From a lightning death on an isolated peak to the intrigues of a small town orchestra, the glimmering stories in this debut collection explore how naturedamaged, fierce, and unpredictableworms its way into our lives. Here moths steal babies, a creek seduces a lonely suburban mother, and the priorities of a passionate conservationist are thrown into confusion after the death of her son. Over and over, the natural world reveals itself to be unknowable, especially to the people who study it most. These tales of scientists, nurses, and firefighters catalog the loneliness within families, betrayals between friends, and the recurring song of regret and grief.
About the Author
Emily Wortman-Wunder has been published in the Kenyon Review, Vela, Nimrod, High Country News, and elsewhere. She lives in Denver, Colorado, and teaches scientific writing at the University of Colorado.
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Not a Thing to Comfort You
THE WOMAN CRAWLED into town from the riverbed. Two miles. The elbows of her jean jacket were ripped to shreds and there was tar on her forearms, and gravel, and river mud. That's how it was we knew how far she'd come. That, and the other body, the man's, was found down in the tamarisk, catfish gnawing on his feet. We knew they were together because they each had part of the same animal skull in a pocket: she had the cranial cavity and upper mandible; he had the jaw. I put hers on her nightstand so it'd be the first thing she saw when she woke up.
We wondered among ourselves if his was the name she said sometimes. "Buddy." Hardly a word at all, more of a slur, a sigh, a snarl. We wondered if they were a couple, if this had been done to them together, or if he was the one who'd blacked her eyes. "Or both," sighed Narita. "She got him back, whichever it was," Rebecca said. "Gave him something to think about." The police told us they'd probably been thrown, or thrown themselves, from a train as it sped along the trestle, hugging the water's edge. I gasped, thinking Amtrak, and the other nurses laughed. "No, Annie, these were traineys," said the officer. "You know, train hobos. Freight trains."
We washed her hair, lotioned her hands, checked in on her as we hurried past to other patients. Waited for her to wake up.
Sometimes in the evenings I'd think about her, usually as I got ready for bed myself. Standing in the bathroom, scrubbing my whole, rounded teeth with a toothbrush. Whipping the comb through my hair, dark and full along the hairline. Lifting up the sheet and sliding my body in, tired and sore from a long day of honest work. I'd think about how different we were, what different lives we led. I was short and pink and plump with rounded kneecaps, rounded fingertips, a little round belly. My hands could do things, thread an IV, find a vein, sterilize a wound, play Gershwin and Bach on the little upright piano I kept in my dining room.
I wondered if she knew how to do any of this, or what she did do. Her body was long and lean and dry with thinning blond hair that was beginning to grow in where it had been ripped out. Her belly was a bruised flat trapezoid, her belly button square, her kneecaps sharp-edged rectangles. Her forehead was so tall and narrow that sometimes it was all you saw if you popped your head in quick, just glancing over to see if her eyes were open yet; it was the same tawny gray as the rest of her skin, and rough and dry from the weather. Her gums and private parts were swollen and foul with infection. Sometimes her eyeballs raced around beneath their lids, dreaming, and her breath would come in shallow pants. "Shh," Narita would coo if she was there. "Shh, shh, darling. You're with us now."
"Get him, honey," Rebecca would say, one side of her jaw clamped down on a pen as she shook out the IV. "Kick his bu —"
I would shake my hand at them to be quiet, in case she said something else.
Except for the skull, a little piece of rope, and a squashed box of raisins, the kind Narita gave her son to put in his lunchbox, there had been nothing in her pockets. She didn't have money or any sort of driver's license; no nail clippers, no pocketknife, not even a tampon. We told ourselves she must have had a little bag, a backpack, something, and the ones who pushed her off the train had taken it; the detective, one of the days he came in, shrugged. "Sometimes these people don't carry a thing," he said. "That's part of what turns them on to this life."
"Wouldn't that be the life," Rebecca sighed. "No mortgage, no bills. No kids. Nothing to tie you down."
"Nowhere to call home," I corrected. "Not a thing to comfort you."
"Things," said Rebecca. "A house can turn around and bite you just as nasty as any old animal. Take a look at Narita's cousin over in Colbrun. Before your time, Annie," she added.
Narita sighed and nodded. "If it hadn't been for that no-good husband of hers, sneaking in at two a.m., they'd all be dead. Came home and there they all were, passed out on the living room floor. The EMTs said if it had been an hour longer they wouldn't of made it."
"Carbon monoxide?" I breathed.
