Pilgrims is a collection of short stories about people who are living quiet lives that seem to be on the cusp of something. Sometimes, they glide over that cusp and move into the shimmering yonder and sometimes, they don’t. None of the stories in Pilgrims have a fantastic point to make. Each one comes like driftwood, mossy and beautiful, a gift from a large ocean of possible lives being lived out in this world. Some pieces of driftwood have just a few simple grooves. Some others have more intricate etchings.
The first short in Pilgrims tells the story of a young girl who is hired as a stable-hand in Wyoming. She is a sturdy girl with a sturdy dream. Just the sort of girl who will do all the robust work expected of a farmhand and then one day, just take off on her horse into the world.
Another one, ‘Elk Talk’ is a delicate tale of a woman living with her husband and nephew high up in the mountains. They don’t have a neighbour for miles around. One day, though, a family of three drops in unannounced and introduces itself as the neighbours. It’s Halloween and their little girl is dressed with antlers on her head. The father has invented a whistle that emulates an elk’s mating call. All of them stand in the porch when the father demonstrates this whistle. They stand there in silence for a long, long time. Then finally a large, handsome elk steps out from the shadow and stares at them. Towards the end of the story, the woman tells her neighbour to stop whistling and moves away in a huff with her son. She is disgusted with the way the man could manipulate a beautiful animal like that. Also, a little resentful that the vastness around her that she had taken for granted has been compromised.
In ‘Alice to the East’, a young girl and her brother get stranded in Verona because their car has broken down. A stranger offers to help. What happens, over beers in desolate pubs or dusty trips to a mechanic, is a young girl excavating the man’s lonely life through conversations.
‘Bird Shot’ has a man trying to teach a young boy about his father’s legacy as a good shot of game birds.
In ‘Tall Folks’, a divorced couple are also rival pub-owners. One day, the man’s pub shuts down and the woman hires her nephew to take care of her place. The man’s club, however, is bought over by a misogynist sort of fellow with three daughters. He has pole dancers who mostly look sad and bored. But in that dimly lit bar, some stories get exchanged between people known to and estranged from each other.
The collection has a sweet, almost- love story called ‘Landing’. A tough, sophisticated girl falls for a redneck driver and their scene ends in silence in a diner over coffee.
‘Come and fetch these stupid kids’ is one of my favourites, along with ‘Elk Talk’. Two couples in their teens or early twenties live together in a huge mansion by the sea. The house belongs to a boy in the group. He is spoilt, entitled, and has a charm that is impossible to indulge. One eventful night, there’s a raging storm and the ocean’s heaving and churning. In that storm, the spoilt boy wants to go swimming. The other boy in the group, J, is the strong and sensible type. For some reason, he agrees as well. The girls acquiesce and they all wade into the ocean. The rain pelts down, huge waves toss them about here and there, lightning slashes across the sky and for a little while, all of them can hold their own. Then slowly, each one, except for J, starts losing steam. They sink and try to heave themselves out but get sucked into the sea again. The worst case is the spoilt boy though. He has gone really far away from the store and is drowning. J rescues him and swims back to the shore. Meanwhile, the storm has become a lot stronger. J’s girlfriend watches him swim to the shore and wonders if he will call the Coast Guards or come back himself. While her other friend is trying to stay afloat, she wonders about her boyfriend and how much resentment he might be feeling because none of his friends can take care of themselves. Including her.
While this earlier set is mainly snapshots of a mood or a specific time in a particular place, the next batch of stories have a more pronounced plot. “The many things that Denny Brown did not know at age fifteen” allude to whether comparison is an inherited compulsion. “The names of flowers and girls” has a young man allow a woman to captivate his imagination to understandable, sad results. “At the Bronx Terminal Vegetable Market” is an interesting tour into the world of vegetable dealers and buyers in the Bronx. It’s also a study of how one man keeps his dreams alive in that scenario. In “The famous town and restored lit cigarette trick”, a celebrated magician loses his mind and is later redeemed by his plain, stoic dogged daughter.
“Finest wine” has a 70 year old woman entering fantasy land where she drives a bus filled with all the men she has loved foolishly and wisely.
What struck me was the gentle commonplaceness of these lives that Gilbert writes about. No great transformations occur. No great tragedies or resurrections either. Yet you get this unmistakable feeling of how much changes even when nothing happens.