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‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’: A Story of the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Albert Pinkham Ryder: The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1900

Katherine Anne Porter, from the first appearance of her stories, made her mark, impressed other writers, by the way she wrote. It is not easy to define the purity of style. The writing is not plain and yet it is not especially decorative either; instead it is clear, fluent, almost untroubled, one might say. Everything necessary seems at hand: language and scenery, psychology and memory, and a bright esthetic intelligence that shapes the whole. Sometimes she claimed to have written certain stories at one sitting, but it is known that many were started and abandoned, taken up again and made into something new. She was dilatory perhaps, but the completed work as we now have it does not reveal any deformation of character, and indeed is quite expansive enough in theme and achievement to satisfy the claims of her high reputation. She was very vain as a beauty and just as vain as a writer, and this latter vanity perhaps accounted for a good deal of the waiting and stalling, a stalling filled with romantic diversions.

Elizabeth Hardwick, 1982


“You didn’t get my note,” he said. “I left it under the door. I was called back suddenly to camp for a lot of inoculations. They kept me longer than I expected, I was late. I called the office and they told me you were not coming in today. I called Miss Hobbe here and she said you were in bed and couldn’t come to the telephone. Did she give you my message?” 

“No,” said Miranda drowsily, “but I think I have been asleep all day. Oh, I do remember. There was a doctor here. Bill sent him. I was at the telephone once, for Bill told me he would send an ambulance and have me taken to the hospital. The doctor tapped my chest and left a prescription and said he would be back, but he hasn’t come.” 

“Where is it, the prescription?” asked Adam. 

“I don’t know. He left it, though, I saw him.” 

Adam moved about searching the tables and the mantelpiece. “Here it is,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I must look for an all-night drug store. It’s after one o’clock. Good-by.” 

Good-by, good-by. Miranda watched the door where he had disappeared for quite a while, then closed her eyes, and thought, When I am not here I cannot remember anything about this room where I have lived for nearly a year, except that the curtains are too thin and there was never any way of shutting out the morning light. Miss Hobbe had promised heavier curtains, but they had never appeared when Miranda in her dressing gown had been at the telephone that morning. Miss Hobbe had passed through, carrying a tray. 

“My dear child,” she said sharply, with a glance at Miranda’s attire, “what is the matter?” 

Miranda, with the receiver to her ear, said, “Influenza, I think.” 

“Horrors,” said Miss Hobbe, in a whisper, and the tray wavered in her hands. “Go back to bed at once… go at once.” 

“I must talk to Bill first,” Miranda had told her, and Miss Hobbe had hurried on and had not returned. Bill had shouted directions at her, promising everything, doctor, nurse, ambulance, hospital, her check every week as usual, everything, but she was to get back to bed and stay there. 

*

“I’ve got your medicine,” said Adam, “and you’re to begin with it this minute.”

“So it’s really as bad as that,” said Miranda. 

“It’s as bad as anything can be,” said Adam, “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night—” 

“But not one for me,” said Miranda, feeling hilarious and lightheaded. She sat up and beat her pillow into shape and reached for her robe. “You’re running a risk,” she told him, “don’t you know that?”

“Never mind,” said Adam, “take your medicine,” and offered her two large cherry-colored pills. She swallowed them promptly and instantly vomited them up. “Do excuse me,” she said, beginning to laugh. “I’m so sorry.” Adam without a word and with a very concerned expression washed her face with a wet towel, gave her some cracked ice from one of the packages, and firmly offered her two more pills. 

“This time last night we were dancing,” said Miranda. Her eyes followed him about the room; now and again he would come back, and slipping his hand under her head, would hold a cup or a tumbler to her mouth, and she drank, without a clear notion of what was happening. 

He pulled the covers about her and held her, and said, “Go to sleep, darling, darling—” 

Almost with no warning at all, she floated into the darkness, holding his hand, in sleep that was not sleep but clear evening light in a small green wood, an angry dangerous wood full of inhuman concealed voices singing sharply like the whine of arrows and she saw Adam transfixed by a flight of these singing arrows that struck him in the heart and passed shrilly cutting their path through the leaves. Adam fell straight back before her eyes, and rose again unwounded and alive; another flight of arrows loosed from the invisible bow struck him again and he fell, and yet he was there before her untouched in a perpetual death and resurrection. She threw herself before him, angrily and selfishly she interposed between him and the track of the arrow, crying, No, no, like a child cheated in a game. It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die? and the arrows struck her cleanly through the heart and through his body and he lay dead, and she still lived, and the wood whistled and sang and shouted, every branch and leaf and blade of grass had its own terrible accusing voice. 

She ran then, and Adam caught her in the middle of the room, running, and said, “Darling, I must have been asleep too. What happened, you screamed terribly?” 

