Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Forties Club Finalist #10

Among the Weeds
by Ellie

Beneath the bobbing heads of the Queen Anne's lace, my four-year-old daughter digs a grave for her doll. To her, she's a pirate burying treasure.

In the kitchen, my partner gives me a kiss and a cup of coffee.

"I told her Lola went to live on a farm," I say. It's not a lie, exactly. Before finally losing the war to the weeds, we harvested a handful of limp snap peas, a few rubbery zucchini.

My partner takes my hand in hers. She rubs her thumb against my skin, the way I often scratched behind Lola's ears. I shiver.

"You need to tell her." About what happened yesterday. I was still picking oatmeal out of my hair when I strapped my sulky four-year old into her car seat. Behind the wheel, I stomped on the accelerator. I can still hear--still feel--the wet crunch of the wheels as the car jerked backwards. Smeared across the cement was something black and white and red all over.

Last night, my partner scraped kitten off the garage floor. I dug the grave near a tomato plant that dried out before it ever bore fruit.

"I won't," I say, wrenching my hand away. Coffee spills everywhere.

"You need to tell her before she finds out on her own," she says. She mops up my mess with a dish towel.

Through the window, I watch my daughter, now hunting for treasure in the loose soil of the vegetable garden, and hold my breath.


Aimee Laine said...

That's so sad! I gotta wonder though with the opening line ... if the daughter knows more than she should. :)

Aniket said...

Ditto to Aimee. A subtle but well crafted piece. Very real.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Great metaphor of the pic!

Peter Dudley said...

I can't decide if I like the repetition of "my partner" or not. But I think I do. Because it turns a mostly pointless story of a dead cat into a tense stepparent moment with far more depth.

Jade L Blackwater said...

Yikes! You really sell the emotion in this piece, and I like how much I understand about each character in so small a space. I feel all the internal conflict of the narrator.

Beth Harar said...

I really like this piece. I read it several times, and you weave together emotion and realism very well.

Oddyoddyo13 said...

Yikes. Talk about an awful thing to admit to.

pegjet said...

I read this, read the comments, then reread it.

The partner cleans up the messes of the protagonist a couple times. The garden did not flourish. There's so much packed into this piece.. metaphors on family, on responsibility and on life and death issues.

This one will stay with me.

Aerin said...

I'm still not sure about the use of "partner" - but I'm not in a personal position to judge this.

Precie said...

I'm wondering if the garden imagery implies the promise of transformation---the cat ultimately serves as fertilizer. If the narrator can tell the daughter the truth, that could transform their home and family.

I suppose I too was snagged by the repetition of "my partner" because it made that relationship seem cold and distant...since lovers of any persuasion would, I think, be inclined to think of their partners using fonder terms, or at least their names. But perhaps the distancing is deliberately tied to the whole condition of their garden/home?

Sarah Laurenson said...

Partner doesn't bother me as it's one of the labels we have chosen to use since 'wife' is legally absent in most states. To me it implies something more permanent / all encompassing than lover.

There is a bit of distancing here, but I think it's deliberate. Yes, the partner cleans up the messes. But the narrator avoids reality as much as possible - even when it's about to happen right before her eyes.

What bothered me was calling Lola 'kitten' when she was scraped off the garage floor. That seemed too clinical. "the kitten" would've made it more personal.

Deb Smythe said...

My poor mom ran over one of our kittens in the driveway when we were kids, so "the wet crunch of wheels" was all too realistic for me. Very visceral.

Kimberly B. said...

Wow, this really packs an emotional wallop. I can't decide whether "black and white and red all over" seems flip, or a realistic use of dark humor. But I like the foreshadowing of "She mops up my mess with a dish towel"--sounds like the partner will be mopping up the narrator's mess again soon.
I really enjoyed this one!

Craig said...

Wow that sure takes the concept of treasure hunting and turns it on its head. Loved the strong emotion from the narrator.

MRMacrum said...

A wonderful rendition of one of those awful moments every parent dreads.

Hadley said...

I really like this one- it's contemporary feel, the underlying emotions, strong character. A favorite for me so far. Very nice work...

Ellie said...

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.

@Aimee Thank you!

@Anikit I'm glad you liked you.

@JR Thumbprints I wanted to play with the notion of things being "uncovered" in more than one way. I'm so glad you noticed.

