In “The Ruler of the Elves,” one of twenty-two stories in Allen Wier’s Late Night, Early Morning, a new widow looks down at her husband’s grave and considers the vast mystery of the cosmos: “There was no telling what unknown signals were being sent and received, what celestial enterprises were underway.” If there’s a unifying theme in this diverse collection—which spans Wier’s long career, with some stories dating back to the 1970s—it’s just that sense of ineffable meaning somewhere beyond the human struggle, impossible to understand and articulate but keenly felt all the same.
Wier is an emeritus professor in the University of Tennessee’s English Department, and many of these stories are set in the South, often in Wier’s native Texas, but they cover a wide range of times and situations. “Coupling with the Devil” is an account of a young Civil War widow’s hasty remarriage to a one-armed Union veteran. In “The Wrong Corner of the Sky,” an aging suburban dad struggles to understand his angry wife and moody teenage son. “Love Affair with the Underground” is, true to its title, the story of a man who spends most of his adult life in a subterranean labyrinth known as The Caverns—“Every day the same, a constant 54 degrees, constant darkness, constant dampness, mineral water dripping as it had for millions of years.” There’s more than a hint of Southern Gothic in “Eddie’s Story,” a funny/sad account of an eccentric’s gruesome death. A spare timelessness can be found in “A Need for Grief,” in which an old man finds that love and mourning can be the same thing; the story has the simplicity and universality of a folk tale.
Death and mourning are central themes in many of these stories, nowhere more so than in “The Ruler of the Elves,” which follows a couple through the husband’s final days. Avery, the husband, is riddled with cancer. “Gallbladder, pancreas, liver—it’s even wrapped around his spine,” says the doctor. His wife, Julia, takes him home to die, and we watch the process through her eyes. It’s tender, as well as brutal:
She lowered his body until his sallow, skeletal feet—the pale yellow, ropy feet of a bird—touched the tile floor. Though he was inches taller than she, the pain kept him in a constant crouch, his knees drawn up while his shoulders sank downward to meet them. In the mirror on the back of the bathroom door, Julia watched the two of them, husband and wife, in a last, slow waltz.
Moments like that one, liminal moments in which beauty and ugliness become indistinguishable, are often a feature of Wier’s work, and he has a remarkable ability to render with delicacy scenes that could easily become grotesque. In “A Need for Grief,” the bathing of an infant’s corpse is almost an act of worship: “Gentle currents of water and light moved the baby’s lips giving him silent speech in a language of small bubbles and slow ripples.” After a staid, married accountant enjoys an unlikely sexual encounter with a much younger woman, she abruptly leaves him, and the cruelty of the moment is softened by a kind of peace, in which “he spoke her name to a shape that might have been her. The only answer was rain dripping on metal and concrete.”
The accountant, like many of the disparate characters in these stories, is driven by ordinary desires but suffers from a deeper longing that is existential. Most of Wier’s people seem to need something they can’t name, but they feel that it’s out there and can’t resist seeking it. The widow in “Coupling with the Devil” rushes into remarriage when she sees her teenage son growing up and becomes “more and more aware of the empty place he was leaving inside her.” The suburban father in “The Wrong Corner of the Sky” becomes obsessed with a hungry bear that invades a neighborhood home, and he conceives a vague spiritual communion with the animal. “When yearning is strong enough,” he thinks, “maybe it becomes prayer.”
That word, “prayer,” appears again and again in Late Night, Early Morning, and though Wier never leans heavily on it or seems to be chasing any overtly religious notion, there is a mystical sensibility at work throughout the collection. These stories, all of them masterfully written, take on worldly experiences of love, family, aging, and grief and find within them evidence of transcendence, or at least a reason to hope that transcendence is possible.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. Her work has appeared in Still, Guernica, and Literary Hub. She is the managing editor of Chapter 16.