by Jill Kronstadt
In Greek myth, the father Daedalus watches his son Icarus plummet to his death on wings Daedalus has fashioned out of feathers and wax, which melt when Icarus soars too close to the sun. The tale, meant to warn against hubris, exalts the adult’s prudence over the child’s fecklessness. But who would not want to trade human limitations for the seductive embrace of the sun and sky? And when sun and sky deliver a fatal punishment instead of the exhilaration of flight, who would not feel outrage?
This distinctly youthful outrage—directed, foremost, towards the intransigence of death and loss—permeates L. Annette Binder’s debut story collection, Rise. As a child, Binder read German fairy tales in their unforgiving original versions, and she has populated the stories in Rise with some of their elements: supernatural and fantastic punishments visited on ordinary people, for one; neglected and traumatized children, for another. As in fairy tales, unwelcome circumstances (whether as common as grief, or as singular as gigantism) shatter the characters’ sense of safety and order. Binder shows us these characters at various stages in their struggle to accept the basic and immutable truths in their lives, giving the stories a coming-of-age quality that transcends the chronological age of the protagonists.
Rise, published last summer by Sarabande when Binder was 45, after winning the 2011 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, is a slender volume of fourteen stories analogous to Binder’s own battered copy of childhood fairy tales, whose innocent-looking yellow cover (according to Binder’s description) belies the blood-tinged calamities within the pages. Rise portrays the nuances of intimate relationships amid the trappings of domesticity in the Colorado suburbs, but the characters are also prone to mythic punishments via supernatural powers and astonishing mutations. All of them have been touched by death—arbitrary or anticipated, cruel or accidental, recent or distant—leaving them to stumble in no particular direction through lives contorted by absence. The bonds between them, though, act as a compass that guides them back to safety and humanity.
Born in Germany to German parents and brought up in Colorado, Binder studied classics as an undergraduate at Harvard, and then went on to earn an M.A. from Berkeley and a J.D. from Harvard Law School before graduating from the M.F.A. program at University of California, Irvine. “Early on in my legal career,” Binder says, “I worked on some criminal cases, and they only reinforced what I already suspected—even the most ordinary-seeming people are pretty peculiar.”
Though this observation certainly echoes through Rise, the converse is also true: even the most peculiar-seeming characters are pretty ordinary, which is to say poignantly human. The opening piece, “Nephilim,” introduces Freda, a girl who starts out tall at birth, becomes excruciatingly tall in adolescence, and continues growing into old age until her height literally cripples her; but not before her story produces the delightful image of Freda at thirty-seven, standing on the lawn to clean the upstairs windows. A doctor attributes her gigantism to a pituitary tumor, but Freda nevertheless recognizes herself (and the reader in turn recognizes Freda) in the description of nephilim, “the children of fallen angels and ordinary women” who grew 450 feet tall, and became so hungry that they devoured fields, forests, and finally human babies. Yet the story’s primary power stems not from its exuberant images but from a delicate portrayal of the love between Freda (whose parents by now are dead) and Teddy Fitz, a half-starved and inadequately clothed boy from a troubled family with whom she exchanges kindnesses. Ultimately Freda, ashamed of how gigantism has deformed her, turns away from Teddy’s gaze: “He would have taken her hand and knelt down to greet her, but she stayed in her spot by the window. His face was like a mirror, and it was better not to look.”
Raymond, a young boy afflicted with supernatural powers in “Halo,” sees dark shadows over the heads of people about to die, a trait he has inherited from his grandmother but which they both keep secret. Alone in this knowledge that assails him in hospitals and shoe stores, terrified that he will see a halo over his pilot father, he finally confesses his visions to his grandmother. She responds matter-of-factly, “We don’t talk about those…They’re traveling, and we leave them alone.” To blunt the trauma of foreknowledge, he develops counting rituals so disruptive that his mother sends him to a therapist whom he adores but still doesn’t trust with his secret. By the end of the story, Raymond knows that warning of danger can neither protect the traveler nor bring comfort to the living, and that everyone—friends, neighbors, strangers, sons and fathers, mothers and daughters—will become travelers themselves. The solace he receives from his grandmother and therapist is inadequate and fleeting, and, like Teddy’s kindness, it wounds as deeply as it comforts.
