Required Reading. I first read this story almost four years ago, but I still go back to it with some frequency. Josephine Rowe’s stories feel both raw and guarded at the same time, and perhaps that is how I feel about love and life. Perhaps that is why I love them so much. She also has a gift for putting the reader in a situation, in a place, in a specific moment with her characters, and yet these stories never feel so specific that they couldn’t be about you or your sister or your best friend. Perhaps that is why I love them so much, the spectre of relatability looms large and yet never manages to terrify me with a mirror image of myself. And with that cryptic introduction, I give you Josephine Rowe’s “Love”.
He is teaching her how to break bottles against the side of the house. A whiskey bottle works best, he tells her. She thinks this is very lucky, because that is what they have the most of – he has spent the last few weeks emptying them. So whiskey bottles are what they are using. Now, he says. Like this. Crack. So that you get something like a shiv, not just a fistful of glass and stitches. Like this, he says. Crack. And she feels a great swell of pride in her sparrowy chest – he gets it perfect, every time. Now you, he says, and he hands her the next bottle. Because a father can’t always be there, he says, and she nods and tries to look solemn, to make him believe she understands. The bottle does not break on the first try. She swings harder on the second try and gets it, but it is a bad break. Her father does not say this, but she knows. Too close to the neck. Shards of glass from other afternoons shine dully in the dry earth at their feet. He hands her another bottle and the second break is better, the glass jutting out like the snaggled teeth of some prehistoric fish.
She tries to imagine when she will need this – how things will ever get so bad. Her idea of evil is a slinking, unknowable thing, formless and weightless and impossible to hurt. She takes another bottle and tries to give the evil a shape, eyes and lips and things, all squinty and sneering – a composite of all the villains and monsters she has seen in films and picture books. And although she finds the result is less terrifying than something incorporeal, she does not know how she will ever be brave enough – will she ever be able to do that to somebody, evil or otherwise?