Month: November 2021

CNF: Simple Question

by Jennifer Lang


Do you have any brothers or sisters? someone might ask him as polite Shabbat dinner table conversation.

She can imagine him saying, I had a sister, but she’s dead to me, a 17th-century Polish shtetl response when a father shunned a daughter for marrying a goy or worse, getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Or, maybe he’d say, not really. I consider myself an only child, in his arrogant, older brother and better than her, his once-upon-a-time-little-sister way.

Maybe she has it all wrong. Maybe he does speak honestly with others, the way someone who has chosen the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, striving to adhere to the 613 mitzvot relating to religious and moral conduct of Jews, saying I do, but we don’t talk, without elaborating, which is that they live halfway across the world from their northern California roots and one hour away from each other—he in the holy, contested, hotbed city of Jerusalem, where he settled in the mid-80s after college graduation, and she in hipster Tel Aviv after she and her husband returned to the country where they met and married three decades earlier.

But were someone to probe deeper and her brother were willing to open up, it might sound like I have a sister, three years younger, and we used to be friends—well, kind of—but she’s jealous that our parents and grandparents paid more attention to me, making her feel slighted, so we aren’t on speaking terms anymore.

Except that version of truth doesn’t make her eyes well, lips tremble, or throat catch like other truer truths do, which she told him, explaining the only love she ever questioned in their family was his.

If her brother were willing to divulge more, which she doubts he ever would, he could say something along the lines of our father cheated on our mother for a quarter of a century and, years later, when we sat around a table discussing it even though our father could no longer remember because of Alzheimer’s, my sister mentioned telling her kids, but I strictly forbade it since I cannot tell mine or they would cut off all ties with their grandfather, and she said it was her decision and, regardless, she writes about it.

Which she did.

But this is all the superficial he-said-she-said situation. It’s not the Vivian Gornick below-the-surface story. It’s not about how one sibling thinks he can continue to lord his power over another, both in their fifties, and why.

Maybe, someday, perhaps next spring when her brother turns 60, he’ll experience a reckoning and realize that maybe he chose this extreme lifestyle in his twenties to prevent him from acknowledging his authentic self, which everyone, including his young adult children, suspects—he prefers men—and he hides behind a black-and-white uniform and rigid rules with zero tolerance for homosexuality, making him feel trapped, lashing out at and Xing out of his life anyone who threatens him, thus far his ex-wife, oldest daughter, and her.

But if someone asks her if she has any brothers or sisters, she always says one, but he didn’t even say mazel tov at her son’s wedding this summer, and it’s partly her fault.

Maybe. Maybe not.


Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special home for her unconventional memoir-in-vignettes. Her chapbook “Crossroads: neither here nor there” is a finalist in Chestnut Review’s prose competition. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. When not at her desk, she’s often on her yoga mat: practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003.


See what happens when you click below.

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

I learned about the gift of perhaps from Rebecca McClanahan at Hudson Valley Writers Center some 15 years ago; I’ve taught the gift of perhaps many, many times since. But this piece flowed out of me in response to a prompt on perhapsing on the third and last day of a flash memoir class with Kathy Fish. Initially I wrote it in first person, but a trusted reader-friend suggested changing it to third person, which gave me much-needed distance from he/him and she/her (I)—and perspective.

CNF: The Lake’s Only Daughter

by Emily Lake Hansen


Both the Methodist church of my father’s casual religious upbringing and the Catholic church of my mother’s strict one believe in the concept of the Holy Trinity, that God is somehow a split, but single identity: the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit all a different version of the same god, like how we were all — even when separated by oceans — three people that made up one family. The Lakes it read on cards addressed to us at Christmas, as if we were a chain of individual bodies of water making up a cohesive group of lakes. A group of lakes is sometimes called a suite; other times a system. Googling us is nearly impossible — Emily Lake, for instance, is a lake in both Michigan and Wisconsin.