In her essay “The Wolf: Literature’s Symbol of Evil,” Binder writes of her favorite nursery rhyme as a child, “Hoppe Hoppe Reiter,” in which a rider falls off a horse and survives a long litany of disasters that includes breaking both legs, being eaten by ravens, hedge snails and flies, and being buried so deeply in snow that he forgets everyone he loves. Part of what made being frightened so thrilling, she explains, was experiencing the rider’s torment while in the warmth and comfort of her parents’ arms:
And the best part was that I became the rider when my parents said the rhyme. They dropped me low when he fell down. They tickled me when he got bitten. My father in particular relished the rider’s misfortunes. The world is full with shadows, he seemed to say, and in the shadows there are witches sometimes and there are wolves. You are four, you are five. You might fall down and the ravens will eat you, but I’m here and we’re together and I wasn’t afraid of these things. They made perfect sense.
Binder also cites Bruno Bettelheim’s hypothesis that dark fairy tales serve as a crucial outlet for childhood fears. She goes on to recount a fable about a mother who warns her seven children against letting a wolf inside the house, but the wolf tricks the children and devours six of them. This gruesome fable, which culminates in a mother scissoring her bloodied babies out of a sleeping wolf’s belly and then sewing rocks inside so that he drowns in a deep well, serves to illustrate Binder’s point that the mercilessness of the wolf is key to the catharsis experienced by the reader: “Defang the wolf from the start and the story loses all its power.” In Binder’s words:
The gist of it is this: The wolf will wait until your parents are away. He is out there watching and he is relentless and he will try to find his way inside. If you let him in, he will eat you. And if you survive his visit, it will only be through cunning or dumb luck.
In this cosmology, the wolf archetype embodies the shapeless fear of what lies beyond parental protection, and the fiercer the wolf, the greater the reassurance when the wolf is defeated.
In the reader’s guide for Rise, Binder says that the stories “ordered themselves into an emotional arc of sorts – from denial to anger to acceptance.” In the first several stories, accordingly, the protagonists turn away from comfort and refuse to embrace the version of themselves the wolf has left behind. In “Galatea,” for example, a mother, Carol, lets go of her four year-old daughter’s hand to deal with a leaky pen in her purse and discovers the girl has disappeared when she looks up again; she copes with the loss first by scrubbing her hands until they bleed, and later by stealing from her employer to pay for dozens of plastic surgeries, including one to her hand that goes badly wrong. Carol rebuffs her ex-husband’s and mother’s concern, always covered up with sunglasses or bandages, every body part altered, until at the end of the story her swollen, bloodless hands keep her from touching or being touched.
In the title story, “Rise,” a businessman, Ethan, causes a traffic accident that accidentally kills a young girl when he changes lanes while checking his cell phone. Unable to shake his exsanguinating guilt, he sleeps so deeply he cannot be awakened, dreaming of his dead father and the dead girl in a warm city that smells of cinnamon and salt, where each night he is reunited with a dream-woman who may or may not be real. Unlike Carol, however, Ethan hovers between the desire for sleep (or perhaps its metaphorical cousin, suicide) and acute awareness of his wife Ruby’s love: “Only you can save yourself, Ruby always said, but she was wrong. She saved him every day. She saved him by singing in that lousy voice and by opening the blinds.” The last lines of the story show Ethan in a sort of equilibrium, floating above the city in his dream, with Ruby’s words the anchor that keeps him from drifting away.
In “Dead Languages,” the collection’s only story in which a physical death is not mentioned, a mother, Holly, gives birth to a son, Nicholas, with eyes that are “dark without end” and who, when he finally speaks, produces only ancient Greek and other languages that have not been heard for thousands of years. (According to her website, L. Annette Binder is at work on a novel based on this short story.) Because Holly cannot communicate verbally with Nicholas, he is as inaccessible as Carol’s abducted daughter or the young girl Ethan has accidentally killed, and yet Holly’s devotion strains backward through the centuries, tirelessly searching for a way to penetrate the ancient world Nicholas inhabits.
