Fire is an Open Mouth with an Empty Stomach ~ by Chelsea Stickle

The psychic smells the fire before the smoke alarm goes off. A Molotov cocktail through the front window of her shop. She’s wearing all her important jewelry, has her car keys in her joggers, slips into her sneakers and grabs her rose shawl off the end of her bed. Douses the shawl in water and covers her head and mouth with it. Her important papers are in the bank. Her valuables are at her sister’s. All she has to do is make it out of the house alive. She has two to three minutes to achieve this. She feels like an actor in a movie. Going through the prescribed steps to get the hoped for effect. But she hadn’t thought about how the heat would feel on her skin. As she descends the stairs, watching her foot land each time so she doesn’t slip, she wonders how close you have to be to fire to get burned. For it leave a mark. The clock melts off the wall into pile of plastic on the floor sliced through with a sheet of glass that shattered on impact. At her back door, she uses the shawl as a barrier between her and the hot metal. Propels herself outside into the chilling night air. Drops the shawl. Coughs out smoke. Breathes in deeply. Feels the solidity of the earth, how far down it goes. Roots herself to the present. Touches the wet grass and lies down to watch the stars.

***

Chelsea Stickle is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Breaking Points (Black Lawrence Press, 2021). Her stories appear in CHEAP POP, CRAFT, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and others. Her micros have been selected for Best Microfiction 2021 and the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2022. Her second chapbook Everything’s Changing is forthcoming from ThirtyWest Publishing in January 2023. She lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and a forest of houseplants. Read more at chelseastickle.com and find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Two Questions for Mary Grimm

We recently published Mary Grimm’s colorful “Live and Let Die.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1. These cousins! I love these cousins! I swear they are my cousins, except they are nothing like my cousins. But somehow they are still so familiar. Are these cousins based on any cousins you know?

My family was Catholic on one side and on the other long-time farmers (farmers needed lots of kids for free labor!), and so I have dozens and dozens of cousins. Quite a few of my aunts and uncles had 5, 6, 7 children (top number: 12, their own dozen). Cousins were 90% of our social life. The cousins here are kind of an essence of cousinness – but they’re closest to the cousins that my sister and I played with the most. We bossed each other around and tattled on each other and had secrets, made and broke alliances, loved each other. We had other friends from the neighborhood and from school, but we were each other’s favorite playmates.

2.  I love how you give such weight to this story with that opening sentence: “The remaining weeks were fairly quiet.” The implication being that something of importance must have happened, something unquiet. What do you think it might have been?

The honest answer is that I don’t know what it was that happened. When I started writing this, I started with that sentence as a self-imposed prompt – something to have the feeling of in medias res. But I’ve been writing a lot of what I think of as disaster fiction – the disasters are sometimes personal, sometimes more global. And I feel the unspoken disaster looming from behind that first sentence – something that made the cousins want to define themselves against it, a banding together. I imagine them looking over their figurative shoulders, but then turning away from whatever it was, turning instead toward each other. 

Live and Let Die ~ by Mary Grimm

The remaining weeks were fairly quiet. Their color was green, as mandated by the oldest cousin. Green was the color of grass and of her favorite sweater, she explained, and so we must all love it. The oldest cousin could be demanding and autocratic, but they all loved her, or said that they did. The second oldest cousin had dark thoughts about a game last year where she had always been “It” because the oldest cousin said so, but she kept them to herself. The boy cousin banged his head against the floor, because it was soothing, a little pain that he could own. The floor was patterned, “parquet” the adults said, and it left a mark on his forehead that he could trace with his fingers for some hours after the banging. They swam in the color green – the green of the cherry tree’s leaves, the green of the ice cream that the redheaded cousin wouldn’t eat (because she thought it was a disguised vegetable), the green of the sky on that one evening when there was almost a tornado. When we grow up, we’ll remember this always, the eldest cousin said, but none of them did. When we grow up, it will always be the same, the baby cousin said, but she was wrong, although she fooled herself about this for many years.

***

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection). Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and the Mississippi Review, and her flash fiction in Tiferet, Citron Review, and Helen.  Currently, she’s working on an urban fantasy set in Cleveland. 

Two Questions for Nora Esme Wagner

We recently published Nora Esme Wagner’s fierce “Why Renaissance Artists Never Got the Babies Right.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how ferocious this story is — so many killer lines that just hit the nail right on the head! Do you think one of these muses (with their “singular bite”) would appreciate this ferocity?

Yes! I wrote this story in Italy, because, even while touring the most fantastic museums (The Uffizi in Florence, The Borghese in Rome), I felt bitter. Everywhere I went, I saw the same scene painted: Gabriel telling Mary that she’s pregnant with the son of god. In these depictions, Mary blinks placidly. Her eyebrows raise into crisp semi-circles. If we’re lucky, her mouth opens into an o.

Shouldn’t Mary have questions? Like: I’ve never had sex, wtf? Or: you have wings? Why isn’t she teary/baffled/furious?

