Right as I Watched

“The Dark” is one of the stronger short stories I’ve read recently. In a collection with a number of strong ones (Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See) “The Dark” is still a standout.

I don’t know why this story moved me more than the title story, or the strange and wonderful “The Last Worders,” a story about a set of twins who travel to a mysterious European (or Central American?) country to force  a man they don’t know to choose between them. Both of those stories hold elements that recur and are expanded in Fowler’s latest novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “The Dark” is gentler than the harrowing “The Pelican Bar,” Fowler’s meditation about what North Americans do to children they have labeled “out of control.” Maybe it’s just a more conventional story, more of a fairy tale and less of a puzzle, although it’s hard to call “conventional” a story that blends tales of feral children, plague epidemiology and the tunnel wars of Viet Nam.

The story begins with the report of a couple and their young son, Paul, gone missing in Yosemite in the mid-1950s. Neither they nor their remains are ever discovered, but other campers during the early ‘60s experience theft of food, attributed mostly to raccoons. The narrator is a doctor, an expert in epidemiology – pandemics, specifically. He and his team are studying a case of bubonic plague in Yosemite park. He has interviewed Caroline, the teen-ager who came down with the disease, and she tells him she saw a feral boy in the park. He doesn’t think much of this, until he sees the boy himself. He and his colleagues capture the boy, who can’t be more than thirteen and is small for his age, and turn him over to experts in Sacramento. He visits the boy a couple of times, but when he begins to investigate Paul’s original disappearance, he is told the boy died suddenly of a seizure.

The story shifts to Viet Nam, where the narrator is immunizing American soldiers who go into the network of tunnels between Viet Nam and Cambodia. The tunnels are filled with rats and there is a theory that the North Vietnamese are releasing infected rats, a kind of biological warfare. All the soldiers, who are also “tunnel rats,” have stories about someone called Victor, not Victor Charlie, military slang for the Viet Cong, but a small Caucasian man who appears when a soldier gets into trouble. The narrator is understandably skeptical until, in the tunnels himself, he encounters Victor in person.

Fowler provide fascinating tidbits about how plagues move (killing off rats means only that the infection-bearing fleas move to other hosts, like humans, driving the plague deeper into the human population). It seems as if this shouldn’t have much to do with a modern retelling of a feral child story, until the very end, when the narrator brings in a tale about a German village in the 14th century, bringing the story full circle.

Fowler’s images are powerful for their precision and the lack of fanfare that accompanies them:

“I saw the coyote on the fourth day. She came out of a hole on the bank of Lewis Creek and stood for a minute with her nose in the air. She was grayed with age around the muzzle, possibly a bit arthritic. She shook out one hind leg. She shook out the other. Then, right as I watched, Caroline’s boy climbed out of the burrow after the coyote.”

The voice of the narrator, a wise and good man looking back with regret, perhaps, to a time when he thinks he was neither, drove this story. He stays with me, as he looks back, examining a life that was changed by events he cannot explain.

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