@Peter Dudley, Aerin, Precie I see exactly what you mean in terms of overusing "partner" rather than her name or anything closer. It's a valid criticism and, post-posting, something that I would probably change. It had stemmed from an observance that when one speaks about family members to other people one tends to use their relationship to you rather than their name (e.g. my wife, my sister, my friend) or how you feel about them (e.g. I want to the story with my wife vs. I went to the story with my lover). The latter could probably be better demonstrated via dialog rather than narration. I wonder if the repetition of "my wife" would have been less jarring. In retrospect there are places where "she" would have sufficed. The fact that I had four females in my head (the narrator, the partner, the daughter and the cat) made me want to clearly identify to whom I was referring even if it was clear to the reader. So, something I need to work on.

@Jade Blackwater Thank you!

@Beth Harar Thank you!

@Oddyoddy013 Completely agree with you.

@pegjet Kudos for picking up on the subtleties. You have no idea how happy it makes me that you noticed.

@Precie One of the lines that never made the cut was something along the lines of Lola switching sides in the war with the weed.

@Sarah Laurenson Wow. What a difference an article makes. Thanks for the suggestion.

@Deb Smythe Your poor mom!

@Kimberly B. I went back and forth on that line too. I'm so glad you liked it!

@Craig Thank you!

@MRMacrum Thank you!

Dottie (Tink's Place) said...

Hi Ellie!

Powerful piece, I struggled with the imagery, life and death, happiness and sorrow, very realistic.

Dottie :)

fairyhedgehog said...

This really worked for me. I can feel the mother's pain and worry and the anxiety about getting found out. It's bad enough when a pet dies, without being the cause of it.

You've got so much story and character in so few words. I love it.

McKoala said...

Heart wrenching!

Vincent Kale said...

Any story with the death of a pet (accidental or not) immediately gets to me. Add to that your layers upon layers of relationships, cause and effect, responsibility, etc and this is a story that I'll remember for a while.

JaneyV said...

My next-door neighbour did that when I was a kid and I felt just awful because it was a Mommy cat and kittens who were under the car hiding from my dog.

You captured the emotion of the piece with great skill. It really tugged at the heartstrings (and threw me through an emotional vortex back to 1979!)

Laurel said...

I couldn't do more than skim after I realized where this was going. Sorry.

From what I could tell it is exactly what it should be. Which is why I can't go back and give it more attention.


SzélsőFa said...

three palpable characters, one (or definitely more) conflicts going on, and yes, one heartbreaking story going on in the surface - this is one of my favourite.
and yes, the use of 'my partner' conveyed a sense of detachment for me too - but i learn 'partner' is an expression getting used more and more widely.

Aaron M. Wilson said...

Doll. Kitten. Sad. What I liked most were your 1st lines. They really pulled me in.

bekbek said...

I loved almost everything about this, Ellie, plus the discussion in the comments is really great, too!

I actually really LOVED "black and white and red all over." There is that nervous/hysterical laughter that happens in some of the most horrible moments with children and family life, and I think you have that all over your story, the sense that one wants to laugh but feels really bad about laughing! "Pitch-perfect," as they say. As I think another comment noted, the "stepparent" implications heighten that feeling, and I like it. It's very real and actually made me laugh, because it so reminds me of moments in my own life (as both child and adult).

My one quibble is near the beginning. I got confused between the doll and Lola. I'm not sure why; I guess "Lola" seems like a doll's name, but also with the focus on a grave for the doll, I got distracted. I really appreciate what you've done--"To her, she's a pirate burying treasure" shows us that the daughter doesn't yet understand death and that manner of burial. Nice! So I'm not sure what could change (other than a few more words, impossible here!) that would have kept me from getting lost.

Finally, as to the discussion of partner... well, I love this. We DO have a real language problem and I think it's marvelous that authors like you are working on it. If you were to say "wife" or "lover [with "hers"]", most readers might automatically cast the voice of the piece as male. In some stories, it can be left ambiguous, but here I think you specifically wanted mother-and-daughter, mother-and-lover/wife as the dynamic, and I think it works. I personally LIKE "partner" (my Mom's otherwise "common-law-husband" is her "partner" in my mind), but it does leave most people scratching their heads, not sure if you mean life-partner or business partner. (And life-partner is just lame, LOL!) Again, I don't have an answer, but I think it's a really interesting problem in our language that is well-worth a good discussion.

So, after a very long comment (which I hope you'll forgive)... I loved this! Yay!

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

This is beautiful and sad! You have a really nice, strong voice. I was confused about who Lola was for a second, but it didn't take long to figure out, and in short pieces like this I think that's fine.

Catherine Vibert said...

Please tell me you didn't just have a cat die for the sake of this contest. :-( Poor poor kitten.

Seriously, great story, very well written, great pacing and sadly, very believable.

Ellie said...

Thank you all again for your kind comments.

For those concerned, no cats were harmed in the writing of this story.