|40th Annual UND Writers Conference: "Wit"
Reading: Karen Russell
April 2, 2009
© 2009 Karen Russell and the University of North Dakota
Heidi Czerwiec: ...raise money for a John Little endowed speaker for the Conference. So, funding that would pay to have a fiction reader come every year in his name. And we have various levels of gifts for donations: pins that were made from his "poetic license" license plate and t-shirts and posters from past conferences. Please, if everyone would take a moment and turn off your cell phones please. Turn them off; we'll all hear the music. There it goes. Join us for our next event tonight, a reading by Chuck Klosterman at 8:00 p.m. in the ballroom, right here. And we do ask that if you want to take a photo during the reading, please do so within the first five minutes so that the reader isn't distracted.
A few thank yous. We want to give a shout out to our sponsors and donors: the Women's Center, Gene Olson, Naomi Thorsen, Margaret Zidon, and Sam Johnson. And as well to our many, many volunteers who we're naming throughout the conference, including Breanna Conway, Maggie Kainulainen, and Bill Mirtha.
And Bill's going to be introducing Karen in just a second, but first I just have to say how excited I am that Karen is here. This summer, when I first read her book, I was absolutely blown away by it, and I was in the process of thinking about the Conference and thought, "Oh my God, I would love to have this person here" and emailed her. And she had to politely decline because she was doing too many readings. And so I moped around for a couple of days and then thought, "You know, what's the worst she can say, no?" And so I went back and pestered her a couple of times, "Pleeease!' [Audience laughter]. And finally she agreed to come, as long as I mailed her a photo of myself in a "Glamour Shots" with a red boa [Audience laughter], which I did do [Audience laughter]. So thankfully, we have Karen here.
Bill Mirtha: Hello. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Karen Russell. She's the author of St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories, The New Yorker, and several other publications, including Granta, Zoetrope, and Oxford American. Karen is, was originally from Miami. She's spending a semester as a Visiting Professor at Williams College. She's also an adjunct professor at Columbia. Her stories are a mix of childhood and surrealism. They're witty; they snare the reader through some sort of fantasy to reveal the deeper truths about what it means to be human. Her blend of wit and fantasy creates this remarkable tapestry that sort of sucks the reader in. You go in, you know, expecting something light and funny – again fantasy, not serious – and you find yourself facing your, the deepest truths that you learned through childhood. So it's my pleasure to welcome, excuse me, Karen Russell.
Karen Russell: [Russell to Bill Mirtha] Thank you so much.
[Russell to audience] Oh, hold on, let's see if I can [lowering microphone], hello? You guys tell me if that's deafening or not loud enough. I just want to say what a total pleasure it is to be here. This is my spring break 2009. Heidi and I figured out that I would be able to come. And I do have a photograph of the lovely Heidi in a red boa [Audience laughs], which is like those Mastercard commercials, or whatever, Visa, where it's like, "Compensation: priceless" [Laughs, audience laughter], you know, so I like to think of that as my real compensation for being here. And it's just a real thrill for me to get to do this reading. Thank you for being here.
If you would have told me, even a couple years ago, something like this would be possible, it would, you know, it blows my mind. So I was just going to read—I've brought this [gestures to coffee cup] like my psychic joystick or something [Audience laughs]—I was going to read from the title story, but it's a long story. So I just, if you need to take a bathroom break in the middle or flee, go right ahead, I won't take umbrage. So, and thanks again to everyone who organizes this, especially to Heidi for having me out.
This is "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." It's about the children of werewolves. They attend a parochial school. There are these epigraphs from a book, the Lycanthropic, Jewish Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock, so that's kind of the frame for this story, so I'll just, I'll start with those.
"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves."
Stage 1: The initial period is one in which everything is new, exciting, and interesting for your students. It is fun for your students to explore their new environment.
—from The Jesuit Handbook on Lycanthropic Culture Shock
At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we'd made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere rooms, overturning dresser drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the Stage 3 girls' starched underwear, smashing lightbulbs with our bare fists. Things felt less foreign in the dark. The dim bedroom was windowless and odorless. We remedied this by spraying exuberant yellow streams all over the bunks. We jumped from bunk to bunk, spraying. We nosed each other midair, our bodies buckling in kinetic laughter. The nuns watched us from the corner of the bedroom, their tiny faces pinched with displeasure.
"Ay caramba," Sister Maria de la Guardia sighed. "Que barbaridad!" She made the Sign of the Cross. Sister Maria came to St. Lucy's from a halfway home in Copacabana. In Copacabana, the wolf girls are fat and languid and eat pink slivers of guava right out of your hand [Audience laughter]. Even at Stage 1, their pelts are silky, sun-bleached to near invisibility. Our pack was hairy and sinewy and mostly brunette. We had terrible posture. We went knuckling along the wooden floor on the calloused pads of our feet, baring row after row of tiny, wood-rotted teeth. Sister Josephine sucked in her breath. She removed a yellow wheel of floss from under her robes, looping it like a miniature lasso.
"The girls at our facility are backwoods," Sister Josephine whispered to Sister Maria de la Guardia with a beatific smile. "You must be patient with them." I clamped down on her ankle, straining to close my jaws around the woolly XXL sock. Sister Josephine tasted like sweat and freckles. She smelled easy to kill.
