New short fiction by Fallon Chiasson
“Look, a rosette sp—”
“A flamingo!” Ava said as their Carolina Skiff rounded the bend in the canal.
“No, sweetheart,” her mother, Jill, said. “Grandma was trying to tell you that it’s a roseate spoonbill. They are like flamingos. It’s pink because of the shrimp it eats.”
“Oh,” Ava said, looking up from her bird watching app, “I just looked up pink birds and that’s what it said. How do you spell what you said?”
Jill looked over to see what she knew would be disappointment on her mother’s face. But then Jill thought about how much data she would get charged for this weekend. Then wondered what in the world the location services on Ava’s iPad would be thinking. Then she chuckled and laced her arm around the two women: Ava on her right and Ada on her left. The women she was between were related by blood, yes, but that was only what united them. But that didn’t matter, not right now, at least. Not to Jill. She chuckled at her existential thoughts and returned to the moment in front of her: her mother, Ada—which Jill had only heard pronounced as A-da, with a hard, Cajun A and making the flowing, disyllabic name into jagged one—had taken she and Ava out to the secret fishing spot. Jill couldn’t get them back to the camp even if she tried.
It was Jill’s weekend with Ava. Two weekends ago, the two of them had stayed inside of Jill’s three-bedroom condo in New Orleans catching up on The Bachelorette and ordering takeout from the restaurants specializing in modern Cajun fare—vegan boudin, cornmeal gnocchi, oyster toast—that lined her street. They even had snowballs delivered by Waitr.
It was that time of year in South Louisiana that the only mildly comfortable place to be outside was on the water. Not by the water on the Riverwalk or in Jean Lafitte Park, but actually on top of the body of water that had been like a second home to Jill ages ago. Last weekend, the maternal guilt had set in. She wasn’t making the memories with Ava that she had grown up with; rather, she was inoculating Ava into the right-now culture Jill herself had grown so accustomed to—no waiting for the fish to fry, much less waiting for the fish to bite in the first place. After the Bachelorette weekend, Jill called her aging mother, who still lived in Jill’s childhood home down the bayou, to ask if they could take out the boat to go fishing, like old times.
“Does Ava know her iPad can’t get wet?” Ada had responded. Ada pronounced Ava’s name—a homage to Jill’s mother—with the same inflection that her name was pronounced: A-va. Jill cringed every time.
“Maybe,” Jill kept her voice calm. She knew her mother didn’t approve of Ava’s inert lifestyle. “But Saturdays are tech-free when Ava is with me—trying to detox her from when she’s with her dad—so the iPad wouldn’t come on the boat.”
Ada was silent. It was better than her usual comment: “throw her outside, lock the door, and don’t let her come inside until dark. Get her to make some friends in the neighborhood.” Jill never corrected her mother that the majority of her neighbors were middle aged lawyers, bankers, and doctors. Or that she never let Ava be alone outside.
“Oh Mom, don’t you remember when we’d go out on the boat and live off the land? Shrimp and crab and redfish? Then boil and fry and eat outside? I want Ava to have memories of our heritage. Like I do.”
Jill heard Ada put the phone down. Ada still had a house phone and the cord didn’t reach her stove, where a pot of red beans—soaked, boiled, simmered; not from a can like assimilated Cajuns do, like Jill does—was due for a stir.
“Fine.” Ada said. “Pick me up at 4:30 Saturday mornin’. We can have the boat in the water by 5:30, fish until it gets hot, and be home for lunch.”
“But momma, can’t we spend the night? Do some fishing off the dock in the evening? Make drip coffee in the morning?”
“We couldn’t plug in the iPad and run the window units on the generator at the same time,” Ada said.
“But Saturdays are tech—”
“C’est bon” Ada said as she sampled her red beans from the wooden spoon. “You want me to freeze some for y’all to have later?”
“No ma’am,” Jill said. She wouldn’t dare tell her mother that Ava didn’t eat onions, even the soft, clear minced onions in red beans. “We’ll see you Saturday.”
Willing it into existence, Jill set a reminder on her iPhone to pack an overnight bag for she and Ava anyway.
Jill wasn’t so great at waking up while it was still dark outside, even if she set three or seven alarms. By the time she managed to get up, feed the hamster, tried to wake Ava up, successfully woke Ava up, tried to get Ava to eat a bowl of Chobani but picked up chicken minis for both of them instead, and drove down the bayou to her mother’s house, it was 6:15 a.m. Her mother was sitting on her porch. Jill was certain Ada had been sitting on her porch since 5 a.m.
“Where have you been? I tried calling your house.” She sounded mad, not disappointed. Her mother probably expected this.
Jill didn’t respond. She never answered her home phone anymore.
