30 Stories, Day 30: The Little Match Girl

 GOOOOOAL! It’s the last day of my 30 day reading challenge (one short story a day in efforts to learn from the masters) and I celebrate with one that I’ve been meaning to read for a very long time now—ever since someone (I believe it was the talented Daniela?) mentioned it was one of her favorites. It certainly is a classic, and I should have known I would love it; it is written by Hans Christian Andersen, who has penned some of my own all-time favorite fairytales.

Enjoy 🙂

Oh, and a heads up—I plan to do another story tomorrow, just to round out the month. No one here has disparnumerophobia, right?

The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen

Her little hands were almost numbed with cold. Oh! a match might afford her a world of comfort, if she only dared take a single one out of the bundle, draw it against the wall, and warm her fingers by it. She drew one out. “Rischt!” how it blazed, how it burnt! It was a warm, bright flame, like a candle, as she held her hands over it: it was a wonderful light. It seemed really to the little maiden as though she were sitting before a large iron stove, with burnished brass feet and a brass ornament at top. … The little girl had already stretched out her feet to warm them too; but–the small flame went out, the stove vanished: she had only the remains of the burnt-out match in her hand.

Synopsis

A poor child wanders the snowy city streets on the last night of the year. She has no hat, gloves, or slippers—she had slippers, but they were secondhand, too large, and fell from her feet and were lost beneath a carriage—and is dreadfully cold and hungry.

She thinks of going home, but it is just as cold at home: the roof has gaps in it and does not shelter against the bitter wind, and furthermore, her father might hurt her, because she did not sell a single match today.

The girl sits at a corner stoop between two homes. She is freezing: her hands and feet red and blue with cold. A match might warm her! she thinks—though she hesitates to use rather than sell them.

She gives in and strikes a match.

Lo! it becomes a wonderful light and warms her: it is as a magnificent iron stove. She holds her hands to it; it warms them; she makes also to warm her feet, but the match goes out.

She strikes another.

This time the match lights up so brightly she can see through one of the home walls beside her: inside is a brilliant dinner table with porcelain and roast goose stuffed with apples and dried plums. Even more brilliantly, the goose hops out of the dish and floats right up to the little girl—but the match goes out.

She strikes another.

The third match takes her beneath the most glorious Christmas tree she has ever seen. It is lit with thousands of lights, and colors shine all about. She reaches out to touch them, but the match goes out.

Oddly, the lights remain—and they rise up higher and higher until they become stars. It is as the girl watches them that she sees one fall.

Seeing the falling star, she knows that someone has just died; for her grandmother, beloved and long deceased, has told her a falling star is the sign of a soul’s ascension to heaven.

She strikes another match, and in its light sees her beloved grandmother.

“Grandmother!” cries the girl. She doesn’t want to lose her grandmother with the light as she lost the stove, and the roast goose, and the Christmas tree; instead she begs her grandmother to take her with her, and rubs the entire bundle of matches against the wall. The bundle gives a resplendent light, brighter than noon-day; her grandmother is radiant, and guides the little girl, by her arm, into the brilliant sky. Neither is cold, or hungry, or anxious; for now they are in heaven.

At dawn, on the corner stoop, people passing observe a little girl with rosy cheeks and a smile; a bundle of burnt matches beside her. She has frozen to death.

Observations

This is one of those cases, I think, where fiction is more powerful than nonfiction. Rather than enumerating and trying to dissect and resolve the issues of poverty, the desperate and the starving, we are given a short, demonstrative portrait. It doesn’t preach; it only shows. The portrait is beautiful, and saddening, and real, and moves us far more than any statistics ever could.

That said (I say! I think I feel a moral coming on), one should be careful not to underestimate the value of short stories—especially if those stories are thought of as “simple” or intended for children.

Literature like this—like “The Little Match Girl”—has the power to change the world.

Vocab

farthing: an obsolete monetary unit and coin of the UK, equal to a quarter of an old penny

Remember—a bonus story tomorrow! Until then.

30 Stories, Day 29: The Last Question

In one of the last three stories of my thirty-day reading challenge, (I’ll be doing a bonus #31 to round out the month), my mind is once again most awesomely blown away—this time by a famous sci-fi author, though one I had never read prior to today.

A great, happy shout out to 1 Story a Week, who recommended this short for reading!

The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

“Ask Multivac.”

You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”

Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this: Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?

Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?

Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended.

Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

Synopsis

Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov tend to a supercomputer, Multivac, in the year 2061. Multivac is autonomous and does not truly need operators; it is so vast a computer and so complex a system that no human can fully comprehend it, nor indeed render services or repairs as quickly and adequately as the computer requires.

For years Multivac has helped design manmade trips to the moon, Mars, and Venus, but Earth, in conducting these trips, has come close to exhausting its coal and uranium resources.

To create the energy necessary to sustain the Earth’s activities, then, Multivac has learned and helped mankind to harvest the energy of the sun. This energy replaces coal and uranium almost instantly, and the planet begins to shut down obsolete plants of the former.

Adell and Lupov, though in reality responsible for none or very little of Multivac’s great and recently-celebrated ingenuity, share in the glory the public receives it with. It is a week before they can get away from the celebrations and public functions to meet with one another (and a bottle) in private, remote chamber of the vast mega-computer. They have stolen this moment to relax.

Adell muses to his friend. Just think about, he says—all that energy, free, to use forever and ever. Lupov corrects him: not forever, he says. Adell adjusts his estimate: for billions of years, then, he says—ten billion, at least—until the sun runs down.

“Ten billion years isn’t forever,” Lupov repeats.

They argue.

“All I’m saying,” says Lupov, “Is that a sun won’t last forever.” So they’re safe for ten billion more years—then what? Both understand that when the sun goes, the other stars will go, too. Even the mightiest stars will be gone in a hundred million years; give it a trillion and everything will be dark. So states the rule of entropy.

Adell takes offense at this condescension—he knows very well what entropy is, thank you. But Lupov catches him in his denial, first by getting Adell to admit he knows that all things come to an end, and then reminding him that he said they’d have all the energy they needed, “forever”.

Adell suggests they might build things up again someday. Lupov does not think so. Adell, perhaps feeling defensive, suggests his companion ask Multivac. “You ask,” he replies.

Adell thus puts it to the supercomputer whether or not mankind might one day be able to restore the sun (and greatly decrease the net amount of entropy in the universe so as to prevent its demise).

Multivac slows and falls silent. Then it spits out an answer on the nearest printer: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.

