“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” a very short tale by Ambrose Bierce

“The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”

by

Ambrose Bierce

from Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories


 

One morning in July, 1854, a planter named Williamson, living six miles from Selma, Alabama, was sitting with his wife and a child on the veranda of his dwelling.  Immediately in front of the house was a lawn, perhaps fifty yards in extent between the house and public road, or, as it was called, the “pike.”  Beyond this road lay a close-cropped pasture of some ten acres, level and without a tree, rock, or any natural or artificial object on its surface.  At the time there was not even a domestic animal in the field.  In another field, beyond the pasture, a dozen slaves were at work under an overseer.

Throwing away the stump of a cigar, the planter rose, saying: “I forgot to tell Andrew about those horses.”  Andrew was the overseer.

Williamson strolled leisurely down the gravel walk, plucking a flower as he went, passed across the road and into the pasture, pausing a moment as he closed the gate leading into it, to greet a passing neighbor, Armour Wren, who lived on an adjoining plantation.  Mr. Wren was in an open carriage with his son James, a lad of thirteen.  When he had driven some two hundred yards from the point of meeting, Mr. Wren said to his son: “I forgot to tell Mr. Williamson about those horses.”

Mr. Wren had sold to Mr. Williamson some horses, which were to have been sent for that day, but for some reason not now remembered it would be inconvenient to deliver them until the morrow.  The coachman was directed to drive back, and as the vehicle turned Williamson was seen by all three, walking leisurely across the pasture.  At that moment one of the coach horses stumbled and came near falling.  It had no more than fairly recovered itself when James Wren cried: “Why, father, what has become of Mr. Williamson?”

It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Mr. Wren’s strange account of the matter, given under oath in the course of legal proceedings relating to the Williamson estate, here follows:

“My son’s exclamation caused me to look toward the spot where I had seen the deceased [sic] an instant before, but he was not there, nor was he anywhere visible.  I cannot say that at the moment I was greatly startled, or realized the gravity of the occurrence, though I thought it singular.  My son, however, was greatly astonished and kept repeating his question in different forms until we arrived at the gate.  My black boy Sam was similarly affected, even in a greater degree, but I reckon more by my son’s manner than by anything he had himself observed.  [This sentence in the testimony was stricken out.]  As we got out of the carriage at the gate of the field, and while Sam was hanging [sic] the team to the fence, Mrs. Williamson, with her child in her arms and followed by several servants, came running down the walk in great excitement, crying: ‘He is gone, he is gone!  O God! what an awful thing!’ and many other such exclamations, which I do not distinctly recollect.  I got from them the impression that they related to something more – than the mere disappearance of her husband, even if that had occurred before her eyes.  Her manner was wild, but not more so, I think, than was natural under the circumstances.  I have no reason to think she had at that time lost her mind.  I have never since seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson.”

This testimony, as might have been expected, was corroborated in almost every particular by the only other eye-witness (if that is a proper term) – the lad James.  Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify.  The boy James Wren had declared at first that he saw the disappearance, but there is nothing of this in his testimony given in court.  None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew.  The most monstrous and grotesque fictions, originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day; but what has been here related is all that is certainly known of the matter.  The courts decided that Williamson was dead, and his estate was distributed according to law.

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“Blue and Green” — Virginia Woolf

“Blue and Green”

by

Virginia Woolf

from Monday or Tuesday


 

GREEN

The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the lustre drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the dessert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken. Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

 

BLUE

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide. Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes. Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach. Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.

“The Penitent,” a short fable from Robert Louis Stevenson

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“The Tadpole and the Frog,” a fable from Robert Louis Stevenson

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“It Is Necessary to Travel…” — William Burroughs

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From The Adding Machine.

“The Citizen and the Traveller,” a short fable from Robert Louis Stevenson

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“Supplemental Income” — Thomas Bernhard

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“A Happy Man” — Clarice Lispector

“A Mistaken Identity” — Lord Dunsany

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“Montparnasse” — Ernest Hemingway

Five from Félix Fénéon

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True False (Book acquired, 6.11.2015)

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Miles Klee’s collection True False is new from indie O/R. You can read some excerpts at their site.

Blurb(s):

“Miles Klee demonstrates a delightfully prehensile grasp of the more oblique peculiarities of sentience. Very highly recommended.” —William Gibson

“Miles Klee is a fresh genius of the American literary sentence, and his every paragraph is aburst with nervous, agitative exactitudes. So much gets itself zanily and definitively rendered in the crackle of his ultravivid prose that True False is not just a joltingly original collection but the essential record of the inner terrors of our hyperurban era.” —Gary Lutz

A collection of stories that range from the very short to the merely short, these forty-four tales evoke extraordinary scenes in an understated manner that’s marked Klee one of today’s most intriguing writers. From the apocalyptic to the utopic, from a haunted office building to a suburban pool that may be alive, a day in the mind of a demi-god Pythagoras to a secret race to develop artificial love, True False captures a fractured reality more real than our own.

