In the dwindling days of Short Story Month and my “Puzzle the Prof” contest for 2013 , Richard Pangburn has asked my opinion of Rick Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story.” I am happy to oblige, for I like the story very much. For those who have not read it, let me provide a brief summary before I comment on it.
“The Hermit’s Story,” a magical tale about the entry into an alternate reality, begins with a sort of poetic overture about the blue color of an ice storm. The narrator and his wife have gone to the home of Ann and Roger for Thanksgiving dinner. The power is out, and after the two couples eat pie and drink wine before a roaring fire, Ann tells a story about an experience she had twenty years before up in Saskatchewan with a man named Gray Owl who hired Ann to train six German shorthair pointers.
After Ann has trained the dogs all summer and into the fall, she takes them back to Gray Owl to show him how to continue to work them. She and Gray Owl take the dogs out into the snow, and Ann uses live quail to show Gray Owl how the dogs will follow the birds and point them. They work the dogs for a week until they get lost in a heavy snowstorm, drifting away from their home area by as much as ten miles. When they come to a frozen lake and Gray Owl walks out on its surface and kicks at it to find some water for the dogs, he abruptly disappears below the ice.
Ann decides to go into the water after Gray Owl, for even if he is already drowned, he has their tent and emergency rations. However, when she crawls out on the ice and peers down into the hole where Gray Owl disappeared, she sees standing him below waving at her. When he helps her down, he says that what has happened is that a cold snap in October has frozen a skin of ice over the shallow lake and then a snowfall insulated it. When the lake drained in the winter, the ice on top remained. Ann goes back to the shore and hands the dogs down into the warmth created by the enclosed space beneath the ice.
The world under the ice is a magical one, the air unlike anything they have ever breathed before. The cold air from the hole they made meets with the warm air from the earth beneath the lake to create breezes. Although the ice above them contracts and groans, they feel they are safe beneath a sea watching waves of starlight sweep across their hiding place. When they build a fire from cattails, small pockets of swamp gas ignite with explosions of brilliance.
The two head for what they hope is the southern shore, the dogs chasing and pointing snipe and other birds. They finally reach the other shore and walk south for a half a day until they reach their truck. That night they are back at Gray Owl’s cabin, and by the next night Ann is home again. The story ends with the narrator considering that Ann is the only one who carries the memory of that underworld passage. He thinks that it perhaps gave her a model for what things are like for her dogs when they are hunting and enter a zone where the essences of things.
When “The Hermit’s Story,” appeared in the 1999 Best American Short Stories collection, Rick Bass said in his contributor’s note that as soon as he heard about a frozen lake with no water in it, he knew he wanted to write a story about that. Because he was trying to train two bird dogs at the time, he made up a bird-dog trainer as a sort of wish fulfillment and had her go up to Canada and fall into such a lake.
Such an event alone, as dramatically potential as it might be, does not, of course, make a story. What makes the event a story is Bass’s exploration of the symbolic significance of the magical world into which the characters enter. That magical world is presaged even before they break through the ice with the blue world of the ice storm described by the narrator in the opening paragraphs in which the blue is like a scent trapped in the ice. It is further emphasized by the fact that the storm has knocked out the electricity, creating a world of darkness. In the midst of this cold, blue, dark world, the two couples sit before a fire, creating the classic setting for a story to be told.
When Ann and Gray Wolf work the dogs in the snow of Saskatchewan, they travel across snowy hills, the sky the color of snow so that it seems they are moving in a dream. Except for the rasp of the snowshoes and the pull of gravity, they might believe they had ascended into a sky-place where the entire world was snow. All this is preparation for their descent into the improbable, magical world underneath the frozen lake. When they look up, the ice is clear, and they can see stars as if they were up there among them or else as if the stars were embedded in the ice.
The closest the narrator can come to articulating the meaning of the experience is to suggest that it perhaps was a zone where the appearances of things disappeared, where surfaces faded away and instead their very essence was “revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.” Much like a magical journey in a fairy tale, the experience under the ice is a journey into a realm of dream and desire, which suggests that the world is a much more magical and mysterious place than we usually think.
Style is especially important to this story, for without Bass’s poetic descriptions, his rhythmic prose, and his suggestions about the mythic significance of the experience it would be merely an interesting anecdote, depending solely on the unusual nature of the frozen empty lake. The opening paragraph, by repeating the reference to the color blue and the fictional metaphoric phrase “as if,” sets up the entry into the fairy tale world. This “as if” metaphoric quality also is used to refer to Ann’s transformation of the dogs from wild and unruly pups into well-trained hunting dogs, “as if” they are rough blocks of stone with their internal form existing already, waiting to be chiseled free. If the training is neglected, they have a tendency to revert to their old selves, “as if” the dogs’ greatness can disappear back into the stone.
Although often metaphoric, Bass’s style is not flowery, but rather simple and straightforward. He does not tell the story in Ann’s words, but rather has the narrator retell it, thus filtering the story through two points of view. Neither Ann nor Gray Owl talk much during their experience, and when they do it is in the simple straightforward language of people reduced to basic states. In telling Ann about the lake, he says “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.” And when she asks if he knew it would be like this, he says, “No. I was looking for water. I just got lucky.” Although there is no indication, other than his name, that Gray Owl is Native American, his dialogue reflects the common literary convention of having Native Americans speak in short declarative sentences.
Bass, a naturalist who has written nonfiction books about the Yaak Valley in Montana, also devotes much of the story to his fascination with the natural world of, as well as the dogs and the birds they hunt. For example, when the birds flush out snipe from the cattails underneath the ice, Bass spends at least two pages pondering the presence of the birds, wondering if they had been unable to migrate because of injuries or a genetic absence.
With the curiosity of the naturalist, he wonders if the snipe had tried to carve out new ways of being in the stark and severe landscape, holding on until the spring would come like green fire. If the snipe survived, the narrator reckons, they would be among the first to see the spring; they would think that the torches of Ann and Gray Owl were merely one of winter’s dreams.
The fairy-tale, folklore nature of the story persists throughout, with the narrator considering at the end that Ann holds on to her experience as one might hold on to a valuable gem found while out for a walk and thus containing some great magic or strength.