Wendell Berry: Fly Away, Breath

And Andy, a hundred years later, can hear their laughter. He hears also the silence in which they laugh: the ancient silence filling the dark river valley on that night, uninterrupted in his imagination still by the noise of engines, the great quiet into which they all have gone.

Wendell Berry’s short story “Fly Away, Breath” is set in 1907 while Maxie Dawe is on her death bed surrounded by her granddaughters. In her troubled breathing, she suddenly lets out a “Hoo!” which I took to sound something like an owl. At first, taken by surprise, her granddaughters attempt to suppress laughter but eventually they all end up laughing until it hurts while their grandmother goes back to struggling to breath.

That’s basically the story. In the Rabbit Room podcast I listened to, they refer to this story as a “moment”. Just like in “The Girl in the Window”, Rebecca Dawe’s “moment” comes when she stares down a soldier.

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Berry gives some background into Maxie’s life by letting the reader know she lost a son during the Civil War, her husband died after the war, and she ran her farm by herself. Born in 1814, she has lived a long 93 years. On her deathbed, she isn’t conscious enough to react to her granddaughters’ laughter but I had to ask myself the question: If she had been able to react to the laughter, would she have been horrified or would she have laughed along with them? In my mind, I’m thinking it would be the latter; however, I’m not sure there is actual evidence in the story to support which one.

It’s also interesting to note that Rebecca Dawe is Maxie’s daughter; however, she is not in the room with the granddaughters of which one is Margaret Feltner, Rebecca’s daughter. Rebecca would still be alive during 1907 since she is in the story (as Rebecca Finley) “Pray Without Ceasing” set in 1912. Given that this story is simply a “moment”, maybe Rebecca simply has had to step out. Or maybe I’m getting too detailed with Wendell Berry’s history. But while I’m getting this detailed, I might as well mention that Maxie is Andy Catlett’s great-great grandmother.

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