BASS 2011: Mark Slouka, “The Hare’s Mask” from Harper’s

Linoleum cut (created for this story) by Raymond Verdaguer

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.

PEN/O.Henry 2011 – Mark Slouka, “Crossing” from The Paris Review

Art: "Father and Son" by Glory Fraulein Wolfe

Sometimes it wasn’t so easy to know how to go, how to keep things alive. Sometimes the vise got so tight you could forget there was anything good left in the world. But he’d been talking about this place – the rivers, the elk, the steelhead in the pools – since the boy was old enough to understand. And now it was here.

Any discussion of this story will necessarily spoil it. But good news – it’s available online, so take a few minutes (it’s fairly short) to read it before you continue here.

Something, isn’t it? Who would’ve guessed that a story that starts so quietly (if ominously) would have us hanging on the edge of our seats? Not me – Man vs. Nature has never really been my thing. But when it’s combined with Man vs. Self – well, now, that makes it special. I suppose all Man vs. Nature is really a metaphor for Man vs. Self. This one just does it so well.

The story opens with impending doom all around – rain, mist, black road, razor sharp line of open sky. And yet our protagonist isn’t gloomy: “…his mind flashed to a scene of a black road, still wet, running toward mountains larded with snow like fatty meat. For some reason it made him happy, and he hadn’t been happy in a while.” That image – “larded with snow like fatty meat” – that’s pretty distinctive. Memorable. There’s a reason for that. “Fat is Flavor” all the chefs like to say – it’s also a heart attack.

He has a boy in the car. Early on, the narration just keeps referring to him as “the boy”. Turns out it’s the man’s son, and he’s picked him up from mom’s. “…when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV…” He’s caring towards his son. It takes some reading, given the aloof narration, but the boy’s happy to see him and Dad is playful yet protective of his son. It’s kind of odd, this disconnect between what’s happening and how it’s narrated. I’m not sure what this means, other than it’s unsettling. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be.

I got a little stuck on the details of crossing the river, first with the backpacks, then with his son on his back. It’s a shallow river, but seems like it’s rough enough that just walking across isn’t possible: it requires a walking stick and precise maneuvering to avoid slipping on the rocks and getting washed downstream where some unimaginably horrible fate awaits. Thus the boy can’t cross on his own, he must be carried. I had to turn off the left side of my brain for this one. I just took his word for it. He certainly seems to know what he’s talking about. He realizes, once he and his son are across and hiking to the barn they will use as a campsite, that on the return trip he’ll have to carry the walking stick in his other hand. Well, wait, he just crossed the river twice in each direction, he changed hands then, yes? Oh, wait, he means while holding his son, which he did on only one of the four trips already taken. I got unnecessarily bogged down in this.

But it was really quite something once I let go of figuring out exactly what was happening in real space-time and just read the story. Take it slow. Have to get back. Melted marshmallows over a campfire. A father-and-son tradition. Maybe this time he could make this right. Half his son’s rib cage cupped in his palm as they slept. Stuck in the stream. Can’t go forward, can’t go back, can’t stay still. The world consists of can’ts. And then:

For a second, he felt the hot, shameful fire of remorse and then unending pity – for himself, for the boy on his back, for the world – and at that moment he remembered hearing about a medieval priest who, personally taking the torch from the executioner, went down the line of victims tied to their stakes and kissed each one tenderly on the cheek before lighting the tinder.

Charles May, of the wonderful Reading The Short Story blog, recalls the ending of Beckett’s The Unnamable:

…you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

I’m completely unfamiliar with Beckett’s trilogy; reading it gave me goosebumps, though I don’t begin to comprehend it.

In the Contributor Notes, Slouka tells of a time when a river crossing like this actually happened to him. For fifteen years, he couldn’t get the story to work, to affect others the way the event had affected him – “There are few things more excruciating than learning you’ve put your child’s life in danger,” he says. It was only when he came across the tale of the medieval priest that he was able to figure it out: he must leave them in midstream.

A word about the title. It’s not “The Crossing” or “Crossing the River.” It’s the present imperfect form of the verb, Crossing. In the process of crossing. Left in midstream. And very, very incomplete.

He’d never get this story through a workshop that way. Good thing he didn’t have to try.