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“A Slim Blade of Air” by Alice Elliott Dark


Alice Elliott Dark’s short stories pitch the reader into a time and place that always feels thoroughly developed, almost novelistic in scope. In part, this is because we see the world of the fiction so clearly through the protagonist’s eyes. We’re deep into the interiority of the character, and Dark’s empathy for her characters always shines through.

“A Slim Blade of Air” takes place in Amsterdam in the early 1960’s. Dark allows us to see this world—one unfamiliar to most readers—through the eyes of Kay, the child at the heart of this story. An acutely observant and sensitive child, Kay records and considers everything that’s happening around her. Often, a child’s viewpoint is difficult to render well. Here, it is beautifully done; one of the most wonderful elements is the way in which a child understands and translates adult behaviors.


Kay, Kay, come closer.

“No!” She glared at the canal bridge defiantly. If she did as it suggested, she’d die. A puff of smoke, a sizzle of flesh, a fried heart. Caput.

Kay, Kay, it will be fine.

She stifled the voice by squeezing the muscles in her forehead, which made the blood rush past her ears. Death would be quick, but that was a barely unconsoling thought. She didn’t want to go yet. She had her little dog back home, and her best friend. Her grandparents. Her three younger brothers. Seventh grade coming up, when she’d be in the oldest class in the building, the payoff for years of deference. She didn’t want to die in Holland, or be in a box forever like President Kennedy. The day couldn’t come too soon to climb the stairs onto the plane in Amsterdam and go home to Philadelphia. She had to survive the next few days, by any means.

“Kay? Kay!” Her brother nudged her arm.

“Dammit Kay, I’m on my last nerve with this nonsense,” her mother burst. “They’re due right now, and I don’t want them on the boat without me. Going through my things…”

Kay watched her mother’s flats turn and tap angrily at the cobblestones. For the thousandth time Kay wished she hadn’t come. She and her mother, her new stepfather, and Jerome, her two-years-older brother, were traveling around the Netherlands by means of a canal barge. According to Simone—her mother—if Kay didn’t like it, the time to speak up would have been before they came. That didn’t seem fair. Kay would have if she’d known what Holland was like, but nothing she saw in the pictures of tulips and windmills had given any hint. Her new stepfather, whom she called Dad—her real father was called Daddy—said it was a safe country where no crimes occurred, populated by friendly people who rode bikes to work. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

It was true about the windmills and the tulips, though apparently they were late to see the full bloom. There were many other wonders, including traveling on a canal boat and getting on a huge scale at a witches’ weighing station. Dad had been accurate in his descriptions, except for what he omitted. Yet how could he tell her about something he never experienced? He touched metal day in day out with no ill effects, and so did everyone else. She alone was singled out. It was as bad as being left standing when the music stopped in musical chairs, or the last person beckoned to a team at recess. Chosen by being not chosen. What had she done to deserve this? She thought about it in her floating bunk at night, but it was hard to come up with a theory when she had to concentrate on keeping her arms pressed to her body so she wouldn’t mistakenly touch the inlaid brass. The eely scent of the brown water made her nauseous.

Kay, Kay, the bridge called. She stood on the curb on the opposite side of the street with her family. The other three were in a state of blithe tourism, which Kay tried to imitate. When a bell on a shop door jangled behind her, she thought of Christmas. Yet her effort to find cheer made her feel lonelier. If she weren’t vigilant for even a moment, her hand, by magnetism, would be drawn to a fork or spoon at the table, or a coin, or a railing, or a bike.

“Mum, may we please stay on this side of the street?” she said as casually as possible.

Simone grunted. She’d lost her patience with these requests many days prior. “No, Kay, we may not. We will all cross together.”

Jerome shook his head wearily. They were all sick of her.

“I won’t ask again for two days if you agree this time,” Kay said. Unfortunately her voice hit a shrill note. ‘Tone, Kay,’ her mother always admonished, and Kay tried, but she suspected there was no tone that could persuade adults to go against their own made-up minds. Add to that the fact that her credibility diminished daily as she balked more and more, and ate with a napkin wrapped around the handles of her utensils. This trip was meant to be a great good fortune. Her mother and Dad could have left her and Jerome behind with their grandparents and the littles. It was Kay who insisted on going, but not because she wanted to see Europe so badly. She couldn’t say the truth. She didn’t even know what it was, except that it was right at the center of her. That was peculiar and inexplicable, so she begged to go along for educational reasons.

