The gray pebble on my bedside table nestles between my teacup and my sleeping pills. On the nights my husband and I drink too much wine, it’s the morning tor for a forgotten painkiller, or a nipple ring. The week between Christmas and New Year it’s buried beneath gift receipts, an Ativan bottle, scratched lottery tickets.

My dead sister’s name is written in green marker on the pebble’s flat stretch. When my daughter was four, she used that marker to draw a wild-eyed green horse held down by chains, tape over its mouth, being stoned by cows. Before she was diagnosed. Before we knew how strange she finds our world.

I picked my pebble from a bowl of red and blue stones offered like colourful canapes by a grief group leader. Its cold smoothness filled my cupped palm. It was our first group session. Six strangers coming together every Wednesday with name cards and bad coffee and saggy faces. I sat, folded, on a child-sized chair. My back on fire. Unwashed in my sweatpants, my damp armpits filling the air, running my fingers through my hair to feel it rip. First with my left hand. Then with my right. Repeat. The hair fell in clumps into my styrofoam coffee on the floor.

I stuck the pebble in my pocket. Scratched my nose with one hand, then the other. When my sister was alive and working as an ER doc, she told me on one of our lake walks this was called “evening up.” On that same walk, she had wrapped her strong fingers around my daughter’s fist. Tried to teach her how to skip flat stones across the water.

“Proprioception,” she told me later in the pub; her palms warm on my cheeks. She doesn’t know where her body is in space.”

After group ended, Tim walked me to my car. His brother was murdered by a gang back home in New Zealand. His parents were bankrupting themselves. He was too far away to help. It was his parents he was worried about. He was ok, he would say, opening his tupperware of special food that smelled of vinegar. Tim had to eat at odd hours, at least twice during every group session; his nails more bitten than mine.

At the car, Tim hugged me. The undertow of grief buzzed between us as if I’d put my tongue on a power line. You understand, he whispered in his cabbage breath. I swore he going to try kiss me in that dodgy parking lot beneath trees minted in frost, my husband waiting at home by the fireplace. I let go. Touched the car handle twice with each hand before opening it.

Back at home, I found the green marker in my daughter’s pencil box and wrote my sister’s name on the pebble. The chewed plastic marker, light in my fingers, glided smoothly over the stone; green ink sinking in without spreading. I placed it on my bedside table next to a photograph of my daughter and my sister laughing as their stones sank in the lake.

17 Comments

  1. Jonathan Cardew

    Lisa,

    If you’re new to prose, then this is news to me!

    I am quite smitten by this story. “The undertow of grief buzzed between us” — you deal in grief with such a careful hand in this piece, never going too far or holding back, a perfect portrayal using a pebble to anchor us into the moment. Grief is “saggy” and “folded” and buzzing. Grief is like a stone.

    What’s more, the pacing is just right and you pack so much in, effortlessly: aunts, sisters, grief sessions, New Zealand, daughters, proprioception, special food. There’s real unity and narrative drive in this story. I forgot I was reading a story (which is the goal, right???)

    And then are the little details. The vinegary food, the child-sized chair, the canape stones. All this adds such richness to the narrative. In fact, I feel like it is often these things that really get my heart pumping. Like the quote from Ursula K. LeGuin, a world is made up of “dirt and rocks.”

    HOW ABOUTS:

    1. Longer? This could quite easily morph into a longer short story with the same structure fleshed out (though I think it works just as well at flash length).

    2. Titles? They draw us into a piece, they make a difference. Could you mine this story for a more arresting title? Perhaps, ‘Proprioception’?

    3. Opening? I like the opening of this piece very much, but it may be worth playing around with it. I’m a huge fan of “in media res” or dropping us into a narrative. I love this part and maybe you could drop us in here:

    “I picked my pebble from a bowl of red and blue stones offered like colourful canapes by a grief group leader. Its cold smoothness filled my cupped palm. It was our first group session.”

    4. Ending? Sometimes a blander ending can bring the rest of the story into sharper relief. How about ending at “I placed it on my bedside table next to a photograph of my daughter and my sister laughing.”

    VENUES:

    Whether or not you go longer with this piece, I think you could aim for one of the bigger university journals like cream city review?

    Thanks for sharing your piece! Feel free to drop in another before the day is out. And let me know if you have any questions!

    –Jonathan

  2. Lisa Alletson

    Hey Jonathan,

    Thanks for this great feedback. I’ll play with the beginning and ending. I don’t feel like I’ve nailed either of them yet but I can see how your suggestions would help. Do you have any favourite examples (your own or others) of “in media res”?

    Lisa

  3. Al Kratz

    I really liked this. As an editor, I’m always amazed at the stories that can pop a potentially cliche subject. Like you might read ten grief stories in a row and then suddenly there is one like this which is nothing like any of the grief stories before yet holds all the universals too that make the subject such a great story premise in the first place.

