What happens? If you wave a chicken over your head? Maybe you silence the accusing voice of guilt in your head. Maybe you transfer your sins to a scapegoat in a sort of ritual exorcism. Maybe nothing. Alison Morse's stories read like parables, only the morals are not always so obvious. It might be more accurate to describe her stories as riddles, in the way Kafka's and Gogol's stories are riddles. Indeed, one story, "The Farmer and the Fox," feels almost like a postmodern fable from Aesop.
In the story "Continuing Education," the unnamed narrator's mother's dying statement to her daughter is, "I should have taught you how to kill a chicken. Maybe then you wouldn't be so afraid." Her mother had also once told her daughter about a Yom Kippur custom in which you wave a chicken over your head to ritualistically cast off your sins. Haunted by her mother's last words, the narrator has nightmares. She and her husband go to a poultry farm to learn how to "prepare" a chicken, from barnyard to pot.
Only, at the critical moment, the narrator is overcome by nausea and flees the building. Her husband perseveres, but the idea of actually eating the chicken Josh has killed revolts her, and later, at home, she tucks the frozen carcass under her shirt and throws it away, telling her husband she's donated it to a food pantry. Only later, she discovers a swollen patch of frostbite on her stomach where she had pressed the frozen chicken. She wants to blame her husband, her mother, the chicken, but "I couldn't." Has she overcome fear, taken responsibility? The conclusion is deliciously ambiguous, as so many of the endings of these stories are.
Most of the central characters of these nine stories are unnamed, either addressed as "you" or "I" or simply described as father, mother, brother, husband, sister. This contributes to the sense of parable, the overall reaching for some larger resolution. Often, this struggle is with death, how to come to terms with it. As well as in "Continuing Education," this dynamic is at work in "My Sister," a story that appears to be based on the life of Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, whose sister died in Vilna when he was young ("Then she turned into a ribbon of ink that flew out the window on a traveling breeze." Meningitis. In response he becomes a poet.) and "Flusso," a story about a Roman Jewish Holocaust survivor, with its philosophical resignation about the ebb and flow of life.
In "Digging for Sweetness," the narrator, Mina, one of the few named protagonists (the other is Katie in "Repair"), is likewise implicitly coming to terms with her mother's death (you can hear the echo of the grave in the very title). Mina is famous for her Crème Brûlée and is constantly seeking to identify the elusive tastes she craves for her signature dessert. Trouble is, she's borderline diabetic and her doctor has warned her about blindness and heart attacks and other health consequences. But it is her mother she remembers, a health-conscious person who'd lived on tasteless millet stews and bran muffins but nevertheless died of ovarian cancer. So screw that advice! At the end, concocting her latest Crème Brûlée, Mina "dips a spoon into the dish of dry, bitter words. She eats." Another deliciously nuanced ending.
If it's not death that confronts the protagonist, it is dysfunction in romance and family. The protagonist of "Masterpieces," known simply as "the girl," endures an autocratic father who is unfaithful to her mother. She feels trapped; the story ends on "an image: open–mouthed, lake–bottom brown, stone–eyed carp — caught in a glass tank." In "The Apartment," a woman in a loveless marriage (identified only as "you," the story told in second-person) decides to rent an apartment of her own. A realtor takes her around one, shows her the terrace, which is lined with beer bottles. "Sticking out of one bottle, like a tongue, is a rolled-up piece of paper. 'I'm mad for you,' it says." She breaks down crying. She also takes the apartment. WTF? A puzzle, a riddle of the human psyche.
These stories are not without their humor. It's just that, as Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The characters in Morse's stories are all quirky and individual, sympathetic. In "The Twitch," the protagonist ("he") is a guy who — well, twitches. He turns this into performance art, making one think of Kafka's "Hunger Artist." The story is related with ironic humor, as is "Repair," a story about a girl, Katie, also unlucky in love and from a family that has its challenges; Katie is passionate to save the environment while her own life seems to be stalled. She puts an ad in Craig's List soliciting positive messages, with an endearing and amusing result.
So yes, go ahead. Read If You Wave a Chicken Over Your Head. See what it does!