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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

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Recurring images of death and decay create powerful effects in “Trilobites.” After references in the title and several early paragraphs to dead marine creatures, Pancake presents a graphic picture of Colly’s killing a turtle. Just as Colly’s valley farm provides no protection from the chilling forces of change and destruction, the calm river is no safe refuge for the turtle. When Colly pulls it out on a long gaff, the turtle bites helplessly at the instrument on which it is caught. Later, in a more obvious image of ineffectual protection, Colly mercilessly breaks the turtle shell with his foot so he can begin to cut up the meat. In killing the turtle, Colly spreads blood on the dusty ground and even on the clothing of Mr. Trent. In like manner, the pain of death in this story stains survivors such as Colly, Colly’s mother, and Ginny. Blood once again flows and stains after Ginny cuts her arm at the railroad station.

Although the slaughter of the turtle is deliberate and straightforward, the death of Colly’s father is hauntingly insidious. He survived the war wound and lived for many years with a shell fragment inside his body. Only when this tiny dagger migrated to his brain did he suddenly fall dead. Such a scenario may not be entirely plausible, but it serves well to emphasize that death is both intractable and totally unpredictable.

Along with such images of death, the story offers several details of physical decay. In the long span of geologic time, craggy mountains around the town of Rock Camp have eroded to smooth hills. With a deserted, boarded-up railroad station, the town itself is apparently in decline. Pancake’s stories contain many images of carcasses or hollow shells, and this empty building is a highly suggestive detail. (One Pancake story is simply entitled “Hollow,” and in this case the term is both a noun referring to a place and an adjective describing a personal condition.) The station’s shards of glass and other debris parallel the wreckage strewn about Colly’s life. In fact, as Colly stands next to the building, he sees himself scattered all over the country with each cell many miles from another one. Inside the desolate station, Colly and Ginny come together for sex, but their activity is not creative lovemaking. It is a detached, almost brutal act.

While negative imagery certainly dominates this story, Pancake includes faint hints of continuity and growth. While Colly sits in the depot, he listens intently to the mud daubers building their nests. As these lowly insects construct homes amid wreckage, they achieve what Colly must try again to do.