Contest judges selected this short-short by Bill Nemmers as our 2nd place winner. Bill sent this note about the piece:
“The Learning Process” is one of a series of my stories, which utilize a very formal visual structure of paragraphs of the same length. This formal block paragraph structure reinforces the seriousness of the topic. ”The Learning Process” contains exactly 800 words.
“The Learning Process” by Bill Nemmers
From her father she learned to take care of her tools. He taught her to use only the correct tool, one suited to the specific task involved, and that tool must be stored in its proper place and ready to do its proper work. Under his tutelage, she oiled and sharpened the knife, the hoe and the hand-spade she used in the flowerbed, just as he had maintained his own spade and ax. She honed her cutting surfaces, sharp and shiny, and hung each on its assigned hook on the barn wall, ready for the next, even unexpected, use.
From her mother she learned that housework was done on a precise schedule, and that it was done completely, and that it was done from top to bottom and from the front of the house to the back. She must maintain the proper order, so as to insure that no project would contaminate those areas previously cleaned. She learned to cook and to sew and to properly care for and store the food and clothing so that it was preserved well and available when it was needed. A well-ordered house ensured a well-ordered mind.
From her older brother she learned, on the sly when her father was away, how to hunt rabbits and grouse. She learned how to recognize an animal’s track and its scat, and to understand its behavior pattern and its use of cover. He taught her the safe use and proper care of a shotgun. Just like any other tool, it must be cleaned, oiled and properly stored after every use. She learned how to fish and to gut, clean and prepare the catch, and use and maintain the tools necessary for such work, so they would always be ready.
From her sister, she learned to read, and to dream of a wide world, full of adventure. They talked about love and romance, the yearnings in a young woman’s soul, and how reaction to the pressure of those yearnings could shape, even transform her dull, torpid life. She learned how to use her beauty and charm as weapons and to keep these weapons sharp, well maintained and properly sheathed. She learned she must separate from the family, live her own life. She helped her sister prepare for her sudden leaving.
From her husband she learned to be humble, to be subservient, to dedicate her every breath to his well-being and that of and his family. He taught her to please him, to relish childbirth, and to raise their boys to be patterned after their father. He taught her to do the woman’s work on the farm: to care for the animals, to work the garden that it would feed them throughout the year, and to care well for the house and grounds so that their, or rather his, stature in the community would be confirmed. She learned to hate.
From Amos, the hired hand, she learned to love. Illicit love certainly, but exciting, dangerous, and suffocating. At best it was storybook, romantic lust, but exhilarating to her soul and body. It reinforced the lessons her sister taught her and whetted her appetite for the exciting, even dangerous world outside the farm. Maintaining the liaison had also taught her duplicity. She honed and oiled the various facets of the affair. She masked the evidence of this utensil, and secured it in its own place in her well-ordered life.
From Father Benedict she learned how to sin and get away with it. She’d talk to him privately, confess everything and, with minimal inconvenience, be absolved of the guilt. Her affair was his problem now and he was bound to his vows. Her secret life was safe. The procedure’s ease emboldened her, taught her that the confessional was but a tool to remove the burden of a discomfortable action. If she would tolerate his mild rebuke, then Father would artfully remove the burden and she would be free to fly again.
She now had the knowledge needed to start life on her own. She had the tools to affect the separation from the smothering consequences of her overbearing domestic situation, and she had learned how to emerge from that separation free of any burden of guilt. After she polished the ax, and the knives, and the shovel; after she cleaned the house and washed the clothes of the consequences of her action; after she had her little talk with the good Father Benedict; and after the liquidation of the estate and a suitable season of mourning, she was well prepared to start anew, the life she’d been hewing from the raw material of her existence since that time when, as a young girl, her father taught her to take good care of her tools.
Bill Nemmers is a writer living in St. Paul, concentrating now on putting the final touches on a novel, while writing short stories, and some essays.