When Ford made love to Calla, she felt something in him fight. It wasn’t against her ugliness. That matter was settled business, though Calla, in her youth, had held onto the idea that she was a winter-apple sort of…
“Sweet Knife” has been such a shapeshifter. It was a short story and then a shorter story, and finally flash fiction. The primary character, Calla, has been struggling all her life to find the antidote to her discontent; a salve for the pain of being born ugly and staying so. I initially imagined it as a revenge tale in which Calla turns the tables on a high school beauty whose mere existence tortures her. But revenge rarely delivers on the relief it promises, so I started toying with another idea:
What if we all have a fixed place like stars in a constellation, with some brilliant in their stellar brightness and others little more than failed stars? It’s not a question of fairness. It just is. So, if you’re barely a flicker, like Calla, because to the world, you’re ugly and dull—her skin is literally gray—what would you do to get just one person to believe you’re the sun?
There’s a brutality to the world of this story: disconnection, ugliness, lust, envy, adultery, butchering, blood, death. But I like using language that leaves readers with feelings that might seem discordant with what’s happening on the page. It’s like wrapping broken glass in the petals of a flower.
Word choice and the rhythm of a line are very important to me. So is texture, and the presence of the natural world. There’s very little dialogue in “Sweet Knife.” The first few drafts had none at all. I’d envisioned the characters moving through their world in complete silence, with only the sound of wind sweeping through the outdoor scenes. The dialogue that’s now included is brief and pierces just the tiniest hole in that silence, but it tethers these three emotionally solitudinarians to one another by forcing them to say what they’d rather not.
Calla’s ending is right. I imagine she won’t ever go home to Ford. To return to him would mean a return to fallow fields, and a man who fights when he’s inside of her. She’ll stay on Otter’s farm with the pea pods and the chickens, where wild things grow, and the wind spirals quietly through the flowers.
DANA BREWER HARRIS is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her writing has been published in Atticus Review and DarkWinter Literary Magazine. Her short story “Sweep” was recently nominated for Best Small Fictions and featured in Stanford’s The Writer’s Spotlight. She is a docent-in-training at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Find her on Twitter @DBrewerHarris.