It was her idea. How can she improve her English? she nuzzled up close to him after one of the last classes.
“Stories, that’s what I give my sophomores,” he had said.
First there was “Charles” to draw her in, to show her the trick ending things could have, to give her a sense of craft. How someone could lay out a story and draw the reader in by a surprise ending, a straw man doubling the reality behind the fiction he’d give her.
Next “The Snob” that touched on his own feelings of embarrassment towards those closest to him, but also to familiarize her with a word indicative of a frame of mind that he wouldn’t want her to emulate. Then “The Red Head” that ends, “One of the nicest kids in town,” to show her the possibility that, yes, even at thirteen children could get pregnant and her nineteen years of age was certainly no obstacle, though of course allowing for cultural differences. And to top off that raciness, “Houseparty,” one college boy trying to put the make on a dancer, get her drunk; such things do appear in fiction, yes, that was the point. The repartee, the cleverness, was meant to show her a university life of such a sort, and the clinching last line when his friend asked how he was getting along, “She’s a cinch,” was bound to have an effect on her. That he calculated, but explained away, mollified, saying it’s not such a nice story, but still it’s good for your English conversation.
The next segment started with “The Kingdom of Cards.” An ideal country where a shipwrecked prince lands and finds that the well-ordered society doesn’t know anything about ichcha, or free will. It is totally alien to them. This of course is meant to make sure through the strictures of her own society that her own will is intact, at her command, not lost to the group instinct that proves it has none at all.
Then “The Scarlet Ibis,” the love between brothers to redirect her attention, to show the depth of sibling compassion, the feeling for the younger brother, the pride that kills. This is at one remove from both of them and meant to demonstrate what he is doing–through the vehicle of literature–can on occasion rise above itself and not be manipulated to get from others what we want. Perhaps it is our most sophisticated methodology. The way it adorns, seduces. Anyway, this story clouds for a moment. Yes, love is broader, not only sexual, brotherly too.
Then “Emma Zunz,” because he just gave it for a mid-year exam. Perhaps it should come later. But sometimes he has a hidden desire to sabotage himself, throw into his machinations a wooden shoe that will bring all this story giving to a halt.
How Emma read the newspapers for the ships arriving, and went down to the docks, sought a sailor, gave her virgin body, then went to Loewenthal’s house and shot him in revenge claiming she was raped. Yes, such things are done. Workers give their bodies on principle. The point is that they give them. The story is so well-constructed, the plot so compelling it could easily be real life, more than real life, better constructed, plotted, that real life would follow such a story with its tail between its legs, defeated, and have to give itself. And Emma’s barely nineteen, has a revulsion to sex too, is so pure that other girls chide her about it, but she does this one act. Powerful, he knows it makes a strong impression on her. And in her questions he reconstructs the narrative and unabashedly so that she too ends feeling no embarrassment. Not from well-constructed literature. You can’t beat such a story, not even with real life, with a tale told, with a lie. But this is told so well it rings true. That’s what he wants from her. The authenticity of his offerings to get through.
Next “The Malefactor,” though he lops off the first paragraph as unnecessary, even he realizes they need a change of pace, and offers a prelude to “Ninochka: A Love Story.” It is the right blend of humor, lightness, tongue-in-cheek to throw her for one story at least off the track, so the next story she’ll come back doubly to find it. “The Malefactor” mixes up the scents. This peasant unscrews the bolts from railway ties to use as sinkers for fishing. He’s before the magistrate throughout the story objecting to the unfairness of the system. They both get a laugh out of this. Yes, the system can be unfair when it comes to the sportsman’s pure pleasure, to the uncanny logic of the angler.
Then “Just Lather, That’s All” about this captain given a shave, not knowing his life is in the hands of a rebel, or so the barber thinks, and vacillates between his desire to slit his throat and give a good shave. His cowardice has him opting for the shave, lacking the courage to slit the captain’s throat. The captain who is a bit of a sadist has his men take target practice on the private parts of the rebels he’s hanged. (That part he has to explain to her.) The barber remembers this, but the outrage doesn’t reach his blade. The last lines too capture the craftsmanship when the captain says, “They told me that you’d kill me. I came to find out. But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.” Again fiction crafted, preliminary to life, a good story. She recognizes that he is getting her into his own aesthetic powers, delivering the thunderbolts of literature at the end that paralyze, leaving people helpless in appreciation.
