Honorable Mention – Flash 405, August 2023: “Secret”
The coffee at grief group is bitter, but Pattylee drinks it down like a punishment for a crime she’s not done paying for. Their leader, Elise, says it’s best not to think in those terms—right/wrong/guilty/innocent—that some things just are. The grass is, the sky is, winter is. And people we love, even kids, get sick and die—the biggest is. Pattylee remembers the word problems on the standardized tests—if there are X number of people and only the Ys have apples, how many pies can Z make?—and how the radiator clanked and hissed, how heat had a smell to it of ironed cotton and swimming pools. Her teacher, Mr. Stephens, in the cranberry sweater raveling at the elbows down to the undershirt he wore in the winter. He had a son who was slow to walk or talk or grow, who rode in a red wagon Mr. Stephens pulled around downtown on Saturdays, to the hardware store and then the bakery where Pattylee worked part-time. The kid had powdered sugar all over his face when he hugged her—what he did whenever he was introduced to someone. She was wearing black, apron and pants and the ghost of the sugar lingering long after she brushed it off. Like motherhood, even after your kid dies, X = Y. It is. You are.
We’re invested from the first sentence, with “grief group” and “punishment … crime” setting the tone for something tragic having happened. What I loved about this piece was how the writer took it to another level with what Buddhism teaches us, which is we are only in this moment in any given time, and in this moment is where we find truth. Pattylee is trying to understand this truism. She remembers a teacher’s child with unnamed developmental issues who was excited to meet people and loved to hug them. A child who embodied It is. I am. Pattylee understands this from a mental framework, even as she continues to understand and work through the grief of what she has personally lost and feels responsible for. Pattylee is learning how to reconcile, how to accept, this. It doesn’t get much more human than that.
Sarah Freligh is the author of six books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Award and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and the recently released A Brief Natural History of Women, from Harbor Editions. Her work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Wigleaf 50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and Best Microfiction (2019-22). Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.
Photo by Sabri Tuzcu