Like many of us who grow up to be writers, I was a kid who mapped the contours of my world with words. Adolescence was a blend of the tactile and conceptual, an era when I spent as much time combing through the internet and poring over books for reflections of my queer, neurodivergent teenage self as I did striving to connect IRL. I sifted through definitions, claiming and discarding labels, desiring the ideal ways to name myself, wondering if any terms would suffice. Outlining the landscape of my ever-shifting interiority seemed impossible but necessary: words were my tools for validating and communicating the particularities of my existence, even with their shortcomings.
In this story, the first draft of which emerged in one burst of writing early in the pandemic, a teenager struggles with the frustration that comes from failing to breach these barriers between the actual and the described, the realities people will reveal about themselves and the deeper truths they won’t (or can’t). She catalogues her world, which comprises her house and the land surrounding it, including her beloved beehives. She thinks of herself as a naturalist, a taxonomist, but that’s a complicated history, a legacy of men like Carl Linnaeus and David Starr Jordan rewriting reality through self-serving designs, charting out false hierarchies of life on Earth and neglecting the liminal spaces that link creatures of infinite complexity. Creatures who, like Esther, can’t be described only one way, and are damaged by attempts to reduce the nuances of their existence.
Esther’s subject of study is sex, a category as broad and unfathomable as the many made-up designations these men forced their subjects to fit—specifically, “the unspeakable boundarylessness of queer sex,” as the writer Amy Gall describes it. “Queer” not only in the sense of who you might be having sex with, but, in the words of bell hooks, “queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” Being a queer person means having to map those edges for yourself, and finding fitting language is fraught when aspects of your existence feel inexpressible.
Language can limn and limit our desires. I played with the tension between mind and word in this piece, entwining spare, precise descriptions (often in Esther’s idiosyncratic encyclopedic style) with visceral sensory images to draw taut the threads between the possibilities of language and the qualia of consciousness. The flash-fiction form lends itself to uncategorizable, deceptively straightforward stories. Because flash fiction more closely resembles a miniature painting than a novel in scope, understanding what’s unfolding seems simple. But details transform: the picture reverses. The story is laid out before you, yet some narrative element remains slippery, elusive, a living thing that can’t be pinned to a board and classified. You can turn this tiny world around, catching facets in the light, never seeing quite the same scene each time.
KATHARINE DUCKETT is the award-winning author of Miranda in Milan, the Shakespearean fantasy novella debut that NPR calls “intriguing, adept, inventive, and sexy.” Her short fiction has appeared in various publications and collections, including Some of the Best from Tor.com 2020 and Rebuilding Tomorrow: Anthology of Life After the Apocalypse, which won the 2020 Aurealis Award for Best Anthology. She lives in Beacon, New York, with her wife, and is an advisory board member for the Octavia Project, a Brooklyn nonprofit offering free summer programs in creative writing, art, science, and technology that empowers young women and trans and nonbinary youth to envision bold new futures. Find her on Twitter @kekduckett and Instagram @hottmcawesome.