“I Won’t Kill It. I’ll Just Surprise It.” Corey Sobel on the Impact of Writing Physical Action

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One hot, fine summer morning, a group of pre-adolescent boys flits to the outskirts of Sweet Water, Nebraska. Splashing through sand-bottomed creeks and tramping over lush meadows, they come to a faded, bumptious, yet appealing white house that sits on the crest of a hill. The house belongs to the Forresters, and the boys get permission from their beloved Mrs. Forrester to fish and have a picnic on the edge of her property.

A few blissful hours go by. The boys have finished eating their lunch in the shade of a cottonwood grove and are lying on their backs in the grass, talking, when Ivy Peters appears. Eighteen or nineteen, Ivy is out hunting on the Forrester’s land without permission. He is ugly, arrogant, and sad. It’s said he poisons dogs for fun.

Ivy notices that woodpeckers have drilled holes into many of the cottonwood trunks. He brags that he can knock one of the birds out of a nearby tree.

He drew from his pocket a metal sling-shot and some round bits of gravel. “I won’t kill it. I’ll just surprise it, so we can have a look at it.”

“Bet you won’t hit it!”

“Bet I will!” He fitted the stone to the leather, squinted, and let it fly.

In Willa Cather’s fiction, physical action and physical details are almost always in service to emotional ends, while emotions often culminate with some kind of physical expression. And so here Cather sets up not only the scene’s outer baseline—cottonwoods, woodpecker, older boy, younger boys—but also the emotional dynamics that will guide the action within it—namely, that Ivy wants to establish some kind of connection with these boys, while the boys are ambivalent about engaging back.

See how effectively a few small physical details vivify Ivy’s inner life. The older boy is already carrying a rifle for hunting, and the revelation that he also keeps a sling-shot in his pocket helps to more finely etch his personality—this is a child’s toy, suggesting that his spiritual age is closer to the boys’ than he would like to admit. Movingly, he has even taken the time to collect the perfect pebbles for ammunition.

He claims he won’t hurt the bird, and maybe, what with the childish toy he’s taken out, the boys should believe him. Maybe he’s more harmless than people think.

Sure enough, the woodpecker dropped at his feet. He threw his heavy black felt hat over it. Ivy never wore a straw hat, even in the hottest weather. “Now wait. He’ll come to. You’ll hear him flutter in a minute.”

 “It ain’t a he, anyhow. It’s a female. Anybody would know that,” said Niel contemptuously, annoyed that this unpopular boy should come along and spoil their afternoon. He held the fate of his uncle’s spaniel against Ivy Peters.

Ivy’s hat is a little marvel of a detail. I can feel the felt slide against his fingers, can hear the soft, decisive clomp it makes when it lands on the grass. But more than that, it’s both literally and figuratively a device to create further uncertainty—Will the bird wake up? When? What’s Ivy planning on doing?—that drives our curiosity.

At the same time, claustrophobia sets in. We can picture that poor bird—stunned, trapped, and helpless in the hat’s suffocating dome. And while Niel’s correction about the woodpecker’s sex might give him a feeling of intellectual superiority over Ivy, it simultaneously reinforces his physical impotence in the face of an older boy who could probably beat him senseless.

Ivy is quick to capitalize on Niel’s powerlessness. In the very next line, he emasculates Niel with his own knowledge.

“All right, Miss Female,” said Ivy carelessly, intent upon a project of his own. He took from his pocket a little red leather box, and when he opened it the boys saw that it contained curious little instruments: tiny sharp knife blades, hooks, curved needles, a saw, a blow-pipe, and scissors. “Some of these I got with a taxidermy outfit from the Youth’s Companion, and some I made myself.” He got stiffly down on his knees—his joints seemed disinclined to bend at all, — and listened beside his hat. “She’s as lively as a cricket,” he announced. Thrusting his hand suddenly under the brim, he brought out the startled bird. It was not bleeding, and did not seem to be crippled.

Uncertainty slides into dread. Most of those “curious little instruments” in Ivy’s box are miniature weapons—and then there’s that ghoulish detail about his taxidermy hobby.

