Fiction — February 22, 2012 13:24 — 12 Comments

An Example Of The Motif Of Harmful Sensation In Fiction – Christopher WunderLee

On a bright blue day, something happened. This something, as it were, was most likely nature finally discovering metaphor, or perhaps, finally comprehending metaphor, because it rained cats and dogs. Not frogs mind you, which can be explained scientifically (poor things are lifted up from their swamps by the high density of decomposition towards the low density of the sky and then, come tumbling down). It rained cats and dogs. 

However, these were not purebred Weimaraners or Pembroke Welsh Corgis or Persian or American Longhairs. These were metaphoric cats and dogs. Symbols of cats and dogs. Large, lumbering, living symbols, like veritable cartoons from the mind of nature that came plummeting from the sky, totaled cars and caved in roofs, and then, got up, shook themselves off, and started walking around. Which led quite a few people to wonder—what is the meaning of this?

The insurance companies just knew that no policy covered it. This couldn’t very well be an “act of god”, since there were no metaphoric cats and dogs in the Bible (as far as anyone knows). The government shrugged and turned to its scientists, who in turn advised additional tests. The military wanted to go on the offensive, but their missiles just passed through the clouds and blew up space debris from long forgotten satellites and orbiting coffins. The church had its own problems, so many metaphorical cats and dogs had plunged right through their steeples and church towers and belfries, they had a major crisis of faith going on.

There were fatalities of course. Mostly golfers and pedestrians and other eccentrics out in open spaces, walking along, all the sudden crushed by a massive symbol of nature’s flirtation with similes. However, there were no telltale signs such as “like” or “as” to define them. They were just there, scratching behind a fabricated ear as someone’s arms and legs fanned out below them or licking a fictional paw as someone squirmed underneath.

Like all metaphors, these were substantial, embellished, amplified versions of some truth, two stories tall maybe, generic mutts and regular felines, gigantic symbols. But of what, no one was certain. Of course, there were theories. “Nature is trying to tell us something,” cried headlines in the local newspapers that hadn’t yet went under, but not that many people read them so their warnings went unheeded. A woman in Centralia claimed to be a “nature whisperer”, in psychic contact with the ghost of a 2,000-year-old shaman from Papua who had “lost his pets”. The woman, who called herself Tara Forma, said this shaman told her people needed to be nicer to animals. The Organization for the Rights of Creatures All (ORCA) threatened to sue anyone who hurt any metaphors. The only successful litigation was against poets.

General contractors had cat and dog renovation sales. And there were gigantic cats and dogs metaphorically ambling about towns, with no particular place to go. Garbage cans were raided. Sandboxes were befouled. The beaches were off limits. Parks became enormous dog fields. Yet, still they came, like giant barking asteroids or meowing Hollywood special effects in disaster films. A particularly large Bernard-like symbol took out the Washington Monument. A litter of plummeting felines turned the Great Pyramids into rubble. A sizable stray decided Yankee Stadium was a pretty comfy dog bed. Fans were outraged.

Of course, the metaphor was strained. Dogs chase cats. They are mortal enemies. Large packs of large metaphoric dogs roamed cities, controlling whole boroughs. Cats climbed buildings and perched on their parapets to avoid the enormous metaphoric dogs. Catfights were common and could close down whole transportation systems and entire business districts. People died from pet allergies that didn’t seem to know it was all a symbol for something.

The government remained at a loss. Finally, the president ordered the National Guard into the major ‘hot’ zones, but they were met by enraged animal activists and unknown, but fierce, experimental writers, throwing themselves in front of battle-ready regiments embittered from skirmishes in war-frayed, desert countries. What ensued was probably at least one of America’s darkest hours. Whole generations of self-published, serious poetasters and prose stylists no one had ever heard of and would never hear of were gunned down in an orgy of gun fire, missile fire, bazooka fire, rocket fire, flame fire, tank fire and other types of fire no one could identify. With them, pretty much every animal rights group lost all their most militant members, meaning, nearly all of the country’s lesbians fell, along with several hundred women that were probably lesbians. The mullet and fans of the Indigo Girls were nearly wiped off the face of the earth in one afternoon.

The strange thing about it was, the falling, metaphoric dogs and cats were destroying habitat, doing damage to ecosystems, and leaving large biohazard piles wherever they went. What could it all mean?

People didn’t care much what nature was getting at. They just wanted to be able to leave their homes, drive uncrushed cars, and make it into supermalls without being squished. Talk radio shows were full of angry callers. Several of the most popular hosts suggested it was a vast liberal conspiracy to push forward mandatory healthcare for all and other positive changes. People stood up during town hall style meetings and lamented, “What about the children?” or bewailed, “What about the economy?” Several trade organizations decried in op-ed columns that if anything was done – anything – it would cost thousands of jobs. Celebrities and other people often in the tabloids were interviewed and offered their significant perspectives, mostly about “love” and “peace”. The comment sections on internet posts and annoying forums were dominated with irate avatars debating uninformed solutions. Conspiracy theorists got people all whipped up into frenzies about secret government operations and experiments.

