SUSAN TERRIS: The Forbidden Knife

Flash Fiction by Susan Terris

What To Do with the White Elephant in the Room 

It was a Christmas White Elephant exchange, and I ended up with a devastating floor-length silk nightgown adorned with flowers at the top, which might have concealed the breasts, was nude in color, see-through and looked as if it was stolen from the madam of a whorehouse in Reno or belonged in the harem Don Juan entered dressed like a woman.  

Yes, exotic red blossoms, garlands, borders of leaves, and it fit me. But what would I— a woman living alone—do with such deadly splendor. I knew why my friend had discarded it: double mastectomy and nothing left to fill those transparent cups. But it felt outrageous in my drawer, my room. I, too, had been through breast cancer. Bad omen.  

But for months, I kept it. Was that White Elephant pacing and his White Raven circling, coming for me? What to do? Put the gown in the costume box? Burn it? Toss it? At last, one spring night, I ditched it in the Tenderloin, under a streetlight, draped across a trashcan. As I backed away, the wind lifted it, and the gown seemed to waltz down Hyde Street with a ghost, perhaps the ghost of my friend who didn’t manage to survive

Lifting the Serpent in the Wilderness  

Unsure why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about snakes, dreaming them. . . .like the big rattler on the trail at the Four Corners where we’d just startled a wild mustang herd. Our guide, a teacher at the Navaho school there, told my husband not to let me see it. Laughing, my spouse said I would disappear the snake, which I did by tossing pebbles on the trail between us. Startled, the snake curved into mesquite and vanished. A method I’d used before. You see, I spent my girlhood in Missouri growing up like a boy, exploring wild tracts of land, handling snakes. Why no fear? Listen, a boyish girl always accepts a dare. Do I still? Of course, and when I snake-dream, it’s often an Adam and Eve Paradise kind of serpent. Was it truly evil for that sly snake to dare Eve to choose risk and curiosity, to leave all was protected, easy, and to question authority? That cold-blooded reptile is a metaphor, which dares me—though frightened and foolish—toward mysteries that might lay ahead.      

Unintended Consequences  

A shoe drops. There’s a hole in the ceiling. If I try to tell you about the sharp knife, what will you say? Oh, just the Sufi healer again with his sad-birthday cure? Get a new knife and a chicken with pure white feathers. There’s a song here, yet I don’t know the words.  

A dark man is beckoning from the field, and a woman who weeps must whisper her misery to the knife. Who made this knife, and who sharpened it. Was it to cut mangos or to slash a plump chicken across its neck. There was a chicken house I knew once with a ridged tin roof, but the hens laid eggs that were too soft. Being a girl and being a woman willing to whisper into a knife is different.  

Time is wrapped in swags of gauze imprinted with forgotten faces. Between a drift of mango trees, the inky shadow of the man. Here, heat and distress have candled a woman, made her a flame spilling wax, sending up a single spike of smoke. And the dark man is blurred now, a mirage as she whispers to the knife before the Sufi takes hold of it.  

Because women give birth, you see, they are not allowed to kill. Oh chicken, blood-splashed, you—no longer white—run without your beaked head. Why my father who grew up by a farm wouldn’t eat fowl. Yet this is not my father’s misery but the woman’s, and the knife is meant to offer up that chicken to blunt her sorrows.  

The yolks I remember were orange, from chickens fed greens, yet here the children starve, because all eggs and produce are sold. No protein, only corn mush, since every man must have a motorbike and cell phone. The woman, who has neither, takes up a sharpened stake to kill the shadow man before he makes her dead. A hit, and as the shadow fades, the chicken cooks, also millet and beans the Sufi requires.  

Here, bread would be stale. Not stale, and let the dead be dead, she pleads, as white feathers from the ground begin to rise in the wind, make a rippled figure of a dancing man. They scud and spin. But to be cured, the Sufi says, she must eat the chicken and beans and millet with hungry children. She shivers as the feather-man hovers over them, luminous and out-of-reach.  

She grabs the forbidden knife and hurls it. Another hit. The man becomes a feather cloud adrift in the evening sky, as she—motherless and childless—eats with the children, love and loved, even a little cured. Rising, she collects feathers as they float down, takes them to her hut and nests them under her head.  

Then she dreams of sky, cloud, chicken, knife, aware that the men are both there. The two—dark and light—above her bed, grappling, gripping air, wresting the night away.    

Susan Terris recent books are Familiar Tense (Marsh Hawk) 2019; Take Two: Film Studies (Omnidawn) 2017, Memos (Omnidawn) 2015; and Ghost of Yesterday: New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk) 2012. She’s the author of 7 books of poetry, 17 chapbooks, 3 artist’s books, one play.  Journals include Southern Review, Georgia ReviewPoetrybay, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. A poem of hers appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI. A poem from Memos was in Best American Poetry 2015.  

Flash boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Cadnel  

Published by poetrybay

George Wallace is a poet, professor and freelance editor living and working in NYC. Writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace since 2011, he is author of over 3 dozen books of poetry and editor/co-editor of such fine literary publications as Poetrybay, Great Weather for Media, Polarity, Flash Boulevard, Long Island Quarterly and Walt's Corner. George travels internationally to perform his poetry, and his many honors include the Naim Frasheri Prize (Tetova Poetry Festival), Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Poetry Festival), National Beat Laureate (Beat Poetry Festival), Suffolk County Poet Laureate, CW Post Poetry Prize; and the Alexander Medal, from UNESCO/Greece, for his contribution to the arts.

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