Cover image for The disobedience of water : stories and novellas
The disobedience of water : stories and novellas
Naslund, Sena Jeter.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : David R. Godine, 1999.
Physical Description:
212 pages ; 22 cm
I am born -- Madame Charpentier and her children -- In the free state -- The shape you're in -- Burning boy -- The death of Julius Geissler -- How do you do, Mister Cat? -- The disobedience of water.
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A collection of eight stories, including I am Born, In the Free State, Burning Boy, How Do You Do, Mister Cat? and The Disobedience of Water.

Author Notes

Sena Jeter Naslund was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1942. She received a Bachelor's degree from Birmingham Southern College, where she received the B.B. Comer Medal in English, and a Master's degree and a doctorate from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has taught at the University of Louisville, the University of Montana, Indiana University (Bloomington), Vermont College, and the University of Montevallo. She has written several books including The Disobedience of Water, Ahab's Wife, Four Spirits, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, and Adam and Eve. She has won numerous awards including the Harper Lee Award, the Hall-Waters Southern Prize, the Southeastern Library Association Award, and the Alabama Library Association Award.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Naslund is versatile and convincing, whether's she's bringing a new perspective to the character of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock in Love (1993), or presenting a set of virtuosic short stories as she does here. Each tale begins as though the reader has just opened a door or turned a corner and walked into a conversation, scene, or train of thought. In "I Am Born," the narrator imagines that she hears her twin brother's voice back when she was six and about to learn more about life than her child's mind could assimilate. Being overwhelmed by life is a predicament most of Naslund's intriguing characters experience, whether it's a woman who realizes that her best friend has betrayed her but that she loves her anyway, or a young boy roughly initiated into sex by his 16-year-old cousin Robbie, or a young drawing teacher terrified to discover that a bear has been in her yard. Life, Naslund seems to say, is large, feral, and inarticulate, and one should be vigilant, receptive, and grateful. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The eight lyrical stories and novellas in this collection should buoy Naslund's reputation, already riding high for her 1994 novel Sherlock in Love, even higher. Plot matters less to Naslund than voice, sympathy, setting and tone: hospitable readers will be won over right off by "Madame Charpentier and Her Children," which describes a woman beginning anew after a friend's suicide: "It was autumn and we had already gone back to teaching, but the grip of the university was still loose and the feeling of summer cradled us." In "The Shape You're In," a 25-year-old artist flees Atlanta and her disturbed ex-lover to what she hopes will be a new life in Montana. Sarah discovers, however, that her Southern habits have followed her west: "Like many Southerners, she knows there is a kind of protection in politeness. It has a kind of beauty of its own, too." The title story draws its power from an unconsummated love affair whose memory hangs as powerfully as any unconsummated relationship over the narrator, a single mother. She concludes, "I will know one thing about the heartÄthat it can break endlessly." Almost every entry here finds fluidity and confidence in its prose. In Naslund's tightly observed worlds, quiet betrayals resonate long after their occasions have faded. (Apr.) FYI: Naslund's next novel, Ahab's Wife, is due out in the fall. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Naslund's Sherlock in Love (LJ 9/15/93) was an elegant riff on the Holmesian theme, but though these stories are elegant, too, one wouldn't necessarily expect them as a follow-up. They're a bit quirkier, a bit more modern, but just as satisfying in their own way. Naslund's protagonists are often in the process of being redefined, sometimes by themselves, more often by outsiders. The little girl named Tink in "I Am Born," who has observed her doctor father helping a young black girl give birth, is aghast when the new mother wants to name her child Tink, too, andÄbetrayal of betrayalsÄher father not only agrees but expects her to be grateful. In "The Shape You're In," a young woman flees a certifiably insane boyfriend for a job teaching in the wilds of Montana, where she must contend with wild animals of both the four-footed and two-footed male variety. Some of these stories don't quite coalesce, but on the whole this is satisfying reading.ÄBarbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One I Am Born * * * Tink! Tink!"     I seem to hear my brother calling me. It is Paul's voice, the voice of my twin brother.     His voice reaches the place where I sit waiting. I am in the middle of the seven concrete steps that stretch between home and the sidewalk where the world begins. I am six years old, it is summer in Birmingham, and I am writing with a wedge of gray stone on the concrete. I form pictures on the steps--a whale, a star. The gravel twists in my fingers, and I scrape my knuckle. When I suck my hurt I am tantalized by the taste of my blood and the texture of grit. I pick up the gravel and turn it so that a new point will engage the concrete.     Tink!     He wants me. But first I must explain about my name, my odd nickname: Tink.     It was a gray December day, Mama later told me; and she wondered aloud to Paul and me, sitting in our wooden high chairs. She went to the window and wondered aloud if it would snow. "I t'ink so," I said.     I remember the sudden swirl, the view out the window--a gray forsythia bush, tangled on itself like a pile of coat hangers. She had pulled me out of the high chair to waltz me around the room. My mother was delighted that my sentence reported my own private mental activity. Paul squalled jealously.     She plunked me back in the chair, dashed to the piano, and played Chopin's "Winter Wind Etude" for us. Both Paul and I loved the "Winter Wind"; when we could talk better, we compared our responses and found that I loved the fierce chromatics that come rambling down the keyboard, while he loved the stirring melody that cuts dearly through all the chromatic swirling. My mother played so passionately. Though confined to our high chairs, Paul and I swirled our arms around our heads and fluttered our fingers. Surely the weather gods would hear her playing and bring us essence of winter--snow.     Mother's hair was long and black--she was descended from the Spanish who were shipwrecked in Ireland, made the best of it, and produced the "black" Irish--and she wore her hair in a coronet over her head. She with her black hair and white arms seemed to dovetail with the uptight black piano and the black-and-white keyboard.     I heard this tale of my first sentence many times when I was growing up and told it often myself to explain my odd nickname. One of my earliest friends had asked if "Tink" were short for "Stink." You do smell bad , she had said. Only when I was a young adult did it occur to me to ask my mother if it did, in fact, snow on that December day.     "No," she said.     Why had no one warned me that my first syntactically complete sentence had been an error in judgment? Why didn't I consider the real context for my thoughts, that this was Birmingham, the Deep South, and the chance of it snowing was very slim--maybe once every four or five years?     Tink, I have something , I can hear my brother saying. It still makes my heart beat fast for someone I love to arouse my curiosity that way: I have something.     Paul came up the steps fist forward: "Guess."     I guessed a four-leaf clover? a nickel? grass?     He opened his hand. It was empty.     "Not fair, you stinker," I said.     "Can't you see?" he asked.     I looked from the palm of his hand to his face. He was triumphant.     "Air," he said. "I'm holding air. It's very valuable. You couldn't live without it."     I thought disdainfully, "Neither could you." But I said humbly, "Hey, you're right." And he vanishes. His voice is silent.     I am alone again on the concrete steps. I pause from my writing--whale, star, boat, cloud--to flap my plaid skirt up and down like a fan. I would be glad if some passerby saw this smart girl who uses her skirt on a hot day for a fan and whose underpants are perfect. But there, just above the elastic waistband, is something new. A blister, sweetly oval and filled tightly with fluid. The skin over the blister is thin enough to see through and more slick than any other skin on my body. I finger it. The word pox forms in my mind and hangs like a drop of dew that refuses to fall. I decide to keep this red bump hidden, and I cover it with my plaid skirt. I have a little treasure, a ruby, a something smooth and oval as half a tiny egg.     It was almost dark when I hid in the back seat of my father's car so that I could finger my blister in peace. I sat between two large, paper-wrapped bundles of clean laundry that had not yet been taken into the house. They looked like great loaves of bread.     I peeked through a crack in the paper, then touched a starched and ironed white sheet. I lay down on the floorboard of the car and pulled the laundry bundles on top of me. If two boulders were lying on me, would I be able to breathe? Could I get valuable air into my lungs? The weight of the rocks was so great that I could not expand my chest. I held my breath as long as I could.     