George Saunders’ “Little St. Don” and the limits of contemporary satire

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George Saunders has a new story called “Little St. Don” in this week’s New Yorker. A satirical hagiography of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is a pastiche told in little vignettes, parables roughly allegorical to today’s horrorshow headlines. Here’s an example from early in the story:

Little St. Don was once invited to the birthday party of his best friend, Todd. As the cake was being served, a neighbor, Mr. Aryan, burst in, drunk, threw the cake against the wall, insulted Todd’s mother, and knocked a few toddlers out of their seats, requiring them to get stitches. Then Todd’s dad pushed Mr. Aryan roughly out the front door. Again, Little St. Don mounted a chair, and began to speak, saying what a shame it was that those two nice people had both engaged in violence.

Here, Saunders transposes the racist rally at Charlottesville into a domestic affair, a typical move for the writer. Saunders’ heroes are often hapless fathers besieged by the absurdities of a postmodern world. These figures try to work through all the violence and evil and shit toward a moral redemption, a saving grace or mystical love. Collapsing history and myth into the personal and familiar makes chaos more manageable.

The vignettes in “Little St. Don” follow a somewhat predictable pattern: Little St. Don incites racial violence, Little St. Don makes up juvenile nicknames for his enemies, Little St. Don radically misreads Christ’s central message. Etc.

The story’s ironic-parable formula is utterly inhabited by Donald Trump’s verbal tics and rhythms. Here is Saunders’ Little St. Don channeling Donald Trump:

Gentle, sure, yeah, that’s great. Jesus sounds like a good guy. Pretty famous guy. Huh. Maybe kind of a wimp? Within our school, am I about as famous as Jesus was when alive? Now that he’s dead, sure, he’s super-famous. But, when alive, how did he do? Not so great, I bet. Anyway, I like Saviours who weren’t crucified.

We all know these terrible tics and rhythms too well by now—indeed they have ventriloquized the discourse. In repeating Trump’s rhetorical style, Saunders attempts to sharpen the contrast between the narrative’s hagiographic style and the amorality of the narrative’s central figure. Saunders inserts this absurd language into a genre usually reserved for moral instruction to achieve his satire. The reader is supposed to note the jarring disparity between our culture’s moral ideals and our current political reality. The result though is simply another reiteration of Trump’s rhetoric. George Saunders is not the ventriloquist here. He is being ventriloquized. “Little St. Don” redistributes the very rhetoric it seeks to deride. It spreads the virus.

“Little St. Don” exemplifies just how limited contemporary literature’s toolkit is when it comes to acutely skewering our zeitgeist. Trump’s rhetoric purposefully surpasses absurdity; indeed, Trump’s rhetoric is nihilistically absurd, the ur-huckter’s argot that distills over two centuries of American con-artist culture for a 21st-century mass media environment. Ahistorical and amoral, Trump’s rhetoric oozes outside the bounds of allegorical satire. His rhetoric is already kitsch, part and parcel of a self-ironizing aesthetic that is always only-joking-but-hey-not-really-joking. This rhetorical aesthetic is post-postmodern, and Saunders’ postmodern techniques in “Little St. Don” cannot lance it, deflate it, or expose it—Trump’s rhetoric is already exposed. Saunders here is simply describing it, repeating it, and reframing it within  preëxisting literary genres.

Mashing up these genres is a typical 20th-century postmodernist move, one that Saunders’ audience in The New Yorker could expect. Indeed, it seems that connecting with an audience is Saunders’ main concern. But he’s preaching to the choir. The story is like a mediocre cover band’s copy of a terrible greatest hits record. In his mash-up we already know all the tunes, all the rhythms, and all the tones. Hell, we even know the mash-up’s not-so-secret formula. Saunders simply confirms the emotional and intellectual gestures that  preëxist in his New Yorker audience. His story is there to assure us of our own moral rectitude.

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There is nothing wrong with a writer writing to please his audience. However, Saunders, who won the Booker Prize last year for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, is frequently praised as the greatest satirist of his generation. “Little St. Don” is not great satire, but that is not exactly Saunders’ fault. Again, what the little story does well (and why I find it worth writing about) is show us the limitations of literary fiction’s power to satirize our ultra-absurd age. Reality runs a lap or two on fiction, trampling it a little.

This is not to say that fiction is (or has been) powerless to properly target absurd demagoguery and creeping fascism. A number of fiction writers in the late 20th century anticipated, diagnosed, and analyzed our current zeitgeist. Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, and Margaret Atwood all come easily to mind. To be fair, these writers were anticipating a new zeitgeist and not always specifically tackling one corroded personality, which is what Saunders is doing in “Little St. Don.” Thomas Pynchon had 700 pages or so of Gravity’s Rainbow to get us to Richard Nixon, night manager of the Orpheus Theater—that’s a pretty big stage of context to skewer the old crook. But Pynchon’s satire is far, far sharper, and more indelible in its strangeness than “Little St. Don.” Pynchon’s satire offers no moral consolation. Similarly, Ishmael Reed’s sustained attack on a postmodern presidency in The Terrible Twos never tries to comfort its audience by suggesting that the reader is in a position of moral superiority to any of the characters. And I don’t know how anyone can top JG Ballard’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

It might be more fair to look at another short piece from The New Yorker which engaged with the political horrors of its own time. I’m thinking here of Donald Barthelme’s 1968 story “The Indian Uprising.”  Barthelme creates his own rhetoric in this weird and unsettling story. While “The Indian Uprising” is “about” the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, it is hardly a simple allegory. To match the chaos and disruption of his time, Barthelme repeatedly disorients his audience, making them feel a host of nasty, contradictory, and often terrible feelings. The story requires critical participation, and its parable ultimately refuses to comfort the reader. None of this is particularly easy.

If Saunders’ “Little St. Don” is particularly easy, perhaps that’s because the moral response to Trump’s rhetoric should be particularly easy. That a moral response (and not a rhetorical response anchored in “civility”) is somehow not easy for certain people—those in power, say—is the real problem here. Saunders tries to anchor Trump’s rhetoric to a ballast that should have a moral force, but the gesture is so self-evident that it simply cannot pass for satire, let alone political commentary. Saunders offers instead a kind of mocking (but ultimately too-gentle) scolding. He doesn’t try to disrupt the disruptor, but rather retreats to the consolations of good old-fashioned postmodern literature.

