‘‘Aunty Misery’’ begins with these words: ‘‘This is a story.’’ This self-conscious opening seems redundant; readers are aware they are reading a story and hardly need to be reminded of that. However, the statement is effective in that it serves to elevate the fictional quality of the tale that ensues. No claim as to the story’s factuality is made; quite the opposite. The story itself is about a very, very old woman who lives all by herself in a tiny hut. Her life is not as bleak as it sounds, as there is a lovely pear tree growing right outside her door. The old woman loves the tree and spends all of her time tending to it. The pear tree is even described as keeping the old woman ‘‘company.’’ It is as if the tree is her friend (her only friend, for that matter).
The old woman is plagued by the children in her neighborhood. They steal the fruit from her pear tree and drive her insane with their antics. The children climb into the tree and shake its branches in order to harvest its fruit. Then they run off with almost more than they can carry. Adding insult to injury, the children shout mean epithets at the old woman. They make fun of her and call her Aunty Misery. Notably, while the narrator refers to the main character as an old woman, once the children refer to her as Aunty Misery, the narrator follows suit. The nickname also transforms the old woman from a person into a thing (Misery). Thus, the nickname’s power to depersonalize and dehumanize is also revealed.
A traveler, referred to in the story as a pilgrim, passes by Aunty Misery’s hut to ask for shelter for the night. Aunty Misery trusts the traveler because he has an ‘‘honest face.’’ She invites him in and cooks for him and makes him a bed by the fireplace. The next morning, as the traveler is leaving, he tells Aunty Misery that he would like to thank her for all that she has done for him. He intends to do so by fulfilling one wish. Aunty Misery replies, ‘‘There is only one thing that I desire.’’ Even without hearing what it is, the pilgrim agrees to grant the wish. Here, the narrator points out that the traveler is actually a powerful sorcerer dressed in a disguise.
Aunty Misery tells the sorcerer that she wants anyone who climbs her pear tree to get caught in its boughs. She says that they must remain trapped there until she gives them their freedom. The sorcerer tells Aunty Misery that he has granted her wish, and he touches the pear tree as he leaves her hut. When the children return to tease Aunty Misery and steal more of her pears, the old woman stays in her hut and spies on them from her window. Many children get stuck in the tree, and they beg to be let down. Aunty Misery allows them to cry and entreat her for a long while. She finally grants them their freedom, but only after they promise never to insult her or steal from her again.
Time goes by and Aunty Misery is no longer molested by the neighborhood children. She and ‘‘her tree grew bent and gnarled with age’’ as the years pass. Eventually, another traveler stops at Aunty Misery’s hut. He looks tired and worn out, so Aunty Misery asks him what he needs. The man tells her that he is Death and that he has come for her. His voice is described as ‘‘dry and hoarse, as if he had swallowed a desert.’’
Aunty Misery agrees to go with Death, but ‘‘thinking fast,’’ she asks Death if she can bring some of the pears from her tree with her as a keepsake of the joy they have given her. Yet, Aunty Misery points out that she is old and frail and too weak to climb the tree. She remarks that the best fruit is on the highest branches. So, she asks Death to climb the tree and retrieve the pears for her. Death agrees and heaves a sigh that is ‘‘like wind through a catacomb’’ (an underground burial site). But, like the children before him, Death gets stuck in the tree and cannot free himself. Aunty Misery has tricked Death, and even though he yells at her and bellows with rage, she will not release him.
Several years go by while Death is trapped in the tree. No one in the world has died. People whose livelihoods depend on Death are suffering, so they ‘‘began to protest loudly.’’ People do not go to the doctor anymore because they know they cannot die. No one buys medicine from the pharmacists for the same reason. The narrator also explains that ‘‘medicines are, like magic potions, bought to prevent or postpone the inevitable.’’ Undertakers are all, obviously, unemployed. Old people who have tired of living are unable to die and go ‘‘to the next world to rest from the miseries of this one.’’ Aunty Misery cannot die and is stuck in this world. But the only way to escape misery is to die. At the same time, (Aunty) Misery is keeping others from escaping misery.
Aunty Misery does understand the turmoil she has caused, and she does not want ‘‘to be unfair.’’ So, she agrees to free Death from her pear tree as long as he promises never to come for her. Death consents, ‘‘and that is why so long as the world is the world, Aunty Misery will always live.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Published by Gale Group, 2001.