WEEK ONE: Writing Empathetic Violence with Toni Morrison

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Infanticide is a horrifying violence, if not the most horrifying, a violence many writers would not attempt. Toni Morrison not only writes this horror, she leans into it, writing empathetic violence through the perspective of the perpetrator–Sethe, the mother–with tenderness, grief and later judgement delivered through the secondary character, her lover Paul D.

from Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she could never close in, pin it down for anybody who had to ask. If they didn’t get it right off—she could never explain. Because the truth was simple, not a long-drawn-out record of flowered shifts, tree cages, selfishness, ankle ropes and wells. Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe. And the hummingbird wings beat on. Sethe paused in her circle again and looked out the window. She remembered when the yard had a fence with a gate that somebody was always latching and unlatching in the time when 124 was busy as a way station. She did not see the whiteboys who pulled it down, yanked up the posts and smashed the gate leaving 124 desolate and exposed at the very hour when everybody stopped dropping by. The shoulder weeds of Bluestone Road were all that came toward the house…. (163)

In the above excerpt, Sethe confesses her murder of Beloved, her infant daughter, who has come back to haunt her. Morrison’s brilliances and nuances are too many to list at once, but let’s take a look at a few:

    • FOUNDATION: Earlier in the novel, the narrator shares Sethe’s trauma, abuse, rape and more at the hands of the “schoolteacher,” creating a landscape of violence against her in which her own subsequent violence against her child may be interpreted. It is important to note that Morrison never tells the reader what to think, but rather, provides a landscape in which the reader may individually contemplate.
    • CONFESSION: Sethe confesses her crime with a mother’s love, a mother’s grief and an escaped slave’s trauma and fear: “…she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized schoolteacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew….”
    • RIGHTEOUSNESS: Sethe provides righteous motivation, to save her children from a worse fate: “…over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe….”
    • JUDGEMENT: Later in this scene, Paul D. judges Sethe for her violence against her child. This provides the reader with a “moral ally,” a perspective through which the reader may judge Sethe even as the reader empathizes with Sethe in her impossible position as a traumatized, abused, raped and terrified mother desperate to save her children from the same fate.

What can we learn from Morrison’s mastery? Violence is a human quality present within even the most unexpected of perpetrators, a mother against her child. Violence is a quality present in our characters, no matter how “good” they are. Violence can sometimes be an ambiguous moral question and this ambiguity is a far more compelling exploration than overt, gratuitous violence. Violence can be written with a “tender” and lyrical syntax and diction, creating not only an irony within the language but also connectivity with the reader.  Understatement of violence centers the scene on the characters, immersing the reader far more deeply than overstatement.

Writing Exercise: Empathetic Judgement and Violence

Choose a character and scene from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and copy paste the scene into this new document so that you keep your original words. Explore the violent scene with both empathetic and judgmental perspectives using two characters, the perpetrator and a secondary character, such as in Morrison’s Beloved.  


Contributing Faculty

Rae BryantRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.

One on One Creative Writing Workshop

If you would like to share your narrative, post it to the discussion board below and share it with your course peers. If you end up expanding this narrative into a fuller work and would like written, individualized feedback on it, we invite you to join us for a One on One Creative Writing Workshop.

Redneck Feminism: Phallus-Plowshare and Woman-Furrow in Popular Good Ol’ Boy Culture with Rae Bryant

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” —Simone de Beauvoir



Put your boots on and get ready to dance. As “Boys ‘Round Here” opens, we see a long, green convertible round the street corner and making its way toward the camera. Shelton sings “Red red red red red red redneck…” as the long convertible pumps up and down, plowing the asphalt. Then Shelton makes his way to the same corner, but coming the other way, driving his big red truck. On the bumper is a phrase: “Well with others.” He parks and begins pumping and plowing the asphalt, mirroring the long convertible’s motions. Shelton and the men in the convertible — speculated to be rappers but are actually actors playing the part in the video — exchange admirations for each others’ pumping and plowing of the asphalt. They are all smiling wide at their vehicles pumping and plowing the asphalt street.

Cut to Blake Shelton reclining in a chair on his porch, boots kicked up and leaning on the porch rail. Pistol Annies stand to the side, one of them, Miranda Lake, his wife. Consider their position to Blake Shelton as he reclines on his chair, drinking his beer on the porch.

Later, during their focal scenes, they are positioned and costumed with a great deal of care. As with all great film, and yes, music videos, positioning and costuming of “characters” means a great deal in the subtext of the scene or sequence. What does the positioning and costuming of Pistol Annies represent for you as the viewer? Furthermore, in the below lyrics, you’ll find Pistol Annies’ backup lyrics. What response is conjured in you, as the viewer and listener?

Also, how might Marxist and critical race theories play significantly within the contexts of this video?

