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You Know
No-Womb Woman
Komunyakaa Days

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In ”You Know,” the title story of R.A. Rycraft's riveting collection, we are immediately introduced to the colloquial voice of an unnamed waitress who is busy with her thoughts as she waits on customers and tries to eavesdrop on their lives. We get insights into the lives of “Pudgy” and “gay guy” that are ironically amusing at first, but as the information about these characters increases, the story becomes more and more heart-tuggingly poignant. “You Know” has a surprisingly penetrating Joycean epiphany at its close, which makes us admire this author's ability to know when enough is enough and that nothing serves a story better than an end stop put in just the right place.

“No Womb Woman” starts with an opening line that hurls the reader into the action: “My mother is having a baby. And unless God starts answering my prayers, it will grow up without us.” The point of view is that of a child who appears to be about twelve years old. The narration is tight and minimal, but everything is there that is needed to introduce us to the quandary of what it is like to be so poor that you are willing to use your body as an incubator for a baby you are going to give to someone else when it is born. The voice is one of the best things about this story. Rycraft writes with an authenticity that makes us believe she has found some morphing mechanism in her head and used it to become an adolescent musing on the schizophrenic nature of mothers giving birth to babies that, like kittens, will be given away. The description of the baby nestled in the mother's womb is powerfully stark in its brevity and completeness: “There are ultrasound pictures. Three of them showing an alien stretching in my mom's belly, his head like ET's, his arms little nubs, his hands and fingers even littler nubs, his legs crossed Indian style, his arms spread, his back turned. In the last one he is bigger. An arrow points to the tiny penis between his legs.” The young narrator is admirable and wise beyond her years. She never turns her eyes away from what she measures as the truth of the way things really are—and neither do we.

“Sanctuary” gives us a woman wanting to hang onto the past as embodied in an old cabin in California that represents her little piece of earth. “Anne rarely saw what she didn't want to see” says the narrator, meaning especially that she doesn't want to see (or deal with) change and the future. The future is coming in the form of earthmoving equipment, bulldozers, caterpillars, chainsaws, a housing developer that wants her ten acres. Anne's husband wants to take the developer's offer and move to Arizona, pay cash for a new house there. He thinks Anne is being self-absorbed and unreasonable. Rycraft's subtle prose gives us the inside scoop on Anne, a woman who wants to hold all time in her hand as symbolized in the life of the cabin that has been in her family for generations. “Small, impermanent blessings, but hers for as long as she lived.” This quiet story is filled with living details that make us understand Anne intimately. And root for her, even though winning may cost her her marriage.

When a preacher's wife loses her daughter in “Covenant” her life unravels, while her husband tries to “keep the faith.” “Faith didn't matter, did it?” says the preacher's wife. “I mean, I was born to a life in ministry—raised in it, schooled in it, married to it. I've done everything right. We've done everything right. Why us?” Rycraft's “Covenant” burrows deeply into the terrible, life-altering consequences of grief, what it can do to us: grief at the loss of the daughter and also the loss of faith. How such experiences can harden us to anything and anyone, even those who were closest to us. How it can destroy love. How it can even make us cruel not only to those we once loved but cruel also to the innocent: this innocence in the form of a cat that the daughter loved, but whose very presence only serves to remind the mother of the daughter alive, the daughter snuggling with her cat, the cat's head on her arm, touching her even when the dying daughter can't stand for her own mother to touch her. A touch that means physical pain: “. . . Missy cried and said, 'No. No touch, Mommy.'” This is a narrative not for the fainthearted; but for those who are not trying to hide from the darkness that eventually torments all of our lives, “Covenant” is illuminating.

“Komunyakaa Days” was the winner of the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Editor's Choice Award for 2008. It is a compelling story that retraces the steps leading to the downfall of a high school teacher who somehow, inadvertently fell into a love affair with one of her students. Whereas the other stories in Rycraft's collection are intimately detailed and dependent on their unfolding images to express their themes and give us the sense of wholeness that all good stories give, “Komunyakaa Days” uses a more severe sparseness of language to create the whittling away of the teacher's moral life and what the consequences of her failure are likely to be. This breathtaking, suspense-filled story is what we call a page-turner, an unforgettable Freudian cruise into the heart of how a good woman, a mother and wife, a trustworthy professional can accidentally, and certainly unintentionally, nevertheless lose her way.