First Spring Fly -- A Dissection
Where do shorts come from? This one was nestled, coherently I thought, in the middle of a novel-in-progress—still in hand-written stages. I was rereading my glorious prose, came upon it and thought, wait, that’s making her too crazy too soon. I scratched it out, a big delete curly cue inked over the page. I read it again. This could stand by itself, it occurred to me. Coover, as a guest editor, and one Elliott Anderson, whom I’d known at Iowa, now the editor at TriQuarterly, had a call out for a special on shorts. I didn’t have anything current, I was up to my eyebrows in the damn novel; I brushed my little excision off and submitted it. Bingo.
That’s where that one came from, but in finer focus, how was it written? I’d planned to walk through the steps, as I remember them, for the “Long of the Short of It” essay in OPEN: JA&L, but it got too long, and tedious, so I’m ensconcing it here if any readers are that hell-bent on process, or want something soporific and better for their liver than the standard night-cap.
Background: Though it was spring in Iowa, the marriage was in its winter of discontent. I’d left an unfinished Bloody Mary out there by the gate on the runner of the white picket fence, probably the night before. She noticed a couple of flies on it, and made that bizarre opening remark about ‘the first spring fly,’ which I think perverted itself all on its own into my even more bizarre reaction thought—slinkies—a ‘spring,’ flying out of hand—and this gives a reader a fair hint of the characters’ reciprocal states of mind: it’s an emotional setting: they are far apart, their procession down any stairs will be grotesque and slinkie-like.
In our real lives, she was miserable, depressed, having a hard time with it, and we had two little kids, plus graduate school. Plus teaching! Overload. When I finally came around to using the moment—the marriage gone by the bye-bye—probably at the time as much to feel sorry for myself as to wreak revenge, I wound up exaggerating (the norm for fiction of course), making her character worse off than she’d been. I’m pretty sure she never slashed a canvas, I do think there were some rabbits, discovered before I could have mowed them down however, and I don’t think she had any clippers at hand. The doctor said get rid of all sharp objects, anyway. Ha, ha. See, I can’t stop, some fifty years later. But at the time, invention—not to slight its deep ties and motives—took off on a full reach before the wind.
Now, choices en route:
First Spring Fly
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Nothing,” she said. “I just saw the first spring fly.”
Strange images for him, slinkies emerging from their pupa stage.
She: “Four of them on the Bloody Mary you left on the fence post.”
Spring is a difficult season for them both. He takes her under his armpit comfort as well as celebration. After all, it is ineluctable, there is always behind its gaité the chock threat of the fructy. But for her, who has spent entire days under the covers afraid of the light, who anguishes over objects seared in space, slashes her canvas where the line bites . . .
She reads up on the Spanish garotte; he pretends it’s a dance when she mentions it.
In past springs she has fled from the glimpse of buds breaking through. Bodes weeds in her dreams. He is struck by her sense of it, the birds deafening, the bloat of berries, and vines scribbling the way children mess up a perfectly good drawing with sky or ground.
Mowing the lawn took on astronomical significance. He pushing, she clipping, they smoothed down the ready pressure. But they were late this time, the prickling of weeds going to seed a little too high above their ankles, and shady things a little too shaggy, and something off about the bump of the mower over that last scatter of dandelion wisps. She squatted, pulled him to bending, “Oh, God, their ears!”
“Worse,” he said squinting slightly at the nest of baby rabbits, mangled and maybe still moving. He got the shovel and matted them out and went to find her in the kitchen a little dazed, hedge clippers held in front of her continuing the droop of her wrists like a divining rod, also like cartoon rabbit ears. “Give me those,” he said and she handed them over.
“I feel all right,” she said.
TriQuarterly, 35, Winter 1976
First five lines: could they be more stacked against the couple? Her odd remark, the odder image on his part; a bloody Mary; a difficult Spring (it is indeed flying: away from what it should bring); under his armpit? We’re not going to recover from this; it’s gonna get worse, and it does (“Worse,” he said… 21), even as it pulls back into a let-the-reader-call-it-for-a-while ambiguity: comfort as well as celebration. After all . . .
I was happy with ‘ineluctable’ for spring, line 6—eluctari, to struggle out, struggle forth, to escape. And the in- negates it: not to be escaped, avoided, i.e., certain, inevitable. As ineluctable fate. And then the run of lines 7 – 10, of weird words and music: gaité, chock threat, garotte/(gavotte), fructy! No such word as fructy, but there are close sibs: fructify, or in heraldry fructed, for charges of trees bearing fruit. Reader will get it (hear it): this poor pair is totally fruct.
You may remember I suggested in the essay in OPEN that the shortness of the form brings out language play—puns and invented words, common words in uncommon settings, and vice-versa, and noticeable prose music, e.g., ‘chock threat.’ Something caught in the airways between writer and reader is choking to death there. The reason for such decadence in shorts is, I think, that you can get away with it. What would be too cute or precious in a poem, can raise its quirky head in a short piece of prose, and raise it insistently, a look-at-me moment, whereas it would be lost in a longer prose length and probably break the bubble, the dream—referring here to John Gardner’s ‘vivid and continuous dream’ that he says a work of fiction is.
