Farmer was willing to address a female sensibility regardless of the risks of essentialism. Always careful and meditative, her fiction concentrated on the way the interior life responded to physical sensations.
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In retrospect, it has become clear that Farmer is a philosophical writer rather than a realist; her stories are meditations on experience rather than narrative recreations of it. She is a reflective, poetic writer building her fictions from careful attention to delicate shifts in perception. The kind of structural plotting that holds a long novel together is not her forte; her strength lies in the short story and in the accumulation of ideas and observations evident in A Body of Water.
Perhaps one of the most illuminating aspects of that book is its consideration of photography. Farmer is an accomplished photographer and her interest in visual perception is apparent in her fiction. This Water is a collection of fiction — though Farmer continues to explore what the senses can teach us about the permeable barriers between our present world and the mysteries beyond it. Though the five tales in the book stand alone as narratives, they are carefully placed to lead the reader gradually into the imaginative realms where Farmer can examine elemental mysteries.
The stories attempt to breach the borders between life and death, air and sea, human and animal life, and, of course, the place where dreams and myth contact our living experience. Two relatively ordinary events occur: after a king tide a seal appears on the beach and people gather round to stare at it, and, at an earlier time, the woman at the centre of the story finds a wedding ring on the beach. Around these events Farmer gathers a sense of the mystery of the otherworldly sea and its creatures, as the woman reflects on her life by the shore and the death of her husband.
She is a swimmer whose pleasure in the sea comes from snorkelling—peering into the undersea world, invisible from the land. Farmer invests everyday observations with a powerful sense of dramatic possibility. Look at her description of a conventional old weatherboard house near the entrance to the Bay:. The house she has lived in for most of her life stands midway between a lighthouse whose lantern swings out wide at night over the rock pools, and whose foghorn is caught up by passing ships and boomed back and back, and a church with a Sunday bell that is also the passing bell on those weekdays when a new grave lies open in the grass of the cemetery, planked over, with the tawny sand that underlies the soil spilt in a heap alongside, like sawdust.
Her house is wooden, old and thin-skinned, and her windows are hooded except at the back, where the storm winds blow up. In rough weather the wind, the rain and the sea are one torrent that bellows and thumps at her shell of a house. We are aware from the outset of the fragility of human life at the mercy of these elemental forces. We know that death is at hand. The ring, of course, is a traditional symbol of human bonds of love, invoking remembrances of her husband, who never wore a ring. In this way the story builds a network of factual, yet uncanny, connections between human activity and the mysteries of the sea.
There is no straightforward explanation of events. The story is not so much about the particular woman, as about the possibilities of interpreting the signs around her. It is a relief that Farmer holds back a little from delivering the only obvious conclusion to the narrative. The following tales rework folk legends and fairy tales whose outlines we may vaguely recall from childhood, classical mythology or the plots of operas. I play my part to the hilt. This tale, so often presented as a paradigm of romance and tragic love, here is stripped back to a matter of irrational impulses and physical appetites—sexual lust and bloodlust, revenge, the thirst for power.
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Farmer also sets the third tale in the Celtic world, this time a lake in Ireland—probably inspired by her time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre on Lake Annaghmakerrig. It takes us to a place and time where the boundaries between humans and animals, between the magical and everyday worlds, are still fragile. A jealous stepmother turns a princess and her brothers into swans, forced to move between the sky, the water and the land for years. The story traces their shifting lives over hundreds of years, the patterns of their flight, their suffering in wild sea storms and their returns to the lake.
He speaks of eternal life, which they, desperate for release from it, know too well. But their final escape into temporality is an anticlimax: they collapse into bones and skin, nothing but abject material remains. In the Christian era, their existence can be obliterated or denied, leaving only stories and speculation. This long story gives Farmer room to gather the kind of imagery of sea, water and light that she does so well. It's such a rush to see them and know their time is numbered. With that in mind, I always get to class very early so I can scout out my classmates' fates.
The first kid who walked in was basically radiating red. I chuckled to myself. Too damn bad, bro. But as people kept walking in, they all had the same intense glow. I finally caught a glimpse of my rose-tinted reflection in the window, but I was too stunned to move. Our professor stepped in and locked the door, his aura a sickening shade of green. It has been said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results". I understand the sentiment behind the saying, but it's wrong.
I entered the building on a bet. I was strapped for cash and didn't buy into the old legends of the hotel to begin with, so fifty bucks was more than enough to get me do it. It was simple. Just reach the top floor, the 45th floor, shine my flashlight from a window. The hotel was old and broken, including the elevator, so that meant hiking up the stairs.
So up the stairs I went. As I reached each platform, I noted the old brass plaques displaying the floor numbers. I felt a little tired as I crept higher, but so far, no ghosts, no cannibals, no demons. Piece of cake. I can't tell you how happy I was as I entered that last stretch of numbers. I joyfully counted them aloud at each platform. I stopped and looked back down the stairs. I must have miscounted, so I continued up. One more flight. And then down ten flights. Fifteen flights. And so it's been for as long as I can remember. So really, insanity isn't doing something repeatedly and expecting different results.
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It's knowing that the results will never ever change; that each door leads to the same staircase, to the same number. It's not knowing whether you've been running for days or weeks or years. It's when the sobbing slowly turns into laughter. My daughter woke me around last night. My wife and I had picked her up from her friend Sally's birthday party, brought her home, and put her to bed. My wife went into the bedroom to read while I fell asleep watching the Braves game. It is now. My wife and I have been up with her for almost 8 hours. She still refuses to tell us where she got them.
He had been given the watch on his tenth birthday.
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It was an ordinary grey plastic wristwatch in every respect except for the fact that it was counting down. Use it wisely. As the watch ticked away, the boy, now a man, lived life to the fullest. He climbed mountains and swam oceans. He talked and laughed and lived and loved. The man was never afraid, for he knew exactly how much time he had left.
Eventually, the watch began its final countdown. The old man stood looking over everything he had done, everything he had built.
He shook hands with his old business partner, the man who had long been his friend and confidant. His dog came and licked his hand, earning a pat on the head for its companionship. He hugged his son, knowing that he had been a good father. He kissed his wife on the forehead one last time. The old man smiled and closed his eyes. Then, nothing happened. The watch beeped once and turned off.
The man stood standing there, very much alive. You would think that in that moment he would have been overjoyed. Instead, for the first time in his life, the man was scared. When my sister Betsy and I were kids, our family lived for awhile in a charming old farmhouse. We loved exploring its dusty corners and climbing the apple tree in the backyard.
But our favorite thing was the ghost. We called her Mother, because she seemed so kind and nurturing. Some mornings Betsy and I would wake up, and on each of our nightstands, we'd find a cup that hadn't been there the night before. Mother had left them there, worried that we'd get thirsty during the night. She just wanted to take care of us.
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