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We moved away that year and so we never went to another family reunion. And I never went to the Fork again. It burned down that fall. They said that Cousin Tom set it on fire, roaming around at night, with a lighted lamp in his hand. That was after he and Cousin Eleanor got divorced. I heard that they both got married again but I never knew who it was they married. I hardly ever think of them anymore. If I do, they are still there in that house. The mockingbird has just stopped singing. Cousin Eleanor, in her long white dress, is walking over to the window, where, on moonlight nights, we used to sit, to watch the water glint on the rocks…But Cousin Tom is still lying there on the floor…
Caroline Gordon’s 1947 short story “The Petrified Woman” is chock full of Americana with a hint of underlying darkness. Sally, the narrator, is visiting her relative Hilda for a family reunion. While it’s never actually spelled out, I would say that both girls are pre to early teens. When another relative asks how Sally and Hilda are related, the response is “in about eight different ways”.
The fact that almost everyone at the reunion refers to each other as “cousin” doesn’t do much to dispell a certain stereotype about Kentucky; however, I didn’t get the impression that Gordon was creating this reunion to poke fun of her state. It was more like this is just the way it was.
The family reunion takes place at Arthur’s Cave, the largest cave entrance in Kentucky although not as popular as Mammoth Cave. As the kids find their way with their adult Cousin Tom and their Cousin Giles Allard to a makeshift carnival, they pay money to see a dead sixteen year-old girl that has turned to stone. Cousin Giles Allard, who the rest of the family deems to be “slow”, asks why the girl’s chest is moving up and down if she is dead?
The petrified woman and the free flow of Kentucky whiskey set off the underlying darkness in the story and the tension between Cousin Tom and his wife, Cousin Eleanor. The plot is not intricate but Gordon’s characterizations of family members in addition to her descriptions of the Kentucky landscape make this just plain good story-telling.
According to this story’s introduction in Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs, “The Petrified Woman” was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories in 1948. I read this story when I selected the Nine of Hearts for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.