Not to be all, “I can’t believe it’s August already,” but the passage of time has been feeling pretty off for a while now. With that in mind, I chose a poem and story today that are both, at least glancingly, concern the summer, but also contain a strong sense of the uncanny. I think the poem captures the way that August can seem like a last hurrah before disintegration and decay; the speaker suspects there’s something she’s missing, something just beyond reach, that could prevent that falling apart from happening. In the story, the complicated dynamic between vacationers and year-rounders, between the help and the homeowners, is made more unsettling by the fact that the titular summer people seem not to be people at all, but creatures with powers far beyond that of providing for those who serve them.
Mt. Snow, Vermont (Photo taken by me last summer. I resisted the urge to use a screenshot from the movie Midsommar)
It's midsummer night. The light is skinny;
a thin skirt of desire skims the earth.
Dogs bark at the musk of other dogs
and the urge to go wild.
I am lingering at the edge
of a broken heart, striking relentlessly
against the flint of hard will.
It's coming apart.
And everyone knows it.
So do squash erupting in flowers
the color of the sun.
So does the momentum of grace
in the partying mob.
The heart knows everything.
I remember when there was no urge
to cut the land or each other into pieces,
when we knew how to think
There is no world like the one surfacing.
I can smell it as I pace in my square room,
the neighbor's television
entering my house by waves of sound.
Makes me think about buying
a new car, another kind of cigarette
when I don't need another car
and I don't smoke cigarettes.
A human mind is small when thinking
of small things.
It is large when embracing the maker
of walking, thinking and flying.
If I can locate the sense beyond desire,
I will not eat or drink
until I stagger into the earth
I will locate the point of dawning
with the longest day in the world.
Who is this lady?
Joy Harjo is currently Poet Laureate of the United States and the first Native American to serve in that role. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, she was born in Tulsa in 1951. As a student at a BIA boarding school, she discovered a love of painting, and while in college began writing poetry. She’s also a musician who sings and plays saxophone, and has released four albums with her band, Poetic Justice, in addition to publishing multiple volumes of poetry, essays, and children’s literature, and receiving honors like Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. Her work is strongly informed by her spirituality, of which she said, “We are technicians here on Earth, but also co-creators… And I still say, after writing poetry for all this time, and now music, that ultimately humans have a small hand in it. We serve it. We have to put ourselves in the way of it, and get out of the way of ourselves.”
The Summer People (Excerpt)
Fran lay on the couch, thinking about what Ophelia would see. From time to time, she raised a curious sort of spyglass—something much more useful than any bawbee—to her eye. Through it she saw first the dirt track, which only seemed to dead-end. Were you to look again, you found your road crossing over the shallow crick, the one climbing the mountain, the drain running away and down. The meadow disappeared again into beds of laurel, then trees hung all over with climbing roses, so that you ascended in drifts of pink and white. A stone wall, tumbled and ruint, and then the big house. The house, dry-stack stone, stained with age like the tumbledown wall, two stories. A slate roof, a long slant porch, carved wooden shutters making all the eyes of the windows blind. Two apple trees, crabbed and old, one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black. Ophelia found the mossy path between them that wound around to the back door with two words carved over the stone lintel: BE BOLD.
And this is what Fran saw Ophelia do: having knocked on the door, Ophelia hesitated for only a moment, and then she opened it. She called out, “Hello? Fran sent me. She’s ill. Hello?” No one answered.
So Ophelia took a breath and stepped over the threshold and into a dark, crowded hallway with a room on either side and a staircase in front of her. On the flagstone in front of her were carved the words: BE BOLD, BE BOLD. Despite the invitation, Ophelia did not seem tempted to investigate either room, which Fran thought wise of her. The first test a success. You might expect that through one door would be a living room, and you might expect that through the other door would be a kitchen, but you would be wrong. One was the Queen’s Room. The other was what Fran thought of as the War Room.
Fusty stacks of magazines and catalogs and newspapers, encyclopedias and gothic novels leaned against the walls of the hall, making such a narrow alley that even lickle tiny Ophelia turned sideways to make her way. Dolls’ legs and silverware sets and tennis trophies and mason jars and empty matchboxes and false teeth and still chancier things poked out of paper bags and plastic carriers. You might expect that through the doors on either side of the hall there would be more crumbling piles and more odd jumbles, and you would be right. But there were other things, too. At the foot of the stairs was another piece of advice for guests like Ophelia, carved right into the first riser: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.
