In 'Mountain Lion,' Sibling Love Becomes Loathing

The Mountain Lion
The Mountain Lion
By Jean Stafford
Paperback, 248 pages
NYRB Classics
List price: $14.95

Read An Excerpt

In 2010, readers everywhere honored the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the aftermath of that celebration I'd like to tell readers about another novel that charts the coming of age of a sister and brother, this one set not in the South but out west.

When we first meet them, 8-year-old Molly and 10-year-old Ralph are inseparable. It's the two of them against the phony, boring, bourgeois world of adults. Over the course of several years, they divide their time between their proper family home in suburban Los Angeles and the isolated Colorado ranch of their Uncle Claude. During this time, and partly as a result of living this often confusing double life, their relationship falls apart.

It seems the older Molly gets, the more of a misfit she becomes. Ralph is at times so exasperated with her that, the narrator tells us, "while he still loved her, he wished oftener and oftener that she did not exist." Molly herself has no illusions about her effect on other people. "I know I'm ugly," she says. "I know everybody hates me. I wish I were dead."

Entering his teens, Ralph becomes obsessed with, and at times exults in, his budding manhood. Molly, on the other hand, for all her intellectual precocity, desperately wants to remain a child. She wears a bathing suit when she takes a bath, and thinks of herself as "a long wooden box with a mind inside." Of all the differences threatening the siblings' love for each other, this will be the fatal one. When, in a moment of weakness, Ralph asks Molly to tell him all the dirty words she knows, she feels deeply betrayed. He has become one of them, lost to the corrupt world of adults, and Molly vows never to forgive him.

Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez is the author of six novels. Her latest book, Sempre Susan, a memoir about Susan Sontag, will be published in April. Marion Ettlinger hide caption

itoggle caption Marion Ettlinger

Stafford drew much from her own early life for The Mountain Lion. Surely some of the novel's power comes from the fact that she wrote it — in just nine months — not long after her brother, Dick, was killed in an accident. As children they had been as close as Molly and Ralph.

In an author's note to an edition published in 1971, Stafford confessed that when she wrote the last line in 1946, she was filled with remorse over what she had done to Molly. I won't reveal what Stafford did to Molly, though I will say that, as with the best and most satisfying novels, once you've finished The Mountain Lion, you can't imagine it ending any other way.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva, with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.

Excerpt: 'The Mountain Lion'

The Mountain Lion
The Mountain Lion
By Jean Stafford
Paperback, 248 pages
NYRB Classics
List price: $14.95

Ralph was ten and Molly was eight when they had scarlet fever. It left them with some sort of glandular disorder which was not malignant, but which kept them half poisoned most of the time and caused them, frequently, to have such bad nosebleeds that they had to be sent home from school. It nearly always happened that their nosebleeds came at the same time. Ralph, bleeding profusely, would stumble into the corridor to find Molly coming out of the third-grade room, a handkerchief held in a sodden bunch at her nose. Their mother could not bear the sight of blood and her distress, on seeing them straggle up the driveway, never lessened even when these midday homecomings had become a habit. Each time, she implored them to telephone her so that she could send Miguel, the foreman, in the car. But they never did, for they liked the walk home, feeling all the way a pleasant superiority to their sisters, Leah and Rachel, who were still cooped up in school with nothing at all to do but chew paraffin on the sly.

In the September following their illness and on the day Grandpa Kenyon, their mother's stepfather, was to arrive for his annual visit, they met with gushing noses outside the art supply room and seeing Miss Holihan through the open door at the paper cutter with a sheaf of manila paper, they walked on tiptoe, giggling silently until they reached the stairs and then they ran. Once outside in the empty schoolyard, they congratulated each other; Molly would not have to draw an apple on Miss Holihan's paper and Ralph would miss both Palmer Method and singing. Actually, they would gain nothing by getting home some hours before the school bus since Grandpa's train did not get into Los Angeles until the middle of the afternoon and then it was another hour before Miguel brought him up the driveway in the Willys Knight. So they dawdled more slowly than usual, not certain that they would find anything to absorb them at home, but certain, on the other hand, that their mother, fussing and chattering as she always did when they had company, would be as cross as sixty when she saw them.

