‘The Mulberry Tree’ Part 3

            This week I am so thrilled to unveil the once-lost ending of ‘The Mulberry Tree’.  Huge thanks to the author Kara McKeever for helping me be able to show off the ending of her wonderful story.  So without further ado, here is the original ending of the story:

It was Oscar who was sent to retrieve Elliot later, when his mother was ready to drive them all home. He ascended easily up to his cousin, wrapped an arm around him and started to climb down. Elliot fought him and gripped hard at the branch, but Oscar extricated him little by little and brought him closer to the base of the tree. Near the bottom, Elliot kicked furiously. His glasses were knocked from his head and Oscar accidentally crushed them scrabbling to yank Elliot from the trunk.

On the ground they separated, breathing heavily. Elliot had clutched the tree so hard that his hands bled from being torn away.

There was no one around outside when Oscar stood by the tree the next morning. His father had dropped him off at the house on his way to work, to see if he could help his grandfather. Oscar looked at the scratches Elliot had made in the trunk, and bent over to pick up a few pieces of Elliot’s broken lenses lying near the tree’s gnarled roots. Elliot was being taken to get new glasses that day. His eyes had looked smaller without them. Yesterday he had snatched the broken rims from the ground, and Oscar saw that he was sweating and trying not to cry.

Oscar went to get the weed cutter from the shed. Between this house and his cousins’ and his own, Oscar felt like he had been cutting grass all summer. He was actually looking forward to the hot, dry spell of late July and August when the lawn almost ceased to grow, even though the dried grass pricked bare feet.

He had long been aware of the ax hanging against the dark walls of the shed, shrouded in dust-laden cobwebs. Just looking at it had brought on a delicious sort of terror when he was smaller. But today he put the weed cutter back and for the first time reached for the ax, the rusted head heavier than he expected, the long wooden handle worn smooth. For a moment he had the ridiculous thought that it must be so old it wouldn’t work. The blade didn’t look especially sharp. But it could probably still do something. He hefted it in one hand and went back outside.

The mulberry tree’s dead branches swayed slightly, though there was only the smallest whisper of a breeze. There was almost more dead in the tree than alive, Oscar thought. He approached the trunk and studied the base, then put his hand in the hollow that used to be hard to reach. The inside felt damp and dirty—in fact, it really felt rotten, diseased. Oscar brushed his hand across his jeans, gripped the handle of the rusted ax, and swung.

Oscar knew that it was only a matter of time before the sound drew someone from the house. He moved the ax as hard and quickly as he could. And then his younger cousin Megan came around the side of the house and screamed.

“Hey, Meg,” he said, turning toward her.

“What are you doing?” she asked. He could tell that just the sight of the ax—so large and rarely used, present in tales of horror even little girls had heard—scared her.

Kate appeared around the corner, following Meg’s outcry.

“What are you doing?” she repeated, but with her horror directed at the tree. She rushed over to the trunk where Oscar had pounded a crack into the wood. It had been harder than he’d expected, but he thought that if he could get far enough inside the rotting flesh would be soft.

Kate knelt and touched the tree’s new wounds tenderly.

“Are you crazy?” she said in a quavering voice. “What’s wrong with you?”

Oscar stood and glared at her with the ax in her hand.

“What’s wrong with you, Kate? It’s a tree. Stop being a baby about it, and get out of the way.”

“You’re worse than Elliot. This is stupid—this is insane. Just leave it! What’s wrong with you?”

“Move, Kate!”

“There’s no way…”

Oscar swung the ax. Kate shrieked and jerked back, but Oscar had aimed above and to her left, into a crevice where the trunk split into branches.

Megan started to cry.

The look Kate gave him made Oscar wish it hadn’t seemed like he wanted to hit her. She took the younger girl and went quickly into the house. Oscar tried to pull the ax from the tree and realized it was stuck. He left it.

“Someone thought he’d do it the hard way today,” said one of Oscar’s uncles at supper that night. “The good old-fashioned ax.” He grinned over his hamburger.

