This Week in Short Fiction


Granta’s summer issue is themed “The Legacies of Love,” and in a new story from the online issue, Glasgow-based writer Sophie Mackintosh strips love back to its animal bones in a story that is less rom-com and more Hunger Games, but without the love triangle.

Murder class was the new thing, but of course they didn’t call it that. They called it Specialised Life Skills for Girls and it happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In “The Weak Spot,” Mackintosh reveals a society exactly like ours, but where teenage girls are educated in survival skills and self-defense and then sent into the woods on a rite of passage: to hunt and kill a man. Afterwards, the girls extract a tooth from the man’s mouth to be worn around the neck as a talisman, a warning to predatory men, for the rest of their lives. The narrator of the story is an unwilling participant in this rite, though she knows she must go through with it lest she become a victim. Her mother wears a tooth around her neck, though she won’t talk about it (“It’s rude to ask”), and for her birthday her parents gift her a custom-made knife and a watermelon to stab while they cheer and snap photos from a safe distance. Mackintosh navigates this grim terrain with a brilliant eye for absurdity and dark humor (“someone threw up everywhere when they showed the first video, the one titled Decapitation by Bear Trap!”) and heaps of scathing insight:

I tried to think about whether I would rather kill a man or a deer and honestly I couldn’t choose, which made me feel bad, but men didn’t have the velvet-soft pelt at the back of their necks and a deer had never looked at me in a way that said they were thinking of me inside-out, of how I’d look if I was crying or motionless or asking them very gently not to do anything to me.

While teaching girls to be murderers may be overkill (pardon the pun), “The Weak Spot” does of necessity call to mind the messages girls receive on the topic of sexual assault today—don’t wear short skirts, don’t drink, don’t walk alone at night, or you’re asking for it—and make you wonder which approach is worse.

As the day the girls are to enter the forest approaches, the narrator builds upper body strength, learns to tie a dozen kinds of knots, memorizes the weak spots on a man’s body, and tries to harden her heart. Her teacher tells her she’s not ready, that her heart is too raw. “Make your heart an overdone steak and it won’t be eaten,” she says. The narrator can feel herself changing, not just with puberty but in another, less identifiable way. And here the story complicates. It becomes not only about the terrible capabilities of men but also of women, the wild and angry thing that may be hiding in any of us, and the consequences of an overdone heart.

Perhaps when you became wild there was no real change, it had just been latent in you, unnoticed even, until the day someone looked at you and pointed and said Wait a minute –, and I thought that would be worse, to have been terrible all your life but not to have known, to be such a surprise to yourself.

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 →