Tag: mystery

Faulkner, “Hair” (1931)

william faulkner hair

Barber James Carter closes shop for deer hunting season in Umatilla, Florida, 1967. (Florida Memory)

Faulkner’s sentimental streak. Henry Stribling is a barber in Jefferson who disappears for two weeks every April, nobody knows where or why. People call him Hawkshaw, slang for detective, and they play detective, trying to figure out why he disappears, why he takes after a young orphan girl called Susan, inventing all sorts of salacious implications about him though there’s only evidence of propriety on his part. The narrator is a salesman who crosses paths with Henry’s many paths. He’s been a barber elsewhere and quit his job, but not in Jefferson. “Susan,” writes the Digital Yoknapatawpha Project, “clearly belongs in the gallery of promiscuous female characters – Joan Heppleworth, Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, Addie and Dewey Dell Bundren, and so on – whose sexuality occupies, even preoccupies a good part of the text.” The mystery is explained: Henry had pledged to take care of the house of a woman even after she died, paying off the mortgage, maintaining the upkeep every April. He eventually marries Susan and moves there.

American Mercury, May 1931, These Thirteen, 1931. 

Maupassant, “Sur l’eau” (1876)

Monet, de la serie de "La Seine a Giverny."  maupassant

Monet, de la serie de “La Seine a Giverny.”

Part of Maupassant’s fixation on canotage, the story was first titled “En canot,” and is the first of two by that title (“Sur l’eau”): he wrote another one in the form of a diary in 1888. A solitary canotier is sliding on the Seine, stops to have a pipe, and feels something shivery graze the boat just as he’d been reflecting superbly about rivers: “c’est en effet le plus sinistre des cimetières, celui où l’on n’a point de tombeau. La terre est bornée pour le pêcheur, et dans l’ombre, quand il n’y a pas de lune, la rivière est illimitée. Un marin n’éprouve point la même chose pour la mer. Elle est souvent dure et méchante c’est vrai, mais elle crie, elle hurle, elle est loyale, la grande mer ; tandis que la rivière est silencieuse et perfide. Elle ne gronde pas, elle coule toujours sans bruit, et ce mouvement éternel de l’eau qui coule est plus effrayant pour moi que les hautes vagues de l’Océan.”

His boat is stuck. The anchor won’t give. The next several pages paint the portrait of a frightened man in the thick mists of the Seine, immobilized as much physically as mentally by the imagined frights of his situation: “J’essayai de me raisonner. Je me sentais la volonté bien ferme de ne point avoir peur, mais il y avait en moi autre chose que ma volonté, et cette autre chose avait peur. Je me demandai ce que je pouvais redouter ; mon moi brave railla mon moi poltron, et jamais aussi bien que ce jour-là je ne saisis l’opposition des deux êtres qui sont en nous, l’un voulant, l’autre résistant, et chacun l’emportant tour à tour.” Finally, another canotier passes by and helps him unhook the anchor, or at least loosen it enough to bring the weight that had been clamping it down to the surface. It’s the cadaver of an old woman “avec une grosse pierre au cou.” So the misty uncertainty outlasts the story: suicide? Murder? We won’t know.

Le Bulletin français, 10 mars 1876

Carver, “Are You a Doctor?” (1973)

The magnetism of an enigma. Arnold Breit, at home, gets a phone call from a woman, Clara Holt, who can’t explain why she is calling or how she got the number. The sitter may have written down the number. Arnold is bothered. His number is unlisted. He wants to hang up. She doesn’t let him. There’s nothing untoward about her insistence, but she is insistent. She keeps him on the line, asks him for his name, then his last name, gives him hers. He lights a cigar and stays on. Then she seems to end the conversation abruptly, soon after telling him they must meet. She later calls back. “I’m sorry we got cut off.” She calls again the next afternoon. She tells him it’s important they meet–at her home. He can’t help himself. He goes. When he shows up, a little girl improbably opens the door. Her mother is not there. She’s gone to the pharmacy to get some medicines. The girl invites Arnold in, having been told to do so. She tells him she’s not sick. Soon Clara is home with shopping bags, some medicine. “Are you a doctor?” she asks. He’s not. He tells her he must go. She insists, mirroring the non-seductive seduction of the phone conversation. He stays. She tells him she’d checked with the sitter about the number. Someone had called and left a number for Clara, and that’s the number the sitter wrote down. He must leave. He wants to leave. He gets up, she gets up, he takes her around the waist, clumsily, regretfully, and kisses her, as if it was expected, as if there was nothing else to do to ease an exit. He leaves. The phone is ringing when he gets home. He doesn’t pick it up. later when he doesn’t, it’s his wife, who’s been calling all evening. “You don’t sound like yourself,” she tells him.

It’s not clear who the intruder is: she intrudes, but so does he, playing along. They’re both willing to pursue the odd thread, neither so certain who’s weaving it.

Fictions, 1973