Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

Photo by Christine Dibble

Photo by Christine Dibble

Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend. What to believe. On the second day of their vacation, Lisa had put Ronny – barely three weeks old! – on the picnic table in his baby seat while she paused to apply sun cream to his soft, wrinkly knees…. “Happy Ronaldus!” Lisa straightened for a moment to apply some of Ronny’s protective cream to her own face. Up here in the mountains you had to be careful, the ultraviolet rays were more powerful.
Cody sat on a nearby rock, looking up at the pines, the fleecy clouds, and a black dot that was growing bigger.

I see so many threads running through this story: faith, religion, sex, danger, loss, family, human frailty. Yet I can’t get a firm hold on it, or organize it in a way that makes sense to me.

First, the word “raptor”. It’s not an uncommon word – technically, it’s any bird of prey, such as a hawk, vulture, eagle, falcon – but if a bird swooped in and flew off with a baby, I’m not sure I’d describe it as a raptor. I’d be more along the lines of “some big bird”. Given the religious twist of events, and the similarity of “raptor” to “rapture”, I have to wonder if it’s a symbol for divine plans. Or maybe it’s about finding rapture in various ways: in sexuality, booze, or intense religiosity. Maybe the word is just to link it all together linguistically. Even the playful family nickname “Ronaldus Magnus” reminded me both of medieval kings and popes, and of Seinfeld’s Festivus, at least until I discovered it’s an occasional right-wing nickname for Ronald Regan.

Then there’s the second sentence: “What to believe.” There’s some trick of narration there. Though five-year-old Cody was the only one to see the actual abduction, the parents saw the raptor flying away with Ronny, so they would believe the child. This is an outside narrator commenting with the view of those outside the family. And suddenly we’re in “The dingo took my baby” territory: ornithologists offering opinions about raptors’ capacities to carry off tiny babies, interviews for Cody and the parents. Although much of the story appears to be close third person from within the family, this more distant narrator introduces several crucial transitions, including a series of “Even if not for the raptor” examples of the changes that befell the family afterwards. But that early sentence left me a bit off balance.

Ronny found himself in a nest on a cliff ledge with two baby birds. Still looking up at the blue sky, inhaling the thinner, colder air, his cries competed with the screeks of his companions. Oh, he was hungry! As the blue air turned purple and then black and stars pricked the blackness and constellations whirled in the firmament above, he welcomed the warmth of the bodies next to him, and it was a comfort when the big, heavy body sat on him, with its stronger heat, its thicker feathers.
Ronny tired himself with crying and then fell into a doze, feeling the beats of hearts next to his. They beat very fast.

I felt a lot of distance between me and the characters. There’s a great deal of detail about their downward spirals. There’s also a great deal of caring going on: from the start when Lisa is careful to protect Ronny from sunburn with sunscreen, speaking to him playfully, to much later when Dan calls her in the middle of the night to ask if she ever thinks about him, even to Cory’s concern over his mother’s drinking. Yet it all felt so removed. No one ever become more than a fictional character. I wonder if I’m callous, or if that’s deliberate, a distant narrator’s analytical eye, seeing but not feeling, or at least not conveying feeling. I have to wonder, too, if this is dark humor, something I often miss completely.

When he fell, rolling into the open air, he felt surprised and, at the same time, affronted. What was happening to him?
Ronny bellowed headlong into a vast and hideous deep. There was no time to think of who could hear him. His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell.
Darkness in a hurtling tract, the rub of cold. His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was still untouched, his own.

The story deals with two time lines, one in the period immediately following the raptor’s theft sandwiched in between longer segments about the fourteen years that followed. I get the distinct sense that the timelines converge. Cody, having had his personal conversion experience and on a camping trip with the girl who brought him to Jesus, masturbates on the spot, perhaps, where Ronny fell out of the nest so long ago. The text is ambiguous. The end is ambiguous as well, though the idea of sudden danger – whether from his girlfriend discovering his nocturnal activities, or from a raptor, a feral Ronny, or a wild animal – striking without any warning, might be an obvious conclusion.

It’s that mention of will that really feels like I missed something along the line. Again, I end up back at religion. A major part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triad is that God has a purpose and we need to make our wills subordinate to his. Many Eastern religions advocate a release of desire to achieve happiness, or following a path set by the universe rather than taking matters into our own hands. But then, there are many people who are just aimless. Again, I’m not sure how any of this fits in, but I heard the note.

That’s really my overall experience with the story: I heard a lot of notes, but I can’t figure out what key we’re in.

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4 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

  1. As much as you felt you were struggling to put it together, I think you said a few things here that might have helped me to put this story together.

    This is a really good story, and here I’m about to nitpick: Do community college culinary students really live in dorms? I didn’t think community colleges had dorms. I thought the whole point of community college was to do it cheap and keep living at home.

    Prior to publishing this comment, I checked with the infallible Wikipedia, which says this: “Most community colleges in the United States do not offer on-campus housing for students. These institutions were established primarily to provide low-cost education for students who commute from their homes.”

    But still an excellent story.

    • I can’t speak for all community colleges, but I would tend to agree with you. I missed that reference, though I was pretty alarmed to read the girlfriend was majoring in “Intelligent design” at a Christian college. I did some googling on that, found some courses offered by Liberty University, but so far, no majors.

      Is there a WIHPTS in the works for this? I’d love to hear what connections you drew.

      • I did a mini-WIHPTS for it. It’s too good to really even ask the question.

        Your reading of it has really unlocked a lot of thoughts if I were actually going to do a exposition of it, though. There are two parallel passages that seem to me to unlock a lot of meaning. One is when Ronaldus Magnus is in his carrier: “…which allowed him greater freedom to experiment with his legs, kicking as if to climb into the expanse of blue.” The second is when Ronny is falling from the nest: “His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell…His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was intact, still untouched, his own.”

        I think the story is rooted in the notion that when God comes in the form of raptor/rapture, it takes us out of our comfortable lives. It forces us to struggle. Part of that struggle is against God, but even that struggle is more what we are meant for than what we are shaken from.

        Cody has a similar epiphany. He is seeking a spiritual rapture, but ends up in a physical, literal rapture when his penis refuses to stay down. It is kicking to climb up just like Ronny’s legs. There is always something in us which doesn’t love a wall, which wants to fight against the civilizing forces that would have us seeking traction.

        It’s just really solid writing. Some of the best writing from the perspective of theme in this year’s anthology.

      • We want rapture, but we want it on our terms. Ronny had the easiest transition of all of them – he had no way of knowing that regurgitated chipmunk pieces were disgusting, or that a bird’s nest is no place for a baby. Then again, he had no way of knowing how easily he could fall, either – which is why a bird’s nest is no place for a baby.

        Nice pivot from WIHPTS to HTPG.

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