Two Questions for Rachel O’Cleary

We recently published Rachel O’Cleary’s stunning “The Invisible Woman.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how you play with the idea of invisibility here — is the invisible woman really invisible, or have people merely stopped seeing her? Do you think there is a specific kind of person who tends to become unseen like this?

That is a great question. I was actually thinking about this quite a lot when I was writing this story, because I wanted to write a hopeful ending, and it felt essential to me that the hope was earned, rather than feeling like a hollow, fortuitous rescue scenario. In order to do that, I had to understand why she was invisible in the first place, and I concluded that, in my opinion, there are two types of people who are more likely to become unseen. The first group includes people who are in a position of relative powerlessness, and I think society doesn’t want to see them, maybe because we feel we can’t or don’t know how to help them. The second (often closely-related) set are those who go invisible almost as a safety behavior, and become unseen even by themselves. This is how I envisioned my invisible woman. At some point in her life, she suffered a trauma, and that, along with the fear of negative, unwanted attention, would have led her to decide to make herself smaller and smaller until there was almost nothing left of her. She has to find the courage to make herself seen again, even if it feels (and might actually be) a little bit unsafe, and that is what I hope she is doing by the end of the story.

2) The idea of the invisible woman helping the flickering girl is so powerful. I love that she tells the girl all the things she wishes someone had told her. What is something you wish someone had told you?


Thank you! I’m so happy to hear that this resonated with you. I think this is a case of “write what you know,” because the things the invisible woman tells the girl in the story probably are the things I wish someone had told me. They are certainly the things I try to tell my children. Wanting to fit in is all well and good, but there is nothing lonelier than being unable to see yourself in the life you are living. I feel like, as a younger woman, I got a lot of messages that suggested I could or should find my self-worth in the approval of other people. Yes, I was given that ubiquitous vague directive to “be myself,” but I was also quietly passed a long list of rules about how I was expected to behave and which aspects of “myself” were acceptable. And I definitely underestimated how much pressure there is to become a particular type of woman. This is true in any scenario, but I think especially if you end up going down a more “traditional” route of getting married and/or having children, and therefore have a role to fulfill. I was blindsided by the pressure (not only external, but also internal) to fulfill that role perfectly. So I think keeping a strong grip on my own identity, and having the courage to hold on to it when society would suggest I should be completely selfless all the time, is something I have learned – am still learning – the hard way, and I wish I’d been more prepared, because it’s easier to hold on to something than it is to have to search for it once you’ve lost it.

The Invisible Woman ~ by Rachel O’Cleary

The invisible woman likes to perch in people’s windows. She likes to sit on the other side of a pane of glass and watch the visible men and the visible women eating dinner with their visible children. She likes to listen to the muffled chatter, the pinging of cutlery against plates, the low rumble of the radio. She likes to press her nose to the cold glass and watch the visible fog formed by her invisible breath.

When there is a cat on the other side of a window, it inevitably meets the invisible woman’s gaze. Its sharp eyes narrow, its back ripples into a towering hump, and it shows its needle-sharp teeth. As she sulks away from its silent hisses, the invisible woman thinks that she can almost remember what it felt like, to be seen.

Sometimes the invisible woman sits in the picture window of the big red house on the corner. She presses her back to the brick frame, stretches her arms above her head until her fingertips graze the lintel, and points her feet into perfect arches. She feels every muscle in her body, taut and primed, and she imagines the thick coils of rippling fiber, the unseen landscape of herself.

Inside the big red house lives a couple with two teenaged children: a girl and a boy. Recently, the invisible woman has noticed that the girl is flickering. Every morning, the girl stands in front of her full-length mirror and runs her hands over the curves of her breasts, her hips, her thighs, as they waver in and out of clarity. The invisible woman watches, breath held painfully tight in her chest, afraid to exhale until the girl settles once again into solidity.

The invisible woman begins waking up early so she can follow the girl out of the big red house. She trails the girl down busy pavements, whispering encouraging words into her dark hair as it flutters in the invisible woman’s face. She tells the girl that she is stronger than she knows. She tells her that the world is a lonely place for an invisible woman. She tells her to be brave. These are all the things the invisible woman wishes someone had told her.

The invisible woman thinks it’s working. The girl’s footsteps are growing firmer, louder. She looks people in the eye as she passes them, and they look back. Not up or down, but straight back. Sometimes the invisible woman makes believe that these people are looking at her, too. Sometimes, she thinks they really are. Sometimes, she looks down at the place where her hand should be, and she’s sure she can see it, quivering in and out of her field of vision.

