DREADFUL YOUNG LADIES AND OTHER STORIES

Kelly Barnhill

Acclaimed as “a fantasist on the order of Neil Gaiman” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), Kelly Barnhill is a writer who defies easy classification. Her bestselling novel for young readers, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the 2017 Newbery Medal and was called “impossible to put down…exciting and layered,” by the New York Times.

Barnhill has also written many stories for adult readers, and her singular voice and narrative powers are on full display in Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories which gathers nine short works of fiction that explore bold and changeable visions of love,

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Acclaimed as “a fantasist on the order of Neil Gaiman” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), Kelly Barnhill is a writer who defies easy classification. Her bestselling novel for young readers, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the 2017 Newbery Medal and was called “impossible to put down…exciting and layered,” by the New York Times.

Barnhill has also written many stories for adult readers, and her singular voice and narrative powers are on full display in Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories which gathers nine short works of fiction that explore bold and changeable visions of love, yearning, ignorance, enlightenment, belief, and hope—refracted through the original lens of this highly imaginative teller of tales.

Barnhill’s stories draw their power from their author’s trademark startling metaphors and unforeseeable twists: A widow defies her community and claims an unsuitable creature as her soul mate. A soldier in wartime wrestles with his divided sexuality in a series of love letters to a faraway wife he mostly loves. The poetry of a dead boy refuses to relinquish its power over the girl who once loved him. A witch is plagued by the deadly repercussions of a spell. A man’s new wife may owe her existence to his taxidermy skills. The young women in the title story seek their empowerment through rebellion and imagination.

“I started my career as a short story writer, and will probably continue being one, despite the novels,” Barnhill explains. “Or maybe because of the novels. The short story requires an entirely different set of muscles to build, and uses an entirely different part of the voice. There is, at its center, something immutably miraculous about the substance and process of reading stories. We read because we hunger to know, to empathize, to feel, to connect, to laugh, to fear, to wonder—and to become, with each page, more than ourselves.”

With bold, reality-bending invention underscored by richly illuminated themes of love, death, jealousy, and hope, the stories in Dreadful Young Ladies cement Barnhill’s place as one of the wittiest, most vital, and compelling voices in contemporary literature.

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  • Workman
  • Hardcover
  • February 2018
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781616207977

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About Kelly Barnhill

Kelly Barnhill lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children. She is the author of four novels, most recently The Girl Who Drank the Moon, winner of the 2017 John Newbery Medal for the year’s most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. She is also the winner of a World Fantasy Award and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She has been a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the NCTE Charlotte Huck Award, the SFWA Andre Norton Award, and the PEN/USA literary prize.

Author Website

Praise

“Haunting and beautifully told . . . Each story is written in intensely poetic language that can exult or disturb, sometimes within the same sentence, and evokes a dreamlike, enchanted mood that lingers in the reader’s mind. These tales are made to be reread and savored.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Finds the author at her most poignant and surprising.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Barnhill dazzles in her short story collection for adults . . . a well-crafted short story collection featuring elements of magic realism while touching on the themes of love, grief, hope, jealousy, and more. Fantasy readers—especially fans of Neil Gaiman or even Kelly Link—will appreciate this spellbinding collection.”—Booklist

Excerpt

1.

Not one of us has ever stepped inside the Taxidermist’s house. We have no need to do so. We already know what we’ll find.

2.

On the center of his desk in the mayoral suite of the town hall (though it is not much of a suite anymore, and not much of a hall; the old town hall burned down years ago, and was replaced by a temporary double-wide) stands a mounted howler monkey, one of the finest specimens from the Taxidermist’s vast collection. Its mouth is open, lips curled outward like the rim of a trumpet. Its head is cocked sweetly to one side, as though reconsidering what it was just about to say. Its knees are bent, toes pigeoned inward in the classical stance, and—though this is a violation of protocol and is generally frowned upon by most who practice the art of taxidermy—its left hand is curled, poised just above the monkey’s bum, as though about to scratch.

