Breaking Things and Growing Up [Two Month Review]
This post should’ve gone up last Tuesday, December 12th, which happened to be the same day as our recording in front of a live audience at McNally Jackson. Although I did get some work done on the train ride to NYC, the Amtrak WiFi is garbage and crushed my hopes of writing this then. And Wednesday’s train ride back was mostly about surviving a bad hangover . . . so it’s time to catch up! Last week, Jess Fenn and P. T. Smith came on the podcast to talk about the second part of Death in Spring, pages 29-68. Below are some thoughts I have about this bit of the book.
If you prefer, you can also download this post as a PDF document.
Full confession: We recorded the podcast about this section weeks ago, and my thinking about Death in Spring as a whole has evolved over the recording of the last two episodes. Given my limited brain capacity, it’s hard for me to go back and remember what it was exactly about this section that I wanted to write about. So I’m going to keep this rather brief, and just try to do some recapping while calling attention to things that will come up in the podcasts (and posts) for the last two parts of the book.
Part One left off with the narrator’s dad failing to evade the village’s ritual of having cement poured down your throat before dying (can’t let your soul escape!) and the narrator violently wrecking the nature that seemed so very pleasant in the opening paragraph.
[Opening Paragraph]: The sun-dappled light was different now that spring had arrived, reborn after living beneath the earth and within branches. [. . .] As soon as I passed the stables and the horse enclosure, I realized I was being followed by a bee, as well as by the stench of manure and the honey scent of blooming wisteria.
[Final Paragraph of Part One]: A dead bee was trapped in a spider web suspended between two tall bushes. I broke the web and shoved it into the ground with the tip of my foot, bee and all.
OK then! If Part One was all about world building—describing and naturalizing the village’s rituals, constructing a sense of timelessness that’s both familiar and weird—then this section is about the young boy entering the world fatherless, independent for the first time, and trying to make his way through these myth-spawned rituals that trend toward the violent. Coming into this section, I wondered about how this strange world would impact him. How would he adapt? Would he just get sucked in, becoming the biggest, baddest cement stuffer in the village, or would he rebel? Or something else?
This core idea is somewhat reinforced in the opening bit of Part Two—an almost surreal depiction of the birthing, life, and death of the village’s birds. There’s some interplay between the birds and the horses and the bees and the people and it’s all one big cycle of life that’s both intricate and balanced, and almost unstoppable. As natural or unstoppable as the narrator becoming close friends with his stepmother, who is only a couple of years older than him and a bit odd?
There’s no real way around the weirdness of the narrator getting attached (well, SPOILER, married to) his stepmother, but to give it a bit of a try, there is this paragraph about her relationship with the narrator’s father:
Not much was known about her father. Her mother hanged herself. The old men at the slaughterhouse took her in, but when she had grown up a bit, she began following my father like a shadow. Father finally brought her home with him. She would fall asleep on top of the table, and father would pick her up in his arms and carry her to bed. Some nights I would reflect on things and sneak down to listen to them sleeping. I would steal down the stairs, keeping close to the wall because one of the steps creaked. Standing in front of their room, I would imagine she wasn’t sleeping with father.
Not really the sort of stepmother found in fairy tales. (Of which Death in Spring isn’t really one, but it kind of is.) Although maybe that’s wrong . . . She’s not the sort of stepmother who badgers her husband’s offspring and is evil and trying to fuck their lives up as part of some competition for the man of the household. But she does tempt the narrator, both in terms of desire (as you’ll see) and to do things that are socially disruptive.
Before we get to that, let’s look a bit closer at how the stepmother is described:
My stepmother was shorter than me; she came to just above my shoulder. Her hair was straight and black, her eyes vaguely green. The corner of her eyes fanned out into thin lines, the same lines she had on both sides of her forehead and round her mouth. Like a little old woman.
She would settle in a corner on the days she was happy, from time to time laughing a howl-like laughter that gave a glimpse of the roof of her open mouth and her lizard-thin tongue. Little lizard arm, little lizard tongue. Her dresses fell straight from the shoulder, trailing the ground. In winter her feet and hands turned purple. She said they hurt. She was always cold.
