“Miss Muriel”

ALMOST EVERY DAY, Ruth Davis and I walk home from school together. We walk very slowly because we like to talk to each other and we don’t get much chance in school or after school either. We are very much alike. We are both twelve years old and we are freshmen in high school and we never study—well, not very much, because we learn faster than the rest of the class. We laugh about the same things and we are curious about the same things. We even wear our hair in the same style—thick braids halfway down our backs. We are not alike in one respect. She is white and I am black.

Yesterday when we reached the building that houses my father’s drugstore, we sat down on the front steps—long wooden steps that go all the way across the front of the building. Ruth said, “I wish I lived here,” and patted the steps though they are very splintery.

Aunt Sophronia must have heard our voices, because she came to the door and said, “I left my shoes at the shoemaker’s this morning. Please go and get them for me,” and she handed me a little cardboard ticket with a number on it.

“You want to come with me, Ruth?”

“I’ve got to go home. I’m sure my aunt will have things for me to do. Just like your aunt.” She smiled at Aunt Sophronia. I walked partway home with Ruth and then turned back and went up Petticoat Lane toward the shoemaker’s shop. Mr. Bemish, the shoemaker, is a little white man with gray hair. He has a glass eye. This eye is not the same color as his own eye. It is a deeper gray. If I stand too close to him, I get a squeam­ish feeling because one eye moves in its socket and the other eye does not.

Mr. Bemish and I are friends. I am always taking shoes to his shop to be repaired. We do not own a horse and buggy and so we walk a great deal. In fact, there is a family rule that we must walk any distance under three miles. As a result, our shoes are in constant need of repair, the soles and heels have to be replaced, and we always seem to be in need of shoelaces. Quite often I snag the uppers on the bull briars in the woods and then the tears have to be stitched.

When I went to get Aunt Sophronia’s shoes, Mr. Bemish was sitting near the window. It is a big window and he has a very nice view of the street. He had on his leather apron and his eyeglasses. His glasses are small and they have steel rims. He was sewing a shoe and he had a long length of waxed linen thread in his needle. He waxes the thread himself.

I handed him the ticket and he got up from his workbench to get the shoes. I saw that he had separated them from the other shoes. These are Aunt Sophronia’s store shoes. They had been polished so that they shone like patent leather. They lay alone, near the front of the table where he keeps the shoes he has repaired. He leaned toward me and I moved away from him. I did not like being so close to his glass eye.

“The lady who brought these shoes in. Who is she?”

I looked at him and raised one eyebrow. It has taken me two months of constant practice in front of a mirror to master the art of lifting one eyebrow.

Mr. Bemish said, “What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you hear what I said? Who was that lady who brought these shoes in?”

Excerpted from “Miss Muriel,” the title story in Miss Muriel and Other Stories.

Ann Petry

ANN PETRY (1908–1997) was a reporter, pharmacist, social worker, and community activist. She illuminated the range of black and white experience in her novels, short stories, and other writing. Her book The Street was the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. Her novels The Narrows and Country Place are also available from Northwestern University Press.

This edition published in 2017 by Northwestern University Press with a new by foreword by Jamilah Lemieux. Copyright © 1945, 1947, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971 by Ann Petry. Foreword copyright © 2017 by Jamilah Lemieux. Published 2017 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

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The Dead Season

Excerpted from Collected Stories by Bruno Schulz. Translated from the Polish by Madeline G. Levine and with a foreword by Rivka Galchen.

“Bruno Schulz is arguably the most influential author the Polish language has ever known . . . Levine finally allows English-language readers to spend time with the living Bruno Schulz—serious, funny and breathtakingly real.” ⁠—Times Literary Supplement

At five in the morning, a morning brilliant from early sunshine, our house had already been bathed for a long time in ardent and quiet morning radiance. At that solemn hour, unobserved by anyone—while across the room in the semidarkness of lowered drapes the peaceful breathing of sleeping people still moved in solidarity—in total silence it entered into the facade that was blazing in the sunlight, into the silence of the early heat, as if its entire surface were made of blissfully slumbering eyelids. Thus, profiting from the silence of those solemn hours, it swallowed the very first fire of morning with a blissfully slumbering face, fainter in the radiance, with the arrangement of its features trembling slightly in the dream-filled sleep of that intense hour. The shadow of the acacia in front of the house, waving brightly on those burning eyelids, repeated on their surface as if on a piano, over and over again, the same glittering phrase washed away by a breeze, vainly attempting to penetrate the depths of that golden dream. The canvas drapes absorbed the morning heat, portion after portion, and grew darkly suntanned, swooning in the boundless radiance.

Bruno Schulz, self portrait, 1920-1922

At that early hour, my father, no longer able to find sleep, descended the stairs, laden with his books, in order to open the shop, which was located on the ground floor of our apartment building. He stood motionless in the entrance for a moment, withstanding with tightly closed eyes the powerful attack of fiery sunshine. The sun-bright wall of the house drew him sweetly into its blissfully leveled flatness, smoothed down to the point of disappearance. For a moment he became a flat father, grown into the facade, and he felt his arms, branching out, trembling and warm, fuse flat amid the golden stucco decorations of the facade. (How many fathers have already grown permanently into a facade at five in the morning, at the moment when they stepped off the bottom step of a staircase? How many fathers have become in this way forever the keepers of their own door, flatly sculpted onto the frame, with a hand on the door handle and a face unfolded into the same parallel, blissful grooves over which their sons’ fingers would later travel lovingly, seeking the last traces of their fathers now merged forever into the universal smile of the facade?) But then he detached himself with his last bit of will, regained the third dimension, and turned into a man once again, freeing the shackled shop door from its padlocks and iron bars.

When he opened the heavy, ironclad wing of the shop door the grumbling gloom retreated one step from the entrance, drew back a few inches into the depths of the shop, changed its place, and lay down lazily inside. Invisibly giving off steam from the still-cool paving stones of the sidewalk, the morning freshness stood timidly on the threshold as a faint, trembling strip of air. Deep inside, the darkness of many previous days and nights lay in the unopened bales of cloth that were arranged in layers and ran in rows into the interior, in muffled parades and pilgrimages, until it came powerlessly to a stop in the very heart of the shop, in the dark stockroom, where, already undifferentiated and replete with itself, it dissolved into the silent, looming, ur-matter of cloth.

Father walked along that tall wall of cheviot wools and twills, trailing his hand along the edges of cloth bales as if along the slits of women’s dresses. Under his touch, the rows of blind torsos that were always ready to panic, to break out of line, would calm down and consolidate in their cloth hierarchies and order.

BRUNO SCHULZ (1892–1942) was a Polish Jew born in Drohobych, at the time a city in Austrian Galicia. He published two volumes of short fiction during his life. Shot in the street by a Nazi officer in German-occupied Drohobych, Schulz achieved posthumous fame as one of the most influential European fiction writers of the twentieth century.

MADELINE G. LEVINE is Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures Emerita at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her translations from the Polish include The Woman from Hamburg and Other True Stories by Hanna Krall, Bread for the Departed by Bogdan Wojdowski, and four volumes of prose by Czeslaw Milosz, including Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections and Milosz’s ABC’s.