Exploring the art of prose


The Color It Leaves Behind by Kathryn McMahon

Kathryn McMahon’s “The Color It Leaves Behind” is both fierce and delicate, funny and poignant. Well-balanced between front- and backstory, this flash fiction piece rejects the male gaze and centers homelife, communication, and intimacy between queer women (see McMahon’s author’s note for more on this and for a discussion on representation in flash fiction).

Between and beside the strong characters created in the narrator and her girlfriend is the pet rock, a “cold lump of gray with googly eyes, a feather headband, and a red glitter mouth,” working hard on the page. Laura van den Berg writes that an object in fiction “should be a mirror and a window and a refraction all at once.” McMahon’s rock earns its place here, reflecting, refracting, and exposing.  — CRAFT


My girlfriend has a pet rock that watches us in bed. A cold lump of gray with googly eyes, a feather headband, and a red glitter mouth that Becca would never wear. It used to be in a box under her bed, but now it lives on the nightstand next to the hair ties and rechargeable vibrator. Whenever I make eye contact with it, I think, Summer camp—what girl did you once fall in love with who you’re not letting go? So I ask. And I ask. And, no, it’s not that, she swears.

“It’s just a rock.”

“Who is this rock and what does she mean to you? I want to know.”

“Hold still,” she says, looping hemp rope around my wrist. “And shut up.”

I never made a pet rock. I never went to summer camp. In July, we’d drive into the mountains where the pockets of my overalls would hang heavy with river rocks. Pebbles, to throw at boys who teased me about my short hair, and agates I’d take home down the mountain. The flat stones, I’d fling skipping across our pond like the first woman who would dance me into her bed but never call me back. I think of those stones asleep in sheets of pond silt.

“Does it need to watch us?”

Becca ignores me, dragging her teeth over my collarbone, and I forget the rock.

In the morning, she showers while I brew coffee and drop bread in the toaster. When I open the fridge, the eggs wear little magic marker faces. How cute. So like her. Aw. I crack four in a bowl, add milk, and microwave them, poking the yolk cloud every twenty seconds, because it’s my turn to do the dishes and I hate washing the skillet.

The pet rock is on the table next to her baseball cap and two sets of keys—one for me? I gather three plates, scoot egg onto them, and arrange them on the table. Eggs for her, eggs for me, eggs for the pet rock. I tear off a bite of my crust for it and smile, proud of myself.

And the rock is sitting there, not eating, because it’s a rock. I snake a penny out of the jar of loose change and drag it across the rock to see how hard it is, to see what it’s made of, like life does to us. And, like life, the penny leaves a scratch, but that doesn’t mean I can identify the rock—what’s her name? I rub the rock against my plate to see what color it leaves behind and it’s pink like nails on my skin. I touch a fridge magnet to it to see if it takes, an evil-eye talisman bought Becca’s junior year in Turkey, but the blue glass nazar slips off because the only hold that rock has is on Becca. Or maybe the talisman isn’t strong enough. I want to drop the rock in the sink to see if it floats like a witch, but I don’t want those pink feathers winging away, those pursed lips coming unglittered, those pert, unfixed eyes unfixing, so instead, I nudge the rock back in front of its plate and bend down and kiss it, and it tastes like salt and glue, and I still don’t know what it is my girlfriend isn’t telling me.

Becca walks in, wet hair swinging like loose power cords. She laughs. “Why are you feeding my rock? Did you miss me.”

“You didn’t put it there?”

“Nope.” She takes coffee to her chair and frowns at the rubbery egg. Picking up her rock like a skull, she says, “The rock is everything I couldn’t throw something at but found a way to stand on.”

I tell her about the mountain boys and the stones at the bottom of the pond. She tells me about the summer camp girls and the birch she was tied to for a midnight shearing, its ribbons of bark gobbling up her hair.

I rest on Becca’s shoulder and breathe in the wet mango punch of her shampoo, the triumphant vanilla.

She eats the toast. I have her eggs and mine. The pet rock’s too. I add enough salt and pepper to fleck my teeth like quartz. Then I slide the new keys onto my keychain and crumble eggshell smiles in the compost to break down.


KATHRYN MCMAHON is based in the Puget Sound, though she never stays long. Her prose has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, and elsewhere, and she has won flash fiction contests at both Prime Number Magazine and New Delta Review. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com and follow her on Twitter at @katoscope.


Author’s Note

For the past year, I’ve committed to writing only characters who are queer women. This is not to suggest that queer writers must always write queer characters or that cis-heterosexual people cannot write characters who are LGBTQIA+, but I noticed that I’d been shying away from writing characters who resembled me and, at the same time, not seeing a lot of flash fiction that accurately reflected my experiences as a queer woman, especially as far as desire and intimacy were concerned.

One of the things that was important to me to do in this piece was to not center the story around queer pain, such as the trials of coming out or homophobia, but to make it about communication between the two women. Is there queer pain in the periphery? Possibly, yes, but the relationship and the people in it are the focus of the narrative, not the bullying they endured as children. While I believe it is essential not to overlook negative experiences that queer people have had and continue to have, it is also imperative to make sure that pain, shame, and queerness are not made synonymous in life or fiction. Doing so is limiting to those characters as well as to LGBTQIA+ readers in search of themselves.

What I’m focusing on here, and in much of my current work, is writing fiction populated by queer women in which queerness is normalized. Their identities are not new to these characters, nor are they a point of discussion. Coming out stories or those about first-time same-sex sexual experiences are important and valid, but those tend to dominate the queer literary landscape, and there are so many other LGBTQIA+ experiences worthy of narrative, including the day-to-day. A short fiction collection emblematic of this is Kristen Arnett’s Felt in the Jaw from Split Lip Press, which was described as “queer domesticity and its discontents.” Each piece brims with day-to-day homelife and, in doing so, normalizes one kind of queer experience.

Intimacy is one part of day-to-day life for queer women that I want to see depicted more in literary fiction. Often the most common sex scenes readers encounter are heterosexual and written with a straight and/or male gaze. It is uncommon to come across sex scenes featuring queer women that aren’t meant for titillation but for those characters themselves, and which include the same awkward or infuriating or joyful moments as other parts of life. Sex does not fit in every story featuring a queer couple, of course. But queer bodies and the desires in them are worthy of gracing the page. My goal is to avoid writing lesbian desire(s) as either hypersexualized or desexualized—there is a tradition of doing both—and I definitely want to make lesbian sex less squeaky clean and homogenous. For any combination of genders, sex is a moment rich with storytelling potential. So much emotional exchange happens during sex—or if it doesn’t, that also reveals something about a character. When characters are that close together, more is uncovered than just their bodies. People have sex for many reasons: love, anger, grief, caretaking, boredom, or any combination—you name it—but sex is frequently about more than pleasure. Motives exist alongside physical desire, and I don’t want my fiction to be squeamish in any direction. To me, that is dishonest storytelling.


KATHRYN MCMAHON is based in the Puget Sound, though she never stays long. Her prose has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, and elsewhere, and she has won flash fiction contests at both Prime Number Magazine and New Delta Review. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com and follow her on Twitter at @katoscope.