It was a narrow, winding country road they walked along. On either side ran clear small ditches, making a mouth-like sound. Now and again they stopped and dipped their handkerchiefs and wiped the blood off their hands and arms. On their right was an orange grove from which, at all seasons of the year, came a heavy fragrance and where they sometimes saw flocks of such bright, unusual birds that they thought they must have flown up from the South Seas or westward from Japan. Some of the little pyramidal trees were always in bloom and some were always bearing fruit. There was a man on a ladder in the grove today and he turned when he heard them coming. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his black shirt and called, "Hello, you kiddoes," but as he was a Mexican, they did not reply and scuttered on, terrified, until they no longer heard his derisive laugh.

Next they passed Mr. Vogelman's huge clean dairy. Mr. Vogelman was a fat German who wore a white coverall and who had once been stoned by a group of second-graders when they learned what the Huns had done to the Belgians. Their mothers, fearing that he might take his revenge by treating the milk with tuberculosis germs, had written him an apology. But as the demonstration had taken place on Hallowe'en, Mr. Vogelman had misconstrued it and did not understand the letter at all. He had Guernseys whose hides gleamed in the sun like a metal, not so yellow as a banana and not so blue as milk, but something in between. Today there was a new calf near the fence, its fawn-like face wearing a look of melancholy surprise when it saw the human children staring. Its outraged mother bellowed at them, her great black nostrils hugely dilated, and they ran away for, although they would never have admitted it, they were afraid of cows. They knew a joke about a cow which they had read in The American Boy, and when they were safely beyond the pasture, they recited it as a dialogue:

Ralph: What are shoes made of?

Molly: Hide.

Ralph: Hide? Why should I hide?

Molly: Hide! Hide! The cow's outside!

Ralph: Oh, let the old cow come in. I'm not afraid.

They laughed so hard that they had to sit down in the road holding their stomachs and the laughter made their noses bleed twice as fast so that, convulsed and aching, they dabbed desperately with their handkerchiefs, screaming with pain, "Oh! Oh!" Finally, when they were sobered, Ralph said, "I guess I'll tell that joke to Grandpa," and Molly said, "Me too." Of late, Ralph had had moments of irritation with her: often, when he had finished telling a joke or a fact, she would repeat exactly what he had said immediately afterward so that there was no time for people either to laugh or to marvel. And not only that, but she had countless times told his dreams, pretending that they were her own. He did not want the joke about the cow to fall flat and so, after a reluctant pause, he agreed to let her tell it with him as they had recited it just now. It was not as long as one of the darky pieces Leah and Rachel spoke together, but it was so much funnier that they were sure Grandpa could not fail to laugh in that big, roaring way of his, slapping his knee and saying, "By George, that's a good one."

They proceeded, thinking of Grandpa, joyfully scuffing the white dust of the road until their oxfords were all powdery, even the shoelaces. Next to the dairy was a deep, dry arroyo called "the Wash." It had been hollowed out by a flood that had come in the spring of the year Leah was three, but they had so often heard the details of its devastation that they were certain their impressions came from memory and not from their mother's and her friends' talk when there was nothing new to discuss and they had to return to the thrills of the past. Mr. Fawcett had gone across a raging creek on a horse named Babe, long since dead, to rescue an aged woman whose house was later washed away. He brought her home flung over his saddle like a gunny sack of feed and gave her artificial respiration on the kitchen floor. Thousands and thousands of finches came out of the pouring rain to perch on the front porch; there were so many Father said it looked like a regular bird sanctuary; Fuschia was baking a cherry pie and Father asked her if she wanted four and twenty finches to put in it. A grapefruit tree came floating right down the driveway, roots and all, and Father planted it beside the solar tank. Every year it bore one grapefruit, which was smaller than a golf ball and almost as hard.

