Aubrey Learner: “Knotty” (2001)
Caldicott Academy, a private day school for girls, had not expelled a student in decades. There were few prohibitions. Drinking and drinking and having sex right there on campus could supposedly get you kicked out; turning up pregnant likewise; that was the long and short of it. There was a rule against climbing down the side of the ravine on the west side of the school, where a suicide had occurred a century earlier, but the punishment was only a scolding.
Emily didn’t become anorexic to control her life, or to delay puberty, or to meet fashion magazine standards of beauty; she wants to be an insect. No, it’s more than that: she should have been an insect.
Emily was permitted to take her meager lunch here and also her study periods, for the study hall nauseated her, redolent as it was of food recently eaten out being processed, and sometimes of residual gases used accidentally or mischievously. So she dined among her dead insects, admiring to chitinous exoskeletons skeletons while she put one of three carrot sticks in her mouth. Chitin was not a part of mammal physiology, though she had read that after death and before decomposition, the epidermis of the deceased human develops a leathery hardness, chitinlike it could be called, which begins to resemble the beetles who gorge on the decaying corpse and defecate at the same time, turning flesh into compost. The uses of shit were many. Most delightful was manna.… Coccidae excrement. Coccidae feed on the sap of plants. Sugary liquid rushes through the gut and out the anus. A single insect can process and expel many times its own weight every hour. They flick the stuff away with their hind legs, and it floats to the ground. Nomads still eat it – relish it. It is called honeydew
I’m interested in the reveals in this story (it’s available online; ahead there be spoilers). Alice, Emily’s teacher, holds a parental conference with psychiatrist dad and chic Parisian import mom, expressing her concern that Emily could die if her anorexia continues. “Her death, if it occurs, will be accidental,” says Dad; she’s not suicidal, she’s trying to be an insect. That she’ll be just as dead doesn’t seem to concern him. Then we learn Alice is six weeks pregnant. And, we discover a few paragraphs later, having an affair with psychiatrist dad. No wonder Emily wants to be an insect.
There’s a similarity between Alice and Emily – even the names are similar – that’s powerfully highlighted by two passages. In one, Emily gives a school presentation on ants (“…she was the master of the ant heart”):
“When a fellow ant is hungry, its antennae stroke the food-storer’s head. Then the two ants put their mouths together, together, together” – she controlled her unseemly excitement with the aid of the soothing smile Mr. Da Sola sent from the back of the room – “and the liquid food passes from one to the other. And in addition to the generous crop, each ant has another, smaller stomach, it’s ‘personal belly.'”
Compare that with the teacher-parent tryst:
… Spinster teacher and scholarly physician discarded their outer-world selves, joined, rolled, rolled back again, each straining to become incorporated into the other, to be made one, to form a new organism wanting nothing but to make love to itself all day long. Perhaps some afternoon they – it – would molt, grow wings, fly away, and, it’s time on earth over, die entwined in its own limbs and crumble to dust before midnight.
This is all pretty creepy reading, but it’s impressive. One theory of anorexia is that it’s a rejection of sexuality – a desire to lose the breasts and hips and menstrual cycle, female attractiveness in general. To link eating and sex this directly, to equate Emily and Alice so graphically, not only is a dramatic image, but it makes me wonder about dad’s relationship with Emily. Which makes me wonder if our current milieu is creating absurd suspicions of lecherous fathers everywhere, or if this is where these bread crumbs are meant to lead.
The primary plot line belongs to Alice, her affair with Emily’s father, and the pregnancy that could cost her her job. He refuses to leave his wife, and the story ends up with Alice, Dad, and Emily, an unconventional love triangle, in the aforementioned ravine. We see Emily through the eyes of both Alice (“She looked as if she had attached herself to the tree for nourishment…) who in a flood of maternal instinct wants to take home “the half sister of her child-to-be” and “whisper to the misguided girl that life could be moderately satisfying even if you were born into the wrong order,” and Dad (“Perhaps it was in the nature of people to defy their own interests… there was his beloved Emily, oh Lord let her live, make her live, there was Emily, plastered lengthwise to a tree like a colony of parasitic grubs”), both pivotal adults in her life and both excellent reasons for a teenager to wish she was an insect.
The classic denouement first annoyed me for its glib tying up of loose ends. In fact, it seemed so incongruous to the story, I wish it had been omitted (and I wonder if that would have been the “ambiguous ending” TNY so famously features; have I been reading TNY too long?). It does, however, provide opportunity for the last line (no, I’m not going to quote it, I have to leave some impetus for finding the story), which is a delight (if slightly too on-the-nose), pounding in the central metaphor of the piece (honeydew – manna – is in fact bugshit), and lampooning the hypocrisy of “propriety.” On second reading, I saw a dark, sardonic, absurdist humor throughout the piece that made the ending paragraphs a perfect fit.
I read this story right after finishing David Gilbert’s “Member/Guest” in TNY; both feature adolescent girls with flawed parents; both liberally sprinkle mini-themes and images that come together in a stark final scene. In Gilbert, I was impressed, and surprised, at how well things tied together, after a dubious start. Here, it’s the opposite: the story is packed with fascinating elements, but in the end, it felt to me like some of them were jammed in. In fact, I wasn’t impressed at all after first reading, but after reading the enthusiastic rave given by Prof. Charles May (my unofficial short story guru) –
…it is not the plot, or even the characters that draw you in and keep you moving toward the meaningful metaphoric end, but rather how all the parts are so integrated that even as the story is a surprise, it seems inevitable. The ending, when the young girl metaphorically becomes the insect she strives to be, and the suicidal ravine, like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, is thematically integrated, is an absolute treat.
– I gave it another shot, and it did work better (though I’m not sure Pearlman would appreciate my characterization of it as humor). Is that because a good story takes a second (and third, and fourth) reading? Or because I wanted it to work better because of my respect for Prof. May? Unknown. If I look at it in a few months or a year, I may see something new. Which is the cool thing about re-reading.
Also unknown is the effect Pearlman’s Contributor Note had on me:
Orion wrote to request some fiction (it had just published a short essay of mine about beetles). The story I was just beginning was to be about a triangle. Each member had my sympathy – the mistress, the wife, and the man between them. There was also a girl who didn’t like to eat. But for Orion the lovers and the would-be anorexic would have to be vigorously involved in the natural world.
(I was unaware of Orion prior to reading this story; their mission statement: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.”)
As is my habit, I glanced at all the Notes prior to reading the collection, and remember something about bugs, and though I wouldn’t have been able to connect that idea to a writer or a story under threat of death, who knows what the subconscious retains. As is also my habit, I didn’t re-read Pearlman’s Note until after I’d read the story and formulated a general impression. But this is the danger of contributor notes: while I’m an unabashed fan of them (I’ve said they’re my favorite thing about BASS and PEN/O.Henry, and I wish Pushcart would follow suit), there is the written-in-stone rule that The Story Must Stand on its Own. And if Prof. May’s comment affected my reading in a positive direction, how much did the Contributor Note affect it negatively, giving me the impression that elements were crammed in? I can’t know, I can only acknowledge the possibility, and document it so that it’s here to consider after some future reading.