By the time she arrives someone has already brought in the skeleton, which rests diagonally against the wooden seat and arms of a chair at the head of the table. There are decorations, as well as food, all untouched. No one looks at the skeleton, even if as usual everyone, in one way or another, is talking about it. As she moves toward the table, someone seated there remarks that she ought to go and help the others with preparations. She pretends not to hear. It is not her lateness which bothers her. She wants to see the skeleton, wants to stand close to it. After all, it couldn’t be said that she disbelieves in the skeleton—she believes, for one thing, that it exists. She finds herself taking issue only when it comes around to speculation, such as concerning how the skeleton will be clothed. Even now most of the discussions amount to quiet arguments which proceed uneasily until they stall at an inevitable point: in truth, the guests are hesitant to give up their clothing for the skeleton to wear. This admission is always delivered with gravity, and of course everyone is admitting the very same thing. It is clear enough (or everyone hopes so) that strictly as far as they are concerned they might dress the skeleton in their clothes and feel proud about it, and no doubt the others would feel proud to see them naked or wearing robes or blankets, passing through town that way, and they themselves would nod at onlookers and consider it an honor. The simpler problem is this: would the skeleton be gratified, in whatever sense it might be, by this man’s clothing, or this man’s, or this woman’s or child’s? Has any particular man or woman the right to clothe the skeleton? Of course these questions couldn’t be put to the skeleton. It is felt, nevertheless, that the right clothing would lie over the skeleton’s frame in such a way that its appropriateness would, as it were, announce itself. And people are concerned enough about untoward possibilities. What if the skeleton is dressed, what if all seems as it should be and the celebrations go on, but in time there comes to be a sense that the clothing, even as all felt sure for however long that it was right, has been wrong all along, and now this new sense in the midst of celebration? Would the clothing be removed and returned to its owner? Would the owner wear it again, or destroy it or give it away? If he kept those clothes as souvenirs, of what would they serve to remind him?
So now, again, she is here. What the others don't know is that she postponed coming according to a sequence of impulses whose intricacy she had to discover as she went along. First she thought: I can't go there now, so I'll wait an hour. When that time came she thought: I should have gone nearly ten minutes ago, so I'd better wait another fifteen, and then I'll go. Even when it seemed to her to be just the right time, there would be something to delay her—she couldn't find her purse, and then once she'd found it she would realize that she didn't want to carry it there—and so she'd have to wait again. When that waiting was over she may or may not feel it to be time, and then something else was liable to delay her. This went on for so long that she realized she was late, or rather that they must by now consider her to be late, although even as she realized it she felt it wasn't time to go, so that she had to wait even longer, until everything inside and outside of her seemed to allow her passage. This way, when she did arrive, she felt like someone who knows she is wrong and does not wish to be right.
When, having gone into the next room, she discovers that there are no preparations underway, but instead only a few women—three of them—seated together, one speaking and the others listening with interest, she feels a certain satisfaction, considering that the one who sent her, as if by way of penalty, into this room turns out to have had no idea what was occurring there. That one will go on satisfied with the assumption that anyone not with him now must be elsewhere getting ready to join him. It seems to her that what that one above all deserves is never to be disabused of his dubious assumption. But already she is no longer thinking of him. When she sits down at the table (and the others nod as though they knew she would come), she sees that the speaker is trading an empty wooden spool from one palm to the other, so that for an instant it seems as if everything she says results from the anxiety of holding the spool momentarily in the wrong hand. She says: “But he only told me that afterward. We never talked about the skeleton, and back then I had no interest in it. I knew he did, but that's not why I loved him. In those days I let the skeleton be. I don't think I had any idea that would ever have to change. I don't remember feeling guilty—I didn't feel I needed to take an interest. It was something I wanted to do for him. My sisters were both big on the skeleton. Whereas my father wouldn't even allow the subject, and of course by then my sisters had stopped coming to see him. It must have broken his heart, I suppose. Charles didn't want me to visit my father either, but I just couldn't take it seriously. And then one night he didn't come home. We didn't know he was going to see the skeleton every night—he hated it so much that he had to go and look at it. Charles had a number of explanations for that, which I didn't care to pay attention to. Charles would never have said anything against my father, except in this connection. The skeleton took precedence over good form. When my father disappeared, nobody wanted to look for him—nobody but me. Everyone knew he was all right but that he would never come back, and it was true: he won't come back, and now I don't want him to. I'm not ashamed—it's not that—but all the same I don't want him to see the way things changed. It's vain of me, but I feel as though our existence together then was something that I gave him, and I want him to keep it. Even now—and I don't think it's because of all this, or not entirely—even now I don't like to look at the skeleton directly, and when I do look I keep it to brief intervals, because I'm always sure that if I look too long I'm going to see a centipede crawl out of its mouth.”
