Pushcart XLI: Sara Batkie, “Laika” from New Orleans Review #41

Andrew Wyeth: "Christina's World"

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Babette came to the home the same week we got a television. They arrived three days apart, both dropped unceremoniously at the front door. Madame Durance never bothered much with the girls but was very put out by the lack of paperwork for the strange machine. “We need to keep track of these things,” she said, nudging the box with her sensible shoe. “What if it makes us all sick?” Hollis the orderly had it hooked up within an hour. It was 1957, the year Khrushchev looked up to a stardrunk sky and found a new world to conquer. We were all hankering for the unknown, though that could be hard to find in Nebraska.

I’m reminded yet again of my writer-friend Marko Fong describing a particular use of first person past as “memoir voice.” Transposed to fiction, it mimics nonfictional memoir, as it “assumes that the narrator and the ‘character/survivor’ are effectively two different first person ‘I’s.” This story makes great use of that: The distance of those 50 years gives the writer the ability to write the events in 1957 in a more mature voice, to imbue the ordering and details of the narration with insight atypical for a teenager, but readily available to the older survivor who is the narrator.

It was an unspoken rule that the girls not ask each other what brought them to Durance Home. It was simple enough to guess some of their troubles, the ones with space pod bellies already in orbit. They’d grow big, disappear for a day or two then return with bodies evacuated of their heroes. Nothing left but tears. The rest were dragged in by their mothers. I was brought by my brother, the only family I had, my slippery fingers having found their way into one pocket too many. He bought me a chocolate malted on the drive, the last ice cream I would taste until adulthood.

I loved reading this story; it’s full of small moments and observations that create an atmosphere for the subtle plot. Like the boys running alongside the bus the girls took on occasional field trips, waving and pressing their palms against the windows: “This was the only touch of a boy I’d ever known: partitioned, ghostly, and quick to fade. I liked it that way.”

I saw twin themes of isolation and hope weaving throughout the story. Not only are the three main characters isolated in their own ways, but the two prominent symbols of the story are as well. First, there’s Laika, the Russian space-dog who captures the narrator’s attention:

I thought about Laika, looked up at the sky above us, the impossible cradle that carried her. I imagined her passing through the stars, being accepted as one of their own, each small bright ball leading her gently along her path. I thought of her smile flashing across the television screen, all the hope she held in her, and I wished her safely home.

Another powerful scene introduces the narrator to Christina, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”.

Her name was Christina, so the plaque said. Though suffering from polio, she refused the use of a wheelchair. The artist was inspired to paint her after watching her crawl across a field from a window in his house.
It must have taken her hours. What sort of person could just stand by and observe something like that? But it was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us, I suppose. Perhaps capturing it was all that could be done, was, in its way, the only chance of honoring it.

Wyeth’s comment on Christina: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” At 14, the narrator knew both sides of hope, the -ful and the -less. Hopelessness is its own isolation, isn’t it. After this passage, I started thinking of the unnamed narrator as Christina: hobbled, but going forward in the way she knows best over a great expanse towards an isolated house. I’m grateful for the painter-writer, the survivor-narrator, with the patience to wait.

The plot hinges on the source of Babette’s pregnancy. She claims it’s another divine intervention; whether that’s from naiveté or shame isn’t entirely clear for some time,but eventually shows us another kind of hopelessness: the help that is not forthcoming. This becomes tied to the hopelessness of our narrator, who recalls Babette, Christina, Laika by name but doesn’t get a name herself (just as we never see Christina’s face, but only her weakened legs and her longing). Just as Madame Durance only gets part of a name, and then I know: she was the first generation of isolation by hopelessness.

Laika died in orbit. Our narrator reveals the details in a tribute to that “memoir voice” and the power of time to change perspective, to change reality itself. The plan was humane by standards of the time: she was poisoned by her last meal to prevent extended suffering as the craft was not designed to survive re-entry. This was November, 1957. It was not publicly known until 2002 that she actually died much sooner than was planned by failure of the heat control system; she cooked, alone in the capsule. Laika was, by the way, a stray, plucked from the streets of Moscow. And when we read here that the scientist in charge of preparing her for the mission took her home the night before launch to play with his kids – “I wanted to do something nice for her…. She had so little time left to live” – we can’t help but think of a 14-year-old taken for her last malted on the way to Durnace Home. I can’t help but think of our narrator, fifty years later, still there, finally, patiently, telling us the truth about Babette.

I found an extra delight waiting for me after the last line, the last period of the story, where Pushcart lists those who nominated the piece for the anthology. Typically it’s the original publisher, often accompanied by one or two writers, former Pushcart winners who recommended it. This story was nominated by Seth Fried, whose terrific work has been reflected several times over the years in these pages. I thought I recognized some elements from his writing, particularly a story titled “Those of Us in Plaid”. Seth has a sense of humor (I sent him a goofy fan email once, and he responded in kind) so I asked him if he’d be willing to share his reasons for nominating the story. And, bless his heart, he responded kindly:

Aside from Batkie’s great writing in general, I was struck by the moral complexity in Laika. You compared the story to “Those of Us in Plaid” and I think it is circling a similar idea. We’re seeing someone powerless struggling with feelings of being complicit in the face of ugliness and abuse. That’s something I explored with morbid comedy in “Plaid” and that Batkie takes on with a stark lyricism that I found affecting.

Seth Fried (nominator)

We never find out what happens to Babette, beyond that she leaves after her space pod belly empties. Our narrator’s complicity is an angle I’d like to consider more. Is this story her plea for absolution? Time becomes a character as it allows consideration, but also delays revelation. I wonder how Babette would tally up the net effect.

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