Wendell Berry: Dismemberment

Andy and Danny are the last gone. Perhaps, as they each secretly pray, they may be among the first of a time yet to come, when Port William will be renewed, again settled and flourishing. They anyhow are links between history and possibility, as they keep the old stories alive by telling them to their children.

Wendell Berry’s short story “Dismemberment”, published in 2015, to my knowledge is his most recent story. It’s included in the 2016 version of The O. Henry Prize Stories.

o henry prize

Andy Catlett is 40 years old in 1974 when his hand is cut off in a farming accident. While the incident itself is shocking, Catlett goes through many of the usual things anyone would go through with this type of life-changing injury: grief, anger, withdrawal. What I appreciate about Berry is that he makes me want to read stories about “the usual”. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of surprises in many of Berry’s stories but one doesn’t have to get surprised to consider the story to be compelling. I don’t view getting one’s hand cut off to be usual but the focus of the story is how Andy deals with it. He eventually comes around to acceptance and a realization that even though his hand is gone, his family and friends are still there:

“Between us,” says Danny Branch, “we’ve got three hands. Everybody needs at least three. Nobody ever needed more.”

And its not uncommon in Berry’s more recent stories that after he has reached back into some part of the past, he reaches forward to the present. If the present is the time of publication of this story, Andy Catlett is 81 years old (the same age as Berry, himself, at this time). This reaching across the decades gives the reader the sense that Andy kept going even without his hand.

 

 

Wendell Berry: Watch With Me

Of his short stories I’ve read so far, Wendell Berry’s “Watch With Me” is my favorite. It’s included in Berry’s collection That Distant Land. It’s set in 1916 after Thacker “Nightlife” Hample is told he can’t preach at the annual revival. Hample’s nickname “Nightlife” comes from his inability to see very well. Many of the people in town have said that he’s liable to conduct his nightlife during the day. Make of that what you will. Unfortunately, Nightlife also isn’t always in his right mind or again, as the townspeople say, his mind is “out of fix”.

Distant Land

He’s not a preacher and he comes from a family that is on the fringe of Port William’s society. It’s humorous how Berry describes the preachers that turn down Nightlife’s request:

It would have been better if the two preachers had just said all right. But they, who well knew that they knew neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Son of Man, were in fact not prepared for anything unscheduled.

Berry tends to not paint preachers and organized religion in general in the greatest of light.

As a result of his rejection, the next day, Nightlife shows up at Tol Proudfoot’s shop and takes Tol’s loaded shotgun and walks away. Concerned for Nightlife’s own safety and the safety of anyone Nightlife might encounter, Tol and a few other men from the community set out to keep an eye on Nightlife as he wanders the hills in and around his town.

These neighbors then proceed to follow Nightlife for the next day and a half or 40 pages (this isn’t a short short story). The tension builds as to how this journey might eventually end. As the traveling continues (and it’s mostly in circles), the reader realizes that these men, in their own way, consider Nightlife a part of their community even if he does live in the margins of it. They continue to watch him because deep down they care about him as much as they care about everyone else in their town.

Nightlife ultimately does wander back to Tol’s shop. The men following him are able to get the shotgun away from him.

And Nightlife preaches his sermon.

A sermon taken from Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to find the lost one. Only Nightlife touchingly tells the story from the perspective of the lost sheep instead of the shepherd:

“Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,” Nightlife said. “It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard. The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrowed with bushes and briars, a hilly and a hollery place. And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.”

The men listen and probably get more out of Nightlife’s sermon than the sermons at the revival (that’s just a guess on my part). It’s something they don’t easily forget:

Long afterward, Elton Penn asked Walter Cotman, “Did what he said make sense? I mean, did you feel for him?”

“Me?” Walter said. “Course I felt for him! The son of bitch could preach!”

 

 

Wendell Berry: A Consent

It was an angel food cake with an icing as white and light and swirly as a summer cloud. It was as white as a bride. The sight of it fairly took his breath away – it was the most delicate and wondrous thing that he had ever seen. It looked so beautiful and vulnerable there all alone among the others that he wanted to defend it with his life. It was lucky, he thought, that nobody said anything bad about it – and he just wished somebody would. He took a position in the corner in the front of the room as near the cake as he dared to be, and watched over it defensively, angry at the thought of the possibility that somebody might say something bad about it.

