Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle” from TNY, 12/23-30/13

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

Cats were dying. This happens, of course. But in this case they were dying in a gory way, one after another, and my nieces, who are six and seven years old, were witnessing the deaths, and it was Christmas, the most magical, horrible, spiritual, dark, and stressful time of the year.… I am telling this story to you, K, even though you are a Russian communist and a Jewish person who doesn’t believe Jesus was the son of God, and even though Christmas is an obnoxious holiday when millions of people decapitate pine trees and watch them slowly die in their living rooms, because miracles can happen on any day, and as long as man has existed he’s celebrated this weirdest time of year, the shortest stretch of sunlight, the winter solstice, as a time of fear, change, courage, and passion. I’m going to tell you the story of a miracle that happened at Christmas.

I did a 180 on this one – and at the last minute, too. This will be spoilery: it must be.

I truly hated this story while I was reading it. And after. And when I put together notes for this blog post, and when I did the draft of this post, and when I revised, and when I scheduled the post. Boy, it was great snark, better than my Project Runway finest; let me give you a sample:

Oh goodie, a dead cat story. Not just a dead cat story: a dead cats story. A Christmas dead cats story. And not just dead: mauled. Eaten by coyotes. Eviscerated. Dismembered. Don’t look too closely at the accompanying art. Enjoy, instead, the hilariously placed advertisement for TNY’s Big Book of Cats on the next-to-last page.
Hey, come on, it’s been over a year since they last ran a mauled-and-dead-cats-story. Which, by the way, I quite enjoyed, because it was a really good dead cats story, and I was even glad to see it in this year’s BASS, though it was the only story I didn’t read, seeing as I lost my final cat a couple of months ago and I’m still a little emotional. Of course, those were barn cats, and here, we have pets, pets with personality quirks and real names.
I’m guessing Deborah Treisman isn’t a cat person.

I had the post scheduled to go, but something bothered me; I’m not sure what, but I felt like I had to fine-tune exactly my complaints; I don’t want to be nasty unless I can back it up with unassailable evidence. But I couldn’t. Because, damn it, I’d been reading the story I’d assumed it was, instead of the story on the page.

The story – the story it actually is – does what it set out to do. A half-sentence changes everything. Somehow, I’d overlooked it; I missed The Christmas Miracle that resolves the chord – the Picardy third, a musical cadence to “give a somewhat optimistic cast to the ending of a piece” – and turns this from a self-indulgent “look how messed up these people are” shockfest description to a story about how change is possible.

So it’s Christmas, and the family has gathered at Sis’ house, where the coyotes are killing the cats one at a time. Sis is still insisting she’s got it under control, even now that she’s down to her last two cats. Auntie D, our letter-writing narrator, has arrived. She’s a creative writing teacher now, but she was a nutritionist (with a degree and everything, even if it is from an internet school) until she got Yelped pretty much out of business. She sees a potential upturn in her nutritionist career if she can just get her sister-in-law, who’s trying to get pregnant, to take her nutritional advice, since D’s specialty is nutritional infertility treatment and the woman’s husband is a respectable Canadian official of some kind whose endorsement would go a long way towards offsetting the Yelping. The problem is, the sister-in-law prefers to keep her fertility issues private (which is why everyone’s discussing it privately, behind her back) so not only is Auntie D told about the issue no one’s supposed to know about in the first place, she’s warned not to mention it to her.

Auntie D is herself beset by a trio of symbiotic pathogens causing Lyme disease, babesiosis, and the star of our show, a rambunctious bacterium named Bartonella (shades of Seth Fried’s “Animacula“), which causes a variety of psychiatric symptoms from sugar addiction to hallucinations. By the way, Bartonella turns out to be the family of bugs that causes Cat Scratch Fever; this tickled me for some reason, though I’d be surprised if it’s deliberate; I doubt it’s common knowledge, though the CDC will tell you all about it. For the record, the CDC site talks about Bartonella and encephalitis, which could cover a lot of territory, but doesn’t get into anything more interesting like sugar cravings or mental status changes. For that, you have to go to YouTube, where a woman (she may well be Curtis, who self-identifies as a holistic nutritionist in her Page-Turner interview; I have terrible facial recognition skills and the YouTuber doesn’t give her name or say anything about being a writer but she has a “healing channel” and all three of these diseases) carefully explains the difference between Bartonella rage, Babesia rage, Lyme rage and just plain old Rage rage, which I was experiencing a bit myself while reading this story.