“Boys ‘Round Here” Lyrics

Songwriters: Craig Wiseman, Dallas Davidson, Rhett Akins

Red red red red red red red red redneck
Well the boys ’round here don’t listen to The Beatles
Run ole Bocephus through a jukebox needle
At a honky-tonk, where their boots stomp
All night what? (That’s right)
Yeah, and what they call work, digging in the dirt
Gotta get it in the ground ‘fore the rain come down
To get paid, to get the girl
In your 4 wheel drive (A country boy can survive)
Yeah the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Aw heck
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck
Well the boys ’round here, they’re keeping it country
Ain’t a damn one know how to do the dougie
(You don’t do the dougie?) No, not in Kentucky
But these girls ’round here yep, they still love me
Yeah, the girls ’round here, they all deserve a whistle
Shakin’ that sugar, sweet as Dixie crystal
They like that y’all and southern drawl
And just can’t help it cause they just keep fallin’
For the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Let me hear you say
(Ooh let’s ride)
Through the country side
(Ooh let’s ride)
Down to the river side
Hey now girl, hop inside
Me and you gonna take a little ride to the river
Let’s ride (That’s right)
Lay a blanket on the ground
Kissing and the crickets is the only sound
We out of town
Have you ever got down with a
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck?
Do you wanna get down with a,
Red red red red red red red red red red redneck?
Girl you gotta get down
With the boys ’round here
Drinking that ice cold beer
Talkin’ ’bout girls, talkin’ ’bout trucks
Runnin’ them red dirt roads out, kicking up dust
The boys ’round here
Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs
Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit
Red red red red red red red red redneck
(Ooh let’s ride)
I’m one of them boys ’round here
(Ooh let’s ride)
Red red red red red red red red redneck
(Ooh let’s ride)
Well all I’m thinkin’ ’bout is you and me, how we’ll be
So come on girl, hop inside
Me and you, we’re gonna take a little ride
Lay a blanket on the ground
Kissing and the crickets is the only sound
We out of town
Girl you gotta get down with a
Come on through the country side
Down to the river side


The Dixie Chicks took some heat for the satirical song and video, “Goodbye Earl.” Have they gone too far? How does the satire in this song and video compare to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? How do they use chiaroscuro in tone and context to heighten the impact? Does it change your view of the song, at all, to know that it was written by Dennis Linde?

“Goodbye Earl”

Songwriter: Dennis Linde

Mary Anne and Wanda were the best of friends
All through their high school days
Both members of the 4H club, both active in the FFA
After graduation
Mary Anne went out lookin’ for a bright new world
Wanda looked all around this town and all she found was Earl
Well, it wasn’t two weeks after she got married that
Wanda started gettin’ abused
She’d put on dark glasses or long sleeved blouses
Or make-up to cover a bruise
Well she finally got the nerve to file for divorce
And she let the law take it from there
But Earl walked right through that restraining order
And put her in intensive care
Right away Mary Anne flew in from Atlanta
On a red eye midnight flight
She held Wanda’s hand as they worked out a plan
And it didn’t take ’em long to decide
That Earl had to die, goodbye Earl
Those black-eyed peas, they tasted alright to me, Earl
You’re feelin’ weak? Why don’t you lay down and sleep, Earl
Ain’t it dark wrapped up in that tarp, Earl
The cops came by to bring Earl in
They searched the house high and low
Then they tipped their hats and said, thank you ladies
If you hear from him let us know
Well, the weeks went by and spring turned to summer
And summer faded into fall
And it turns out he was a missing person who nobody missed at all
So the girls bought some land and a roadside stand
Out on highway 109
They sell Tennessee ham and strawberry jam
And they don’t lose any sleep at night, ’cause
Earl had to die, goodbye Earl
We need a break, let’s go out to the lake, Earl
We’ll pack a lunch, and stuff you in the trunk, Earl
Is that alright? Good! Let’s go for a ride, Earl, hey!
Ooh hey hey hey, ummm hey hey hey, hey hey hey


Juxtapose the context (song lyrics) with the positioning of the subjects (singers). What comes up for you in your viewing and listening?

“Speak to a Girl”

Songwriters: Blake Anthony Carter, Dave Gibson, Joseph Spargur
She don’t give a damn ’bout your Benjamin Franklin’s, she wants Aretha
She don’t really care how you’re spending your money, it’s all how you treat her
She just want a friend to be there when she opens her eyes in the morning
She wants you to say what you mean and mean everything that you’re saying
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with the lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your Mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman and that’s how you speak to a girl
She don’t give a damn ’bout your pride or the lies that you’re hiding behind
She just wanna feel that you’re real, that she’s near to the man that’s inside
She don’t need to hear she’s a queen on a throne, that she’s more than amazing
She just wants you to say what you mean and to mean everything that you’re saying
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with a lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you speak to, speak to her
That’s how you speak to, speak to her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you get with a lady who’s worth more than anything in your whole world
You better respect your mama, respect the hell out of her
‘Cause that’s how you talk to a woman and that’s how you speak to a girl
That’s how you talk to a woman, that’s how you speak to a girl
 Wake up in the morning in the moonlight grey
We got dirt to break, we got a note to pay
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Wake up in the morning and plow to the end of the row

Down to the kitchen with my feet still bare
Children to the table, papa say a prayer
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Down to the kitchen, got to plow to the end of the row

Cornbread for breakfast, won’t ya boil the grinds
Got to cut the furrow ‘fore the sun gets high
Got to plow, plow to the end of the row
Cornbread for breakfast and I plow to the end of the row

Sun just broke out over the trees
I got a aching in my back and a tremblin’ in my knes
If the mule won’t pull then the plow won’t go
If the seed don’t set, crop won’t grow

Chickens to the market, seven miles to town
Gotta make it home ‘fore the sun goes down
Big storm coming, I can see it in the sky
Hope it don’t hit ‘fore the clothes get dry

I got rocks in my shoes, dirt in my eyes
Working like a dog til the day I die
You got to plow, plow to the end of the row
I got rocks in my shoes when I plow to the end of the row
My baby’s waitin’ for me at the end of the day
She likes to ball the jack in the sweetest way
Gotta plow, plow to the end of the row

My baby’s waiting’ for me so I plow to the end of the row
Wake up in the mornin’ in the moonlight grey
We got dirt to break we got a note to pay
Gonna plow, plow to the end of the row
Wake up in the mornin’ and plow to the end of the row

The Second Sex: Phallus-Plowshare and Woman-Furrow

In the H. M. Parshley, 1989 translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, the shift from matriarchal societies to patriarchal societies are explored through the Phallus-Plowshare and Woman-Furrow:

He wishes to conquer, to take, to possess; to have woman is to conquer her; he penetrates into her as the plowshare into the furrow; he makes her his even as he makes his the land he works; he labors, he plants, he sows: these images are old as writing; from antiquity to our own day a thousand examples could be cited: “Woman is like the field, and man is like the seed,” says the law of Manu. In a drawing by Andre Masson there is a man with spade in hand, spading the garden of a woman’s vulva.8  Woman is her husband’s prey, his possession. 