I caught her one day eating a bee. When she realized I was watching, she spit it out, saying the bee had flown into her mouth. But I knew she ate bees.
However it happens, the two of them end up spending a lot of time together. And, one could argue, she ends up helping our narrator leave his childhood behind. First off, she coerces him into doing some rather disruptive things that sometimes seem like the playful actions of children, and at other times seem to be pointed rejections of this town’s belief system.
For instance, they go into the cavern where the red dust is gathered every spring to paint the town’s houses, and throw all the powder into an underground river. Fun times! Where does it go? Will the water look like blood? Who doesn’t like throwing handfuls of rock and sand into the water? (Don’t ask.) But then, when the springtime comes, there’s no red dust to collect, which is not very good.
More unsettlingly, there’s the scene where they go into the forest of the dead and rip open all the trees and steal all the bones and stack them up in a huge pile. Even in a bizarre-ass place like this, grave robbing (or grave remodeling?) isn’t very cool.
As alluded to above, there are really two strands at play in this section: the emotional growth of the narrator, and the village’s way of reinforcing all their rituals.
Let’s take one second to look at two moments of narrator’s growth. First up is this bit from when they go into the cave with the red powder. Not only does it show the narrator overcoming his fear, but it indicates how the stepmother is really the driving force here.
When I reached the bottom I was stiff and felt like crying. I felt I would never again be able to leave the well; I would smother to death because the entrance would be closed off, or the rope would break . . . She descended slowly, blocking the little bit of sky I could see. She pushed me further inside, then clasped my hand again, telling me she had been afraid the first time, but she had killed the fear because it was bad for you. Her heart had almost run away.
And then, when they’re standing on the kind-of-broken sundial, acting as its pin (and right before a bunch of kids attack them verbally and physically), the narrator has a much grander realization that directly points to his emotional growth.
The sun dispatched a trail of misty haze over the slopes of Maraldina and Senyor’s mountain. And while we were Time, a strange force arose within me, as though my guts had been made of iron, as though my mother, behind the forge, had moulded me from iron as she merged with the blacksmith. At that moment I understood what it meant to experience the force of the boy leaving childhood behind.
He’s really going to leave that childhood behind in, like, twenty-one pages, but I’ll wait till the next post to spoil the ending of this section.
In terms of the village reinforcing its rituals, there’s one key section that I want to point out.
A woman died in childbirth, and when they went to bury her, they discovered the forest had been ravaged. The weather that afternoon was troubled. The sky was sulphurous, not a leaf stirred. The unrest that had commenced at the cave returned. Between young and old. For some time the young from the wash district had been saying that people should be left to die their own death. The old men from the slaughterhouse argued that everything should continue as before. The middle-aged men were inclined to side with the elders, except for a few that no one heeded. One elderly man lamented the sad affair of mixing bones and stuffing grass in eye-wells, it should never have happened.
Just like with the never-ending cycle of life, there’s the never-ending cycle of who knows best. The young are ready to upend all traditions, burn the past (as Kylo Ren would say?), whereas the olds want it all to remain the same because goddammit that’s just the way things are, and those in the middle are inclined to side with those in power (or be ignored). And so we have a system that benefits a few instead of the many, and a large group of people who use the social media to try and upwrench age-old institutions, which doesn’t always play that well, since youngsters don’t know shit yet and watch too much YouTube, but what if . . .
There’s also a bit in here about Senyor, who comes down from his house on the hill to reassure everyone: “Senyor kept telling them not to worry.” (I imagine him delivering these lines like Tommy Wiseau in The Room, “Oh hai! Don’t worry about it!”)
And there’s the bit about the prisoner. Which is really too close to our real world for anyone to feel comfortable with. (What exactly is our end goal with prisons? Rehabilitation or dehumanization?) Which brings up my final point—although this book initially seems super crazy and symbolic and almost surreal, it’s really not that weird if you frame it as a young boy trying to find his way amid a series of violent, nearly superstitious, rituals. That’s like everyday life?