"That's so scary," I said. "I'm going out tonight and getting myself a detector. Isn't that just one too many times you've heard that story?" I let myself take in the whole room with the question, my eyes wide.
"Detectors and deadbolts and moats," Rebecca answered. "All trying to prevent the inevitable. I say when you go, you'll go."
Narita and I shook our heads at her foolishness and, I might add, her total hypocrisy. As if she didn't have smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in the house she and her three boys shared with her fireman fiancé. But this was how we were: Rebecca was the tough, Narita was the good, and I, for some reason, was the little innocent. Only twenty-six, after all. As Rebecca liked to say, squinting at me with something like disapproval, "You've got your whole life ahead of you."
As I walked home I tried to figure out why I'd said what I did. Of course I was a little afraid of carbon monoxide, but no more than any other nurse who's seen a whole family come in limp and blue. It was as though, I justified to myself, the rest of them were so expecting me to say the trembling, wide-eyed thing that it pulled the words right from my lips.
I made my way past the tidy white houses strung along the bluff, each street a little higher than the next. Mine was at the very highest street, overlooking the great river valley and the mountains on either side, with a field of rabbitbrush and sagebrush behind it. I'd bought it when I moved to town two years before, at the tail end of the oil bust, when houses were so cheap it was the same as renting. I'd been able to afford a three-bedroom house on my starting salary, along with furniture and a little red jeep that I used to go four-wheeling and camping. I was still kind of looking for a man to share it all with, even though Ned Flanagan was living with me at the time.
I made for the pasture at the end of the street, the shortcut to my house. My sneakers made hardly any noise in the soft gray dirt, the contours of the pasture following the contour of the bluff, which followed the thick brown snake of the river. I walked out to the far end, where if I stretched my neck a little I could see the spot where they fell from the train. The tracks came so close to the river there they had to be reinforced with beams and steel.
I wasn't interested in how they fell, in the lurch from the floor of the train out into nothingness, the drop, the impact with the rocky river shore that broke her leg, her pelvis, and her teeth.
No. As I peered down at the track, I thought about how they would have seen us: a tidy clump of houses dwarfed by the sagebrush and the hogback hills. A brief scene, in motion, and if they hadn't fallen, soon passed by. I felt a cold lonely feeling as I thought about speeding away, into the unknown, forever leaving, forever being new.
Ned Flanagan and I went to Mattie's Diner that night to eat. We always went to Mattie's on Thursdays, when she oversaw the dinner shift, so we could show how we were supporting her new venture (even if, as Ned would whisper to me later, she put peas in the burritos and couldn't make coffee to save her life).
"I've been thinking about your lady," he said when he sat down. "We were out putting in fence posts at that new mansion in the valley. Tedious as hell, and dirty. I mean. Sweat, dust, grease, you name it. Took me two showers to get it off. And your lady, I was thinking, for her it must have been that way all the time. Like coming in from two weeks' hunting, only constantly."
Just for argument's sake, I said, "Maybe that's the price of freedom."
"Hell of a price," he said.
I shook my head and pinched the toe of his boot, up in my lap. For all his faults, Ned sure did have sexy toes. And ankles. All the way up to his head, pretty much.
When Mattie came by, Ned ordered his usual. I was about to order mine when I changed it, at the last minute, to her spicy fish tacos. I've never been a big fan of spicy, or fried fish, or tacos, but there seemed to be something in the air that cried out for change.
After Mattie's we went to the Sagebrush Saloon. We went in and shook off our coats and took our usual spot near the pool table at the far end, where already Hiram Buscay and Jack Armentrout were racking up. I was usually quiet around Ned's pals, but tonight I was quieter than usual and even took a cigarette from Hiram's pack when he offered it around solemnly. The smoke was as harsh as sandpaper in my throat and lungs and my eyes watered so much that Ned in his annoying way came over and put a hand on my shoulder. "You want to go?" he asked in a low voice, but I shook my head.
A song came on the jukebox, "The Six Colors of Mary," that was hot the first summer I moved to the mountains, when I was still making the rounds of the bars and the men and my life seemed to stretch out before me, unknown and mysterious and sure to be exciting. I think the first time I heard it I was sitting on the hood of Ferguson McCall's pickup as he was giving me his little romantic spiel, the one Rebecca, who's gotten it too, called his "darling, won't you fuck me" speech, and at that particular instant — he hadn't laid a finger on me, yet — the excitement and the beauty of life had seemed almost unbearable. So when that song came on the jukebox I just had to get up off my stool and dance, alone, my face turned up to the dark and smoky ceiling and my hands wrapped around my elbows. Ned watched me with a look that said, there's my crazy girlfriend, isn't she sweet?
