We recently published Mauro Altamura’s devastating “Breathing Quietly.”
Here, we ask him two questions about his story:
1) I love the strangeness of Mrs. James’ last day — that odd (and somehow beautiful!) hostage situation gives this piece such a wonderful flavor. What do you think the hostage takers’ end game was? What were they hoping to accomplish?
I didn’t have a specific motive for the strangers. It might be a metaphor for the way religions also hold hostages, keep believers in their thrall. Or perhaps a torturous taste of Purgatory, though Presbyterians state that “Purgatory is consistently denied and vigorously opposed by Protestant Christians.” Well, as a former Catholic, Purgatory loomed pretty large for me.
I first thought the men were enacting a random act of violence, an intimidation that came unannounced, out of the blue, beautiful day, and altered the world. (All the mass shootings are a more horrible and tragic example.) There’s a clue, though, when Mrs James’s missing Bible was found, shot through with five rounds, tossed below the willow. A long brown braid with a kitty clasp wrapped the Bible tight. Something disturbing occurred, and that braid and kitty clasp ask who the hair came from and why. Coupled with the bullet hole in Mrs. James’s tire, we’re left to ruminate, to imagine what forces floatin that dark Western sky. I like the questions as well as the fears that remain. We only know what happened to poor Mrs James. Who else was harmed? What were the men trying to cover up? The strangers may have seemed benign, but their act led to the death of at least one person. I haven’t answered your question, ‘why.’ Let me simply say they were evil men who wanted to wield power. Sounds too familiar, to me.
2) The imagery throughout is so powerful, from that opening image of poor Mrs. James (“who taught high school Latin and spoke it like a saint”) being pulled from the river to the end with Gregory and the gypsy moths, and returning to Mrs. James as she is cut from her restraints, “make-up yet in place.” Seriously powerful stuff! What came for you first with this story — the imagery, the characters, the music? Something else?
I’ve been to the area outside Visalia, CA, a couple of times for short visits. The story began from remembering those long ago trips and the surrounding environment near the Sierra Nevada. After that I imagined what might happen in such a location – terrifying and perhaps inexplicable events – a kind of Twin Peaks scenario. While ruminating on the location, the images and the accompanying actions started to flow. The descriptions of the people, place, and objects were a gush of the horrifying, beautiful, and confounding. I was a visual artist for many years, so describing images is familiar practice. When I’m writing and the images come so fast and free, I feel like all I have to do is type, and sort the threads for the story to arrive.