Lydia Davis’s “The Cedar Trees” tells the story of a town where the women suddenly decide to leave their village and men, retreat to the cemetery, and transform into cedar trees. Lacking their women, the men initially experience elation, but this quickly dissipates as harsh winter winds arrive and the men grow lackadaisical. They lose interest in the common work of the town, reluctantly tending the fields and standing idle as the village roads grow shoddily unsafe. Eventually, the men’s behavior worsens so that strangers won’t visit the village; even the traveling priest avoids the place. Without their women around, the men essentially devolve into scruffy losers, unable to keep themselves or the village functioning optimally. But the end of the story finds the women returning home, which prompts the men to look onto “their mean lips, their hard eyes” as their “hearts [melt]” (194).
With little question, the most intriguing aspect of this story is that the women become trees. If you were to tell you friend about this story, the likely first sentence out of your mouth would be something akin to this: “Dude, I just read this story, and, check this, the wives leave town to become trees, man!” It is the selling point, the detail that makes it unique.
But what’s truly enlightening, at least for writers, is the manner in which this infusion of the supernatural is executed by Davis. The story clocks in at barely a page long. Within that length are five paragraphs. The middle three paragraphs are meatiest, the shortest at six lines. But inside those meaty paragraphs there is one thing missing: any reference, even tangentially, to the women having left to become trees. Seriously, remove the first and fifth paragraphs from this piece and all you have is some largely mundane story about a village of loser dudes doing nothing all that special, much less supernatural.
Whoa, right? How did Lydia Davis bamboozle us all so hardcore? Simple: she framed her story with the supernatural, allowing the middle paragraphs to be contextualized by that frame, thus making the entire piece resonate with ramifications of something barely mentioned twice. In the first paragraph, we get this first line: “When our women had all turned into cedar trees they would group together in a corner of the graveyard and moan in the high wind” (193). And in the final paragraph: “somewhere deep in the heart of the cedar trees, our wives [stir] and [think] of us” before “lazily… return[ing] home” (194). Well, ladies and germs, that’s it, the only two references to the wives as trees. But it works, no more is needed.
So, what does this mean to a fiction writer? It means that, in order to write a successful supernatural story, you don’t need to inject phantasms and wizardry and Middle Earth ghouls into every line. No. You just need to add one or two carefully placed allusions to supernatural aspects to (re)contextualize the whole story into an uncanny light.
For many of us who write literary fiction that resides in realism, like me, this is huge. I might not be able to write something Tolkienesque, but I think I might be able to whip up one or two eerie lines of prose to infuse into the next mundane story I scribble, and those teensy bursts might be enough to add an entire supernatural dimension. Isn’t that freaking awesome, to paraphrase Mark Ari? Yeah, I think it’s pretty groovy, too.