September 14, 2020: “Animal Wife” by Lara Ehrlich

Happy Monday, Story366!

Yesterday, I wrote a lot about the Chicago Bears and the NFL, how I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch or not this season. During all that, there was also the unmentionable going on: a no-hitter-in-progress by Alec Mills, starting pitcher for the Cubs. If you know baseball, you know it’s super-superstitious to talk about it while it’s happening—one peep can send bad mojo the wrong way, thus ending said no-hitter. So, while I was typing yesterday’s post, I could have included info on the no-hitter, but didn’t, as I’m not an asshole who breaks up no-hitters by talking about them in his short story blog.

Alec Mills concluded his no-hitter, a historic day for the Cubs. If you’re not in tune with baseball, a no-hitter is pretty rare, most pitchers never throwing one in their career. There are anywhere form zero to three no-hitters in an average Major League season. The Cubs, who have been around since 1886, have only had sixteen no-hitters in their entire history. I’ve seen only four for the Cubs in my lifetime, and sadly, was at the game for one against them. I’ve also witnessed a lot of close calls, no-hitters broken up with a late base hit—I must have opened my big mouth.

Today I’m reading from another brand-new book, Lara Ehrlich‘s collection Animal Wife, due out tomorrow from Red Hen. Ehrlich has published a lot of these stories in lit mags, and I’ve read a few, including her work in Smokelong Quarterly. Glad to have a whole book in my hands, so congrats to her on her debut.

The title story is first up and it’s a great representation of what Ehrlich does, what themes she covers. It’s about a young girl, whose name we never get, whose mother has just left her and her father. They live in a house in the woods built upon a pond, the pond where her father met her mother, swimming naked. At least that’s his story: Mom’s version is different, as we’ll come to realize later on.

The dad doesn’t really know how to raise a kid, or take care of the house (we see this later on, in other stories), so our hero has to fend for herself. She feeds herself and basically does what she wants. It’s a good thing she has an expanse of woods to explore. This is actually something her mother encouraged—in fact, her mother seems to have an affinity with the woods, and is symbolized by a white feather she used to wear, a white feather our hero carries with her. It’s at this point you might start remembering the title of this story and put two and two together.

In the woods, our hero runs into Amir, a boy who seems to live in the woods, up in a tree. They become fast friends and teach each other things. Amir shows her how to gather and pelt stones as weapons, while she teaches him boxing, which she’s been practicing on her own.

What you should note about Amir and his perch, way up in this tree, is that he can see the entire woods. He’s seen her at her house, and her father, too. Especially important is how he saw her mother leave, information she desperately wants. She might not be ready for the answers she gets, however.

I won’t go much further into the plot of this story, but will not that there’s a run-in with a monster they call the Marsh King, an entity she and Amir have been dodging for the entire story. How all of this pieces together, you can find out for yourself, and I suggest you do, as this is a really good story.

There’s a mix of shorts and somewhat longer and shorter stories. Three one-pagers, “Crush,” “Kite,” and “Paint by Number” are all solid flash pieces, Ehrlich understanding the economy of language, yet still able to instill her themes.

“Night Terrors” again sends a girl out into the woods. She begins having nightmares, and when she’s awake, she hears things in the forest, lurking outside her window, things she assumes are coming to kill her.

“Foresight” is about a woman who sees the natural ending to every situation she enters into, be it meeting a writer at a reading and determining how and when he’ll cheat on her, years down the road; or how her children will look and turn out, if she has them. This ability freezes her, as eventually, all roads lead to at least a little heartache.

“The Tenant” features a widow who invites a bear into her home, a bear who’s a better houseguest, and companion, than most of the people the woman has ever met.

The last story I read is “The Monster at Marta’s Back,” about a woman with aspirations to be a writer and an artist, but was sidetracked by a career as a homemaker. Her daughters grown, she applies for an receives a scholarship to a writer’s retreat/colony, and no one can believe she’s actually going, leaving her home and hapless husband to their vices. On the train to the retreat, she shares a car with just one person, a stalking man who creeps all over her, making her, sadly, regret her decision to leave.

Women are leaving all over Animal Wife, Lara Ehrlich’s debut collection, but that’s just one of the themes Ehrlich explores. The sense of escape and abandonment are joined by the spiritual and the natural, as well as a sense of independence, exploration, and dream-chasing. I’ve liked this collection as much as any new collection I’ve read in 2020, and predict this will be on my top-of-the-year list when it’s all said and done. Congrats to you, Lara, on. your book!