“Dad, will you stay with me on this side?” she asked.

“We have to go over a bridge to get back to the barge. If not this one then the next one. This one is closest,” Dad said.

“I promise I’ll cross at the next one. You could come with me, and Mum could cross here with Jer.”

“Well…” He looked at Kay sympathetically.

Her mother heaved a disgusted sigh. “Good Lord Kay, this is tedious. We’re all going to cross together and we’re going to cross here.”

Dad shrugged and gave Kay’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. He was older than Kay’s mother by several decades, and their marriage had caused talk in Philadelphia. Kay had been told about it by girls at school. She felt her mother was innocent but also wrong and didn’t know how to defend her.

“You’ll be fine,” Dad said to Kay. “Follow me.”

Her mother and Dad leaned their torsos forward and looked both ways several times. They stepped off the curb, but a bicycle whizzed by and they pulled back.

“Dammit! What a horrible day!” Simone screeched.

Kay’s arms sprouted gooseflesh. Her feet cupped the cobblestones through her thin sneakers. Jerome shoved her toward the bridge but she jerked away with such cold certainty that he cursed her and trotted ahead. She walked as far from the rail as she could, on the tightrope of the curb, staring down and adding an avoidance of the cracks in and between the stones to her vast concentration. When she felt steady a dare grew in her—it always did—and she moved closer to the rail. If she touched it—well, she didn’t kid herself. But if she could hold her finger so close that the only thing between her and her own death was a slim blade of air, the world would be hers. That was something she just knew.

She edged closer. A pulse throbbed beneath the hard rusty surface. Kay, Kay, come touch me.

Her father existed in the molecule between her and cold metal. If she could hold her finger close enough, but without touching, she’d see him again. So far, she hadn’t gotten that close.

“Kay!” her mother called. “Catch up!”

Kay stepped away from the rail and counted her steps forward, reaching one thousand thirty-two when their mother stopped still and Kay bammed into her.

“Dammit! This is your fault!” Simone said, her blame universal.

Kay looked up. A woman in orange silk pants stood on the prow of their boat. She wore with a yellow scarf tied around her head with the tails mingling in her auburn hair. Kay knew her from the wedding. She was Dad’s real daughter, Paulette. Her husband, Gianni, stood beside her. He was Italian, and short, which Kay gathered were both issues. They both waved. Before Paulette left Dad’s house and eloped with Gianni she’d shown Kay how to shave her legs and brush mascara onto her eyelashes, so Kay waved back.

“It will be all right,” Dad said, putting an arm around Simone’s shoulders.

“It better be. Kay, you better not make it worse.”

Simone raised her arm and waved and smiled hard. Kay blanched. She suddenly realized that Paulette might see her problem, and stop liking her. Hensen, the deckhand, jumped onto the street, prepared to carry her aboard. Kay shook her head at him, no! Paulette and Gianni were right by the plank, watching. She crept cautiously on board, her hands clasped.

“You’re very prompt,” Simone said with a tight mouth.

“We’ve looked forward to this,” Paulette replied, shaking her pretty hair.

Gianni reached for Simone’s hand and kissed it.

“Welcome!” Dad opened his arms to Paulette. Simone stood back, her arms crossed. The last time they’d all been together there’d been a big fight. Paulette accused Simone of being a gold digger, and Simone called her a freeloader. Dad had ended it by saying that whoever agreed to have him taxidermied to sit forever at her dining room table could have all his money. Kay had screamed, and the conversation ended.

Simone rolled her eyes. She’d made it clear she’d hoped Paulette’s elopement with Gianni was a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. But here they were. Paulette stepped forward and hugged him.

“Thanks, Dad,” Paulette said. “Are you having fun?” She put her fingers into Kay’s curls and scratched her scalp, which gave her shivers.

“Holland is looking lovely. You’d hardly know there was a war,” Paulette said.

“Amsterdam wasn’t bombed,” Jerome instructed.

“Italy is worse off,” Gianni said. “Which is good for us. We’re going to get a palace for a song.”

“How much is a song, and am I paying for part of it?” Dad asked bluntly.

“Of course not!” Paulette said. “Though it’s a good investment.”

Simone made her hands into fists. “I have to check on lunch. Kay, come with me.”

“Jerome, let’s show off our boat!” Dad said.

