Mrs. Mean’s dandelions

The surrender is far from unconditional. Mrs. Mean vents her hate upon the dandelions. She scours them out of the earth. She packs their bodies in a basket and they are dried and burned. She patrols with an anxious eye the bordering territory where the prevailing winds blow the soft heads from the plants of her negligent neighbor—not, of course, Mrs. Cramm, who has a hired boy, but the two young worshipers of flesh who live on her right and who never appear except to hang out towels or to speed in and out of the late afternoon in their car. Their hands are for each other. They allow the weeds all liberty. There the dandelions gloriously flourish. From their first growth across her line, she regards them with enmity. Their blooming fills her with fury and the instant the young couple drive off in their convertible, Mrs. Mean is among the bright flowers, snapping their heads until her fingers are yellow; flinging the remains, like an insult, to the ground where no one but the impervious pair could fail to feel the shame of their beheaded and shattered condition. With a grand and open gesture, unmistakable from where my wife and I boldly sit and enjoy it, and meant for the world, Mrs. Mean lifts her soiled hands above her head and shakes them rapidly.

There are too many dandelions of course. The young couple does not go out often; and while Mrs. Mean dares, during the time of the dandelions’ cottoning, to pace the property line, glaring, her arms in scorn upon her hips, her face livid with furiously staged resignation, watching helplessly the light bolls rise and float above her peonies, hover near her roses, fall like kisses upon her grass, indecently rub seed against her earth; she would not consider —honor would not permit—stepping one foot across the borders if the young couple might observe it, or speaking to them, even most tactfully, about the civic duties of householders; and indeed, she is right this once at any rate; for if those two could not see what we saw so easily, and if they were not shamed or outraged into action by Mrs. Mean’s publicly demonstrated anger against them, she might plow and salt the whole of the land their castle grows on and expect no more effect than the present indifferent silence and neglect.

So there are too many dandelions and they go speedily to seed. The seeds rise like a storm and cross in clouds against her empty threats and puny beatings of the air. Mrs. Mean, then, as with all else, sets her children to it. They chase the white chaff. It dances from their rush. Mrs. Mean screams incoherent instructions. The children run faster. They leap higher. They whirl more rapidly. They beat back the invasion. But inevitably the seeds bob beyond them and float on. Mrs. Mean is herself adept. She snatches the cotton as it passes. She crushes it; drops it in a paper bag. Her eye never misses a swatch of the white web against the grass, and after every considerable wind, she carefully rakes the ground. The children, however, soon make a game of it. They gambol brightly and my heart goes out to them, dancing there, as it goes out seldom: gay as they are within the ridiculous, happy inside the insane.

The children hesitate to destroy their favorites. Instead they begin to cheer them on, calculating distance and drift, imagining balloons on tortured courses. Who would want to bring such ships prematurely down or interfere with their naturally appointed, wind-given paths?

Mrs. Mean.

She waits, motionless. The clusters come, one drifting near. Her arm flies out. Her fingers snap. The boll disappears in the beak of her hand. The prize is stuffed in her sack. Mrs. Mean is motionless again though the sack shakes. I am reminded of lizards on rocks, my wife of meat-eating plants. Mrs. Mean’s patience here is inexhaustible, her skill astonishing, her devotion absolute. The children are gone. Their shouts make no impression on her. Mrs. Mean is caught up. She waits. She fills her sack. But at last the furious fingers close on air, the arm jerks back an empty hand, and Mrs. Mean lowers her head to her failure. Alive, she whirls. Her wide skirt lifts. It is a crude ballet, a savage pantomime; for Mrs. Mean, unlike the other mothers of my street, does not shout her most desperate and determined wishes at her children. She forewarns with a trumpet but if her warnings are not heeded, she is silent as a snake. Her head jerks, and I know, reading the signs, that Mrs. Mean is seeking a weapon. The children are now the errant chaff, the undisciplined bolls, and although they are quite small children, Mrs. Mean always augments her power with a stick or a strap and dedicates to their capture and chastisement the same energy and stubborn singleness of purpose she has given to the destruction of weeds.

No jungle hunt’s been quieter. She discovers a fallen branch, the leaves still green. She shakes it. The twigs whip and the leaves rustle. She catches sight of her oldest boy beside the barn, rigid with the wildest suspense. His boll is floundering in a current of air. It hurtles toward a hole in the barn where cats crawl. His mother hobbles on him, her branch high, stiff, noiseless, as if it were now part of the punishment that he be taken unaware, his joy snuffed with fright as much as by the indignity of being beaten about the ears with leaves.

I think she does not call them to their idiotic tasks because they might obey. Her anger is too great to stand obedience. The offense must be fed, fattened to fit the feeling, otherwise it might snap at nothing and be foolish. So it must seem that all her children have slunk quietly and cunningly away. It must seem that they have mocked her and have mocked her hate. They must, therefore, be quietly and cunningly pursued, beaten to their home, driven like the dogs: bunched on all fours, covering their behinds, protecting the backs of their bare legs from the sting of the switch and their ears with their hands; contorted like cripples, rolling and scrabbling away from the smart of the strap in jerks, wild with their arms as though shooing flies; all the while silent, engrossed, as dumb as the dumbest beasts; as if they knew no outcry could help them; refusing, like the captive, to give satisfaction to his enemy—though the youngest child is only two—and this silence as they flee from her is more terrible to me than had they screamed to curdle blood and chill the bone.

William H. Gass, Mrs. Mean, [In:] In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

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