on the cover:
Phyllis Barber writes about miracles, premonitions, visits from our dearly departed, and the sometimes angst of good church-going people. Take Ida, who puts her undergarments into the wash and prances naked through the spin cycle, thinking no harm done and that no one will know. The ensuing comedy confirms that God sees everything.
These twelve short stories are based on tales overheard at church, newspaper accounts, and stories from the Fife Collection at Utah State University, Latter-day Saint publications, and family records. Some have passed from generation to generation. All of course, are true.
PRAISE FOR BARBER’S PREVIOUS BOOKS
And the Desert Shall Blossom
“Astonishing … remarkable.”—Michael Curtis, editor, Atlantic Monthly
“Powerful … intense.”—Library Journal
“Extraordinary.”—Western American Literature
How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir
“Delightful … humorous and dignified … bittersweet.”—Booklist
“A sizzling portrait of life … delightful and occasionally spectacular.”—Boston Globe
“An engaging work by a writer of charm and spunk.”—Kirkus Reviews
The School of Love
“The stories tap deep, sometimes suppressed sensibilities.”—Dialogue
“Rich and moving … forceful … compelling.”—New York Times Book Review
“Finely crafted … glimpses of life … that come from the heart.”—West Coast Review of Books
about the author: Phyllis Barber is the author of six books, including her prize-winning memoir, How I Got Cultured, and a contributor to Fiction: Crosscurrents’ Best, Literary Las Vegas, Great and Peculiar Beauty: A Utah Reader, and other anthologies, and has been honored in Best of the West (Vols. 3, 6) and Pushcart Prize XIII. She has received awards from the Association for Mormon Letters, the Associated Writing Programs (affiliated university departments), Sunstone, and the Utah Arts Council. She is co-founder of the annual Park City Writers at Work conference. Currently she teaches in the MFA in Writing Program, Vermont College.
Parting the Veil:
Stories from a Mormon Imagination
by Phillis Barber
Salt Lake City
COVER DESIGN BY BRIAN BEAN
NOTE: “Bread for Gunnar” first appeared in Weber Studies 10 (Fall 1993), in a special issue on “Tradition and the Individual Talent in Contemporary Mormon Letters”; “Devil Horse,” in New Hampshire College Journal 12 (Spring 1995); “Dust to Dust,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Winter 1994); “The Fiddler and the Wolf,” in Sunstone 18 (Apr. 1995), where it won second prize in the 1993 Brookie and D. K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest; “Ida’s Sabbath,” in a different version, in Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983), as second prize winner in the 1983 D. K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest; “Mormon Levis,” which won first prize in the 1996 Brookie and D. K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest, in Quarterly West (Twentieth Anniversary Issue), Autumn/ Winter 1996-97; “Prophet by the Sea,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Fall 1994); “Spirit Babies,” Quarterly West, Summer/Fall 1994; “The Whip,” which won second prize in the 1986 Utah Fine Arts Literary Competition, in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987); and “Wild Sage,” which received Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XIII, first in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Summer 1987), and later in Beloit Fiction Journal 9 (1994). “The Boy and the Hand” and “A Brief History of Seagulls: A Trilogy with Notes” appear here for the first time.
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Parting the Veil: Stories from a Mormon Imagination was printed on
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Parting the veil: stories from a Mormon imagination / by Phyllis Barber.
1. Mormons-West (U.S.)-Social life and customs-Fiction. I. Title.
ISBN 1-56085-120-2 (pbk.)
To my sisters
Kathryn Gold and Elaine McIver
and my brother
H. Stephen Nelson
Preface and Acknowledgements [see below]
01 – The Whip
02 – Spirit Babies
03 – Wild Sage
04 – The Boy and the Hand
05 – Devil Horse
06 – Ida’s Sabbath
07 – Dust to Dust
08 – The Fiddler and the Wolf
09 – Bread for Gunnar
10 – A Brief History of Seagulls: A Trilogy with Notes
11 – Prophet by the Sea
12 – Mormon Levis
13 – Epilogue: Origins
Preface and Acknowledgements
[p.ix]Raised in the dry deserts and sheer-walled canyon country of the Colorado River plateau-fermenting ground for many kinds of dreams—I watched my father anoint my sister’s head with oil, lay his hands on the crown of her head, and bless her to recover from rheumatic fever. And she did.
There is something about Mormonism that keeps bringing me back to its roots, something about the power of the miraculous I knew so intimately as a child.