8. Rabelais calls the male sex organ “nature’s plowman.” We have noted the religious and historical origin of the associations: phallus-plowshare and woman-furrow. (1989)

The passage to which the #8 footnote refers:

Formerly, he was possessed by the mana, by the land; now he has a soul, owns certain lands; freed from Woman, he now demands for himself a woman and a posterity. He wants the work of the family, which he uses to improve his fields to be…. (1989, 78)

In the 2009 translation:

He wants to conquer, take, and possess; to have a woman is to conquer her; he penetrates her as the plowshare in the furrows; he makes her his as he makes his the earth he is working: he plows, he plants, he sows: these images are as old as writing; from antiquity to today a thousand examples can be mentioned. “Woman is like the field and man like the seeds,” say the Laws of Manu. In an André Masson drawing there is a man, shovel in hand, tilling the garden of a feminine sex. 12 Woman is her husband’s prey, his property. 

12. Rabelais called the male sex “the worker of nature.” The religious and historical origin of the phallus-plowshare — woman-furrow association has already been pointed out. (2009, 170-171)

The passage to which the #12 footnote refers: 

Formerly he was possessed by the mana, by the earth: now he has a soul, property; freed from Woman, he now lays claim to a woman and a posterity of his own. He wants the family labor he uses for the benefit of his fields to be totally his, and for this to happen, the workers must belong to him: he subjugates his wife and his children. He must have heirs who will extend his life on earth because he bequeaths them his possessions, and who will give him in turn, beyond the tomb, the necessary honors for the repose of his soul. The cult of the domestic gods is superimposed on the constitution of private property, and the function of heirs is both economic and mystical. Thus, the day agriculture ceases to be an essentially magic operation and becomes creative labor, man finds himself to be a generative force; he lays claim to his children and his crops at the same time. (2009, 86-87) 

On ne Naît pas Femme: On le Devient

“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (2009).

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” (1989).

In the 2009 translation of The Second Sex, the translators address la femme in the “Translator’s Note”:

One particularly complex and compelling issue was how to translate la femme. In Le deuxième sexe, the term has at least two meanings: “the woman” and “woman.” At times it can also mean “women,” depending on the context. “Woman” in English used alone without an article captures woman as an institution, a concept, femininity as determined and defined by society, culture, history. Thus in a French sentence such as Le problème de la femme a toujours été un problème d’hommes, we have used “woman” without an article: “The problem of woman has always been a problem of men.” 

Beauvoir occasionally — but rarely — uses femme without an article to signify woman as determined by society as just described. In such cases, of course, we do the same. The famous sentence, On ne naît pas femme: on le devient, reads, in our translation: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” The original translation [1989] by H. M. Parshley read, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”

What significance, if any, might this divergence in translations mean if viewed critically through a feminist/gender lens?


The Abridged Feminist Biography of Simone de Beauvoir with Cameos by Jean-Paul Sartre and Other Men

(A Very Short Introduction to Simone de Beauvoir Given at American University as Graduate Research)

Simone “le castor [the Beaver]” de Beauvoir was born in Paris, France, in 1908. When she was twenty-one, she went to the Sorbonne to study philosophy and the art of sexual politics with her contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre. “She was the youngest agrégée in French history,” taking second in exams only to Sartre’s first place. There is ongoing speculation as to who truly deserved the first place, but she continued to have sex with Sartre anyway. She even had sex with the people he was also sexing. It can be agreed by many scholars and critics that Beauvoir had a lot of sex.

In 1943, she saw published her first major work, a novel titled She Came to Stay. She dedicated the novel to Olga, a seventeen-year-old protégé with whom she was having sex and Sartre wanted to have sex but was rejected by young Olga and so he seduced and had sex with Olga’s sister, Wanda. A side note, for kicks: At the end of She Came to Stay, “the Beauvoir character murders the Olga character” (Menand).

For many years, Beauvoir continued to have sex with many people, not so much Sartre, anymore though, they wrote many letters back and forth about the sex they were having with other people  and the sex they imagined with other people. At some point, Beauvoir was dismissed from her teaching for having too much sex and writing about sex and socialism and women and equality and incomes of their own. The Nazis did not like her. Thankfully, neither the Nazis nor academia dismissed Sartre for having too much sex or socialism. That, of course, would have been ludicrous.

In 1949, Beauvoir saw published The Second Sex, written while Sartre was in a relationship with his latest lover, Vanetti, a French woman living in the US and to whom he proposed marriage. According to Louis Menand in his New Yorker article, “Stand by Your Man: The Strange Liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir,” this did not please Beauvoir, even though she was already having sex with Nelson Algren. Menand speculates that Sartre’s proposal to Vanetti was a “final push” against Beauvoir’s femme sensibilities, even though, Beauvoir had already rejected Sartre’s marital intentions years ago. An ongoing debate. The first US translation of The Second Sex was in 1989 by Howard Madison Parshley, a zoologist specializing in entomology and an avid fan of Beauvoir’s original text, though, his 1989 translation receives continued criticisms from Beauvoir academics as having cut too much of the text and leaving out too many female writers and their original citations. In 1983, “Margaret Simons informed [Beauvoir] . . . of the specific changes in the American text [and] Beauvoir responded . . . ‘dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me'” (Gilman).

