Hannah – The Beast of Gevaudan

The sun made the circular gates gleam, he thought, like polished silver.  The platform wasn’t rotating; it wouldn’t budge until the first cows were loaded at five minutes to six, but he stopped to admire, as he did every morning, it’s sterile, gleaming precision. He found his milking parlor beautiful; sometimes he was moved to tears at the sight of a full twenty-three cow load rotating ‘round its ghost-quiet motor.  “Wilhelm Gevaudan is a 20th century man, and he runs a 20th century dairy farm.” Wilhelm had never actually heard that said about him or his work, but, entering his office, he imagined it was the kind of thing people thought.

He enjoyed running his farm, and contributing, in his way, to developments in farming equipment and agricultural science.  His rotating dairy parlor might be labelled an oddity by shorter-sighted farmers, but it made him a member of the scientific community.  That was meaningful, that was substantive.  He knew that his colleagues at the Dairy Science Conference found it (and him) a little unorthodox, but he believed that they were secretly pleased to have in him a rock of unwavering principle.

He was not an amateur, or like many of his neighbors who were farmers because their fathers had farmed, because they had been born to it.  Wilhelm’s nail beds tingled, as they tended to when he grew excited, and for a panicked moment he glanced at his desk calendar, made special note of the date.  Reassured, he sipped his morning chamomile and sifted through yesterday’s mail.

Was it wrong to feel pride for building as he had built? For starting as he had started, the proverbial stranger in a strange land?   He didn’t listen any longer to the rumors he would once have overheard: that there was something wrong with him designing his dairy farm the way he had designed it.  That locals speculated poor production volume.  He had long given up his last remnants of uncertainty, which at one time, like flies on a carcass, could be scattered by the slightest wind, and would buzz inside him, cause him to clench his fists, knuckles white and bulbous, against his head.  Something had calmed the swarm; he liked to think it was the smooth, circulating breeze, generated from the turning wheels of his milking parlor.  The flies never flared up now. No, he never thought of it at all.

Mary Gordon – Eleanor’s Music

How she loved her mother! Still perfectly beautiful at eighty-six. The only concession she’d made to her age was a pair of hearing aids. “My ears,” she called them. Everything her mother touched she touched carefully, and left a little smoother, a little finer for her touch. Everything about her mother reminded her of walking through a glade, from the chestnut rinse that tinted what would be bright white hair, to the shadings of her clothes. Each garment some variety of leaf tone: the light green of spring with an underhint of yellow, the dark of full summer, occasionally a detail of bright autumn — an orange scarf, a red enamel brooch. Wool in winter cotton in summer; never an artificial fiber next to her skin. What she didn’t understand, she often said, was a kind of laziness, which in the name of convenience in the end made more work and deprived one of the small but real joys. The smell of a warm iron against damp cloth, the comfort of something that was once alive against your body. She was a great believer in not removing yourself from the kind of labor she considered natural. She wouldn’t own a Cuisinart or have a credit card. She liked, she said, chopping vegetables, and when she paid for something, she wanted to feel, on the tips of her fingers, on the palms of her hands, the cost.

Some people might have considered these things crotchets or affectations, but Eleanor considered them an entirely admirable assertion of her mother’s individuality. As she considered her father’s refusal to step outside their Park Avenue apartment without a jacket and tie, regardless of the heat of the day or the informality of the occasion.

She knew that many people thought it odd, to say nothing of unhealthy, for her to be living with her parents at the age of fifty-one. “Health,” said her father, “is the new orthodoxy. The new criterion by which we are judged of the fold or outside it. In the old days, they just tested people by trying to drown them, and if they survived they were allowed back in the community. But that’s too good for the health nags.”

And of course there was Billy. People thought it was peculiar that she should choose to be such close friends with her ex-husband, as they thought it was peculiar that she lived with her parents. But she was proud of that as well; she considered the shape of her life not peculiar, but original; she lived as she liked; real courage, she believed, was doing what you believed in, however it appeared.

He had come to her, weeping, confessing that his problems in bed with her had nothing to do with her, or with him, for that matter: it was just the way he was; he had fallen in love with Paul, and realized for the first time the way he had always been, the way he had always been made, what he had been afraid of, had repressed, but could no longer. Because love had come his way.

“Love,” she had said, as if she’d just picked up, between two fingers, an iridescent, slightly putrefying thing. “And what do you call what we have for each other, devotion, loyalty, shared interests, shared valued, joy in each other’s company, what do you call that if not love?”

She didn’t say, “Don’t you know that I would die for you,” because although she meant it, she didn’t want to mean it, and certainly, she would never say it. It sounded too operatic. Opera was the center of both their lives, she as a singer, he as an accompanist, but she had no interest in living at the intense, excessive temperatures opera suggested.

