PEN/O.Henry 2012: Salvatore Scibona, “The Woman Who Lived In the House” from A Public Space, Summer 2010

Later on, Ásmundur saw that God had sent them the cyclist to foretell that, after twenty years of giving them the stamina and will that makes young Eros turn into the companionship of married love, he would now send bicycle accidents; a toilet seat that cracked under her behind at a friend’s dinner party; brackish water that pooled from untraceable faults in the basement just as they had to sell their house for debt; spoiled milk in fresh cartons; and contempt for all the differences between their characters that, before, they had turned into more and more baroque demonstrations that their love gained strength with exercise.

I missed it completely. The voice. The story opens with Sergei, café, CNN, Amsterdam, coffee, Putin, money, wife, all crowded into the first paragraph. I struggled so hard to get through it, I “heard” the story completely wrong. It’s humor – a dry, laid-back, wistful humor, with little tendrils sneaking into the heart at appropriate intervals to give it weight.

Ásmundur – I kept reading it as “asunder” which isn’t that far off – entered into a shady deal with the aforementioned Sergei, against the advice of his wife, and of course it all went south. That’s merely what starts off a chain of events, as enumerated in the paragraph quoted above, that leads to his divorce.

He had rarely referred to his wife by name. To her father, he called her “she” or “your girl”; to others, “my wife” or, satirizing himself, “the woman who lives with me in the house.” He liked the name and saved it like a child with Easter chocolate for private moments when the lights burned brightly in his mind.

The story stays true to this, never naming the wife. That her name is this precious to him signifies a lot about the relationship. But a dalliance with a university student puts the final blow on the marriage.

All that, however, is merely set-up. Now the story starts in earnest.

He makes an unexpected decision to move back to Iceland from the Netherlands where he’s been most of his adult life. This surprises him along with his now ex-wife, since “[a]s a young man, Ámundur had studied economics in the hope of little more than a one-bedroom flat in Germany or the Low Countries, where he might keep the vow he’d sworn that he would not die incarcerated on the smallholding in Iceland where his mother and grandparents had raised him.” But home he goes, nearby his sister Iris and her four-year-old daughter Frigg. After all, “he might find a warm future in his cold past.” Maybe –

Most comforting: the new sheets and pillowcases of Egyptian cotton that his sister brought from the city as a housewarming present. The stucco walls of the interior bore the trowel strokes of the dead man – who had taught young Ásmundur to shear a ewe, to sever its child’s throat, to wash the child’s intestines and stuff them with it’s ground-up shoulder, and to smoke its head over charcoal.

Yet all that winter he woke in the bed from dreams in which he spoke and walked with none of the house’s former inhabitants, but instead with the woman who had attended the second half of his life.

– and maybe not.

Here’s where the story dug in for me, and I stopped worrying about Sergei and Putin and started enjoying things. Once I was relieved of the burden of remembering all the details thrown into the opening paragraph, I relaxed into the story. I suppose that’s my problem, but I wonder if there might have been a better story beginning here; the whole deal, while relevant, is hardly something that needs detailing, and leading with it made it seem far more important than it ultimately was in the context of the story. It’s just a couple of paragraphs, really, but it colored several pages. Then again, it was a lapse on my part that overlooked the word “kleptocratic.” That should’ve been a clue to not take it all so seriously.

On the farm in Iceland, he finds himself with a dog. She follows him home from the local gas station/tractor repair shop, and won’t leave him alone. He names the dog Hulda, after the university student (“…the joke being that the bitch would never leave him alone…). He marvels at the way the dog attaches itself to him, chooses him, and how that feels good, yet worries that “…the dog began to get mixed up in the very feelings he had come home to Iceland with the goal of never feeling again.”

We are born crippled and stupid, with a vast cavern of mind to fill with memories, conclusions, judgments: a warehouse where we build the store of implements with which we nightly torture ourselves in our dreams. But a dog is born already knowing nearly everything it will ever know.

Those dreams again!

I won’t continue with the plot, because, well, reading it would be preferable to reading about it. I’m quite fond of the way the language is used. And the end, well, it’s just one of those this-changes-everything endings that made me glad once again I vowed to read all these stories through and didn’t give up back in Paragraph 1 with Sergei.

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One response to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Salvatore Scibona, “The Woman Who Lived In the House” from A Public Space, Summer 2010

  1. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

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