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Ultimately, Saunders’ genre distortions end up doing the opposite of what I think he intends to do. He wants the reader to look through a lens that turns history into fable, but that perspective assuages through distance, rather than alarming us. The ironic lens detaches us from the immediacy of the present—it mediates what should be slippery, visceral, ugly, vital, felt. Separating children from their parents and detaining them in concentration camps, banning entire groups of people from entering the country, fostering reckless xenophobia and feeding resurgent nativism—logging these atrocities as events that “happened” in a hagiographical history—no matter how ironic—promises a preëxisting, preordained history to come.

There’s a teleological neatness to this way of thinking (History will record!) that is wonderfully comforting in the face of such horror. Throughout his career George Saunders has moved his characters through horror and pain to places of hope and redemption. He loves the characters, and he wants us to love them too. And here, I think, is perhaps the biggest failure of “Little St. Don” — Saunders loves his reader too much. The story wants to make us feel comfortable now, comfortable, at minimum, in our own moral agency and our own moral righteousness. But comfort now will not do.

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“Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” — Philip K. Dick

“Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked”

by

Philip K. Dick


Once, long ago, before money had been invented, a certain male beaver named Cadbury lived within a meager dam which he had constructed with his own teeth and feet, earning his living by gnawing down shrubs, trees and other growth in exchange for poker chips of several colors. The blue chips he liked best, but they came rarely, generally only due in payment for some uniquely huge gnawing-assignment. In all the passing years of work he had owned only three such chips, but he knew by inference that more must exist, and every now and then during the day’s gnawing he paused a moment, fixed a cup of instant coffee, and meditated on chips of all hues, the blues included.

His wife Hilda offered unasked-for advice whenever the opportunity presented itself. “Look at you,” she customarily would declare. “You really ought to see a psychiatrist. Your stack of white chips is only approximately half that of Ralf, Peter, Tom, Bob, Jack and Earl, all who live and gnaw around here, because you’re so busy woolgathering about your goddam blue chips which you’ll never get anyhow because frankly if the blunt truth were known you lack the talent, energy and drive.”

“Energy and drive,” Cadbury would moodily retort, “mean the same thing.” But nevertheless he perceived how right she was. This constituted his wife’s main fault: she invariably had truth on her side, whereas he had nothing but hot air. And truth, when pitted against hot air in the arena of life, generally carries the day.

Since Hilda was right, Cadbury dug up eight white chips from his secret chip-concealing place — a shallow depression under a minor rock — and walked two and three-quarters miles to the nearest psychiatrist, a mellow, do-nothing rabbit shaped like a bowling pin who, according to his wife, made fifteen thousand a year and so what about it.

“Clever sort of day,” Dr. Drat said amiably, unrolling two Tums for his tummy and leaning back in his extra-heavily padded swivel chair.

“Not so very darn clever,” Cadbury answered, “when you know you don’t have it in you ever to catch sight of a blue chip again, even though you work your ass off day in and day out, and what for? She spends it faster than I make it. Even if I did get my teeth in a blue chip it’d be gone overnight for something expensive and useless on the installment plan, such as for instance a twelve million candle-power self-recharging flashlight. With a lifetime guarantee.”

“Those are darn clever,” Dr. Drat said, “those what you said there, those self-recharging flashlights.”

“The only reason I came to you,” Cadbury said, “is because my wife made me. She can get me to do anything. If she said, ‘Swim out into the middle of the creek and drown,’ do you know what I’d do?”

“You’d rebel,” Dr. Drat said in his amiable voice, his hoppers up on the surface of his burled walnut desk.

“I’d kick in her fucking face,” Cadbury said. “I’d gnaw her to bits; I’d gnaw her right in half, right through the middle. You’re damn right. I mean, I’m not kidding; it’s a fact. I hate her.”

“How much,” Dr. Drat asked, “is your wife like your mother?”

“I never had a mother,” Cadbury said in a grumpy way — a way which he adopted from time to time: a regular characteristic with him, as Hilda had pointed out. “I was found floating in the Napa Slough in a shoebox with a handwritten note reading ‘FINDERS KEEPERS.’ ”

“What was your last dream?” Dr. Drat inquired.

“My last dream,” Cadbury said, “is — was — the same as all the others. I always dream I buy a two-cent mint at the drugstore, one of the flat chocolate-covered mints wrapped in green foil, and when I remove the foil it isn’t a mint. You know what it is?”

“Suppose you tell me what it is,” Dr. Drat said, in a voice suggesting that he really knew but no one was paying him to say it.

Cadbury said fiercely, “It’s a blue chip. Or rather it looks like a blue chip. It’s blue and it’s flat and round and the same size. But in the dream I always say ‘Maybe it’s just a blue mint.’ I mean, there must be such a thing as blue mints. I’d hate like to hell to store it in my secret chip-concealing place — a shallow depression under an ordinary-looking rock — and then there’d be this hot day, see, and afterwards when I went to get my blue chip — or rather supposed blue chip — I found it all melted because it really was a mint after all and not a blue chip. And who’d I sue? The manufacturer? Christ; he never claimed it was a blue chip; it clearly said, in my dream, on the green foil wrapper –”

“I think,” Dr. Drat broke in mildly, “that our time is up for today. We might well do some exploring of this aspect of your inner psyche next week because it appears to be leading us somewhere.”

Rising to his feet, Cadbury said, “What’s the matter with me, Dr. Drat? I want an answer; be frank — I can take it. Am I psychotic?”

“Well, you have illusions,” Dr. Drat said, after a meditative pause. “No, you’re not psychotic; you don’t hear the voice of Christ or anything like that telling you to go out and rape people. No, it’s illusions. About yourself, your work, your wife. There may be more. Goodbye.” He rose, too, hippity-hopped to the door of his office and politely but firmly opened it, exposing the tunnel out.

 

Read the rest of “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” by Philip K. Dick

“Graves and Goblins” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Graves and Goblins”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


Now talk we of graves and goblins! Fit themes,—start not! gentle reader,—fit for a ghost like me. Yes; though an earth-clogged fancy is laboring with these conceptions, and an earthly hand will write them down, for mortal eyes to read, still their essence flows from as airy a ghost as ever basked in the pale starlight, at twelve o’clock. Judge them not by the gross and heavy form in which they now appear. They may be gross, indeed, with the earthly pollution contracted from the brain, through which they pass; and heavy with the burden of mortal language, that crushes all the finer intelligences of the soul. This is no fault of mine. But should aught of ethereal spirit be perceptible, yet scarcely so, glimmering along the dull train of words,—should a faint perfume breathe from the mass of clay,—then, gentle reader, thank the ghost, who thus embodies himself for your sake! Will you believe me, if I say that all true and noble thoughts, and elevated imaginations, are but partly the offspring of the intellect which seems to produce them? Sprites, that were poets once, and are now all poetry, hover round the dreaming bard, and become his inspiration; buried statesmen lend their wisdom, gathered on earth and mellowed in the grave, to the historian; and when the preacher rises nearest to the level of his mighty subject, it is because the prophets of old days have communed with him. Who has not been conscious of mysteries within his mind, mysteries of truth and reality, which will not wear the chains of language? Mortal, then the dead were with you! And thus shall the earth-dulled soul, whom I inspire, be conscious of a misty brightness among his thoughts, and strive to make it gleam upon the page,—but all in vain. Poor author! How will he despise what he can grasp, for the sake of the dim glory that eludes him!

