This Week in Short Fiction

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If you’re looking for something to read over the Fourth of July weekend, you’re in luck. This week gave us brand-new issues of Virginia Quarterly Review and PANK to peruse in the beer-buzzed downtime between barbecues and fireworks.

VQR’s summer issue is all about California, “as an idea and a place,” as the Editor’s Note says. The editors invited twenty-five writers and artists to contribute, and the result is as diverse and interesting as the state itself, with excellent long-form journalism, photo essays, poetry, and, of course, short fiction.

Claire Vaye Watkins’s contribution, “Neo-Fauna of the Amargosa Dune Sea,” is a kind of botanical and zoological catalog of the plant and animal life in a vast future desert that overtakes the southwest. Accompanied by gorgeous illustrations by Lauren Kolm, the entries are always whimsical (see Dumbo Jackrabbit with gigantic ears that “serve as a cooling system in the intense heat of the Dune Sea”), and sometimes dark (see Stiltwalker Tortoise, which “tucks carrion in its shell until decomposition renders it soft enough to eat” without teeth). It’s certainly an unconventional format for a story, containing no overt plot. Instead, the plot is really more of an implication that Watkins trusts the reader understands, and I think we all do. The current drought in California and the reality of climate change hangs over the fantastical story and lends it its weight. The best entries are the ones about adaptation and survival, that hint at a deep need in all of us while couching it in scientific language, like this one for the Wandering Joshuas:

Botanists have widely dismissed the wandering tree as cultural legend. The “wandering” is made possible by the Joshua’s unique root system—a horizontal blazing-star structure equipped with a double-thick taproot and a meristematic zone capable of sensing moisture. The taproot grows in the direction of water, while allowing the roots growing in the opposite direction to atrophy, essentially dragging the plant toward water. Some wanderers can travel up to one hundred yards a day. 

Another standout in the issue is “Late-Night Bloomers” by Karolina Waclawiak, about an “exit guide” named Evelyn who provides the terminally ill with the means to “die with a little dignity” and whose life is changed by a mysterious glowing algae bloom that arrives on the coast of California.

The bloom, as people called it, had changed things. It had changed the water, the sea life, and even the sand—made it finer, softer, easier to sleep on. It was as if the ocean itself was inviting everyone closer. The sick and dying took pilgrimages to Zuma Beach to be saved, as if it were some kind of neon Lourdes.

A camp of people seeking healing springs up on the beach, with the sick coming from all over the country to bathe in the glowing water in a last-ditch grab at a miracle. The following becomes fanatical, the beach camp becomes a settlement, and Evelyn moves in. The hope surrounding the bloom is infectious, and Evelyn invites her ill clients to the beach, tells them their lives may not be over after all. Evelyn herself could use some healing, too, although she doesn’t realize it. Her marriage isn’t doing well, and there are hints that she has had problems with depression and alcohol abuse in the past, but the bloom seems to bring her happiness, renewed purpose, even peace.

But the way Waclawiak crafts the story, undercutting the otherworldly glowing water with the piles of accumulating garbage from the camp, the reports of healing with the cars of the dead being towed from the side of the road, you get the sinking suspicion that the bloom isn’t all its cracked up to be. “Bloomers” is a story about faith and desperation, about the power of belief and also the danger of it, about what can be healed and what, no matter how hard we try, cannot.

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PANK’s July/August online issue also went live this week, with a knockout story by Matthew Young. “Trouble Parts” is a surrealistic tale about a boy named Eli who can remove the parts of his body that get him into trouble and store them in a concrete building on a hill until its safe to reattach them. The story is humorous at times, like when Eli removes his hands to “keep from going blind, as his mother tells him he will if he continues touching himself,” but the humor is always balancing on a knife’s edge, such as in the line, “Eli thinks it might be easier to lock up his genitals, but can’t quite bear the thought of them alone in the dark.”

We quickly come to understand that this story isn’t really about idle hands or overly religious mothers. It’s about a boy discovering he likes other boys and finding love, about a boy coming out to his parents and receiving hate. The moment Eli joyously introduces his boyfriend to his parents and they rebuke him is heartbreaking, his plea for understanding, poignant:

Eli tries to explain, he holds his hands to his mother’s face and demonstrates his ability to touch and grab. I can hold you, he says, and locks on to her shoulders. Look what I can do with my hands, aren’t you happy? Aren’t you overjoyed at what your son can do with his hands? His mother squirms like an eel out of Eli’s grasp.

Eli says things to his parents then that he can’t take back. He screams at them with a hate born of being hated. Eventually, he feels bad about this, so he cuts out his tongue and locks it in the concrete building. This is not the last part of himself that Eli rips out in an attempt to make himself what the world wants him to be. “Trouble Parts” is a powerful story about what can happen when the world doesn’t accept you and a devastating reminder of the trauma that comes of living in such a world.


Claire Burgess’s short fiction has appeared in Third Coast, Hunger Mountain, and PANK online, among others. Her stories have received special mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American anthologies, but haven’t actually made it into one yet. She’s a graduate of the Vanderbilt University MFA program, where she co-founded Nashville Review. She lives in Pittsburgh by way of the deep South and says things on Twitter @Clairabou_. More from this author →