Because there’s also the funny uncle.

… I was concerned, as always during family visits, about the safety and comfort of my nieces around our uncle, who was a pedophile, especially since the previous Christmas, when my sister and I weren’t vigilant enough, I’d caught him rubbing the butt of the elder girl, then six years old, in a dark, empty room. That, too, my sister assured me, was under control: the girls would never be left alone with him, and at night they’d sleep on cots in her room….
The counselor had warned her, my sister said, that telling her daughters our concerns would damage their psychological development, and that the issue must never be addressed.

At this point I felt like I was just being jerked around by the Grand Upworthy of stories. I have zero respect for this character, yet she’s the only one with the brains to say, “The therapist’s wrong,” though she has to be under the influence of Bartonella to do it. She even tries to do something about it, if you count bribing her to come up with excuses for not cooperating in his abuse as doing something. It’s about as effective as the way Sis is dealing with the coyotes killing the cats, or Auntie D is herself dealing with her own illnesses or snaring her sister-in-law’s nutritional clientship.

Thing is, there’s a family history here, though it’s disguised in verbiage. The uncle rescued Auntie D and Sis when their mother was widowed, alone with four kids, “not right in the head,” and broke. They went to live with him. I’m betting the counselor Sis cites doesn’t exist, and the bogus advice is from her own childhood, when she and Auntie D were told to keep their mouths shut because Uncle was supporting them and would send them to school, so now they keep their mouths shut still. He only visits once a year, after all. And the girls can sleep on cots for those few nights.

This isn’t trying to be Carol Anshaw’s “Last Speaker of the Language” (another story I very much enjoyed), a family of bumblers who really do love each other and pull together when needed to protect and help each other, or even the darker dysfunctional family romp “Things Said or Done” by Ann Packer where the chaotic past was, at least for the most part, overcome.

No, this is the view of dysfunction from the clueless, in-the-moment inside: a family that’s locked in its own reality, a reality that has little to do with the reality outside its borders. It’s a family where cats are rescued from shelters so they won’t be killed by vets, only to be killed by coyotes; where rich uncles support widows and orphans in order to abuse them, a place where that which is not spoken cannot be a problem because it doesn’t exist and everyone insists everything is under control when everything is so blatantly, obviously not under control at all.

Auntie D overtly relates the Christmas Miracle to K as: the last cat survived its mauling because it learned how to pick out a coyote’s eyeballs and spit them on the rug from being trained to eat Doritos off a piñata in Kamikaze Cat Training instituted by the seven-year-old. But she covertly reveals the true Christmas miracle was elsewhere:

My sister, who stuck up for me when she was a kid, but whom no one stuck up for – ever, in any way – thanked our mother and uncle for coming, and told our uncle that he had to go.

This is delivered in a second-hand sort of way, so that Auntie D still doesn’t have to own it or even quite acknowledge it. It’s an incredibly subtle touch at the very end of a long and brutal story. A Picardy Third of a story ending.

I’m glad I went back to tinker. This is why I blog about stories: it forces me to look to the text, even when that’s where the dead cats are.

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4 responses to “Rebecca Curtis: “The Christmas Miracle” from TNY, 12/23-30/13

  1. Good post, and fully with you there on that last paragraph! That’s why I started to do it as well, (plus I like reading other people’s thoughts on stories, it often makes it even more enriching, and has on occasion made me change my mind too).

    • I read a lot of of blog posts about this story; most of them were negative, but I think yours may have been one of the positive ones – so you might’ve been part of what changed my mind on this

      • Thanks 🙂
        I can see how some of the style elements in the story with the cats and the illness enervated some people though. It made a chaotic mess and the ‘they lived with uncle for years!’ revelation kind of got lost in that.

      • Yeah, I can see why she did it that way – it’s how it is in a family like that, the important stuff gets lost in the shuffle, the chaos drowns out what no one wants to see anyway which is why there’s usually chaos in dysfunctional families – but it kind of ensured that the two sentences that “make” the story would be missed – just as buried as the girls’ discomfort.

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