couldn't stop him. In the dark cave was the warm smell of woman, and I knew what the nigger had done. Well I'm not going to leave you, Louetta, like this, I said. Then help me to the river, she said. In Trinity River I put her down and she told me to go away a little, and I stood in the bushes and saw her wash and I was seventeen and felt what it was, of a man and a woman, the growling and wailing, that the red nigger knew, and what Louetta, my cousin, knew now, what he'd showed her in the cave, even though she was softly awailing in the riverwater, as she washed herself. This all come on me. Even in my hate of the nigger I felt a wanting for the woman washing herself of him, and the smell of the cave was all in my nose and all over me, on my hands that had helped Louetta up and to the river, a smell of the nigger stuff and the woman. I didn't want to wash that off, life, but then I didn't want them to smell it on me when we got home so I bent down into the river and washed my hands; and then it seemed like I'd made love to Louetta and that we was both awashing ourselves of it. When Louetta come out of the river, I wanted her. And I grabbed her. And took what the nigger took. I was just like him. She was hot, and still crazy, and ready, and took me, wailing Oh no, Oh no, please don't; said not you, not you. Just like the Nigra. But I was naked in the riverâwho took off my clothes?âand I was all over her. I said you've already done it now, the nigger made you ready, give to me what you gave to him. I was just like the nigger. And then in the midst of her wailing I took her, soft and made good by the red nigger. And I heard my growling, too, but I couldn't stop and Louetta couldn't stop taking me. We was both seventeen. There's a wildness, once it starts, you can't stop. That's what happens with it, you get crazy with it, once you've had it, once you've started. You boys will see, one day; and you'll remember what you uncle told you of it. The uncle growled, and the nephews were afraid. But the uncle went on. Now he seemed different than he had ever been in the older nephew's memory. We washed together, the uncle went on, me and Louetta, cousins, and when we washed each other, we both felt damnation on us; the Cushatas had put damnation on us through the nigger. And that was the beginning. From then on, Louetta just couldn't stop wanting it and whispering of it, was a crazy woman; and I wasn't any different. We did it in the cave, day and night, wild. We was lost.