Summer Night by Joanna Pearson
Joanna Pearson’s “Summer Night” is an excellent example of managing mystery in short fiction. In many stories we consider, we experience confusion where the writer believes they have written mystery. We love how the mystery of this piece unravels slowly; and yet, please read Pearson’s author’s note for more on “stories that announce their secret from the beginning yet still seem to unfold in a surprising way.”
The opening of this piece launches us into the story with relatability (the use of a noise machine; the feeling we have entered a story that will explore the biology and psychology of being a parent) and with a small but chilling hint that something is off here: “whatever season it was or should have been.” The best literary works that dip into the speculative use subtlety well—it’s the creeping feeling that something is not quite right that gives these stories power. “Summer Night” succeeds in this respect. The contrast between the narrator’s seemingly comfortable interior life and what is happening outside is almost more horrific than a flat-out chaotic postapocalyptic narrative. There is a claustrophobic mood here that cannot be shaken.
Pearson’s use of narrative time is effective, layering in backstory and worldbuilding against the now-story throughline of a day-in-the-life tale. Throughout, there is lovely phrasing (“a baby cried whether a baby cried or not”) and specific detail (“a brownish tisane made from mushrooms”), revealed with an alluring, somewhat conversational, natural tone—a tone to be lulled by. —CRAFT
They slept much better using a disc-shaped noise machine from which they could select a variety of soothing sounds: Ocean Waves, Birdsong, Tropical Breeze, Summer Night. They always chose Summer Night, so whatever season it was or should have been, their bedroom was filled with the chirr of crickets greeting nightfall from a wooded glade.
When Nora grew wakeful around 4:00 a.m., as she was apt to do, she could hear the intermittent sleep-cries of the baby faintly through the sounds of Summer Night. Becoming a mother had trained her ears, granting her a hyperacuity that went above and beyond hearing to outright invention. In the interstices of any white noise, she could detect a baby’s cry. The technical name for this was a functional auditory hallucination, which was perhaps utterly normal in this instance. Anyone who’d survived those early postpartum weeks would understand the way one’s nervous system got restrung, ready to jolt awake at the sounds of an infant. It was surely a sort of animal priming, this perpetual maternal alertness she’d achieved, some epigenetic phenomenon that, once triggered, seemed irreversible. You could never sleep again, at least not deeply. Within the white threads of silence ever after, a baby cried whether a baby cried or not.
In her youth, Nora had been an effortlessly decadent sleeper. She could nap anywhere and wake restored. She slept on flimsy cots or stiff chairs or sleeping bags spread on pebbly terrain. She’d never hesitated to take multi-day camping trips with her former lover, a rugged, earnest man who’d loved orienteering through what patches of wilderness remained. He’d been the one to show her Cygnus one night when the sky was unusually clear.
“See?” he’d said, pulling her gently towards him. “Could see it all the time when I was a boy, but it’s harder and harder these days.”
And Nora had nodded, letting his large hands warm her, peering up at those pinpricks of light swimming behind the murk. What, again, was a swan? She’d grown up a city girl with swift, practical-minded parents—neither rich nor poor, but striving. Sure, things were changing, but they hadn’t been ones for hysterics, especially not if it might affect a year’s profit. Her lover, by contrast, had been something of a doomsday crusader, which at the time had seemed quaint and romantic to Nora, who was moderate both by nature and upbringing. They’d curled together in the lover’s tent, and he’d enveloped her. He’d been handsome in a grizzly sort of way, a real natural man, her friends joked, with his odd tidbits of homey wisdom: when to apply yarrow to a wound, how to cook up dandelion greens, the best method for collecting dew overnight and distilling it into something potable.
After they’d slept together, the lover had fallen against Nora, weeping, whispering of the destruction he foresaw. She’d held him to her chest and comforted him like a child, but the truth was that his discomposure had unnerved her. Nora hadn’t liked it at all, taking his prescience for weakness, something to be pitied. She’d been drawn to him because of his broad shoulders, his laughter, his easy, bearded competence—not this. He’d been for her a phase, this lover, and over time, he’d seemed more and more of a zealot, someone with whom to cavort but then cut ties before she settled down to make a life with a more reasonable partner.
