"The Erlking" by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum Originally published in the July 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.
Since her name was among those in the 20 Under 40 list, I have looked up Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s other works, including her National Book Award finalist Madeleine Is Sleeping and her PEN/Faulkner finalist Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I have read neither book and none of her short stories, but I am intrigued with what people are saying about them. Because of this, and because “The Erlking” is one of my favorite dark tales, I was really looking forward to this story. Sad to say, I didn’t care for it.
I read this story twice, hoping that my second read would reveal something to change my feeling of “huh?” Here we have Kate and her young daughter Ondine (but Ondine only answers to Ruthie). The last little while has been very hard on Kate because she can’t seem to get Ruthie into any good schools. Subjecting herself and her daughter to intense sessions of scrutiny only to be denied a place at the end (“What flaw or lack did she see in them that they couldn’t yet see in themselves?).
The story begins when Kate and Ruthie go on an outing at the Waldorf school, a school they didn’t apply to and that they probably wouldn’t have gotten into anyway (it’s very expensive, apparently). The school has put on a pleasant fairy-tale fair for the children.
It is just as Kate hoped. The worn path, the bells tinkling on the gate. The huge fir trees dropping their needles one by one. A sweet mushroomy smell, gnomes stationed in the underbrush, the sound of a mandolin far up on the hill. “We’re here, we’re here,” she says to her child, who isn’t walking fast enough and needs to be pulled along by the hand. Through the gate they go up the dappled path, beneath the first, across the school parking lot and past the kettle-corn stand, into the heart of the Elve’s Faire.
The story proceeds to shift perspectives from Kate to Ondine and back and forth. Ondine’s segments are written in the voice of a very small child, where thought runs to thought to thought:
She has a sneaky feeling that the man is holding a present under his cape. It’s supposed to be a surprise. A surprise that is small and very delicate, like a music box, but when you open it it just goes down and down, like a rabbit hole, and inside is everything — everything — she has wanted: stickers, jewels, books, dolls, high heels, pets, ribbons, purses, toe shoes, makeup. You can’t even begin to count! Part of the present is that she doesn’t have to choose. So many special and beautiful things, and she wants all of them — she will have all of them — and gone is the crazy feeling she gets when she’s in Target and needs the Barbie Island Princess Styling Head so badly that she thinks she’s going to throw up.
Kate’s sections are filled with a bit of shame for not getting into the schools and for not having much money and an attitude of make-today-special-for-Ondine, even though Ondine is making things difficult when she throws a tantrum because her mother cannot see the man in the cape who has the presents. She thinks her mother has ruined her chances and that the man will choose another girl.
So, you can see that the story of the Erlking has been transported to the present, as it has been before, that the genders have shifted from father and son to mother and daughter, and in this case the daughter is brown and not a German youth. Now, what it all means in the end is something I can’t figure out. I’m familiar with the legend, I’m familiar with parenting (though not a daughter), I’m familiar with the ridiculous things parents have to do if they want to get into some select schools, but the ending is a complete mystery to me. Who is this man in the cape, besides the Erlking come to take the child. If this is the present day, what does that mean? I’m left with the suspicion that the story itself isn’t controlled well, though the writing is fine, if not spectacular. Any of your thoughts are greatly appreciated.