***

Rachel O’Cleary studied creative writing at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and lives with her husband and three children in Ireland, squeezing her obsession for flash fiction into the spaces between school runs. You can find a list of her published work at https://rachelocleary.wordpress.com, and she occasionally tweets @RachelOCleary1.

Two Questions for Eric Scot Tryon

We recently published Eric Scot Tryon’s delightful “We Worry for Cats.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) The title really drew me into this piece — with so much else that’s going on, I think that “cats” is such a fun, specific concern. How did you decide on this delightful title?

For me, titles either come instantly and I don’t second guess them, or I belabor them for all eternity and never land on one I like. Luckily here, it was the former. I was instantly drawn to the sound of the phrase as a title. In the context of the story I think its odd phrasing works but sitting alone as a title without having yet entered the story, the structure and tense of the phrase feels familiar yet off. And maybe that’s a good thing. I also like that the title doesn’t directly reference what the story is “about”, at least on the surface. I mean, you don’t read this and think it’s a story about cats. Yet at the same time, these endless lists of things—cats, phone chargers, mismatched socks, Zoom meetings, etc. and the way they are all placed on equal ground and feel completely interchangeable, might be exactly what the story is about.  

2) I love the reaction at the end especially, to be witnesses, to share what they are seeing, even though their phones have gone dead from wasting all that time on them. And I love that, of course! — everyone has grabbed their phones (even if they left their cats behind). What do you think drives this instinct to witness?

I think the most basic of all human needs is our need to connect with other humans. But of course, this flood of technology, the internet, phones, etc. over the past few decades has done everything it is power to disconnect us from one another, to isolate us. But that basic human need is still there more than ever, except now the way we satiate it has morphed into likes, comments, clicks, views, followers. So this need, this instinct to witness and to document is really just the evolution of our need to connect with others. At least that’s my armchair-philosopher answer. The more basic answer would be that we are now all robots, and our muscle memory has been trained to click and post, click and post. Even when we know the phone is dead, we don’t know how to not grab for it first.  

We Worry For Cats ~ by Eric Scot Tryon

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. So we flee our apartments, those boxes that stack atop one another like Legos. Eleven stories in total. We flee our apartments grumbling about testing the system on a Monday morning, a heads up would have been nice, an email, a note on the doors. Some of us still in pajamas, a rogue Cheerio stuck to our chin, others with wet hair and mis-matched socks, no shoes, all flooded out like roaches from behind toasters, microwaves and forgotten loaves of bread. We sit scattered about, under trees, on benches and cement stairs. Keeping our distance from neighbor-strangers, the men we smile at in elevators, the women we nod to in the mail room.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. They don’t stop after a minute like we expect. Or five or ten. We sit scattered about, under trees, on benches and cement stairs. Noses buried in cell phones. We watch our battery percentages like ticking time bombs, picturing chargers on nightstands, kitchen counters, plugged into laptops. Oh how we long for them. Noses buried deep in cell phones. We play Candy Crush, we text our mothers, we punch emails to bosses with trained thumbs.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. Some of us try to call management. This is unacceptable. We have Zoom meetings to attend, we have scared cats under beds, we have lives to live in those boxes that stack atop one another like Legos. Eleven stories in total. We watch our battery percentages like ticking time bombs. The numbers dropping fast, counting down like it’s goddamn Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. What do we do with that last percentage? Who do we text? Which feed do we scroll? Which photo do we like? When the screens go black we look around and wonder which of these neighbor-strangers is the one we hear fighting on the other side of the kitchen, saying things to his wife we have only heard in movies. We look around and wonder which of these neighbor-strangers is the one crying at night above our bed. As we lay, scrolling ourselves to sleep, the sound of their sobs becomes the white noise that finally puts us under. We look around and try to match unknown faces to the lives we hear on the other sides of walls.

The scream of the alarms can be heard for two city blocks. We long for chargers, we worry for cats, we wonder for neighbor-strangers. And then we see it. Smoke twirling its way up from the rooftop like an angry ghost. This is not a test. We grab madly for our dead phones to snap photos, to Tweet in all caps, to text our friend in Boston.

***

Eric Scot Tryon is a writer from San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Willow Springs, Pithead Chapel, Los Angeles Review, Pidgeonholes, Monkeybicycle, Cease, Cows, Longleaf Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Eric is also the Founding Editor of Flash Frog. Find more information at www.ericscottryon.com or on Twitter @EricScotTryon. 

Two Questions for Kik Lodge

We recently published Kik Lodge’s searing “Rock.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love the voice in this story — it makes me feel like I am hearing a confession or perhaps a plea. Do you think anyone else, outside of the reader and Annie and the stars, is listening?

