Tiny Secret Objects
In honor of the release of The Best Small Fictions 2016, this week’s “Why Flash Fiction?” essay from collection contributor Rosie Forrest examines the hidden life within flash stories. Buy The Best Small Fictions 2016 online at Amazon, and learn more about the collection on the Queen’s Ferry Press website.
By Rosie Forrest
I did not know my grandfathers. The one who worked with wood died long before I was born, and the one who welded steel passed away when I was three. I do remember that second grandfather lying in a hospital room after his heart attack. An orange door with a rectangle of tempered glass sat way above my head, but if I jumped high enough, I could see all the white inside his room—a hollow cloud—and his small frame so far back from the door, he looked like a doll. I bounced and bounced until a nurse told me to quit it, to find a chair and draw.
A black frame hangs on my bedroom wall, a shadow box with a glass pane that opens on a hinge and a back made of pincushion. I’ve had this frame for years, a gift from a friend, who knows my penchant for small things. Over the years I’ve filled it with photographs and pieces of dress fabric, notecards and postcards and stamps, and strange little nothings that buzz with meaning when I hold them. When I move to a new location (and this has happened often), I empty the box and fill it again. I won’t call it a ritual, but it has become a habit, preserving miniature worlds behind glass.
There’s a mid-twentieth century artist, Joseph Cornell, who is famous for his shadow boxes, small structures with images and trinkets inside that convey a story larger than the actual thing. He is known for juxtaposition, layering cinema references on top of celestial ones; birds and children appear to float nearly out of view, and objects dot the landscape with precision and purpose. Most of his work went untitled, and critical essays often point to his art as a metaphor for a reclusive, basement life, but who doesn’t want to shrink themselves down and wander inside these perfect capsules?
Padlocked or lidless, ceramic or cardboard, boxes of all sizes give shape to space and what lies within; they create hierarchies, definition, contradiction, and silence.
Sometimes I like to imagine that I’m from a long line of craftsmen who work in miniature, the same way I can drop my Italian heritage into conversation or map the generations of tailors on my father’s side. I think about the ways tiny secret things entertained my only-child brain, handwritten code for a made-up language, closets as reading nooks and bottom bunks as hideaways draped with bed sheet curtains. A metal case, purple with my name in fat letters, sat for years on my nightstand. It held folded paper fortune tellers, a geode pendant, a photograph of my grandmother, five dollar gift certificates for McDonald’s (from my grandmother), a cassette tape of songs recorded off the radio, and probably some puffy stickers.
In elementary school, fish became my obsession, and fish tanks—boxes of sorts—were places where little realms bubbled with life. It began with a goldfish (it so often does) from the county fair, who went belly up within a week. Then, a blue beta fish came home with me from a strip mall pet store, disgusted by his eight ounce glass bowl as one should be. For my twelfth birthday I got a hexagonal tabletop tank for my dresser and filled it with fake plants and dozens of small fish, until I’d cramped a habitat for the fish to navigate. I bought the monster 20-gallon fish tank from the classifieds with my allowance. It had its own stand, and the silver hatchet fish skimmed the top, flinging themselves into the air if the lid was off for feeding. The lights flickered and the filter growled at night. I could barely sleep.
I’m drawn to flash fiction the way I’m drawn to ghost stories, as if each story has a life of its own—unaffected by external happenings. There’s so much that we never see, and I’m lucky to spend a few minutes inside, to catch a glimpse of something that captivates, holds, then carries on without me. The flash in flash fiction is not a fried fuse. These stories with their three-digit word counts and five-minute readings are defined by their length—of course they are—but in short we don’t have less; in brief, we don’t have flat. It’s not an interrupted line. It’s fully embodied with texture and heart.
I’ve been asked if I like to pillage thrift stores because they make frequent appearances in my stories, that and a plethora of yard sale items, toys and wicker rocking chairs, teacups, and old radios. For me, this is the stuff of the story, the tangible wood and iron that smell like a life and give history to a grand or almost nothing moment. The stuff is magnetic and reflective; the stuff must be handled or ignored; and the stuff creates architecture within a clip of time. But the stories themselves are objects too, and I wonder if I approach flash not like a poem or a traditional short story but like a forbidden room, a Cornell box, a glass bowl that hums with dissonance, or at the very least, uncertainty.
For the multitudes, for the minutia, flash fiction lifts the lid, pops open a corner and invites the reader to peer in. The diorama can be so fragile that you hold your breath, but if you do away with daintiness and instead Alice-in-Wonderland your whole self inside, the enormity dwarfs you, becomes magnificent and dangerous; you hardly know where to look first.
Rosie Forrest is the winner of the 9th Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest, and her flash fiction has been published with Literary Orphans, Hobart, Wigleaf, Word Riot, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She was the writer-in-residence with Interlochen Arts Academy and holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Now in Nashville, Rosie oversees the adolescent programs with Vanderbilt Programs for Talented Youth. You can find and follow her @rosieforrest and rosieforrest.com.