The Vision Splendid — a masterpiece of the short short story

Sean Arthur
18 min readJan 17, 2022

Written by Peter Carey (novel and screenplay), this short short story opens the Australian movie Bliss (1985). Whether Carey knew it or not, he created one of the best movie openings of all time and one of the greatest short short stories in the English language.

Even for many who have seen the movie its depths are only felt. Let’s take a closer look.

It is raining, hard. Through the sound of the rain we hear a man’s voice and our journey begins.

“This is the story of The Vision Splendid”

Read it now yourself. Read it out loud, slowly, or hear it inside your head. Here it is:

“ This is the story of ‘The Vision Splendid’:

‘ It had been dry for eight weeks, and the whole of the sky was full of dust,

and nobody thought it would ever rain again.

And then one afternoon we saw the storm clouds coming from the south

and we prayed for rain.

Your mother,who I didn’t know, went to church, and she prayed for It to rain.

And I prayed too, but not in Church.’

And then I’d say, ‘Did it rain, did It rain?’

‘And my father would say: ‘When your mother asks God for rain…

It rained like all the air was a river.

And the drains in the street filled up,

and the water crept out across the main street until It swallowed it.

I was down at the co-op shifting flour and grain when I looked up, just glanced up,

And that,’ my father would say, ‘was when I saw The Vision Splendid. ‘

And I’d say, ‘What was it, what was the vision splendid?’

and he’d say, ‘It was your Mother, lad, your mother,

standing in the bow of the boat piled high with things from the Church.

She was standing in the bow, holding the Cross,

and her eyes, my boy, her eyes,

all that water, and such luminous eyes.’ ”

And it ends. Brief. Two hundred and eighteen words.

As a spoken only story, opening without title or preamble, we are immediately caught, as if a curtain has risen on a stage and an actor speaks. And it has. Our imaginations are that stage.

So this is actually theatre. The form is timeless.

It is written in meter, with the narrator as the chorus, as in an ancient Greek play.

We realize soon that we don’t know the title of the story we’re hearing.

“The Vision Splendid” is the title of the story within the story, which we also learn is perhaps a much older, deeper story. So no title, but also no third party omniscient narrator.

We realize that the person telling the story is a performer, not a reliable omniscient narrator to provide an overview with facts and perspective. No author as witness, then, whose testimony we are asked to believe. In fact, as we listen (or hear in our heads), with no meta data to ‘set the stage’, we are the Witness. It is us who must experience this story. The testimony will be ours.

This opening then untethers us from reality.

Structurally the chorus opens the performance. As the tale is told we realize that the dialogue is metered, and as it progresses, is presented in three sections (as if acts in a play) introduced and separated by the chorus.

So we have an organizational structure, a very old one, and it is not the structure of the Western story or novel or even ancient fable, but indeed theatre.

“This is the story of ‘The Vision Splendid’.

When these words are read we feel the ambiguity. The quotation marks mean someone else is speaking, but if read we don’t know that the speaker is a man, as in the movie. However, if just reading, we adapt.

So we know we are witness to a narrator telling us about another story. Here is the beginning of the story inside the story:

“It had been dry for eight weeks, and the whole of the sky was full of dust,

and nobody thought it would ever rain again.”

So we ask, What exactly is going on? The language seems oddly specific, but without detail.

“It had been dry…” What is “It”, an in-ground swimming pool? and how dry is ‘dry’ ?

“for eight weeks…” What is important about this specific time frame?

“and the whole of the sky was full of dust…” Oh oh. Calamity. Which sky, where?

“and nobody thought it would ever rain again.” A crisis of faith, but who are ‘nobody’?

From the lack of specific detail — we aren’t “in Western Australia in January”, or Kansas in July, or someone’s backyard at four in the afternoon — the story exists in a timeless place in our imaginations.

But the narrator notes a specific period of dryness, meaning people have been keeping track, so this is significant. It means that at other times when it was dry it rained well before eight weeks had passed, and this was significant because the rain is essential in this region. The climate must be seasonal-temperate. These specific details would not matter otherwise.

This means a season with periods of dryness relieved periodically by adequate rain, as far as the ‘nobody’ group knows.

And there is a spiritual problem. These are people functioning on a rational level only. They “thought”, not “believed”, a homogeneous group no longer believing or having faith, only thinking, only rational.

