Pushcart XLIII: Allegra Hyde, “Let the Devil Sing” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review #149

Violet Brunton: "Orpheus and Eurydice" c. 1910

Violet Brunton: “Orpheus and Eurydice” c. 1910

The road to hell is narrow, bordered by a serpentine river and sheer mountain cliffs that swagger upwards and out of sight. Road signs warn of tumbling rocks, landslides, car crashes at the blind corners. The weather is fair and crisp. My husband drives our rented Peugeot. He does this calmly, effortlessly, while I sit in the passenger seat and stare at the road unblinking, as if I might intuit the speeding approach of a brakeless eighteen-wheeler or the meteoric plummet of falling rocks. But what would I do if I could? A car bound for hell will get there one way or another.
Dyavolsko Garlo, the locals call it. The Devil’s Throat. A cavern plumbing Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. The site where, according to legend, Orpheus descended into the underworld to seek his beloved Eurydice, who had died of a snakebite soon after they wed.
….
“The Devil’s Throat,” reads a sign, “44 km.”
My husband and I love one another, but our marriage feels like a sham. This is one of our problems. The other is living in Bulgaria.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

The Bulgarian Tourism Office is not going to appreciate this story, which paints their country as a worn-down place full of sulky teenagers forced to take English classes. Does the speaker (this is nonfiction, so presumably it’s Hyde, but I’m uncomfortable nosing into the marriages of real people) hate Bulgaria because her marriage is depressing, or has her marriage – apparently arranged to get a visa for work in Bulgaria – taken on the depressed air of the country?

The real-life couple’s trip to the Devil’s Throat is interlaced with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, allowing comparison between the two couples. The key scene in the myth takes place when Orpheus, trying to rescue Eurydice from Hades, looks back, and loses her to death forever. A scene of comparable impact in the present occurs on the 300 Steps of the cave, when hubby casually looks back at our speaker, provoking her decision to remain in the marriage but let go of the resentment and anger that has become such a prominent feature.

I’m far more taken with the interpretation of the myth than the current-day domestic drama playing out. Hyde is right; the story, the operas (the Gluck setting has one of my favorite arias, Che Faro Senza Euridice, which I didn’t realize for years takes place after he loses her since it’s a peppy little tune), all focus on Orpheus and his grand failure, rather than how Eurydice must have felt when he fails her by looking back, and she again falls back into Hades. They are reunited when Orpheus, distraught by his failure to redeem Eurydice, takes his life, and thus joins her.

The speaker’s view of marriage is rather grim, but perhaps realistic given the circumstances:

Perhaps this is marriage, I think. It’s not the paperwork, signed for one reason or another; it’s two pairs of feet making the same steady climb, the same bid for light. Two souls seeking the same fate, doomed or otherwise.
I let my scared self fall backward, peel away, that ghost of me, bottled up and angry. I grip the railings tighter. I scramble upward after my husband, back into Bulgaria, our daily struggles, our yearnings, the grayness and the poverty, and I hear the waterfall roaring in the cavern behind me, the Devil’s Throat loud with its heady music, made from a river tonguing deep into a mountain, carrying things in and bringing nothing out, like a lover’s heart, a promise, a tale told for the dead as much as for the bereaved.

This story was also published in Best American Travel Writing 2018. The Bulgarian Tourism Office will have to take some comfort in that.

Pushcart XLII: Allegra Hyde, “Future Consequences of Present Actions” from Gettysburg Review, Spring 2016

Art: Martha Kelly

Art: Martha Kelly

Charles Lane sits pinned by the gaze of a gray–eyed woman, her face shadowed by a plain white bonnet. He clears his throat. He is not a man of the flesh, he tells her, though he uses many more words—words that wander back to England, Greavesian ideology, his staunch belief in abstinence—before returning to the present moment: the little son beside him, back erect against a wooden chair, feet dangling above the polished floor. William Lane. His father’s greatest source of pride. His father’s greatest source of shame.
“It is with the utmost conviction,” says Charles Lane, addressing the whole assembly, “that I hold paternal love to have a deleterious effect on humanity’s pursuit of spiritual ascension.”

