Don Waters Recalls “A Distant Episode”

When Robin Romm emailed me her essay for Beatrice about her favorite Grimm fairy tale, she mentioned that her partner, Don Waters, was also a short story writer—in fact, he’d just won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection, Desert Gothic. Would I be interested in an essay from him as well, she asked? I wrote her back almost immediately with my assent, and the following essay came soon after that. It will almost certainly send you off to a bookstore or a public library to track down not just the Bowles story Waters has chosen to write about for us, but his own collection, to see just how the influences have played out in his prize-winning stories.

don-waters.jpgLanguage is at the center of “A Distant Episode,” Paul Bowles’s magnificently brutal tale that guides its reader, along with its protagonist, from the “high, flat” country down into a hot desert hell complete with a “flaming sky,” “sharp mountains,” and odors that reek of “sun-baked excrement.” It has come as no surprise, years after reading “A Distant Episode,” and now returning to it, that I’ve carried this story inside me. It is a story to learn from and be frightened by. Such is the strength of Bowles’s story worlds.

My tastes in character types run similar to Bowles’s. He digs into fevered human psyches. He writes of solitary figures. (No frilly lace or restrained Victorian intrigue for him.) He likes to spin myths that unfold a half a world away, in lands with words like ‘qaouaji’ and ‘mehara’ in them. Like Bowles, I write about the desert. I enjoy the gothic quality of pushing characters off onto strange journeys. And now and then, a touch of cruelty enters my stories. The cruelty is not meant to elicit a stock response. Cruelty happens, as Bowles might agree, because sometimes it is in our nature.

Nature is not a commercial, as many Americans are trained to believe. Nature is a brute force, and as nature’s brainy, opposable-thumbed spawn, human beings long to contain it in order to make sense of it. We make do with what we have: neurological chemicals, brain circuitry—a mish-mash of evolutionary confluences that somehow produced in us language. Language is our miracle. But as creatures of the natural world, we also have the capacity to exact the most deliciously creative horrors upon each other, which brings us to “A Distant Episode.”

Bowles wastes no time setting up his protagonist, a linguist known only as “Professor,” a traveler in a remote, sun-stroked land—supposedly Morocco, where Bowles was writing at the time. The Professor has come to this desert outpost to visit a long-lost friend, a “café-keeper,” whom the Professor quickly discovers has died.

The Professor is a stranger in this place. He’s unfamiliar with the language, the customs, the small signals that would otherwise keep him safe back home. As the Professor ponders his dead friend’s fate, the moon replaces the sun in the sky. He strikes up a conversation with an unlikable waiter, and our Professor grows interested in buying camel-udder boxes. He wants to own a collection of them. A nomadic tribe known as the Reguibat makes these camel-udder boxes, and the waiter says that he will show the Professor where to find them. And so our journey, and the Professor’s, begins.

Readers familiar with Bowles’s masterwork “The Delicate Prey” know that a Reguibat tribesman kills two leather merchants during their journey from one desert village to another. Even more, the tribesman then murders the third in the party, a young man named Driss, whom he castrates, among other horrors. That story ends with the Reguibat tribesman succumbing to a particular brand of desert justice: when he’s captured, he’s buried alive in the sand, with only his face exposed, and he’s left to bake.

So when the waiter of “A Distant Episode” delivers our Professor of linguistics to a ledge out beyond the town’s outer wall, removed at a distance from civilization, the reader understands that down there, at the bottom of the quarry, rests our dear Professor’s camel-udder boxes and the people who make them—the Reguibat.

Bowles here is a horror mathematician. His descriptions are swift and precise. The “odor of human excrement” is pervasive. Characters walk on “sharp stones.” Even a feral, three-legged dog lunges at the pair. The Professor pauses to contemplate whether or not to descend the cliff and claim his camel-udder boxes—whatever those are. And always in his stories, sky is omnipresent: “He stretched out on the hard, cold ground and looked up at the moon. It was almost like looking straight at the sun. If he shifted his gaze a little at a time, he could make out a string of weaker moons across the sky.”

Something familiar happens then: the sound of a flute escapes from the bottom of the abyss. Perhaps to a Professor, a man of the academy, the call of a flute represents art, i.e. culture, i.e. surely there is nothing to fear at the bottom of a chasm where a flute plays. The hand of the author comes silently into play; Bowles, in his former life, was a composer. He lures the Professor from his relative safety atop the cliff with the flute’s sweet sound. And so the man clambers down the cliff, guided by moonlight, a foreigner enticed by the idea of collecting ethnic knickknacks. He is the perfect fool.

Now here is where Bowles slices his character’s throat, figuratively. I can certainly understand this impulse. When I began writing years ago, I suffered through a lot of intense moments with my writing, flustered by a bad turn or a mental roadblock, when I wanted nothing more than to execute my characters. These executions would have been pointless, though, unlike Mr. Bowles’s tricky purpose.

When the Professor reaches the murky bottom, his life as he knows it disappears. Quickly seized by a Reguibat tribesman, a gun placed at his spine, and with dogs biting at him, the Professor is overcome. Men gather around. They kick, rip open his pockets, and the Professor screams the last words he will ever scream—”You have all my money; stop kicking me!”—just before his nose is pinched, his tongue pokes out, and a knife takes it from him. The Professor is then “dumped doubled-up into a sack and tied at one side of a camel.” For a year he joins this nomadic tribe as its desert jester.

Without language, our linguist Professor becomes something akin to a beast. His sole purpose is to jump around with tin cans strapped on him in order to produce laughs. And here is where the careful reader sees Bowles’s neat, perfect little inversion, a wonderful turn-around, beautiful both for its logic and for its brutality. The Professor wanted to own a collection of exotic camel-udder boxes, which would have looked nice, perhaps intriguing, on his mantel. Instead, he becomes the possession of this wandering Reguibat tribe. But even more, he becomes a linguist with no tongue and, therefore, wordless. And without words, he regresses into a feral state, barely conscious, alive only in that he “ate and defecated.” He also masters a “few basic obscene gestures,” much to his captors’ delight.

Bowles acts, like all writers must, as a sort of god of the page. And he is in full control of his argument. He demonstrates the importance of language by exhibiting the strength of his. He shows the reader, through story, through the delicate mechanics of storytelling, how much he believes in the complete power of language. He also illustrates the utter powerlessness of a human being that loses this crucial advantage. Without language, we succumb to the forces of the natural world, a world devoid of reason.

Perhaps this is the why “A Distant Episode” so affects me today. There is always a certain amount of weakness on the page when I start to write something new. But this weakness vanishes as soon as the hazy words of a story take form. Of course, there are also those moments when I become the wordless, crazy, bloody-mouthed Professor, often believing that I am only here to eat and shit. Then the words return, sentences straighten with an edit, and I find myself sturdily above the abyss and momentarily saved. I would be a mad beast without these letters—we all would.

17 December 2007 | selling shorts |