The Second Sex was criticized as pornography and placed on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts, but nonetheless, became a bible of modern feminism. Four years after the first publication of Second Sex, a not-so-good translation appeared in the states. In 2009, “a far-more-faithful, unedited English volume was published, bolstering Beauvoir’s already significant reputation as one of the great thinkers of the modern feminist movement,” (Biography) sex and all.

Beauvoir was a preeminent thinker, writer, modernist feminist, a French resistance fighter, a U.S. Vietnam policy condemner, an abortion rights and women’s equality activist, and yes, she was a woman who had sex.

She died in 1986 and now shares a grave with Sartre in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Let’s just reflect, for a moment, on this.

In her fierce intellect and courage, we find in Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophies and actions not only the feminist ideals of the twentieth century but also ongoing gender ideologies to come. Let us end on perhaps her most famous words, On ne naît pas femme: on le devient. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (2009).

Redneck Feminism Creative Writing Exercise

Explore how one “becomes, woman [or man or transexual or androgynous….]. Consider the above works as well as works that are personal and meaningful to you. Explore your position within your society/community. Is your community primarily matriarchal or patriarchal? What would be the most important change you would make in your own community, if you could rewrite your community? What aspects of your community do you find beautiful and necessary? Now, re-write your society. Write yourself as your own subject/character.  How does your subject/character, nonfictional, fictional, poetic…. come to a point where they instigate change? 


Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Vintage  Books, 2009. 

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley, Vintage Books, 1989.

Blake Shelton. “Boys ‘Round Here.” Based on a True Story…, Ten Point Productions, Inc., 2013, YouTube, youtube.com/embed/JXAgv665J14.

Dixie Chicks. “Goodbye Earl.” Fly, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1999. YouTube, youtube.com/embed/Gw7gNf_9njs.

Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. “Speak to a Girl.” McGraw Music, LLC., 2017. YouTube, youtube.com/watch?v=FD-iFa5IjB8. 

Gilman, Richard. “The Man Behind the Feminist Bible.” The New York Times, 22 May 1988, nytimes.com/1988/05/22/books/the-man-behind-the-feminist-bible.html. Accessed 4 Sept. 2017.

Masson, André. Le génie de l’espèce (The Genius of the Species). 1942, drypoint and engraving, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Menand, Louis. “Stand by Your Man: The Strange Liaison Between Sartre and Beauvoir.” The New Yorker, 26 Sept. 2005, newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/26/stand-by-your-man. Accessed 2 Sept. 2017.

“Simone de Beauvoir: Journalist, Women’s Rights Activist, Academic, Activist, Philosopher (1908–1986).” Biography, 28 Apr. 2017, biography.com/people/simone-de-beauvoir-9269063. Accessed 2 Sept. 2017.

Toyen. Dívčí sen II (A Girl Dream II). 1932. zincography and aquarelle, The ART Gallery, Chrudim.


The Darling Clementine Project: A Novel in Progress

Chapter One: Skinning Beasties

by Rae Bryant


At sunlight, he sets the lawn chair and studies the hole in the ground, bends down and floods the hole with river water poured from the Budweiser bottles upended, one after another, until the black snake wiggles its way out and to the surface. He studies the snake’s languid curves as it glides toward a brush along the river’s edge. “Look at it go. A miracle.” The creature is seconds from imminent escape and he jumps up from the lawn chair and chases it down, steps on its tail with a Dickies steel-toed work boot. The black snake twists back on him and curls around his ankle. He hoots, hopping and shaking the creature loose then stomps it down. He picks it up, its black coils twitching and jumping, the creature like some long, dark, cold trophy he’s chased around the world and he holds its death in his hands like he’s earned it. And then the sky opens. The rain washes the creature’s red insides down through his fingers and into the earth. He turns to the girl standing close—skinny and thirteen with long blonde ponytails and a Patti Smith T-shirt, says, “If it were seeds, it might grow into something beautiful.” His look is ripe with loss. The house, the dealership, his family gypsy living in a conversion van parked too long on the Harper’s Ferry Campground. A mongrel look. Like he’s worked it all out to its end and now it’s going to be what it’s going to be no matter how much he’s got to stomp it into the ground.

“Don’t trample my roses. Damn it Bob.” Janis has a red bandana tied around her Clairol Blonde No. 1 grown out halfway to dark roots peppered and gray. Rosie the Riveter meets post-menopausal Blondie. She picks up a squat hummingbird candle votive, some flea market forget-me-not, from the picnic table and moves it to a better place at the center of the picnic table, an inch off center now but somehow it’s a perfect setting and Janis nods her head at it like setting a dog. Bob mutters something about the vulnerability of misplaced rose bushes and she points to his boots. He’s still holding the black snake draped between his hands and dancing a slow worm. He looks down at his boots. A single rosebud has disappeared beneath his right Dickie. He jumps on his left foot then backs up a step and kicks some soil onto the violated bud, its red petals spilt out of its sepal now and the stem bent over, broken and hiding in the earth.

“Sorry Pigeon.”

“That’s the third one this week.”

“Must be a sign. A trifecta.”

“Don’t start on that again.”

