Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2020, Day 5: “Ozk” by Sarah Meehan Sirk

From The Dead Husband Project

The Dead Husband Project by Sarah Meehan Sirk

Sarah Meehan Sirk’s short story “Ozk” is about disappointment, filtered through the relationship between a daughter and her emotionally distant mother.

The story is narrated in the first person by Margaret, the daughter of Claire Gardner, an associate professor of physics (“Research fields: mathematical physics, matrix theory, nonlinear dynamical systems” – in other words, high-level, difficult, theoretical science that would baffle most other people). Claire’s daughter numbers herself among those unable to comprehend the higher reaches of Claire’s mind and its complexities: “I had no idea what she was talking about, but there was something in her movements, in her eyes flashing over her notes, in the way she sprung up to get more pop from the fridge, that I never wanted to end.”

More than just an average workaholic, Claire comes closer to being an obsessive, locking herself in her study for days on end and poring over mathematical formulae and theoretical concepts. (She calls her work “recreation,” as though it is a pastime or something relaxing, though it is in truth anything but.) It is in Claire’s passion for her work that Margaret is able to detect visible signs of engagement and interest, things that appear totally absent from the personal relationship between mother and daughter.

This relationship, as Sirk dramatizes it, is inverted: Margaret spends much of her time in the guardian’s role, taking her mother cups of tea and glasses of milk as sustenance while she is working, providing meals for the two of them and cleaning up household messes. Such messes are often of Margaret’s own making: she attempts to court her mother’s attention by acting out, at one point smashing a vase on the floor, at another point breaking a mirror. In neither case does she achieve the desired result of rousing her mother from her studies.

Indeed, Claire appears fully human only when it comes to strangers, such as the old man in a motorized scooter to whom she offers a ride in her car during a hard winter. After expertly breaking down his scooter and stashing it in the trunk (“It took my son three days to figure that out,” the man says), the interloper remarks on Claire’s kindness; her daughter reacts with abject wonder at the irony. It is the same irony that appears when Margaret looks at a picture of herself as a baby cradled in her mother’s arms during a snowstorm. “It could almost conjure images of the Virgin and Child,” Margaret thinks. “Almost.”

Margaret is twelve when Claire reveals to her what she has been working on so assiduously: she has apparently uncovered a formula that “would forever change electromagnetic spectrum theory and prove the existence of another colour.” Claire uses the neologism “ozk” as the name of the new colour and the designation for the complex theoretical physics that revealed it to her.

The story is narrated retrospectively, with the adult Margaret looking back at a childhood characterized, in her eyes, by a distant mother consumed by professional pursuits at the expense of closeness with her daughter, and a completely absent father. The most significant man in the story is Jack Springer, who is responsible for bringing Claire’s work to light after years of neglect. (Though it is never stated explicitly, Sirk makes an implicit critique of a systemic bias in the hard sciences wherein a woman’s work is ignored or denigrated until given the seal of approval by a man.)

Throughout the story, Sirk develops a contrast between monochromatic tones and colour in Margaret’s reminiscences. The story starts and ends with images of snow and winter, and the drabness of the season is matched by the darkness and shadows in Claire’s study, which become objective correlatives for Margaret’s inner state and present an ironic counter to the fact that Claire’s breakthrough involves colour – the very thing her daughter feels is missing from her own life. As a child, Margaret goes out to buy a Christmas tree but returns home when she realizes she has been unable to goad Claire out of hiding. “I watched the snow sparkle under the street lights as I kicked it up in puffs. White blinking with tiny shards of colour. Pink, blue, green.” Winter is associated in the story with Margaret, whose childlike wonder imbues it with flashes colour; her mother, by contrast, sees it as a mathematical phenomenon.

The tiny shards resemble the snow Margaret watched through her window as a child, hoping that her mother would remark on the beauty outside. “She didn’t, of course.” Where Margaret sees the subtle grandeur of nature that she longs to share with her mother, Claire notices only the precise trajectory at which the snow is falling: 13º to the perpendicular.

Though Claire is remote and maladroit in her relationship with Margaret, it becomes clear that this is not an anomaly. During a scene at a Christmas party for professors and grad students, the young Margaret observes her socially awkward mother refusing to look her colleagues in the eye and failing to engage in the common pleasantries or small talk that characterize this kind of casual human interaction. Once again, it is the daughter who must rescue the mother from the situation when she realizes the other adults are smirking at her and treating her with barely concealed derision.

There are ironies aplenty running through “Ozk.” As a graduate student, Jack manages to break through the condescension and dismissal of the scientific community to bring Claire’s work to light (the same work that she has spent decades perfecting); by the end of the story, Claire herself – the true genius – is reduced to a sickbed and unable to talk. Once her discovery is given its proper due, she is celebrated with headlines calling her “the mother of mathematics,” when all Margaret has ever wanted is for Claire to be a mother to her. Claire is hesitant to show her work to her colleagues because she believes that before she goes public her formula must be “beautiful” – the precise word Margaret longed to hear her mother use to describe the snow falling outside their window at home.

But the final irony is saved for the very last line in the story, a moment that returns to the beginning and the winter snow. It is here that Sirk pulls the rug out from beneath Margaret and reader alike, demonstrating that all along Claire had more investment in her daughter than anyone ever suspected. It is a beautifully poignant moment in a carefully constructed and moving story.

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