Come Down in the World

by Noreen McAuliffe, recommended by Julia Fierro


A story’s design — the how it is told — is as unique to that story as personality is to the people you know most intimately. A story must sport its style with confidence, whether flamboyant, modest, or somewhere between. Otherwise, the reader will see through the façade, catch a whiff of insincerity, and suspect that the author is hiding the truth.

Noreen McAuliffe’s “Come Down in the World,” a story about a 19th century logging camp, wears a style so seamless and perfectly matched it feels tailor-made. The captivating result of a writer who scrutinizes every choice so the reader can feel as if the details were born within the story. From Frank’s spiked cork boots to the worn leather strap that allows him to propel to the treetops, to the ominous night sounds — the bunk house “din of snoring and the sighs of men alone,” and “the logs [that] bobbed in the current and knocked against each other with the sound of hollow bones,” and “the mice came to lick up his leavings, their tongues rattling the plate” — every detail enhances the reader’s experience. We lose ourselves in a world where logic feels airtight, one which swirls with sawdust, velvety caterpillars, lard-greased log trails, the infernal heat of dynamite, and the “clearings that felt like church.”

From the first few lines to the quietly explosive finale of “Come Down in the World,” the reader is surrounded with instant authenticity that transports us to a time, place, and situation with stakes so high that most of us need a daring writer to imagine them for us. In the span of a story, the reader feels a novel’s worth of atmosphere, urgency and promise, and meets characters revealed with such precision, you may wonder if you’ve dreamt of them before. Sven “boiling lice out of the men’s clothes in the cast-iron porridge pot and singing a love song about maids in fields of flax.” Gabriel, in whose soft canvas gloves rest the story’s unique “promise” — its heartwood — waiting to uncoil itself at the story’s surprising andinevitable end.

I first read Noreen McAuliffe’s “Come Down in the World” in the post-MFA fiction workshop I taught this spring at The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. When it was time to start the discussion, the workshop grew hushed How had Noreen accomplished this mesmerizing effect? How had she unearthed that sweet spot between revelation and obfuscation, the fine balance in which subtlety and clarity of implication can co-exist? To accomplish this effect in so few pages is a breathtaking literary accomplishment, and it is a pleasure to share Noreen McAuliffe’s unique voice with you.

Julia Fierro
Author of Cutting Teeth

Come Down in the World

Frank didn’t want to look down at the men who’d taken bets on whether he’d fall. They were decent enough to try and hide it, palming the bills to one another when he harnessed up for his first climb. Their voices faded as he crept up the trunk, and he heard only the treetops turning in the wind, the chattering wren that cocked its head, then flew past his face.

He narrowed his mind to the work: slide the strap up the tree, drive the spikes on the soles of his cork boots into the bark, then push up with his legs. Three-quarters up was the highest he’d ever been — higher than the silo at his parents’ farm in Dry Creek — and he could see the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula and the trail of stumps that marked the logging camp’s progress through the green.

Frank tightened his grip on the strap as he neared the branches he needed to clear at the top. Then he’d have to secure the line and drop it to the foreman, Gabriel, who was straddling the roots, waiting with his hand up against the bark. He couldn’t make out Gabriel’s face anymore, but he thought he could sense him through the pith of the tree, a wavering presence like a moth flitting.Gabriel had picked him as the high rigger; Frank was the smallest man on the crew but still strong enough to split a log in one stroke. He wasn’t decided if this meant he was lucky or not.

The first branch was solid and knotty; every cut shook the tree. He moved his hands down the ax handle, leaned back in the harness, and drove the blade home. That would do her.

“Fell, ho,” he yelled.

The men on the ground spilled away from the trunk and the branch crashed down. The last branch, the topper, was reluctant to go. He swung the ax over his shoulder and it popped through his fingers like a slippery fish. Then there was only his empty hand, his palm slick with sweat. He heard the distant clunk of the ax hitting the ground and the hollers of the men. He wouldn’t look down anymore. Someone, likely short-tempered Gabriel, took an ax and whacked the tree, sending a shiver up the trunk that spooked Frank and made him lose hold until he skidded to a stop with his corks.

“Come Down in the World” is now available as a Kindle Single. To continue reading, please visit the Amazon store.

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