Introducing “What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” by Edith Pearlman


I first read Edith Pearlman’s “What the Ax Forgets the Tree Remembers” when considering it for the Abnormal Issue of Ecotone, in which it found its first home. I remember being excited by its boldness, made to feel uncomfortable at moments, and ready to fight for it to appear in the pages of the magazine.

At the time, I was twenty-three, in UNCW’s MFA program, and feeling a little out of my league. I was also dating a woman for the first time, and coming to terms with my sexuality. Reading Pearlman’s complicated characters felt almost essential to me, and the story’s ending stayed with me long after—a piece of wisdom I’ve often returned to.

The story follows fifty-year-old Gabrielle on a path of self-discovery after she uncharacteristically volunteers for the local chapter of The Society Against Female Mutilation, an organization that hosts testimonial-driven seminars in church basements and hotel meeting rooms. A petite and attractive woman, Gabrielle “was without her high-heeled shoes only in the bath.” Before her sudden philanthropy, her only responsibilities in life included her concierge job at The Devlin Hotel and the “half-crippled aunt back in Pittsburgh” she visits annually.

After two marriages, Gabrielle devotes her welcome single life to her looks; she bikes to work, dresses well, and maintains a stylish haircut. She’s undergone a hysterectomy to do away with the “nuisance” of a period. But upon joining the Society Against Female Mutilation, Gabrielle finds herself truly helping others, maybe for the first time. Here she meets Selene, a woman who shares her testimony with the group, describing the pain of sex and childbirth after her ritualistic surgery, a procedure that her mother and her mother’s mother underwent in Somalia when they were her age.

Selene’s quiet and gracious presence affects Gabrielle. They become friends, and later, something more. Selene imparts the proverbs that become the story’s threads, as well as its title, the very wisdom that perhaps helps Gabrielle when things begin to change.

Pearlman’s description of the human body is precise and strange, and her characters equally so. Perhaps part of me liked Gabrielle’s simple life from the beginning of the story; maybe I was envious of her straightforwardness. By the end, though—and each time I reread the story—I’m jealous of Pearlman’s ability to create wholly Gabrielle’s world. A master of the short story, she pulls me in again and again, and each time, I’m surprised and made uncomfortable, and I look for someone else I can show it to.

Sally J. Johnson,
Ecotone Managing Editor