That night I ran myself a bath, deep and clean as forgetting; when I got out Ned had fallen asleep. I poured myself a drink and sat by the open window and watched the lights of the town and of the river and of the stars above. And I thought: chair, glass, rum. She had none of this. And I imagined, undoing my robe, the men in town looking up here at me, faintly lit by the town lights, my rounded belly, my rounded breasts, my plump little thighs, up here looking down on the town like a goddess. Or a whore. She'd know this feeling, I thought. She'd understand how sometimes comfort is not enough.
Rebecca called the next morning to tell me the woman had woken up. "She says her name is Nancy," she announced over the phone.
"Nancy Higgins," the woman agreed when I'd gotten in and was disengaging her IV.
The detective had already been in and had gotten his first statement, Rebecca said to me. She tried to listen in at the door but then Nancy told her everything anyway. Everything there was to tell, which wasn't much. She only remembered a little: the threats, the fight. Being pushed. The dead man was her boyfriend —"my man," she called him. His name wasn't Buddy but we'd already formed a silent agreement not to ask about that. His name was Christopher Karst.
"Christopher Cursed?" asked Rebecca, her eyebrows flaring.
"Karst," said the woman in her careful gravelly voice. "Karst. Some kind of rock." She shaped a rock layer with her hand above the bedsheet, only the gesture was too much for her and her hand sank down, weary.
Of course we were curious and asked all sorts of things, where she was from, how long she'd been riding the trains, what her life had been like before and during and what she was going to do now.
Not too many of our questions got answered. She'd start, fair enough, but she'd start at the beginning of the story where none of us could make head or tail of anything and long before she got to any of the specifics she'd have waved her hand, wearily, and let it fall as her tongue lapsed into silence. "Where are you from?" was answered by a story that began with her riding a motorcycle up into the deep green hills, her knees cinched tight around some man who wasn't Karst and wasn't Buddy (we didn't think) and maybe wasn't a real man at all but just some idea of what a man should be.
"I know that man," Rebecca said later, over lunch, when we three were hogging the table under the window. "That man's not my ex-husband, by way of example. But he could be Fergie McCall." I laughed, partly at the way her eyebrows looked like they were going to leap off her face and partly because it was true: that's how Ferguson was, an idea of a man. And he had made me, I realized at that moment, feel like an idea of a woman. Was that what I wanted?
"That man is my man," said Narita, smiling one of her gentlest smiles with just a hint of lust buried within it.
Rebecca chimed in obediently that of course her Bill was that man too, and they all looked at me to see what I was going to say about Ned and I just had to shake my head. "Nope," I said. "Absolutely not."
"Come on," Rebecca said, stabbing her salad. "He's sweet, right?"
"Sweet and bland," I said. "Like he could go the rest of his life with his boots under the bed and my bra on the back of the door until we both drop over dead. You know? He just has no concept of ambition."
"Oh," said Rebecca meaningfully. "You want Dr. Rosario."
Dr. Rosario. We all three closed our eyes for a minute to conjure him, so young, with his new baby, and that ravishing way he had of suddenly leaping up and blushing when his wife called, or when one of us stood just a shade too close. Then we brushed the crumbs off our scrubs, already feeling wanton in comparison.
No, I thought as I went about my rounds, swabbing anuses and poking fingers, Dr. Rosario was not what I wanted either. Ned as a doctor would still be Ned, only we'd have our perfect green lawn and our flotilla of soccer champs and spelling bee winners instead of a house in need of paint and a new porch.
I went by Nancy's room when I had a few minutes; I was sort of hoping she'd be asleep. I just wanted to watch her. But she was awake, and when she caught sight of me she did a sort of fish-like wiggle that seemed to be a gallant attempt to sit up. "Good morning, then," she said in her gravelly voice. "Or it must be good afternoon now. It's so hard to tell sometimes."
I showed her the push button on her bed frame again, up arrow for up, down arrow for down. "Buttons," she said. "I've never been one for buttons."
I laughed, and took her temperature, took her blood pressure, all things the aides usually do, and probably had done, just a few minutes before.
"Another sunny day. Seems like that's about all there is here," she said to me, and I wondered if she meant this as an opening. Wondered if I should take it: What are you used to? I could say, casually.