Elliot noticed that Kate was barely eating, and that she glowered at Oscar across the table. He saw Oscar mouth the words “grow up” to her before pushing back his chair and taking his plate to the sink. Elliot had seen the ax sticking out of Mrs. Mulberry that evening through his new glasses. He thought it must have struck her heart. But the fact that it had gotten stuck there meant the wood hadn’t given way. That part of her, at least, was not sick.

Elliot set his sandwich on the floor for the cat.

Later Kate went out to the front porch to sit with arms folded and stare at the firefly-filled yard. Her parents were still talking with the other adults in the kitchen. Kate wanted to go home, but she was also afraid to leave, afraid that when she got back things would have changed before she was ready. Soft lamplight from the living room window lay in a distorted square beside her. After a little while she got up and went back in the house, entering the room with its single lamp glowing in the corner and the shag green carpet cushioning the floor.

“We have to cut down Mrs. Mulberry,” Kate told her grandmother while she slept. She could feel all the bones in her grandmother’s hand.

Kate wasn’t there when it happened. She was watching the kids at home while her mother was at her grandparents’. That evening their father picked them up and took them over to the house for supper. It had been a long day for everyone and supper was very late.

The door to the living room was shut and the adults gathered the children around the kitchen table with plates of spaghetti, before sitting down at the dining room table themselves.

“Sit by me, Kate,” her cousin Patrick insisted, so she had squeezed between him and Donald, scooting her chair as close as she could and elbowing gently for room to use her fork. It was only then that she realized the sun, bright and red in the west, was cutting across her eyes, obscuring the faces in front of her. She looked up through the window and straight into the sunset.

“Uncle Jim cut the tree down today,” Patrick announced to Kate, sitting on his knees on the wooden kitchen chair and stabbing his fork into his noodles.

“And Daddy. And Uncle Pete helped when he got off work. Uncle Jim had a chainsaw.”

“You shoulda heard it, it was loud!” Donald chimed in, and then reproduced the sound to his best ability until Kate shushed him and made him sit back down.

“He cut the big trunk and it crashed into the ground,” Patrick continued, smacking one arm onto the table. “Then he cut another one and it crashed into the ground! Then Daddy made me pick up the branches.”

“I picked ‘em up, too,” added Donald, looking pleased when Kate praised him.

Elliot’s lip trembled a moment. If only he had held on tighter. If only Oscar hadn’t been stronger than him. If only Mrs. Mulberry had never started rotting. If only they had all cared more. If only Kate had helped him. He glanced at his sister’s face, the sunset brushed pale over her cheeks. He watched as she urged the boys to eat their supper, to keep their restless bottoms on the kitchen chairs as they reenacted different moments of their day, watched as she gave an approving smile to the girls eating quietly across from her, their chins only inches above the tabletop. She seemed older all of a sudden.

Oscar got up to pull the kitchen curtain over. The sun was at an obnoxious slant, filling the room with a thick, red ray that illuminated dust swimming in the air and made it hard to see; Elliot looked bug-like with his lenses reflecting it. Oscar glanced outside, irritated suddenly that with the tree gone the sun would shine in this way. Even half-dead, even rotting, the tree had been useful. And it had been his grandmother’s tree. Quite unexpectedly, Oscar found himself remembering when he had first bent to pick up a fallen mulberry and had put it in his mouth. He had been very small, as it was one of his blurriest memories, and he had been holding his grandmother’s hand. He remembered her smiling and letting him feed her one. She had looked up and thanked the tree, and she had called it Mrs. Mulberry.

Oscar gripped the edge of the sink as he stared out past the clean-cut stump at the sunset. It shone on the faces of his cousins behind him and he ached that the tree was no longer there to block its brilliance.

But that, he thought after a moment, was maybe the wrong way to look at it.

