Flash fiction: The Adventures of the Incredible Shrinking Woman

Ten short stories by Cristina Rivera Garza

Text by Cristina Rivera Garza

I. THE DATE

When he booked a room at the Cosmos hotel he was sure this was the right place. He had begun his research a while ago and had pursued it with care and rigour. Self-confidently, he had chosen a room on the upper floors, one with a good view of the bustling city. Once inside, he detected the smell right away but he did not act on it.

He hung his clothes with parsimony and placed his personal affairs on the marbled counter of the bathroom. He paused, looking down at the city through the soundproofed windows. Minuscule men walked by in a hurry. Bald-headed men and men on crutches; men wearing jeans and half-naked men in rags. An ambulance. A donkey. The traffic lights. So this is the end of the world, he muttered. Then he ordered room service. Something heavy and old-fashioned. Something voluptuous. Venison in black apple sauce. Rabbit with artichokes and endives. Foie gras. Some champagne. He was about to rest when the bell rang. A note slithering under his door. Keep away. Soon you won’t be able to escape. He caressed the paper, took it to his lips and smiled to himself. He opened one of his bags, took out the drill, the hammer and the screwdriver, and placed them on the carpeted floor of the closet. A small museum. An exhibit of sorts. He looked at the instruments with that kind of distance. Then, hurriedly, put them back in the bag.

“So, you visit us for the first time?” asked the young man who brought his dinner. “A peculiar selection,” he added when placing the fare on the table. The whip of electricity on his spine. A line of ants climbing over his nape.

“I am sure you will enjoy it,” he said at last.

He got to work as soon as the bellboy closed the door. He took the tools back into the closet, getting rid of the clothes he had hung up earlier as he advanced. He felt about the walls, carefully. Once he detected a hollow sound, he discarded the maze and took the screwdriver. He knelt, pearls of sweat on his temples. The wooden panel at the base of the right wall came off easily. He crouched down. He squatted. He finally pushed himself through the opening.

Nothing had prepared him for this. He had expected to find her in a cage, but not in one so ornate. He had imagined her thousands of times, bent over, with the posture of the feral child who had been away since birth. But here she was, instead, swinging with ease, looking at him through the golden bars. He swallowed something he thought of as his own saliva. It tasted of swamp reeds and prehistoric fish and meat clouds.

“I thought you didn’t exist,” he finally said.

“I thought that the one who didn’t exist was you,” said she, enunciating each word with much calm, very slowly. Dry leaves and rust and broken bones in the sound of her voice.

**************

II. TWO GIRLS WITHOUT NAME

I heard the running water when I unlocked the door. She was where I thought I’d find her: inside the miniscule bathroom, her hands still under the stream of water. She looked at something I wasn’t able to see right on the mirror. What she saw, she saw intently. She only realised I was there when I turned the water off and placed a towel on her red hands.

“Look at what you’ve done,” I said, nagging at her. “They look like overcooked chickens,” I added, barely brushing the wet skin. She looked at me and, raising her right hand, she paused. The back of the hand. The open palm. The fingernails. The knuckles. She inspected everything.

“Hands,” she said in a barely audible voice. “They cut their hands.”

“Yes,” I said as I led her back to her room. When I turned the TV off I could hear the ambulance on the street. I helped her up the bed. She got under the flannel blankets and immediately pointed to the brush on her vanity. She combed her long gray hair while humming a tune I was not able to identify. How long could eternity last? Her hands, trembling; her half-opened mouth. The shape of her skull.

“Their legs,” she said turning to me unexpectedly. “This time they cut their legs too.”

“Yes,” I said, placing her slippers by the bed. “I heard the news.” I picked up a couple of magazines from the floor and closed the curtains. The traffic lights. The sound of klaxons and shoes on the sidewalk. I was about to turn the lights off when she said:

“And their hair. They cut their hair as well.”

She saw me from afar. She was in a desert surrounded by bones, trying to make my silhouette out in the distance. She winced. When she fell asleep, I went to the living room and put my feet up. I was as dead tired as my neighbour. I was drained. Do we really need to live this long? I looked at the ceiling. I might have even prayed a little. And, then, I garnered enough energy to get up. I went to my apartment next door. The key. The lock. The TV. I rummage the larder for something to eat. A couple of old cookies. Some potato chips. I opened a Coke. Those girls, I thought as I fell on the couch, placing my feet on the ottoman, those girls did not even have time to be this weary. If they had had some time, I was suddenly convinced of it, they could have put up their feet right here. If they had survived. Right here. Tonight.