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Utopia. We all know what it means; we all look for it, hope to find it throughout our lives, design our societies to approximate it. I recently took a couple of moocs where utopias came up – first, in the context of Thomas More’s novel, which first used the word, and second in regard to science fiction depictions of utopias and dystopias. I did some minor research at the time, and discovered it’s even more interesting than that perfect place we all imagine.

The word itself, coined by Thomas More for his 1516 book, is a pun explained in an appendix to the novel: when spelled outopia (from the Greek οὐ, ‘not,’ and τόπος, ‘place’), it means noplace. But when spelled eutopia (using the Greek εὖ as the prefix), it sounds the same but means good place. That’s a lot of mileage to get out of a single word.

The other thing that occurred to me, in connection with the science fiction mooc, is that maybe utopia and dystopia are different sides of the same coin. Charles Lane, our protagonist (or one of them, at any rate), has seen both sides.

Elder Geary shudders. He feels the sweet drowsiness of death encroaching but cannot yet justify succumbing. What would Mother Ann think, witnessing her teachings so desecrated? Elder Geary had once followed the woman on her holy tour through Massachusetts—he’d heard her sing without words, heal without touch—and her principles of common property had galvanized his thumping heart. All Shakers, rich or poor, pooled their possessions so that all might aspire toward godliness. And yet this man, this Charles Lane—for all his voluble admiration of their Shaker customs—saw himself as an exception?
“Hear me!” Elder Geary sits bolt upright.
The attending Brethren step back from his cot in surprise.
“We have an unbeliever among us.” Elder Geary lifts a shaking hand to point at Charles Lane.

The story is told in parallel style, alternating between Charles Lane’s story and his son’s. The son’s story is told in highly impersonalized style: “A boy must be amenable. He must concede. He must not look for his father.” Stripped of any humanity, he becomes only an example of the Shaker rule, his longings emphasized by prohibitions. It’s highly effective, and surprisingly readable.

I wonder if this would be considered historical fiction. There was indeed a Fruitlands community, founded by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, father to Louisa May, who was about 10 years old at the time. The detail of the Alcott children receiving special dispensations are not noted in the sources I casually browsed; it seems the community failed because of poor management, leading to an inability to support itself. Sophia Foord is also a historic figure, a teacher who was hired to tutor Louisa May, and who at some point developed a passionate crush on Thoreau, scaring the socks off him by proposing.

Lane’s life is notable enough to be recounted in several places, including a fascinating compilation of his and others’ journal entries by Clara Endicott Sears, a philanthropist who purchased the failed Fruitlands and later converted one of the buildings into a museum. His son William is mentioned in these sources, but there is no clear indication that his father left without him. For that matter, there is no mention of any ostracism following a dramatic deathbed scene with an Elder Geary (who appears to be a fictional character), though there is evidence of his reluctance to throw his money into the community pot, having just lost a bundle on Fruitlands.

“Perhaps,” says Mrs. Alcott, “you could make the love argument.” She glances at her husband, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet. Louisa May feels the grip on her shoulder tighten, the bruising press of her mother’s unwavering affection. “As I see it, you can either leave William and return to England or you can go before the Shakers and declare the preeminence of paternal affection. That blood trumps all other bonds.”
Charles Lane says nothing.

What this story does so effectively is show by not telling. The opening lines about his son being his greatest pride and shame – the evidence of earthly passions, after all – sets up a kind of ambivalence again seen when he resists divesting his financial goods to the Shaker community. He manages to spin the Fruitlands failure as someone else’s fault, a weakness of paternal attachment he denies – and yet, when Mrs. Alcott suggests “the love argument”, he says nothing. What is going on in his head? Is he thinking, I don’t believe in parental love and I’m not going to use it now? Or, I’m ashamed of my paternal love so I’m not going to show it now? Or, What’s love got to do with it, they have something that’s mine?

The title not only refers to a clear element of the story, but also to the story itself, where elements in the beginning – Lane’s haughty disregard for the paternal favoritism he witnessed at Fruitlands – comes back to bite him in the end. The last two lines of the story, however, show he is not the only one bitten:

A boy must have his evening chores complete before dark. He must never make a fire in a stove without supervision. There must be no wood piled near the stove nor the spit box set beneath the stove. The stove must always be shut tight before all leave the room. A boy must return to his sleeping quarters by nine. If a door is locked, a boy must not go on rattling and knocking. It is not meant to be opened.