So talk we of graves and goblins. But, what have ghosts to do with graves? Mortal man, wearing the dust which shall require a sepulchre, might deem it more a home and resting-place than a spirit can, whose earthly clod has returned to earth. Thus philosophers have reasoned. Yet wiser they who adhere to the ancient sentiment, that a phantom haunts and hallows the marble tomb or grassy hillock where its material form was laid. Till purified from each stain of clay; till the passions of the living world are all forgotten; till it have less brotherhood with the wayfarers of earth, than with spirits that never wore mortality,—the ghost must linger round the grave. O, it is a long and dreary watch to some of us!

Even in early childhood, I had selected a sweet spot, of shade and glimmering sunshine, for my grave. It was no burial-ground, but a secluded nook of virgin earth, where I used to sit, whole summer afternoons, dreaming about life and death. My fancy ripened prematurely, and taught me secrets which I could not otherwise have known. I pictured the coming years,—they never came to me, indeed; but I pictured them like life, and made this spot the scene of all that should be brightest, in youth, manhood, and old age. There, in a little while, it would be time for me to breathe the bashful and burning vows of first-love; thither, after gathering fame abroad, I would return to enjoy the loud plaudit of the world, a vast but unobtrusive sound, like the booming of a distant sea; and thither, at the far-off close of life, an aged man would come, to dream, as the boy was dreaming, and be as happy in the past as lie was in futurity. Finally, when all should be finished, in that spot so hallowed, in that soil so impregnated with the most precious of my bliss, there was to be my grave. Methought it would be the sweetest grave that ever a mortal frame reposed in, or an ethereal spirit haunted. There, too, in future times, drawn thither by the spell which I had breathed around the place, boyhood would sport and dream, and youth would love, and manhood would enjoy, and age would dream again, and my ghost would watch but never frighten them. Alas, the vanity of mortal projects, even when they centre in the grave! I died in my first youth, before I had been a lover; at a distance, also, from the grave which fancy had dug for me; and they buried me in the thronged cemetery of a town, where my marble slab stands unnoticed amid a hundred others. And there are coffins on each side of mine!

Continue reading ““Graves and Goblins” — Nathaniel Hawthorne”

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter

“The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story”

by

Angela Carter


Therefore that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county.

Statute enacted by the General Court of
Massachusetts, May 1659, repealed 1681

‘Twas the night before Christmas. Silent night, holy night. The snow lay deep and crisp and even. Etc. etc. etc.; let these familiar words conjure up the traditional anticipatory magic of Christmas Eve, and then — forget it.

Forget it. Even if the white moon above Boston Bay ensures that all is calm, all is bright, there will be no Christmas as such in the village on the shore that now lies locked in a precarious winter dream.

(Dream, that uncensorable state. They would forbid it if they could.)

At that time, for we are talking about a long time ago, about three and a  quarter hundred years ago, the newcomers had no more than scribbled their signatures on the blank page of the continent that was, as it lay under the snow, no whiter nor more pure than their intentions.

They plan to write more largely; they plan to inscribe thereon the name of God.

And that was why, because of their awesome piety, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, they will wake, pray and go about their business as if it were any other day.

For them, all days are holy but none are holidays.

New England is the new leaf they have just turned over; Old England is the dirty linen their brethren at home have just — did they not recently win the English Civil War? — washed in public.

Back home, for the sake of spiritual integrity, their brothers and sisters have broken the graven images in the churches, banned the playhouses where men dress up as women, chopped down the village Maypoles because they welcome in the spring in altogether too orgiastic a fashion.

Nothing particularly radical about that, given the Puritans’ basic premises. Anyone can see at a glance that a Maypole, proudly erect upon the village green as the sap is rising, is a godless instrument. The very thought of Cotton Mather, with blossom in his hair, dancing round the Maypole makes the imagination reel. No. The greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival in, say, the custom of decorating a house with holly for the festive season; they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made!

And their distaste for the icon of the lovely lady with her bonny babe — Mariolatry, graven images! — is less subtle than their disgust at the very idea of the festive season itself. It was the festivity of it that irked them.

Nevertheless, it assuredly is a gross and heathenish practice, to welcome the birth of Our
Saviour with feasting, drunkenness, and lewd displays of mumming and masquerading.

We want none of that filth in this new place.

No, thank you.

 

As midnight approached, the cattle in the byres lumbered down upon their knees in homage, according to the well-established custom of over sixteen hundred English winters when they had mimicked the kneeling cattle in the Bethlehem stable; then, remembering where they were in the nick of time, they hastily refrained from idolatry and hauled themselves upright.

Boston Bay, calm as milk, black as ink, smooth as silk. And suddenly, at just the hour when the night spins on its spindle and starts to unravel its own darkness, at what one could call, elsewhere, the witching hour —

I saw three ships come sailing in,
Christmas Day, Christmas Day,
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

Three ships, silent as ghost ships; ghost ships of Christmas past.

And what was in those ships all three? Continue reading ““The Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story” by Angela Carter”

“The Screwfly Solution” — Raccoona Sheldon

“The Screwfly Solution”

by

Raccoona Sheldon


The young man sitting at 2° N, 75° W sent a casually venomous glance up at the nonfunctional shoofly ventilador and went on reading his letter. He was sweating heavily, stripped to his shorts in the hotbox of what passed for a hotel room in Cuyapán.

How do other wives do it? I stay busy-busy with the Ann Arbor grant review programs and the seminar, saying brightly, “Oh yes, Alan is in Colombia setting up a biological pest control program, isn’t it wonderful?” But inside I imagine you being surrounded by nineteen-year-old raven-haired cooing beauties, every one panting with social dedication and filthy rich. And forty inches of bosom busting out of her delicate lingerie. I even figured it in centimeters, that’s 101.6 centimeters of busting. Oh, darling, darling, do what you want only come home safe.