He drops his head and hands the black snake to Janis for cleaning then walks to the back of The Gipper. Bob found Gipper in the classifieds, a decommissioned campaign van. Gipper got its name because someone painted a giant, smiling Ronald Reagan face and American flag on each side of the conversion van, the eyes lit up and lofted like speaking to the heavens. Bob spent a good portion of the remaining cash and brought it home and christened it with a Budweiser all on the same day the foreclosure papers came from the Bank. Neighbors stood on their front lawns and peeked out their windows while Bob guzzled whiskey and sang the National Anthem, insistent that Janis and the girl cover their hearts in celebration. They needed road names and he took Dylan. Janis took Joplin. The girl, he decided, already had her road name. He and the girl thought it was funny. Drowning in debt. Janis scolded them for it and shepherded them all inside as soon as Bob completed his anthem and christening.

Bob opens The Gipper’s doors and rummages through the bright red Craftsman toolbox packed into the back. He takes out a filet knife still in its holster and attaches the holster to his belt. Then he takes out a pair of pliers and stuffs them in the back pocket of his blue jeans. He’ll fix it with a catfish. That’ll turn her venom to honeysuckle. He grabs the spinner rod and tackle box and hands the girl a white Styrofoam cup full of black soil and earthworms from the General Store. He waves the girl to his side and they make their way to the edge of forest and the last site with the dingy yellow canvas tents and tied down tarps molded but tidy like a forgotten military outpost. He says, “Who do you think lives in there? Something wicked I think.”

“Why wicked? You’re always thinking wicked.”

“Look at it.” He waves a hand at the dingy yellow tent as if a Godly proclamation.

It had become the girl’s job to challenge her father’s convolutions and proclamations. A right of passage, the daughter watching over her father’s derelictions like God’s angel over Moses. “Wicked says as wicked does.”

“Clementine. You need some vision. Imagine you put all your wicked into that moldy yellow tent. Shut it all in there and built a moldy force around it so it can’t escape without that mold and stink. Your wicked would stay put and if it didn’t, you’d know because you smelt it in the wind, your wicked walking around and free. There’s a function in that.”

“Put all your wicked in there and someone might wander in and find it one day.”

Bob raises his hands and spreads them out. “Bob’s House of Wicked! Yes mam. Hang a sign on it then the wandering’s on them.”

They could go on for hours. Janis tired of their philosophies months ago and left the girl to mind him one morning, after Bob had gone off for his early constitutional. They were a few weeks into their indigence and Janis had had enough. She said, I’m giving him to you now Clem. Gypsy blood. He never will sit put, no matter how glorious the chair and the home he’s built around it. There’s no cure for it. It’s as much him as his heart and brain and stomach. Taking it out of him would surely kill him. To love him means loving his gypsy too no matter how far and wide and deep the gypsy goes. Then she warned the girl. If her daddy has gypsy, she must have it too.

What if I don’t want to have it?

No one wants what they’ve got, darlin’. It’s the reason we’re here. Working out the not wanting.


They take the gravel path back through an edge of maples and poplars, the leaves on fire in orange and red, the gravel popping and crunching beneath their sandals. About half a mile in, the gravel thins out to mostly dirt and everything goes quiet except for the animals. Birds, squirrels, rabbits probably. Beasties.

On the left, they come to a rubble dam washed mostly away in the water. On the near shore is a concrete water intake and an overlook platform at the end of a giant L that juts out and into the water. A rickety wood and metal bridge connects the gravel road to the concrete and beside it, Bob finds a steep trail down to the water about ten feet or so. The girl’s sandals don’t have much tread and the path is slick. He starts down first, the rod perched over his shoulder. He tests his weight on a sizable rock stuck out of the earth then he stretches out his hand. “Don’t drop the worms Clem. They’re dinner.”

She holds tight to the small Styrofoam container and takes hold of his hand and they inch their way down the path till they stand firm on the shoreline and river rock. She’s cracked the Styrofoam and she curses. He says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.” She snaps it back. “My children are walking in the truth.”

Deep laughter. “Right you are girl. Right you are.”

“Why didn’t we just buy some bacon at the General?”

“Fishing is a righteous talent Clem. Every man and woman should know how to fish. It’s  self-sustainment. A practice. What would I be if I didn’t teach you self-sustainment?”

“I’d rather have the bacon.”

Bob takes hold of the girl’s shoulders and spins her to him and clips her chin with his hand too rough but the girl is used to it now. His eyes are blue backed with fire and brim. “We’re low. We have to make with what we can. All right?”

“All right.”

His eyes go back to normal and he lets go and the girl resists the urge to rub at her shoulders. He points to a spot on the ground and they sit. He takes the filet knife from its holster and cuts a clean edge at the end of the line then picks through different hooks in the tackle box. He chooses a smaller hook and tries to feed the clear thin line through the eye of the hook but keeps missing and hands the hook to the girl. She feeds the line for him and he shows her how to wrap the line over itself three times and feed it back through. He sucks on the knot so to make it slick then pulls the tiny knot cinching it down on itself. He says, “Find a good one Clem. Lively.”

She pokes a finger into the soil and holds up a pink and dinged earthworm that coils so slowly it might be dying. He tells her to keep looking. The next worm coils around her finger with some speed and strength and Bob tells her that’s the one. He hands the hook to her and instructs her on how to push the hook through, not too far, feed it through the body past the smooth band, out the other side and through again. “You have to wrap it a few times Clem. That way it won’t wiggle off.” She doesn’t want to do it. She tells him several times. He asks who’s going to feed her if she can’t feed herself? He’s not going to be around forever. What will she do then?

“I’ll eat berries.”

“You don’t even know which ones will kill you and which ones will give you the shits.”

“They all give you the shits.”

“Just do it Clem.”

She holds the worm between her fingers and pushes the hook into the smooth pinkish skin.