Even when death and grief are at their most crippling, small human acts of compassion and mercy counter the ruthlessness of the metaphorical wolf. In some of the stories the wolf wins; in others, the characters triumph. It’s hard to read these stories without an appreciation for how carefully Binder sustains that precarious balance she felt as a child sitting on her father’s knee— terrified by the story of the rider’s ordeals and the sensation of falling backward toward the floor, while at the same time enfolded in the certainty of love. Menace and safety flap and glide, rise and plummet, like the twin wings of a single bird.
Mason, in “Wrecking Ball,” is a prickly boy who designs explosives to express rage at his father’s sudden death and his mother’s emotional absence. His attunement to the moment just before detonation is as profound as Raymond’s visions of haloes:
The wind had stopped blowing and the stars were out, and Mason felt it before it happened. He felt it through the stillness and the beating of his heart. The flame was coming to the powder. It was quiet in the street. Peaceful how it must have been right before the stars were born. He held out his arms the way conductors do…He saw only how beautiful things were.
His mother tries but fails to reach him. “‘You were trying to tell me something,’ she said. ‘I should have listened more.’ She smiled a little, but her face was serious the way it used to be in church. She hugged him, and he pulled away and that was how it went.” Mason turns instead to a teacher and rocketry enthusiast who acts as a father figure but then attempts to seduce him, and the story ends in a flare of revenge.
In other stories, however, human gestures nudge the wolf aside. In the luminous “Sea of Tranquility,” a bored mattress salesman gradually becomes so farsighted that he is effectively blind to all but the most distant images. Sitting beside his pregnant wife, Marci, he describes what he sees on the surface of the moon with awe reminiscent of Mason’s reverence for explosives:
He latticed his fingers into hers. He told her about the lake on the right side of the moon and how it was shaped like a maple leaf. That was where the astronauts had landed the year that he was born. They’d left their bootprints in that gray powder…The canyons in every direction and the pitted plains and the trails that wound between the rocks like mining roads in the desert. Look how beautiful it is, he wanted to tell her. Somebody made these things. Nothing here is accidental.
Sightless for his son’s birth, he (the character is never named) worries about not being able to tell his own baby from others and doesn’t help with childcare—“He just sat there like a train passenger and looked outside his window”—able to see his dead father’s eyes (implying he can see to heaven, or at least a mirage of it) but not his own child’s face.
Finally, Marci leaves him on a bluff, promising a surprise before she drives two hours with their son until they are far enough away for him to see clearly:
He saw [the car] before she called…She wore a knit hat he hadn’t seen before. She frowned right at him as if she could see him sitting in his chair.
She opened the back door and bent down by the car seat. When she turned around she had their boy cradled against her shoulder. He was bundled up in a yellow parka like the Stay Puft man. She took off his cap and set it in her coat pocket. His fists were clenched against the cold. His hair was pale as corn silk. The January sun was shining but it threw off no warmth and she was holding up their boy. She raised him like a banner.
Binder works this trick again and again in Rise—through Holly’s fierce protectiveness of her dead language-speaking son, the butterscotch candies Ethan’s wife Ruby tucks into his luggage, the jelly jar of flowers Teddy leaves for Freda. Ultimately, these gestures of shared humanity elevate the collection and comprise its most enduring images.
Binder has invited the wolf to preside over these characters, and whether he appears in the guise of inevitable loss, nebulous dread, or fabulist distortions of body and spirit, his presence brings with it the sometimes-terrifying mystery Binder describes in the folk tales she read as a child. To read Rise is to visit a place where the dead go to be transformed into stories, and where, looking into the many faces of grief, we all become children.
Jill Kronstadt is an associate professor at Montgomery College in Germantown, MD and an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine. Her work has appeared in New South, Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Every Day Fiction, The Northern Virginia Review, and Ink Well Mag. She was a 2011 finalist and 2012 honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and Very Short Fiction awards, respectively. She has a blog at www.virtualpaperballs.wordpress.com.
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