Artists stifle their muses. They hate when they get candid, fierce. I imagine that a muse looks into their likeness and sees nothing. But maybe a muse would read my story and finally recognize their vinegar. I loved your story “Being the Murdered Muse” so much, how you capture what is violent and narcissistic about being “inspired” by the fierce woman you refuse to look at.

2) The muses here can never become anything more, for the artists, than inspiration. But at the end, the reader gets a hint that they might outgrow these artists. Do you think they will?

Absolutely. To inspire is to breathe in. The muses bloat their artists, so they’re brilliant and brimming with inventions and techniques and flourishes. But the artists are just vessels, bladders. Without a muse, their proud chests can’t puff.

But Frida Kahlo is more recognized than Diego Rivera. Scott Fitzgerald pilfered Zelda’s diaries and was still only half her genius. Muses are running, outrunning. And they don’t need to breathe into themselves. They only need to breathe.

Why Renaissance Artists Never Got the Babies Right ~ by Nora Esme Wagner

It was almost impossible for Renaissance women to escape an ess: seamstress, murderess, goddess, mistress. The same s-sound that, when attached to the end of a word, multiplies it. But muse already sounded female. Muse demanded a singular bite.

In the same way that women blame their own big hands for making a cock look small, muses assumed responsibility for how their artists painted babies. Droopy babies. Emaciated babies. Benjamin Button babies. Babies who resembled smokers, drinkers, gluttons. Jesus babies, clawing at Mary’s cloak, half-animal, like they don’t want to be crucified. 

Muses squashed their babies between their poky breasts and begged artists to paint them. Proud artists wouldn’t look. They knew what a baby was: like them, only miniature.

Of course they didn’t want to see the babies with the little, floppy penises. Too often, they shared the same tubelike nose.

The girl babies grew up to share beds with artists. When the artists left to invent things, they dipped their fingers into the salty stain on the bed to learn how to finger-paint.

***

Nora Esme Wagner lives in San Francisco, California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in JMWW, Litbreak Magazine, Flash Boulevard, and elsewhere. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

Two Questions for Melissa Fitzpatrick

We recently published Melissa Fitzpatrick’s haunting “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board.”

Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) This story is so evocative — I love how you conjure up these grade school/junior high sleepovers! There was something so magical about these rituals (or games, even), something so powerful. Do you think these girls still feel that power even now, all these years later?
There is something singular about the energy of young girls at a sleepover, isn’t there? The surviving friends are now well into middle age. When I wrote this, I imagined these women looking back on these memories through a lens of loss. They’ve lost one of their childhood friends to cancer. They’ve lost the youthful exuberance they once had. I imagine most of them are dealing or have dealt with other losses: health issues, divorce, estrangements, caring for aging parents, regrets and disappointments of all kinds. They are at a time of life when many women feel overextended and unseen. It might be hard for them to connect to the magic and power they once felt. But I do think that power is there, just waiting to be rediscovered. 

2) Such a powerful opening line! “By now, we have learned the real story of one of our deaths.” Do you think these girls have stayed in close touch with each other? Or was this first death something they learned of secondhand, through the grapevine?
I like to think this group of friends has been there for each other through it all. Through first loves and breakups, weddings, divorces, remarriages, abortions, miscarriages, young motherhood, career changes, health scares, death, all of it. I think there must be something amazing about friends who have known each other through all the stages of their lives. People who can see all the different “yous” you have been over time. I think these women visited and brought meals and found ways help when their friend was battling cancer. And they grieved together when she died. I like to think of them as older women. They meet for brunch each week. They are loud and raucous and laugh and laugh. And they lift each other up.

Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board ~ by Melissa Fitzpatrick

By now, we have learned the real story of one of our deaths. But back then, we only imagined. The stories we told were part of the game.

You’d arrive at your friend’s house, clutching your sleeping bag. Toothbrush and toothpaste stowed in your pillowcase. Maybe you’d still have a little-girl nightgown with rosebuds and ruffles. Or maybe you’d sleep in a t-shirt big enough for two girls. You’d smudge your face with smuggled eye shadow and blush and ask Lisa to give you French braids. Judy would show the trick for growing boobs by winging your elbows back and forth. You’d debate which Charlie’s angel was prettiest and if no one thought your favorite was best it somehow felt like maybe you’d never be beautiful too. And then Christine would gripe about crumbs on her pillowcase and Angela would turn on the soundtrack from Grease and you’d all shriek and sing greased lightning and summer nights and when it got to hopelessly devoted you’d rewind and rewind and rewind to sing it again until Pam’s dad yelled from the doorway that it was time to turn the music off and that’s how you’d know it was time for the game.

The lights would go off, and flashlights come out. When it was your turn, you’d lie down on the floor. Your friends would surround you, kneeling, heads bent. The girl at your head told the story of your death. A fall from a ladder. A murderous kidnapper. A bus with failed brakes and you in the crosswalk.

We didn’t know then how slow death could be. How a cell could go wrong and quietly spawn until it amassed a hard lump. We didn’t know about radiation, surgery, remission, recurrence. We didn’t know how long you could fight to stay, or what remained when the fight was lost.