To explain the concept of the trinity, Catholics will sometimes refer to the three states of water, explaining that it takes the exact same constitution of molecules to make water, ice, or steam. Each of water’s three states of matter appears impossibly different and yet, when broken down, contains the same number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It is all the same entity in the end, they say, and yet every day at school, my mother crossed herself at three distinct points, a fragile hymnal book resting on the folds of her plaid uniform jumper. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Though I made it to church occasionally as a kid — morning assembly at the private school I attended in the first and second grades, once a Korean service with my friend Liz in San Diego, even a lock-in once in Pensacola — my parents were never the ones who took me. We didn’t talk about Jesus’s birth on Christmas unless you counted my mother singing Silent Night, her voice cracking on the high notes. Easter was for eggs, not the resurrection. But when I told my mother I didn’t believe in God anymore — not the Father nor the Son nor the Holy Spirit — she seemed devastated, as if I had pulled the Jesus-crocheted rug right out from under her.

My father didn’t mind my disbelief as much or maybe we just didn’t talk about it. After all, he had mostly waited impatiently through church service as a kid. As soon as the pastor said his final amen, he would gallop out of the building, loosen his tie into a dangling sash, and run all the way home, where his grandmother had homemade pies waiting on the windowsill, a different kind of pie for each of the three Lake siblings.

Although both of her sisters readily reclaimed their maiden name after their divorces, my mother kept my father’s. Why would I want to be separate from you? she said in explanation as if our name, our similar constitutions, the genes passed between us like batons in a relay race, was all it would take to keep us together.

But lakes do occasionally disappear.


Emily Lake Hansen (she/her) is the author of the poetry collection Home and Other Duty Stations (Kelsay Books) and the chapbook The Way the Body Had to Travel (dancing girl press). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in 32 Poems, Hobart, The McNeese Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Atticus Review among others. A Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee, Emily lives in Atlanta with her family where she is a PhD student at Georgia State University and an instructor of English at Agnes Scott College.


See what happens when you click below.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Lake’s Only Daughter”?

“The Lake’s Only Daughter” is a part of a larger memoir project of the same name. I found, as I was trying to write a more conventional long-form narrative, that my experiences — the frequent disruptions of military life, the unnarratable messiness of childhood trauma — would not fit into that sort of straightforward storytelling. I begin to write vignettes or moments instead, often non-linearly, and found that the result was much more reflective of how I experienced my childhood and also of how I’ve processed it. In this particular vignette, I lean into the idea of my family as three distinct pillars meeting, the way beams of a house join together to create structure, and consider what happens when those pillars are out of touch with each other.

CNF: Hayastan

by Nanar Khamo


[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]


When your country ceases to exist, will you fade from existence, as well? What is that cord that ties you to a place that gave birth to your ancestors but one that remains for you cloaked in opacity and unknowingness? She exists in abstract—lavash, sarma, lahmajoun—food that sustains us, even in the diaspora, even when they aren’t terms in our language. She is sustenance, after all; she is food and fuel, even if I cannot grasp her in her entirety.

“Let’s go to Armenia soon,” my sister insists, not finishing her sentence. What she means is: let’s go while there is still a country to visit. Let’s go before it’s another period of history where she vanishes off a map, although she does always seem to play the Phoenix game quite successfully over the past millennia. How long this time til the ashes blow off the paper and the map can proudly bear her name again? What name will I see when I use my fingers to zoom in on a map?

In contrast to my sister, I feel a precipice in every attempted articulation of the language. It spills out of her mouth in happy babbles, little comments and exclamations that mark the native speaker from the language learner. Yet for me, I take it in with bouts of reluctance, but I never let it escape me. For another language has usurped its place and every attempt to speak Armenian is now filtered by my français. The opposite happened when I had my first oral exam in my junior year of high school. Instead of answering a question with a simple non, an insistent voch tumbled out of my mouth. How could that have been? Armenian was my first language, but, somehow, over the years, it had been mentally relegated to foreign language. Had I relegated it? Mother tongues can slip and fall, but English stays firmly, coolly in place.