Outside she finds the skeleton unchanged. Most of the seats are now occupied. It bothers her that some of the guests have brought their children, and suddenly she wishes she had never come. Once, at a similar gathering, she was confronted by the mother of two children whom she had been trying to distract. The children, speaking in whispers which she could scarcely make out, agreed that there was little to be said for the notion of fabric lying directly over bones. She had said almost nothing, but as the mother led the children away, apparently already trying to make them forget what they had said to each other, she glanced over her shoulder with a mixture of pity and anger.
Even she finds it incredible that throughout her youth none of the people around her spoke about the skeleton—she is sure, and has always been sure, that many of them didn't know it existed at all. From most of them, on the other hand, she had acquired an indistinct sense that there was something like the skeleton, but even they took the matter lightly. She was once even fairly embarrassed. She had to come here, finally, in order to try to make it real for herself. And she imagined someone ridiculing her by saying: “You should never have forced yourself to take an interest in the first place. Before you'd begun to think about the skeleton you were on a course which was nearly charming, taken strictly as it was, and because you were convinced of it you were able to inch your way, however insensibly, toward success, just as you meant to do. Once your self-consciousness set in—after all, it was self-consciousness, and not curiosity, which led you to the skeleton—your movement became erratic and began to fall apart. At least while you were oblivious you had a chance.” There is no one to say these things to her. She thinks they must be what she wishes to say to herself. And there are always others to say other things, which hurt her as much.
But now there is only the actuality of the skeleton—a yellowishness which seems to spread outward from crevices, without covering the bones entirely and without quite achieving yellowness. Maybe those bones are gray, and in that case maybe she takes them to be yellow only because she believes that her own skeleton is growing yellow. But she is certain that she has never wished to think of her own skeleton—there is no question of her having assigned it a color. Later it will be to this actuality that she will cling, grateful above all for something before which the chasm of possibility falls open with such enormity as to make her shudder. And yet she is sure already (maybe by being sure she can stave it off) that the others will detect her gratitude and call her on it. But of course, even if it were to happen as she fears, they wouldn't really detect it; rather, it would only occur to them to pretend to have detected it. And anything of this sort that they allow her now places them farther from the destination which no one can name and no one wants to name. The motive behind all they do in connection with the skeleton is to lay claim to something which they all dread owning; whereas she has happened upon an identicality between the commonest understanding and the direst blindness. She would never have sought such an impossibility—it has as though found her—but it threatens to shed a light on what it is in the skeleton they will most need to keep in darkness if they are ever to know the thing as they wish to now. Even if she had the desire, she would lack the means to convince them that all of this has been accidental and is, even, at least in the ways which would mean most to them, of no interest to her. For now it is only the sham-yellow of the bones, which—only for now—keeps her at a distance from them, as though on the other side of a stream as narrow as it is violent.
