Some Robert Olen Butler, Transcribed


You guys should all read Robert Olen Butler. He is amazing at taking a gimmicky concept and employing it in stories that transcend the gimmick. The books of his I’ve read (all short story collections) are Severed, Intercourse, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, and Tabloid Dreams. my favorite so far is Tabloid Dreams, but the others are good, except for Intercourse, which is kind of derivative of Severed.

So I’m going to excerpt two stories from Severed, which is a microfiction collection. From the jacket:

After decapitation, the human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and one-half minutes.

In a heightened state of emotion, people speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.

Inspired by the intersection of these two seemingly unrelated concepts, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler has written sixty-two stories, each exactly 240 words in length, capturing the flow of thoughts and feelings that rush through a mind after the head has been severed.

Crappy intro out of the way, here are two of my favorite 240-word stories from Severance:

enchantress, beheaded by Balin, the Knight of the Two Swords, circa 470

diving deep I swim in his beard my breath giving out quickly in spite of all I know to do, all that he has taught me, my Merlin, he has schooled me in the things of the pot – the dragon’s blood and the mistletoe and the black willow – he has yoked my dreams to my will, he has fed me four poisons – mandrake and henbane and nightshade and his blunt-headed sword, his manthing- he has fed me these till I was safe from each till my skin no longer crawled and my muscles no longer seized and my bones no longer quaked and instead I became strong and cunning and master of the elements and he has shown me how to bare my breasts and my loins and dance silently and I dance while he sleeps and I spin and cry out and he falls deeper into sleep and his staff rolls off his fingertips and I lift his cloak and he must be dreaming of me for his sword is raised and I put my hand to it and pluck it off – he will enter no other lady now he will live out his life with the memory of me – and it grows in my hand and hardens into steel and its torn root heals into hilt and pommel and I dive deep into my black water where I will wait his summons and I call his sword Excalibur

Chinese wife,
beheaded by her husband, 1838

straight and whole are my feet I would rise and run as I have loved for many winkings of the moon to run with my brothers but I press my feet side by side and wiggle my toes this last time and whisper to them goodbye I know what is before me my mother in the courtyard singing prayers to Kuan Yin the goddess of mercy, not to spare me a life of pain but to wither my feet to perfection, the mercy of the golden lotus, the mercy of a wealthy man to keep me, I tremble I am ready to weep but for those tiny stones of anger Kuan Yin has placed in the corner of my eyes even as the footbinder puts the soaking tub before me that first night even as my husband trembles before me in the torch light trembling always from the opium but this night he trembles from what he believes about the brushing of my sleeve by a man he himself brought to our house and my mother sings and my toes are seized and folded hard under and the wrappings wind and wind and squeeze and my arch cracks and I see Buddha in heaven sitting on his lotus but it is my naked foot the golden lotus he sits upon and hands push me down my neck made bare and I cry please, before my head cut off my feet

So yeah, aren’t those awesome? Go read some Butler.

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