An earlier draft of this essay was published in Be: A Journal of Creative Expression in April 2017.
Ever since I came to Iowa City, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sunset. The view is very different from anything I have seen in China.
The first thing I’ve noticed here in Iowa is that the sunset lasts so long. The sun seems so reluctant to retire to his palace that until 8 p.m. the summer night is still glowing, unbelievable for those who are used to a dark sky at 7. My old sense of the sunset is challenged. I don’t really see a circular red sun, like a boiled egg yolk, slowly sinking into the horizon; instead I see the gold light, dyeing the entire sky. I used to regard the color gold as more artificial than natural—a royal hue claimed exclusively by the emperor in the olden days, or the vulgar bling the newly rich like to wear in the modern day. Never have I seen it shimmering thus in the boundless sky, and I am transfixed by it.
If you go back to classical Chinese poetry, you will probably see that the image of sunset usually refers to “sorrows” and “sadness.” Li Shangyin, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, wrote in “The Leyou Tombs,” “To see the sun, for all his glory, / Buried by the coming night” (translated by Witter Bynner). The sunset in Chinese is often called a “night sun” or a “slanting sun,” both metaphors of the very last light that one can hold in his life. The other day when I was waiting for a bus at around 7:30 p.m. in Iowa City, I saw the sky blazing and all the clouds outlined by the gold sunset light, like the gilded bronze reliefs in Gates of Paradise in Florence. I felt as if cherubs were about to jump out of one of the clouds. In 30 minutes’ ride, the horizon was still burning gold. I wondered, if I kept heading west, would I see a line of gold horizon forever? The sunset light conveys a message of hope rather than despair. Now I understand why the distinguished poet Carl Sandburg wrote the opposite of how Li Shangyin responded to the sunset:
I tell you there is nothing in the world/ only an ocean of tomorrows. / a sky of tomorrows. / I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say/ at sundown: / Tomorrow is a day.
The glowing gold lends infinite power to look forward to tomorrows.
In order to dig deeper into American culture when I came to Iowa, I attend a weekly Bible Study with Elva Craig, a fellow of Faith Baptist Church in Iowa City. Elva asked me a question when we were in the very beginning, reading Genesis: “The sun and the moon were not created by God until the fourth day of creation, and so where do you think the light came on the first day?” I have never thought of such a question before. “Well, I don’t know exactly myself,” Elva said. “But I pictured that on the very first day, God opened a window from Heaven to let the light of Heaven flow to the Earth.” There is some difficulty here—heaven was created after light rather than before light, on the second day. But I liked her interpretation. I thought many people in Western context might have a similar picture in mind when reading Genesis for the first time. Light thus becomes a crucial symbol in Western culture—the Lord’s first gift to lift men out of darkness.
Little by little, the concept of light broadens, and it incorporates richer content. Enlightenment Europe vividly depicted how “light of knowledge” is shone on men. Light seems to determine aesthetic criteria in the Western culture too: When decorating houses, people in America install plentiful windows, as glass is friendly to sunlight. You like to tile the floor of toilets with white ceramic tiles as those will bring more light in to make the place brighter and cleaner. City parks in Europe and America are patches of wide-spreading grass where one can enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Oh, how you love to bathe in the sun! Even when the beauty of a woman is presented in oil paintings or in literary works, the woman must be lit; otherwise, her beauty cannot be seen.
Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing, the snow melted on the roofs of the buildings; she stood on the threshold, went to fetch her sunshade and opened it. The parasol, made of an iridescent silk that let sunlight sift through, colored the white skin of her face with shifting reflections. Beneath it, she smiled at the gentle warmth; drops of water fell one by one on the taut silk.
This is how Gustave Flaubert describes Emma in Madame Bovary. Without the sifting sunlight, Charles couldn’t catch her beauty. Perhaps that is why God created light on the first day.
Ancient Chinese people contributed many inventions to human civilization, but we did not invent glass, nor did we use glass often (even though we did have it as early as the late Spring and Autumn period, i.e., early fifth century B.C.). It seems to me that the reason is more due to aesthetic considerations than practical ones. Glass lets in too much sunlight, rendering the space totally exposed. Ancient Chinese people frowned at the idea of a complete view of a place. How boring! How unromantic! They preferred shadows to light.
