“Gavin Highly” — Janet Frame

Literature

Did it happen this way? The land lay like stone, and one night, all night long, rain pelted down on it the way people, they say, hammer hard on a stone to find blood. And in the morning the land was cut in two by a deep flow of creek, clotted with red weed—Gavin Highly’s creek.

But all this was a long time ago. I did not know back then that hearts could be laid out like land and cut in two by storms coming out of the sky, or that dreams could be thrown, as Gavin Highly threw the ashes of his fire or his oyster shells or his old tins and bottles or his scraps of food, deep into the dark flowing divided heart to be buried there. I did not know, and my brother did not know. We cared more about plums—ah, they were yellow and dusty blue and hung on trees, over Gavin Highly’s fence, and in the early autumn the sun burned on each plum till its tight yellow or blue dusty skin gave in and rolled up like a blind to let in more sun. The plums split and were ripe and we ate them and, if Gavin Highly caught us, all he said, in one breath, was “Hop-it-you.” I think he understood about plums.

Read the rest of Janet Frame’s story “Gavin Highly” at The New Yorker.

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“Jon” — George Saunders

Books

Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coördinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we learned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame!

And then nightfall would fall and our facility would fill with the sounds of quiet fast breathing from inside our Privacy Tarps as we all experimented per the techniques taught us in “It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!” and what do you suspect, you had better make sure that that little gap between the main wall and the sliding wall that slides out to make your Gender Areas is like really really small. Which guess what, it wasn’t.

That is all what I am saying.

Read the rest of George Saunders’s short story “Jon” at The New Yorker.

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

Literature

“The Toll-Gatherer’s Day”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Methinks, for a person whose instinct bids him rather to pore over the current of life than to plunge into its tumultuous waves, no undesirable retreat were a toll-house beside some thronged thoroughfare of the land. In youth, perhaps, it is good for the observer to run about the earth, to leave the track of his footsteps far and wide, to mingle himself with the action of numberless vicissitudes, and, finally, in some calm solitude to feed a musing spirit on all that he has seen and felt. But there are natures too indolent or too sensitive to endure the dust, the sunshine or the rain, the turmoil of moral and physical elements, to which all the wayfarers of the world expose themselves. For such a man how pleasant a miracle could life be made to roll its variegated length by the threshold of his own hermitage, and the great globe, as it were, perform its revolutions and shift its thousand scenes before his eyes without whirling him onward in its course! If any mortal be favored with a lot analogous to this, it is the toll-gatherer. So, at least, have I often fancied while lounging on a bench at the door of a small square edifice which stands between shore and shore in the midst of a long bridge. Beneath the timbers ebbs and flows an arm of the sea, while above, like the life-blood through a great artery, the travel of the north and east is continually throbbing. Sitting on the aforesaid bench, I amuse myself with a conception, illustrated by numerous pencil-sketches in the air, of the toll-gatherer’s day.

“The Emerald” — Donald Barthelme

Literature

Hey buddy what’s your name?
My name is Tope. What’s your name?
My name is Sallywag. You after the emerald?
Yeah I’m after the emerald you after the emerald too?
I am. What are you going to do with it if you get it?
Cut it up into little emeralds. What are you going to do with it?
I was thinking of solid emerald armchairs. For the rich.
That’s an idea. What’s your name, you?
Wide Boy.
You after the emerald?
Sure as shootin’.
How you going to get in?
Blast. That’s going to make a lot of noise isn’t it?
You think it’s a bad idea?
Well…What’s your name, you there?
Taptoe.
You after the emerald?
Right as rain. What’s more, I got a plan.
Can we see it?
No it’s my plan I can’t be showing it to every—
Okay okay. What’s that guy’s name behind you?
My name is Sometimes.
You here about the emerald, Sometimes?
I surely am.
Have you got an approach?
Tunneling. I’ve took some test borings. Looks like a stone cinch.
If this is the right place.
You think this may not be the right place?
The last three places haven’t been the right place.
You tryin’ to bring me down?
Why would I want to do that? What’s that guy’s name, the one with the shades?
My name is Brother. Who are all these people?
Businessmen. What do you think of the general situation, Brother?
I think it’s crowded. This is my pal, Wednesday.
What say, Wednesday. After the emerald, I presume?
Thought we’d have a go.
Two heads better than one, that the idea?
Yep.
What are you going to do with the emerald, if you get it?
Facet. Facet and facet and facet.

