‘Harbingers’ by Margaret Patton Chapman

Another bit of a cheat – this is one chapter of Patton Chapman’s novella-in-flash Bell and Bargain, though it qualifies as a standalone, on length. The novella is in the critical anthology My Very End of the Universe, put out by the excellent American Rose Metal Press, which has dedicated itself to flash theory and texts. In her essay preceding the novella, Patton Chapman discusses the idea of this particular use of the condensing of flash: ‘Like a map’s, a narrative’s omissions shape its picture of a world’. In her novella, she tells the story of the early life of Bell, a girl from a working-class 19th century Chicago family with the gift, on birth, of speech. ‘Harbingers’ focuses on the moment when Ann shows her new born daughter to her neighbours:

‘She worried what would happen if the women in the room turned on the child in her arms. Please, Ann seemed to say to them. I have loved your strange and terrible children. Love mine.
“Hello?” Bell said again.
The women, in their handmade dresses with machine-made lace, stayed back.’

Through these little maps, a picture of Bell’s family and milieu builds up, each little corner delineating the emotions and turns of events with the kind of matter-of-fact oddness of a fable. Through this use of plain detail it manages to avoid the tweeness that can make modern fables seem unmoored.

(From Bell and Bargain, in My Very End of the Universe, Rose Metal Press)

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