In traditional East Asian architecture, we cover the window frames and door frames with paper. Paper softens the strong sunlight. The shapes of window frames and door frames—flowery patterns, shapes of Chinese characters—can cast their long mellow shadows to the inside of a house. Toilets become poetic, too! The fabulous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki praised the Japanese toilet as “a place of spiritual repose.” Like Chinese ones, it is built outdoors, keeping a modest distance from the main building, and is usually set under a thatch roof in China, or in a grove “fragrant with leaves and moss” in Japan. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden,” Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows. These lines are by far the most beautiful words I have ever read of a toilet.
Our city parks are also different from their Western counterparts. Traditional Chinese city parks were designed in such a way that as you take a step forward, you capture a different glimpse of the same view. For example, our conventional parks are often dotted with pavilions. When you glance at a pavilion from far away, you see it surrounded by the stream and plants. When you near the pavilion, you will see how the roof, columns, and railings altogether frame a certain part of stream and only one or two plants, just like a Chinese painting—the Chinese poems carved on the columns echoing the verses inscribed by an artist on the margins of his painting. Then, when you go inside the pavilion and look out from one of its windows, you will notice in a corner where we place grotesque-shaped stones (“fake mountains” in literal translation) near the plants, in a way to mimic the bridges, mountains, and animals. Thus this corner becomes a miniature of nature itself. You never get a single view of a Chinese city park. Instead, you need to walk to discover the innumerable possibilities for beauty.
When drinking wine (baijiu, soju, and sake), we use colored ceramics or potteries, and often we inscribe Chinese characters on them or carve them into plantlike or animal-like shapes; then we can enjoy the colorful and interesting shadows in the cup when drinking.
If you have watched a few traditional Chinese operas, you would probably notice that Chinese beauties on the stage are likely to hide half of their faces behind their painted fans or long, well-embroidered sleeves. To us, these sleeves and fans render the women even more glamourous. Instead of having a full picture of what the woman looks like, we imagine her looks, her voice, and her character based on our limited sight of her. In our fantasies, her beauty is infinite. Also, we dare not look directly at a woman as it is considered very rude in our culture. What we can do is to steal a look at a tiny little part of her and complement our delight as well as regrets with our imagination.
A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost called out in his astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite. Outside it was growing dark, and the lights had been turned on in the train, transforming the window into a mirror. The mirror had been clouded over with steam until he drew that line across it.
The above paragraph is from Snow Country, written by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His angle of showcasing a woman’s beauty is distinct from Flaubert’s. He lets the male narrator capture a glimpse of only a small part of the woman: her single eye. It could seem more terrifying than pleasant for Western readers. This kind of gaze is very common for a man in Eastern countries to meet a woman. Zhou Zuoren, a great prose writer in modern Chinese literary history, depicts the beauty of his first love only by showing her feet, as her feet are the only sight he dares to catch—he merely glues his eyes to the floor. Whereas Flaubert eventually focuses on the light cast on the white skin of Emma, Kawabata blurs his literary camera with “steam.” Here, the steam, functioning similarly to the sleeves or the fans in traditional Chinese operas, holds the woman at a decent distance from her admirer, thus making her untouchable and more enigmatic. Beauty is not what we see in the light, but how we imagine what we cannot see.
I am writing nostalgically of a traditional Eastern culture; it is all gone. Nowadays, we all install glass windows, tile the floor with white ceramic, and try every means to make our “home, sweet home” a “clean, well-lit place.” Modernization and Westernization have compelled us to abandon cherished practices. But I can’t help wondering: Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?
As writers and editors of flash fiction, we love stories that are structured around a story’s gaps, the nuanced caesuras of what’s left out. In fact, the promise of a good flash story—a genre usually defined as being less than 1,000 words—is the way a narrative moves through an escalating series of hints. There’s no expectation of comprehensiveness, and often little room for connective tissue; rather, flash fiction invites the reader to live in the spaces of a story and imagine what’s left out.
As list-makers, however, we wish we could have been more comprehensive. One list begets other lists, and in making this list, we realized how many more lists are needed for flash fiction as it continues to emerge and become ever more popular.
