In Randall Brown’s A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction, author Quinn Dalton discusses how to make a scene. According to Dalton, successful scenes in flash fiction are “units of significant action that provide new information and advance a story” (212). In flash fictions such as Emma Smith-Stevens’ “Some Cool Heaven” from Smokelong Quarterly, a single scene can convey a whole novel’s worth of meaning. “Some Cool Heaven” explores the cyclical pattern of life and death through the experience of a mother’s coming-to-terms with a fatal illness. The format of the story itself is cyclical, a format that lends itself to the message of the flash and speaks to Smith-Stevens’ masterful craft.
Smith-Stevens brings the reader directly into the plot of the story in the first sentence: “I learned I was sick again on a Wednesday.” This knowledge does not come as a shock and is not presented in a dramatic way: in fact, it is quite underwhelming, implying that it is simply another day of her life. Randall Brown discusses the idea of tragic urgency in his book, that “within the tragic exists two powerful competing desires, a Dionysian need to raze the world and uncover its meaninglessness–and the opposing Apollonian wish to reconstruct the world and discover its deep meaning and purpose” (201). At the beginning of “Some Cool Heaven,” the reader sees the Dionysian aspect of the tragic: The use of word “again” in the first sentence introduces an entire backstory we as readers must assume; we fill in the blanks, recognizing that this is not the first time she has received such news, nor is she experiencing grief for the first time. This “again” allows the narrator to explore a different aspect of her impending sickness. Rather than showing us how she deals with her own grief and fear, we see how it affects her relationship with her son. Throughout, there is an undercurrent of hopelessness, a sense of impending loss.
Despite this foreboding, the narrator resolves to give her son memories “that would stick” well after she is gone, to provide him with a place he can go to remember her, and to take pictures that would be a physical representation of her memory. Brown writes, “Tragedy reminds us that we are doomed no matter what and that our humanity depends upon our ability to face that fact, to act in spite of it, to embrace uncertainty at the same time we must refuse to settle for it […] The acceptance of that struggle we must all make frees us from our fated suffering, makes it our own rather than something imposed upon us” (204–205). The narrator realizes “the fair came every August, and my death wouldn’t stop that”; she recognizes that her son’s life will go on after she dies, and she has to accept that, even though she fears an existence where she cannot be part of his life. The simple fact that her son wants to go on a ride without her, symbolically growing up without her, makes her more ill than the thought of her cancer.
It is not until later in the story that the reader sees the Apollonian aspect of the tragic–the wish to reconstruct the world and find meaning within it. The ponies that the children ride are harnessed in such a way that “birdseye would have revealed a Celtic cross.” According to the Lama Foundation, “the modern Irish Catholic interpretation of the Celtic Cross is that the circle represents eternity, the infinite nature of God’s love as exemplified by the sacrifice of God on the cross. The circle can also be viewed as a halo, emanating from the heart of Christ.” The set-up of the pony ride has a threefold meaning: It symbolizes eternity since the ponies cannot escape their positions, and they are stuck going around the circle; similarly, the cycle of birth, life, and death is eternal and inevitable. Lastly, like the fact that the fair comes every August and the ponies will keep moving in that circle, life will continue on despite the narrator’s death.
Applying the imagery of the Celtic cross to the last paragraph, in which the narrator describes the circle and the ponies as “part of a great machine, the inner working of which were a miracle of technological efficiency,” it seems the narrator comes to understand her mortality. Life, as mundane as days at the fair can be, is part of something greater, a machine with cogs that miraculously work together to continue forever. Herein lies the aspect of the Apollonian tragic. Optimistically, one could interpret human life as “winding up towards some cool heaven,” as does the narrator. Or realistically, life is just a miraculous machine, the inner workings of which we can never know. Either way, the narrator begins to view the cyclical nature of eternity with meaning in the context of her life. She finds a way to reconstruct the world and take comfort that her son will continue without her. The pictures she takes “would be a circle to travel–to say, this was it, this was it, that was a day,” rather than artificial replacements for memories. The setting introduced in the beginning of the story, where the reader learns of the narrator’s illness and her intention to immortalize the day through the lens of her camera, follows the story’s cyclical pattern to the end, when she decides to live in the present rather than dwell on the past and worry about the future.
Brown, Randall. A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction. Wynnewood: Matter, 2012. Print.
“The History and Symbolism of the Celtic Cross.” Lama Foundation. Lama
Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
Smith-Stevens, Emma. “Some Cool Heaven.” Smokelong Quarterly. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.
Jennifer Rohrbach is an English and Creative Writing student at Widener University. She is the Managing Editor for News for the Blue & Gold and is an editor for The Blue Route and Widener Ink literary journals. She prefers to write fiction and is better at analyzing poetry than writing it.