A White Heron, Sarah Orne Jewett (1886) #ShortStorySaturday

The Story

Eight-year old Sylvia came to her grandmother’s house in the woods a year ago to help the old woman with farm chores. She has taken to this new life very easily and now, as her grandmother says, “There ain’t a foot o’ ground she don’t know her way over, and the wild creatures counts her one o’ themselves. Squer’ls she’ll tame to come and feed right out o’ her hands, and all sorts o’ birds….

In the evenings her job is to bring home Mistress Mooly, the family cow, from the neighboring woods. The cow’s love of her freedom is often a game of hide and seek and when Sylvia finally finds her she leads the girl on a begrudging walk home. On a particularly difficult night with Mooly, it is late when they start for home. A young hunter intercepts the pair asking Sylvia for food and a place to sleep for the night. Sylvia is wary, but her grandmother welcomes him as a guest. At dinner Sylvia is an enthusiastic listener as the guest speaks of his life as an ornithologist who hunts birds for study and display. He is in this area in search of the elusive white heron he believes is in the vicinity and has promised ten dollars to whomever can lead him to it.

Sylvia is a little unnerved at this but because she knows the woods so well accompanies him the next day. Ten dollars is a fortune to her impoverished grandmother. She has seen the great bird flying above the tree tops and may know where its nest is located, though if she leads him to it, he will kill the bird.

But she is excited to see if she is right and steals away in the early morning and climbs the great pine in hopes of finding the nest. At the top she is stunned into silence as the bird lands on a branch close to her and calls to its mate in the nest Sylvia can see is nearby. In companionable silence “with murmur of the pine’s green branches in her ears,…they watched the sea and morning together.” As she climbs down the tree, she wonders how the day will go when she tells the stranger how to find his bird and the ten dollar reward given to her grandmother.

As Sylvia comes to the farmhouse the guest is ready for the day and both he and her grandmother, who discovered she was not in her bed, are waiting for her to tell them where and what she found.

Here she comes now, paler than ever, and her worn old frock is torn and tattered, and smeared with pine pitch. The grandmother and the sportsman stand in the door and question her, and the splendid moment has come to speak….He can make them rich with money; he has promised it, and they are poor now. He is so well worth making happy, and he waits to hear the story she can tell.

This is a moral dilemma no 8-year old should have to face. Sylvia loves her grandmother and knows what this money would do for her.  Yet, she came here from a city life full of fear and loneliness where she was bullied and neglected and now finds safety and peace and a life with purpose. And most importantly, an easy friendship with the animals and birds of the neighborhood, beings she has come to love, who acknowledge her as friend, who wait for her each day outside her front door. And now she must answer which is more of value, the worth of the magnificent bird’s life or money in her grandmother’s pocket. What will she do?

Notes

When the editor at the Atlantic Monthly turned down “A White Heron” Jewett writes that “her friend, Mr. [William Dean] Howells, explained to me that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more [sic], but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all….but what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn’t a very good magazine story, but I love her, and I mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book.”

And she did-right at the beginning-to great acclaim by both readers and critics alike. A critic for the Overland Monthly singled out “A White Heron” as a “tiny classic. One little episode of child-life, among birds and woods makes it up; and the secret soul of a child, the appeal of the bird to its instinctive honor and tenderness, never were interpreted with more beauty and insight.”

What to make of editors and critics, eh? Writers take note….trust your guts, stand by your work and don’t give up!

Solis Press, 2013

Title: A White Heron
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett
Publisher: Solis Press
Date: 1886
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 11

The Christmas Banquet, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1844)

Who is this impassive man? We seem to know him well, here in our city, and know nothing of him but what is credible and fortunate. Yet hither he comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton–perhaps that may solve the riddle!

 

xmasbanquetThis is one of the oddest Christmas stories I’ve come across. There is nothing warm and fuzzy, or “feel good” to lend this story any kind of familiarity of tales typical of the season. While I will say the body of the short story involves some philosophic contemplation the ending is confusing enough to leave one with the question, “what just happened?”