The Mulberry Tree: Navel Gazing with Purpose

            The Mulberry Tree by Kara McKeever from Periphery 47 caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it was a delightfully fresh take on the tale of growing up.  As an undergraduate literary journal, many of the stories we receive reflect that transitional time.  The balance we often grapple with is showcasing these stories because of their universality, and keeping them from being stale.  The Mulberry Tree avoids that conundrum all together by focusing not on a single character, but an entire family, and how the shifting tides of memory and tradition crash against changing times.  If that nostalgia for a place that has changed from one’s childhood isn’t universal, I don’t know what is. 

            Secondly, and most infuriating, the story doesn’t have an ending.  After exactly 2100 words, the story stops midstream claiming the rest can be found online.  Our website has undergone several changes since the nine years ago that 47 was printed and unfortunately the original ending of the story, is lost.  I am heartbroken over this.  The Mulberry Tree breaths life into that three-story farmhouse draped with cats, and my heart aches for the loss of Mrs. Mulberry just as Oscar and Kate and Elliot mourn the rotting symbol of their childhood.  So the week of the August fourth, (Next week the blog will be taking a break) I will unveil my own ending to The Mulberry Tree.  In the time before then, I would love to hear what you all think was going to happen, or if you are feeling ambitious you could write your own endings as well.  All I want to know is: what will happen to Mrs. Mulberry?!

            In the meantime, I want talk about how The Mulberry Tree uses navel gazing purposefully.  Navel gazing is defined by Merriam-Webster as “Useless or excessive self-contemplation”.  In popular culture it is often used to describe someone who is obsessed with themselves, and refused to talk about anything else.  In writing, it is a term for large breaks in the action for the narrator to ponder something or explain their feelings.  Navel gazing is generally criticized for breaking the pacing of a scene, and jarring readers at both ends of the break in a story.  If a reader can understand a scene, and how a character feels in that scene without internal comment, there shouldn’t be any need for the author to further describe how the character feels at great length.  Of course there are exceptions to this, and The Mulberry Tree is one of them.  Take a look at this passage:

            “Mom,” said Kate, carefully stacking too many cups in the dish drainer.

            “What? Oh, I wish you kids would stop talking about this tree.” In the kitchen’s light Kate thought her mother looked almost haggard, “You shouldn’t have named it.”

            Kate turned her back to the window. She wasn’t sure whether she or Oscar had named the tree. For as long as she could remember they had called it Mrs. Mulberry. She remembered using Mrs. Mulberry as a character in make-believe games, remembering standing with her forehead pressed to the bark and her hands cupped around her eyes, being “it” for hide-and-seek, remembering building snow forts around Mrs. Mulberry’s wide trunk. Sometimes she had perched on Mrs. Mulberry’s lowest branch and waved to her grandmother working in the kitchen. Sometimes her grandmother had brought out an old blanket and let them have picnics—crackers and grapes, sugar cookies and orange soda—under the tree. She remembered being proud when she could climb as high as Oscar into Mrs. Mulberry’s open embrace.

            Kate began to dry the dishes in the drainer with a towel, for lack of anything better to do in the hushed house.

The scene of Kate washing dishes and attempting to talk with her mother is bisected with the block of text describing some of Kate’s earliest memories with Mrs. Mulberry.  Through Kate’s memories we can see what is at stake if the tree is cut down, the audience understands what it means to her, and her inability to let go of it.  The importance of the flashback is clear, but why does it have to come in the middle of the scene?  What makes that choice significant within the story?  

            Kate is fighting to keep her childhood alive in a changing world.  The quick breaks to memories showcases how torn Kate is about letting go of her childhood.  She wants to keep building snow forts around Mrs. Mulberry’s trunk, and keep having picnics beneath her bows.  But time keeps moving on.  The reality of her situation sits juxtaposed to those memories, fighting with them.  Breaking scenes with elongated memories makes the audience sit somewhere in the middle of those two images.  They are seeing Kate wave to her grandmother from Mrs. Mulberry’s branches while also knowing that Kate is actually washing dishes and the grandmother is in a bed dying.  Breaking up these scenes puts the reader in the same liminal position that Kate finds herself. 

