October 2013

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

The Meeting of Girls

Patterns are what we pick out of the raw material of life, mixing and matching as we go. The latest pattern in my life is composed of stories of girls meeting and the tales and rumors they share as they try to make sense of it all.

It begins with two girls named Penny and Primrose meeting in a train station crowded with children ("The Thing in the Forest," from A.S. Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories). They and the other children are being evacuated from London because of the bombing. The girls bond. They are both nice, they decide. They find beds together in the country house where the children are taken and hope they will be placed with the same family. And then Penny and Primrose go together into the woods -- a real wood, unlike what they have known in the city -- and they encounter the thing: an impossible beast that is an amalgamation of worms and discarded objects made animate and destructive.

It continues with two women, both named Louise, having lunch in a restaurant ("Louise's Ghost," from Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen). One Louise has a daughter and is sleeping, one by one, with the cellists in the symphony she fundraises for. The other Louise works for a travel agency and sleeps with married men. The first Louise fascinates the second Louise. She wonders about her place in Louise's life as compared to the cellists and the daughter -- thoughts that could be confused for jealousy, but aren't quite as toxic. And then Louise wakes up to find a ghost in her bedroom: a silent, naked, bald man who shrinks and grows, becomes hairier and then loses hair, and loves country music.

It continues, or ends, or begins again with a group of unnamed girls on a suburban street listening to an older girl named Janice tell them stories (Kathryn Davis's Duplex). In one of the stories, robots that don't understand the consequences of their actions seduce girls. In another, a different group of girls walks into the ocean, refusing adulthood. In another, the girls grow up.

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Girl identity is slippery. Penny and Primrose hold echoes of Louise and Louise, or vice versa, and all four could easily show up among the girls listening to Janice. The p names in Byatt's story and the flat, fact-laden descriptions of the two girls' lives seem intended to create confusion, just as the Louises can only be kept apart with careful reading and attention to detail. The nameless crowd, too, resists differentiation, though it isn't a blank crowd. The listening girls interrupt Janice, asking for names, commenting on details that seem familiar, and challenging Janice's authority as storyteller. One challenger in particular becomes an individual -- the curly-haired girl. "I'm never getting married," she says at the end of "The Four Horsewomen," a story of girls who are actually centaurs and who can only be identified by their inability to look up and their lack of boyfriends.

For girls, the world is a terrifying place. In Janice's stories, girls are destroyed by sex or cease to be human. Penny and Primrose are haunted by the thing in the forest for the rest of their lives, the uncanny encounter replacing the quick bond that had once tied them together. Louise and Louise meet at Girl Scout camp, where they shiver to ghost stories in front of a campfire:

"Are you afraid?" Louise says.

"No," Louise says.

They hold hands. They don't look at each other. They keep their eyes on Charlie.

Louise says, "Are you afraid?"

"No," Louise says. "Not as long as you're here."

But sometimes being brave isn't enough. The world is a terrifying place because of ghosts and robots and things in the woods, but also because of war and sex and death and because sometimes, as girls grow up, the ghosts and robots and things in the woods don't materialize. As Janice says:

That's the Great Division, like I was saying. That's the hinge. On one side, St. Francis there receives the stigmata. On the other side, he isn't even a saint. He's a stonemason, something along those lines. Maybe he gets lung cancer, she said, blowing out smoke. Stranger things have been known to happen.

Sometimes girls are left waiting for a trial that never came and never will. For girls, though, time isn't a straight line. It circles around. Penny and Primrose live lives "still similar and dissimilar." As adults, they respond differently to the confirmation that the worm was real, that "something which resembled unreality had... lumbered into reality," but their reactions don't seem inherent in either of their natures. It's as if chance decreed that one would do this and the other would do that and it could easily have gone the other way. In the end we are returned to the beginning as if it might turn out differently, as Primrose tells the story of "The Thing in the Forest" to children in a mall.

Meanwhile, by the end of "Louise's Ghost" the Louises have circled forever away from their regular lunches, but here, too, the story takes us back to what came before the beginning, ending with two girls holding hands in front of a campfire, together in a way they will never be again.

And Janice's girls grow up, become women, acquire identities -- the opera singer, the chemist -- even die. But even as adults, they wait for Janice to tell them the stories of their fears, of what they have gained and lost, and what still waits for the girls they haven't ceased to be.