We'd arrived at St. Lucy's that morning, part of a pack fifteen-strong. We were accompanied by a mousy, nervous-smelling social worker; the baby-faced deacon; Bartholomew, the blue wolfhound; and four burly woodsmen. The deacon handed out some stale cupcakes and said a quick prayer. Then he led us through the woods. We ran past the wild apiary, past the felled oaks, until we could see the white steeple of St. Lucy's rising out of the forest. We stopped short at the edge of a muddy lake. Then the deacon took our brothers. Bartholomew helped him to herd the boys up the ramp of a small ferry. We girls ran along the shore, tearing at our new jumpers in a plaid agitation. Our brothers stood on the deck, looking small and confused.
Our mothers and fathers were werewolves. They lived an outsider's existence in caves at the edge of the forest, threatened by frost and pitchforks. They had been ostracized by the local farmers for eating their silled fruit pies and terrorizing the heifers. They had ostracized the local wolves by having sometimes-thumbs, and regrets, and human children. (Their condition skips a generation.) Our pack grew up in a green purgatory. We couldn't keep up with the purebred wolves, but we never stopped crawling. We spoke a slab-tongued pidgin in the cave, inflected with frequent howls. Our parents wanted something better for us; they wanted us to get braces, use towels, be fully bilingual. When the nuns showed up, our parents couldn't refuse their offer. These nuns, they said, would make us naturalized citizens of human society. We would go to St. Lucy's to study a better culture. We didn't know at the time that our parents were sending us away for good. And neither did the parents.
That first afternoon, the nuns gave us free rein of the grounds. Everything was new, exciting, and interesting. A low granite wall surrounded St. Lucy's, the blue woods humming for miles behind it. There was a stone fountain full of delectable birds. There was a statue of St. Lucy. Her marble skin was colder than our mother's nose, her pupil-less eyes rolled heavenward. Doomed squirrels gamboled around her stony toes. Our diminished pack threw back our heads in a celebratory howl—an exultant and terrible noise, even without a chorus of wolf brothers in the background. There were holes everywhere!
We supplemented these holes by digging some of our own. We interred sticks, and our itchy new jumpers, and the bones of the friendly, unfortunate squirrels. Our noses ached beneath an invisible assault. Everything was smudged with a human odor: baking bread, petrol, the nuns' faint woman-smell sweating out beneath a dark perfume of tallow and incense. We smelled one another, too, with the same astounded fascination. Our own scent had become foreign in this strange place.
We had just sprawled out in the sun for an afternoon nap, yawning into the warm dirt, when the nuns reappeared, whispering. They conferred in the shadow of the juniper tree, pointing, and started towards us. The oldest sister had spent the past hour twitching in her sleep, dreaming of fatty and infirm elk. (The pack used to dream the same dreams back then, as naturally as we drank the same water and slept on the same red scree.) When our oldest sister saw the nuns approaching, she instinctively bristled. It was an improvised bristle, given her new limitations. She took clumps of her scraggly, nut-brown hair and held it straight out from her head.
Like that [Russell takes some of her hair in her hand and holds it away from her head] [Audience laughter]. This makes me feel better about not blow-drying today [Audience laughter].
Sister Maria gave her a brave smile.
"And what is your name?" she asked.
The oldest sister howled something awful and inarticulable, a distillate of hurt and panic, half-forgotten hunts and eclipsed moons. Sister Maria nodded and scribbled on a yellow legal pad. She slapped on a name tag: HELLO, MY NAME IS______! "Jeanette it is."
The rest of the pack ran in a loose, uncertain circle, torn between our instinct to help her and our new fear. We sensed some subtler danger afoot, written in a language we didn't yet understand.
Our littlest sister had the quickest reflexes. She used her hands to flatten her ears to the side of her head. She backed towards the far corner of the garden, snarling in the most menacing register that an eight-year-old wolf-girl can muster. Then she ran. It took them two hours to pin her down and tag her: HELLO, MY NAME IS MIRABELLA!
"Stage 1," Sister Maria sighed, taking careful aim with her tranquilizer dart. "It can be a little overstimulating."
Stage 2: After a time, your students realize that they must work to adjust to the new culture. This work may be stressful and students may experience a strong sense of dislocation. They may miss certain foods. They may spend a
lot of time daydreaming during this period. Many students feel isolated, irritated, bewildered, depressed, or generally uncomfortable.
Those were the days when we dreamed of rivers and meat. The full-moon nights were the worst! Worse than cold toilet seats and boiled tomatoes, worse than trying to will our tongues to curl around our false new names. We would snarl at one another for no reason. I remember how disorienting it was to look down and see two square-toed shoes instead of my own four feet. Keep your mouth shut, I repeated during our walking drills, staring straight ahead. Keep your shoes on your feet. Mouth shut, shoes on feet. Do not chew on your new penny loafers. Do not. I stumbled around in a daze, my mouth black with shoe polish. The whole pack was irritated, bewildered, depressed. We were all uncomfortable. We had never wanted to run away so badly in our lives; but who did we have to run back to? Only the curled black grimace of the mother. Only the father, holding his tawny head between his paws. Could we betray our parents by going back to them? After they'd given us the choicest part of the woodchuck, loved us at our hairless worst, nosed us across the ice floes and abandoned us at St. Lucy's for our own betterment?
Physically, we were all easily capable of clearing the low stone walls. Sister Josephine left the wooden gates wide open. They unslatted the windows at night so that long fingers of moonlight beckoned us from the woods. But we knew we couldn't return to the woods; not till we were civilized, not if we didn't want to break the mother's heart. It all felt like a sly, human taunt.
