SHELLEY BERG ’s stories have appeared in Phoebe and Passages North. She lives with her husband and two children in Dedham, Massachusetts, where she is working on her first novel. Her story, “The Dirty White Sky,” appeared in Carolina Quarterly 65.3.
CQ: Where did this story come from?
SB: When I was about Kay’s age, my dad took me and my sister squirrel hunting with my uncle. The farmer whose land we hunted on was a friend of my dad. Just after we started hunting, my uncle, who was in his twenties and idealistic, shot a dog for chasing down a deer. It was legal, but it put my dad in a bad position because the dog belonged to the farmer’s neighbor. Neither the neighbor nor the dog were very nice. The farmer couldn’t let his neighbor find out, so he asked my dad and uncle to bury the dog to hide the evidence—not easy to do in Minnesota during winter, and without letting my sister and me know what had happened. To make the situation worse, the dog was still alive when they went back for it and my uncle had to shoot it again. We didn’t find out the actual events until years later, but I remember the confusion and uncertainty at the time. As a child, you know when things have gone very wrong.
CQ: Was there anything that surprised you as you were writing this story?
SB: The domestic abuse between Bill and Marie was completely unexpected. I remember thinking, “That’s what happens next?” when I was writing the first draft, but it was just the way it had to be. I love that about writing, how it’s yours and then it takes a sharp turn and it’s not anymore. It takes on a life of its own.
CQ: The theme of this issue of CQ is “consumption,” broadly defined. How do you think consumption plays a role in your story? Or, what does your story have to do with consumption?
SB: I keep thinking of the disease consumption and the image of blood on a white handkerchief versus the image of blood—the squirrel’s, the dog’s, Marie’s—against the white snow. I think that might be cheating on the question, though. Very literally, hunting is consumption—consuming life for food—and part of why my dad took us hunting was because he wanted us to understand that connection between killing and eating. The father in this story also wants to teach Kay this. What he can’t predict and can’t control is how much of Kay’s childhood will be consumed that day. Precious bits of childhood such as the winter picnic, the tea party, the pink snow pants are consumed by the bigger, chaotic adult world. And though Kay attempts at the end to go back to her familiar vantage point, she can’t because it’s gone.
CQ: Why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl?
SB: I remember nine as being an age when I was on the cusp of a new level of responsibilities and privileges. Nine was when I got my first pet, when I started staying home by myself. It felt wonderfully grown up but I was still very innocent. I thought a nine-year-old narrator would be old enough to understand what was going on in this story but still have a viewpoint that was unfiltered so she could see the events in very basic terms without the complications and explanations that come with adult experience.
CQ: Landscape and emotion seem to be deeply connected in your story. Can you describe their relationship?
SB: The landscape in central Minnesota, where this story takes place, is quite flat and unpopulated, so the horizon seems especially far away. It creates this feeling of vastness but also of possibility and opportunity, similar to what Kay feels at the beginning of the hunting trip. With winter, when this story is set, comes another layer of emotions. I asked my husband and sister to come up with words to describe it: “somber” and “oppressive” were two. I would add “unsettling” to that. You feel a certain sense of danger when you’re surrounded by a landscape that is covered in snow, with few recognizable landmarks, and temperatures well below freezing. I wanted that element of danger to be present, too, in the landscape of this story, to mirror the emotions of the characters.