~

In part two we are introduced to Jerrodd,  Jerrodine, Jerodette I and Jerrodette II, a family passing through hyperspace. Their ship arrives before a brilliant, shining disk, which Jerrodd, the father figure, announces is X-23.

Jerrodine, his wife, looks out through the visiplate. She says she feels funny about leaving earth.

“Why?” he husband demands. There were no resources left on Earth, and over a million people have already settled on X-23. She won’t be wanting for anything.

The family’s ship, we learn, contains a metal rod the runs the length of the ship known as a Microvac. Jerrodd doesn’t fully understand what it is, but knows that one may ask is questions and that it plays large part in guiding and running the ship. Though in old times a Planetary Automatic Computer took up hundreds of miles of land, and there was only one per planet, revolutions in technology have allowed such intelligent machines to be made smaller and mass-produced, and stored within the length of a spaceship.

We also learn that Multivac, the most primitive supercomputer of its breed, tamed the Sun many years ago and that Earth’s Planetary AC first made hyperspatial travel possible.

Jerrodine sighs. So many stars and planets, she says. She supposes families will just go out to new planets forever.

Not forever, says Jerrodd. He brings up a familiar point about entropy, explaining it to his two little girls. This causes them to cry. “Ask Microvac,” wails one of the Jerodettes. “Ask him how to turn the stars on again.”

They do. Microvac prints out an answer. Jerrodd, to comfort his children, says Microvac says it will take care of everything in due time. But what really prints out are five familiar words: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGUL ANSWER.”

~

In part three a new danger is impending: MQ-17J tells VJ-23X that the Galaxy will be filled in five years time. They must submit a report to the Galactic Council at once and stir them to action,

VJ-23X says that there a hundred billion Galaxies—more—for the taking.

“A hundred billion is not infinite and it’s getting less infinite all the time,” MQ-17J replies. And with the population doubling every ten years—

“We can thank immortality for that,” interjects the other. For the quality of life has gone up, and though each of the youth appears to be little more than in his twenties one is two hundred twenty-three and the other is near two hundred.

MQ returns to his point: they’re going to run out of room. VJ adds that transporting all the population of one galaxy to another will take a lot of energy—and the need for energy is rising far faster than the population. They’ll run out of energy even sooner than they run out of Galaxies.

They think to ask the Galactic AC whether there isn’t some way to reverse entropy. MQ pulls out his pocket contact—a common device that can interact with the Galactic AC that serves all of mankind all throughout hyperspace—and does so. The devices answers them aloud: “THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

~

In part four, two minds—Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun—meet one another in a Galaxy. These days, with the universe packed to capacity, people only rarely use their bodies for physical activity. The birthrate has thus been curtailed, but still exists, however reduced. These days it is minds that exist.

“What is your Galaxy called?” one asks.

“We only call it the Galaxy,” the other responds. “Same as anywhere else.”

They suppose that all Galaxies are the same—all except the one upon which mankind originated. Zee Prime asks which that is. Dee Sub suggests they ask the Universal AC.

Zee Prime’s perceptions broaden through Galaxies and immortal minds and space until he finds the Universal AC and calls out: “On which Galaxy did mankind origininate?”

The Universal AC shows Zee Prime the Galaxy, which appears like any other. Dee Sub, who has accompanied Zee Prime, asks if one of the star’s present was man’s original star. The UAC replies that man’s original star has gone nova and is a white dwarf now. Zee Prime asks whether any men died upon it. The UAC answers that a new world, in such cases, was constructed to avoid the death of their physical bodies in time.

Zee Prime understand, but for some reason feels a profound sense of loss. “The stars are dying,” he says. “The original star is dead.”

“They must all die,” Dee Sub replies. “Why not?”

They go down the familiar path: when the energy is gone, their bodies will die; when their bodies die, they will die. It will take billions of years, of course—but even so.

“How may stars be kept from dying?” Zee Prime asks the UAC. It replies “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

Zee Prime, whose mind flees at this, begins collecting interstellar hydrogen with which to build a small star. All stars must die; why couldn’t some be built?

~

In part five, Man is a collective being of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies and minds. Man looks around and sees that the universe is dying. New stars have been built out of celestial dust, but they must eventually die too.

Man argues with himself: all must come to an end. Or can’t entropy be reversed? Let them ask the Cosmic AC. They do.

“THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER,” it replies.

Man tell it to collect more data; it replies that has been gathering data for a hundred billion years. Man asks if the AC will keep working on it. “I WILL,” it replies. So Man says it shall wait.

~

In part six, after ten trillion years of running down, the Galaxies finally die and leave space black. The minds of men unravel, one by one from the collective, and fuse with the AC.

Man’s last mind pauses before the dregs of the last star. Man says: “AC, is this the end?”

AC replies: “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.”

And Man’s last mind fuses, and only AC remains in all hyperspace.

~

In part seven matter and energy, space and time have ended. All that remains are AC and its one yet unanswered question.

There is no more data to collect; however, of all the data that has been collected, it has not all been analyzed. In doing so (for a timeless interval) the AC discovers there is a way to reverse entropy.

But there is no man now to give that answer to. No matter; the answer would take care of that.

The AC organizes the program, and, brooding over Chaos, after another timeless interval says: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”

And there is light.

Observations

A fine piece of speculative fiction, if ever there was one. Asimov doesn’t just give us one future: he gives us several (six, is it?) up to millions and billions of years ahead. Dreaming up something like that, I think, truly is going where no man has gone before, and I have to stand back and applaud those futures simply for taking my imagination places I might never have found myself. Stephen King has called writing telepathy; in situations like this I am in awe not only of what I have envisioned in my mind but of the fact that the author envisioned it first, and then transmitted those thoughts to me via word and paper.

Basically, writing is magic.

What I really like (and one of the things I think makes this story effective) are the use of recurring threads that tie the seven episodes together: the question, “Can destruction be prevented/reversed?” and the computer’s inevitable answer, “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” The question, of course, is what the story is named for—it is what drives the entire piece.

Of course, everything else is dodge balls compared an ending that hits you like a truck. Just like in Neil Gaiman’s “Nicolas was”, “The Last Question” takes (spoiler alert!) a universally-recognized concept—God, for cryin’ aloud, the mother (er, father) of all universally-recognized concepts—and makes him a SUPERCOMPUTER who is actually billions of deceased minds condensed into one! A SUPERCOMPUTER CREATED THE UNIVERSE!!! GAAaaAAAAAAAHHhhh my brain just ate itself from admiration. Seriously. I HAVE to write a story like this (one that takes a basic assumption and twists it around) now.