In our nightgowns, high on sugar, clamoring to make our voices heard, death was a only story we told.

And the best stories had blood and fear and the moment you knew you were about to die.

Those were the stories that made your body want to float.

The stories that made you light as a feather.

The stories that made the floor fall away, when with delicate fingers, your friends lifted you into the air.

***

Melissa Fitzpatrick lives in the Los Angeles area. Her work appears or is forthcoming in CHEAP POP, Scrawl Place, and Corvid Queen. Connect at Twitter @mfitzwrites.

Two Questions for Dilinna Ugochukwu

We recently published Dilinna Ugochukwu’s fluttering “An Injured Brown Towhee.”

Here, we ask him two questions about his story:

1) The opening is so heartbreaking — the injured bird, the way the girls compare themselves to the girls on TV and that devastating line about their eyes: “But they looked beautiful on Leila.” Do you think these girls will ever realize that they don’t have to be like the girls on TV to be beautiful?

I think the girls will eventually recognize their own beauty, but it’s going to take them a long time. For a lot of reasons, but mainly because the world around them doesn’t tell them they’re beautiful. The main character struggles to see her brown eyes as anything more than dirty, although she does recognize that brown eyes are beautiful on Leila, and I think her inability to see her own beauty is a sadly very common thing. 

2) Do you think — or, at least, like I do, hope — that the towhee will live?

Part of me wants the towhee to live, only to give the girls some hope, however I know when I wrote the story I thought of the towhee as doomed to die. During the summer, one of my friends tried to nurture a bird back to health, they did everything they could, but it eventually died anyways, and that was the catalyst to me writing this story. So in my mind the bird’s fate is already decided.

An Injured Brown Towhee ~ by Dilinna Ugochukwu

Yesterday: we found a bird in Leila’s backyard. An injured brown towhee. She wanted to nurse the brown little bird back to health, like we’d seen other little girls do on TV, perfect little girls with pale skin and white teeth and straight blonde hair and blue eyes that sparkled. Our skin was dark, hair coiled, teeth crooked, and our eyes didn’t sparkle. They were wide black potholes that you could fall into, and that absorbed every bit of light that might shine on them. But they looked beautiful on Leila.

Today: her shitty abusive father warned us that the bird wouldn’t live. We don’t know how to take care of birds, it’s best to just put it out of its misery, let the poor thing not suffer, he said. But Leila didn’t listen, she had fantasies of saving the towhee, of watching the brown little bird take flight and disappear into the electric blue sky. And I had my own fantasies too. I wanted injured birds to live. I wanted my life to be like the girls on TV. I wanted Leila to be happy. I wanted us to heal all our wounds, sprout long strong brown wings, fly into the electric blue sky, and never return again.

***

Dilinna Ugochukwu (he/they) is a writer from California. He is obsessed with jolly ranchers and enjoys reading and writing all sorts of things.

Two Questions for Beth Hahn

We recently published Beth Hahn’s gorgeous “I Made a Hologram.” Here, we ask her two questions about her story:

1) I love how this plays with the idea of memory — especially that brilliant line about moving the hotel parking lot fight “behind the dumpsters so if you don’t want to watch it, you don’t have to.” Clearly the narrator is manipulating some of these moments, but do you think there are times they are doing it unintentionally as well?

In “I Made a Hologram,” I was playing with the idea that the narrator might be making holograms as much for herself as she is for the “you” character. She wants to remember but needs the excuse of the holograms to begin. In the scene where she moves the fight, she puts it back in, but in a place where no one has to see it—including herself.
She definitely avoids certain spaces, like the space across the river, which of course is a metaphor for the end of life. She senses it but doesn’t come at it head-on. She knows it’s time for some honest reflection—like admitting that she can still hear the barn door clapping—and often starts with her flaw—as in “there are mistakes” or “you did all the driving”—but ends by changing the subject or distracting with a new hologram.
I moved the glass paperweight paragraph around a lot. I wanted the object to feel like the weight of loss on the heart, and at the same time, a celebration of the fragile beauty of memory. This is the only hologram she really makes as a gift, but by the next paragraph—the Paris paragraph—she is able to illustrate love. I was pleased that the expected word at the end might be “disappear” but she makes them “appear,” which feels like acceptance.
“I Made a Hologram” is really so much about the writing process and vulnerability. I’m often thinking, “I’d rather not write this,” when I know a difficult passage is coming. I tend to take those passages out and put them back in. Copy, cut, paste, cut. When that happens, my writer urge is to obscure by honing images until they feel just the way the difficult idea feels. It reminds me of a stage set, or here, a hologram. It’s artifice, and I am left wondering if I’m avoiding the truth or illustrating it. Sometimes, putting the work away and coming back to it later (I remembered. I forgot. Years passed. I remembered) is the only way to know. I wanted this narrator to waver around the truth in the same way.


2) So. What 
does a tree look like in summertime?

An oak tree in July, but so small it can fit in the hand; a tree in summertime is fully alive. It looks like youth. It feels like first love.