“Oh, fun!” Paulette leaned down and whispered into Kay’s ear, “We’ll talk.”

*        *        *

That evening they all went to a restaurant for Rijstafel. Kay tried to stay back, but Simone said that would only be possible if she had a fever of 106, which she didn’t. She’d been mainly able to eat with pieces of bread as utensils, and to limit her mouthfuls based on a claim of excess spiciness. Later that night she woke up screaming. Jerome begged their mother to be allowed to sleep in the living room away from this freak show of a sister.

Simone agreed. “I don’t blame you.”

They left the cabin. The light was still on in the room, and Kay didn’t know if that was a mistake or if her mother meant to come back. After a moment the cabin door opened again, and Kay readied for a lecture. But Paulette popped her head in. “Are you all right?” She crossed the cabin and sat on Kay’s bunk. Her pajamas were peach colored and silky, her hair was up in a ponytail at the very top of her head. Paulette was beautiful even in the middle of the night.

Kay blushed. She’d forgotten Paulette was on the boat. It was terrible to have woken her. “I have indigestion,” she said. Right away, her stomach began to hurt.

“Hmmm. Too much fish and cheese. Eat lightly tomorrow. I’ll help you choose the right food.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you remember your dream?”

Kay nodded.

“Sometimes telling about bad dreams takes away their power.”

“It’s a tidal wave.”

“That’s scary. Does it get close to you?”

“I wake up first.”

“That shows you have a strong sense of self-preservation. May I lay down next to you?”

Kay feared being pushed closer to the wall, but could she really ask Paulette to squeeze in?

“Is that Jergen’s?” she asked, creating a diversion.

“Yup. My mother always wore it. It reminds me of her, so I use it too. What aftershave did your father wear?” Paulette lay down and pulled Kay close.

“Lime.”

“I like that.”

Paulette’s breathing lifted Kay’s head up and down.

“My mother wore Joy perfume.”

Kay had watched Simone unwrap a bottle of Joy perfume at Christmas. “I like perfume,” she said neutrally.

“I like Fracas.”

“I never sniffed it.”

“It’s sweet and spicy.” She took hold of Kay’s wrist and matched her palm to palm. “Your hand is nearly as big as mine. It’s time to start taking care of your nails. Will you stop biting them?”

“I don’t even know I do it.”

Paulette kissed Kay’s knuckles. “From now on, you’ll notice, and you’ll just pull your hand down. Your nails will grow, and soon you can paint them. What color would you like?”

Kay pictured the reds and pinks she’d seen. Her mother never wore polish. “How about blue?” she said.

Paulette laughed. “That’s a good idea. You can invent new nail colors.” She hugged Kay closer. “I’m so glad to have a little sister!”

“Me too.”

“Do you think you can go back to sleep now?”

“I’ll try. I usually—” She broke off before saying she had a nightmare every night. Paulette might leave if she knew that.

“Do you want me to sit with you longer?”

She did, but that was greedy. “I’m all right now.”

Paulette turned at the door and blew a kiss. Kay mimicked her, then settled her head back on her arm again and pulled the blanket over her nose. She next saw morning light in the portals.

*        *        *

They ate breakfast inside the boat. Paulette made a point of saying she wanted to sit next to Kay, and reminded her quietly not to eat the fish. The cook offered a treat called Wentelteefjes, which Jerome quickly concluded was French toast. Paulette gave that the go ahead, but Kay was stuck with the problem of how to eat it. She felt Paulette gaze down curiously when she wrapped her fork. “I have a cut on my finger,” she whispered, surreptitiously studying Jerome for signs of betrayal, but he was too busy showing off to Gianni to notice her doings.

The conversation proceeded carefully. Italy, tulips, the witches weighing station, how was this person and that, the Rijksmuseum, and in between each subject were remarks about what excellent and fresh food they were eating: lekkerbek, cheese, raw oniony herring, French fries called friet, waffle cookies. Jerome described to Paulette and Gianni how the canal locks worked. As always, everyone was impressed by him.

“I may never come back here, so might as well soak it up now,” he said, which made the adults laugh. Kay ate swiftly while no one was paying attention to her.

“I hope you’ll come visit us in Tuscany,” Paulette said.

“Do you speak Italian?” Jerome asked.

