“A Single Sound,” Ensign, Aug. 1975, 30
Only after Katie had seen Jim off to work, fixed breakfast for Susan and Jane, and fed the baby did she open the drapes and look outside.
A gray November day. Dark clouds covered Mount Timpanogos, seeming to settle heavily into the orchard behind their house.
If the sun were shining, even feebly, perhaps the weight in her mind would lift, dispelling this dull feeling of winter. She needed something to take her mind away from herself.
Glancing through the kitchen window, she saw the tall cottonwoods near the meetinghouse swaying in the wind.
A gray, windy day, not a day to go outside.
But she had no alternative. She had left her visiting teaching until the last day. Or rather, she and Margaret Campbell had left Violet Hopkins until the last day. They had done their visiting teaching the week before, but had been too tired that afternoon to face Sister Hopkins.
It was the wrong attitude to begin with. She knew that, and tried to fight the reluctance she felt. But Sister Hopkins, the dear woman, was tiring. She repeated the same things, again and again—her operations, her son who was an artist, her grandfather who crossed the plains with the first pioneers. And she always opened her photograph albums.
Katie sighed as she bundled the children in their winter coats and mittens. Paul howled, pressing his face against the storm door. Katie wished he could talk. He was certainly different from the girls—much louder. Already she was weary, just thinking about keeping three squirming children away from Sister Hopkins’ paintings and china and potted plants.
The wind stung their eyes and cheeks. Jane crawled behind her brother in the stroller, and Susan hid her face in her mother’s coat. The block to Sister Campbell’s seemed longer than usual, and when the pleasant middle-aged woman answered the door she opened it a crack and said nasally, “Oh Katie, I’m so sorry. I have the most miserable cold today. Would you mind seeing Sister Hopkins alone?”
Katie felt a childish desire to cry. “I hope you’ll feel better soon,” she managed. “It’s bitterly cold today.”
“I hope you don’t mind.”
“I should have called you.” Katie avoided answering with a half-truth. She did mind. She didn’t feel like visiting anyone today, and if Margaret were with her, the burden of conversation would not be solely hers.
“We should try to get out earlier next month,” Margaret said.
“Yes, we’d better, with Christmas coming.”
Apologizing again, Margaret Campbell closed the door.
Another block to Sister Hopkins’ house.
Perhaps, Katie mused, setting her teeth against the cold and wind, perhaps if I had gone to Relief Society yesterday I would feel less—self-centered? She had missed it because Paul was up half the night with a stomachache, and she had felt too tired to dress herself and the children and walk to the meeting. All day she had felt that something was missing.
Weeds had ravaged Sister Hopkins’ lawn. Her geraniums and petunias and zinnias had long since gone to seed, the dried leaves and stalks lying in tangles in their once-blooming beds. The sidewalk was cracked and chipped, the white shingled house gray and peeling, the roof badly in need of mending. Katie had not noticed before how shabby the house and yard were.
She rang the bell five times before the inside door opened a crack and Katie could see an eye and cheek and a few wisps of hair.
“It’s Katie White, your visiting teacher,” she said, chilled and nervous. “Sister Campbell is sick today, so I came alone—with my children,” she added weakly as the door opened a crack wider and Sister Hopkins stared through the screen.
“Oh, Katie. Excuse me. I’m not feeling too well, either. I didn’t recognize you.”
Katie shuffled into the living room, Paul draped over an arm and the girls stumbling behind. The room was dim and cluttered—magazines on the sofa, dirty dishes on the table halfway between the kitchen and the living room. Sister Hopkins sank into a chair, folding her housedress around her knees, her hair half falling from the bun at the back of her neck.
Pulling the girls beside her, Katie sat on the edge of the sofa with a vague feeling that everything was wrong, though nothing inside the house was different. She glanced uneasily at the older woman. Her face seemed grayer than usual, her eyes dull, half-closed.
