Ray Bradbury Stories, Volume 1 (7 page)

BOOK: Ray Bradbury Stories, Volume 1
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‘Supper, Mother,’ said Cecy, rising from bed.

The Lake

They cut the sky down to my size and threw it over the Michigan lake, put some kids yelling on yellow sand with bouncing balls, a gull or two, a criticizing parent, and me breaking out of a wet wave, finding this world very bleary and moist.

I ran up on the beach.

Mama swabbed me with a furry towel. ‘Stand there and dry,’ she said.

I stood there, watching the sun take away the water beads on my arms. I replaced them with goose-pimples.

‘My, there’s a wind,’ said Mama. ‘Put on your sweater.’

‘Wait’ll I watch my goose-bumps,’ I said.

‘Harold,’ said Mama.

I put the sweater on and watched the waves come up and fall down on the beach. But not clumsily. On purpose, with a green sort of elegance. Even a drunken man could not collapse with such elegance as those waves.

It was September. In the last days when things are getting sad for no reason. The beach was so long and lonely with only about six people on it. The kids quit bouncing the ball because somehow the wind made them sad, too, whistling the way it did, and the kids sat down and felt autumn come along the endless shore.

All of the hot-dog stands were boarded up with strips of golden planking, sealing in all the mustard, onion, meat odors of the long, joyful summer. It was like nailing summer into a series of coffins. One by one the places slammed their covers down, padlocked their doors, and the wind came and touched the sand, blowing away all of the million footprints of July and August. It got so that now, in September, there was nothing but the mark of my rubber tennis shoes and Donald and Delaus Schabold’s feet, down by the water curve.

Sand blew up in curtains on the sidewalks, and the merry-go-round was hidden with canvas, all of the horses frozen in mid-air on their brass poles, showing teeth, galloping on. With only the wind for music, slipping through canvas.

I stood there. Everyone else was in school. I was not. Tomorrow I would be on my way west across the United States on a train. Mom and I had come to the beach for one last brief moment.

There was something about the loneliness that made me want to get away by myself. ‘Mama. I want to run up the beach a ways,’ I said.

‘All right, but hurry back, and don’t go near the water.’

I ran. Sand spun under me and the wind lifted me. You know how it is, running, arms out so you feel veils from your fingers, caused by wind. Like wings.

Mama withdrew into the distance, sitting. Soon she was only a brown speck and I was all alone.

Being alone is a newness to a twelve-year-old child. He is so used to people about. The only way he can be alone is in his mind. There are so many real people around, telling children what and how to do, that a boy has to run off down a beach, even if it’s only in his head, to get by himself in his own world, with his own miniature values.

So now I was really alone.

I went down to the water and let it cool up to my stomach. Always before, with the crowd, I hadn’t dared to look, to come to this spot and search around in the water and call a certain name. But now—

Water is like a magician. Sawing you in half. It feels as if you were cut half in two, part of you, the lower part, sugar, melting, dissolving away. Cool water, and once in a while a very elegantly stumbling wave that falls with a flourish of lace.

I called her name. A dozen times I called it.

‘Tally! Tally! Oh, Tally!’

Funny, but you really expect answers to your calling when you are young. You feel that whatever you may think can be real. And sometimes maybe that is not so wrong.

I thought of Tally, swimming out into the water last May, with her pigtails trailing, blonde. She went laughing, and the sun was on her small twelve-year-old shoulders. I thought of the water settling quiet, of the lifeguard leaping into it, of Tally’s mother screaming, and of how Tally never came out…

The life-guard tried to persuade her to come out, but she did not. He came back with only bits of water-weed in his big-knuckled fingers, and Tally was gone. She would not sit across from me at school any longer, or chase indoor balls on the brick streets on summer nights. She had gone too far out, and the lake would not let her return.

And now in the lonely autumn when the sky was huge and the water was huge and the beach was so very long. I had come down for the last time, alone.

I called her name over and over. Tally, oh, Tally!

The wind blew so very softly over my ears, the way wind blows over the mouths of sea-shells to set them whispering. The water rose, embraced my chest, then my knees, up and down, one way and another, sucking under my heels.

‘Tally! Come back, Tally!’

I was only twelve. But I know how much I loved her. It was that love that comes before all significance of body and morals. It was that love that is no more bad than wind and sea and sand lying side by side forever. It was made of all the warm long days together at the beach, and the humming quiet days of droning education at the school. All the long autumn days of the years past when I had carried her books home from school.

Tally!

