Goooooooood morning!!! WHAT A WEEKEND!!! On one side of the pond was a #FlashDogs meetup, and here in the Shenandoah Valley we enjoyed a writers’ retreat hosted by the inimitable Foy Iver (you think she writes a mean piece of flash? you should taste her guacamole!!).
Before we launch into today’s results, I’ve a VERY COOL announcement: starting THIS VERY SATURDAY, we’re kicking off yet another new opportunity here at Flash! Friday, a feature we’re calling Pyromaniacs. Have you longed for frank critiques of your writing but are too terrified to ask? Here’s your chance!
- Email me via here anytime with a flash piece (500 words or under) you’d like the community to critique (regular FF guidelines apply). Be sure to specify it’s for critique.
- Each Saturday I’ll choose one of those stories (stripped of all identification — no one will ever know the author unless you wish it), post it, and invite the FF draggins (that’s you!) to comment (respectfully) on how you think it could be improved.
That’s it! The rest is up to the community. I’m terribly excited about this; writing helpful critiques is a tough skill to learn, and on top of writers coming away with useful feedback each week, this #Pyro feature will give us all a chance to work on becoming better critiquers ourselves. Fun stuff.
Speaking of inimitable, thanks aplenty are owed Dragon Team Seven, Nancy Chenier & IfeOluwa Nihinlola, for their painstaking work this round. Cry, the Beloved Country is a powerful but difficult novel to read; your stories likewise. Thank you, Nancy & IfeOluwa! Here are their comments:
N – What a week! Priests both philandering and intrepid, women bearing babes both auspicious and abominable, confessions dire and personal. Despair contended with hope. Tradition took on modernity. Cry, the Beloved Country inspired fifty delectable bits of flash. Thank you, thank you for once again sharing your craft and creativity, Flash! Friday Dragons.
I – Cry, the Beloved Country is probably alien to many in the Flash! Friday community, yet fifty stories come out of this. I don’t know how many of you do this every week, but I’m here, once again, thanking you all for another round of good writing.
Birdman Award: Marie McKay, “The City View.” This award is for, well, the use of flight—both of fancy and of wings. And for the bird’s eye view we’re given of the city in figurative, emotional and literal language.
Switcheroo Award: Tim Kimber, “Faith in Humanity.” This award is for reassigning the religiosity of lilies of the field to secularism, and imaging a world where science is the “true faith” and “flower unemployment” makes perfect sense.
Whiplash Award: Jenn, “Posh Preggers.” For boomeranging my attitude toward the MC in the final line. Suddenly the shallow, materialistic girl inspires sympathy by gazing out at the ocean.
Sly Fox Award: Michael Seese, “Judgment.” For the subtle forecasting (“Real pain and fear is hard to fake” and “good practice”) of what the very cunning MC is up to.
Lotus-Unfolding Award: Foy Iver, “Adrift on the Stars’ Ocean.” For its elegantly slow reveal of the urgent situation and gently disclosed and resolved friction between the women.
Carolyn Ward, “Harvest Time.”
N: The voice in this one drew me right in from the redundancy of “everlasting eternity” to the way she described the baby “being all hugged by my body” and herself being “filled to the brim”. The figurative language the narrator uses matches the voice of this girl with its simple honesty. The way the mother appears as the antagonistic force here (rather than the priest, the true villain) sets up some serious dramatic irony. Mom’s introduced as the cruel child-taker when she tells her daughter she’ll never hold her child. That is confirmed in the next paragraph with the mother’s slapping of her daughter whenever she protests (caterwauls). The pathos culminates in the final line, in the sad little victory the narrator assumes over her mother by “not telling her” about the priest. At that point the reader understand who the antagonist really is and how the MC putting one over on enemy-Ma is actually compromising her interests.
I: There’s a lot packed into the voice of this narrator: innocence, class, naiveté. At least that is how it seems at the start. She describes her baby as a bean growing at the speed of light, and describes her due date as her harvest time. She also shows a deference to her mother who instructs her, not just about her actions, but about her thoughts, and reinforces the admonishments with slaps to stem her “caterwaulin’.” Then the story gets to the last line and I see that the girl might have been many things, but naive wasn’t one of them.
N: Another one that lured me in with tantalizing imagery, particularly that of fire: torches arching and glaring, candles flaring. I’m lured in by the unexpected: a mob attacking a church when the stereotype is of a torch-bearing mob led by fanatical priests. The mob bent on destruction while the priest seems to take “turn the other cheek” in praying for them—and leaving the reader to wonder why a mob would be after a priest who seems to “walk the walk”. What landed this one for me, was the final element of surprise: the sword. The end has me wishing I could be there for the ensuing Mass(acre). The idea of Mass as sort of a defensive spell against one’s enemies is an intriguing one.