They’d met up again a few times after having officially parted ways, when things started to change more quickly. Once, twice, a third time. She never got back in touch with him to mention the baby. Last she’d heard, her old lover had been living on the Outer Banks, one of several hundred renegade holdouts who’d clustered in makeshift villages. This was before the storms had struck and the sea had risen. Afterwards, the Outer Banks no longer existed.
Nora preferred not to think of this lover now, although he came to her like this, a shadow lurking in the early morning corner of her room. She rose reluctantly, blinking him away, then padded to the kitchen.
She set a filter in the special press they’d obtained to make the coffee more palatable. There was no real coffee anymore, but there was this substitute they called coffee, as if the name itself might improve it: a brownish tisane made from mushrooms. Nora didn’t mind it, although she couldn’t quite remember the taste or smell of actual coffee beans. A dark aroma, sweetness verging on bitter. Like chocolate, perhaps? One of many things she’d nearly forgotten—sunlight filtering through trees, the indolent sound of a bumblebee in the apple blossoms just outside her childhood bedroom—none worth dwelling on now. She was satisfied at present. She was well taken care of.
Puttering through the kitchen, clattering cups and spoons in the cabinets, adding iodine tablets to the water from the window-basins, pouring oatmeal into a bowl—it almost felt like normalcy, a morning from a life she’d once imagined, the one in which she’d soon open the blinds to watch the sun bleed pink dawn light into the sky, listening for the sounds of her household coming to life, change her son’s diaper while he kicked and gazed up at her, cooing—that life.
The man she lived with now lay sleeping still, bathed in a mechanized whir of crickets. He slept deeply, this man: not the father of her child, but a man she’d met later, in the days when the skies had darkened. Her now-husband.
She poured her coffee and sipped. She’d heard that some cultures had favored drinking hot drinks in hot weather, thinking it would actually cool a person down. Their entire apartment, of course, was atmospherically controlled: the temperature set to their comfort, precise levels of oxygen piped in through a complicated ventilation system. The airflow made a kind of reedy whistling, which conjured in Nora a distant memory of paddling through rushes on a green lake, feeling breeze and sunlight on her shoulders.
Beyond the whistling of the pipes, she heard the baby cry out again, his cries more persistent, building to a crescendo: he must be hungry. She put down her cup of coffee by the sink and stepped away, moving past the doorway to the stairs. A pair of respirators, his and hers, sat like twin dragons in the hallway. Nora’s was a sleekly designed device in purple. It was lighter and slimmer, made-to-measure. Neither she nor her husband went out often. But the respirators were handy to have.
Outside, it was one endless, sweltering dusk, the air post-volcanic, heavy with ash. They said if you went out now without an apparatus, you risked searing your lungs, or worse. Nora and her husband went out on limited circuits only. He’d told her there were marauding bands who wandered through the dim, hot exteriors, people who’d adapted to this new world—cruel, coughing monsters with blistered skin who survived by scrap-diving and robbery. She held a picture of this in her mind, but maybe it was actually a scene from an old movie, one she’d seen back when she’d still been able to go to cinemas, submerging herself in the cool daytime darkness of a matinee. It was hard sometimes to sort moments she’d once lived from what she’d seen move across a screen.
Pulling her robe tight at her shoulders, she left the respirators standing watch and ascended the stairs.
The baby’s room was painted a pale blue, done up with little whales blowing perfectly shaped spouts from their blowholes. A stuffed giraffe sat, morose, against the wall. A mobile projected bright images of forest animals so that the baby might still learn to recognize and know these animals by name. It was an expensive gift, one Nora’s husband had gotten specially made for her, for the baby, as a token of his paternal feeling, his commitment to her and her child.
