A Journal of the Plague Year

Pale Horse, Pale Rider BY Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 224 pages. $20.

The cover of Pale Horse, Pale Rider

MY FRIENDS’ FACES are hovering in a line of small, burnished tiles. Each square looks alive in a miniaturized way, its own gestural universe, flickering and reflective like sequins from the hem of a dress. We are discussing the end of the world, which means, for us, the fortunate, the end of our habits, the necessitation of new ones. We talk about science, swapping scraps of data with the fervent authority we previously reserved for gossip. “Well, I heard . . .” We talk about ventilators, a new finite resource. There were already so many finite resources, it’s odd to discover a new one. As the conversation bobs across the glistening screen, a voice calls out, across the expanse, “Audrey! You’ve been on one, right? What was it like?”

A day or eight later, I am in the bath, on my phone, floating across more tiled universes. I find an online scan of Katherine Anne Porter’s 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” and I eagerly read it from beginning to end, refilling the hot water every twenty minutes. I didn’t plan to start or finish it, but once I had started, I couldn’t not finish. The story makes me weep with such ferocity that I imagine I am filling the rapidly cooling bath with my tears. I feel purposeful in my weeping, designed for it, like a faucet. I have found a strange yet exact answer to my friend’s question, as if hurtled with intention from another woman’s sickness, clean across a century. Out of the sky: This! This is what it was like—to die and then live.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, American National Red Cross Collection, LC-DIG-anrc-02548.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, American National Red Cross Collection, LC-DIG-anrc-02548.

Porter described “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as “nearly pure autobiography,” based on her experience of contracting and surviving the 1918 flu at twenty-eight years old. She was working as a journalist in Denver when the pandemic arrived seemingly overnight. She was hospitalized for months, with such an extreme and protracted case that her family preemptively organized her funeral. In a 1963 interview with the Paris Review, Porter recollected, “Everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again.” During Porter’s illness, her hair turned white, like in a children’s story about meeting a ghost.

In the first half of the novella, before the pandemic has reached her, our protagonist, Miranda, isn’t worried about getting sick. She’s worried about her new crush, Adam, a soldier about to be deployed to the trenches, where the average life expectancy is nine minutes. They laugh together about love’s newfound doom, dance, walk around, smiling “continually at each other, odd changing smiles as though they had found a new language.” He compliments her perfume, and she remarks offhandedly that she can’t smell it. She must have some kind of cold.

The second half of the novella turns on a hinge, swinging closed like a door. Adam comes to pick her up for their nightly date, but Miranda is unable to get out of bed. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, he feeds her soft ice cream, and her friends hunt down one of the last available hospital beds in the city. Porter transcribes the details of Miranda’s inner world as it detaches from its own aliveness. The seam between life and death doesn’t rip or tear; it’s more like a methodical unbuttoning, loop by loop. There is still a person in there, “entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence.” She lies “on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless,” “her mind feeling among her memories of words she had been taught to describe the unseen, the unknowable.” Language is eventually buried under the weight of nonbeing: “Granite walls, whirlpools, stars are things. None of them is death, nor the image of it. Death is death, said Miranda.” In the depths, “there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being. . . . Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said. Trust me. I stay.”

I stayed. I was fifteen, and my mother sat with me while a machine pushed air into my lungs and then sucked it out again. The sound of the machine is almost comical, like being strapped to Darth Vader, or the echoing churn of a factory. Nothing sounds less like life than life support. I couldn’t speak, or move, but I could think—it’s not death, an eclipse of all senses. It’s hell, because it is self-aware. It’s also heaven, the highest high, if being high is measured by the extent of your untethering, the gap between you and the room you are in. My self became the room I was in. On the last day, edging closer and closer to life as previously understood, I wrote notes on a little pad, gagged by cerulean tubes. The notes sound like they were written by a very polite infant: Do you know when my mother is coming back? I’m sorry. I hate this. I hate this. I love you. Please stay.

The truest, most heartbreaking part of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is the anticlimax of Miranda’s survival. On the other side, one of the first things Miranda does is draft a shopping list: lipstick, perfume, stockings. Objects, objects for bodies. The sunlight doesn’t feel warm. Months have passed; Adam is already dead. After she has touched the muddy sediment of innate life, this world seems cavernous, whistling in her ears. Under the shadow of hope, she promises herself: “Soon I shall cross back and be at home again. The light will seem real and I shall be glad when I hear that someone I know has escaped from death. I shall visit the escaped ones and help them dress and tell them how lucky they are, and how lucky I am still to have them.” On her way out of the hospital, she wonders if she’ll be able to return to her apartment. She hasn’t paid rent all this time.

Audrey Wollen is a writer from Los Angeles who lives in New York.