Saturday, November 30, 2013

A hope of something final, terrifying

I found a slot of free time last night at 12:05 am (what has life come to) and so decided to sit down and read what would turn out to be one of the most memorable short stories I've read in a long time. Alice Munro's Images. It is narrated in the same voice of the girl (Del Jordan) from Walker Brothers Cowboy, and when reading it is not only 16-year-old me who chews away at the pages but also my innocuous 6-year-old self who emerges to nibble at each sentence.

Del's mother is ill, her father has returned to his teasing ways, and "the fact of death" survives the sweltering room like a "lump of magic ice;" our narrator attributes all this to the coming of Mary McQuade, Del's father's cousin and the practical nurse attending to Del's sick mother. Thus despite "all the life going on" there is death, its presence acute and fearful to Del until the end of the story.

When Del's father takes her into the woods, hunting muskrats, Del is conscious of not only her father's "uncompromising, even brutal"side but also the "fact of death." And indeed, when a hatchet-bearing man advances upon her father, she is suddenly aware of the possibility of his death -
All my life I had known there was a man like this, and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, with blazing hair and burned out, Orphan Annie eyes.
- but the man, Joe, turns out to be an old acquaintance of her father's and the threat of death passes.

The word death is not mentioned alone in the story (always the fact of death; it is a fact, "nothing but the truth") although its presence and power - whereas imagined by Del to be exercised by McQuade, or intended by the Silases threatening Joe - permeates it

By the end of the story, Del - like she was in Walker Brothers Cowboy - does not completely understand what has happened but is nonetheless left with an imprint of the memory, permanent as an image, and realizes that her fears are "based on nothing but the truth." And so she is eventually no longer afraid of McQuade or "the fact of death."

It is a lovely story of childhood innocuousness,  inadequately summarised above because so much emotion is woven into it that the story cannot be solidified in linear plot but only read and reread the feeling melds into the words to produce an image.

People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying.
It was the ending that REALLY got me:
Like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who had discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after — like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.

So perhaps one could call this story a mini bildungsroman.

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