As a child, I read Aesop’s Fables. I loved the animal narrators, and the succinct, moral endings gave me a sense of safety. The stories provided a set of rules, as if the world could be tamed by excellent planning and good behavior — I still think about “The Ant and the Grasshopper” when I put up vegetables from our garden each fall — and The Girl & The Fox Pirate, Kate Gehan’s book of short stories, reminded me, at first, of that beloved childhood collection. There are animals. There is fantasy. But that’s where the comparison stops.
Rather than giving us characters and stories within a knowable, rule-based universe, Gehan offers up honesty, discomfort, and lyrical brutalism. Her writing is masterful and poetic, but the stories are raw and wincing. Each page contains a kind honesty rarely discussed (or confessed) in life and literature. She exposes the blood and bones of human experience, and her words seduce the reader into revelations and epiphanies that are unpleasant, but real. Gehan serves up life on a platter. She hands us the knives.
“Young Blood” calls to my mind the faces of tight-jawed adults dandling babies and puppies with clenched teeth, the phrase “I could just eat you up,” and our desire to consume that which we wish to be. The story begins with the narrator as an awkward girl with a broken heart, and ends with an obscene, though recognizable, desire to take back our youth and innocence by any means necessary:
“The children are unwilling to cut into the shark, which is female and has been drained of blood. Who can blame them when they are so young and not yet ready? She looks at their perfectly smooth faces and wishes there were a way to bathe her bursting, aged heart in their young blood to shrink it to a more effective size.”
I shrank from the honesty, but I wanted more of this mirror. I wanted Gehan to tell me what else she sees.
There’s a childhood Halloween game of putting hands into a blind box and feeling mystery substances on the other side: cold spaghetti, olives, Jell-O. I could never play that game. Even though I knew that there were no brains and gore hidden under the cardboard flap, I still couldn’t force myself to put my hand through and touch it. This is where Gehan is tricky. She coaxes the reader to follow, to reach in and touch. Her seduction is a ruse made of pretty words.
“We run ourselves dizzy along the winding trail ascending the atrium, marveling at the sculpture’s inferno of reds and oranges at the very top.”
In this titular story, “The Girl & The Fox Pirate,” employees staffing children’s amusements at the local museum transgress the boundary between innocence and adulthood, running the carousel afterhours, and imagining sex on the ride’s gleaming animals. “I want to defile you on this beast,” says the Fox Pirate. Each story contains promises of fun laced with danger — games. But Gehan’s seduction is akin to the shiny coins that tantalize raccoons into traps rather than games which end in squeals and laughter. When we reach through the hole in the cardboard box, we know our hands will touch something real, but we reach anyway.
Do you remember that time you wanted to abandon your baby to pursue your dream of becoming a rock star? What about that time you committed yourself to sex with a lover you knew was temporary, would disappoint, and did not care about you? These experiences, and many others, are those through which Gehan’s characters must live, and, as in real life, they will never escape the grief they cause, yet they knowingly commit themselves to this void.
In “Our Grief is a Receipt of Our Love,” death requires both terror and acceptance, a total succumbing to inevitability without hope. Gehan doesn’t pity her characters as they face their fate. She doesn’t give them anything to cling to:
“Alice’s mother is terminally ill, and as is the custom, the whole family will be lethally injected and buried together in a cemetery by the sea. On her last day, Alice takes her final shower and grieves all the books she will never read, paintings she will never see, music she will never hear.”
Although Alice’s death is not realized within the story, it is the beginning of the many deaths she will die in her lifetime, a clock of imagined events that will eventually tick down to the one which will materialize. This story is familiar to me, and it is as ordinary as it is surreal, like the cognitive dissonance I experience on social media when scrolling through my newsfeed: the ad for face cream followed by headlines of yet another mass shooting, products and banality sandwiched between terror and death.
The Girl & The Fox Pirate is both the revelation and the antidote for this dissonance. By weaving ordinary horror with the extraordinarily magical, by bonding transgression to innocence, Gehan gives us a world filled with both terror and delight, a world like our own. But, unlike daily life, Gehan’s magic reminds the reader to look for the sublime within the absurd, to see the possibilities even when there is no hope of escaping circumstance. Perhaps that is the moral contained within these fables, one for the modern age where we know that no amount of preparation can save us from what’s coming but we should do our best to enjoy the ride.