Two Children on a Beach, Scheming

WONDERFUL | Jenny Wales Steele. 

One Throne Magazine.

⇒Here are a few sentences from Jenny Wales Steele’s “Wonderful” to explain the predicament that a young brother and sister must confront:

…talking was banned during the tick-tock-tick of a full day. It wasn’t the first time. Or the second or third. They were not good children. It was a matter of pride.

Silence on the part of the child is among the most difficult of punishments to enforce. For most kids, not all but most, silence is an impossibility. Yet one of the conflicts in this story is the children’s obligatory 24-hours of silence–no talk permitted, period. The story’s protagonists (let’s not call them the heroes) are inveterate chatterboxes, so for them, 24 nonverbal hours are a severe punishment indeed (though, as the quote above explains, this isn’t their first time being punished, far from it). Sometimes the punishment fits the crime, but in this case, the punishment seems calculated to fit the criminals. What did these kids do this time? The 12 year old boy and his 11 year old sister were little more than a nuisance: the sister discovered her brother’s drawing of a naked lady, showed it to their parents, then proceeded to mock her upset mother in the wake of this discovery. So the brother and sister are in deep trouble, and serving their punishment through silence, when we first meet them:

The children… traipsed after their parents on the wet, flat, hard beach. As they went along, they schemed. There was vengeance in their young hearts. There were ghastly fancies. But this was all in silence. You see, they had been naughty and silence was their punishment.

Make no mistake, these are not nice children. The boy and girl are conniving, vengeful, sneaky, petty, self-centered, spoiled rotten… you get the idea. Basically, they are all the things that make a person awful and a literary character completely captivating (why do we love to read about such horrid characters?). The parents are no picnic themselves: they are heavy drinkers, in a loveless marriage, are shallow and elitist and super-rich and further, we surmise, don’t particularly like their children. It’s one big happy family.

There’s also a butler, a maid, and a cook. This piece takes place at their palatial vacation home on the coast of France, naturally.

I think that’s enough mise en scène for this discussion. What I really want to discuss, before you read this fun and dark short story, are two things: the temporal structure of the story and the voice with which it’s shared. What’s interesting about this piece is the way in which its narrative is put together. The story is told in the third person, but it’s a very close third that gives the reader access to the minds of both the boy and girl though free-indirect speech (very youthful language and wordplay) and general psychic closeness to our protagonists. The effect is that of a first-person-plural narrative, a We-narrative; the story’s “camera” is firmly planted in the children’s camp. This We-POV is further established through intervening passages of dialogue: a conversation between the brother and sister in the distant future (one of them is in a wheelchair, at this point). In whimsical, nostalgic language, the duo discuss the events described in the past-tense scenic passages that bracket them. There’s a cheery, sing-song aspect to this dialogue, all of which keeps the mood of the piece decidedly upbeat–despite the dark event that transpires in the childhood scenes.

The playful language, the glib descriptions of childhood naughtiness (to put it lightly), and the upbeat tone of the narrator give the story a folktale feel. This piece reads like a children’s tale, albeit a masterfully written one, and like most classic or folkloric children’s tales, the subject matter is unexpectedly dark (see also: The Gingerbread Man, Three Blind Mice, The Pied Piper, and various Grimm tales). This story’s darkness is heightened by its tonal levity. Go check out this great, fun, and yes, disturbing short story!

Read the piece over at One Throne Magazine!

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