This Week in Short Fiction
There are countless metaphors for love: a rose, a flame, a garden, a loaded gun, a battlefield. We’ve heard them all—or so we thought. This week at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Joyland editor Lisa Locascio recommended Amelia Gray’s story, “The Swan as Metaphor for Love.” The title sounds lovely, evoking peaceful lakes and graceful swan necks bent toward each other, beaks kissing, to form the shape of a heart. But of course, when you’re dealing with Amelia Gray, everything is not as it seems.
A swan’s foot, like a duck’s, is a webbed claw. In traversing swan shit and mud, these claws naturally gunk up and reek. Nobody in the history of the world, save another swan, has licked a swan’s foot while that foot was still attached to the swan. The feet resemble rabid bats in their sickly color and texture.
That’s the first paragraph. Right out of the gate, Gray dismantles any misconceptions we may have had about the romantic qualities of swans. The style is almost Audubon Society Field Guide, except for the phrases “swan shit” and “gunk up” and the aside about foot licking that leaves one wondering, has anyone licked a swan’s foot that was unattached to the swan? (A question none of us expect to ponder in life.)
The power of the story, which is less than 500 words, comes from the vividness and, well, the grossness of Gray’s descriptions. She describes the pond scum that crusts onto swans’ underbellies as containing, among other things, three different kinds of shit (swan, fish, frog), “half a can of beer from some fuck teenager,” dead insects, and, best (i.e. grossest) of all, the mysterious and disturbing “permanent bubble.”
The story isn’t just a stomach-churning catalogue of nasty things about swans, however. As Lisa Locascio says in her introduction, “There’s a word for what makes this story so good—diction—but to reduce its power to a literary term seems to me a missing of the point.” Every one of Gray’s descriptions hints at something just underneath the words, something that comes across in the tone of the narrator and in the exact words Gray chooses. Something that suggests that maybe the swan is, after all, an apt metaphor for love.
On Monday, a flash fiction piece by Jessica Plante went up at SmokeLong Quarterly. Plante usually writes poetry, and in “Natural Disaster,” it shows in the cadence of her sentences, the dream-like images she crafts, her facility with language that is so often possessed only by poets. But Plante also displays her fiction chops in the weaving of this fabulist story about a mother who wears “the broken back of the house inside her” and one day starts to weep a flood of water from her pores:
It was around this time that mother’s body began weeping. At first she looked as if she’d done some vigorous exercise, but she didn’t have the post-calisthenic glow, the shortness of breath. The sweat beaded her upper lip. Her bare arms would dazzle in stray beams of sunlight that found their way past the drapes. She continued to sigh and murmur, to walk through the house like she’d been there for centuries looking for an exit.
“Natural Disaster” is a story about a mother who turns into a flood. It’s about loss and death and maybe about depression. That’s the wonderful thing about surrealistic stories like this one: they’re ripe for reading as metaphor, but at the same time they avoid direct analog. Each reader will see a different ailment according to her own loss. And by the last paragraph, the most stunning paragraph of all, each reader will recognize her own grief. The metaphor is big enough for that.