It was impossible to make the blank, chilly bedroom feel like home. In the beginning, we drank gallons of bathwater as part of a collaborative effort to mark our territory. We puddled up the yellow carpet of old newspapers. Later, when we returned to the bedroom, we were dismayed to find all trace of the pack musk had vanished. Someone was coming in and erasing us. We sprayed and sprayed every morning; and every night, we returned to the same ammonia eradication. We couldn't make our scent stick here; it made us feel invisible. Eventually we gave up. Still, the pack seemed to be adjusting on the same timetable. The advanced girls could already alternate between two speeds: "slouch" and "amble." Almost everybody was fully bipedal.
The pack was worried about Mirabella.
Mirabella would rip foamy chunks out of the church pews and replace them with ham bones and girl dander. She loved to roam the grounds wagging her invisible tail. (We all had a hard time giving that up. When we got excited, we would fall to the ground and start pumping our backsides. Back in those days we could pump at rabbity velocities. What horror! Sister Maria frowned, looking more than a little jealous.) We'd give her scolding pinches. "Mirabella," we hissed, imitating the nuns. "No." Mirabella cocked her ears at us, hurt and confused.
Some things remained the same. The main commandment of wolf life is Know Your Place, and that translated perfectly. Being around other humans had awakened a slavish-dog affection in us. An abasing, belly-to-the-ground desire to please. As soon as we realized that someone higher up the food chain was watching us, we wanted only to be pleasing in their sight. Mouth shut, I repeated, shoes on feet. But if Mirabella had this latent instinct, the nuns couldn't figure out how to activate it. She'd go bounding around, gleefully spraying on their gilded statue of St. Lucy, mad-scratching at the fleas that survived all of their powders and baths. At Sister Maria's tearful insistence, she'd stand upright for roll call, her knobby, oddly muscled legs quivering from the effort. Then she'd collapse right back to the ground with an ecstatic oomph! She was still loping around on all fours (which the nuns had taught us to see looked unnatural and ridiculous—we could barely believe it now, the shame of it, that we used to locomote like that!), her fists blue-white from the strain. As if she were holding a secret tight tight to the ground. Sister Maria de la Guardia would sigh every time she saw her. "Caramba!" She'd sit down with Mirabella and pry her fingers apart. "You see?" she'd say softly, again and again. "What are you holding on to? Nothing, little one. Nothing."
Then she would sing out the standard chorus, "Why can't you be more like your sister Jeanette?"
The pack hated Jeanette.
[Russell responds to an audience member who sneezed] Bless you!
She was the most successful of us, the one furthest removed from her origins.
Okay, I'm going to try to do a wolf voice a few times, but you need to imagine it like a baritone that I fortunately can't muster [Laughs] in my current vocal range. It's like a Darth Vader-y sound [Audience laughter].
Her real name was GWARR!
That's the best I can do.
But she wouldn't respond to this anymore. Jeanette spiffed her penny loafers until her very shoes seemed to gloat. (Linguists have since traced the colloquial origins of "goody two-shoes" back to our facilities.) [Audience laughter] She could even growl out a demonic-sounding precursor to "Pleased to meet you." [Audience laughter] She'd delicately extend her former paws to visitors, wearing white kid gloves.
"Our little wolf, disguised in sheep's clothing!" Sister Ignatius liked to joke with the visiting deacons, and Jeanette would surprise everyone by laughing along with them, a harsh, inhuman, barking sound. Her hearing was still twig-snap sharp. Jeanette was the first among us to apologize; to drink apple juice out of a sippy cup; to quit eyeballing the cleric's jugular in a disconcerting fashion [Audience laughter]. She curled her lips back into a cousin of a smile as the traveling barber cut her pelt into bangs. Then she swept her coarse black curls under the rug. When we entered a room, our nostrils flared beneath the new odors: onion and bleach, candle wax, the turnipy smell of nun bodies. Not Jeanette. Jeanette smiled and pretended like she couldn't smell a thing.
I was one of the good girls. Not great and not terrible, solidly middle of the pack. But I had an ear for languages, and I could read before I could adequately wash myself.
I think that's like the autobiographical part of this story [Audience laughter]. It continues to be true.
I probably could have vied with Jeanette for the number one spot, but I'd seen what happened if you gave in to your natural aptitudes. This wasn't like the woods, where you had to be your fastest and your bravest and your strongest self. Different sorts of calculations were required to survive at the home.
The pack hated Jeanette, but we hated Mirabella more. We began to avoid her, but sometimes she'd surprise us, curled up beneath the beds or gnawing on a scapula in the garden. It was scary to be ambushed by your sister. I'd bristle and growl, the way that I'd begun to snarl at my own reflection as if it were a stranger.
"Whatever will become of Mirabella?" we asked, gulping back our own fear. We'd heard rumors about former wolf-girls who never adapted to their new country.
It was assumed that they were returned to our native country, the vanishing woods. We liked to speculate about this before bedtime, scaring ourselves with stories of catastrophic bliss. It was the disgrace, the failure that we all guiltily hoped for in our hard beds. Twitching with the shadow question: Whatever will become of me?
We spent a lot of time daydreaming during this period. Even Jeanette. Sometimes I'd see her looking out at the woods in a vacant way. If you interrupted her in the midst of one of these reveries, she would lunge at you with an elder-sister ferocity, momentarily forgetting her human catechism. We liked her a lot better then, startled back into being foamy old Jeanette.
