Anton Chekhov Award for Very Short Fiction 2019 – First Prize
When we were living in the mining community, a place that is now a ghost town with nothing left to show for everyone’s hard work except curb cuts for the long-lost driveways and a pine tree that has grown up between the arms of a carousel clothesline, I was told to stay away from the ditches.
The ditches had been cut out from the granite by the same jack-hammer men who carved our basements from the granite. The ditches were meant to carry away snow and rain run-off. Farther down the block from our house, there was a patch of stone that resembled the pages of a book, a series of layers where the quartz butted up against the feldspar and the feldspar was overlaid with schist.
We used to stop our bikes in front of that patch of stone. On our street, the only street in town, there wasn’t much else to notice except the minehead at the end. Our fathers dug for uranium, yellow cake, as it was called. They all died of lung cancer. They all smoked, and every man was radioactive to his dying day. We begged our mothers to send us to summer camp. We’d seen kids on television paddling canoes and swimming in roped-off areas protected by floats. We tried to argue our case one Wednesday afternoon as the women gathered for their weekly bridge club. They were bored, too. One of the women, her lips overpasted with bright red lipstick and her hair curlers covered in a kerchief looked up from her hand as a cigarette dangled a long droopy pip of ash and said, “Kids, you live in summer camp. Go off and play in the woods and leave us alone.”
One day a boy named Jerry whose father gotten crushed not long after than in a cave-in and who disappeared from the neighborhood, hollered that he had a porcupine trapped on his front lawn. His chained dog was snarling at it. Any other kid would have dragged his dog inside but Jerry found it strategic. He stood waving his arms at the spiny creature, and between the dog and the gang of us who showed up, we tried to trap the poor quilled animal. Instead of the thing just giving up, it ran straight for the ditch and dove in head first. Just like that. It splashed about in the water, but porkies aren’t made for swimming and after a few minutes it grew still and floated with its face down in the green murk of street run-off.
Someone said something along the lines of “Now look what you’ve done,” and we were all suddenly frightened and ashamed, as if we’d killed someone’s little brother. The animal just floated there. It wasn’t pretending. We had trapped it and left it no way out. Another guy suggested we get a shovel and haul it out because the quills were valuable and we could strip the bark off a birch in the bush and make baskets for our mothers, but no one wanted to touch the creature. We got on our bikes and rode away and sat smoking some cigarettes we’d swiped at the edge of a cedar clump where the street ended.
Our fathers didn’t know where the smell came from several days later. That talked on their front lawns, cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths and their hands in their pockets between puffs. They’d stand that way for hours, one saying something and the others listening and nodding then going silent until after a long pause someone would say something else. They looked defeated. But the smell. That gave them something to talk about until it, too, deserted them.
The next spring the melt lifted the water level in the connected ditches so the run-off lapped at the lawn, and when the small flood subsided, in what was merely a foot of water rather than three of four, yellow flowers bloomed. They floated on the surface, bright and spring-like, and when one of our dads caught us pissing in the ditch because we didn’t want to break our activity and go inside or go in the woods he shouted that we were only adding to the problem, that we were making urine worts and they were a sign of putrid water. I’d seen the growing in the slug murk along the highway. But there weren’t a sign of boys taking a leak or even of the tea-leaf suspension of spring that had nowhere to go, but the porcupine speaking to us from the depth where his body settled, and he was saying he’d become a hundred wonderful small lives and each one was bright as the sun.
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of sixty-four books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, non-fiction, and literary journalism. His most recent book of fiction is A Feast of Brief Hopes (Guernica Editions, 2018), and his next book of flash fiction, Down in the Ground (Guernica 2020) will appear next year. He was a finalist for the Tom Gallon Prize, the Bath Short Story Prize, the Mogford Prize, the Carter V. Cooper Prize, and the London Independent Short Story Prize. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.