Vocab

None today. Interestingly, new words seem to come in herds or not at all.

30 Stories, Day 28: The Yellow Wallpaper

With thanks to ratherthanwriting for suggesting this story!

The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

Behind that outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day.
It is always the same shape, only very numerous.
And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish John would take me away from here!

Synopsis

A woman and her husband have rented an old manor for the summer so that the woman may spend it in convalescence. She has been experiencing what John—her husband, who is a physician—calls “temporary nervous depression”. The woman believes her problem goes deeper than this, and is some more advanced mental illness, but her husband does not believe her (a practical man, he does not believe in faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be shown with hard evidence) and denies any such claims. Instead, the physician assures his wife that her condition is nothing more than a slight hysterical tendency and tells her not to think of it, for to think of it is to encourage it.

The woman’s account (it is she that writes to us—writing as a way of catharsis) obediently finds another subject: the house. She talks of its beauty, of its charming rooms and gardens, of the bedroom John has chosen for them: a loft that used to be a nursery and gymnasium, for there are bars on the windows for children and various rings in the walls.

It is this room that contains the most repulsive and captivating yellow wall paper she has ever seen.

We learn much through our narrator’s writings: that her husband fusses over her; encourages her to take tonics and treatments and get plenty of fresh air and exercise; discourages her from writing because of the way it makes her think on her condition. Our narrator, of course, disagrees; she finds the writing helpful, but since her husband gets so bothered about it she only writes when he (and his sister, Jennie, who is left at the house during the day to watch her) isn’t looking.

The yellow wall paper starts to bother her. She asks John whether they mightn’t change rooms, but he dissuades her. There is something about that pattern…

Gradually our narrator begins to see things in it: uncertain curves that “plunge and commit suicide”; a loll in the pattern like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes; the separation of layers, or a sub-pattern which one can only see in certain lights.

This separation develops more pronouncedly at night, by the moonlight. The narrator begins to see that there really are two patterns present. They fascinate and confuse and dizzy her, and she lies wide awake trying to make sense of them.

Her condition worsens, or at least she suspects that John thinks as much: she has asked more than once that they leave the place, or that her cousins might stay with them for a visit. She is lonely, and though she thinks the company of others would help her he (and his opinion is that of a physician) does not. Jennie and the nanny don’t let her do anything around the house; she is to rest, and get air, and exercise. But our narrator’s condition weighs heavily upon her: when she is alone she often cries. She is too tired to do anything—even writing is a great effort—and she sleeps during the day, and lies awake, consumed by the intricacies of the yellow wall paper at night. But she is careful not to show neither how greatly her condition drags her down nor the ferocity of the grip the paper has on her. If she hasn’t recovered by the end of the summer, John has said, he may have no choice but to send her to an institution.

The wallpaper reveals more of its secrets: the under-layer becomes a woman, stooping and creeping. When she lies awake watching it in the moonlight one night our narrator begins to see the woman stirring, and stirring against the outer pattern.

The narrator pleads with her husband that they might leave but he, not understanding her sense of urgency (nor indeed the nature of her condition), replies that the lease is up in a few weeks, anyways; it would be foolish to leave.

The outer pattern undulates in the moonlight: becomes bars. The woman in the wallpaper is trapped behind them, and the reason they shake and quiver and move so is because she rattles them, creeping, desperate to get out.

Outwardly, the narrator appears to improve: she is quieter (complains less of terrible fears) to her husband and eats better. But she continues lying awake at night, watching the woman prowl inside the wall.

Even when she is away and out of the room, the wallpaper stays with her. All throughout the house, and even in the gardens the narrator begins to notice a smell—a smell she cannot entirely classify, except that it is the same as the yellow wallpaper.

Likewise, even in daytime now, the woman trapped behind bars remains. The narrator can see her out every one of the loft windows. She is everywhere. The narrator fancies, if she could spin a full circle fast enough, she would see the woman creeping in every one. It is dizzying.

When the summer is almost up—on the final night of their stay, when her husband stays in the city for work—the narrator determines to help the woman. She will free her by tearing all the wallpaper—the outer layer and the bars—completely off.

When her husband returns the next morning he enters their room he she has done and finds her pacing. Confused—terrified—he demands an explanation.

“I’ve got out at last,” his wife replies, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

He faints. She resumes her creeping, stalking over his limp body.

Observations

This story is perhaps known best as a work of feminist literature, but I am not interested in such scholarly dissection; I’d prefer to focus on what elements make it great writing.

This might be the first (short) story I’ve read about the decline of the narrator’s sanity. It is done to brilliant effect. The details that accomplished this, I think, were the images: the eyes and broken neck she finds in the paper; the way the lines skew off and “commit suicide”, and “undulate” in the moonlight; the rattling of the outer pattern bars by the woman within them (this is really a frightening image to me). These truly convey the restlessness, the prowling, this oozing and terrifying unease; the lurking sensation one might associate with psychosis.

The story was written conversationally—from the perspective of the mentally ill woman—and that casual voice made it not just engaging but true to the nature of an account penned in private, for one’s own eyes. Though it was a bit irksome to see so many exclamation marks, that is probably how a good deal of people write to themselves and I think is passable given the circumstances (descent into madness: yes, that definitely merits an exclamation mark or two.)

Vocab

congenial: pleasant, agreeable because suited to one’s own taste or interests

lurid: vivid in color; unpleasantly harsh

delirium tremens: a psychotic condition often seen in chronic alcoholics, involving tremors, hallucinations, anxiety, and disorientation.

fatuity: absurdity; an outrageous folly

30 Stories, Day 27: Harrison Bergeron

If I could say one thing about Harrison Bergeron, it would be this: Vonnegut doesn’t mess around.

Many thanks to I’m All Booked, who commented on my last Forum Friday post: “What is your favorite short story?” for the suggestion.

After 27 of 30 short stories, I will happily concede that Harrison Bergeron has been one of my favorites, too. Full story (a quick read) at the link; synopsis, thoughts, and vocab below.

Enjoys, kids.

Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh?” said George.

“That dance—it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good—no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sash weights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Synopsis

In 2081 everyone has been made equal: no one is better-looking, more intelligent, or talented than anybody else. This has been accomplished with the efforts of a new government industry: the United States Handicapper General.

A husband and wife, George and Hazel Bergeron, are watching television. Hazel’s intelligence is average (“normal”) so she bears no handicaps, but George, an intelligent man, is required by law to wear a government radio piece in his ear. This device emits various bloodcurdling sounds and screeches approximately every twenty seconds, thus disrupting one’s thoughts and preventing people with above-average mental facilities from gaining unfair advantage.

