A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 27 – The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Jellyfish at Aurora, Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of 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 – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 27 – The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Read it online here:

The Peaceable Night by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Suhaila toed the mass of jellyfish and thought, At least they don’t sting. The tide had deposited thousands of their bodies up and down the beach in thick clumps, clusters of sand-spackled flesh so glossy it might be mistaken for cellophane from far away. The domes of their bells lay scattered everywhere: tangled in kelp, indented by purple-bellied slipper shells, pierced by the black horns of mermaid’s purses.

—-Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, The Peaceable Night

I remember once taking the ferry across from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula the water was full of jellyfish. I don’t mean a lot of jellyfish… I mean full – millions upon millions of huge, bluish bellshaped coelenterates – it seemed that they had displaced the ocean – there was more jellyfish than water. I don’t know what quirk of weather, currents, or tides produced this bounty, but it was beautiful and frightening at the same time.

Of course, I remember a less pleasant encounter. At the beach on South Padre Island a wave washed a Portuguese man o’ war (yeah, I know – they aren’t really jellyfish… so sue me) over me, the long tentacles draped across my arms. The pain was amazing. It hurt as much as any pain I’ve ever felt. It was more like an electric shock than a sting. I spent several days in bed, sick – my arms had needle tracks like a champion junky where the nematocysts punctured my skin in long lines twisting around my body.

Today’s story features a recent widow with a young daughter. They have recently purchased a beach house and are struggling to pull each other through the day. It is a story of jellyfish and beach cleaners and trying to save a little bit of something. It is a story of war and immigration and trying to get your life back.

It’s a good thing those jellyfish don’t sting. It’s a shame that almost everything else does.

Interview with Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar:

You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?

To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.

Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.

—-From Creative Quibble

Red Jellyfish, from the Aurora Preview

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. 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.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums, by D.H. Lawrence

Read it online here:

Odour of Chrysanthemums

Odour of Chrysanthemums is a famous story – with a well-established position in the pantheon of great and famous short literature. But, somehow, I had never read it – or at least I didn’t remember reading it. And a story of this skill and emotional impact – I would have remembered it.

The first thing that struck me about this story is the language. The paragraphs are chock-a-block with unusual (at least for modern eyes), esoteric, and completely appropriate (even perfect) word choices.

gorse, footplate, coppice, spinney, whimsey, colliery, imperious mien, trundle, metals, winding-engine, steel fender, hob, crozzled… and so on.

I plowed through the first time (reading the story on my tablet in a coffee shop a short bicycle-ride from my house, drinking an iced Thai Milk Tea with boba) and only later, worked my way through with a dictionary website, learning the exact meaning of the words.

The second thing that fascinated me with the story is the description and sense of place. An English coal-mining town in all its filthy glory. What a difficult life. The wife with two children (and another on the way) waiting for her husband to come home from the mine – assuming he had bypassed dinner to go out drinking.

I assumed I was reading a piece of social commentary on the unfairness of life around the coal mines – and I suppose the story is. There is nothing in the text to dilute the clarity or sadness of the woman’s life and the impossible future her family faces.

One aspect of the story that I haven’t read about is the point that her husband suffocated. It was a slow death. If his wife hadn’t assumed he was out drinking and had alerted the other miners about his absence sooner, the end result might have been very different.

But, for all that, at the end, the story reveals its true heart, and its something else entirely. The title gives the first hint. Then there at the end, the wife is faced with her husband’s beautiful body and she realizes she never even knew him.

That is where the story really comes alive and where it has its strongest, unforgettable impact.

And there lies genius.