A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.
Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.
For the second entry in this month’s list of short stories, on this second day of June, I give you a classic chestnut by Willa Cather, On the Gull’s Road.
Read the story online here:
On the Gull’s Road
I know people that read a lot of Cather. I haven’t read that much.
I always think of her as a Nebraska writer (though I know she lived most of her life in New York) and primarily as a chronicler of life on the plains.
This story couldn’t be further from that. It’s a story of doomed young love on a ship leaving Italy.
One thing that jumps out is her wonderful ability to describe life on a ship. I’ve been on cruises – and the whole deal is so much different that what a sea voyage from Italy in that time must have been – but I recognize the scene and the unique unfettered feel that riding the waves leaves behind.
The sun had disappeared over the high ridge behind the city, and the stone pines stood black and flat against the fires of the afterglow. The lilac haze that hung over the long, lazy slopes of Vesuvius warmed with golden light, and films of blue vapor began to float down toward Baiae. The sky, the sea, and the city between them turned a shimmering violet, fading grayer as the lights began to glow like luminous pearls along the water-front, — the necklace of an irreclaimable queen. Behind me I heard a low exclamation; a slight, stifled sound, but it seemed the perfect vocalization of that weariness with which we at last let go of beauty, after we have held it until the senses are darkened. When I turned to her again, she seemed to have fallen asleep.
Of course, the oddest thing about the story is the ambiguous sex of the narrator – who falls in love with the doomed, married Mrs. Ebbling. Reading it, I assumed the narrator was a man (…anticipating a consular appointment…) but on careful examination it seems that this little fact is deliberately blurred. The narrator’s name is never mentioned and is never referred to by any pronoun that would give their sex away.
This ambiguity adds a layer of unreal mystery to the love between the two young people. It reinforces the melancholy, the feeling of loss, of regret, and of nostalgia that permeates the story.
There is a lot more here than a simple shipboard infatuation.
“Don’t say that. When I leave you day after tomorrow, I shall have given you all my life. I can’t tell you how, but it is true. There is something in each of us that does not belong to the family or to society, not even to ourselves. Sometimes it is given in marriage, and sometimes it is given in love, but oftener it is never given at all. We have nothing to do with giving or withholding it. It is a wild thing that sings in us once and flies away and never comes back, and mine has flown to you. When one loves like that, it is enough, somehow. The other things can go if they must. That is why I can live without you, and die without you.”