“A Tree of Night” by Truman Capote

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.

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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”

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Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

Short Stories on Wednesdays

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Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at A Simple Clockwork. Participants read (at least) one short story a week and post about it, usually linking to their post in a comment on Nancy’s site. It’s a great way to learn about new stories and writers. Many times the stories posted about are available for free on line and are linked within the post – as mine is this week. I am participating in this meme in conjunction with my own short story reading project for 2013 – “Project: Deal Me In!”

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I drew the six of spades from my short story deck this past weekend. This year, stories in that suit are supposed to be of the “Ghost, Scary, or Sci-Fi” category. An argument could be made that this Bradbury story qualifies on all three grounds.

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The human experience has been changed in many ways by technology. One of these ways, which this story led me to ponder about would be a human’s sometimes increased knowledge of the specific time of our inevitable death. We do not hear the old-time stories where a doctor gives his patient “six-weeks” to live* or some other somewhat arbitrary period as often as we used to. As our medical science has become more precise, so has its ability to more closely estimate the time of our “expiration date.” In this short story by Bradbury, the crew of a rocket ship that has been rocked by an explosion knows exactly how much time will elapse before their life must end.

Though hurtled into space through a gaping hole in their ship, the crew are protected by their spacesuits, but do not possess any means of locomotion. They have become human satellites. The radio transmitters in the helmets are functional, though, and that allows the handful of crew mates to maintain conversation as they fly apart in whichever direction the blast sent them. Knowing their doom is imminent, the men react different ways. Some with childlike terror, some with bitterness, some with meanness, some with the contentedness of A Life Well Lived. The character from whose point of view the story is predominantly told is the captain, Hollis. He muses about things in his life left undone and dreams unfulfilled. Of all the crew, he is the only one for whom his trajectory will lead him to fall into Earth, which allows a cute, poignant ending to this tale. Not a bad story, but not among the best I’ve read this year either.

Ever since the news of Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to read more of his work, which, with the exception of “Fahrenheit 451” I had thus far neglected. What other books or stories of his would you recommend? I acquired this story in an anthology picked up at a used book sale. It’s titled The Omnibus of Science Fiction, first published in 1952, it includes 42 stories, many by pioneers in the genre

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I found this story in a few places online. One of them is here http://www.scaryforkids.com/kaleidoscope-by-ray-bradbury

*remember the one about the doctor who gave his patient six weeks to live? The patient couldn’t pay his bill so the doctor gave him another six weeks. Ah, the classics…  🙂