Fiction / Features / Excerpts

“Diamond District” and “Sleeping” from Katharine Weber’s collection, Jane of Hearts and Other Stories

Katharine Weber author photoKatharine Weber is the author of seven previous books―the novels Still Life with Monkey, True Confections, Triangle, The Little Women, The Music Lesson, and Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear―published the year she turned 40—as well as a memoir, The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities. Her new book, Jane of Hearts and Other Stories, just out from Paul Dry Books, is her first collection. She has taught creative writing at Yale (eight years teaching undergraduates), Columbia University (six years as a thesis advisor and evaluator in the School of the Arts MFA program), and most recently at Kenyon College, where she held the Thomas Chair in Creative Writing for seven years. She lives in Connecticut when she isn’t in England or Ireland.

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Jane of Hearts is smart, subtle, and surprising all the way, with stories that vary from novella to flash, making for a propulsive, energetic mood even in the quietest pieces. They’re clever and interior, with blink-and-you-might-miss-them links to each other’s worlds and a magpie-like eye for the power that objects—especially the small and the shiny—hold over us all.

Below, two of the shortest stories from the collection, each of which contains very different multitudes.

* *

Diamond District

“Let the stone tell you what it wants to be and allow it to become that thing,” the old man whispered. Isabel peered through the loupe and bent over her grandfather’s work table. She gazed intently at the diamond he was showing her.

“You see?” he commanded. “Study it well. Do you remember how it looked when I showed it to you last week and told you this one I would cut next?”

“A white pebble, a lump of salt?” Isabel had been tempted to taste it, but at ten, she knew better. She gave him back the loupe. She spent every afternoon after school in her grandfather’s little work space on 47th Street, way in the back of the third floor in one of the oldest buildings in the diamond district, while her mother gave piano lessons on the Bosendorfer in the apartment. The three of them lived together on West 76th Street, over a well-known funeral parlor.

Isabel watched her grandfather work at his bench, knowing that he mustn’t be disturbed unless he spoke to her first, knowing that his work was as delicate as brain surgery. She had been doing her history homework in the dim light at his old cluttered desk where his paperwork was stacked, waiting for the moment when her grandfather would stand up, take off his special magnifying headpiece with its lighted lens, stretch, turn off his work light, slowly stow his tools and then lock the tray of stones away in the clanking safe bolted to the floor under his workbench.

“Yes, that’s right,” he answered finally, after a pause so long she had turned back to the Battle of Gettysburg. “Like something unimportant you might bring home from the seashore. But its beauty was hidden. And now what do you see? It is revealed.” He spoke softly without looking up, as if he were taking to himself. “This is called an emerald cut. If you can let the properties of the diamond guide you, then you will have something wonderful. If you try to force it to be something it doesn’t want to be—pffft! It could shatter. Or it could resist you in a thousand other ways I will explain to you someday. Just remember that if you are wrong in your choice, then the stone will sulk and refuse to be what you want, because you are mistaken about its true nature. Then you have nothing.”

Walking to the subway, they passed brightly lit shop windows, one after the other, displaying nothing but bare blue velvet landscapes, empty red velvet stages, barren black velvet amphitheaters. Sometimes, on days they left a little early, Isabel would see hands reaching, reaching, reaching into the windows, taking away the precious merchandise to be locked up safely until the next day of business. She reached for her grandfather’s hand, and the rough calluses on his palm were like precious pebbles they carried home together.

* *

Sleeping

She would not have to change a diaper, they said. In fact, she would not have to do anything at all. Mrs. Winter said that Charles would not wake while she and Mr. Winter were out at the movies. He was a very sound sleeper, she said. No need to have a bottle for him or anything. Before the Winters left they said absolutely please not to look in on the sleeping baby because the door squeaked too loudly.

Harriet had never held a baby, except for one brief moment, when she was about six, when Mrs. Antler next door had surprisingly bestowed on her the tight little bundle that was their new baby, Andrea. Harriet had sat very still and her arms had begun to ache from the tension by the time Mrs. Antler took back her baby. Andy was now a plump seven-year-old, older than Harriet had been when she held her that day.

After two hours of reading all of the boring mail piled neatly on a desk in the bedroom and looking through a depressing wedding album filled with photographs of dressed-up people in desperate need of orthodonture (Harriet had just ended two years in braces and was very conscious of malocclusion issues) while flipping channels on their television, Harriet turned the knob on the baby’s door very tentatively, but it seemed locked. She didn’t dare turn the knob with more pressure because what if she made a noise and woke him and he started to cry?

She stood outside the door and tried to hear the sound of a baby breathing but she couldn’t hear anything through the door but the sound of the occasional car that passed by on the street outside. She wondered what Charles looked like. She wasn’t even sure how old he was. Why had she agreed to baby-sit when Mr. Winter approached her at the swim club? She had never seen him before, and it was flattering that he took her for being capable, as if just being a girl her age automatically qualified her as a baby-sitter.

By the time the Winters came home, Harriet had eaten most of the M & M’s in the glass bowl on their coffee table: first all the blue ones, then the red ones, then all the green ones, and so on, leaving, in the end, only the yellow.

They gave her too much money and didn’t ask her about anything. Mrs. Winter seemed to be waiting for her to leave before checking on the baby. Mr. Winter drove her home in silence. When they reached her house he said, My wife. He hesitated, then he said, You understand, don’t you? and Harriet answered Yes without looking at him or being sure what they were talking about although she did really know what he was telling her and then she got out of his car and watched him drive away.

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