Paulette and Gianni answered at the same time. “I’m learning—” “We’re learning,” Paulette smiled and nodded at him. Gianni leaned forward. “If you know Latin, it’s easy to guess at words. Italian is based on Latin.”

Jerome nodded. “Same country. I’m going to start Latin this year.”

Gianni’s eyes widened. “Wonderful!” Kay was proud of her brother, if not on good terms at the moment.

“Speaking of which, I’d like to get my books shipped over, Dad.” Paulette said.

“Do I have them?” Dad asked.

“They’re all packed away in the attic. My mother’s books, too. Especially.”

Kay knew this wasn’t possible. One afternoon her mother walked through Dad’s house, including the attic, filling cardboard boxes with photos, books, clothes and linens. She put them all out by trashcans. Dad had been away on a hunting trip.

“I’ll do that when we get home,” Dad said.

“I’ll figure out a good address. I want them even before we have a house.”

Simone looked at her plate, betraying nothing, while Kay’s stomach churned. What would happen when the books never arrived? She lay down her fork, her appetite gone.

When the meal ended Dad wanted to take his post-prandial nap, and asked Simone to join him. Jerome and Gianni decided they’d stay on board and play backgammon, then go to a museum.

“I want to go to take a walk with Kay.” Paulette touched Kay’s black curls gently, a rainy feeling. “All right, Kay?”

Kay looked at her mother. “May I?”

“Do what you want.” Simone crossed her arms and headed for the cabin. Anger and disapproval radiated from her tightened back.

Paulette slung her handbag over her shoulder and put her big sunglasses on. Kay tied a sweater around her waist. Hensen looked at her quizzically on deck, but she gave him a signal that she’d go down the plank alone.

“Where are we going?” she asked Paulette.

“I was thinking the Anne Frank house. I’m dying to see it. You know who she is, don’t you?”

“Her house is here?” Why hadn’t she thought of it? They were in Amsterdam.

“Within walking distance.”

“Can we see the bookcase?” The mood of the book came over her. She kept a diary herself but had let it go lately, since Daddy. This was a fitting opportunity to make a new entry.

“I think we can. I want to see the attic.”

“Do we have to cross a bridge?”

“I think so. It’s funny to have a city so full of water, isn’t it?”

Paulette looked in her guidebook. Kay watched a man on a bike look at Paulette, then look at her again. He dropped his foot to stop the bike and asked her if she needed help. She shook her head, making her hair swing, and gave him a smile. The man blushed, and Kay thought my sister. They began walking again and Paulette proffered a hand to hold, but there was her metal wedding ring. Kay walked around to Paulette’s right side and took that hand.

“This is going well, don’t you think?” Paulette asked. “Your mother doesn’t seem to mind me being here.”

“Uh huh.” Kay began counting her steps. She counted to five and started over, but said ten after the next five, and so on.

“I don’t want Dad to disinherit me.”

“Did he say that?”

Paulette picked a speck off her sweater. “Not exactly, but anything is possible. Your mother might talk him into it. You might get his money instead of me. Think of that.”

“I wouldn’t take it!” Kay exclaimed.

Paulette laughed. “You’ll send it to me instead?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a good girl, Kay Riven.” Paulette squeezed her hand. Cars and bicycles passed by and people came out of their tidy homes. Kay watched it all with a fresh sense of appreciation. The quaint country that she’d hoped to see when she’d begged to be taken along suddenly came into view beside Paulette. Kay skipped to keep up with her long strides, which was also fun. Passersby stared at Paulette, who seemed not to notice.

“Were you beautiful when you were my age?” Kay asked.

“Always. Even as a baby.”

“Did the teachers like you more?”

“Everyone likes beautiful people more. I used to hate it, but then I realized it’s a talent, like being musical. I didn’t choose it. When I realized it was a talent I began to work at it. You’ll be good looking, by the way.”

“Really?”

“Yup. But you have a different talent that’s bigger.”

“What is it?”

“Imagination.”

“I don’t think so. My teacher told me I had a weak imagination.”

“Why?”

“My poems are trite.”

Paulette stopped, pulled the scarf from her head and tied it around her neck instead. “Not that kind of imagination. I mean you will imagine how other people feel.” She pushed her fingers into her gold-red hair and lifted it up. Strands broke loose of her fingers and showered back onto her shoulders. Paulette had been a model before Gianni. “You have fellow feeling.” She raked some hair in front of her collarbones and checked her cuffs. “We both have a dead parent. We’re survivors. I can tell you have empathy for me. Unlike your mother.” She pulled a lipstick from her pocket and ran it around it her mouth. “Here’s a question—what was the last thing he said to you?”

