The Modern Library
I picked this volume up because I literally cannot walk out of our school library without at least one book in my hand. I have a volume of Welty stories in my home library, but this tidy little Modern Libary volume was calling my name. My classroom is overflowing with books, I have books stacked on my desk, books stacked next to my desk, and with every visit to the school library I am tempted again. My teaching day doesn't have too many empty spaces, but once in a while I'll read while eating my lunch, and I always read while the students are doing silent sustained reading. Short stories are perfect for those little stolen slots of time--too brief to become engrossed in a long novel--when you can grab a little reading time.
It was late afternoon, with heavy silver clouds which looked bigger and wider that cotton fields, and presently it began to rain. Big round drops fell, still in the sunlight, on the hot tin sheds, and stained the false white fronts of the row of stores in the little town of Farr's Gin. A hen and her string of yellow chickens ran in great alarm across the road, the dust turned river brown, and the birds flew down into it immediately, sitting out little pockets in which to take baths. The bird dogs got up from the doorways of the stores, shook themselves down to the tail, and went to lie inside. The few people standing with long shadows on the level road moved over into the post office. A little boy kicked his bare heels into the sides of his mule, which proceeded slowly through the town toward the country.I love the tactile quality of Welty's description--the bird dogs "shook themselves down the the tail"--I can hear that shaking, and see the drops of water flying from the bird dog's fur. But this beautiful and precise description does more than just set the scene for "Clytie." The big round drops that fall in the second sentence of the story are falling into the rain barrel that closes the story is a peculiar, poigant, and startling way.
Clytie, the eponymous main character in the story, is a reclusive "old maid" who is terrorized by her insane older sister, while she cooks and cares for her bedridden father, her sister, and her alcoholic brother. Yes, this is a Southern Gothic crazy family, living behind closed shutters and doors in a house devoid of furniture. Welty's writing is as pelucid as a raindrop, and just when you think you know what's coming next, she smacks you with an arresting gesture or image.
Clytie wanders through the little town of Farr's Gin, gets caught in the rain, and wanders home again. "It has been a long time now, since Clytie had first begun to watch faces, and to think about them." This odd, awkward, frightened woman
....knew how to look slowly and carefully at a face; she was convinced it was impossible to see it all at once. The first thing she discovered about a face was always that she had never seen it before. When she began to look at people's actual countenances there was no more familiarity in the world for he. The most profound, the most moving sight in the whole world must be a face. Was it possible to comprehend the eyes and mouths of other people, which concealed she knew not what, and secretly asked for still another unknown thing?This is what Welty does: she shows the reader every little ordinary detail of a nondescript town, and then she takes those simple details and renders the mystery that lies right there in every face. Water runs through "Clytie": the story begins with a rain shower; "Clytie" is the name of a mythological water-nymph; another character is called "Lethy" (Lethe is one of five rivers that run through Hades). Finally, the story ends with the rain barrel: "It bore a dark, heavy, penetrating fragrance, like ice and flowers and the dew of night."
I highly recommend that you seek out this story (or any story by Welty). Next time you're at the library or the bookstore, pick up a short story collection and leave it on the kitchen table or some other handy place. Read a story for breakfast or while your dinner is in the oven....then let me know what great stories you've discovered....