My first encounter with Paulé Bartón’s folktales came in the unlikeliest of places: trawling through the deep wilderness of HTML on the back end of The Paris Review’s website. I was an intern, dutifully scanning the archive for stories that had stumbled on their way from print to the Web. Long before my time at the magazine, an error-prone computer program had been used to expedite the digitization process—a necessity for such a small staff and such a trove of pages. But the program occasionally made mistakes, and many stories and poems and essays, long forgotten to most readers, hung imperfectly online. The trick was to read a sentence on the page, then read the very same sentence on the screen, then return to the page. You could spend hours like this, swiveling your head, attempting to achieve parity between these warring formats, constantly searching for hiccups.
The discrepancies I found were usually minuscule: an extra space, a repeated word, an errant line break in the midst of a Merwin poem. There were those rare pieces, though, that looked like they’d passed through a cheese grater. Wading into the text, I’d find that every t had been replaced by an f, or vice versa; fhes and ots abounded. Spaces appeared at random, as though an ostrich had stood on the keyboard. Bartón’s “The Woe Shirt,” buried in the recesses of the Summer 1980 issue, was one such piece—or so I thought at first.
The story begins: “Bélem did tinker repair his bicycle by the stink-toe tree. Better to work there it smells so bad, work gets done no lazy quick.” I remember tracing these words with my cursor over and over, letting their music carve grooves in my head. What’s a “stink-toe tree”? Why the double verb in that first sentence? “Lazy quick”? And yet the printed page confirmed that all of this was correct, intentional. I read on. Despite initial appearances, most of it was intact. A few minutes later, as I arrived at the end, my eyes welled with tears. In the middle of a quiet, cold office in New York, in a matter of minutes, a Haitian folktale had leaped out of history, stolen my heart, and vanished. Read More