WHO WEARS SHORT SHORTS? FLASH FICTION, MICRO FICTION,
My shortest story has the heart of a poem, the mind of a novel.
(Jorge Luis Borges)
Flash fiction - ‘short-shorts’, ‘sudden’, ‘postcard’, and ‘micro-fiction’ - refers to pieces of prose that range from 75 to 1,000 words. However, rigorously qualifying and quantifying the flash may be a problem better left to the editors who publish it. Jorge Luis Borges has penned flash fiction stories no longer than half a page. If there is such a thing as ‘ideal’ length for these pieces it is suggested perhaps by Ernest Hemingway’s classic ‘A Very Short Story’, which runs in at about 750 words. None of the stories included in the popular 1992 Norton anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (eds. Thomas, Thomas and Hazuka) run less than 250 words, the diminutive limit that Jerome Stern has put to his ‘World’s Best Short-Short’ competition, the winners of which appear each winter in Sundog: The Southeast Review.
(Peter Carson, ‘On Defining a Short-Short’, 2003)
Initial response to the book [Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories] was overwhelmingly positive. A few dismissed it as fiction for the MTV generation, pabulum for dolts whose attention span is challenged by even 750 words, but a simple question usually silenced these critics: Is poetry therefore fodder for idiots? The vast majority of poems fit on a page, or at most two, and no one accuses poets of pandering to the masses.
(Tom Hazuka, ‘Flash Fiction: A Short History’, 1993)
The startling resurgence of micro-fiction is an inevitable by-product of an increasingly internet-savvy culture, reflecting our delight in immediate access to information while feeding the mind with prose that is often cryptic, oblique, enigmatic, provocative and above all, economical. Who cannot secure the time to savour a story that doesn’t require the turning of a page?
(Carter Cates, ‘Prose in a Flash’, 1997)
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.
(Anonymous, ‘The World’s Shortest Horror Story’)
Ellen Lindquist, ‘In the Hawaiian Garden Where I Came to Escape Feeling Sad’
Matu’s feathers were a white deck of cards dipped in yellow paint, his eyes unblinking record discs. He pressed his head against the metal bars of his cage so I could pet him. When a troupe of Japanese children in matching black-and-white shorts crossed the garden’s oriental bridge and marched toward him, Matu hid himself - a feather duster fettered in shade. After the children left, he alit from the shadow and began to sing again, his voice soft as fallen breadfruit.
Bret Lott, ‘Night’.
He woke up. He thought he could hear their child’s breathing in the next room, the near-silent, smooth sound of air in and out.
He touched his wife. The room was too dark to let him see her, but he felt her movement, the shift of blanket and sheet.
‘Listen’, he whispered.
‘Yesterday’, she mumbled. ‘Why not yesterday’, and she moved back into sleep.
He listened harder, though he could hear his wife’s breath, thick and heavy next to him, there was beneath this the thin frost of his child’s breathing.
The hardwood floor was cold beneath his feet. He held out a hand in front of him, and when he touched the doorjamb, he paused, listened again, heard the life in his child.
His fingertips led him along the hall and to the next room. Then he was in the doorway of a room as dark, as hollow as his own. He cut on the light.
The room, of course, was empty. They had left the bed just as their child had made it, the spread merely thrown over bunched and wrinkled sheets, the pillow crooked at the head. The small blue desk was littered with coloured pencils and scraps of construction paper, a bottle of white glue.
He turned off the light and listened. He heard nothing, then backed out of the room and moved down the hall, back to his room, his hands at his sides, his fingertips helpless.
This happened each night, like a dream, but not.
Luisa Valenzuela, ‘Vision Out Of The Corner Of One Eye’.
It’s true, he put his hand on my ass and I was about to scream bloody murder when the bus passed by a church and he crossed himself. He’s a good sort after all, I said to myself. Maybe he didn’t do it on purpose or maybe his right hand didn’t know what his left hand was up to. I tried to move farther back in the bus �" searching for explanations is one thing and letting yourself be pawed is another �" but more passengers got on and there was no way I could do it. My wiggling to get out of his reach only to let him get a better hold on me and even fondle me. I was nervous and finally moved over. He moved over, too. We passed by another church but he didn’t notice it and when he raised his hand to his face it was to wipe the sweat off his forehead. I watched him out of the corner of one eye, pretending that nothing was happening, or at any rate not making him think I liked it. It was impossible to move a step farther and he began jiggling me. I decided to get even and put my hand on his behind. A few blocks later I got separated from him. Then I was swept along by the passengers getting off the bus and now I’m sorry I lost him so suddenly because there were only 7,400 pesos in his wallet and I’d have gotten more out of him if we’d been alone. He seemed affectionate. And very generous.
