Short Story Month, Day 7; "The Magic Barrel"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from Bess Winter. 

“Lily wilted. Leo saw a profusion of loaves of bread go flying like ducks high over his head, not unlike the winged loaves by which he had counted himself to sleep that night. Mercifully, then, it snowed, which he would not put past Saltzman’s machinations.”

When I first read Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” at the insistence of a teacher who said I had something to learn from it, I read it expecting instruction: tools I could pack up and take away and call on whenever a story of my own needed help. But “The Magic Barrel” offers no ready lessons, because parts can’t be pinched away from the whole. How elegantly it shifts from the mundane to the fantastic, from moments of light to obscurity. A cloud transforms into a fat hen that hatches a ripened moon. The object of Leo Finkle’s affection, a woman in a battered photograph that seems to have accidentally wound up in his hands despite the matchmaker Saltzman’s efforts to find him a wife fit for a Rabbi, “had lived, or wanted to –more than just wanted, perhaps had regretted how she had lived – had somehow deeply suffered: it could be seen in the depths of those reluctant eyes, and from the way the light enclosed and shone from her . . . opening realms of possibility.” At the same time, “he experienced fear of her and was aware that he had received an impression, somehow, of evil.”

Leo’s belief that his ability to love a troubled woman might validate not only his path as a student of the Torah but the existence of God – it seems ill fated. When we learn Saltzman’s connection to the woman in the photo, misfortune dangles over the story like the moon. In the final paragraphs, we see, from a distance, the moment before the couple’s first meeting: the young woman finishing off a cigarette in a splash of lamplight, Saltzman crouching nearby, absorbed in desperate prayer. We’re left with this trouble. And it floats there, shadow and darkness, a spotless moment of inertia before whatever, where every possibility exists.

What do you even learn from that?

Bess Winter’s work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and most recently appears, or is forthcoming, in Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, Wigleaf, Versal, and Bellingham Review. She lives in Toronto and works for The Collagist.