This Week in Short Fiction

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The first books of 2016 are rolling off the presses this week, and among them is Samantha Hunt’s third novel, Mr. Splitfoot, which is already earning buzz for its prize-winning potential. It’s a modern gothic ghost story involving meteor craters, conmen, twins who channel spirits, a mysterious aunt who doesn’t speak, and a pregnant woman who follows said aunt in an on-foot odyssey across New York state toward some unknown end. If all that isn’t enough to hook you, Lit Hub has an excerpt that will do it.

In the excerpt, the pregnant niece, Cora, and her silent aunt, Ruth, arrive in a new town at some point during their inexplicable walk across the state. Cora has just started to show, and the way Samantha Hunt describes pregnancy makes the excerpt worth reading for that alone. There’s the unsolicited advice from strangers, the invasive questions, the mommy-judgment, the jokes:

Now that my belly shows, I’m public property. Strangers speak to me all the time. They tell me how I should do everything. They want to know, boy or girl? What will I call it? Cloth or disposable diapers? Breast or bottle? Women either tell me that pregnancy hurts or that it is a miracle. Old men say some variation of “Whoa! Whoa! I’ll boil the water and get some sheets.”

There’s the physical sensations, all the weird unexpected things that happen to the pregnant body:

Some part of pregnancy is familiar. When I was a girl and it was quiet, I felt an enormous weight, a dentist’s lead blanket across my body. My hands would get heavy, huge, impossible to lift. The world would go soft, metallic, and heavy. That’s kind of what pregnancy feels like . . . Mostly I’m surprised how little most people know about growing babies. No one tells you about all the weird things that will happen, like how your mouth will get full of spit. What’s that about?

There’s also the sheer strangeness of growing a living thing and the awe that it will one day exist independent of your body; it will have a life and death of its own:

Nothing stranger than pregnancy could happen to a body. Not drugs, not sex. An unknown that gets bigger every day. An unknown I feel stirring, growing, making me do things my body doesn’t normally do. A program set to play. One day it will talk to me. It will die. How’s that possible?

These insightful, visceral musings on pregnancy are set against the backdrop of the strange town Cora and Ruth have arrived in and the pack of children they meet. There are six of them, all siblings, and they tell Cora that none of them go to school anymore because it’s been shut down. When Cora asks why, the children give her a range of disagreeing explanations. One says the town doesn’t have the money to keep it open; another says they cut the teachers’ wages, so the teachers are on strike; another says it’s the first step in the gas company’s plan to kick everyone out so they can get to the gas beneath the streets and homes. Then they show Cora the only two fun things to do in town.

As Cora follows her child tour guides through town, they tell her funny stories and strange stories. They over-share, as small children do. They bicker amongst themselves, as all siblings do. They’re kind of adorable. Then they arrive at the “first fun thing”—a morbidly obese woman on a porch swing—and the story takes a dark turn.

The children stare as if looking into an oracle. “You can say whatever you want to her. She just takes it. She can’t really move, at least not fast enough to catch you.”

“That’s fun?”

The woman watches us.

“Yeah.”

One of the children tries, “Fatty.”

Charley attempts, “Toi-let!” — the dirtiest word he knows.

The woman doesn’t flinch and doesn’t take her eyes off me. I walk away quickly.

Hunt lures you into complacency, and just when you’re admiring the nice, cute children, she reveals some of the human ugliness that lies in all of us. It adds another complicated layer to the overarching theme of motherhood and the unknown. The unspoken question that hangs above the story is, “How do you be a mother?” And sometimes, it’s “How do you raise a child?” But at this point, it becomes, “How do you make sure your child’s not a monster? Can you do that? Are we all secretly monsters inside?”

You’ll have to read the excerpt (or even better, the book) to see what the second “fun” thing is, but if you need another excerpt to tide you over till Mr. Splitfoot arrives in the mail, VICE has one about Cora and Ruth meeting a mean renegade nun. We’d say 2016 is off to a pretty good start, wouldn’t you?


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 →