Small fictions

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Emily Dickinson

Welcome! It’s not untrue to say flash narratives changed my life. There I was for many years grappling with truth as a journalist when one day I decided to try making things up. It was a transformational moment. Being a woman with an extremely short attention span I have so far found my fictional comfort zone well and truly embedded in the concision of micro and short fictions, or stories under 1000 words. So here you’ll find a series of my stories in miniature, most under 300 words. I love writing them and at this stage have no plans to branch out into anything longer, but we’ll see. I also love taking photographs and this page gives me an excellent spot to keep some of my favourites and feel arty while I’m doing it. This page is still very much a work in progress.

Mouse

Grandma ate poison five times before it killed her. It was hard to keep it down, but she persisted. She went mad, they said, because of the isolation, she couldn’t hack it, she was a city girl after all, an intellectual, she came to life at parties, she smoked and wore high-neck lace dresses and polished button boots, she danced with slick suit boys, not third sons out riding the boundaries checking the fences for months and months.

She ate the shouting in her head; she ate her shrieking heart. She ate the crashing silence of the endless outside, with only the grizzle of grey-backed sheep and the whine of flies for relief. On bad days she’d walk miles to the top of the long dirt driveway and back again, to the hot dust that turned her sheets and dresses brown and the ochre-coloured everything that stretched for days and days.

She ate the loneliness she wasn’t meant to notice. She ate boredom straight from the packet and stopped remembering why she really should get a plate. No one to care if she did or she didn’t. No one to drink gin with on the veranda. No one to discuss the newspapers that came months too late, just a mirror of women with blank faces she saw once a year at shearing time when they came to help with the cooking for hours and hours.

Grandma ate poison five times before it killed her. Some women would do that before they’d leave their husbands and their children because if there is too much of you, if you can’t swallow your panic that this is everything there’ll ever be, all you can do, all there is to do, is become smaller and smaller.

( Mouse was awarded first place in the Autumn 2020 Reflex flash fiction competition, it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was first published in Beguiled by a Wild Thing, Reflex Press 2021)

Jenny Doesn’t Tell her Therapist Everything

She doesn’t say she leaves home at the same time every morning for something to do and something to say in case anyone asks, which they mostly never do, except sometimes her mother, who worries.

She doesn’t confess the books she takes to pass the time at the bus stop or the beach are chosen mainly for their covers, conversation starters should a stranger sit and cast their eyes her way. Or that sometimes she pretends she could be waiting for someone who loves her, so now and then she’ll glance up, arrange her features in a look of expectation, as if he might arrive at any moment, tumble through the breakwater rocks with a shamble of children, all shouting and laughing and his face will light up as he sees her, he’ll say darling we’re all starving, let’s go home, we’ll pick up something on the way.

She doesn’t talk about the ache she feels when she walks back to her apartment alone in fading light, past houses stuffed with promises of belonging; with their tipped over tricycles lying on the lawn, smells of casserole kitchens and the soft yellow glow of a lamp set low. Or how the tinned laughter from tv game shows rattles through the windows and carves chunks from her chest.

She can’t describe how the tsunami of silence knocks her off her feet when she opens her front door and steps into too much space. Or how she spends her evenings lying on her couch staring down at the corpse of who she used to be, as pale as a girl who never longed for anything.

She wouldn’t know where to begin.

(Jenny doesn’t tell her therapist everything was chosen for the UK National Flash Fiction Day and was originally published in June 2022)

Molly

I’ve heard when you drown it feels peaceful

Like floating in the womb

In a homespun shroud of blue water.

You found another way

Far from the sea, the salted shallows

The paperbark trees that lined the tracks like a church

And the skeletons of cuttlefish you carved into stories

With your fingernails.

Stranded in the red dirt

Under a sky so high and wide

When it yawned, it swallowed you whole.

You curled up small

Sank into those endless plains of nothing

Turned your face to the dust

And ate what you could.

It hurts less each time, you told your daughter as a comfort

Slips down your throat like a fresh-shucked oyster

You don’t even notice the taste after a while.

There’s nothing in our archives

Only your first name, a quiet imprint

Among the faded cascade of blood ties

The women in our family

Lost or unspoken

Washed away in the tide of our men.