Read the rest of Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Emerald.”

 

“A Night at the Opera” — Janet Frame

Literature

We acted the cliché. We melted with laughter. Not the prickly melt that comes from sitting on a hot stove but the cool relaxing melt, in defiance of chemistry, like dropping deep into a liquid feather bed. We did not know or remember the reason for laughing. There was a film, yes: a dumb sad man with hair like wheat and round eyes like paddling pools; another man with a mustache like a toy hearth brush; and many other people and things—blondes, irate managers, stepladders, whitewash, all the stuff of farce. And there was a darkened opera house growing cardboard trees and shining wooden moons.

I shall never know why we laughed so much. Perhaps other films had been as funny, but this one seemed to contain for us a total laughter, a storehouse of laughter, like a hive where we children, spindly-legged as bees, would forever bring our foragings of fun to mellow and replenish this almost unbelievably collapsing mirth.

Nor was it the kind of laughter that cheats by turning in the end to tears, or by needing reinforcement with imagery. It was, simply, like being thrown on a swing into the sky, and the swing staying there, as in one of those trick pictures we had seen so often and marvelled at—divers leaping back to the springboard, horses racing back to the starting barrier. It was like stepping off the swing and promenading the sky.

After the film, we managed somehow to walk home. The afternoon was ragged with leaves and the dreary, hungry untidiness of a child’s half past four. Faces and streets seemed wet and serious. The hem of sky, undone, hung down dirty and gray.

But the laughter stayed with us, crippling, floating, rolling, aching, dissolving.

“It must have been a comic picture,” our mother said, not knowing, not knowing, when she saw our faces.

Read the rest of Janet Frame’s short story “A Night at the Opera.”

“The Royal Command,” A Surreal Short Story by Leonora Carrington

Literature

“The Royal Command”

by

Leonora Carrington

I had received a royal command to visit the rulers of my country.

The invitation, in gold letters in relief and adorned with roses and swallows, was bordered in lace.

I went to look for my car, but the chauffeur, who lacks practical sense, had buried it.

“It’s to grow mushrooms,” he told me. “Nothing better for mushrooms.”

“Brady,” I said to him, “you are an imbecile of the first degree. You have ruined my car.”

Actually, since the car was completely ruined, I had to rent a horse-pulled buggy.

Upon reaching the palace, an impossible servant, dressed in red and gold, said to me: “The queen went crazy yesterday; she is in her bathtub.”

“How unfortunate!” I exclaimed. “How did that happen?”

“It’s the heat.”

“Can I see her in any event?” (I hoped I hadn’t made the long voyage for nothing.)

“Food” — Donald Barthelme

Literature

I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.

First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “Daumier.”

Read Barry Hannah’s Short Story “The Spy of Loog Root”

Literature

THE OUTCAST NEPHEW was farhearinged. That is a difficult word and concept, but as with farsighted, his ear could not participate with sounds up close, only those far away, up to a quarter mile, a distance of course at which the rest of us townsmen can hear little at all except explosions and aircraft. It seemed to work that if voices were soft enough, faint enough, they could penetrate his tympana. One thought of the sound waves, but how, in his case? I don’t know, but imagine the tenderness of his ears, bent by the incredible bawling of noise he must have sensed up close, so that he ran away, holding both ears in agony, dispossessed of normal human intercourse.

He was one of those exceptional children, ghostly with long blond hair, to whom none of his family out at Loog Root Pass felt kin, except the mother. We never got, because of his affliction, a definite reckoning on his intelligence before he ran off, alone, into the hills.

