Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.
First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.
When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast, without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.
Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty Rosa’s twisted religion, known as “Black Sheep” in the household, and, over time, convinced that even his parents will hate him and punish him when they finally return. After Uncle Harry, his foster father and the fairer of the two guardians, dies, Punch’s despair is complete—even as Judy spends her time with the family of the house, sitting on Auntie Rosa’s lap to have her hair brushed.
As time went on and the memory of Pap and Mamma became wholly overlaid by the unpleasant task of writing them letters, under Aunty Rosa’s eye, each Sunday, Black Sheep forgot what manner of life he had led in the beginning of things. Even Judy’s appeals to “try and remember about Bombay” failed to quicken him.
When Punch’s mother does arrive years later she sees right away what has happened. When “she drew him to her again…[h]e came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’” Later, at bedtime:
“Oh, my son—my little, little son! It was my fault—my fault, darling—and yet how could we help it? Forgive me, Punch.” The voice died out in a broken whisper, and two hot tears fell on Black Sheep’s forehead.
“Hush, Punch, hush! My boy, don’t talk like that. Try to love me a little bit—a little bit. You don’t know how I want it. Punch-baba, come back to me! I am your Mother—your own Mother—and never mind the rest. I know—yes, I know, dear. It doesn’t matter now. Punch, won’t you care for me a little?”
But once away from Aunty Rosa, life improves so quickly for Punch and Judy. Punch’s Mamma is right when she writes his father that she “shall win Punch to [her] before long.” But the horror of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t in the beatings or the exquisite psychological torture practiced on poor Punch. The narrator, at the end of the story, contradicts Punch’s claim that it’s “as if she had never gone.”
Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.
This is also the message Gardam has adopted for Filth. Nothing—not even the resolution of the mystery that absolves Filth of a foolish childhood guilty, not the love of a woman who stays with him until death, not the care of a friend who would never let harm come to him—nothing stops Filth’s fear or his dread of being alone.
I don’t like to say that “the work project is under way,” or that it’s gotten under way, since my last week’s post on it, because really the work project was always under way—or at least, it has been for several years. It’s just one of those things that I notice when I read, which is probably, of course, why I thought about doing a “project” on it to begin with. But I have dug in. To some work, you could say.
Anthony suggested the anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a volume that had been on my shelf for several months, making me feel rather guilty for not working on this project in earnest sooner. I hoped it would give me some ideas for further reading at the very least*, so I started in on it shortly after writing my description of the project. I have read the first six stories: “Business Talk,” by Max Apple; “The Gully,” by Russell Banks; “Me and Miss Mandible,” by Donald Barthelme; “Unjust,” by Richard Bausch; “The Working Girl,” by Ann Beattie; and “Zapatos,” by T.C. Boyle.
Of these six, two show absolutely no work—in “Unjust,” a sheriff is accused of sexual harassment and the story follows his difficulties at home while he’s on administrative leave, and “Working Girl” gallops away from work as quickly as it can and into what one might call “the rest of life.”
In a third story, “Me and Miss Mandible,” Miss Mandible is at work during most of the present action of the story, but she’s teaching the narrator, which is at the very least an unusual depiction of work.** There is also some reference to the work the narrator used to do, though only in very general terms.
“The Gully” is a little bit more work-oriented, though the focus is more on building a business. The work that actually begins this process takes up only a small physical amount of the story. In other words, I’d say this is more a story of business than of work.
That leaves two out of six stories that I would say are pretty work-focused, though in neither case entirely so. “Zapatos” is both my favorite so far in general and also the best example for these purposes. I’d like to write about it at greater length tomorrow. “Business Talk,” meanwhile, is about a housewife who wants to start her own business, and settles, with a friend, on a frozen yogurt franchise. Like “The Gully,” the story leans a bit in the “business or work?” direction, but Apple does much more description of the basic activities of working:
We decide to gather as much information as possible and talk to a lawyer before we sign a lease. Jeannie wants us to be a corporation with stationery and a logo. I spend the early morning calling long distance until I find out that there is a distributor right here in Houston. I leave my name.
He even describes some of these activities for people other than the protagonist:
David wrings his hands. He is always worried. Two gay cooks and a waiter run his restaurant. They are constantly arguing. They buy their ingredients fresh every day. David drives across town to the Farmers’ Market for the vegetables. He has already had three minor accidents on the freeway. When he returns they stop arguing and cook whatever he buys. The staff all hate David for his inefficiency.
On the other hand, this is simply a part of Apple’s style (at least in this story): we get all sorts of descriptions of mundane details, not just of work. We find out when the narrator shaves her legs, the fact that “[w]e all have spinach salad and eggplant Parmesan” at a business lunch.
So what does it mean when an anthology purporting to collect “stories of work” is, thus far, at best only halfway telling stories of work? That is not to say there is anything wrong with any of these stories, or even that the Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar title is inappropriate. It does seem to highlight, however, the fact that this isn’t, let’s say, an attractive subject for many writers—the actual work stuff, that is. Compare even the passages above from “Business Talk” with this, from John Williams’s novel Stoner, much-loved around the blogosphere and finally being read by yours truly:
So for nine months’ room and board he fed and watered the livestock, slopped pigs, gathered eggs, milked cows, and chopped firewood. He also plowed and harrowed fields, dug stumps (in the winter breaking through three inches of frozen soil), and churned butter for Mrs. Foote, who watched him with her head bobbing in grim approval as the wooden churner splashed up and down through the milk.
