Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short story collection, How Strange a Season, is a meditation on female rage and an exploration of the impact of what is passed down to women, materially, emotionally and genetically from generation to generation.
The women in these stories struggle with finding satisfaction. They have baggage, unstable mothers, unwanted inheritances, and unbalanced siblings. There are deaths and drought, floods and family feuds.
In “The Heirloom,” readers see the burdens of inheritance when Regan loses her mother and is left with a sustainability ranch. She transforms it into a playground of sorts where men can crush cars with excavators. And there is also “Inheritance,” in which a woman inherits a literal glass house from her grandmother. Negative messages about beauty and what it means to be a woman are passed down, too, as are strains of madness in the stories, “Wife Days” and “Indigo Run.”
The authority of Mayhew Bergman’s narrative voice makes the terrain of difficult emotions and spoiled landscapes easier to swallow for readers. A few short sentences down on the first pages, we are often deep into what matters in the stories. In “Peaches, 1979,” Darcy inherits a peach farm and feels responsible for her two troubled siblings. There is no mistaking what is at stake: “The telltale yellowing of the leaves. The soil so dry it felt coarse in her hands. A knot of doom in her gut warning her the harvest was going to fail.”
Mayhew Bergman’s lush, seductive prose also helps to draw readers into these stories. Her description of place in the novella, “Indigo Run,” is weighted with history:
“How different Indigo Run was from home – the amber-colored grass gone dead in the hot sun, the thick leaves of the magnolia trees that seemed to clap together against one another when the wind blew, the wet fields, the reeking marsh, the men singing in the fields that seem to carry both suffering and joy inside themselves.”
The collection is marked by two powerful stories that pull from myth to examine the state of womanhood. In “Wife Days,” Farrah swims laps, accompanied by the conflicting voices of her mother and grandmother. Her mother, a groupie, warned of a craziness that came “when the currency of beauty faded.” As the story ends Farrah recalls a sexual assault and finds a way to regain power:
"The old trees loom over her. The rock is uncomfortable. Light sticks to her wet skin. She slips underneath the waterline and screams. The imaginary gill slits open behind her ears and close. Her body exchanges molecules with the lake. She rises to the air, reborn. Again and again."
The last story of the collection, “The Night Hag,” offers a kaleidoscopic view of the oppression of women through the experience of a ghostly figure who is constantly transforming in an attempt to overcome the pain of being spurned. It ends like this:
“Tired of compromise, the women in their afterlives clung to one another in the boughs of the last ancient trees, slept in the astral light, read books. Many of them had helped cause pain, and now they needed to heal it. Invisible, they rested until they were strong again. They walked between the burning crosses left on lawns and blew them out like candles. She showed them how exhausting and beautiful rage could be. And how immortal.”
With the burdens of responsibility, the mixed messages about womanhood, with the legacies of abuse and capitulation, what are women supposed to feel? Poised at the end of “The Heirloom,” Mayhew Bergman leaves readers with more difficult questions to ponder. Jillian, contemplating her losses, asks, “Who wasn’t angry now? Who didn’t want to summon all that pent-up rage to split a metal machine wide open? Who didn’t want to release all of that pain here in the waterless desert?” These questions serve as a reminder of the well-earned anger at the core of the lived experiences of her vividly drawn characters.
How Strange a Season
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Published March 29, 2022