I: A priest being showered by shards of glass and being attacked by a torch-bearing mob is an image I’m familiar with. This is in contrast with Nancy’s view, yet this story manages to subvert both our views of what it would do, by its masterful telling. It’s easy to feel sorry for the priest at the point where he turns to the prayer candles. The line “Jesus averts his gaze to the sky” is brilliant because at first it looks like a sign of neglect, mirroring Jesus and his father. By the time the mob floods in, however, and priest draws out his sword, I realise there’s a chance Jesus averted his gaze to avoid witnessing the carnage that would inevitably follow.
Sarah Cain, “Our Country.”
N: The man vs. man conflict serves as a microcosm to the more macrocosmic conflict between cultures. The representatives of the two sides are sharply drawn: the self-important MC, who is immediately signaled as the villain in his arrogant declaration that he has “come for what is his”. He stands against the “woman in soft crimson with a scar puckering her cheek”—and what a description: a history of violence evident, but quietly persisting. This image is reinforced by her words. She turns his implicit accusation on him and asserts that he can approach this conflict with violence, he can claim his ownership, the country will never belong to him.
I: This story is told close to the point of view of the oppressor, so we see what he sees: unfriendly eyes, impassive faces, and hear what he hears: rhythmic chant of women’s voices. That these are the victims of his oppression is implicit in the story, although not expressly declared. Then he strides into the doorway of one of the tin hovels, and his encounter with an old woman unmasks his true identity. Their conversation offers the line where the title, Our Country, is taken from, and it is also where the oppressor gets put in his place.
Becky Conway, “Faithful Servant.”
N: I was struck by the format, one-sided confessionals tracking a nine-month pregnancy. At first, the vocabulary seemed overwrought for a teenager, almost Victorian in its use. Then, I realized she wasn’t using her own words. In her uncertainty and insecurity, she parrots scraps from the Bible and religious language (most likely the language of her her abuser). She says what she’s supposed to say. She behaves the way authority figures (particularly the priest) direct her. The final confession is the first sign she has done something under her own volition, and typical of action long-repressed, this one is destructive in its liberation. The “liberation” is not complete as she continues to employ the somewhat anachronistic, “blood on my hands” to express herself.
I: The “Forgive me” that opens a confession, and the progression of a pregnancy is used repetitively to set up the disturbing narrative in this story. The narrator is asking for forgiveness for another man’s sin, and seems to descend into a deeper state of despair as the birth of her baby becomes more imminent. That is until one month after conception, when she declares that there is blood on her hands. Whose blood? At first I hope it is Father Abraham’s, for that will offer some poetic justice to the story. But the story refuses to end that way, saving an even more disturbing detail for the last.
THIRD RUNNER UP
Richard Edenfield, “Reflections.”
N – This one packs a lot into so small a space. The contrast and commingling of two worlds is dizzying. The surrender of the “ancient tribe” in the first paragraph is echoed by the priest’s personal surrender by the end. Hands shift from industriously working with nature to being “neatly laced”. Hope for a revival of that old connection with nature sparks in the rawness of the baby’s appearance—weathered wood, fire in the eyes—but the “guillotine” of a steel shutter severs that hope. The priest and his new grandson are locked in the hard, shiny world of reflective surfaces, shut off from the sublimity of nature (“the purple intrusion of erupting dawn”). Many gems in here, but my favorite line has to be, “A new generation being pronounced by a secret genetic language whispered in each body. Crying could be heard from a room. Learning a new language wasn’t easy.” In itself a beautiful expression of birth and generation, but as part of this story, I imagine the priest having firsthand experience of the difficulty in learning the language of the metropolis.
I– Attempting to unpack this story properly is like trying to interpret a poem. The lines are simple, but, like good poetry, what that economy does is to open the story to more interpretation. At the surface, an old priest is witnessing the birth of his grandson, but simultaneously, it seems the priest is also witnessing the death of something more. Perhaps it is that of the tribe ‘surrendered’ with antique light from the sun, that is witnessing a new generation becoming forged with unknown hands in unknown places. I could go on and on with the imagery, but I’ll stop here, for every fresh reading offers something new to consider and reflect upon.
