The Vodnik

slavic water spirit


Read the story @ Paper Darts.

“The Water Goblin,” a short story by Emily Koon recently published in Paper Darts, is a deeply felt, beautifully stylized portrait of crisis within a family undergoing a cultural transition. More than that, it is a masterful example of allegory within the context of short-form prose.

Allegory is commonly understood as an extended metaphor, a device to heighten impact by reimagining a narrative or situation in figurative terms. We all know Jesus loved his parables, and we all know Plato loved his allegories, and an untold number of critical projects have been undertaken over the years to unpack the allegorical significance of fairy tales and the like (as it turns out, Cinderella’s slipper is actually a vagina and her foot is the penis; our beloved fairy tales are chock full of oddly shaped genital tropes).

Sometimes allegories are necessary to revitalize the familiar, or to separate salient concepts from the psycho-social clutter that often obscures them (as we see in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where the author explores the underpinnings of 20th century fascism by reimagining this dynamic with a cast of farm animals). Sometimes allegory adds a different emotional flavor to the story’s concepts.

Allegory may not only sharpen or enhance truths but rather serve as a buffer, a protection that conveys its truths obliquely for the purpose of accessibility, digestibility, or comprehensibility. More than one author dealing with the always tricky subject of child abuse, taking a cue no doubt from the field of psychology, has relied upon allegory or figurative stand-ins to convey the sort of trauma that can’t be adequately explained nor experienced objectively. Sometimes, at least in terms of emotional verity, the allegory is closer to the truth than the truth itself.

This is the case with “The Water Goblin.” The story’s second section begins:

In stories of the vodnik, the water goblin, a girl would go missing and the mother had to search for her. Depending on who told it, the story’s braid was different. The goblin drowned the girl, or he just kept her locked up. Which was worse? He took her down into the river’s cold muck where she had his baby, and when she tried to leave he cut the baby’s head off. She found the head floating in the river, bobbing like an apple.

As we quickly see, this especially dark piece of folklore is doing more than establishing the cultural identity of this immigrant family. It is also adding an incredible level of danger, even menace, to this short fiction–a threat that we learn is far more than the product of imagination. The water goblin trope is vivid and adds a certain dark magic to the story’s tone (this story isn’t realism + allegory, but realism blended with allegory to an almost magic-realist extent). Importantly, the water goblin is not a static conceit but rather transforms over the course of these few brief sections from a nebulous danger (i.e., Watch out for society’s monsters) to a very specific terror, culminating (spoiler) in murder.

In terms of POV, we have a close third person for the majority of the story, a folklore-rich perspective that instills in this piece the frightening magical feel that I mentioned above. But once the act of violence has occurred (vodnik = murderous husband) the author makes the unexpected but very effective move of pulling our POV camera into a sort of wide-angle, giving us a collective third person view (society’s POV):

Later, people will look for a missing thread, something to isolate the act from their own lives. A struggle over money.

“You never know what’s going on with people,” they’ll say, hugging their live children, shepherding them back into the houses. Thankful everyone they love is still breathing.

It’s a surprising move because it turns away from the magical narrative style that’s driven the majority of the piece in favor of a more mundane, societal shrug. Emotionally, this conclusion is profoundly tragic in its outright dismissiveness toward the protagonist’s viewpoint and experience. It’s an intentionally anticlimactic conclusion–a real risk, in my view–but by virtue of the story’s length and preceding tone, it actually works extremely well in highlighting the story’s tragedy.

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