Is my cold distance a privilege that I can no longer exercise in face of existential terror? They lob bombs, words, insults. They create a museum of caricature, of our fallen bones and flesh, of our curved eyebrows and crooked noses, and I bite the flesh inside my mouth, refusing to allow the words to spill out, because of a fear that I don’t understand, cannot understand. I have lived in France and have never stepped foot inside Armenia. How could that have been? Moving to France felt like a homecoming, a long overdue reckoning that came after several years of language study. Its cultures felt known, new, nude. Armenia remains foreign and familiar at once, a memory that I can only conjure in imaginative flashes. She is diaspora to me. She is childhood and uniforms and bullies and pain. She is olive and apricot and salmon and grape.

France, on the other hand, is a respite, a contented sigh, a long massage that soothes my aching jaw. France has always had its arms wide open to its Armenians, a model minority if there ever was one. Armenians in France breathe life into abstractions, such as intégration and assimilation, abstractions that, as a postcolonialist, I know are complicated by its colonial past.

In a cinema course that I helped teach as a graduate student, we watched Les Intouchables, and a couple of students wrote that the character of Driss was based on a real person of Armenian descent. He is Algerian, not Armenian, and I laughed when I saw it for the first time, and grew increasingly concerned when I saw it again and then again. The differences between Armenia and Algeria couldn’t be more marked than their histories with France, but somehow foreign countries that begin with the letter A are easily intertwined in the minds of an American university student. What of you, Angola? Or you, Albania? The latter, of course, being the ultimate European other with its Muslim majority, so much so that a fictional you-know-who had to hide in its forests.

There is another country that begins with A whose bots spam the internet with its flag and propaganda. It is also an abstract to me. To them, I am not human. What a curious mark of our era that we still deny the humanity of the other. This country, this other A, wants to band with Armenia’s other neighbor and erase her, a process that has already begun with the destruction of millenia old churches and stone crosses. Monuments may crumble, but language, as long as it’s spoken, keeps a culture alive. So what of my fumbling, feeble attempts to speak the language, then?

Perhaps such half-hearted waves of my hand stem from the loss of the other half of the country, the ancestral lands of my family. For even a trip to Armenia wouldn’t be a homecoming in any way, because my great grandmother and her kin sprung from the land on the other side of Mount Ararat, its soil still covering the hidden jewels and tears and blood. I don’t anticipate ever visiting it; fear for my safety keeps me from knowing the lands of my ancestors. Still, what comfort it has been that there has been a country called Armenia, despite its shrinking borders. But the borders keep shrinking, even in this new century. Borders have always been in flux, but students seem to consider them forever fixed, perhaps the complacency of living in such a stable country.

Let’s go to Armenia, then, before they burn the country into abstraction and its people flee to their havens around the world. Let’s go to Armenia before Armenia is no longer Hayastan. Let’s go to Hayastan.


Nanar Khamo is a writer and academic from Los Angeles, California. She earned her PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA in 2018. Her short story entitled ‘Eschatology’ was published in 2020 in the UK-based The Fiction Pool. She has an article and number of book reviews published, as well as a forthcoming chapter in an edited volume on the postcolonial bildungsroman.


See what happens when you click below.

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

As an academic in the humanities, I often vaunt the benefits of studying foreign languages and literatures—bilingual brain! CV mining! expand your world!—to keep student enrollment steady. Writing this piece alerted me to the benefits of crafting creative nonfiction in the classroom to think through nuances in sensitive topics and to layer onto the development of close reading practices. Fiction has always been the protective balm to my spleen, a way of casting a shiny bright sheen on all that bubbles underneath my subconscious. It’s also immensely pleasurable to craft a good story. But there is something so illuminating about creative nonfiction where I could use language to explore directly that which I wish to confront, without shrouding it, in some ways, by my imagination, particularly when it comes to exploring my anxiety-ridden, tortured relationship with my ethnic identity.

Life in a News Cycle

by Myron Kukla


[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]


I was just wondering what life as an average person would be like if someone—say John Smith—suddenly came under constant scrutiny by 24-hour-news, social media and the world. I think it would go like this.