Or, perhaps it does scratch. Really, who’s to say?

In any case, it is a frivolous gesture, but so furiously ruddy with life (or the side effects of life), that it takes the viewer aback. People have petted the howler monkey. Spoken to it. Loved it. They’ve checked its body for nits.

They’ve unaccountably wanted to scratch their own backsides—and they have, when they’ve thought no one was watching.

The Taxidermist is always watching.

And later, at night, when they’ve left the office, when they’ve left the howler behind and returned home, they’ve tossed and shivered in bed, dreaming of that lonely howl across the empty fields, the yawning trees, and the wide, cold sky. And sometimes, they’ve howled in return.

The howler makes them forget why they came to the Taxidermist’s office in the first place. They wander away, complaints unfiled, petitions undelivered, pieces of mind ungiven.

The Taxidermist loves his howler monkey. His secretary, on the other hand, does not.

“Sir,” his secretary says, bringing in a file. “For the meeting.” She says the word meeting with a certain accusation. She lets the file hover over the desk before fanning her fingers, letting the thing hit the desk with a slap.

“Did you know,” the Taxidermist says, “that when Pliny attacked Carthage, he entered the Temple of Astarte and found it filled with no fewer than thirty mountain gorillas? Each one was exquisitely mounted, painstakingly preserved, and, apparently, terrifying. The poor man turned on his heel and ran from the temple, claiming it had been seized by Gorgons.”

He sits at his desk, ancient books opened to different pages and stacked for ease of access. The secretary presses her lips into a long, tight line. She is the former librarian of the former library. She disapproves of the wanton opening of books. She shudders at the splay of tight spines, the heedless rustle of unloved pages like the whisper of lifting skirts.

The Taxidermist presses his fingers to his mouth to suppress a burp, though he pretends to clear his throat. He continues. “It is, they believe, the first indication that the art of specimen preservation is not a modern pastime as previously thought. I wonder if the Carthaginian priests thought to re-create the minutiae of the mundane as we do now. I wonder what they thought they were preserving.”

The secretary flares her nostrils, forcing her gaze away from her employer. The Taxidermist closed the library. Everyone knows this. Everyone blames him. The secretary answers his phones and files his documents and maintains his correspondence and organizes his meetings. But she hates the Taxidermist. Hates him.

“I’m not certain your research is correct,” the secretary says. “But gorillas have nothing to do with your meeting tonight.”

“My dear Miss Sorensen,” the Taxidermist says, peering into a heavily diagrammed book, its ancient dust rising from its pages like smoke, “it has everything to do with the meeting tonight. You’ll see.”

3.

The Taxidermist is the mayor, and has been for the last fifteen years. We did not vote for him. We’ve never met anyone who has. And yet he has won, term after term. Always a landslide. We never offer our congratulations, nor do we bring casseroles or homemade bars to his house, nor do we come to his Christmas parties or summer barbeques. (We already know what’s in that house. We know.)

This, we are sure, hurts the Taxidermist’s other wife. What wife wouldn’t be wounded by such a snub? She is a sweet, pretty thing. Young. Large eyes. Tight, smooth skin. She grew up four towns over, though no one can say in which one, exactly. Each day she pushes open the large, heavily carved front door of the house and stands on the porch. She brushes a few tendrils of shellacked hair from her face with the backs of her fingers. She adjusts her crisp, white gloves.

She is perfect. Her symmetry jostles the eye. Her body moves without hesitancy, without the irregular rhythm of muscle and bone.

Each day she walks from their house at the center of town, past what used to be the butcher shop and what used to be the hardware store and what used to be the Shoe Emporium and what used to be the offices of our former newspaper, until she reaches her husband’s office at the Town Hall. She wears high heels that click coldly against the cracked sidewalk. She wears a skirt that skims her young thighs and flares slightly at her bending knees. She used to smile at us when she passed, but she doesn’t anymore. We never smiled back. Instead, she keeps her lovely face porcelain-still, her mouth like a rosebud in a bowl of milk. A doll’s mouth.

