Wednesday, May 20, 2015

After the way of his own kind

What happens at the end of Craig Kee Strete's short story "When They Find You" is difficult to articulate — particularly when under the sway of our usual ways of talking about writing. What has happened before is easier to describe. A thinly-veiled transformation of any number of real-life colonization events; a transformation that is both a metaphor and nothing but its own literal self, because this is how things happen: a man from Earth with a quiet role to play in the violent subjugation of the planet Kingane, having bought an indigenous woman as a wife, finds it difficult to reconcile his feelings of superiority to and connection with her, particularly in the face of her seemingly total impassivity and under the simultaneous pressures of their scientifically conceived child and the increasing presence of a disapproving population of colonists from Earth.

(Of course this "easy" description leaves much out, as for example the harvesting of nerve tissue from the stefel dogs, which though it serves a familiar purpose — improving the quality of life of the very rich — cannot be reduced to something already recognizable, and cannot be separated from the rest of the story. But then no story is actually reducible, and the easy description will do for now.)

But the ending...? It is tempting to say that Strete makes the reader feel the human as alien, but this is not correct — not here, probably not anywhere, because surely this is impossible. We are human, and no matter how much estrangement we may sometimes (or often, or always) feel from some (or many, or all) of our fellow humans, this estrangement is itself only and always human. (In a way this is emphasized by Strete's ability to understand his human character, who is after all — among other things — a stand-in for the white people who perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate, genocide on Strete's.) Perhaps — and this is only an attempt — it would be better to say that by describing the human in the language of the alien Strete brings the reader to feel this very impossibility — the impossibility of our seeing the human as alien — in all its necessity. And with this feeling, again perhaps, comes the knowledge that the equally limited perspective of the alien exists, also, and possesses its own necessity.

He got up from the table slowly, his food untouched, and he moved toward them. She knew what was to happen and in that unreadable face, he found the knowledge of what he was about to do. He lifted the boy away from the mat on the floor and cradling him against his chest, turned and walked back to the table. She sat motionlessly in the corner and in that moment he knew, he finally knew she was capable of emotion, that she had feelings of her own.
        He pulled a chair up beside his and sat the boy gently down upon the chair. He turned to her, and without a word she knew that the boy's place would hereafter be at the table, she knew it by the sad, unrelenting look on his face.
        He took a piece of bread and put it unwashed into the boy's mouth. And then he heard it, and turned to look at her. Her face was turned away, her shoulders motionless.
        But he heard it and this time knew what it was. That melodious, birdlike sound, the way the creatures of Kingane cried, the sound the creatures of Kingane made when they were dying.
        But he had his back hardened against it and would not relent, having made judgment for the boy. But after the way of his own kind, his shoulders shook and he made the harsh, broken rasping sound, the way the creatures of Earth cried, the sound the creatures of Earth made when they were dying.
"When They Find You" appears in Strete's marvelous collection The Bleeding Man. Thank you to Jennifer Marie Brissett, whose lovely review of the book made me aware of its existence, and thank you to Christoph Endres and Strete himself for making it, and the rest of Strete's writing, freely available online. It should be read.


Molly Katz said...

I read this story when you first made this post, oh so long ago now, and was very, very glad to have read it. The ending is incredible. I wanted to have something to say back to you about how it works, but I couldn't quite get there, and so I waited a day. And another day, and another day. And I never even let you know that I'd read it. So, what I will now say is--both the story and your questions about it have stayed with me these past few months, even if I still don't have it figured out. Thanks for the rec!

Ethan Robinson said...

So glad you read it!