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No Animals We Could Name: Stories

No Animals We Could Name: Stories

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by Ted Sanders
     
 

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No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders

The winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, a bold debut collection

The animals (human or otherwise) in Ted Sanders's inventive, wistful stories are oddly familiar, yet unlike anyone you've met before. A lion made of bedsheets, with chicken bones for teeth, is brought to life by a grieving mother. When

Overview

No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders

The winner of the Bakeless Prize for Fiction, a bold debut collection

The animals (human or otherwise) in Ted Sanders's inventive, wistful stories are oddly familiar, yet unlike anyone you've met before. A lion made of bedsheets, with chicken bones for teeth, is brought to life by a grieving mother. When Raphael the pet lizard mysteriously loses his tail, his owners find themselves ever more desperate to keep him alive, in one sense or another. A pensive tug-of-war between an amateur angler and a halibut unfolds through the eyes of both fisherman and fish. And in the collection's unifying novella, an unusual guest's arrival at a party sets idle gears turning in startling new ways.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Sanders’s formally rigorous debut collection, winner of the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize for fiction, characters have relationships with a variety of animals—domestic, wild, and even imaginary. In “Obit” (which won a PEN/O. Henry Award), the author splits the text into columns to tell dueling stories. “Flounder,” the story of a man and a fish, is told from perspectives of both predator and prey. A character builds an array of machines, including a simulacrum of himself, in “Assembly,” which Sanders lays out on the page like a poem. The book’s centerpiece is the disturbing three-part “Airbag,” about a party that leaves three guests—the lovelorn David, a huge dog named Lord Jim, and Dorlene, the seventh shortest person on record—significantly altered by the end of the night. The collection’s variations—in both content and form—mean that not every story will work for every reader (more conventional stories deliver the clearest emotional impact), but all 12 are memorable, and such a broad range in a story collection is welcome. (July)
From the Publisher

“This is the music I have been waiting for, which is to say: the music made by the intersection of the visual, the sonic, the emotional, the tactile, the dramatic, and the gonzo. Ted Sanders is a fearless, wild, tremendously sensitive writer, who seems to write not only about the three dimensions of the world we live in, but also about the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth. . . . Reading these stories is like looking into the eyes of an animal, finding there both recognition and unbridled otherness, a gaze returned to you that both is and isn't from a reality you already know and that may be ringed with fur, or legs.” —Stacey D'Erasmo, Bakeless Prize judge
Kirkus Reviews
It's not the animals, but the clueless humans who dominate this amorphous story collection, the author's debut. Of the ten stories (and two short flights of fancy), the longest, "Airbag," has been split into three nonconsecutive segments. It's about a midget, Dorlene, who claims to be the seventh shortest person in the country. She's described almost exclusively in terms of her size; that's reductive, offensively so. She's been brought to a party at a farm outside Seattle; she's a former student of Tom, the host. Dorlene's no higher than crotch level (cue the oral-sex joke). Tom has a truly enormous dog, which he's forgotten to shut away; it looms over Dorlene, who's so panicked she wets herself. The ending will not be pleasant. There is more foolishness in the next longest story: "Putting the Lizard to Sleep." A 5-year-old's pet lizard loses part of its tail and has to be euthanized by the vet. John, the father, had been hoping to retrieve the dead lizard: "I wanted him to see what dead is." But the lizard's already been cremated, so John and his live-in girlfriend pretend they have the dead lizard in a box (it's actually a sausage link). The ponderously delivered moral is that lying to kids doesn't work. The other stories are even less developed. "Opinion of Person" is a study of anomie. Two housemates are united by their loathing of a cat, whose owner is away at work. James, in "Momentary," has lost his hand in an act of self-mutilation. He's under observation in a mental hospital, yet there are no insights into his condition. "The Lion" is just as wispy. A wheelchair-bound woman has made a lion out of fabric. Will it be a Frankenstein's monster? Who knows? And who knows what's going on in "Jane," between the ghost and her sleeping ex-lover? As Sanders writes elsewhere, "Confusion burbles thickly." An awkward start.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781555970567
Publisher:
Graywolf Press
Publication date:
07/03/2012
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
2 MB

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Read an Excerpt

No Animals We Could Name

Stories


By Ted Sanders

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2012 Ted Sanders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-056-7



CHAPTER 1

Obit


The boy who falls asleep to the story of the bear will grow old and wordlessly die. In the end, he will die across his pancakes, coughing up blood in a restaurant in a distant town, blood freckling the arms and throat of his latest wife, the table, the dark stone floor where bright ice and dark water from his spilled glass will also fall. All of these events will occur, and more. But the boy who will become this man is still young. He still lives in the yellow house where he was conceived. He was conceived as the sun shone over spruce trees into the front bedroom, onto the face that would become his mother's, not far from the hall where the dog slept then, dreaming beneath the soft sounds falling through the open darkwood door.