We want to love her. We wish we could love her. But we can’t. We remember the Taxidermist’s first wife. We remember and remember and remember.

4.

Taxidermy is more than Art. It is more than Love. The Taxidermist has explained this to us, but we have closed our ears. We change the subject. We scan the sky for signs of rain.

Still, words have a way of leaking in.

“If the artisan does not love the expired subject on his table, it is true, the final product will be a cold, dead thing. A monstrosity. A hideous copy of what once was unique and alive and beautiful.”

We told ourselves we weren’t listening. Still, we found ourselves nodding. We found ourselves agreeing. It is hideous when a thing isn’t loved.

“But the love is not enough,” the Taxidermist insisted. “Desire, friends. Desire. When God leaned against the riverbank, when he pressed his fingers into the warm mud and pulled out a man, what was the motivation? Desire. God saw mud and made it Man. He made Man because he wanted Man. We see death and desire life. Love isn’t enough. You have to want to make it live.”

5.

There was no funeral for Margaret, the first wife.

We learned she was dead in the “Fond Memories” section of the newspaper. That was when we had a newspaper. He never mentioned it out loud. He never told anyone. He never even held a funeral. We tried to grieve. We wanted to drape our arms around the Taxidermist, to feel his tears wetting the shoulders of our shirts, to wrap his hand with our hands and squeeze. Then we took frozen hotdish and bar cookies and flowers and sliced ham and left them on the porch when the Taxidermist refused to open the door.

“Here,” we shouted. “We’ve brought food. Wine. Whiskey. We brought our presence and our ears and our love. Let us in and we’ll feed you. We’ll share a drink and share a song and make you live again. And she will live in the spaces between word and word, between breath and breath, between your tears and our tears. She will live.”

But the Taxidermist would not open the door. Each morning, we saw our gifts heaped in the trash bin outside the house. We never mentioned it again.

6.

We listened to the old men in Ole’s Tavern suck down shots and chasers and fuss over the meeting in the school. Or the building that will soon not be a school.

“Not much use pretending we’re still a town if the school’s gone.”

“We stopped pretending we were a town after the grain elevator closed.”

“And when the butcher shop shut its doors. Can’t call yourself a town if you can’t get a fresh hock for supper. If you don’t have a locker to put your winter’s buck.”

“Taxidermist’s got a lot of damn gall closing the school mid-year. If he was any sort of a man, he’d set aside his own salary rather than pull the rug out from underneath a bunch of little kids.”

“Not much of a bunch. Just fifty. On a good day. When was the last good day?”

“We stopped pretending we were a town when the hardware store closed. And the seed store. And the gas station. And the green grocer. And the shoe shop. At least we still can pickle ourselves at Ole’s. Soon, he’ll just shove us into a bunch of damn mason jars and line us up on a shelf. He’ll keep us topped up with nice, clear vodka so we can see. Folk’ll come in looking for the town and find it looking right back at ’em, shelves and shelves of blinking eyes.” Arne says this. He’s always been a morbid fellow.

“The Taxidermist’ll like it, though,” Zeke Hanson says. “He’ll like it very much.”

We agree.

7.

Night falls early in November. In those waning moments of light, the sky paints its face like a harlot (overripe rouge, stained lips, unbuttoned taffeta spreading outward like wings), before opening itself wide to the void of space. Each jagged shard of light in the darkness is a tiny message sent from the recesses of time. “You are alone,” the stars say. “You are alone. You are still alone.”

We pull our coats tightly against the howl of the wind and start our cars.

The school is slightly outside the town, and it sits on a small rectangle cut out of Martin Hovde’s sod farm. The schoolyard is packed earth with a single metal swing set for the children to play on. The yard is dusty from their feet, every speck of green crushed by the insistence of play. Just outside the schoolyard is the endless grass of the Hovde farm. Martin steamrolls it twice a year to keep it as flat as any floor and then he burns it, to give the grass a good, rich start. It is green as snakes, and softer than a lie.

