“The Siege at Whale Cay” by Megan Mayhew Bergman
I am often asked whether we ever work with an author to revise a submission that isn’t quite ready, in its original form, to appear in The Kenyon Review or KROnline. The honest answer: not often. We receive so many submissions that are largely without flaw, that the case for a piece that still needs work must be compelling indeed. It has to throw off a special spark, a truly memorable character or voice or dramatic situation that catches me by the throat so that I just can’t let it go.
For one thing, I am always wary of leading an author on with the hope or expectation that a story or poem will appear in KR or KRO if only they jump through this hoop or make that slight adjustment. I have to feel pretty certain that we’ll publish a revision. (A couple of years ago I received a terrific story—or, rather, it was terrific almost all the way through. I returned it to the author with a few suggestions, which prompted a series of back-and-forths, with each version, sadly, only failing and flailing more fully. Finally, I could only decline the story, with regret and chagrin, once and for all.)
Well, on reading the opening scene of “The Siege of Whale Cay,” a story based on historical research, I felt sure that it would appear in our pages. Megan Mayhew Bergman is an author whose work I enjoy and admire—and whom we have published before. More important, the first quiet paragraph nabbed me:
Georgie woke up in bed alone. She slipped into a swimsuit and wandered out to a soft stretch of white sand Joe called Femme Beach. The Caribbean sky was cloudless, the air already hot. Georgie waded into the ocean, and as soon as the clear water reached her knees she dove into a small wave with expert form.
“Alone” is suggestive. We infer that usually she is not, and this time, perhaps, has been in some way abandoned. And the “expert form” of diving into the water also, subtly, primes us for much about Georgie and the story to come. We may also have assumed something about “Joe” which is quickly proven false:
She scanned the balcony of the pink stucco mansion for the familiar silhouette, the muscular woman in a monogrammed polo shirt chewing a cigar. Joe liked to drink her morning coffee and watch Georgie swim.
So here it’s not the “male gaze” we were probably expecting, but a woman’s gaze, deeply sexual, bending genders in ways that continue through the story. Joe, as we’ll soon discover, is all about power and control, even more than sex. And quickly, by the second page, we find that another woman, a movie star and rival beyond rivalry, is about to arrive: “[Georgie] felt an unmistakable pang of jealousy, cut short by the roar of Joe pulling up behind them on her motorcycle.” The tension of this triangulated passion will drive much of the story.
In truth, however, to KR’s fiction editor Caitlin Horrocks and then to me, the original ending seemed confused and not adequately paced or developed. That’s not infrequent: many stories go astray late in the game. Authors can set up a great dramatic situation, but charting a route out that is surprising and satisfying can be tricky. In this case, I felt both that the strengths of the story warranted a revision and that I could write to Megan in all honesty—making clear up front that I wasn’t promising anything certain—to share my concerns and offer some suggestions.
The immediate issue, it seemed to me, was sequence and clarity toward the end, and this too occurs more often than one might suppose. In this case there are so many distinct dramatic nodes assaulting Georgie’s awareness—which is essentially the narrative point of view—from all sides: the terrible cries of an off-stage native woman in labor; the shouting between Joe and her drunken “priest” Phillip; the increasingly rebellious islanders, exhausted by Joe’s tyranny as well as her generosity. You’ll have to read the story to get the full gist.
Moving from one idea or action or thought to the next in a clear and psychologically persuasive manner demands skillful choreography. Yet a reader ought to feel a kind of inexorable necessity of dramatic heft and logic compelling us toward the story’s final moment.
And that’s where we are with the final version of “The Siege of Whale Cay.” Georgie is no hero, it turns out. She is too drunk and uncertain to come to the aid of the woman in labor. And Phillip, who briefly seemed someone capable of defying Joe and taking the young woman to a hospital by boat, now lies drunk and unconscious as Georgie herself flees. So the woman may well die. The islanders may or may not rise up in open rebellion. Georgie cedes the triangulated field to the film star, knowing it was never to be a “fair fight” anyway. All these loose, unresolved threads at the end are, I believe, one of the story’s great strengths.
Georgie wanders away from them all. She comes to a high cliff in the pitch dark and leaps out in a terrifying dive, narrowly missing rocks in the sea far below. Yet she survives and treads water, caught in a perfect limbo between the innocence of her family and youth, and the sordid, corrupt temptations of the unreal life on Whale Cay. A perfect end to this superb story.