It was reported by the Huntington Post minutes ago that John Smith, slept in today—A WORK DAY‚and didn’t get out of bed until 8:20 a.m.


John Smith Lazy, good for nothing bum. #johnsmithlazybum

I was up for work at 5 a.m. Some white male elitists live the privileged life. #workingwomenagainstlazybummales


MNBC questioned whether this was signaling a new trend in sleeping late by average citizens.

A spokesman for Smith—who likely also slept in—was not available for comment on the development.

The Drudge Report has filed a story that regular guy Smith skipped his usual breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast for a quick bowl of cornflakes and milk. Drudge wrote: “Does this signal a change for him to a healthier life style?”

A source in the Smith household responded to the cornflake breakfast story on Facebook, “He believes in a good healthy and varied diet” that had a photo of fruit and cereal together in a bowl.

Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe took Smith to task over the statement. “What’s he saying? Is he just giving lip service that he ‘believes’ in a healthy diet or does he actually practice it?”

Cohost Mika Brzezinski also weighed in. “The whole fruit and cereal photo looks staged. I’ll bet there’s a bagel and cream cheese hanging out of sight on the side.”

Doug from Dallas commented on the Facebook page under the Smith fruit and cereal photo, “What’s the matter, old fashioned grits not good enough for him? That’s the problem with America today.”

MSNBC promised to give 24-hour, weeklong coverage to what they dubbed, “Cerealbowlgate.”

The Washington Post had a scope on today’s average man. It reported Smith drove to work in his 1993 Mustang with the top down.

The Tweets came fast and blistering.

This guy never heard of skin cancer from exposure to the sun? #lazybum&stupid

He is just setting a bad example for the youth of America. #badlazybumexample

At least he’s driving an American made car. Hurray for him. #americancarguy.

The fast developing story on ordinary citizen Smith’s lifestyle, dietary habits and health has just turned ugly. Several eyewitnesses who were walking behind him on the street this morning claimed he “passed gas” in public.

One ear-witness, said the flatulence was “extremely loud and odorous.”

Dr. Oz discussed whether this new flatulence development by Smith is a result of his sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle and diet or caused by a serious medical issue. “Or, could it be the cornflakes?

Fox and Friends decried public flatulence by Smith. “Whether you call it a bum bugle, butt bubble, toot, passing gas, shart, flatulence or a fart–pooting in public still stinks,” said show cohost Brian Kilmeade.

Smith was moved to Twitter in self-defense. “It wasn’t me that farted. I swear. It was the fat guy on the side of me. #nogashere”

In other developments, YouTube has posted an old video of Smith farting at a Frat Party. The video has been viewed 2.7 million times.

Tonight, NBC Evening News follows the story, “Are Americans more gaseous today and are cornflakes the culprit?”

The National Cornflake Council has issued a public disclaimer to attacks associating their product with gas. “Eating cornflakes doesn’t cause gas. Smith obviously has other socially appropriate issues.”

When caught outside his workplace trying to avoid media covering the story, Smith would only say, “My God, leave me alone. Go away. Find someone else to follow.”


Myron Kukla is a former news reporter for The Grand Rapids Press / Mlive.com. Now, he does corporate public relations through WriteStuffHolland in Michigan and writes books and magazine columns. Kukla has two regionally published humor books, Memories of a Baby Boomer and Guide to Surviving Life. His monthly humor columns Guide to Surviving …appear in Best Version city magazines across the U.S. and Canada.


See what happens when you click below.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Life in a News Cycle”?

Way back when I was reading about Prince Harry and Meghan deciding to pull the plug on being part of the British Royal class and the outcry that was happening and wondered how the average person would respond getting thrown into the utter craziness of a 24-hour news cycle over something lame.

