Night; a house in northern Scotland. When October gales blow in off the Atlantic, one thinks of sodden sheep huddled downwind and of oil cowboys on bucking North Sea rigs… even a large solid house like this one feels temporary tonight, like a hand cupped around a match. Flourishes of hail, like bird shot against the windows; a wuthering in the chimneys, the sound of an army of giants charging over the hilltops in the dark…
Bent double, Edo and Elizabeth creep through a stand of spindly larch and bilberry toward the pond where the geese are settling for the night. It is after four on a cold, clear afternoon, with the sun already behind the hills and a concentrated essence of leaf meal and wet earth rising headily at their footsteps – an elixir of autumn… Now from the corner of the grove, Edo and Elizabeth spy on two or three hundred geese in a crowd as thick and racuous as bathers on a city beach: preening, socializing, some pulling at sedges in the water of the murky little pond, others arriving from the sky in unraveling skeins, calling, wheeling, landing….
A tumult of wind and dogs greets them as they pull up ten minutes later to the house. Dervishes of leaves spin on the gravel … Both Elizabeth and Edo stare in surprise at the kitchen windows, where there is an unusual glow. It looks like something on fire, and for an instant Edo has the sensation of disaster – a conflagration not of this house, nothing so real, but a mirage of a burning city, a sign transplanted from a dream…
Elizabeth sees quite clearly what Nestor and his cousins have done and, with an odd sense of relief, starts to giggle. They’ve carved four pumpkins with horrible faces, put candles inside, and lined them up on the windowsills… “It’s Halloween,” she says, in a voice pitched a shade too high…[Edo] hurries inside, telling her to follow him.
Instead, Elizabeth lets the door close and lingers outside, looking at the glowing vegetable faces and feeling the cold wind shove her hair back from her forehead… she thinks of a Halloween in Dover when she was eight or nine and stood for a long time on the doorstep of her own house after her brothers and everyone else had gone inside. The two big elms leaned over the moon, and the jack-o’-lantern in the front window had a thick dribble of wax depending from its grin…She’d stood there feeling excitement and terror at the small, dark world she had created around herself simply by holding back.”
I went through a series of many years when I snatched The Best American Short Stories volumes off the New Books shelf at the library as soon as they arrived. Now, not so much. The 1993 edition came out in the midst of my Louise Erdrich jag, and since she was editor that year, I very much snagged and devoured. I was VERY struck by the short story “Winter Barley” by Andrea Lee, not so much for the plot but for the setting and the mood.
A week ago I made the very old librarian go down and retrieve 1993 for me from the basement (I offered to go down there myself, but that is where the very secret books are kept, like A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle. What? because of the lesbianism?) and I reread this story and was again transported. This story has taken the place of Mr. McFadden’s Halloween* and The Halloween Tree in my repertoire of seasonal , transporting books. So above are my favorite chunks with some visuals to go along.
This story was originally published in The New Yorker and can be read (if you are a digital subscriber) here.Or you can get the 1993 edition of The Best American Short Stories. Here is the New Yorker’s abstract:
“Elizabeth, 30, a banker from Massachusetts who is stationed in Rome, and Edo, 60, an exiled prince from an Eastern European kingdom now extinct, have an affair at his home in Scotland. They meet at Easter. Elizabeth is invited to Scotland by Edo’s gay nephew, Nestor, her neighbor in Rome. Nestor doesn’t show up, having deliberately planned to throw the two of them together. Edo regales her with anecdotes about his world travels, and challenges her with his snobbery. They become lovers, although Elizabeth does not feel that she is in love with Edo. She is bored by his interest in water fowl; he has designed his estate to attract them. At Halloween, Nestor and two aristocratic friends arrive in Scotland. They and Edo try to offend Elizabeth with bawdy songs and stories. Edo is annoyed when the young men surprise him and Elizabeth by putting jack-o’-lanterns in the windows. Elizabeth has a childhood memory of Halloween in Dover, Massachusetts. Edo recalls an experience in Persia, when two of his friends, Persian princes, surprised him in the desert, bearing falcons.”
According to Andrea Lee’s Contributor’s Note in BASS, she was inspired by a line at the end of King Lear where Lear and Cordelia plan to escape together and enjoy “an improbable idyll” of father-daughter love. Lee wanted to replicate such an idyll in a modern context and so devised a “father-daughter” love affair. Why did an image of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones just jump into my head?
Happy Halloween, everyone!
* Speaking of Rumer Godden, I have lately discovered her adult novels. (I was a huge fan of her middle grade books: Mr. McFadden’s Halloween, The Doll‘s House, The Story of Holly and Ivy, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, The Kitchen Madonna). I am now enjoying In This House of Brede about Benedictine nuns. Next on my list is Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Both of these are part of the Loyola Classics series. More on that later. Check her out at left with her cats. The website for the Rumer Godden Literary Trust is wonderful.