James Zwerneman: “Horse and Rider Thrown Into the Sea” from One Story, 8/1/2011

"Struggling Woman" by Roland Benjamin

"Struggling Woman" by Roland Benjamin

I was afraid in those days, afraid of my island, afraid of my own crooked heart inside me.

This wonderful story – a story-teller’s story – is set on the island of Grenada, but it took a while for me to pick up on that. Initially I was thinking somewhere in India (mangos, mongoose), then Jamaica (ganja and Rastas), then Indonesia (monsoons); finally a lightbulb went off. But oddly, I wasn’t disconcerted by the lack of exact placement, because it could’ve been anywhere a single mother worries about her boy, anywhere women find strength in each other and face what must be faced to raise their children, anywhere people in poverty struggle against overwhelming forces and learn forgiveness via much practice.

James Zwerneman lived in Grenada for six years, and explains in his One Story Q&A: “I had written a few stories in a row that felt hollow to me, so I kind of leaned on my Grenada years, which are some of my favorite years. I wrote about 40 pages of sketches. When Wini emerged I liked her and felt happy to orbit the sketches around her.” This is his first published story. It’s a remarkable beginning.

The title comes from a victory hymn, often used at Passover but also in Christian churches, based on the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus:

I will sing unto the Lord,
For he has triumphed gloriously,
The Horse and Rider thrown into the sea.

The Lord my God,
My strength and song
Is now become my victory.

The Lord is God
And I will praise Him,
My father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The story is told in 13 very tiny numbered chapters. I wonder if the “13” is a coincidence.

The story is told from the first-person POV of Winifred, single mother to Jeremiah. They live next to Miz K, an older woman who’s raised her children already (“You raised some right and wrong before,” Wini tells her. “But this is my only one. If I raise him wrong, I will not be able to bear it.”) yet takes in a “stray” boy named Lester. Elroy, sweet on Wini, lives along their path in the jungle as well. Wini isn’t interested in Elroy unless he gets a job, a truck, and quits drinking. Elroy isn’t a bad guy, just weak, I guess you could call it, and she has him over for juice and dinner on occasion. She finds out he’s got a job as part of the Mongoose Gang, thugs who act on behest of the corrupt government, and he’s spying on Dr. Jake, a white American doctor with the Church.

The boys, fast friends, steal eggs from one Mr. Sylvester, a man of some means. The two women send him to work for Mr. Sylvester to pay for their crime, and in time they decide, with his help, to build their own chicken coop and sell the eggs at the Tuesday market. It’s a lovely sequence, and of course eventually heartbreaking in multiple ways. It just isn’t safe to be capitalists, even just to sell a few eggs, in this place and time.

Many wonderful scenes are woven into the story – some humorous, some wistful, some tragic – all of which do exactly what they should do: they engage me in Wini’s life, and lead me to care about her and her son, and Miz K and her acquired son.

In the final scene, Wini has Dr. Jake and his very white, very clean family over for dinner. And of course, whenever you have a special event, something unforeseen happens: a swarm of wood ants (similar to moths; he describes his personal experience with them in his Q&A linked above) invade the house, something that happens sometimes just before a storm. This last “unlucky chapter 13” sums up the story, the people, the island, the world in some ways. Wini thinks: “And in a younger time it might have flustered me. It might have set me to thinking I was cursed in somehow….It may all keep happening, all of it, but you will keep praying and hoping anyway, and that is how you will do until the end.”

This attitude had me a bit frustrated – for a spark of anger can be a good thing, bringing with it a commitment to bring about change. Then again, for a lot of people, it’s all they can do to raise their kids on goodness and hope instead of despair and vengeance. Maybe that’s the point.

An interesting aside: I was looking for art to go with this post and ended up on FineArtAmerica, where there’s a whole “Grenada” category. And what did I find there, but a painting by one Mary Zwerneman (addendum: her art has since disappeared from the site). Since I already knew the author lived on Grenada, and since I assumed Zwerneman is not a common name, I emailed the artist and discovered she is indeed the author’s sister. I didn’t use her painting (it featured an American flag, and was an expression of her life as part of two cultures) because I’d found one that better fit the story – I found a wealth of images, including hers – but it was such a surprise to “meet” someone in that way. How connected we are – and how easily we still can become lost to each other.

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