In Wendell Berry’s “A Consent”, readers encounter the earliest appearance of Ptolemy Proudfoot (known as Tol to most) when he manages enough nerve to go to the local school’s Harvest Festival where Miss Minnie, his future wife, teaches. He shells out a lot of money for a local farmer in 1908 in order to win Miss Minnie’s angel food cake at a baked good auction. He then asks Miss Minnie if he could see her home. She says “yes”.

Distant Land

A certain quaintness does exist in this story but I felt like it stopped just short of being hokey. The above quotation gave Tol a sweetness and a warmth of heart without crossing the line into sentimentality.

Tol and Miss Minnie provide some comic relief to the stories of Port William that are set in the very beginning of the twentieth century. And speaking of comic relief, in this story, a young Burley Coulter recites a poem at the Harvest Festival. It’s James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin'” and the back and forth between Burley and Miss Minnie as Burley struggles to remember the lines is one of the highlights.

“A Consent” is found in Wendell Berry’s collection That Distant Land.

 

Wendell Berry: Fly Away, Breath

And Andy, a hundred years later, can hear their laughter. He hears also the silence in which they laugh: the ancient silence filling the dark river valley on that night, uninterrupted in his imagination still by the noise of engines, the great quiet into which they all have gone.

Wendell Berry’s short story “Fly Away, Breath” is set in 1907 while Maxie Dawe is on her death bed surrounded by her granddaughters. In her troubled breathing, she suddenly lets out a “Hoo!” which I took to sound something like an owl. At first, taken by surprise, her granddaughters attempt to suppress laughter but eventually they all end up laughing until it hurts while their grandmother goes back to struggling to breath.

That’s basically the story. In the Rabbit Room podcast I listened to, they refer to this story as a “moment”. Just like in “The Girl in the Window”, Rebecca Dawe’s “moment” comes when she stares down a soldier.

place time

Berry gives some background into Maxie’s life by letting the reader know she lost a son during the Civil War, her husband died after the war, and she ran her farm by herself. Born in 1814, she has lived a long 93 years. On her deathbed, she isn’t conscious enough to react to her granddaughters’ laughter but I had to ask myself the question: If she had been able to react to the laughter, would she have been horrified or would she have laughed along with them? In my mind, I’m thinking it would be the latter; however, I’m not sure there is actual evidence in the story to support which one.

It’s also interesting to note that Rebecca Dawe is Maxie’s daughter; however, she is not in the room with the granddaughters of which one is Margaret Feltner, Rebecca’s daughter. Rebecca would still be alive during 1907 since she is in the story (as Rebecca Finley) “Pray Without Ceasing” set in 1912. Given that this story is simply a “moment”, maybe Rebecca simply has had to step out. Or maybe I’m getting too detailed with Wendell Berry’s history. But while I’m getting this detailed, I might as well mention that Maxie is Andy Catlett’s great-great grandmother.

Wendell Berry: The Girl in the Window

Relieved, she now looked only at the line of riders as one by one they straggled by. Their horses were fairly fit and of fairly good stock. The men in general rode them well enough, with an evident sense of their power, even maybe of pomp, and yet still she felt their strangeness, the strangeness of their ability now, in their bunch, to do as they pleased. They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody to pursue.

It looks like 2019 is turning into “A Year With Wendell Berry”. I hadn’t planned this but I happened upon a podcast that is discussing Wendell Berry’s fiction (short stories and novels) in chronological order of when they are set – which is significantly different from chronological order of when they were written. My guess is that they won’t get through all of them in 2019 but for now I’m catching up with them and then I plan to follow along with them. Check it out yourself, if you would like, at The Rabbit Room podcasts.

place time

Of all Berry’s stories about Port William, Kentucky, “The Girl in the Window” reaches back the farthest to 1864. Sitting close to the Ohio River but on the Kentucky side, Port William is in an odd position during the American Civil War. I find it fascinating the way 16 year-old Rebecca Dawe sees soldiers coming through town sometimes in “bunches” of gray and sometimes in “bunches” of blue. Port William is not immune to the strife, divisiveness and violence found in many parts of the country during this time. Rebecca goes over in her mind some of the events occurring during these years including the death of her brother Galen. Ultimately, both sides of the war feed off of the Port William residents to the point that they see both sides as equally dangerous.

The focal point comes at the end of the story when Rebecca looks out of a window at a line of soldiers. When one of them sees her, she refuses to stop looking at him. Instead of recoiling in fear, she holds her ground with courage as the soldier makes an offensive comment to her.

