This is a really fine little story, and amazingly you can actually find it on the internet, here. It’s less than eight pages long, so it’s a quick read, and if you like what I say about it you can read it in fifteen to twenty minutes. The story also has a Wikipedia entry, but I’m going to give it a lot more depth.
The story is told in first person through a character only identified as Signor Tenente, which in Italian translates, “Mr. Lieutenant” or perhaps “Sir Lieutenant.” There are two characters in the story, both laying at night in a tent—which may be a hospital tent, it’s not clear—awake listening to the artillery fire in the distant. It’s during World War I on the Italian front. This is one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, a group of stories around the character Nick Adams, who in many respects is an alter ego of the author. Signor Tenente is Nick Adams. Given this comes from a story sequence, we know more about the character from the other stories than is told in this story.
Let me fill in that backstory. Just as Hemingway in his real life, Nick Adams joins the Italian Army to fight in WWI. This was before the United States entered the war and was the only way Hemingway (and presumptuously Nick) could join the fight. Hemingway and Nick are both seriously injured in the war, both physically and emotionally traumatized, and spend time recuperating in hospitals. This life experience is also fictionalized in Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises. The scene in the “Now I Lay Me” short story is where Nick, post injury, is recuperating. It is night and he is afraid to go to sleep because he fears “his soul leaving his body.” He had the sensation of just that when he was injured, and now because of his emotional trauma he senses his soul leaving permanently if he lets it.
The story is divided into two parts. The first part is a mostly expository section where Signor Tenente trying to stay awake at night describes the various mental exercises he performs to keep himself from dozing off. The second part is a dialogue with the man in a bed beside him, John, who also cannot fall asleep. John also is an American, but an Italian immigrant to Chicago. He too joined the Italian Army to fight in the war. It should also be noted that the title, “Now I Lay Me,” comes from the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die when I'm wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take,
Here’s the opening paragraph, setting up the situation.
That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silkworms eating. The silkworms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.
I had different ways of occupying myself while I lay awake. I would think of a trout stream I had fished along when I was a boy and fish its whole length very carefully in my mind, fishing very carefully under all the logs, all the turns of the bank, the deep holes and the clear shallow stretches, sometimes catching trout and sometimes losing them. I would stop fishing at noon to eat my lunch, sometimes on a log over the stream, sometimes on a high bank under a tree, and I always ate my lunch very slowly and watched the stream below me in the back yard while I ate. Often I ran out of bait because I would take only ten worms with me in a tobacco tin when I started. When I had used them all I had to find more worms, and sometimes it was very difficult digging in the bank of the stream where the cedar trees kept out the sun and there was no grass but only the bare moist earth and often I could find no worms. Always, though, I found some kind of bait, but one time in the swamp I could find no bait at all and had to cut up one of the trout I had caught and use him for bait.
Sometimes I found insects in the swamp meadows, in the grass or under ferns, and used them. There were beetles and insects with legs like grass stems, and grubs in old rotten logs, white grubs with brown pinching heads that would not stay on the hook and emptied into nothing in the cold water, and wood ticks under logs where sometimes I found angleworms that slipped into the ground as soon as the log was raised. Once I used a salamander from under an old log. The salamander was very small and neat and agile and a lovely color. He had tiny feet that tried to hold on to the hook, and after that one time I never used a salamander, although I found them very often. Nor did I use crickets, because of the way they acted about the hook.
Sometimes the stream ran through an open meadow, and in the dry grass I would catch grasshoppers and use them for bait and sometimes I would catch grasshoppers and toss them into the stream and watch them float along, swimming on the stream and circling on the surface as the current took them, and then disappear as a trout rose. Sometimes I would fish four or five different streams in the night, starting as near as I could get to their source and fishing them downstream. When I had finished too quickly and the time did not go, I would fish the stream over again, starting where it emptied into the lake and fishing back upstream, trying for all the trout I had missed coming down. Some nights, too, I made up streams, and some of them were very exciting, and it was like being awake and dreaming. Some of those streams I still remember and think that I have fished in them, and they are confused with streams I really know. I gave them all names and went to them on the train and sometimes walked for miles to get to them.
That is some of the most beautiful writing you will ever read in prose. That’s Hemingway the prose master at his best. Notice too how the salamander faces a similar trauma as the character thinking about him, a crippling wound. After the fishing memories, we hear how Signor Tenente keeps awake praying for every single person he has ever known.