    I kind of like the title you have here because it plays with the ideas that aren’t quite directly in this story which is what happened to the sister or the daughter but gives that early haunt that these things that have happened are not cliche. They are too big for that.

    The one thing i think about this version and it not starting in media res, is it still starts fast. One of the reasons I think we use in media res particularly in flash is to avoid the table setting meandering that actually doesn’t always get the reader grounded. Here though, I feel like the first paragraph quickly establishes some authority of the voice and also the chaos unique to the main character. We’re pretty quickly grounded in that. And then the 2nd paragraph sets up a nice time jump that is coming with the full origin story of the pebble, but this way we have our flash introduction of the unique sister and daughter characters. I agree always worth experimenting on that, I just wanted to point out some of the things I think are working with this start.

    • Lisa Alletson

      Thank you, Al. That’s encouraging feedback. I appreciate your thoughtful read of this one.

  4. David O'Connor

    Lisa, I love how the object anchors all the swirling memories and images. The transitions are fantastic, tentative links that seem to have no connection paint a powerful picture. Each sentence says so much so concisely. I like the narrative hints and the underlying poetry. This is good writing, thank you.

  5. Jennifer Todhunter

    i really appreciate the way you’ve woven this narrative together. there are a number of characters for such a short piece, but it really works, they all are important and meaningful to what you’re trying to communicate.

    i wondered about starting out with “My dead sister’s name is written in green marker on the pebble’s flat stretch.” you could even revise it to read “My dead sister’s name is written in green marker on the pebble’s flat stretch, the gray pebble nestled between my teacup and sleeping pills on my bedside table.” This for me, is a more compelling, hold-my-attention, start.

    i wondered if you might state what the daugther was diagnosed with (i wasn’t sure after reading through) and mentioning a diagnosis but not mentioning what the diagnosis was, was a little distracting for me. (i took the proprioception to be a symptom of, and not the diagnosis.)

    i love how you illustrate how we as people persist through grief, and think if you try to pare back anything extraneous to that (there isn’t a lot!) when you’re editing, this piece will land that much harder.

    beautifully written though, i loved this.

    • Lisa Alletson

      Great feedback, thank you. I like your idea about starting with, “My dead sister’s name,” and combining it with the pebble upfront.

      I’ll figure out a way to mention autism. I had been wondering if that was a loose end for the reader – so that’s helpful to know.

      Really appreciate this insight. Thanks again!

  6. Benjamin Niespodziany

    “When my daughter was four, she used that marker to draw a wild-eyed green horse held down by chains, tape over its mouth, being stoned by cows.”

    “The undertow of grief buzzed between us as if I’d put my tongue on a power line.”

    This piece is so tender and sorrowful and ambient and quiet. Hushed and at a whisper, this immersion of grief. I very much felt inside this snapshot.

    • Lisa Alletson

      Oh wow, Benjamin. Thank you! It’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time. This means a lot.

  7. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Lisa, here is some news to shout from any locale: “I AM A FLASH WRITER!!!” (meaning you, of course!)
    One of the many qualities that I love about most flash fictions is the amount of poetics, the beauty that gleams through. And you are masterful in every sense with what you’ve revealed in this piece from title, to ending. High stakes, and the manner in which they are revealed. I also adore how it feels as if it might be CNF, but we can never assume that it is. Please submit this. It’s a piece I would print out and return to again. And again. It’s sublime, and terrific.

    • Lisa Alletson

      Hah! Thank you. I’ve written a few flash pieces here and there. But this workshop has already changed so much for my writing. My entry point. The characterization. The pacing. What’s important to leave out. Before this, I was separating my poems from my attempts at prose. Reading the lessons, the stories, the comments – I’ve finally clued in how much I can use poetic language to build prose.

      All my pieces here are CNF. It feels a lot easier.

  8. Wilson Koewing

    Lisa,

    This character is super interesting. There’s a lot of intrigue built up here in a small space. I definitely see room for some expansion. I was taken by the stone skipping section involving the sister. Touching stuff. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to not have my brother. sheesh. One suggestion I had is that Tim’s arrival in the story seems a little abrupt and presents a clear shift in the piece. It might benefit to introduce him a little earlier. Maybe even pepper in something he says in group. A little more of the group, like really getting into it, overall might prove compelling. I also would have liked to know more about the husband and I thought his presence could have been hinted at earlier.

    Wilson

  9. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Lisa, Thank you for this story. As the mother of a child, now adult, on the spectrum, this hit home, especially:

    “On that same walk, she had wrapped her strong fingers around my daughter’s fist. Tried to teach her how to skip flat stones across the water.
    “Proprioception,” she told me later in the pub; her palms warm on my cheeks. She doesn’t know where her body is in space.”

    My advice: Do not cut proprioception. If anyone has a question, we live in the world of google. That word feels like the punch line, or rather, the central theme of this, though perhaps I am over invested.

    In any case, well done and thank you again.

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