Today’s contributor, Anne Valente, will see her first short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), released in October. She is the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press), and her stories appear in Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Journal.
When Megan Mayhew Bergman’s debut short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner, 2012), was released I’d already preordered the book to bring with me on a weeklong spring trip through Kentucky. I’d read several of Bergman’s short stories in literary journals and I was quickly drawn not only into the fluidity of her prose but the way her stories often centered on the animal world. When Bergman’s book arrived, its teal-blue cover illustrated with a single barn owl, I tucked it into my backpack and hit the road.
Reading proved difficult in Mammoth Cave, the first stop on the trip where I camped in the dark for two nights. But the calls of birds as the sun sank, as well as the smattering of stars that splashed the night sky without a curtain of light pollution, paved the way for the following days beyond wilderness when I would start the collection with nature fresh in my brain. I read the book in a single room at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery outside of Louisville that welcomes visitors to stay for two days of solitude, quiet, and reflection. Throughout the rest of the week I would explore the Bourbon Trail, the hills of central Kentucky, and the clamor of Louisville. But during those two days of silence at Gethsemani, on the heels of immersion in caves and bird calls, I started and finished Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first collection with a heightened sense of the connections it makes between the natural world and our own human lives.
Across twelve stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman offers varying glimpses of what loss means to twelve women in different stages of life, their grief tied to the animal world and its lack of separation from human biology. Grief comes to these women in the form of lost parents, estranged daughters, distant partners, and dying pets, each loss linked invariably to the struggle and impermanence of nature. Most of Bergman’s characters are solitary creatures, either fiercely independent or made lonely by those leaving them, this sovereignty at the core of each story compromised only by love – what binds us to one another, a biological need, and what change will break us apart, inevitable as nature where nothing stays the same.
Many of the protagonists in Birds of a Lesser Paradise resist in varying ways: they don’t want to love others as much as they do. In “Saving Face,” after a wolf attack disfigures a veterinarian and her sense of her own beauty, she learns to keep her distance from others. In “Night Hunting,” a young woman moves from Utah to Vermont with her mother, who is dying of cancer and wants to spend her last months near her family. Just as the natural world is full of predators, so too are our human lives. We are the prey of heartache, of human failing, of disease and old age. We will all leave one another in the end. As the narrator of the collection’s final story (“The Two-Thousand Dollar Sock”) asks her husband, a boxer, as they care for an ailing dog, “How do you step into the ring, knowing how bad it’s going to hurt?”
The grace of Bergman’s collection is not that her characters stay outside of the ring, independent and solitary, but that what binds them to others inevitably pulls them in. When the father in “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” has a heart attack, the daughter who has accompanied him on North Carolina swamp treks to spot the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker watches over him and resolves: “I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.” The heart of each story lies in knowing that nature is as inconstant as anything, that we inhabit a world where everything changes, but that we carry the constancy of love for one another regardless.
In the opening story, “Housewifely Arts,” a woman and her seven-year-old son seek out an African grey parrot that, in imitation, still carries the voice of her deceased mother. I read this first story by lamplight as the sun dropped behind Gethsemani’s hills, including the story’s final lines where the woman recalls of her mother, “My heart, she’d said. I can turn it off. For years, I’d believed her. But I know the truth now. What maniacs we are – sick with love, all of us.” Inside the Abbey and its silence, these lines broke me in half.
I’ve read Bergman’s collection again since my trip through Kentucky, its stories resonating in new and beautiful ways. I’ve learned unexpected routes through their words by reading them with students and hearing what resonates. I’ve kept Bergman’s book on my writing desk for inspiration when I’m trying to wade through my own work’s connections to the animal world. Each of Bergman’s stories is a meditation, transcendent to read, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
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