SmokeLong‘s “Flash, Back” series asks writers to discuss flash fiction that may be obscure or printed before the term “flash fiction” became popular, and tell us how these older or not widely-known works are meaningful. In this edition, Insurrections author and former SLQ guest editor, Rion Amilcar Scott, breaks down the beauty and magic of Alice Walker’s short story “The Flowers.” Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
by Rion Amilcar Scott
Once I picked up an anthology and chose the shortest story in the interest of time, but neither time nor brevity functioned as I expected them to. I probably read it quickly—I’m sure I did—but years later part of me is still back in the woods of the story with the little girl protagonist—her name is Myop—puzzling over that disturbing thing I saw. My brain is unable to distinguish the action of the story from memory so images from the brief and intense tale come flitting through my head from time to time.” More so than any story I’ve encountered, it doesn’t feel as if I’ve read “The Flowers” by Alice Walker as much as it feels like I’ve lived it.
The story begins with the lightness of a fable, and somehow without losing that lightness, it takes on, in addition, the darkness of a horror. Myop skips through a clearing engaged in a child’s vocation, collecting flowers. And here is where Walker binds her protagonist to the reader. The author primes us to live the story rather than just read it with a series of notes to the senses. She tells us about the “keenness” in the air that makes Myop’s nose twitch. And then she follows it with this image: “The harvesting of the corn and cotton, peanuts and squash, made each day a golden surprise that caused excited little tremors to run up her jaws.” We go from feeling to sight back to feeling. The images cause a delightful Synesthesia that Walker plays with over and over again in the course of the story’s 563 words.
We learn that Myop is ten and carefree. She bothers chickens, feels the warm sun on her skin and with a stick she taps out a song on a fence (“ the tat-de-ta-ta-ta of accompaniment”). By this point, Walker has been so relentless with her sensory descriptions that the mixed sense effect begins to happen without the author even forcing it. The author mentions pigs and I hear them snort. There is a stream and Walker doesn’t mention it bubbling, but I hear it bubbling and I hear the whisper of its flow.
Then Walker does magic. She writes the sentence: “She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds.” And each time I read it, out of nowhere I smell the sweet purple fragrance of the flora in Myop’s arms. The smell passes through my nasal passages and rests on my tongue until I can taste it. It’s as someone has sprayed the air with a floral perfume. Here I usually look around, feeling my sanity has finally come to an end. What is this weird evocation, but a hallucination?
And after this glorious delusion is where things begin to get dark. It’s noon and Myop is a mile from home, a place Walker says is gloomy. The fragrant air is now replaced by a damp scent. Perhaps we should have seen this change coming, right before the fragrant buds Myop begins looking for snakes, the first hint of danger after paragraphs of beautiful carefree images.
Just as she looks to turn for home, Myop bumps into a skeleton partially buried in the ground. Its clothes are rotted away and its teeth broken. Worst of all, a rope lay around this man’s neck. This was no accident. This was not a case of a poor fool dying of exposure. This man was murdered. He was lynched.
Not only does the finality of death intrude on Myop’s carefree jaunt, but the reality of racialized violence. This could happen to one of the men in her life, she realizes. Myop rests the flowers next to the dead man and leaves. In the end, an understated Walker announces: “And the summer was over.” Poor Myop, she can never have summer again. She can never truly experience the lightness of a nature walk again. She now knows too much of the world.
I’ve read this Walker story over and over, sometimes going from the final word back to the beginning hoping to find more of Walker’s secrets. I’ve read it out loud from semester to semester with my students to show how cleanly the story moves from purpose through perception; trying to figure out just how in the world Walker managed to make writing the perfect short story look easy. But often I leap back to not wanting to know, yearning for the innocence of Myop in the story’s first paragraphs. After all, doesn’t it ruin the magic to unravel all the movements of the illusionist’s hand?
Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International,The Washington City Paper, The Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House and Confrontation, among others. His debut short story collection, Insurrections (