August 10, 2020: “Animalmancy” by Kellie Wells

Hey there, Story366!

Today, in most ways, is the last day of summer break. Tomorrow morning, I have a five-hour retreat for the English department. It’s a Zoom retreat, so I don’t have to put on pants or anything grave like that. ,But hey, it’s still a five-hour commitment for work that’s not the extra summer-type work I’ve been used to. I will confront my colleagues, hear about their summers, and then spend most of the time going over policy for the upcoming pandemic-laden fall semester. In some ways, I’m looking forward to it, for time to keep moving, for this new adventure to arrive and be conquered. In other ways, I’d like to just sleep in and fart around the house. But it’s been a good run, and I’m not really leaving the house, anyway: Let the farting-round live, at least for one more week.

Today I continue on with Two-Timers Week, where I cover a writer for a second time, reading from a second collection. For this entry, I read from Kellie Wells‘ 2017 book, God, the Moon, and Other Megafauna, out from the University of Notre Dame Press as a winner fo the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. The first time I covered Wells, back in December of 2016, I wrote about the title story from her first collection, “Compression Scars,” a story I still use in my classes because I love that story because it is awesome. So, Wells set the bar pretty high—but I guess that’s what any author with a good book does.

God, The Moon, and Other Megafauna is cut into different sections, “Moon,” “God,” “Kansas,” “Fauna,” and “Apocalypse,” and the three stories I read were from all over the book. By title alone, I literally wanted to read every story. The piece I’m focusing on, “Animalmancy,” happened to have the word “ventriloquist” early on, and I’m sucker for anything about ventriloquists (I have a couple of stories about them myself), so I jumped right in. “Animalmancy” is about Nikolai, a Vegas performer who will prop up the recently deceased and speak words for the corpse—through ventriloquism!—nice things for their dearly beloved, what’s meant to be a happy send-off, while at the same time, selling out the room.

This works for a while, until a widow doesn’t really like Nikolai’s bit, doesn’t buy into it, especially when he says, through the dead husband, that the woman looks beautiful. Knowing her dearly departed would never say such a thing, the widow sues Nikolai and tries to have him arrested for things like “impersonating the dead” and making false statements on behalf of the dead” (a line that made me laugh out loud: “there’s a lot of things you can throw in Vegas—the dice, a fight, your weight around—but not a voice”.) Suddenly, Nikolai sees a downside in his choice of occupations.

He is especially wary of his son, Busby, getting into the same business. Busby had been training to be his father’s successor, learning to speak to the dead in every language possible. After all this training, and the lawsuit, Nikolai tries to talk him out of it. He takes him for a walk, and upon this walk, Busby discovers he can also commune with animals. To Nikolai, a D-level Vegas act,this is unacceptable, insulting, and wishes for anything but this, Busby’s doolittlerian ways.

If you think this story is zany and off the rails at this point, then hold that thought. Nikolai hatches a new plan, something that will keep Busby from talking to critters while at the same time revitalizing his own act: Busby should be dead. This way, he, as a recently deceased person, can communicate with those long dead, an intermediary between performer and the afterlife. Nikolai convinces himself this is the right move by implying that Busby will be happy to see his long-dead mother, that this reunion will soften the blow of death, murder by his own father.

To hatch his evil scheme, Nikolai employs two assassins, Messrs. Guernsey and Clydesdale (who are French, because of course they are), who might be a cow and a horse, or are probably just humans with those unlikely names—in this story, one can never be too sure. Lucky for Busby, a dog named Gerald warns him of the impending infanticide, then he and Busby hit the road, attempting to get away.

There’s some outsmarting of the French animalesque assassins that leads Busby to a swamp, where he encounters an old farmer, still mourning over the grave of his daughter. Busby gives the farmer his father’s card, tells him Nikolai can help send a message to his daughter. This means he’s still drumming up business for the man who’s trying to kill him. He’s just a nice guy like that.

The story heads towards its resolution when Guernsey tells Nikolai that the deed has been done, that Busby is dead, when in fact he’s not. This leads to a Shakespearean confrontation at the grave of the farmer’s daugther, which I won’t reveal here, because I simply won’t: You need to check this story out for yourself.

“Moon Moon My Honey” is from the “Moon” section and is about a woman, who’s possibly a mermaid (again, one cannot be sure in this book), who is mourning the loss of her love. She is double-voicing the story of how a sweet man named Mahoney who finds her on the beach, filled with fish and water, wrapped in seaweed (hence my mermaid suspicions). Mahoney saves this woman, as well as her dog—his name is Sprocket and he’s in simimlarly bad shape—takes them back to his house. There he makes her carrot soup to make her feel better. She eats the soup, while Mahoney’s pet mouse eats the carrot tops, starting a long love affair (between the woman and Mahoney, not the woman and the mouse). Eventually, though, Mahoney passes from this world—this is way more metaphysical than a usual death, no falling off a ladder or parachute not opening-type things—leaving our hero alone, sending her on a journey where she can recover.

I also love “Ever After,” from “God,” which is told from the perspective of Eve. This story is cut into sections and in each one, Eve basically gives the skinny on some aspect of the Eden myth. There’s a section explaining Cain and Abel, what kind of kids they were. A section lays out the whole incest thing, how it had to be their own kids who bred with each other, because, it just had to be, right? She explains that the serpent was actually a turtle. She tells us that she lived for nearly a thousand years in the garden before said turtle incident. She pontificates on her relationship with God. One particularly funny section on zoology tells of how Adam wanted to name the animals stupid things like “pinochle” and “carburetor,” but she came with the better names (though God kept all those terrible names for later). All of this is told in a rather high-English diction, full of fun vocab like “kerfuffle” and prose worthy of the most convoluted literary theorist.

Kellie Wells goes two or two with God, the Moon, and Other Megafauna, a book more more experimental and conceptual than Compression Scars, but is its equal in all the good ways, in that it’s a phenomenal collection that’s going to stay with me well after reading from it for this blog. Everything I’ve read by Wells has been phenomenal, making me think I should read everything else she has, then anticipate when there will be more.