Finger Finger :
When the tray was laid out, Carola took it from Mrs. Higginson and went out into the hall.
“Careful,” Mrs. Higginson called after her. “The cream pitcher’s too full.”
It was. Some had already spilled on the cloth, but Carola did not stop now to wipe it up. Breakfast was late enough, and Miss Amanda, lying upstairs, would be hungry. That was all there was left for her to be, Higginson had remarked more than once.
Carola’s shadow moved carefully to heel all the way upstairs. It was a stockily built shadow, like Carola herself, but it lacked her full white throat and the warm brown hair that smoothed her head with the iridescence of water. Elbows out to accent the balance of the tray, girl and shadow climbed with a self-conscious deliberation.
Just outside Miss Amanda’s door, Carola stopped and put down the tray. She was more nervous now, her hand uncertain about rearranging her apron, smoothing her hair, setting the cap farther back. It was her first day. Her first place, she reminded herself with some severity. Taking a corner of the apron, she mopped at the spilt cream and set the pitcher over the spot it had left. Then, with the tray in one hand, she lifted her free hand to knock. But the voice, leaping as it did from the other side of the door, was too quick for her.
“Come in! I hear you out there!”
Carola got the door open awkwardly and closed it after her. She crossed the room and set the tray down on the night table. Her smile felt stiff as she turned toward the old woman who lay-beneath the spread of quilts.
Miss Amanda. This was Miss Amanda. She was incredibly fat, this old woman, bloated. Higginson said she had not walked in forty-odd years. Her face had the bloodlessness of dough. It lay in bleached folds, as if there was no skull behind it, only pillows. Over her the bedclothes struggled into hills and gullies, and above this landscape she watched Carola with wicked, buried little eyes.
“You must be the new girl,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Oh.” The little eyes’ were not amused, but Miss Amanda’s ‘mouth began to be. Out of the great, gross face a tiny smile came. “You’re very young, aren’t you?”
It was the look, the tone of voice, the whole stuffy bedroom which made Carola feel the question to be too personal, too prying. But that was silly. The old lady was only being kind. Carola fixed her eyes on a yellow patch in-one of the quilts and answered, “Sixteen, ma’am.”
Miss Amanda considered this in silence until the three china clocks stationed in the room gained a new resonance, and the yellow patch wavered before Carola’s eyes. If she had been able, she would have gone about putting the tray oh Miss Amanda’s knees, plumping up the pillows behind~the mountainous back. But that was the odd thing. Just now she could not think of the tray and do something about it at the same time. Her hands felt as if they had gone to sleep, and in spite of her brain’s dull warning, she found her eyes pulling away from the yellow patch, up over the hills and gullies, to stop at last on Miss Amanda’s face.
Then the crystal void snapped without warning. Sound and object leaped back into focus.
There was the patch on the quilt again, and other patches like it. There was Miss Amanda’s faintly smiling face. Carola felt at once confused and angry. She heard herself repeating the word “breakfast” over and over like an idiot. She pulled at her apron, the blood hot and thick in her throat.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she muttered. “I can’t think what came over me.”
Miss Amanda closed her eyes and opened them again slowly. She did not appear to have heard Carola’s apology.
“Yes, you’re young,” she murmured. “Not pretty, but young. When I was your age I was a beauty. Black hair and a skin like flowers. I had . more proposals than I could listen to.” She struck her great, unfeeling body. “Slim, I was. Not thick-waisted, like you.” Her smile seeped away into the flesh again. “But I was lying here, paralyzed, before I knew what it really meant to be young and lovely and strong.”
Carola did not, know what to say. She could feel no real pity for the old woman. At the moment she only wanted to get out of the room and back to Higginson and the kitchen. A pain had “begun to throb in her head, pound at her ears. But Miss Amanda did not dismiss her.
“Have you a young man, Carola?”
“Put the tray here, Carola. That’s right. Now push up the pillows, will you? There, much better.” She sank back against the linen and patted the curve of the sugar bowl languidly. “Two lumps.”
Carola picked up the sugar tongs, and it was then that Miss Amanda caught her left arm, just above the wrist. The two women looked at each other for a long moment; Miss Amanda with a sly, reminiscent grin. Carola bewildered and uneasy. With her little finger, held fastidiously away from its fellows, the old woman’s right hand began to stroke Carola’s arm. Up and down, up and down. Once she pinched it gently, and the smile deepened. Then the slow, heavy caress was resumed. It had the insinuating, boneless pressure of a snake’s weight.
“I’m not like most old women, Carola,” Miss Amanda murmured. “I’m not like you’d think. You can’t put me off with food. There are other things, and I haven’t forgotten those other things. You think because you’re young you can have them all to yourself, but you mustn’t be selfish.”
Eagerness crystallized in the little eyes, lay-like a film over the wet, sly grin.
“So you have a young man. What’s his name?”
“Donald, eh? Tell me about him.. Is he tall? Strong? Very strong? Tell me how strong he is, Carola. Tell me how he makes love to you.”
Carola forgot caution and jerked her arm away. She felt strangled. She felt she might be very sick unless she got away from the bed, the china clocks, the fastidious lifted, little finger.
