A Short Story For Saturday

A passage from the opening paragraphs of Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s 1843 story “The Birthmark“:

In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.

Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral. One day, very soon after their marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife with a trouble in his countenance that grew stronger until he spoke.

“Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?”

Peruse Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches for more of his short fiction. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

A passage from Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing 1838 tale, “A Predicament“:

Leaning upon the arm of the gallant Pompey, and attended at a respectable distance by Diana, I proceeded down one of the populous and very pleasant streets of the now deserted Edina. On a sudden, there presented itself to view a church—a Gothic cathedral—vast, venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky. What madness now possessed me? Why did I rush upon my fate? I was seized with an uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and then survey the immense extent of the city. The door of the cathedral stood invitingly open. My destiny prevailed. I entered the ominous archway. Where then was my guardian angel?—if indeed such angels there be. If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there involved in thy two letters! I entered the ominous archway! I entered; and, without injury to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.

Keep reading here. Peruse Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The New Republic returns to publishing fiction with a new story from Nicole Krauss, “I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake.” How it begins:

Asleep in my father’s apartment, I dream that someone is at the door. It’s him—he is three, or maybe four, years old. He’s crying; I don’t know why, only that he is bitterly disappointed. I try to distract him by showing him a picture book with beautiful illustrations, in colors far brighter than those one gets in life. He glances at the book, but carries on anyway. In his eyes I see that everything has already been decided. So instead I pick him up and carry him around on my hip. It isn’t easy, but that’s how it has to be, because he’s so upset, this tiny father-child.

The latch of the front door awakens me. I’ve been living here alone for more than a week. Now, lying still, I listen to the sound of footsteps entering, and a bag being set heavily on the floor. The footsteps move away, toward the small kitchen, and I hear the creak of the cabinet open and close. The sound of water rushing from the tap. Whoever it is knows his way, so there is no one it can be.

Continue reading here, and check out Krauss’s latest novel, Great House, here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

This week’s short story marks our first foray into flash fiction.  From the opening paragraph of Ben Hoffman’s “So Much To Burn“:

My neighbor is burning his mail again. My neighbor is a postman so his mail is not the mail he receives but the mail he delivers, or the mail he should be delivering but instead is burning. We live in a duplex and I can smell the smoke, seeping through the walls. I bake a pie, which is a thing I do when the postman is burning his mail or when I miss Jane. I bake a pie but my apartment does not smell like pie. My apartment smells like burning envelopes and I am alone. I go next door. I bring the pie—in case you need a break, I tell the postman. He is thinner than last time and I am fatter. The postman says he has no time for breaks. He cannot burn his mail fast enough. Towers of mail are stacked on the counters, the coffee table, the mantle. Coupons are scattered across the floor. The fireplace crackles and churns. The postman sticks in hospital bills, report cards, appeals to alumni to give back. He says the investigators from the post office are closing in. I did not know they existed. I ask the postman if I can help. He says there is a reward for leads on the missing mail. I can turn him in if I need the cash. I do, but I won’t. I owe the postman too much. He was the one who let me know Jane was having an affair.

Continue reading here.  Hoffman’s chapbook of stories, Together, Apart, will be released in 2014. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

Today’s (very) short story is Heinrich Böll’s “The Laugher,” translated by Leila Vennewitz. How the story begins:

When someone asks me what business I am in, I am seized with embarrassment: I blush and stammer, I who am otherwise known as a man of poise. I envy people who can say: I am a bricklayer. I envy barbers, bookkeepers and writers the simplicity of their avowal, for all these professions speak for themselves and need no lengthy explanation, while I am constrained to reply to such questions: I am a laugher. An admission of this kind demands another, since I have to answer the second question: “Is that how you make your living?” truthfully with “Yes.” I actually do make a living at my laughing, and a good one too, for my laughing is—commercially speaking—much in demand. I am a good laugher, experienced, no one else laughs as well as I do, no one else has such command of the fine points of my art. For a long time, in order to avoid tiresome explanations, I called myself an actor, but my talents in the field of mime and elocution are so meager that I felt this designation to be too far from the truth: I love the truth, and the truth is: I am a laugher.

