This week in 52 Stories: The Juniper Tree by Lorrie Moore. This story was featured in The New Yorker – but it’s behind a pay wall. I have seen traces of it in the archives of Selected Shorts – but it hides from me. Maybe you’ll have more luck. Or buy the anthology Bark.
M told me he was dying by email – and then punctuated it with a hollow LOL. I think of him all the time. More than many of the people I knew then back in Hackney who are still living. He had been a crusty – a jumper wearing van dweller – back when that was something to be – not quite the beanfield days, but not far off and, despite his new media drawl and his Guardian crossword there was always a hint of woodsmoke and gasoline about him that I admired. I visited him once on his boat shortly after his diagnosis. He talked about the disease travelling within him and I thought about his barge puttering its way along shallow sinews. I visited him again in the hospice just before I left for America.
It’s not an original thought that the dead live on in us. But it often seems to me that they’re actually still around – fully alive in a quotidian non-mystical sense. It’s just that we simply keep on missing one other. I returned to the UK when my mother was overwhelmed by her sickness and was with her when she died. You would think my presence there would win me that all-important sense of closure. But I find myself assuming she’s in the Edinburgh flat still, occupying her corner nook, drinking wine amidst drifts of cigarette smoke and Five Live burble. In some stubborn part of my mind she is not dead but temporarily unable to get to the phone.
For his part, M sits up at the bar in a Hackney pub and drapes a hand over a folded newspaper. He fills in a vertical line of characters. His tobacco packet is carefully laid out beside green Rizlas.
I don’t think that this is magical thinking on my part so much as a vast psychic laziness.
Lorrie Moore is among my favourite writers. I love the way that she bends the pun to serious intent, that her play is so intensely serious and yet still so… playful.
I have seen The Juniper Tree described as magic realism – which is probably fair – though I don’t think of it that way. Reading it felt more like a dream I couldn’t wake from. As if it is the narrator and not her friend who is sick. To me, this is the realism of the fever dream.
I had read The Juniper Tree before and yet, on re-reading for this post, I was surprised again by the moment the story world twists. It seems an odd thing to have forgotten – but somehow in keeping with the story’s mood. The tale is set in a university town in the mountains with an small somewhat incestuous population. Robin Ross, the narrator’s friend, is dying in hospital and the narrator promises their mutual friend ZJ that she’ll visit that night.
I felt I was a person of my word, and by saying something I would make it so. It was less like integrity perhaps and more like magic.
Instead, the narrator goes out with her lover – an ex-lover of Robin’s too – who is described only as ‘the man’. The next morning she discovers that Robin died in the night. It is too late to make good on her words, and their magic will not hold. She returns to her bed and wakes at night to find that her friends have arrived to take her to see Robin at her house. They find Robin there, newly dead but animate, with a scarf tied tight round her neck to disguise the fact that her head has been severed. The narrator is confused but takes part in a ceremony in which each of the friends offer Robin a gift related to their vocation. A dance from Isabel, a painting from Pat and, hesitantly, a song from the narrator. The friends take their leave and the action of the story ends, except for a coda in flashback – a dinner with Robin at which they discussed the man and his dalliance with a local lady. The discussion deeply hurts the narrator and ends when Robin takes the pie she has baked for dessert and plants it on her own face.
Then, without warning, she suddenly lifted up the pie and pushed into her own face. When she pulled off the tin, meringue clung to her skin like brown snow. The foam of it covered lashes and brows, and with her red hair for a minute she looked like a demented Queen Elizabeth.
The narrator takes her leave from the scene and from the story, and we must double back to wonder what it is we’ve read.
Let’s begin with the story upon which it riffs. That’s The Juniper Tree by The Brothers Grimm. As you might expect this tale not a retelling or a direct riposte, instead it echoes and references.
The tone of both stories is horror-dream dark. In the Grimms’ tale a boy’s head is severed when his stepmother slams the lid of a chest on his neck. She attempts to disguise the act.
Then fear overcame her, and she thought, “Maybe I can get out of this.” So she went upstairs to her room to her chest of drawers, and took a white scarf out of the top drawer, and set the head on the neck again, tying the scarf around it so that nothing could be seen. Then she set him on a chair in front of the door and put the apple in his hand.
The undead Robin enacts similar business with a scarf
She had a white cotton scarf wrapped and knotted around her neck.
“Everything’s a little precarious, between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week. This scarf’s the only thing holding my head on”
Robin’s yard explicitly roots us in the context of the older tale.
Because she wrote plays based on fairy tales, Robin had planted in the yard, rather haphazardly, the trees and shrubs that featured most prominently in the tales: apple, juniper, hazelnut, and rosebushes.
The stories both revolve around a trio of exchanges. The three friends offer Robin ritual gifts. In the Grimms’ story the spirit bird that the little boy has become exchanges his song for a gold necklace, a pair of red shoes and a millstone.
The stories are painted in a similar palette – the fairy tale in gold and red and cinnamon, our story in orange and gold (the colours that are said to suit the narrator), the red of Robin’s hair.
Stories of all kinds often feature the crossing of a threshold. In plot terms that might be a moment at which a character is committed to action or sets out on a journey. The Shire is left behind at last, the spaceship is boarded, the edge of a chest’s lid is brought down on a child’s neck.