What People Do

by Michelle Ross


The new hygienist asks me questions while her hands and her shiny instruments are in my mouth. The previous hygienist did this, too, it’s true, but the previous hygienist and I had a rhythm. We’d been together for years. The new hygienist, who didn’t even offer her name before poking at my teeth, asks do I have kids, am I married and after I manage a “one” and a “yes” between pokes, she says, “What does your husband do?”

She never asked whether I was married to a man, mind you, nor has she asked what I do, only the kid question, the marriage question, and how often do I brush and floss.

I recall reading somewhere that this question, “What do you do?” with its emphasis on productivity, is an American question. People in other countries aren’t so preoccupied with work.

These are hardly my only objections, though. Take the question literally, and there are a million ways to answer. My husband uses no fewer than three butter knives each morning, and he leaves all three balanced on the edge of the sink so that the dully serrated ends with the residue of butter and jam and coconut oil project over the sink basin like diving boards.

But this is not what the hygienist means, of course.

I say to her, “Not enough.”

The new hygienist laughs. She reclines my chair farther so she can better reach my molars, and I yawn.

The new hygienist says, “Oh, I know. We moms are always tired.”

I say, “My being tired has nothing to do with being a mom.” This is the most I’ve said to her, and she startles.

Perhaps prompted by my brusqueness, she finally asks what I do. I tell her I’m a writer. She asks the usual, awkward questions: are-you-published and have-you-written-anything-I-would-have-heard-of.

Yes. No.

As she pokes at my receding gums, she tells me her grandmother wrote a book. “It’s about things my granny did as a kid.”

Without warning, the hygienist tells me a terrible story about what her granny did to gopher snakes, a story so awful I won’t inflict it on you the way the new hygienist did me.

The new hygienist laughs. The pointy metal stick in her hand stabs the thin skin at the base of one of my molars. “Isn’t that the most awful thing you ever heard?”

Some, like my husband when he reads this story, say that what I do is awful, too.


Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (forthcoming in 2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and many other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. www.michellenross.com


See what happens when you click below.

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

This story originated in my dentist’s office where I was saddened to discover a few months ago that my beloved dental hygienist had left the practice and had been replaced by a new hygienist who asks annoying questions and tells truly horrifying stories, without trigger warnings, while she’s cleaning your teeth.

Life After Birth

by Elizabeth Spencer Spragins


[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]


“You are Roger Thomas Shelton, are you not?” Advocate Hazel MacDonald adjusted her glasses and peered down her nose at the report in her black binder. She didn’t bother to wait for a response. “Then I’m afraid there’s no mistake. You will be awarded custody of twin boys on their delivery date, which will probably be in the third week of February.”

Roger paled. “Whoa! Stop right there. I’m in college on a football scholarship. Being a dad would totally mess up my life. Besides, what makes you think I’m the father? I’ve never even dated this Melinda person.”

MacDonald smirked. “Oh, we’re absolutely certain you’re the father. The sperm tracker database is 99.9% accurate. Although we don’t have your DNA on file, your sperm profile is part of your permanent student record.”

“Hey, I didn’t give you permission to access my records!”

“No, but the Life Tribunal did. The legislation that outlawed abortion expanded their scope of operations. Since the right to privacy has been eliminated, Professional Fetal Advocates are authorized to use all means necessary to determine paternity. Unfortunately, not every child is conceived intentionally within the sacred bond of marriage.” She bared her teeth. “According to witnesses, you doctored Melinda Parker’s drink to incapacitate her at your high school graduation party. She never said ‘Yes,’ did she? When men walk away from their responsibilities in such situations, the law provides a remedy. According to the statute, if the mother doesn’t want the baby, the father must raise it.”

“That’s not fair,” he sputtered.

“The Tribunal has decreed that it is fair. Their mission is ensuring that every unborn child is guaranteed a chance at life. Ms. Parker will suffer the discomfort of an unwanted pregnancy for nine months. Then it’s your turn.”

“Well, stick the babies in day care or something. I can’t deal with them.” Roger crossed his arms and leaned back in the plastic chair.