SECOND RUNNER UP
Casey Rose Frank, “Passing Down the Mantle”
N – As a writer, I often regard storytelling as part of a legacy. How tragic, then, to ponder what would become of that legacy were there no audience to receive it. “Passing Down the Mantle” explores that territory—craftily covering a vast territory and in few words. The figurative language weaves the images together: the pregnant girl’s belly as a melon under the villagers’ “hungry eyes”, the sagging grey faces of the houses in keeping with the faces of the inhabitants, even the stories themselves as being fabric woven into the titular mantle. I feel the desperation of the villagers as they strive to tell their stories to the babe before it’s even born. The distillation of their stories into an essential core is beautifully formulated in the move from the three lines of dialogue to an ultimate sentiment: “Remember us”. Then the disparate voices of the people condense into the singular voice of the village itself invoking “hope”.
I – The cause of the absence of the children in this story is not revealed, but the melancholia that follows it is shown clearly in just two sentences that make up the second paragraph. The rest of the story shows the implication of the absence of children: the loss of stories. This puts the hope at the start and end of the story into perspective. This is not just about the about the birth of a baby, it is about the survival of stories: the mantle in the title.
FIRST RUNNER UP
N – After reading this the first time and enthusiastically slotting onto my shortlist, I noted that we didn’t get many gruesome horror pieces at Flash! Friday. I readied myself to defend a zombie baby’s position among the winners, let alone in the top three. Yet, Ife’s shortlist had this one among the top as well. That opening image just throttles me: an umbilicus swollen with sluggish blood and ditchwater. That’s some impactful show, right there. I think my exact reaction was “EWWWWW! And, whoa.” As it went on, the creep factor ratcheted up over the gore. The merging of the grotesque with infant mannerisms (two-stepping the stairs, mewing, snuggling down with the mother) is especially creepy as it inspires pity despite the horror. The figure of the mother is presented as a silver fish sleeping fitfully, apparently her sleep is wracked by guilt.
I – Line after line, this story layers one grotesque image on top of the other. Umbilical cord swollen with blood and ditchwater. Big house slumbered like a bloated leech. Hounds vomited… eyes rolled back in their skulls. Grandfather gruntled… then died… child gave a mew of pleasure. This story managed to shock me with each image without grossing me out. I cringed, and cringed, and cringed, then put it on my shortlist.
And now: for his very first time!! — join me in congratulating our
N – The intense focus and imagery blew me away. Here we have a consummate model for the power of “show, not tell”. The message here is “Marriage takes work,” but the writer (working through the main character) illustrates the lesson to us as she illustrates it to her daughter, through the work of making fufu. Even without the lesson, the measured action of the woman is compelling, particularly in the way the details establish the rustic setting and the woman’s situation (wodoro, woma, fufu — all deftly posited so that I didn’t need to rush to Wikipedia to figure out what these unfamiliar things are). The opening lines are weighted, as indicated by the woman’s words attaching symbolic significance to the ingredients: fruits of earth and sky. Moreover, we know a lesson is coming because of the title. The careful attention to the work engages me and carries me through the narrative and its beautiful analogy. That the daughter isn’t revealed until the end, in effect, places the reader in the position of the daughter from the first sentence. The reader is meant to nod with understanding right along with her.
I – I like how this story uses its form to make up for what cannot be shown in the story. At first, all we’re focused on is the woman pounding the fufu, her focus undiminished, then a camera zooming out of a detail to capture a complete scene, the daughter is brought into view. The time the story itself seems to invest in the act of pounding the yam suggests how much time the mother chooses to invest in her daughter’s marital woes. Also, it seems to equate the tender care it takes to work the dough with the effort the daughter needs to put into making her marriage work. As if by making the daughter watch the raising and dropping of the woma, she was showing her how it is done.
Congratulations, Daz! Please find here your very own, super fancy, freshly built (watch the paint!) winner’s page. Your winning tale can be found there as well as over on the winners’ wall. Please contact me here asap so I can interview you for this week’s Sixty Seconds interview feature! And now here’s your winning story:
Taking a boiled cassava root, she said out loud “fruit of the Earth”, before placing it in the the woduro.
Reaching for a plantain, “…and fruit of the sky”, then placing it in the woduro too.
Setting to work with the woma, pounding the mixture in silence, her jaw set in concentration.
The sun was high. Sweat began to run freely off her brow.
But her focus remained undiminished, raising and dropping the woma, up and down, up and down, until, gradually, it coalesced, and from the mixing of sky and earth, a fine, almost elastic dough began to form.
With tender care, continuing to work the dough, until, at last the fufu was finished.
Flexing the cramp from her arms, she looked at her daughter.
“The Sun has barely risen on your marriage, my child. Do you understand?”
Her daughter nodded.
“Good,” then smiling, “Do you think it was any different for your father and I? They are both good men. Now go and be reconciled.”