In school, they showed us the St. Francis of Assisi slide show, again and again. Then the nuns would give us bags of bread. The nuns never announced these things as a test; it was only much later that I realized that we were under constant examination. "Go feed the ducks," they urged us. "Go practice compassion for all of God's creatures." Don't pair me with Mirabella, I prayed, anybody but Mirabella. "Claudette"—Sister Josephine beamed—"why don't you and Mirabella take some pumpernickel down to the ducks?"
"Ohhkaaythankyou," I said. (It took me a long time to say anything; first I had to translate it in my head from the Wolf.) It wasn't fair. They knew Mirabella couldn't make bread balls yet. She couldn't even undo the twist tie of the bread ball bag. Mirabella was sure to eat the birds; Mirabella didn't even try to curb her desire to kill things—and then who would get blamed for the dark spots of duck blood on our Peter Pan collars? [Audience laughter] Who would get penalized with negative Skill Points? Exactly.
As soon as we were beyond the wooden gates, I snatched the bread away from Mirabella and ran off to the duck pond on my own. Mirabella gave chase, nipping at my heels. She thought it was a game. "Stop it," I growled. I ran faster, but it was Stage 2 and I was still unsteady on my two feet. I fell sideways into a leaf pile, and then all I could see was my sister's blurry form, bounding towards me. In a moment, she was on top of me, barking the old word for tug-of-war. When she tried to steal the bread out of my hands, I whirled around and snarled at her, pushing my ears back from my head. I bit her shoulder, once, twice, the only language she would respond to. I used my new motor skills. I threw dirt, I threw stones. "Get away!" I screamed, long after she had made a cringing retreat into the shadows of the purple saplings. "You get away!"
Much later, they found Mirabella wading in the shallows of a distant river, trying to strangle a mallard with her rosary beads [Audience laughter]. I was at the lake; I'd been sitting there for hours. Hunched in the long cattails, my yellow eyes flashing, shoving ragged hunks of bread into my mouth.
I don't know what they did to Mirabella. Me they separated from my sisters. They showed me another slide show. This one showed images of former wolf-girls, the ones who had failed to be rehabilitated. Long-haired, sad-eyed women, limping after their former wolf packs in white tennis shoes and pleated culottes. A wolf-girl bank teller, her makeup smeared in oily rainbows, eating a raw steak on the deposit slips while her colleagues looked on in disgust. Our parents. The final slide was a bolded sentence in St. Lucy's prim script: DO YOU WANT TO END UP SHUNNED BY BOTH SPECIES?
After that, I spent less time with Mirabella. One night she came to me, holding her hand out. She was covered with splinters, and keening a high, whining noise through her nostrils. Of course I understood what she wanted; I wasn't that far removed from our language (even though I was reading at a fifth-grade level, halfway into Jack London's The Son of the Wolf ).
"Lick your own wounds," I said, not unkindly. It was what the nuns had instructed us to say; wound licking was not something you did in polite company. Etiquette was very confounding in their country. Still, looking at Mirabella—her fists balled together like small, white porcupines, her brows knitted in animal confusion—I felt a throb of compassion. How can people live like they do? I wondered. Then I congratulated myself. This was a Stage 3 thought.
Stage 3: It is common that students who start living in a new and different culture come to a point where they reject the host culture and withdraw into themselves. During this period, they make generalizations about the host culture and wonder how the people can live like they do. Your students may feel that their own culture's lifestyle and customs are far superior to those of the host country.
The nuns were worried about Mirabella, too. To correct a failing, you must first be aware of it as a failing. And there was Mirabella, shucking her plaid jumper in full view of the visiting cardinal. Mirabella, battling a raccoon under the dinner table while the rest of us took dainty bites of peas and borscht. Mirabella, doing belly flops into compost.
"You have to pull your weight around here," we overheard Sister Josephine saying one night. We paused below the vestry window and peered inside.
"Does Mirabella try to earn Skill Points by shelling walnuts and polishing Saint-in-the-Box? No. Does Mirabella even know how to say the word walnut? Has she learned how to say anything besides a sinful ‘HraaaHA!' as she commits frottage against the organ pipes? [Audience laughter] No."
There was a long silence.
"Something must be done," Sister Ignatius said firmly. The other nuns nodded, a sea of thin, colorless lips and kettle-black brows. "Something must be done," they intoned. That ominously passive construction; a something so awful that nobody wanted to assume responsibility for it.
I could have warned her. If we were back home, and Mirabella had come under attack by territorial beavers or snow-blind bears, I would have warned her. But the truth is that by Stage 3 I wanted her gone. Mirabella's inability to adapt was taking a visible toll. Her teeth were ground down to nubbins; her hair was falling out. She hated the spongy, long-dead foods we were served, and it showed—her ribs were poking through her uniform. Her bright eyes had dulled to a sour whiskey color. But you couldn't show her the slightest kindness—she'd never leave you alone! You'd have to sit across from her at meals, shoving her away as she begged for your scraps. I slept fitfully during that period, unable to forget that Mirabella was living under my bed, gnawing on my loafers.
It was during Stage 3 that we met our first purebred girls. These were girls raised in captivity, volunteers from St. Lucy's School for Girls. The apple-cheeked fourth-grade class came to tutor us in playing. They had long golden braids or short, severe bobs. They had frilly-duvet names like Felicity and Beulah; and pert, bunny noses; and terrified smiles. We grinned back at them with genuine ferocity [Audience laughter]. It made us nervous to meet new humans. There were so many things that we could do wrong! And the rules here were different depending on which humans we were with: dancing or no dancing, checkers playing or no checkers playing, pumping or no pumping. Usually no pumping [Audience laughter].