The premise involves a wealthy man and his last will and testament. He has bequeathed a yearly Christmas dinner at his home and has charged two stewards with care of the guests. Their task is to find the ten most miserable people in the city and invite them to spend Christmas together; their misery is proof that even on this holiest day of hope sadness, bad luck, emotional, financial and physical pain still exists.

That the pitiful group assembles in a dining room looking more fit for a funeral than a Christmas dinner is not by accident. This dinner is the deceased’s protest against those religions that find “sunshine in the world.” As such, the dining room is lit by torches and hung with dusky purple curtains and wreaths of artificial flowers like those strewn over the dead.

The main reservoir of wine was a sepulchral urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards…forgotten the fantasy of the old Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death’s-head.

Was the skeleton at skeletonthe head of this table shrouded in a black mantle the benefactor of the dinner? The narrator tells us that one of the stipulations of the testator is that he be present and permitted to sit with his guests. And if the banqueters want to lift the veil in hopes of some answer to the age old question regarding life after death, his open and staring eye sockets would make the answer clear.

Included in the decorations is a wreath. The stewards say it is designed to crown the guest with the “wofullest” story. The conversations and introductions begin and we see representatives of all those who will appear at the dinners to come. The invitees suffer from depression, chronic diseases of the heart and other organs of the body; there are hypochondriacs, and those whose disappointments in life have created obsessions of murder and treachery against their neighbor; one lamentable soul feels he was born with a message for humanity, but doesn’t have the confidence to say it; a woman with the slightest defect in her eye which so affronts her ideal of perfection that she feels compelled to hide herself away in solitude.

The last guest walks in and whatever malady he is suffering from is not apparent causing suspicion and consternation among the others. He is young, healthy, successful and looking more suited to a merrier holiday table. Some of the guests want to know why the dead founder doesn’t shake his skeleton finger at Gervayse Hastings and point him the way out. The stewards assure them of his right to be there saying only, “not a guest at the table is better entitled to his seat.”

As the years pass the Christmas dinners continue without a repeating guest–there is that much misery in the world. There is sometimes an instant after each tells their story that a momentary gleam of inner light descends upon the speaker and the physical or emotional malady ceases in some kind of understanding. But the moment is lost when one of the more cynical of the group breaks the spell in laughter or rude comment.

It is not quite true there were no repeat guests. Gervayse Hastings was invited every year. And as the decades passed and he aged physically his vitality was retained and he was still met with same response. “Has he suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then wherefore is he here?” It is true he is prosperous and in robust health with financial and personal success. But they notice a distance, a coldness that feels physical and makes them shrink from him, makes them draw back their hand extended in greeting.

Hastings is aware of this coldness of heart and how people respond. He tells them he feels nothing, that his heart is but a vapor and though from the outside people think he has everything, on the inside he is hollow. He feels no human emotion, not even toward those he should love. “Neither have I myself any real existence, but am a shadow….” At the moment of this admission the ligaments of the skeleton come apart and the bones fall away. And as the guests take their eyes from the skeleton and back to Hastings, he has ceased to live. If only he could have “imbibed one human grief” he might have been saved.

Of such persons–and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then–it is difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an attempt to comprehend them within its grasp.

And so ends this very Gothic Christmas story that feels straight out of Edgar Alan Poe!

 

My Thoughts

Last year I read Dicken’s, A Christmas Carol for the first time. This year I looked around my shelves for a Christmas story that wasn’t obvious or well-known and found this title in a collection of Hawthorne’s short stories and decided to take a look at it. I know from reading several of his novels he creates characters in turmoil, whose lives are dark and somber, though I didn’t expect those sensibilities in a Christmas story. But this one is classic dark and somber Hawthorne and I have to say it worked for me.

While the story itself is a little extreme, I do like the aspect of the story that describes the pain and suffering many people struggle with at this time of the year. They may seem like they have it all together, but in reality they are hurting as much as someone who is physically wounded. Hawthorne may have exaggerated the story to get this message across, but after close to 200 years his point is still relatable.

victorianxmas

Wishing everyone a merrier Christmas than what was experienced above!

familyxmas

 

__________________

Title: The Christmas Banquet
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penquin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1844
Pages: 20