What makes a story great? That’s a question that spools outwards through the ephemeral and infinite wisps of existence and is as unanswerable as the question of why is the sun.
But that’s not gonna stop us trying to work it out! In this shiny new series, we deconstruct our fave stories to see if we can figure out how they’re so goddamn good and if we can apply any lessons to our own writing. So. Let’s nerd out, story gang…
This month we’re looking at When the Birds Go Quiet by (awesome WHQ member!) Noémi Scheiring-Olah. A small but mighty flash, packing a novel’s worth of gut-punch into just 400 words, telling the story of two girls who take to the woods to avenge their mother.
You can read the whole thing here, but make sure you come back for the anatomy lesson. (Also definitely read it because everything below is one big spoiler)
When the Birds Go Quiet combines fairy tale with a gothic vibe and lyrical prose, weaving a story without telling us directly what’s going on but giving us just enough information to keep us hooked and keep us guessing. The payoff is at once grotesque, heartbreaking and somehow triumphant.
An ecocritical reading, if you’re inclined to such things, would be something like: the birds going quiet serve as a warning, some kind of harbinger of terrible things; that when terrible things happen — either done to us or by us — everyone, both human and non-human, suffers. But at the end there’s a surprise 180. We see that silence can also be a sign of reverence, of respect. What a duality of things — the silence of destruction versus the silence of prayer. Irresistible.
A feminist reading perhaps? The girls are terrible victims, as girls always are, forever hiding from the gaze of men, the dreadful knowledge of eternal powerlessness. And how we’re sick of stories of women as victims, of girls as victims, always cowering, always violated. And yet despite the horror in the end they feast! They drink in all that they survey – the trees, the birds, the knowledge – and use it to tear apart that which threatens them, using the remains of that dead body to nurture and grow something bigger, something more powerful.
The girls move in unison, dispatching of the wolf off-screen only to show us their post-sacrifice ritual. What are we to take from this information – that it’s not the murder that matters but what they do after? From victim to powerful witch in 400 words.
Now let’s rip it apart like the ravenous story beasts we are, like the girls ripped apart that wolf (ooh see what I did there?!).
Note: story in plain text. WHQ comments in orange italic.
When The Birds Go Quiet
By Noémi Scheiring-Oláh
When the birds go quiet, the girls stop walking.
Straight in with the first line. Why did the birds go quiet? Why did the girls stop walking? Impossible not to carry on reading.
The air around them is glassy and pale, like a glass of milk their mother used to pour every morning: half milk, half water.
Beautiful. Feels wonderful to read or say out loud, and it gives us much wanted clues about their mother, about their upbringing. The diluted milk — is this poverty or austerity? Is this preference or necessity?
When the birds go quiet, the girls can hear their own breathing: quick and light like cat paws in the snow. The right kind of breathing, their mother used to say, Doesn’t attract flaring wolf-eyes on your frail figures.
Uh oh. Which wolves have been licking their lascivious lips over our girls? More questions and clues that keep us wanting to go on, and so relatable to anyone who has ever tried to hide from unwanted attention.
The right kind of breathing, their mother tapped her upper lip with a finger, Is hazy and blurred, like ghosts merging with the walls.
This is a lovely simile, I’ve not heard it anywhere before, but also metaphor. A ghost walks through a wall to escape and disappear, to render its already invisible self even more invisible. A girl should be barely seen and should be able to make herself yet more invisible at a moment’s notice, even at the expense of her breath. Become one with the scenery, girl, your existence is only as important as the bricks, that is to say: not very.
But when the birds go quiet, there are no walls around the girls.
Only the wide hips of an oak and its naked, open arms glinting in the moonlight, ready to receive their offering.
The girls remove their hoods and look at each other.
Hoods? A clue! Deftly placed. We don’t know it’s a clue yet.
Their faces glow like fire. Fierce. Determined. A feast for the eyes, a shadow in the woods growled at them once, when they treaded off-path to look for their mother.
A lovely inversion. The wolf has previously growled at them threateningly: “a feast for the eyes”, but now it’s being used against him and in celebration of the girls. They are looking at their offering (the dead wolf although we don’t quite know that yet), at each other, and thinking the very same thing.
But when the birds go quiet, their mother is nowhere.
There are only the wool-wrapped girls, and the oak, and the budding, hungry leaves. Now, it’s their turn to feast.
When the birds go quiet, the girls kneel by the oak’s feet and start digging. They dig faster and faster, letting grains of dirt burrow under their nails. They take big gulps of breaths, inhaling the soil’s cool scent that guides their hands deeper and deeper.
Lovely imagery — the dirty fingernails, the smells, the breaths. So visceral.
The birds stay quiet when one of the girls stops and sits back on her heels.
The other loosens a red coat around her waist. They found the coat four days ago, hanging from the oak’s branch, missing their mother’s body. The girl slips a hand inside the coat, over her heart,
and pulls out a bundle wrapped in table cloth. The fabric is soaked in blood. The other girl reaches out. Her soil-kissed fingers unwrap the dripping package.
Together, they shake it out, dropping a long, clumped, clotted wolf-tail – chopped off.
As they bury the hole, the birds stay quiet. The girls bow to the ground and put their ears to the fresh lump of earth, listening to the oak’s roots.
All the detail about the girls working with nature to feed and nurture it after the horror of the wolf are so wonderful to my little ecocritical heart.
While the birds stay quiet, the girls can hear the roots stretching, growing, feeding.
Fuck yeah. What a payoff. The tree feeding off the bloodied tail of the dead tyrant, the two daughters united in their final victory and vengeance.
3 Lessons For Your Own Writing
- Pacing and timing
Go over your story and mark up when all the key events happen. How are they spaced out? Does nothing much happen then a whole bunch of stuff happen? Is the reader given time to breath after an intense event or are they straight into the next one? Does the shape of the story feel right? Can you draw a picture of the rise and fall of the action (lol this is pure procrastination but also so much fun). Is the reader given all the information at the right time?
Read through your story and make a note of two or three recurring images or themes. Can you tease out more from them, or do you need to dial it back? Are there no themes, in which case do you need any? Are the images really expressing what you want the story to express?
- What aren’t you saying?
Noémi’s story is a masterclass in withholding information and yet giving just enough. What information can you cut out of your story? What can you elude to? What do you need to drop in and just the right moment? Have you been too secretive and need to show a little more skin?
Oof. That was intense!
Let us know what you think about this story over on the forums, and remember it’s not your job as a writer to know these things ahead of time, or even to plant them in on purpose (although it can be fun to do if you’re into that sort of thing). It’s your job to write a story that feels right and let the reader think whatever they want. Kill that author, Barthes-style! Speaking of which…
About the author
Noémi grew up in a small, ex-Soviet flat at the edge of a Hungarian town. She’s now a nomad in a small world. Her writing has appeared/is forthcoming in Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Molotov Cocktail, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Maudlin House, New Flash Fiction Review, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Sledgehammer Lit, Moonflake Press, NFFD’s FlashFlood, The Write-In, and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and The Pushcart Prize. She’s a Writers’ HQ member.