31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 19: “Into the Gorge” by Ron Rash

May 19, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Burning Bright

Burning_Bright_Ron_RashOne aspect of short fiction that makes many readers wary is its frequent resistance to closure. Stories focus on moments in time, but often exclude what happened before or after those moments. The resolution stories offer is frequently implied, or takes place with the reader rather than on the page. In her introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, Joyce Carol Oates has this to say:

[T]he short story is a prose piece that is not a mere concatenation of events, as in a news account or an anecdote, but an intensification of meaning by way of events. Its “plot” may be wholly interior, seemingly static, a matter of the progression of a character’s thought. Its resolution need not be a formally articulated statement, as in many of Hawthorne’s more didactic tales … but it signals a tangible change of some sort; a distinct shift in consciousness; a deepening of insight. … Because the meaning of a story does not lie on its surface, visible and self-defining, does not mean that meaning does not exist. Indeed, the ambiguity of meaning, its inner, private quality, may well be part of the writer’s vision.

Stories – and in particular, contemporary stories – traffic in ambiguity, a condition that makes a lot of readers nervous. Our culture has educated us to prefer the easy pleasures of final resolution and a discernible moral, but stories, by their nature, frequently withhold these things. They do not take us by the hand and instruct us on what to think or how to feel; rather, they require the kind of active engagement that is increasingly avoided in a culture that takes its cues from Harry Potter and comic books.

Ron Rash’s “Into the Gorge,” which won its author an O. Henry Prize and was included in the 2010 edition of the anthology Best American Short Stories, is exactly the kind of work that is liable to frighten off readers who demand to know, like anxious children, what happened. The story’s final scene leaves its protagonist, a man in his sixties named Jesse, alone in the Appalachain woods, being hunted by the law. Jesse is not a typical criminal – his transgressions spring from the act of harvesting a crop of ginseng that should by rights belong to him – and his contingent fate is open to interpretation.

Jesse has lived his entire life in the area; the land on which the crop he attempts to harvest sits once belonged to his father and aunts. They sold the property to the government in 1959 for sixty dollars an acre; half a century later, there are signs prohibiting trespassing and the land is being taken over by real estate developers who plan to set up gated communities for wealthy home buyers.

Now entering the twilight of his life, Jesse determines he needs money: “His house and twenty acres were paid for, as was his truck. The tobacco allotment earned less each year but still enough for a widower with grown children. Enough as long as he didn’t have to go to the hospital or his truck throw a rod. He needed some extra money put away for that. Not a million, but some.” His solution is to return to the ginseng crop his father abandoned more than fifty years ago and harvest it (ginseng being worth more than marijuana on the open market).

While he is in the process of harvesting the crop – as the story’s title suggests, this involves a descent into the gorge behind the family’s old homestead: significantly, a trip downward – he is accosted by a park ranger who wants to arrest him for poaching on public land, a crime that comes with jail time. Jesse panics and pushes the ranger down an abandoned well (a further descent), then flees, after having heard the sickening crunch of breaking bones as the ranger falls.

There is much that Rash does not tell us here. We never discover the exact nature or extent of the ranger’s injuries, though the consequence is clear: Jesse becomes a fugitive, hunted through the woods by lawmen and sniffer dogs. Though we discover the ranger’s name – Barry Wilson – when Jesse reads it on the man’s uniform, he remains a cipher as a character, as do the other officers of the law. They are institutional forces arrayed to prevent Jesse from taking what he feels is rightfully his, but like so many such instruments of bureaucracy, they are anonymous and unindividuated.

And, significantly, we never find out what ultimately befalls Jesse. Does he die in the woods? The final image of the story has the aging man alone in the night, waiting “for what would or would not come” – this could easily mean death, or it could mean capture and arrest.

What is significant here is the connection the author draws between the story’s conclusion and its opening, a description of Jesse’s great aunt who lived on the same patch of land and suffered from Alzheimer’s in her old age. After her memory abandoned her, the one thing that remained was her instinct to hoe the field behind her farmhouse, “breaking ground for a crop she never sowed, but the rows were always straight, right-depthed.” Though her mind has broken down, Rash writes, “her body lingered, shed of an inner being, empty as a cicada husk.” Importantly, her empty body is tied in the story to the land on which she has lived her entire life; so central is this connection that it is believed her ghost continues to haunt the property decades after her death.

When Jesse’s great aunt tilled her fields, Rash tells us, “the woods had been communal, No Trespassing signs an affront, but after her death neighbors soon found places other than the gorge to hunt and fish, gather blackberries and galax.” The notion of ownership – of private property versus communal land – is at the heart of Jesse’s run-in with the park ranger, which echoes and recapitulates the treatment of American aboriginals at the hands of European colonials (though one hesitates to stretch that association too far). And it is clear that in encroaching upon government land and pulling up crops – whatever their original provenance might be – Jesse is breaking at least the letter of the law.

In the final stages of the story, Jesse recalls the people who found his great aunt’s corpse in the woods: she had apparently died of exposure after stripping off all her clothes, an act that Jesse considers “a final abdication of everything she had once been.” At the end of the story, Jesse himself removes his boots in an attempt to avoid leaving tracks the police could match to him later; this act implicitly associates him with his great aunt and her final determination to die on the land where she had lived.

Whether Jesse similarly perishes is not clear; neither is it the point. The point of Rash’s brief story involves how we define our lives, what belongs to us, and what can be taken away before we are no longer able to call our lives our own.