Fern bryant | border crossings
an excerpt & interview
Viejo y Coyote
Long ago, when the world was new, there was no one living in it except Old Man and his sometime-friend, Coyote. But Old Man changed all that, because he was lonely. Maybe he shouldn't have, but he did. And this was the way of it.
Old Man was sitting by his fire one day, trying to think of some way to amuse himself. He had plenty to eat, no work to do, and a good fire roaring. He was comfortable, but he wasn't contented. His only companion, Coyote, was off somewhere on some scheme of his own, and anyway, he had quarrelled with him and they were on bad terms; so even if he had been there, Old Man would still have been lonely.
Old Man poked some sticks in the fire, threw a rock or two in the river, lit his pipe, and walked around. Then he sat down and thought how nice it would be to have someone to smoke with and to talk to. ‘Another one, like me,’ he thought. And he poked some more sticks in the fire, and threw some more rocks in the river.
Then he thought, ‘Why not? I am Old Man! I can make anything I want to!’ And he promptly went to work.
First, he found a still pool of water, and looked at his reflection carefully, so as to know just what he wanted to make. Then he counted his bones as best he could, and felt the shape of them.
Next, he got some clay, modelled a lot of bones, and baked them in his fire. When they were all baked, he took them out and looked at them. Some of them were very good, but others were crooked, or too thin, or had broken in the baking. These he put aside in a little heap.
Then he began to assemble the best of the clay bones into a figure of a man. He tied them all together with buffalo sinews, and smoothed them all carefully with buffalo fat. He padded them with clay mixed with buffalo blood, and stretched over the whole figure skin taken from the inside of the buffalo. Then he sat down and lit his pipe again.
He looked at the man he had made rather critically. It wasn’t exactly what he had intended, but still, it was quite good.
‘I will make some more,’ he said.
He picked the new man up and blew smoke into his eyes, nose, and mouth, and the figure came to life. Old Man sat him down by the fire and handed him a pipe. Then he went to get more clay.
All day long Old Man worked, making men. It took a long time, because some of the bones in each lot weren’t good, and he had to discard them and make others. But at last he got several men, all sitting by the fire and passing the pipe around. Then Old Man sat down with them and was very happy. He left the heap of discarded bones where they were, at the doorway of his lodge.
So Old Man and his new companions lived in his camp, and the men learned to hunt, and to tell stories and to make wise decisions, and Old Man at last had company.
But the heap of left-over bones was a nuisance. Every time one of the men went in or out of the lodge, they tripped over the bones. The wind blew through them at night, making a dreadful noise. And the bones frequently tumbled over, making more of a disturbance.
Old Man intended to throw them in the river, but he was a bit lazy, and never got around to it. So the left-over bones stayed where they were.
By this time Coyote was back from wherever he had been. He went around the camp, looking the men over and being very superior, saying that he didn’t think much of Old Man’s handiwork. He was also critical of the heap of bones at the door of the lodge. ‘I should think you could do something with them – maybe make them into some kind of men,’ said Coyote.
‘They’re not very good,’ said Old Man, ‘but I’ll give it a try.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help,’ said Coyote. So the two of them set to work. The discarded bones were sorted out and tied together. Then Old Man mixed the clay and the buffalo blood to cover them. He fully intended to make the bones into men, but Coyote kept interfering, so when the job was done the finished product was really quite different. Old Man surveyed the results dubiously, but he blew the smoke into their eyes and nose and mouth, as he had with the men. And women came to life.
Old Man was very disappointed. ‘They’re not at all well-made,’ he lamented. ‘They’re not big enough or strong enough. And they have too many openings. The wind will blow right through them and toss them to and fro. I’m sure they will break.’
But Coyote laughed when he heard Old Man’s worries: ‘Of course they will break!’ he said, gleefully. ‘That’s not important. They are so easy to make that however many break, we can make more quickly and easily.’
At this point Coyote picked up one of the women and smashed it on the ground, shattering it into a thousand pieces. Again he laughed. ‘You see? One breaks, and you simply pick up a new one; they are all alike, so it makes no difference how many you break. Some of your men will find this a very amusing thing to do,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Do you really think so?’ asked Old Man, as he scratched his head. ‘I can’t see why.’ ‘Oh, you’d be surprised,’ said Coyote, who went to the men and told them of his new idea. And so Old Man discovered that Coyote, as usual, was right. For some men, breaking women in as many ways as possible was a source of much continuing pleasure. And thus it has been ever since.