Next “The Wrong Heaven,” the narrative prose poem of the artist dawdling his time away on earth and sent to the heaven of busy people. Dawdling there too and enamoring one of the young maidens who comes to a well and is astonished by the designs he makes with seashells. Never has she seen anyone so gaily dressed and willing to spend his time on such useless occupations. He gives her a colored ribbon that she takes home and in looking at herself in the mirror gradually forgets her chores. In the end she actually–to the dismay of her elders–leaves the heaven of “busy people with the artist. Nobody had ever dreamed of such a thing before.” He makes the analogy with the company personnel in her own country. The “grey ones” as D.H. Lawrence says someplace. She smiles, and at the next class turns up with a bright red bag, but looks away when he smiles at it.
Then “The Death of the Knife-Thrower’s Wife” to inject a little localism. After all, foreigners can understand a Japanese story too; yes, cultures can be crossed in fiction, and real life, too, is his suggestion, but one that he doesn’t make openly. And the tension of the man throwing knives at his wife, his brutal honesty that, yes, he was angry, but did or did not mean to strike her; he too like the judge honestly doesn’t know. There are always things we are not sure of, ambiguities that life doesn’t resolve.
Then for some reason he gives her “Harrison Bergeron.” But he realizes, yes, as the couple capers free of the mind control, she too can outleap the restraints of her culture, follow her ichcha, break the bonds. And he injects the realistic element, for the Handicapper General gets in the last shot that fells both partners. Yes, love is a risk taking, “the eyes of others” in her society can be deadly, but just like those people in the story beautiful moments are possible.
Next, it’s getting close to the winter holidays. He wants to divert her from the path of instinct, inject an element of the austere, after all his own asceticism is very much alive, gaunt as he is, and he wants to give her some of the real world. Life isn’t all a land of plenty like Japan. Food is not bursting out of the supermarkets, rolling down the aisles or onto the streets of overstocked stands in all countries. Some are hungry. Like the family in “Feast of the Dead” who lose their water carrier father, and the food that comes after his death, more sumptuous than they’ve ever had, especially from the white house. But soon the family is forgotten and the one brother falls sick, and the other asks if he’ll die.
“Why?” the weakened mother asks.
“Because, then food will come from the white house,” he replies.
A good story to remember when you are eating your New Year’s food, he tells her, to show her there are lean periods.
After the New Year it is “Ninochka: A Love Story,” as if he is toying again with his chances. They are too secure; he wants someone to shake the palm of his hand he is holding her in. Ninochka does. As if he is trying to throw a monkey wrench into his efforts. Ninochka, a perfect demon, is making love with her husband’s best friend. The milksop husband finally finds out and asks what should he do; he doesn’t know how such things are handled, how to act. Should he move into the larder and live there so he won’t be a bother to anybody?
Yes, life can be complicated and terribly unfair. He is preparing her for the darker side. And “The Ninny” too reinforces the notion of the weak falling prey to the strong. Does the wolf in him want to give her an outside chance, or throw her off his own scent? He can’t be sure which. Maybe it is something disinterested in him that recognizes the story for its own sake. Maybe it is a sense of fair play, the sportsman with the catch already bagged, something of the iridescent feathers sticking out that catches his sympathy, that moves him.
Yes, there are evil people in the world and they take advantage of the weak, the young. Give them stories, try to control their minds and hearts aesthetically, convince them of the continual beauty in real life. But the odd thing is that he only half knows this at the time. As if he too is under the spell of literature, being used by the fiction, drawn into the stories he gives her, is at their mercy. They are inexorably forcing him along, trying to convince him along with her.
The next is beyond her he feels. She wouldn’t have met with such loss yet. But its influence, its poetry, is innocuous seeming and pours through the eye inadvertently. The man searching for one woman ten years in town after town. It is not always as easy as giving stories to someone, winning them over by tales told by someone else.
All the things that remind him of the beloved, the bit of blue glass on the ground, the need for love transforming itself into a science, a revised Platonic ladder starting with the inanimate rock, a cloud, a tree. We start at the wrong end he tells the little boy whom he points out he thinks is his own son. We love the most complex of creatures, he is telling her. A woman. (She looks away.) We should start at more basic things, an appreciation of literature, he suggests. Keep giving her fiction, keep it out of the realm of real life, he tells himself.
“But does it ever enter into real life?” she asks.
“Sometimes,” he answers, “if the circumstances are right. When you’ve read enough.”
