The earliest ones aren’t yours. You steal them from whoever raised you. Remnants rescued from the garbage: your mother’s perfume bottle, a lipstick worn flat, the paper-towel cardboard you use to trumpet your arrivals. You can only share what you’ve been told. How you were supposed to be a boy and loved sugar water in your bottle and fell asleep in your highchair and made a pillow of your cake. Once, a tarantula crawled into your sister’s crib. You think you remember the perfume left in the bottle, below the wick, impossible to draw, never to be sprayed, but what you really remember is the frustration, the want.
Something good, right there. And you can’t reach it.
Fire and ash
You play the fire game with your brother and sister. Not with matches. A game like a test, What Will You Save? (Mom’s cigarette butt started it. No, Dad’s pipe. Or lightning. Yeah, lightning.) You imagine how fast a fire eats. It is famished for your bed, dolls, book of tales. You only have time to grab two things, three, max. Kelly the dog must be saved. What else? What matters?
It does not feel good to choose one doll over another. You hate this game. You will grow up and write stories that refute it. Your fiction will have a theme: Everything matters.
What you learned as a child.
Silence hurts as much as yelling. The lack of a holding hand, bad as a slap. Missing, worse than drunk, sad, or angry—worse than any configuration of your longing, which is that troubled and elusive presence.
You need, you need, you need.
You take what you can get.
Flail, flinch, gnash
The man has a reputation for losing women. A knack for finding new ones. More than the prettiest, he’s partial to the youngest. He tells her, you can do this but not that. He says it without meaning it. He wants her to break his rule, so he can punish her. She’s young, she’s tempted, she’s curious. She’s screwed. And the tale is in on the punishment. It will have none of her nosiness.
You will write stories about men dying to know and then dying for knowing. Long novels about men’s bodies, up for debate and deliberation. You will fill castles and courtrooms with women. No more vasectomies, they will decide. No more circumcisions, they will ponder. No more messing with the way The Goddess made them.
Punctuation of a gash
The way you are made.
To cramp and bleed. Hurt and bleed. Natural to bleed. Taboo to bleed. Fight, laugh, work, while you bleed. Hide that you bleed. Late to bleed.
Cinders and sackcloth
Some you will grieve before they’re dead. Circumstances will require this.
If there was good before the bad, you can try to save it. There’s no shame in that. Hug your grief. The shirt holds a scent. You’re welcome to wear it to a gossamer rag. You’re free to sleep on the hearth in the ashes.
Fleece and dash
You find the frayed end of a thread. You tug until a thought unravels. A tangle. It begins to look dangerous, a swarm of snakes. A mess of tinder. Kindling. Spiders. Vipers. Killers. What have you done? You need to make something out of the mess. So you try.
The NFFR and Melissa Ostrom Micro Life Interview
What inspired this piece?
I was remembering a fairytale collection I loved as a kid. Love is probably the wrong word. Some of the tales scared me, how moms die and dads turn indifferent. Wolves charm. Princesses flee and barely escape death. Children are left to fend for themselves. Appearances can’t be trusted. People aren’t who they seem to be.
For all their enchantments and happily-ever-afters, fairy tales tap relatable fears. The memory of that old collection, the deliciously magical tales with their all-too-real and bitter seeds, stirred other memories.
Short pieces depend a great deal on what’s left out. What was in an early draft of this piece that you removed?
Not much. In fact, this flash grew from draft to draft. The section headings were a later addition. I liked the idea of playing with the word flash, in its sound and its meanings, tying it to fairy tales, recollections, old burns and angers, and the understanding that springs from long sorrows.
What have you read lately that’s been a revelation?
The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen. It’s a wonderful collection of essays.
Melissa Ostrom is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her short stories have appeared in many journals and been selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, Best Microfiction 2020, Best Small Fictions 2021, and Best Microfiction 2021. She teaches English at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York. Learn more at www.melissaostrom.com or find her on Twitter @melostrom.
Photography by Maria P