T.R.Pearson – A Short History of a Small Place

He said Everet Little, the jailer’s boy, was riding the iron gate in and out of the yard and half the town was standing up snug against the fence watching her jig on the lawn and cut capers on the oak stump where the geraniums should have been.  She danced as tireless and light as a child all across the yard and up onto the stump and off again, and she brought the hem of the bedsheet up under her nose and played out what Daddy called the siege of Thebes, taking all of the voices herself and making the likes of a swordfight by beating together a hickory branch and a piece of a staub.  Folks were quiet, he said, and polite and they leaned up easy against the fence with their forearms through the palings and their faces drained of most every expression except for an unexcited and slightly critical strain of curiosity like they were seeing something they’d expected, maybe even paid for.

He said every so often she’d break off whatever she was in the middle of, be it swordplay or some puffed up oration on the agony of kingliness, and she’d work her arms up and down, quivering them in the air, and say, “Putrefaction, putrefaction, sniff it on the breeze, ripeness and death,” and Daddy said her voice was all shaky and inhuman.  It sounded ghostly, he said, and a little ominous too, so people obliged her by sniffing and snorting and got for their trouble the stink of the Dan River Paper Mill, which Daddy said was slightly more potent than a pile of carcasses.

Daddy said he didn’t imagine anybody sent after Sheriff Burton but that he had probably seen the crowd from his courthouse window and had come nosing in on his own.  He was a man who was fond of paraphernalia, Daddy said, and as he edged his way toward the gate he used his arms to clear out a berth for his pistol butt and the shaft of his nightstick.  He had a badge on his hat and a badge on his shirt pocket and a badge in a wallet on his left hip, and Daddy said he was dripping with bullets, festooned with them, he said.

Daddy said Sheriff Burton’s first official act was to tell Everet Little gates weren’t made to be swung on, and Daddy said that cowed Everet some and he stepped down onto the sidewalk where he made out to be enchanted with the workings of the latch. Miss Pettigrew was fresh off her stump, he said, and had just recently set out on a high-stepping tour of the front lawn which Daddy imagined was meant to serve as a kind of airy distraction from the ponderous and dismal goings on at Thebes. Sheriff Burton went after her, he said, chased her down along the side-yard, across the front of the house, up the walkway, and then back along the fence where Daddy said folks watched the two of them go by with the same sort of detached and curious expressions as before except for the hint of merriment, and he said the good money was on Miss Pettigrew who was pulling away from the sheriff with her bedsheet sailing and popping behind her.

Aside from being naturally soft and mealy, Daddy said Sheriff Burton was probably a little too much encumbered with the implements of law enforcement to have the chance of being nimble. He couldn’t take half a step without the leather creaking and the metal jangling, and when he tried to run, Daddy said he was extremely musical and put himself in some peril what with all of his free-swinging attachments threatening to beat him senseless. So he drew up short alongside of the fence, Daddy said, and took hold of his knees while he waited for Miss Pettigrew to sprint back around to him. This was an unpopular tactic with the crowd who considered it shameful enough for their sheriff to have been beaten in a footrace by a woman nearly twice his age and saw no call for him to become unsporting in defeat and humiliate himself further. So when he latched onto Miss Pettigrew’s arm as she tried to dash by him, Sheriff Burton had to suffer what Daddy called public ignominy.

Hannah – Bee Sting Cake

As Mrs. King understood it, Mrs. Herowitz had made a point to guard her recipe for Bee Sting Cake about as closely as the US Government monitored the Fort Knox Bullion Depository.  Three generations of Mrs. Herowitzes had maintained its serecy with what Mrs. King called residual Polish stoicism.  She said Herowitz Bee Sting Cake was by equal parts a quest and a mystery since the 4th of July Family Methodist Picnic of 1912 and had gone about seventy-three years of July 4ths since until the day Mrs. Herowitz marched a hatbox full of letters across East Main and up the post office ramp.  According to Mrs. King, Mr Peede said that Mrs. Herowitz had been in no mood for friendly discourse which under normal circumsntaces would not have been remarkable except that her eyes looked what Mrs. King said Mr. Peede called hellishly cold.  Local history has it that the Wasilla postal department had never before and has never since moved any correspondence with such nimble alacrity as that which Mrs. Herowitz’s icy presence inspired.  Upon her departure, Mrs. King King said that Mrs. Peede asked Mr. Peede behind the counter, “Is it over?” And Mr. Peede shot back at her. “Shit yes, it’s over.” And Mrs. King said Ashley Benson, who had just returned from his rounds and thereby happened to be handy enough to get appointed special courier took the hatbox and said, “She’s gone then?” in a most hopeful voice and Mrs. King said Mrs. Peede told him, “She’s gone alright.” And Ashley situated the hatbox full of Mrs. Herowitz’s letters into his mailbag humming “Blessed Redeemer” and flew out the post office in his mail car like a proverbial chariot of fire.