“You said you’re not feeling well?” Katie began, expecting a discourse on her health and operations, but Sister Hopkins merely shook her head and touched a hand to her face.
“The old machine is wearing out.”
Katie smiled, a stiff, uncomfortable smile. She blinked several times, glancing about the room, the room she had seen every month for a year; but, like the yard, she had never really seen it.
“That painting on the wall, what is it?”
Violet Hopkins slowly turned her head.
“That one.” Katie pointed to a corner draped in cobwebs.
For several moments the older woman stared as if she could not see either the painting or the wall.
“That is by Brueghel,” she finally said. “My son gave it to me, many years ago. Do you read poetry?” she asked suddenly.
Katie glanced at her, startled. “Yes. Yes, I do. I like poetry very much. I try to write some when I have time.”
“You should write,” Sister Hopkins said absently. “That painting—Sylvia Plath wrote a poem, a strange poem. All her poetry is strange. I suppose it seems odd that I would read Sylvia Plath.”
Katie shook her head. “Not at all,” she murmured, feeling again that vague discomfort—something wrong, out of place. This woman talking was not the one she thought she knew.
“A strange poem; let me think how it goes: ‘In Brueghel’s panorama of smoke and slaughter—Two people only are blind to the carrion army: He … he …’” her voice faltered. “Oh, I’ve forgotten the lines exactly. The two young people in the painting—oblivious to everything except themselves. And then, ah, yes, the ironic closing lines:
‘Both of them deaf to the fiddle in the hands of the death’s-head shadowing their song.’1
“I’ve left something out, but …” Her voice trailed away, then back. “Young people not seeing. …” A long silence. Then she said, “You, my dear, are different. I appreciate your visiting an old lady like me.”
Katie’s protests died in her mind as all the ill-spoken words of the past year haunted her.
“Would your children like a cookie?”
“Would you like a cookie, girls?” Katie asked, her voice high and unnatural.
“Cookie,” Paul echoed.
“Would you, girls?” Susan and Jane nodded, and Katie realized how still they had been sitting, even Paul.
“Can I help?”
“Thank you, dear, I can manage.” She lifted herself slowly from the chair, and Katie could hear her in the kitchen, searching cupboards, finally returning with three chocolate cookies in her freckled hand.
“What do you say?” Katie prompted.
The girls mumbled thank-yous.
“Louder,” Katie said. “She can’t hear you.”
“Thank you,” Susan said, too loud.
Violet Hopkins sank again into the chair, unsettling the dust; Katie could taste it in the air.
If only, Katie thought, if only she would talk about her operations. If she would bring out her photograph albums. If she would repeat the story of her ancestors coming to Utah.
The old clock, a family heirloom, ticked on the wall. Katie became aware of the sound, that single sound, and felt as if a shock were passing through her body, for she saw herself as Violet Hopkins—50, 60 years from now?—sitting in a sagging chair, husband dead and children grown and gone.
She stood up quickly. She took Sister Hopkins’ hand, holding it a moment before leaving.
She pushed through the wind, in a fever to get home and find a passage from a Willa Cather story she had scrawled many years ago on a scrap of paper and tucked away in a notebook with other notes she might someday use in a story or poem. She soon found it in a desk drawer, the pencilings smeared but readable.
“When they are old, they will come closer to Grandma Harris. They will think a great deal about her, and remember things they never noticed; and their lot will be more or less like hers. They will regret that they needed her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone.”2
Sitting on the bedroom floor, Katie stared at the words a long time, struggling toward a resolution.
I must visit her more often, she told herself.
Carefully she put the scrap of paper back into the notebook.
Two weeks later when Sister Hopkins died, Katie went to the funeral.
“The old machine is wearing out.”
Twenty-eight years old, in excellent health, Katie never thought about dying, or even growing old. But now, seeing herself again as Violet Hopkins, she wondered how many Violet Hopkinses there were sitting alone in dim and aging houses.