Pushcart XL: Zebbie Watson, “A Single Deliberate Thing” from Threepenny Review, #139

It had been a long, rain this July and before that, a dry June. The pastures were brown, the grass chewed to stubs and coated in dust. The horses stayed in all day and if I tried to turn them out before dark, they stood by the gate and sweated and stamped. Most farms got the corn planted early enough that it grew shoulder-high and deep rooted, but the second cutting of hay would be late and small and the soybeans were doing poorly, their leaves chewed by the deer and withering on the stem. I was counting swallows and waiting for the letter from Kentucky that might let me know if you still love me.
There were more swallows that summer than I can ever remember seeing.…

Having just brought out James Cary’s “Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this” quote just two posts ago to defend the deliberate use of oddness in the service of meaning, I have to admit I can find no reason for the repeat of the word “chewed” in the first paragraph. I’m going to guess it’s to emphasize the narrator’s sense of being consumed by her own passivity, and it goes together nicely with the swallows who fit perfectly with the dryness. Lots of ingestion going on here.

It’s an almost classic structure of two parallel stories: a dying horse, and a dying romance. A little too on-the-nose for my taste, but I can see it as a fantastic teaching story. This is how you do it, how you show an inner journey by an outer story.

I’m quite taken with the theme line: “It was then that I realized I’d done nothing all summer but wait for rain, that I hadn’t done a single deliberate thing.” And of course, the story ends with a confounding deliberate act: a decision to not-know. I suspect that in the cool days of Fall, she’ll take the letter, still unread, out of the drawer and throw it in the trash. Then she’ll get another horse. At least I hope so.

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