“Careful now. There you go. Out the other side. Make sure he’s on there good.” A pop and blood and pus and she makes a face and he tells her they’re worms. They can’t feel. He pushes the red button on the bobber and a tiny brass hook shoots out from the end. He cinches it about a foot up from where the worm dangles on its hook. Then he stands and holds the rod out for her to study. The worm, wrapped up over itself and through the hook twice, hangs over the still water and wags a slow curve back and forth below the hook. It might be heroic. She says a prayer for it. Bob swings the rod back and to his side and flips the point of the rod forward and lets go of the reel. The worm and red and white bobber cast out into the water and it’s surprising how quickly the line catches right and with the current. He hands the rod to the girl. Her first cast is short and the worm drops into the shallows. It comes up longer. It’s ripped through its skin.

“Go on. Do it again.”

The second cast is farther out into the current and the water takes the earthworm and bobber and the line strains against the tip of the rod and the tip bends a little to the right then straightens itself. He tells her to sit. It’ll be a while.

To the right, the concrete platform rises two stories above the shoreline, a gutted, haunted place. Six giant and rusted metal doors face the river current like they could swallow anything coming down river. Above the doors, a white sign reads WATER INTAKE in giant red letters. At twilight sometimes, the girl walks to the intake and sits on the top edge of that concrete platform and stares down into the fetid pool of water laid stagnant inside it for who knows how long. A person could easily drown, stuck down in all that murk.

Across the water, on the opposite shore, is a section of the C&O canal. Between the intake and the canal, a rubble dam makes its crooked seam across the river, the stone washed out and ruined in sections, parts of it holding the water back. Hard to see how far the drop over the rubble dam is.

Bob is talking about Byrne Island again. Byrne Island sets downriver a bit. Mostly brush and weed trees and remnants of skeletal foundations now. Before 1924, the B&O company held picnics with as many as five-thousand to six-thousand people at a time. Amusements a plenty. Swings, croquet, boating, music and dancing. In ’24 the flood washed away the buildings and the footbridge and the B&O wouldn’t spend money to refurbish it. Too many floods. So they moved the bandstand to Harper’s Ferry Town Square. “Someone should reopen the amusement park.”

“You said it keeps getting flooded.”

“Could work. If a person had the right plans for it. You want to tell me what happened at the General today?”

“Just wanted to hold it awhile. He won’t say anything. He didn’t see anything really.”

“We don’t take so close to home.”

“I said he won’t say anything.”

“Well. You make sure of it.”

Bob reels in his line and casts it out again and starts talking about cheeseburgers and wouldn’t it be a miracle if they could fish for cheeseburgers. What he wouldn’t give for a cheeseburger right now. He pulls the line in and casts it upstream a little and close to the shore where the inlet is deeper and the water is still. Long poplar branches hang out over the edge, making shadows on the surface. Three seconds after he casts there’s a jump on the line and he takes hold of the rod and explains each step, reeling then letting the line out, reeling and out then jerk and catch. An hour later, they climb the bank with a small catfish and two sunnies and Bob’s convinced he’s found the secret fishing spot of the universe. He’s saying things like, Ask and he will deliver. God’s everlasting spirit. The catch is so small, just babies, and she wants to throw them back.

“Can’t be picky now. Have to eat what we get. We are but God’s envoys of the food chain. An inherited flaw of privilege.” He starts back up the bank to the trail and she pauses and backs up toward the trees. She opens the Styrofoam cup and sprinkles the last of the worms and soil into a soft spot between two large roots rounded up and out of the ground. There are two live ones and one dead. The live ones wiggle on the surface and she pushes a fingertip down into the soft soil so to give them a start. She sits and waits for the worms to find their holes then she throws the dead one into the river for the fish. He yells down from the bank. “Come on. What’re you doing?”


The girl waits a minute, hunched over like she’s peeing in case he decides to check on her then she climbs the bank and grabs his hand and he pulls her up to the trail. He says, “What happened to the worms?”

“I dropped them.”

“Damn it Clem. We needed them for morning.”


“All right then. Let’s go.”


Janis is coating the sections of snake in flour and old bay. Bob walks to the back of the conversion van, pulling up the loose waist of his jeans along the way. He really should cut his hair. He fidgets with the silver braided wedding ring on his finger the way he does when he’s working something out. He takes a Philips head screwdriver out of the toolbox and moves to the picnic table with the catfish still hanging from the line. Janis has her head wrapped in a red bandana, she’s in work mode, and she’s putting up a fuss warning him to be careful with her table but Bob isn’t listening. He clears the tablecloth and the candle votive and slaps the catfish onto the picnic table. The catfish makes a thwack sound. It jerks and twists.

“Damn it Bob. I told you to be careful with my table. I made it nice.”

“Pigeon, I’ve got to clean these fish.”

