It was an old house not far from the coast, and had descended generation by generation to the women of the Putnam family. Progress literally went by it: a new four-lane highway had been built two hundred yards from the ancient lilacs at the doorstep. Long before that, in the time of Cecily Putnam’s husband, power lines had been run in, and now on cold nights the telephone wires sounded like a concert of cellos, while inside with a sound like the breaking of beetles, the grandmother Cecily moved through the walls in the grooves of tradition.
Simone Putnam, her granddaughter; Nina Putnam, her great-granddaughter; the unbroken succession of matriarchs continued, but times the old woman thought that in Simone it was weakened, and she looked at the four-year-old Nina askance, waiting, waiting, for some good sign.
Sometimes one of the Putnam women had given birth to a son, who grew sickly and died, or less often, grew healthy and fled. The husbands were usually strangers to the land, the house, and the women, and spent a lifetime with the long-lived Putnam wives, and died, leaving their strange signs: telephone wires, electric lights, water pumps, brass plumbing.
Sam Harris came and married Simone, bringing with him an invasion of washer, dryer, toaster, mixer, coffeemaster, until the current poured through the walls of the house with more vigor than the blood in the old woman’s veins.
“You don’t approve of him,” Simone said to her grandmother.
“It’s his trade,” Cecily Putnam answered. “Our men have been carpenters, or farmers, or even schoolmasters. But an engineer. Phui!”
Simone was washing the dishes, gazing out across the windowsill where two pink and white Murex shells stood, to the tidy garden beyond where Nina was engaged in her private games.
She dried the dishes by passing her hand once above each plate or glass, bringing it to a dry sparkle. It saved wear on the dishtowels, and it amused her.
“Sam’s not home very much,” she said in a placating voice. She herself had grown terrified, since her marriage, that she wouldn’t be able to bear the weight of her past. She felt its power on her and couldn’t carry it. Cecily had brought her up, after her father had disappeared and her mother had died in an unexplained accident. Daily she saw the reflection of her failure in the face of her grandmother, who seemed built of the same seasoned and secure wood as the old Putnam house. Simone looked at her grandmother, whom she loved, and became a mere vapor.
“He’s not home so much,” Simone said.
Her face was small, with a pointed chin, and she had golden-red hair which she wore loose on her shoulders. Nina, too, had a small face, but it was neither so pale nor so delicate as her mother’s, as if Sam’s tougher substance had filled her out and strengthened her bone structure. If it was true that she, Simone, was a weak link, then Sam’s strength might have poured into the child, and there would be no more Putnam family and tradition.
“People don’t change that easily,” the old woman said.
“But things--” Simone began. The china which had a history of five generations slipped out of her hands and smashed; Sam’s toaster wouldn’t toast or pop up; Simone couldn’t even use the telephone for fear of getting a wrong number, or no number at all.
“Things, things!” her grandmother cried. “It’s blood that counts. If the blood is strong enough, things dissolve. They’re just garbage, all those things, floating on the surface of our history. It’s our history that’s deep. That’s what counts.”
“You’re afraid of Sam,” the young woman accused.
“Not afraid of any man!” Cecily said, straightening her back. “But I’m afraid for the child. Sam has no family tradition, no depth, no talent handed down and perfected. A man with his head full of wheels and wires.”
Simone loved him. She leaned on him and grew about him, and he supported her tenderly. She wasn’t going to give him up for the sake of some abstract tradition--
“--it’s not abstract,” her grandmother said with spirit. “It’s in your blood. Or why don’t you sweep the floors the way other women do? The way Sam’s mother must?”
Simone had begun to clean the house while she was thinking, moving her hand horizontally across the floor, at the height of her hip, and the dust was following the motion of her hand and moving in a small, sun-brightened river toward the trash basket in the kitchen corner. Now Simone raised her hand to her face to look at it, and the river of dust rose like a serpent and hung a foot below her hand.
“Yes,” she agreed, “at least I can clean the house. If I don’t touch the good china, and look where I’m going.”
“Phui,” the old woman said again, angrily. “Don’t feel so sorry for yourself.”
“Not for myself,” Simone mumbled, and looked again toward the garden where her daughter was doing something with three stones and a pie plate full of spring water.
“I do despair of Nina,” Cecily said, as she had said before. “She’s four, and has no appearance. Not even balance. She fell out of the applerose tree, and couldn’t even help herself.” Suddenly the old woman thrust her face close to her granddaughter. It was smooth, round, and sweet as a young kernel of corn. The eyes, sunk down under the bushy grey brows, were cold and clear grey.
“Simone,” the old woman said. “You didn’t lie to me? You did know she was falling, and couldn’t get back in time to catch her?”
A shudder passed through Simone’s body. There was no blood in her veins, only water; no marrow in her bones, they were empty, and porous as a bird’s. Even the roots of her hair were weak, and now the sweat was starting out on her scalp as she faced her grandmother and saw the bristling shapes of seven generations of Putnam women behind her.
“You lied,” the old woman said. “You didn’t know she was falling.”
Simone was a vapor, a mere froth blowing away on the first breeze.
“My poor dear,” the old woman said in a gentle voice. “But how could you marry someone like Sam? Don’t you know what will happen? He’ll dissolve us, our history, our talents, our pride. Nina is nothing but an ordinary little child.”
“She’s a good child,” Simone said, trying not to be angry. She wanted her child to be loved, to be strong. “Nina isn’t a common child,” she said, with her head bent. “She’s very bright.”
“A man with his head full of wheels, who’s at home with electricity and wires,” the old woman went on. “We’ve had them before, but never allowed them to dominate us. My own husband was such a man, but he was only allowed to make token gestures, such as having the power lines put in. He never understood how they worked.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, “Your Sam understands. I’ve heard him talk to the water pump.”