The purebred girls played checkers with us.
"These girl-girls sure is dumb," my sister Lavash panted to me between games. "I win it again! Five to none."
Lavash was right. The purebred girls were making mistakes on purpose, in order to give us an advantage. "King me," I growled, out of turn. "I say king me!" and Felicity meekly complied. Beulah pretended not to mind when we got frustrated with the oblique, fussy movement from square to square and shredded the board to ribbons. I felt so sorry for them. I wondered what it would be like to be bred in captivity, and always homesick for a dimly sensed forest, the trees you've never seen.
Jeanette was learning how to dance. On Holy Thursday, she mastered a rudimentary form of the Charleston. "Brava!" The nuns clapped. "Brava!"
Every Friday, the girls who had learned how to ride a bicycle celebrated by going on chaperoned trips into town. The purebred girls sold seven hundred rolls of gift-wrap paper and used the proceeds to buy us a yellow fleet of bicycles built for two. We'd ride the bicycles uphill, a sanctioned pumping, a grim-faced nun pedaling behind each one of us. "Congratulations!" the nuns would huff. "Being human is like riding this bicycle. Once you've learned how, you'll never forget." Mirabella would run after the bicycles, growling out our old names.
Here we go again.
HWRAA! GWARR! TRRRRRRR!
I think I just have some thwarted high school theatre ambition or something [Laughs, audience laughter]. I should have taken that drama class.
We pedaled faster.
One night I came back early from the closet and stumbled on Jeanette. She was sitting in a patch of moonlight on the windowsill, reading from one of her library books. (She was the first of us to sign for her library card, too.) Her cheeks looked dewy.
"Why you cry?" I asked her, instinctively reaching over to lick Jeanette's cheek and catching myself in the nick of time.
Jeanette blew her nose into a nearby curtain. (Even her mistakes annoyed us—they were always so well intentioned.) [Audience laughter] She sniffled and pointed to a line in her book: "The lake-water was reinventing the forest and the white moon above it, and the wolves lapped up the cold reflection of the sky." But none of the pack besides me could read yet, and I wasn't ready to claim a common language with Jeanette.
At this point, we'd had six weeks of lessons, and still nobody could dance the Sausalito but Jeanette. The nuns decided we needed an inducement. They announced that we would celebrate our successful rehabilitations with a Debutante Ball. There would be brothers, ferried over from the Home for Man-Boys Raised by Wolves. There would be a photographer from the Gazette Sophisticate. There would be a three-piece jazz band from West Toowoomba, and root beer in tiny plastic cups. The brothers! We'd almost forgotten about them. Our invisible tails went limp. I should have been excited; instead, I felt a low mad anger at the nuns. They knew we were not ready to dance with the brothers; we weren't even ready to talk to them. Things had been much simpler in the woods. That night I waited until my sisters were asleep. Then I slunk into the closet and practiced the Sausalito two-step in secret, a private mass of twitch and foam. Mouth shut—shoes on feet! Mouth shut—shoes on feet! Mouthshutmouthshut...
On Sundays, the pretending felt as natural as nature. The chapel was our favorite place. Long before we could understand what the priest was saying, the music instructed us in how to feel. The choir director—aggressively perfumed Mrs. Valuchi, gold necklaces like pineapple rings around her neck—taught us more than the nuns ever did. She showed us how to pattern the old hunger into arias. Clouds moved behind the frosted oculus of the nave, glass shadows that reminded me of my mother. The mother, I'd think, struggling to conjure up a picture. A black shadow, running behind the watery screen of pines.
We sang at the chapel annexed to the home every morning. We understood that this was the humans' moon, the place for howling beyond purpose. Not for mating, not for hunting, not for fighting, not for anything but the sound itself. And we'd howl along with the choir, hurling every pitted thing within us at the stained glass. "Sotto voce." The nuns would frown. But you could tell that they were pleased.
Stage 4: As a more thorough understanding of the host culture is acquired, your students will begin to feel more comfortable in their new environment. Your students feel more at home, and their self-confidence grows. Everything begins to make sense.
"Hey, Claudette," Jeanette growled to me on the day before the ball. "Have you noticed that everything's beginning to make sense?" [Audience laughter]
Before I could answer, Mirabella sprang out of the hall closet and snapped through Jeanette's homework binder. Pages and pages of words swirled around the stone corridor, like dead leaves off trees.
"What about you, Mirabella?" Jeanette asked politely, stooping to pick up her erasers. She was the only one of us who would still talk to Mirabella; she was high enough in the rankings that she could afford to talk to the scruggliest wolf-girl. "Has everything begun to make sense, Mirabella?"
Mirabella let out a whimper. She scratched at us and scratched at us, raking her nails along our shins so hard that she drew blood. Then she rolled belly-up on the cold stone floor, squirming on a bed of spelling-bee worksheets. Above us, small pearls of light dotted the high, tinted window.
Jeanette frowned. "You are a late bloomer, Mirabella! Usually, everything has begun to make more sense by Month Twelve at the latest." I noticed that she stumbled on the word bloomer. HraaaHA! Jeanette could never fully shake our accent. She'd talk like that her whole life, I thought with a gloomy satisfaction, each word winced out like an apology for itself.
"Claudette, help me," she yelped. Mirabella had closed her jaws around Jeanette's bald ankle and was dragging her towards the closet. "Please. Help me to mop up Mirabella's mess."