Read the rest of Barry Hannah’s short story “The Spy of Loog Root” at The Oxford American.

“An Arrest” — Ambrose Bierce

Literature

“An Arrest”

by

Ambrose Bierce

Having murdered his brother-in-law, Orrin Brower of Kentucky was a fugitive from justice.  From the county jail where he had been confined to await his trial he had escaped by knocking down his jailer with an iron bar, robbing him of his keys and, opening the outer door, walking out into the night.  The jailer being unarmed, Brower got no weapon with which to defend his recovered liberty.  As soon as he was out of the town he had the folly to enter a forest; this was many years ago, when that region was wilder than it is now.

The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible, and as Brower had never dwelt thereabout, and knew nothing of the lay of the land, he was, naturally, not long in losing himself.  He could not have said if he were getting farther away from the town or going back to it – a most important matter to Orrin Brower.  He knew that in either case a posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds would soon be on his track and his chance of escape was very slender; but he did not wish to assist in his own pursuit.  Even an added hour of freedom was worth having.

Suddenly he emerged from the forest into an old road, and there before him saw, indistinctly, the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom.  It was too late to retreat: the fugitive felt that at the first movement back toward the wood he would be, as he afterward explained, “filled with buckshot.”  So the two stood there like trees, Brower nearly suffocated by the activity of his own heart; the other – the emotions of the other are not recorded.

A moment later – it may have been an hour – the moon sailed into a patch of unclouded sky and the hunted man saw that visible embodiment of Law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him.  He understood.  Turning his back to his captor, he walked submissively away in the direction indicated, looking to neither the right nor the left; hardly daring to breathe, his head and back actually aching with a prophecy of buckshot.

Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged; that was shown by the conditions of awful personal peril in which he had coolly killed his brother-in-law.  It is needless to relate them here; they came out at his trial, and the revelation of his calmness in confronting them came near to saving his neck.  But what would you have? – when a brave man is beaten, he submits.

So they pursued their journey jailward along the old road through the woods.  Only once did Brower venture a turn of the head: just once, when he was in deep shadow and he knew that the other was in moonlight, he looked backward.  His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar.  Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.

Eventually they entered the town, which was all alight, but deserted; only the women and children remained, and they were off the streets.  Straight toward the jail the criminal held his way.  Straight up to the main entrance he walked, laid his hand upon the knob of the heavy iron door, pushed it open without command, entered and found himself in the presence of a half-dozen armed men.  Then he turned.  Nobody else entered.

On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff.

“Magic” — Katherine Anne Porter

Literature

“Magic”

by

Katherine Anne Porter

And, Madame Blanchard, believe that I am happy to be here with you and your family because it is so serene, everything, and before this I worked for a long time in a fancy house—maybe you don’t know what is a fancy house? Naturally … everyone must have heard sometime or other. Well, Madame, I work always where there is work to be had, and so in this place I worked very hard all hours, and saw too many things, things you wouldn’t believe, and I wouldn’t think of telling you, only maybe it will rest you while I brush your hair. You’ll excuse me too but I could not help hearing you say to the laundress maybe someone had bewitched your linens, they fall away so fast in the wash. Well, there was a girl there in that house, a poor thing, thin, but well-liked by all the men who called, and you understand she could not get along with the woman who ran the house. They quarreled, the madam cheated her on her checks: you know, the girl got a check, a brass one, every time, and at the week’s end she gave those back to the madam, yes, that was the way, and got her percentage, a very small little of her earnings: it is a business, you see, like any other

—and the madam used to pretend the girl had given back only so many checks, you see, and really she had given many more, but after they were out of her hands, what could she do? So she would say, I will get out of this place, and curse and cry. Then the madam would hit her over the head. She always hit people over the head with bottles, it was the way she fought. My good heavens, Madame Blanchard, what confusion there would be sometimes with a girl running raving downstairs, and the madam pulling her back by the hair and smashing a bottle on her forehead.

