The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Punkin” by Dawn S. Davies

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You could say sentences are to words what good border collies are to sheep: Each take a disorganized group of individuals and compel them to do the collective bidding of their respective bosses. Both the author and shepherd would have a very difficult time without them.

But the analogy breaks down quickly when the discussion turns to goals—the author’s being meaning or effect (however they’re defined), the shepherd’s being, well, wool. In her flash fiction piece, “Punkin,” Dawn S. Davies (Literary Orphans, Issue 19) holds a tight reign over many different types of sentences, using subtle shifts to create the meaning and effect she’s after.

Davies begins the story—told in the second person—when Punkin, the protagonist, is born.

“Out you go. Your lungs rip open and it hurts and you bellow. The expanse of space in which you flail frightens you. Light sears. Your mother holds you, warms you, and when you are calm and quiet, your father receives you, looks you in the eye and calls you his Punkin.”

Short, brief understated sentences—“Light sears”—work wonderfully for action, as well as for reflecting the mental simplicity of a newborn’s perspective. On the other hand, Davies’s use of a much more complex sentence, full of commas, works great to show the warmth and relaxation of being in a mother’s arms. But notice how many times the conjunction and is used in both the sentence about the mother as well as in the much more stark, action packed compound sentence before it, “Your lungs rip open and it hurts and you bellow.”

I mention this because Davies, throughout the first three-quarters of this piece, leans heavily on and as a conjunction, which is important to the piece. While conjunctions like but, yet, so, and or tend to compare, contrast, or divide, and tends to set things side by side, suggesting an order or a reason to their being there, even a sense of togetherness, a belonging. Notice how Davies weaves this string of sentences in a similar way, mid-story, to create a pastoral scene.

“Your mother leads you stumbling and flapping outside. Your first steps are in the warm summer mud, to the barn where you smell the sweet dung and watch your father bending in the fuzzy light, crooning love songs to the cows, patting your mother’s rump softly as he squeezes past her in the garden. Your mother’s hands let go to the sound of your laughter. You eat and grow and play.”

There’s quite an innocence to that last compound sentence, isn’t there? There’s no sense of division. Any comparison or contrast is incidental. The word I’d use to describe it as a unity, or perhaps a lack of conflict on the sentence level. Davies is setting us up for this:

“The chickens start to smell, and the dull, sick light of the city begins to call your name. SO you pack your father’s old bag and leave in the dark, mud sucking your boots backwards, marking the trail for your parents to see in the morning. You spoil for something lavish, something deluxe and glimmering, and you find it in the throb of a new flock. You feel a rhythm, BUT also a twinge of desire, and it makes your throat tighten.” (emphasis mine).

Imagine how different this paragraph would read if Davies were to continue using and. We would no longer recognize her leaving home as being a direct result of her growing disgust with the chickens. Nor would we read that her throat tightening was the result of internal conflict, that tell-tale sign of a character coming-of-age.

The shift is subtle, but it has a gravity disproportionate to its size; in flash fiction, the writer must have tight control of their sentences, as everything operates on such a condensed scale. Davies shows us that she’s in possession of one hell of a border collie.