Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman
Although The Cat's Pajamas, published in 2004, may not be one of Ray Bradbury's finest collections of short stories, it does contain some good ones.
“The Island,” in which a family of four (Mrs. Benton, her daughters Alice and Madeline, and her 15-year-old son Robert) live in a large house, isolated from the larger world and imprisoned by their paranoia, may not be an altogether successful story. It does, however, show Bradbury's talent for indirection.
It seems that Mrs. Benton's fears have infected her children. Bedridden, the matriarch fears that her home may be invaded, either by robbers seeking to steal the $40,000 she's hidden beneath her bed, to rape her and her daughters, or to do both before killing them all. The children share her fears. Their defenses are to arm themselves and to ensure that “the house was locked and bolted” (15).
They have also discontinued their telephone service, except for a battery-powered “intercommunication phone circuit” (18) that lets them talk to one another in their separate rooms. Preferring not to rely upon the world beyond their own house, they've also discontinued the electric service, opting for “oil lamps” and the light and heat of logs blazing in the house's fireplaces (20). To protect themselves, each of the family members, except Mrs. Benson, keeps a pistol at hand in his or her bedroom. These decisions add to their jeopardy after they hear one of the downstairs windows break and fear that a stranger has invaded the sanctuary of their isolated home.
According to the omniscient narrator, everyone hears the breaking of the window. The family responds as the reader might predict, based upon Bradbury's characterization of them: “Rushing en masse, each [to a] room, a duplicate of the one above or below, four people flung themselves to their doors, to scrabble locks, throw bolts, and attach chains, twist keys” (20). (Bradbury makes a mistake in having his omniscient narrator declare that “ four people flung themselves to their doors,” etc., since Mrs. Benton is bedridden. Confined to her bed, she would not be able to rush back to her room or lock her door; indeed, she would never have gotten out of bed to begin with.)
The Maid as Killer
Has the maid been killed by an intruder, someone who'd entered the house, perhaps to steal the money hidden under Mrs. Benton's bed, to rape her and her daughters, or to kill the family?
The maid might have a motive: the $40,000. As the person who cleans the house, she might have found the cache, although, since Mrs. Benton is bedridden, it seems unlikely. The maid could have heard of the money, perhaps when, “in the years before,” Alice and her mother debated the wisdom of locking the house and of keeping the large sum of money on hand:
“But all a robber has to do,” said Alice, “is smash a window, undo the still locks, and—”
“Break a window! And warn us? Nonsense!”
“It would all be so simple if we only kept our money in the bank.”
“Again, nonsense! I learned in 1929 to keep hard cash from soft hands! There's a gun under my pillow and our money under my bed! I'm the First National Bank of Oak Green Island!”
“A bank worth forty thousand dollars?!”
“Hush! Why don't you stand at the landing and tell all the fishermen? Besides, it's not just cash that the fiends would come for. Yourself, Madeline—me!” (17)
All the maid would have to do is to break a window. Then, as panic ensues among the members of the family, she could visit the room of each, individually, and murder them, one by one. Neither Mrs. Benton nor Robert is said to fire a weapon at their killer. Madeline does and miss her aim. Alice also fires at her attacker—three times, in fact—but with her eyes closed, so it is easy to imagine that Alice misses her target, as the omniscient narrator verifies for the reader, stating that one bullet penetrates “the wall, another . . . the bottom of the door, [and the] third . . . the top” of the door (26).
Alice as the Killer
Three of the family members are attacked and killed (or otherwise dies) in their respective bedrooms. Alice, who is in the library, alone survives. Shooting three times at the stranger who seeks to enter the library—and missing each time—Alice falls from the window she's opened, the sill of which she straddles, and makes good her escape through the snow. Was the maid also murdered? Is Alice, the sole survivor, the killer?
Because of the indirect style that Bradbury employs, which often describes actions, frequently in fragments without much context, and offers only snippets of conversation, while flitting from one character to another, either possibility seems to exist: either the maid or Alice, it appears, could be the killer.
Either could have broken a downstairs window, thereby precipitating the family's panic, and picked the victims off, one by one.
If Alice is the murderer, she certainly has the means (her gun) and the opportunity (she lives in the same house as the victims, her family), but what about the motive? What reason would she have to kill her mother, her sister, and her brother? After all, as a member of the family, she already enjoys the benefits such status confers upon her: food, clothing, shelter, even luxury.
However, she also must suffer the isolation, the deprivation (there is neither telephone service beyond the house nor electricity; nor is there much companionship, and there is no normalcy) in the “outrageous house,” which is occupied by eccentric and paranoid family members. With $40,000, she might start life anew. She alone is in the library, which suggests she has an interest in the wider world and in art and culture, articles which are in short supply in the madhouse in which she lives.
At the end of the story, objectivity appears in the figure of “the sheriff and his men” (26). Finally, there are individuals from the wider world, authorities trained to respond to emergencies and to solve crimes. Alice has been away; she has escaped; now, “hours later,” she has returned “with the police” (26).