Suddenly the front doors of the car were opened. My father got in the passenger side, and Jaybee, my father's driver, slid under the wheel; I could smell his cigarette odor immediately. I lay quietly.     "What's wrong with 'em?" Jaybee asked.     "The woman is going to have her first baby," my father answered.     "Oh, Lordy," Jaybee said. "I hate them first timers, don't you, Uncle Melvin?" Jaybee's voice had a nasty relish to it.     My father didn't answer. Then he said, "Drive down Vanderbilt Road, then go down that alley beside Clapp's store. The grandfather said it was about five blocks into the Quarters, next to an oak tree."     Although we lived within half a mile of the beginning of the neighborhood we called the Quarters, I had never been there. My father often made house calls on the weekends when he was home from his country practice, but I had never gone with him. I had never heard him talk about his patients' problems, though sometimes he would tell my mother a joke that someone had told him. He always thought the jokes were funnier than she did.     "How long you reckon this going to take us?" Jaybee asked. He backed the car down the driveway.     "Hard telling," my father answered patiently.     I knew my mother would be worried that I had disappeared just at dark, but I so wanted to know how my father cured people. When I was sick, he didn't cure me. He just sent me to bed, and after a while I was well again. I decided to call my mother on the telephone when we got there.     "Tomorrow," my father said, "why don't you get Gertrude and Linda and bring them over for Sunday chicken."     "You reckon they going to give you a chicken for that baby, Uncle Melvin?"     Why did Jaybee's voice always sound greasy?     "I want Tink to get to play with Linda."     As I lay on my back, I could look up into the street lights at each corner that we passed.     "Tink just about snatched Linda bald last time I brung her."     I was ashamed to be hearing them talk about me, and yet it was lovely, too, like fingering my blister. It was true I had beat Linda up. Paul had asked me if I thought I could, and I had done it just for fun. I didn't like Linda anyway.     My father rested his arm along the back of his seat. I could look up into his relaxed hand. If I touched his hand, he would jump with surprise. His hands always seemed pure to me. I never saw them dirty. Sometimes when he cooked, his fingers would have flour or meat juices on them. He seemed to take good care of his hands. In a detached way, I had watched him take good care of his whole body. He walked slowly, stopped to rest if he had to climb stairs, never lifted anything heavy. Never lifted me. He had been fifty when Paul and I were born. I think now that he was trying to make his body last as long as possible, knowing from his professional viewpoint that it was already in decline.     "This old boy," my father said, just as though he had not heard Jaybee complain about my mistreatment of Linda, "over near Tuscaloosa--he won himself a million dollars in a sweepstake. His friend lived on the farm down the road from him says, `Jeb, what you gonna do with that million?' Jeb, he answers back, `Well, I reckon I'll just keep on farming till it's all gone.'" My father laughed explosively until he began to cough.     The joke made a little chuff of air escape from me, but my father laughed so loudly that no one heard.     Jaybee didn't laugh. He said grimly, "Can't nobody hold on to nothing."     I wished that I was old enough to be my father's driver. I hated that he had to sit in the car with Jaybee, who was ignorant and dirty and smelled like tobacco. My father sometimes smelled like Johnson's Baby Powder, which he dusted on his feet after a bath.     The car turned onto the gravel; rocks popped out from the tires and the car dipped into potholes or swayed around them.     Once I had asked my mother why my father had Jaybee drive for him. She said that Jaybee kept Daddy company. "Jaybee can't get work. Your father feeds him and pays him a little something," she added. Last night I had seen Frick, one of my father's sisters who lived next door, slip some folded money into Jaybee's shirt pocket. "Here," was all she said.     My face felt hot. I knew she was paying Jaybee to look after my father. It seemed that my father took care of all of us. At Frick's house, there was Pet, their oldest sister who was an invalid, and there was my grandmother, who was old and sick. Though Frick taught high school, she was frail and seemed to stay home a lot. My mother practiced the piano and kept house. It seemed that my father took care of us all, but we were all trained to guard him.     