This comfort beneath the shadow of the actual has precedents, and the one which occurs to her now also strikes her as least likely—of all things, her own puberty. This same solitary calm, which it would be careless to refer to as awe, was really what sustained her in that transition, which she never understood but which she came, like everyone, to accept as ordinary. In fact, it wasn’t until such acceptance that she could have been capable of calling what she endured during that time—what, essentially, she was—a transition. Those around her must have pushed down the least effort to allow in their minds (she is sure of this, and was sure of it then) for the absolute bewilderment that her every movement then betrayed. All of it struck her then even less as an onslaught than as a breaking-apart. The things she was losing seemed to be replaced by nothing more distinct than the incongruity of their loss; and, worst of all, once they were gone they could no longer be itemized—their names and their very significance had receded into the pulp of their mutilation. From now on, not only were these things no longer her own but they were no longer welcome—out of desperation, she obligated herself (there could be no other way to say it) to hate their memory. The only refuge from so intolerable an infinity was to give herself over to its bare occurrence—in no way to its meaning (it didn’t have a meaning), but to the starkness of its coming-about. There were no more than two or three attempts to put these things in words. Her sister responded almost violently when she once blurted out: “Everything that we call our adulthood—and, since all is measured by looking backward, everything that we call our lives—is only what we piece together out of the remains of those things taken away from us at twelve or thirteen.” Even she found that she mistrusted herself as soon as she had made the utterance, and she never again said anything like it, not even silently to herself.
Now the guests are eating and for a brief moment she nearly knows why she came. The man seated across from her is not staring, though every so often he looks up at her in a particular way. If this makes her uneasy it is because it means that he is preparing to speak. And soon enough he does, and the moment he begins speaking his wife, as though embarrassed, lays the wooden spool, which she has for hours been carrying and transferring from hand to hand, onto the tablecloth with a kind of finality. It is as though she hopes by relinquishing the object to make herself deaf. The man notices but makes a point not to respond.
“It’s actually all right,” he says, and then he looks at her squarely. She turns her eyes onto his wife, who appears to wish she still held the spool in her hands, or in each hand alternately. “I only mean,” he says, “it’s all right that you don’t acknowledge the skeleton.”
She turns again to the man and says, “Of course I acknowledge it.” She makes a gesture with one hand toward the chair where the skeleton is propped before an empty plate.
“That's fine. But it's all right, I'm saying, if you don't. No one is disturbed about it.”
With the word disturbed she begins to feel a kind of shift. Suddenly she wants to take the spool and work it from hand to hand. She says: “After all, I am here.”
“Yes, assuredly you are, and I'd be the last to say there is anything wrong with it. Whether you recognize the skeleton or you don't you're entitled to be here.”
It is simply by saying these things that he has made it a matter of recognition and a matter of entitlement . It occurs to her that she has gone to certain lengths to situate herself, and has even met with some success, which this person—obviously this is the man named Charles, whom his wife spoke of earlier—has disrupted by his selection of words. From this point on, there with be, with everything else, the matter of whether she is entitled to be present at all (and it would seem, at any rate to this man, who watches her and waits for her response in a manner which seems for the time being to conceal suspicion, that she is). But even now that she has begun, silently, to accuse him, she has to acknowledge that it was she herself who stepped into the trap by speaking. It may be that she left him no choice but to use the language which now confines her. She would have anticipated none of this. She had been invited in exactly the same manner as everyone—or else not. She doesn't know how the others came to be invited, whether, for that matter, they were invited or whether, rather, they had been so instrumental throughout the thing's development that invitation would have been superfluous—whether, in other words, they might all be hosts and she the sole guest. But even in that case she mustn't be the sole guest, and she now glances in a way which is new to her toward the skeleton.
There are six of them at the table: all of the women with whom she sat earlier, two of them with their husbands. During the silence, the unmarried one, seated on the other side of Charles, eyes the spool as though she too would like to pick it up. Another of the husbands—she doesn't ask for his name, even when she realizes that he has begun to speak to her—takes a small piece of lettuce and, just before tearing it gently in half, says: “There may be some of us who are at least a little disturbed, as Charles puts it.” He lays one half of the lettuce leaf on his tongue and as he chews she discerns by his expression that he doesn't like the taste; he places the other half on his napkin, and then, still faintly chewing, he says: “You could be more forthcoming about your objection to dressing the skeleton.”
“There is nothing to object to,” she says. “No one has ever made any overture toward dressing it.”
“No, it's true that nobody has. But you go so far as to dismiss the question. Someone has observed you speaking privately to the children, and I have an idea what you may have said to them.”
“I didn't say anything. They had already made up their minds by the time I approached.”
Charles clears his throat and looks over at his wife. The other man speaks again.
“That may be reasonable enough, but don't say you didn't speak to them. And saying anything at all to children in this kind of setting is…indelicate. All of this is nothing if not delicate.”
