The Augur Lit: Two Grasslands Stories Are Haunted by an Uncertain Future

GDS’ literary magazine, Grasslands. Photo by Olivia Brown.

When I read, I often think about what, as I would put it, haunts a writer—what subject or underlying theme they return to over and over in their work. For Marilynne Robinson that haunting is spirituality’s relationship with ordinary life; for Zadie Smith it is the way social and cultural markers influence people’s life journeys; for Kazuo Ishiguro it is autonomy within an affected society. Such haunting is vampiric, feeding on a writer, consuming exploratory inclinations and varied interests and consolidating them through a singular thematic perspective. 

While hauntings are by nature restrictive, they are also nourishing to the reader; as limiting as Robinson’s perspective is, that limitation is her greatest asset as a writer. I go to her books to learn about what consumes her, and as I read them, I am consumed along with her. That is the beauty of reading: the experience of being immersed into a distinct, ineffable worldview or perspective. 

I started reading the most recent edition of Grasslands, GDS’ literary magazine, with one principal question in mind: What haunts and nourishes my peers at GDS? Soon, a common thread emerged, almost a shared haunting, a collective obsession with one idea: the uncertainty and unwieldiness of the future. It was a central truth—sharp, piercing and undeniable—that rang out in two pieces in particular.

In senior Nick Penniman’s story in the magazine, “The Drive,” which follows a group of friends riding down a road, the author is primarily concerned with addressing the philosophical implications of looking ahead into the future. (A different version of the story was originally published in print with the title “Pretty Like a Song” due to an editing error, but the correct, updated and renamed version has since been published online.) The future looms large even as the story begins; the opening paragraph ends: “In the distance, beyond the neighborhood, the desert could be seen, burning into the final red hour of day.” The friends’ drive only continues to build in intensity and conflict until, presumably, the reader’s ominous premonition of a “final red hour” is fulfilled. 

Senior Leila Jackson’s story “A Synonym For Water” is also concerned with the unknowable future, asking us, as readers, to consider particularly what happens when someone grows up into someone they are dissatisfied with. In the unnamed narrator’s moment of climactic insecurity and uncertainty she looks at herself in the mirror and she can see her reflection “hanging like a ghost before the glass.” Her ghostly reflection is a reminder of her truest self, and all the iterations of herself that she has evolved and devolved past. 

“I was taller than I ever thought I would be,” the narrator continues. “My hair strangled itself, like a knot before a god, and for one terrifying moment I thought I had no eyes.” The metaphor here is revealing: Jackson presents her narrator’s hair as a knot, tightly wound, controlled, but holding no significant power next to the power of a god. Her hair is as helpless as the narrator herself; like Penniman’s characters, she has no control over the direction of her life in the vast, unknowable, godly world and thinks she has “no eyes,” because she cannot see ahead to what is in front of her. She does not know how she came to where she is, does not understand where she has been and more than anything does not feel control over her life.

In both stories, the concept of the future is presented as pervasive, frightening. So what are the solutions to such uncertainty? Penniman offers in his story that precariousness is the very nature of living, that we must burn through existence excitedly, sadly, contradictorily until we reach a “final red hour” of life. As the story approaches its climax, disaster seems inevitable, the car speeding up faster and faster, tensions rising among the group of friends. But it slows suddenly just before a crash, at the very climax.

Penniman goes on to write, “You don’t know if it’s the end or the beginning of something, but it’s probably just neither. Like the world around you is aching just for existing. And you too—aching just for existing.” The leadup to the potential crash demonstrates the helplessness of living; each moment to Penniman is “the end or the beginning,” but above all a path, a direction, both tense and perfect. Humans “ache just for existing,” and perhaps, as Penniman proposes, it is unproductive to ache for anything more than to be able to go on a drive with friends and feel the “sunlight, still gold.” Still valuable, golden in its simplicity and ordinariness. 

Jackson, meanwhile, suggests that the secret to future happiness is not achieved simply through acceptance, but also through the power of love and relationships. Throughout the story, the motif of water symbolizes the ways the narrator grows past herself, and past even her mother, who is the source of her stability and groundedness as a child. 

Water reappears notably in the final moments, when the narrator has a daughter of her own. “I hold my daughter up so she can get her own water from the tap,” she says, “so she doesn’t have to reach. She pulls the spigot and the liquid pours out, a genesis.” The narrator’s relationship with water here, and thus with herself, proves evolutionary, able to reinvent itself for her daughter and continue the cycle of love, support and teaching passed down from her own mother. The narrator’s future is resolved only as she begins living for her daughter, holding her up so that she can get her own water from the tap, accepting her daughter’s full, developing personhood. 

The questions asked and answered throughout these two pieces are as chillingly destabilizing in their truthfulness as the ghost in the mirror is to Jackson’s narrator. Penniman and Jackson appear to suffer from a similar haunting, a shared condition of fascination—and it only makes sense that GDS students are attracted to the theme of an unpredictable future, considering how we each find ourselves, as teenagers, on the precipice of adulthood, suspended between two worlds. And, too, how often we are faced with our own scarily consequential decisions about the future. These are indelible central dilemmas, difficult to avoid being haunted by. As any writer must, Penniman and Jackson each write their own truth, which is just as much a generation’s, in all the ways it haunts, looms, corrodes, consumes.