Exploring the art of prose


Adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Definitions of “Rock” by Audrey Bauman

“Adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Definitions of ‘Rock’” by Audrey Bauman is one of four pieces chosen for the Editors’ Choice Round in the 2020 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors selected pieces that showcase the range of forms and styles in flash fiction.

Audrey Bauman’s flash fiction piece “Adapted from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Definitions of ‘Rock’” impresses with its clean, evocative language and bold use of form. Structured as a series of dictionary entries, the narrative deftly juxtaposes the fabulist tale of the Arkansas catfish woman against the abusive family dynamic the narrator and their sister experience at the hands of their mother. Each verb, each noun, and its definition propel the arc forward, while the white space between them allows the reader to braid together the familiar and unfamiliar in an effort to understand how this young narrator processes their grief. Check out Bauman’s author’s note to read more about the inspiration behind this inventive hermit crab piece and why she chose a fairy tale form “to explore the things that drew me to writing—images, situations, and atmosphere.”  —CRAFT


rock  verb

\ ˈräk  \

rocked; rocking; rocks

transitive verb


1        : to move back and forth in or as if in a cradle

Every ten years the Arkansas catfish woman emerges from her riverbed and rocks to-and-fro, lets detritus swim into her open mouth. Some say her tail is fifteen feet long. Some say her movement springs earthquakes and thunder. No one knows where she comes from or how long she plans to stay.


2       a         : to cause to sway back and forth

The Arkansas catfish woman rocked our boat one morning while we were out on the Little Maumelle. My sister says it was the wind. But I saw a whiskered face disappear into the muddy water.

b        (1)  : to cause to shake violently

The tornado rocked our tiny house, and my sister came home late. Where were you? screamed my mother. She threw our dinner on the floor and my sister, drenched, started sweeping it up. We never could remove the stain from the tile.

(2)  : to daze with or as if with a vigorous blow

A head hitting the surface of the Arkansas River. A punch that rocks your skull and ribs. A stream of blood from both nostrils. Your lungs, punctured by bone, collapse.

(3)  : to astonish or disturb greatly

My sister’s death rocked our household and I, sick of silence, went to the bridge with caution tape and flowers and let my crying awaken the catfish woman below.


3        : to rouse to excitement (as by performing rock music)

Once, a teenage band rocked me in a dusty club downtown. After the show, I walked to the river and jumped in. I dreamed my gills opened wide and whiskers grew from my crown.


4        informal : to wear, display, or feature (something striking, distinctive, or attractive)

Not a proper mermaid, the Arkansas catfish woman does not rock a scaly tail or glittering teeth. She does not shine in the sunlight.


rock noun (2)


1        : a large mass of stone forming a cliff, promontory, or peak

After I began haunting her waters, the Arkansas catfish woman told me her secret in the shadow of a tall rock, between the limbs of two weeping trees.


2        : a concreted mass of stony material

also : broken pieces of such masses

She told me the rocks on the riverbed shift into sediment in time, as do the bones. The garbage, however, remains.


6        slang

a : GEM


I took the rock from my sister’s necklace and pitched it in the river. It sank to the bottom and would stay, I thought, for at least ten years, until the riverbed rocked again.


AUDREY BAUMAN is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University and Managing Editor of Passages North. She has been published in Paper Darts, Jellyfish Review, and HAD. Her tweets can be found @haylin42.


Featured image by Nsey Benajah courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

I wrote this story because I was homesick for Little Rock. I had just moved to Michigan, where in the winter the sun set at 5:00 p.m. and the snow banks climbed two or three feet high by February. I missed wide rivers, muggy heat, stormy nights. I wanted to write something that captured a piece of Arkansas, something of its magic, and I especially wanted to write a fairy tale.

Around this time I had just read Kate Bernheimer’s “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” published in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. In the essay, Bernheimer identifies “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic” as four elements that characterize the fairy tale form. A longtime writer and admirer of speculative fiction, I was already familiar with the concept of normalized magic—where magical happenings are simply understood by characters and readers—but I was intrigued by the idea of painting characters in very broad strokes and telling a story in associative leaps from image to image, rather than in the more familiar cause-effect plot. The fairy tale form seemed like the perfect way to explore the things that drew me to writing—images, situations, and atmosphere, not necessarily well-rounded characters or intricate storylines. It also seemed like a form particularly suited to flash fiction. I was (and still am) interested in flash fiction, its ability to communicate entire worlds in a tiny space. I’m also frequently challenged by the different set of concerns it brings, often more on the line-level than in terms of overall structure.

All these ideas contributed to the story’s creation, but the more specific shape of the story, a dictionary definition, emerged from a prompt: “use the same word to mean as many different things as possible.” I chose the word rock because it’s a verb and a noun, and because it appears in the name “Little Rock.” Thus, the story’s setting and initial inspiration would also shape its structure. Building the story around sample sentences for a definition meant that each part of the story had to be somewhat self-contained, short, and evocative, but the parts also had to collectively build to a satisfying conclusion. It was a fun challenge, especially to play with language so the repetition of rock didn’t become too tiresome. It was also fun to discover the different places one could find the word rock—at a concert, on a boat, by a river, etc.

Finally, the catfish woman. Why her? Because catfish are significant to popular culture in Arkansas, and a mermaid from Arkansas would probably look something like a catfish. And because mermaids are emblematic of the liminal, the in-between, where the magical meets the more familiar. She always stood for the particular kind of magic I sought to create with this piece.


AUDREY BAUMAN is an MFA student at Northern Michigan University and Managing Editor of Passages North. She has been published in Paper Darts, Jellyfish Review, and HAD. Her tweets can be found @haylin42.