The owners of the house had been at another one of their frolics, Fran saw. Someone had woven tinsel and ivy and peacock feathers through the banisters. Someone had thumbtacked cut silhouettes and Polaroids and tintypes and magazine pictures on the wall alongside the stairs, layers upon layers upon layers; hundreds and hundreds of eyes watching each time Ophelia set her foot down carefully on the next stair.
Perhaps Ophelia didn’t trust the stairs not to be rotted through. But the stairs were safe. Someone had always taken very good care of this house.
At the top of the stairs, the carpet underfoot was soft, almost spongy. Moss, Fran decided. They’ve redecorated again. That’s going to be the devil to clean up. Here and there were white and red mushrooms in pretty rings upon the moss. More bawbees, too, waiting for someone to come along and play with them. A dinosaur, needing only to be wound up, a plastic dime-store cowboy sitting on its brass-and-copper shoulders. Up near the ceiling, two armored dirigibles, tethered to a light fixture by scarlet ribbons. The cannons on these zeppelins were in working order. They’d chased Fran down the hall more than once. Back home, she’d had to tweeze the tiny lead pellets out of her shin. Today, though, all were on their best behavior.
Ophelia passed one door, two doors, stopped at the third door. Above it, the final warning: BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD, LEST THAT THY HEART’S BLOOD RUN COLD. Ophelia put her hand on the doorknob, but didn’t try it. Not afeared, but no fool neither, Fran thought. They’ll be pleased. Or will they?
Ophelia knelt down to slide Fran’s envelope under the door. Something else happened, too: something slipped out of Ophelia’s pocket and landed on the carpet of moss.
Back down the hall, Ophelia stopped in front of the first door. She seemed to hear someone or something. Music, perhaps? A voice calling her name? An invitation? Fran’s poor, sore heart was filled with delight. They liked her! Well, of course they did. Who wouldn’t like Ophelia?
She made her way down the stairs, through the towers of clutter and junk. Back onto the porch, where she sat on the porch swing, but didn’t swing. She seemed to be keeping one eye on the house and the other on the little rock garden out back, which ran up against the mountain right quick. There was even a waterfall, and Fran hoped Ophelia appreciated it. There’d never been no such thing before. This one was all for her, all for Ophelia, who’d opined that waterfalls are freaking beautiful.
Up on the porch, Ophelia’s head jerked around, as if she were afraid someone might be sneaking up the back. But there were only carpenter bees, bringing back their satchels of gold, and a woodpecker, drilling for grubs. There was a ground pig in the rumpled grass, and the more Ophelia set and stared, the more she and Fran both saw. A pair of fox kits napping under the laurel. A doe and a fawn teasing runners of bark off young trunks. Even a brown bear, still tufty with last winter’s fur, nosing along the high ridge above the house. While Ophelia sat enspelled on the porch of that dangerous house, Fran curled inward on her couch, waves of heat pouring out of her. Her whole body shook so violently her teeth rattled. Her spyglass fell to the floor. Maybe I am dying, Fran thought, and that is why Ophelia came here.
Fran went in and out of sleep, always listening for the sound of Ophelia coming back down. Perhaps she’d made a mistake, and they wouldn’t send something to help. Perhaps they wouldn’t send Ophelia back at all. Ophelia, with her pretty singing voice, that shyness, that innate kindness. Her curly hair, silvery blond. They liked things that were shiny. They were like magpies that way. In other ways, too.
But here was Ophelia, after all, her eyes enormous, her face lit up like Christmas. “Fran,” she said. “Fran, wake up. I went there. I was bold! Who lives there, Fran?”
“The summer people,” Fran said. “Did they give you anything for me?”
—Kelly Link (Read the rest here)
Who is this lady?
A recipient in 2018 of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, Kelly Link is known for short fiction that is not easily categorizable. Of the stories in her four published collections, Link has said they operate on “night time logic.” I think they resonate at a sub-verbal level; if you can’t quite articulate their meaning, you can perhaps still grasp it in a way that lies just beneath waking consciousness. Link lives in Northampton, Mass. and is co-founder of the publisher Small Beer Books. She also recently opened the bookstore Book Moon. Here’s some good, earthly advice from her for debut writers.
Since time has melted, let’s play with pacing. Write a short-short—no longer than 500 words—that covers an entire day. Make careful choices about where you slow down and speed up the narrative’s pacing in order to contain the whole day within a relatively small amount of text.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org