The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx

For week 35 of Deal Me In 2014, I drew the queen of spades from my short story deck.

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Not one of my favorite stories of this year’s Deal Me In, this story deals with the return “home” (to Wyoming) of an 83-year old man, Mero. The purpose of his journey? To attend his brother Rollo’s funeral. Mero grew up on a ranch which has since been transformed to “The Outback in Wyoming” featuring animals from Australia including, unfortunately for Mero’s deceased brother, Emus.

Mero’s trek across the country (in his Cadillac!) presents much opportunity for retrospection and self-examination for a man nearing the end of life. By the time he reaches Wyoming, he’s on his second Cadillac (there was a traffic mishap in Iowa) and has encountered a nasty snowstorm. One gets the feeling this might not end well for Mero.

(Below: Illustration from The Atlantic Monthly, where this story was first published)

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Interwoven with the current day story is a flashback to the story of a half-skinned steer, which adds a supernatural element to the tale. If you’ve gotta know the truth, I didn’t quite get the deeper meaning of this story within the story. In my post-reading research I learned that the story of the half-skinned steer is adapted from an Icelandic folktale called “Porgeir’s Bull,” which among its themes includes the concept of revenge of nature against man. This story makes more sense in that light.

Annie Proulx – perhaps now most known for her work, “Brokeback Mountain” – is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and another of her stories (“Heart Song”) was featured in a post by fellow Deal Me In participant Hanne back in January. http://readingoncloud9.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/heart-songs-by-annie-proulx/

This story is available to read online at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1997/11/the-half-skinned-steer/306168/?single_page=true

(Below Annie Proulx in 2009 )

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“One Autumn Night” by Maxim Gorky

This morning I completed my 2013 Short Story Reading Project, “Deal Me In.” I read one short story a week choosing the order at random from having assigned each of the stories to a playing card in a standard deck, then drawing one card per week (well, more or less; I’m not saying I never fell behind). I’ll be doing it again in 2014. Would you like to join me?

Anyway, the last story in my deck was Maxim Gorky’s “One Autumn Night,” which I own in a couple of places. It’s part of my “Great Short Stories of the World” anthology and also my “Best Russian Stories” anthology. I was also amused to discover that, when I made my list of stories of 2014, I included this Maxim Gorky story as well (it didn’t sound familiar because, after all, I hadn’t read it as of then!). So I had to maintain my 2014 list a bit, replacing it with another Russian story, Andreyev’s “Lazarus.”

(Below: Maxim Gorky – on the right – with titan, Leo Tolstoy)

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Anyway, back to this week’s story. It’s a touching tale of a young man who finds himself without shelter or food on a cold “Autumn Night” in Moscow. The strong opening lines of the narrator set the stage nicely: “Once in the autumn I happened to be in a very unpleasant and inconvenient position. In the town where I had just arrived and where I knew not a soul, I found myself without a farthing in my pocket and without a night’s lodging.”

Scavenging for something to eat around the “steamship wharves,” he encounters another poor wretch, the young woman, Natasha, in similar circumstance if for different reasons. Together they scrounge a loaf of bread and take refuge from the elements (a bitterly cold, freezing rain) under an upside down skiff. Here he learns a little of her circumstances, including how her face came to be marked up, although he could probably already guess that. Her abusive husband has thrown her out, leaving her with a somewhat low opinion of the male of the species: “What wretches all you men are! I’d burn you all in an oven; I’d cut you in pieces. If any one of you was dying I’d spit in his mouth, and not pity him a bit. Mean skunks! You wheedle and wheedle, you wag your tails like cringing dogs, and we fools give ourselves up to you, and it’s all up with us! Immediately you trample us underfoot… Miserable loafers.”

In spite of this relentless invective, Natasha doesn’t seem to hold the narrator personally responsible, and indeed comforts him with tenderness when she realizes he is also miserable. They survive the night and venture out into the dawn of the following day, “taking friendly leave” of each other. They never meet again, though the narrator admits that “for half a year I searched in every hole and corner for that kind Natasha, with whom I spent that Autumn Night just described…”

Have you read any Gorky? He was a favorite of the Soviet State, which named a huge park in Moscow after him. You might be familiar with it from the Martin Cruz Smith novel, “Gorky Park.” You also may have heard of it in the Lyrics of the Scorpions song, “Wind of Change.”

You may read the story for free online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/13203/

Prefer a audio recording? Try here: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=A0cg8-_y_ug&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DA0cg8-_y_ug

(Below: Moscow’s Gorky Park in winter, or perhaps the morning after a late Autumn Night)

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