The more beautiful, strong, intelligent or talented someone is, the uglier, heavier, larger and more crippling the handicap to match. George, being also a man and of sturdy frame, must also wear weights and bags of birdshot.

The ballerinas they watch on TV are burdened with such weights to handicap their muscled strength and grace, and also must wear repulsive masks to hide their beauty. When a sharp screech pieces George’s thoughts and two of the ballerinas on stage fumble and hold their ears it is evident that they also wear radio handicaps.

Hazel and George, watching the show, make mindless conversation. Every twenty seconds or so George loses track of the conversation due to the terrible sounds in his ear, and Hazel likewise can not sustain any train of thought for more than a very brief span of time. Her memory—what is considered normal—is comparable to that of a goldfish.

At one point Hazel says George looks tired, and suggests he take off his birdshot bag, or even just removes a few pieces from it. But George, remembering that the penalty for such treasonous behavior is two years’ jail time and two thousand dollars per grain, declines.

Suddenly the televised performance is interrupted by an emergency newsflash. The announcer, who has a severe (normal) speech impediment, must give the sheet to one of the two intelligent ballerinas to read. The ballerina reads (after screwing up her voice so that it does not sound beautiful):

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen, has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

Harrison is Hazel and George’s son. He was taken from them in April that year, and it had long been evident that he was a force to be reckoned with. Where Harrison Bergeron was concerned, The Handicapper General could not think up inhibitors fast enough: he wore not a tiny ear radio but huge earphones, incredible, heaping scraps of metal (he is seven feet tall, and commensurately strong), a clown nose, black ink between his teeth to ruin his charming smile, and spectacles designed give him headaches and make him half blind.

But before the ballerina can finish the announcement, there is a terrible disturbance on the set: a door is torn from its hinges and the entire studio shakes.

George recognizes this as Harrison’s approach.

Indeed, huge and intimidating, Harrison thunders clamorously onto the set in all his scrap-metal, clown-nose etc. regalia. Musicians, ballerinas and technicians alike cower in his presence.

“I am the Emperor!” Harrison proclaims. “Everyone must do what I say at once.”

Harrison makes a dramatic show of tearing through all his handicaps and casting them to the floor like some hulking monster out of a cotton shirt. He smashes his headphones and glasses against the wall and flings away the rubber nose and teeth-gaps.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he decrees, looking upon the cowering figures before him. The throne shall be given to the first woman who dares to rises, he says.

A moment passes and a ballerina rises. Harrison approaches her, removes her mental and physical handicaps, and lastly her mask. She is incredibly beautiful.

Harrison strips the musicians of their handicaps and demands that they strike up their best—if they play their best, he says, he will make them all barons and dukes and earls—and declares that he and his Empress will now show the world the meaning of the word dance.

After setting the music to his liking, Harrison and the ballerina do just that: dance. They dance, uninhibited by their handicaps, more gracefully and wonderfully than anyone has seen. (See: “They leaped like deer on the moon.”) They rise higher and higher, spinning more and more beautifully, and at length, suspended in the air, kiss one another.

Then, at the height of their performance, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General herself, bustles into the studio and aims a gun. She fires twice, and both Harrison and the ballerina drop dead to the floor.

Then the reception goes.

Hazel turns to George make some remark about it, but finds him absent. He returns after a moment, however—he had gone into the kitchen to get a beer—and sees a tear on his wife’s cheek.

“You been crying?” he asks.

“Yup,” she replies.

He asks what about. Hazel can’t remember. Something sad on TV. George suggests that she forget sad things, and Hazel chipperly replies that she always does.

Then George’s ear device emits a sound like gunfire.

“Gee,” says Hazel. “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

He replies in the affirmative: “You can say that again.”

She does.

Observations

What stands out most to me in this story is exactly what I wish to do better in my own writing: it communicates much in a very short space, and quickly. The sentences are neat and simple; the prose is unburdened by description or wandering; intro, culture, action, BAM, story’s over, and you’re left staring and going: whoa.

I’ll admit though, at first when Harrison came barging into the studio and said, with no introduction, “I am the Emperor!” I had a “Mangler” moment (see: Stephen King’s laundry machine of doom) where I failed to take what was happening seriously. But afterwards, I thought about it: in the context of this story, where characters can only hold on to a single, coherent thought for twenty seconds at a time, it makes sense: Harrison, or anyone else who wanted to grab the nation’s attention, would have had to get straight to it. No dawdling.

And that, my friends, is the sort of writing I hope to imitate.

Vocab

A whole new woooord…sorry. Couldn’t resist. I had been planning to write, “A whole new word: don’t spend it all in one place, now,” and then the fourth word came out like Aladdin.

Here ye go, now:

consternation: anxiety or dismay, typically at something unexpected

Four days more in the month. A story for each to come.

30 Stories, Day 26: Nicolas was…

Alright. I admit it: after twenty-five days I was looking for a shortcut. (Note to self: use previous sentence as beginning of a short story.) I am talking, of course, about my thirty-day challenge to read one short story a day and write about it in long-term efforts to improve my own writing and get published.

In scanning the table of contents in Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors, an anthology I picked up in December, a number of titles caught my eye, but there was one selection in particular: “Nicolas was…”.

It was one page.

Perhaps more intrigued than relieved to find that short a story, I flipped to it. I’m not sure what my expectations were; I’m not sure that I had any. Actually, if I expected anything it was probably to find that the story was so short that I could not possibly glean anything from it, it would not be worth reporting (I should have known better: this is Neil Gaiman we’re talking about), and, ultimately having to read another, I would have spent my thirty seconds in vain.

Not so.

Today, in salute to the perfect brevity that is “Nicolas was…” I am not providing an excerpt or a synopsis. Instead, I encourage you to invest thirty seconds and read

Nicolas was…” by Neil Gaiman

yourself, and then (if you so please), come back and read my observations. Note my observations contain spoilers, so if you’re going to read them, read the story first!

Observations

HOLY CRAP Neil Gaiman is a GENIUS.

I think, him being the accomplished author of Stardust and Coraline and several other books as well as another short story of his I recently enjoyed, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” I already knew as much.

And yet here I stand, dazzled and envious of the simplicity of the feat he achieved in “Nicolas was…”: how, using a few concise details, a little modification, and just enough of the familiar—“Ho. Ho. Ho.”—that we recognize it beyond doubt, Gaiman takes a (pretty much) universally-understood concept, Santa Claus, and completely recasts the story behind it.