As a concession to the lack of comprehensiveness, we’ve broken this list into three categories: some of our favorite classics, a few go-to anthologies, and then a sprinkling of recent collections. Please, though, consider this list to be a piece of flash fiction itself—a series of hints toward other wonderful flash collections in the world, including ours, Nothing Short of 100, a collection of the best 100-word stories from 100 Word Story magazine.
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Yasunari Kawabata, the 2oth-century Japanese writer and Nobel Prize Winner, wrote short shorts before the category of flash fiction existed. He called his stories “palm-of-the-hand” stories because they were so small they could essentially fit in one’s palm.
This collection includes a total of 70 stories drawn from 1922 until Kawabata’s death in 1972 (he died in a gas-filled room, a probable suicide). He started writing the stories as his way to write poetry. Each one of his miniatures is molded by a spare understatement, a suggestiveness that comes from his painterly eye for detail, a focus on the telling perception.
Kawabata was so dedicated to an aesthetics of concision that he even condensed his most famous novel, Snow Country, into an 11-page story, “Gleanings from Snow Country,” which appears in this collection.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis is as close as you’ll get to royalty in the flash fiction genre. Sometimes it can seem as if she invented brevity. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis includes 200 pieces, amounting to just 700 pages (an average of approximately three pages per story), 30 years’ worth of work.
Davis’s distinctive voice pulls stories from our everyday concerns, misunderstandings, and mishaps to fashion short shorts that are wry and wise. Her best stories explore the chasm of love, with narrators obsessively going through lists and chronologies of events to try to understand what happened. Davis’s stories have very little in the way of plot. Some stories, in fact, are just a single sentence or two. As Jonathan Franzen said, “She has the sensitivity to track the stuff that is so evanescent it flies right by the rest of us.”
Clarice Lispector: The Complete Stories
If Elena Ferrante met Lydia Davis, they might write somewhat like the late Clarice Lispector. Dark, sharp, moody, yet sometimes focused on prosaic themes and occurrences, these stories represent the beloved Brazilian writer’s work from adolescence to the end of her life.
Lispector’s stories, sometimes a little bit mad, certainly delirious, decenter the reader in exhilarating and exhausting ways. “Coherence, I don’t want it anymore,” a character in one of her stories thinks. “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder.” Brevity plus disorder makes for fascinating aesthetic.
Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek
Ecstatic Cahoots starts with two lines of dialogue — “You’re going to leave your watch on?” / “You’re leaving on your cross?” — that recur throughout the collection in different situations, like the refrain of a song or poem that changes meaning through repetition.
The collection includes 50 stories that range in length from two lines to 13 pages. Many of Dybek’s quirky miniature masterpieces are a type of prose poem, and you might even say some read as prayers. In an interview with 100 Word Story, he said that one target to aim for in flash fiction is a “profound suggestiveness,” and with such a technique in hand he makes the small moments in his stories have big meanings.
99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
99 Stories of God is a collection of radically compressed stories, many barely a page long, some just a single paragraph, with a quirky and jabbing whimsy that is reminiscent of Lydia Davis. Not all of the stories are written about God, but they are all written with a sacred adherence to Emily Dickinson’s guide to writing: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Williams plays with deep questions in her stories, such as the existence and invisibility of God. Her disjointed connections, piercing details, and brutal humor jar one’s notions of the world, and often leave one baffled, but in the best of ways.
Flash Fiction Anthologies
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field
If you want a mentor text to guide you into writing flash fiction, there’s no better book than this one. The book is a true field guide, with probing essays on the art of flash fiction by such masters as Steve Almond, Pamela Painter, Robert Olen Butler, Deb Olin Unferth, Ron Carlson, and Jayne Anne Phillips. The book is designed as a teaching resource, but its essays, prompts, and exercises equip any flash writer to explore how constraints can open up a different kind of creativity and invite in unconventional approaches.
Best Small Fictions Anthologies
Publisher Braddock Avenue Books describes Best Small Fictions as “the first contemporary anthology solely devoted to honoring the best short hybrid fiction published in a calendar year.” Founded by Tara L. Masih in 2015 and annually staffed with the genre’s most respected writers and editors, the annual series is eagerly awaited by nominated writers while also serving as a sort of primer for those wanting to understand the evolution of the short-short form.
