DOG WHISTLE | Jonathan Papernick.
⇒People Holding is a new online journal in which writers share short prose pieces inspired by photographs of people with or holding full-size antlers. While the ekphrastic thing is all good–think how many stories can be culled from a simple photograph or other visual prompt–I wonder if a buck’s antlers in various poses and contexts is a little too symbolically limited to serve as the conceptual linchpin for an entire collection of flash fiction pieces?
As it turns out, based on the variety of stories that have resulted from this weird/random theme, no. This prompt is not too limiting at all. There’s a lot you can do with a set of antlers.
Jonathan Papernick’s “Dog Whistle” is a case in point. While the story certainly isn’t about the antlers, this object is far more than incidental to the plot.
I’m not going to summarize this story for you; to summarize a work of flash is to get it entirely wrong. What I will do, though, is tell you a few physical and emotional components of the story to give you its premise (it’s on you to see where it leads, obviously). Here, have a few bullet points:
- There are dogs, a number of them, which our protagonists (the narrator and her slightly younger brother) look after while their parents are gone
- The parents are frequently gone
- The characters, David and our narrator, are children and then early adolescents, born 10 months apart so basically twins
- They are very close
- Like, very very close
- There are antlers, discovered one day in the woods
I also want to mention the photo this work was inspired by: it features a young man, a little unkempt, holding a huge pair of antlers next to a pickup truck in a rather stark, likely Midwestern suburban development of some kind.
A fairly simple picture, and the author truly expanded it into an imaginative, rather upsetting world of sexual discovery, loss of innocence, abandonment, and emotional connection/disconnection. Beyond the vivid, highly sensory language at play here, I think the biggest accomplishment of this piece is to distill a fleshed-out coming-of-age story into the space of what amounts to a couple pages. Anyone who thinks the flash fiction form is too limiting is mistaken; they just need to read more flash. In the right hands, this story proves, a work of flash can do anything.