This post is done in conjunction with “Short Stories on Wednesdays,” a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at Simple Clockwork. Please feel free to participate and share with us what short stories you are reading.
First, another coincidence… Although I pre-plan the 52 short stories I am to read during the year, I select the order I read them in randomly. This is accomplished by drawing a new card from a deck of playing cards, as I have assigned each of my stories to one of the fifty-two cards in a standard deck. Fate often seems to play a hand in what story I am led to read each Saturday when I do my drawing. Saturday, August 25th, I drew the ace of clubs and was led to Truman Capote’s short story “A Tree of Night.” The coincidence? Capote died in 1984 – on August 25th. Isn’t that something? 🙂 My stories for 2012 may be found here.
***Minor Spoilers follow***
A Tree of Night, first published in 1949, is a very short story that relies heavily on atmosphere to hook the reader. The hook didn’t sink in too deeply for me, but I did like the story. It’s about a young woman (a sophomore in college) traveling by train to Atlanta. It opens with her waiting on the platform of a train station, and Capote’s descriptive first few paragraphs are really well done and set a sinister mood which endures throughout the story. For example, he says, “it had rained (earlier) and now icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth.”
When our heroine, Kay, boards the train, she finds only one seat available (ah! There’s the hand of fate again), and this next to an odd-looking couple: a somewhat drunk woman and her deaf-mute male companion. Though she would rather just be left alone, Kay is continually accosted by the woman to engage in conversation. Additionally, she is put on the defensive by the penetrating, intrusive questions of the woman.
She learns that the couple ekes out a marginal living as traveling performance artists, with the “performance” being a faux burial of the deaf-mute. Their business card says “LAZARUS – The Man Who Is Buried Alive – A MIRACLE -SEE FOR YOURSELF – Adults, 25 cents, Children, 10 cents” As the woman says, “Buh-leave me, it’s a hard way to turn a dollar.”
Eventually, Kay “flees” the couple and seeks some fresh air at the forward part of an observation platform. Her anxiety increases as she remembers tales she heard as a child which apparently were her region’s version of the bogey-man:
“Kay knew of what she was afraid: it was a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers – each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man: stay close to the house, child, else a wizard man’ll snatch and eat you alive! He lived everywhere,the wizard man,and everywhere was danger. At night, in bed, hear him tapping at the window? Listen!”
Of course, the couple aren’t really “through” with Kay yet. Perhaps to not risk dispersing the atmosphere he has created, Capote does not go into detail about what manner of foul play occurs (Robbery? Or something more?) and the reader is left to fill in the blanks for himself.
I wondered if the “deeper meaning” of the story lies in how, in childhood, we are often (with best intentions) “protected” by the grown-ups spinning tales
like that of the “wizard man,” but that these tales often remain imbedded in us, and can harm our ability to function normally – and safely – in the adult world. Something to think about, anyway.
What do you think of Capote? Anything else by him you’d recommend? All I’ve read is this story and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”