Continue reading here, and check out this collection of Böll’s stories for more. Previous SSFWs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The opening paragraph of Anton Chekhov’s 1889 story “The Bet“:

It was a dark autumn night. The old banker was walking up and down his study and remembering how, fifteen years before, he had given a party one autumn evening. There had been many clever men there, and there had been interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life. “I don’t agree with you,” said their host the banker. “I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?”

Peruse a collection of Chekhov’s short stories here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Short Story For Saturday

The opening lines of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” written in 1938:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

“Look at them,” he said. “Now is it sight or is it scent that brings them like that?”

The cot the man lay on was in the wide shade of a mimosa tree and as he looked out past the shade onto the glare of the plain there were three of the big birds squatted obscenely, while in the sky a dozen more sailed, making quick-moving shadows as they passed.

“They’ve been there since the day the truck broke down,” he said. “Today’s the first time any have lit on the ground. I watched the way they sailed very carefully at first in case I ever wanted to use them in a story. That’s funny now.” “I wish you wouldn’t,” she said.

The story also can be found in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. The Dish recently featured other short stories here, here, here, here, and here.

A Short Story For Saturday

A long excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s “The Depressed Person” (pdf), which first appeared in the January 1998 issue of Harper‘s:

The feelings of shame and inadequacy the depressed person experienced about calling members of her Support System long-distance late at night and burdening them with her clumsy attempts to describe at least the contextual texture of her emotional agony were an issue on which she and her therapist were currently doing a great deal of work in their time together.

The depressed person confessed that when whatever supportive friend she was sharing with finally confessed that she (i.e., the friend) was dreadfully sorry but there was no helping it she absolutely had to get off the telephone, and had verbally detached the depressed person’s needy fingers from her pantcuff and returned to the demands of her full, vibrant long-distance life, the depressed person always sat there listening to the empty apian drone of the dial tone feeling even more isolated and inadequate and unempathized–with than she had before she’d called. The depressed person confessed to her therapist that when she reached out long-distance to a member of her Support System she almost always imagined that she could detect, in the friend’s increasingly long silences and/or repetitions of encouraging cliches, the boredom and abstract guilt people always feel when someone is clinging to them and being a joyless burden. The depressed person confessed that she could well imagine each “friend” wincing now when the telephone rang late at night, or during the conversation looking impatiently at the clock or directing silent gestures and facial expressions communicating her boredom and frustration and helpless entrapment to all the other people in the room with her, the expressive gestures becoming more desperate and extreme as the depressed person went on and on and on.

The depressed person’s therapist’s most noticeable unconscious personal habit or tic consisted of placing the tips of all her fingers together in her lap and manipulating them idly as she listened supportively, so that her mated hands formed various enclosing shapes – e.g., cube, sphere, cone, right cylinder – and then seeming to study or contemplate them. The depressed person disliked the habit, though she was quick to admit that this was chiefly because it drew her attention to the therapist’s fingers and fingernails and caused her to compare them with her own.

The story also can be found in DFW’s collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The Dish recently featured other short stories here, here, here, and here.

A Short Story For Saturday

This weekend’s tale is Jack London’s 1908 classic, “To Build a Fire“:

The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hair-line that curved and twisted from around the spruce- covered island to the south, and that curved and twisted away into the north, where it disappeared behind another spruce-covered island. This dark hair-line was the trail–the main trail–that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.

But all this–the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all–made no impression on the man.

It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

Continue reading here.  The Dish recently featured other short stories here, here, and here.

A Short Story For Saturday

This week’s selection is the late Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites,” published in The Atlantic in 1977, when he was just 25 years old. It begins:

I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.

Continue reading here. For an overview of Pancake’s brief, troubled life and writing career, go here. Peruse his only collection of stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, here.  The Dish recently featured other short stories here and here.