But Mrs. King said not even fiery chariots could outrun the telephone, and before the second letter had reached Mrs. Singer, who had played organ at the Family Methodist church even before it had been replaced after the unfortunate candle lighting incident of 1962, Mrs. Hapsburg had Mrs. Singer on the phone to tell her just what it was she was about to walk down her driveway for.  Consequently, Mrs. Singer was deprived the thrill of discovery as Mrs. Hapsburg read to her what turned out to be Mrs. Herowitz’s cake, own recipe for Bee Sting cake, ingredient by ingredient.  Mrs. Singer, in turn, did not bother to verify that her own recipe card matched Mrs. Hapsburg’s until she herself had made some calls.  And so, according to Mrs. King, Mrs. Singer and Mrs. Hapsburg together outpaced Ashley, successfully preventing him from putting any more letters in any mailboxes.  The remaining addressees–all, as it happened, lifelong members of the Wasilla Family Methodist church–intercepted him before he could get well off the sidewalk.

Speculation commenced almost immediately.  Once folks had filed the recipe in their card collections they moved to wondering what could possibly have prompted Mrs. Herowitz’s change of heart.  Mrs. King said she had never witnessed a piece of gastronomical literature open to such widespread interpretation. Irregularities amongst the handwritten recipe cards fell under what Mrsl King called public scrutiny.  Of note were Mrs. Ershwell’s and Mrs. Dannis’s cards, which uniquely specified “sifted flour,” Mrs. Singer and Mrs. Phillips cards, which did not specify if butter should be “room temperature” or not and, most significantly, pastor Julius’s wife, whose card forfeited mention of salt in presence or quantity altogether.  Mrs. King said that facts were facts, and she said folks were compelled to call the Bee Sting Cake debacle for what it was: the latest in Mrs. Herowitz’s counterintelligence campaign.

Hannah – The World of ‘If’

Once up, Wilder’s face was crotch-level to the man across the train car.  He didn’t like the view.  But train commutes were invariably faster for Wilder than walking.  And he couldn’t drive in the world of “Is.”  A baby cried.  Comfortable enough, he sipped his coffee and pretended, like the other commuters, not to notice the baby or it’s loudly shushing mother or Wilder’s own crotch.  His flaccid penis bulged under his slacks like a giant rubber dreidel, pushing past his knees and slumping towards the floor.

In Wilder’s fantasy world, that is, the world of “If” and not “Is”, jungles grew from skyscrapers and he had only to gather a vine in his hands to swing from building to building.  The only time of day was twilight, and the only kind of coffee was dark roast Colombian, and currency operated on a barter system of objects that only started with vowels.

‘Excuse me?’ said the woman with the baby. ‘Can I sit here?’

Wilder dragged his massive hand off the adjacent seat; is thumped onto the floor.  His thin shoulder torqued from the strain.

‘Thank you.’

He nodded.

Operating in the world of “If” simplified a lot of things for Wilder.  He had fewer evolutionary advantages in “Is”.  Only one, in fact, came to mind: his lips, of similar size and shape to a venus fly-trap.  They smacked so loudly when he ate; they had become a source of personal delight. Unfortunately, his tongue was far too large to fit behind them, which prevented other things like clear speech or whistling.

The woman’s baby continued to cry.  It had red hair and a red face. Besides that, it looked very much like Wilder; they were roughly the same size.  Wilder wondered if it was an ugly baby or a pretty baby.    Babies were born much larger in the world of “If,” but without eyes; those did not develop until later.  Other, more important senses developed first, and by the time eyes arrived there were of little use.  For this reason, there was almost no staring in “If”.  Or, if there were, and if they did, it was from heads as bulbous and domed and from eyes as vacant and blue as Wilder’s own.

The baby cooed at Wilder. The woman laughed.

‘Oh, now he’s in a good mood! Do you like the nice man, sweetheart? I’m sorry he is just so cranky in the morning.’

Wilder shrugged, which caused his chin to bump his navel.

‘Oh, but he likes you! Yes, you like the nice man, don’t you?’

The baby burped and it’s eyes flared wide, clear whites around cornflower blue.

Perhaps another traveller from “If”, Wilder considered, returning to his coffee.

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse V

Billy had committed himself in the middle of his final year at the Ilium School of Optometry. Nobody else suspected that he was going crazy. Everybody else thought he looked fine and was acting fine. Now he was in the hospital. The doctors agreed: He was going crazy.