The 2018 Best Small Fictions will showcase 53 stories that first appeared in a range of literary publications—from a 50-word short in the tiny hand-stapled Blink-Ink to a longer piece from The New Yorker—and highlight another 101 finalists.
New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction
Micro fiction is defined as a story that is less than 300 words. This anthology, coming out in August, includes newcomers and established writers alike: Amy Hempel, Kim Addonizio, Richard Brautigan, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and James Tate among them. The anthology is the latest from James Thomas, who along with Robert Shapard, helped put flash fiction on the writing map with their series of flash fiction anthologies (Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Flash Fiction International) that began decades ago. This time, Thomas teamed with microfiction author Robert Scotellaro (who wrote a notable collection of 100-word stories, Bad Motel, and has work in 100 Word Story as well).
Recent Flash We’re Excited By
Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith
Cross-Smith’s stories are Southern with a capital S, steeped in cigarette smoke, whiskey, and sex. In this collection, lovers cheat and regret, embrace and fight, make out and make up. Evocative and written in a warm, confident style, the stories in this collection make you feel like you’re sitting with an old friend on a porch in summer, talking about life, sipping something so good it burns.
Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows
Flash fiction invites unconventional approaches to telling stories in such a small space, as exemplified by Jez Burrows’s Dictionary Stories. Burrows became obsessed with the italicized example sentences in dictionaries and began playing with them, remixing them into idiosyncratic pieces of short fiction. It all started when Burrows looked up the word “study,” and saw this dramatic story starter: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” The collection, which includes 150 stories, was spawned by a popular Tumblr blog, and each story is categorized by topic, whether it’s “dating” or “the occult.”
Other Household Toxins by Christopher Allen
A respected editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, Allen collected his own stories for seven years before publishing his book with Matter Press. He moves smoothly between the everyday and the surreal, with a focus on fathers and sons, lovers, and taboo, moving easily between hard and gentle tales.
Pretty by Kim Chinquee
Sophisticated, restrained, and even slightly aloof, Chinquee’s stories often focus on love lost, found, and squandered. This collection is for studying and re-reading, with images and characters sometimes appearing teasingly just on the edge of our field of vision.
Damn Sure Right by Meg Pokrass
When you read Meg Pokrass, you know she was once a poet. In fact, she’s taken many of her poems and transformed them into stories—perhaps the perfect activity for any flash fiction author. But to present her fiction as guided mainly by lyricism is misleading. There are few authors out there as daring and honest and real as Meg Pokrass. She possesses that rare gift of a writer, knowing how to poetically tell a tale while not flinching from the uncomfortable truths she discovers along the way.
Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song by Kara Vernor
Kara Vernor’s work is world weary yet hopeful, her characters inhabiting malls, amusement parks, video stories, blue collar neighborhoods. With an unflinching voice, Vernor tells stories largely about girls and women who are trying to figure out life and find their place in it. Read “Ferris Wheel,” a remarkable micro about a blind date with the hopes of the narrator lifting up and dropping like an old, creaky ride.
On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
Dark and disturbing, these stories don’t shy away from violence and grit. If nothing else, read “Pretty Dead Girl Takes a Break” to see just how masterfully McClory mingles the surreal ramblings of the victim with our everyday obsession with crime. This flash alone is a downright harrowing social commentary on women as victims—and entertainment.
Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin House, The Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. He recently published a book of essays on creativity with Chronicle Books, Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published a collection of 100-word stories, Fissures, which have been included in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and the new W.W. Norton Anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Stories.
Lynn Mundell is co-founder and co-editor of 100 Word Story and co-editor of its anthology, Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story, as well as a managing editor at a large health care organization. Her short-short stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many U.S. and U.K. literary journals, including Tin House online, Booth, Superstition Review, Portland Review, Permafrost, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, The Sun, and Five Points, as well as in anthologies including New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, August 2018). Lynn earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is an advisory board member of the U.C. Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program in Writing.
Beret Olsen is a writer, photographer, teacher, and long-time proponent of the Oxford comma. Currently, Beret teaches black and white film photography in the Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two pre-tweens. She writes two blogs: Bad Parenting 101 and LobeStir, and you can find her photography at www.beretolsen.com.
