Random Thoughts

The rotifer

... an amazing story

by Ed Boyd

I want to tell about a writer, Mary Ladd Gavell, born in Cuero, Texas in 1919. After WW!!, she worked for the Food and Agriculture Administration of the United Nations. From there she went to the William Allison White Psychiatric foundation to participate in editing the work of the late Harry Stack Sullivan. She later became the managing editor of Psychiatry, the foundation’s quarterly journal.

She died from cancer in 1967 at the age of forty-seven. Psychiatry wanted to publish “The Rotifer”in its magazine as a memorial to her, May 1967. “The Rotifer” was chosen in The Best American Short Stories in 1968 and then in 2000, John Updike chose “The Rotifer” for The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

My introduction to “The Rotifer” came to me in a book of Random House, c2002, “I Cannot Tell A Lie, Exactly” by Mary Ladd Gavell which was the first and last of her published writings. I had to look up rotifer from The American Heritage dictionary as I had no idea of what it meant. Here is what it means:
“Any of the various minute multicellular aquatic organisms of the phylum rotifer having at the anterior end a wheel like ring of cilia”   

I was very puzzled by the title as “The Rotifer” only goes on for four pages. This story just seems to stop and II is on the next page. Then I began to realize that this was a first person female writing about her three different experiences over several years, Mary Gavell wrote stories to occupy herself, never intending to publish. “The Rotifer” seems a stream of conscious, one story leading to another, without regard to its title.  

Let me give a taste of what these stories are like:

The first story carries the title, “The Rotifer”. This is a woman in her undergraduate science course with a graduate student. She is given a slide and under her microscope she says, “Watching, I am witness to a crisis in the life of a rotifer. He is entangled in a snarl of algae, and he can’t get loose. His transparent little body chugs this way and that, but the fence of algae seems impenetrable. He turns, wriggles, oscillates, but he is caught. Rest a moment, I whisper to him, lie still and catch your breath and give a good heave to the left. But he is in a wild panic, beyond any reasonable action. It seems to me that his movements are slowing down, as if he is becoming exhausted.”

She puts her finger on the slide and the rotifer washes away. She feels that it is her monstrous size and, “…there is no way I can get through from my dimension to his.”

This is the gist of this, only a few pages.   

The next story has no title, only marked by II. The narrator is now a few years later in graduate school. She does not say where. “During this period I was given for some reason handed the job of going through the papers the Benton family, which a descendent, looking for something to do with them, had turned over to the university.” She wades her way through several boxes of letters and notes. “But it was his son, little Robert Josiah Benton, who interested me most.” Little Robert was sent to a school in Massachusetts to become a scholar and gentleman. This frail boy is sent from home to measure up to his father’s ambition. Robert’s letters he is made to send home are painfully written. “…neat, carefully spelled, stiff little letters beginning, ‘My Dear and Respected Father’” A little later Robert says, “I’m allowe’d only one candle and it is almost gone.” Robert has a cousin who is studying in a nearby college visit him. The cousin so taken with Robert’s frailty writes to Robert’s father, never answered.

This story ends, “I read through thirty or forty years of Benton papers, but I never saw another word about a son of Josiah Benton” This story gives a lump in the throat.

The last story does not have a title, either, marked with III. This story is about a cousin of hers, Leah, who comes to visit. “When she came to live in the city where I now worked, we felt an obligation to be friendly, but the friendship was a trifled forced, weighted down by our families’ expectations that we would have a great deal to say to each other and the inescapable  fact that we did not.” The narrator mentions that Leah was six years younger than herself making for a little discomfort.

“Leah was radiant, she twinkled and glittered and dazzled like a diamond, yet her strange, pure, golden brown eyes looked out at the world with the simplicity and delight of a child.”  This is no doubt influenced by an old man whose wife has died making him the main caretaker who doted on her.

You can imagine that this might prove a problem when Leah tells Mary she is in love and wants to get married. Mary says, “I must pause here to explain that I am a recognizer of people.” She is taking a cab when she notices that the cabby has a girl sitting close to him. She thinks this is his girlfriend. “When we got to my address he turned on the light for a moment to make change. I saw that he was good looking and probably in his late twenties, and that she was about the same age, pretty, with a mop of blond hair, and in blue jeans.”

Mary goes to Leah’s apartment to meet the man Leah wants to marry. The young man was good looking, in his late twenties. “And of course he did not recognize me; there was not the faintest cloud in his clear young eyes.” Mary is asked what she thinks of her man. “He is very handsome and very charming”, she said.

Mary struggles with her self, and decides against telling Leah about her suspicions. They were divorced about a year later. “Leah’s still a handsome woman, but the dazzle is gone, and she looks tired around the eyes. But so do I; so, in time, does everybody.”

These are the three stories written very carefully as you might imagine an editor would do. There is no particular place in any of these. The best we can do is, “…live in the city where I now worked.” Mary is mentioned in the last story makes you wonder if Mary is herself. This seems to leave open whether these are fiction or nonfiction. Since “The Rotifer” was called fiction the “Best” let Mary Cavell be at rest in peace with that.

November 6, 2015

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