The sheriff, observing the open front door, is surprised by the audacity of the intruder: “He must have just opened up the front door and strolled out, damn, not caring who saw!” (27)
The sheriff and his men also confirm the second set of footprints leading “down the front porch stairs into the white soft velvet snow.” The footprints are “evenly spaced,” suggesting “a certain serenity” and confidence (27).
Alice is amazed at the size of the footprints and the implication of their dimensions: “Oh, God, what a little man” (27).
Could they be the maid's footprints? Alice thinks they are the footprints of a man, but Alice never saw the person at the door to the library who'd sought to get to her; she'd fired at the library door with her “eyes shut” when she'd observed the doorknob turning, and all three of “her shots had gone wide” (26).
If the maid faked her own death, prior to killing the other family members, maybe the footprints are the maid's and not those of a male intruder. Maybe Alice has merely supposed the footprints are those of a man. After all, her mother often warned that rapists could assault them: “Besides, it's not just cash that the fiends would come for. Yourself, Madeline—me!” she'd told Alice (17). In this case, the maid left the footprints descending the front porch stairs and parading from the house “neatly” and “evenly spaced, with a certain serenity,” and Alice left the other set of footprints, those that begin outside the library window and run “away from silence” (26-27).
The first set of footprints could also be those of Alice herself. But what about the other set of footprints that Alice sees when she returns with the police, those “in the snow, running away from the silence” of the house? They are not the same set of footprints that she sees and calls to the attention of the sheriff and his men, those which lead down the front porch's stairs and across the lawn, “vanishing away into the cold night and snowing town” (27). Does this second set of footprints constitute an insurmountable problem for the idea that Alice is the killer?
After opening the front door, she could have left it open and run down the porch stairs and across the lawn to notify the police of the alleged intruder's dastardly deeds. This would be the reason that the footprints are small for a man; they were not left by a male intruder at all, but by Alice herself. The footprints that Alice sees fleeing from the library's open window could be imaginary footprints, which only she alone sees, possibly as a means of supporting her fantasy that an intruder, rather than she herself, murdered her family.
If this is the case, it makes sense that, suffering guilt, she would try to obliterate the only set of footprints at the scene, those of the “little man” (Alice herself): “Alice bent and put out her hand. She measured then tried to cover them with a thrust of her numb fingers.” And it makes sense that she stops crying only after “the wind and the winter and the night did her a gentle kindness. . . [by] filling and erasing” the incriminating evidence “until at last, with no trace, with no memory of their smallness, they were gone” (27).
Interestingly, the omniscient narrator states only that Alice saw the set of footprints leading from the open library window, but acknowledges that both she and the police see the footprints descending the front porch stairs and heading across the lawn, toward the distant, “snowing town.” Is one sight a hallucination, the other a reality?
Thanks to Bradbury's indirect communication, maybe not. The omniscient narrator does not tell the reader that the police see this second set of footprints. The omniscient narrator states only that “she [Alice] saw her footprints in the snow, running away from silence.” If Alice is the killer, after dispatching the maid, her mother, her brother, and her sister, she could have “fallen” out the library window and run to the front porch, covering her footprints as she went, the same way the wind eliminates the “small” footprints of the presumed intruder, by “smoothing and erasing them until at last . . . they were gone” (27).
An Intruder as a Killer
Alternatively, the killer could be a stranger, an intruder, come to rob or rape the women of the house, as Mrs. Benton has long imagined and feared might happen. This is the story's straightforward interpretation, and, despite a few incredulities, such as the intruder's remaining alive despite being the target of several shots fired by different individuals, the small footprints said to be his, the unlikelihood of his knowing about the cache of cash, and his breaking and entering without knowing what he risks he might face from the family inside the house, is a plausible—and perhaps the most plausible—interpretation of the plot.
Thee Family Are the Killers
Finally, another interpretation is possible concerning the killer's identity—or identities.
Maybe neither an intruder, the maid, nor Alice is the murderer. Perhaps the family members each killed him- or herself or died of fright. They are paranoid. Each has a loaded gun at hand. Although panicked by the breaking of a window, they allow (at first) that the broken window could have resulted from nothing more sinister than “a falling tree limb” or a thrown snowball. It's only after they hear a second sound, that of “metal rattling,” that they irrationally conclude that a window has been raised and that an intruder has entered their home (19). Their frantic telephone calls to one another fan the flames of their panic, as do the sounds of each successive gunshot, as the family members suppose one of their own seeks to defend him- or herself against the intruder.
Mrs. Benton sees (or imagines) her door opening, and she does not respond thereafter to Alice's frantic pleas over the telephone (24). Did she somehow take her own life?
Does an intruder actually enter the house and kill its occupants?
Do the family members kill themselves, while Alice kills the maid?
Thanks to Bradbury's indirect style, the possibilities multiply. While some may seem less likely than others, each is apt to have its own subscribers.
Among the other stories in The Cat's Pajamas that I found particularly interesting are “Ole, Orozco! Siqueiros, Si!” and “The Completist,” each of which will be murdered and dissected in future Chillers and Thrillers posts.