Instead I said, leaning forward to barely touch the little animal skull still sitting on her nightstand, "I put this here for you. I didn't know if you'd want it."
She smiled one of her long thin smiles and said, "How sweet." And then nothing for a long time and we both stared out at the blindingly blue sky and I was beginning to resign myself to making do with "how sweet," when she continued, "That Karst. 'I got the part that bites,' he said, 'and you got the part that dreams.' That's what he said." She shook her head. "So much folderol, to me."
"You don't go for folderol?" I asked, casually, pretending to mark something on her chart. I felt suddenly flooded with an odd, dangerous hope: maybe that was what made her what she was. Something so easy as not caring for the little things.
"Some of us can do with less, you know?" was all she said, smiling a lopsided grin that made her nose and chin come forward into sharpened points.
I nodded, breathless, hoping for the more that never came.
After that I stopped in whenever I got a chance. I don't know why. She rarely said much to me and I didn't know how to ask her about things the way Rebecca and even Narita could; yet when they were there I'd make my excuses and leave. All they ever asked about was her childhood, her sex life, the times she tried to go straight. I no longer wanted to hear what loose, rambling confessions they elicited and once or twice I almost said to Nancy, when we were alone, "It's not like you have to answer them. You could just say no, I don't choose to talk about that."
But I never did. When I was in her room — picking up little bits of trash from the floor, straightening the stuff on her gift shelf, the flowers and teddy bears the other nurses brought in out of pity — I mostly held my breath and listened. Sometimes I tried to get her to talk by complaining about my life, about Ned, or the house, or how I was on call so much it seemed like I could hardly get away. She'd laugh, a single braying syllable that was never spontaneous — "Haw!" — and I'd feel gratified. Even blush a little. "Yeah, I know," I'd answer, "can you believe that's what he said?"
Of course Rebecca picked up on it. "How's your girlfriend doing?" she'd say when she passed me sneaking back up to my floor after a quick detour. Or once, when she caught me in Nancy's room: "This little nurse has quite a crush on you, Ms. Higgins. Don't let it go to your head."
"Haw!" Nancy laughed, the same as if it had been one of my carefully crafted stories.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Not a Thing to Comfort You"
Copyright © 2019 Emily Wortman-Wunder.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa 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.
Table of Contents
Not a Thing to Comfort You,
Gustav and Vera,
The Hitchhiker Rule,
Life History of the Four-Foot Moth,
The Endangered Fish of the Colorado River,
What People are Saying About This
“I couldn’t help but think of Andrea Barrett when I read this collection with all its funny, inventive stories in which the natural world and humanity collide with each other. There’s such careful attention paid in these stories, to people and the environment alike.”Carmen Maria Machado, judge, 2019 Iowa Short Fiction Award
“Populated with all manner of wild animals, endangered species, and flawed people, the endlessly readable stories in Not a Thing to Comfort You remind me of campfire ranger talks, if the rangers are Annie Proulx or Raymond Carver and the untended campfire burns down an entire forest. Wortman-Wunder now certainly enters the ranks of our finest naturalist writers, yet what gives these stories their remarkable power and depth is her lifetime of meticulous fieldwork on the always unpredictable human heart.”Justin Hocking, author, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir
“Emily Wortman-Wunder’s stunning stories demand our attention. Graceful in style, bountiful in their knowledge of the natural world, they move effortlessly from Beethoven concertos to bear hibernacula, from suburban homes to rural trailers. These stories don’t mind getting their hands dirty excavating secrets, but they just as painstakingly illuminate lives in search of love and connection. A rich and affecting collection.”Steven Schwartz, author, Madagascar: New and Selected Stories
“Not a Thing to Comfort You is a virtuosic debut collection of fiction that roils with sentence-level tension, narrative surprise, and the kind of immersion in a character’s consciousness that makes you consider if Emily Wortman-Wunder is an alchemist uniquely capable of mining the subjectivity of a rogue’s gallery of complicated women and refining those results into gold. This book reminded me why I love short stories.”Steven Church, author, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood
“There’s a sleight-of-hand magic in Not a Thing to Comfort You. Emily Wortman-Wunder's characters are palpable and complex, and her psychological insights rival the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Jane Smiley. Yet she accomplishes this in a few pages of story, rather than a novel. Don’t come to this book seeking sentimentality or tired tropes. Wortman-Wunder’s voice and her sensibility are fresh, sometimes alarming, and always deeply satisfying.”BK Loren, author, Theft: A Novel