And that’s from pages 8 and 9—and isn’t the first description of work! And compare again with Captains Courageous, the book that finally got me do the work of writing that post last week:
Penn and Manuel stood knee deep among cod in the pen, flourishing drawn knives. Long Jack, a basket at his feet and mittens on his hands, faced Uncle Salters at the table, and Harvey stared at the pitchfork and the tub.
“Hi!” shouted Manuel, stooping to the fish, and bringing one up with a finger under its gill and a finger in its eyes. He laid it on the edge of the pen; the knife-blade glimmered with a sound of tearing, and the fish, slit from throat to vent, with a nick on either side of the neck, dropped at Long Jack’s feet.
“Hi!” said Long Jack, with a scoop of his mittened hand. The cod’s liver dropped in the basket. Another wrench and scoop sent the head and offal flying, and the empty fish slid across to Uncle Salters, who snorted fiercely. There was another sound of tearing, the backbone flew over the bulwarks, and the fish, headless, gutted, and open, splashed in the tub, sending the salt water into Harvey’s astonished mouth. After the first yell, the men were silent. The cod moved along as though they were alive, and long ere Harvey had ceased wondering at the miraculous dexterity of it all, his tub was full.
*It has given me quite different ideas for further reading as well, I should note: I have already read short stories by four very well-known writers I had never read before, and am feeling like I “need to get out more.”
**Surely this is a thing, too though—some sort of “inverse of work” novel, about children with teachers, or people with servants, or something.
Melville House has, it seems, chosen Bartleby the Scrivener as a kind of flagship novella for their Art of the Novella series, and Frances is going to start off with that title. I’ve decided on another one for my own kickoff that I think works very well because it is both marvellous and positively chilling: Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.
The narrator of this novella is an English newspaperman in India, traveling to Mhow in an Intermediate compartment—not a very nice way to travel at all. There he encounters a fellow countryman, “a wanderer and a vagabond like myself, but with an educated taste for whiskey.”
He told tales of things he had seen and done, of out-of-the-way corners of the Empire into which he had penetrated, and of adventures in which he risked his life for a few days’ food. “If India was filled with men like you and me, not knowing more than the crows where they’d get their next day’s rations, it isn’t seventy millions of revenue the land would be paying—it’s seven hundred million,” said he; and as I looked at his mouth and chin I was disposed to agree with him.
This man will ask a favor of the narrator, a favor the narrator will be disposed to carry out for reasons that may appear mysterious to the reader. They find out through the use of passwords (and likely through other means mysterious to me as well) that they are both Masons, and thus the narrator is obliged to carry a message to the man’s friend, who will be passing through Marwar Junction in eight days: “He is gone South for the week.”
That might have been the last the narrator saw of either man. He decided to turn respectable, and warned the authorities that the two were on their way to blackmail and impersonate their way into a few rupees. The narrator settles down to the routine of daily newspaper publishing in an Indian city, described wonderfully by Kipling. And one night just as the Sunday edition has gone to press, the two men show up. They finally introduce themselves as Peachey Carnehan—the one the narrator met first on the train—and Daniel Dravot—the one to whom he carried the message. And they have a plan to share. Carnehan complains:
“The country isn’t half worked out because they that governs it won’t let you touch it. They spend all their blessed time in governing it, and you can’t lift a spade, nor chip a rock, nor look for oil, nor anything like that without all the Government saying—‘Leave it alone and let us govern.’ Therefore, such as it is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own. We are not little men, and there is nothing that we are afraid of except Drink, and we have signed a Contrack on that. Therefore, we are going away to be Kings.”
The narrator thinks they are mad, and perhaps they are, but go away to be kings they do. They are there to beg maps and books of him, so they can find their way to Kafiristan, which they have determined to be the last available spot on earth for them to conquer. No Englishman has gone so far before, into mountains and among hostile tribes, but the plucky duo, with their Contrack to stay away from Drink and Women until such time as they are kings, manage it through strength, will, and ingenuity—and, of course, through the mercy and machinations of Kipling.
It’s Dravot who is really king, with his ultra-charismatic personality and willingness to subvert the ceremonies of Freemasonry. After Dravot and Carnehan help stop some of the internecine warfare, the villagers begin to follow them, and after they show they know the secret of the Masons, which the natives have kept over many centuries since the time of Alexander, they are worshipped as gods. But it’s very easy to overstep once you’re a god, and very easy to become exactly what you once despised. “I won’t make a Nation,” Dravot tells Carnehan, “I’ll make an Empire!” He insists that the people are “English”: “Look at their eyes—look at their mouths. Look at the way they stand up. They sit on chairs in their own houses. They’re the Lost Tribes, or something like it, and they’ve grown to be English.” But the two of them aren’t really up to administering an empire, and their partnership begins to break down. The deterioration continues when Dravot insists on taking a wife—clearly against their Contrack. The priests and villagers are against it this time as well, knowing that women who marry gods cannot live. When his bride bites him and draws blood, proving that he is nothing more than a man, the jig is up.
The narrator hears all this from the lips of Peachey himself, who has returned to India under the protection of Dravot’s ghost, half mad at best. The tale is fantastic and full of horror; the two have gone from the absolute top of the world quite literally to the bottom. And surely they’ve made an addition to the set of tales of vagabonds and loafers that will put the rest to shame, until the sun sets on the British Empire.
This is my first novella in the Art of Novella Challenge, hosted by Frances of Nonsuch Book and supported by Melville House. I’ll be reading more throughout the month of August, and if I’m awesome, I may reach the full complement of 22 in the series.