The story half overturns his theory when the boy asks if the man has loved a woman again. The man says he hasn’t got that far yet. (Is it he too who must flounder in literature, do this dance of reading all his life for stories that will seduce?) Neither have we, his look at her means. Something, the university, something more complex in himself, needs to put the aesthetic obstacle in the way, not take life on its own terms. The stories must continue.
“The Stronger” makes its way into view. The sheer power of it. She reads it and can understand Miss Y, like him living alone, and married life, the tension between the woman at home, child-bound, having to buy her husband slippers with tulips on them that his lover Miss Y likes. Miss Y who says not a word appeals to her own cultural silence, that has absorbed many of the stories without comment. Yes, such things happen, he is priming her for all eventualities. And half thinks that he too is losing his own purpose. The stories are complicating things. The aesthetics are removing the real life aspirations, replacing them.
But “Where Are You Going…?” gets him back on track. The threat throughout, nothing like he is doing aesthetically, or is it? No browbeating till the girl is slumped on the floor, will-less. No, deftly and with story after story, will he similarly wear down her resolve, break through the barriers just like Arnold Friend! And to show her the author can write other kinds of stories he gives her “Wednesday’s Child,” to throw her off the track again of his own desire, half hoping perhaps that he himself will lose the scent. Yes, there is something in him that uses books, stories, like a thicket to hide behind. And is it there that he will lose his courage, and the tension in his haunches? Does so much crouching numb the legs, do they lose their spring? Will he be attacked by her instinct, freer and more innocent than his, that already he suspects doesn’t need stories?
Do we spy literature through a thicket of desires, and does it catch our clothes there and strip us naked before we realize it? And does the shame of what we are doing reading not occur to us all at once, and have the effect of instead making us more amorous, quickly cover our bodies in humiliation for how much we stand revealed? Is this what was happening without his knowing it, through double motives?
Angry at the autistic child, the man brutally kicks the stranger. Is this what he is doing to the innocence of his desire for her? Is this what he is trying to prove to himself by giving this story to her, striking her senseless with one story after another so he too can’t respond, or will she have the good sense to say she’s had enough? The man is calmed by the road signs. Even the blood on his shoes is indicative that his mind is intact.
“Yes, the psychology is good,” she admits.
He gives her “Silkie.” Silkie’s got a problem, until she meets Nathan, a drip, who is willing to marry her. She’s pregnant.
“Such things do happen, even fictionally,” he says. “Remember ‘The Red Head’ about nine months earlier?”
At the end Silkie hopes her mother won’t come out to the kitchen when she says everything’s arranged so she won’t have to hear the bedsprings again, he explains. It reminds him of “Hills Like White Elephants.” Yes, he gave her that too. It almost slipped his mind. Abortions do happen. Sex does too, in literature and outside. It’s like an abyss that both have fallen into by now.
Finally, he gives her “The Abyss.” It is half her chance to back out, to flee like Zinotchka in the story. It stacks the deck against him. She reads it only as a rape by the three men.
“You didn’t read it carefully.”
Maybe she is tired of his over explicitness and explanations by now. The point has been made, the aesthetics is wearing thin, real life is too rich in evidence. Literature is beginning to lose its force, to fray, become shabby. She has no more desire to follow the threads of the story that carefully. The desire is instead knitting on her brow, concentrating there, as if to say, What are you getting at?
She affixes her large brown eyes on his. Not even his own austerity is proof against their effect. Maybe it doesn’t matter what he gives her now. Maybe the game is up. Maybe he has to put up or shut up. Let her go back into the mass of students that have passed out of his life, and that he never hears from again.
“Her…look, it’s her lover who attacks her (as she moves too close to avoid brushing against her arm), and cries for help (as she looks him directly in the eyes), can’t you understand what he is getting (as she smiles at him) drawn into. The abyss,” he says.
“A woman, the darkness, the mystery. The end of the story.”
She looks at him. This is overkill, that’s what her eyes say.
He asks her if next year she wants more stories.
“Yes,” she answers mechanically.
Then emboldened when she comes to his office for one last story before school lets out, he’ll finally asks her if she’ll teach him Japanese.
About the Author
Richard Krause has had two published collections of fiction, Studies in Insignificance and The Horror of the Ordinary. A third collection, Crawl Space & Other Stories of Limited Maneuverability, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2021. He recently has had writing in Club Plum Literary Journal, Mobius, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, Blue Lake Review, and Digging through the Fat. Krause lives in Kentucky where he is retired from teaching at a community college. His website is richardkrausewriting.com