Alan grinned fondly, briefly imagining the only body he longed for. His girl, his magic Anne. Then he got up to open the window another cautious notch. A long pale mournful face looked in—a goat. The room opened on the goatpen, the stench was vile. Air, anyway. He picked up the letter.

Everything is just about as you left it, except that the Peedsville horror seems to be getting worse. They’re calling it the Sons of Adam cult now. Why can’t they do something, even if it is a religion? The Red Cross has set up a refugee camp in Ashton, Georgia. Imagine, refugees in the U.S.A. I heard two little girls were carried out all slashed up. Oh, Alan.

Which reminds me, Barney came over with a wad of clippings he wants me to send you. I’m putting them in a separate envelope; I know what happens to very fat letters in foreign POs. He says, in case you don’t get them, what do the following have in common? Peedsville, Sao Paulo, Phoenix, San Diego, Shanghai, New Delhi, Tripoli, Brisbane, Johannesburg, and Lubbock, Texas. He says the hint is, remember where the Intertropical Convergence Zone is now. That makes no sense to me, maybe it will to your superior ecological brain. All I could see about the clippings was that they were fairly horrible accounts of murders or massacres of women. The worst was the New Delhi one, about “rafts of female corpses” in the river. The funniest (!) was the Texas Army officer who shot his wife, three daughters and his aunt, because God told him to clean the place up.

Barney’s such an old dear, he’s coming over Sunday to help me take off the downspout and see what’s blocking it. He’s dancing on air right now, since you left his spruce budworm-moth antipheromone program finally paid off. You know he tested over 2,000 compounds? Well, it seems that good old 2,097 really works. When I asked him what it does he just giggles, you know how shy he is with women. Anyway, it seems that a one-shot spray program will save the forests, without harming a single other thing. Birds and people can eat it all day, he says.

Well sweetheart, that’s all the news except Amy goes back to Chicago to school Sunday. The place will be a tomb, I’ll miss her frightfully in spite of her being at the stage where I’m her worst enemy. The sullen sexy subteens, Angie says. Amy sends love to her Daddy. I send you my whole heart, all that words can’t say.

Your Anne

Alan put the letter safely in his notefile and glanced over the rest of the thin packet of mail, refusing to let himself dream of home and Anne. Barney’s “fat envelope” wasn’t there. He threw himself on the rumpled bed, yanking off the lightcord a minute before the town generator went off for the night. In the darkness the last of places Barney had mentioned spread themselves around a misty globe that turned, troublingly, briefly in his mind. Something …

But then the memory of the hideously parasitized children he had worked with at the clinic that day took possession of his thoughts. He set himself to considering the data he must collect. Look for the vulnerable link in the behavioral chain—how often Barney—Dr. Barnhard Braithwaite—had pounded it into his skull. Where was it, where? In the morning he would start work on bigger canefly cages …


Read the rest of “The Screwfly Solution” by Racoona Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr. aka Alice Sheldon)

“Happiest Moment” — Lydia Davis

happiest

“Horses,” a short story by Stephen Crane

“Horses”

by

Stephen Crane


 

Richardson pulled up his horse, and looked back over the trail where the crimson serape of his servant flamed amid the dusk of the mesquit. The hills in the west were carved into peaks, and were painted the most profound blue. Above them the sky was of that marvellous tone of green—like still, sun-shot water—which people denounce in pictures.

José was muffled deep in his blanket, and his great toppling sombrero was drawn low over his brow. He shadowed his master along the dimming trail in the fashion of an assassin. A cold wind of the impending night swept over the wilderness of mesquit.

“Man,” said Richardson in lame Mexican as the servant drew near, “I want eat! I want sleep! Understand—no? Quickly! Understand?”

“Si, señor,” said José, nodding. He stretched one arm out of his blanket and pointed a yellow finger into the gloom. “Over there, small village. Si, señor.”

They rode forward again. Once the American’s horse shied and breathed quiveringly at something which he saw or imagined in the darkness, and the rider drew a steady, patient rein, and leaned over to speak tenderly as if he were addressing a frightened woman. The sky had faded to white over the mountains, and the plain was a vast, pointless ocean of black.

Suddenly some low houses appeared squatting amid the bushes. The horsemen rode into a hollow until the houses rose against the sombre sundown sky, and then up a small hillock, causing these habitations to sink like boats in the sea of shadow.

A beam of red firelight fell across the trail. Richardson sat sleepily on his horse while his servant quarrelled with somebody—a mere voice in the gloom—over the price of bed and board. The houses about him were for the most part like tombs in their whiteness and silence, but there were scudding black figures that seemed interested in his arrival. Continue reading ““Horses,” a short story by Stephen Crane”

Read “When I Was a Witch,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“When I Was a Witch”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman


If I had understood the terms of that one-sided contract with Satan, the Time of Witching would have lasted longer–you may be sure of that. But how was I to tell? It just happened, and has never happened again, though I’ve tried the same preliminaries as far as I could control them.

The thing began all of a sudden, one October midnight–the 30th, to be exact. It had been hot, really hot, all day, and was sultry and thunderous in the evening; no air stirring, and the whole house stewing
with that ill-advised activity which always seems to move the steam radiator when it isn’t wanted.

I was in a state of simmering rage–hot enough, even without the weather and the furnace–and I went up on the roof to cool off. A top-floor apartment has that advantage, among others–you can take a walk without the mediation of an elevator boy!

There are things enough in New York to lose one’s temper over at the best of times, and on this particular day they seemed to all happen at once, and some fresh ones. The night before, cats and dogs had broken my rest, of course. My morning paper was more than usually mendacious; and my neighbor’s morning paper–more visible than my own as I went down town–was more than usually salacious. My cream wasn’t cream–my egg was a relic of the past. My “new” napkins were giving out.

Being a woman, I’m supposed not to swear; but when the motorman disregarded my plain signal, and grinned as he rushed by; when the subway guard waited till I was just about to step on board and then slammed the door in my face–standing behind it calmly for some minutes before the bell rang to warrant his closing–I desired to swear like a mule-driver.

At night it was worse. The way people paw one’s back in the crowd! The cow-puncher who packs the people in or jerks them out–the men who smoke and spit, law or no law–the women whose saw-edged cart-wheel hats, swashing feathers and deadly pins, add so to one’s comfort inside.

Well, as I said, I was in a particularly bad temper, and went up on the roof to cool off. Heavy black clouds hung low overhead, and lightning flickered threateningly here and there.