The man assigned to the bed next to Billy’s was a former infantry captain named Eliot Rosewater. Rosewater was sick and tired of being drunk all the time. It was Rosewater who introduced Billy to science fiction, and in particular to the writings of Kilgore Trout. Rosewater had a tremendous collection of science-fiction paperbacks under his bed. He had brought them to the hospital in a steamer trunk.

Kilgore Trout became Billy’s favorite living author, and science fiction became the only sort of tales he could read. Rosewater was twice as smart as Billy, but he and Billy were dealing with similar crises in similar ways.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The cigarettes belonged to Billy’s chain-smoking mother. She had sought the ladies’ room. She would be back at any moment now. Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward-always got much sicker until she went away. It wasn’t that she was ugly, or had bad breath or a bad personality. She was a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education. She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.

Billy heard Eliot Rosewater come in and lie down. Rosewater’s bedsprings talked a lot about that. Rosewater was a big man, but not very powerful. He looked as though he might be made out of nose putty. And then Billy’s mother came back from the ladies’ room, sat down on a chair between Billy’s and Rosewater’s bed. Rosewater greeted her with melodious warmth, asked how she was today. He seemed delighted to hear that she was fine. He was experimenting with being ardently sympathetic with everybody he met. He thought that might make the world a slightly more pleasant place to live in. He called Billy’s mother ‘dear.’ He was experimenting with calling everybody ‘dear.’

‘Some day’ she promised Rosewater, ‘I’m going to come in here, and Billy is going to uncover his head, and do you know what he’s going to say?’

‘What’s he going to say, dear?’

‘He’s going to say, ‘Hello, Mom,” and he’s going to smile. He’s going to say, ‘Gee, it’s good to see you, Mom. How have you been?”‘

‘Today could be the day.’

‘Every night I pray.’

‘That’s a good thing to do.’

‘People would be surprised if they knew how much in this world was due to prayers.’

‘You never said a truer word, dear.’

‘Does your mother come to see you often?’

‘My mother is dead,’ said Rosewater. So it goes.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘At least she had a happy life as long as it lasted.’

‘That’s a consolation, anyway.’

‘Yes.’

‘Billy’s father is dead, you know,’ said Billy’s mother. So it goes.

‘A boy needs a father.’

And on and on it went–that duet between the dumb, praying lady and the big, hollow man so full of loving echoes. He held a book he wanted to read, but he was much too polite to read and talk, too, easy as it was to give Billy’s mother satisfactory answers. The book was Maniacs in the Fourth Dimension, by Kilgore Trout. It was about people whose mental diseases couldn’t be treated because the causes of the diseases were all in the fourth dimension, and three-dimensional Earthling doctors couldn’t see those causes at all, or even imagine them. One thing Trout said that Rosewater liked very much was that there really were vampires and werewolves and goblins and angels and so on, but that they were in the fourth dimension. So was William Blake, Rosewater’s favorite poet, according to Trout. So were heaven and hell.

Hannah – Reflections In My Kidnapper’s Car Trunk

I waited for the car to stop and someone to open the trunk, for an impersonal hand behind an impersonal gun to shoot me with an impersonal bullet. But that was hours ago, now I rocked with the traffic. I was tragicum heros. I had spun my thread and, as a spider, wove my ancient web. It had been my best work in journalism. A bold piece. Uncompromising. A pothole slammed my head against the carpeted interior.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne had been a storyteller, too. A weaver of stories. Our problem was they weren’t our stories to weave. They were the god’s.

Arachne boasted that she wove better than even Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft, and war. Until Athena darkened her door, and spoke as gods who darken mortal doors still speak, “You can never compare to the gods. Beg forgiveness, that I might spare your soul.”

I tumbled when the car swerved from pavement to gravel.

Arachne foolishly persisted, “I speak only truth. If you think otherwise, challenge me yourself!” So Athena wove a scene of great contest between gods and mortals, in which the gods punished the mortals for thinking themselves equals.

I twisted at my bound wrists to regain some feeling.

Arachne countered with a tapestry depicting the gods as misleaders and abusers of mortals, particularly Zeus, celestial rapist and seducer of mortal women. Arachne had not only insulted the gods, of course, but had done so in a work far more beautiful than Athena’s, and the goddess was enraged. She tore the tapestry to pieces and Arachne, heartbroken, hanged herself. Considering my own dilemma, I must admit, a smarter move than witness protection.

But Athena’s wrath was not assuaged. “Live on then,” she cursed, “and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!’ At her words, Arachne’s hair fell out, and her head shrank to the smallest size. Her whole body became tiny, and her slender fingers poked from her sides like legs. The rest was belly, from which she spins her thread and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.

To show, I thought, as the car finally stopped, how gods punish those who are mortal.