NEA Literature Fellowships

Téa Obreht

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(2016 - Prose)

from The Tiger's Wife

Like all matriarchal disciplinarians, Mother Vera was certain of my grandfather’s eventual acceptance of discipline and order, and therefore confident in his abilities—over-confident, perhaps, because when he was six, she handed him a small, cut-to-size shepherd’s staff and sent him into the fields with a handful of old sheep, whom she did not expect to give him very much trouble. It was an exercise, and my grandfather was delighted in his newfound responsibility. But he was so young then that he was only later able to remember what happened next in blocks: the lull of the morning fields, the springy cotton flanks of the sheep, the suddenness of the tumble down the deep hole in which he would spend the night, alone, gazing up at the puzzled sheep and, hours later, Mother Vera’s thoughtful, dawn-lit face hovering over the mouth of the hole.

This was one of the few stories my grandfather told from his childhood. The other, characteristically, was a medical anecdote. Growing up, he had a friend called Mirica who lived a few houses over, and when they were old enough not to be engaged in the business of pulling each others’ hair and calling each other names, they played house, which was the civilized thing to do. One afternoon, my grandfather, playing the part of the woodcutter husband, went down the street, talking to himself and carrying a toy axe in his hand; Mirica, meanwhile, indoctrinated as she was with the principle of what a dutiful wife should be doing, prepared for him a meal of well-water soup in oleander leaves, which she served on the stump of a tree. The problem was not the essence of the game, but the practice: my grandfather dutifully ate the oleander leaf soup and was instantaneously seized with paroxysms of vomiting.

The town apothecary arrived an hour later to induce more vomiting, and to pump my grandfather’s stomach, which is a barbaric procedure now and was considerably more barbaric back then. I have heard the apothecary described by others who knew him: enormous hands, great, imposing eyes, and above them the headlamp, and I imagine my grandfather was, from a very early age, lured into to a stunned reverence of the medical profession.

Over the years, the apothecary visited more and more often. He was there to administer ipecac and to set broken bones, to pull a shattered molar when my grandfather secretly bought hard candy from a passing gypsy peddler with whom he had been forbidden to interact. When, during an intense game of us-versus-Ottomans, my grandfather shook his makeshift axe a little too enthusiastically and sent the razor-edged tin can tied to the top of it flying into the forehead of a neighborhood boy, the apothecary was there to stitch up the bone-deep cut that ran just under Dusan’s hairline. My grandfather, of course, never mentioned the winter of his own great illness, a fever that ripped through the village—despite the apothecary’s best efforts, my grandfather was the only child under the age of twelve to survive it, six buried in the snow, his entire generation, even Mirica of the oleander leaves.

The Tiger's Wife was published by Random House, 2011

Téa Obreht's debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times bestseller. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading, and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue, Esquire,and The Guardian. She was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. In 2013, she was the Rona Jaffe Foundation fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Photo by Beowolf Sheehan

Author's Statement

Two years ago, driving along some Colorado byway, my husband and I detoured down a side road and found ourselves pulling over at the top of a snow-laden field. Not far below us stood the husk of a homestead, a log cabin with a staved-in roof. We hadn’t seen another soul for miles, so we eased through the crumbling doorway and watched the fog eddying above us. I decided that the cabin had once belonged to a trapper or prospector, some solitary man who had reveled in this stark solitude. Months later, I was still thinking about him—only by that time, his failures as a frontiersman had driven him to abandon the homestead and open a dry goods store somewhere along the Overland Trail. He ran the store with the assistance of two young men. One of the boys had a secret, and his story, rather than the frontiersman’s, was now the one worth telling.

This is how my books begin: a momentary notion fails to dissipate. It takes root. It morphs in surprising ways. Gradually, it becomes a preoccupation. I know that future drafts of this particular one will keep me returning to Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana; to ghost towns and battlefields and railroad hotels and buffalo jumps; to tiny regional museums and remarkable archives. I am immeasurably grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for affording me the gift of time, and the ability to follow all the necessary detours, without which the completion of this project would be impossible.