‘Tributaries’ by Ramona Ausubel

I was introduced to this story by Helen Oyeyemi on a writing course a few years ago. Ausubel’s whole collection has heart – a kind of affection for and between her characters that is not often in evidence in short stories, or is hard to get away with if it’s there (Lorrie Moore does it well). Her stories are also fantastical, and in this one, we zoom in on teenage girls at a slumber party as Genevieve tells her friends, “My parents both have perfect love-arms.” Even though Genevieve adds that it is “almost sick,” the way they use these arms to write love letters to one another, all the other girls hope for exactly this. For in the world of ‘Tributaries’, people grow extra arms from their chests when they are truly in love. There are variations: one girl’s grandmother has seven love-arms; the school teacher Claribel has hands all over her chest that clean each other’s nails while she marks papers.  This sounds ridiculous, almost grotesque, but that heart of Ausubel’s that I mentioned prevails, and this exploration of love-arms – the use of fake arms, the presence of wayward or unusual arms – becomes a beautiful meditation on how we love, and love differently.

In A Guide to Being Born, Riverhead, 2013; available online here