A starved, black cat stole from behind a chimney and mewed dolefully. Poor thing! She had been scalded.

The street was quiet for New York. I leaned over a little and looked up and down the long parallels of twinkling lights. A belated cab drew near, the horse so tired he could hardly hold his head up.

Then the driver, with a skill born of plenteous practice, flung out his long-lashed whip and curled it under the poor beast’s belly with a stinging cut that made me shudder. The horse shuddered too, poor wretch, and jingled his harness with an effort at a trot.

I leaned over the parapet and watched that man with a spirit of unmitigated ill-will. Continue reading “Read “When I Was a Witch,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

“The Wedding-Knell,” a short tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Wedding-Knell”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

There is a certain church, in the city of New York which I have always regarded with peculiar interest on account of a marriage there solemnized under very singular circumstances in my grandmother’s girlhood. That venerable lady chanced to be a spectator of the scene, and ever after made it her favorite narrative. Whether the edifice now standing on the same site be the identical one to which she referred I am not antiquarian enough to know, nor would it be worth while to correct myself, perhaps, of an agreeable error by reading the date of its erection on the tablet over the door. It is a stately church surrounded by an enclosure of the loveliest green, within which appear urns, pillars, obelisks, and other forms of monumental marble, the tributes of private affection or more splendid memorials of historic dust. With such a place, though the tumult of the city rolls beneath its tower, one would be willing to connect some legendary interest.

The marriage might be considered as the result of an early engagement, though there had been two intermediate weddings on the lady’s part and forty years of celibacy on that of the gentleman. At sixty-five Mr. Ellenwood was a shy but not quite a secluded man; selfish, like all men who brood over their own hearts, yet manifesting on rare occasions a vein of generous sentiment; a scholar throughout life, though always an indolent one, because his studies had no definite object either of public advantage or personal ambition; a gentleman, high-bred and fastidiously delicate, yet sometimes requiring a considerable relaxation in his behalf of the common rules of society. In truth, there were so many anomalies in his character, and, though shrinking with diseased sensibility from public notice, it had been his fatality so often to become the topic of the day by some wild eccentricity of conduct, that people searched his lineage for a hereditary taint of insanity. But there was no need of this. His caprices had their origin in a mind that lacked the support of an engrossing purpose, and in feelings that preyed upon themselves for want of other food. If he were mad, it was the consequence, and not the cause, of an aimless and abortive life.

The widow was as complete a contrast to her third bridegroom in everything but age as can well be conceived. Compelled to relinquish her first engagement, she had been united to a man of twice her own years, to whom she became an exemplary wife, and by whose death she was left in possession of a splendid fortune. A Southern gentleman considerably younger than herself succeeded to her hand and carried her to Charleston, where after many uncomfortable years she found herself again a widow. It would have been singular if any uncommon delicacy of feeling had survived through such a life as Mrs. Dabney’s; it could not but be crushed and killed by her early disappointment, the cold duty of her first marriage, the dislocation of the heart’s principles consequent on a second union, and the unkindness of her Southern husband, which had inevitably driven her to connect the idea of his death with that of her comfort. To be brief, she was that wisest but unloveliest variety of woman, a philosopher, bearing troubles of the heart with equanimity, dispensing with all that should have been her happiness and making the best of what remained. Sage in most matters, the widow was perhaps the more amiable for the one frailty that made her ridiculous. Being childless, she could not remain beautiful by proxy in the person of a daughter; she therefore refused to grow old and ugly on any consideration; she struggled with Time, and held fast her roses in spite of him, till the venerable thief appeared to have relinquished the spoil as not worth the trouble of acquiring it. Continue reading ““The Wedding-Knell,” a short tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne”

“Roog,” a short story by Philip K. Dick

“Roog”

by

Philip K. Dick


“Roog!” the dog said. He rested his paws on the top of the fence and looked around him.

The Roog came running into the yard.

It was early morning, and the sun had not really come up yet. The air was cold and gray, and the walls of the house were damp with moisture. The dog opened his jaws a little as he watched, his big black paws clutching the wood of the fence.

The Roog stood by the open gate, looking into the yard. He was a small Roog, thin and white, on wobbly legs. The Roog blinked at the dog, and the dog showed his teeth.

“Roog!” he said again. The sound echoed into the silent half darkness. Nothing moved nor stirred. The dog dropped down and walked back across the yard to the porch steps. He sat down on the bottom step and watched the Roog. The Roog glanced at him. Then he stretched his neck up to the window of the house, just above him. He sniffed at the window.

The dog came flashing across the yard. He hit the fence, and the gate shuddered and groaned. The Roog was walking quickly up the path, hurrying with funny little steps, mincing along. The dog lay down against the slats of the gate, breathing heavily, his red tongue hanging. He watched the Roog disappear.

The dog lay silently, his eyes bright and black. The day was beginning to come. The sky turned a little whiter, and from all around the sounds of people echoed through the morning air. Lights popped on behind shades. In the chilly dawn a window was opened.

The dog did not move. He watched the path.

In the kitchen Mrs. Cardossi poured water into the coffee pot. Steam rose from the water, blinding her. She set the pot down on the edge of the stove and went into the pantry. When she came back Alf was standing at the door of the kitchen. He put his glasses on.

“You bring the paper?” he said.

“It’s outside.”

Alf Cardossi walked across the kitchen. He threw the bolt on the back door and stepped out onto the porch. He looked into the gray, damp morning. At the fence Boris lay, black and furry, his tongue out.

“Put the tongue in,” Alf said. The dog looked quickly up. His tail beat against the ground. “The tongue,” Alf said. “Put the tongue in.”

The dog and the man looked at one another. The dog whined. His eyes were bright and feverish.

“Roog!” he said softly.

“What?” Alf looked around. “Someone coming? The paperboy come?”

The dog stared at him, his mouth open.

“You certainly upset these days,” Alf said. “You better take it easy. We both getting too old for excitement.”

He went inside the house.

The sun came up. The street became bright and alive with color. The postman went along the sidewalk with his letters and magazines. Some children hurried by, laughing and talking.

About 11:00, Mrs. Cardossi swept the front porch. She sniffed the air, pausing for a moment.

“It smells good today,” she said. “That means it’s going to be warm.” In the heat of the noonday sun the black dog lay stretched out full length, under the porch. His chest rose and fell. In the cherry tree the birds were playing, squawking and chattering to each other. Once in a while Boris raised his head and looked at them. Presently he got to his feet and trotted down under the tree.