We park our cars next to the school but do not lock them. No one locks their doors. This is a small town. A good town. Or it was, anyway. We hold our coats closed tightly at our throats and bend our backs against the wind. The stars are cold and sharp above our heads and the wind howls across the wide, empty fields.

8.

Taxidermy must embrace imperfection. It is a weak practitioner who feels the need to extend the leg of a lamed cougar cub or repair the jagged scar above the eye of an ancient wolf. Taxidermy, in its soul, is the celebration of life, the re-creation of a single moment in a sea of moments. The taxidermist must build motivation, history, consequence, action, reaction into one, perfect gesture.

The taxidermist’s diorama is a poem.

A song.

A short story.

“We are all just a collection of faults,” the Taxidermist told us once. “A myriad of imperfections through which shines divine Perfection. You see? It is our flaws that make us beloved by heaven. It is our scars and handicaps and lack of symmetry that prove that we are—or once were—alive. The more we attempt to force our corrupted idea of the Perfect and the Good upon what is actually and deeply perfect and good, the farther we are from the divine. Reveal the subject as the subject was, and you reveal the fingerprints of God.” We have shut our ears to the Taxidermist.

We have stopped listening to his hypocrisy. We know what he has done. We have seen it.

This is the very reason why we can never love his other wife.

Essay

Wings, Wings, Wings

I sometimes get asked: Where on earth do your stories come from? And I usually respond with a lie: I have no idea. I do, of course. I know exactly where my leaf-boats and love letters from the dead and snake ladies and undead babies and lovelorn giant insects and sentient villanelles come from. I’m a strange person. And I think strange things. And then I write strange stories. Even when I was a little kid, I was the one who looked for faces in the trees and ghosts in the windows. I was the one who knew there were monsters at the bottoms of lakes and that lipstick was poisonous and that it was perfectly plausible to fall in love with an enormous beetle.

But there is another answer to that question, one that, every time someone asks me, my heart longs to say out loud. Taxidermy, my heart says. Literally all of my creative roads begin with taxidermy.

Let me explain this with a story:

Long ago, when my husband and I were young and our first child was coming fast and all we had to our names were some tools, a few boxes of books, random camping gear, and a scrappy street dog named Harper, we bought a cheap house in Minneapolis, across the alley from an impossibly old man.

The man was nice enough. Though odd. And lonely. The neighbors avoided him. He seemed to age rapidly, each time I saw him—a visible, alarming entropy, as though he was, minute by minute, collapsing and dissociating, and if you timed it right, you’d bear witness to the moment when he finally dissolved into dust and ash and air. He was unstable on his bent legs and four-pronged cane, with a wisp of white hair poking randomly out of his dusty cap and a pair of orthopedic shoes that squeaked when he walked. He had papery skin and rheumy eyes and a nose that had enlarged itself into a soft, sizable beak. He smelled of dust and formaldehyde and old grease and turpentine and tobacco.

And he was a taxidermist.

Back then, I was the primary breadwinner for my family while my husband was in graduate school, and my job as a middle school teacher didn’t leave me with much time to get to know the neighborhood. As time went on, I got to know the Spanish-speaking kids across the street and next door because they loved playing with the new baby, and I knew the Native family on the other side of me because their teenaged boys helped me with the yardwork and sometimes volunteered to walk my dog, but that was really it.

I knew about the old man’s garage, though. The kids told me about it in whispers. “Don’t go out after dark,” they said in more than one language, just to make sure I understood. “The taxidermist will get you.”

Despite living right across the alley, I never talked to the man much until one day in late June. I had just completed a year of teaching in an extremely rough, demanding school, and the stress of worrying about those kids while fussing about my own little girl nearly broke me in half. I stopped eating; I stopped sleeping. It took me two weeks into summer just to learn how to laugh again. My soul felt like it had been pounded into translucency. I was walking home from the farmers’ market—my baby on my hip, a full bag of herbs and beans and peas and lettuce in my hand, and the weight of the earth on my back—when a voice came from the taxidermist’s garage.

