September 25: “Witch” by Roland Sodowsky

Story366, how are you? It’s a rainy Sunday here in Springfield, which makes me happy that the Cub Scout campout ended around nine this morning, well before the sky opened up. The only real downside is that I spread our tent out in the back yard because I needed it to dry (that’s dew for you) and now it’s, you know, even more wet. Still, the campout was a ton of fun. The deciding factor was always going to be how our three year old would react, having never been camping before. On the way, me and the older boy were commenting how the little one didn’t really know what camping was, just that every once in a while, we packed up the car with this weird gear and drove off for a couple/few days without him. Instead of going to a campground and setting up a tent, we could have literally driven to a Walmart and just slept in the car all night and he wouldn’t have known the difference. “That’s camping, man!” But that’s cruel, though, so we just went regular camping instead. And he loved it.

Oh, one more thing. When we were leaving, I put the little one into his car seat and almost instantly, this giant spider crawled up his leg. I brushed it off him right away—and yes, I let out a high-pitched scream—but managed to pick it up with this a piece of paper. Here’s the best shot of it I got:

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I keep imagining what would have happened if that spider waited until we got on I-44 to start its journey. The little guy would have started screaming and I would probably have been like, “Hey, just chill out. We’re almost home,” not knowing that some movie monster was making its way toward his throat. So, camping!

Back home, I read from Roland Sodowsky’s collection Things We Lose, which won the AWP Short Fiction Award back in 1989, before it was called the Grace Paley Prize and before it was put out by the University of Massachusetts Press—Sodowsky’s was put out by the University of Missouri Press. I got this book when I met Sodowsky at Pittsburg State University, where I interviewed for a job the same year I got my current Missouri State job. Sodowsky, as it turns out, was a professor here at Missouri State for quite some time, but retired and moved to Pittsburg with his wife, Laura Lee Washburn, PSU’s poetry prof. Ironically, I ended up here in his old job. Now, four years later, I finally cracked his collection.

As it turns out, Things We Lose is a themed collection, as all of the stories’ protagonists are white westerners living in Africa, on the continent to work various jobs, adjusting to local cultures and realities. I read a few of the stories in the book (though not the title piece, which is long novella), enjoying them all, and will write about “Witch,” my personal favorite.

“Witch” is about this American couple living in Africa, a story told from the husband’s point of view. He’s employed at the Harbourworks on a dredging operation, apparently making good money, good enough to move himself and his wife to Africa. His wife, Mary, isn’t doing so well, though, as she’s stopped doing a lot of the things she liked to do back home, like swim and read, sleeping the days away alone in bed. So, lots of basic tension already going on as the story starts.

On top of all this, on his cab rides home, our protagonist notices a woman sitting very still, in the same spot on the side of the road, every day. He asks the cabbie what the deal is and the cabbie tells him the woman is a witch. Our hero attempts to find out what he means—miscarriages might be involved—but doesn’t get much info: She’s simply a witch. He gets home, discovers that Mary has never gotten out of bed, and makes a suggestion: Mary should help the witch, the unmoving woman he’s been seeing, see if she can do something to change her life. They argue fiercely but eventually leave the subject alone.

What happens from there is unexpected and interesting and well played by Sodowsky. Indeed, Mary engages with this so-called witch, but perhaps it’s the witch who helps her more than she helps the witch. Remember, this is a book about white westerners having to adjust to African society, not the other way around. Out of the three stories I’ve read, none exemplies this more than “Witch,” in the scene when our protagonist finds his wife out by the road, sitting still next to this local woman. This story, and apparently all of them in Things We Lose, show how this large continent takes people over, makes them succumb to its will, altering what the characters expect. They all lose something, as the book’s title suggests, and our protagonist in “Witch” loses Mary.

There’s more to “Witch” than this, more in-between, including an attempt to find a missing ring and some backstory that helps explains why the couple made such a drastic move, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. I really enjoyed “Witch” for a lot of reasons and am glad I found Roland Sodowsky on my shelf, which very well could have been, at one time, his shelf, too.

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