APS Classic • Sasha Saben Callaghan • June 2, 2016
I began reading Elizabeth Gaffney’s short story with a wince of parental recognition. Pets are hell, and having to explain their traumatic demise to a small, tear-stained child usually leads to an existential crisis, followed by the dubious consolation of hunting down some equally doomed replacement. The opening sentences of “Yes” signpost this as the route Gaffney intends to take, but the text determinedly metamorphoses into something altogether quite different and unexpected.
This is short fiction at its subversive best, underpinned by a sophisticated level of astuteness and subtlety. On the surface there is a gently life-affirming narrative, focusing on the relationship between Louisa, who hopes for another baby, and her young daughter, Mandy. Through the child’s hearing loss, Gaffney considers the possibilities of cure and redemption, of setback and expectation. Of course, these are all well-worn tropes that are rolled out in much of the writing about difference and impairment. What makes “Yes” stand apart is Gaffney’s use of subtext, building up like an undertow, ready to pull the reader down into uncharted waters.
Running through the narrative is the wry observation that however well-intentioned acts of kindness may be, they can have unforeseen and perhaps unfortunate consequences. Louisa’s attempts at responsible pet ownership are hopelessly wrong and ultimately deadly, leaving an open question: Just as the tame hermit crabs flounder when removed from their natural environment, will medical intervention leave Mandy adrift from her identity as a deaf person? The interweaving of narrative strands is skillfully done, with dominant themes of water, oceans, and swimming threading the text into a whole. Gaffney doesn’t flinch at death, either human or animal, but it’s deftly handled with humor and little sentimentality.
“Yes” twists and turns, shifting tense and tone, until I was unobtrusively maneuvered into setting aside my ethical reservations about cochlear implants for children, simply by wanting to know what the eventual resolution might be. At first reading, the dénouement appears to be the “happy ending” of a pity-porn convention, but chip away at the text and all certainties transform and disappear. The engineering of a “What happens now?” response brings so much more to the story than a definitive conclusion.
It is the understatement and calm of the narrative that carry the reader along through a succession of quiet, but nonetheless vital, dramas: those prosaic events that have resonance simply because they take up most of our lives.
by Elizabeth Gaffney
Hermit crabs cannot mate in captivity, said the pamphlet. It came as a relief to Louisa.
“Please, please, please, Mama.”
So Louisa bought Mandy a cage. The crabs themselves were thrown in for free—a not-very-good sign. A cage couldn’t be returned for having died.
Black Stripe was about as large as a shooter, Mr. Littles, half that, an aggie. Of course, none of them knew if Mr. Littles was actually male, not even the guy with the sleeveless KISS T-shirt and the spray bottle who manned the hermit-crab station at Ray’s Tropical Trinkets. It didn’t matter much. There weren’t going to be any accidental crablets.
They also got a jar of dried food and a couple of sea sponges for the crabs to drink from.
“They like mashed bananas, too,” Louisa said.
“How do you know that?” Mandy turned her head and thrust her good ear toward Louisa’s mouth.
“I had crabs when I was a kid. They eat lettuce, too.”
“Did your crabs die?”
“I guess they must have, eventually.”
“What did they die of?”
But Louisa honestly had no memory of it. “It was the end of their lifetime. They went back to the earth.”
Sasha Saben Callaghan, a 2016 A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow, is sixty and began writing seriously three years ago. In October 2015 she graduated from Edinburgh Napier University with an MA in creative writing. She is the program director of the Big Flame Disability Arts Festival and lives on the east coast of Scotland with her children and granddaughter.
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