**************

III. FORAGER

She had been away for years. She learned to distinguish edible mushrooms from poisonous ones. She washed herself in ponds and rivers. Puddles. Public baths. She chewed on the bark of trees. A forager. A nomad. The madwoman of the forests. “Why did you do it,” her son asked when she came back. She walked barefoot some summers. She interpreted the song of certain leaves, especially when they went dry. She paused. “To think,” she said, carefully placing her hand on his hand. “To have time to think,” she insisted. Her open eyes.

**************

IV. THEIR IDEA, FOR EXAMPLE, OF THE SKY

They knew rain. They were prone to reminisce what they had learned so well: the qualities of rain. Colour. Shape. Temperature. It was the kind of knowledge passed down in whispers from generation to generation. Few had seen it (we have little data on their idea, for example, of the sky), but all knew about it. There was a strong poetic tradition in what may otherwise be described as their literature. The books of rain: human-sized sheets of light cotton bruised by what they called “rain spots”, kept together with wooden ring binders. “If you touch them,” they’d say, “you become water.” No further explanation added.

Their connection with rain gave them away: while we covered ourselves with raincoats and umbrellas out of a basic sense of self-protection, they, on the contrary, took their hats off and, facing the clouds, stretched their arms out and opened their mouths in a position most would describe as religious. Opencast, their lips. Their feet some inches above the earth’s surface. That devotion. They could spend hours looking at the raindrops on the windowpanes. Drizzling was a word they enunciated with care. They could listen for entire days to the voices that travel from far-away places. They murmured.

**************

V. UNMANNED

She became the lighthouse keeper when her husband died. She buried him in the backyard, close to the artichoke fields and the sunflowers. It would be a lie to say she did not miss him. She even thought about the possibility of going back inland. But the sky, so grey and thin. As vulnerable as bread. But the horizon, so sharp. She sighed as she trimmed the wicks, polished the lenses, replenished the fuel. When the lighthouse was unmanned she continued trimming the wicks, polishing the lenses, replenishing the fuel. She sighed. Tourists stood in awe. “There, there,” they said, trying to pinpoint the exact place in the sky she looked in the eyes.

**************

VI. WHAT A BIRD SEES

An impossible world buried in snow. A man and a woman and a child and an elk: stains on the landscape. A river whose name was once Lerma. Or Pripiat.

The shadow of its own flight over this page.

The miniature footsteps of someone, or something, trailing behind.

**************

VII. THE ROPE

James Turrell says: I have always involved time. There are several ways of doing that: one is to have that come with how the eyes open; another is in the glazed-eyes-staring overall sameness; the third is change. In the Skyspaces there is change.

So I went into the Skyspace and, laying down on my back very quietly, still as a forgotten statue or a corpse, saw the opening.

A hawk flew by. A cloud turned cloud and then turned nothing. White. Two planes. And this noise. Words spoken to me in such a low voice very close to my ears. Sentences like whispers. Or arrows. The creature came up my knees as I was unable to move. And how my eyes opened. She walked up the edge of my chest, lifting her arms in a sign of victory or war. And how the rope, around my limbs and nailed to the floor, paralysed me. She came close to my mouth. Did she kiss me?


A conversational piece. Traces.

Turrell was born in 1943.

**************

VIII. THE SONG OF WHALES

An eccentric millionaire designed and built a large swimming pool in the back of her house. She had it painted blue. She whispered the words “the largest” when alone. It was a bright June day when a journalist asked her why. She adjusted her shades and, barely turning her head, she said, “You don’t hear them, do you?”

**************

IX. THE INSTRUCTION

I will place several things here: a luminous swimming pool, for example. Look at it. It’s large and bright blue and it belongs to an old spa by the coast. This is a spiral staircase made out of iron. Rickety. Shaky. Be careful when you go up the stairs. From the top step you can see a window. On the other side of the window is Yoko Ono – in her right hand a sign that says yes, and a magnifying glass in the other. “All the better to see you with, my dear,” says the magnifying glass to no one in particular. There is a vine somewhere around here. We cannot see it, but we sure can detect its aroma. Chlorophyll smells like this at times. If you look down, you will see a small scenario. A theatre. This is where I will place the man wearing suspenders and a panama hat, and a dancer with a golden tulle skirt and a hairband of dead insects. The incredible shrinking woman stands by his side, right by the back of his shining patent-leather shoes.