“The Legacy” — Virginia Woolf

Literature

“The Legacy”

by

Virginia Woolf

“For Sissy Miller.” Gilbert Clandon, taking up the pearl brooch that lay among a litter of rings and brooches on a little table in his wife’s drawing-room, read the inscription: “For Sissy Miller, with my love.”

It was like Angela to have remembered even Sissy Miller, her secretary. Yet how strange it was, Gilbert Clandon thought once more, that she had left everything in such order-a little gift of some sort for every one of her friends. It was as if she had foreseen her death. Yet she had been in perfect health when she left the house that morning, six weeks ago; when she stepped off the kerb in Piccadilly and the car had killed her.

He was waiting for Sissy Miller. He had asked her to come; he owed her, he felt, after all the years she had been with them, this token of consideration. Yes, he went on, as he sat there waiting, it was strange that Angela had left everything in such order. Every friend had been left some little token of her affection. Every ring, every necklace, every little Chinese box-she had a passion for little boxes-had a name on it. And each had some memory for him. This he had given her; this -the enamel dolphin with the ruby eyes-she had pounced upon one day in a back street in Venice. He could remember her little cry of delight. To him, of course, she had left nothing in particular, unless it were her diary. Fifteen little volumes, bound in green leather, stood behind him on her writing table. Ever since they were married, she had kept a diary. Some of their very few-he could not call them quarrels, say tiffs-had been about that diary. When he came in and found her writing, she always shut it or put her hand over it. “No, no, no,” he could hear her say, “After I’m dead-perhaps.” So she had left it him, as her legacy. It was the only thing they had not shared when she was alive. But he had always taken it for granted that she would outlive him. If only she had stopped one moment, and had thought what she was doing, she would be alive now. But she had stepped straight off the kerb, the driver of the car had said at the inquest. She had given him no chance to pull up. . .. Here the sound of voices in the hall interrupted him.

“Flavia and Her Artists” — Willa Cather

Literature

“Flavia and Her Artists”

by

Willa Cather    

As the train neared Tarrytown, Imogen Willard began to wonder why she had consented to be one of Flavia’s house party at all. She had not felt enthusiastic about it since leaving the city, and was experiencing a prolonged ebb of purpose, a current of chilling indecision, under which she vainly sought for the motive which had induced her to accept Flavia’s invitation.

“The Voyage” — Katherine Mansfield

Literature

“The Voyage”

by

Katherine Mansfield

The Picton boat was due to leave at half-past eleven. It was a beautiful night, mild, starry, only when they got out of the cab and started to walk down the Old Wharf that jutted out into the harbour, a faint wind blowing off the water ruffled under Fenella’s hat, and she put up her hand to keep it on. It was dark on the Old Wharf, very dark; the wool sheds, the cattle trucks, the cranes standing up so high, the little squat railway engine, all seemed carved out of solid darkness. Here and there on a rounded wood-pile, that was like the stalk of a huge black mushroom, there hung a lantern, but it seemed afraid to unfurl its timid, quivering light in all that blackness; it burned softly, as if for itself.

Fenella’s father pushed on with quick, nervous strides. Beside him her grandma bustled along in her crackling black ulster; they went so fast that she had now and again to give an undignified little skip to keep up with them. As well as her luggage strapped into a neat sausage, Fenella carried clasped to her her grandma’s umbrella, and the handle, which was a swan’s head, kept giving her shoulder a sharp little peck as if it too wanted her to hurry… Men, their caps pulled down, their collars turned up, swung by; a few women all muffled scurried along; and one tiny boy, only his little black arms and legs showing out of a white woolly shawl, was jerked along angrily between his father and mother; he looked like a baby fly that had fallen into the cream.

Then suddenly, so suddenly that Fenella and her grandma both leapt, there sounded from behind the largest wool shed, that had a trail of smoke hanging over it, “Mia-oo-oo-O-O!”