I called her name for the last time. I shivered. I felt water on my face and did not know how it got there. The waves had not splashed that high.

Turning, I retreated to the sand and stood there for half an hour, hoping for one glimpse, one sign, one little bit of Tally to remember. Then, I knelt and built a sand-castle, shaping it fine, building it as Tally and I had often built so many of them. But this time, I only built half of it. Then I got up.

‘Tally, if you hear me, come in and build the rest.’

I walked off toward that faraway speck that was Mama. The water came in, blended the sand-castle circle by circle, mashing it down little by little into the original smoothness.

Silently, I walked along the shore.

Far away, a merry-go-round jangled faintly, but it was only the wind.

The next day, I went away on the train.

A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it. It forgets the cornlands of Illinois, the rivers of childhood, the bridges, the lakes, the valleys, the cottages, the hurts and the joys. It spreads them out behind and they drop back of a horizon.

I lengthened my bones, put flesh on them, changed my young mind for an older one, threw away clothes as they no longer fitted, shifted from grammar to high school, to college books, to law books. And then there was a young woman in Sacramento. I knew her for a time, and we were married.

I continued my law study. By the time I was twenty-two, I had almost forgotten what the East was like.

Margaret suggested that our delayed honeymoon be taken back in that direction.

Like a memory, a train works both ways. A train can bring rushing back all those things you left behind so many years before.

Lake Bluff, population ten thousand, came up over the sky. Margaret looked so handsome in her fine new clothes. She watched me as I felt my
old world gather me back into its living. She held my arm as the train slid into Bluff Station and our baggage was escorted out.

So many years, and the things they do to people’s faces and bodies. When we walked through the town together I saw no one I recognized. There were faces with echoes in them. Echoes of hikes on ravine trails. Faces with small laughter in them from closed grammar schools and swinging on metal-linked swings and going up and down on teeter-totters. But I didn’t speak. I walked and looked and filled up inside with all those memories, like leaves stacked for autumn burning.

We stayed on two weeks in all, revisiting all the places together. The days were happy. I thought I loved Margaret well. At least I thought I did.

It was on one of the last days that we walked down by the shore. It was not quite as late in the year as that day so many years before, but the first evidences of desertion were coming upon the beach. People were thinning out, several of the hot dog stands had been shuttered and nailed, and the wind, as always, waited there to sing for us.

I almost saw Mama sitting on the sand as she used to sit. I had that feeling again of wanting to be alone. But I could not force myself to speak of this to Margaret. I only held on to her and waited.

It got late in the day. Most of the children had gone home and only a few men and women remained basking in the windy sun.

The life-guard boat pulled up on the shore. The life-guard stepped out of it, slowly, with something in his arms.

I froze there. I held my breath and I felt small, only twelve years old, very little, very infinitesimal and afraid. The wind howled. I could not see Margaret. I could see only the beach, the life-guard slowly emerging from the boat with a gray sack in his hands, not very heavy, and his face almost as gray and lined.

‘Stay here, Margaret,’ I said. I don’t know why I said it.

‘But, why?’

‘Just stay here, that’s all—’

I walked slowly down the sand to where the life-guard stood. He looked at me.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

The life-guard kept looking at me for a long time and he couldn’t speak. He put the gray sack down on the sand, and water whispered wet up around it and went back.

‘What is it?’ I insisted.

‘She’s dead,’ said the life-guard quietly.

I waited.

‘Funny,’ he said, softly. ‘Funniest thing I ever saw. She’s been dead. A long time.’

I repeated his words.

He nodded. ‘Ten years, I’d say. There haven’t been any children drowned here
this
year. There were twelve children drowned here since 1933, but we recovered all of them before a few hours had passed. All except one, I remember. This body here, why it must be ten years in the water. It’s not—pleasant.’

I stared at the gray sack in his arms. ‘Open it.’ I said. I don’t know why I said it. The wind was louder.

He fumbled with the sack. ‘The way I know it’s a little girl, is because she’s still wearing a locket. There’s nothing much else to tell by—’

‘Hurry, man,
open it
!’ I cried.

‘I better not do that,’ he said. Then perhaps he saw the way my face must have looked. ‘She was such a
little
girl—’

He opened it only part way. That was enough.

The beach was deserted. There was only the sky and the wind and the water and the autumn coming on lonely. I looked down at her there.

I said something over and over. A name. The life-guard looked at me. ‘Where did you find her?’ I asked.

‘Down the beach, that way, in the shallow water. It’s a long long time for her, ain’t it?’

I shook my head.

