In her newest collection of flash fiction, Joy Williams manages to evoke an array of emotions from the reader in just a couple of sentences. These short shorts are uneasy little things. They aim to disturb, to cause a reader to pause and consider their quietness, their sometimes-creepiness. There’s a potpourri of the fable, the snippet of conversation, the odd scenario. Though small, the stories in this collection pack a powerful punch partly due to their brevity, the understated way that Williams approaches the strange.
In “Story” a grandmother reads bedtime stories to her grandson. Greedy for more, the boy pushes for her to read just one more. The grandmother is wearied and picks a story at random: “The Storks” by Hans Christian Andersen, a fairy tale about how children are delivered to their parents. It starts out innocently enough… However, it turns out there is one very bad little boy who has offended the storks by singing an ugly song about them.
“In the pond there is a dead child,” the mother stork said. “He has dreamed himself to death. We will bring that baby to the boy and he will cry because we have brought him a dead little brother.”
This passage horrifies both the boy and his grandmother. I also paused, here, in appreciation for how straightforward and grim the “original” fairy tales can be. Back then, there were no abridged, Disney versions to spoonfeed the coddled and sheltered child from. Instead, they had the freedom to unsettle, to entertain while also (oftentimes) delivering a moral in the process. And these lessons had the license to be bleak, to end unhappily.
The boy and his grandmother looked at one another in horror. As fate would have it, the mother was with child by the father, but several months later the infant arrived stillborn. Of course, it was not the little boy’s fault. He had never sung a cruel and hurtful song about young storks.
Williams also writes an unhappy ending. Eventually, the grandmother loses her mind. Eventually, the boy grows up to be a “formidable jurist, quite ruthless and exact in his opinions”.
Williams pays tribute to the naked candor that Andersen’s fairy tales are so often characterized by, and I’m glad of that.