Monday, June 4, 2007
Today's Short Story by Eudora Welty
I haven't read a short story since early April, and I was prompted to do so today because I have become fascinated with bottle trees. I first read about them in Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. In the story it is a "mistake" tree where a former alcoholic hangs liquor bottles. Then I read a blog entry the other day reviewing a book in the Garden Bloggers' Book Club, called Passalong Plants. Again, there was mention of a bottle tree. I was delighted to find out that they really exist. So I've gone on a bit of a search to find out more, and lo and behold, Eudora Welty took a photo of one in the days when she worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
© Eudora Welty Collection
Mississippi Department of Archives and History
This photograph by Welty, of a home in Simpson County, reflects a folk belief that "bottle-trees" — trees on whose limbs bottles have been placed — will trap evil spirits that might try to get in the house. Welty used bottle trees in her short story "Livvie," which was set near the Old Natchez Trace, a famous colonial "road" used by Indians, merchants, soldiers, and outlaws between Natchez and Nashville, Tennessee. This photograph, like many others taken by Welty during her work for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, appears in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996).
So, I just had to read Livvie to find out more. It is in my copy of Thirteen Stories.
An old man marries a sixteen year old girl and brings her to his home in the "deep country." After a nicely detailed description of the house, the author proceeds to tell us about the yard.
Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue. There was no word that fell from Solomon's lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way the bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house - by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again. Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, [since they were married] in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming into the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did.
This was an exceptionally good story, fifteen pages long, written in 1942. Slow, quiet, and riveting. I was shocked away from it when the phone rang. It was my daughter and I told her the whole story. She too was fascinated.
Eudora Welty always surprises me. When I begin a book or story, I never can guess what will happen. The words she uses are always perfect, just the right ones to tell her story.
The whole day, and the whole night before, she had felt the stir of spring close to her. It was as present in the house as a young man would be.
Isn't that beautifully said?
Not one person had visited the house in the nine years time, and this particular day, two people come. One is a woman selling cosmetics. She offers a lipstick to Livvie.
A fragrance came out of it like incense, and Livvie cried out suddenly, "Chinaberry flowers!"
Her hand took the lipstick, and in an instant she was carried away in the air through the spring, and looking down with a half-drowsy smile from a purple cloud she saw from above a chinaberry tree, dark and smooth and neatly leaved, neat as a guinea hen in the dooryard, and there was her home that she had left. On one side of the tree was her mama holding up her heavy apron, and she could see it was loaded with ripe figs, and on the other side was her papa holding a fish-pole over the pond, and she could see it transparently, the little clear fishes swimming up to the brim.
What writing, and what a great story!