Pushcart 2013: Joyce Carol Oates, “Mudgirl Saved by the King of Crows. April 1965.” From Boulevard, Spring 2011

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: "King of the Crows"

Patricia Allingham-Carlson: “King of the Crows”

In Beecham County it would be told – told and retold – how Mudgirl was saved by the King of the Crows.
How in the vast mud-flats beside the black snake River in that desolate region of the Southern Adirondacks there were a thousand crows and of these thousand crows the largest and fiercest and most sleek-black-feathered was the King of the Crows.
How the King of the Crows had observed the cruel behavior of the woman half-dragging half-carrying a weeping child out into the mud flats to be thrown down into the mud soft-sinking as quicksand and left the child alone there to die in that terrible place.

Joyce Carol Oates has gone down a completely different path with this one. That’s not a huge surprise in itself, since she frequently goes down different paths, but I wouldn’t have expected an Indian folk tale out of her.

I have to admit, having JCO’s name attached to this colored my view of it, at least initially. I have a long-standing grudge against her over “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” And We Were the Mulvaneys. But I must reluctantly admit to very much enjoying, against my will, the stories I’ve read recently, stories like “ID” and “You” which Zin discovered during the Second Person Study. And now this. Maybe I’m going to have to get over myself when it comes to JCO.

As I read this, I was charmed. The language takes some getting used to. I dictated the quotes into Dragon and found myself struggling in places to get the word order correct. It isn’t drastic, but there’s a style here, a consistent style, that’s just slightly different.

It’s a simple story about a simple man, Suttis Coldham:

In Suttis’s immediate family there were five sons and of these sons Suttis was the youngest and the most bad-luck-prone of the generally luckless Coldham family as Suttis was one for whom Amos Colton the father had the least hope. As if there hadn’t been enough brains left for poor Suttis, by the time Suttis came along.
Saying with a sour look in his face – like you’re shake-shake-shaking brains out of some damn bottle – like a ketchup bottle – and by the time it came to Suttis’s turn there just ain’t enough brains left in the bottle.

Suttis is a trapper. This story is set in fairly recent times, so the notion of a trapper, even in the hills of rural upstate New York, carries some liability. But Suttis is doing what his people have done for generations, the only thing he knows how to do. He does everything he can, whatever the weather, to get to his traps before predators come upon whatever lies helplessly caught, so he isn’t without compassion. It’s a mindset those of us who grew up in cities and suburbs or on farms and ranches might not understand, and it’s something to keep an open mind about. And as the story proceeds, that open-mindedness is rewarded.

Suttis has three times in the past received communications from animals.

The first – a screech owl out behind the back pasture when Suttis had been a young boy. Spoke his name SSSuttisss all hissing syllables so the soft hairs on his neck stood on end and staring up – upward – up to the very top of the ruin of a dead oak trunk where the owl was perched utterly motionless except for its feathers rippling in the wind and its eyes glaring like gasoline flame seeing how the owl knew him – a spindly-limbed boy twenty feet below gaping and grimacing and struck dumb hearing SSSuttisss and seeing that look in the owl’s eyes of such significance, it could not have been named except the knowledge was imparted – You are Suttis, and you are known.

So it doesn’t come as a terrific surprise to him when the King of the Crows lets him know to go down to the mud-flats. He isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do there, but presently he comes across a doll, which creeps him out. Not half as much as the little girl he comes across next:

A terrifying sight, a living child – part-sunken in the mud, a glint of iridescent insects about her face – has to be flies – suddenly Suttis is panicked, scrabbling on hands and knees to escape this terrible vision, moaning, gibbering as the King of the Crows berates him from a perch overhead and like a frenzied calf Suttis blunders into a maze of vines, a noose of vines catches him around the neck and near-garrots him the shock of it bringing him to his senses so chastened like a calf swatted with a stiff hunk of rope he turns to crawl back to the edge of the embankment. There is no escaping the fact that Suttis will have to wade into the mud-flat to rescue the girl as he has been bidden.

I’ve found numerous references to crows in Native American lore, but I have no way of determining which source is authentic and which is nonsense. Many refer to the crow as a symbol of justice, a messenger of the gods, as a shape-shifter, and as a leader of souls from darkness to light. I’ve also found similarities to the raven, in that the crow is a trickster and has a sense of humor. For the purposes of this story, I pick a messenger from the gods, and a leader of souls from darkness to light. Maybe a little Justice as well.

I think this story has been done a great disservice. It’s a fine little folk tale, nicely and consistently told. But it wasn’t until I found out it’s part of Oates’s novel Mudwoman, published last March, and read some descriptions of that novel, that I started to get some sense of the depth of the story. The style is based on Native American legends and tales, and while I wouldn’t be able to tell, knowing JCO, I’m betting it’s completely authentic. The girl Suttis rescues becomes a University president – which is a little cliché – and goes crazy – which is a different cliché. It’s a novel I’ve got to read, and, trust me, I’ve never said that about a JCO novel before. But how this folk tale gets folded into that novel, if/how the style turns into standard prose, if this episode comes back to play a part later on – well, that I’ve got to see.

And, unlike most of her writing, this is not based on any event in Oates’s life (though presumably the University president is the first female president of Princeton, where Oates teaches). It was inspired by a dream. That’s very un-Oatsian.

And it is the child in the mud-flat Suttis Coldham will recall and cherish through his life.

Normally, I get all indignant about novel excerpts masquerading as short stories. I’m not outraged here. Maybe I’m getting over that particular bit of pettiness. It’s a complete story on its own, that’s not the issue. I just think its significance, as a part of something bigger, is missed.

But I won’t know for sure until I read the novel. Mission accomplished, JCO.

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