By Libby Sternberg
The 1918 flu pandemic afflicted 25 percent of the American population, killing 675,000 of them, mostly the young and otherwise healthy. One of the infected survivors was the writer Katherine Anne Porter, a Colorado newspaper reporter. She used her experiences to write the devastatingly evocative novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
The tone of this book can be summed up in one word: feverish. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Miranda, awakens from a troubled dream in which “Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen.”
This sense of impending doom threads through the episodes of this long short story. After rousing from her confusing dream, she heads to work where she fights off the efforts of an aggressive Liberty Bond salesman. From there she deals with the chauvinism of the time on the job, where she and a fellow reportress are relegated to covering theater and society news—even though a sports writer would prefer reviewing plays in her stead. She keeps her mouth shut about her unpopular anti-war views and her dislike of the stories she’s assigned because of her gender.
The beacon of light in her life is her Texas-born beau, Adam, a strapping young man in uniform, ready to be sent to the front. They meet for meals, go dancing, attend the theater, pause as funerals pass in the street (“’It seems to be a plague,’ said Miranda, ‘something out of the Middle Ages.’”). Miranda wonders why her head aches and nothing seems as real as it should be.
She simultaneously yearns for and is afraid of loving Adam:
There was only the wish to see him and the fear, the present threat, of not seeing him again; for every step they took towards each other seemed perilous, drawing them apart instead of together, as a swimmer in spite of his most determined strokes is yet drawn slowly backward by the tide. “I don’t want to love,” she would think in spite of herself, “not Adam, there is no time and we are not ready for it and yet this is all we have–“
Readers see her delirium slowly wrap her in grim sickness, and one is sometimes confused as to what is happening and what is febrile dream, a technique that makes Porter’s experience of the flu jump off the page to create a lump in one’s throat.
After she finally collapses, Adam tends to her in her boarding house, and they share a tender confession of love.
When Miranda presses Adam to reveal his feelings, he gently puts his face against hers, and then says: “Can you hear what I am saying?…What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”
As he cares for her, they both recall a spiritual:
“‘Pale horse, pale rider,'” said Miranda “(We really need a good banjo) ‘done taken my lover away–‘” Her voice cleared and she said, “But we ought to get on with it. What’s the next line?”
“There’s a lot more to it than that,” said Adam,” about forty verses, the rider done taken away mammy, pappy, brother, sister, the whole family besides the lover–“
An ambulance whisks Miranda to the hospital where she suffers through pain and more nightmares, death a whisper away. During her recovery, she sees fireworks outside the hospital windows. The war is over. As to Adam? His fate is summed up in the spiritual and Biblical passage from which the book’s title comes.
While a melancholy tale, Pale Horse, Pale Rider places the reader in a small microcosm of American history in ways no sterile nonfiction retelling of this period could. The reader learns, for example, that men didn’t like their army-issued wrist watches, thinking only sissies wore them, and that a Liberty Bond cost $50 while a lowly female reporter only earned $18 per week. These details, along with Porter’s haunting fever dream style, bring the past alive for today’s readers.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Visit her website at http://www.LibbySternberg.com