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, Mike Minchin discusses Edward Falco’s story “Koi” and how this introduction to flash changed his writing. Submit your own “Flash, Back” or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page!
By Mike Minchin
I knew very little of flash fiction until about six years ago, when I happened to be reading The Southern Review and came across Edward Falco’s “Koi.” I was struck first by the brevity of the piece, barely more than a page, and I thought, Oh, how short. Such was my ignorance of the form and its possibilities. I had loved poetry for years, but I thought of fiction as mostly a long-winded creature. I was, at the time, attempting to compress my sprawling, almost novella-length stories into something remotely publishable, which is to say I needed to chop off ten or twenty thousand words from most of my stories. And so, I was overdue for a lesson in concision.
“Koi” is written from the point of view of a woman whose body is failing; unable to speak, she sits in a wheelchair beside her pond, her son at her side. The central image is that of a great blue heron flying away with a “bloodstained koi.” Falco writes: “She watches as long as she can, and feels herself growing smaller as the blue of the bird is swallowed by the blue of the sky, till for an instant it’s only that ink-spill bloodstain that remains.” It is an image that, even years later, comes back to me at odd times. What struck me was the way this piece, so pared down, so beautifully uncluttered, lingered in my mind like the wax scent of a candle in a room, long after the flame has gone out.
That so much could be done—so much emotion stirred—in so few lines gave me such hope. In “Koi” there is, somehow, the hint of a whole life lived, encapsulated in six short paragraphs, one primary scene, and a bit of recollection as the woman reflects on her late husband working around the yard, tending to the “bleeding hearts” and other flowers in the gardens.
I consider reading “Koi” to be my first experience with what is usually referred to as flash fiction, and I was immediately humbled, and hooked on trying it. I’ll admit that I don’t usually set out to write a piece of fiction that is a certain length; it is more that I try to understand the scope of a piece, as in how many characters am I working with? How many scenes do I need to show something? How much story is crucial for understanding a character? And though I have come to know the world of flash to be diverse, I usually think of it when I have a startling or poignant image in mind, and maybe that is from reading “Koi.”
Having finished a novel recently, I realized I was still compelled to write about my characters, and so I imagined my way into moments that happened several years before and after the timeframe of the book. I wanted to reach into the marrow of scenes that I felt could reveal character, and the flash form felt perfect for this exploration. Some of these pieces felt complete in themselves, but with others I could immediately sense them expanding, opening into new territory, demanding more space. And so, as often happens in my writing, one thing leads to another: a piece of flash fiction can bloom into a novel; a novel can blossom into a bouquet of flash pieces.
But sometimes I just think, Oh, yes, this is going to be flash! One morning, for example, as I was driving to work through freezing rain, seeing the birch trees bent over with ice and the cars around me slowing down, I got this sick feeling in my gut. The highway was quickly turning to ice, not an exit or sand truck for miles. And that is when I began imagining, and then reciting aloud, a story about a man who does not realize he is going to die as he drives along a frozen highway in Vermont, singing along with Luciano Pavarotti. I knew it would be a flash piece because I wanted only what I could recite aloud and remember, those few sensations and details that, like a bloodstained koi in the grip of a heron’s dagger-sharp bill, might just come off the page and fly away.
Mike Minchin’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gargoyle Magazine, Vermont Magazine, Mud Season Review, and others. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He earned his MFA from VCFA. Recently, he has finished a novel.