“Esther” is a short short story (about 780 words) about a woman who travels from one small town to another, visiting their cemeteries and building a list exclusively of women who died in childbirth.
What was the origin of this premise, and how did I build the story? A few thoughts:
- I began with an image in my mind of a vagabond — male, actually — who sleeps exclusively on graves. I can’t really say where it came from. I did read William Kennedy’s Ironweed not long after it was published in 1983. But I have not thought about that story, until this moment, in all the intervening years. And, yes, I have been known to wander around in cemeteries on occasion. I can remember noticing the grave of a child in a remote corner of Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, right up against the wall that separates the cemetery from the railroad and transit lines. I was affected by it: that age-old human angst about passing through the world and then being forgotten by it. So I think the image had something to do with being in my 50s, with remembrance, with the marking of someone’s passage.
- The central character became a woman for purely technical reasons. I had a “he” in the driver of a car, and I did not want to add another, potentially confusing “he.” When I made the change, I liked it: a female hitchhiking hobo is so much more complicated.
- Having her reach this new town at night was an obvious choice. I needed to accentuate the loneliness and eccentricity of this bizarre mission or quest that she has assigned herself.
- I liked the detail that she walks with her back to oncoming traffic. There is a boldness, even a kind of reckless disregard or a courting of death, in Esther’s character.
- She spends so much time alone and therefore, so to speak, in her own head. So I allow the reader to see how she imagines her way into the minds of the automobile drivers. And later, how she allows herself sometimes to recall aspects of her childhood. She’s a chronicler, but for herself and for the dead only.
- Her uncanny ability to locate each town’s public cemetery without a map or having to ask: she is also a person apart, this Esther. Gifted in peculiar ways.
- Various aspects of this little story I developed by drawing on my memories of real places (surely real writers do the same?). The actual town that I used as a template for my unnamed one is Waynesboro, Georgia, where some of my own relatives lived and died. Esther’s childhood home is a version of a cabin that I have rented a few times, located smack on a beautiful stretch of the New River, near the border between North Carolina and Virginia.
- The details of Esther’s childhood just came to me in quick succession. I felt the need to create this anchor in her life. An anchor for a wandering woman. Her parents, when I read over what I wrote, seem like such good and appealing people. Parents anyone would want to have.
- That she is recording only the details of women who appear to have died in childbirth? I suppose I liked the mysterious quality of that. Why? Did her own mother die in childbirth? Was that when her seemingly idyllic childhood ended? Maybe. Or maybe for her own mysterious reasons she thinks their lives are especially in need of honoring.
- I am not sure how I decided that Esther would encounter, in this particular cemetery, another long-dead Esther. But once the detail came to me, it seemed right. Every search or quest we undertake in life is in fact a search for oneself. Am I right?