“Pagan Night” by Kate Braverman

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Read the full story here.

First sentence: “Sometimes they called it Forest or Sky.”

Imagery: “Today, walking by the river, it occurred to Sunny that this landscape was different from any other she had known. It wasn’t the punched-awake, intoxicated glow of the tropics, seductive and inflamed. It didn’t tease you and make you want to die for it.  That’s what she thought of Hawaii. And it wasn’t the rancid gleam like spoiled lemons that coated everything in a sort of bad-childhood waxy veneer flashback. That’s what she thought of Los Angeles where they had lived for two years.”

Sunny and Dalton are the epitome of restless youth – drinkers, drug addicts, wayfarers and former members of a band called Pagan Night, which broke up after only one tour. During that tour, Sunny got pregnant with a child neither she or Dalton wanted. The structure of the story is confusing at times, as readers are pulled along in and out of Sunny’s memories which, like the nature of memory, are fragmentary and hard to place in time. But the present finds Sunny, Dalton, and their newborn, still-unnamed baby living out of a van in Idaho. Dalton does not touch the baby and only calls him “it” (like in first sentence). He is so bothered by the baby’s crying that Sunny has to take long walks with the baby to relieve the irritation.  She names the baby in her mind – sometimes Willow, Sunday, Cottonwood, Eagle, Tiger, Swan. As the summer turns brown, she worries about the winter preventing her from taking walks. And she realizes she cannot feed the baby from her body forever. Braverman mixes an honest, matter-of-fact tone with emotional sensitivity. It’s a story about instability and the costs of living unconventionally. Life is precarious, and loss is inevitable.

Thinking it through:

This is another story with atypical characters who readers probably wouldn’t want as their friends. So why is this literary feature beneficial or useful to readers? I enjoy reading stories that are slightly askew, adhering to an alternative prospective, because it would be rather boring to read something that reflects my beliefs or ideas. What is there to take away from that? Instead, I find myself asking more critical questions, however disturbing the story that prompts them. How does Braverman challenge assumptions about parenthood, relationships, and lifestyle. And why? What does it demand of the reader?

I read “Pagan Night” a few years ago and it’s stayed with me since – one of those stories that is morally challenging and quietly disturbing, but written in such beautiful, lyrical prose. So it’s not a “feel good” read, but I’m not always in the mood for a happily ever after kind of tale. If you’re not either, then check out this story, which was the Best American Short Story Winner in 1995. First published in Zyzzyva literary magazine, later in the collection Small Craft Warnings.

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