Category Archives: story

Feminine Magic in The Winter’s Tale


~ daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty; violets, dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes ~

The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611 and is one of the last plays, written near the end of Shakespeare’s career. Among his influences for this tale, Ovid’s Metamorphosis would be the most recognizable – from the invocation of gods, goddesses and the Delphian oracle to the spectacularly arbitrary loss-of-life and a transformative ending.

The play begins with King Leontes of Sicilia, who becomes insane with irrational jealousy over his wife, Queen Hermione. The entire court knows their beloved queen to be innocent. This court from the highest lords to the humblest servants, feel the injustice of the king’s accusations, though they can only whisper of his lunacy for fear of angering him further. Queen Hermione grapples with her own powers of speech: she is an eloquent and persuasive speaker, yet this very gift invites profound misfortune. King Leontes resembles other mad kings in Shakespeare: King Lear, for example, a play which also deals with themes of silence vs. speaking, as when Lear implores his daughter, Cordelia, to speak-up in defense of her love for him, but when she does speak, he trusts her even less. These mad kings are riddled with egotism, mistrust, irrationality and rage. Their accusations are outrageously misplaced, and their fears beget more fear, their thoughts mutate and become so clouded that no one else can penetrate the madness.

The queen is accused of treason, adultery and even a plot to murder. Her remarkable equanimity and rationality rely on the known capriciousness of the planets and on the protection of the gods.

… if powers divine

Behold our human actions – as they do-

I doubt not then but innocence shall make

False accusation blush, and tyranny

Tremble at patience. – 3.2.27-31


Hermione’s gift for eloquence would surpass any defense attorney, were she awarded one. Not only does she defend her own innocence but also that of Camillo and of King Polixenes. She openly admits to loving Polixenes but only to the extent that would become a queen and host, and furthermore obeyed the very command of Leontes himself. She recalls with superior fluency how Leontes urged her to speak and persuade his friend Polixenes to stay in Sicilia longer. Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you. (1.2.27), were Leontes’s words. Yet this was the point at which the king became insanely jealous. Lamentably, Hermione’s stunning poise cannot save her from her husband’s twisted law. Not even the proclamation of the Delphian oracle can sway a mad king’s will.

It is the season of winter, and before she is accused, Hermione plays with her son Mamillius, her little prince, and asks him to tell her a tale. He decides to tell her a sad tale.

A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one

Of sprites and goblins. – (2.1.27)


The boy’s short lines, these few words, are startling, as they portend the tragedy that strikes his family. Leontes disregards the oracle’s avowal of Hermione’s innocence. It is universally known that any word from the Delphian oracle is a direct communication from the God Apollo, and so the tragedy that strikes Leontes’s son, Mamillius, was not surprising to the realm, but vastly devastating.

Personified Time introduces Act 4 as the Chorus singing its diegesis. As if the shift from extreme heartbreak in winter to the hope of spring, sixteen years later, needs a comforting preamble; Time helps us imagine the baby girl, who was cast away by a raging king, blossoming into a beautiful young woman of sixteen – raised a shepherd’s daughter, in faraway Bohemia. Thus, Hermione’s daughter, Perdita, becomes a gentle shepherdess living in a pastoral environment. The setting is biblical with its rolling hills and flocks of sheep watched after by a benevolent shepherd, Perdita’s rescuer. Such a contrast to the violent world she was born into; and yet, a part of Hermione has been preserved through her daughter. Act 4 is full of spring, festivals, masquerade, disguise and new love. The love story of Florizel, a prince, and Perdita, a princess who is only known as a humble shepardess, contains elevated language, pastoral delight and interminglings of identity. Their dialogue is a mixture of romance, flirtation and noble devotion, as when Florizel praises Perdita at the Sheep Shearing Festival:

*What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’d have you do it ever…


Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.


Like Proserpina, of the Roman myth, Perdita was violently separated from her mother: Proserpina by abduction and Perdita by banishment, which was thought to be death. Shakespeare seems to group them together when Perdita conjures the spirit of the child-goddess who knew the names of all the flowers in her realm. Similarly, Perdita knows all varieties of flowers by name, as she is the host of the Festival. Many of Shakespeare’s heroines were knowledgeable in flowers and herbs. Ophelia, for instance, could identify herbs, in particular, and could tell their meanings and their magical or medicinal uses. This, however, was one more brand against Ophelia and her sanity. By contrast, with Perdita, her flower-poetry gives her more enchantment.

Handing out rosemary to King Polixenes and Lord Camillo, she says:

For you there’s rosemary and rue… these keep

Seeming and savour all the winter long.

