Friday, February 26, 2016

The Skokie Who Lost His Wife

This is the way they tell it. 
A Skokie heard a Shelni jug flute jugging one night. 
‘That is the voice of my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I'd know it anywhere.’ 
The Skokie came over the moors to find his wife. He went down into the hole in the ground that his wife's voice was coming from. But all he found there was a Shelni playing a jug flute. 
‘I am looking for my poor lost wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I have heard her voice just now coming out of this hole. Where is she?’ 
‘There is nobody here but myself,’ the Shelni said. ‘I am sitting here alone playing my flute to the moons whose light runs down the walls of my hole.’ 
‘But I heard her here,’ said the Skokie, ‘and I want her back.’ 
‘How did she sound?’ asked the Shelni. ‘Like this?’ And he jugged some jug music on his flute. 
‘Yes, that is my wife,’ said the Skokie. ‘Where have you hidden her? That is her very voice.’ 
‘That is nobody's wife,’ the Shelni told the Skokie. ‘That is just a little tune that I made up.’ 
‘You play with my wife's voice, so you must have swallowed my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I will have to take you apart and see.’ 
‘If I swallowed anybody's wife I'm sorry,’ said the Shelni. ‘Go ahead then.’ 
So the Skokie took the Shelni apart and scattered the pieces all over the hole and some of them on the grass outside. But he could not find any part of his wife. 
‘I have made a mistake,’ said the Skokie. ‘Who would have thought that one who had not swallowed my wife could make her voice on the flute!’ 
‘It is all right,’ said the Shelni, ‘so long as you put me together again. I remember part of the way I go. If you remember the rest of the way, then you can put me together again.’ 
But neither of them remembered very well the way the Shelni was before he was taken apart. The Skokie put him together all wrong. There were not enough pieces for some parts and too many for others. 
‘Let me help,’ said a Frog who was there. ‘I remember where some of the parts go. Besides, I believe it was my own wife he swallowed. That was her voice on the flute. It was not a Skokie voice.’ 
The frog helped, and they all remembered what they could, but it did not work. Parts of the Shelni could not be found again, and some of the parts would not go into him at all. When they had him finished, the Shelni was in great pain and could hardly move, and he didn't look much like a Shelni. 
‘I've done all I can,’ the Skokie said. ‘That's the way you'll have to be. Where is Frog?’ 
‘I'm inside,’ said Frog. 
‘That's where you will have to stay,’ the Skokie said. ‘I've had enough of both of you. Enough, and these pieces left over. I will just take them with me. Maybe I can make someone else out of them.’ 
That is the way the Shelni still is, put together all wrong. In his wrong form he walks the country by night, being ashamed to go by day. Some folks are startled when they meet him, not knowing this story. He still plays his jug flute with the lost Skokie Wife's voice and with Frog's voice. Listen, you can hear it now! The Shelni goes in sorrow and pain because nobody knows how to put him together right. 
The Skokie never did find his lost wife. 
This is how it is told.

~R. A. Lafferty, "Ride a Tin Can" (1970)

Art (fromthe story's original publication in IF Magazine) by Jack Gaughan.
Image found here:

What's interesting about isolating this passage (and two other similar passages I recently blogged from this story) is that it shows, simply by virtue of its authentic indigenous voice, how naturally sympathetic Lafferty was with the aboriginal imagination.  These micro-stories genuinely sound like tribal folk tales from around the world.  But, just as interestingly, what isolating such a passage doesn't show is that in this story Lafferty is actually writing overall in the voice of a rather traumatised anthropologist who is watching an indigenous people being wiped completely out. Lafferty shows real knowledge of this 'soft science' in the larger story as well, and of how the researcher on the ground must compete, often unsuccessfully, with larger stronger forces such as the scientific establishment and powerful commercial concerns.  It's a prime example of how Lafferty holds in one head a genuine 'native' sort of perspective as well as that of a 'modern' educated perspective, and one highly sensitive to 'post-colonial' issues at that.  The story is very dark and poignant beneath its rather joyful and rambunctious prose style.  That exuberance is authentic though, not mere style.  It is the joy of the oppressed refusing to die even if their bodies are slain (and eaten!) by the corporate cannibals. The story is grim, and yet this indomitable joy (though it can be silly in some respects, leading even to an undeserved credulity and trust that leads to death) is somehow crucial, a refusal to give the oppressor the very last inch of his conquest - your own bitterness.  That's how it's striking me at the moment anyhow.  It's one of his more complex tales in a way and will require further rumination and analysis.

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'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)