Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Five Short Stories for the Winter Holidays

With one exception, none of these is specific to the holiday season, but they explore themes associated with this time of year.

Title: A Christmas Memory
Author: Truman Capote
Where I Read It: It appeared at the end of an edition of Breakfast at Tiffany's

This story aches with love and separation. A young boy and an elderly female relative who's a bit childlike and eccentric are pals in a house where they're both overlooked. Their friendship won't last for long before they go separate ways in life, but Capote infuses the story with rich details that makes their relationship timeless in memory. Mostly, it's the two of them preparing for Christmas. Here's a walk through the woods:
A mile more: of chastising thorns, burs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molten feathers... Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels.
And making fruitcakes:
Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke.

Title: The Home-Coming
Author: Milly Jafta
Where I Read It: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories

A woman who had been working as a domestic servant returns home after years away from her family. (Milly Jafta, the author, is Namibian, though I'm not sure the story is set in Namibia.) It's a quiet story, but with a palpable shift in it, as at first there's a courteous but impersonal quality to the way the woman's daughter greets her, and then the polite distance changes to something that feels more like real kindness, and a real consideration that this woman isn't accustomed to experiencing. She is rediscovering home and her place in it after a long, difficult absence.

Title: The Lame Shall Enter First
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Where I Read It: Everything That Rises Must Converge

He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself.
The main character, Sheppard, is a widower with an elementary-school-aged son. The boy, Norton, is deep in grief over his mother. Sheppard is alienated both from Norton and from his own feelings. Fanatical and uninterested in understanding himself or others, he has attached himself to a mission of "doing good" that's divorced from genuine love.

In his work as a counselor, he takes a boy named Johnson under his wing. Sheppard sees Johnson as smart but misguided, full of a potential masked by delinquent behavior; he assumes that by applying certain tactics and performing certain kindly acts, he'll reform the boy. However, his charitable motivations are predominantly selfish, aimed at confirming his own ideas of what's right; he treats Johnson like a project, not a person. Johnson sees through his deceptions, and he doesn't offer up the gratitude and good behavior that Sheppard expects. Instead, he stubbornly insists on the evil of his own nature and exposes the charade of charity and do-goodedness Sheppard has orchestrated at Norton's expense. In the absence of love and humility, evil flourishes.

Title: The Little Dirty Girl
Author: Joanna Russ
Where I Read It: The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories

The narrator, a female professor who lives alone, gets accosted in a supermarket by a small girl who looks unwashed and neglected. The girl, who goes by the initials A.R., follows the narrator around and keeps turning up. Eventually the narrator begins to care for her in various ways, even as she initially assumes the child is a ghost. What is this child? Or who is she? She starts out looking about 8-years-old, then appears younger as the story goes on. At one point, she screams at the narrator: "You like me clean because you don't like me dirty! You hate me so you won't give me what I need! You won't give me what I need and I'm dying!"

What is it the child needs? The narrator realizes:
... what I meant was that I thought she was fine, that all of her was fine: her shit, her piss, her sweat, her tears, her scabby knees, the snot on her face... all of her was wonderful, I loved all of her, and I would do my best to take good care of her, all of her, forever and ever and then a day.
The narrator has discovered an overlooked part of herself and finds it in herself to give this neglected child unbounded love and acceptance. This is a sort of 'inner child' story, though the child in this case isn't some whimsical sprite who's full of nothing but mirth and sunshine; she's harsh, grasping, raw, wounded, desperate for love. Had the narrator not been able to embrace her, would they both have died in some way? I also wondered who the narrator was telling the story to - her own mother? She and her mother reconnect at one point and reach an understanding. Much of this story is about restoring love where it was hidden or withheld, and I love its strangeness and how much it gave me to think about.

Title: A Mistaken Charity
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I Read It: A New England Nun, and Other Stories

Two old sisters are happy to live in a rundown cottage, but a small group of benevolent locals are convinced they should be moved to a home for elderly women in a nearby city. The woman who sets this plan in motion is Mrs. Simonds, described as follows:
Mrs. Simonds... was a smart, energetic person, bent on doing good, and she did a great deal. To be sure, she always did it in her own way. If she chose to give hot doughnuts, she gave hot doughnuts; it made not the slightest difference to her if the recipients of her charity would infinitely have preferred ginger cookies. Still, a great many would like hot doughnuts, and she did unquestionably a great deal of good.
However, the old sisters have more force of will than expected. As in other stories by this author, women who live on the fringes of society find a way to carve out their own path in life and find their own corner to live in, a home richly satisfying in ways other people wouldn't understand.