By James A. Haught
We live in a colossal ocean of verbiage. The whole planet buzzes with gushing language. Amid this never-stopping avalanche, a few special, exquisite, heart-gripping tales have locked into my psyche over the years, remaining there permanently. Here are my gems:
“The Last Leaf” by O. Henry — Before the advent of antibiotics, a little girl in a grimy tenement sinks in the grip of pneumonia. In late autumn, she lies by a window and watches leaves falling from a tree in a courtyard. An old artist from upstairs notices her intent focus on the disappearing leaves. Late at night, he paints a leaf on a stone wall behind the tree. The girl sees it stubbornly in place after all others are gone. The more it refuses to fall, the more she grows determined to fight to hang onto life.
“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield — A prosperous family prepares for a lavish gala for affluent friends when word arrives that a poor neighbor laborer was killed in a cart accident. The rich family’s teenage daughter is horrified and wants to cancel the party, but her family discretely reminds her that working-class folk are below the prosperous set and really don’t merit such concern. After the party, the teen takes leftover food to the shanty of the grieving neighbors but feels awkwardly out of place.
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway — In a late-night café, the only customer is a deaf old man, drinking brandy alone. A young waiter, eager to hurry home to his wife in bed, is impatient to close, but the aging bartender, who has nobody, knows why the lonely old man needs a bright place to occupy the night hours. Both the barman and the drinker understand the nothingness that engulfs their lives. The bartender prays sardonically: “Our nada, who art in nada, nada be thy name.”
“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — A fairy tale about an aviator crashed in the desert meeting a curly-haired boy who has arrived on an asteroid. The small prince wisely observes the folly of much human endeavor. The boy tames a desert fox who says: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry — As Christmas approaches, a struggling young couple can’t afford gifts for each other. Their most prized possessions are her silky hair that flows almost to her knees, and his grandfather’s ornate gold watch. Secretly, she sells her hair to buy a platinum fob for his watch — and secretly he sells the watch to buy elegant combs for her hair. They wind up with useless gifts — but awareness of how much each cares for the other.
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“One is a Wanderer” by James Thurber — A lonely single man roams among married friends, surrounded by people but always isolated and adrift.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs — This magic tale teaches: Beware what you ask for. An aging couple, living with their son, are visited by an old soldier returning from India. He has a mummified monkey’s paw that can grant three wishes. The wife wishes for enough money to pay off their mortgage. The next day, their son doesn’t return from his factory job — but a factory manager comes to inform them that the son was killed by a machine. The factory pays compensation — which happens to be the amount of their mortgage debt. The hysterical mother grabs the paw and wishes for her son’s return. Knocking is heard at the door. But her husband realizes that the treacherous paw will bring a mangled mutilation victim. He wishes the son gone — and the knocking ceases.
Someone once said: A good short story is one you can read in an hour and remember as long as you live. You’ve heard my list. Maybe you can dredge your memory bank and assemble your own gems.
FFRF Member James A. Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, was the longtime editor at the Charleston Gazette and has been the editor emeritus since 2015. He has won two dozen national newswriting awards and is author of 12 books and 150 magazine essays. He also is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine and was writer-in-residence for the United Coalition of Reason. This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Dec. 8, 2013, and was republished at Daylight Atheism on April 26, 2021.