Continuing with “The Moves Lit Journals are Looking For” series, up next: The Gettysburg Review, published by Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Established in 1988, GR, which publishes four issues a year, claims that their
…most important criterion is high literary quality; we look for writers who can shape language in thoughtful, surprising, and beautiful ways and who have something unique to say, whatever the subject matter or aesthetic approach. We have very eclectic tastes, but are highly selective, publishing only two percent of manuscripts submitted to us annually.
Interestingly, they advise potential submitters to familiarize themselves not with the journal’s content, but with its submission guidelines.
Alice Stinetorf’s “Where the Killdeer Lies” appeared in GR’s 2016 Autumn issue. Perhaps this story’s most impressive features are its use of the omniscient point of view, and the conceit it uses to establish that standpoint, a motif of descriptions of birds and their behavior. (Jonathan Franzen, literary birder extraordinaire, is jealous he’s never had this idea.) This motif is used as a lens to examine the trajectory of a delinquent son and its impact on the marriage of his parents.
At the story’s outset, we’re told that Sandra and Clive Hayworth don’t care about red-bellied woodpeckers or birds of any kind as a prelude to a description of that woodpecker having wings with a pattern resembling a zebra’s. By the end of the first page we have learned, via a description of the sounds different birds make, that the Hayworths are a family in crisis. They’re seeing a therapist to deal with their 19-year-old Zane, whom they still see as the child who used to raise rabbits for the county fair. The counselor wants them to get Zane to sign a contract to agree to certain terms for his behavior. We get exposition about Zane’s sudden falcon-like “swoop” into delinquency when he was brought home by the owner of a store for shoplifting. Through a comparison to a house sparrow who steals, we learn that Zane then progressed from shoplifting to charges for vandalism, drinking, and drugs. The counselor advises the family to do something together, so they return to the same library where Zane saw the flyer about raising rabbits when he was a kid, and this time find a flyer for a birding club. When presented with the behavior contract, Zane signs it without a fuss. Clive and Zane build birdhouses together, reminding Clive of when they used to build rabbit hutches. Later Clive and Sandra work on their therapy worksheets, inadvertently quibbling in the midst of reminiscing about Zane’s childhood. The first time Zane’s rabbits gave birth, the mother killed all the babies in the night and Clive cleaned up the mess before Zane woke up. At a birding meeting, they discuss how the mockingbird’s cry sounds misleadingly like other things. For a month, things seem fine with Zane, who works in a gas station a town over to pay his parents back for his court fees, but then he starts coming home increasingly past curfew; when they finally confront him he claims to be working late. They lie to their counselor that Zane is passing his drug tests when they haven’t actually been testing him. Both Clive and Sandra have seen Zane breaking contract rules without telling the other. Because they erroneously believe their communication with each other has improved, they continue to look the other way when Zane’s claims and activities become increasingly suspicious. Then one day, cops show up at the house with a search warrant, finding drugs and the makings for drugs in the shed where all Zane’s old rabbit stuff is stored. Zane is arrested. Clive and Sandra cancel their counselor appointments, claiming their marriage is better than ever. Clive cleans out the shed while Sandra cleans out Zane’s room. They’ll stay in the house and try the things they were bad at, pretending these things are going well.
The major way the story’s conflict works is that the primary source of tension seems to be Zane’s delinquency, but this source really reveals the larger source of tension—the marriage—when Sandra and Clive fight over how to deal with Zane’s delinquency, then bond over their shared decision to ignore the signs that the problem is continuing. Stinetorf employs the bird motif by describing birds’ habits when they are similar to what the humans in the story are doing at that point, but she takes this a step further when she starts to contrast myths people believe about certain birds with scientifically established facts about them. This contrast is setting us up for the fact that Zane is lying to his parents, a setup which is underscored by this passage describing the birders’ experience of mockingbirds:
When the man finally saw and heard the bird in tandem, it was not yellow and olive and white. It was gray, slender, with white bars upon its wings. It was a northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, the king of avian deception. The Feathered Friends each have a story along this line. Yellow-billed cuckoo? Scratch that, mockingbird. Louisiana waterthrush? No, mockingbird. A car alarm whooping and blaring and shrieking in the morning hours? Mockingbird.
Another primary aspect of the story developed through the bird motif and underscored by the mockingbird passage is the use of sound, which emphasizes the problematic dichotomy between sound and sight: Zane looks like he’s obeying his parents, but he’s not. Stinetorf establishes tension by showing the reader that Zane is lying while simultaneously showing us the parents’ refusal to acknowledge this lying. The use of omniscience helps further establish this. We know what’s coming, we know Zane is lying, but the tension is raised by this knowledge because we want to know when and how Clive and Sandra’s bubble will be burst.
The bird sounds lead Stinetorf to describe other sounds, which are used to accentuate the main conflict:
The pull chain of the ceiling fan says t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh, clicking against the glass light fixture as the dusty blades turn.
This passage is not just pretty but pointless description; it’s then used to heighten the tension when Sandra and Clive start to have a disagreement (it also nicely sums up the dual conflict of Zane’s delinquency and its impact on the marriage):
‘‘And I wasn’t,’’ he counters.
‘‘Well, you had a tone,’’ she says.
T-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh. Clive feels shut down, pissed off, hurt, but Lauren McCulloch keeps reiterating that learning how to communicate is a matter of trial and error, injuries and healing, and he is shelling out twenty-five dollar copays twice a week to hear these things, money he can’t really avoid to spend on top of all that has been drained into Zane’s criminal fines and court fees and attorney.
Stinetorf likely could have shown us Zane was lying without full-blown omniscience, but in a story where the main conflict concerns a marriage, omniscience is a nice tool to provide both the partners’ perspectives, both when they diverge:
Dance lessons were out because Clive’s sense of rhythm only kicked in when he was refinishing hardwood floors. ‘‘You’ll end up angry and making fun of me,’’ he said. Sandra knew he was right but denied it.
