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My Father’s Soul

Story by Martha Witt (Read author interview) July 8, 2019

Art by Jessica Perner

My mother holds a tiny snail in the palm of her hand. “I picked this out of the basil.” She stands next to the flourishing plant in our windowsill. Back in the United States, in New York, where my father lies entombed, my mother grew plants that I was not allowed to touch. She spent hours in our basement with seeds and leaves, extracting, grinding, mixing. I get to tend these herbs in Rome, which affirm the permanence of our move here, their leaves so thick and lush, our kitchen has become succulent with possibility. My mother’s year-long court procedure, the trial, those visits from police, detectives, and the lawyers in and out—all that extended, nasty business back in the States is behind us now. It really put her through the wringer. Though she emerged triumphant, declared not guilty of my father’s death, she wants no more truck with a country that, on such scant proof, can upend a grieving family’s life.

I lean forward for a good look at the snail, its tiny brown shell unremarkable. “Very cute.”

“But where could it have come from, Cristen?” she asks. “We only use bagged soil.”

We both turn to the open window, four stories up, far above any trees. Though my mother shrugs, she’s not indifferent. I am not religious nor particularly superstitious, but on the other side of perception, in that narrow area untethered to either heaven or earth, a soul with unfinished business might just take the shape of a snail and turn up in our kitchen. “Maybe it swirled in on the wind?” I posit, laying this plausible response as a palimpsest over the crazy one. But she’s attuned to any trace of unarticulated thought, and her hand curls.

“I doubt it.” She shakes her head, an expert in crafting theories to outmatch truth. I shut up. The little brown shell topples in her palm. The snail lies there, a simple, ineffectual presence that I want to hide under the rosemary, my favorite herb, so I could tend to it each morning and each evening.

“Can I keep him, please?” I ask, trying not to sound pleading. “I could house him with my rosemary.”

She doesn’t budge. “Any other theories about how this got here?”

I shake my head. My mother lifts the hand holding the snail. Spittle catches in my throat. I gag. “Its provenance will simply remain a mystery, then,” she tells me, plucking the creature from her hand and flicking it out the window.


Notes from Guest Reader Myfanwy Collins

What a beautiful, gripping piece this is right from the start as the writer expertly establishes place, character, situation within her first paragraph. The moment the mother and daughter are in in their apartment in Rome is but a fragment of their lives together and yet it tells us all so much about the nature of their relationship and each one’s understanding of the truth, making this both a timely and timeless story. Mostly, this piece just grabbed me from the first words and held onto me past the final, chilling words. In short, it’s masterful.

About the Author

Martha Witt’s debut novel, Broken as Things Are, was published by Holt in 2004 and issued in paperback by Picador in 2005. Her flash fiction and short fiction have appeared in journals such as Boulevard, One Story, The Chattahoochee Review, The Literary Review, Harpur Palate, Spork, and elsewhere. Other published works include translations of Luigi Pirandello’s plays: Six Characters in Search of an Author and The License (Italica Press, 2014), as well as Henry IV (Italica Press, 2016). Her translation of Grazia Deledda’s L’Edera was published by Italica Press in February of 2019.

About the Artist

Formerly known as Jessica Ward, Jessica Perner is an American artist who works primarily in graphite to create powerful drawings that possess a strong sociological voice. She attended Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan and received a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art – Drawing with a minor in Illustration. She continued to study at Kendall for a Master’s in Fine Art – Drawing until moving to Los Angeles, California instead to break into the art world. There she had her first gallery show in 2008, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries internationally since. Jessica currently resides in Marz, Austria with her husband where she co-hosts the Paintingloft Podcast and promotes art via Red Siren Art News.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Five

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