Miss Amanda seemed to lose interest. Her face grew blank, the eyelids drooped. She began to dissect an egg carefully, her little finger still held aloof.
“Get along, Carola,” she said. “Come back in half an hour for the tray.”
All the way down the stairs Carola fought back tears. Dirty-minded old beast! She wanted to scream, to break the hanging lamp above the lower landing— anything to ease, the clotted tears behind her eyelids. Donald, Donald, Donald! She said the name over and over to herself, like a kind of hysterical apology. She told herself she didn’t care if the old woman sacked her that very day. Donald, Donald!
She went into the kitchen, brushing past Higginson before the older woman should see her eyes. At thesink she turned on the tap and began to wash her hands and arms, running the water over them in a clear, swift stream.
“Now what’s eating you?” Higginson asked with mild interest.
“Nothing,” Carola muttered.
“Have a set-to with the old lady?” said Higginson. “Well, she’s not easy to work for. You’ve got to watch your step. She’s a queer one! The girls that’s been here and gone! We was without one for near six months until you come.” She settled herself into a chair and prepared to elaborate! “That’s the truth. Some of ’em, the younger ones, took to behaving queer themselves after they was here awhile. They’d go around imitating Miss Amanda, the cheeky, bits! Crooking out their little fingers like she does, sliding their eyes around— even talking like her sometimes. It was enough to give a body the creeps. There was one girl about your age, I’d say. She was the worst of the lot when it came to imitating the old lady. Kept it up for about a month or so, and then the first thing we knew she’d gone and hung herself down there in the orchard. No reason anyone could find, either. Stood on a kitchen chair to reach the branch, she did. This very chair!” Higginson slapped the chair back triumphantly. “Couldn’t nobody, not even the police, make anything out of it, and they was here long enough about it, tracking up the place!”
Carola did not answer. She was crying quietly, but not for the girl Higginson was talking about.
“Well!” said Higginson. “Don’t take on so. You can’t be so queasy in this work. Old women will say their say, and it’s your place to listen and keep still. And stop running that water! You’ve washed your hands so long that there’s likely no hide left to them!”
With the growth of the day, her headache grew steadily worse. It made her absent-minded and nervous. She washed up the breakfast dishes, peeled vegetables, scrubbed out the pantry. Noon came, and the luncheon tray was taken up and brought back down. Miss Amanda scarcely spoke to her. Carola watched the afternoon hours crawl through aching eyes. She broke a dish, she forgot what Higginson had told her about the stove flue. Her hands shook like rags in a wind whenever she tried to lift anything. Four o’clock. Five thirty. Six o’clock. At eight, Donald would be by with his wagon and team to take her home. Behind her forehead the pain was a hot, tight band.
“You’d better mind what you’re about, my girl,” Higginson told her crossly.
Carola set her teeth against the sick pounding of her skull and took the supper tray from Higginson. She would be careful. She wouldn’t spill anything. But when she entered the bedroom, the dumb feeling of outrage swept over her again so that the tray shook in her hands. For a moment she almost hoped the old woman would say something, would attempt to repeat her sly caress. Then, thought Carola, it would be time and cause for striking out— for hitting at that useless body, clawing the evil, bloated face to strips.
She put down the tray with a sense of shock. What had come, over her? She had never thought things like that in her life! And her head had never hurt so.
But the meal went off without incident, and Carola was through with the dishes and waiting in the kitchen when Donald came. As she buttoned her coat, she could see his wagon through the window, see him sitting atop it, lazily flicking flies from the horses with his whip. She thought with satisfaction of his quick temper. He would probably burn this house down if she told him what the old lady had said to her. She put on her hat, and then Miss Amanda’s bell jangled. Twice.
“That’s for you,” Higginson said. “You’d better go up and see what she wants. Don’t fidget. Your young man will wait. I’ll tell him you’ve been held up.”
Carola looked at the woman desperately and went. She felt she could not bear the sight of Miss Amanda again that day. But there was the bedroom door. She opened it and went in.
“Going, Carola?” asked Miss Amanda sweetly. “But of course! How stupid I’m getting. There’s someone waiting for you, isn’t there? I can see him through the window here if I pull myself up a little. There! Is that your Donald?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Carola answered quickly. “Did you, want something, ma’am?” She thought, “If you say. anything more, I’ll walk out. I’ll tell Donald. I’ll never come back.”
But all Miss Amanda said was: “Very well. But before you go, I wish you’d take away one of these pillows. I can’t sleep with all of them.”
Carola might have been more wary. She might have run then, out of the room, away from the chiming of the china clocks and the twisting of the old, unquiet hands. But Miss Amanda’s voice was fretful and complaining, the way an old woman’s has a right to be. And Carola went up to the bed to do as she was told.
“That’s better,” said Miss Amanda. “Much better.”
Suddenly her hands clamped over Carola’s shoulders, forcing her down on the bed, holding her so that the girl’s frightened face was only an inch from her own. Those hands were very strong. One of them alone was quite capable of keeping Carola where she was.