He was standing under the tree when he saw the two Roogs sitting on the fence, watching him.

“He’s big,” the first Roog said. “Most Guardians aren’t as big as this.”

The other Roog nodded, his head wobbling on his neck. Boris watched them without moving, his body stiff and hard. The Roogs were silent, now, looking at the big dog with his shaggy ruff of white around his neck.

“How is the offering urn?” the first Roog said. “Is it almost full?”

“Yes.” The other nodded. “Almost ready.”

“You, there!” the first Roog said, raising his voice. “Do you hear me? We’ve decided to accept the offering, this time. So you remember to let us in. No nonsense, now.”

“Don’t forget,” the other added. “It won’t be long.”

Boris said nothing.

The two Roogs leaped off the fence and went over together just beyond the walk. One of them brought out a map and they studied it.

“This area really is none too good for a first trial,” the first Roog said. “Too many Guardians… Now, the northside area—”

“They  decided,” the other Roog said. “There are so many factors—”

“Of course.” They glanced at Boris and moved back farther from the fence. He could not hear the rest of what they were saying.

Presently the Roogs put their map away and went off down the path.

Boris walked over to the fence and sniffed at the boards. He smelled the sickly, rotten odor of Roogs and the hair stood up on his back.

That night when Alf Cardossi came home the dog was standing at the gate, looking up the walk. Alf opened the gate and went into the yard.

“How are you?” he said, thumping the dog’s side. “You stopped worrying? Seems like you been nervous of late. You didn’t used to be that way.”

Boris whined, looking intently up into the man’s face.

“You a good dog, Boris,” Alf said. “You pretty big, too, for a dog. You don’t remember long ago how you used to be only a little bit of a puppy.”

Boris leaned against the man’s leg.

“You a good dog,” Alf murmured. “I sure wish I knew what is on your mind.”

He went inside the house. Mrs. Cardossi was setting the table for dinner. Alf went into the living room and took his coat and hat off. He set his lunch pail down on the sideboard and came back into the kitchen.

“What’s the matter?” Mrs. Cardossi said.

“That dog got to stop making all that noise, barking. The neighbors going to complain to the police again.”

“I hope we don’t have to give him to your brother,” Mrs. Cardossi said, folding her arms. “But he sure goes crazy, especially on Friday morning, when the garbage men come.”

“Maybe he’ll calm down,” Alf said. He lit his pipe and smoked solemnly. “He didn’t used to be that way. Maybe he’ll get better, like he was.”

“We’ll see,” Mrs. Cardossi said.

The sun rose up, cold and ominous. Mist hung over all the trees and in the low places.

It was Friday morning.

The black dog lay under the porch, listening, his eyes wide and staring. His coat was stiff with hoarfrost and the breath from his nostrils made clouds of steam in the thin air. Suddenly he turned his head and leaped up.

From far off, a long way away, a faint sound came, a kind of crashing sound.

“Roog!” Boris cried, looking around. He hurried to the gate and stood up, his paws on top of the fence.

In the distance the sound came again, louder now, not as far away as before. It was a crashing, clanging sound, as if something were being rolled back, as if a great door were being opened

“Roog!” Boris cried. He stared up anxiously at the darkened windows above him. Nothing stirred, nothing.

And along the street the Roogs came. The Roogs and their truck moved along bouncing against the rough stones, crashing and whirring.

“Roog!” Boris cried, and he leaped, his eyes blazing. Then he became more calm. He settled himself down on the ground and waited, listening.

Out in front the Roogs stopped their truck. He could hear them opening the doors stepping down onto the sidewalk. Boris ran around in a little circle. He whined and his muzzle turned once again toward the house.

Inside the warm, dark bedroom, Mr. Cardossi sat up a little in bed and squinted at the clock.

“That damn dog,” he muttered. “That damn dog.” He turned his face toward the pillow and closed his eyes.

The Roogs were coming down the path, now. The first Roog pushed against the gate and the gate opened. The Roogs came into the yard. The dog backed away from them.

“Roog! Roog!” he cried. The horrid, bitter smell of Roogs came to his nose, and he turned away.

“The offering urn,” the first Roog said. “It is full, I think.” He smiled at the rigid, angry dog. “How very good of you,” he said

The Roogs came toward the metal can, and one of them took the lid from it.

“Roog! Roog!” Boris cried, huddled against the bottom of the porch steps. His body shook with horror. The Roogs were lifting up the big metal can, turning it on its side. The contents poured out onto the ground, and the Roogs scooped the sacks of bulging, splitting paper together, catching at the orange peels and fragments, the bits of toast and egg shells.

One of the Roogs popped an egg shell into his mouth. His teeth crunched the egg shell.

“Roog!” Boris cried hopelessly, almost to himself. The Roogs were almost finished with their work of gathering up the offering. They stopped for a moment, looking at Boris.

Then, slowly, silently, the Roogs looked up, up the side of the house, along the stucco, to the window, with its brown shade pulled tightly down.

“ROOG!” Boris screamed, and he came toward them, dancing with fury and dismay. Reluctantly, the Roogs turned away from the window. They went out through the gate, closing it behind them.

“Look at him,” the last Roog said with contempt, pulling his corner of the blanket up on his shoulder. Boris strained against the fence, his mouth open, snapping wddly. The biggest Roog began to wave his arms furiously and Boris retreated. He settled down at the bottom of the porch steps, his mouth still open, and from the depths of him an unhappy, terrible moan issued forth, a wail of misery and despair.

“Come on,” the other Roog said to the lingering Roog at the fence.

They walked up the path.

“Well, except for these little places around the Guardians, this area is well cleared,” the biggest Roog said. “I’ll be glad when this particular Guardian is done. He certainly causes us a lot of trouble.”

“Don’t be impatient,” one of the Roogs said. He grinned. “Our truck is full enough as it is. Let’s leave something for next week.”

All the Roogs laughed.

They went on up the path, carrying the offering in the dirty, sagging blanket.

“That in Aleppo Once…” — Vladimir Nabokov

“That in Aleppo Once…”

by

Vladimir Nabokov


Dear V. – Among other things, this is to tell you that at last I am here, in the country whither so many sunsets have led. One of the first persons I saw was our good old Gleb Alexandrovich Gekko gloomily crossing Columbus Avenue in quest of the petit cafe du coin which none of us three will ever visit again. He seemed to think that somehow or other you were betraying our national literature, and he gave me your address with a deprecatory shake of his gray head, as if you did not deserve the treat of hearing from me.