            Characters that navel-gaze seem out of the action, unable to deal with what is outside of their own heads.  Authors can accidentally create characters that seem unable to interact with other characters because they are bogged down with emotions and observations.  Navel gazing, however, makes sense within The Mulberry Tree because the farmhouse is an area laded with memories that are constantly being reminisced.  Every location from the porches to the inner rooms, to the lawn all hold deep meaning for the children.  That meaning comes out because of how often the children stop and remember good times with Mrs. Mulberry.  In this case, McKeever used the breaks within her story to underscore how important these memories are, and how little control the children have, both about their own nostalgia, but their current surroundings. 

            Like many aspects of writing, the medium allows for an incredible amount of variance on how to construct even a single sentence.  There are many ways to do this well, and many, many ways to do this poorly.  Doing it purposefully, however, is what separates stories like The Mulberry Tree from others.  Knowing why a single sentence was structured, or how a specific clause is used, can be an important question to ask about one’s writing.  The Mulberry Tree shows us that. 

In Loving Miriam: A Study of Spoilers

            It is not often that we get definite genre fiction here at Periphery.  While looking back through Periphery 50 I stumbled across In Loving Miriam and had to share it.  

            What I was reminded of the first time I read through Asmita Gauchan’s wonderful story was a Shakespeare class I took (Bear with me here).  The class was about the four great Shakespearean tragedies with which, at the time, I was unfamiliar.  The professor, early in the lecture, mentioned off-handedly that all of the protagonists died in the end of their respective plays.  I was shocked that the endings would be spoiled so cavalierly for those students like myself who hadn’t read the play.  Apparently I was not alone in thinking this, because the professor stopped, turned to the class and said, “It doesn’t matter that they die, that isn’t as important as the path that brings them there”

            I think about that quote now, every time someone tells me they binged through a full season of a show because they ‘just had to know’.  I wonder about that validity of my professor’s statement.  The pull of knowing what happens at the end of a story is incredibly powerful, be it who sits on the Iron Throne or what is happening in Hawkins Indiana.  No one was asking what foreshadowed those things, or how character development and agency caused it; but how come we don’t ‘just have to know’ why that character become king or queen, or what caused the incidents around Hawkins Indiana?

            I have to imagine the richness of the story, the depth of it, comes from the road to that explanation.  Once the pieces of ones world have been put back together in a post understanding revelation, why does one revisit a story? It can’t be to experience the shock again, it has to be how the story got to that shocking point. Certainly my professor was correct about Shakespeare, but what about In Loving Miriam?

            What I find so interesting about the structure of In Loving Miriam, is that despite the fact that it holds its own twists, the start of the story is the biggest: Miriam’s suicide. From her suicide note, the story works to show how Miriam came to take her own life. The story of Peter’s journey to resurrect her is mostly about what caused her to take her own life in the first place. Reading the story again, the world painted by Gauchan with it’s interactive ads, floating buses, and futuristic milkshakes all take a backseat to fleshing out these characters, to showing their relationship and it’s eventual end.  Even the title seems to take the stance that the importance of the story is not its end, but what the effects of what happens when one loves Miriam.  The story skips the shock factor in order to allow the reader immediate access to the richness of how the story came to that shocking point.

            A now (in)famous study at UC San Diego found that people tend to like stories more if they are ‘spoiled’ first.  I wonder if that is because spoiled stories allow reader to see deeper into them upon a first reading.  I think this is an incredibly interesting topic and would love to hear what you all think about spoilers and In Loving Mirriam, so drop a comment and let us know!

            Here is the link to that study for all of you skeptical readers out there

https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/spoiler-alert-spoilers-make-you-enjoy-stories-more

Periphery Blog: Giving and Taking

            Giving and Taking by Kyle Cornell is a story from Periphery 56 and can be found in the archives as well as the story of the week.  The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.  This weeks blog comes from Deanna Krikorian, a staff editor for Periphery 56 and the future Editor-in-Chief for Periphery 57. 

