I have to warn you that this is a devastatingly sad, rip-your-insides-out kind of story. At least, that's how it was for me. If you're not up for that, don't start reading it.
But it's an amazing story. I came across it because my daughter, who just turned six, was paging through a New Yorker I had left on the dining-room table. She pointed out a Roz Chast cartoon; I looked at it with her and then went into the kitchen. Later, she called me over to look at something else. She had started reading this story. She showed me a description, near the beginning, of kittens dressed in clothes. "Look, Mama," she said. "It's cute." It's funny how a kid can be smart enough to read passages in The New Yorker and still be young enough to be charmed by the idea of a kitten in a top hat. I agreed the description was cute, and went away again.
Later, she called me back to look at something else. "This," she said. "Look. It's sad." She was now pointing to a paragraph near the end of the story. I doubt she read all the stuff in the middle; she was probably glancing through the pages and some words near the end caught her eye. Maybe "bloody" or "bones." She likes that kind of thing, just about as much as she likes cute kittens. This was the paragraph:
Some of the beasts were losing their claws and ripping their skin as they dug into the ground. Their toes were getting bloody, but it didn’t stop them. The little fur they had left was clotted with blood, and the sand was sticking to it, and they were wiping their paws on their sides in bold, bloody, sandy streaks and continuing on. The reddish-brown streaks on their fur and their foreheads began to resemble war paint. Frantically, they scratched on, occasionally finding a beetle in the cooler parts of the soil, or a ground rat’s tunnel, or a snake hole with bones in it.I stood next to her and read it. "Yes," I said afterwards, "that is sad. Sometimes grownups like sad stories. And the people who write for this magazine are very good writers, so if they want to make something sad they can make it very, very sad. So that it haunts you." I wonder now if that was an odd thing to say to a six-year-old. But it was what occurred to me at the time.
Of course, after she was in bed, I read the whole story, from dressed-up kittens to bleeding beasts. Then I went into the kitchen and sobbed for a minute, in a way I don't often. I wonder whether it will really haunt her. I don't know what she took from it, or whether she'll remember it at all. But I will.
I'm recommending it here not just because I think it's a good story, though obviously it is, but because, in the revision exercises, I've been talking about ways in which your writing brain—the one that deals in dreams and intuition, the spirit-world and eternity—can work together, as you write, with your editing brain—the one that makes order and sense out of things, and fixes all the typos. I think this story is an incredible example of those two working together in top form. If you read it, I think you'll see what I mean. Also read the short interview in which the author discusses how she wrote it.
"Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie, from The New Yorker, 12/15/14
Elizabth McKenzie talks to Willing Davidson about writing "Savage Breast"
|Otto Schubert, Hoch die Republik, Vienna, 1928 via 50watts|