Short Story Month, Day 18: "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings"
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 writer Micah Dean Hicks.
“García Márquez is fucking with you.” This is not the answer my students expected.
They had read this story and a few others for class. In it, a winged old man crash lands in a couple’s front yard and gets stuck in the mud. The townspeople try to figure out what exactly he is. They call on neighbors, a priest, and finally write to the Vatican. They never figure it out, eventually getting so frustrated that they give up.
Later in the story, a spider-woman comes into town with a traveling carnival. But unlike the angel, she has an explanation:
While still practically a child she had sneaked out of her parents’ house to go to a dance, and while she was coming back through the woods after having danced all night without permission, a fearful thunderclap rent the sky in two and through the crack came the lightning bolt of brimstone that changed her into a spider.
Like my class the town loves her and loses interest in the strange man. “So what’s the point?” my students ask, in chorus. “We liked the spider-lady. What’s up with that angel dude? Why is he even there?”
“Because García Márquez is fucking with you.” And he is. García Márquez knows that people want answers, for the world to make sense, for things to matter. But good art is contrary. It isn’t going to give you what you want, and it isn’t going to do what you expect. It’s going to surprise and confound you at every turn.
Every paragraph of the story is loaded with the unexpected. Wracking his brain about the origins of the old man, Father Gonzaga writes to Rome, knowing that God will have the answer:
But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.
Never rule out the possibility that your winged man is a Norwegian. In spite of everything, the town decides that the man must be an angel. Nothing about him makes this seem likely, but he is a man with wings, and this is the only way they can process him. Their world is small, and they can’t account for anything outside what they know. So they come to the man for miracles. But his miracles don’t go as everyone had hoped:
[T]he few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.
García Márquez knows that readers, just like the town, will be most comfortable with the spider-woman’s story, I tell my class. She has a clear origin, for starters. Her punishment confirms everything we’ve been taught to believe. She’s charging for the information, so it must be true, right? But this is not the way that good art or life works. There is nothing new in the expected. The point of art is not to tell us what we already know or to confirm our biases. It upsets and expands what we thought we knew. The world is not a fair place ruled by logic and sense. Bad things are going to happen to people who don’t deserve them, and we won’t be able to find meaning in it. There are things outside the realm of our experience, and no matter how much we try to make them fit with what we already believe, they never will. By the time the old man flies away at the end of the story, we have to accept that we have no category for what he is. This is something new, beyond our reckoning. We are going to have to become bigger to encompass it, and we will be better off. García Márquez is teaching us not only how to write and how to read, but how to live.
You can read “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” online, for free, right here:
Micah Dean Hicks is an author of magical realism, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in places like New Letters, Indiana Review, and New Orleans Review. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, will be published by New American Press in summer 2013. He attends the creative writing PhD program in fiction at Florida State University. Keep an eye on him at micahdeanhicks.com.