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Tara Campbell’s “Where the Words Go”: Progressive Images of a Progressive Disease

August 9, 2023

Art by Taro Taylor

This micro review is part of SmokeLong’s 20th-anniversary celebration. We are inviting our readers to dive into our archives to review a beloved flash narrative from our previous 80! issues. We encourage you to reach way back, to explore the last 20 years of flash through SmokeLong. Published reviews will earn a small honorarium. Submit through Submittable by September 30. 

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By Elizabeth Kate Switaj

Tara Campbell’s “Where the Words Go” uses a progression of similes and metaphors to make physical the internal experience of an aging woman losing words as she develops dementia.This kind of concretization that turns a moment or common experience into something magical and emotionally resonant is a core move of flash fiction, but what make this particular story exemplary of the genre is how the details tell a broader story through suggestion leading to a conclusion that is both powerful and suggestive of more to come.

The imagery surrounding the lost words suggests more about the protagonist’s life than could be told directly in this shortened form. The comparison of words to pearls shows how precious words are to her–she is a writer, perhaps, or a reader at least–which not only explains why “she had too many [words] to miss a few” but also makes their loss more painful as the narrative progresses. That the pearl-words fall into shag carpet tells us that she still lives independently, in her own home.

With the main character’s bookishness established, the comparison of words to breadcrumbs, which follows, suggests Hansel and Gretel: she will not be able to find her way back from this forest along a path of words. At the same time, the idea of crumbs falling from her mouth, without her fully understanding how, hints at a loss of physical function. This is echoed in the next paragraph when the kitten-words have to be pulled out from under couches by “someone younger.”

Pearls, crumbs, and kittens then merge into controlled mixed metaphor as she asks “Why wouldn’t they stay in her lap, her mouth, her hands?” They glitter, tumble, and purr in a commingling that reflects her own increasing confusion. She goes out at night to search for them along sidewalks, down alleyways, and in other people’s yards, hinting at the kind of wandering common among individuals with Alzheimer’s as the disease disrupts the sleep-wake cycle.

She imagines storing the words she is losing in the attic, keeping them safe with all the reminders of the life she has lived. Ultimately, neither she nor they can go up there to retrieve them. On one level, her children also are not young: they have bad backs. On another level, one the author does not state explicitly, we know that since they are not in her head, they can never give her exactly the words–or the memories–that she is looking for. Instead, they “just give her some of theirs,” their memories and their knowledge. She hides her frustration under concern about “wasting theirs.”

At the same time, that concern reflects something she has realized that they have not. The story ends: “And they’ll have so many words, they’ll never miss a few,” but that is what she thought about her own words at the start. She knows that no matter how many words one stores up, they can be lost. Indeed, this ending lets the reader see this one experience as part of an ongoing cycle of aging and life, in which one generation gives words to another only for the words later to be lost. Together with carefully chosen imagery that hints at a life beyond the narrative and careful manipulation of the literal and figurative, this hinted broader view gives “Where the Words Go” the immediate emotional impact combined with lingering affect from the indirectly stated that makes the best flash fiction so profound.

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Elizabeth Kate Switaj and her formerly feral cats live on Majuro Atoll where she works at the College of the Marshall Islands. She is the author of one book of literary criticism (James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods, Palgrave, 2016) and two collections of poetry (Magdalene & the Mermaids, Paper Kite Press, 2009; The Bringers of Fruit: An Oratorio, 11:11 Press, 2022). She holds a PhD in English from Queen’s University Belfast and an MFA in Poetics and Creative Writing from New College of California.

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