September 2007

Sean Carman

fiction

The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts by Claudia Smith

The cover of Claudia Smith’s flash fiction collection The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts was made with an old-fashioned printing press. Rebecca Krzyzaniak and Abigail Beckel took the time to set the type, ink the press, and stamp out each cover page. When you hold this chapbook of very short stories you can run your fingers over each letter of the title, feel its indentation on the page, and see its minute imperfections if you look closely enough.

The cover itself is French Paper in slate blue. Just inside there is a blank burgundy page with a satin finish that perfectly matches the light blue cover. The binding is hand-sewn with olive thread tied off in a knot between pages 22 and 23, in the middle of the story “Galveston,” in which a woman ties a red scarf around her hair and steals her daughters away from their father, to a beach in the middle of winter.

In the introduction, Ron Carlson says that each of Claudia Smith’s short shorts is a “tilted memory of love and loss, the father gone or the mother going, friends and lovers in nervous orbit.” This is true. It’s also true that Smith’s very short stories read like poetry. They paint their characters in quick strokes, and in images that flash past, a colorful slide show in words.

But it would not really be fair to call The Sky is a Well a pretty book. Claudia Smith’s short prose-poem-stories are bright on the surface but they reach to surprising and powerful depths, and what lies beneath the surface is usually pretty dark. Each story is driven by something powerful and unspoken, a truth about the world that lies just beyond the page. The theme is loss, in all of its forms, and Smith’s expert handling of the themes in her stories gives her book great strength for its size. The principal characters are young girls testing the dangerous waters of adolescence, the world where terrible things sometimes happen. The grown-ups, for their part, have already drifted into those waters and are fighting to stay afloat.

Sometimes the foreboding is right there in the first line. “Mermaid” begins, abruptly, with the line, “My sister killed herself the week I turned eight.” The description of the beach and the ocean that follows are textbook reflections of a depressed person, and Smith delivers them so well that, by the end, her story has earned its first line.

More often Smith lets the true meaning of her stories reveal itself gently and come to full flower in her closing words. In “Colts” two girls play backyard games with dolls and pretend horses. Their mothers only tolerate each other for the sake of their daughters’ friendship. “We tied our dolls to the weeping willows,” Smith writes, “swung them around like children on a carnival ride.”

“Colts” ends on a typically muscular note. “My father was a cop,” Smith writes. “Her father was a lawyer. Our mothers both wore dark glasses, hiding their marks behind scarves and migraines. We compared their bruises as if they were badges. We tied our dolls to the trees by their necks. We hanged the cowardly women.”

“The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts,” by Claudia Smith, was the winner of last year’s Rose Metal Press short fiction competition. It contains an introduction by Ron Carlson and is available from Rose Metal Press.

The Sky is a Well and Other Shorts by Claudia Smith
Rose Metal Press
ISBN: 978-0978984816