After Dinner / Girls in the Woods by Jacqueline Doyle
We’re excited to kickoff our all-flash November with this pair of flash pieces by Jacqueline Doyle, “After Dinner” and “Girls in the Woods.” There is strong interplay between these two stories—both emphasize plot with the possibility of multiple plots; both feature a third-person narrator with omniscient distance that works to hold mystery; both implicate an institutionalized violence against women so inherent that the result challenges our expectations by subverting the collective familiar.
In “After Dinner,” Doyle unspools tension with a belligerent husband “fumbling with his keys” at the front door, and a woman inside who has, perhaps, had enough: “Her name might be Nancy, Carla, Joy. She could be young, old, middle-aged. So many women sit at their kitchen tables every night, drinking tea.” Be sure to read Doyle’s author’s note for more about constructing this character.
“Girls in the Woods” is a breathless flash that feels like allegory or fairy tale come to life. Fairy tale logic reminds us that these girls are a part of a history of violence. Like the everywoman in “After Dinner,” the girls here serve as our stand-ins or surrogates for this violence. On this All Hallows’ Day, Doyle opens our month of terrific flash by defamiliarizing and defying resolution. —CRAFT
A woman sits at a kitchen table, sipping chamomile tea and reading a book. The dishes have been rinsed, the counters and sink cleared, the dishwasher hums. Outside the window over the sink, the night is dark. Her name might be Nancy, Carla, Joy. She could be young, old, middle-aged. So many women sit at their kitchen tables every night, drinking tea. There could be a blue ceramic bowl of fruit on the table—two apples, three oranges, a pear, a banana. Or maybe the table is clear. Or there’s a plastic napkin holder and salt and pepper shakers on a round straw mat. What is she reading? That could be any number of things as well. A popular novel, Stephen King perhaps, or Margaret Atwood. A self-help book, tips for improving a marriage, or for traveling alone on a budget, or for growing orchids. It could be a book on gender studies from a university press. A slender collection of poems.
It makes a difference, doesn’t it, as does her age, and what she’s wearing, and whether the countertops are granite or Formica, but maybe it doesn’t make that much of a difference, and there’s no time for further description because her husband is at the front door, fumbling with his keys. She can tell he drank too much by the difficulty he’s having, but she doesn’t get up to let him in. The door bangs open.
The hangers in the hall closet rattle as he hangs up his coat. Or does he throw it on the couch? He tiptoes through the living room. No, stamps his feet before he strides through the living room into the kitchen, already belligerent. Guilty, angry, neither bodes well.
They’ve been married for a long time. Or long enough. Ten years? Five? There have been nights when she cried. Nights when they argued. Nights when she was pissed off but held her tongue. Once she threw a dish full of food. The plate broke, spaghetti and marinara sauce spattered on the wall, he called her crazy. Tonight she’s drinking tea and reading a book. He seems barely to notice.
She looks at him coolly, without putting the book down. She takes another sip of her chamomile tea, which has become lukewarm. She contemplates reheating it. She turns the page.
Girls in the Woods
Two teenage girls walk along the side of the highway, laughing as the wind blows their hair in their faces and flutters the hems of their short, summer dresses. Roadside dust swirls around them with every passing car. They’ve missed the bus from the mall again, they don’t want to call their mothers to pick them up.
She’s always on my case, says one. You’re so irresponsible, says the other, mimicking her mother’s voice. Wicked stepmother, her friend says. She’s just jealous.
No light penetrates the dark thicket that lines the road. The sky turns pewter gray, afternoon shading into evening. They’ve walked the mile home before, twice. Surely nothing bad can happen to thirteen-year-old girls when there are two of them? They’re almost grown up. It’s not so far.
When the battered maroon pickup slows and the pale-eyed man with the red baseball cap leans out the passenger window and calls, Want a lift, ladies? they laugh and shake their heads. No, better not. They hurry on, giggling.
The pickup keeps pace and then the passenger door is opening, and the girls look at each other in alarm and grab each other’s hands as they veer off the shoulder of the road into the woods—crashing through underbrush, looking back to see the pickup stopped, two men running after them.
They’ve heard all the stories about girls lost in the woods. Gretel, abandoned by her mother in the forest. Snow White, banished by her wicked stepmother to the forest. Little Red Riding Hood, sent off by her mother on a trip to Grandma’s through the dark woods. But this couldn’t be.
They run faster, breathless, stumbling in their flimsy sandals, no longer laughing. Branches scratch their arms and faces and sting their eyes. There’s no one in sight to guide them or rescue them. Just trees and rocks and bushes and the agitated twittering of birds.
The witch is dead. Gretel’s mother. Snow White’s stepmother. Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. All dead. Maybe the girls will be rescued by a handsome woodcutter, or sheltered by creepy dwarfs, or picked up by a pervert prince on a hunting trip. They’ll outrun the hunters, who’ll tire of their chase. They won’t outrun the hunters. They’ll be devoured by wolves. Or worse.
It’s dark. Their hearts pound, they sob, there’s no looking back, no thinking ahead now. Run. Run faster. Run. They stumble on tangled roots, sink into patches of mud hidden under damp leaves, lose their shoes. Have the men given up? Where are the girls headed? There are so many paths in these woods.
JACQUELINE DOYLE lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University East Bay. She has recent flash in Little Fiction/Big Truths, Post Road, Wigleaf, New Flash Fiction Review, and The Collagist, and an award-winning flash chapbook (The Missing Girl) with Black Lawrence Press. Find her online at jacquelinedoyle.com and on twitter @doylejacq.