I have a story for you. Which reminds me – I mean putting it like this reminds me – of the days when we wrote our first udder-warm bubbling verse, and all things, a rose, a puddle, a lighted window, cried out to us: “I’m a rhyme!” Yes, this is a most useful universe. We play, we die: ig-rhymeumi-rhyme. And the sonorous souls of Russian verbs lend a meaning to the wild gesticulation of trees or to some discarded newspaper sliding and pausing, and shuffling again, with abortive flaps and apterous jerks along an endless windswept embankment. But just now I am not a poet. I come to you like that gushing lady in Chekhov who was dying to be described.

I married, let me see, about a month after you left France, and a few weeks before the gentle Germans roared into Paris. Although I can produce documentary proofs of matrimony, I am positive now that my wife never existed. You may know her name from some other source, but that does not matter: it is the name of an illusion. Therefore, I am able to speak of her with as much detachment as I would of a character in a story (one of your stories, to be precise).

It was love at first touch rather than at first sight, for I had met her several times before without experiencing any special emotions; but one night as I was seeing her home, something quaint she had said made me stoop with a laugh and lightly kiss her on the hair – and of course we all know of that blinding blast which is caused by merely picking up a small doll from the floor of a carefully abandoned house: the soldier involved hears nothing; for him it is but an ecstatic soundless and boundless expansion of what had been during his life a pinpoint of light in the dark center of his being. And really, the reason we think of death in celestial terms is that the visible firmament, especially at night (above our blacked-out Paris with the gaunt arches of its Boulevard Exelmans and the ceaseless Alpine gurgle of desolate latrines), is the most adequate and ever-present symbol of that vast silent explosion. Continue reading ““That in Aleppo Once…” — Vladimir Nabokov”

What if art is not communicative? | Ursula K. Le Guin

“Editorial. By the President of the Therolinguistics Association”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

from

“The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics


What is Language?

This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.

Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?

Why, because plants do not communicate.

Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.

What if art is not communicative?

Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?

Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognise it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.

But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.

If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.

For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.

This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.

But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.

We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication, but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognise. It will be the first passive art known to us.

Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?

It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.

And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.

Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master”

“To Serve the Master”

by

Philip K. Dick


Applequist was cutting across a deserted field, up a narrow path beside the yawning crack of a ravine, when he heard the voice.

He stopped frozen, hand on his S-pistol. For a long time he listened, but there was only the distant lap of the wind among the broken trees along the ridge, a hollow murmuring that mixed with the rustle of the dry grass beside him. The sound had come from the ravine. Its bottom was snarled and debris-filled. He crouched down at the lip and tried to locate the voice.

There was no motion. Nothing to give away the place. His legs began to ache. Flies buzzed at him, settled on his sweating forehead. The sun made his head ache; the dust clouds had been thin the last few months.

His radiation-proof watch told him it was three o’clock. Finally he shrugged and got stiffly to his feet. The hell with it. Let them send out an armed team. It wasn’t his business; he was a letter carrier grade four, and a civilian.

As he climbed the hill toward the road, the sound came again. And this time, standing high above the ravine, he caught a flash of motion. Fear and puzzled disbelief touched him. It couldn’t be — but he had seen it with his own eyes. It wasn’t a newscircular rumor. Continue reading “Read Philip K. Dick’s short story “To Serve the Master””

“The Hurricane,” a very short fable by Lord Dunsany

“The Hurricane”

by

Lord Dunsany

from The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories


One night I sat alone on the great down, looking over the edge of it at a murky, sullen city. All day long with its smoke it had troubled the holy sky, and now it sat there roaring in the distance and glared at me with its furnaces and lighted factory windows. Suddenly I became aware that I was not the only enemy of that city, for I perceived the colossal form of the Hurricane walking over the down towards me, playing idly with the flowers as he passed, and near me he stopped and spake to the Earthquake, who had come up mole-like but vast out of a cleft in the earth.

‘Old friend,’ said the Hurricane, ‘rememberest when we wrecked the nations and drave the herds of the sea into new pasturage?’

‘Yes,’ said the Earthquake, drowsily; ‘Yes, yes.’

‘Old friend,’ said the Hurricane, ‘there are cities everywhere. Over thy head while thou didst sleep they have built them constantly. My four children the Winds suffocate with the fumes of them, the valleys are desolate of flowers, and the lovely forests are cut down since last we went abroad together.’

The Earthquake lay there, with his snout towards the city, blinking at the lights, while the tall Hurricane stood beside him pointing fiercely at it.

‘Come,’ said the Hurricane, ‘let us fare forth again and destroy them, that all the lovely forests may come back and the furry creeping things. Thou shalt whelm these cities utterly and drive the people forth, and I will smite them in the shelterless places and sweep their desecrations from the sea. Wilt thou come forth with me and do this thing for the glory of it? Wilt thou wreck the world again as we did, thou and I, or ever Man had come? Wilt thou come forth to this place at this hour tomorrow night?’

‘Yes,’ said the Earthquake, ‘Yes,’ and he crept to his cleft again, and head foremost waddled down into the abysses.

When the Hurricane strode away, I got up quietly and departed, but at that hour of the next night I came up cautiously to the same spot. There I found the huge grey form of the Hurricane alone, with his head bowed in his hands, weeping; for the Earthquake sleeps long and heavily in the abysses, and he would not wake.

Read Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Black Death”

“Black Death”

by

Zora Neale Hurston


 

We Negroes in Eatonville know a number of things that the hustling, bustling white man never dreams of. He is a materialist with little care for overtones. They have only eyes and ears, we see with the skin.

For instance, if a white person were halted on the streets of Orlando and told that Old Man Morgan, the excessively black Negro hoodoo man, can kill any person indicated and paid for, without ever leaving his house or even seeing his victim, he’d laugh in your face and walk away, wondering how long the Negro will continue to wallow in ignorance and superstition. But no black person in a radius of twenty miles will smile, not much. They know.

His achievements are far too numerous to mention singly. Besides, any of his cures of “conjures” are kept secret. But everybody knows that he put the loveless curse on Bella Lewis. She has been married seven times but none of her husbands have ever remained with her longer than the twenty-eight days that Morgan had prescribed as the limit.

Hirma Lester’s left track was brought to him with five dollars and when the new moon came again, Lester was stricken with paralysis while working in his orange grove.

There was the bloody-flux that he put on Lucy Potts; he caused Emma Taylor’s teeth to drop out; he put the shed skin of a black snake in Horsos Brown’s shoes and made him as the Wandering Jew; he put a sprig of Lena Merchant’s hair in a bottle, corked it and threw it into a running stream with the neck pointing upstream, and she went crazy; he buried Lillie Wilcox’s finger-nails with lizard’s feet and dried up her blood.