“We can certainly put you on the waiting list for day care. However, we do not anticipate any openings until late next year. Incidentally, the Tribunal has classified you a reluctant care giver, so the judgment includes mandatory parenting classes five days a week for the duration of the pregnancy. Also, you are deemed a flight risk, so you will be required to wear an ankle monitor at all times.”

“How am I supposed to support two kids and go to school? I don’t even have a job!” His voice quivered with a note of panic.

“The state offers nutritional programs and housing vouchers for unemployed single parents with infants. I’ll give you an application, but it’s probably not worth your time to complete it. Funding cuts are imminent because we simply must cut taxes to cultivate a robust economy. In the meantime, keep those grades up. Education is the ticket to a better life.” She flashed a smile and snapped the binder closed.


Elizabeth Spencer Spragins is a fiber artist, writer, and poet who taught in North Carolina community colleges for more than a decade before returning to her home state of Virginia. Her work has appeared in more than 80 journals and anthologies in ten countries. She is the author of three original poetry collections: “Waltzing with Water” and “With No Bridle for the Breeze” (Shanti Arts Publishing) and “The Language of Bones” (Kelsay Books).


See what happens when you click below.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Life After Birth”?

I have never written anything like this before. Most of my work celebrates the magic of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, or the connection between the two. In contrast, “Life After Birth” is a response to Texas’s new law that criminalizes all abortions, without exception, after about the sixth week of pregnancy. When Governor Abbott signed that legislation, I found myself replaying conversations with former students who were survivors of sexual abuse and violence. Some of the victims whispered their stories; others shared them publicly. I remembered how their eyes pleaded for compassion. However, the only emotion I detected in the faces of the Texas legislators was self-righteous condemnation of women faced with unintended pregnancy.

My initial draft of this piece focused on the destruction of a young girl’s future. Given that countless women have shared their personal experiences with reproductive choices, I felt that my fictional account would have minimal impact. Consequently, I decided to reframe the conversation by switching the genders of the characters.

The Near Death Effect

by Carol Taylor


[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of the “Topical” series, with each piece solely submitted to and chosen by the Final Reader Pietra Dunmore.]


My two year old tumbled into the water
I reached out and grabbed his tiny fingers.
Cool water and a big grin
he churned the wavelets toward me
Let me go, let me go mummy I can do.
I swim, I swim!
Mary on my left asked me a question as my child pulled his fingers away.
Yes I said, I’m going.
I turned back and saw his little body floating face down
flying toward the underside of a tipped raft
wading through wet cement I reached his foot
and lifted him to my eyes and heart


As an artist I’ve always had to write for catalogs and statements, but as a poet and writer I am a very old “newbie”. My high school English teacher, poet Kay Smith was very encouraging. I was awarded a prize in grade 11 for a narrative poem. But then, Art was my love and I never felt smart enough to really “write.” So years pass, I am still a visual artist and potter and now a “writer” with a few projects on the go. My book Capturing Crime (30 years of court sketches), published by New World Publishing out of Dartmouth, NS, was nominated for an Atlantic Book Award 2021. My art work is in the National Art Bank (works on paper), NB Art Bank, McCain Collection, Saint John City Hall and NB Library collections among others. I have created four clay murals, all are installed in NB schools plus Figurehead installed over the Germain St. entrance to the Saint John City Market.


See what happens when you click below.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Near Death Effect”?

Nightmares of this incident have haunted me off and on for years. I have tried writing what happened, but it either seemed contrite or maudlin, so I gave up and figured that at some point it would come together cleanly. It did. The child is now a 45 year old gentle, tall, strong man who seems to have no ill effect. However, he doesn’t swim much!

Pretty Girl

by Lucinda Kempe


The pet store was a tableau macabre. Bushy-tailed jirds scuttling in their enclosures, goldfish pressing their mouths up against the aquarium glass, and a dozen, multi-colored parakeets chirruping hysterically in the aviary, all bathed in ghastly florescent light. Off to the side, a yellow and orange parrot sat alone on its perch, its eyes shut, its cage entombed behind a Plexiglass divider.