Janis smacks him with a red and white dishtowel, the one the girl bought her last Christmas, and Bob chases her down and smacks her on the butt then he turns to the girl with serious business. “Clementine, I’m going to show you how to skin a catfish. If you can skin a catfish you can do anything.” He takes the screwdriver in his right hand and slams the point of it down into the catfish’s head and through to the wood and sticks the catfish to the table like that. It twists and thrashes, its head stuck with the screwdriver like a pinwheel. He sings, “Oh my darlin’…” slow and soft so no one but the cat and the girl can hear him. She stares at the screwdriver like she wants to yank it out and throw the cat back into the river with its brothers and sisters, but she just stares at the cat, thrashing around like that. It’s not dying. Its gills are gulping. It’s taking too long to die. “It’s just nerves Clem. It’s dead.” He pulls the needle-nosed pliers from his back pocket and holds the catfish by the tail and uses the pliers to carefully work the small hook from the its mouth and it might be a gentleness for how careful he wiggles and pulls at the hook. He says something about hooks being precious and the hook pulls free. He sets it to the side then grabs the pliers and grips the long barbed spine on the cat’s back and yanks the spine back a little. The spine and dorsal start to rip from the back and he says, “That’s what I want you to do. Rip the spine back just like that. Don’t get stuck with it now. It’ll hurt and your hand will go numb.” She takes hold of the pliers and the spine and yanks as hard as she can and the spine peels off with the skin in one smooth draw. The catfish twists and jerks. Bob takes hold of its body with his left hand and the filet knife with the right and finally cuts off its head just below the screwdriver and the body lays still as anything but the mouth at the end of that little piece of head keeps moving as if gasping for water. He laughs. “Well I’ve not seen that before.” Then he rolls the catfish over and cuts off the pectoral fins and spines and makes a slit up its middle and cleans out the guts. He removes the tiny bones and slices the skin from the meat with the filet knife flat on its side and pushed gently to the interior of the skin, slicing the meat away with smooth, elegant swipes of the blade. Bob has never been so elegant. When the meat lies in a neat pinkish pile, he cuts the tail from the skin and he lays them all together, as if a catfish puzzle put back together and she asks him why he cut the tail from the skin. The meat was already off. He says, “You do a job, you do it right and thorough. See that Clem?” He points to the six pieces of the catfish, the tail, the skin, the innards, the bones and meat in little piles beside them, the head with its mouth still gasping for water, and he says, “That’s a complete picture right there. You look at that and tell me God isn’t in it.”

Janis brings the bowl with some flour and Old Bay and a little milk mixed in and Bob drops the meat into the mixture. She complains she really should have an egg or two. She rotates the filets in the flour a few times and when the skillet is hot on the campfire and the oil is bubbling, she drops the breaded filets into the skillet. They sizzle and pop and soon smell so good the girl’s mouth waters and she feels bad for wanting to eat the catfish so much after the way Bob treated it. Janis throws in some snapped green beans and Bob opens three bottles of Budweiser and when they’ve all eaten and are sitting in their lawn chairs, watching the fire and the moonlight off the Potomac, he says, “Tomorrow I’ll find some work. Must be someone round here who needs an honest back. Right Clem?”

The girl sits with guilt in her belly and satiated like a sinner fresh off her righteous. Happy full but weighted with sin. Bob’s back is as honest as her hollowed out belly.

A train rumbles by then calls out its whistle from the cliff above them then there’s Blue sitting in an empty chair, come for dinner. He plucks some haphazard chord on his acoustic then stops before it makes any sense and starts up another chord. His John Lennon spectacles are up high on his head like sunglasses and his sun-bleached hair is back in a ponytail now. The Columbia University T-shirt he’s been wearing three days straight, maybe longer, is dirtier than it was this morning. Must have been hauling wood all day. The girl is looking at him funny. He says in slow West Virginian, “I won’t bite.”

 “Want a beer?”


The girl opens the cooler and grabs him an Old Milkwaukee dripping with ice water and takes one for herself. Bob and Janis are fussing over the tenderness of black snake. Blue starts to apologize for the day before. She must have been shocked.

“Not really.”

Blue throws back his head and laughs.

“Do you even know her name?”

“You probably have some ideas about me that probably aren’t true. Some of them you’d be right though.”

“Why were you spanking her?”

Blue looks over at Janis and Bob now bickering about whether to sprinkle more Old Bay or not. “She wanted me to.”

“She wanted you to spank her?”

“Sure did.” He smiles and takes a gulp then spills it on his chin and down his front when a slur of hoots rise up from the RV colony. Blue jumps up. “Here we go. Come on Clem. You can help me.”

Bob starts toward the RV colony with them and Blue waves him off. “It’s all right. I got it.” The girl follows Blue to his trailer for the ax then follows him to the colony. He’s mumbling about second one this week and the man’s got to be seventy-five. You’d think he’d be used to it by now.

At the base of Mr. Anse’s RV step is a timber coiled and deviling. Anse is twanging hootenannies, his tongue slipping like overcooked chicken off its bone, never quite staying in the right place and marinating so you can’t tell where the meat ends and the gristle and bone begins. Every once in a while he’ll pause and push out his red suspenders or push up his tan fishing hat and give you a chance to catch up a little. He’s a site. His whole left side covered in burn scars, a house fire he won’t talk about. Ash says he still shouts in his sleep sometimes. He’s a doozy. Local Harpers Ferrians for years have floated several myths, some not withstanding the apocalypse and risen dead. Mr. Anse starts another series of marinations that only Blue and Ash can understand. Ash, Anse’s grandson, is standing to his right and pulling nervously at his Ziggy Stardust T-shirt. He has a stick in his right hand and is trying to poke the timber away but the timber just keeps snapping at the end and settling back on Anse.

Blue grabs the wood ax out of Mr. Anse’s hand. “Ash,” he says, “Back up boy. No sense getting bit.

Blue studies the timber coiled up and rattling hellfire now. It rises up and slow on its coils. Mr. Anse is whispering some marination and Blue says, “I’m going to bring this ax down on the count of three Anse. And you get out the way when I do it. All right?” 

“Wellallrightson. Getontoit. ‘Forthistimbereatsme.”

On three Blue brings down the ax and Mr. Anse jumps a sidestep and there lay the two halves of the timber, head to tail, the mouth snapping at its own rattle still going. Blue studies the two pieces a moment then he brings the ax down a second time just below the head then a third just above the rattle and picks the rattle up and hands it to Mr. Anse. He slices a gulley in the dirt and kicks the timber head into it and covers it. With Bob’s black snake that’ll make two serpents for dinner. Janis’ll be happy.

