Pushcart 2015: Shawn Vestal, “Winter Elders” from Ecotone #15

They materialized with the first snow. That was how Bradshaw would always remember it. He was standing at the living room window, listening to Cheryl shush the baby, when he saw specks fluttering like ash against a smoky sky, then caught sight of someone on his front step, though he hadn’t noticed anyone coming up the walk. He could see about an inch of a man’s left side at the window’s border—an arm in a dark suit and a boyish hand holding a book bound in black leather. He knew instantly that there was another suit and another leather-bound volume out there, a companion to complete the pair: missionaries.

Some stories, like this one, knock me over with how well they do their job. In this case, the job is to
entwine themes and increase tension throughout what is a shorter story than it reads, leading to a tragedy that is so surprising, so unnecessary, it’s hard to believe it’s inevitable – but of course, it is. I also like the immediate establishment of the backwards-looking tone set in the first sentence by the word “would.” This has already happened, and some undefined, nebulous, omniscient narrator – someone else – is reporting it.

But it’s not just a technical marvel – it’s also a very human story, one I can feel not only personally, but in more thematic terms. And, by the way, it’s perfectly suited for the journal in which it appears.

Bradshaw’s in that horrible place I explored last summer through Charles May’s I Am Your Brother: “The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation…” (May, Introduction). This basic conflict also played a major role in the Georgetown MOOC on Dante’s “Inferno”, as sinner after sinner narrates his refusal to give up individual will to unite with God (at least, that’s my take on it).

It’s a basic theme of human relationships as well as theology, then: becoming part of something means giving up some degree of autonomy, but not being part of something means being alone, and we want both to belong and to be autonomous. Marriage necessarily involves giving up a piece of one’s autonomy, but it’s parenthood that is perhaps the ultimate unity, at least, on the earthly level.

So Bradshaw’s having a hard time.

What could he tell her? That he felt like he was being filled with life and drained of life all at once? That he had not imagined the consuming force of it? That he ached for the way he used to be filled with himself, only himself, all Bradshaw?

Enter the missionaries, with the knock at the door that just won’t go away, the request for entrance that requires constant rebuffing (it’s why telemarketers are required to hear you say “no” three times before they give up). It doesn’t help that one of them is very good at everything he does.

Bradshaw isn’t your random house on the street for the missionaries. He’s twelve years removed from the church, having gone to the unusual length of having himself officially excommunicated to keep these guys from pestering him to come back. Until now.

Of the two missionaries, it’s Pope who does the button-pushing. Interesting choice of name, with both religious and family connotations (“pope” is literally “father”). Bradshaw’s family issues precede his son’s birth; his own father would not allow family ties to interfere with his independence, and left. And Pope plays into both aspects, being not only infallible (he wins in every contest they have, from a tussle with a rake to a dog attack) but certain of his belief. Bradshaw isn’t even sure whose footprints, going nowhere, are in the snow.

It was not that Pope was right and he was wrong, and not that Pope was wrong and he was right. It was that Pope had something he could not have, and he would spend his life not having it.

I understand Bradshaw’s distress. I’m perpetually uncertain of everything. As an agnostic who just can’t accept any official view of deity yet gets misty-eyed at Christmas and feels moved by a great deal of “church music” tied to the very aspects I reject, I envy, not only the religious zealot, but the committed atheist as well. Even though I’ve found my place is in not-knowing, I wonder what it feels like to know – not to be right, necessarily, but to believe bone-deep that I am right. So when Bradley finds himself squeezed between believing and not, I empathize. The story’s focus of all the conflict so sharply on Pope makes the climax, the wrestling between individual and unity, between mortal and deity, exquisite, if horrifying.

The aftermath – the resurgence of that most human of needs, appetite; the meaty sandwich dominating over fear and regret and self-hatred – is also brutally exquisite. This is how a family story about the conflicts inherent in parenthood reaches into more universal territory.

I mentioned the significance of journal in which the piece appears – Ecotone. Setting is crucial. The snow of winter becomes not just an atmosphere but a character, an engine for the narrative drive, and the timing – around Thanksgiving – has an emotional appeal without the baggage of Christmas. But Ecotone does more than just reimagine place, if such a thing can be called “just.” Their mission statement: “An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.”

Perfect.

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