‘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.

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book: The Use of Symbols and Legends

There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham is a story from Periphery 55 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.

            I have always had a soft spot for surreal or absurd stories.  I think they are able to capture a mythic quality that is meant to be thought on: meant to be savored.  These stories do a really good job of creating symbols and themes overtly, showing them immediately in the foreground to force readers to think on them.  There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book by Lucius Pham does just that.  Images of towers of books and bodies tumbling from them are effortlessly evocative, and inherently deeply symbolic.  The story is reminiscent of legends and tall tales, where a lesson or warning is lurking behind the story and symbols.  How then, does There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book achieve this mythic quality? 

            The most notable way that There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book strives towards a mythic quality is the lack of defined sentences.  Despite the many commas and quotation marks, there are three periods in the entire story.  The lack of differentiation between sentences just begs for this story to be read aloud.  The passage that sold me on it was this one:

I am mesmerized by it’s handwritten lettering

Entranced by it’s hypnotic text

Studying each line, singing every word in my heart

There is something about this book

Time passes and I check my timepiece

The books topple behind me as I get up to leave

It is a genius stroke of using prose to mirror narrative.  Each incomplete phrase leaves the reader hanging, waiting for the next one to fully understand what is going on, stringing the reader along word to word, phrase to phrase.  Then the narrative shifts suddenly, describing the books piling up around the protagonist, mirroring how time rapidly passes for the protagonist.  The stark shift surprises the reader just as it surprises the protagonist.  The wonderful metanarrative of the story of a young person becoming consumed with stories is perfectly shown through how easily readers become hooked with these sentence fragments.  The mythic quality comes from allowing the reader to feel the same interest that consumed the protagonist.  It makes them wonder if there is danger lurking within handwritten lettering or hypnotic text. 

            The use of symbolic imagery is key to There is a Man on a Tall Bench Reading a Book is key to the mythic quality.  There is something inherently evocative about a throne of books.  Ideas of knowledge, and enlightenment spring forth from the books, while power and regality are associated with the throne.  The man atop that tower of books brings to mind monks on top of mountains or hidden away in remote vistas safeguarding knowledge.  Everything that happens to them begs to be analyzed on a symbolic level.  What does it mean that the tower of books stands only a short while after the man dies?  What is significant about the height of the towers?  Whether or not Pham meant anything by these details, the symbolic nature of the images assigns meaning to them, and makes readers stop and think on it, just as they are meant to think on legends or myths. 

            Finally the cyclical nature of the story not only mirrors the structure of legends, but gives readers direct access to it.  It makes the tower of books seem like a perpetual entity.  Something that always has been, and will be.  Moreover, the failure to name characters allows the reader to insert themselves directly into the story, as if they too, might stumble upon a tower of books.  From there it is up to the reader to wonder if that is something to be celebrated, or feared.  Either way the story is meant to be thought upon, and it is a goal effortlessly achieved.