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What You Know by Heather Aronson


We’re pleased to feature Heather Aronson’s “What You Know,” a finalist in our 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Benjamin Percy. Aronson’s piece explores the intersection that exists between the known and what can be never truly known or reconciled, even when approached through the retrospective lens provided by time and distance. The dynamic the protagonist uncovers between herself and her father, as she recounts an afternoon spent on the lake with her family, is both complex and raw. Aronson demonstrates how memory unfolds through a series of narrative statements each building upon one another until one finally accepts the unreliable nature associated with such recollection. The result—visceral and haunting. Make sure to also read Aronson’s author note where she discusses the inspiration behind “What You Know,” as well as how the benefit of writing within the constraint of memory pushes emotion to the surface.  —CRAFT


 

When someone yells “Boom!” on a sailboat, you are about to get hit by a bar at the base of the sail, unless you duck.

“Hard alee” also means something like “duck,” but to the side. You never remember whether it’s to the right or left.

“The sun is over the yardarm somewhere” means that it’s okay for your father to open a beer.

A yardarm isn’t a thing you know.

At some point, your father will throw seat cushions, tethered by ropes, into the lake, and you and your older brother will jump overboard to ride them. The cold of the water will be a full-body slap.

Your little sister and brother will stay on the boat with your father.

Your mother will not be on the boat. Your mother is not stupid, no matter what your father tells her, or how often.

You will never hate your mother.

Your father will smoke his Parliaments to the nub and then flick the nubs into the water. The nubs will float past you and your older brother, along with the occasional Slim Jim wrapper and, eventually, beer cans.

Whatever a yardarm might be, you’ll believe it must be very low.

If your father tugs the rope holding your seat cushion and hauls you back onto the boat, your sister and little brother will be your responsibility.

Not your father’s.

Nor, for that matter, your big brother’s.

On the boat, your sister will huddle, scowling, too young to ride a cushion. Your little brother will tear around the deck, a Slim Jim tucked in his chubby fist.

Slim Jims, despite their name, make you fat if you eat enough of them.

There is a monster in the lake.

Well, you don’t *know* this, but you believe it.

A little.

Especially when you float through a forest of seaweed on your tethered seat cushion and something brushes against your legs.

The lake, like Loch Ness, is an inland sea. So it’s possible.

You will try not to think about the monster, because you won’t want to get back on the boat.

The sun will be hidden by clouds.

A yardarm is a thing you should know.

Your older brother will know what a yardarm is, but he will make fun of you if you ask, so you won’t. You’ll both kick through the water, seat cushions pinned beneath your bellies.

If something brushes against your legs while you kick, it is important not to let go of the cushion. You don’t really know how to swim.

Your brother is an excellent swimmer. He will be dead in a decade, but not from this.

At some point, your brother will yell “Champy,” the name of the monster in the lake. But he won’t truly want to scare you. This is just what you do, in the lake.

You will never hate your older brother.

Even so, you can’t help but conjure the monster. His fins will be feathery and long.

You will be glad when your father finally tugs the rope and hauls you in.

But only briefly.

You will follow your brother up the boat’s ladder and flop onto the deck.

You will be cold and wet, but your sister will be sitting on your towel, glaring, her own wrapped tightly around her.

You will never hate your sister, but she, eventually—always?—will hate you.

You will stand on the deck, dripping, and your little brother will run toward you, calling your name.

You will never hate your little brother, even though he will one day vote for Trump.

“Watch him, watch him!” your father will yell.

When your father yells on the boat, you never know what to do. Out of habit, though, you will duck.

Your little brother will slide through the puddle you’ve dripped on the deck, and he will fall face-first at your feet, his Slim Jim rolling into the hold. He will wail and you will scoop him up, even though you are soaking wet.

“I told you to watch him,” your father will yell.

Then he will slap you, hard, on the thigh.

The slap will leave a deep-red mark, exactly in the shape of a hand.

The mark will still be there an hour later, when you’re motoring back into the cove.

Your older brother will jump onto the dock to tie up the boat. You will climb out after him and wait to help your sister down the ladder, but she will shrug you off. Then your father will lift your little brother and hold him over the side for you to take.

While you stand there, waiting, your father will stare at the handprint still visible against your thigh. He will stumble a little, holding your brother, and then he will shake his head.

“That shouldn’t be there,” he will say. “It would be gone by now, if you weren’t so fat.”

Then he will hand you your brother, and you will take him in your arms.

When you finally get around to writing what you know, most of your characters will be gone. Your older brother will have been dead more than half your life. Your mother will be dead; your father will be dead. Your sister won’t speak to you. Only your little brother will be left, and he will be fifty years old.

You won’t really know whether you know what you know.

But you can look things up.

Champy has yet to be discovered, but Nessie is probably a giant eel.

The boom is a pole at the base of a sail that helps control the sail’s angle and shape.

“Hard alee” is a command to move the sail to the boat’s protected side.

The Yardarm is a bar in Burlington that opens before noon.

You won’t always hate your father.

But you will never forgive him.

Boom.

 


HEATHER ARONSON’s short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Mid-American Review, and Witness, as well as in other journals. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and was a Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. She is a co-curator of the Page reading series in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and, thanks to the pandemic, many of their (combined) five grown children. She is truly grateful for that.

 

Author’s Note

“What You Know” is unlike my typical fiction in nearly every way. It’s my first flash piece, though I’ve been writing short stories for decades. Outside of a handful of (bad) poems written when I was very young, this is my first use of the second-person POV in a creative work. Where most of my stories have taken months, even years, to write, “What You Know” spilled out over the course of a few long days. Its final version hews remarkably close to its first draft, where most of my stories have evolved from countless, daily, and often large-scale revisions.

Perhaps the greatest departure from my usual work, however, was the process I used to bring “What You Know” to the page. Where much of my writing begins as a line that’s been skittering around my brain, or with a character speaking, or with an image frozen from some unknown scene, this one began as a deliberate exercise: to confine the story to characters and events close to my own experience. As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune of attending the University of Iowa, where all of my creative writing instructors were quick to dismiss the tired and limiting dictum, “Write what you know,” reminding me and my fellow students that with enough imagination, anything can be “known.” I took the advice to heart (and later to students of my own), with the result that most of my fiction has wandered far from my own experiences: I don’t cavort with elves; I’ve never been a pregnant teen or a member of an all-girl band or the sole survivor of an airplane disaster; I’ve never worked for a small-town newspaper; I don’t spend a lot of evenings flying from the roof of my home.

But sometimes we need limits in order to appreciate the other ways in which we are free. My plan in writing “What You Know” was to explore my childhood for material that would easily lend itself to fiction: some brief snippet from my life that held within it the arc of a story; that bent itself to metaphor; that resonated (at least for me) with truth. I started with a list of things I knew about boating, since my family used to spend a lot of time sailing on Lake Champlain. But as soon as I jotted down something I thought I remembered, something I was certain I knew, I realized I’d never known it, or had known it once, and now it was gone. I tried different material and began different lists, drawing blank after blank after blank. The more I tried to write what I remembered, the more I realized that I had somehow managed to block out most of the details of my childhood. Only the emotions remained. “What You Know” is both the story and result of that discovery.

 


HEATHER ARONSON’s short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Mid-American Review, and Witness, as well as in other journals. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arizona and was a Fellow in Fiction at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing. She is a co-curator of the Page reading series in Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and, thanks to the pandemic, many of their (combined) five grown children. She is truly grateful for that.