So we are looking at a crisis of faith as well as a collective lack of experience of the environment in this specific location. Otherwise ‘eight weeks’, if part of an understood, larger cycle, would not be alarming, but now it is. The narrator does not say ‘no rain’, but dry, as in not even dew. Totally arid, without even moisture in the air.

We can infer that this is not the desert, because, well who cares? The desert is always dry. It’s like saying, ‘Today the sea is wet.’ The sea is always wet, the desert is always dry. So this is an unforeseen change.

We realize “It” must be the climate, or more specifically the Earth, and an exact location would be distracting. This story applies to anyone, anywhere. On a spiritual or metaphysical level we recognize “It” as the soul of the Earth, Gaia.

“And the whole of the sky was full of dust.”

Now we know what has happened. Where the earth becomes periodically parched, but otherwise is temperate, the vegetation adapts. The plants and seeds wait for moisture to return, the soil remains intact. But in this story, something calamitous has happened, the soil has been ruined, desiccated, and now by the slightest air currents fills the entire sky.

We know this has not been from natural disaster. The sky itself is not darkened by the soot of an enormous volcano, for example, or climate change that happens gradually. Perhaps a fire storm? Then why are you there six weeks later, waiting for rain? Did a giant wave reach a kilometre inland and wipe out the rice paddies? Survivors will starve, time to go.

The only answer is hubris. The only way for “the whole of the sky was filled with dust” to be remarkable is for this to be a man-made disaster.

We can immediately surmise that people have tilled the soil or grazed animals with unfounded self confidence — hubris — without the knowledge or experience necessary to properly steward the land, which they now realize. These people realize they are the authors of their own fate, victims of their own arrogance and ignorance. And they know that Nature has not failed them; it is they who have failed Nature.

“And nobody thought it would ever rain again.”

The narrator speaks with authority that this is a homogeneous community ( “nobody”, not half or ‘all but Ralph Jones’ but everyone…) experiencing a crisis of faith.

And why would they think (rather than believe) that Gaia, “It”, would rain for them when they are so disconnected from the Earth? They have been too rational as well as too faithful (to the wrong god). This ‘nobody’ community harbours a collective guilt, and suspects they are being punished. Of course it will rain again some day, but not until either they have perished or left the land.

Their guilt is also joined by despair. If we presume this community also possess a complex religion, not only has Gaia forsaken them, but their God has as well. From where did they get the righteousness to work the land before living on it long enough to know how to manage it properly? From their faith in their God, who has by proof of their failed stewardship, led them astray.

So we surmise that this is a community now in the grip of a crisis of faith. They have, to a one, come to realize that they have placed their faith in the wrong god, a god that has now forsaken them.

“And then one afternoon we saw the storm clouds coming from the south and we prayed for rain.”

Narratively speaking the tale needs grounding: “one afternoon”, “the storm clouds”, and “from the south.” So these people know the compass points. So they are not indigenous, or ‘savages’ or ‘cave men’, but Europeans. Plus we need to know that it is day time, not the middle of the night.

So collectively everyone glimpses salvation in “the south”. And not God, but perhaps Gaia is sending rain? What to do?

“and we prayed for rain.”

So the narrator of the chorus relates that the narrator-who-is-witness knows that everyone ( “we” ) prays, but not to their God, (not “we prayed to God to send us the rain”), nor to Gaia, from whom they remain disconnected. They just “prayed for…” , indiscriminately, untethered.

And then we learn what the story is about.

“Your mother” — ah! now an origin story?

“who I didn’t know,” — a love story? a reference to carnality, a narrator revealed

“went to church,” — which Church? why unnamed? why uncapitalized?

“and she prayed for It to rain.” — ah ha! a connection to Gaia

“And I prayed too, but not in Church.” — A different church? A confession?

With “Your mother”, the tale suddenly reveals that this is a story told by a parent to a son or daughter. This is an origin story.

“who I didn’t know…” Indeed. The story of a future love affair. The implication is that the person will “know” the other intimately and romantically in the future, not just in this tale’s timeline.

The story does not say, “who I didn’t know of…” or “of whom I knew little” which means not knowing details about. This allows “know” to carry the double entendre: “details” and “carnal knowledge” , which one presumes must happen to create the child of this tale’s chorus.

