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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Richard Plant’s “Flatland”

From Sudden Fiction (continued): 60 new short-short stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996)
(Not available online)

Landscape by Chary Hilu.

When a child dies, many marriages end in divorce. Such an event is horrible for both parents, and many times they each handle and process their grief in different ways. This story is a fine example of two people and their starkly contrasting views after losing their little girl. Each of the characters deals with their grief differently.

Opening: In the Pot, Already Boiling

This story begins in medias res or “in the pot, already boiling.” The story opens with Carol standing waist-deep in grass while John, her husband, quietly waits in the car for dark to fall. He asks himself (and the reader) “How did we come to be there?”

The opening lures a reader to read on to answer the question. After that opening, then the reader travels with them to find out why Carol ends up standing in waist-deep grass at the start of the story.

Names Used

John and Carol are common names who might represent any man and woman who find themselves in this sort of intensely painful situation. The daughter has a less common name, Samantha, fitting for a different and younger generation, and also perhaps suggesting her “specialness” to them (in contrast to their more common names).

The Setting

The setting is immediate. The couple is returning from Colorado. They have come down from the mountains and are now traveling in the Oklahoma panhandle–in desolate flatland prairie. The “real mountains” are 150 miles behind them and there are suggestions of those mountains here in the flatland, where great rock patches “would jut out of the prairie’s flat like the bony plates of buried dinosaurs.”

This setting seems to suggest the couple’s mental states… here there are juttings and hard rocks suggesting buried, extinct and hidden things, perhaps subterranean or unspeakable concerns. But right away the husband, John, sees this flatland as eventually “shrinking away” to “leave the horizon open.” At this point, we know why they’re traveling and the tragic event that sent them to Colorado. But we’re also introduced to a note of hope in this desolate setting… the husband imagines open horizons further down the road.

Back Story

They went to Colorado after the death of their small daughter (but we’re not immediately informed of how she died). In Colorado, they were treated gently, and Carol’s parents tried to make them happy. But now they are traveling back home, toward their now too-empty house. Carol is driving them through these flatlands. They will arrive in the dark and return to a dark house without their daughter. John is trying to imagine what they might do when they arrive home.

The National Park Setting & The Couple’s Contrasting Views

In the flatlands, there are no trees or mountains. There is only grass. John sees it as looking like “a monument to emptiness.” This image likely mirrors his present feelings/ mood. Carol can’t imagine anyone wanting to visit this desolate place.

John says he can see for miles around. Carol says there’s nothing to see. She says it’s “spooky” and accelerates. She wants out of that flatland fast. To John, the tall grass looks like trails through green walls—which suggests the maze he is in.

But he notes that “you couldn’t help but think of the places behind you, the places ahead.” Once more he sounds a hopeful note in that he senses he won’t always be at this low point in his journey. He is able to sense something ahead, too.

Then we’re told about their two-year-old daughter’s sudden and inexplicable death from fever. It took only two days from the start of her shivers to her death from this nameless disease. There was nothing anyone could do. There is just a brief mention of the death of their daughter, but the entire story centers around that terrible event.

Grass Symbolism

As they travel, the husband keeps smelling grass. Even the air “smelled warm and rich, like pasture.” On the trip home there seems to be a change in his mood/ feelings. He seems to be reawakening to growth and life again.

Avoiding the Birds

There are birds in this national park. Carol tries to avoid hitting them as she drives. With the first encounter, she changed lanes just in time. The event shakes her, and she slows down. She slows again later when there are more birds on the highway. The encounters with the birds keep happening. Then Carol thinks she hit one. She slows and claims, “There was this one little bird standing behind us on the road, then I saw it fall over.” This image suggests the daughter standing behind them on the road.

Carol is upset and when John presents her with a reason for the bird not being able to get out of the way in time she snaps, “A reason. I guess that makes it okay.” Carol slows even more, watching for birds. Her reaction suggests that any reason given for her daughter’s inexplicable death still wouldn’t make it okay, either. Children, like little birds, should be protected.

The elevation climbs slightly and they’re now driving along more cultivated areas. John points out the buildings, evidence of life and order, hoping it can help Carol relax, “maybe forget the little bird left in the road.” (And again, the reader thinks of the little girl left in the road of life.)

Then Carol hits another bird. She tries her best to miss it, but she hits it. She pulls off to the side of the two-lane highway and says to John, “You promised me they wouldn’t get hit,” and she strikes him on the chest. She says, “They ought to be safe here. They ought to have protection.” No explanation satisfies her and she says, “I don’t want to be responsible for any more.” She slams the car door and wades out into the tall grass.

The scene suggests again the loss of her unprotected daughter and her not wanting to be responsible for one more death, even the death of the birds. The association she makes between her daughter and the birds becomes clear without being stated. (A fine “show, don’t tell” strategy.)

At this point in the story, we’re back to where it began. We’ve traveled with this couple to discover why Carol was standing in that grass as her husband remained in the car waiting for dark. Darkness will help them avoid hitting the birds so there will not be another death to another helpless creature.

The wife is in the grass and the husband can’t tell “which sad thoughts she is thinking” or what is being resolved for her. She had to go her own direction, toward some solitude in the tall grass. He remains in the car but senses a peace descending in his own period of solitude.

Throughout the story, John is in tune with plowed fields, and smells of “plowed earth mixed in with the odor of grass.” Even in the car before his wife returns, he hears noises and senses “bent or broken grass hissing against the car’s hot chassis.” In this section of the story, there are at least fifteen mentions of grass. John also hears the chirrup of crickets. The landscape he experiences is no longer a monument to emptiness.

It is as if Carol had to hit those helpless small birds, that “ought to be protected,” in order to make some sort of sense or eventual acceptance of her daughter’s senseless death. Sometimes things just happen, in spite of our best efforts to prevent them from happening. And she had to sort it all out by herself.

The Story Ending

The story ends on a hopeful note. Carol will return to their car and John decides they could talk if she wanted. He decides that when it got dark, he would offer to drive them from there. He’s very sensitive to her need not to hit another small creature on their journey home. He will wait until dark with her and he will offer to drive them from there. With these sensitive thoughts and ideas, the reader suspects this couple will finally survive their horrible ordeal. They will take turns driving each other home again as each of them deals with their terrible loss. Sometimes they will deal with it separately and sometimes together. As John said earlier in the story, here in this flatland “you couldn’t help but think of the places behind you, the places ahead.” Soon the couple will be arriving home. Together.


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. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

About Richard Plant: A native of Oklahoma, Richard Plant is a professor emeritus at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, VA. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues, including New Orleans Review, Antietam Review, Weber Journal, U.S. Catholic, storySouth, and elsewhere, with reprints in Best Stories From New Writers, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and Sudden Fiction Continued.

Image: Landscape by Chary Hilu (contemporary). Mixed media collage. 50 x 70 cm. 2022. By permission. Chary Hilu is an artist and teacher of fine arts from Argentina, a member of the Association of Visual Artists of Argentina, and a graduate of the National School of Fine Arts. His works are conceived as a response to the sensations, feelings, and experiences evoked by extreme situations. Hilu created several works motivated by the pandemic, in which confinement, death, uncertainty, and fears appear. Through them he tries to express all the emotions that move him. In the collages he uses materials that he recycles. In his hands the materials are resilient. They acquire an expressive power that results from the combination of technique and emotion.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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