The Power of Metaphor in Short Fiction

Apr 14, 2005Write!

My cute friend Jeanne Damoff is gathering folks for a “Celebration of New Christian Fiction.” Welcome to all of you who are stopping by!

Instead of ruminating on the existential place metaphor plays on postmodern storytelling, I’ll just paste an example below. I wonder how many of us relate to the lightning metaphor? Let me know what you think.

By Mary E. DeMuth
copyright 2005

Mama called me Lightning the day Daddy died. Libby’d been my name ‘til that day, the day that transformed our happy Midwest life into charred smoke. Daddy worked the fields from black dawn to black dusk. I don’t think he ever saw the sun angle through the windows of our white clapboard home, never did see the dust particles frolic at the sun’s touch; only the moonshine glimmered by the time he came in for supper and by then the dust had settled, as if frolicking had tired it clear out.

One night, the sky threatened rain—a thing most farmers welcomed back then. Daddy wanted his fields to be ready to drink in the showers, wanted to plant one last row before the first spat of water hit his hat. He and Mama, they had a deal. He tilled the soil; she toiled over the bills. Time to time, they’d have a money feud—right at the field’s edge, where the gravel driveway kissed loamy earth. We’d hear ‘em clear from the house carrying on about Daddy wanting more farm implements and Mama saying not this year.

She’d come back tear-stained and toil over the bills. Daddy’d returned to the field. He’d till.

I don’t know why he stayed out that rainy night, why he kept sowing row after row of seed corn—perhaps it was part of their unspoken pact, the tilling and toiling rhythm that marked their easy-going animosity. Maybe it was a simpler notion—that because he could still see a yellow corn seed, even under the roiling clouds, he felt compelled to work until his fingers numbed. Problem was, that night his fingers did numb.

Maybe he possessed that mad spirit most farmers have, that if something needs doing, it must be done to the very end of a man’s tenacity. I’ve calmed my tears by believing Daddy dirtied his fingernails for all of us. His sacrifice, his soil-stained face, his narrowed eyes from too much squinting—all these knit together was his gift to us. Harrowing and sowing and uprooting and burning—all for our hungry mouths, our bare-naked feet, our gangly limbs that kept growing.

I heard the thunder first. I crashed out of my room and stood at Mama’s side.

“This too shall pass, Libby. God’s just rearranging His furniture; that’s all.” She petted my tangled head as if her absentminded touch would settle my nervous knees.
Didn’t she know thunderstorms meant God was angry? I couldn’t bear a furious deity. With every growl of thunder, I felt sure I had done something to rile His ire. That night, I knew God was relocating a lumbering sideboard because of my coarse words with Jeb, my younger brother. I shouldn’t have called him a stinky ratfink. Daddy’d still be alive if I could’ve just held back my flapping tongue, sure as pie.

Daddy must’ve seen the lightning, must’ve seen it flash across the sky in rick-racked abandon. Head forward, rain pouring from his hat bill, he planted beautifully tilled rows of corn-to-be, precisely one foot apart, seemingly unaffected by the sky mayhem.

Mama paced the living room window, stopping now and again to say “Mercy.” Why she held up her hand as she gazed on inky fields, I’m not sure. There was no sun to shield her eyes from that night, only distant flashes of lightning. Like a movie flickering on the faces of upturned show-goers, Mama’s face was illuminated on and off, on and off. And every time it flashed on, worry etched itself further into the contours of her farmwoman face.

I stood by her when God killed Daddy with His rod of light. We saw the bolt fly from His fingertips pointing catty-corner this way and that. When we saw Daddy look up, illuminated by the light rushing toward him, Mama gasped. It’s as if God was looking for Daddy, as if tilling time was up. God’s jagged finger of light pointed to Daddy’s hat and knocked him dead. Just like that.

In his hand were a scatter of corn seeds, charred and smelling like burnt popcorn. I don’t know why I remember the smell more than my Daddy’s contorted face. Call it a child’s view of life, I guess. He was lying stiff and flat at the cornfield’s farthest edge. One burnt seed completed the last row, as if Daddy couldn’t stand leaving his sowing job undone before he died. His last act had been to plant a burnt seed.

We scrabbled through life after we planted Daddy’s plain brown coffin in the muddied earth. We dug a seven by three hole right in the middle of the cornfield. We figured he’d want it that way. That summer, the corn shot up nubile green, saluting Daddy with wavy hands. A windstorm with fistfuls of hail and lightning leveled the field right before harvest, leaving Daddy’s graveside stark against the Midwest sky, surrounded by bowing corn plants.

Except for one.

The charred seed planted by my shocked Daddy stood tall and proud, in rigid defiance of the storm.

We managed best we could. Mama got a job at the cannery and tried very hard not to get her arm chewed up in the machinery like Elmer Singleton. She moved us all to town and sublet our land, something my brother Jeb held against her forever and a year. Despite my efforts otherwise, I grew up, tall and lilting like a willow tree and caught the eye of Sage Williams. “Lightning,” he said, hat in hands, “I’d be most privileged to call you wife. What d’you say?”

Four children later—Sunny, Windy, Autumn and Edlef (don’t blame me, it was his Granddaddy’s name)—we heard the thunder of God’s wrath boil around our clapboard house, my childhood home bordering the fallow lightning field. This time, the thunder didn’t rollick the house. Only Sage and I could hear its grumble; it sounded more like my nagging, his yelling, my swearing, his slamming all boiled together.

It was my name that got us into this, I think. When Mama renamed me Lightning, I somehow took on its properties—caustic, unpredictable, destructive. The fire in my eyes allured Sage, until that same fire recoiled, changed courses, licking his ego and singeing his tenderness until he became like me—a lightning rod of angry words.
Outside where the gravel met the dust, we argued Mama and Daddy’s feud—toiling and tilling. “The bills are piling up,” I hissed.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he yelled.

“It’s not good enough,” I countered.

“Then maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe you’d be happier if I was gone.”

The children didn’t hear the tired escalation; at least that’s what we thought, until Edlef came toe to toe with us there under God’s blue canopy. He rubbed his eyes and stuttered, “Our lives are stormy, sure enough. You and Daddy are like lightning and thunder.”

After Edlef’s tears dripped down his proud ten-year-old cheeks and hit the warm, thirsty earth, I knew one thing. I hadn’t called Sage a stinky ratfink, but I might as well have.

Lightning took Daddy from me. Not God. For all of God’s seeming capriciousness, it was lightning that electrified him to death. And now, Lightning again was threatening to take another Daddy from his children. I could not bear my children suffering the scouring loss of their Daddy, not if I could help it.

God wasn’t angry. I was.

I excused myself from Sage and Edlef and walked to the center of the barren cornfield. I dirtied my knees at Daddy’s graveside, begging the God of Lightning to spare our family, to save our marriage. I told Him I’d do anything, short of doing the hula in the town’s talent show, to make things right. I took my shoes off in hesitant reverence and let the dust grit my toes.

I left to do my business with the Almighty as fiery Lightning Williams.

Barefooted, I walked the dusty path to the clapboard house as just plain Libby.