She “went to church”. Meaning what?

The “Your mother” person did not “go” — that is physically travel — to the building that is “The Church” — a specific place of religious worship with the name of the religion attached: Anglican, Protestant, Adventist… No. The teller wishes the idea of ‘church’ to remain undefined.

She apparently did travel to a church, we can surmise, but in using the less specific and past tense verb “went” the narrator is making clear her journey is metaphysical. She went “to church”, the holy place, but as unnamed is disconnected from any specific, organized religion. And then the double meaning: “to church” is also a verb. In the way children go out “to play” this person went ‘to church’, to actively do ‘church’. That is, to formally connect with the spiritual. Not the organized named and codified Church, but the sacred, instinctive act of spiritual connection in a spiritual place.

“And she prayed for It to rain.” Oh my. Redemption.

This woman knows she must pray to “It”, to Gaia, to commune directly with the true power that oversees life in this community. She has become their Redeemer. The only person with the courage to seek salvation from the true god, rejecting as she does the false God of their organized religion.

The story does not say “She prayed to (or for) God to make it rain (or bring rain)”, that is, to control the weather (which clearly has not worked in eight weeks). And she does not even pray for Gaia to bring them rain; no, the depth of her connection to the life force is so profound she prays for Gaia to BE rain. We have now fully entered a metaphysical reality.

“And I prayed too, but not in Church”.

This second narrator, the parent-telling-the-tale to the child, now grounds us back in the real. The lighter tone reminds us that this is a tale of human beings, not Gods and Goddesses.

And in order to justify his or her worthiness, our story teller suggests a connection to the same energies: “I prayed too,”. Not, we will note, “I prayed with the others”.

As well we might sense a hint of disingenuousness, but we understand that this parent is revealing a

vulnerability coupled with honesty. Why? Because this parent knows their telling of this story imparts a lesson in adult hood to their child. A truth about love. Mentoring.

And thus ends Act I of our three act tale.

Act II

And then I’d say, ‘Did it rain, did It rain?’

‘And my father would say: ‘When your mother asks God for rain… It rained like all the air was a river.

And the drains in the street filled up,

and the water crept out across the main street until It swallowed it.

I was down at the co-op shifting flour and grain when I looked up, just glanced up,

And that,’ my father would say, ‘was when I saw The Vision Splendid. ‘

So we open act II with the chorus:

“ And then I’d say, ‘Did it rain, did It rain?’”

Note how the narrator uses the present tense: “say”, not “said”. We are being witness, remember, this tale is unfolding before us in real time, the present. As a memory is being experienced, imagining another’s memory, we are asked to witness the same and make our own memory.

And note how the tale runs together, leaving little time to question details: “And my father…And the drains…and the water..And that…was…”.

We learn a little more about the setting. “And the drains in the street…”

Storm sewers in the main street of a small town means this is no community of early European pioneers. Europeans simply did not build sewers into their biggest cities before the late 1800’s. And a town with storm sewers in the main street would likely date no earlier than the first or second decade of the 20th century. This adds a level of irony to the story. We are living (in our imaginations) a modern cautionary tale.

“ And my father would say: ‘When your mother asks God for rain…

It rained like all the air was a river. ”

Now we have proof.

“It”, Gaia, accepted the prayer and became rain. And we also understand that this man is naive, but is honest about it. At this point in the narrative, he still believes that this woman has contacted the modern Christian god, or similar, but in the telling of this tale we know this is not a Christian story, but a much older one.

And we now learn this is a tale told by the father to his child. This lesson is a man’s love story and an origin story and a cautionary fable.

And true to his nature, and why he is in such awe, our Father-narrator does not comprehend how this was done. He does not understand that our Mother-hero did not ask the old God for rain at all.

The details are specific. The rain is so dense ‘the air was a river’. Not LIKE a river, but actually a river. This is the response our Mother-hero elicits from Gaia, or perhaps having connected so intimately, is rewarded by Gaia.

“And the drains in the street filled up,

and the water crept out across the main street until It swallowed it.”

Again, in the way the story is told, we know that it is Gaia who is responding. Why be so indefinite with the article “It”? If this were a Christian parable, then we would be told that their faith in God caused God to send them rain. But we are not told that. Instead Gaia is characterized: “until It swallowed it [the main street].”.

