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April Flash Roundup

The Children of Flash

I don’t like novels told from the perspective of children – they make me uncomfortable. I used to think my distaste was for their naivete or the either overly-precocious or under-developed voice adults use when they’re trying to sound young. Now, I think what I really don’t like is a child’s vulnerability. Things happen to children, they have little agency, and there’s nothing a reader can do to protect a child in a story.

In flash fiction, childhood is a common starting place. A memory can spark a story and can remind the reader of a time when they felt helplessly tied to the whims of the adults in their lives.

In “On “Day Without Name” by Kay Sage” by Nadia Arioli, published in The Whaleroad Review, the childhood memory slices the reader quickly – a stab right back to sitting through Sunday school. The piece begins, “At Bible study, you read about Thomas. The other kids snickered at his unbelief. You thought of his worker hand, gliding into a wound, like a knife into fish.” No phrase makes me more anxious than “the other kids snickered.” There is a culturally-specific vulnerability to this short piece that benefits from being positioned, at first, in childhood. When the piece moves beyond childhood, it says, about Thomas searching the wounds of Christ, “The image lost its resonance over the years,” which is the sort of thing we all think about moments or images from when we were young, that they have faded and we are grown people now, in charge of what we believe and what we do. The pleasantly resonant discomfort of this piece comes from knowing that, far from fading, the things that slice us when we’re children are forever bubbling back up.

This pattern is visible in “The Hills Have Secrets” by Annika Bee, published in Cease, Cows, as well. Once again, the flash is anchored in childhood. It begins, “My uncle used to say that hills held secrets, that hills grew over the Earth specifically to protect those secrets. I grew up in a hilly suburb on Long Island and spent my childhood digging holes in our yard, hoping to unlock their secrets – to my parents’ dismay.” The speaker is forever affected by something her uncle told her when she was a child. Even as the speaker moves on from the hills of her earliest years, her uncle’s words haunt her. Moving next to a canal, she says, “I often wondered what secrets the water held, but the water didn’t hold secrets. It held things.” When the water gives up a bloated, drowned body, the speaker has a shattering moment of nauseous revelation. The “secrets” that sounded enchanting in childhood, the things she dug for and hoped to reveal, can often be upsetting, grotesque, or traumatizing when finally brought to the surface. This is the secret that adults know. The piece, in its forward momentum, leaves the whimsy of childhood behind. The final line says, “Now I leave the hills alone.”

Sometimes, the whimsical beliefs of childhood turn dark. In Jiaqi Kang’s “L’oeil d’Orochimaru” published in Wildness, the characters are vaguely placed in childhood from the perspective of an adult who can’t remember precisely what ages they all were, “We were five and seven and eight and nine, or maybe six and eight and nine and ten, but ten feels too old for Nozomi, or maybe she really was ten at the time.” The children have decided that a tube in a farmer’s field is really a monster requiring sacrifices. They bring it grass and they tell it their most fervent dreams. They are afraid of the tube, and they seem to need it to exert some control over their lives as the children of Japanese expats in French-speaking Switzerland. The speaker of this piece says, “I said that all of these prayers were little practice ones, to help Orochimaru get used to the lilting tones of our French, and one day l’oeil d’Orochimaru would blink and that would mean he was awake and ready to acquiesce, and we had to be ready with the most sincere wishes of our hearts.” This game seems like practice for power and control and agency and manipulation. Children practicing for the darker and more dramatic aspects of adult life, while still waiting for a greater power to grant or deny their wishes. Unique to the stories under discussion, “L’oeil d’Orochimaru” ends in childhood. However, the voice makes it clear that the speaker is an adult now, looking back on the events of the story, somewhat bemused by the intensity with which she enacted these childhood rituals – rituals I recognize from my own days on playgrounds, clutching wildflowers ripped from the ground.

Maybe this familiarity is what makes me squirm when a novel’s voice is a child’s voice. Maybe it reminds me too much of wanting desperately to be old enough to control something. What an adult also knows when faced with these fierce children, is that getting older is no guarantee of control. Part of the poignancy of a child’s voice in fiction is the disparity between what we thought adult life would be like and how it actually is. In flash fiction, I have no trouble with the child’s perspective. I think it can add an off-kilter magical reality to a short piece. The children of flash are rarely precious, and they always have something to say to the children that the readers used to be.

Links to the stories:

On “Day Without Name” by Kay Sage”

“The Hills Have Secrets”

“L’oeil d’Orochimaru”

Deirdre Danklin holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University. Her work can be found in The Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, The Nashville Review, and Hobart, among others. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and orange tabby cat.

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