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Pickle Me This

March 11, 2012

"A Sister and a Brother" by Elizabeth Hay

“The snow had gone lacy, its surface melted and worked into very fine patterns like old leaves on a forest floor. In places broken twigs had slowly descended through the snow so that when a few feet away you saw what appeared to be a twig-print, then looking straight down you saw the beautiful black twig itself.”

There is something about the intimacy of Elizabeth Hay’s narrative voice and the specificity of her details that makes it difficult to really understand that her stories are imagined. In her short story “A Sister and a Brother”, which appeared in Issue 34.4 of Room Magazine, this point is underlined by her story’s structure, which moves between past and present with such fluidity, and is presented in a casual tone of reportage (“I am laying this out, because of what happened next…”) that at first glace suggests that the story has very little structure at all. Similarly with the story’s final sentences: “My brother is downstairs in the kitchen while I am up here at my desk. All is well between us.” What kind of story would you want to read that delivered you to that point? What is a story at all?

What a story is not is tidy, beginning, middle and end. Ruth narrates from a vantage point of now, able to pick and choose scenes from her past to create the effect she is intending. There are the explosive moments from her childhood (with undertones of wider violence), and the peaceful ones, and each of these is situated within its own particular contexts, which Hay alludes to (“It’s the Easter before our family comes apart in ways that I long for…”). And in the present day, in her relationship with her brother and the dynamic between them, she notes tracks of past resentments, long simmering outbursts. And then peering down into those tracks, as in the scene with twigs in the snow, the past is still there, vivid and real, just fallen down beneath the surface and out of sight.

Ruth never really liked her brother as much as she liked the idea of him, the ideal of him, and he never had any regard for her at all. She is self-aware enough: “And no doubt I am genuinely annoying as is anyone who is hesitant, bothersome, unsure of herself.” And theirs is a perpetual motion machine of Ruth provoking Peter’s ire by simply being, Peter’s ire diminishing her, Ruth resenting this diminishing and thus provoking his ire further. Driven by the hope of reaching him, which once in a while he lets her do, only to push her away again as soon as she lets her guard down.

It’s a complicated, precarious dynamic, and Hay has created in Ruth a character who mulls these things over and over, analysing questions of character and motivation in a way that it would never occur to her brother to do. She tries to see things from her brother’s point of view, sees herself from the perspective of an outsider through a friend’s story about her own detested sister, understands that it’s possible that she just doesn’t understand Peter’s sense of humour, as her parents tell her. That she has that put-upon-ness that so many women take on in middle age in their relations with their families, and her problems with Peter are no perhaps more complex than that. Not that she’ll leave it at that, because she wants something specific, and she’ll keep unpacking her baggage over and over: “How do we build a love out of the dark timber of the past?”

She says, “To hear an honest something, that’s what I live for.” But even as she’s listening, she’s pleading her case.

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