Translated by Helen Lane.
Carolyn Forche, ‘The Colonel’.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Pavao Pavlicic, ‘A Chronicler’s Sin’.
Once upon a time, during the reign of terror, mass arrests became the order of the day. Most often they took place at night: a group of hooded men would knock at the front door and order the sleepy host to get dressed, and then take him to one of the many small prisons mushrooming all over the town. Sometimes the policemen would arrest whole families, including the children and grandmothers who slept on the hearths.
The population of the town was shrinking, and all night long sabre-rattling patrols could be heard leading the people away through the streets, from a great many houses. Many people began to spend their nights, fully clothed, dozing with bundles under their heads as if travelling, expecting to be arrested. People were amazed that there was so much room in prisons, but then one house after another was turned into a prison, and one person would languish in another’s house as if in jail: the rich in poor people’s quarters and the other way around, soldiers in schools, priests in barracks, doctors and patients in brothels, debauchees in convents.
There was an increasing shortage of labour, and prisoners did most of the jobs. Since they were dressed like other people and their numbers were kept secret, it was difficult to know who was a prisoner and who was free. The prisoners were even employed to make arrests: they carried sabres although they were prisoners.
The number of arrests was rising - among the next victims were members of the notorious City Authorities. Priests, merchants, chiefs of staff, sentries, clerks, and others were taken away. In the end they were all made prisoners, even the members of the Administration themselves. Everybody spied on each other, everybody was a prisoner and nobody knew who was actually in charge, issuing these orders and arrest warrants. Everybody had the feeling that he was taking part in the running of the town, in the arrests and in the serving of time in prison. And as all of them were dressed alike and enjoyed the same rights �" all of them being under arrest �" they went on doing their jobs as if nothing had happened. They lived their ordinary lives and, had someone asked them, they would probably have said they were happy.
Several years later they would deny that any arrests had been made at all and claim that it was all a fabrication of an inadequately censored, and undoubtedly malicious, chronicler.
Spencer Holst, ‘Brilliant Silence’.
Two Alaskan Kodiak bears joined a small circus where the pair appeared in a nightly parade pulling a covered wagon. The two were taught to somersault, to spin, to stand on their heads, and to dance on their hind legs, paw in paw, stepping in unison. Under a spotlight the dancing bears, a male and a female, soon became favourites of the crowd. The circus went south on a west coast tour through Canada to California and on down into Mexico, through Panama into South America, down the Andes the length of Chile to those southernmost isles of Tierra del Fuego. There a jaguar jumped the juggler, and afterwards, mortally mauled the animal trainer, and the shocked show-people disbanded in dismay and horror. In the confusion the bears went their own way. Without a master, they wandered off by themselves into the wilderness on those densely wooded, wildly windy, subantarctic islands. Utterly away from people, on an out-of-the-way uninhabited island, and in a climate they found ideal, the bears mated, thrived, multiplied, and after a number of generations populated the entire island. Indeed, after some years, descendants of the two moved out onto half a dozen adjacent islands, and seventy years later, when scientists finally found and enthusiastically studied the bears, it was discovered that all of them, to a bear, were performing splendid circus tricks.
On nights when the sky is bright and the moon is full, they gather to dance. They gather the cubs and the juveniles in a circle around them. They gather together out of the wind at the centre of a sparkling, circular crater left by a meteorite which had fallen in a bed of chalk. Its glassy walls are chalk white, its flat floor is covered with white gravel, and it is well-drained, and dry. No vegetation grows within. When the moon rises above it, the light reflecting off the walls fills the crater with a pool of moonlight, so that it is twice as bright on the crater floor as anywhere else in that vicinity. Scientists speculate that originally the full moon had reminded the two bears of the circus spotlight, and for that reason they danced. Yet, it might be asked, what music do the descendants dance to?
Paw in paw, stepping in unison…what music can they possibly hear inside their heads as they dance under the full moon and the Aurora Australis, as they dance in brilliant silence?
Raymond Carver, ‘The Father’.
The baby lay in a basket beside the bed, dressed in a white bonnet and sleeper. The basket had been newly painted and tied with ice-blue ribbons and padded with blue quilts. The three little sisters and the mother, who had just gotten out of bed and was still not herself, and the grandmother all stood around the baby, watching it stare and sometimes raise its fist to its mouth. He did not smile or laugh, but now and then he blinked his eyes and flicked his tongue back and forth through his lips when one of the girls rubbed his chin.