            Kyle Cornell’s Giving and Taking, which opens the Prose section of Periphery 56, examines the complex relationship between life and death as seen from the perspective of a dying vulture.

Giving and Taking begins with our protagonist speaking to its Young Egg, desperate in its final moments to pass along information on how the world works. What follows is the story of our protagonist’s life, the lessons they’ve learned, and the rules they stress must be followed. The rules are about “Waiting”, a crucial element in the feeding process, described by the protagonist as receiving the “Gift” of life from dying animals. These rules provide the protagonist with a distinctly human quality: they include avoiding feeding on children, remaining out of sight of the animal, and not attacking the dying animals before they’ve passed. The vultures have morals, a system of feeding based not on instinct but on respect. The rules emphasize gratitude toward the animals they feed on, admiration toward the very process of dying. “You receive a Gift, you do not take it,” the protagonist states. “It’s disrespectful”. Not only does breaking these rules lead to devastating consequences, it also goes against the humane morality of the animals, as our protagonist soon discovers.

The concern for decorum within the rules highlight one of the most interesting elements of Giving and Taking: the portrayal of survival, and the importance placed on fighting against your instincts. Survival is not an accident – it requires patience, understanding who you are and, more importantly, who you are not. Pretending to be something else, someone else, is a mistake many have made, and one the protagonist implores the young egg to avoid. The protagonist repeats this sentiment throughout the story, stating in the rules that “You are not a lion. You do not pounce.”

Despite the fact that the protagonist is not human, the tensions prominent within Giving and Taking echo elements of a Man vs Nature conflict, as well as Man vs Self. In order to maintain balance within the natural world, the protagonist must learn to resist the temptations of the “sun sounds”, the pressure both from nature as a whole and from its own natural desires. The perspective of the story is inherently animalistic, but the internal struggle combined with the maturity of the bird allows Cornell to explore an incredibly human feeling: the search for purpose in life, and the desire to understand one’s identity and place in the world.

The thought provoking morals presented within Giving and Taking are not surprising considering the tone of the piece. Giving and Taking feels reminiscent of a folk tale, a story passed down generations, a cautionary tale about finding and understanding one’s purpose. There’s a self-aware, nearly meta quality to the story, as it’s being told both to us and to the Young Egg. As a result, the voice that Cornell constructs is one that speaks directly to the readers. The vulture is passing wisdom down to its Young Egg; simultaneously, it’s passing wisdom down to the readers themselves, disguised as lessons about feeding and Waiting. The sentence structure also helps Cornell achieves this voice. Because the majority of the story is written in longer sentences, shorter sentences stand out from the rest and sound different in the minds of the readers. These sentences contribute to the vocal quality of the story as a whole, an element that sets it apart from other short fiction, both within Periphery 56 as well as in general. In the second paragraph of this piece, the protagonist warns its Young Egg before telling its story:“It will be like this”. The words call for the egg’s attention, as well as the reader’s. The line – and the story itself – is simple in its purpose: it asks the reader to listen.

Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake: A Study of Efficiency

            The short story as a conversation is a format we get a lot of at Periphery.  It is a framing device that I particularly enjoy; I find it to be a wonderful way to bring focus to a story.  That focus, however, comes with it’s own set of drawbacks.  If a story consists solely of dialogue, that dialogue has to do many things: provide background, characterization, and context, while at the same time actually tell a story.  In order to fit within the confines of a short story then, each line of dialogue has to be incredibly efficient at doing each of these tasks.  A beautiful example of that efficiency in dialogue comes from Tess Lydon’s Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake

            The introduction of Mar within the story hooked me the first time I read it.  It does a great job of avoiding of the major pitfalls of dialogue heavy stories, and is efficient at introducing characters and the context.  Take a look:

Evan: What are you doing out here?

Mar: It’s raining.

