At the beginning of the 20th century W.W. Jacobs, a former post office clerk turned short story writer, published an anthology of his work — The Lady of the Barge. It was a collection of three types of stories: the misadventures of sailors ashore, celebrations of artful dodgers in slow-witted villages, and what were called ‘tales of the macabre’. Included in the collection was The Monkey’s Paw.
It’s the story of the White family — Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert — who receive a visit from Sergeant-Major Morris, a villager who’d recently returned after 21 years spent in the British Army in India. Morris regales them with tales of “wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.” Mr. White had heard something about a mummified monkey’s paw.
“It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,” said the sergeant-major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
Morris tells how he’d obtained the paw from its original owner. “I don’t know what [his] first two [wishes] were, but the third was for death.” He refuses to discuss his own wishes, but suddenly throws the paw into the White’s fireplace. Mr. White retrieves it over the Sergeant-Major’s objections. Later, Herbert encourages his father to use the paw and make a wish. Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds, the amount needed to pay of their home.
The following day Herbert goes to work at the nearby factory. The wish of the night before is forgotten. That evening a man from the factory arrives with the unfortunate news: Herbert was caught in the machinery and killed. The factory “admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services, they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.” It’s 200 pounds, of course.
Ten days later, after the funeral, Mrs. White insists her husband use the monkey’s paw to “wish our boy alive again.” He’s reluctant, but eventually gives in. Later that night, there’s a knock at the door. Mrs. White wants to answer it; her husband resists. She breaks away from him, he finds the monkey’s paw and “frantically breathed his third and last wish.”
The knocking stops. Mrs. White opens the door.
A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
Why am I telling you about this 120-year-old story? Because yesterday, the House impeachment managers had a monkey’s paw moment. They wished for the power to call witnesses, and that wish was granted. But the wish came with an enormous price for interfering with fate.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny (or any other unchangeable, predetermined course of events) but I’m not innocent. I knew — we all knew — Republicans would vote to acquit Comrade Trump, the most mendacious and corrupt being ever to inhabit the White House. Evidence didn’t matter. We knew that. And most of us knew that if the Democrats used the monkey’s paw, there’d be a price to pay.
I wanted them to do it anyway. Almost everybody I know wanted them to do it anyway. When they didn’t call witnesses, most of us immediately assumed the Republicans played tough and the Democrats caved — because that’s been our experience. But in fact, we were all Mrs. White, wanting to resurrect the mutilated body of her dead son. We could have had witnesses. Maybe witnesses for weeks. Witnesses testifying to Trump’s appalling behavior. It would be so satisfying. It would be…well, profoundly stupid. No competent lawyer wants to put a hostile witness on the stand, even under oath. The risks are too great.
And now we’ve learned the Republicans threatened to filibuster Biden’s appointments and the Covid relief bill (and probably everything on the Biden agenda) if the House managers called witnesses. To call witnesses would have born out the fakir’s warning: those who interfered with [fate] did so to their sorrow. Even though I don’t belief in fate, I believe Jamie Raskin did the wise thing; he threw the monkey’s paw back into the fire.
And so things happened pretty much as we all expected. Senate Republicans did what we knew they’d do. It wasn’t fate, but it’s close enough that it makes no difference. Raskin didn’t use the monkey’s paw again; we didn’t get the 200 pounds to pay off our mortgage. But at least we didn’t end up with a ten-day-old mutilated corpse on our doorstep. So there’s that. Plus, the fact that seven Republicans showed a degree of honor and decency by refusing to follow the GOP lie is actually a sort of victory.
But lawdy, that mummified monkey’s paw is still awfully tempting.