The father was in the kitchen and could hear them playing with the baby.
‘Who do you love, baby?’ Phyllis said and tickled his chin.
‘He loves us all,’ Phyllis said, ‘but he really loves Daddy because Daddy’s a boy too!’
The grandmother sat down on the edge of the bed and said, ‘Look at its little arm! So fat. And those little fingers! Just like its mother.’
‘Isn’t he sweet?’ the mother said. ‘So healthy, my little baby.’ And bending over, she kissed the baby on its forehead and touched the cover over its arm. ‘We love him too.’
‘But who does he look like, who does he look like?’ Alice cried, and they all moved up closer around the basket to see who the baby looked like.
‘He has pretty eyes,’ Carol said.
‘All babies have pretty eyes,’ Phyllis said.
‘He has his grandfather’s lips,’ the grandmother said. ‘Look at those lips.’
‘I don’t know…’ the mother said. ‘I wouldn’t say.’
‘The nose! The nose!’ Alice cried.
‘What about the nose?’ the mother asked.
‘It looks like somebody’s nose,’ the girl answered.
‘No, I don’t know,’ the mother said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Those lips…’ the grandmother murmured. ‘Those little fingers…’ she said, uncovering the baby’s hand and spreading out its fingers.
‘Who does the baby look like?’
‘He doesn’t look like anybody,’ Phyllis said. And they moved even closer.
‘I know! I know!’ Carol said. ‘He looks like Daddy!’ Then they looked closer at the baby.
‘But who does Daddy look like?’ Phyllis asked.
‘Who does Daddy look like?’ Alice repeated, and they all at once looked through to the kitchen where the father was sitting at the table with his back to them.
‘Why, nobody!’ Phyllis said and began to cry a little.
‘Hush,’ the grandmother said and looked away and then back at the baby.
‘Daddy doesn’t look like anybody!’ Alice said.
‘But he has to look like somebody,’ Phyllis said, wiping her eyes with one of the ribbons. And all of them except the grandmother looked at the father, sitting at the table.
He had turned around in his chair and his face was white and without expression.
Kent Thompson, ‘Ponderosa’.
Jimmy’s father said to come by the church, they should have a talk. Everybody knows what that means. But what his father said was that he had been out to the Ponderosa Restaurant on Saturday and there were all of Jimmy’s classmates from Bible college with their wives and children and they were all happy, why wasn’t he? He wanted Jimmy to get down on his knees and pray right there and Jimmy wouldn’t and his father accused him of betraying his wife Linda and running around with that other woman �" were these rumours true or untrue? They were untrue, said Jimmy. So his father said, do you have doubts? And Jimmy said he did, and then agreed to pray with his father. He decided to take the church at Mount Hebron and renounce the other woman �" about whom he had lied to his father.
But then Linda came to his father the very next week to complain that Jimmy was cruel to her �" he ignored her, and said cutting things to her, mocked her �" was that any way to treat a Christian wife? Jimmy’s father threw up his hands in despair. Was he expected to deal with everything? Were not his troubles with his own congregation enough?
He went over to see Jimmy with a shotgun in his hand, said it was only a symbol of God’s potential wrath, he had no intention of using it, no, but it went off accidentally. Blew off half of Jimmy’s jaw. It was only God’s mercy that Jimmy didn’t die �" and afterwards Jimmy was a man possessed by the spirit of God. He and his father are on the road now with the Tabernacle Tent, bringing God’s message as a team. His father tells the story and Jimmy, who can’t talk anymore, sings �" a melodious mourning sound which brings the sinners from the back rows to the front to be saved. God be praised!
Write a ‘short short’ no longer than 500 words.
1. Raymond Carver believed that the perfect length for a ‘short short’ was about 500 words. What differences are there between a ‘short short’ and a ‘prose poem’? What similarities? Is it possible, or desirable, to police the generic and stylistic boundaries between the two modes of storytelling? All of the examples above have featured in ‘short short’ anthologies. Should any of these examples be more accurately classified as prose poems, and if so why?
2. Spencer Holst’s ‘Brilliant Silence’ has emerged as a favourite among editors of recent American ‘short short’ anthologies. What makes it so successful as an example of this genre?
To think about and experiment with a narrative style that often requires a fierce economy of expression and ruthless editing of ‘character’, ‘incident’ and ‘plot’.