In this new series, the staff of The Fourth River comb back through our archives to find and share with you the pieces they believe deserve a second look.
Of Mudpuppies & Ear Worms
–by Alex Friedman, The Fourth River Staff
It happens every so often that a bit of language, maybe a sentence or an anecdote or a lyrical turn, sticks in the teeth of the mind. The mind continues to prod at it. Maybe pieces of it click together, and layers of meaning become exposed, and it reveals something profound. This experience is why I chose to take a second look at Chad Hanson’s flash fiction story from issue 10, “Creatures That Don’t Exist.”
The story, weighing in at barely a quarter page, is an ear worm. It initially seems to be two or three lines of thought, barely connected for the reader. But as the story is only seven and a half lines of prose as printed in issue 10, the reader finds themselves rereading it, and then attempting to digest its logic.
In the story, a ‘he’ is portrayed in close third person recounting a scolding received from a third grade teacher when he can’t remember whether a mudpuppy is a real creature or not. His teacher rebukes him for mentioning impossible things, and despite the discomfort of this memory, he tells a folk tale about souls of dead children visiting their parents as nuthatches to his sister, who had just lost a baby in childbirth.
This story at first seems disjointed. But the invested reader might read it again. Perhaps they recount the story to a friend, or think it over in bed or in the shower. However it is reconsidered, enough ‘second looks’ eventually yield that the “him” of this story began to think about mud puppies because of their physical similarities to the unborn human fetus. The story models the internal monologue of a mind trying to cope with the loss of a sibling’s child. The awkwardness of trying to comfort a loved one in the extraordinary pain of losing a child they will never know, the way the mind twists around and looks for connections, all of that is present in this tiny story.
“Creatures That Don’t Exist” rewards multiple readings and the meditation that literary fiction is supposed to inspire. It deserves a second look for its brilliance in construction and for what it leaves unwritten. Stories like Chad Hanson’s are not only a model for excellent storytelling in flash, they also show us the willingness of the mind to analyze art, and what it looks like when a piece seizes the imagination and won’t let go.
Alex Friedman is an assistant fiction editor for the Fourth River. He spends his time reading and writing satire and weird fiction. His fiction recently appeared in Cleveland’s Miser Magazine.
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