Elizabeth Frankie Rollins is spellbinding. These stories swirl with themes of destruction - a smattering of buboes indicating plague, a woman next door smashing everything inside and outside her house, the sin eater who becomes more bruised and swollen the more of your evils she eats. The characters seem stunned by their own ability to destroy: "It looked as though I had built a ruin on purpose," or "We often heard her say, I can't take it anymore, but we were witnesses to all she could and did take."
Her book seems to ask what is explosive about each of us. If our destructive tendencies have minds of their own. And, perhaps more interestingly, her stories explore the surviving of damage, coming through making art or making peace (sometimes - and other times driving away wildly with your plague body in the open air). One of my favorite stories in the collection, "Tail," recounts a woman who begins to grow one. "You're past the age for growing things," the doctor tells her, and she tells us, "It didn't hurt. It grew." She goes through stages of pride and admiration, nervousness and secrecy, neglect. Her tail is as large as she is. At one point the tail is so mud-caked and tangled, heavy as a body. The woman looks longingly on at those without tails, living their tail-less lives.
Damage is like that - that small protrusion we start noticing, that growth we didn't exactly choose, the one that's difficult to hide and needs caring for, even when we want it out of body, our bathtub, our bed. She writes, "I thought, it's not cancer, it's not malignant, it won't kill me. But it's a tail and it's going to follow me forever and now nobody, anywhere, will ever really understand me."
I think one reason we turn to stories are to feel less alone. We tell them to be understood, we hear them in order to understand. Frankie's book goes to that most alone, most misunderstood place - and shows us her characters' choices. Being magnetized towards that damage, carrying it on or in our bodies. Many times the characters make art to escape. "There is a pulling inside you, not quite sexual, but deeper, as if a hand is digging within your body, feeling for something, or maybe drawing something out, a giant white root, a tendon, a bone." These characters are so insistent about the choices they make - they sculpt and devour and curse and run away. They eavesdrop. They hallucinate. They fantasize. They burst open like ripe fruit. Even when they know they are going to die.