Our story also proceeds relentlessly, “And…and…” on purpose, so we do not have a moment to question the action, just feel it.

This narration gives vivid presence to the power of the sacred.

And now the Father-narrator’s exposition continues:

“I was down at the co-op shifting flour and grain when I looked up, just glanced up,

And that,’ my father would say, ‘was when I saw The Vision Splendid. ‘”

What do we learn? Confirmation that this is a modern fable, as the father-narrator’s status becomes elevated to hero. We realize why momentarily.

The Father is down at the co-op. This is a farming community, and the farming co-operative is the community’s life’s blood. There is no more important place aside from The Church, and the Church can float away and drop off the edge of the world, but the co-op is the town’s survival.

And everybody, man woman and child, knows this. So where are they? Their survival is at risk! All the supplies the town needs to continue are in danger. The seed grain for the next year, the animal feed, the machinery, the fuel, cloth, tools, and even the community’s stockpile of food staples.

Our father narrator does not say, “I was with every able bodied person” or “Everyone was at the co-op. I was directing…” No. He was alone, or more likely with one or two other brave men.

In the movie we are shown a scene where there are other men helping, one or two. We might infer this from the story. But everyone in town should be there, yet where are they? Have they lost their minds? Probably yes, everyone else is scared witless.

For everyone else this is Biblical retribution. Still trapped in the paradigm of a unless faith, just about everyone in town despairs because their guilt makes them believe their punishment continues. God must really hate us. Maybe they are all praying for the rain to stop; we don’t know and in the story, clearly what the other mortals are doing is not important.

What is important is that we realize our Father’s status has been elevated, from narrator, to hero to Witness in one moment. As if in an epiphany, our now Father-hero suddenly realizes his new status when he looks up and is allowed a revelation.

… I looked up, just glanced up,

And that,’ my father would say, ‘was when I saw The Vision Splendid.’

Only in his new status, earned by his actions and courage, can the Father now be worthy of being Witness. And he knows, as we do, that he has become more than he was before.

“And that,’ my father would say…” Here we are told, we have reached the turning-point in the story.

“…was when I saw The Vision Splendid.’ ”.

This is the key moment. The father, now Father-hero, knows the Fates (or some other unknowable power) allows him to see the Vision. He has been given sight. True sight.

There is another key to the story telling. Our first narrator intervenes, here at the end of Act II, wanting us to know we are still in his or her story.

The lessons have worked. We now realize, if we had not before, that the child narrator has become a Keeper of Stories as well. But a perhaps, like ourselves, a lesser one.

He or she says: “my father would say,” to remind us of that bond, that father-hero to child connection, to remind us of the authenticity of this fabulous tale, and of ‘the story’ as a cultural repository of important information.

The narrator does not say, “my father did say”, or more simply, “he said…”, which would make the story a one-time event. Rather the narrator uses the past tense verb “would” so as to imply the father has told this story before.

If the father-hero has told this story many times before we now understand his roll: he is a keeper of community wisdom, a master of the first and oldest human invention: the story. This father is no simple star struck male, but a Witness and Keeper of knowledge.

The fable wants us to form a positive picture of the father-hero, to illustrate his elevation. Not a bystander, but a person of action. He is “shifting flour and grain” — doing the hard practical work of saving the town from starvation, though in the midst of this deluge most others are incapacitated.

And at this juncture of the tale our Father-narrator clearly wants us to understand the serendipity of the moment. Forces are working beyond human comprehension to bring he and his future love together. “just happened to glance up…” — chance? No, we are to doubt that.

Here there will be no planning and scheming and faith in the (wrong) god; no carnal desires driving mortal ambitions. Rather, energies beyond the lovers’ ability to comprehend are at work.

And note as well the word ‘miracle’ is never used. The rain was not a miracle. Nor was the father-hero’s sighting of the narrator-who-is-witness’ future mother a miracle. Not, “It was a miracle I looked up” or “it was a miracle I could see anything at all” (The air was a river, remember? How much can you see when you swim in a river with your eyes open? Not much, not far.). “Miracle” is a word now completely corrupted by Western Religion, and virtually abused by the Catholic Church. And this fable has nothing to do with Christian “miracles”.