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This is not a review of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t

This is the part of the not-review where I include a picture I took of the book to accompany the not-review:

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This is the part of the not-review where I briefly restage Lydia Davis’s publishing history to provide some context for readers new to her work.

This is the part of the not-review where I submit that anyone already familiar with Lydia Davis’s short fiction is likely to already hold an opinion on it that won’t (but could) be changed by Can’t and Won’t.

This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over whether or not the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.

This is the part of the not-review where I state that I don’t care if the stories in Can’t and Won’t are actually stories or something other than stories.

This is the part of the not-review where I explain that I have found a certain precise aesthetic pleasure in most of Can’t and Won’t that radiates from the savory contradictory poles of identification and alienation.

This is the part of the not-review where I cite an example of identification with Davis’s narrator-persona-speaker:

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This is the part of the not-review where I claim that I used scans of the text to preserve the look and feel of Lydia Davis’s prose on the page.

This is the part of the not-review where I say that some of my favorite moments in Can’t and Won’t are Davis’s expressions of frustrated boredom with literature (or do I mean publishing?), like in the longer piece “Not Interested.”

This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Davis’s speaker-narrator-persona expresses frustration with the act of writing itself:

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This is the part of the not-review where I dither pointlessly over distinctions between Davis the author and Davis the persona-speaker-narrator.

This is the part of the not-review where I point out that (previous dithering and frustration-with-writing aside) writing itself is a major concern of Can’t and Won’t:

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This is the part of the not-review where I say that many of the stories in Can’t and Won’t are labeled dream, and I often found myself not really caring for these dreams (although I like the one above), but maybe I didn’t really care for the dreams because of their being tagged as dreams. (This is the part of the not-review where I point out that our eyes glaze over when anyone tells us their literal dreams).

This is the part of the not-review where I transition from stories tagged dream to stories tagged story from Flaubert, like this one:

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This is the part of the not-review where I say how much I liked the stories from Flaubert stories in Can’t and Won’t.

This is the part of the not-review where I mention Davis’s translation work, but don’t admit that I didn’t make it past the first thirty pages of her Madame Bovary. 

This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly reference my review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis and point out that that collection is not so collected now.

This is the part of the not-review where I pointlessly dither over post-modernism, post-postmodernism, and Davis’s place in contemporary fiction. (This is the part of the not-review where I needlessly cram in the names of other authors, like Kafka and Walser and Bernhard and Markson and Adler and Miller &c.).

This is the part of the not-review where I claim that nothing I’ve written matters because Davis makes me laugh (this is also the part of the not-review where I use the adverb “ultimately,” a favorite crutch):

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This is the part of the not-review where I point out that Can’t and Won’t is not for everybody, but I very much enjoyed it.

This is the part of the not-review where I mention that the publisher is FS&G/Picador, and that the book is available in the usual formats.

“Snips of the Tongue” — Harry Mathews

“Snips of the Tongue”

by

Harry Mathews

from Selected Declarations of Independence

Once burned, twice snide

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Every drug has its day

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The road to help is paved with good intentions

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Never pull of tomorrow what you can do today

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When in Rome, do as the Trojans do

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Half a loan is better than no bread

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Every crowd has a silver lining

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One man’s meat is another man’s person

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Look before you leave

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A snitch in time saves nine

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In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is kinky

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Too many cooks spoil the dwarf

“The She-Owl” — Robert Walser

“The She-Owl”

by

Robert Walser

A she-owl in a ruined wall said to herself: What a horrifying existence. Anyone else would be dismayed, but me, I am patient. I lower my eyes, huddle. Everything in me and on me hangs down like gray veils, but above me, too, the stars glitter; this knowledge fortifies me. Bushy plumage covers me: by day I sleep, at night I’m awake. I need no mirror to discover how I look: feeling tells me. I can easily think of my peculiar face.

People say I’m ugly. If they only knew what smiles I feel in my soul, they’d not run from me in fright anymore. Yet they don’t see into the interior, they stop at the body, the clothes. Once I was young and pretty, I might say, but that makes it sound as if I pine for the past, and that is not my way. The she-owl, who once practiced growing big, endures the course and change of time tranquilly, she finds herself and every present moment.

They say to me: “Philosophy.” Yet the death that comes beforetimes cancels the later one. Death is nothing new to this she-owl, she knows it already. It looks as if I’m a lady of learning, wear glasses, and somebody is so interested in me that he pays me a visit now and then. He finds me Harmonious. He tells me I’m somebody who doesn’t disappoint him. Of course, I have never bewitched him either. He studies me profoundly, strokes my wings, brings me candy sometimes, with which to delight, so he believes, the most serious of females, and he’s making no mistake. I am reading a poet whose finesse makes him fit to be digested by owls. There’s something sweet in his ways, something veiled, undefinable, which is to say, he suits me well. Once I was charming, I laughed and twittered jokes into the blue of the day, I turned many young men’s heads. Now things look different, the shoes I wear have holes in them, I’m old, I sit and say nothing.

Translated by Christopher Middleton.

“A Christmas Thought” — Barry Hannah

“Tragic Hunt” — Michelangelo Antonioni

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