‘Yes, it is. Oh God, yes it is.’

I thought: People grow. I have grown. But she has not changed. She is still small. She is still young. Death does not permit growth or change. She still has golden hair. She will be forever young and I will love her forever, oh God, I will love her forever.

The life-guard tied up the sack again.

Down the beach, a few moments later, I walked by myself. I stopped, and looked down at something. This is where the life-guard found her, I said to myself.

There, at the water’s edge, lay a sand-castle, only half-built. Just like Tally and I used to build them. She half and I half.

I looked at it. I knelt beside the sand-castle and saw the little prints of feet coming in from the lake and going back out to the lake again and not ever returning.

Then—I knew.

‘I’ll help you to finish it,’ I said.

I did. I built the rest of it up very slowly, then I arose and turned away and walked off, so as not to watch in crumble in the waves, as all things crumble.

I walked back up the beach to where a strange woman named Margaret was waiting for me, smiling…

The Coffin

There was any amount of banging and hammering for a number of days: deliveries of metal parts and oddments which Mr Charles Braling took into his little workshop with a feverish anxiety. He was a dying man, a badly dying man, and he seemed to be in a great hurry, between racking coughs and spittlings, to piece together one last invention.

‘What are you doing?’ inquired his younger brother, Richard Braling. He had listened with increasing difficulty and much curiosity for a number of days to that banging and rattling about, and now he stuck his head through the work-room door.

‘Go far far away and let me alone,’ said Charles Braling, who was seventy, trembly and wet-lipped most of the time. He trembled nails into place and trembled a hammer down with a weak blow upon a large timber and then struck a small metal ribbon down into an intricate machine, and, all in all, was having a carnival of labor.

Richard looked on, bitter-eyed, for a long moment. There was a hatred between them. It had gone on for some years and now was neither any better nor any worse for the fact that Charlie was dying. Richard was delighted to know of the impending death, if he thought of it at all. But all this busy fervor of his old brothers stimulated him.

‘Pray tell,’ he said, not moving from the door.

‘If you must know,’ snarled old Charles, fitting in an odd thingumabob on the box before him, ‘I’ll be dead in another week and I’m—I’m building my own coffin!’

‘A coffin, my dear Charlie. That doesn’t
look
like a coffin. A coffin isn’t that complex. Come on now, what are you up to?’

‘I tell you it’s a coffin! An odd coffin, yes, but nevertheless,’ the old man shivered his fingers around in the large box, ‘—nevertheless a coffin!’

‘But it would be easier to buy one.’

‘Not one like this! You couldn’t buy one like this anyplace, ever. Oh, it’ll be a real fine coffin, all right.’

‘You’re obviously lying.’ Richard moved forward. ‘Why, that coffin is a good twelve feet long. Six feet longer than normal size!’

‘Oh, yes?’ The old man laughed quietly.

‘And that transparent top: who ever heard of a coffin lid you can see through? What good is a transparent lid to a corpse?’

‘Oh, just never you mind at all,’ sang the old man heartily. ‘La!’ And he went humming and hammering about the shop.

‘This coffin is terribly thick,’ shouted the young brother over the din. ‘Why, it must be five feet thick: how utterly unnecessary!’

‘I only wish I might live to patent this amazing coffin,’ said old Charlie. ‘It would be a god-send to all the poor peoples of the world. Think how it would eliminate the expenses of most funerals. Oh, but, of course, you don’t know how it would do that, do you? How silly of me. Well, I shan’t tell you. If this coffin could be mass-produced—expensive at first, naturally—but then when you finally got them made in vast quantities, gah, but the money people would save.’

‘To hell with you!’ And the younger brother stormed out of the shop.

It had been an unpleasant life. Young Richard had always been such a bounder he never had two coins to clink together at one time: all of his money had come from old brother Charlie, who had the indecency to remind him of it at all times. Richard spent many hours with his hobbies: he dearly loved piling up bottles with French wine labels, in the garden. ‘I like the way they glint,’ he often said, sitting and sipping, sipping and sitting. He was the only man in the county who could hold the longest gray ash on a fifty-cent cigar for the longest recorded time. And he knew how to hold his hands so his diamonds jangled in the light. But he had not bought the wine, the diamonds, the cigars—no! They were all gifts. He was never allowed to buy anything himself. It was always brought to him and given to him. He had to ask for everything, even writing paper. He considered himself quite a martyr to have put up with taking things from that rickety old brother for so long a time. Everything Charlie ever laid his hand to turned to money; everything Richard had ever tried in the way of a leisurely career had failed.

