Weird #61: “The Little Dirty Girl” by Joanna Russ (1981)

Joanna Russ, author of How to Suppress Woman’s Writing, was part of the feminist science fiction movement, which ran parallel to second wave feminism. Ursula K. L Guin, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and Octavia Butler were each a part of this renaissance in women’s science fiction writing.

Women’s writing has been suppressed in one way or another since the dawn of science fiction, when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was falsely attributed to her husband Percy Byssche Shelley, yet women have always been writing in the genre. Russ’s most famous book explains the reasons they have not been given their recognition as often as they deserve.

The editors remark, ironically, that How to Suppress Women’s Writing led to a critical focus on her later literary criticism, with less emphasis on her earlier short fiction. While this may not exactly imply her short fiction has been suppressed, including “The Little Dirty Girl” in this anthology does help redress this overshadowing by her later career.

The characters in this story felt incredibly real to me. The narrator is a 40-year old academic with chronic back pain who, as the story opens, shoos away the neighbourhood cats with firm kicks that only seem to keep bringing them back. The cats’ personalities and the way they move are described in such vivid ways, you can imagine a real cat. In a passage whose significance becomes gradually more apparent, she describes the neighbourhood cats as they “venture from alleyways, slip out from under parked cars, bound up cellars steps, prick up their ears and flash out of gardens, all lifting up their little faces, wreathing themselves around my feet, crying Dependency! Dependency!”

In addition to her talent for describing nonhuman animals, Russ has a way of describing children with a vivid accuracy, whether they’re launching themselves downhill in wagons or admiring a garden toad named Mervyn. The children would presumably have no interest in her, which she is well conscious of, and the boys keep meeting her as she takes her walks. The girls, brought up feminine but wearing jeans with their hair ribbons, tend to stay away, however, except for one of them: the Little Dirty Girl.

She first appears beside her in the supermarket, pointing to a Milky Way chocolate bar and saying, “I like those.” She looks so dishevelled and neglected, her tone so lacking in the hope her hint will be actually be taken, that the narrator, moved, agrees to let her help her bring her bags back from the store. After, she tells her, “I’ll be back.”

The girl never reveals her true name, shouting at the narrator whenever she asks about it, insisting her name is “A.R.” after the initials on her handbag.

One rainy day the Little Dirty Girl shows up on her doorstep like a wet cat. Her clothes are soaked and she doesn’t have a raincoat. The narrator invites her in out of pity and the girl immediately marvels at the cheaply framed scientific photos she has in her home. “It’s so… sophisticated!” she says. Glimpsing her books and desk, she says, “It’s so … swanky!” They hit it off, and when she leaves, the narrator buys a dozen Milky Ways to satisfy her hunger.

Their relationship deepens as she takes LDG around town to the zoo, which she calls an “animal jail” and the rose gardens, a “plant hotel.” Her progressive politics and vocabulary mark her as unusually intelligent for an eight-year-old, and she seems to be getting even younger, more like five. As she cares for her, she even gives her a bath, making her the LCG—the Little Clean Girl.

However, when she asks her who her parents are and where she lives, the girl says the narrator would not like the answer. After she follows her to her house, the girl says, the lady who answers the door will say, “‘I haven’t got any little daughter,’ and then you’ll know I fooled you. And you’ll get scared. So don’t try.”

The narrator realizes she is dealing with a ghost—a very physical and real one that leaves behind dirty wet towels and scorch marks on her dress from “when she’d decided to play with the iron.” She vanishes for some time, returning during a storm without the poncho she was given. She is starving, skin and bones and soaked through. In short, she looks like she’s dying. The narrator, who thinks of the “pleading cats” again, takes her in, despite her being a “demon child” who can kill her if she doesn’t get what she needs. She gives her a bath, playing with her one last time, and they sing Hendel’s Messiah. That night, in her pajamas, the girl says she’ll never leave her and then simply vanishes the next morning, with her clothes fading as the day wears on.

The narrator’s meeting with her mother clarifies the circumstances of this haunting and what it means. The mother, who fought an illness when the narrator was growing up, always treated her with distance, while promoting the illusion they were one big happy family. Meeting up with her now, the narrator wants to be openly angry with mother for the first time.

However, the mother comes clean, admits they were never a happy family in the first place, and tells her she acted the way she did because she was misdiagnosed with cancer for years, and did not want to “burden” her with the truth. Her mother thought she was dying, and was “too scared to give anything” to her, while she closed herself off as well. Their reconciliation comes in a quick, tentative embrace, “not at all as I had embraced the Little Dirty Girl, though with the same pain at heart,”the narrator explains, “but awkwardly and only for a moment, as such things really happen.”

The narrator includes a photograph of the Little Dirty Girl in her letter to her anonymous friend (it’s an epistolary short story). As she announces in the last line, the photo is of herself as a child.

This revelation ties the story together in a powerful, psychologically revealing way. The narrator gives the Little Dirty Girl—who represents the neglect her mother showed her—the love and care she never received as a child. The wounded, older child mothers the younger version of herself. She is not being haunted by the dead, but by her own self and the reality of what happened to her, growing up. What’s more, the narrator must deal with the fear of taking care of someone who develops a dependency on her, which is the very fear her mother had. She confronts this latent fear first with the cats, then with the Little Dirty Girl, and heals.

These relationships are portrayed with such realism and truth that it invites one to look back on the history of the weird tale, from the more gothic stories of the early twentieth century onward, and acknowledge just how much weird fiction has evolved. The weird tale has been becoming increasingly realistic psychologically, and this story is an exemplar of that trend. The characters are believable, everyday people, and the haunting doesn’t come from sidereal realms in deep space but from the depth of one’s psychology.

Next week, I will read the second M. John Harrison story contained in this anthology, “The New Rays” (1982).

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