“Let me go!” Carola gasped. She could hardly force her voice out of her dry, throbbing throat. The headache cut into her brain. It caught fire with what Miss Amanda was saying.
“Not just now, Carola. You see, you’re not going to meet your lover, Carola. Never again. But he won’t be disappointed. He won’t ever know. How should he, when you aren’t even Carola any more— Carola carola carola—”
The voice seemed to come now from the old eyes. It gathered about Carola and held her. It became part of the roaring pain within her, part of the silly china clocks scratching away at time. She heard the windand the darkness, and then the old face vanished, leaving only the pits of eyes. Only two pits which became one, a pulling well of night which she plunged down, down.
And then the room was quiet. The aching left her skull, became a weakness so intense that it was like fire. It spread down through her thighs, her ankles, her feet. They stretched out before her, massive, covered with quilts. Quilts that seemed to have no weight.
With a speechless fascination she watched herself, in a brown, high-buttoned coat, get up from the bed, cross the room, open the door and go out. The footsteps went swiftly down the stairs, but she could not follow them. She could not even get to the mirror to find out why the little finger of her right hand should be crooked out like that. She could not do any of these things because, as she realized with a slow horror, she had not walked in more than forty years, and would never walk again!
The room spun, then settled. She realized almost immediately that although she was imprisoned, she was not helpless. The bell rope hung from the head of her bed, just to the left. The alien, bloated arm moved to her will, sent peal after peal to halt the retreating feet on the stairs.
She remembered words the old, wet mouth had said: “There’s someone waiting for you, isn’t there? I can see him through the window if I pull myself up a little.”
And Carola, at the thought of Donald and the Thing which wore her body, dragged the leaden weight up on the pillows, clung to the bedposts and saw him also. Down there in the yard, slouched on the. wagon seat, handsome, careless. His face turned to the light which streaked through the open kitchen door. He smiled at the girl who came through that door to the wagon.
“Well, Carola,” he called to that girl, “you’ve kept me a time, you have.” His voice stabbed clearly through the bedroom window and through Carola.
She saw the face which had been hers laughing up at Donald. She saw him put out his arms to lift the girl up beside him. But he never did, for with one heavy hand, Carola flung open the bedroom window and screamed at them in a voice she had never spoken with before.
“Stop, thief! Thief!”
She pulled herself around so that she hung over the window sill. Below, Higginson came running from the kitchen door to stare upward. Donald and the girl stared up at her also, their faces frozen with surprise. Words formed cool and whole in her brain. She knew exactly what to do.
“My rings!” she screamed to Higginson. “That girl’s got my rings!”
The face below which had been hers, arched its white neck in protest. Whatever the strength of Miss Amanda’s will, the body it ruled now was no match for Higginson’s strength. Outraged, the cook caught the girl’s arm, jerked her out of Donald’s reach and into the house. For a moment Donald sat stunned. Then he jumped to the ground. He looked more bewildered than angry.
“I don’t know what this is all about,” he shouted after Higginson, “but you’re not taking her in there alone. I’m coming, too!”
He spoke prematurely. Higginson, having reached the house, shoved her prisoner inside. Then she waited in the doorway just long enough to give Donald a push which threw him off balance. The door slammed in his face, and did not open again in response to his furious knocking.
Carola closed the window, so that the knocking dulled and was no louder than her heart. She sank back against the pillows to wait. Higginson evidently had the girl in hand. She was attempting to force her up the stairs to the bedroom, and their footsteps came shuffled and uneven to Carola, broken once by scuffling. Then the door opened and Higginson pushed the girl inside.
“You can go, Higginson,” said Carola. “I’ll attend to this alone.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll send for the police if you say so, but she ought to be made to give up your rings first. I thought I could—”
“The police,” Carola murmured. “Yes, the police. Call them and then come back.”
“You can’t keep me here forever, you know,” she heard Amanda say in the warm, young voice. “When the police come, they’ll find all the rings locked in that box on the bureau. They’ll put you down for a trouble-making old woman and maybe leave it at that. But they’ll let me go— and I’ll take Donald with me ! Your precious Donald!”
She said this over twice again, coming closer to the bed as she spoke. When she was near enough she leaned over and almost spat out the last words at the old, watchful face.
As if the scene had happened a hundred times before, Carola knew what she must do. Beneath the young face was a young, white neck. Carola had not known that the old hands could move so quickly, that the girl’s throat would fit them so well. The strength of the fingers filled her with an almost unbearable pleasure.
Feet were coming up the stairs outside before Carola released the dead throat. A policeman’s tread, heavy and impersonal. For a moment she only listened and waited, then her brain roused with alarm. Not only the old legs were paralyzed now. She could not take her eyes from the terrible strength of those fingers, hooked to fit a girl’s neck. Nine hooked fingers. The tenth had thrust itself out fastidiously.
Higginson’s voice preceded the policeman in the hall. It came clearly through the bedroom door.
“In here,” she was saying, “and time you showed up. It’s a pity honest folk have to go looking for you when there’s trouble! The old lady’s bedridden, too, and what’s the law for if it’s not to protect the likes of her, I want to know?