Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Peter Meinke’s “The Cranes”

(from Sudden Fiction (Continued) (On Symbol Use in Short-Short Stories)

Read the story.

Cranes in Dunes by Friedrich Lissmann

The careful use of symbols in stories can add valuable texture and interest to the pieces. Carefully used symbols can add meaning and even surprise to stories.

Some writers deliberately incorporate a symbol of some kind as they write. Other writers let the symbols arrive as they want to arrive– in the process of writing. In other words, they write the story and some symbol suggests itself to them and they claim it arrives “naturally.” Different writers have different methods. Whatever works best is the way it should be done.

Notice the cranes in Peter Meinke’s story, “The Cranes.” He could have written a story without them but the story would not have been as able to work its magic nearly as well. When I first read the story I read right over the clues the author provided. And while I did not notice the clues I did come to love the two characters in the piece. Their dialogue was so realistic and loving and humorous. It was as if I was eavesdropping on their intimate moments.

In my initial skim-read of the story I didn’t realize the significance of the shower curtain for the seats, the something for the ears, the towel, etc.– all important and carefully planted clues that I initially missed. But once that all came together for me, I felt deeply because I was, through Meinke’s artistry, intimately involved with these characters. Following are some other observations.

The man in the story (unnamed) points out that whooping cranes mate for life and that they live a long time. The cranes are rare things, creatures almost extinct, which suggests their similarity to the mated- for- life couple.

The word “whooping” is interesting too in that the woman in the story has some respiratory problem that makes her cough a lot. Her coughing suggests another commonality such as whooping cough or more likely some other serious lung disorder. But the connection is there and it’s highly effective.

Toward the end of the story there was a sudden squabble among smaller birds. The cranes “were stepping delicately away from the commotion.” Which suggests what the elderly couple has also done– they stepped away from the commotion of the world . . . to come to this place in their lives.

The title is also interesting. Simply, “The Cranes.” Who are the cranes in the story? The whooping cranes the couple is watching? Or are the cranes perhaps even the name of the couple in the story? We’re never actually told and it seems most effective that we’re not so that readers co-create the story in their interpretation of who the cranes actually are.

Then when the cranes suddenly “plunge upward”… “pointed like arrows toward the sun…” that’s when the full implication of what’s going on sank in. I didn’t hear shots but the sudden actions of the cranes helped me imagine the startling sound of the likely ending of the couples’ lives.

That final significant detail and symbol works beautifully in this story. That final detail makes the situation even more poignant. Meinke makes the reader “feel” with the sudden realization of what took place. The reader’s never really told what actually happened, but the previous clues provided along with the sudden movement of those cranes strongly suggests what took place. When that sank in with me, I felt it deeply. The scene suddenly became so personal to me. I felt as if I had suddenly lost two people I’d come to care about. But strangely that emotion was also soon replaced with another, by a feeling of hope as that couple joined the cranes and were themselves somehow shooting toward the sun.

Using the right symbol in a story really can add power to a tale, as Meinke’s story has most certainly shown. The skill with which he uses the various symbols and props is a learning experience in itself and worth exploring closely. Think of how the story could have been written (without the accompanying symbols) and think how much would have been lost without those symbols or props.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Peter Meinke: Peter Meinke (1932- )is an American poet and author from Brooklynn, New York. He was winner of 1986 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his work “The Piano Tuner.” His work has been widely published in the United States.

Image: Cranes in Dunes by Friedrich Lissmann (1880-1915). Tempera on canvas. 29.5 x 35.4 inches. 1911. Public domain.