Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Middle Shelf Story: Kij Johnson's "Ponies"

The invitation card has a Western theme. Along its margins, cartoon girls in cowboy hats chase a herd of wild Ponies. The Ponies are no taller than the girls, bright as butterflies, fat, with short round-tipped unicorn horns and small fluffy wings. At the bottom of the card, newly caught Ponies mill about in a corral. The girls have lassoed a pink-and-white Pony. Its eyes and mouth are surprised round Os. There is an exclamation mark over its head.

The little girls are cutting off its horn with curved knives. Its wings are already removed, part of a pile beside the corral.
I have a theory that usually draws howls of protest when I voice it: No matter our age, profession, or position on the dubious strata of class, we will always face the same social dynamic we did in junior high.

You may start howling now.

Okay, okay, I know I'm overstating things. Virtually no one over the age of twenty-five will get his lunch money pilfered or face daily ridicule based on bad puns about his name. (Thank goodness. With a name like Loren Eaton, I faced more than my fair share of teasing.) The crassness of the early teen years bleeds away with time, but you know that beneath all the niceties and the thin veneer of respectability exists two groups -- the in-crowd and the outsiders, those who belong and those who want to. C.S. Lewis rather brilliantly discussed the phenomenon in his essay "The Inner Ring," and Kij Johnson does much the same with her piercing short story "Ponies."
Barbara says, "Do you know what you want to keep?"

Sunny’s tiny wings are a blur as she hops into the air, loops, and then hovers, legs curled under her. "Oh, being able to talk, absolutely! Flying is great, but talking is way better!" She drops to the grass. "I don’t know why any Pony would keep her horn! It’s not like it does anything!"
The way it works is simple. Girls have Ponies, real-life embodiments of the My Little Pony ideal, petite candy-colored unicorns who have tiny wings and can talk. Pretty amazing equine abilities -- and what a shame they don't get to keep them. See, at a certain age all Ponies go to a party where two of the three things that define them get cut away so that their owners can gain some social standing. The Ponies get to chose, and Barbara's Pony Sunny has already decided what she'll give up for the sake of the girl she loves. The very thought makes Barbara queasy, but she doesn't know the half of what it costs to blend in.
And then it’s time. TheOtherGirls and their silent Ponies collect in a ring around Barbara and Sunny. Barbara feels sick.

TopGirl says to Barbara, "What did she pick?"

Sunny looks scared but answers her directly. "I would rather talk than fly or stab things with my horn."

TopGirl says to Barbara, "That’s what Ponies always say."
Incidental detail. That's the stuff that moves a story from the "tell" to "show" category. Johnson excels at it. She instantly informs us as to the age of Barbara's peers by describing the "puffy letters" that spell out Sunny's name on the cutting-out-party invitation. She draws attention to the overcommitment of the social group to which Barbara aspires by describing how TheOtherGirls are "at school and cello lessons and ballet class and soccer practice and play group and the orthodontist's." Even that unique typography plays a role, moving every character except Barbara into archetype territory. There's SuckUpGirl, EveryoneLikesHerGirl, and (of course) TopGirl. This willingness to let the reader do his own emotional legwork proves particularly effective near the end. No spoilers, but you can guess from this simple little summary that things don't end well, right? Personally, the climax makes me feel physically sick every time I read it, and the final line fills me with impotent rage. Not at Johnson, for she's pulled off the best sort of literary magic trick, but at the whole imbecilic popularity game. Barbara will learn what the rest of us already know: Belonging isn't worth the price you have to pay.

You can read "Ponies" for free at

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