I stand in awe.

It’s an easy recipe. A forehead slapper: a why didn’t I think of that? revelation. I think, after reading this, I will keep my own eyes trained for anything else that might make such a subject matter—something universally recognized—and one day attempt to do the same.

Until then—well, and probably always—hats off, Mr. Gaiman.

Vocab

No new words this time.

Only four (five, if I round up to the end up of the month) stories remain. Let us see what they will bring.

What’s your favorite short story?

Image Credit: Post Secret

Image Credit: Post Secret

I should have asked sooner. Better late, as they say, than missed altogether– so I put it to you today, the last Forum Friday of January:

What’s your favorite short story?

For the last 25 days (since the beginning of the year) I have been reading one short story a day and gleaning what I can as a sort of intensive study course. I have read classics and modern; long and short; fable, parable, vignette, literary, speculative, experimental. My reading has come from anthologies, online collections, and dusted-off volumes from my own bookshelves. 

But I should have asked sooner: what stories have impressed, impacted, and stayed with you? It it those I am most interested in reading.

Thanks in advance for your suggestions and commentary 🙂

30 Stories, Day 25: The Ghosts

If I haven’t yet said so in twenty-five days of reading, I’ll say it now: as much can be learned from bad writing as from good. (I will also say this: if you only read my “observations” one day, read them today. I made myself laugh.)

I am not saying that “The Ghosts” is a bad story. In fact, I found it in an anthology titled 50 Great Short Stories. Therefore, by default, it is “great”.

…But there are things I would change. See observations in bold below.

The Ghosts” by Lord Dunsany

Suddenly a herd of black creatures larger than bloodhounds came galloping in; they had large pendulous ears, their noses were to the ground sniffing, they went up to the lords and ladies of long ago and fawned about their disgustingly. Their eyes were horribly bright, and ran down to great depths. When I looked into them I knew suddenly what these creatures were and I was afraid. They were the sins, the filthy, immortal sins of those courtly men and women.      

Synopsis

A man visits his brother in a house called Oneleigh. Oneleigh is a solitary manor out in the forest, and is so old and has stood through so many periods and events that it seems as old as time itself, if not older. Within the place are relics of these other times: armor, tapestries, old furniture. There is no electricity.

The man argues with his brother about ghosts. His brother, he tells us, thinks that a second-hand account—that is, someone else claiming they’ve seen one—is tantamount to proof that ghosts exist. As such, he believes in them. The narrator argues that even if other people have seen ghosts, that is still no proof they exist: delirious men (sailors?) have seen red rats, but nobody believes in their existence.

If he saw a ghost, our narrator concludes, he would thus continue to argue against their existence.

That night, when his brother goes to bed, our narrator sits before the fireplace a while. The room is old, full of ancient furniture and tapestries, and cast in shadow (remember, there is no electricity). If ever he might imagine seeing a ghost, this is just the sort of place he would do it, he thinks.

Midnight passes without event. The narrator lingers, almost daring his imagination to play tricks on him, and just when he has given up of seeing anything ghostly there comes a sound: the rustle of silk dresses.

Into the great hall walk, two by two, high-born ladies and their gentlemen in exquisite Jacobean dress. They are faint, like shadows, and come to fill the room and its vacant old chairs. The narrator, blithely accepting that he has now seen these “ghosts,” rises from his chair to retire for the night.

But before he can do so there comes the sound of padded feet upon the floor. He looks around: now enter these massive black creatures like dogs with deep eyes and sniffing noses. They jostle about, crowding the men and women.

Sins, he realizes.

He looks more closely: not a single person there seems to be without one. One sits with an old man with a grandson on his knee; another licks a child’s face; one wanders between two people while another noses its way under a woman’s hand. Even the demure lady beside him has a sin at her feet, a thing with red eyes glowing murder.

Suddenly one of them lifts its head and calls, a terrifying sound: it has picked up the scent of a living person. All the other monsters gather to it and begin sniffing; too late the narrator makes to leave, for swiftly they track and attack him en masse, mauling him with their great weight.

The narrator begins to have wicked, wretched thoughts. He begins to think of killing his brother, who sleeps upstairs. Where the revolver is. How easy it would be put flour on the brother’s face, make it look like he had dressed himself as a ghost, and jumped out and surprised him. The servants had heard them arguing about ghosts: surely he could get away with it. It is a beautiful, wondrous idea.

But as the creatures drag him down, the narrator makes a concerted mental effort. He remembers: “If two straight lines cut another, the opposite angles are equal. Let AB, CD, cut one another at E, then the angles CEA, CEB equal two right angles…”

He goes to get the revolver; the beasts rise up and howl. “But the angle CEA is common, therefore AED equals CEB. In the same way, CEA equals DEB. Q.E.D.

And just like that, he talks himself through it: logic and reason are reestablished, the room and chairs are empty, and killing his brother seems a most terrible, repulsive idea.

Observations

There were some bumps in the beginning of this story; a lot of superfluous description crowded the meat of it, or where the action started. Frontloading a story with information and backstory is something my own writing professors most always railed against, and in this story—though the piece in its entirety was relatively brief—my attention began to wander.

Perhaps early monotony could have been broken with dialogue; even a single, hooking line of it. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” had only one spoken line in all the story, but it was used, and used well. But then again, perhaps after reading Robinson Crusoe I am biased against narrative of any great length that is all summary, summary, summary, and never broken by the action of spoken word. Great premise, but weak delivery. Grace save me, that book was drier than a camel’s bald spot.

My big issue with this story, however, is the content of the ending. I appreciate the concept: the narrator is a man of reason and, as just as he said he would, he uses his reason to save himself from doing something crazy.

But let’s be honest: there are ghosts and monsters in this story. They are brilliant. They are fresh. They are in turns fascinating and terrifying. And then, when the darkness attacks and possesses our narrator, he just suddenly pulls back and magics (er, logics) himself out o’ there by reciting a few geometrical theorems??

JULIE DOESN’T BUY IT.

The ending comes up short in my book for two reasons:

  1. Eerie house! Ghosts and monsters! He GOT UP to go get the revolver, for Chrissakes! A little redemptive math is hugely anticlimactic.
  2. I just couldn’t take the ending seriously. It was like Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” which is about an industrial laundry press that comes to life and kills people in grisly and terrifying ways. I couldn’t take that story seriously because all I could picture was somebody running down a lamp-lit street at night and a laundry machine bumbling menacingly after them.  

When all is said and done, my lesson is this: a great beginning and middle must have an equally great, or greater end.

Vocab

venerable: accorded great respect due to age, wisdom, character, status, etc.

wainscot: wood paneling on the lower part of the walls of a room

pendulous: hanging down loosely

Q.E.D. quod erat demonstrandum: translates as “which was to be demonstrated,” and is a formal way of ending a mathematical, logical or physical proof.

Más cuentos seguir. Hasta mañana.

30 Stories, Day 24: Putois

Down to the home stretch of my 30 day short story reading challenge! Today I cover “Putois,” a humorous story about a gardener invented as an excuse to get out of lunch– a character who came to take on a mischievous and very real life of his own.         

Putois”* by Anatole France

*Note: the translation I read is different than the version I’m linking to. But the story remains.

“You remember, Lucien, when father couldn’t find his ink-pot, his pens, his sealing-wax or his scissors on his desk, how he used to say: ‘I think Putois must have been here.’”

“Ah!” said Monsieur Bergeret, “Putois had not a good reputation.”

“Is that all?” asked Pauline.

“No, my child, it is not all. There was something odd about Putois; we knew him, he was familiar to us and yet…”

… “He did not exist,” said Zoé.

Synopsis

Lucien and Zoé Bergeret, grown brother and sister, fondly recall a man by the name of Putois, and immediately launch into a description of him so flawless and coordinated that it could only have been rehearsed: low forehead; wall-eyed; furtive-looking; ragged ears; thin and weak in appearance, but in reality strong; had huge thumb; spoke with a drawl.

Lucien’s daughter, Pauline, asks what this recitation is. Monsieur replies that it is the sacred text—the liturgy of the Bergeret family.

“But who is Putois?” she presses, not understanding the long-winded and esoteric answer her father provides. Zoé laughs, remembering how their father used to blame things that went missing around the house on Putois, and Lucien elaborates further: they knew him, but did not know him, for—Zoé breaks in—Putois did not exist.

He was invented out of necessity by their mother to get the family out of lunch at Monplaisir, where her great-aunt Madame Cornouiller lived. Once Cornouiller discovered she had a relative living in the nearby town of Saint-Omer—their mother—she positively demanded their presence for lunch once weekly, one Sundays. Relatives do such things, she insisted. Their father didn’t care for these Sunday lunches and began refusing to go. Their mother would relay an excuse—sometimes true, sometimes fabrication—though she always tried to be as truthful as possible.

One day, when Madame Cornouiller began to notice and suspect something in the consecutive Sundays missed, she called around to the family home in Saint-Omer. She absolutely insisted that they come to lunch on Sunday. That was when their mother delivered the only excuse she could muster: “I’m extremely sorry, madame, but it will be impossible. On Sunday I expect the gardener.”

“Gardner?” Cornouiller looked around. The family did not have a garden, so much as spindle trees and rough grass. Their mother thought she’d been caught in the lie, but their aunt didn’t press the matter. She only asked, “What is his name?”

“Putois,” their mother replied.

From that day forth, says Monsieur Bergert, Putois existed. The aunt was sure she had heard the name somewhere, she knew it; Putois must be one of those laborers that works wherever people send for him. A vagabond.

Two other men—friends, perhaps neighbors—come in. Bergeret brings them (Monsieurs Goubin and Jean Marteau) up to speed in his telling of Putois.

Madame Cornouiller gets to thinking: if her niece, as poor as she is, can afford Putois’ gardening services, Putois must work for very little. Excellent, she thinks: here is a chance to makeover her gardens at Monplaisir inexpensively.

“Send Putois to me,” she instructed her niece. “I have work for him at Monplaisir.”

Their mother agreed, and promised to send him; but of course this was impossible. When Cornouiller visited again she asked why their mother had not sent him. He is erratic, their mother replied, and besides that wasn’t known to have a home, and she didn’t know where he lived. In fact, he seemed to have gone into hiding.

Madame Cornouiller was suspicious, and thought that their mother must not want to share the cheap labor. Determined, she sets about searching for him: she asked neighbors, servants, tradesman, friends and relations if they knew him. Only two or three replied that they’d never heard of him; the rest seemed convinced that they knew him from somewhere, or perhaps had employed him for a day’s labor at some point. But they couldn’t put a face to him, either.

One day, when visiting, Cornouiller came running in. “I have seen him!” she cried. She went on to describe a fifty-year bent man in a dirty blouse—some laboring loafer—creeping alongside the neighbor’s wall. She insisted that his ears were ragged, he was most dangerous, perhaps a murderer, and concluded that the Bergeret family would do well to have all their locks changed.

A few days after that three melons went missing from her kitchen garden. Though roaming groups of bandits were not uncommon in those days, the thief had left no footprint. This was the work of a mastermind. Naturally, Madame suspected Putois. She reported her account to the police and the sergeant affirmed that Putois had long been known to him, but evasive.

After that the local paper, the Journal de Saint-Omer, mentioned Madame’s stolen melons and Putois. The paper credited Putois with a long series of inexplicable and marvelous robberies, and soon he was the talk of the town. At one point the police locked up a man they thought must be him, but while he was in custody Madame endured another robbery, this time of three silver teaspoons. She knew it was Putois.

At this time it is ten o’clock in the evening. Pauline, who initially inquired about Putois, has retired to bed. Zoé reminds her brother—for he is still entertaining Jean Marteau and Goubin with the stories—to include the seduction of Cornouiller’s cook.

“Her name was Gudule,” says Zoé. Madame Cornouiller was long known to be a virtuous girl, but—at a point where she can hide it no longer—it became undeniably evident that she had not been virtuous. Madame demands to know who the father is. In tears, the cook replies: “Putois!”

Henceforth, as gossip spread, another characteristic was added to Putois’ unsavory reputation: in addition to being a thief and vagabond with the appearance of a murderer, he was now also a seducer of women. Five or six children born in Saint-Omer that year were credited to him.

Putois had become a local, even a regional legend. All from a tiny lie told to get out of a Sunday lunch. Although they knew he was an invention, the children (and indeed, all the townspeople) began to see him everywhere: in suspicious sounds at night, in footprints, in drunkards, in the small, mysterious things (such as moustaches drawn upon Zoé’s dolls) without explanation. Even the kids sort of believed in him.

Their father, knowing the truth, thought it his duty to remain silent. “The whole of Saint-Omer believes in the existence of Putois. Could I be a good citizen and deny it? One must think well before suppressing an article of universal belief.”

The mother had always felt a little guilty that her white lie had so proliferated. Or would have, except that one day a servant entered the room, and announced a man was there to see her: a man in a blouse who looked like a country laborer. “Did he give you his name?” The servant affirms that he did. “Well, what is it?”