She’d come to the pet store for distraction, even dressed up for the occasion. She tapped the glass. The parrot shimmied to the grating floor, then turned around and flashed her.

“Wow,” said the clerk, “He likes you!”

“He? Oh,” she said, pleased. “Must be the orange.”

She’d dressed in orange to offset her indigo mood.

“What is it?”

“A sun conure. High maintenance. They need a lot of attention and make a great deal of noise, but I love them.”

Her friends called her “high maintenance.” Really, she was a difficult person, who had trouble keeping friends because she always said too much.

“How much does he cost?”


“I’ll take him,” she said, buying another extravagance to make herself feel better.

The clerk boxed the parrot. They drove home and when they arrived, she offered her hand, the way the clerk had shown her.

“Pertyper. Pertyper,” he tootled, making a sound like bebop.

With her new companion on her finger, she went to the terrace overlooking Narraganset Bay. The lights on the suspension bridge glimmered like a diadem.

“I saw dolphins surfacing below once. That is my favorite place.”

This was and wasn’t true. She’d seen the dolphins one summer evening when she’d driven to the bridge, got out of her car, and stood looking down, contemplating vaulting off. Her father hanged himself when she was fifteen. She thought about her choice that night, and how seeing the graceful mammals playing in the water nudged her towards life. As if sensing her thoughts, the parrot tightened his grip on her finger. The sensation reminded of what the clerk had said. Most conures were bred in captivity and very few were left in the wild. She also thought about her father and his terrible bid for freedom, freedom from madness.

Her hand, with its bird bauble, protracted over the ledge.

The parrot loosened its hold and flew off.

She tried to keep him in her sights. That night she dreamt of birds—flapping their wings, their honks, and cries—the pterodactyl descendants, birds she’d never seen before, flying in formation, and swooping on the acrobatic wind. The following dusk she stood at the terrace. She envisioned sun conures, their orange heads and yellow bellies patterning the sky like a sun set, and, in the eye of her mind, she heard her father calling her, “Pretty girl. My pretty girl.”

Lightened and unencumbered, she never felt so alive.


Lucinda Kempe’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, New South, New World Writing, Midway Journal, Matter Press, Bending Genres, The Southampton Review, and the Summerset Review. Wigleaf long listed her micro fiction in 2018, 2019 and 2020. An excerpt from her memoir was short listed for the Fish Memoir Prize in April 2021. She lives on Long Island where she exorcises with words.


See what happens when you click below.

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

I can’t remember when I first wrote Pretty Girl although it always had this title. I struggled with this 473-word story for ages. It is a disguised fictional me. As soon as I added the line about the narrator’s father’s suicide the story began to jell.

I go into pet stores a lot. I have cats. The birds, the parrots particularly, always make me sad. Birds are meant to be free not trapped in cages for our amusements. So, this bird quickly became a metaphor for the narrator’s father and for the narrator herself who is struggling to be free from her sadness/depression. I suffer from depression periodically.

Embracing its deepest causes (my father’s death) and writing about it have helped me. In a very early draft, I had the narrator follow the bird to her death, but that was wrong because I am alive. That very last line gave me the biggest trouble until I decided that when the narrator frees the parrot, she can hear her father and in hearing him echoing the bird’s pertypur she frees herself.

We had a rescue cockatiel who flew into our yard. He lived with us for three years. He used to tweet “Pertypur” all time, which means pretty girl. Like the narrator, one day I opened his cage door and held the storm door open.

He flew away and never returned. His name was Oscar Wild. I still miss him.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again March 15, 2023. Submit here.


07/08 • Meg Eden
07/15 • Tim Raymond
07/22 • Mike Itaya
07/29 • Eric Steineger
08/05 • Baylee Less-Eiseman
08/12 • Rae Gourmand
08/19 • Chiwenite Onyekwelu
08/26 • John Arthur
09/02 • TBD
09/09 • TBD
09/16 • TBD
09/23 • TBD
09/30 • TBD