On the floor of the Wash, Ralph and Molly could find bright-colored stones, pink and green and yellow and blue. After a heavy rain, there was sometimes fool" s gold in the puddles. Strange harsh shallow-rooted flowers grew all over the steep slopes and clumps of mallow that yielded bitter milk. There was one place where the mud dried and cracked into wedges like pieces of pie and when Molly was very small, she thought that this was where the sandwiches lived. All mystery and evil came from the Wash. Those smooth colored stones they gathered were really stolen jewels and the thief was a coal-black Skalawag who slept in the daytime in Mr. Vogelman's cornbin but kept watch at night. They did not venture down into the Wash when they had nosebleeds because the Skalawag could smell blood, no matter how far away he was, and he would get up and come legging it after them. So they passed it quickly with sidelong glances. Last autumn, when they had taken Grandpa Kenyon to see the Wash, he had said, "Well, now, that's something like it. There's too damn much green in this here California. But that dried-up little old crick bed down there makes me think of a place that is a place." He swept his black eyes round the scene and breathed shallowly as if the sweetness of the orange blossoms offended him and he said, "To think there ain't any winter here! Why, I'd as life go to hell in a handbasket as not to see the first snow fly." The children were a little angry and shy and sensing this he explained to them-though they did not understand what he meant-that Nature here offered a man no real challenge. "You take that place of mine in the Panhandle. Nature ain't any ornrier anywhere in the world than she is right there, but she's a blooming belle of a fighter." When he had bought the land, there had not been a drop of water on the whole forty-five thousand acres of it, not a stream, not a pond. Everyone said he was a boob to buy it. But he turned in and bought it anyhow and then he took a little forked switch of holly and he chose a place on a rise just to the west of where he meant to build his house. He stood there with his holly wand, holding a fork of it in either hand. By and by, the rod bent down: where she showed him, there was a deep clear spring that had never yet gone dry.

The Wash, after that, had a new meaning for Ralph and Molly and they came to believe that the Skalawag was so watchful because he feared someone might come with a divining rod and once water was found, all his gems would be washed away. And now, too, whenever they went past, they thought of Grandpa's ranch in the Panhandle and Ralph, sighing, would say, "Golly Moses, I'd like to go out West." For they believed Grandpa Kenyon when he told them that California was not the West but was a separate thing like Florida and Washington, D. C.

For example, out West you would not find such falderal as Miss Runyon went in for. Miss Runyon lived next to the Wash in a little white house with green shutters and begonia in all the windows and Molly had loved it before Grandpa called it "a devil of a note." The flower garden came straight down to the road and standing among the beds of phlox and bachelor's buttons and oxalis were all sorts of curious creatures: a huge green frog, three brownies, a duck and four ducklings, two bluebirds as big as cats, a little Dutch girl in a sunbonnet, and a totem pole. There was a sign over the front door of the house which said "Dew Drop Inn." Next to the house was a doghouse built exactly like Dew Drop Inn and over its door was a sign that said "Dun Rovin" because Miss Runyon's sheep dog was named Rover. Under the eaves on the front porch was a bird house built like the other two but its name was not so ingenious: it was simply called "Jennie Wren, Her House."

Miss Runyon was the postmistress and was known as a character. She drove an automobile herself which she called "Mac"-short for "Machine" which she humorously pronounced "MacHeinie." She ate neither meat nor spices, for she was a follower of Dr. Kellogg. She occasionally invited the Fawcetts to a picnic supper on her lawn and served them hamburgers which were really made of Grape Nuts agglutinated with imitation calves'-foot jelly. She always came on Sunday afternoon to read their paper and made no secret of the fact that she liked the funnies as well as any child, reading them with the same unamused absorption that Ralph and Molly and Leah and Rachel did. Once she said that she was tired to death of Elmer Tuggle and his everlasting baseball mitt; Happy Hooligan was her favorite. In spite of her aggressive good nature, she was very timid and could not sleep alone in a house, so she had living with her a little Japanese woman named Mrs. Haisan. If ever Mrs. Haisan had to be away, Leah and Rachel went there to sleep, although they never wanted to, for the first time they stayed with her, she suddenly looked up from McCall's in the middle of the evening and said tensely, "Hark! I heard a human swallow!" Ralph and Molly thought it was likely that it had been the Skalawag swallowing and the possibilities of what he had been swallowing were so numerous and terrifying that they could not hear the word without trembling.