“Wellillbe. Lookatthatfinething.” Mr. Anse shakes the blood from the little piece of tail and rattle then shows it to Ash and Ash grins big and gives it a go. The rattle sounds like it never stopped. Anse grabs it back and stuffs it in his pocket and pulls at his suspenders. Blue and Ash collect the pieces of timber and carry them to his camp where they skin it and cut it into sections. Mr. Anse recites the flora best for smoking timbers—chestnutoak, blackoak, northernredoak, chestnutoak, easternhemlock, redmaple, blackgum, floweringdogwood, mountainlaurel, blackhuckleberry, BlueRidgeblueberries, deerberry, mapleleaf, silvermaple, sycamore, greenash, cottonwood, whiteandgreenash, tulippoplar, bitternuthickory, hackberry, sugarmaple, Shumard oak, spicebush, pawpaw, Americanbladdernut and Americanhornbeam—and it makes like a rhythm. When he’s listing things is really the only time you can sort of make out what he’s saying. Blue and Ash start stepping to Anse’s beat, all three of them dancing around as they skin the timber then Blue hands the timber to Ash and Ash walks it over Janis and she slices the timber pieces into smaller into fritters and covers them in the same flour and Old Bay she used for the black snake and the catfish then cooks them all up in a skillet over the fire. Ash and the girl snap some green beans. Mr. Anse is proud. He makes sure everyone has a timber bite. Says sharing your near death with your neighbors builds an everlasting kinship.

Janis is wearing lipstick. Red. She hasn’t worn lipstick since passing through Parkersburg months ago. They stopped at a bar and had a sandwich and beers, the girl ordered a Shirley Temple. It was the last of their good cash, Bob kept one of the checkbooks handy. That night, Janis wore her red lipstick and made a point of kissing everyone around the pool table on the cheek with her red lips. It was the last time she really laughed. Drunk laughed, but at least she laughed. The girl sits and studies her red lips, now, trying to work out the occasion. Is it the meal? Two snakes and a catfish are bountiful gifts.

She motions to the empty lawn chair. “Sit with us Clementine. Be sociable.” Ash throws a hand up, stupid grin on his face. He changed his Ziggy Stardust T-shirt for his Let’s Dance T-shirt. Washed his face and hands. He might be cute if he wasn’t so stupid looking. Sean Penn-ish with a little work.

“Be nice Clem.”

“I’m being nice.”

By the time the whiskey comes out Bob and Mr. Anse decide to look for work together in the morning and by the time the whiskey is gone they’ve decided everyone should save up and rent a cabin for the winter, somewhere along the river. Blue runs to his trailer and comes back with a fresh stash and Bob decides the kids should join in for their first official tokes. To commemorate everlasting kinship. Janis tries to argue but Bob asks how she can argue with nature, the seed of the earth. He puts up a finger, meaning wait a minute, he’s going to be brilliant any second. He shuffles quick over to Gipper and opens the back then brings out his personal Bible. He searches through his highlighted passages and finally, everyone watching, he puts up a finger again. Brilliance has arrived. “Essene Gospel of Peace. Book I. Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. You see?” he says. “A God given right.” Bob starts into a Woody Guthrie version of House of the Rising Sun and Janis quiets. Once he starts to singing, the matter’s done. Before long he decides he should have a God given bath and strips down to his worn, stained briefs and sandals, still singing House of the Rising Sun. An Iacocca quote is written in faded black Sharpie across his droopy briefs in tiny girlish letters: If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you got. Janis argues as he walks to the water’s edge. Ash and Clementine take giant tokes then grab flashlights and follow Bob like ducklings to the water and line up on the bank behind him in his Iacocca briefs. His arms and legs are thin and pale covered in a sheen of dark hair from midway down. Red blemishes on his back and back hair straggled out below his shoulders. Janis scolds him again. He’s going to get pneumonia and isn’t this a fantastic sight for his daughter? Bob stops singing. He turns on her and he’s twisting the braided wedding band on his finger again. There’s a hollow in his chest like his momma pulled a piece of him out at birth. “Pigeon. I’m going to take this here bath and that’s all there is to it.” His skin glows sickly pale against the black of the water stretched out before him. Janis argues they can’t see the far bank and he could drown. She’s right. The water is black and the sky is dark. The far bank might not be there at all. It might have disappeared for how dark it is. Flecks of flashlight catch shallow ripples of current flowing toward the shore or rather toward Bob like he’s calling the water to him. He chucks his sandals and pauses a moment then bows his head in prayer and Janis is scolding him still but she might as well be mute. Everyone is trying not to laugh too hard so not to offend Janis’ stern display of reason. Then Bob walks out, chin raised up and feet padding along the surface of the water as if wetted stone. Janis quiets. The laughing stops. And it isn’t so much a miracle as an inevitability. He’d been trying to tell them all along. He told the bank and the credit card companies and the gasman and the telephone man and cable companies and Delilah at the General Store. A miracle was coming. Bob twists around and faces them, his witnesses, and stretches his arms wide and smiles. He’s beautiful. He says, “I told you. God’s work.”


Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared or will soon be appearing in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. She has a Bachelors in Humanities from Penn State with a concentration in Eduction and English Literature and minors in Art, History and Philosophy. In addition to her Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins, she completed graduate coursework in Curriculum and Administration at Penn State. She has been teaching and lecturing for over twenty years in campus classrooms and at writing conferences. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC and CLMP and is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.