Of course, then there is taste. This piece taken by TriQuarterly harks way back in the American renaissance of the form: 1976 beats almost all US anthologies of shorts, and what a stellar line-up: Merwin, Creely, Hawkes, Brautigan, Russell Edson, Angela Carter, Coover, Benedikt, Cordrescu, T.C. Boyle, Borges, Cortázar, Rikki, Robbe-Grillet, Annie Dillard, Ian McEwan—you have to have something right to get in with that crowd. (I did know both the editors.) But recently I had the same story rejected, in person, for an up-coming Thomas/Shapard anthology because of this very language play. He particularly picked on chock threat (‘I can’t even say it.’) and fructy (‘Is that a word?’) De gustibus, non diputandem, I guess. But also suspiruim [sigh], and the moral’s the same: If you don’t succeed at first . . . (my six word short):
Suicide note rejected. Please try again.
Really, heed that spirit, young writer. On this point, a quick instructive aside: A few years ago, I had an essay not quite make finalist in a contest but the editor still published it, in the contest issue, because she liked it so much. Ok by me: published in 2012, but that same essay had been in circulation off and on since 1994, with maybe 20, maybe 30 rejections. (That essay’s in this website: see what you think: Sharkwalker, in the section WRITING.)
A bit more on language: my Spring Fly is chock full of alliteration, both internal and end-fixed, and vowel scales—buds breaking through, bodes weeds/dreams; birds deafening, bloat of berries—ganging up on us like spring itself, and then the mash of m’s after the climactic mowing (21—22) : mangled and maybe still moving; matted them out. I remember inserting that ‘still’ to actually play down that run of m’s—too obvious, trying too hard, draws to much attention to itself and so disrupts the Gardner dream. Always a delicate balance, but in a short short you the reader don’t mind it; it’s just one more of its scintillations to admire. Not so in longer or more strictly poetic forms, except for the likes of Stevens or Hopkins. (Man, advice for the climb: go read those guys!)
Finally, I added the clippers (23—24), pleased because of the overtones of rabbit ears, but to this day I don’t why I put in the explicit line also like cartoon rabbit ears. It was debated at the time, too, but I kept it. (I wonder what James thought of it. I wouldn’t have changed it, had it been the deal-breaker.) You tell me: Did I think Reader wouldn’t get that supra-segmental of hedge-clippers :: rabbit-ears? Did I think the divining rod (24) was too ‘on-the-nose,’ too directive toward the morose ending, so I muddied over it a little with a kind of cartoon joke? Did I have both images at hand but couldn’t decide on which, so included them both with that also? Probably. But why take the chance on funny there, just there at wind-up?
I don’t know. My ear isn’t telling me; or, it is, but that’s a whole other essay!
I do know more immediately, judging by my own responses, that if you’ve still won a reader over by mid-way, it’s hard to do something wrong: they’re with you and if you drive off the rails, of taste or overplaying your hand or even of sound (in the mind’s ear), they’re still content enough in the passenger seat. You can win them back. Who’s the little genius here, after all? We’ll hold on, we say, just thrill us at the end.
The last line, “I feel alright,” she said. does what I like to see a short short do: keep echoing in your gut, in your mind’s mind, disturbingly, richly. I was leafing through some Lydia Davis shorts a few days ago and came on one new to me, “The Caterpillar.” She finds the little guy in her bed one morning, and she’s not into crushing or killing living things, so she takes it outside. Oops, she discovers she’s dropped it, somewhere on the dark stairs, and most of the rest of the roughly 600 word short, she’s either forgetting about it or back on the stairs looking for it:
I go on about my business. I think I’ve forgotten him, but I haven’t. Every time I go upstairs or down, I avoid his side of the stairs. I am sure he is there trying to get down.
At last I give in. I get the flashlight.
More complications: debris on the stairs, he’s so small, what if the dust has stuck to him, dried him out? You get somewhat attached to any living thing once you try to help it, she says. And she goes back to work, forgets about him again, for a while. Then she’s back: now there’s something just the right size, but it’s flat and dry. Must be a pine needle. Last two paragraphs:
The next time I think of him, I see that I have forgotten him for several hours. I think of him only when I go up or down the the stairs. After all, he is really there somewhere, trying to find his way to a green leaf, or dying. But already I don’t care as much. Soon, I’m sure, I will forget him entirely.
Later there is an unpleasant animal smell lingering about the stairwell, but it can’t be him. He is too small to have any smell. He has probably died by now. He is simply too small, really, for me to go on thinking about him.
I’ll tell you, I know where he is! He somehow got attached to a piece of my clothing and has been ferried outside, where, over and over again, he does his chrysalis thing and flutters forth, beautiful and airy, bouncy and fritillary, ubiquitous. He (or she) has been following me around for three days now. The forgetting, Davis’ and ours, is very slow.