by Elena Zhang
Honorable Mention – Flash 405, August 2023: “Secret”
We came to the funeral dressed in matching black outfits, although little Janet wore Crocs and I had on sky-high heels. Her long hair lay limply on her shoulders in a style too dour for a nine-year-old, so as we sat before the open coffin imprisoning her father and the priest droned on about milk and honey, I braided her hair with new and steady hands until she looked like she was five again, until her hair clamped her ears shut and preserved her innocence.
When it was my turn to say goodbye, I didn’t want to scare little Janet by smiling so I tried to frown instead, but my mouth ended up becoming a twisted grimace, all teeth and gums and spit. Sister narrowed her rat-eyes at me and asked what was wrong. I blamed it on the shrimp cocktail, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me, because she never did. Before we left, I saw little Janet secret away an assorted cookie tin into her backpack. I wondered what she was doing with my needles and thread, if she was planning to sew my lips into something less terrifying, or maybe make a dress that didn’t smell of rust blood and piss stains. She was sweet like that.
We got home and I put little Janet in a sunshine dress. She twirled around in front of the television while I tried to nap on the couch, but there was a rattling in my head, like an animal got stuck in the pipes and was trying to claw its way out, and when I asked little Janet what the noise was, she looked guiltily at me before retrieving the cookie tin, gleaming dull blue, and opened it to reveal a severed tongue. So he can finally apologize to you. Suddenly, Janet’s skin wrinkled like crumpled paper, and I knew there was only one thing left to do to save ourselves. I chopped the tongue up into little pink cubes and stir-fried it with garlic and soy sauce and sugar. We ate it over rice, and we metabolized the beatings, and we shat out the unspoken regret.
Family trauma is one of the hardest subjects to write well. You have to remove yourself as a writer enough from the subject so the reader is invited in, and yet you also have to be willing to address some painful memories. Even if this sort of trauma is fully fictionalized, there are always kernels of truth from our own pasts in one way or another. We have a dead father who we can glean was not a good man. We have an older sister who has done what she could to protect the younger sister. And we have such strong imagery throughout with a fairy-tale quality that resonates. How do we move forward from trauma? One way is to consume it, to let it dissolve and disintegrate. I love how this writer tackles an uncomfortable topic.
Elena Zhang is a freelance writer and mother living in Chicago. Her work can be found in HAD, JAKE, Bright Flash Literary Review, Your Impossible Voice, and Bending Genres. Find her on X (formerly Twitter) at @ezhang77.
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski