"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Deaf Mute Husband and Wife from Eudora Welty’s “The Key”

I just love the way Eudora Welty writes.  There is a delicateness and sensitivity to it that is hard to pin down.  I recently read her short story, “The Key,” and while it’s not worth writing up an analysis, I did want to highlight her writing.  It’s a simple story; it’s not going to win any awards.  But one of the objectives of a short story—objectives as I see them—is to capture the story of our lives, and I think this story does that.  It’s the story of a husband and wife, Albert and Ellie Morgan, both deaf mutes, waiting at a train station for a trip up to Niagara Falls.  When they talk, they talk in sign language of the deaf.  They have saved for a long time to make this trip, a trip that Ellie has waited for a good deal of her adult life.  Albert had been told that a deaf person could hear the falls when you stand by it, and so it had been the desire of their lives to experience it.  While waiting for the train a red-haired young man drops a key that Albert picks up and becomes the topic of conversation between husband and wife.  That conversation makes them miss the train.

I’ll present two sections for appreciation.  First from the opening of the story to the first segmented break.

It was quiet in the waiting room of the remote little station, except for the night sounds of insects.  You could hear the embroiling movements of the weeds outside, which somehow gave the effect of some tenuous voice in the night, telling a story.  Or you could listen to the fat thudding of the light bugs and the hoarse rushing of their big wings against the wooden ceiling.  Some of the bugs were clinging heavily to the yellow globe, like idiot bugs to a senseless smell.

Under this prickly light two rows of people sat in silence, their faces stung, their bodies twisted and quietly uncomfortable, expectantly so, in ones and twos, not quite asleep.  No one seemed impatient, although the train was late.  A little girl lay flung back on her mother’s lap as though sleep had struck her with a blow.

Ellie and Albert Morgan were sitting on a bench like the others waiting for the train and had nothing to say to each other.  Their names were ever so neatly and rather largely printed on a big reddish-tan suitcase strapped crookedly shut, because of a missing buckle, so that it hung apart finally like a stupid pair of lips.  “Albert Morgan, Ellie Morgan, Yellow Leaf, Mississippi.”  They must have been driven into town in a wagon, for they and the suitcase were all touched here and there with a fine yellow dust, like finger marks.

Ellie Morgan was a large woman with a face as pink and crowded as an old fashion rose.  She must have been about forty years old.  One of those black satchel purses hung over her straight, strong wrist.  It must have been her savings which were making possible this trip.  And to what place? you wondered, for she sat there as tense and solid as a cube, as if to endure some nameless apprehension rising and overflowing within her at the thought of travel.  Her face worked ad broke into strained, hardening lines, as if there had been a death—that too-explicit evidence of agony in the desire to communicate.

Albert made a slower and softer impression.  He sat motionless beside Ellie, holding his hand in his lap with both hands—a hat you were sure he had never worn.  He looked home-made, as though his wife had self-consciously knitted or somehow contrived a husband when she sat alone at night.  He had a shock of very fine sunburned yellow hair.  He was too shy for this world, you could see.  His hands were like cardboard, he held his hat so still; and yet how softly his eyes fell upon its crown, moving dreamily and yet with dread over its brown surface.  He was smaller than his wife.  His suit was brown, too, and he wore it neatly and carefully, as though he were murmuring, “Don’t look—no need to look—I am effaced.”  But you have seen that expression too in silent children, who will tell you what they dreamed the night before in sudden, almost hilarious, bursts of confidence. 

Every now and then, as though he perceived some minute thing, a sudden alert, tantalized look would creep over the little man’s face, and he would gaze slowly around him, quite slyly.  Then he would bow his head again; the expression would vanish; some inner refreshment had been denied him.  Behind his head was a wall poster, dirty with time, showing an old fashion locomotive about to crash into an open touring car filled with women in veils.  No one in the station was frightened by the familiar poster, any more than they were aroused by the little man whose rising and drooping head it framed.  Yet for a moment he might seem to you to be sitting there quite filled with hope.