Jon Roemer is publisher/senior editor of Outpost19, an award-winning publishing house based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared at The Writer, OZY, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, 3:AM and elsewhere. Jon studied literature and fiction writing at Northwestern and Arizona and has developed creative projects for a handful of Fortune 100 companies.
Image Credit: Pexels.
As a bookish only child who came of age in the ’90s, I got ideas about how I might become lovely—and as a result, I hoped, passionately loved—not from the style sites, beauty blogs, YouTube tutorials, Instagram videos, and Pinterest pages that are now ubiquitous, but from the novels and stories in which my nose was perpetually buried. My innate interest in beauty—spiritual, sartorial, skinwise, and otherwise—was stoked by 20th-century literature and the captivating female characters who populate it. Books I read between the spongy ages of 12 and 20 were especially potent. They inspired me to become a writer and invent fictional characters of my own, but I didn’t only long to write; I also longed to be written, like the heroines of these books—to be regarded with the kind of affection, interest, and attention to detail that infuses so many of the satisfying sentences their authors used to describe them. Inevitably, many of my choices and rituals concerning beauty and adornment, several of which persist, resulted from the images that bloomed in my imagination while I read.
In junior high, my hair—thanks to hormonal changes, no doubt—transformed of its own accord from fairly straight to extravagantly curly. I struggled to accept the sudden ringlets, which required an entirely new way of washing, combing, and styling. I also agonized over what I was sure was the near-fluorescent ruddiness of my cheeks; it betrayed, I thought, the awkward bashfulness with which I was often battling, and I tried to mask it with powder as soon as I was allowed to wear a bit of makeup. Then I met Ántonia Shimerda, the 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. She was a character whose vitality, spirit, and earthiness I admired. And she had curly hair. And red cheeks. Ántonia’s “curly and wild-looking” locks make an ideal if temporary dwelling for a grasshopper she brings home to show her father. She “carefully put the green insect in her hair,” Cather writes, “tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls…,” and her cheeks “had a glow of rich, dark color” that Cather likens to “red plums.” Because of Ántonia, who was a role model of mine due to the indomitable strength of her personality and warmth of her heart, I embraced my curls and put down the face powder.
Eschewing makeup, however, demands vigilant skin care, and I’m grateful for potions that lend the face a lit-up look. One of Leopold Bloom’s errands on the eventful day of June 16th in the first part of James Joyce’s Ulysses is to have the neighborhood chemist make up a batch of the face lotion favored by his lush wife, Molly. Bloom marvels at the quality of Molly’s skin, which he deems “so delicate, like white wax.” At the chemist’s, he recites most of the lotion’s ingredients—”Sweet almond oil and tincture of benzoin…and then orangeflower water…and white wax also”—so I’ve been able to concoct an approximation at home with supplies sourced from the local health food store. Playing apothecary is fun, and I share Bloom’s sentiment that “homely recipes are often the best: strawberries for the teeth: nettles and rainwater: oatmeal they say steeped in buttermilk. Skinfood.”
Of course fastidiousness is crucial to both inner and outer beauty, and the skin of one’s body must not be forgotten in the effort to maintain a luminous face. Following in the footprints of the ever-fresh Komako, the lonesome young woman living at a hot springs resort town in the mountains of Japan in Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, I take frequent baths. Komako always seems to be coming from or heading to the bath: “[T]he impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness,” Kawabata writes. “Every day she had a bath in the hot spring, famous for its lingering warmth.” While my own bathwater doesn’t spurt from a mineral-rich spring, it’s usually infused with what I hope are similarly healing salts, plus drops of pine oil to evoke the conifers of Kawabata’s icy landscape. Just as I imagine Komako does, I like to do plenty of scrubbing to detoxify and promote good circulation.