Cooking lessons were out because Sandra hated venturing outside her culinary comfort zone. She liked roasts and pot pies and pork chops as entrees. She liked green beans and mashed potatoes and stewed apples as sides. ‘‘You’ll get embarrassed of me,’’ she said. Clive knew she was right but denied it.
And when they converge:
Clive and Sandra feel they are communicating better than ever, perhaps because neither knows of the luxuries the other is indulging in.
He tells them that his manager needs him to cover some night shifts in coming weeks. Another new hire did not work out so well, and Zane has proven himself dependable. Myth: owls can see in total darkness. Fact: Clive and Sandra have opted for total darkness in this matter. They should drive to the next town over when Zane claims to be working overnights. They should not trust the cash he now gives them without showing them his pay stub.
This is marked as an important moment by the Fact and Myth not applying to birds exclusively anymore, but now crossing over to encompass Clive and Sandra.
Stinetorf is actually employing selective omniscience, as any author, save perhaps Tolstoy, necessarily has to—omniscience by definition means knowing everything, but “everything” is too much for the reader to know. The reader needs to know what’s important. What’s important in this case is the state of the marriage. Hence, we get to know that Clive and Sandra are both looking the other way regarding Zane without the other knowing, but we don’t get to know what Zane is actually doing the nights he comes home late and claims to be working. We don’t need to know, because we intuit: he’s doing cliched delinquent teenager things.
As for the bird motif, it’s important to note that Stinetorf hasn’t chosen birds as a lens/point of comparison arbitrarily, as it might seem from the opening paragraph; birds become relevant to the plot itself when the characters start going to birding meetings. It’s also important to note that omniscience is required to use the bird motif to the extent Stinetorf does. She could have referred only to info about birds that the characters themselves knew or heard, but this would detract from the richness of the comparisons. But upping the ante with the descriptions and exploring a marriage are not the only reasons omniscience is the best choice for this story; as explored through the myth/fact dichotomy, how much one knows or doesn’t know is one of the story’s major themes and plot engines. The story’s sweeping scope of awareness contrasts with and thereby underscores Sandra and Clive’s joint lack of awareness, makes the reader feel it more, rendering it more tragic. It seems perhaps most important to note that the story’s content—delinquent teenager impacts naive parents’ marriage—could potentially be cliched or uninteresting; it seems like a story we’ve heard before. But through the lens of the birds, Stinetorf has provided us an entirely new way of looking at this subject matter. The lesson: it’s not what story you’re telling that matters, but rather how you tell it—or rather, show it.
Of the roughly twenty major passages that use the bird motif, not including minor comparisons like a character bobbing his head like a pigeon, the three passages that invoke the titular killdeer provide a general idea of the transitions Stinetorf uses:
Clive says that surely a literal ink-on-paper contract isn’t necessary. Sandra says that surely Clive doesn’t have his head buried that deep in the sand.
Myth: ostriches bury their heads in the ground when frightened. Fact: the killdeer, Charadrius vociferus, known too as the chattering plover, scratches its shallow nest right into the ground. Technically a shorebird, the killdeer scrapes its nest into Ohio’s golf courses, parking lots, gravel driveways—senseless human milieus far from any shore.
Defending one’s young is a nearly universal instinct. Myth: mother birds will refuse to feed their babies if a human handles them. Fact: when the killdeer’s scraped nest is threatened, the bird feigns a broken wing and dashes away, on foot, to distract would-be predators. The male red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, turns positively Hitchcockian during mating season. It will attack horses. It will attack humans. Conk-a-ree-onk, it will sing, then peck and peck its victim’s flesh until blood renders it a red-beaked blackbird.
In the garage, side by side, Clive and Zane construct birdhouses.
She folded her arms around him, wishing they were bigger, wishing her arms were soft wings that could swallow him whole.
The three-ounce killdeer puffs its chest and charges straight at any half-ton cow that might accidentally trample the nest, screeching kill-deer! kill-deer! killdeer! until the bewildered behemoth changes course. Sandra, upon learning this strategy, thinks it absurd, then perfect. Perfect. She could have paced in circles around the house before the swoop began, around Zane’s car, around his desk at Batavia High, screeching Hay-worth! Hay-worth! Hay-worth!
Meaning: This is my son. Leave him be. Don’t hurt him. Don’t lead him astray.
Out of all the birds mentioned in the story that the title could have been taken from, the killdeer seems to have been chosen for the possible multiple meanings of “lies”: literally lying down, lying in wait, and telling lies.
The bird-comparison motif is one of the most original craft elements I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not just the motif itself that is impressive, but its execution. This could have been done poorly or felt like a trick for a trick’s sake, but instead it deftly enhances the emotional power of the story. As her descriptions of the rabbits also shows, it’s the specificity and precision of the details that help pull this off:
He brought home a Best of Breed trophy for his sablepoint mini rex and the Best in Show trophy for his agouti Jersey wooly.
Interestingly, Stinetorf doesn’t end with a bird comparison. Instead, she returns to something non-bird-related mentioned earlier, the things each spouse was so bad at that they avoided lessons/classes/clubs about it, opting instead for birding. At the end, Sandra and Clive get the consolation prize of their improved marriage; they will now try the things they’re bad at that they wouldn’t before, with the troubling question/implication that lying might be an improvement:
She will teach him how to dance, if poorly. He will try to make curry, and she will pretend to enjoy it.
While they weren’t willing to pretend about these things before, they were willing to pretend about Zane, while now that they should have realized they were wrong to pretend about Zane, they’re willing to pretend about these things. The ending then, is bittersweet, as any realistic end should be.