Among the others in the station was a strong-looking young man, alone, hatless, red haired, who was standing by the wall while the rest sat on benches.  He had a small key in his hand and was turning it over and over in his fingers, nervously passing it from one hand to the other, tossing it gently into the air and catching it again.

He stood and stared in distraction at the other people; so intent and so wide was his gaze that anyone who glanced after him seemed rocked like a small boat in the wake of a large one.  There was an excess of energy about him that separated him from everyone else, but in the motion of his hands there was, instead of the craving for communication, something of reticence, even of secrecy, as the key rose and fell.  You guessed that he was a stranger in town; he might have been a criminal or a gambler, but his eyes were widened with gentleness.  His look, which traveled without stopping for long anywhere, was a hurried focusing of a very tender and explicit regard.

The color of his hair seemed to jump and move, like the flicker of a match struck in the wind.  The ceiling lights were not steady but seemed to pulsate like a living transient force, and made the young man in his preoccupation appear to tremble in the midst of his size and strength, and to fail to impress his exact outline upon the yellow walls.  He was like a salamander in the fire.  “Take care,” you wanted to say to him, and yet also, “Come here.”  Nervously, and quite apart in his distraction, he continued to stand tossing the key back and forth from one hand to the other.  Suddenly it became a gesture of abandonment: one hand stayed passive in the air, then seized too late: the key fell to the floor.

All those beautiful similes make that scene so vivid,  And then there is this touching scene.

And Albert, with his face so capable of amazement, made you suspect the funny thing about talking to Ellie.  Until you do, declared his round brown eyes, you can be peaceful and content that everything takes care of itself.  As long as you can let it alone everything goes peaceful, like an uneventful day at the farm—chores attended to, women working in the house, you in the field, crop growing as well as can be expected, the cow giving, and the sky like a coverlet over it all—so that you’re as full of yourself as a colt, in need of nothing, and nothing needing you.  But when you pick up your hands and start to talk, if you don’t watch carefully, this security will run away and leave you.  You say something, make an observation, just to answer your wife’s worryings, and everything is jolted, disturbed, laid open like a ground behind a plow, with you running along after it. 

But happiness, Albert knew, is something that appears to you suddenly, that is meant for you, a thing which you reach for and pick and hide in your breast, a shiny thing that reminds you of something alive and leaping.

Ellie sat there quiet as a mouse.  She had unclasped her purse and taken out a little card with a picture of Niagara Falls.

“Do you see the little rail?” Albert began in tenderness.  And Ellie loved to watch him tell her about it; she clasped her hands and began to smile and show her crooked tooth; she looked young; it was the way she had looked as a child.

“That is what the teacher pointed to with her wand on the magic lantern slide—the little rail.  You stand right here.  You lean up hard against the rail.  Then you can hear Niagara Falls.”

“How do you hear it?” begged Ellie, nodding.

“You hear it with your whole self.  You listen with your arms and your legs and your whole body.  You’ll never forget what hearing is, after that.”

He must have told her hundreds of times in his obedience, yet she smile with gratitude, and stared deep, deep into the tinted picture of the waterfall.

It’s lovely the way Welty goes in and out of character’s minds and just happens on a particular thought in that mind to reach a core part of that person, like in this sentence from Albert’s mind which I’ll repeat to highlight from above: “As long as you can let it alone everything goes peaceful, like an uneventful day at the farm—chores attended to, women working in the house, you in the field, crop growing as well as can be expected, the cow giving, and the sky like a coverlet over it all—so that you’re as full of yourself as a colt, in need of nothing, and nothing needing you.”

There is an actual dramatization of “The Key” into a short film, “performed exclusively in American Sign Language and created by a collaborative team of deaf and hearing artists.”  I would love to see it, but I guess it would need subtitles since I don’t know sign language.  I could not find it on YouTube, but I did find this clip of Welty’s home which has now been made into a museum.  If I ever get down to Jackson, Mississippi I would love to visit it.  The garden looks gorgeous.


  1. Awesome. I'll be looking for her works.

    1. She's mostly known for her short stories. I can't vouch for her novels, but I'd venture to say she's a great short story writer. I've been reading from The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty. Thanks Jan.