Nicole Diver, the charismatic blonde with a sad secret in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, also takes a bath before beginning a love affair that will shift the trajectory of her life. “She bathed and anointed herself and covered her body with a layer of powder, while her toes crunched another pile on a bath towel…She put on the first ankle-length day dress that she had owned for many years, and crossed herself reverently with Chanel Sixteen.” This passage not only impressed upon me the degree to which literature can provoke an exquisite sensory experience, but also the importance of perfume application as an everyday ceremonial rite. Fitzgerald invented Chanel Sixteen—there never was such a thing—but the first fragrance I bought for myself was a Chanel, the softly shimmering eau de toilette version of No. 5. Then I caught it: the perfume bug, an ongoing fascination with odor as a kind of olfactory language that both makes and unearths memories. My obsession has not only inspired me to write a book’s worth of as-yet unpublished perfume essays, each one devoted to a different scent, but has also driven me quite happily from costly bottles of obscure niche fragrances to tiny vials of cheap but pleasing oils and everywhere in between. I don’t discriminate. I just want to smell like someone about whom stories could be written.
After bathing comes dressing. In D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, the cooler of the two titular women, Gudrun, is an artist blessed with an enviable sang-froid that remains unruffled even when she is catcalled by local miners—”What price the stockings?”—while stepping out in her signature boldly-colored tights. She has them in a kaleidoscopic array of shades and fabrics: “…grass-green stockings…pink silk stockings…woolen yellow stockings…” Because of Gudrun, I went through a brightly-tinted-tights phase, partly because of the aesthetic pleasure it gave me, and partly because I wanted some of her blithe attitude to seep into mine, though in actuality I was much more like her hypersensitive sister, Ursula, who dons no stockings of remarkable color but instead has practically got her heart sewn onto her sleeve.
Little finishing touches that complete a look come in many forms, including nail polish—an adornment about which I’ve always had mixed feelings. I sometimes put it on, but invariably remove it within hours. I love it on others the same way I love other people’s tattoos, but on me it feels somehow wrong, artificial. Maybe it makes me uneasy because I can’t help but associate it with Muriel, the shallow wife of the brilliant and sensitive seer, Seymour Glass, who figures in J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and other stories. When Muriel first appears, she is in the process of “putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.” Growing up, I—like his younger siblings Franny and Zooey—was heavily influenced by and devoted to Seymour, and it was clear the hopelessly mainstream Muriel just didn’t get him. “With her little lacquer brush…she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left—the wet—hand back and forth through the air.” This insouciant gesture seemed to embody all the spiritual poverty and bourgeois materialism of which I was sure Muriel was guilty.
Other finishing touches, however, feel the opposite of artificial, but rather like external reflections of one’s inner self. I’m never without my two little gold bracelets—one on each wrist. There is something about adorning my wrists—the gateways to my hands—in this way that makes sense. I like to write and make jewelry; my hands accomplish the tasks at the heart of my life. But I first got the idea to do this while reading my favorite of Jack Kerouac’s novels, the autobiographical chronicle of once-in-a-lifetime adolescent love, Maggie Cassidy. The book’s title character accessorizes similarly. “Tonight,” Kerouac writes of Maggie, “she is more beautiful than ever, she has…little bracelets on both wrists; hands crossed, sweet white fingers I eye with immortal longing to hold in mine…”
I may feel complete with the bracelets, but there’s also sometimes a vaguely nagging sense of unfinished business: like many women, my thoughts often return to my hair, as they did in junior high. I may maintain its natural coiled texture, but what about the color? It’s a question over which I’m lately mulling, especially now that I’ve spotted and plucked a number of silvery strands. So far, though, I’ve done nothing about it. In Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, witchy Eustacia Vye, fondly dubbed “Queen of Night” by Hardy, is a loner desperate for adventures beyond the bleak heath where she lives. She has inky hair—as dark as her eventual mood. “To see her hair,” Hardy writes, “was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” The romantic portrait is partly why in the era of ombré, “sombre,” “tortoiseshell,” lowlights, “babylights,” and all the other enticing iterations of highlights, I continue to choose, sometimes uneasily, to let my locks remain their natural nearly-black hue.
Consequently, not too long ago, an author of short stories and novels thrilled the bookish girl in me when he whispered that my hair was “so dark a seagull would love to die in it.” Oil-dark was what he meant. His statement, too, was dark—humorous, singularly strange and sweet, a compliment only a writer could give. For a few moments, I felt a little like a woman inside a novel. He answered the longing I’d felt when I first fell under the spell of fascinating feminine figures bound between pages and rendered only with words. I was no longer exclusively the reader or the writer; sometimes, I would be the one who is written, the one who is read.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.