It’s a quiet kind of heartbreak. The tone keeps sentiment tightly controlled, while still allowing it to seep in gradually. What’s saddest, maybe, is that this isn’t seen as that big a deal, when viewed through the lens of the time and place.

One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

Pushcart XL: Allegra Hyde, “Bury Me” from Missouri Review, #37.3

Art by Shira Sela

Art by Shira Sela

It was the strangest funeral I’d ever attended. Sunsoaked—on the old farm field behind Sally’s house—the bereaved dressed in a rainbow of colors, the air sugared with cotton candy and the pangs of a string quartet. A downy white pony for children to ride.
Sally saw me and came sailing across the lawn, a loose yellow dress lashed to her body.
“My mother’s,” she said, hiking the address past her knees, as if she were a little girl crossing a mud puddle. “I’m so glad you’re here”. She gave me a wet, splintering smile. “I almost thought you weren’t coming.”
“Sal –”
But she was already gone, and engulfed by relatives, all of them echoes of her: lithe Nordic bodies, white-blonde hair, long noses. Polished people who looked like they’d be cold to touch.
I had not wanted to come. It had been three months since I so much as grabbed coffee with Sally, and in those months I finally felt able to think straight.

Weddings and funerals make very popular settings for short stories, or scenes within novels or movies. There’s all that emotion right there, leaking on to the characters and, by mental association, the readers. Great numbers of characters from the past can be brought together, to demonstrate either change or stagnation, to paint relationships in actions and dialog rather than recollection, and to allow a kind of time-shift in perception: I used to have a lot of fun with these people; what did I see in them? for instance.

It’s also a great opportunity for quirks that either reveal character or simply create interest. Don’t you want to know more about this funeral, about the person who planned it, about the people who’ve attended, just from the opening paragraph? I know I do.

In fact, it’s such a convenient trick, it can seem like a gimmick. But I think Hyde pulls it off very well, because the funeral, with its strange cheerful veneer and the underlying death that’s at its center, is very related to the core of the story: the progression of the relationship between narrator Madeline and her once-BFF, funeralista Sally.

Upstairs, Sally lay on the bed next to Carlton, who still wore his clothes from the night before. Sally, though, was naked. It was how she liked to sleep. I have seen her naked plenty of times, but never so still. Never like that. It shocked me – the vulgarity of nude flesh – her flat chest, hip bones jutting forward, pubic hair shaved away. There was nothing I couldn’t see.

Much of what works are little pieces like that, scenes so intense the reader becomes a voyeur. Sometimes a single sentence, like “Sally draped an arm on each of my shoulders, so that for a moment her face eclipsed my whole vision”, put me right there in the backyard milling around before the funeral. But they aren’t in the story just for the sake of emotional heightening; they signify as well. Woven throughout are inserts of technical descriptions of the white pine tree, related to Madeline’s work as a botanist; these, too, signify, one sentence in particular: “The tree, however, is relatively resistant to fire.”

I had some gender-confusion early on. I’d assumed the narrator would be female, given the author’s name, but in the opening paragraphs, for some reason I changed my mind. This was quickly resolved by her name, but it made me think about cues we pick up, assumptions we make, even when we think we’re open-minded and gender shouldn’t matter. Vigilance, always.

In some way, this story reminded me of Bret Anthony Johnston’s work, how every sentence is carefully arranged and the entire narrative is perfectly groomed to lead to one spot. Sometimes I have to admire the story, even if I don’t particularly “enjoy” it (whatever that means). But here, I both admired and enjoyed. Hyde’s first story collection, Of This New World (which includes this story, as well as some science-fiction-fantasy work), is due for release in October 2016, and I’m genuinely curious to see more of her work.

In the end, the story comes down to reading a remark that could be an offhand remark except it’s repeated later in the story (and I’m ambivalent about the repeat; is it really necessary?). I’ve debated whether I should reveal that remark or not. I want to, because it’s nicely done: it invites the participation of the reader, and, while it definitely gives a direction to things, it allows for several possibilities. But, it is something of a subtle spoiler. So I think I’ll omit it. I have to leave some room for curiosity, now that the festive funeral is out there.