Take a look at them.

This is the moment when the lights are turned on. The whispering. Is someone coughing?

“Residents of the House of Summer,” says a male voice though the loudspeakers. “Ex-residents of the 20th Century,” it continues. “Humans known as Body of Liquorice and Mint. Listen. Every conversation is a drama,” the voice says, “or a comedy,” it insists.

And now the incredible shrinking dancer swirls through the scenario with raised arms and resolute legs. This is an arabesque. And this, a cabriolet. All the insects are dead on her head of hair. She crosses the scenario until, exhausted, truly sweating (the smell is no longer that of chlorophyll but of her sweat) she looks back at what her feet, unbeknown to her, have written on the floor: LET EVERBODY IN THE CITY THINK OF THE WORD “YES” AT THE SAME TIME FOR 30 SECONDS. DO IT OFTEN.

And now the man wearing the Panama hat suddenly approaches her. This is how they look at each other, entranced. An embrace. Some stuttering. She finally extricates herself from the embrace and, touching her fingertips to her lips, she sends a diminutive kiss to the audience. Then she bows. And this is when I make you clap.

“Residents of the 21st Century with two knees and a connection to screens,” the voice says. “Dear residents of a planet on the brink of extinction, or madness. To be clear: this was an instruction,” the voice concludes.

And now a helicopter showers the city, which has been deserted for 121 years, with ballots containing the word “breathe”, the word “perhaps”.

And now I force the sky to tell the truth.

**************

X. THE INFUSION

The noise distracted me. It was something slight and recurring. A scratching of sorts. A squeaking. It’s always hard to understand the world through your ears. I peeked out the windows only to confirm that everything was quiet and dark in the village. No one was standing by the front door when I opened it. A bit nervous, I started some water for tea and went back to the table. Once I calmed down, sitting still like a statue, the noise came back. It was so clear this time. My instinct told me what to do. I got up and walked towards the pantry. Anxiety is such a fragile word. Before I opened the door I imagined a gigantic rat. An opossum.

“But who are you?” I asked, surprised and relieved at the same time. And she, who crouched herself in one of the corners of the unlit room, in between brooms and cans, only managed to look up to me. The smell of pecans. The way in which she betrayed the truth: she did not know where she was, or, even more, what she was or was going to be. What do you look at when you look at things this way for so long?

“It’s so cold here,” I said, lifting her from the floor. She resisted at first but, as soon as she realised I wasn’t going to harm her, she let herself be carried into the kitchen. The boiling water. The infusion. That smell. I closed my eyes and started to talk to her. All those who approach us are, in the beginning, nothing but an annoying noise coming from a locked room inside an empty house. I spoke of the steam; described it as a body embracing air, or nothingness. I’m sure I smiled.

“Look,” I said, turning to her. I offered her bread, some butter, a bit of salt. I explained to her that I didn’t have much else. I was a distracted man. I had forgotten to go to the storage places where we obtain our weekly supplies. She giggled a bit. She hid her long hair under a black headscarf and remained otherwise still on the table. I was never sure she understood.

“Do you want to take a shower?” I offered and, as she did not answer, I mimed: lifting my arms, I washed my hair, my torso, my legs. I sighed. She remained unmoved by all that. So I carried her to the bathroom. I turned the water on and showed her. “Do you see?”

She saw.

Steam bodies crowded the bathroom. The mirrors. The kitchen.

As I waited for her by the table, I imagined what was about to happen. She’d go and, then, she’d come back, many, many times. I knew it the very moment her noise interrupted my math operations as I calculated the distribution of grains for our long drought. She’d show up, out of the blue, every time; and, out of the blue, she’d go off again and again. She’d learn our language, eventually. And, eventually, we would develop a private dictionary. A grammar as intimate as it was nontransferable. When a bird peeked into our kitchen, the bird would confirm its suspicion: people are strange. We would envision entire cities on this table, talking till dawn. We’d exchange saliva, secrets, and then vows.

And later one evening, an evening of a very dry winter to be more precise, we would take note. This: our farewell. This: the slow, sad way in which you peel yourself off from objects and words and hands. And that winter evening I would remember this time, this night. The night I heard the noise for the first time, interrupting my work. The night I opened the pantry only to discern her figure among cans and brooms. And she’d lift her head once again, barely understanding what I said but accepting the steam room I offered to her. Just to wait. Just to take a break as everything that was about to happen, happened. Quietly. Deliberately. Implacably.

**************

  • Flash Fiction