But some nights I could not fish, and on those nights I was cold-awake and said my prayers over and over and tried to pray for all the people I had ever known. That took up a great amount of time, for if you try to remember all the people you have ever known, going back to the earliest thing you remember—which was, with me, the attic of the house where I was born and my mother and father's wedding cake in a tin box hanging from one of the rafters, and, in the attic, jars of snakes and other specimens that my father had collected as a boy and preserved in alcohol, the alcohol sunken in the jars so the backs of some of the snakes and specimens were exposed and had turned white—if you thought back that far, you remembered a great many people. If you prayed for all of them, saying a Hail Mary and an Our Father for each one, it took a long time and finally it would be light, and then you could go to sleep, if you were in a place where you could sleep in the daylight.
On those nights I tried to remember everything that had ever happened to me, starting with just before I went to the war and remembering back from one thing to another. I found I could only remember back to that attic in my grandfather's house. Then I would start there and remember this way again, until I reached the war.
From remembering the wedding cake in the attic, Signor Tenente’s memory jumps to an incident where his mother cleans out the basement and in an effort to dispose of what she thinks is useless stuff, burns to ashes her husband’s collectables.
About the new house I remembered how my mother was always cleaning things out and making a good clearance. One time when my father was away on a hunting trip she made a good thorough cleaning-out in the basement and burned everything that should not have been there. When my father came home and got down from his buggy and hitched the horse, the fire was still burning in the road beside the house. I went out to meet him. He handed me his shotgun and looked at the fire. "What's this?" he asked.
"I've been cleaning out the basement, dear," my mother said from the porch. She was standing there smiling, to meet him. My father looked at the fire and kicked at something. Then he leaned over and picked something out of the ashes. "Get a rake, Nick," he said to me. I went to the basement and brought a rake and my father raked very carefully in the ashes. He raked out stone axes and stone skinning knives and tools for making arrowheads and pieces of pottery and many arrow-heads. They had all been blackened and chipped by the fire. My father raked them all out very carefully and spread them on the grass by the road. His shotgun in its leather case and his game-bags were on the grass where he had left them when he stepped down from the buggy.
"Take the gun and the bags in the house, Nick, and bring me a paper," he said. My mother had gone inside the house. I took the shotgun, which was heavy to carry and banged against my legs, and the two game-bags and started toward the house. "Take them one at a time," my father said. "Don't try and carry too much at once." I put down the game-bags and took in the shotgun and brought out a newspaper from the pile in my father's office. My father spread all the blackened, chipped stone implements on the paper and then wrapped them up. The best arrowheads went all to pieces," he said. He walked into the house with the paper package and I stayed outside on the grass with the two game-bags. After a while I took them in. In remembering that, there were only two people, so I would pray for them both.
Finally the man sleeping in the next bed beside Signor Tenente starts up a conversation. The gist of the ensuing dialogue is about family and money and especially marriage. John insists that Signor Tenente get married and have a family. Signor Tenente is ambivalent on the surface, but underneath we suspect that his trauma has caused him to be repelled by the thought of emotional engagement that marriage requires. After all, the very memory of his parents was that of a marital disconnect that ruined his father’s precious personal items.
So what is this all about? How do the fishing, the prayers, the burning of his father’s items, and the discussion of family, money, and marriage hold together?
The key here is the setting of the injured man laying down praying while dreaming of fishing bya stream. This creates an allusion to the Fisher King myth, a meme in western culture that originates in the early tales of the Arthurian legend. From Wikipedia:
In Arthurian legend the Fisher King, or the Wounded King, is the last in a long line charged with keeping the Holy Grail. Versions of his story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin and incapable of moving on his own. In the Fisher King legends, he becomes impotent and unable to perform his task himself, and he also becomes unable to father or support a next generation to carry on after his death. His kingdom suffers as he does, his impotence affecting the fertility of the land and reducing it to a barren wasteland. All he is able to do is fish in the river near his castle, Corbenic, and wait for someone who might be able to heal him.
John tells Signor Tenente the means to healing the wound, fertility: marriage and children. But Signor Tenente very means to psychic recovery has been compromised. He is wounded in the legs and groin; he is left impotent. He now is the petrified animal. The story is of the struggle for Signor Tenente to heal from his trauma.