It seems he has forgotten or changed his mind about the lettuce, because he takes the fragment from the napkin and puts it in his mouth.
She produces a wide smile and says: “Is it necessary for me to feel like I'm on trial?”
He swallows. “You're not,” he says. “I agree with Charles; you're as much entitled to be here as anyone. What I wish you'd admit is that you would never give the skeleton your clothes.”
“Why should I admit what you're already convinced of?”
“I'd like to hear you say it.”
“But you already know.”
He waves a hand as though to convey that he can't bear to continue. She assumes that someone else will speak, but for some time there is silence. Presently even the woman who laid down the spool has become expressionless. A boy comes and picks up the empty salad bowls. Some of the guests ask for more water and the man who was speaking—not Charles, but the other—asks for a new napkin.
After everyone has eaten she finds herself alone for a short time with the unmarried woman, who has begun to tell her how absurd the exchange was.
“Charles is the worst,” she says. “All of that politeness. Half the time I don't even know why anybody does this, except out of habit.”
She doesn't like the unmarried woman and she wants the conversation to go quickly. Nevertheless, it is true about Charles. He has designed his politeness carefully so that she might note its transparency first. But he wants her to realize—and she does—that he really isn't angry at her, even if there is no one else to whom to show his anger. It couldn't be said that she doesn't mind—she has gone from talking herself into coming to wondering why she is here at all, and it astounds her to consider the turns she has taken between two points so apparently identical. The nearest approximation to indifference, then, is that she resents being singled out for their hostility no more than she might for anything else. She would prefer to move among these people as though invisibly—she would like to skirt them as though one of their own attributes, something to which they would long ago have grown oblivious. If the company of the skeleton could come with such a condition—the condition of invisibility—she feels certain that she would long ago have achieved an involvement that would surpass nearly anyone's. But with every encroachment of such a speculation—such as now—she begins to feel conceited and the notion caves in on itself.
On the other side of the room some of them have cornered a mouse and are trying to catch it in a dustpan. There are two women and a man involved in the chase, all of them with their sleeves rolled up to the elbows. By the particular flush in their cheeks it is clear to her that though they have no wish to kill the mouse they are determined, almost savagely, to possess it. She doesn't bother to wonder what they will do with it once it has been caught. And as she turns away their fierce excitement congeals in her memory into permanence. She approaches the skeleton. On the top of the skull two holes have been drilled, one smaller than the other. The larger hole appears to be older and its threads nearly stripped. In that instant it is as though someone stands behind her—not someone to whom she would ascribe a history or a name, of whom she would think to expect things, but someone who manages to be present and nothing else—and as the presence embeds itself it seems to her that she sees moving images against the wall behind the table—they are hanging the skeleton in a dry, dark place, by joining two hooks, one screwed into a ceiling plank and the other attached to the top of the skull. Out of this, she realizes, there could come a rumor, regarding a woman identical to her in all respects but one—that she would be someone else—who came to this gathering under duress and ended by putting all of her clothes on the skeleton and going away naked. She would try at first, as though according to a logic she had known all her life, to put each article on the skeleton in the same order in which she removed it from herself; but, as the outer garments came off of her first and the undergarments last, she would finally lay each article carefully on the table before the skeleton (someone would have come and cleared the skeleton's place setting as soon as the woman had begun to disrobe) so that, when she was naked, the articles on the top of the pile would be those which she had removed last. She could then move through the pile from top to bottom and everything would go on the skeleton in precise order. As this rumor took shape, as though out of the detritus of all of that evening's misgivings, she became increasingly convinced that by virtue of allowing these images (in all of which Charles was virtually deprived of a face) she was entitled to bring to them some detail as concession to herself. So, before leaving, the naked woman, identical to her in all respects but one, would approach those in the corner and capture the tiny animal which they had chased in circles with the dustpan; she would cup it gently between both hands and on her way across the room it would wriggle frantically, whereas as soon as she'd reached the skeleton and opened her palms it would suddenly become still. She would slip it gently into the skeleton's breast pocket. Passing through the door she would glance over her shoulder and detect the pocket throbbing faintly with the animal's breath and with the regular strokes of its minuscule heart.