This one is one of my favorites, possibly my very favorite short-short, I’ve ever written. It’s called China and it grew out of my own heart and the feelings I have as a wife and a mother… This story first appeared in Smokelong Quarterly.
By Michelle Garren Flye
She carries a china plate in the space behind her ribcage. She thinks it resembles those delicate pieces her grandmother used at teatime, the ones you could almost see through. She never sees those plates anymore; she figures they’ve all been broken – all but the one in her chest.
When she yells at her kids or fights with her husband, she spends the rest of the day with her arms folded, using all her strength to hold the china in one piece. Sometimes there’s so much yelling in her house, the plate shudders until she can’t stand it. But she’s afraid to run away.
When she realized she’d never have a chance to apologize to her father, a crack that began years before spread almost all the way across. But the plate didn’t fall to pieces. She wonders what will happen to her when it does.
Sometimes the tiniest of the cracks mend themselves. Like the time she stopped to listen to the street performers playing by the harbor. The day was pleasant and warm, her children were happy and the plate resonated with the music. Her feet began to move with the vibration and her husband joined her, then many more people from the gathered crowd. And while the plate sang, it felt almost whole and new again.
I think The Steps My Lover Built was, really, the first romance I ever wrote. I was still resistant to my stories being called “romance”, though. I wanted to think of them as “women’s literature”. I know now that romance is a very important part of “women’s literature”, and well worth being taken seriously. This was also the first story I ever wrote where I felt like somebody else was speaking through me. It’s not as spooky as it sounds–in fact, when it happens, it’s a lot of fun. That’s why I try to give my characters the reins whenever possible. This story first appeared in In Posse Review.
The Steps My Lover Built
By Michelle Garren Flye
On the day I came home from the hospital, my lover began to build a set of steps for me in the garden with his own two hands.
Some thought it cruel, or crazy. Why build steps I would never use? My mother said he was no good for me, the accident should have proved it, and that I should leave him. She helped me bathe and dress; took me to the bathroom, helped me shift my awkward weight from chair to toilet, and back again; cooked for me, and fed me. She slept on a couch in my room in case I needed her. My lover slept down the hall.
I sat in my wheelchair and stared at the place below my knees. When I was alone, I watched him building in the garden through the east window of our house. Behind him, the mountainside sloped into the crowded forests of the valley and the horizon was broken only by the hunched backs of other mountains.
Every day, he built for me. He hauled river rocks in a wheelbarrow, his muscles straining in the sun. Sweat left dark stains on his chest and back as he mixed cement with a big wooden paddle, laid river rocks, and smoothed the cement to hold them.
It rained. He paced the living room. Paced and paced and stared at the sky until my mother screamed and shrieked at him to stop, stop and let her breathe! As if his pacing took all the oxygen out of the room. Then he left, walking down the gravel drive past his truck, disappearing in the distance.
He came back late, wet, smelling of beer and disappointment.
On the day the steps were finished, he left again. I looked out the window at the steps in the garden. I wondered why six steps and not seven or five? I hoped he would come back soon.
He came back late that night in his rattling old pickup. But he didn’t come in. He parked his truck so its headlights shone on the steps. And he began to dig. My mother came and made me go to bed before I could figure out why he was digging or what he was burying.
The next morning he woke me with a gentle kiss, the first since I’d come home. He lifted me from the bed and wrapped me in a warm robe. I put my arms around his neck and my head on his chest, eyes closed as he slipped past my sleeping mother. He carried me out the front door and across the drive to the garden. When he stopped, I opened my eyes and looked at the steps.
In the cool misty morning, the river rocks glistened. He’d polished all the extra cement away. Their smooth surfaces ranged from purple to rose to brown. And I saw what he’d dug the night before. Planted in a semicircle around the steps were tiny rose bushes. I imagined them in coming years edging the steps with beauty and fragrance. I would sit on the top step and smell them, feel their silky petals, gaze in wonder at bees gathering pollen.
My lover climbed the steps and sat down on the top step with me in his lap. Facing east, we watched the sun rise.
The Wheel is more southern literature than romance, but I’m a southern writer, so I’m including it. I wrote it during a hurricane shortly after I moved to the coastal area of North Carolina and realized how different it is here. Whatever the weather here, you get the feeling anything can happen.
By Michelle Garren Flye
The old man sits in the sand, cradling the arm he injured in a farm accident fifteen years ago. It got caught between two gears in a broken thresher and would have pulled him in too if his son had not acted quickly. He remembers the sound of crows in the distance when his son cut the motor of the thresher. And then he hears the voices of the doctors in his head, as if the crows and the doctors are the same. The nerve is dead. I am so sorry you will never regain any use. We can remove it…
The old man who was not old then said no. I’ll keep my arm. He watched his wife cry, his son square his shoulders. He looked out the window in the white wall at a sea of undulating green crops waiting to be harvested and sighed. In that landlocked state he wished he had learned to sail.
He never regretted keeping the arm though he watched it shrivel and die. He sat at his kitchen table looking past the curtains printed with corncobs at the back yard with his useless right arm propped in front of him and thought about leaving. His wife’s tears tasted like the sea back then.