When the car stopped, Jaybee flung himself out the door, but my father moved slowly--even the sound of the lifting of the door handle was careful and tender. I heard Jaybee's loud feet go up two steps and then tromp on a floor. My father mounted one step and stopped. A door opened. The voice of an old black man said, "Dr. Tarwater? We mighty glad you come."     I lay still under the paper bundles of laundry. A screen door opened and closed, and I knew that my father had gone inside.     The neighborhood was quiet and resting. In the distance a radio played gospel music. "Swing low, sweet chariot," sang the low, full voice of a woman. She caressed each word. A dog yapped twice. Somebody walked by, feet sliding through the gravel. Someone's pretending to ice skate , I thought.     I lifted the laundry onto the seat, crouched under the window and peeked out.     Jaybee leaned against a post on the porch. He was smoking and looking away from me. The cabin had a front door with a window on each side. Dim and mellow light shone from the windows and door. Cabins on each side were made just the same way, and they glimmered, too. The cabins were made of unpainted boards, the color of logs. In the front yards, each little house had a whitewashed rubber tire that had been cut into a circle of stand-up points, and petunias bubbled in the tires. They looked like magic wells holding bright colors.     When Jaybee turned his head, I ducked. I listened to him come down the steps, but he did not approach the car. I heard him walking away till I could no longer hear him, and then I looked out the rear window at his back as he went down the middle of the road. A black and tan hound stood in its yard and barked twice, but Jaybee kept going.     The neighborhood seemed dark and lonely. Five or six boys ran from between the homes. I did not duck down but stared at their bare brown chests as they went by. I felt safe in my father's car.     But soon I was bored and restless enough to want to get out. I decided to spy on my father and the people inside. I opened the car door, slipped out, and closed it as softly as I could. I crept up the two steps to one of the windows and knelt down to look inside.     My father's shirt sleeves were rolled back to his elbows, and his bare arms, wrists, and hands seemed capable and beautiful. The person in the bed was a girl with her hair in short black pigtails. She was young and little-looking except for the great bulge of her nightgown. It was a long gown and would have come to her ankles, but the bulge of her stomach drew it up to her knees. The fabric was pink and thin enough so that I could see the brownness of her body through it. A plump middle-aged woman stood by the stove, and no one else was there. The whole house was just one room, with beds on one side, and a table and stove and sink on the other side. The walls were papered with newspaper; the walls seemed wrapped in gray. Light came from a kerosene lamp on the kitchen table and another close to the bed.     My father turned from the girl; he pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down. He said to the grown-up woman, "How were your tomatoes this summer, Bessie?"     "I got right smart already. They always do pretty good for me."     "Used to be," my father said, "folks thought tomatoes were poison."     "That right?" she answered. She shifted her weight back and forth. She looked away from my father when she spoke. "I ain't never heard that before."     The girl in the bed groaned.     The woman walked across the floor to her. The woman wore shoes that were only enclosed over the front of her foot. Her bare heels were white. The leather of the shoes was brown like her skin. My father turned in his chair and looked at them, but he did not get up.     When the girl looked my way, I saw a strange languor in her eyes and then a focusing and terror.     "Haint! Haint!" she yelled and pointed a skinny finger at me.     I dodged back.     The mother quickly soothed her.     My father said, "That's just my driver on the porch. He won't look at you."     The girl began to cry.     I saw my father get up.     "Now, Sarah," he said to the girl. "Let me just see how you're getting along."     There was a low protest.     "Bessie, just lift up her nightgown. I'm just going to look, Sarah. I need to see if you're opening up nice."     My father's voice was patient and kind. He moved from word to word as slowly as he walked. He talked to her just the way he spoke to me when I had a scrape on my knee and held my hand over it. "Let Daddy see," he would say to me.     The girl's crying died down.     I turned away and stood rigidly beside the window. I gritted my teeth and hugged myself. I felt afraid. I needed to call my mother. I wished I wasn't there. It's like being on the moon to be here , I thought resentfully, though I knew the moon had no houses, just craters like the potholes in the gray road. So it could not be much like being on the moon.     