Oh, I hope! The story came from a bleak set of statistics regarding the number of feminicides in France – on the rise since lockdown. We’re in 2022 and women are still punching bags, certain men’s possessions. So yes, I’d like to think the trapped women are listening too.

2) The detail of this night with her sister being “five boyfriends ago” is so brilliant. It tells us so much about the character and what she has done since this first declaration. Do you think, shouting it out now, that she really believes that she will never again be “anyone’s woman”?

Thanks for this question, Cathy! I think the simple act of saying something out loud is bold. It unlocks thoughts, stirs us from our zombie state. Despite the succession of boyfriends you speak about, and the hint we have of history repeating, I think she just might act this time. She’s aware of the broken promise, the gulf between her younger and current selves, and she’s calling on the stars to hold her accountable. But that’s buoyant-me speaking – I know how hard it is to be on the cusp of leaving, how immobility hounds us; we can live our whole lives on the cusp, can’t we?  

Rock ~ by Kik Lodge

Five boyfriends ago and I’m out in the backyard with my big sister, my beautiful big sister, Annie, and we’re shouting far into the night in our nighties, to hell with home, to hell with Dad, and we say hey you, clumps of blazing rock, bear witness to our words, never will we be anyone’s woman, we’ll be the dancing dead before we’re anyone’s woman, got it? and Annie whenever you are, I’m whispering this now, Doug’s upstairs, his fist in bentonite clay, he has a hole where his soul should be, I swear, and I’m out here, torn like Mama, and get this stars, I am enough on my own, I’m yelling that now, Annie, even if life’s a haze and the night is biting into me, I’m yelling that now in my nightgown.

***

Kik Lodge writes short fiction in France. Her work has featured in The Moth, Tiny Molecules, The Cabinet of Heed, Reflex Fiction Ellipsis Zine, Splonk, Bending Genres, Janus Literary and Litro. She likes cats and trumpets.

Two Questions for Lori Sambol Brody

We recently published Lori Sambol Brody’s powerful “Made In Her Image.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) To start with: Dammit, Lori. Why did you have to make me cry? But seriously, I love the heart and emotion in this story, the way the mother finds power in both the creation of her golem daughter and the potential for uncreation. She is tempted sometimes, sure, but do you think she will ever undo this daughter she has made?

What are the obligations to something or someone that we have given life to? In the golem folktales, the golem is destroyed (or rather, uncreated back into dirt) because it grew too powerful and could not be controlled. But isn’t that what happens when a child grows up? The entirety of childhood is the gradual solidification of a child’s identity as apart from the parents, and becoming someone who cannot be controlled, cannot stay. As to the mother in the story, I think that if she’s resilient enough to let this second daughter go, she will not undo her golem daughter. But is she resilient enough to overcome her trauma? Even if her golem daughter becomes too powerful or dangerous?

2) The subtlety in storytelling is so lovely here — we know what has happened without being told. Were you ever tempted to give more detail about what became of the first daughter?

In this story, I wanted to concentrate on what it means to have a child that you created to stay with you forever (who knew a golem could go to college?) leave for college. As you know, my two girls are almost ready to leave, and I have such mixed emotions – I want them to stay for selfish reasons, but I also know that kids grow up and need to leave home – and want to leave home. So I didn’t want to give too many details about what happened to the first daughter. There is a hint of violence, but the focus here is on the golem daughter’s leaving the mother. This is also part of a series, so other stories have some more details. 

Editor’s note: Check out this story from the series in Cotton Xenomorph: How to Create a Golem

Made in Her Image ~ by Lori Sambol Brody

My Golem daughter packs for college. She packs her sweater sets, her sensible black boots, her button-down shirts. She never wears crop-tops or low necklines. She packs her jeans. She does not write on her jeans with a ballpoint pen, drawing hearts and lines from her favorite songs, the lyrics she knows make me blush. She does not worry holes in the fabric with her fingers. Her bed is always made military-tight, fairy lights strung over it in a bell curve, photos clipped on the wires spaced exactly three inches apart. My Golem daughter never sits in boys’ cars in front of our house, windows dripping with tears.

She folds her clothes in her suitcases as if she were the one who worked at Brandy Melville. She packs her two sets of extra-long sheets. She packs the new shower caddy she’ll bring to the dorm showers to haul her Pantene conditioner for dry hair, her Jergens Extra-Dry Healing lotion, the hair gel she uses so her bangs will lie just so. She packs she packs she packs.

My Golem daughter is always focused.