The woman who lay in the buttress of sun slanted against the front window of the yellow house will explicitly recall her memories of that experience, that day. She will continue to believe in these recollections steadfastly, long after the man who lay with her then has died. She will continue to believe in them even though, as she knows, there were a number of instances in the yellow house over the surrounding days that could, practically speaking, have been the act that led to conception.

The step that will never be fixed — the middle step on the short stairs of the front porch — will upend beneath the foot of the man as he comes to the yellow house on another sunny day, not so far off. He will by then have nearly forgotten what it is like to consider this house his own. The boy — who from his bedroom window at the front of the house will have watched his father come up the walk, through the shadow of the spruce tree — will hear the snap of bone. Neither man will ever forget this sound.

The dog that will die unseen in winter — far from home, where the gate will have blown open in the snow — will be named after the dog that slept in the hall in the yellow house. The boy, grown into a man, will have named this new dog. He will remember the old dog, the one who lay in the hall and dreamt of berries and beasts, the sound of his owner's voice. This dog, the first, dies beneath the kitchen table, his feet stirring, as the bear's story is being told.

The woman who will die in a hospital bed late into the night — senseless and mute on morphine, breathing slow and shallow while her family, around her in and out of the room, waits for her to die — once lay in another bed wishboned around the man, watching a basket-colored sun make urchin shapes through the spruce tree in the front yard.

The man, moving above her, over her — with rigid arms and fisted shoulders, feeling the cool intermittent press of her breasts against his ribs — looked into the mottled sheet of sun that lay across the woman's face and the rumpled bed. He considered the wide hazel irises of the woman's eyes, eyes drawn to the window, out into the sky over the front yard. The man believed at that moment that he would remember this sight of her: the sun across her skin, falling between her just-open lips, where a fine mindless shape was curling, her skin lit and blooming, her carved arms raised around her head like a harp's arms, as if the delicate gesture unfolding through them were being sung wordlessly into sight in her face. The woman will survive this understanding.

The man who will wake in the night to the implausible pain of his own stopped heart will remember — as he is folding to his knees in the dark — standing outside the room of the boy, listening to the still-young woman he once married sing to the boy a song a bear might sing. In the shadowed hall, he imagines the glint of peppermint. And the woman — the woman who will die in a dim hospital room, the mother of the boy who will die in a restaurant, the wife of this man who will die beside a bed in which a different woman will lie — this woman sings the bear's song to the boy, to the visiting man in the dark hall, to herself.

This man, who will later break his leg on the front step, will eventually marry a woman who is unable to conceive. To the boy, the new woman smells like the earth around trees, or honey and medicine, or wellwater. She will come to love the boy, will love the man he will become, will love the boy's child in turn. Years later, after the death of the father, this new woman will listen as the boy's mother recounts the moment the boy was conceived. The woman who smells like wellwater will hear the sight of sun's spread across dusty glass, the spread of warmth up the insides of raised arms, the rumble of low sounds made by the husband, the sight of the sun itself — and she will know from her own memory the tree through which the sun shone, the window through which the sun must have fallen, though in her mind the room has always belonged to the boy. She will imagine, correctly or incorrectly, the sounds made by the man on that day.

The bear who lives in the woods licks peppermints from the palm of the old woman. From the steps of her porch each morning, the old woman feeds the peppermints to the bear — one after another after another — in order to keep him tame. The bear has no home that the old woman knows of. When the old woman walks to the white stream above the lake, the bear walks with her, and there as the old woman sits and watches, the bear slaps fish onto the bank. The bear eats his fill, and the old woman returns home, taking one fish or two with her, bent like silver moons inside her basket — all she can carry. She cooks the fish over a fire, gives silent thanks to the bear. Late each night, at bedtime, the bear returns. He sits at the bottom of the porch steps and sings to the old woman as she falls asleep. The bear sings deep and strong, a song of thankfulness and want. This is how the story ends.

The boy who will retell the story of the bear learns it from his mother. She tells him the story at night in his bed beside the window, and she describes the whiteness of the peppermints, the gleam of the fish taken from the stream, and she sings the bear's wordless song to the boy, letting the bear's song press the boy to sleep — the boy who as a man will die in front of strangers, coughing blood onto his food. The boy dreams of the bear's song, fertile, low, and wide; he will dream of the song as a man. He will tell this story to his own child, will mistake it for remedy, will elect to fail to sing the song he knows.

