by Jolene McIlwain
Stories. My childhood home was filled with them. Mom’s drowned-puppy story. Dad’s ever-changing tale of his buddy jumping from a water tower, umbrella in hand, plunging into mud “up to his ankles.” “To his knees.” “His hips.” “Swallowed up in the mud.”
They told stories of work, family, tragic events. Neighbors brought their own—daily, at any given hour. Cousins spooledout yarns late at night, their tangled voices bouncing through our kitchen. I stared at their knuckles tattooed with the letters of their names. They slipped curse words into their descriptions, apologized, reworded, grinning at me. Another relative, in a brown habit, his waist cinched with a rope, murmured his tales through contemplative lips, ice-blue eyes darting. Whispered stories came by way of lip-sticked aunts, long-nailed aunts, chewing-gum aunts. Barked-out stories came by way of the constable and hard-of-hearing Mr. Riggle. They came in clouds of Lucky Strikes, cigars, nasty cologne. They came with dandelion wine, two fingers of Echo Springs, black coffee, and jugs of spring water. With banana bread, zucchinis, deer bologna, fudge.
So many voices, tones, gestures. I watched the stories as much as I listened. People acted out parts. “Stand up. Here, I’ll show you how she hit him.” My father was the most animated, clapping his hands to mimic the sound of a sucker punch, a gunshot, a car’s bumper hitting a guardrail.
Parts of stories came by way of the scanner, the CB, or the telephone, where we’d hear only one end of the dialogue. Stories weren’t linear. They were circular, elliptical, looming gaps I might fill by reading the newspaper’s obituaries and police blotter, by hiding with friends in the crape myrtle to listen in on neighbors. I’d pore over the dictionary, never able to find the hybrid-pidgin American-Italian language of Dad and his friend, Sylvio. I’d ask to have stories repeated, noting changes—embellishments, amendments, dropped sections.
Stories I read in books at school were different. They had a beginning, middle, end. Chronological order. Helpful transitions. Usually one narrator. Clear. Concise. Perfect, proper English, deprived of what I would later learn were regionalisms, idioms, colloquialisms, jargon. Back then I just thought we “talked wrong.” I’d never seen the words nebby, redd-up, gumbands, dippy eggs, berms, slippy, babushka, and baby buggy in the books I read. Coal miners, dope-heads, and housewives weren’t the narrators. Stories weren’t told in snippets.
I adored all kinds of books, but I wanted to see the types of stories I grew up on in books.
In college, I’d learn about story acquisition, theory of mind, and how my family and friends may have been some of my best teachers. Feminist theorists offered arguments about these ways of storytellingand inferred that they were legitimate. I was overwhelmed with relief that all kinds of stories could be seen as valid, meaningful, and respected.
Vignettes: I read Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Multiple POVs: I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Stories with gaps, intended ambiguity: I read everything by Jeannette Winterson. Same stories told again and again, refined, amended, reconsidered: I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Wallace’s Big Fish. Part real/part magical: I read all of Morrison’s novels, Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate, Stephen Fry’s Making History. Slang, hybrid language, hybrid communities, sayings: I read Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich. I was gathering a list of authors who told stories about the same people, the same afflictions, and the same predicaments as my neighbors had told at our kitchen table. Silko’s Ceremony,Strout’s Olive Kitterage, Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Haruf’s Plainsong. Breece D’J Pancake. Bonnie Jo Campbell. Jo Ann Beard. Pinckney Benedict.
I found authors who used the same curse-words, loanwords, cadences, phonology, the same authority of story told loudly, quietly, quickly, slowly, with gaps, tangents.
I read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kidwhich led me Julie Jung’s Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. I researched everything I could in order to understand the ways stories came into my childhood home and to discover the authors who were experimenting with language and form.
And I finally gave myself permission to write the kinds of stories I’d inherited because I finally had the theory and language for the tools both my childhood storytellers and classic and contemporary authors employed. Repetition, recurring motifs, specific verbs, alliteration, scope of story, flash-forwards, backstory, character names, concrete imagery, placement of the surprising word, targeting audience, meter, tone, resonance, mood, pacing, narrative distance, and perhaps the most crucial decision in storytelling: point of view. I am slowly knitting these craft strategies and revelations together and gaining a better understanding of what I’d sensed so long ago: the teller is just as important as the telling and there is no one “right” way to tell a story.
No one could offer up a hunting or fishing story, a well-witching or ditch-digging story, as well as the archers, anglers, witchers, and excavators themselves. They knew the jargon; they spun words that intrigued me most. I was drawn into their discourse communities by their exclusive language and their odd ways of telling. In this vein, I wrote “Seed to Full,” a piece in which a sawyer can tell his story of grief only through his work with wood. Another is “Handful of Throttle” where the sounds of motocross, the slang of that sport, work together to show the narrator’s awe.
