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Tuesday

Flash Focus: Eight Reasons Writers Should Read “Chickens” by Elaine Magarrell

Below is Elaine Magarrell’s “Chick­ens” from Jerome Stern’s anthol­o­gy Micro Fic­tion. It appears here with the per­mis­sion of the author:

In the killing yard a man sharp­ens a razor, says a few words to God, and does a nice killing. After pluck­ing and gut­ting he cooks the bird in a coat of its own beat­en eggs. When he eats the flesh it is with plea­sure. Every night he goes to bed sat­is­fied. Every day he wakes up hun­gry. The chick­ens com­plain to heav­en and a chick­en angel is sent to earth. At first she helps the man dream about red meat so that he wakes up with an appetite for steak. In a mead­ow he stalks a cow but is intim­i­dat­ed by its intre­pid stare, the impor­tance of its dung. So appre­hen­sive is he that he goes to bed hun­gry.

 
The chick­ens rejoice. They have an ambas­sador.

That night the chick­en angel sits on the man’s pil­low and lec­tures him about veg­eta­bles. At day­break she sows for the man a gar­den where veg­eta­bles fair­ly leap from the ground. But the man finds car­rots and let­tuces fright­en­ing, the way they appear out of noth­ing. A cap­tive of habit, he hungers for chick­en.

As a last resort the chick­en angel tells him how hunger cleans­es the body and makes it holy. The man is intrigued by the notion of fast­ing. He asks God’s approval and takes dis­tant thun­der for an affir­ma­tive answer. 

Only so much can be done with inter­ven­tion, the chick­en angel reports to heav­en. Hav­ing won for the chick­ens a respite, she leaves. Not that the chick­ens expect­ed more.

Φ

Well-writ­ten poet­ry trans­forms the mun­dane into some­thing vivid and new. When writ­ten effec­tive­ly, this kind of poet­ry depicts expe­ri­ences we thought we under­stood and chal­lenges our con­ven­tions. “Chick­ens” reminds me of how well-writ­ten flash can do the same.

  1. Defa­mil­iar­iza­tion. Words like “killing” and “razor,” as well as the bird being cooked “in a coat of its own beat­en eggs” height­en the vio­lence of poul­try slaugh­ter beyond pro­vid­ing sus­te­nance. The mean­ing would be far dif­fer­ent as “he coats and cooks the chick­en in eggs.”
  2. Char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. With the use of words such as “killing,” “razor,” “flesh,” and “plea­sure,” the act of killing chick­ens is neg­a­tive­ly dra­ma­tized. Not only is it a killing instead of butcher­ing, but the man also takes “plea­sure” in doing this. 
  3. Sounds and Desire. The rep­e­ti­tion of words and sounds empha­size the desire of the man. The repeat­ing of “killing” in the first sen­tence empha­sizes the vio­lence. “Coat” and “own” share sim­i­lar “o” sounds, empha­siz­ing that the eggs belong to the bird. “Flesh” and “plea­sure” demon­strate the grosteque nature of the man’s desire. The word “hun­gry” is also repeat­ed through­out.
  4. Dia­logue. The dia­logue of the chick­en and the man is woven seam­less­ly through­out, in a way that it doesn’t inter­fere with the story’s flow or length. 
  5. Mon­o­myth. The mon­o­myth is the idea of the hero’s jour­ney, three attempts to change and a return that lead the read­er to believe that the sto­ry stands for some­thing greater. In this sto­ry, the chick­en angel descends, mak­ing three attempts to help the chickens—the steak, the veg­etable gar­den and the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of hunger. When it doesn’t work she ascends, leav­ing the sto­ry.
  6. Metaphor. The hope­less­ness of the chick­ens as vic­tims, the end­less­ness of the man’s hunger for food as preda­tor, and the vio­lence it takes for him to get there are all high­ly metaphor­i­cal for war, geno­cide, human self­ish­ness, etc.
  7. Dichotomies. Accom­pa­ny­ing the use of metaphor is the use of dichotomies. Although much of the sto­ry defami­lar­izes the famil­iar farmer-live­stock dichoto­my, it also draws upon famil­iar achetypes, such as the themes of life and death, war and peace, and the hunter and the hunt­ed. The biggest dichoto­my of all is that between God and vio­lence, as both the man and chick­en angel call upon God as a means to jus­ti­fy their ends. 
  8. Brevi­ty. This piece accom­plished quite a lot in a short space. The read­er jumps in right at the begin­ning with the killing, the sto­ry is void of extra­ne­ous infor­ma­tion, full of quick char­ac­ter­iz­ing words (e.g. “ambas­sador,” “cleans­ing,” “holy”), and ends with­out a long, drawn out res­o­lu­tion.

Φ

I tried to apply some of these ideas, includ­ing the mon­o­myth, char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and dichotomies, as demon­strat­ed in Magarrell’s sto­ry. Here’s what hap­pened:

A grand­moth­er, moth­er and daugh­ter went to the orchard to pick apples. They were told of the pow­ers in the trees, to hear desires and, if fit­ting, grant them.

 
After search­ing for some time, the daugh­ter found an apple on a low-hang­ing branch. Red, light­ly pit­ted, bul­bous, aged past its ripeness. The girl took a bite and let the juice trick­le down her chin. Sud­den­ly she choked, fell to the ground and died.

The daugh­ter had sought matu­ri­ty.

The moth­er, sep­a­rate in her own quad­rant of orchard, searched and searched, and even­tu­al­ly found the per­fect apple at the top of a tree. It was green and small, dense and long-stemmed. The tang of it stung her tongue as she took a bite. She coughed, wheezed, knees buck­led as she slumped to the earth.

The moth­er had sought youth.

On the oth­er side of the orchard, the grand­moth­er had found her apple right at eye lev­el, cling­ing to the long fin­ger of a branch. A bit of green, a bit of red — on any oth­er day, it would not have been right. The grand­moth­er took a bite, savor­ing its fla­vor, juice enough to fill the flesh of the apple but no more. The grand­moth­er felt hap­py. She start­ed on her way home, where she con­tin­ued to live fruit­ful­ly and beyond her years.

The grand­moth­er had sought the present. 

Φ

I tried to char­ac­ter­ize the motives of each char­ac­ter through their prospec­tive apples. In a lat­er draft, I may try to incor­po­rate more char­ac­ter­i­za­tion through actions, as in “Chick­ens.” The use of arche­types (e.g. desire v. con­tent­ment, youth v. knowl­edge) cre­at­ed a mon­o­myth-like tone.

Φ

About the Author

Cochran.jpgKara Cochran is in her first year of the MFA pro­gram at Rose­mont Col­lege. In 2011, she received her BA in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Ger­man Stud­ies from Deni­son Uni­ver­si­ty in Ohio. After grad­u­a­tion, she worked for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion and attend­ed law school for a year before com­ing to her sens­es and apply­ing to Rose­mont. At Rose­mont, she is the poet­ry edi­tor for the Rathal­la Review and writes poet­ry, flash fic­tion and nov­el-length work. Kara’s work tends to be influ­enced by her upbring­ing in a For­eign Ser­vice fam­i­ly, and although she spent much of her child­hood over­seas and in var­i­ous parts of the US, she has lived in Philadel­phia for two years and is proud to call it home. In her free time, she likes to read, run, drink wine, go to the movies with her hus­band and hang out with her orange cat, Clemen­tine.

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