Here, there is a very clear border. The difference, in fact between night and day, wakefulness and sleep. The narrator falls asleep after hearing of Robin’s death and wakes in the dark. So two lines are crossed. These are disorientingly at odds with one another since the shift between sleep and wakefulness would usually suggest a transition from dark to light and not the other way round. This inversion is fitting for an entry into the story’s dream world.
This traversal is not immediately clear on a first reading. We cling for a while to a more conventional understanding of the action. Perhaps the news of Robin’s death was a mistake. Perhaps she has been sent home to die. Robin herself puts us right soon enough with her scarf announcement.
So, is this a magical story world, or can we read it as a dream? I chose dream over magic.
This is, in part, because the narrative plays on the familiar dream trope of having missed a cue – the pervasive sense that a set of rules have been misplaced. Pat and Isabel know the rules – that Robin has returned home in her animate postmortem state, and that she is to be given gifts. The narrator plays catch up throughout.
“We wanted to come here and each present you with something,” said Pat.
“We did?” I said. I’d brought nothing. I had asked them what to bring and they had laughed it off.
Robin looked at me. “Always a little out of the loop, eh?”
She smiled stiffly.
This dream logic – the sense that everyone but the narrator knows what’s happening – comes up again and again. Isabel knows to find Robin’s house key
“The key’s under the mat,” said Isabel though I didn’t know this and wondered how she did.
Both the narrator’s friends know to keep the lights off and, of course, all about the gift ritual. The narrator must feel her way through this landscape, like a dreamer finding herself suddenly on a stage but without her lines.
Although she is adrift in this world, there are hints too that she might also be shaping it with her imagination.
[Robin] was dressed as she always was dressed: in black jeans and a blue sweater. She simply, newly, had the imperial standoffishness I realized only then that I had always associated with the dead.
This new Robin seems conjured, then, according to the narrator’s expectations – and Robin’s implicit condemnation of the narrator for failing in her duties as friend mirrors the narrator’s own guilt.
Whether we read this sequence as a guilty dream or a full shift into a fairy tale – magical realist – world, some themes are constant. The story focuses in on moral and physical stagnation and decline. Isabel, the dancer, had her chronically injured arm amputated after what may have been an alcohol-related car accident. Pat, the painter, is recovering from a debilitating stroke. Her occasional remissions from the after effects of this provide yet another fairytale nod:
periodically her wounded, recovering brain cast about desperately and landed on a switch and then threw it, and she work up in a beautiful manic frenzy, seeming like the old Pat, saying “I feel like I’ve been asleep for years,” and she would stay like that for days on end, insomniac and babbling and reminiscing, painting her paintings, then she’d crash again, passive and mute.
Robin’s garden reflects this general failure to thrive
Unfortunately, our latitude was not the best gardening zone for these [plants]. Even braced and trussed, the had struggled, jagged and leggy, at this time of year, when they were leafless and bent, one couldn’t say for sure whether they were even alive. Spring would tell.
The narrator too has her issues
I was sitting alone in the back, sneaking some of the gin – why bother ever again with rickey mix?
If the narrator passes through a threshold when she wakes in the dark, the story’s hinge moment occurs as the three friends leave Robin’s house on the other side of their encounter.
“It’s a trap, isn’t it?” I said.
“What is?” asked Pat.
“This place!” exclaimed Isabel. “Our work! Our houses! The college!”
“It’s all a trap,” I repeated.
But we did not entirely believe it. Somewhere inside us we were joyful orphans: our lives were right, we were zooming along doing what we loved. But we were inadequate as pit crew, for ourselves or for anyone else.
At first glance, this seems like a good old fashioned short story epiphany – but there is little that is transformative about it. It sits in the right place in the story, it has the emphasis and tone of an epiphany – and yet when we look back in its light we find a confirmation of what we have already been told, a doubling down on the themes of claustraphobia and settling for what one can get.
This claustrophobia is more than just the insularity of a small town. It’s a smaller bubble even that that – a social clique within a small town.
A pickup truck with the bumper sticker NO HILLARY NO WAY roared past us, and we stared at is message as if we were staring at a swastika. Where were we living?
“Redneck,” Isabel muttered at the driver.
This story appeared in the New Yorker in 2005 and a disastrous election is mentioned several times (‘first the election and now this’) – probably the re-election of George W Bush in 2004. It is interesting to see the cultural and political silo-ing that has been such a feature of recent elections playing out here.
That the realisation is in fact really only a confirmation speaks to the resignation that pervades this tale. This is revisited in the narrators tired commitment to escape in the final flashback scene when Robin unexpected plants her lemon meringue pie in her own face.
“What the fuck?” I said, shaking my head. I needed new friends. I would go to more conferences and meet more people.
We know that, in fact, she’ll remain trapped in her circle. The last word of the story is an ironically encouraging call from Robin. “Onward.” In fact, of course, the only person moving onward is Robin herself who simply abandons the narrative at the end of the friends’ gift-giving ceremony.
“Now I have to go,” she said, and she stood, leaving Pat’s painting behind on the chair, and walked into the lit hallway, after which we heard the light switch flick off. The whole house was plunged into darkness again.
I visited M in the hospice. He was frail and horribly thin. His room was full of friends. I stayed for an hour or so. As I left the unit a uniformed receptionist challenged me.
“Are you coming back?” he said.
I thought he meant ever, though I realised later he wanted to discuss out of hours access.
“Oh yes,” I said. “I’ll be back.”
I thought that meant I would be.