The prose of Border Crossings is succinct and striking, and most of the stories are just a few pages long. What draws you to this shorter form?
I used to joke that I had a broken writing chromosome, so I could only manage short stories. I see myself as hovering over my life experiences at an odd angle, swooping down like a magpie to pick up some glittering object, examining it intensely, then dropping it and flying on. I move from one thought to another very quickly, and within a short form I feel as if I’ve said what I’m compelled to say – at least for the time being. That doesn’t mean that I’m through with a subject – I’m very likely to revisit it, but from a different angle, and with a different response. And of course that applies to these questions too: what I say today would not be what I would say tomorrow, next week, or next year.
In your artist statement, you write of your interest with British journalist Ed Vulliamy’s conception of the liminal space between North America and Mexico, ‘Amexico’. Would you characterize your work as working within that space or against it?
The dictionary definition of liminal is ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold’. I see Ed Vulliamy as fully and imaginatively occupying the liminal space of ‘Amexico’, almost riding it like a cowboy. I don’t have what I perceive to be his visceral commitment, but my work does try to explore the pain and tension involved in existing on that edge. The difference may be that Vulliamy has the advantage of having embraced that liminal space willingly – not being born into it, not living a series of lies since childhood, feeling compelled to ‘fit in’ to a space that doesn’t resemble one’s lived experience.
There’s a heightened realism threaded throughout these stories, sometimes dipping into magical realism, especially in El Viejo y Coyote and Los dias prohibidos. Where do you turn to for inspiration for these elements?
‘Magical realism’ is my default position! My difficulty is in anchoring myself to a common reality that communicates more directly to others. Because of my particular perspective on life I am always drawn to what that wonderful writer Robert Aickman called ‘strange stories’ – and, in truth, unless you close your eyes to it, what goes on in everyday life for everyone is indeed very ‘strange’. Neil Gaiman has described Aickman’s writing beautifully: “It’s as if you watched a magic trick being done, and at the end of it you’re not even sure what the trick was. All you know is that there are now four aces on the table that you don’t think were there at the beginning, and you can’t quite get it out of your head.” I’m not sure that anyone can aspire to that kind of magic, but one can always hope to be visited by it.
Many of your characters struggle within the parameters of their lives—whether self-imposed or placed on them by others—which can read as an exploration on the title of the collection, Border Crossings. How do you envision these different kinds of crossings, and which story, or stories, captures that for you?
Crossing back and forth from one reality to another is a universal experience. The most extreme form entails risking your life in trying to exchange your present reality for an imagined reality that is radically better. But smaller scale ‘crossings’ occur every day. The larger the disparity between one state of being and another, the more pain one suffers and the more one has to lose.
‘En el mercado’, a story in which a woman suffers a meltdown in the course of doing her weekly shop, shows the fragility of someone trying to bridge that transition from one kind of life to another, the precariousness of the situation, and the number of lies told to oneself and perpetrated on others in an attempt to maintain what one thinks one has achieved. It also best captures that experience for me because it reflects my family situation, handed down to me and my sister.
I see my nieces and nephew, and their children, as being free of this particular trauma, folded into that big bubble of the American dream. Warm and loving as they may be, I do not think they have any concept of what their grandmother and so many like her suffered when forced into trying to ‘pass’, to ‘whiten’ themselves, to make themselves ‘acceptable’. I realize that each generation has its own traumas to deal with – it’s just that Americans are so very talented at denial, so focused on ‘having fun’.
There was never any possibility of my mother valuing her heritage. While my father’s family could crow about ancestry that dated back to the American Revolution, my mother had only one thing to say about her family: ‘They were just a bunch of horse thieves.’ This despite the fact that some of her ancestors had occupied the land and made meaningful lives for themselves generations before the arrival of the Mayflower. Perhaps something I’ve gained from such a legacy is a kind of elasticity of perspective, of very rarely being shocked by anyone else’s way of being in the world or how they make sense of it, no matter how unusual or potentially disruptive.
Fern Bryant was born in Los Angeles but has lived in London since the 1980s. She comes from a mixed Mexican-American and WASP background. She has an honors degree in anthropology from UC Berkeley and has spent most of her professional life as an academic editor of cultural studies journals. Her work has appeared in The People’s Almanac, Paris Bitter Hearts Pit, and Exposure (Cinnamon Press).