And now, here was this old mole of a Charlie whacking out a new invention which would probably bring Charlie additional specie long after his bones were slotted in the earth!

Well, two weeks passed.

One morning, the old brother toddled upstairs and stole the insides out of the electric phonograph. Another morning he raided the gardener’s greenhouse. Still another time he received a delivery from a medical
company. It was all young Richard could do to sit and hold his long gray cigar ash steady while these murmuring excursions took place.

‘I’m finished!’ cried old Charlie on the fourteenth morning, and dropped dead.

Richard finished out his cigar, and, without showing his inner excitement, he laid down his cigar with its fine long whitish ash, two inches long, a real record, and arose.

He walked to the window and watched the sunlight playfully glittering among the fat beetlelike champagne bottles in the garden.

He looked toward the top of the stairs where old dear brother Charlie lay peacefully sprawled against the banister. Then he walked to the phone and perfunctorily dialed a number.

‘Hello, Green Lawn Mortuary? This is the Braling residence. Will you send around a wicker, please? Yes. For brother Charlie. Yes. Thank you. Thank you.’

As the mortuary people were taking brother Charles out in their wicker they received instructions. ‘Ordinary casket,’ said young Richard. ‘No funeral service. Put him in a pine coffin. He would have preferred it that way—simple. Good-by.’

‘Now!’ said Richard, rubbing his hands together. ‘We shall see about this coffin’ built by dear Charlie. I do not suppose he will realize he is not being buried in his “special” box. Ah.’

He entered the downstairs shop.

The coffin sat before some wide-flung French windows, the lid shut, complete and neat, all put together like the fine innards of a Swiss watch. It was vast, and it rested upon a long long table with rollers beneath for easy maneuvering.

The coffin interior, as he peered through the glass lid, was six feet long. There must be a good three feet of false body at both head and foot of the coffin, then. Three feet at each end which, covered by secret panels that he must find some way of opening, might very well reveal—exactly what?

Money, of course. It would be just like Charlie to suck his riches into his grave with himself, leaving Richard with not a cent to buy a bottle with. The old bastard!

He raised the glass lid and felt about, but found no hidden buttons. There was a small sign studiously inked on white paper, thumbtacked to the side of the satin-lined box. It said:

THE BRALING ECONOMY CASKET
. Copyright, April, 1946. Simple to operate. Can be used again and again by morticians and families with an eye to the future.

Richard snorted thinly. Who did Charlie think he was fooling? There was more writing:

DIRECTIONS: SIMPLY PLACE BODY IN COFFIN

What a fool thing to say. Put body in coffin! Naturally! How else would one go about it? He peered intently and finished out the directions:

SIMPLY PLACE BODY IN COFFIN—AND MUSIC WILL START.

‘It can’t be—’ Richard gaped at the sign. ‘Don’t tell me all this work has been for a—’ He went to the open door of the shop, walked out upon the tiled terrace and called to the gardener in his greenhouse. ‘Rogers!’ The gardener stuck his head out. ‘What time is it?’ asked Richard. ‘Twelve o’clock, sir,’ replied Rogers. ‘Well, at twelve-fifteen, you come up here and check to see if everything is all right. Rogers,’ said Richard. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the gardener. Richard turned and went back into the shop. ‘We’ll find out—’ he said, quietly.

There would be no harm in lying in the box, testing it. He noticed small ventilating holes in the sides. Even if the lid were closed down there’d be air. And Rogers would be up in a moment or two. SIMPLY PLACE BODY IN COFFIN—AND MUSIC WILL START. Really, how naive of old Charlie! Richard hoisted himself up.

He was like a man getting into a bathtub. He felt naked and watched over. He put one shiny shoe into the coffin and crooked his knee and eased himself up and made some little remark to nobody in particular, then he put in his other knee and foot and crouched there, as if undecided about the temperature of the bath-water. Edging himself about, chuckling softly, he lay down, pretending to himself (for it was fun pretending) that he was dead, that people were dropping tears on him, that candles were fuming and illuminating and that the world was stopped in mid-stride because of his passing. He put on a long pale expression, shut his eyes, holding back the laughter in himself behind pressed, quivering lips. He folded his hands and decided they felt waxen and cold.

Whirr. Spung!
Something whispered inside the box-wall.
Spung!

The lid slammed down on him!

