Dawn S. Davies is our featured fiction writer for volume 5. We are proud to feature her latest short story in this issue. In “Giver of Life,” we meet Bhavani, a middle-school aged girl who moves to another state, gets lost on the way home from school, and has a traumatic experience at the hands of her female classmates. An excerpt from the beginning of the story appears below:
It was probably about three-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon, although it was an overcast winter day and hard to tell by the light in the sky. I was in eighth grade, which was bad enough, but I was also new in town, riding the junior high bus home from school, determined to keep a low profile in front of the group of bully girls who sat in the back, the ones who had undertaken the daily challenge of trying to make me cry without the bus driver noticing. They had gotten me only once at the beginning of the first week, but every day was a battle.
My strategy on this day had been to appear to be so engrossed in my paperback that I looked at and spoke to no one, not even the pre-pubescent sixth graders. I turned toward the window, pressed my forehead against the cold glass and read while we drove past snow-covered hills and swells of neatly parceled quarter acre lots. The bus was warm and they left me alone, likely because the ringleader, a thick girl named Darlene, was not on the bus that afternoon. I let my guard down and sank deeply into my book, until at one point when the bus slowed, I noticed a silence within it. I lifted my head and saw that, except for the driver and myself, the bus was empty. I had missed my stop.
“Let’s go, kiddo,” the bus driver shouted back. I zipped up my coat and walked to the front.
“Can you tell me which way Blue Spruce Lane is?” I asked.
“When you get out, take this road north,” the bus driver said. “It’s not too far. I’d take you, but thanks to stinkin’ Carter and his energy shortage. I can’t back track my route. They keep track of our gas now.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
When I jumped down off the step, the snow snapped hard under my feet like frozen sugar. My boots were thick, chunky astronaut boots that were hard to walk in. Three weeks previously, I had never worn winter boots, or a winter coat. I clumped over to the curb and watched the bus drive up the hill, then looked around at the silence and took a deep breath.
When the bus fumes cleared, I couldn’t smell anything but the cold. It burned going in my nose. There was no smell of the earth, or of decaying humus from dropped leaves, or the sweet scent of a breeze, or the salt of the ocean, or a pot roast leaking out from underneath a door. There was no particular light in the sky that might tell me which way the sun was setting. I didn’t hear a bird, or a rustle of air or a wind chime, just the sound of my breath in my head and the hard snow under my feet. The trees were long naked for the season, and everything I saw looked drawn up and tightened against the cold. It gave me the kind of feeling I would eventually grow to understand about upstate New York in the middle of February, where there is not a lot of hope to go around, and clouds press down on the daylight that is fighting to hang in there, bringing night before anyone is ready. I dug deep into my pockets for the pair of mittens my mother had bought me, then pulled my hood up over my head. I had no idea which way was north.
Interview with Dawn S. Davies
Border Crossing: What compelled you to write this particular story? Tell us about the process of writing it. What drives your interest in the subject of female bullying?
Dawn S. Davies: As a child, I moved every two or three years. I had to start over at new schools, navigating my way through increasingly difficult social climates as I got older. Because of this, I remember what it feels like to be the outsider in a group of kids, and what it’s like to walk into a room and have no one look at you with kindness in their eyes. I was picked on briefly, yet regularly, every time I moved. I would come home from school feeling like I had been in a war zone all day. As the new kid, the other kids always poked at me a bit to see how I would react. I do recall fighting a girl during my first week at my new school in 7th grade. I didn’t want to do it at all. It was an orchestrated event, with kids passing notes to advertise the fight, which was to take place after school. A huge crowd showed up. My memory has me kicking the girl’s ass. She was short. I was six feet tall. That’s how it had to go down, even though I don’t like to hurt people. We were friends after that, but I understand that feeling of school being a hostile place, and of children’s social networks being laced with emotional minefields.
Also, I have a son with autism who was bullied regularly by neurotypical kids who did terrible things to him, both physically and emotionally, starting in about second grade, and continuing through high school. This despite all the vocal “No Bullying” policies the school district claimed to support. It finally ended after ninth grade, when we moved him to a better school district in a kinder state.
I think people assume that male bullying is more physical, and female bullying is more emotional, but I don’t think that is always the case. I know girls who have been physically challenged against their wills, and I know boys who are left emotionally bereft by the simple act of ostracization and exclusion from other groups of boys. I wanted to explore the more physical side of female bullying in “Giver of Life” because it does happen….
BC: Why did you choose to set the story in the 1970s in upstate New York?
DSD: I think the 1970s was the last of the “simple times” before most people had cable TV that I believe so heavily influenced children’s social behavior. It was also before cell phones, when you couldn’t call someone for help, or even let someone know you were going to be late, or log into Google Maps to give you directions. I wanted to write about old-school bullying, the pared-down, yet equally complex sort that took place before cyber-anything, when there was a person with a real face doing the deed and people often had to handle things on their own.
Although I am from the South, I have experienced Northern winters and I find them lonely and rather haunting, and they evoke a sort of still emptiness that intrigues me. The story is set in upstate New York during the middle of winter because I wanted to use the cold and stillness of a northern winter to depict alienation, and the emptiness that Bhavani feels facing her new life. I wanted to juxtapose the sunny, temperate climate of her happier family life in California with the cold, empty, crunching ice, and the white snow that hides the defining elements of the landscape, and contributes to her disorientation.
BC: Although this is clearly Bhavani’s story, at its heart, her mother’s character is extremely well-developed. She is haunted by grief over the death of her brother during the Vietnam War, and she is described not once but several times by the narrator as on her hands and knees, scrubbing the house clean. What is it about her character and this image that fascinated you as a writer—and how does it relate to Bhavani’s story?
DSD: Essentially, this story is not only about an act of bullying, but about a girl whose family has changed drastically for the worse. Bhavani’s mother, although physically present, is not emotionally available for her daughter at a time when Bhavani needs her, and although Bhavani knows this on some level, she resents it. The mother spends her time cleaning in a useless, yet metaphoric way, preoccupied with controlling the only thing she feels she can control. The act of being on her knees can be alternately seen as pleading, or perhaps prayer-like, or even sexual, and it is the same position Bhavani assumes when she is assaulted. I find the mother’s state of mind terribly sad for both the mother, who is sliding into mental illness during a time when there were few resources, and for Bhavani, who is so lost. The mother is clearly no longer the heart of this home. As well, I believe the early teen years are a critically important time in the parent-child relationship, yet it is often a time when the relationship begins to bifurcate, for any number of reasons. Ultimately, the battles children wage in school are made more difficult when they have parents who are no longer, or never have been, their touchstones.
Dawn S. Davies (www.dawnsdavies.com) splits her time between Florida and South Carolina. She was the 2013 recipient of the Kentucky Women Writers Gabehart Prize for nonfiction and her essay collection, Mothers of Sparta, received the 2015 FIU UGS Provost Award for Best Creative Project. She has been awarded residencies with the Vermont Studio Center and Can Serrat and was a 2015 SLS Disquiet prize finalist for nonfiction. Dawn holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work can be found in River Styx, Brain, Child, Hippocampus, Cease, Cows, Saw Palm, Ninth Letter, New Plains Review, Green Mountains Review, Chautauqua and elsewhere.