All of these things and more can easily be proved by the testimony
of the villagers. They ought to know.

He lives alone in a two-room hut down by Lake Blue Sink, the bottomless . His eyes are reddish and the large gold hoop ear-rings jangling on either side of his shrunken black face make the children fly in terror whenever they meet him on the street or in the woods where he goes to dig roots for his medicines. Continue reading “Read Zora Neale Hurston’s short story “Black Death””

Read Paul Bowles’s short story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz”

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“The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz”

by

Paul Bowles


Ramón signed on at Cádiz. The ship’s first call was at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a day and a half out. They put in at night, soon after dark. Floodlights around the harbor illumined the steep bare mountains and made them grass-green against the black sky. Ramón stood at the rail, watching. “It must have been raining here,” he said to a member of the crew standing beside him. The man grunted, looking not at the green slopes unnaturally bright in the electric glare, but at the lights of the town ahead. “Very green,” went on Ramon, a little less certainly; the man did not even grunt in reply.

As soon as the ship was anchored, scores of Hindu shopkeepers came aboard with laces and embroidered goods for the passengers who might not be going ashore. They stayed on the first-class deck, not bothering to go down below to third-class where Ramón was scullery boy in the passengers’ cocina. The work so far did not upset him; he had held more exacting and tiring jobs in Cádiz. There was sufficient food, and although it was not very good, nevertheless it was better than what was taken out to the third-class passengers. It had never occurred to Ramón to want privacy in his living quarters, so that he was unmoved by the necessity of sharing a cabin with a dozen or so shipmates. Still, he had been acutely unhappy since leaving Cádiz. Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with their dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. For them it appeared that he simply was not present. To even the least egocentric man such a state of affairs can become intolerable. In his sixteen years Ramón had not been in a similar situation; he had been maltreated but not wholly disregarded.

Most of the crew stood at the prow smoking, pointing out bars to one another, as they scanned the waterfront. Partly out of perversity born of his grievance, and partly because he wanted to be by himself for a spell, Ramón walked to the stern and leaned heavily against the rail, looking down into the darkness below. He could hear an automobile horn being blown continuously as it drove along the waterfront. The hills behind backed up the sound, magnified it as they threw it across the water. To the other side was the dim roar of the sea’s waves against the break-water. He was a little homesick, and as he stood there he became angry as well. It was inadmissible that this state of affairs should continue. A day and a half was too long; he was determined to force a change immediately, and to his undisciplined young mind kept recurring the confused image of a fight—a large-scale struggle with the entire crew, in which he somehow finished as the sole victor.

It is pleasant to walk by the sea-wall of a foreign port at night, with the autumn wind gently pushing at your back. Ramón was in no hurry; he stopped before each café and listened to the guitars and shouting, without, however, allowing himself to be detained by the women who called to him from the darker doorways. Having had to clean up the galley after an extra meal had been served to sixty workmen who had just come aboard here at Santa Cruz, bound for South America, he had been the last to get off the ship, and so he was looking for his shipmates. At the Café del Teide he found several of them seated at a table sharing a bottle of rum. They saw him come in, but they gave no sign of recognition. There was no empty chair. He walked toward the table, slowed down a bit as he approached it, and then continued walking toward the back of the café. The man behind the bar called out to him: “You were looking for something?” Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came and served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. Continue reading “Read Paul Bowles’s short story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz””

Read Peter Taylor’s short story “A Spinster’s Tale”

“A Spinster’s Tale”

by

Peter Taylor


My brother would often get drunk when I was a little girl, but that put a different sort of fear into me from what Mr. Speed did. With Brother it was a spiritual thing. And though it was frightening to know that he would have to burn for all that giggling and bouncing around on the stair at night, the truth was that he only seemed jollier to me when I would stick my head out of the hall door. It made him seem almost my age for him to act so silly, putting his white forefinger all over his flushed face and finally over his lips to say, “Sh-sh-sh-sh!” But the really frightening thing about seeing Brother drunk was what I always heard when I had slid back into bed. I could always recall my mother’s words to him when he was sixteen, the year before she died, spoken in her greatest sincerity, in her most religious tone:

“Son, I’d rather see you in your grave.”

Yet those nights put a scaredness into me that was clearly distinguishable from the terror that Mr. Speed instilled by stumbling past our house two or three afternoons a week. The most that I knew about Mr. Speed was his name. And this I considered that I had somewhat fabricated—by allowing him the “Mr.”—in my effort to humanize and soften the monster that was forever passing our house on Church Street. My father would point him out through the wide parlor window in soberness and severity to my brother with: “There goes Old Speed, again.” Or on Saturdays when Brother was with the Benton boys and my two uncles were over having toddies with Father in the parlor, Father would refer to Mr. Speed’s passing with a similar speech, but in a blustering tone of merry tolerance: “There goes Old Speed, again. The rascal!” These designations were equally awful, both spoken in tones that were foreign to my father’s manner of addressing me; and not unconsciously I prepared the euphemism, Mister Speed, against the inevitable day when I should have to speak of him to someone.

I was named Elizabeth, for my mother. My mother had died in the spring before Mr. Speed first came to my notice on that late afternoon in October. I had bathed at four with the aid of Lucy, who had been my nurse and who was now the upstairs maid; and Lucy was upstairs turning back the covers of the beds in the rooms with their color schemes of blue and green and rose. I wandered into the shadowy parlor and sat first on one chair, then on another. I tried lying down on the settee that went with the parlor set, but my legs had got too long this summer to stretch out straight on the settee. And my feet looked long in their pumps against the wicker arm. I looked at the pictures around the room blankly and at the stained-glass windows on either side of the fireplace; and the winter light coming through them was hardly bright enough to show the colors. I struck a match on the mosaic hearth and lit the gas-logs.

Kneeling on the hearth I watched the flames till my face felt hot. I stood up then and turned directly to one of the full-length mirror-panels that were on each side of the front window. This one was just to the right of the broad window and my reflection in it stood out strangely from the rest of the room in the dull light that did not penetrate beyond my figure. I leaned closer to the mirror trying to discover a resemblance between myself and the wondrous Alice who walked through a looking-glass. But that resemblance I was seeking I could not find in my sharp features, or in my heavy, dark curls hanging like fragments of hosepipe to my shoulders. Continue reading “Read Peter Taylor’s short story “A Spinster’s Tale””