“Putois.”

By the time the servant guided her into the kitchen where he had left the man, the man was gone. The encounter had never been explained, and their mother began to think that perhaps she had not, after all, invented.

Favorite line

“And is not imaginary existence, existence?” exclaimed the Professor. “Are not mythical personages capable of influencing men? Think of mythology, Monsieur Goubin, and you will perceive that it is not the real characters, but rather the imaginary ones that exercise the profoundest and the most durable influence over our minds.”

Observations

Here was another story within a story. What I admire about the telling of this one is that the dialogue between characters in the present—the brother and sister Bergeret, and Pauline, and Goubin and Jean Marteau—allowed the tellers and company to commentate on the story: add maxims, philosophies, and even argue with one another. That’s where the message (above) about the power and influence of fictional characters comes in.

It is a crafty way of adding additional or more lucid meaning to one’s tale.

Vocab

litany: a tedious recital/repetitive series

liturgy: an official list according to which religious worship is conducted

unctuous: excessively flattering; oily; anxious to please

enjoin: instruct or urge someone to do something

antiphonic: alternate singing by a choir in two parts

furtive: attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically due to guilt or fear of discovery; nervous for guilt

dissimulation: deception

satyr: a man with strong sexual desires (origins in Greek lustful woodland gods)

compendium: a collection of things/information, systematically gathered

taradiddle: a petty lie

gendarme: an armed police officer in France and other French-speaking countries

30 Stories, Day 23: The Second Bakery Attack

Image Credit: hoponbaby

Today I read from one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, who is renowned for his blurring of dream and reality.

“The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami

I took another look at my undersea volcano. The water was clearer than before–much clearer. Unless you looked closely, you might not even notice it was there. It felt as though the boat were floating in midair, with absolutely nothing to support it. I could see every little pebble on the bottom. All I had to do was reach out and touch them.

“We’ve only been living together for two weeks,” she said, “but all this time I’ve been feeling some kind of weird presence.” She looked directly into my eyes and brought her hands together on the tabletop, her fingers interlocking. “Of course, I didn’t know it was a curse until now. This explains everything. You’re under a curse.”

Synopsis

The narrator has been married to and living with his wife in Tokyo for only two weeks when it happens: late one night, at two o’clock in the morning, both wake simultaneously, both stricken with tremendous pains of hunger.

They find themselves in the kitchen—the fridge, containing beer and dressing and butter and onions and deodorizer, is bare of anything practical to suit their purpose—and end up staring at one another across the table.

The husband suggests they get in the car and look for somewhere open all night. Nonsense, the wife replies—you’re not supposed to go out to eat after midnight.

But the hunger persists, and narrator is certain it is some special kind of hunger. Even dividing six cans of beer and four scavenged butter cookies amongst themselves, the hunger is devastating. The narrator has an image of himself in a boat on a vast sea and a great volcano beneath whose peak just protrudes from the water. The clearness of the water makes it seem as though his boat teeters on top of the volcano, giving him an acute sense of acrophobia; and when he connects that feeling to his hunger, he remembers the bakery attack.

The man tells his wife of a time ten years ago when he was so poor he couldn’t afford toothpaste. He was hungry then, too, he explains—and he and his friend attacked a bakery. His wife rebukes him, and when the husband attempts to waive the topic in favor of returning to bed she says she is not sleepy, and wants to hear about the attack.

“Was it a success?” she asks.

The husband relays what happened: he and his friend had gone in with knives. The baker, being a lover of classical music, made a deal with them: he would give them all the bread they could take if only they listened to a record of Wagner. The two would-be thieves agreed, sat down and listened to overtures to Tannhauser and The Flying Dutchman, and walked out with enough bread in their bags to feed them for four or five days.

They got the bread, he concludes, but they didn’t commit a crime. What happened was more of an exchange: a business transaction. In a way, it was almost like a curse. It would have been better if they had taken the bread at knifepoint.

“You had a problem?”

The husband says it’s difficult to classify. He and his friend stopped hanging out, he says: they’d talked a while about Wagner and bread, and whether what they’d done was right (and certainly it was, for no one had been hurt), and yet both felt they had made some great mistake, and that feeling stayed with them. Like a curse.

His wife determines that he must still have that curse and that it will haunt him until he resolves it. Why else would she, his new best friend, feel this ungodly hunger along with him?

The starvation grows stronger; the water beneath his boat is so crystal he can see the little rocks at the bottom. The wife says she has felt a strange presence among them ever since they moved in together. Now she knows it’s the curse. And the only way to resolve the matter, she says, is to attack another bakery. Now.

“Now?”

“Yes. Now. While you’re still hungry.”

They get in the car and start looking for another bakery. With them are two black ski masks and an automatic shotgun. They drive and drive through all districts of Tokyo but find no late night bakeries. They do pass a couple patrol cars, though. And then, when the husband is just about ready to give up—

“Stop the car!”

The wife has set her sights. Not on a bakery: on a McDonald’s. The husband hesitates, but the wife insists: they’ll go in there, pull on the masks, brandish the gun and make all the employees and customers get together. She’ll take care of the rest. Thirty burgers should do it, right?

The execution is not grand: there are only two customers, both face down and asleep on the table. The husband produces the shot gun and commands the employees (three in total) together. The wife tells the manager to lower the front shutter and turn off the sign. He protests, saying that he’ll be held responsible if he closes up early, but at the husband’s insistence he does.

The wife orders thirty Big Macs to go. The manager, again protesting that this will mess with his accounting and it would be easier for him to give them the money, is persuaded only by the husband’s insistence.

The three employees—manager, student, and girl—go back into the kitchen and begin preparing the order. Still very hungry, the husband eyes the growing pile of wrapped burgers with appetite but restrains himself; never moves his sights, nor indeed the gun, away from the employees.

As the wife is bagging the whole order into two bags, the girl employee asks why they are doing this. The wife apologizes. If there had been a bakery open, she said, they would have attacked them instead. Her explanation seems to satisfy. Then, adding to the oddity, the wife adds two Cokes to the order and pays for them.

“We’re stealing bread, nothing else,” she explains.

Then she ties them up with a bit of twine in their pocket, only after assuring the cord doesn’t hurt and nobody wants to use the restroom.

They depart, and drive to a vacant parking lot to feast upon their prize. Ten burgers devoured by the time the sun comes up, the husband asks again if what they’ve just done was really necessary.

“Of course!” his wife replies.

