The Fourth River

A Second Look: “Dreaming on the Surface,” by Lissy Goralnik


by Sharla Yates, The Fourth River Staff

I’m the type who likes to begin at one end and work my way forward, especially when eating a sub sandwich (left to right) or flipping through a photo album or magazine. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to Volume 1 of The Fourth River from Spring 2005. While reading, I found myself earmarking many stories between its covers. Nonetheless after a week away from the collection, I couldn’t shake the sorrow I had after reading the short story, “Dreaming on the Surface,” by Lissy Goralnik. Goralnik holds a Ph.D. in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University and a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Idaho.

“Dreaming on the Surface,” follows a family of four who are traveling by horseback through the Alaskan wilderness. When his horse falls on a frozen lake, husband and father, Vince, breaks his leg. Maddie must then decide whether it will be her young daughter, Retta or herself to go back the many dangerous miles for help. The tension heightens when Vince threatens that if anything happens to Retta he will never forgive Maddie.

What comes to the surface is a family drama of haunting past mistakes and jealousy. Goralnik focuses sharply on an incisive plot where a loss of affection plays a key element and a desire to reclaim the other; tension steadily rises. Goralnik aptly draws the vastness of the Alaskan landscape, while closing in on the harshness of nature, bringing it upfront so as to smell the horse sweat, feel the dull pain of breathing the air that freezes when drawn in, and sense snow giving way underfoot. As in this passage, which occurs while Vince lies immobilized and Maddie attempts to appear capable, directing her daughters on what to do next: “The three of us dragged him, now on the blankets, fifty feet from the horse, in short spurts. I knew we’d be on the lake for a while, and I didn’t want to sit by a dead horse. ‘OK, good job girls. Let’s get that fire going and boil some water. Retta, come here for a second, will you?’ I pulled Loretta over to the side. Our feet skid and squeaked on the fresh snow, wet and dense from the warm days of early spring last week” (52).

“Dreaming on the Surface” does much with so little, which is what I expect from a good short story. With patience and concentration, Goralnik reveals a world by giving attention to a sliver of time. After reading this story, one cannot help but be cautioned. A single moment, a decision, is an opportunity to transform a life, and not necessarily for the better.


Sharla Yates is an MFA candidate at Chatham University, a land education enthusiast with over nine years experience teaching Higher Ed, vegan cook, baker and Kombucha brewer. She owns no pets but dreams of birds.