“The stories in Ken Nash’s brilliant collection The Brain Harvest lay bare the sparks and idiosyncrasies of an exceptional mind. Each new story is distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness, and the characters we meet are unique and endearing. In subject matter, the stories weave and delve into continuously unexpected territory; from the alien adventures of Emily Dickinson, to the intricacies of bespoke basket-making, time travel, orchestral garden plots, and the great green sea lizards that haunt our parents’ dreams. Nash’s playful and quick-witted style bears echoes of maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme, and recalls the quirkiness of Miranda July. Taut, intelligent, eccentric, and wholly engaging, The Brain Harvest is a wonderful debut for a very talented new writer” (Clare Wigfall, author of The Loudest Sound and Nothing and winner of the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award)
The Brain Harvest by Ken Nash has been published by Equus Press.
When I was very young — and, oh, this was a long time ago, back during the depression when everyone was just doing what they could to get by and had no big plans for the future—when I was, I guess, around 12 years old, I spent a lot of time with chickens, teaching them to do things, baiting them with seed, prodding them with sticks and chasing them around the yard, yelling at them, trying to get them to remember their commands.
Don’t let anyone tell you different, chickens are dumber than dumb. But if you are patient and persistent enough you can get them to do things. They don’t understand what they’re doing, but they’ll do it — just like a piece of clay doesn’t understand that you’re making a sculpture, but with enough kneading and pulling it will become that thing you’re trying to create. And that’s exactly how I set about getting the chickens to
perform Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”
I found a copy of “Three Sisters” on the shelf in the basement were Mom’s old things were kept. I think maybe she had performed in it years ago in New York, long before I made my nascent appearance into her life. I didn’t question whether it was an appropriate choice or not. Probably not. But once I began reading and thinking about how to get the chickens to portray the various roles, I became inspired by this play and the theatrical possibilities it offered.
True, it is difficult for chickens to convey emotion. And even more difficult to get them to speak ponderous lines such as,lines such as, “Happiness is not for us, nor will it be. We can only wish for it.” So basically I settled for having the chickens do a sort of improvisation around Chekhov’s text, gesticulating, focusing their attention on one, then the other, crying out in despair, chirping happily, cackling orders or dispensing salutations with a fluttering of feathers. Getting them to drink tea and brandy was not so difficult. But long pauses were a fairly arduous task. And getting chickens to stand steady and appear lost in contemplation — that was my primary challenge.
With the help of my brother John, I built a stage adjacent to the work shed. And my sister Louise sewed black curtains pieced together from old oil rags, which Dad had been using for auto repairs before selling the Packard last fall. The curtains could be drawn open by dropping a beanbag from an overhead rafter. And the proscenium was given footlights by setting candles within cut Maxwell House coffee tins. John, in his enthusiasm, had wanted to dig an orchestra pit, too, but I felt the old chickens-pecking-at-piano-keys bit threatened to turn the whole production into a novelty act.
Opening Night. There were eight people in the audience, six of them were family, but there was also Mr. Sayles, the postman, and Bridgette Gunther, the retarded girl from next door. Reviews of that first performance were a bit mixed.
“I didn’t understand any of it,” said Clark, my eldest brother.
My father said, “Why, Theo, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Mr. Sayles said that they were some of the best behaved chickens he ever did see.
“What about the play, though?” I prodded. “What did you think about the doctor? Could you tell what he was getting at when he placed his beak beneath his wing trying to convey that existence may only be an illusion?”
Mr. Sayles scrunched his brow and replied, “Doctor? One of them birds was a doctor?”
The next day we ironed out some of the kinks in the performance. I believe the chickens did a much better job with the pacing and blocking during that evening’s show, particularly the more tempestuous third and fourth acts.
By the third performance, word had spread around town and we had about fifteen people over to see the show. Among the audience members was Eva Schaumberg, the new girl. She had moved to our town from Boston to live with her great aunt. Some said she came from money. That’s about all we knew. She didn’t dress like the rest of us. That was for sure. Her dresses had about ten times as many buttons as other girls dresses and the fabrics seem to capture and hold light like the surface of Hinkley Pond at night. Louis said that each of Eva’s dresses probably cost more than our father made in an entire year with his new insurance job.
The fourth performance was a marked improvement on all the rest. There were moments when the chickens seemed so absorbed in their parts you nearly forgot they were chickens. Particularly Masha who, during her mental breakdown in Act Four, was so thoroughly convincing the audience was stunned into total silence. Mrs. Flaherty, the butcher’s wife, sat with eyes bulging open, gripping her purse as if trying to strangle it. And Eva Schaumberg – beautiful Eva, poised upon her milk crate – I could see a moist glistening of tears on her cheek as she watched the drama unfold.
“A green oak grows by the curving shore,” intoned Masha with ruffled feathers and nervous chirps as she circled center stage. Her movements seemed to so perfectly convey Chekhov’s words that I felt like I was almost hearing them aloud. “A gilded chain on the oak tree hangs… a green cat… a green oak tree… I am all confused. A life gone wrong…” Around and around Masha clucked and circled the stage.
Suddenly I had a flash of insight and it was as if I was suspended over the town looking down at all these people that live here and work in this town. And they were all at the same time individuals and a whole, extending infinitely through the vertical space of self and infinitely through the horizontal space of place and society. And I felt this old Russian guy Chekhov, whoever he was, must have been sitting in this same exact same spot when he wrote this, watching it all extending infinitely in every direction, his heart so full and heavy as his ink quill scattered words, like seeds upon paper, for our needy hearts to follow.