And so we are left in suspense. What might be, “The Vision Splendid”?

Here ends Act II.

Act III. Again with the chorus! We open:

And I’d say, ‘What was it, what was the vision splendid?’

and he’d say, ‘It was your Mother, lad, your mother,

standing in the bow of the boat piled high with things from the Church.

She was standing in the bow, holding the Cross,

and her eyes, my boy, her eyes,

all that water, and such luminous eyes.’ ”

True to form, we are in the same narrative structure.

Now we realize our child-chorus narrator has told this story many times as well, just as his father-hero told it many times. Clearly they wish us to be as enthralled and awed as the first time they heard it.

“and he’d say, ‘It was your Mother, lad, your mother, “

Ah HA! Now we know it is a story told by a father to a son.

Our father-hero as narrator is teaching the son about love, about what real love between a man and a woman (or between two people) truly means, about how real love is deep and powerful and connected to the Earth’s spirit.

And now we understand the impact the story has made on the son, as he repeats this story to us.

Note how the father-hero repeats ‘mother’, so the story can emphasize his awe and respect.

The father-hero relates, [she was]

“standing in the bow of the boat piled high with things from the Church.”

Note the language. “the boat” and “the Church”. Not “a” boat, but “the” boat. A specific boat, coming from a specific Church. What is the reference? The biblical flood? Charron ferrying souls across the river Stycs? Perhaps.

It has rained so much that an open boat can float where there used to be streets. We certainly know this can happen; we see it on television and the Internet too. But where did the boat come from? Isn’t this place land locked? Or is there a big enough river near by that there are row boats readily available? But that supposition makes no sense.

If there is a river next to this town it would fill first, and then the river, some hours later, on top of the continuous deluge, would crest its banks and then drown the whole town. ‘Shifting flour and grain’ is small potatoes, everyone has to leave. Entire houses are going to float away. But we are told none of this. There is no overflowing river, this town is not in the middle of a large flood plane.

So where did the boat, large enough to pile high with “things from the Church” come from? It is, at this point, fabulous, not meant to be answered.

And someone is rowing the boat. Who? Our narrator doesn’t know because when one rows a boat one’s back is to the bow; one looks not ahead but behind. A nameless, faceless rower heads to the Co-Op but looks back at the Church. Our Mother-hero, in the bow of the boat, is the only one in the story who literally looks ahead.

“She was standing in the bow, holding the cross,”

Our Mother-hero is not only a redeemer, but by holding the Cross, the symbol of christianity, we are told she bridges both worlds. This is no mistake, this woman is heroic, bridging two spiritual traditions.

In the movie, the cross is not the Catholic cross, but an older Celtic cross that represents the bonding of Roman Christianity and Celtic nature worship.

“and her eyes, my boy, her eyes…” — the windows of the Soul. For our father-hero, mesmerizing.

“All that water, and such luminous eyes.”

And then its over, reverberating like a long held musical cord into our shared, cultural memory.

And it hardly makes sense. How could he see her eyes?

If the air is a river it is dark. Very very dark. Not able to see clearly ten feet in front of your nose dark.

Have you ever been in a rain so heavy you can’t see anything past your outstretched arm? I have.

Clouds so thick they blot out the mid-day sun. And yet, our father-hero sees her eyes, her luminous eyes. Luminescence means light that glows but does not come from heat. The light of the moon is luminescent, as are all that moonlight illuminates. The moon, an ancient symbol of the female.

Our mother-hero’s eyes are bright with cold energy, so bright they shine through water as dark as night.

This is when we learn why the father-hero is in awe of this woman, and we should be as well. No fancy of his romantic imagination, this woman has become near demigod, a redeemer and bridge of worlds, her power drawn not from heat and fury or guilt and violence but from the cold light of truth.

“All that water, and such luminous eyes.”

And simply and abruptly the story ends. This was not a morality play. It is not a child’s fable, though it is fabulous. But it is a cautionary tale, a deceptively simple story, a love story.

With that, the curtain has fallen, we leave the theatre.

This is The Story of the Vision Splendid.

Sean. 2022.



Sean Arthur

Artist, author, analyst, creative. . You will just have to read my postings to get to know me.