Recently, I picked up a copy of The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction, 8th Series, edited by Anthony Boucher, which contains a story I've long wanted to read, "The Wait" by Kit Reed, a remarkable writer who deserves to be better known.
"The Wait" is, I believe, Reed's first published story. It appeared in the April, 1958 issue of F&SF, when Reed was about 26 years old.
Any writer, regardless of age, would be proud to call this story their first published. The command of tone and pacing is nearly perfect, with the story unfolding one strange revelation after another. Just when you think you understand the world Reed has created -- one which reminded me of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" -- she complicates the situation and brings in a depth of detail extraordinary in a story of about 16 pages. The characters are not rounded and complex, but rather serve as types in the way many of Flannery O'Connor's characters serve as types -- it's not that they're flat, but rather that they serve the greater purposes of the story rather than of psychology.
I would encourage readers to seek out the story, but for the sake of continuing this analysis, let me give you a basic summary without giving away too many of the frightening twists the story offers. Miriam, a young girl recently graduated from high school, is traveling through the country with her mother, and in the town of Babylon, Georgia, her mother gets sick. The residents of the town have decided to cut down on doctors' bills by having anyone who is sick lie down in the public square, and various citizens will come to them, hear their complaints, and see if they can offer any advice based on illnesses they themselves have had in the past. This is, obviously, not the most efficient method of doctoring, and Miriam's mother remains in the public square for more than a month, while Miriam is taken in by locals and treated quite well.
Miriam, though, is not excited by these events. The town is strange, their customs bizarre. And there are people policing all of the borders, so escape seems impossible.
Miriam begins to hear about "The Wait", which is what young girls who have not been married have to do before they can be married. I won't give away the secret of The Wait, but suffice it to say that it is, in its own way, a logical cultural construct while also being a horrifying one. The images from the final pages of the story will stay with me for a long time.
The value of a story such as this one is not in its horrible events or its bizarre take on local customs. This is a story which makes honest readers re-examine their own prejudices, their own cultural habits. The people of Babylon seem eminently friendly and pragmatic, and yet how can we judge them as anything other than lunatics?
Reed's genius is that she makes Miriam and her mother fallible as well, even annoying, in some of the same ways as the family in O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" are annoying. Miriam makes a choice in the end of the story, and it is not a choice which any reader could be comfortable with. Our feelings at the end of the story are mixed: we sympathize with Miriam's plight, but are horrified by her decision, her acquiesence. And yet, what would you or I do? Her mother is as implicated in the decision as Miriam is; what she says to Miriam at the end of the story may be the main motivation for Miriam's decision. Miriam gives in to an alien custom because she sees no other way to get anything she wants. Fighting would be, if not fatal, at the very least difficult and dangerous.
Should we blame her? Should we blame the society she has become a part of? How many of our own habits and customs are, judged with both logic and ethics, harmful and insane?
This is a story which should not be obscure. It should be read by high school students and their parents, it should be discussed and debated, absorbed and meditated upon. Find a copy -- it's worth whatever you have to pay to dig up the few books it has ever appeared in. This is short story writing at its finest and most provocative.
Update: Kit Reed just informed me that "The Wait" is available in her collection Weird Women, Wired Women. I should have known this -- lax research on my part -- it's one of those books on my "Got to buy that soon" list.