The people demanded answers, and a Truth Finding Mission was immediately launched via a unanimous vote in the venerable halls of Congress. They, in turn, put together a Blue Ribbon Committee, who was forced due to several regulations to hire outside contractors through no-bid contracts. The Committee granted Vye Inc. a one-billion dollar deal, DarkMatter, LLC a three billion dollar contract, and Voist, the manufacturers of airplane engines for stealth bombers, a four-month, six billion dollar agreement.

Seven months later, with several cost overruns that had ballooned the budget to 18 billion dollars, Vye Inc., Dark Matter, LLC and Voist reported that it seemed there was no sure etymology of the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’. It could be from the great plague, when dead cats and dogs washed down gutters. Or, some medieval occurrence when dogs and cats fell off thatch roofs when it rained. Or, way back in ancient Greek and Norse times, when gods were shown accompanied by dogs and/or cats, and could, potentially, throw those down on mortals as punishments. Or, just maybe, the weather related to rain sort of sounded like dogs and cats fighting, although, according to Vye, this seemed like a quite a leap.

Dark Matter’s report shared the essential kernel of information that the word ‘dog’ has many connotations. As a noun, of course, it stood for canines, but as an adjective and even more significantly, as a verb, its meaning was ripe with allegory. Dog – chase after, bother, hound, trouble; to keep under surveillance by moving along behind, shadow, track; to follow closely or persistently, tag, heel, tail. And, there were numerous sayings or figures of speech involving dogs. Dogs are barking, and dogs are tired; sick as a dog and let sleeping dogs lie; dog eat dog world and barking up the wrong tree. (As it turned out, cat wasn’t as interesting. They were cats, sometimes pets. That was all. Although buried deep within Voist’s testimony there was a mention that it used to stand for someone cool or hip.) Yet, the three contractors concluded all this seemed a bit vague, a bit protracted for nature to allude to in any kind of reasonable manner.

They noted that in its simplest form, a metaphor suggests a resemblance or representing something else. In its somewhat elevated use, it meant something that ordinarily designates one thing but is used to designate another, thereby making an implicit comparison. At the high-end, it was an association between two or more things that highlighted the striking contrast or created a relationship with one thing to another that was a wholly new construct.

However, reconciling this with nature’s generally crude implications and/or tendency to represent simplicity was a long way off. Whether this was a prejudice, i.e. an unfair assessment forced upon the phenomenon by egocentric humans, they could not definitively determine with their current time and budget constraints. All three requested revised schedules and enhanced budgets due to the girth of the project. By raining cats and dogs, nature was, brusquely suggesting that it had moved beyond simple comparisons and was groping into the realm of art.

The request for further investigative resources by the three contractors was buttressed by an independent assessment from a prominent academic organization, The Future America Research Tank, who had made a name for themselves after publishing a paper detailing how regulation had stifled innovation in the hypothesis of intelligent design.

In their assessment, the Future America Research Tank pointed out that their own investigation had twice been interrupted by tropic pets quite literally bringing down the house at the local library. More significantly, their report discussed a resource, Wallace Stevens. What this was, no one who read the report knew, but it appeared that this tool or instrument or whatever it was uncovered by the researchers somehow could understand and even explain metaphor. Wallace Stevens could, interestingly enough, discern metaphor in nature that expanded upon its common Romantic association or Transcendental significance. While a Coleridge or a Whitman might conjure up some pretty enlightening comparisons with nature as one thesis (or antithesis), the Wallace Stevens had seemed to comprehend preternaturally that there was more to it than bucolic fits of fancy, more than signifying the sublime. The report relied heavily upon “Anecdote of the Jar”, an anecdote, obviously, closely related to the metaphor. By placing a jar “upon a hill”, the Wallace Stevens had, notably, perhaps radically, made the wilderness “no longer wild”. This uncomfortable rapport, in Tennessee no less, was potentially part of the overall metonymy.

So compelling was the promise of the Wallace Stevens, a three-star general demanded from an underling that his regiment acquire this Wallace Stevens too, no matter the cost or the black-ops mission required to do so.

Philosophically, the Future America Research Tank was presupposing, the two things in comparison were in fact cats and dogs. One uncomplicated, the other multifarious, and therefore, not really about cats and dogs at all. However, when a draft of this report of initial findings was leaked to the press, the powerful lobbying group, FELIFE, Folks Ending Lies Involving Felines Everywhere, immediately protested the suggestion that cats were simple, even though this was meant only in a metaphoric sense. The Blue Ribbon Committee contacted the contractors to let them know in no uncertain terms that diplomacy and compromise were needed.

