Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Wolf (Paul Bowles)

Last night's Jeopardy featured, of all things, a clue that referred to Paul Bowles's venomous short story "The Frozen Fields," which is one of the few pieces Bowles set in the US and which is also, in its twisted way, a Christmas story. Of course I had to pull it out today and read it again.

The story is set at a family gathering at a rural farmhouse somewhere in the northeast, presumably in the early decades of the twentieth century, and is told largely through the eyes of Donald, a boy of six who is visiting the farm along with his parents. Despite the Norman Rockwellish ambience, all isn't well; there are whispers of illicit goings-on, and Donald's father is a surly martinet who eventually precipitates a family crisis with a rude insinuation uttered during the course of Christmas dinner.

There's no love lost between father and son (the story almost certainly draws on Bowles's difficult relationship with his own father), and when Donald lies down to sleep in the farmhouse bedroom he lets his imagination run free:
On his way through the borderlands of sleep he had a fantasy. From the mountain behind the farm, running silently over the icy crust of the snow, leaping over the rocks and bushes, came a wolf. He was running toward the farm. When he got there he would look through the windows until he found the dining room where the grown-ups were sitting around the big table. Donald shuddered when he saw his eyes in the dark through the glass. And now, calculating every movement perfectly, the wolf sprang, smashing the panes, and seized Donald's father by the throat. In an instant, before anyone could move or cry out, he was gone again with his prey still between his jaws, his head turned sideways as he dragged the limp form swiftly over the surface of the snow.
So, in the end, this atypical Bowles story maybe isn't so atypical after all. It has the same sudden, pitiless violence of many of his North African tales, and the frozen fields of the rural US turn out to be just another kind of desert.

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