Treat yourself by reading this remarkable online story "The Prospectors" by Karen Russell. She is simply one of the most impressive writers, able to pair together ancient stories (here a supernatural encounter in the forest) with contemporary sensibilities and a prose style that is earthy, poetic, and always a bit wry. Her characters are people one would wish to know, and Russell makes the reader lean in, care about their odd journeys, their difficult choices, their deep loyalties, and their frailties.
"The Prospectors" is set in 1930s, as two young women in need of an escape and a future head west to Oregon to the new boom towns, there to "prospect the prospectors." They are tricksters, charming, cunning, and thievish -- but their logic, their reasons for their actions make it seem almost acceptable. And what is more important is the depth of their friendship and camaraderie, even when it is tested by adversity. Here is one of my favorite set of lines, occurring when the narrator assesses a difficult situation and considers a plan of action that is risky:
"“No. We can get there on our own.”
Clara turned to me with blue lips and flakes daggering her lashes. I felt a pang: I could see both that she was afraid of my proposal and that she could be persuaded. This is a terrible knowledge to possess about a friend."
And this, the narrator recalling the moment their friendship was first solidified -- working as maids, they met on the roof during a break to smoke. Clara arrived with bruises on her arms:
"Bruises were thickening all over her arms. They were that brilliant pansy-blue, the beautiful color that belies its origins. Automatically, I crossed the roof to her. We clacked skeletons; to call it an “embrace” would misrepresent the violence of our first collision...
"Night fell, and I was shivering now, so Clara held me. Something subtle and real shifted inside our embrace—nothing detectable to an observer, but a change I registered in my bones. For the duration of our friendship, we’d trade off roles like this: anchor and boat, beholder and beheld. We must have looked like some Janus-faced statue, our chins pointing east and west. An unembarrassed silence seemed to be on loan to us from the distant future, where we were already friends. "
The story's heart lies in this unshakable bond which will be tested as the pair travel west and into the wilds of Oregon. And here again, Russell's prose combines stunning imagery from the natural world, tangible and supernatural in its beauty and dangerous seduction. To say more would produce spoilers -- so I can only recommend that you take a little time and enjoy reading it for yourself. And best of all, there is a sound cloud version of the story -- read by the author! And you can read an interview with Karen Russell about the story -- also terrific.
Photo illustration by Sara Cwynar, Birdcage illustration by Leslie Herman.