Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Short Story Month - Katherine Vaz

One of the most striking achievements of Katherine Vaz’s stories is how they are firmly rooted in reality and so otherworldly at the same time. Religion and ritual is key to most of her stories. The rituals in "My Bones Here Waiting for Yours," from her short story collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes, is not religious in the most obvious form of that word. Ritual in this story is very personal and heartbreaking. Mary Smith's daughter, Delilah, died in an avalanche seventeen years ago at the Devils Postpile and every year Mary is photographed standing in the spot where the snow patrol found her daughter's body. She wears the same outfit every year, a turquoise business suit and high heels. These are the same clothes she wears to her job as a real estate agent. Mary thinks, “it is no longer available to me, the simple act of matching right time, right place, and right clothing.” Clothing and how she feels about it conveys her sense of loss so perfectly. One of the most telling things about Mary is how she feels about her name. She feels that it is “so ordinary that it suggests the exotic.” The story continues to push the idea of the ordinary being exotic.

Delilah was a synesthete. Mary first noticed the condition when her daughter was in the third grade, “I wrote G-L-A-S-S, and she said, ‘Red with spots, white, something like those bugs that live under bricks, pink, pink. She told me she saw colors when people spoke. They spilled from everyone’s mouth…”. Mary relates the frustration and difficulty of living with the condition (Delilah won’t drink milk because it is blue noise), but what an amazing image – color spilling from mouths. As we are given more example of how Delilah perceived the world, not only do we learn more about her, we also see how Vaz can take a harsh reality and turn it into art.

The story gets its title because of a phrase written above the door of The Chapel of Bones, which is made from the bones of monks, in Alentejo, Portugal. The phrase is, “Our Bones Here Are Waiting for Yours.” Vaz does something interesting by including photographs of the chapel in this part of the story. The photographs are not replacements for a narrative description. Rather they close the gap between reality and fiction.

She does something similar in “The Knife Longs for the Ruby,” which is also in Our Lady of the Artichokes and was originally published in Ninth Letter's first issue (Spring/Summer 04). The story has a note that says, “this work of fiction is inspired by the true story of a nineteenth-century statue known as one of the most touching images of Christ in the world.” This throws us right into the world of the story as we are introduced to Tónio, the sculptor of the statue, and Father Jamie. The story explores their relationship and all that has led them to the present of the story as it alternates between their two narratives.

Father Jamie gets “drunk exactly one night a week, and he did it beautifully, falling into the sparkling glass of firewater and emerging out the other end, clarified and wounded.” A wonderful image. He tells Tónio that he restricts his drinking or else he would be drunk all the time. Through the course of the story we learn of the loss he suffered years ago. Tónio’s vice is having sex with prostitutes in town, “but what did women look like in during the day? Why he never tried to find out.” He carries a machete with him as he walks home and cuts his leg. This allows us to see that the two men take care of each other. Tónio cares for Father Jamie when he is drunk and Father Jamie does the same when Tónio is injured. Their relationship is complicated because Tónio is Father Jamie’s servant. In fact, their relationship is so complex that I cannot do it justice in the space here.

The creation of art means freedom in this story. Tónio seeks freedom by sculpting the statue because “it was fashionable now for nobles to release their slaves for artistic feats.” Teresa Silva is freed for stuffing “a thousand cuttlefish with a mix of shrimps’ eyes, and the guests of her master had collapsed into a type of ecstasy.” Teresa is wounded by a past relationship with a writer and Tónio wants to help her recover by creating a new piece of art.

As with the previous story, the characters here are richly written. None of Vaz’s characters allow themselves to be defined by one trait or one event in their lives. They are flawed and truly human. Adding historic elements only makes them more alive. The writing is visceral, so we feel Mary’s anguish over the death of her daughter and when Father Jamie is slashed with a shard of glass across his bare chest. Katherine Vaz wonderfully blurs the line between reality and art, which makes for a deeply rewarding reading experience.

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