I heard them speaking again, but I did not listen. The pack of boys, with their arms bent and their fists balled up, ran past again. They each stared at me, but none of them spoke. After a long time, my body relaxed. Again I knelt and looked in the window.     "His dwarf looking at me!" she shrieked.     I jumped back. I waited with terror.     But only she had seen me. The turned bodies of her mother and my father had made a wall between her and me, but her head extended beyond them. She had been stating at the window, waiting to catch me. But now she screamed in a different way, a scream from her body. It was a scream like silk tearing. Finally the scream sank back into groaning. In a few minutes another scream rose out of her. The groans were low and level, and the screams rose up like hills. They bulged out like the bump on her stomach.     Again I stood like a post beside the window.     Right at the window, on the inside, her mother's brown hand suddenly jerked down a window shade. I jumped as though someone had reached inside my body. I heard her walk across the floor to the other window. Again she jerked down the shade but there was a ripping, and the roller clattered down.     The groaning was continuous now, and the girl's screams rang out.     My father couldn't help her, that was clear. I wanted someone to come. Even Jaybee. Anybody to hold my hand and help me stand this.     Then I heard my father say, "Baby'll come soon."     And suddenly the way I was clenched seemed to melt. I wanted to see it happen. It was like Paul saying, "I have something," and the wonder that welled up in me then. Her stomach would open like a fist opening, but a baby would be there.     I slipped across the porch. And there I stumbled against someone. He was huddled up close to the floor and the wall. He was dark and his clothes were dark. I would have fallen off the end of the porch, but he sprang up and gripped me. It was a big boy.     "Let go!" I hissed.     He immediately released me.     "Go away," I ordered.     He stood there and stared at me. His face was frightened. Suddenly I felt sorry for him.     "Who are you?" I whispered.     "I the one," he said and hung his head.     "What one?"     "The one who put the baby in. The father."     I took his forearm and led him off the porch. I took him around to the other side of the car.     "You can't be," I said in a normal tone.     He looked down at his feet, but because he was much taller than I was, I could see that he was smiling.     "Yes I am," he said.     I was awed. "How old are you all?"     "She fourteen. I fifteen."     "How can you go to school?"     "She don't. I do."     We heard her scream. We stared at the house.     "I want to see," I said.     "How old you, Miss?"     "Six."     "You too young to see a baby borned."     "Don't be silly," I said and walked back to the porch. I was very pleased with myself. I muttered the sentence to myself-- don't be silly --sounding just like Aunt Frick when she scolded Aunt Pet. And now I wouldn't be alone while I watched.     When I peeked in, I took new notice of the newspapers that papered the wall. It was like looking in a book with three paper dolls and furniture placed against the printed pages.     The big boy and I knelt on the porch and looked in. When the girl screamed out, I reached across and took his hand. I was afraid that he wouldn't let me, but he held my hand as nicely as though I were his little sister. I was so pleased with his hand that I took another look at the rest of him. His skin was smooth and brown, his hair was short and frizzy.     I looked at his hand. The nails were longer than mine, and they were arched. I felt a little repulsed by the way his fingers had sprouted these humped fingernails, but some principle of fairness made me think, It's just the way his hand naturally is--a little different from yours . And he held my hand just right, not too tight and not too loose, dry and warm.     "Got yourself a boyfriend?" Jaybee's voice fell on us like dirty water. Quicker than a blink, the hand went away.     "Your daddy gonna whup you, Tink."     I stood up uncertainly. I was going to cry.     "Boy!" Jaybee's voice was like a whip. "You git!"     "He can stay if he wants to," I said.     Jaybee jerked open the door and went in. "Tink's out on the goddamn porch," he announced.     For just a second my father said nothing. Then he said, "Tell her to come in here and wash her hands."     I walked in the door and headed for the sink. My father stood with the backs of his hands pressed against his hip bones.     "Hi, Daddy," I said with my head down.     "Now, Tink," my father said, "really scrub your hands, but don't dry them. Then go out to the car and open the laundry in the back seat. Get me a clean sheet and some clean towels. Jaybee, you go open the doors for her."     "She the dwarf," the girl in the bed told her mother.     "She Dr. Tarwater's baby," the mother answered.     I washed my hands. My father was on my side.     Jaybee held the screen door open for me and I went through like a queen. Then he ran down the steps ahead of me and opened the car door. I tore open the brown paper and took out the flat, starched sheet and three white towels. When we came back into the house, the big boy followed us in.     My father said to the girl, "You want him in here?"     The mother said, "Huh!" contemptuously, but my father repeated to the girl, "You want him?"     "Yessir," she said.     I loved my father for letting her have her way.     "Sit in a chair by her and talk to her," my father told him. "Bring the sheet, Tink. Help me get this under her, Bessie."     Then I saw that the bedding was a terrible mess. It was bloody and slimy. Her bottom was naked. Her skinny legs led to a wet, hairy place. I gasped and felt blind and choked.     The girl screamed sharply, but through her scream my father told me to go sit beside her head, to look into her eyes. "Tell her a story," he instructed.     I went to the other side of the bed. She grabbed my hand. Hers squeezed mine desperately. I looked in her eyes.     "Tell her a story," my father said sternly.     I felt stunned and helplessly began, "This little pig went to market." I stroked her thumb. "This little pig stayed home ..." Over and over I said the rhyme and stroked each finger from its fingernail to its base. "This little piggie had roast beef ..." Then the girl squeezed my hand till it was numb. Her body writhed on the bed, and she shrieked. Do something, do something to make it over , I kept silently begging my father, cursing him. Again and again I told her about the piggies. The big boy held her hand on the other side. Between us, we made her hands safe.     I don't know how long we were linked together, but I remember us all as solid and welded as a bronze sculpture--the boy and I holding her hands, the great mountain of her stomach, and my father with his hands between her legs. We were all the same metallic color that was not a color but an idea, a single milt.     Then there was the baby, upside down, squalling, smeared. My father held her upside down away from his body, and I could see right into her tiny baby mouth where it was dark.     After the baby was born, my father sent me to sit in the car. He told Jaybee to get him a clean shirt, then to stand on the porch and watch the car. I sat on the back seat and stared at the hole in the laundry paper, where I had torn it open to get the clean things. My heart was thumping too hard, but it wouldn't slow down when I told it to--not then. There were many clean things still in the wrapper. I stared at their folded edges, their smooth starchedness. I could not think. My hand hurt.     It was a long time before my father came out. His shirt sleeves were rolled down again and buttoned. He didn't get in. He opened the car door beside me and thrust his face into the back.     "I want you to come in and see the baby." His eyebrows were lifted as he spoke. I could feel my eyebrows lifting up, in response, like his.     Everything was neat in the room. I saw the bundle of bloody laundry over in the corner. The big boy sat on the side of the bed now. The baby was tan and crinkled, held close to her mother. The baby was wrapped in a pink flannel blanket with blue crocheting around the edges. My father touched my shoulder to make me speak.     I hesitated for words. "I think ... It's a pretty blanket," I said.     "You have a mighty fine baby there," my father said.     "Did you do that crocheting?" I asked the girl.     Her eyes were calm now.     "No, my maw made it for me."     "I can't crochet either," I said.     My father said, "Now, Sarah, what are you and Bud going to name the baby?"     The girl looked at me. Her eyes were tired and soft. "What's your name?" she asked me, and I knew she had not heard my father's question.     "Tink."     "I gonna name her Tink."     I felt my insides sucked away. I looked at my father. "Daddy--" I started my protest.     "Say `thank you,'" he told me. I had never heard such a tone from him.     "Thank you," I mumbled. But I wanted to stamp my foot and howl.     My father put his hand on her forehead, and I saw how clean and old his hand was. I felt naked. The scrape on my knuckle hurt, the pox on my stomach felt lonely.     The girl was staring, mesmerized, at my father. The skin on her face had the smoothness of a mirror. She loved him, and I told myself not to hate him, not to hate him for letting them have my name. Copyright © 1999 Sena Jeter Naslund. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

I Am Bornp. 3
Madame Charpentier and Her Childrenp. 19
In the Free Statep. 35
The Shape You're Inp. 67
Burning Boyp. 96
The Death of Julius Geisslerp. 112
How Do You Do, Mister Cat?p. 152
The Disobedience of Waterp. 170