by Marian Oman, ASF intern
Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia” is the perfect story to read now—today!—as we stand on the edge of May before leaping headlong into summer and all its sticky, sunburned glory. The story, from Russell’s 2006 debut collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is set in the otherworldly mugginess of the Florida Keys where two brothers search for the ghost of their younger sister, Olivia, who disappeared two years before during an afternoon of crab-sledding (“the closest thing we island kids have to a winter sport”). With the help of a pair of “diabolical” goggles that allow them to see ghosts underwater, the boys—Timothy and “Wallow” Swallow (Russell is a genius with names; the boys’ grandmother, who subsists “almost entirely on bananas, banana-based dishes and other foods that you can gum” is called Granana)—begin nightly sea scavenges for Olivia.
This weird and wonderful story is absolutely awash in the physical sensations of summer, of being a kid, outside, unsupervised, and all the grit and grime, bumps and bruises that such freedom entails. Describing the joys of crab-sledding, our narrator Timothy says: “You climb into the upended exoskeleton of a giant crab, then you go yeehaw slaloming down the powdery dunes. . . By the time you hit the water, you’re covered in it, grit in your teeth and your eyelids, along the line of your scalp.” If that’s not enough to make me want to try crab-sledding, then at least it makes me want to read this story on a beach, a healthy amount of sand between my toes.
But there’s something weightier going on here, too. The boys’ sense of loss after Olivia’s disappearance is as deep and dark as the waters they troll for their sister’s ghost. Their world is perpetually, almost primordially, waterlogged, its musty dampness like a beach towel that never quite dries. Each night, the boys haunt the murky waters off the coast of their island, paddling their crab-shell boat through the “rot and barnacles” of the boat basin and into the open water, under a night sky made liquid by an “eerie blue froth” of clouds. The boys accept the presence of the ghost fish beneath the water’s surface with the same quiet calm with which they contemplate the possibility that they will never find Olivia, the possibility that, after two years, “all the Olivia-ness has already seeped out of her and evaporated into the violet welter of clouds.”
There is a terrific sense of permeability in this story, the sense that the boys’ grief is as fine, invisible and vaporous a thing as the moisture that hangs in the humid night air. That, despite their mostly cheerful demeanors, the boys are also afflicted by a kind of sadness that can, like a phantasmic school of minnows, swim “right through my belly button.” A feeling that death is not just all around us, but, like life, is in us, too.
Let’s be honest, though: I am not fond of creepy crawly things, especially the (un)dead kind that lurks beneath the surface of the ocean. I never have been. When I was Tim and Wallow’s age, no amount of cajoling could have convinced me to accompany the boys on one of their midnight excursions. I would have turned my nose up at their grubby goggles, balked at the first mention of aquatic zombies, and stayed ashore with a book, safe, “dry and blameless.” But that’s what impresses me so much about this story. I shouldn’t like it as much as I do. And yet, Russell’s writing is so irresistible, her imagination so very odd, that before you know it you, too, are holding your breath, your nose, and—against your better judgment—leaping headfirst into a murky, messy world where dead fish swim alongside dead sisters. You’re up to your eyeballs in life’s mucky depths, all muddied up with good and bad, decay and beauty, life and death.
Describing the feeling he has just before he jumps into the ocean, Timothy says: “It’s my favorite moment: when I’m one toe away from flight and my body takes over. The choice is made, but the consequence is still just an inky shimmer beneath me. And I’m flying, I’m rushing to meet my own reflection—Gah! Then comes the less beautiful moment when I’m up to my eyeballs in tar water, and the goggles fill with stinging brine. And, for what seems like a very long time, I can’t see anything at all, dead or alive.”
Here’s to that moment of flight. To sand in your teeth and salt in your eyes. To “Haunting Olivia” and the weird, watery world that awaits us within. It’s summer: jump in.
|Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
|Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.