My Sunday morning was spent sitting in my kitchen, feet on the barstool next to me, coffee on the counter, and finally finishing “The Dark Dark,” a book of short stories by Samantha Hunt.
Short stories haven’t always been my thing, but I find myself gravitating toward them more and more lately, recognizing them for the art form they are and not feeling wanting every time I read one. Instead I can take the story itself, the collection as a whole, as enough.
I don’t know how I found this book – it wasn’t the usual way, which is dumb luck looking through the stacks at the library and grabbing something with a cover I like or a title I like or a blurb from another author I adore. My oldest sister, Pam, told me when I was a kid to read the first page of a book to decide if I wanted to check it out – it’s advice that still stands.
But for this one, I read an excerpt in a review, and suddenly I had to have it.
“I am not simple. My body’s coursing with secret genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs, and I have no idea how. There’s nothing simple about eyeballs.”
I found the book, requested it at the library, took it out and kept it long enough to warrant a discussion with a branch manager this past weekend where I promised I was bringing it back just as soon as I write down some of the lines from it.
The quote came 179 pages in. By then, I was already in love with this author. That paragraph, though, ends with: “I’m ruled by elixirs and compounds … I am potentially explosive. Maybe I love Sam because hormones say I need a man to kill the coyotes at night, to bring my babies meat. But I don’t want caveman love. I want love that lives outside the body. I want love that lives.”
Don’t we all.
The entire book is like that, the words themselves spare and beautiful. The stories so visual I can hardly stand it. In one, a woman imagines she’s turning into a deer at night, and the writing is so good I believe her, all the way through: “I wait, and just when I think too much time has passed, that maybe it won’t happen tonight, it happens, so quickly I can’t scream.”
She goes on to explain how it happens and you feel it. You feel her face harden, the wobble in her legs as she tries to stand on the mattress, staring down at her sleeping husband, wondering how she can tell him what she becomes at night.
When all your disbelief is suspended, you know the story works.
In another one, a brother and sister watch as their mother’s horse falls through ice and into a drainage pond behind a shopping center. “She screams as much as a horse can scream.”
As I sat there, trying to finish the book before I went for a run, I had to keep pausing to reread lines. Some of them were just so musical, “The night keeps swinging, Trey to her, Trey to her.”
I love the strobing, love the imagery. The whole book is like that, the last story echoing the first, but the characters find themselves reading about themselves. None of this is my style. And yet.
Finally, I finished, with the gasp and laugh that happens to me whenever I end a book that I love. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed I just sit there, met with a “Did you read something sad” comment. I set the book down, changed clothes, tried to decide if I should do a straight road run or drive to the trails to avoid the bit of wind that had risen as the day began.
While I had been reading, I’d also been listening to Internet radio and I kept hearing this song by Spoon. I recognize I may be the last person to hear of this band, and I have no idea what kind of cool factor or wildly uncool factor they have. Like books, I pick what I like just because I like it. I decided to download the album and take it with me to Good Earth, spend an hour in the woods with music I didn’t really know on trails I know by heart.
As I ran out there, mostly alone save a dog walker or two, mostly out of the wind, and the trails half dry dirt, half covered in leaves, I was thinking about language.
The album was poppier than I expected, incongruous against the state park setting. But it didn’t matter. The music is fine – my vocabulary to talk about music is limited to my emotions about it, not the skill or technique behind it.
But maybe it was just the day – having started in words, I stayed there. It’s just poetry, really, lyrics. I let the album play as I ran the top of the park, and the song I love, “Do I Have to Talk You into It,” began as I made my way down the single track to the south loop.
“Do I have to talk you into it,” I sang out loud. “Do we have to make sense of it.” The words come spitting out in the song, on the trail. “When I’ve known you such a long time, and we never had to act polite.”
Then it just switches, more plaintive, backed in somehow, less forceful: “I wanna whisper down the tube, all the words you would never use, do I have to talk you into it.”
It’s a constant question for me: What would you say if you weren’t afraid. What words would you use? I’ve made myself use some of them, heard others use their own version. Then you extrapolate it to your entire life. Whisper down the tube all the things you would never do.
What would they be? They’d be everything.
I did the loop at the bottom twice, not ready to climb the hill again. I stopped and took a photo, ran back to the top and did all the lollipops up there. I debated going back to my car, decided to run a little out and back first. It’s a loop with a bench under a tree, and every time I do it, I see the cover of “These Happy Golden Years,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, an illustration of Laura and Almanzo, she’s holding her dress out, they love each other.
I bought my daughter the entire set of books for her 7th birthday last week, and she full-on fell over with laughing joy when she opened them, having just finished “Little House in the Big Woods” by herself the week before. I looped around the tree, thinking how happy I am that she loves to read.
That’s when I realized that’s what I would write about today – books music and words and language and running. How each one is a kind of meditation. You do them all alone, you share them with everyone you know.
The review I had read of “The Dark Dark” describes it as stories of women in metamorphosis. It is, I guess. There’s a crossroads of some sort in most of them – woman to woman, lover to lover, reality to fantasy.
And just like any writing that really resonates, what you respond to is the honesty, the vulnerability of the author, the razor-thin margin between who they are and how they write.
“I don’t want to love you because I’m scared,” the woman tells her husband in one story. “So you imagine bad things about me,” he replies. “Kick me out so you won’t have to worry about me leaving?”
The story ends with them standing in the kitchen. “We keep the door open as if there are no doors, no walls, no skin, no houses, no difference between us and all the things we think of as the night.”
No difference between us and the trail. Between us and the woods. Between us and the miles and the accumulation of them. Between us and where we want to be.
Whisper down the tube, all the words you would never use.
You don’t have to talk me into it.
Author’s note: This book will be the February choice for the Zandbroz Community Book Club, which I’ve run for more than a decade, if you’d like to join us. We meet the third Thursday of every month at 6:30. You can find us on Facebook.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.