I head into the bakery. The matronly woman stands behind the glass display in a frilly white apron with a little hat on her head. Sugar dusts her upper lip. Eclairs, cheesecake, apple fritters, madeleines, and chocolate tarts take center stage. Tucked in the back, behind the fancy and glamorous, sits an unadorned angel food cake. And suddenly I’m thinking about my dad, because each and every birthday, he has an angel food cake. No gifts, no hoopla, just cake. He’ll have exactly one piece, topped with sliced strawberries, the foamy white cake blossoming red.
The cake and the immediate memories of my father bring to mind the 18th century philosopher and psychologist David Hartley, who came up with the Doctrine of Association. Hartley noticed that when we encounter two things in close proximity, we recall one of those things when we encounter the other. Writers use this tendency of the mind to link images together to generate a profusion of implications and associations. So when Proust’s narrator eats a madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, he suddenly remembers those Sunday mornings with his Aunt Leonie, who dipped her madeleine in her tea and offered it to him.
And this is the technique that sets up the stunning sentence in Callan Wink’s short story, “Breatharians,” which appeared in The New Yorker and the 2013 Best American Short Stories. In the story, a boy named August lives on a farm. His father lives in the new house on the hill, with his girlfriend. His mother lives in the old house, right below the new one. The old house is set back against a low, rock-plated hill, and because of a year-round spring that flows on the rock, the old house smells of wet leaves and impending rain. In the story, the barn is overrun with cats, and August’s father says he’ll pay August to kill the cats—a dollar a tail.
August heads to the equipment shed to look for a weapon. The shed is a massive structure made of metals posts and corrugated sheet metal. August likes to go there because when it rains, “it was like being a small creature trapped inside a percussion instrument.” Associating August with a trapped small creature is important, because when we encounter the cats (those small creatures) trapped in the barn, and mom, trapped in the dark, rain-scented house, we also conjure up August himself, a young boy, trapped between fighting parents, having to visit one house and then the other for nourishment and love. Wink makes sure the image of August as a small creature stays with us, with this stunning sentence, which is right after the one above:
The fat drops of rain would hit the thin metal skin in an infinite drum-roll, punctuated by the clash of lightning cymbals and the hollow booming of space.
So we sit in the shed with August, listening to the rain’s music. And we listen to the music in the sentence, which comes from assonance, the short “i” found in hit/thin/skin/in/infinite, and from the repeating rhythm patterns, with the two hard stressed words “fat drops” echoed in the hard stressed words “thin metal.” Another wonderful rhythm pattern follows with “skin in an infinite,” with the hard stress of “skin” followed by two soft stresses, which happens again with the word, “infinite.” The sentence lands on the word “space,” which sends the reader back to the word “infinite,” to hear the music all over again. And, of course, there’s the wonderful comparison of the rain storm to an orchestra.
I emailed Callan Wink, who lives in Livingston, Montana and works as a fishing guide, and asked him about this sentence.
“I like the way the image echoes August’s own status in the story,” says Wink. “And on a basic level, if you’ve ever been in a large metal building in a rainstorm, it gives you this strange feeling, at least it does me.”
“Was there a word that surprised you in this sentence?” I asked.
“I don’t regularly use words like ‘infinite,’ but in this situation, it seemed OK, used as it was in conjunction with space,” he says.
I asked Wink to pick out his favorite sentence from the story.
He let his fingers linger on the places where the wire cut into the trunks and then he knelt and sighted all the way down the fence and squinted into the strengthening light and imagined he was looking at a row of gnarled old people, the soft skin of their necks—the throat cords, the veins and esophagus—garroted by barbed wire, the twisted branches like arms raised, fingers splayed, trembling and clutching for air.
“I had this sentence in my head before I wrote the story,” says Wink, “or at least the image of the barbed wire embedded into the trees. I found a spot where it would work and plugged it in. I like it for no particular reason other than when I wrote this story I had been walking around the woods where I grew up in Michigan and this description of the trees strikes me as a decent portrayal of a scene I know well and can see—but with an edge of darkness/violence that suits the overall mood of the story.”
I like this elongated sentence, too, with the use of “and” that sweeps you along and won’t let you step out of the syntax until the ordinary images of trees and a fence transform into the disturbing, yet fresh image of gnarled old people, strangled by barbed wire.
In the bakery, the matronly woman says, “Can I help you?”
I point to the angel food cake.
– Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.