Every once in awhile, I read a short story that's so good I put it on par with my favorite novels. One of these short stories is Kaui Hart Hemmings's "The Minor Wars," which I encountered in an anthology in 2004. It's a lovely and sad little story about a father and his young daughter in Hawaii as they watch over their wife/mother, Joanie, who's in a coma after a speedboat accident. The wife lived a dangerous, overly passionate life that led to her accident, and it's obvious there are many distances between her and her husband and their daughter. The man's relationship with his little girl, Scottie, is also deeply troubled by years of trying too hard to ignore each other's pain. The story feels effortless and complex at the same time, and it remains one of my favorite examples of the power of short fiction.
Interestingly enough, Hemmings wrote a novel, The Descendants, that expanded this story, also told from the father's point of view and including all the same characters plus a few more. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get into the book. What made the characters endearing in "The Minor Wars" made them kind of unlikeable and boring in novel form, and I never got past page 70. Some day I may go back and try the book again because of how much I like Hemmings's writing, but until then, I am perfectly happy to make do with this story.
This passage is where the title comes from, as the narrator father and Scottie spend time at the beach. Scottie has purposely allowed herself to be stung by a swarm of man-of-wars, and her father is completely incredulous about it and angry that she calls them "minor wars" instead of their proper names. Just before this scene, they've encountered Troy, the coma mom's probably-lover who was with her at the time of the accident. This trip to the beach also takes place after another exhausting visit at the hospital, where the narrator has learned that Scottie purposely squeezed a sea urchin and injured herself.
From "The Minor Wars," by Kaui Hart Hemmings
She scratches herself. More lines form on her chest and legs. I tell her I'm not happy and that we need to get home and put some ointments and ice on the stings. "Vinegar will make it worse, so if you thought giraffe boy could pee on you, you're out of luck."
She agrees as if she was prepared for this - the punishment, the medication, the swelling, the pain that hurts her now and the pain that will hurt her later. But she's happy to deal with my disapproval. She's gotten her story, and she's beginning to see how much easier physical pain is to tolerate. I'm unhappy that she's learning this at ten years old.
We walk up the sandy slope toward the dining terrace. I see Troy sitting at a table with some people I know. I look at Scottie to see if she sees him and she is giving him the middle finger. The dining terrace gasps, but I realize it's because of the sunset and the green flash. We missed it. The flash flashed. The sun is gone. The sky is pink and violent like arguing little girls. I reach to grab the offending hand, but instead I correct her gesture.
"Here, Scottie. Don't let that finger stand by itself like that. Bring up the other fingers just a little bit. There you go."
Troy stares at us and smiles a bit, looking completely confused.
"All right, that's enough," I say, suddenly feeling sorry for Troy. He may really love Joanie. There is that chance. I place my hand on Scottie's back to guide her away. She flinches and I remove my hand, remembering that she's hurt all over.