“A Plain Thing” (Flash Fiction Friday)

I doubt this is going to become a weekly thing, but today is Friday and this is some flash fiction I wrote, hence the parenthetical subtitle. Anyway, I’d love it if you’d read this and tell me what you think. Thanks!

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They kept their voices low, her mother and father, and the sheriff, too, when he showed up. They didn’t want her to hear. They drank coffee in the kitchen and their voices were dark, as if there was a shadow lurking in them somewhere. Luckily, she had good ears and could make out almost all of what they said, standing where she was in the doorway between the hall and living room and leaning against the edge of wall that divided the two.

They said that there was a severed cow head in the pasture, just outside the edge of the forest. It wasn’t one of theirs. That was the strangest thing, her father said. He couldn’t understand why someone would just dump a thing like that in someone’s field in the middle of the night, way off the road.

The sheriff said they must have carried it, too, because there were no tire tracks.

Her mother said it made her sick to think of something like that.

It was Saturday morning, late fall, and the wind blew a shower of yellow-brown leaves from the tree in the front yard. She could hear their soughing through the window. The leaves looked like butterflies as they fell and sunlight trembled on the grass like a living thing.

She stood up straight and went to her bedroom, climbed over her unmade bed and opened her window. It was especially cold in the shade. She put on her boots and a sweater, popped out the screen, and climbed out. She was still in her flannel nightgown and she crept across the backyard, pretending she was a cat, then climbed over the fence and into the wide golden field. The air was earth-sweet and the frosted dew on the close-cut grass crunched under her boots as she ran. Halfway across the field, she thought she heard a far-away, ringing cry that might have been her mother’s voice.

The head was just a small, black lump in the distance until the final few strides, when it finally became what it was, as if it had popped into existence at the last moment to prove itself to her. It was lying sideways; its eyes were closed; and the mouth was open, its flat white teeth showing and the tongue sparkling with frost, lolling out for one last lick of grass. The skin was shredded at the nape. The meat and bones were glossy and smooth with varying shades of red and pink and fat-white, like the petals on a marbled rose, and the tag on its ear was blue. It barely stank.

She had expected to feel something bigger. There was a tingling in her feet, like they were being tickled, and a sense that she was made of air, that she was small and floating inside herself somehow. But she wasn’t afraid and she didn’t feel sick. She wondered if maybe it was because it didn’t seem real, but it did. It was plain as anything. She felt sorry for the cow; there was a sore feeling in her center, just above her stomach, and it made her feel better when she felt it. But it went in and out, and it was out more than in, and when it was out, there was nothing to replace it.

She wondered if it would prove something to touch it. She squatted down, the cold creeping up under her nightgown, and reached out and ran her fingers over the fur. She didn’t want to touch the meat. The fur felt both smooth and coarse, and aside from it being very cold, there was nothing different about the feel of it from a live cow. Again, she waited for something to come and knock into her, but there was nothing. Somehow death had turned out to be a plain thing.

She sat down and stretched out her legs, her feet on either side of the head, and felt the hard yellow grass scratch her skin where it was exposed. She sat there until her father came and picked her up by her shoulders and made her stand. She could feel the fear inside him slip out when he asked her what the hell she thought she was doing. It made her ashamed of herself; she couldn’t look him in the face.

4 Comments

  1. evvyn
    Sep 16, 2011

    I like that you used “plain thing” in a couple of parts. That kind of reinforced the theme that death wasn’t as scary or emotional as she had expected. 😉

    I may be getting a little over-analytical but the “black lump” seems to symbolize her fear of death. The part where you say “it finally became what it was, as if it had popped into existence at the last moment to prove itself to her” is like her realization of the existence of death. And “It barely stank” being that death isn’t as bad as she thought it would be (as you describe in the next paragraph). I love the contrast of “The fur felt both smooth and coarse” in that it could be a metaphor for heaven and hell (ever-present in analogies of death). (Was analogies the right word there?)

    “She could feel the fear inside him slip out when he asked her what the hell she thought she was doing.” It’s as if he was afraid she’d lost her innocence by confronting death like that and that’s the basis of his fear. Him asking her what the hell she was doing also reinforced the heaven/hell theme and her shame in not being able to look him in the face. Shame is acknowledgement of sin and this emphasizes the theme of contrasting heaven and hell.

    You may not have had any of these things in mind when you were writing it and it just shows you how people can interpret writing in such vastly different ways. I wonder how much of the “symbology” (ha! just had to throw that in there!) symbolism of old poems and stories are actually the author’s intent or what we’re reading into it.

    Excellent work!

    • Heidi Parton
      Sep 16, 2011

      Hello! Some of the things you mentioned I did intend, and some things I didn’t. But whether I did or didn’t, I think your overall sense of the story is dead-on. I’m glad the story gave you so much to think about, and you’re right: the wonderful thing about stories (and art in general) is that they can be read in so many ways. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, readers/critics contribute just as much to a story’s meaning as the writer, and it’s great when people get different things from a single work. Thank you so much for posting such a thoughtful and thorough analysis, as well as the compliment. I really appreciate it.

      P.S. Love the Boondock Saints allusion. 🙂

  2. Joseph Gilmore
    Sep 16, 2011

    …there was a sore feeling in her center, just above her stomach, and it made her feel better when she felt it. But it went in and out, and it was out more than in, and when it was out, there was nothing to replace it.

    Nice polysyndetonic usage here. I use this a lot, but then again, I’m a fan of the style.

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