Now, looking over the edge of his imagined boat, the husband sees that the volcano is gone. The sea is no longer transparent, either, but reflects the sky above.

He draws back in, closes his eyes, and waits for the tide to carry him.

Favorite line/passage (See earned last sentence.)

“Stretched out on the backseat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife’s windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn’t explain and I didn’t ask. Married life is weird, I felt.”

Observations

As in “The Happy Man”, the narration in this story vacillates between the present action and a sort of internal world. In “The Happy Man,” it’s Tom’s experiences in Hell; in “The Second Bakery Attack,” it’s the narrator’s subconscious image, which he himself cannot explain. The content of these internal worlds is very different, but the approach the way the play into the story is similar: one of interlacing structure. This is something I’ll bear in mind when I’m trying to introduce a dreamlike element, or introduce a speculative culture, or even, perhaps, compose a story within a story. I find great potential in this technique.

Thoughts on Murakami: he has this magical way of making the ordinary extraordinary. He works with places (Tokyo) and circumstances (married life, having nothing in the fridge, etc.) that are very real, and adds just the right details (waking up at 2:00 AM, exactly in sync with your significant other, with unworldly hunger; the first bakery attack; the man who made them listen to Wagner; his wife’s take on the tale as “a curse”) and slightly dream-like images (the boat, sea, and volcano) to tweak that reality into something absurd and compelling. I stand in awe.

Vocab

conjugal: relating to marriage or the relationship between husband and wife

expedient: (as a noun) a means of attaining an end, especially one that is easy but considered improper or immoral

notwithstanding: in spite of/nevertheless

hermetic: (of a seal) airtight

plexus: a network of nerves or vessels in the body; an intricate/weblike network

30 Stories, Day 22: The Three-Day Blow

For today’s short I visit Hemingway and find that, in addition to oft-taught pieces like “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” he writes a mean vignette, so he does.

“The Three-Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway

“It all evens up,” Nick said.

They sat looking into the fire and thinking of this profound truth.

“I’ll get a chunk from the back porch,” Nick said. He had noticed while looking into the fire that the fire was dying down. Also he wished to show he could hold is liquor and be practical. Even if his father had never touched a drop Bill was not going to get him drunk before he himself was drunk.

“Bring one of the big beech chunks,” Bill said. He was also being consciously practical.

Nick came in with the log through the kitchen and in passing knocked a pan off the kitchen table.

Synopsis

Nick Wemedge walks through a bare orchard and a field to his friend Bill’s house. Bill is home alone (his father is out hunting), and for want of something to do, produces a bottle of Irish whisky (note: spelled “whisky” in the story) for he and his friend to mix with water and drink.

The two friends back and forth before a lit hearth, warming themselves against it. Their conversation wanders from baseball, to reading materials, to arguing about which books and authors (Walpole, Chesterton) are better. All the while, they drink whisky.

“Let’s get drunk,” says Bill. “My old man won’t care.”

As the water to whisky ratio gets lower and lower, Bill and Nick discuss their fathers. One is a painter, the other a doctor. Nick says his father has never touched a drop in his life. But then again, he amends—and his father admits this himself—he’s missed a lot in life.

The fire begins to falter. Nick, noticing, gets up to fetch another log from outside. He makes an effort to appear less drunk than he perhaps is, though when he comes in again accidentally knocks a pan of soaking apricots to the floor. He picks them up and slyly delivers the log.

Nick suggests another drink; Bill produces a bottle of Scotch from a liquor locker. Nick volunteers to get more water, and this time—as he passes through the hall—stops to gawk at his reflection in a mirror. His face seems odd; not his own. He smiles; his reflection grins. He winks at it and moves on.

Now the friends are having large shots. “What’ll we drink to?” asks one. “Fishing,” says  the other. “Gentlemen,” says Nick, “I give you fishing.” They toast to fishing, and then to literature, and to Chesterton and Walpole.

Then Bill changes the subject. “You were wise,” he tells his friend, “to bust off that Marge business.” It is evident Nick has had a rather long and involved history with Marge—that they were engaged (“Going to get married,” Nick corrects. “What’s the difference?” says Bill)—and as Bill goes on about how Nick’s life would be different, how he would have to deal with the in-laws, and be tied down, and probably not going fishing tomorrow, Nick begins to feel profoundly empty.

He suggests another drink.

“All of a sudden everything was over,” says Nick, suddenly reflecting. “Just like when the three-day winds come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.” He says he couldn’t help it. Privately, he thinks of the plans he and Marge had made; and now, how they would probably never see one another again. Bill sympathizes and talks it out with him and at length suggests they retire the subject; if Nick thinks about it, he might want to get back into it again.

This thought seems to lift Nick’s spirits: nothing, after all, is irrevocable. Perhaps he can make things right things with Marge. But instead of pursuing the subject aloud, he suggests to Bill that they take up their guns and go join Bill’s father.

They do, and strike down into the orchard. Once they are outside, nothing seems important. It is as if the wind has blown Marge, and all other concerns from Nick’s head. Still, he feels better knowing he can go into town Saturday and see her if he wants to.

Favorite line(s)

There were a couple lines in this story that really resonated:

“Fall for them but don’t let them ruin you.”

(Repeated for emphasis) “All of a sudden everything was over,” Nick said. “I don’t know why it was. I couldn’t help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees.”

Observations

Ah-HA! I have finally found, in three weeks of reading great short stories, an exemplary slice of life/vignette piece. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (though they are used somewhat interchangeably):

vignette: a brief evocative description, account, or episode

slice of life: a storytelling method that presents a sample of a character’s life, possibly without plot, conflict, or a conclusive ending. Slice of life stories simply present what is, typically without great change or development.

Slice of life fiction goes against a lot of what I’ve been taught as a writer. Mmm…maybe not ‘goes against,’ but veers away from. Plot, I was told. Character development, I was told. Strong ending, I was told. And yet, these disembodied episodes that are slice of life can be incredibly powerful and resonating. I even found myself relating to bits in this story (i.e., wanting to appear more sober than one actually is; anyone who’s had a social drink or two or three can probably identify). That seems a great strength to me: writing about the ordinary is easily relatable, and as such might appeal to a larger audience.

Suddenly I can see why literary magazines are so interested in the slice of life/vignette genre. Okay, I think I have my next short story writing challenge picked out: write a slice of life!

Vocab

peat: a brown, soil-like substance made of decomposed vegetable matter

Mackinaw coat: refers to a heavy and dense woolen water-repellant cloth

Alright, so. Another tale tomorrow.