I ignored her and continued down the hall. I had four more hours to perfect the Sausalito. And I was worried only about myself. By that stage, I had no idea of how the pack felt about anything.
At seven o'clock on the dot, Sister Ignatius blew her whistle and frog-marched us into the ball. The nuns had transformed the rectory into a very scary place. Purple and silver balloons started popping all around us. Black streamers swooped down from the eaves and got stuck in our hair like bats. A full yellow moon smirked outside the window. We were greeted by blasts of a saxophone, and fizzy pink drinks, and the brothers.
The brothers didn't smell like our brothers anymore. They smelled like pomade and cold, sterile sweat. They looked like little boys. Someone had washed behind their ears and made them wear suspendered dungarees. Kyle used to be a blustery alpha male, BTWWWR!, chewing through rattlesnakes, spooking badgers, snatching a live trout out of a grizzly's mouth. He stood by the punch bowl now, looking pained and out of place.
"My stars!" I growled. "What lovely weather we've been having!" [Audience laughter]
"Yeees," Kyle growled back. "It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas." [Audience laughter] All around the room, boys and girls raised by wolves were having the same conversation. Actually, it had been an unseasonably warm and brown winter, and just that morning a freak hailstorm had sent Sister Josephina to an early grave. But we had only gotten up to Unit 7: Party Dialogue; we hadn't yet learned the vocabulary for Unit 12: How to Tactfully Acknowledge Disaster [Audience laughter]. Instead, we wore pink party hats and sucked olives on little sticks, inured to our own strangeness.
The nuns swept our hair back into high, bouffant hairstyles. This made us look more girlish and less inclined to eat people [Audience laughter], the way that squirrels are saved from looking like rodents by their poofy tails [Audience laughter]. I was wearing a white organdy dress with orange polka dots. Jeanette was wearing a mauve organdy dress with blue polka dots. Linette was wearing a red organdy dress with white polka dots. Mirabella was in a dark corner, wearing a muzzle [Audience laughter]. Her party culottes were duct-taped to her knees. The nuns had tied little bows on the muzzle to make it more festive [Audience laughter]. Even so, the jazz band from West Toowoomba kept glancing her way.
"You smell astoooounding!" Kyle was saying, accidentally stretching the diphthong into a howl and then blushing. "I mean—"
"Yes, I know what it is that you mean," I snapped. (That's probably a little narrative embellishment on my part; it must have been months before I could really "snap" out words.) I didn't smell astounding. I had rubbed a pumpkin muffin all over my body earlier that morning to mask my natural, feral scent [Audience laughter]. Now I smelled like a purebred girl, easy to kill. I narrowed my eyes at Kyle and flattened my ears, something I hadn't done for months. Kyle looked panicked, and tried to remember the words that would make me act like a girl again. I felt hot, oily tears squeezing out of the red corners of my eyes. Shoesonfeet! I barked at myself. I tried again. "My! What lovely weather—"
The jazz band struck up a tune.
"The time has come to do the Sausalito," Sister Maria announced, beaming into the microphone. "Every sister grab a brother!" She switched on Walter's industrial flashlight, struggling beneath its weight, and aimed the beam in the center of the room.
Uh-oh. I tried to skulk off into Mirabella's corner, but Kyle pushed me into the spotlight. "No," I moaned through my teeth, "noooooo." All of a sudden the only thing my body could remember how to do was pump and pump. In a flash of white-hot light, my months at St. Lucy's had vanished, and I was just a terrified animal again. As if of their own accord, my feet started to wiggle out of my shoes. Mouth shut, I gasped, staring down at my naked toes, mouthshut.
"Ahem. The time has come," Sister Maria coughed, "to do the Sausalito." She paused. "The Sausalito," she added helpfully, "does not in any way resemble the thing that you are doing." [Audience laughter]
Beads of sweat stood out on my forehead. I could feel my jaws gaping open, my tongue lolling out of the left side of my mouth. What were the steps? I looked frantically for Jeanette; she would help me, she would tell me what to do.
Jeanette was sitting in the corner, sipping punch through a long straw and watching me. I locked eyes with her, pleading with the mute intensity that I had used to beg for weasel bones in the forest. "What are the steps?" I mouthed.
"The steps?" Then Jeanette gave me a wide, true wolf smile. For an instant, she looked just like our mother. "Not for you," she mouthed back.
I threw my head back, a howl clawing its way up my throat. I was about to lose all my Skill Points, I was about to fail my Adaptive Dancing test. But before the air could burst from my lungs, the wind got knocked out of me. Oomph! I fell to the ground, my skirt falling softly over my head. Mirabella had intercepted my eye-cry for help. She'd chewed through her restraints and tackled me from behind, barking at unseen cougars, trying to shield me with her tiny body. "Caramba!" Sister Maria squealed, dropping the flashlight. The music ground to a halt. And I have never loved someone so much, before or since, as I loved my littlest sister at that moment. I wanted to roll over and lick her ears, I wanted to kill a dozen spotted fawns and let her eat first.
Everyone was watching me though; everyone was waiting to see what I would do. "I was not talking to you," I grunted from underneath her. "I did not want your help. Now you have ruined the Sausalito! You have ruined the ball!" I said more loudly, hoping the nuns would hear how much my enunciation had improved.
