The pamphlet they got from La Fonda said the trail was only 3.5 miles long, but they’d been at it for almost four hours by the time they realized something was off. They had seen no cathedral and worse, the…
Way back in high school, we were taught about the core categories of conflict in narrative, including (Wo)man vs. Man, vs. Nature, and vs. Self. I’ll admit these categories were not explicitly in my mind when I wrote this story, but this story’s narrative conflict partakes of each. It is a story about conflicts between two characters, within one character, and with the environment. Maren and Jeff’s relationship directly maps onto the landscape they are lost in: increasingly uncertain, without a way forward, no means of returning to what was, and ultimately resulting in separation. After this split, Maren both loses and finds herself within this setting. The conflict becomes less about her and Jeff and the setting instead serves as an externalization of her inner crises. She cannot see the path but nevertheless she finds a way through to the other side, she finds a way out.
In “Making Sense of a Sense of Place,” Cynthia Neely says “to a writer, [place] could be literal, imaginary, or metaphorical.” I wanted this story’s setting to be at once a literal place—a hike high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico—and an imaginary and metaphorical one: the cathedral of the title is a way of perceiving place rather than a place as such. The artist’s statement that runs throughout the story develops this idea of a perceptual overlay on a real place, a way of understanding the outside as inside: undeveloped nature becomes the sacred space of a cathedral; place becomes the feeling it evokes. Neely also includes the psychological idea of insidedness, meaning “the particular experience of a person in a particular setting.” Though the setting is a vastness, a place that overwhelms the characters by being shapeless and uncontained, the experience—curated by the artist—is of insidedness, where their subjective experience is itself a sort of place they’re navigating.
One of my favorite examples of a story’s use of place is John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” The landscape is at once richly realized and also highly subjective, symbolic, and increasingly surreal. I wanted to explore something similar here, with the landscape a real physical place and also a purely subjective experience, at first between two characters and then within only one.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN is a former fellow of the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and St. John’s College’s Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts. He has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His collection of stories, Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned, was published by Colony Collapse Press and his work has appeared in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.