Telling

by Cynthia Litz

1. Farm Boys

The mother makes biscuits in a morning, sprinkles flour to the soft dough. The barefoot little girl tugs the hem of her apron, sucking her thumb, clutching Dirty Baby, a corncob wrapped in muslin. From the corner of the room the replacement baby boy is mad and won’t stop that crying. The mother feels her hide beginning to bust open from a pressure inside her breasts. The girl sits on the floor and soothes the corncob to her chest. Grey milk drops onto the mother’s flour hands. Just outside her kitchen window, an angel with fresh dirt on his face swims through the tobacco field.

2. Arithmetic Homework

Every afternoon at four, she mops our kitchen floor and listens to the obits on the radio. She gets to all the corners of the tiles, swabbing real good, and teaches us to be thorough and on alert for communists. We listen to those names marching out of the radio speakers, across the kitchen counter, falling in battle, one by one, to the clean floor. We erase our mistakes carefully, write our names in the upper right hand corner. Then the man singing “Come Home, Come Home, it’s Suppertime” reminds her again of her happiest time, she says, with his mellow twang and all, so, Lord God, listen to that, she sighs and turns the radio off, sending us down to the fallout shelter to get a jar of green beans for supper.

3. Bloom

When the jellies bloomed, you scooped them right out of the surf with your tiny hands. Together, we trimmed away the stings, tied them into jelly bouquets with big salty bows, embellished them with the jelly moons that had dropped onto the beach, and offered them to each other. The transluscent story I told was “She wrapped her jelly babies in her tentacles in the evening, singing crystal clear tones to them.”

You stepped away from me, not too far. You held your bouquet up to the light and I saw how fragile we all are. Your dizzy feet wavered with the pull of the foamy surf; then your hands rose high above your head and you let the jellies go, and I watched them rise smaller and smaller.

4. Dawn

This was usually well after the rooster and as the sunlight walked across her bedroom. Her little girls, nightgown hems swish-ing in a happy rhythm over their cold toes on the floor, brushed her dark hair from top to bottom, one hundred times. They braided it down her back so she could get busy, and when the light hit the braid, it turned from chestnut to mocha, just like that. Once she turned thirty-five, she had them pin the braid up for her. This is when she taught them not to be tarts. When the girls live down the road apiece, when she braids her own hair and it sometimes falls like gray confetti to the floor, she’ll wear a scarf from the store and quit all her talking.

Fiction by Cynthia Litz has appeared in Narrative, Camera Obscura, and Night Train. She practiced Internal Medicine, where detailed physical observations and patient histories traditionally are compressed into concise chart notes and succinct oral presentations to colleagues.

You included with the submission the comment that “Telling” is “a set of fleeting times in different generations of women.” Of all the times you could’ve chosen in these women’s lives, what attracted you to these moments? I do notice something (time, perhaps) is moving past these women. The portrayed moments also seem to ripple the women’s influence forward.

And how is “fleeting” an important concept in how you approach “compression” in your work? Or is it not important at all? Now that you ask, I realize it is important, although I don’t approach it thinking of that. What I compress often seems to be a still frame, hopefully with implicit movement.

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