I was always fascinated by Sunday school stories of Joseph Smith’s visions and the angel leading him to gold plates buried in a hill. In sacrament meeting I heard about the Three Nephites-three men granted their wish to live forever by Jesus when he appeared in the Americas-and how they rescued people in harm’s way before disappearing in thin air. At the dinner table, I heard how a World War II soldier’s temple garments protected him hom a bullet. Underneath quilt frames, playing with my mother’s shoelaces, I heard how unborn spirits talked to women in the night and asked to receive a body.
When I was a child, it was as common to think of an angel appearing by my bed as it was to drink orange juice for breakfast. As an adult, I experienced the white light of the Holy Ghost pouring into my mind and comforting me at an especially low moment of my life. This belief [p.x]in the parting of the veil between heaven and earth has never been far from me, though there have been those moments in time when my innocence was, as all innocence must be, challenged—moments when I watched my idealism fall and my faith crumble. Real life was too disparate from the pretty picture.
But, ultimately, the web is wide. The canvas is broad. God moves in mysterious ways, and a mystery is a mystery—protean, awe-inspiring. God is the quixotic, the ineffable, the Great Possibility, still and always beyond the reach of finite understanding. And yet we humans are always reaching. All but one married couple in my ancestral lineage of the 1800s crossed the great American plains to Zion, walked behind handcarts, and rode in conestogas (one serving as wagonmaster for early church leaders), all because they believed in something that moved them to unfathomable exploits. What is this something that moved men and women to give up all they had, to leave comfortable homes, to separate from families, to build an empire in the name of God? Had the veil parted for them? Could they see into the Mystery?
The Mormonism I most identify with begins where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did-with Joseph Smith and his visionary ideas that have given my own imagination access to infinite possibility: social and economic communitarianism, plural marriage, vicarious baptism for the dead, conversations with heavenly beings, free-flowing consideration of any meritorious idea (including Freemasonry and the plurality of gods), the literal building of a kingdom of God on earth, and much more. Often baffled by the interstellar scope of Joseph Smith’s vision and the relative lack of interest in the man and his work, especially outside the culture, I was pleased to read The American Religion in which noted critic Harold Bloom boldly recognizes Smith’s creative genius. “Latter-day Saints, however much their Church may have had to stray from his paths, have been almost alone in apprehending the greatness of Joseph Smith. An entire century after the Mormon repudiation of plural marriage, their prophet remains without honor among most of his countrymen.”
My main point of intersection with Mormonism is with the beginnings—the primitive, innocent, robust religion. It is in the places where people, not unlike Joseph Smith seeking an answer to his prayers, have original and firsthand encounters with the divine. It’s the [p.xi]mystical interaction with the unknown, the human reaching out to touch the finger of God, the supernatural.
As South Africans say, “The bird sings the way it is beaked.” Not so surprisingly, with this collection of stories (some of which are drawn from Utah folklore and Mormon history, and others of which are more contemporary portraits of people caught by the Mormon ideal), I’m singing bits and pieces of themes familiar to my ear. And, as much as I vacillate between the need to know and the need to doubt, I can’t help telling stories that wrestle with the suspicion of a thin veil fluttering nearby.
Many heartfelt thanks to the Fife Folklore Collection at Utah State University, the Utah State Historical Society, Mormon storytellers who carry on the tales and legends, Writers at Work in Park City, Utah, and to students and faculty in the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program for their enthusiastic support.
Special thanks to Kathryn Gold for her perceptive criticism; Gladys and Richard Swan for their intellectual comprehension; Neila Seshachari, editor of Weber Studies, for her belief in the richness, imagination, and creativity of “Mormon Literature” Chris, Jeremy, and Brad Barber for being there and still believing; and to David Barber, Paul Swenson, Connie Chard, Gordon Weaver, Francois Camoin, Rod Ondler, and Gary Bergera at Signature Books.
[p.xiii]There is, apart from mere intellect, in the make-up
of … human identity, a wondrous something that
realizes without argument, frequently without
what is called education … an intuition of the ab-
solute balance, in time and space, of the whole of
this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and in-
credible make-believe and general unsettledness,
we call the world, a soul-flight of that divine clue
and unseen thread which holds … all history and
time, and all events, however trivial, however mo-
mentous, like a leashed dog in the hand of the
hunter. [Of] such soul-sight and root-centre for
the mind mere optimism explains only the surface.