Jim Shepard: “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”

08/09/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Electric Literature, Issue #1, 2009. Part of the O. Henry Prize Stories 2011.

We call ourselves Die Harschblodeln: the Frozen Idiots. There are four of us who’ve volunteered to spend the coldest winter in recent memory in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope of the Weissfluhjoch nine thousand feet above Davos. We’re doing research. The hut, we like to say, is naturally refrigerated from the outside and a good starting point for all sorts of adventures, nearly all of them lethal.

That’s an excellent beginning to any story, the use of foreign-language flavoring the exotic setting, all while tempering the facts of research with a grim comedy: “The Frozen Idiots,” reads one line; “naturally refrigerated,” jokes another; “adventures,” cites the last, before a comma leads to the cruel clarification: “nearly all of them lethal.” There are to be the highest of stakes, promises this first paragraph, and conditions have never been worse for our heroes: it is “the coldest winter in recent memory” and of the five research stations built, “as Bader likes to say, we drew the short straw.” Their leader, incidentally, has reported “kidney complaints.” With short, exact sentences, Shepard quickly sets the rest of the stage: Haefeli’s a groundbreaking mechanic, Bucher’s an engineer with a meteorological background, Bader’s the “resident crystallographer,” and our unnamed narrator (his family name is Eckel) is “the touchingly passionate amateur and porter.”

Here, the action pauses, jumping back to when he was sixteen, on a school skiing trip with his brother, Willi. The two are daring, mischievous lads, and, being twins, have only recently begun to reach the point at which their interests are diverging: he’s going into science, Willi’s going into the liberal arts. In any event, after noisily tempting fate on a glacier, the two brothers decide to race down a slope, looking to impress Ruth, the girl they’re both crushing on. And it is here that our narrator finds his purpose — for Willi is engulfed by an avalanche. A fluke of an air pocket keeps him alive long enough to be extricated, only for him to die three days later: presumably of shock, though Shepard’s story is making a point about uncertainty. “However much we thought we knew, there were always places where our ignorance and bad luck could destroy us.”

Back in the present, who should our protagonist encounter while shopping for supplies in Davos, but Ruth, who we now learn fled her hometown not because of the snowy accident, but because she was pregnant with Willi’s daughter, a daughter she is now raising. It’s here, too, that we learn that Willi was actually his twin, a particularly important bit of influence given all the descriptions of snowflakes, of which no two — no matter how similar — are alike. Ruth could’ve fallen for either twin, either twin could’ve been swept away by that avalanche, that avalanche could’ve been triggered — or not — by any number of mysterious things. No wonder, then, that the survivor hopes to understand why things happen the way they do. He hopes, as does his mother, to sublimate a state of supernatural horror back into a rational act of nature, and Shepard fills his numerous anecdotes (presented as research) with descriptions that are caught in between: “By May, scraps from the two missing children poked through the spring melt like budding plants,” sublimation is “that small miracle,” despite the way this metamorphism undermines “the strength of this cohesion,” and these deadly, unstable patches of excessively fragile crystals are called “sugar snow,” which is a recipe for a sweet disaster.

For the most part, Shepard’s story is excellently written, though even he acknowledges that his colorful accounts of other disasters eventually stop providing perspectives and turn to bromides. (Even an avalanche, he seems to suggest, is something we can inure ourselves to.) But I’m not sold on the ending, which turns from a slow, still, yet absolutely heart-pumping rescue of two Germans from the unstable mountain side to the way in which the narrator describes the future he’s now knows he’ll never come to terms with, will never be able to understand: in a few months, they will dig his corpse, and those of the other three frozen idiots, out of the snow, and they will find him with that look of “perpetual astonishment.” The shock that killed his brother, then, has caught up to him at last; he has realized that the world is slippery and far from rational, and he cannot keep his footing on that surface. Or, read another way, Drostobels may be French for death as well as the title of the story, “Your fate hurtles down at you”; that is, from the moment you are born, an avalanche has already started to hurtle toward you, and any step may be the wrong one at which it finally hits. These aren’t bad points, and they’re meant to be dissatisfying — there is a reason, after all, why so many turn to faith — but as presented, these final points seem cruder than the rest of the story, and both Ruth and the narrator’s family feel as if they’ve been forgotten.

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