Zebra (Flash Fiction)

The zebra stands by the chain-link fence in the shade of the sprawling maple. Her ears are up, pointed slightly forward, on edge when she is alone. Her hooves catch sometimes in the cracks of the tarmac where thick weeds erupt. She tries to remain still but that only makes her more of a target. Her stripes only offer protection when she is moving, when her outline blurs to dizzy and confound predators. There isn’t enough room to run like that here.

Monkeys screech from the metal bars and the ropes of their artificial playground. Maybe they are inviting her to join them? With monkeys, sarcasm and sincerity are difficult to distinguish and anyway she is frightened of their noise, their rude gestures, and the attention they always carry, like a marching band.

All in pink the flamingoes pose by the wall, their usual spot. Almost identical in their patent shoes, and sequined plastic purses. Only demure games for them, and then only when the zookeeper insists. They don’t ruffle their feathers willingly.

And over there, just beyond the flamingoes by the open gate, is the tortoise. She has heard people say that tortoises can live for almost a hundred years and that this one must be well on his way to that now. But it’s not really true. He just has an old soul. You can see it in his eyes. Plus, he reads a lot. The tortoise is the only one who doesn’t make fun of her for being alone.

Is he coming towards her? He moves so slowly over the hot tarmac, so painstakingly, that she has to wait in suspense for his direction to become clear. A September wasp, one of the guardians of the trash cans, has ventured over, checking the corners of his mouth and his tail for the sweetness of vegetation. The zebra envies the tortoise’s solid patience. Wasps send her skittering, dancing from hoof to hoof. A thick shell would be just the thing.

The wasp moves on, tempted by the monkeys’ mess, and the tortoise looks up at her. She shuffles, trying to arrange her hooves, of which she suddenly has too many. Her tail flicks. The tortoise gives her butterflies.

She doesn’t see the zookeeper in his jeans and red jacket until he is almost standing over her. Her ears turn back and flatten.

The zookeeper is underpaid the way most of those whose jobs are to care for others are underpaid. This makes him twitchy too. He doesn’t like differences or deviations or anything that makes his job more difficult. And he certainly didn’t like it when her large yellow teeth squeezed his backside when she first arrived or how she usually greets his arrival with yips and barks. He is a man to follow the rules he sets and in this way he is fair. He lacks the imagination to see that zebras might require different rules.

The tortoise is picking his way so slowly that she doubts the zookeeper is aware of his approach. But she can see him and is heartened. His beady eyes meet hers and the corners of his mouth turn up in a small smile. She wants to run toward him but knows her capacity for speed and checks herself. She doesn’t want to embarrass him.

And still the zookeeper doesn’t go. He seems to have taken up residence, leaning one hand on the metal fence, supervising the scene. He is too close. If he tries to touch her she will kick him hard and run, run like there was no such thing as a chain-link fence.

But the tortoise is at her ankles, come to her rescue. Her green knight. The one animal who can sense her distress and actually seeks to allay, not exploit, it. He digs around inside his shells and pulls from its depths a shiny red apple. It even has a small leaf still clinging to its stem. He holds it out to the zookeeper and the zookeeper, delighted, takes it.

“Go on, you two. Go and play. Recess is nearly over.”

So who reads lit mags anyway?

Well, obviously I do. But here’s a confession. Until I started writing and submitting short stories a few years ago, I didn’t. Not one. I barely knew of their existence. Granta and The Paris Review sat prominently displayed on the counter of my local independent bookstore and I might glance at their covers, even scan the list of contributors (most of whom I didn’t recognize)but it never would have occurred to me to purchase one of their issues. Not when they sold for roughly the same price as a trade paperback. I saved my money for novels, the odd short story collection, books with the imprint of a well-known publisher reassuringly stamped on the title page.

It’s been a sharp learning curve. Now I have a far greater appreciation for the role lit mags have played and continue to play as launching pads for new and unknown writers. Unknowns like John Updike and Raymond Carver. Or more recently Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem and Ha Jin.

Of course, with the internet there has been an explosion of lit mags of varying quality. Now anyone with a wordpress account and a dream can start one up (ahem!). And if you can’t get a story published in The Kenyon Review or The New Yorker, and you aren’t too particular, you can rack up those publication credits pretty quickly.

The lit mags I read fall into two camps. In the first, I’ll admit it, are the places I think might take something I’ve written. I call it research. Some are online and some are print. In the second, though, are the publications I read for solely pleasure, because every issue offers beautiful prose that shines with pure competence. I take subscriptions out on these, a couple a year, just what I can afford. At various times I have subscribed to One Story, Room and Tin House, among others. And yes, I do dream of the day these two camps will merge into one.