“I’m going back to that little stand and get us some ice cream and hot coffee,” he told her, “and I’ll be back in five minutes, and you keep quiet. Good-by for five minutes,” he said, holding her chin in the palm of his hand and trying to catch her eye, “and you be very quiet.” 

“Good-by,” she said. “I’m awake again.” But she was not, and the two alert young internes from the County hospital who had arrived to carry her away in a police ambulance, decided that they had better go down and get the stretcher. Their voices roused her, she sat up, got out of bed at once and stood glancing about brightly. “Why, you’re all right,” said the darker and stouter of the two young men. “I’ll just carry you.” He unfolded a white blanket and wrapped it around her. She gathered up the folds and asked, “But where is Adam?” taking hold of the doctor’s arm. 

“Oh, he’ll be back,” the interne told her easily, “he’s just gone round the block to get cigarettes. Don’t worry about Adam. He’s the least of your troubles.” 

*

What is this whiteness and silence but the absence of pain? Miranda lay lifting the nap of her white blanket softly between eased fingers, watching a dance of tall deliberate shadows moving behind a wide screen of sheets spread upon a frame. Miss Tanner stood at the foot of the bed writing something on a chart. 

“Shut your eyes,” said Miss Tanner. 

“Oh, no,” said Miranda, “for then I see worse things,” but her eyes closed in spite of her will, and the midnight of her internal torment closed about her. 

Oblivion, thought Miranda, her mind feeling among her memories of words she had been taught to describe the unseen, the unknowable, is a whirlpool of gray water turning upon itself for all eternity… eternity is perhaps more than the distance to the farthest star. She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, saying desperately, Look, don’t be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity. 

Granite walls, whirlpools, stars are things. None of them is death, nor the image of it. Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that set itself unaided to resist destruction. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay. 

*

The light came on, and Miss Tanner said in a furry voice, “Hear that? They’re celebrating. It’s the Armistice. The war is over, my dear.” Her hands trembled. She rattled a spoon in a cup, stopped to listen, held the cup out to Miranda. From the ward for old bedridden women down the hall floated a ragged chorus of cracked voices singing, “My country, ’tis of thee…” 

Sitting in a long chair, near a window, it was in itself a melancholy wonder to see the colorless sunlight slanting on the snow, under a sky drained of its blue. “Can this be my face?” Miranda asked her mirror. “Are these my own hands?” she asked Miss Tanner, holding them up to show the yellow tint like melted wax glimmering between the closed fingers. The human faces around her seemed dulled and tired, with no radiance of skin and eyes as Miranda remembered radiance; the once white walls of her room were now a soiled gray. 

Closing her eyes she would rest for a moment remembering that bliss which had repaid all the pain of the journey to reach it; opening them again she saw with a new anguish the dull world to which she was condemned, where the light seemed filmed over with cobwebs, all the bright surfaces corroded, the sharp planes melted and formless, all objects and beings meaningless, ah, dead and withered things that believed themselves alive! 

Miss Tanner said, “Read your letters, my dear. I’ll open them for you.” Standing beside the bed, she slit them cleanly with a paper knife. Miranda, cornered, picked and chose until she found a thin one in an unfamiliar handwriting. “Oh, no, now,” said Miss Tanner, “take them as they come. Here, I’ll hand them to you.” 

What a victory, what triumph, what happiness to be alive, sang the letters in a chorus. The names were signed with flourishes like the circles in air of bugle notes, and they were the names of those she had loved best; some of those she had known well and pleasantly; and a few who meant nothing to her, then or now.

The thin letter in the unfamiliar handwriting was from a strange man at the camp where Adam had been, telling her that Adam had died of influenza in the camp hospital. Adam had asked him, in case anything happened, to be sure to let her know. 

If anything happened. To be sure to let her know. If anything happened. “Your friend, Adam Barclay,” wrote the strange man. It had happened—she looked at the date—more than a month ago. 

“I’ve been here a long time, haven’t I?” she asked Miss Tanner, who was folding letters and putting them back in their proper envelopes. 

“Oh, quite a while,” said Miss Tanner, “but you’ll be ready to go soon now. But you must be careful of yourself and not overdo, and you should come back now and then and let us look at you, because sometimes the aftereffects are very—” 

Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this? 

At once he was there beside her, invisible but urgently present, a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart; for knowing it was false she still clung to the lie, the unpardonable lie of her bitter desire. 

Miss Tanner said, “Your taxicab is waiting, my dear,” and there was Mary. Ready to go. 

No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. 


This story is adapted, with kind permission of the copyright owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, from the author’s novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Copyright © 1937, renewed 1965 by Katherine Anne Porter. All rights reserved.