His arm is shrunken and useless now. A black claw but he still has it. It still belongs to him. He is not a farmer a husband or a father now. All that died with his arm. Sometimes he is not even sure how he got here sitting in the sand that would never grow crops looking out at an endless blue expanse of water. Sometimes he wonders if his son still breaks the rich black earth of the farm to sow the seeds to grow the crops to sell to buy the seeds to sow in the rich black earth to grow more crops…
Storm clouds gather to the south and east. The wind is not rising yet, but he knows the storm is coming. A tropical storm that gathered its strength far away off the coast of Africa before coming to the Atlantic coast, bouncing off tiny islands and wreaking devastation along the way. He has seen them before. They come ashore slowly tentacles of cloud teasing before the fury of the storm unfurls on the land. He has seen that happen many times and cried tears of joy as he watched it. It thrills him to think of the huge wheel of the storm rolling up the coastline, causing rain in wind from Miami to Baltimore, dark clouds roiling and spinning around a central point far out to sea.
He is a sailor now. He learned to sail with one hand using the strength of his legs to supplement his one arm as he hauls in lines and cleats them off. He can sail a small boat alone although balance is sometimes a problem. He has fallen overboard more than once reaching for a lifeline with his dead right hand when his left was busy with some other task. He never minds the taste of the salty water on his lips. It reminds him of tears.
A man and his dog jog down the beach legs moving in harmony. The man wears silky blue running shorts and t-shirt that incongruously says something about a mountain run. The dog wears a brown leather collar and follows the man without question. The old man watches them and wonders at the accord between the two as if they are one creature a man-dog. The man-dog changes his course and jogs up to the old sailor. You should go in, old man. Big storm coming. There is a shelter two blocks over. Thank you. The old sailor doesn’t move and the man-dog shrugs and jogs off collar jingling and t-shirt blowing in the breeze.
The wind comes rising all around the old man building rapidly toward the cyclonic speed at the heart of the storm. The sailor looks at the gray-blue waves and reckons it really is finally about time. He rises and feels the sand falling off him like an unwanted suit of clothes. He imagines himself as pink and naked as a newborn babe and it feels right.
His boat is waiting next to the dock where the tourists who arrive in their big yachts tie off their dinghies. She is a small boat with the name of a woman he barely remembers painted on her side. The old man opens a large plastic trunk on the dock and takes out the sails while his boat rocks and bumps into the dock like an impatient horse. A seagull with a broken wing huddles near one of the pilings. Its feathers are blown into disarray and its broken wing trailing useless on the wooden dock. The old man has seen seagulls like this one before. He knows it tried to fly too close to the hurricane. He steps past it and into the rocking boat.
He has to row a little way into the channel before he can put up the sails. He doesn’t want the wind to catch the tiny boat and throw it into shore too early. The waves toss him dangerously as he hoists the mainsail then the jib. It is impossible to keep the craft pointed into the wind, so the wind catches the sails before he is ready, heeling the boat over and causing him to release the jib sheet too soon. The old sailor curses.
His wife never liked to hear him curse. Must you be so crass? As if she is fresh from the country club instead of the corner market. Out here there is no one to hear him so he shouts his obscenities to the wind. Shit damn fuck. Fucking bastard wind. He goes on and on enjoying the cathartic release of ugliness from his gut. Damn fool son of a bitch storm.
He curses everything but the boat which he coaxes up from its near horizontal position by lowering the center board and letting the mainsail out. When he gets the boat back up into a near 45-degree angle, he makes for a course across the wind, parallel to shore, fighting the tiller with his one arm until he is on a beam reach with the wind pounding across the starboard side.
The waves pummel the boat and the wind rises, pushing the sails to their limits. The old man knows even the strong material of the sails and the sheets won’t withstand this pressure for long, even if the hull does. He is no longer sailing in a straight line but being carried where the storm wills. He wonders if he can hold onto the battered hull of the boat if it can somehow stay afloat will he be carried into the heart of the storm? The old man tastes the sea spray on his lips and remembers every tear he has ever cried.
Sometimes he wishes it were different. He wishes his arm had never died, he wishes he were still a husband and a father and a farmer. At times he even wishes for someone to sail with him.
Today on this trip to nowhere he knows only that no matter how far he sails before the boat cracks and the sails rip he’ll never make it back to the farmland where he started. However as all creatures must he has come full circle in a whirling hurricane.
Wow… that send shivers along my arms. So beautiful, so sad. I love your writing…
Thanks, AJ! This is one of my favorites, too. I never found it a good home, but it did win an honorable mention in a local writing contest. I thought it might be a good way to start out my “Free Fiction”.
Somebody at Zoetrope writing workshop sent me to look for this. Lovely story. In several places in a memoir I wrote of my mother’s last days I used the same device, directing my remarks to her as ‘you’.
Thanks, Martin. I’ve never used that device before or since, but it worked for this story. Funny how some stories just tell themselves to you. Thanks again for reading!
Some stories live and breathe like this one. They seem to beg to be written, but only after they’re read.
Like this one.
Thanks for writing this meaningful story.
Thanks JAM! I’m glad you liked it and thanks so much for reading it!
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Hmmm… I like the vampire story as well. Great ending, even leaving off with a slight dellima of knowledge. Very good, Michelle.
Thanks, AJ. Glad you liked it. Maybe I’ll post the sequel next week…
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