It was thought, jestingly, by Mrs. Follansbee, the pastor's wife, that Miss Runyon had set her cap for Mr. Kenyon, part of this supposition being based on the rhyming of the two names; and it was true that several times during his visits she had invited them all to come and take "pot luck" with her but they never went, for as Mrs. Fawcett said in the bosom of her family, "I am sure I don't know what a hearty eater like Mr. Kenyon would do if he had to have an evening meal of cereal, I don't care how she disguised it."

Ralph thought perhaps he could tell Grandpa a funnystory about Miss Runyon, not a true one but one in which he just used her name, and he stood leaning upon the picket fence, pondering and allowing his nose to drip on the palings so that two of them looked like spears that had struck home. Or maybe he could tell one about Mrs. Haisan. Mrs. Haisan had two children about his and Molly's age who lived with their aunt, a tiny little thing who was Mrs. Fawcett's washerwoman. Their names were Maisol and Maisako and one of them had been born on the Fourth of July and the other on April Fool's Day. One terrible day they had come with Hana and had made Ralph and Molly go down to the watermelon patch with them and not only had they cut up an unripe watermelon with a putty knife but they had said things and hinted at others so awful that Ralph and Molly had to fight them. They won very easily, of course, because the Jap kids were much smaller.

Ralph could not think of a single joke except the one about the cow. He thumbed his nose at Miss Runyon's house and chanted, "Runyon todunyon tianigo sunyon, tee-legged, tie-legged, bowlegged Runyon!" And then, seizing his sister by the hand, he ran like the wind because simultaneously Mrs. Haisan had appeared at the door of Dew Drop Inn and Rover at his door, and while Rover was as harmless as a ladybug and Mrs. Haisan more than likely had only wanted to give them a candied kumquat, it was pleasanter to think that they were rushing out in anger like the Skalawag and as soon as the house was no longer in sight, Ralph knelt down and put his ear to the road and jumping up cried, "Hey! They're a-gainin' on us!" and they did not stop running until they had turned down their own road.

When they had gone a hundred steps, they could see the palm trees that marked the boundary of their land. On this last stretch, Molly always thought for some reason of Redondo Beach where they went for a few weeks at the end of the summer. Looking up into the blank blue sky, she could feel that she was barefoot in the hot sand, hunting starfish and sand dollars, hearing the cries of the frightened ladies to their wading children who petulantly cried back that the waves were not high. The thought of the beach made her restlessly nostalgic and sometimes made her whimper, because she always remembered a feeling of queer and somehow pleasant horror when once a gull had winked at her and she had seen that his lower eyelid moved and not the upper one. But today she did not cry: Ralph was too gay, she knew, to comfort her and that was the only pleasure in crying, to be embraced by him and breathe in his acrid smell of leather braces and serge and to feel, shuddering, the touch of his warty hands on her face. It was always possible for her to will herself not to think sadly of the beach but to think instead of her dead father, of whom she had no memories but only the knowledge that he was up in the sky with Jesus and would miraculously recognize her when she came to heaven even though she had not been born when he died. This was the most thrilling thought she ever had and it had made her almost delirious ever since the day she and Ralph agreed not to die until he was ninety-nine and she was ninety-seven so that when they got up there they would look much older than their father who had died at the age of thirty-six.

From The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford. Copyright Jean Stafford 1947. Excerpted by permission of NYRB Classics.

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