Exploring the art of prose


Analysis of a Fugue by Annabel Li

Image is a color photograph of a metronome and some sheet music; title card for the CRAFT 2023 Flash Prose Prize Winner, "Analysis of a Fugue," by Annabel Li.

Annabel Li’s “Analysis of a Fugue” is one of three winners of the CRAFT 2023 Flash Prose Prize, guest judged by Kathy Fish.

Tender memories of a young woman’s relationship with her waipo are deftly woven with the present scene as the grandmother lay dying in this deeply moving, emotionally resonant hermit crab flash. When a flash finds a perfect container, it enhances and elevates every aspect of the story. The descriptions of various aspects of musical fugue create the structure for the piece and serve as extended metaphor in a way that circumvents sentimentality or mawkishness. The musical call and response of their love and devotion is echoed in the lyrical prose as “together, they weave into something bigger.”  —Kathy Fish




A piece of music popularized during the Baroque period in which a primary melody, or subject, is introduced by one voice, then systematically passed to and developed between others in a polyphonic, intertwined texture.


1. Subject The subject is the principal melody. It begins the fugue, entering bold, alone, turning over the silence.

In the kitchen, there is a photo of me in a diaper and a pink shirt, squatted behind a xylophone. In it, I’m smiling toothless, fists frozen, flapping against the rainbow keys. Waipo always loved that photo. The story was that she’d tucked me into the crib with my favourite blanket and toy, but when she got back, she found me on the floor, banging away on the xylophone I wasn’t supposed to have touched yet. “That’s when I knew you were born for music,” Waipo said, laughing.

Beside me, Waipo sinks into the hospital bed. Her breaths are slow, shallow, drifting between the machine’s beeps like a memory. It occurs to me, then, that there is no such thing as absolute certainty.


2. Countersubject The countersubject is the secondary melody, accompanying without being lesser than. With it, the subject can no longer command all silence, all sound; but together, they weave into something bigger.

Waipo gave me my first lessons soon after. In between the loud slurps of cereal and buckets filled with backyard fruit, we traced treble clefs, exhaled pedal points. In the afternoons, when dust motes would swirl our scalps, Waipo taught me about the composers. Soon, I could unfurl their lives like the back of my hand: Handel’s hometown. Vivaldi’s violin. Bach’s children, branching like bright plums.

When I got to their deaths, Waipo had nothing to say so we put on their music and danced in the backyard, clotheslines flapping above our heads like birds. The peaches were bright and distended, the grass under our feet more green than brown, and there was time.


3. Development In the fall, I went to school for the first time. I arrived in the foyer, sheet music in hand, only to be greeted by hallways that spidered into the millions. Children flickered between the walls, rain boots dragging dust.

In class, we listened to the radio in neat rows. The teachers’ mouths were empty and white with static as they ghosted through the aisles. I began to untangle new sounds: the gentle squeal of metal, heels against tiles.

When the teachers handed out the papers, I inked the vibrations slowly, as if waiting could make them scrape my skull clean, but when I looked up, the ceiling was slurred with milk and cleaner than my eyes could stand. There was nothing else to wait for, so I stuffed the sheet music into the bottom of my bag.


Summers in the city were always damp as a lung. I would spend my nights huddled in front of the TV, body swollen with sweat. I became adept at navigating the frequencies, muttering each transmission: another new highway spiralling to nowhere, another girl gone missing, another monsoon. Flash floods may move at up to nine feet per second, the anchor said, safe in front of the green screen. We’ve never had a season like this before. Behind her, the sky cracked like an orange peel, and bled.

One night, after the program clicked shut, I looked back and saw my waipo folded over the kitchen sink. She was quietly scrubbing the remains of my dinner down the drain, each slosh of water echoing the rain outside. Under the pale fluorescence, her shoulders blurred into every shade of grey.


4. Tierce de Picardie After the subject and countersubject have distorted, tilted, turned dissonance harmonious and back again, they close themselves in a resolution. So I keep searching for mine. I dig out the sheet music, try to smooth the creases even as the notes stumble into one another, tangling into power lines. I imagine drawing repeat signs, pulling back to clean pages. In the afternoon I stop by the florist, thumb through the rows of petals by the windows. Outside, children trundle past, laughing, their jackets bright against the skin-thin sky.

The lilies are still fragrant when I place them on Waipo’s bedside stand. On the radio, they are calling for overcast, a tongue full of rain. I bundle the scarf tighter around my neck, then dial the knobs until the voice of a single piano emerges, crackling and distant.

I sit back, find Waipo’s hand, and close my eyes. Through the static, the melody lines of the piano converge, split, then converge again, passing through our bodies like waves. Waipo’s pulse is thin, butterflied in mine. She squeezes my hand, just enough to let me know she’s still here.


ANNABEL LI is a graduating high school senior from Vancouver, Canada. Her work has been recognized by The Walrus and appears or is forthcoming in Fractured Lit and Frontier Poetry. When not writing, you can find her skiing or training her dog. She hopes you have a wonderful day.


Featured image by Rachel Loughman, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

I used to hate listening to fugues. Even as a classically trained pianist, I found them mild and obsolete compared to more mainstream works such as Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony or Beethoven’s no. 5. Quite simply, I preferred compositions with “oomph”—that drama, passion, and spark. Fugues just seemed to lack that interest.

It took me years to realize that music did not have to be showy to move the listener. Though fugues sound mellow on the surface, they are the pinnacle of creative genius: the entire piece is based on a single melody, which may be altered and reassembled with secondary melodies like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. These interactions fascinated me, and I knew I had to involve them in a story of some kind. It only seemed fitting, then, to pair them with a narrative involving the woman who first taught me music—my maternal grandmother, or waipo.

I believe that the most profound pieces of fiction draw heavily from real life. Thus, although “Analysis of a Fugue” is entirely fictional, I could not write about the relationship between the girl and her grandmother without exploring my childhood experiences as a second-generation immigrant. Like the narrator, I also wanted to blend into my overbearingly white environment and fractured the connection to my cultural background in the process. Such a story is far from uncommon, but I wanted to present it from a new angle by exploring how that desire to assimilate impacts intergenerational bonds.

In terms of craft, I aimed to move beyond the metaphorical use of fugal terms and concepts to make the piece resemble a fugue itself. Each passage in the story, though separated by years, is connected by the grandmother-granddaughter bond it depicts, similar to how appearances of the subject and countersubject link different sections of a fugue. My prose conveys distinct emotions by presenting images rather than thoughts, much like the changes in tonality that impart several moods within the same piece. And, by maintaining an unchanging syntax throughout, I generate a pulse, a rhythm, that carries the piece from beginning to end.

Ultimately, however, I chose to highlight one creative medium with another to remind readers of the power of art. As intangible and multifaceted as it is, art illuminates our shared humanity. When our words fail to moor us, there will always be our melodies, going on and on.


ANNABEL LI is a graduating high school senior from Vancouver, Canada. Her work has been recognized by The Walrus and appears or is forthcoming in Fractured Lit and Frontier Poetry. When not writing, you can find her skiing or training her dog. She hopes you have a wonderful day.