"Small Houses" by James P. Blaylock: An Appreciation by Amy Sterling Casil
I might well be writing my first comments on a story that was reviewed previously by others online. According to one well-known SF/F reviewer, "Sci Fiction presents the wonderful and whimsical nostalgic reveries of a dying man in "Small Houses" by James P. Blaylock."
I can think of some words to describe the dying man Mr. Johnson and his reveries, but "wonderful" and "whimsical" aren't chief among them. Another reader, Jed Hartman, wrote that "'Small Houses' is a very nice, and sad, barely fantasy piece."
"Small Houses" is very nice, and it is a little sad, but not really. Maybe you have to have had a grandfather who was handy like Mr. Johnson, and also a fig tree in the back yard, in order to find a sense of order in the story, as opposed to sadness. I am not sure why Jed wanted to mention that the story was a "barely fantasy piece." I think it's fairly clear that Myrt (Mr. Johnson's deceased wife) is showing herself to her husband in the fish bowl. And, I wondered if Johnson had in fact not already died, and simply wasn't accepting it yet -- for he found the other sherry glass, and the anniversary card -- except he does sit down and "pass away" at the end of the story.
According to Flaubert, God was in the details.
The details collected in "Small Houses" pertain to Mr. Johnson's life. He has built a very small treehouse in an avocado tree in his back yard, into which he places his makeshift fish bowl and his fish, Septimus, and, if one reads carefully, himself. He has shut up his house after his wife's death -- and it's really not certain for how long, but probably a long time.
"As time passed and the foliage thickened, the natural light had dwindled, which was to be expected, since that was the way with everything."
"Small Houses" is a story about organizing one's life, the way it has to be in a small house. Today, I think people are sometimes surprised by the tiny spaces previous generations made-do with. Little 800 square foot houses with three bedrooms and a single bathroom were considered fine for families in years past. Today, a single person has trouble "making do" with that amount of space. I know how things were also precious to people as well. For forty years, Mr. Johnson has built a toolbox with compartments that he's always planned to convert to a coffin as the end draws near.
He envisioned compartments for hammers and saws and planes, for squares and levels and a set of bits and augers; cubbyholes for nails and screws and wood dough; slots and panels that could be arranged and rearranged over the passing years until, when the sun was setting at last, metaphorically speaking, he could remove the interior complications more or less altogether, leaving only a nook and a cranny for the few things, beside himself, that he wanted to take along to the afterlife.
As everyone knows, "You can't take it with you," and throughout the meditative, careful pace of Mr. Johnson's preparations, you know that he's not going to be able to take the sherry glasses, the sherry, the cribbage board, or the "Desert Island books." The story is more about his acceptance that he's dying, and how he finally comes to make his peace with his life and his death.
I knew a couple like this. More than one, actually. Sometimes when a couple has been married for many years, and one partner dies, the other one scarcely knows how to go on. I felt this about these two. The doorknob, the saved sherry label, the sherry glasses and garage sale bargain treasures. But people don't much build treehouses in avocado trees like that -- he set the redwood lumber in the tree branches themselves, putting the posts in concrete pilings. Over the years, the tree grew around the posts, shutting them in, closing down the light. And as the light dwindles, so does Mr. Johnson's life.
The details one might call "ordinary," but they are not. They are as unique as fingerprints, as the freckles on someone's nose, as the flecks in another one's eyes, as the pitch of a laugh, and the way one mother folds her daughter's t-shirts and sprinkles them with lavender.
I'll just close by saying, stories like this are their own reward. Everyone who reads it will receive it.
Link to story.