"Breatharians" by Callan Wink Originally published in the October 22, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I really enjoyed Callan Wink’s The New Yorker debut last year, and am excited to see where this University of Wyoming MFA student (who calls himself a “fly fishing guide in real life”) goes. If this story is any indication, it’s going to get dark.
“Breatharians” is a tightly structured, complex story, impressive for so young a writer. Here’s how it begins:
There were cats in the barn. Litters begetting litters begetting litters — some thin or misshapen with the afflictions of blood too many times remixed.
“Get rid of the damn things,” August’s father said. “The haymow smells like piss. Take a tire iron or a shovel or whatever tool suits you. You’ve been after me for school money? I’ll give you a dollar a tail. You have your jackknife sharp? You take their tails and pound them to a board, and then after a few days we’ll have a settling up. Small tales worth as much as large tails, it’s all the same.”
August goes out to find his tool and dreams of the possibilities: “He could earn fifty dollars at least, maybe seventy-five, possibly even a hundred if he was able to track down the newborn litters.” I found this highly — refreshingly — disturbing. It all made me suitably uncomfortable.
Of course, after killing three cats quickly, the others shy well away from August. He realizes the job is going to be more difficult than he thought. This line of the narrative moves to the background as we learn more about August’s family. His mother tells him he can say no to his father: “That’s the kind of work you stand a chance of bringing home with you, if you know what I mean.” But his mother doesn’t put up that much of a fuss. She’s distanced herself, figuratively and literally. One night, after a fight with his father, she moved back to the old house on the property. His father lives in the new, and staying longer and longer, is the young woman who’s come to work at the farm. There was a time, not too long ago, when things were different. August’s parents lived together in the new house, and August’s dog — given to him as a puppy when August was born — was still alive. Only recently August “realized, for the first time, that all of his life up to this very point existed only in the past, which meant that it didn’t exist at all, not really.”
August’s parents will never get back together. We know this. His father is sleeping with the young girl; more and more she’s moving in. His mom, though she grew up on the farm in that old house, wants more for her son. She is a bit strange, proclaiming early in the story that she has successfully become a breatharian, “an inediate,” “an air eater,” a “sky swallower” or “ether ingestor.” She says, “You can attune your mind and your body, Augie. Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation, so that you completely lose the food requirement. [. . .] I’m talking about getting to the point where all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied.” But none of these characters, other than, perhaps, the cats (who are certainly not breatharians), is satisfied, and each has forces pulling him or her in opposite directions.
There are many threads to follow in this story, not the least of which is the food. These characters, other than the mother, eat often. The dog died because it ingested antifreeze, and just how are so many cats surviving in the barn? And how does this come back around to the family? And then to the cat massacre? Much to consider.
One thing I might mention: before I posted my thoughts on this story, I received a number of emails from people excited about Callan Wink, wondering if I had any way of reaching out to him to tell him they appreciate his work. I don’t and haven’t looked into it. I am happy to know, though, that there are several out there who are excited about this young author and look forward to more of his work.
Not all are fans, though, which is fine, but in this case their reasoning is way off. I notice that others who have posted their thoughts on other blogs are getting a few comments from people horrified that this story features the murder of cats. There is much more to this story and in no way does this story — or its proponents — suggest there is joy to be had in killing innocent animals. What a knee-jerk reaction. What narrow vision. If I and other bloggers are getting emails and comments about how awful this story is, I’m sure Mr. Wink is too. I hope he doesn’t pay their criticisms any heed and continues to put out challenging, disturbing work.