Her eyes are now on her suitcase, her bangs covering the word I wrote on her forehead, אמת, truth. The truth is: I can destroy her, erase the letter aleph, א, to change the word truth to death, מת. The truth is: for my Golem daughter, I hold her life in my hands. How easy it would be. I watch from the doorway to her room, examine the soft pad of my thumb: I can rub aleph off with a light touch and she will turn back to what she’s made of. I thrill at that power, I wonder if. I’ve had only two years with her.

I bring her a set of towels, because she will need those too. Thanks Mom, she says, and her voice sounds like running water, like dirt and magic and crawling things. I shiver; I love the way she calls me Mom. Are you sure you want to go away? I ask. She knows that she’s the first Golem to go to college. An Ivy League, no less. It will not be easy: will my daughter’s roommate notice the truth inscribed on her forehead, will she seek to brush the letters away, will there be an aura of uncanniness that repels her? Or will they stay up all night whispering in the dark under her Ikea duvet, talking of classes and dreams and boys? Oh, Mom, she says, and she shakes her head, high ponytail swinging.

That night they found her, I knelt on the banks of the creek. The water ran winter-fast and the wet earth smelled of decay. I howled and even the coyotes were afraid. I formed my Golem daughter with tears. I formed her with clay and algae and foam. Mud crusted under my nails. The police found no DNA under hers. I lumbered from the creek bed and my Golem daughter followed me, naked and solid. Her flesh like my flesh, transformed from mud. In the bedroom, I pointed to her canopied bed, to her desk. This is your room. I slipped a dress over her head, zipped the back, tied the belt. Her hands up as if she were still a toddler. You are my daughter.

My Golem daughter does not bleed and she cannot break. She tells me, I will always love you. I grip her tight with hands that formed her from fistfuls of mud and magic. Hands that made her stay.

***

Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Craft, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction anthologies, Wigleaf Top 50, and the Longform fiction pick of the week. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.

Two Questions for Todd Clay Stuart

We recently published Todd Clay Stuart’s stunning “Pre-Ghosting.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) There is so much powerful imagery here — I especially love how the wife’s “pre-ghosting” echos the dying ash in the backyard. Is there a connection, do you think, between the wife and the tree?

You always ask such stimulating questions! I see a connection between the wife and the tree in the sense that they both lived out their lives in each other’s shadows for years and years. The fate of the wife is left to the reader’s imagination, but the implication is that both the tree and the wife are succumbing or perhaps have already succumbed to some form of disease or illness, which further strengthens their connection. By extension, the narrator sees the tree as a monument to both itself and to his wife, and knows the tree will have to be taken down sooner or later, but the wife will live on in his mind through memories or in ghost form, imaginary or real.

2) I keep coming back to the line about the stars being forgotten during the day, our attention demanded by the “arrogant sun.” It made me think — what else are we not seeing when there is something else drawing our attention? 

Well, those are the things that keep us up at night, right? The countless atrocities in the world. Our eventual demise and such. Our deepest fears and all. The thoughts we block from our minds or else we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed each day. But on the other side of this are the acts of kindness, generosity, and grace that go on everywhere. Those help bring balance and beauty to the world, help us cope and find our center, something akin to our own personal form of gravity, our own private laws of physics.

Pre-Ghosting ~ by Todd Clay Stuart

The ash in the backyard is dying. My wife and I could see it from our second-floor window, could hear the groan of its hollow limbs as they cracked and swayed in the cold March winds. Widow makers, the limbs are called. The branches of the tree once held waxy, green parades of leaves, but are now weighed down full of silent space left in the wake of the slow march of death. It could be said the tree is more of a wooden sculpture of a tree than anything else. Yet, still it stands, as a monument to things I won’t let go. Water, air, fire, they take on the form of our bodies, like shadows, like mirrors, anything made of light, your hands, your face, translucent in repose, the light moving through you like the opposite of a storm, the reverse of a hurricane, everything made of light, the accoutrements of the illusionists. The bedroom window is new and arched to better frame the night stars since we discovered our favorite constellations were out of view just above the top of our old window. About the stars: we forget they are still there during the day. We just can’t see them because the arrogant sun demands our full attention. My wife’s hair went gray, then white in a matter of seconds. I want to believe she prematurely made herself look like her future ghost, so I would more easily recognize her spirit after she died, so I would be less startled if one day her ghost appeared beside me and hooked her arm through mine during a funeral or a parade or the opening of the first tender buds of spring.

***

Todd Clay Stuart is an emerging Midwestern writer and poet. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. His work  appears or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, FRiGG, Milk Candy Review, New World Writing, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife, daughter, and two loyal but increasingly untrustworthy pets. Find him on Twitter @toddclaystuart and at http://toddclaystuart.com.