Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” from  Conjunctions #76

Before I started living on extraordinary time, I used to set my watch by Garbage Thursday. My landlady often jokes that Garbage Thursday is my Sabbath. Garbage Thursday is a secular ceremony of reckoning and forgetting. You hear the same hymn booming across our leafy block each Thursday evening: the trash bins bumping and scraping over asphalt, the rolling harmonies of a neighborhood remembering in unison that this is our weekly chance to liberate our lives of trash. Smells and peels, used neon condoms and yolky egg shells, kombucha six-packs and leopardy bananas – down the driveways they come, our open secrets straining at white Hefty bags. Click-click-click, we rattle together, the ghosts of Garbage Thursdays Past, Present, and Future.
Via neighborly telepathy, I always reach the curb at the same moment as my friend Anja. She lives in Unit B of the Cloud Lake apartment complex across the street. The name “Cloud Lake” is like a cemetery marker for the acres of water that once flowed here, drinking in the sunshine of the last century; we live in Multnomah County, Oregon, where the names of the dead can be found on condominiums and athletic clubs and doomed whimsical businesses. Anja says she can feel the lake water rippling below the pavement. What I see as early- morning mist, she says, is actually the vaporous ghost of Cloud Lake. Anja vibrates at a special frequency.

Short version: It’s a beautifully written, simple story about the experience of pregnancy, with a unicorn sitting in for Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers. It’s all about exquisite phrasing that captures everything, from taking out the garbage to taking a pregnancy test to sharing a Himalayan salt block with a magical creature, perfectly, and for good measure throws in a line about loss that had me, the cynic with no particular interest in the miracle of gestation, tearing up.

Are you ready for the long version? Are you sure? Things could get weird.

The curb is like the diary where we record our hungers. A diary slated for weekly erasure. The amnesiac’s log of “refuse.” This used to strike me as a squeamish euphemism, but now I think it’s the perfect word, noun and verb, for the toxic mosaic we make in our ad hoc collaboration on Ninth Avenue. Through the upstairs window on Thursday nights, I watched a small, ephemeral mountain range building itself on either side of the street. Everything my neighbors have refused to hold on to that week – our dubious purchases and irreparable mistakes, the husks of daily life.

I’m compelled to compare this story with “The Ghost Birds,” Russell’s entry from the 2022 Best American Short Stories.  Both Jake (my blogging buddy, who may yet chime in on Pushcart) and I complained about too much backstory that obscured what was a nice little front story. As Jake put it, “the narrator is more or less reciting fictional history in the middle of a narrative…. so much of the world-building exposition of “The Ghost Birds” is not needed for the story.” I said,  “That isn’t to say I’m opposed to looking at the details of the ecological catastrophe…. I’m just opposed to it taking up so much space and diffusing energy in this story.”

In this current story, we have a lot of background as well, about the town, about Garbage Thursday. However, instead of diluting the energy of the story, it forms a canvas on which the story is painted. We get to know Mauve a bit, her neighbor Anja and her landlady/housemate Edie, enough to follow their development as the story of Mauve’s pregnancy manifests itself and proceeds. A quick little teaser about the unicorn keeps us on our toes. The early emphasis on trash keeps us aware of what is kept and what is discarded as we move through our lives, a somewhat oblique approach to the surprise of Mauve’s gravid state, to what she had given up on in her adolescence when she discovered, to the great dismay of her family, she would be infertile due to a genetic mutation: “I’d had to reassure these adults that I was much more excited about being a mutant than being a mother.” Though she assures us she’d never wanted a child, there’s still a hint that maybe this was defensive posturing, that she managed to convince herself, along with her parents, that she wasn’t devastated by this diagnosis.

That she becomes pregnant at age thirty-nine, after years of “kamikaze promiscuity” without regard for contraception, is a big surprise. As the story unfolds, we find out it is also a miracle: she wants this baby.

Something had, indeed, gotten into me. This new life marked reality so faintly – a watery pink line on a test. I held it up to the light, watching the pale line firm and darken. What a strange way to take the temperature of one’s future. It seemed impossible that a life had planted itself inside me without my awareness.
…. You’d think women would be alerted at the moment of conception, receive an unmistakable sign, like the crystal ball dropping on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. We should levitate above the bedsheets; our eyes should change color. Instead, my body had behaved like a surly teenager – cranking her music behind a locked door, bass shaking through the walls, none of the lyrics intelligible. Why hadn’t my body trusted me enough to say, “Mauve, we are pregnant”?

