This week, Karen Russell of Swamplandia! fame has a new story in The New Yorker that unearths the self-deceptions beneath what we often think is love, and also unearths a body. In “The Bog Girl,” a teenage boy named Cillian digs up the 2,000-year-old body of a girl that has been perfectly preserved by a peat bog and then, with Russell’s classic flair for the imaginative and the creepy, falls immediately in love with her. The girl is beautiful, with red hair, a slight smile, and a noose around her neck. It’s love at first sight.
If you saw the Bog Girl from one angle only, you would assume that she was a cherished daughter, laid to rest by hands that loved her. But she had been killed, and now her smile seemed even more impressive to him, and he wanted only to protect her from future harm. The men kept calling her “the body,” which baffled Cillian—the word seemed to blind them to the deep and flowing dream-life behind her smile. “There is so much more to you than what they see,” he reassured her in a whisper. “I am so sorry about what happened to you. I am going to keep you safe now.”
The story calls up the Beautiful Dead Girl trope in TV and movies—tragically cut down in the bloom of life, easy to love because she can’t talk—and takes it a step (or several) farther. Cillian brings the bog girl home with him. He watches television with her on the couch. He takes her to school with him, carried in a sling, and the principal makes her an honorary student. She becomes instantly popular. (“How had Cill not foreseen this turn of events? The Bog Girl was diminutive, wounded, mysterious, a redhead.”) The 11th grade runs a clothing drive to get her some updated outfits. Cillian becomes popular by proxy, is suddenly cool for dating an older woman. The relationship is getting serious: “They didn’t need to say a word, Cill was discovering, to perfectly understand each other.” Cillian’s mother, Gillian, and her sisters become concerned about Cillian’s burgeoning love:
“You want to warn them,” Sister Abby said.
“But, Virgin Mother, there is no way to warn them!” Sister Patty finished.
“We were all sixteen once,” Cathy growled. “We all survived it.”
“Cillian is fifteen,” Gillian corrected. “And the girlfriend is two thousand.”
Russell balances the humor and the horror expertly. In one scene, Cillian carries the bog girl upstairs to his room, “nuzzling her blue neck,” and locks the door. His mother, downstairs, panics. What she should do? Knock down the door? Her son is growing up too fast! Russell sets it up so the reader can’t help but be simultaneously amused by the mother’s comedic distress and revolted by that fact the bog girl is dead, which, aside from other problems, raises definite issues of consent. In the interview that accompanies the story, Russell comments on this mix of the funny and the fearful:
And there is hilarity inside of terror, too—a giddiness that bubbles up in the face of the unknown, a hysterical response to some monstrous truth that requires ventilation. Howls of laughter and howls of terror aren’t so far removed from one another, I don’t think. Who was it that compared human laughter to dogs barking at the night? Sartre? Louis C.K.?
The most fascinating part of “The Bog Girl,” though, is its reflection on love. The story continually asks the question: does Cillian really love the bog girl? Can he if knows nothing about her, if they’ve never had a conversation? The bog girl, the beautiful, mute, agency-less bog girl, becomes the perfect embodiment of all Cillian’s wants and needs. So many of us in relationships—with actual living people—have done the same thing, haven’t we? Deluded ourselves that this one is The One, our perfect mate, projected all our dreams and desires onto him or her until one day we’re shocked to discover that they can’t fulfill us. They aren’t who we thought they were.
In typical Russell fashion, though, “The Bog Girl” doesn’t end in any expected way. Before its brilliant conclusion, the story has another twist in store. We won’t spoil it here, but we will leave you with this:
Was the Bog Girl a co-signer to this fantasy? Cillian had every reason to believe so. When he described his plans to her, the smile never left her face. Was their love one-sided, as the concerned and unimaginative adults in his life kept insisting? No—but the proof of this surprised no one more terribly than Cillian.