Trilobites by Breece D’J Pancake, 1977
The magic trick:
United the setting and narrator as one
We’ll be looking at stories from the late Breece D’J Pancake. He died young, and in such a case, it’s easy to get cynical and wonder if the only reason we’re here looking at his work nearly 50 years later is the sensationally tragic nature of his biography.
But I believe the few stories he published during his lifetime do hold up as powerful and unique, regardless of his own sad personal life.
“Trilobites” is probably the most famous of the bunch, published in the Atlantic in 1977, two years before he shot himself.
It is straightforward and not particularly subtle in its symbolism. But it’s powerful as such. The narrator is trapped in a love-hate relationship with his home. He longs to progress into adulthood, yet he’s terrified of change. His girlfriend is moved to Florida. His mother is selling the farm. Everything is changing, and instead of embracing it all as a chance for happiness, the narrator only feels like life is pulling the rug out from under his feet.
It’s a life-in-a-small-town trope, but it’s very well-executed here. The setting and the narrator become one – united and trapped forever.
And that’s quite a trick on Pancake’s part.
I stop my tractor on the terraced road to the barn, and look back across the cane to the creekbed. Yesterday, Trent said the bottoms would be filled with dirt. That will put the houses above flood, but it’ll raise the flood line. Under all those houses, my turkles will turn to stone. Our Herefords make rusty patches on the hill. I see Pop’s grave, and wonder if the new high waters will get over it.
I watch the cattle play. A rain must be coming. A rain is always coming when cattle play. Sometimes they play for snow, but mostly it is rain. After Pop whipped the daylights out of me with that black snake, he hung it on a fence. But it didn’t rain. The cattle weren’t playing, and it didn’t rain, but I kept my mouth shut. The snake was bad enough, I didn’t want the belt too.
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