I found these descriptions to be delightful reading. And unlike in “Ghost Birds” where the backstory made me impatient to get back to the action, this, even though it isn’t action, feels like the action of the story. It’s what makes the story so readable.

Mauve recalls the last two lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” when she discovers she’s pregnant.  A slightly more expanded quotation:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. …
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

I try not to mess with Stevens, but Google tells me this is considered the ultimate poem about writing poetry. What makes it particularly interesting in this context is this idea of creation, and the presence of the sea. Remember, Cloud Lake is located on a former lake, now dissipated or diverted or whatever, but gone, leaving only vapors that Anja can feel.  There’s nothing like having a baby growing inside you to stir the sense of creativity: “Out here I struggled to do a load of laundry, and yet somehow in the deep privacy of my body, an embryo had built itself a spine.” Add to that seeing a unicorn – the first time, at ten weeks along – and she’s entitled to quote Stevens.

The gift of a Himalayan salt block – the remains of another former sea – draws the unicorn back a bit later. But this time, getting a better look at it, Mauve notices something: this unicorn is a little worse for wear. Scuffed hooves, emaciated, old, dirty, and … pregnant! “I wondered what the gestation time for a unicorn might be: hours, centuries?” Mauve, remember, isn’t in the first blush of youth, herself, remember, and her pregnancy is something of a miracle. She and her sister have a conversation about all the symbols of hope, starting with Dickinson’s thing with feathers. Could the unicorn be a manifestation of Mauve’s hope for the baby to come? She is at greatly increased risk because of her age. This generates the line that got a few tears from me:

In the taxonomy of losing, these must be the two fundamental categories: those things we lose and believe we might find again, the sting of grief lightened by the hope of retrieval; and those losses that are final, insoluble, eternal.

While Mauve is hoping to not lose her pregnancy, Anja is dealing with the impending loss of her mother. There’s also the loss of the sea that Cloud Lake used to be, and the dead whose names fill the town. I’m not thinking in terms of retrievable losses, but of survivable losses. The loss of a parent is something we expect, however sorrowfully. The death of a lake speaks to something in between survivable and not that seems just beyond the scope of the story, though Russell has recently been delving into ecological themes. But the loss of a baby – people survive, but how?

I happen to be in a Catherine Project reading group studying Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at the moment, so of course I related this to the Knight of Infinite Resignation who accepts loss, and the Knight of Faith, for whom all things are possible and thus loss is not a tragedy. I’ll call your Stevens and raise you a Kierkegaard. But this is digressive at best. I should delete this, but I’ll leave it for future reference (oh, remember that time I went totally bonkers because I was reading K?). Hey, I warned you things could get weird.

I won’t reveal more of what happens – spoilers, y’know? – but it worked for me, even me who views pregnancy with a shrug.

I will mention one craft note: I find Russell’s occasional identification of characters by race to be odd. I’ve mentioned a few times before the datedness of the assumption of whiteness, that only characters who aren’t white will be racialized, and how reading a Black author often reverses this. But in this story, two characters, are identified as white: Edie, and an unnamed minor character.  Two – both unnamed minor characters – are identified as Black. We are told Anja is Serbian, which is ethnic but not racial. I have no idea what to make of this, but it strikes me as odd. Mauve is, of course, a color, and fairly new as a name, emerging in the European  “Mauve Decade” of the 1890s when the color, the first mass-produced dye, became wildly popular. It’s merely a corruption of the French name of the mallow plant from which it originated. I see no connection. But I could be wrong, or overly sensitive to racializations in writing. Sometimes a color is just a color.

This story, though not in BASS, was in the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume for 2022. I wonder if the two volumes coordinate: “Here, we’ll take this one and you take that one.” Given my reaction to “Ghost Birds,” BASFF got the better end of that deal. YMMV.

* * *        

  • Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” is available online at Poetry magazine.

2 responses to “Pushcart 2023 XLVII: Karen Russell, “The Cloud Lake Unicorn” from  Conjunctions #76

  1. I skimmed your reading today, wanting to experience this SS based on your initial comments. I was reminded of someone who said they name suburbs after what was destroyed when they built them. I was living in Royal Oaks at the time.

    • That sounds about right – maybe some wishful thinking in there, too. I recently read an old George Saunders story in which the character says “At Sea Oak, there was no sea and no oak.” I used to live in an apartment complex called Cortland Court, which had a couple of Cortland apple trees on the grounds – I can imagine it used to be an apple orchard, and only a few remained once the buildings went up.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story when you’ve read it – I wish it was available online, but no luck.

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