“We’re gonna smother if we go fishin right now,” Ada said. “I put the crab traps in the boat and we can go set them then check them when we go fishing late this afternoon.”
The smallest of smiles appeared on Jill’s face.
“C’mon,” Ada said to the two younger women. “Get in my truck.”
When Jill got in the truck, she noticed a bag with a change of clothes for her mother, and a toothbrush.
No one remembers how long the fishing camp has been standing. It was built by some great uncle or grandparent and the generations to follow had renovated it as needed—new wood for the dock, cleaning out the cistern, mending the roof after a storm. There were no electric poles—or neighbors—in sight, and the family hoped to keep it that way.
The camp had different rules than at home—a little more roughhousing was acceptable, staying up a little later was allowed, and the only baths that could be taken were with a bar of Ivory soap in the canal. But really, there was no roughhousing or staying up late: Jill and her brother’s days had been filled with fishing, crabbing, oystering, and swimming. When Jill got to high school, though, she stopped going to the fishing camp so much. When she got to college, she quit going altogether.
But her memories of the fishing camp were etched in her mind like a setting in a snow globe. Stronger than the visual memories, though, was the feelings that came when Jill thought about the fishing camp: her heart had always been so full. They didn’t have much back then, but there was so much quality time, so much love. What she thinks, when her maternal guilt kicks in, is that that was the cost of giving Ava iPads, trips to Disney World, and an Uptown private school education.
As soon as they arrived at the fishing camp, Ada opened the unlocked door, threw her bag of clothes on the ground, and turned on the generator. She threw a few beers and some sandwiches in the mini fridge. Jill came in behind her with her and Ava’s Vera Bradly duffels. She turned to look for Ava, but she was still in the boat.
“I’m scared to get out. Is that dock safe? Will I fall through? I see bugs.” She was repeating this mantra until someone heard her.
“C’mon, honey, come inside! We can snack until Grandma is ready to set the traps!”
But her mother was already heading back to the boat, a Miller Lite in hand. “Ready!” she said with more enthusiasm than Jill was accustomed to.
Jill placed the bags and ice chest on the ground, grabbed she and Ava each an Arizona tea, and headed to the boat.
Jill’s favorite part about going fishing was getting there. After they got out of the canal and into open water, Ada sped up the boat, taking it out of the wakeless idle and into nearly full gear. The small mud boat reared, and Jill saw Ava tense. Jill thought to reach out to Ava—all she would have to do is lean over—but stopped herself. She stayed standing beside her mother, but not too close.
The ride was Jill’s favorite part of the trip because of the solitude of the passengers, yet the togetherness. She was with her mother and daughter, mere feet and inches away, but they couldn’t speak to one another even if they tried. It was too loud. They were together physically, but far apart.
This distance closeness, Jill thought, is a paradox. The two women she stood between: the old, the young, inhabiting the same planet, worlds apart. She thought about how Ava will leave South Louisiana in a few years. She’ll go to some liberal arts college in the Northeast and sign petitions and join protests to support healthcare for all, no-questions-asked abortions, and weed. All these things that she, and many others, will need in the now. But Ada, in the town she grew up in and never left except for appointments in the city, will stand on the dock of her fishing camp in the Mississippi delta, charting how the land seems to dissipate by with each changing season while the oil rigs pop up like springtime flowers. She’ll think of those rigs, raping the earth, while praying that someone will put a stop to it. Because all she’ll be able to do is pray.
With so much time left, Ava will care about now; with so little time left, Ada will think of the future—the children she will never meet, and the lost land they will never see. And Jill, Jill will not know what to do, really, either—like how none of us really knows what to do—other than be the bridge that unites the two of them, and try to lessen the distance.
Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.
Excerpt by Colleen Donnelly — read more in Issue 4.3, coming soon!
Felicia momentarily pulled her glasses down, seeming to stare dutifully, sympathetically, peering into Ms. Levine’s heart. She made her voice waver just a tad, as she lowered her tone to utter the always terrifying edict, “You have cancer.” She could hear the whistle as Ms. Harding gulped back air. “Colorectal cancer. Stage III. I’m sorry to say the prognosis is not good.”
She watched Ms. Levine intently as she delivered the sentence. Ms. Levine seemed to shrink in the chair, head dropping, shoulders caving, as she tried to draw herself into a protective ball. Felicia held her hand out across the desk, Ms. Levine took it. Felicia squeezed and then gently stroked it – limited tactile contact indicating compassion. The desk was the court they’d play across. Sitting in adjacent chairs or together on a couch next to the fountain would invite soulful pats, perhaps a reaffirming hug or two that could complicate the negotiations. Collaboration was a necessary tightly-controlled, staged illusion.
Ms. Levine withdrew her hand, took a moment to compose and draw herself more upright once again and asked, “And what exactly are my options?”