Petal, Feather, Particle

by Peg Alford Pursell

Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart. What is both witness and sign along the way on this rough earth, a shell already cracked. She’d thought she could raise a child with only minimal intercession but now, as she was being driven to the hotel, found herself looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling a quiet prayer. Her daughter was like her: too quick to do everything.

The girl’s father had been someone she once knew, or thought she had, a man who laid her in repose on the bed and gave her waist a tender squeeze before arranging her hands on top her, placing the right over the left, palm over knuckles. He studied her in that corpse-like pose, letting his glass with the float of lime warm in his hand, before his mouth captured hers.

She’d come in from that life long ago, to cover child rearing herself. To say that she had managed well would be to deny the truth of the flower, the bird, the shadow.

She would try to give her daughter a talk, though surely the young woman too understands there is nothing like that available to speech, the wild and strange language that could bespeak the organizing principle that pulls the body toward its center. This trivial fact of human nature. Composition and decomposition of every petal, feather, and light particle.

But it was only kindness, necessary kindness, that she try. And so they were scheduled to meet in the hotel by the harbor, a place where she thought the sea would soothe her, where she would set out to speak in the way gondoliers push their boats away from the Venetian docks. A girl in trouble: the expression implied that the girl was in danger, contained her own peril. She would make clear to her daughter that this wasn’t so. Now she wouldn’t likely become a famous dancer in Russia, she would say to her girl, and they would share a small smile at the idea that her daughter might have ever entertained such an aspiration.

What her daughter had ever wanted she truly didn’t know, and that knowledge was contained within her, a small sunken place, heavy and aching.

It was not too late to learn, she reassured herself, but was this simply another beautiful idea she was still trying to believe? And if so, where was the love in that?

The car pulled up in front of hotel with its grand façade. She wanted to cry out, fly toward the glittering ocean, a rose gripped in her hands, petals littering her shadow as it disintegrated over the deep waters.

Peg Alford Pursell’s stories have been published in Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, The Quotable, Joyland, Her Royal Majesty, and others. Her 90-word, one-sentence story “Fragmentation” is the title story of the anthology Fragmentation and Other Stories (Burrow Press, 2011). A short story collection was a short-list finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she curates the reading series Why There Are Words in Sausalito http://whytherearewords.com and teaches in North Bay Writers Workshops. Her website is http://www.pegalfordpursell.com

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Petal, Feather, Particle”?

“Petal Feather Particle” was drafted initially in a group with writers in the North Bay Writers Workshop, an integral part of my life. I founded the workshops several years ago when I was feeling parched as a writer, as if the fun of the process had been leeched out by maybe too much striving. While, like any writer’s, the bulk of my work, is done in [necessary] solitude, when the workshops are in session I write each Tuesday with eight other writers, and I consider that time and practice of generating new material to a prompt as essential. There’s nothing quite like it: everyone clacking away on keyboards or scrawling pens across the page. During the ten minutes, there’s no time to think, there’s only capturing what comes, and there’s a kind of magic in being together while alone in the composing, knowing for any one of us that anything can appear on the page. As with this story, something can come together almost of a piece, beg to be polished and shared with the wider world.


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