Grace and remembrance be to you both… (4.4.74-47)


Implying, without really knowing, that someone or something needs to be remembered of winter. To which, Polixenes further implies when he speaks of art and nature – that marrying and mixing nobility with a baser stock would be disgraceful. He may even have called her a bastard. But Perdita then gives the king more flowers:

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,

Marigold that goes to bed with the sun,

And with him rises weeping. These are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age. (4.4.104-108)


Thereby putting Polixenes in his place and putting an end to any discussion of people who marry only because of their royal birth or lack thereof. Still, the king’s disapproval of his son’s engagement to Perdita sends the lovers fleeing.

Florizel and Perdita’s sudden appearance in Sicilia could not be more timely. King Leontes, now many years repentant in his guilt and sorrow, is nostalgic enough to be Florizel’s advocate. The king has changed. He is vulnerable and therefore eager for any show of love and forgiveness. He is open to the improbable, as is the reader, having felt all of the grief and suffering of this family. Shakespeare gives Perdita the power to verbalize, in one word, our feelings about Hermione’s unfair fate: “Alas”, is her single utterance, thereby unleashing the collective sorrow entirely.

Queen Hermione has the last word in an improbable reuniting, while her friend and savior, Paulina, has provided the creative force, the feminine direction for this final, spectacular denouement. In one sense, sixteen years would be a long season of transformation, in which Hermione could return as a rare beauty – recreated as a supernatural specimen of nature. Much happiness would bubble-up on the stage as a result; still, the terrible loss of life – and of years and the irreversible damage makes this a real tragedy, though it has been catalogued a tragicomedy.







The Bog Girl


Karen Russell, Author of “The Bog Girl”

The celebrated novelist, Karen Russell, of Swamplandia! fame, has also written a similarly swampy, short story, The Bog Girl, which was published in the June 20th issue of The New Yorker. It is the kind of story one would expect to read in The New Yorker: eloquent, articulate… even high-brow. Russell is fluent in the art of providing a comfort zone for the reader with everyday, likable characters and familiar yet vibrant, pulsating settings, then soon, delightfully switching the filter so that we are now in a surprisingly surreal realm.

Most horror writers are passive aggressive alarmists, and Karen Russell falls into this category but in the nicest possible way. When Cillian discovers his new girlfriend, completely intact, in the ethereal bog waters of a remote island off the coast of northern Europe, the other men as well as the authorities hardly flinch. They are just relieved that this wasn’t a recent murder victim. Granted, this is a far-flung locality, with a small town milieu; the locals maintain a private respect for the island’s mythic ancestors and their gods. In fact, the place is a creation born out of Russell’s imagination, a clever way of giving the story a sense of its own logic outside the normal rules of time or place.


          It’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit.


And this kind of droll humor softens the horror continually, rendering it safe, almost scientific. That which would normally seem grim is charmingly made-over into poetic beauty, shimmering with historical observation and an otherwise normal conversational tone. Amidst the shockingly morbid resides an underlying voice of calm speculation, as when the narrator explains what bogs are like.


          They are strange wombs where the dead do not decay – in that sense, too,

          like human memory.


Refreshingly, The Bog Girl is partly about acceptance and inclusion. Cillian, a reclusive fifteen-year-old, is finally accepted and even included now that he and his new girlfriend have each other. Indeed, he is more noticed and effortlessly integrated at high school with the Bog Girl on his arm. She is like a princess. The popular girls bring her clothes and jeweled barrettes for her hair. The way Cillian loves the Bog Girl incites awe and a little envy in the popular girls at school. They sigh over his devotion to her.


          The popular girls were starving for that kind of love.


Even Cillian’s uncle becomes an example of accepting someone who is rather intolerable. Uncle Sean is a big, ungainly presence; still he is tolerated, though he leaves something of a stench in the air.

          He smeared himself throughout their house… His words hung around, too,

          leaving their brain stain on the air.


Nevertheless, Cillian communes with Uncle Sean as they share a bong out on the patio, where Cillian listens to his uncle’s warped logic about girls and love. Uncle Sean argues with his lazy wit and a decidedly adult tongue-in-cheek attitude that Cillian hardly knows the Bog Girl, plus there’s a striking age-difference. Cillian is fifteen while the Bog Girl is two-thousand. Anyway, love is love, what can you do?

Gillian, Cillian’s mother, is the kind of mom that won’t get in her son’s way. She loves him too much. Also, she is insecure, harassed by her sisters and her own memories and mistakes. She gave birth to Cillian when she was seventeen. The slightest protest about the Bog Girl invites Cillian to argue with Gillian and bring up the past. “We have rhyming names, Ma,” he complains. At seventeen Gillian had found it endearing to give her baby son a name that rhymed with her own. “If he’d been a girl I’d have named her Lillian.”

Gillian, though apprehensive and qualmish by nature, is especially brave when Cillian whisks his girlfriend up to his bedroom and locks the door. Gillian’s mothering instincts cause her to worry herself into a stupor. She really has no one to talk to, as her sisters are the only ones who are all a-panic about this, strangely enough.