Evan: Come inside

Mar: It seems almost a little too on the nose if you ask me.  Rain on the day of a wake.  The universe is pathetic. 

Evan: Mar, please come inside. 

Mar, Forecast says it should rain harder on the day of the funeral.  It’s like the universe couldn’t resist the cliché

Evan: Everyone is looking for you

Mar: Then tell them to come onto the front porch

In a story of only dialogue it is perilously easy to slip into a single voice, where the author is talking to her or himself instead of characters having conversations.  Lydon sidesteps that pitfall by having the characters initially talk at each other rather than with.  When the characters initially attempt to talk over each other two distinct voices are able to emerge.  It takes Mar eight lines to even acknowledge what Evan is trying to tell her.  It is within those eight lines that the reader gets a deep look into both characters, and it makes both of their introductions memorable.  The reader instantly knows Mar is self-centered, ironic, and not shy about showing her feelings.  About Evan we can see that he is obedient, more pragmatic, but still cares for Mar and is used to putting up with her.  Not only do these lines efficiently characterize the two main characters, and develop two distinct voices, but also sets the scene.  It is incredibly efficient writing. 

            Again and again the efficiency of the story is impressive.  The efficiency overcomes the lack of tools usually available in prose when a story is restricted to dialogue.  The conversation between Mar and Evan is carefully crafted so that each line does an incredible amount of work.  As Mar is talking about all the ways that Aunt Deb was ignorant, she is giving context to both her and Evan’s character, and while she is ranting, Evan is trying to distract her with carbs, again informing both their characters in a different way.  I would challenge readers to find more than a handful of lines within this story that don’t serve multiple purposes.  I know I couldn’t. 

            A comparison I wanted to make here was between Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  When I recently read Gaiman’s Hugo award winning novel what surprised me most about it was how inefficient it was.  Long segments of chapters detailing characters never to be seen again popped up several times.  Page-long descriptions of places only seen once in the story before being quickly cast aside were not uncommon.  A look into how a story specifically uses inefficiency can be telling into how it can and should be used. 

            Before I go any further it is important to note that short stories by definition have to be more efficient than novels, simply due to size.  To tell a complete story in less words necessitates efficient storytelling.  It is something that Gaiman uses knowingly.  The inefficient style is used for a specific purpose, but the different formats is worth noting. 

            The inefficiency of American Gods ties into the central themes of the novel.  One of the main themes of American Gods is what happens when people forget.  What happens to the old gods when people forget about them in a modern world?  Do new gods take their place?  Where their older gods before the ‘old gods’?  Does that mean there is an endless string of newer and older gods gaining and losing worshippers?  Questions like these greatly apply themselves to inefficient storytelling.  If people worship a endless string of gods one after the other, that system relies on inefficiency: one then the next, and then the next, rather than many at one time.  That concept easily parallels Gaiman’s descriptions of places and characters quickly discarded.  A more specific example of that inefficiency is in how Gaiman uses conjunctions:

“The Lights were off, and there was silence, mostly, nothing but the hum of the refrigerator, and, somewhere in the building, a radio playing” (Gaiman 256)

I noticed early in the novel that Gaiman tends to use several conjunctions in sentences, rather than lists of commas in order to elongate sentences and lists.  The sentences become diced up into discrete clauses, all jumbled after the other.  Does that sound familiar?  It is an inefficient style all the way down to the syntax, but it is used for a specific reason. 

            Between these two stories one can see the disparate ends of efficiency within storytelling.  What initially drew me to Who’s Missing from Aunt Deb’s Wake was it’s focus.  The conversation seems monolithic alone on the page, like its message is supposed to ring out.  It is a finely tuned story where every aspect ties to itself or does many jobs.  Keeping stories tight and short is a much more reliable way to achieve that effect so finely captured by Lydon.  The beautiful exception to prove that rule is American Gods.  It shows how powerful the space can be to develop character and place at the expense of efficiency.  Gaiman uses the inefficiency knowingly and purposely; it is a wonderful example of how to break convention through the understanding of it.