The treehouse that will never be built will be described many times. A hackberry tree stands in the yard where the man lives alone, where he will later pretend to introduce his son to the woman who smells like wellwater, though in fact they have already met. The leaves of the hackberry tree are perennially pocked with galls, and just over the man's head, high above the boy's, the tree's fingers open into a gesture of grasping, and the man imagines out loud to the boy the treehouse he believes he could build for them there. The boy tells his mother. The man will mention it to his new wife. The man and the boy discuss the treehouse at bedtimes, with ambitious talk of trapdoors, rope ladders, spyholes. The man, eventually, will be survived by the possibilities of the treehouse; the boy will describe it, much later, to the young woman he believes he does not love.

The song that will be sung instead to the boy's child is sad and sweet. The boy knows this song too, but the young woman who will sing it to his child will sing an extra, unfamiliar verse, one the boy would never have otherwise heard — not a verse so much as a small chorus, more eager than the rest of the gentle song, a song that is not a lullaby, nor even the bear's song, but that has a lullaby's earnest swoon, and the extra verse will feel to the boy, for years, like being startled from half-sleep. He will come to believe that he no longer loves the woman who sings this song.

The young woman who will sing to the boy's child will never know that the boy himself dislikes the extra verse. But this woman will sing just the same as she is sung to. Her grandfather sings her this song, and she will sing it to the boy and his child in the car, on the way to the hospital, the day before the boy's mother will die. She will sing it to the mother herself, deep in the last full night. Long afterward, elsewhere, this woman will die in a different car. She will be survived by a different man to whom she will also have sung this song.

Hesitantly, suspiciously, the man who fathered the boy will ask the woman he once married about the circumstances surrounding the conception of their son. He will, by then, have forgotten things the woman will continue to remember.

The tree under which a stranger's daughter will later play — kneeling into the bed of brown needles, pressing a hashwork of white and red grooves into her skin, peeling bulbs of sap from the bark and murmuring to herself — is the same tree that stands aside the front walk, limbs nodded deep over the half-wanted patio furniture tilting loose legged and flaking in the shade. It is the same tree through which the sun for years has fallen on its way to the front window of the yellow house, the house the man has already left behind.

The boy's child will never know the yellow house. He will never firmly believe in his memories of the woman who once sang there. He will know different houses, different songs. He will know different mothers. He will know the bear's story, but not his song. Nonetheless he will die in sadness, far from the girl he will never learn not to love.

The bear in the story told to the boy does not enjoy the taste of peppermint. He licks the old woman's palms, slaps fish to the shore for her, but while he is drawn to the whiteness of the peppermints, the bear imagines himself wounded by their bite. This truth reveals itself near the story's end, but the mother will never reveal it to her son, his father, the dog in the hall. She will have no cause to reveal it because the story, in the mother's telling, fails to end. Instead, it is survived by this tune, by the sad braided rumble of the bear's voice.

Neither the man nor the boy nor any of the women loved by them each will ever notice that the bear's story, as told by the boy's mother, does not return from song. They will fail to suspect the things that will befall the bear, the old woman. Nonetheless they, and others they love in turn, will sing songs to themselves that resemble the bear's song. They will encounter and remember days full of voice. Celebrants and mourners will weep, throats torn open by the pull of this singing; lovers will share breath, possessed by moments of unassailable faith; children will croon inaudibly over busy new hands; dogs will dream and mutter, safe in warm houses, paws trembling; bones will mend; trees will seek sun. In time these things will grow and turn bare. And after all there will be survivors.

CHAPTER 2

Flounder


HERE IS THE HALIBUT: HE LIVES ON THE SEAFLOOR, A GREAT swimming slab, shimmying into the bottom's silt. He swims on his side, affecting flatness. He is meant to work this way. His top side, as he swims, is in truth merely his right side, where both of his close-set eyes now bulge. This top side — his right side, all that he can see of himself — is dark and mottled and always up, and on his bonewhite left side, always down, nothing remains of his face but the delicate swell of half of his jaw. Whatever sense of symmetry the halibut has, or of elevation, or orientation, he has had to learn it for himself because he has known a different body; he is born upright. When he is the size of a hand he undergoes the measured shift of certain bones, certain surface features. In particular, his left eye migrates to his right side. This movement becomes a slow pain that he will always feel, a pull of displacement, a creeping injury. With it comes a realization that resembles pain, but which dwindles with time into discomfort: the discovery that from each eye he can see the other. And though at times he briefly forgets this ability, this condition, in much the same way that a man may disregard the constant sight of his own nose, nonetheless the halibut finds it difficult to become blind to himself, and his considerations are not those a man might have; the nose, after all, does not look back. And sometimes when the halibut lies nearly buried beneath the silt and only his eyes and gills are exposed, he thinks to himself that it is often difficult not to stare, that up is an abstraction, that everything that cripples could be considered a wound. And because he does not know the quality of his left side, he chooses to believe it is a scar.