It seems a small occurrence compared to other happenings in Port William during the war but Berry sets the event on the same level as the more typical battles and conflicts. He puts a hidden strength in Rebecca’s refusal to turn away.

And to put this in perspective, Rebecca Dawe is the great grandmother of Andy Catlett, who most Berry fans and experts consider to be a fictional version of Berry, himself. Andy becomes the memory keeper of Port William, a position he inherits from his grandparents Mat and Margaret Feltner – Margaret being the daughter of Rebecca Dawe.

The story gives an interesting aside as to what Rebecca’s future holds:

She would not be wedded, she could hardly bear to be looked at, by the young men of her own place, every one of whom seemed to her to bear the taint of what she called ever after “that awfulness.” She married instead an Irish immigrant who, to escape the bunch-violence that ruled his own land, had come to America and, hearing that a “shoe cobbler” was needed, finally to Port William.

I’m hoping this Irish immigrant makes it in to more of Berry’s stories.

 

Wendell Berry: Pray Without Ceasing (A Short Story Easter Extra)

Wendell Berry tells his short story “Pray Without Ceasing” in varying levels of time. The “present” is technically Andy Catlett as an older man, a grandfather himself, thinking about his own grandfather, Mat Feltner.  Andy then thinks back to when he was about thirty years old and his grandfather was dying. In finding an old newspaper, the thirty year-old Andy visits his grandfather and asks his grandmother, Margaret, to tell him what happened on a July day in 1912 (the date of the newspaper) when Thad Coulter shot and killed his best friend, Ben Feltner – Mat’s father and Andy’s great-grandfather.

Distant Land

Berry also skillfully lets the reader know about the shooting right up front. As he tells the story through Margaret Feltner to Andy, he lets it spiral in to the actual shooting then spiral out from the event with the aftermath, consequences and ultimate redemption. These spirals take the form of numerous points of view but they do so in a manner that is still fitting for Margaret Feltner to talk about. Her home is a small town. She’s talked a lot to her friends, neighbors and family over the years. It makes sense that she would know as much as she does.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of Margaret’s story revolves around Martha Elizabeth, Thad Coulter’s daughter who continues to love her father in the face of his crime:

She loved him, minute by minute, not only as he had been but as he had become. It was a wonderful and fearful thing to him that he had caused such a love for himself to come in to the world and then failed it. He could not have bowed low enough before it and remained above ground.

And Margaret’s further insight into this relationship as told to her grandson might sum up the whole story:

“People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it is terrible, in a way. Think of all it includes. It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterwards.”

“Pray Without Ceasing” is included in Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories That Distant Land.

Wendell Berry: The Inheritors (A Birthday Short Story Extra)

There came a time in Wheeler Catlett’s old age when the darkness that surrounds all our life in this world began to close in on him. Slowly, as the cloud drew in, it hid the things he knew, until at last we could not tell by any sign he gave that he knew who he was.

It’s my birthday, today, so in celebration, I’m continuing to read Wendell Berry stories and I enjoyed “The Inheritors” very much. It takes place in 1986 and Wheeler Catlett is old – probably elderly. While I’m not quite as old as Wheeler is, each year I get a little closer to elderly – so this story was kind of fun in that regard in spite of the melancholy words I quoted above. Most of the story takes place prior to the situation in these opening lines.

Distant Land

I think the title refers to Wheeler and Danny Branch who take a road trip to Louisville to sell Wheeler’s cattle. They reminisce – well, mostly Wheeler reminisces – about the way things used to be and discuss all the changes that have taken place in farming. Though Danny isn’t necessarily old, he and his wife, Lyda, have continued with the older traditions with which they grew up as opposed to changing their ways like many others have. He doesn’t use a lot of machinery for his farming and most of what they eat, they’ve grown themselves. Since many from the old ways are dead, one could say that Wheeler and Danny, mostly Danny, are the inheritors of these old ways.

The story takes a humorous turn (quite literally) when Wheeler insists on driving home. Wheeler takes the long way and many times the wrong way as Danny at one point realizes he doesn’t have any choice for the next hour but to be a “man of faith” as he lets Wheeler move on down the interstate in the wrong direction:

But there were days all his life when he found the world, though everywhere touched by sadness, to be boundlessly amusing and interesting. This was one of those days. As days went, it wad a good one, and Danny knew it.

Wheeler was again in his level mood, evidently enjoying himself, driving along as if the wrong side of the interstate was simply one of the ways to go home.