“Saint Cecilia; Or, The Power of Music” — Heinrich von Kleist

Literature

“Saint Cecilia; Or, The Power of Music”

by

Heinrich von Kleist

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, when iconoclasm was raging in the Netherlands, three young brothers, who all studied at Wittenberg, chanced to meet at Aix-la-Chapelle with a fourth, who had been appointed preacher at Antwerp. They wished to take possession of an inheritance, which had fallen to them by the death of an old uncle, perfectly unknown to all of them, and had turned into an inn, because no one was on the spot to whom they could apply. After the lapse of some days, which they had passed in listening to the preacher’s accounts of the remarkable occurrences that had taken place in the Netherlands, it chanced that the festival of Corpus Christi was just about to be solemnised by the nuns of St. Cecilia’s convent, which then stood before the city gates. The four brothers heated with fanaticism, youth, and the example of the Netherlands, determined to give the town of Aix-la-Chapelle a spectacle of image-breaking. The preacher, who had been more than once at the head of such enterprises, assembled in the evening preceding the festival a number of young tradesmen and students, devoted to the new doctrine, who spent the night in eating and drinking at the inn. Day had no sooner appeared over the battlements than they provided themselves with axes and all sorts of instruments of destruction, to begin their violent work. Exulting with delight, they agreed upon a signal at which they would begin to knock in the windows, which were painted over with biblical subjects, and, secure of finding a great number of followers among the people, they betook themselves to the cathedral, at the hour when the bells first rang, with the determination not to leave one stone upon another. The abbess, who, as early as daybreak, had been informed by a friend of the peril in which the convent stood, sent several times, but always in vain, to the imperial officer who held command in the town, requesting him to appoint a guard for the protection of the convent. The officer, who, clandestinely at least, was favorably imposed towards the new doctrine, refused her request, under the pretext that she was merely dreaming, and that not the slightest danger to her convent was to be apprehended. In the meanwhile the hour appointed for the commencement of the solemnities arrived, and the nuns prepared themselves for mass, praying and trembling with the apprehension of approaching events. The bailiff of the convent, an old man, aged seventy, with a troop of armed servants, whom he had posted at the entrance of the church, was their only protection. In nuns’ convents, it is well known, the sisters themselves, who are well practised in every sort of instrument, are their own musicians, and they play with a precision, a feeling, and an intelligence, which we often miss in orchestras of men, probably because there is something feminine in this mysterious art. Now it happened, to increase the embarrassment, that the conductress of the orchestra, Sister Antonia, had fallen sick of a nervous fever some days before, and the consequence was, that the whole convent was in the greatest tumult about the performance of a suitable piece of music, to say nothing of the fact that the four profane brothers were already visible, wrapped in mantles among the pillars of the church. The abbess who, on the evening of the preceding day, had ordered the performance of a very old Italian mass, by an unknown master, with which the greatest effect had always been produced on account of its peculiarly sacred and solemn character, and who was now more than ever bent on her purpose, sent again to sister Antonia to know how she was. The nun who took the message, returned with the intelligence that the sister lay in a perfectly unconscious condition and that all notion of her conducting the music must be entirely given up. In the meanwhile, there had already been several very critical scenes in the convent into which more than a hundred impious persons of all ranks and ages, armed with hatchets and crowbars, had gradually found their way. Some of the guards who stood at the portals had been shamefully annoyed, and the nuns, who, engaged in their holy offices, had from time to time appeared singly in the porticoes, were insulted by the most unseemly expressions. At last the bailiff retreated to the sacristy, and there upon his knees implored the abbess to stop the festival, and to seek the protection of the commander in the city. But the abbess was immoveable, insisting that the festival which had been instituted for the honour of the Deity must take its course. She reminded the bailiff that it was his duty to defend the mass, and all the solemnities of the cathedral with life and limb, and as the bell had rang, ordered the nuns, who surrounded her, shaking and trembling, to take an oratorium of some sort or other, and make a beginning by performing it.