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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


 

After Dinner

 

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 TruthsPost Road, WigleafNew 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.

 

Author’s Note

I began my creative writing career as a personal essayist and shifted to narrative nonfiction, exhilarated in both cases by the absence of the rules I was used to obeying when I wrote scholarly articles about literature. I didn’t need to know where I was going when I started. I didn’t need to resolve what I’d set in motion. I could digress. I could make imaginative leaps. I could land somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.

Part of what attracted me to flash fiction is a similar freedom from constraints. A small space allows the writer to hint at so much without stating it. Character, backstory, the trajectory of plot, which after all can go in many directions. Leaving that up to the reader’s imagination opens up possibilities that longer forms might short circuit.

Myths and fairy tales provide a rich repository of plots, often about young women who rebel against authority, who are pursued by predators or rescuers who resemble predators, who pursue happy endings that sometimes elude them. I enjoyed imagining the potential arcs in “Girls in the Woods,” a glimpse of two girls reacting to danger. Just as there are many versions of old folk and fairy tales, there are many paths in these woods, many directions that this unresolved plot could take. Where are they headed?

In “After Dinner,” I played with different versions of the same plot. You could say that “After Dinner” has a provisional resolution. The woman has had various reactions to her drunken husband in the past, but tonight she sits at the kitchen table, serene and unruffled, reading a book. We can see a change, even though her husband doesn’t. Perhaps the woman is on the cusp of making further changes in her life. We don’t know who she is or what form that change might take. Her situation could apply to many women. Each of the women, each of their stories would be different but also the same.

You would think that the creative nonfiction writer would be restricted by the requirement to stick to the facts (nothing but the truth), and that the flash writer would be restricted by length requirements (nothing longer than 500 words, say, or 750 words, or 1000 words). But my creative nonfiction has always detoured into the realm of the imagined—for example, two alternate lives for a beloved aunt who committed suicide, a scenario where the delusions my mother suffered in dementia come true, a resurrection of Mary Magdalene after seeing her tibia. I can’t seem to stick to nothing but the facts. And my flash, well it seems to be getting smaller while the blank spaces filled by the reader get larger. In the finite space of flash fiction, the possibilities become infinite.

 


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 TruthsPost Road, WigleafNew 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.