Nora bent and scooped the baby up from his crib. He was very light, her boy, bird-boned and never very hungry. He slumped a little, his face falling to the side, and she repositioned him against her breast. Her husband had made a special swaddle for him soon after they’d met, once he’d realized that Nora would not be giving the baby up. Never. Nothing would come between her and this child. Nora had been wild-eyed, ragged, near-cyanotic from her journey without gear over the soot-covered landscape. She’d worn the baby strapped to herself, like a grenade. They’d both been dehydrated, her milk supply long having dried up, although true to his docile nature, the baby had seemed to understand this and didn’t complain. Her now-husband had spotted her from his Humvee. He’d dismounted and approached her, an alien creature in his goggles and elaborate gear.
“Help,” she’d whispered hoarsely, gesturing to the baby.
Even in her state of shock, she’d registered his surprise: It was hard to make and keep a wild baby anymore. They were bred in specialized facilities now. In the northern hemisphere people said that only a baby born in the relative cool of January had any real a chance of survival. The extreme conditions were otherwise too much for them, these delicate creatures with their newly formed lungs, their soft frog bellies.
When Nora had first learned she was pregnant, people looked at her with such terrible sadness. Any baby born wild would be brought into agony. Aiming to keep one was not so much an act of willed optimism as an act of self-delusion, of mutual destruction, even. Nora’s former lover had been long gone by then.
Nora heard the creak on the stairs of her husband, his steady, familiar tread.
He entered the room, kissing her on the forehead. He’d found the coffee she’d made, and took now a sip from his cup, peering over the rim at her. Smiling in this way he had—kind, half-sad. He was always very careful not to touch the baby, which she took as a sign of respect, an acknowledgment of the baby’s preciousness and fragility.
“Good morning, my darling,” he said.
She pressed a finger to her lips to hush him.
On the wall above her hung an elaborately carved series of wooden panels in which was set a dial, ticking along, metronymic in the silence. On this device, they could track the years and months and dates, the hour, all the old seasons and holidays—arbitrary concepts at this point, basically folklore now that the sky was submerged, the weather unchanging. The air was laden with the same weight, thick and acrid. Do you remember what April smelled like? The sizzle of rain on asphalt in August? She did not. Old myths, horology, the sky spangled with bulls and swans and long-forgotten heroes—what of it? And yet, to Nora’s husband, it seemed to hold some importance still. There was always something, it seemed, that he wanted to remind her of, a thing she could never quite grasp, lulled as she was by the homogenized present. What have we if not our old patterns? he’d asked once, but she’d stared into the smeared, gray window over the sink, not answering him.
“You know what day it is, my darling?” Nora’s husband asked, his voice pitched at a lower volume now, almost a murmuring. “The day I met you, seven years ago. You remember?” He paused to clear his throat and looked away. “There you were, a shape emerging from all that orange smoke. Half-dead, you were. It was so hot I thought you were a mirage.” He laughed harshly, shaking his head a bit. “Summer forever, they said then. But of course, it was really the end of summer, the end of winter, the end of all of it. Although it was actually July. You remember July?”
She had a flash then: sitting barelegged, sticky with sweat, a purple popsicle dripping down her fist, the glittering turquoise pool under a wash of blinding blue, blue, blue overhead. Banners over balustrades, someone handing her a cylinder of meat wrapped in a neat little jacket of bread. Dusk lit by sparklers. But it was gone, and nothing to think of now.
Nora and her husband kept an old novelty photo box containing a 3D image of two young women posing in old fashioned bathing costumes by the seashore. Beauties of another age. All that lovely, oblivious flesh under the sun. She preferred not to look too often now because it gave her a pang she could no longer put into words.
“I remember July,” Nora said softly. “I remember all of it.”
When she lifted the baby to her shoulder to be burped, he flopped limply, obligingly against her—for what a good boy, what a well-behaved baby he was. He was always so perfectly quiet once she came to him, answering his cries.
JOANNA PEARSON is the author of the short story collection, Every Human Love (Acre Books, 2019). New stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Crazyhorse, Salamander, The Sewanee Review, and Subtropics.