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A Girl Climbs a Tree by Ruth Joffre


This month we are pleased to share two single-paragraph flash fiction pieces, and here with the first, Ruth Joffre’s “A Girl Climbs a Tree,” to share the latest in her “A Girl” flash series. With knockout, beautiful language— “the mottled green with scarlet spots like the stippling of bloody coughs” —this is an atmospheric story with a dream-mystery quality that seems to bend narrative time around its strong central image of a fallen scarlet oak (see Joffre’s author’s note for more on this tree and the series). One success of this robust piece is that it reads like a much longer story, but is not even 450 words. The effective and empathetic child-voice anchors this piece and sends us right back to the beginning for a re-read as soon as we finish.  —CRAFT


 

This isn’t the first time. Sometimes, it feels like she’s always climbing this tree: when her little brother betrays her; when her memory fails her; when she barely passes a test and her father tells her, “One more C and we’re gonna have a problem.” Only the leaves comfort her then. Only the mottled green with scarlet spots like the stippling of bloody coughs. How the pale vein sliced the waxy center and made her want to cry last night while a Category 3 hurricane ripped through her town and felled the scarlet oak in her front yard. Her mother says it was quick. Sometime after midnight, the wind snapped the trunk flat with a cracking sound as the roots lost hold of the ground. She woke up then and saw it: the oak hovering in midair, the sheer force of the wind carrying it across the yard—over the picket fence—past the downed telephone wires to deposit it in the middle of the road. She’d been carried like that once, lifted up out of her girl body and given new eyes, a new life. It was the night last year when her parents threw a party for the PTA and she returned from a late-night trip to the bathroom only to find a woman, a stranger, had crawled into her bed fully clothed and fallen fast asleep, leaving a martini glass sweating and almost empty on the bedside table. She looked so vulnerable then, eyes closed, back turned to the door, knowing there was nothing to fear, that the girl didn’t scream in surprise, only walked up to the side of the bed and laid one hand softly on the woman’s arm, hoping that would be enough to wake her. It was. A minute later, that woman was up and tucking the girl sheepishly into bed, not asking her to keep this a secret, only leaning over to plant a goodnight kiss on her forehead. For a long time, the girl lay awake, watching the door, hoping that woman would come back and crawl in bed with her. She could hear the wind in the leaves then. The clinking of glasses a floor below. Every morning since then, she has woken up expecting to find the living room littered with cigarette butts and the scarlet oak waving up at her bedroom windows. Now it’s resting on its side, calm after the storm. Before the cleanup crew can take it away, she climbs into its branches, under its leaves, and shuts her eyes, waiting for a hand to close softly against her cheek.

 


RUTH JOFFRE is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewGulf CoastPleiadesPrairie SchoonerThe Masters ReviewLightspeedNashville Review, and elsewhere. Her months-long interview series with the authors, editors, and curators of craft books and resources is freely available on the Kenyon Review blog. She lives in Seattle and teaches at Hugo House.

 

Author’s Note

While walking home one day, I spotted a tree tilted over onto the sidewalk. It had been pulled up by its roots, perhaps by a recent storm, and had fallen forward out of its small patch of raised city grass so that the tree appeared to be attempting a handstand. It remained there a couple days until finally someone came to take it away, and I walked by it every day, pausing a little longer each time. During one of these passes, I thought how easy it would be to climb the tree now, with its branches so low.

For me, climbing trees has long been wrapped up in coming of age, budding queer sexuality, and the discussion of what’s “natural,” so when I got the idea for this story I knew I wanted it to be a kind of awakening for the main character. A sexual self-discovery wrapped up in secrecy, power imbalances, and moments of unexpected vulnerability. In my first draft of the story, I tried to fit it all into a single 300-word paragraph. Then, when that left too many unanswered questions for readers, I expanded the story, allowing it to balloon to three paragraphs and 600 words. Finally, after over a year of revisions, I cut the story back to one long paragraph. The version published here is the fourth or fifth draft of the story, which is itself the seventh story in my “A Girl” series.

I started the “A Girl” series a couple years ago, while preparing myself for the publication of my story collection, Night Beast. I returned to it periodically for two years before finally admitting to myself that it could be a collection. That’s my project now: a collection of flash that explores the complexities of girlhood and the narratives we’ve constructed about it through a variety of genre lenses. “A Girl Climbs a Tree” is one of the few realist “A Girl” flashes I’ve written so far, but it remains one of my very favorites, perhaps because it has taken the longest to get right—so far; I have a lot of other “A Girl” flashes in the works!

 


RUTH JOFFRE is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewGulf CoastPleiadesPrairie SchoonerThe Masters ReviewLightspeedNashville Review, and elsewhere. Her months-long interview series with the authors, editors, and curators of craft books and resources is freely available on the Kenyon Review blog. She lives in Seattle and teaches at Hugo House.