October 08, 2012
As its title suggests, May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor) by Amber Sparks is a collection of stories that is grounded in reality, but often has a hint of the surreal, the supernatural, woven into its fabric. The power in these stories comes from the awareness that a life is at a tipping point, and the assignment of emotional weight to everyday events we typically ignore. Just out of sight, behind the curtain, in the shadows, strange things are happening—dark moments that echo our secrets and lies.
Many of the stories utilize lists and numbers to condense great yawning chasms of time, place, and horror into compact observations that leave us dented and eager for repair. Take this passage from “The Chemistry of Objects,” which elevates a common canister to sinister and far-reaching proportions:
“Exhibit 5WW: Metal Canister. Discovered at Majdanek, 1944.
The casual observer may, at first glance, mistake the canister behind the glass for a dented coffee can. The label is almost entirely gone, the faded gold paper clinging in shreds to the flaking, rusted metal. But if the visitor looks closely at the largest shred they may make out a group of small black letters, gone indigo with age and sun. Giftgas! the letters shout. How funny it sounds, like a children’s party favor. How exciting! A handful of bright plastic packets. Laughing gas tied off with curled satin ribbons.
But the letters do not shout in English, and the contents of the canister were never meant to be merry. The word is German. The English translation: poison gas. This can is not a coffee can, and it has never contained beans or laughing gas or party favors; it has instead poured pellets of gas into sealed chambers through special vents, smothering those inside. Polish Jews who’d never seen the sea, drowned in their own blood.”
What Amber Sparks does so well here is conjure up a memory of genocide by merely staring at a canister in a display case. To one person the meaning and graphics are merely an amusement, a bit of history, one moment in a sea of other moments. But to many others this object is horrific, emblematic of a greater evil in the world, one that cut a wide swath of destruction. And this is how she pulls us in and tears us apart—by using history, mythology, magic and the unknown to tell us her fables and dark truths.
In one of my favorite stories in the collection, “The World After This One,” Sparks tells us the story of two very different sisters. Esther is the reliable one, the conservative and worrisome sister, while Ellie is the wandering beauty, lost in her thoughts, lost in the world, connecting in whatever ways she can. This touching story about family is accurate in its depiction of how siblings relate. One day you’re defending your sister, saving her from the wretched grip of a dark and violent world, and the next day you’re dispensing judgment yourself—questioning her actions, yelling at her for being irresponsible and aloof. Take this moment from early in the story:
“Once, when Esther was in college, she told her father she was going on a Youth Ministry camping trip. Instead she drove the three hours to the city, picked up Ellie and took her to the shore for a week.
Ellie grew obsessed with the slot machines. On the beach, she gave her room number to several strange men. Esther had to keep answering the door in the middle of the night and explaining to seedy men with goatees that her sister wasn’t well.
Why would you want to sleep with all those people? Esther had asked her sister, exasperated and sad. Ellie had smiled. In just two days of sun her hair had gone nearly white and a big chunk of it fell over her eye, making her look like a sunburned Veronica Lake.
I’m allowing them to become gods, she had explained helpfully. Esther has not taken her anywhere since.”
There is a gentle and gracious wisdom in the words of Ellie, even if she is naïve and a victim in the making. It’s unclear which is worse—taking these chances that are sure to lead to trouble, or separating yourself from the world so that you can never get hurt?
There are insights in these stories, moments where Sparks sheds light on a wide range of emotional truths, leaving us nodding our heads, searching for breath, trying to quiet our beating hearts. In “You Will Be the Living Equation” we touch on the subject of loss and pain and the kinds of people that approach us in our grief. The first kind sympathizes and offers up their own memories of grief. This is the second:
“The second kind will sit with you in silence. They will have nothing to say, because they will understand that pain is not something that can be shared or solved, that pain is not a checklist or a questionnaire. They will understand that pain is not only loss, is not only sad, is not only one thing and not sometimes another thing altogether. That pain is not quantitative, but that it can be marked off with chalk lines on a cell wall just the same. That pain is not a landscape, and yet we carefully map its roads, its quick peaks, its long dips and even the smudges on the page that obscure intention or effect. That pain is not psychic, but that it does sometimes offer a moment of brief, bright clarity.”
And isn’t that so true? This is such a concise and brilliant observation. And whether Sparks it talking about loss and grief, or the way that a child’s hand tucked inside your own can fill your heart with peace and love—we are constantly rewarded with moments of depth, and consideration for our own frenetic lives.
I’m always drawn to the darker aspects of life, because I find it interesting to see how people deal with conflict and chaos, how characters reveal their true nature in these accelerated moments of anxiety and despair. Amber Sparks is not afraid to step into the darkness and paint bleak portraits of consequence and pain. Take this passage from “When the Weather Changes You”:
“You have them, she said, her voice surprisingly deep and strong. You have them in your heart, too. Just like me. Her face was purple and mottled, and her mouth collapsed into itself like a rotten fruit.
What, Gramama, I asked, trying not to get too close. The sour smell of death was in the bedclothes. What do I have in my heart?
Ashes, she said. Your heart is full of ashes.”
“After a while, it became common to see strange snow angels here and there. Dead children splayed in dreadful poses, wingless and blue and covered in ice. The crows would circle in frustration, bewildered by the slow rate of decomposition and decay, unable to peck at the eyeballs hard as glass.”
First, this is a horrible thing to say to your great-granddaughter—unless of course, it’s true. Then it’s something of a gift, isn’t it? But the second paragraph, the crows pecking at the frozen eyes of the fallen children, it’s a powerful image, haunting and disturbing, stealing a moment from our childhood, these snow angels, and turning them into angels of death.
In this powerful debut collection of short stories, May We Shed These Human Bodies, Amber Sparks has written a surreal love letter to our past histories—placed a message in a bottle and dropped into a raging sea, so that our future loves may hear what we have to say. Maybe these notes will declare our steadfast loyalties and maybe they will be riddled with dark threats and doomsday predictions. Either way, they will certainly not be meek.