So aside from other writers looking for markets for their work, who’s reading them? Perhaps no one. I don’t know. When I mention a lit mag or journal I’ve read recently or one in which a story of mine has appeared to friends or family, I get a puzzled Good for you! There are the rumours that circulate on writer’s blogs and in the twitterverse: so-and-so’s story on x was noticed by a literary agent/small press/major publisher. Like winning the lottery, I’m sure it happens, but the chances of it happening to me or someone I know seem slim.

But perhaps lit mags’ main audience is simply other writers. And perhaps that is as it should be. Sure it would be great for the producers of lit mags to have increased subscription rates if they appealed to a more mainstream audience. Then they might in turn be able to pay their contributors more. But that is beside the point. Literary magazines offer the opportunity for writers at all stages of their craft to learn from each other.

That’s what I’m attempting to do in my Why It Works posts. Break down the stories published in online lit mags so I can learn from them.

So who reads lit mags? I do and, if you’re a writer, I hope you do, too.

Sisyphus (Flash Fiction)

He may have started with the frail sinews and slack muscles of a man near the end of his life, but he had been working at a pretty effective workout every day for over three thousand years.  Just look at his legs now.  Solid.  And upper body?  Forget about it!  He could give even Heracles a run for his money.  The skin may still be a bit pasty, there were a few wrinkles where it had not been stretched taut by muscle, a few liver spots, but what lay beneath was made of steel.  Amazing what the constant application of one man against a boulder for a few millennia can do.

He had finished.  Finally wrestled that boulder right to the top.  Hell, he’d even given it a nudge and sent it tumbling down the other side.  The deal was done, they had to let him leave.  He knew all his friends were dead.  His wife, the lovely (if a little shrill) Merope, likewise.  His children.  Still, he wanted to give it another go.  Plenty of life in him yet.  Persephone hung around while he packed his bags and he told her as much.  She sighed, looking both wistful and decorative as she leaned against the doorframe.  Everyone knew she hated goodbyes.

There was a dizzying amount of choice in the world now.  He loved the decadent luxury of selecting from hundreds of possibilities what particular combination of food and drink would make up his lunch.  There was the same delight in shopping for clothes.  The colours!  More than he had ever seen in one place; a rainbow held less splendour.  He did not miss the shapeless grey tunic, faithfully laundered by Merope every week.  He did not miss his old life at all.

He knew he cut an unusual figure.  His shirt, called Hawaiian by the store clerk, was brighter than he saw other men wear; his shorts, a print he found exciting and which he learned was called rainbow plaid, made him feel like an actor playing royalty.  He knew he studied the menu in the restaurant with too much relish, practically smacking his lips as he mouthed the names of each entree.  What did he care?  Life was too short to spend aping the indifference of  others.

Choosing a new name for this life was much easier than choosing a career.  The restaurant that provided him with such tasty ribs was called Sid’s.  Henceforth, so was he.

Back home the choice had been no choice.  He broke his back in fields and olive groves for half the year, as his father had done before him.  The other half was spent marching all over the countryside in heavy armor if there was a war on.  Drinking and wrestling, if there wasn’t.  Anything to keep him away from home and his nagging wife.

He tried his hand at a few things.  He worked at a shoe store, pumped gas, did odd jobs at a printer’s.  Even a stint doing secretarial work in an employment office, for which he was ribbed mercilessly for doing a woman’s job.  It all seemed like pushing a boulder up a hill to him.

Then one day, after leaving his shift at the printer’s, he walked slowly down the street, hoping the light October wind would blow off the heavy smell of ink that settled in his clothes and in his hair.  The neighbourhood contained warehouses and little else.  Since the war, which he learned had rather improbably involved the whole world, many of them had been abandoned.  Only a few still held any life at all.  Once the ringing in  his ears from the rolling and pounding of machinery left him, a familiar sound caught his attention and pulled him toward an open door.  The solid thwack of a fist into a punching bag.  The accompanying grunts.  He couldn’t help himself, he really couldn’t.

Sunlight attempted to enter the large, high-ceilinged room through the high, dirty windows, but gave it up as a bad job.  He breathed in the familiar, sharp smell, a mixture of chalk dust and sweat, and began to make out shapes in the dim interior.  Equipment, none of it new, lined the walls haphazardly; dumbbells, barbells, punching bags and skipping ropes.  In the centre, a kind of roped-off stage.  He had never seen an arena for fighting quite like this before but he recognized it instantly.  He was punctured right through with homesickness.

It wasn’t long before he was working there.  It was called work and he was paid for it (very little) but it felt more like belonging.  The rules had changed a little.  And the large red gloves, cartoonish things, he had some trouble getting used to.  But if he knew anything at all, it was how to build muscle out of nothing.  To find strength in improbable places.