“I…I don’t remember.” Kay heard the call from a lamppost.

“My mother said get your tennis racket. I wish she’d said something profound. Do you believe in heaven?” Paulette touched Kay’s hair again, and scratched her back with her fingernails. “I do. Maybe your mother and my father have met.”

“Maybe,” Kay said vaguely. She hadn’t talked about her father for months. She’d overheard Simone telling another mother in the carpool not to mention him, so Kay could forget about him more quickly. She’d realized then that her mother would never understand that Kay was keeping her alive. She’d learned her lesson about what happened if you took people for granted.

Kay saw a metal mailbox hung on a wall and shuddered.

“Are you praying?” Paulette asked.

“No.”

“Your lips were moving.”

“They were?” She didn’t want to say she was counting.

“This has all done a number on you, hasn’t it?” Paulette said. “Here’s my advice. Save your energy. This trip isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

“That’s true,” Kay said.

Paulette turned and looked Kay full in the face. The effect was powerful and immediate and sunny. Kay basked, almost languidly, even with cars and the fishy scent of the canal and her nerves vying to distract her. Paulette leaned closer, making certain Kay got the full treatment, but in coming so close that there was barely more than a centimeter between them, Paulette’s effect shifted in a way Kay couldn’t precisely identify though she felt it keenly. Paulette’s interest in her seemed somehow unreal. It was as if she were looking for her own reflection in Kay’s eyes, rather than seeing Kay more deeply. Kay suddenly thought of her mother, who never pretended to love her more than she actually did.

Paulette cupped her hand around Kay’s cheek and caressed her, then got back to business. “Okay, looks like we go down here.”

“I think I’m ready to go back.”

“We’re almost there,” Paulette said, overriding Kay’s comment by setting off briskly again. “This whole thing is a mess. I’m glad to have you in my life, but otherwise I think what my father and your mother did is really screwed up. Two selfish people, wreaking havoc.”

Kay hadn’t thought of it that way. To her, their marriage was something that had happened to which she had to adapt. “Do you want them to get divorced?” she asked.

“I wish! But your mother is going to stay until the bitter end. She wants the money.”

“She never said that.”

“She wouldn’t, would she? Though it would be refreshing if she did.”

Kay had never thought about any of this. She tried to, but her thoughts jammed up and glued together. She wanted to go back to the boat, but Paulette had picked up her pace. Her silk pants switched scratchily with each determined step. They reached a bridge.

“What is it?”

Kay had stopped dead.

“You know, Kay, I’ve done it and seen it all.”

Kay nodded, but she could no longer imagine that Paulette would understand about the metal. What if she thought Kay was making everything up?

“All right. You don’t have to tell me. We can walk very slowly. Will that help?”

“I need to be on the inside,” Kay said. Her mother had objected to that at first, on the grounds that Kay could fall into the cars or bikes, but she’d relented when it became clear that Kay’s degree of caution was so extreme she was unlikely to trip.

“Is that all? That’s easy.”

They wended over the bridge, and it wasn’t hard. By chance Paulette stood between Kay and the metal, so Kay felt better for the first time in days. If only she could always be as protected she could manage. When they were on the other side of the canal Paulette looked in her guidebook again, and Kay looked around. The clothes people wore were different than clothes at home, but it was hard to say how. Pants, jackets, skirts—the same items but fitting differently. She tried to figure it out but couldn’t. It was so interesting! “Paulette?”

“Just a second, sweetie.”

Sweetie!

“All right, I’ve got it. We go down the little hill and it should be right there. What did you want to ask me?”

“How did she die?”

“My mother?”

“Yes. How did she?”

Paulette walked briskly, swinging Kay’s hand. “She had a stroke. Do you know what that is? Your brain kind of explodes. She died right away. I was there, I saw her. She was standing in front hall putting on a hat, and then she dropped.”

“You were there?”

“I was. I called the ambulance. How about you?”

“I wasn’t—”

“Oh! Here we are!”

