When I first started learning German my teacher told us, “When you have your first dream in another language, that’s when you’ll know you’re fluent.” I’ve yet to experience my first dream in German, a language I quickly abandoned after my first glimpse at Ancient Greek letters in the Argonautica. But, I still do think about the way my teacher said this, and I remember wondering what it would be like to even think in two different languages. To this day I am not fluent enough to dream in any language other than English, but Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs” is what I imagine bilingual dreams would feel like. By blurring conversations of Spanish and English, “Catacombs” challenges genre conventions in order to address subjects of grief, place, and sexuality.
In 23 pages, Zencka tells the story of a Midwestern family that has taken a vacation in Acapulco, Mexico. Through the narration of George (who can go wrong with a name like that), we bear witness to his eight-year-old perception of the city and his grappling with the Spanish language. We follow his thirteen-year-old brother, Winnie, as he struggles to figure out independence and sexuality in a new city. Zencka splices narrative time to give us the story of these two brothers in a way that I have never seen before. The way George works through his experiences in Acapulco feels like meta-narration, saying things like, “Have I said I loved this boy? Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did.” He uses the narration to surprise us, chronologically and intellectually, telling us exactly what to expect over the course of the story, but still making us eager to see it unfold on the page.
Zencka’s debut publication gives us a glimpse into our own psychology: how we work through grief and how we work through being far away from “home” for the first time. He challenges conventions in a way that brings about raw characterization, yet still allows Zencka’s craftsmanship to shine through. If you are interested in his thought processes behind the story, check out his Q&A with Hanna Tinti at One Story, where you can also purchase a copy of the story.