But Cather isn’t content to make Ivy pure unidimensional menace, and again uses a seemingly small physical movement to deepen our understanding of him. Not even in his twenties yet, Ivy seems too young to have stiff knees, and his creaky joints provoke us into wondering what has prematurely aged him—if it’s something congenital, or if he’s already known too much hard labor. I can’t help feeling a little sorry for him, the boy who probably thinks that wearing the heavier hat in summer makes him seem more serious, the boy who’s nearly as rigid as the animals he kills and stuffs.

As it turns out, the same details that are used to humanize Ivy are brilliant bits of misdirection that put us off our guard just enough to be shocked by what comes next.

“Now, you watch, and I’ll show you something,” said Ivy. He held the woodpecker’s head in a vice made of his thumb and forefinger, enclosing its panting body with his palm. Quick as a flash, as if it were a practiced trick, with one of those tiny blades he slit both the eyes that glared in the bird’s stupid little head, and instantly released it.

I’ve read A Lost Lady several times, and whenever I think of the book, I think of this moment—the image of the desperate, panting bird getting blinded causes a shudder in my stomach that radiates all the way to my fingertips. My memory of Ivy’s cruelty is so overpowering that it’s only when I reread the actual passage that I see how calling the bird “stupid” is really what supercharges the physical action here, gives it its full, disturbing force.

In Willa Cather’s fiction, physical action and physical details are almost always in service to emotional ends, while emotions often culminate with some kind of physical expression.

It’s the narrator who is calling this abused bird “stupid.” As a reader, I find my sympathy works like water—it’s constantly seeking some place to sink and settle into. By using this word, Cather refuses to make the narrator a source of safety.

Up to now, the narrator’s voice has been genteel; we’ve heard the influence Henry James had on Cather’s prose. But “stupid” takes us out of the drawing room and into the prairie, into a community where a brutally utilitarian worldview underlies its surface gentility—Sweet Water’s rolling farms and dainty homesteads only exist because of settlers’ violent subdual of the land.

The woodpecker rose in the air with a whirling, corkscrew motion, darted to the right, struck a tree-trunk,—to the left, and struck another. Up and down, backward and forward among the tangle of branches it flew, raking its feathers, falling and recovering itself. The boys stood watching it, indignant and uncomfortable, not knowing what do to. They were not especially sensitive; Thad was always on hand when there was anything doing at the slaughter house, and the Blum boys lived by killing things. They wouldn’t have believed they could be so upset by a hurt woodpecker. There was something wild and desperate about the way the darkened creature beat its wings in the branches, whirling in the sunlight and never seeing it, always thrusting its head up and shaking it, as a bird does when it is drinking. Presently it managed to get its feet on the same limb where it had been struck, and seemed to recognize that perch. As if it had learned something by its bruises, it pecked and crept its way along the branch and disappeared into its own hole.

Until now, the scene has been overwhelmingly comprised of physical action—if you wanted, you could excise the sentences that take us into the boys’ perspectives and the passage would connect seamlessly to what came before. But, by commingling the present action with this bit of backstory, Cather is finally explicit about the connection she has been implicitly working toward all along—I mean that she is joining the bird with the boys, linking the bird’s purely physical agony with their own emotional horror.

Which leads me to that odd clause in the last sentence, when the narrator says it’s as if the woodpecker “had learned something by its bruises.” Is that just a flourish of dark irony from the same speaker who called the bird “stupid”? Maybe. The bird can’t actually have learned anything—we won’t see it again, and assume that what brief life it has left will be miserable.

But by linking the bird with the boys, we can also see the blinding of the woodpecker as a kind of object lesson Ivy has taken it upon himself to give these kids as they prepare to enter the adult world—a place where they, too, will be slashed by forces that are irreducibly bigger and stronger; where they will be left to crash from tree to tree, falling and recovering, raking their feathers; where they will try, by feel alone, to find their way back to a darkened, safe place in which they’ll attempt to extract some sort of meaning from the pain.


The Redshirt by Corey Sobel is available now via University of Kentucky Press.

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