I wish I could write short stories. I very much admire the form and stand in awe of writers who can produce those small jewels—like the tiny towns, churches, images of the saints sculpted in gold and silver and placed on medieval reliquaries. It takes a magnifying glass to see their exquisite beauty and the perfection of every detail.
My imagination and level of skill require large blocks of literary marble, a sledgehammer, and sharp chisels. I have had exactly one piece of short fiction published. Every once in a while, I get an idea for another, but by the time I have thought about it for forty-five seconds, it begins to expand with plots and characters and scenery and grows into a gargantuan epic that, if I took the time, I might be able to cut down to the 70,000 words or so that my publisher might be willing to print as a book.
A couple of months ago, a fan of my second novel Invisible Country gave me an old, brown newspaper clipping about something that had happened in Paraguay—the setting for that book. At first, I thought I might use the information as the basis of a short story. It has all the elements of a perfect background. I will share it with you here verbatim:
From The New York Daily News- 5 May 1989
‘Alarmed by gruesome reports of excessive discipline at a convent school, a concerned priest investigated—and discovered the “nuns” were a gang of bloodthirsty ex-Nazis in disguise!For decades the Hitler henchmen hid beneath black habits to escape justice for their barbaric crimes, while torturing orphan pupils and plotting world domination! (The exclamation points are The Daily News’s, not mine—except for this one!)
“It’s an abomination,” cries Father Juan Escalpa, “that these 14 men of darkness could masquerade as sisters of light. It is a desecration of the church.”
Instead of religious training, students were a taught a hateful mixture of racist bigotry.
The Nazi nuns drove their points home with various instruments of torture. “Their favorite was the ruler rapper,” notes battered student Miguel Parraiba.
“They strapped your hand into a machine, and the steel ruler beat your knuckles bloody.”
Father Juan, a priest in Asuncion, Paraguay, heard horrifying stories from shattered orphans about the convent and traveled into the jungle to investigate.
“When I spied on then later that night, I saw them goose-stepping around the convent and singing Nazi songs,” recalls Father Juan.
An elite army corps raided the convent, where they discovered a large cache of guns and explosives, along with Nazi literature and regalia.
“We’ve been able to establish that they were all high-ranking S.S. officers,” notes Police Sergeant Jorge Ciminado.
“Their leader was Colonel Klaus Van Roeppelgang, who was also their Mother Superior.”
Immediately on reading this, I imagined the germ of a story. An old man had gone to visit the grandson of his deceased best friend. The boy had been cared fro by his grandfather, but had been taken to an orphanage after his grandpa died. As soon as the friend arrives, the nine-year-old begins to complain about the treatment the children receive. “Abuelo, Sister Superior is so nasty. All the sisters punish us too much.” The old man gives the child the same argument he had gotten from his parents. (The same one I got from my own if I complained about my treatment in school.) “You must listen to your teachers. They are trying to help you grow up to be good people.” But when the old man looks at the scars on the child’s hands, he wonders. He thinks it over the bus home. When he gets back to Asuncion, he calls his parish priest Father Juan.
At this point, the ballooning of the story begins. Chases through the jungle. Neo-Nazis in high places. The lost gold of Paraguay. The investigation of the deaths of the real nuns who ran the orphanage before the Third Reichers took over. It all becomes too daunting, and my enthusiasm disintegrates.
And so my best-bet short form remains the brief essay. That’s why I enjoy writing blogs.