Reviewed by Emily Webber
At the café in the bookstore, I’m reading Cathy Ulrich’s new flash fiction collection, Small, Burning Things, when the woman next to me turns to tell me that her husband woke up with a pain in his side seven weeks ago, and now he’s dead. She looks my age, which is not exactly young but not yet old enough to imagine you’ll wake up with a pain and be dead weeks later. Unexpectedly I feel the sting of tears in my eyes at this stranger’s news. When I turn back to Ulrich’s stories, they are like a whisper in my ear, every story scolding me for my surprise. Ulrich tells us we are all fragile, our time is limited, there’s not much fairness in the world, and when we are gone, there’s not much for those left to hold onto.
Ulrich transforms our ordinary lives into the extraordinary. Every sentence has the sharpest details and elicits surprise at what language can do. She conjures up the weird and fascinating, showing that stories do not have to be bound by rules. While the subject matter is dark, there is a delight in reading Ulrich’s sentences for the beauty and uniqueness of her writing.
Small, Burning Things gives us: a pinky bone taken before a woman’s body goes into the crematorium, the shadows of dead cows through the curtains, talking giraffes, a bludgeoned ostrich in retaliation for a dead husband, the largest man, a yo-yo world champion, a girl being replaced with robot parts, girls that turn into birds, burning girls, missing girls, lost girls, kids who disappear or die.
Many of the characters in these stories are unnamed, and she employs a second person point of view in stories throughout the collection. This point of view adds to the feeling that these are not things happening to other people. They will happen to us all. The stories in Small, Burning Things touch on the same themes and revisit characters, yet they all stand out distinctly. Like Ulrich’s previous collection Ghosts of You, danger lurks everywhere, especially for women and children. Ulrich continues to show us the darkness of a world that treats some people as interchangeable and disposable. Her focus is ever on relationships—particularly how girls and women must navigate the world, the expectations, unfairness, and danger. From the small ways:
His wife has been washing his dishes since he left his mother. He could clean them with magic, but he has never offered.
To the more significant ways:
The woman upstairs was pregnant when she married her husband, has stayed pregnant since then. We haven’t seen her, since her marriage, without a baby in her arms, without a mint tucked in the corner of her cheek to combat her constant dull nausea. The woman upstairs has always been pregnant, is pregnant now, drowning her children in the bathtub. The one inside of her has just started to kick.
So many of Ulrich’s stories contain the bizarre and fantastical, but some in this collection stand out for being ordinary moments she transforms. In “You Were Always Coming Home,” a mother’s last moments are detailed before she realizes her daughter isn’t coming home:
And that morning, your mother will wake in an empty house. She’ll remember that she dreamed you came home in the night, one of those vivid dreams that feels like it must be true, dreamed the opening and closing of the front door, the soft tread of your feet bare on the floor, the dangle of your party shoes in your hand.
In “Like Light from Dead Stars,” a mother watches old movies with her daughter pointing out the passage of time and how small we are in the universe.
You say: Why are they all dead? Why is it so sad?
Your mother kisses your forehead. It was a long time ago, she says. Nobody remembers them now. That’s the saddest thing, don’t you think?
You remember, you say. You remember them.
Well, yes, says your mother, but who am I?
It is no easy task to convey all Ulrich does in this collection—it is hard to pick out individual stories in a collection of fifty that is so alive and fluid it is as if all the stories are one living, breathing mass. What I do know is that Ulrich’s opening lines are some of the best. They pull you in, and even when you know the story will wind down some dark and twisted path, you will want to go with it. I’ll leave you with some of the opening lines from Small, Burning Things and see if you can resist picking up this collection:
The storm, when it comes, is a storm of teenage girls.
After the magician cuts his assistant in two, he runs off with her bottom half.
We were birds all that summer, and our sisters gathered in each other’s open-window bedrooms, painted their nails the color of ripe banana skins, said how much they missed us, said how quiet it had become.
The girl fell out of the sky.
Your sister’s children are always disappearing when she closes her eyes. She opens them again and her arms are empty.
The aliens came and took all the children except for David Schmidt, who disguised himself in a cotton-ball beard and a fedora.
It is the spring of spontaneous human combustion, the spring of burning things.
Small, Burning Things (180pp) is available from OKD Books–out July 11, 2023!
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she lives with her husband and son. She has published fiction, essays, and reviews in the Ploughshares Blog, The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Read more at www.emilyannwebber.com.