Odd, how I miss his voice, and yet it’s his silences I remember now: the deliberateness with which he moved, the way he’d listen, that particular smile, as if, having long ago given up expecting anything from the world, he continually found himself mugged by its beauty. Even as a kid I wanted to protect him, and because he saw the danger in this, he did what he could.
What a perfect end to this anthology. In fact, it’s so perfect, I wonder (since the stories are arranged alphabetically) if R.T.Smith, Christine Sneed, Wells Tower, Judy Troy, the V’s and the W’s, were just out of luck this year because their names follow Slouka. No, of course not. But it is a perfect final story – brief, emotionally wrenching, poetically beautiful.
It’s told memoir-style. Double-memoir, in fact.
When Dad was a boy, in Czechoslovakia during WWII, one of his chores was to slaughter a rabbit from the hutch every Friday for dinner. This became more painful as the population dwindled. And for a week, the family hid a partisan in a coffin-sized hidden space in the back of the hutch. Dad saw his family – his father, mother, sister – taken away. He escaped only because he was at a neighbor’s.
I’d imagine him remembering himself as a boy. He’d be standing in the back of a train at night, the metal of the railing beneath his palms. Behind him, huddled together under the light as if on a cement raft, he’d see his family, falling away so quickly that already he had to strain to make out their features, his father’s hat, his mother’s hand against the black coat, his sister’s face, small as a fingertip… And holding on to the whitewashed mantelpiece, struggling to draw breath into my shrinking lungs, I’d quickly put the picture back as though it were something shameful. Who knows what somber ancestor had passed on to me this talent, this precocious ear for loss? For a while, because of it, I misheard almost everything.
It’s too intricate, too well-written, to be summarized, and it’s only available online to Harper’s subscribers. Such is life; not everything wonderful is free. The story comes to a head when Dad’s nine-year-old son, safe and secure all his life in upstate New York, discovers Sister wants a pet rabbit, and feels the need to protect Dad from what he imagines will be excruciating associations with prior losses.
The emotional recollection is so powerful it reads like a true memoir, but though some elements are taken from fact (Slouka’s family did hide a partisan in the war; he himself ties flies), it is fiction. There’s memory, and there’s emotional memory. And there’s constructed memory, what we imagine when we’re very young, or we don’t have all the facts, or we have our own fears. This story treats them all beautifully. It’s one of my favorites in this anthology.
This is the second father-son story I’ve read by Slouka: he caught another very different perspective perfectly in “Crossing.” I’m so impressed with the way he’s handled both scenarios. This is how writing is done. I just wish I could analyze it, learn it, bottle it, drink it. But, if it was easy, anyone could be a writer.
Addendum: I’m very happy to see this story included in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.