Paulette pointed at the address where Anne Frank had lived. Kay looked up the façade, which appeared to lean over her. The building was tall and thin and had a flat roof—Anne had sat up there, hadn’t she? Kay calculated that Anne would be thirty-three years old now, the same age as her mother. Anne had stood where Kay was now. Kay stepped sideways, but that didn’t help. Anne had probably stood on this spot, too. She’d walked everywhere around here before she became a prisoner. Kay shuddered. Dad had said Holland was safe.

“You ready? Come on.”

Inside, Paulette asked for a tour.

“I am the docent,” the woman said. She was middle-aged, in a mustard colored skirt and blouse.

“The book case?” Paulette asked.

“Yes, I’ll show you that. And you are fortunate,” the woman said. “Otto Frank is coming by today.”

“Otto Frank?” Paulette said.

“Yes. He comes by often.”

“I thought the whole family got killed.”

“No, he survived.” The docent smiled. “He has helped with this museum, and with details.”

“So he came back to this house and someone told him Anne was dead?” Paulette leaned toward the docent eagerly.

“He came back, but it took him months to discover what happened to her.” The woman smiled at Paulette, at her beauty and interest. Kay watched carefully, seeing nuances she’d never noticed before. She’d never heard anyone talk about death before, and that was interesting enough. But they were also talking about life itself. The image of Otto Frank searching for his lost family created a great commotion in her mind. She pictured him darting around the city, peering around corners and into lit up windows. He was the finder. Kay knew that was crucial, but couldn’t make out how. Again, she thought of her mother, who loved her as much as she could. Kay pictured sitting with her on the sofa at her grandparents’ house and asking about Otto Frank’s quest. In her mind’s eye she saw her mother shrug.

“What happened to her? Exactly, I mean.” Paulette’s voice had dropped into a confidential range, soliciting a secret.

The docent glanced at Kay, then back at Paulette. Kay knew the look. How much could be divulged in front of the child? Paulette waved her hand, dismissing the concern.

“She died in a camp of a disease,” the docent said. “Sadly, she nearly made it to the end. A few more days and she’d have been rescued. Please don’t say anything to him about it. It’s too much for him to carry everyone’s grief.”

“Oh, all right. I’ll be discreet.”

“I’ll be right back to take you on the tour.”

The docent walked off and Paulette tied her scarf back around her hair in a swift assured gesture.

“I want to go. I don’t want to see him,” Kay said.

“Don’t be shy,” Paulette said. “He won’t bite.”

The remark insulted Kay, and she took a step backward. “No. I have to go back.”

“But the bookcase! And the attic, too. The one thing I wanted to see in this silly country.”

She was vexed and impatient and even more beautiful. Kay didn’t feel safe anymore.

The docent returned. “Here I am! Let me show you some artifacts…”

Kay turned around as unnoticeably as possible and fled the house. She ran the way they’d come, and turned onto the bridge. “Kay!” Paulette called. Kay turned and saw her standing in front the Frank’s old house. Reflections of the buildings wavered in the brown canal water. “Kay!” Paulette beckoned. Kay shook her head and began to run again. “Kay!” Faint, fainter, and then she didn’t hear her name anymore.

The iron street lamps loomed. She had no plan. She knew she had to cross the street but beyond that—

Suddenly a bicycle was directly in front of her. Automatically her hands thrust out. She pushed the rider back upright with as much strength as she could find in herself. In the effortful chaos she accidentally touched the bike. She was able to push backward with enough dexterity that neither she nor the rider fell, but the cold, soulless contact seeped into her, and she slunk away to lean against the nearest building.

That night she’d realize she’d survived touching metal. She’d realize she had sacrificed her own safety, albeit without much conscious choice on her part, to keep another person from getting hurt. Later still, she’d realize that her fear and counting were the first of many notions conjured to distract her from the grief that would be at the core of her being all her life, and she’d understand she could be fearless in spite of it. That she’d insisted on going on the trip so she could keep her mother in sight lest she die too. Over the years she would discover that she was capable of helping other people, just as Paulette had predicted. She’d become like Holland herself, a safe and friendly country that hid a ravaged history. She’d lose touch with Paulette after Dad died but maintain a relationship with Simone, who always found Kay to be too much. Kay would grow into being too much and call it passion. She’d realize, too, that her father was around, appearing in aspects of other people. Eventually he came to sit beside her as he used to, and she told him about her day same as she had when she was a child, and they discussed the ups and downs. Once or twice, she tried death on, but decided to live through it.

In the moment, though, on the streets of Amsterdam on a July morning only twenty years after the war, an enormous despair overtook her. Death was everywhere. She couldn’t escape it in a country of windmills, or ward it off with her vast concentration. She was lost, and she’d broken the only spell that had kept her going. The world would never be hers, her one slim chance was gone. In utter defeat, she considered retracing her steps to look for Paulette, but there was no going back. That house held a thing worse than metal. She’d never been as scared of anything as she was of seeing Otto Frank, whose face would be so sad, so very sad, so unfathomably sad, so bewildered that he survived.


ALICE ELLIOTT DARK is the author of the novel, Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist.  Her work has appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Redbook, DoubleTake, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards, and translated into many languages. “In the Gloaming,” a story, was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Stories of The Century and was made into films by HBO and Trinity Playhouse. Her non-fiction reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the English department and the MFA program. Upcoming is a novel, Fellowship Point.

Author’s Note

At the end of “A Slim Blade of Air,” I wrote a brief flash forward that gives a sense of what Kay Riven does with the moment of great stress that concludes the dramatic action of the story. I didn’t have the flash forward in my first few drafts. Yet when I had written the final scene, I found I wanted to know what she’d think about all of this later.

What happens afterward?

What will life be like after the present drama?

These questions feel so basic to the project of fiction. A satisfying side effect of creating a character, whether by thought or intuition, is that she becomes so knowable that it is possible to foresee her future—in contrast to one’s own.

A magnificent flash forward occurs in To The Lighthouse as an entire section of the novel, called Time Passes. The opening sentences read:

“Well, we must wait for the future to show,” said Mr. Bankes, coming in from the terrace.

“It’s almost too dark to see,” said Andrew, coming up from the beach.

The section then proceeds to illuminate the future, resolving both Andrew and Mr. Bankes’ remarks. The past and present are mixed up in the section, death is parenthetical and mentioned as having already happened while time and the effects of weather on the house trudge forward. The resignation expressed in that first sentence, of having to wait for the future to show, seems to me to be one of the facts of life that writers refuse to accept. The tension of waiting is too much to bear, so we take the future on, and make it happen.

I am highly aware in myself of the tension of waiting. I experience it as torture. I reveal this here because I have come to believe that no small percentage of craft choices mirror our own deep corrosive weathers. I want to know what happens. In bookstores, when I am browsing, I always read the last page, not the first, to decide if I want to buy a book. Endings reveal what an author can live with.

Small flash forwards often appear in the midst of stories, in the form of phrases such as ‘years later, she would…’ or ‘she didn’t know it yet, but…’ Ah, I think. The tension has become too great; the future must be alluded to to tolerate the present.

When I looked at Kay’s predicament at the end of the story, I saw how thoroughly I’d stripped her of all her defenses and attachments. She is alone, and knows only grief and fear. I could hear what she was thinking. ‘What will become of me?’ Sometime later I was able to place that plaintive cry. Audrey Hepburn utters it in her hard-earned posh accent as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Professor Higgins has won his bet that he could pass her off as a lady at a society ball. He no longer needs her; she is free to go. She recognizes her plight: she belongs nowhere. She utters the phrase in the moment of her greatest desolation. I remembered seeing the movie when it first opened in Philadelphia. Out of curiosity, I looked up the year. 1964. My father died in January of that year. That summer, I went to Holland with my mother and new stepfather. I didn’t have an older brother, or three younger brothers, and I didn’t go to the Anne Frank house. But I was afraid, and had no idea what would become of me.

Flash forwards can enhance tension by offering a respite from it and reassuring the reader that there is life beyond the harrowing moment at hand. They go beyond the scope of a story but abide by its constructed rules. In a story such as this one, which is narrated but also contains a close third person point of view from a child’s perspective, the flash forward directly accesses an adult sensibility that adds authority and makes the report of what happened more reliable via its observable connection to later life. It modifies the fairy tale conclusion of ‘happily ever after’ —a form of flash forward—to suggest growth and substance. Kay will make something of this event. That is her choice, and mine.


ALICE ELLIOTT DARK is the author of the novel, Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist.  Her work has appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Redbook, DoubleTake, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards, and translated into many languages. “In the Gloaming,” a story, was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Stories of The Century and was made into films by HBO and Trinity Playhouse. Her non-fiction reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the English department and the MFA program. Upcoming is a novel, Fellowship Point.