(Molly was first published in Cordite Poetry Review, February 1, 2022)

How to Light a Coal Fire

Coal is hard to work with when you didn’t grow up with it. It’s like trying to burn stone. And the fire’s out. Again. I kneel in the early morning remnants of my last effort and begin a silent routine. The grate must be clean, so first the ash pan is emptied and swept. I take more than my allotted ration of firelighters from their box, at least six, and arrange them in a small circle. Then construct a tower of pine-chip kindling leaving plenty of gaps for airflow. 

I stop to check on you. Asleep, thank god, a tiny bird in a pillow nest to help you breathe. The air’s thick with morphine. Your hand is raised and slightly bent, as though you still grip a cigarette and all my failures are scattered down the front of your red robe like grim black polka dots on a party dress. I make my way quietly back to the fireside, listening for the chink of your lighter to tell me you’re awake. I’m always listening.

I take small lumps of coal from the bucket, lay them carefully among the fire bed then find the matches hidden from you earlier and strike one. The noise makes me wince. Three more tries, then at last it catches.

Later, you shuffle in to check on my work on your way to the couch. How many firelighters – you ask. Just one – I lie. A statue of Mary on the mantlepiece forgives me, with rapt expression and arms benevolently outstretched. When your brothers arrive for breakfast, they kiss you gently so as not to hurt you and you hold court in your crimson gown, your face glowing from the warmth of a coal fire.

(By Gillian O’Shaughnessy. This story was shortlisted in the June 2020 UK Bath Flash Fiction Award and first published in the anthology, Restore to Factory Settings: Vol. 5 – by Ad Hoc Fiction.)

Hagstone

You call me child-stealer. I deny nothing. I snatched a newborn babe so fresh and pale she glowed with womb-light, yet to taste milk from the one who would be known as mother. I carried her deep through twisted limbs of lost swamps where early mists curl and smoke. Her cradle was woven with my own hand from yellow silk offered by the golden-orb arachnids and the white down of hawk spawn. She fell asleep to the whispers of omen songs. I built a fortress to hide her from the world of men and the bonds they inflict on all women, disguised as love.

You call me witch and use twisted tales of me to frighten your children, the first of your so-called stories, invisible chains of iron. Spells that weave weapons as strong as my own. You call me crone, portray me in your stale legends grim and bent and haggard as though there’s shame within a cloak of withered skin. In fact, it is the very oldest among the earth spirits that wield the most sacred power and manifest the deepest magic.

She was not your daughter, nor mine. She belonged to the forest and it was my task to return her. What you name as theft, I claimed as her freedom. You can see her blood right in the shimmer of her hair, reflected in my own. We are connected by ancient mysteries and I offered her a pathway home. She did not take it.

Like many of our sisters, she was weak to the lure of a snake tongue and a bold face. The lies and promises of men. How many other daughters have been lost to such falsehoods? I can’t answer for the choice she made but it remains my deepest wound, a howl of grief and sorrow within me. We didn’t say goodbye, but I watched as her spirit faded out of my world to live like a dislocated shadow in yours.

This story you know and recount as victory, but there are others. I carry on. I am relentless. Keep your sons. I come for the daughters.

My name is Hagstone.

Look through my eye. Tell me what you see.

(by Gillian O’Shaughnessy, first published in Fudoki Magazine, November 2020.)

The View from Apartment 95 on Wednesday Afternoon

The birds are the first sign, though she doesn’t know it yet. She sees them rise like a toss of black confetti and fall as one, shrieking. Something must have spilt on the footpath down below.

She hopes the clamour doesn’t wake the baby. Creeping up the hallway, she opens the door, her footsteps as soft as butterfly kisses. She tiptoes across to the cot. The small knitted blanket has been thrown aside; a one-eyed teddy smiles up from the floor. A slight breeze curls around her neck, thin white curtains billow in a ghostly whisper across the open window.

(This story won the WA 2021 100 word, Love to Read Local flash fiction competition and is featured in the Raine Square Short Story Dispenser in Perth. It was inspired by the cover of Where the Line Breaks by Michael Burrows, published by Fremantle Press)