I’ve had the treat of hearing someone attempt to tell a story and fall short. Not the right perspective. Not the right sound. And I’ve watched them revise as they continued or by the time they told it next. I’ve had the luxury of experiencing stories that were told in surprising and unconventional styles, without rules. Sylvio could get absorbed in backstory. That chewing-gum aunt would sideline—whispering helpful footnotes as the storyteller spoke. Sometimes it took a whole neighborhood to tell a story over a series of days. No wonder I’d love Saunders’s recently published Lincoln in the Bardo, where it takes a whole graveyard, and more, to tell a tale.
Since his stroke a decade ago, Dad can no longer move around our kitchen to tell his stories. He’s lost track of time. Chronology is suddenly unimportant. Gone is his deep baritone story-telling voice. He can’t clap. He can still talk but some days a whole story is pared down to a phrase. A word. “Umbrella.” We help him by filling in, or not.
I recognize the presence of story in the absence of his old story-telling ways. I am, again, inspired.
Seed to Full
After you’ve felled the tree and dragged it from the site and hauled it to the mill, one of the first things you do is scale it, measure to find out how many board-foot it can yield.
Always measure the small end.
According to the Vermont Log Rule, a log with a diameter of 11 inches cut into a nine-foot length offers up about forty-five board-feet. One that’s 36 inches in diameter, same length, should yield 486 board-feet.
Then you have to grade it.
Check for knots and branch stubs, seams with ingrown bark, ring shake, gum spots in black cherry.
I’ve started to teach our daughter, Myra, how to grade and scale and she’s shown promise. She has a head for numbers, for recall.
We’ve had this business for thirty-five years. My father sought out permission from the Bishop to start up before I was born, and he’s been milling every season since. Now I’m sawyer and he’s more known for his work as a hammer man or sawsmith, fixing our saws and those of nearby mills, Amish and English.
Myra’s interest lies more in his job. By the time she was four, she knew the difference between a cross-peen, twistface, and a doghead. She knew how to measure blade tension and dishing when she was only eight. It comes natural to her. To right things. She doesn’t even flinch when he pounds out the saws.
Then there’s the saw kerf, the width of cut made by the saw. That loss has to be factored in, too.
I can tell you exactly what each cut will do. I can tell you what type of cut is best for each kind of job: quarter sawn, rift sawn, flat sawn. I can tell you the type of wood or how wet it is by the sound it makes when it meets the blade.
What I can’t tell you is how much my wife Hannah’s been hurt by how I’ve cut her or how wide the kerf is that I’ve laid upon her heart.
When you marry, scripture says you are joined together, but in truth, to do that you have to be cut away from your family, you cut away from yourself. These cuts are necessary.
But I’ve done more than that.
I’ve given her another seed that wouldn’t grow.
My wife Hannah’s like a quarter-sawn board, the kind that’s best for flooring or treads on stairs—it’s stable, doesn’t easily produce slivers or warp or cup, like flat-sawn wood. Flat-sawn’s best only for visual appeal, like my eldest brother’s wife. Rift-sawn’s the worst cut of all, like my mother-in-law.
That’s why it was so hard to take when Hannah slammed the screen door on me after I showed her the casket. I’d built it straight and true from wood I’d myself sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until my hands were raw.
“Too small,” she whispered. Only that.
But little Daniel fit into it easily, despite the thick blanket she’d wrapped him in. Perhaps she thought her love for him might somehow expand his small body, might help him to continue his growth, even underground.
“It’s 31 ½ x 13 ¼ x 11 inches,” I said, as if to convince her.
Myra stood at my side. Hannah just stared at us and shook her head, back and forth and back, again and again.
I used poplar, known for its straight-grain, uniformity of texture, its light weight—though that never mattered, for when I carried what I’d made to the grave, my boy inside my box, I could barely find strength.
I thought Hannah would be pleased.
She’d been the one to find the small stand of poplars near Sidle Creek. She used to go there and lie on the ground beside the creek, the swell of our son part of her silhouette, and twirl their tulip-shaped leaves round her second finger and search the tops of the trees to spot their blossoms.
But she didn’t even touch the box. Turned her head when I told her it was cherry stain I’d used.
She’d have none of it.
Originally published in The Fourth River’s Spring ‘16 issue 13. Pushcart Prize Nomination.
Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears in Prairie Schooner online, River Teeth online, The Fourth River, and elsewhere, and has been twice selected finalist in Glimmer Train‘s contests, earning an Honorable Mention and Top 25 designation. Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she’s the recipient a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grant. She’s a part-time lecturer at Duquesne and Chatham universities and associate flash fiction editor at jmww journal. She lives north of Pittsburgh with her son and husband and is working on a collection of short fiction and novel set in the hills of Western Pennsylvania’s Appalachian plateau. You can read her tweets @jolene_mcilwain.
“Angling” Pure Slush Five reprinted in in Flash Flood Journal | National Flash Fiction Day ‘16
“Seed to Full” reprint with author’s note at Flashfiction.net | July 2016
“Seed to Full” audio at The Fourth River’s “Selections” | Pushcart Nomination | February 2017