HERE IS THE MAN, FISHING FROM A BOAT FULL OF OTHER MEN, using a long strong pole that fits into a metal holster against the rail. The line is long and strong, ends in wire. The man has paid to be on the boat, to use the pole. Men in thick tan coveralls with hoods help him, help the other men who have also paid. The men in coveralls are busy and bearded, appropriately dressed, and the man with the pole watches them, does what they tell him. He nods a lot, says okay. He is very cold. The man enjoys learning things, knows many, many things already, like the shape of Nevada or that planes fly because their moving wings are sucked upward or that the moon tugs the sea from side to side. He knows that one cubic meter of water — scarcely enough water to drown in — weighs twenty-two hundred pounds, a metric ton. This particular thing, he does not believe.


IN AN INCIDENT TO COME, LATER IN THE DAY, THE HALIBUT will swallow a drifting piece of squid that is wrapped around a small thick treble hook, and this man will be at the other end of the line, far, far away in the light. The pole will already be bent beneath the weight of all the water passing along the line, the line arcing through the water between the man and the fish, between the boat and the seafloor — far more line than the distance alone implies because the press of the moving water will have given the line a magnificent, vertebral curve. Neither the man nor the fish will know just how far the line arcs outward from a plumb line straight up and down. Perhaps the men in coveralls know it, have worked through the math, but they will be unable to envision the fact of it. There will be no place from which the entirety of that line can be seen — looping out into the dark and cold, like the tense wooden curve of a slender bow, splendid and tight and thrumming as the water slices itself around it.

When the halibut takes the line, the man will not set the hook. He will not even attempt to set the hook; the men in coveralls have told him it is pointless to try. They have described to him, as best they can, the generous hyperbola of the line beneath the water. One will remind him: Too much play. The man will think of translational distances. And when the halibut first takes the line, the man will not know for certain what has happened — will certainly not know, for example, the things the halibut will know — but he will nonetheless feel through his hands and through the pole a sonorous weight on the line. He will come to believe in an implied movement there, like the sea's motion made concise, pulling on his palms, his forearms, his biceps, his feet planted on the deck, his thighs near his knees. He will feel this in some of the same ways that the halibut, moments before, will have first felt the terrible weight of this alien pull — again, not quite a pain, but a pressure, a vital gravity — anchored in the deep narrow pocket of his mouth, at the top of his throat pulling, a frightening and essential tug, stretching out from him and away, up toward the light. The silt the fish has lain in will become a cloud — will briefly blind him, far from the sight of the man.


BEFORE ANY OF THESE THINGS COME TO PASS, AN OCTOPUS drifts beneath the boat. The octopus is not a fish. The octopus is one answer to the riddle What creature has legs but cannot stand? Another answer is a kangaroo in space. The man on the boat knows both these answers. He learned the first from a restaurant placemat; his son has since invented the second. Of course, among the many items the man does not recall, despite all he knows, is the fact that the octopus does not have legs, but arms. And even if the man did remember this, he might dismiss it as a matter of semantics. As for the octopus, the man does not imagine that it troubles itself with semantics, or that it even, strictly speaking, invents names for its parts, or that it fancies itself an element of riddles. Nevertheless, in certain circles, the octopus is considered an intelligent creature. Some humans, in fact, wrestling with their own limitations of understanding, of communication, of empathy, make it their business to study just how intelligent the octopus may be. Octopuses have been taught, in the company of humans, to recognize symbols, to open jelly jars under water, to solve simple problems of cause and effect, such as blue equals pain. In one aquarium, an octopus has taught herself to climb out of her tank, to make her way across the floor to a neighboring tank of crustaceans, to drag herself up the side of that tank and in to where the lobsters cower. She takes a lobster tightly in her arms and returns back to her own tank. There she eats the lobster, hides the empty carapace under rocks. She does this by night, finishing before the aquarium workers — who are human — return each morning to find another lobster mysteriously absent. For a while, some of these humans will suspect others of themselves in the disappearance of the lobsters, but this is not the octopus's fault.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders. Copyright © 2012 Ted Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ted Sanders teaches at the University of Illinois and Parkland College in Urbana-Champaign. His stories have appeared in the Georgia Review and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, among other places.


Ted Sanders teaches at the University of Illinois and Parkland College in Urbana-Champaign. His stories have appeared in the Georgia Review and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, among other places.

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