“When that dog of yours finally kicks the bucket, I’d happily mount him for you. I wouldn’t charge you nuthin.”

“What?” I said. But then he changed the subject.

“I suppose you want to see the latest.”

I stared at him. The garage door was open, but the lights were off, and the work inside was in shadow. “The latest what?”

“Project, of course. The latest project.” He blew out a cloud of smoke, and it hung around his body for a moment. “Come on then.”

He pulled a new cigarette out of the breast pocket of his plaid shirt, and lit it on the dying embers of the old, like a phoenix. He shuffled into the garage. My daughter’s head rested heavily on my shoulder, and I knew from the sudden heat from her body that she had fallen asleep. I shrugged, thought what the hell, and followed him in.

I would like to think that my strange fascination with taxidermy is universal, but I fear it is not. I have been transfixed by the impulse to take a thing that has died and preserve it in the context of a singular moment of life since I was a little kid. Indeed, I have distinct memories of school trips to the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota, listening to my horrified classmates squeal and shudder at the glassy eyes of dead animals peering unblinkingly outward, the perpetually still bodies of predators poised in midpounce. My reaction was very different. I found them beautiful, heartbreaking, and thrilling. They haunted my dreams. They still do.

Inside the garage, half-done projects leaned against one another on overloaded shelves. Pelts dried on the walls, alongside meticulous drawings of animal skeletons, diagrams of musculature, analyses of malformations and odd growths—neck lumps, leg tumors, third eyes, cleft jaws.

“Never much cared for rogue taxidermy,” the man said. “Jackalopes and Fiji mermaids and other horseshit. I always figured nature had a way for making things strange all on her own.” There were dogs with fifth legs, cats with nine-toed feet, a heron with a third wing sprouting from its breast. Desiccated tumors and cysts and cutaneous horns crowded together in bins. He had a tenderness for nature’s mistakes—even the cruel ones. Beauty may delight the body, but deformity touches the soul. “I see what you mean,” I said.

“But now,” he said, gesturing to the back table, “I don’t know. I barely know myself these days. I can’t start a project without wanting to make it fly.”

Every animal on the back table—cats, fish, squirrels, and two young raccoons—had a pair of wings, either from a crow or a pigeon or a sparrow, angled forward and uncurling as though only just leaping into flight.

He laughed, sucked on his cigarette, and choked. “It’s a bunch of whimsy nonsense, of course. Still. Pretty, aren’t they?”

And they were. “Thank you,” I breathed, “for showing me this. It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling.” How many times, I thought, have I longed for a pair of wings of my own?

How many times have I wanted to give wings to my students? Or to my husband? Or to my child?

“Wings,” I whispered. “Wings, wings, wings.”

He took out another cigarette and lit it, even though the one in his mouth was only halfway done. “I just like to keep ’em going,” he added. I didn’t know if he was talking about cigarettes or the animals. Maybe it was both.

A good taxidermist has the knowledge of a naturalist and the compassion of a mortician. A good taxidermist delights in oddities and whimsy. A good taxidermist recognizes that in the teeming multitudes of abundant life are variations both inscrutable and strange. I am not a taxidermist, and I never will be. But my work as a storyteller is close enough. I know what it feels like to take a particular moment in a particular life, and press a pin through its thorax, adhering it to the page. I know how to hold my breath, pay attention, find ghosts in the windowpanes and monsters in the green. This is how we build a story: the curl of the lip, the bend in the leg, the wolfish gaze of a roving eye. Like taxidermists, we are beholden to observation and presence, biomechanics and mortification, and the minutiae of life and the side effects of life. We watch, we form, we hold in place, and, by force of will, we make it live.

And then, sometimes, because we simply must, we give it wings.