December 13: “The Ibex Girl of Qumran” by A.A. Balaskovits

Hello, Story366! Today should be about the last tough night of the year, as I’m giving two finals tomorrow and normally try to have everything graded by then to hand back to the students, plus figure their grades, minus the final. That’s a tall order as it’s getting late, I’m tired, it’s cold in my office, and I’m craving meat. I see me jetting over to a place that sells meat-foods, has big, clean tables, gives out its WiFi password to unshaven derelict-types, and is open late. Yes, I’m starting to foresee such a future.

Nineteen days left in Story366 and as I was sitting around, not grading, I firstly and carefully made this Lego figure structure:

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I love looking at it, the geometry, the order, the synchronized beauty … knowing full well by the time I get home late tonight, my boys will have destroyed it. After I finished this masterpiece, I then wasted time by aligning my books for the rest of Story366. Eighteen more after today, and with me in the midst of a Bowling Green alum week, that only left twelve random books for the rest of the year. That’s actually leaving some books from my stack on the sideline, books that somehow I’m not going to get to. Considering I’ve needed 366 books for this project, it seems impossible to have too many, but here we are. I’m going to continue on next year, in some capacity, so I’ll get to those books, sooner or later. After compiling books for so long this year, it’s weird I’m running out of days and not books. Who would have thunk it?

In any case, I do have to get to that grading, but not before today’s post. Continuing on with that aforementioned Bowling Green alum week, my third of the year, I’m jumping ahead a bit and featuring A.A. Balaskovits‘ Magic for Unlucky Girls, out from the Santa Fe Writers Project as the winner of their latest contest. Also, it won’t be out until this coming April—that’s the jumping ahead part—so be warned, this book is for pre-order right now only. Still, I wanted to squeeze this one in while everyone’s paying attention and because it’s a really great book. I’d read parts of it before as A.A. (Am I not supposed to call her “Allison” here? Oops …) was a student of mine while I was at BG and you run into your students’ stories here and there. I still was able to find a whole lot of work in this book that was new to me and read five or six stories, some short-shorts, some longer. I enjoyed every one of the stories I did get to and will focus on the longest of the lot, “The Ibex Girl of Qumran,” which is as cool as it sounds.

Before we go any further, “The Ibex Girl of Qumran” will make more sense with a clear picture of what an ibex is. I thought I had a pretty good idea, a fast, little deer/antelope thing with really long, straight horns, sort of cream-colored with black and brown markings on its face. With this image in mind, I looked it up online and instead got this picture:

ibex-005

So, that wasn’t what I was picturing at all. What animal did I have in mind?! Anyway, this thing has longer and curvier horns and is more goat than deer or antelope. If you’re like me and not as up on your cloven-hooved animals, I hope this zoology lesson is helpful in enjoying today’s post.

Moving on to the story, “The Ibex Girl of Qumran” is about this unnamed woman who remembers a story from her childhood, one her grandfather told her. He spoke of a girl who lived in a faraway desert, among shepherds, near a sea of salt, how this girl’s people experienced a great drought, killing their crops, livestock, and eventually, them. The girl, whose name was Hessa, was our protagonist in a former life, says Grandpa, and that girl, to save her people, crawled across the desert on her belly in the middle of the night until she came across a giant golden ibex. Hessa followed the ibex across mountains and the salt sea, then the ibex and she drank from the sea until Hessa tore apart and a young, black ibex emerge from inside of her. The next day, rains came and saved her village.

My grandma more or less pinched my cheeks and said things in Polish and gave me ten dollars on Christmas and Easter. No Old Country tales, but that’s what our hero gets in “The Ibex Girl of Qumran,” a really great story. And that story stays with her her whole life, until she is an adult, when her grandfather has a fall on his 81st birthday and breaks his hip and should have to go into an assisted-living center, but instead, gets better, learns to use a cane. Over the years, the woman has given her grandfather ibex-related gifts, trying to acknowledge the bond she feels with him, but he doesn’t really acknowledge them back, not as much as she’d like, as he only barely remembers telling her this story. Yet, she loves her grandfather, knows he doesn’t have much time left, and can’t stop thinking about being Hessa in a former life, the ibex girl who saved her people.

Our protagonist becomes so obsessed, she takes a leave from her job, pools together every dime she can, and buys tickets for Israel—the only place on Earth with a salt sea—for her and and her grandfather for his next birthday, hoping to search out the place where this ibex story actually happened. So, she’s that obsessed with all this, which might not be an obsession at all, but something more. In any case, she and Grandpa check into a hotel and hire a guide, a young man named Amir who does not know the ibex story and tries to steer the two toward the more touristy—and safe—destinations, the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea Scroll caves, etc. He does tell her of a faraway desert community, Qumran, where ibex run free, and our protagonist wants to go there, a plan for which she faces opposition, from both Amir and her grandfather, for whom the trip will be hard.

Eventually, born-again Hessa convinces Amir and her grandfather to journey to Qumran, but that’s as far as I’ll go with the plot, not wanting to reveal anything else. This piece is not only a fairy tale or myth, but a story within a story, depicting a relationship between different generations, and not just the two between granddaughter and grandfather. The story is also a mystery, as the characters search for clues, follow up on leads, etc. More than anything, I like and admire this story for its pure imagination—I’m assuming Balaskovits made up this whole ibex story, as I can’t find anything about it online, and that blows me away, because, like, wow, how original. But it’s not just the myth, but the story around it that’s really bold, heading out to Israel, searching out the origin of the story—that’s more ambitious than anything I’ve ever tried, so I tip my cap.

The stories in Magic for Unlucky Girls combine the magical with contemporary realism, rendering an aesthetic I’ve not quite seen but couldn’t get enough of. A.A. Balaskovits has a in-depth eye for detail, creates her own folklores, and possesses a dry wit that adds a welcome attitude to her fables. These stories are masterfully constructed and surprised me on every page, making me want to finish one just so I could get to the next. This book won’t be out until April, but head’s up, it’s one for the queue.

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2 thoughts on “December 13: “The Ibex Girl of Qumran” by A.A. Balaskovits

  1. Pingback: Story 366 Review of Magic for Unlucky Girls – A.A. Balaskovits

  2. Pingback: December 14: “An American Affair” by Mark Brazaitis – Story366

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