From outside, if one had just come into the room, one would have imagined a wild man was kicking, pounding, blathering, and shrieking inside a closet! There was a sound of a body dancing and cavorting. There was a thudding of flesh and fists. There was a squeaking and a kind of wind from a frightened man’s lungs. There was a rustling like paper and a shrilling as of many pipes simultaneously played. Then there was a real fine scream. Then—silence.

Richard Braling lay in the coffin and relaxed. He let loose all his muscles. He began to chuckle. The smell of the box was not unpleasant. Through the little perforations he drew more than enough air to live on, comfortably. He need only push gently up with his hands, with none of this kicking and screaming, and the lid would open. One must be calm. He flexed his arms.

The lid was locked.

Well, still there was no danger. Rogers would be up in a minute or two. There was nothing to fear.

The music began to play.

It seemed to come from somewhere inside the head of the coffin. It was green music. Organ music, very slow and melancholy, typical of Gothic arches and long black tapers. It smelled of earth and whispers. It echoed high between stone walls. It was so sad that one almost cried listening to it. It was music of potted plants and crimson and blue stained-glass windows. It was late sun at twilight and a cold wind blowing. It was a dawn with only fog and a faraway fog horn moaning.

‘Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, you old fool you! So this is your odd coffin!’ Tears of laughter welled into Richard’s eyes. ‘Nothing more than a coffin which plays its own dirge. Oh, my sainted grandma!’

He lay and listened critically, for it was beautiful music and there was nothing he could do until Rogers came up and let him out. His eyes roved aimlessly, his fingers tapped soft little rhythms on the satin cushions. He crossed his legs idly. Through the glass lid he saw sunlight shooting through the French windows, dust particles dancing on it. It was a lovely blue day.

The sermon began.

The organ music quieted and a gentle voice said:

‘We are gathered together, those who loved and those who knew the deceased, to give him our homage and our due—’

‘Charlie, bless you, that’s
your
voice!’ Richard was delighted. ‘A mechanical funeral, by God. Organ music and lecture. And Charlie giving his own oration for himself!’

The soft voice said. ‘We who knew and loved him are grieved at the passing of—’

‘What was
that?
’ Richard raised himself, startled. He didn’t quite believe what he had heard. He repeated it to himself just the way he had heard it:

‘We who knew and loved him are grieved at the passing of Richard Braling.’

That’s what the voice had said.

‘Richard Braling,’ said the man in the coffin. ‘Why.
I’m
Richard Braling.’

A slip of the tongue, naturally. Merely a slip. Charlie had meant to say ‘Charles’ Braling. Certainly. Yes. Of course. Yes. Certainly. Yes. Naturally. Yes.

‘Richard was a fine man,’ said the voice, talking on. ‘We shall see no finer in our time.’

‘My name again!’

Richard began to move about uneasily in the coffin.

Why didn’t Rogers come?

It was hardly a mistake, using that name twice. Richard Braling. Richard Braling. We are gathered here. We shall miss—We are grieved. No finer man. No finer in our time. We are gathered here. The deceased. Richard Braling.
Richard
Braling.

Whirrrr. Spung!

Flowers! Six dozen bright blue, red, yellow, sun-brilliant flowers leaped up from behind the coffin on concealed springs!

The sweet odor of fresh-cut flowers filled the coffin. The flowers swayed gently before his amazed vision, tapping silently on the glass lid. Others sprang up until the coffin was banked with petals and color and sweet odors. Gardenias and dahlias and daffodils, trembling and shining.

‘Rogers!’

The sermon continued.

‘—Richard Braling, in his life, was a connoisseur of great and good things—’

The music sighed, rose and fell, distantly.

‘Richard Braling savored of life, as one savors of a rare wine, holding it upon the lips—’

A small panel in the side of the box flipped open. A swift bright metal arm snatched out. A needle stabbed Richard in the thorax, not very deeply. He screamed. The needle shot him full of a colored liquor before he could seize it. Then it popped back into a receptacle and the panel snapped shut.

‘Rogers!’

A growing numbness, Suddenly he could not move his fingers or his arms or turn his head. His legs were cold and limp.

‘Richard Braling loved beautiful things. Music. Flowers,’ said the voice.

‘Rogers!’

This time he did not scream it. He could only think it. His tongue was motionless in his anaesthetized mouth.

Another panel opened. Metal forceps issued forth on steel arms. His left wrist was pierced by a huge sucking needle.

His blood was being drained from his body.

He heard a little pump working somewhere.

‘—Richard Braling will be missed among us—’

The organ sobbed and murmured.

The flowers looked down upon him, nodding their bright-petalled heads.

BOOK: Ray Bradbury Stories, Volume 1
5.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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