"You have ruined it!" my sisters panted, circling around us, eager to close ranks. "Mirabella has ruined it!" Every girl was wild-eyed and itching under her polka dots, punch froth dribbling down her chin. The pack had been waiting for this moment for some time. "Mirabella cannot adapt! Back to the woods, back to those woods!"
The band from West Toowoomba had quietly packed their instruments into black suitcases and were sneaking out the back. The boys had fled towards the lake, bow ties spinning, snapping suspenders in their haste. Mirabella was snarling in the center of it all, trying to figure out where the danger was so she could defend me against it. The nuns exchanged glances.
In the morning, Mirabella was gone. We checked under all the beds, and I pretended to be surprised. I'd known she would have to be expelled the minute I felt her weight on my back. Walter came and told me this in secret after the ball, "So you can say yer good-byes." I didn't want to face Mirabella. Instead, I packed a tin lunch pail for her: two jelly sandwiches on saltine crackers, a chloroformed squirrel, a gilt-edged placard of St. Bolio. I left it for her with Sister Ignatius, with a little note: "Best wishes!" I told myself I'd done everything I could.
"Hooray!" the pack crowed. "Something has been done!"
We raced outside into the bright sunlight, knowing full well that our sister had been turned loose, and we'd never find her. A low roar rippled through us and surged up and up, disappearing into the trees. I listened for an answering howl from Mirabella, heart thumping—because what if she heard us and came back? But there was nothing.
We graduated from St. Lucy's shortly thereafter. As far as I can recollect, that was our last communal howl.
Stage 5: At this point your students are able to interact effectively in the new cultural environment. They find it very easy to move between the two cultures.
One Sunday, near the end of my time at St. Lucy's, the sisters gave me a special pass to go visit the parents. The woodsman had to accompany me; I couldn't remember how to find the way back on my own. I wore my best dress and brought along some prosciutto and dill pickles in a picnic basket. We crunched through the fall leaves in silence, and every step made me sadder. "I'll wait out here," the woodsman said. He leaned on a blue elm and lit his cigarette.
The cave looked much smaller than I remembered it. I had to duck my head to enter. Everybody was eating when I walked in. They all looked up from the bull moose at the same time, my aunts and uncles, my sloe-eyed, lolling cousins, the parents. My uncle dropped a thighbone from his mouth. My littlest brother, a cross-eyed wolf-boy who has since been successfully rehabilitated and is now a dour, balding children's book author, started whining in terror. My mother recoiled from me, as if I were the stranger. TRRR? She sniffed me for a long moment. Then she sank her teeth into my ankle, looking proud and sad. After all the tail wagging and perfunctory barking had died down, the parents sat back on their hind legs. They stared up at me expectantly, panting in the cool gray envelope of the cave, waiting for a display of what I had learned.
"So," I said, telling my first human lie. "I'm home."
Thanks you guys. Thank you so much. Thanks for sticking—I know it's a long story to read—it's nice to get to do the whole thing. I guess Heidi said I can open it up to questions, but as Steve pointed out last night, this is the moment where we collectively fail [Audience laughter], so if there are no questions I won't...
Well maybe while you guys think of questions that you might have, I will tell you the worst question I ever received which is, I read that whole story, it was the first reading I ever did, you know, I couldn't believe, here I was going to get to read to strangers, you know, not relatives or friends I'd bamboozled, and it was at this place called Rocky Sullivan's Pub. I don't think they knew I was reading. I don't know who arranged this reading, but I showed up. There were a bunch of Jersey men, like who just wanted to commute home on the PATH train, drinking their gin, and I was like "I'm here to read my story." And you could just see everyone's faces like "Oh no!' [Audience laughter]. And I, like, ascended the stage, and I sat on this little stool in front of this, like, jury of shadows. And, you know, men would just discreetly, like, just throw cash on the bar and flee in droves. I read this story, which is probably like a forty or fifty minute story. And the end of it, you know, I was like, "Well are there, are there any questions?" It was dead silent for like an agonizing length of time, and finally an incredibly intoxicated man in the back was like, "Was it...was it a poem?" [Audience laughter] I was like, "Is the question was it a poem?" And he's like, "Yeah, was it was it a poem?" No. No, I've been reading it for forty minutes [Audience laughter], no. So...so there you go, the bar is low. [Laughs] Yeah.
Audience Member: You do such a great job of describing [these dog, wolf-like behaviors, can you tell about how you went about writing that? Are you a dog lover? Do you just [inaudible] you really did a great job of just describing it].
Karen Russell: We had two, like, mentally handicapped schnauzers, but I don't know [Laughs] if that was so helpful. That's funny I worked...Oh I'm sorry the question is, it was a very nice compliment that the wolf stuff feels really credible, so did I, like, live with the wolf pack myself [Audience laughter], or did I have coon dogs or what? I'm glad that, thank you for saying that. I actually, I wrote this story in an MFA program in a workshop, and I remember one of the things that everyone criticized about it was that it seemed too much like dogs and not enough like wolves. So, if you guys are wolf experts and I got something wrong, I apologize [Laughs, audience laughter]. I don't, I guess, yeah, I guess that was part of the fun of it for me was really trying to commit to that premise and imagine physically what it would, what it would be like to be in between bodies. I feel generally awkward in my body anyway, so perhaps that helped, I don't know. Yeah, Liz.
Elizabeth Harris: [Did you have a period of writing, you know, realistic fiction, and then you veered into this style of writing, or has it always been what you've done]?
