NEA Literature Fellowships

Callan Wink

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Breatharians"

At the old house his mother had the blinds drawn.  She had cut a ragged hole in a quilt, pulled it over her head, and belted it around her waist, poncho style.  Her arms stuck out, bare, and the quilt ends dragged over the floor when she got up to let him in.  With the shades drawn it was dark and she had lit an old kerosene lamp and the flame guttered, sending up tendrils of black smoke.  She had been playing solitaire.  There was a fried pork chop steaming in a pan on the table. 

“You want some lunch?” she said after she had settled herself down in her chair, smoothing the quilt down under her and over her bare legs.  “I’m finished. You can have the rest.”  She slid the pork chop over to August. It hadn’t been touched. 

He took a bite. It was seared crispy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside, quick fried in butter and finished in the oven. That’s how she always made pork chops.  Lisa wouldn’t know how to do this, he thought.  His father would get so fed up with dried-out tough pork chops that he might send her away and his mother might come back to the new house and he’d start helping his dad with the barn chores again.

“Are you still not eating?”  He picked up  the pork chop to gnaw at the bone where the best tasting meat always lived.

“Augie, that’s a common misconception about us breatharians.  I eat.  Good lord, I eat all the time.  Here, actually, let me have one more bite of that.”  She leaned over and wafted her hand around his pork chop, bringing the smell towards herself and then took a quick hiccupping little breath and smiled and leaned back in her seat.    “Meat from an animal you know always has the best flavor,” she said, lighting one of her little cigars.  “That’s something city people probably don’t understand.  You remember taking kitchen scraps out to that hog every night after dinner?  You fed that animal and now it feeds you. That lends a certain something to the savor— I’m sure there’s a word for it another language. “

She pulled her quilt tighter around her shoulders.  “Did you know that Augie? That there are all sorts of words for things in other languages that we don’t have in English?   It’s like your soul is tongue-tied when that happens, when you have  a feeling or experience that you can’t  explain because there isn’t a specific word for it.  If you knew all the languages in the world you could express yourself perfectly and all experiences would be understandable to you because you would have a word, a perfect word, to attach to any possible occasion.  See what I mean?”

August wiped his greasy hands on his jeans.  He was fairly certain his mother was naked under her quilt. He wondered if there was a word for that in another language.  A word to classify the feeling you get sitting across from your mother, eating a pork chop, with your mother naked under a quilt. 

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Just because you have a word to put on something doesn’t mean you understand it any better. Does it?”

“Oh, I think so.  Definitely. I don’t think things really exist until we can name them. Without names for every living thing the world is populated by spooks and monsters.”

“Just because you give something a name doesn’t mean you change what it is.  It’s still the same thing.”

“You couldn’t be more wrong, Augie dear.  How about death?”

“What about it?”

“What if instead of death everyone called it being born and looked forward to it as the great reward at the end of a seventy or so years of slow rot on earth?”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone look forward to death?”

“Maybe you’re too young for this conversation,” she said, coughing into the back of her hand.  “That’s an interesting thought. I bet in some language there is a word for the state you exist in now—the state of being incapable of formulating concepts of, or discussing abstractly, death in all its various forms, due to a lack of experience.  You need to have someone you love die and then you get it.  All the understanding of the world comes rushing in on you like a vacuum seal was broken somewhere.  I’m not saying you’ll ever understand why the world works the way it does, but you’ll surely come to the conclusion that it does work, and that, as a result, it will absolutely  someday come to a grinding halt, as nothing can work forever. See what I mean?”


“Huh. Well, in time you will. I’m sure.”

Callan Wink is a writer and fly-fishing guide from Livingston, Montana. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Men’s Journal, Ecotone, The Best American Short Stories and others.

Photo courtesy of Callan WInk

Author's Statement

To me, receiving the NEA Literature Fellowship is a great honor, one that means, at least for a while, that I can ignore the call of gainful employment and focus more completely on my writing. An award such as this is a beautiful thing, a chance to reinvigorate and maybe even reinvent oneself in the pursuit of creativity. I intend to use this fellowship as a prod towards the rather tedious task of novel revision. I am very, very, thankful for the simple gift of time this fellowship will offer me.