The most she can do to set down some rules is to say “everyone has to wear clothes, and no locking the door.”  Though she goes through the motions of accepting Cillian’s girlfriend, letting her sit at the dinner table and basically not putting her foot down and calling the authorities… or a museum, Gillian feels contempt for the girl. And all the while, the Bog Girl smiles-on serenely, her red/ iridescent hair glistening down her back. She is totally non-judgmental and the essence of acceptance.


          The Bog Girl smiled her gentle smile at the wall, her face reflected

          in the oval door of the washer-dryer. Against that sudsy turbulence,

          she looked especially still.”


Russell brings Cillian’s girlfriend, this Bog Girl, alive slowly. At first, giving her the possibility of poetic, Bog Girl thoughts:


          The bog crickets were doing a raspy ventriloquy of the stars;

          perhaps she recognized their tiny voices.


Cillian, in his love for her, creates these dreams and fantasies of what the Bog Girl should be – what their relationship should be. No betrayals… no broken promises. In his quiet conversations with her, she smiles agreeably.  He is convinced that he knows her very soul. But when she actually offers back the same kindness he gave to her, Cillian cannot receive it. The minute she looks him in the eye and loves him –  is when he changes. Of course, this messy development truly resembles an ordinary love-relationship. Someone is incapable of fully loving; in this case Cillian. Subsequently, he finally relies on his mother to step in and help him. And Gillian, who feels she knows her son better than he knows himself, has the answer.


In Karen Russell’s uncanny worlds, the beautiful and the monstrous assume blurred lines, just as the real and the fantastic flirt with our sense of truth. She does this in the most compelling way: with a blazing imagination and pure, story-telling talent.


The Bog Girl





An Engagement Waylaid


And Now For Something Completely Different: A Story Vignette of My Own.

Oliver and I descended the stairs at Market and Montgomery Streets down to the BART station underground. We wandered unfamiliar searching for the ticket machines so we could buy our tickets to Oakland for Stacie and Mark’s engagement party. As we stood at the machines with our dollar bills drooping at the ready, we were suddenly helped, (accosted rather), by two nefarious characters. The first, a young, scraggly 20-something guy who snatched our bills and explained incoherently what to buy and how to buy it as he wildly hit buttons and tapped the screen until our tickets popped out, rather miraculously. Then he pointed out that we should give him two dollars.

We were then left with one ticket of the proper amount for going to and from Oakland and one ticket that had five dollars more than we needed. Inexplicably, the second character popped up: a scraggly, 40-something, rather taciturn yet officious fellow who attempted to help us retrieve some of that extra cash on our ticket but in actuality only succeeded in giving himself two dollars. We do not say no to these people. Thus equipped, we toddled off to our train stop. Once aboard, the rather vacant train whisked us down underwater. A harrowing experience, if you are not used to it, which I never will be, as the old train screeches and scrapes its way through the decades old tunnel at the speed of light, 30-feet below the surface of the bay. At the deepest point, a nerve-crushing sound much like, perhaps, the Death Star scraping through a tight tunnel sent pulsating waves rattling to the core of my soul. I am reminded why I never take BART.

The train emerged above ground in a burst of stark, East Bay sunlight. The worst of the noise ended, and we rattled along on what now seemed rather tottery tracks, high above and over sun-blanched suburbs and empty, industrial buildings. We looked at each other with relief and promptly exchanged overly exuberant jokes in a compulsive fit of jollity. The bright sun moved across the gentrified interior, through the wide, bubbled, scratched windows and across our squinting brows, as the car wavered and turned on its tracks.

Two women sat across from us after the first stop. They could have sat anywhere in the empty compartment, as it  was Saturday and quite uncrowded, but sat across from us and ignored us, putting on their makeup as they chattered-on, their lips and eyes becoming wider and more expressive with each swathe of a pencil-like brush. When the train stopped again, the compartment doors parted with a deep swoosh. We could see through the open doors a brick wall bearing the MacArthur Street sign. “Ours is the next stop,” we agreed. And the doors remained open. We snickered to ourselves at a man who had fallen asleep with his mouth open. And the doors remained open and would not close. We laughed at this, too, in our spectacular ignorance, for this was our stop, in actuality.

However, we unwittingly got off at the wrong stop, the next one, which dropped us in East Oakland where we walked the long and winding way to Stacie and Mark’s place, through dusty neighborhoods that reeked of rancid soy-sauce and stale hamburgers, where the scant population shuffled in ratty clothes and thin-soled shoes, and where a hot wind blew a lone, crusty, fallen leaf down the sidewalk like a shrunken tumbleweed. Once, while peering at the screen of my phone, texting Stacie in the relentless sunshine, a poor soul walked up into my personal space and mumbled something I could not make out. He was too far-gone to incite fear, still, all I could think to say was “sorry,” and he wandered on his way.