Karen Russell: The first stories I wrote were crazy, so I would be like, "I wrote a story about someone who can tell the future using starfish." And then my professors would be like, "Umm, write a story about a boy who comes of age" [Laughs, audience laughter], you know, and so. Then for a very brief time as an undergrad, I was reading folks, like Junot, who I know did this series last year, Junot Díaz, so, yeah Junot Díaz [laughs], so influenced by him. So for a while I wrote these horrible realist stories about a Cuban-American boy coming of age [Audience laughter]. I don't know much about that, as it turns out [Laughs, audience laughter]. What that would be like, I have no idea. So, and those just felt so stilted and, like, florescent lit and self-conscious, and somehow, somehow I think it helped me to write this sort of more wacked-out stuff, because it seems so fun and it's a way of disarm, for me it's just a way of disarming my own critical censors, so then it feels kind of gleeful and funny and then I feel like I can be more honest about stuff than when I was like, "The Cuban-American boy found it hard to grow up," you know [Laughs, audience laughter], and then, sort of the strictly realist stuff. Yeah.
Audience Member: What made you choose this particular story [inaudible] for your entire novel?
Karen Russell: Oh I, you know, I wanted to have a title, my, this is so embarrassing. I thought at the time it was this amazing literary title. It was going to be, a lot of the stories are about adolescents and like the threshold between childhood and adulthood, and a lot of them are sort of, I grew up in Florida, so there's this sort of swampy feel. So I wanted to call it Swimming Past, what Swimming Past Extinction, or Swimming Beyond Extinction, both of which got the thumbs down [Laughs, audience laughter]. I was told that gerunds are passé now, in book titles, so no drowning, no swimming. So, and then, I thought that this story, I guess that thematically it seemed—you know, the sort of loss of innocence type stuff—it seemed to speak to the themes of the other stories, and it's my favorite story, so. Yeah.
Audience Member: Really enjoyed it, thank you...
Karen Russell: Thank you.
Audience Member: ...for reading that. You said earlier in the panel, you talked about coming of age [and you said you thought of these stories. You know, I see a lot of, a lot of ideas of mixed race, postcolonialism [inaudible] and I find that really fascinating [from the term] [inaudible] to be able to catch that in betweenness that, you know, it seems to be something that's real [inaudible]. And I wonder if you studied that? Or is it the natural, because that's what I took from that, the moment that betweenness [inaudible] to not be in either place, to be in both places...]
Karen Russell: Yeah, and try and navigate worlds. Yeah, you know, it's so funny Cathy, who's here, is a Miami, fellow south Floridian. And we were talking about that very thing, and I think somehow, growing up in Miami, there's this huge Cuban exile population and they actually can't go back to their home at all, you know, it's the immigrant problem, but it, you know, so specific and heart breaking in that situation. And I think somehow that the air of Miami is permeated with that kind of longing for a homeland. And you see it second generation, too. These kids who are Cuban-American, but they've never been to Cuba; they have a totally different relationship to the island. So I'm sure somewhere in the back burner some of that got in my bloodstream. Just that particular, like, nostalgia for a place you can't go anymore. Yeah.
Audience Member: [Why was it that oldest of sisters was the most successful, and then the youngest [inaudible]].
Karen Russell: I don't know. I'm the oldest child in my family, so maybe [Laughs, audience laughter], oh my god. They tend to be the prettiest, most academically successful ones in my experience, I don't know [Audience laughter]. They sop up all of their parents' resources and the others have none, I don't know [Laughs, audience laughter]. I don't, the littlest sister, I guess I wanted her to get to be, like kind of the child-like, you know, little, little Freudian Id of the story. It seemed like the oldest one, you know, had maybe, maybe even chronologically, was a little bit more mature in the sense that she was better able to intuit what was being asked of her and give that back to the nuns I guess, I don't, I just, I thought of the little one as the one full of this sort of like childlike feral joy that maybe would be tamped out as you got older. Yeah.
Audience Member: [[inaudible] Do you come from a vivid storytelling family? [inaudible]]
Karen Russell: I guess my dad is a vivid storyteller. But I think that I was just a huge bookworm as a kid, because I failed at many other things in succession, rapidly. So, you know, I would take ballet class and, like, sit on the floor and eat a Snickers bar. Or, like, I, you know, I was just terrible at piano. So, but what I really, and I was an anxious, a really anxious kid, and books were sort of this amazing door that I could carry with me elsewhere, you know? Just from a really early age that was the thing that, you know, my parents would be like, "You keep getting beaned in the head by balls during sports, why don't you imagine. There" [Audience laughter]. So I, that's sort of, I think, I just was reading everything. I was reading like, you know, the story of how these croutons were made when I was like four or, whatever, anything I could get my hands on, so. Yeah.
Audience Member: [Inaudible question].
Karen Russell: I think I kind of like that as a little bubble of ambiguity in the story. So, I guess, like, literally, I don't even know what happened to her. I mean I sort of like that ominous hang in the air. But I also think, just in my own life, I don't know. I do think that it's sort of interesting to think about the way that progress and loss are, you know, this, kind of like this Möbius strip of progress and loss. We have this idea that growing up is this linear... That's what I love about the stages, it seems like so duefully optimistic to think, yeah you're going to move on this, like, linear path to a goal where you're able to move in both cultures. That doesn't feel true to me at all, necessarily, so. I don't know, I do think that in the progressing towards adulthood's something, something is lost, some of that earlier innocence or joy or lack of self-consciousness or whatever. All right, thank you guys so, so much.
[Transcription by Errin Jordan; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 15 October 2012]