At least someone was doing something. And people were adapting to the enormous presence of metaphors. Part of commuting was now waiting for a pack to move off or for an emblematic feline to end its nap. Excursions now involved making offerings to hungry symbolic dogs and errands always included bringing poop bags. Leisure activities were modified to accommodate the chance for the presence or arrival of some large similitude. Sporting events could be postponed for rain or for a figure of speech. Outdoor concerts and festivals worked around playing tropes or aggressive metaphors. Marches and political gatherings adjusted to deal with curious analogies or dubious implications.

They began to accept nature’s new role, its feral presence dictating all else. And maybe this was the point. No one could say for sure. It turned out, Wallace Stevens had been dead for 60 years and anyone else with that kind of comprehension of allegory had either been gunned down or were seemingly hiding out,  quietly teaching at small liberal colleges.

Then one day, it just rained—water. No cats or dogs plummeting down onto rooftops or parked cars. Just water falling from the sky. What did it mean? This new development. Even the metaphors looked up inquisitively when they first felt the initial drops on their abstract snouts. What was nature trying to say this time? Would they all have to live with this too? Without explanation, without reason? It was all too nonfigurative, too theoretical. At least dogs and cats falling from the sky had some precedence; the figure of speech had come from somewhere – perhaps some previous flirtation with metaphor? But this, simply going back to moisture everywhere, this was too coy, as if Joyce or someone like that was up there sending down really obscure allusions that would take books and books (too thick for anyone to read) to decipher. Perhaps nature had gone the way of the theatre of the absurd?

Again, there were theories and suggestions and headlines. Finally, Vye, DarkMatter and Voist produced their final report. In essence, it said they’d all just have to live with it. You want to know the meaning of life? Maybe that’s it. Maybe everything acts as if two or more things are similar and therefore, substitutes one for the other. Maybe that’s the meaning part. Maybe all this odd behavior from nature is trying to say: life is really about figuring out the meaning. Why rain? There’s lots of reasons. But there is no one correct answer.

As one remaining writer suggested, maybe it’s nature crying… Maybe she is this sort of soul.


Christopher WunderLee is a writer from Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in Zyzzyva, Snow Monkey, the Sun, All-Story, Places, Modern Nomad, the Paris/Atlantic, and the Midwest Review. His novel, Moore's Mythopoeia, was published in 2010, and a collection of short stories, Visiting Hours, in 2007.


  1. Jeff Bursey says:

    NIcely done, witty and re-invigorating a tired conceit by pushing it to a logical end. Thanks for publishing this. I appreciated the reference to the liberal arts colleges, too.

  2. Sam says:

    Is this even a short story? Oddest thing I think I’ve ever read.

    • Becky says:

      Couldn’t disagree more.

    • Craig R says:

      What is a short story is an interesting discussion. It has changed over time. What we now call the sthort story has evolved from the oral story telling tradition, fables and anecdotes. This story then, is actually closer to the original idea of short story because it is kind of an anecdote.

  3. Becky says:

    What?I I loved this story. It’s so clever. Short stories have become tired and boring – this one is neither! It’s refreshing.

  4. Krys Holmes says:

    Now THAT is a beautiful last sentence.

  5. Johnny says:

    Is this a footnote to a real story?

  6. Marjorie says:

    I agree with Becky, I love this story! It’s a skillfully written piece where both the story and the pros are entertaining! I’ll definitely be checking out Mr. WunderLee’s novel!

  7. Max S. says:

    A “motif of harmful sensation” is a recurring theme in literature in which physical or mental damage occurs by experiencing what should normally be a benign sensation. For instance, in Mark Twain’s “A Literary Nightmare”, a song that people hear causes them to obsessively sing it until they pass it on to another person, or in David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, there is a computer program that harms people. This story is supposedly an example of this motif, which means, in this case, when it rains, people see cats and dogs falling from the sky. This is an allegory then of an allegory, and if you were to read it with that in mind, very clever.

  8. Julie says:

    Extra clever story! Excited to check out more work by Mr. Wunderlee!

  9. anthony says:

    Having read two books by Christopher Wunderlee, this story reflects his interest in presenting unique perspectives on traditional tropes. People suggesting this is not a ‘real’ short story fail to recognize the evolution of short fiction, and how post-postmodernists are contributing to its sustainability. This is an excellent example of how fiction can present alternate perspectives and toy with how we define it.

  10. […] unique perspective has appeared in The Monarch Review, Zyzzyva, The Paris/Atlantic, All-Story, Places, Modern Nomad and the Midwest Review. His novel, […]

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney